Sunday, 29 April 2012

Damien Hirst's mid-life retrospective

Spin painting

Damien Hirst has a mid-life retrospective at Tate Modern this summer.  I was staying just across the river and could not resist wandering across.  I had not seen his work in the original before (except for the diamond skull).  My main impression was how very confident the work was. He seems to have been riding a wave throughout, relying on his ideas and intuitions rather than using or falling back on skill.  Famously, he employs other people for the latter.  But although this lack of physical engagement, and also the massive output, creates for me a certain vacuity and lack of substance, there was also a sense of movement and energy which was exciting because the work truly felt like a dynamic part of life rather a fossilized art work.  I got the feeling that Hirst was too impatient to make anything much himself.  Not his forte.

His very first spot painting, together with other student work, was shown in the first room.  From the word go, it was all about simplicity and impact of the ordinary made dramatic.  A row of brightly painted enamel saucepans hanging up - check.  A set of cardboxes all different sizes and also brightly painted, as a corner installation - check.  Untidy first spot painting discovered in Hirst's garage - check.

Much of his slightly later work was a deconstruction of the perfection and impersonality of minimalism (Judd, for example).  Hence the glass cabinet containing rotting meat and breeding flies and dissected and preserved carcasses of dead animals.  I liked the huge cabinets of drugs and medicines - these concerned not only Hirst's obsession with life and death, but also represented sort of anatomical diagrams, as they were arranged according to different body parts.

Later pieces (by which time artist had become extremely wealthy) tend to use much more opulent materials.  I loved the vast cabinet filled with shelves of manufactured diamonds glittering fabulously against a mirrored or gold background.  I did not visit the diamond skull, with its mockery of desire and wealth, again.  Once was enough.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Lucian Freud exhibition in London

This week I also went to see this exhibition. I had never seen an original Freud before as far as I can recollect.  This show was almost entirely of human portraits and most of the  pictures had an intensity and almost harshness that I found a bit unsympathetic.  Brilliant virtuosity but something almost brutal as well.  This quality was conspicuously lacking in the portraits of his mother, in particular one large painting completed when she was very old and frail.  This painting was absolutely still, gentle and luminous and so different to his other work.  

I also enjoyed looking at the way he paints animals,  brilliant too but with additional warmth and with love.  Furniture, rooms, plants and textiles come in for less intense scrutiny and are the better for it, IMHO.  Who am I to say, however? 

The exhibition was extremely crowded but not so much that it was impossible to see all the work.  I had hoped to see more animal painting but this was not to be.  Just a jack russell and his whippets. Very nice, though..

Different kinds of intelligence

Please do watch this fascinating and entertaining video based on the work of educationalist Ken Robinson.

Friday, 27 April 2012

The Happy Valley #2 Unnatural Histories

By chance I saw an excellent programme, "Unnatural Histories",  on BBC4 this week.  It was part of a series about the myth of wilderness, and this one, the first, featured Serengeti National Park in Kenya. I was interested because of my current fascination with East Africa and the colonial period 100 years ago. At that time the grasslands of Africa were deserted because a recent plague of a cattle disease, rinderpest, which had decimated the herds during the 1890s and caused native people to leave the areas, although the lands had been home to Bantu, Masai and other tribes for many years. 

The incoming European settlers saw the grasslands as a kind of pristine paradise, and an antidote to the effects of industrialisation and overpopulation in their home countries. At first these lands were exploited by white hunters (such as Theodore Roosevelt), but by the 1930s awareness was growing of the need to protect the Serengeti as a National Park. Many famous campaigners, such as Armand and Michaela Denis, led this movement, and eventually in the 1950s the park, dividing animals and people,  became a reality, although not without much disagreement on the issue of boundaries between local and central administrators. 

Because of natural phenomena, this plan was not the threat to the wild life as had been feared. But the world is always changing, and modern analysis shows that the Serengeti has in history constantly altered from grassland to forestry according to prevailing climatic conditions, and may do so again.  Man has always been a factor in the grasslands, managing the lands by burning off scrub to obtain fresh grazing.  There is no such thing as a pristine wilderness, claims the programme, and the safari myth is a part of that fabrication.  This was extraordinarily interesting as it also puts late nineteenth and twentieth century African history in a much wider perspective.  Although it has its own mythology, it was only a tiny blip of about 70 years in a much longer narrative.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Von Hagen in the Natural History Museum and at Easter

Drawing in the exhibition
Octopus in "Animals Inside Out"
Capillaries in horse's head in "Animals Inside Out"

Von Hagen made a programme, transmitted on Easter Day,  about creating a contemporary crucifixion using his particular plasticination process.  It was a moving programme, particularly as the joiner he employed to go out into the forest and make the cross was probably using almost exactly the same process used in Roman times.  Also, von Hagen himself is a charming and humorous,  if dark, character, but he also suffers  from poor health.  He has Parkinsons disease and it is restricting his activities more and more.  At one point he told the story of the rose grower who has to retreat from whole nurseries of beautiful roses to, eventually, just a single bloom in a vase.  Von Hagen points out that it is a process of living  that one has to learn to  release not only the physical faculties, but also knowledge and skills.  A poignant process for him as he is such a vital character.

This week I have been in the Natural History Museum in London and I visited the exhibition about animal anatomy created by his team.  It includes a dissected elephant, as well sea creatures such as the octopus above, and many other mammals such as horses, giraffes, camels, rabbits, cats and pigs.  I particularly found it interesting as a way of understanding the musculature of the shoulders and hindquarters in the horses, and how it is attached to the bones.  All the mammals have the same basic muscle pattern but it varies slightly accordingly to their body shape.  I have returned to my studio reinspired to explore sculpture.

Once upon a time in Anatolia

This film was so different from most contemporary work, as it gradually unfolds the characters of an ordinary group of people in a remote area of Turkey,  without resort to cliches and stereotypes. Instead each character is shown as having evident faults and virtues and confusions.   In the words of Nigel Andrews, film critic for the Financial Times:

"It says, shockingly, marvellously, messianically, that a living community, or family or human being, is by essence dysfunctional.  If something or someone does'nt work, it is in a state of grace, progress or evolution.  If it does work, it has merely completed its job and is probably dead".

This was a long film and action developed slowly.  At first I thought, "not more villians and cops doing the Pulp Fiction thing of combining the mundane with mindless violence", but it was far more complex than that,  as each character developed and became more sympathetic, and as the scene shifted from hillside to village and into the town, so the atmosphere altered. The explosion of violence that I expected constantly never occurred.  Instead each man reentered his life altered by the night's experiences. As Andrews comments, that is the constant process of change that is life.

The director of the film is Nuri Bilge Ceylan.  This film was joint winner of Cannes Grand Prix, 2011.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Beryl Markham and the Happy Valley

Strangely drawn to Kenya of 100 years ago, I watched again the film "Out of Africa", discovered by chance and purchased on impulse recently in the DVD bargain box at Morrisons. I found this tale of love and loss in an era of imperial certainty compelling to watch. But it was also good film making and great acting and screenplay. The film would be nothing without this, and the writing of Karen Blixen.

Now I can explore further the characters, courtesy of Wikipedia. I bought the auto-biography by Beryl Markham, "West with the Night", a poetic and evocative account of the Kenya of those times, written (some say, ghosted) by Markham late in life describing her early life as a child in the bush, then as a young racehorse trainer, and then as a pilot. The writing is very clear and direct and immediate and her feeling for the country, for horses and, of course, for flying is brilliantly conveyed. She does not touch on the emotional aspect of her life, which, by all accounts, was very lively and included an affair with Blixen's lover, Fynch Hatton. As well as many others. An extraordinary women and a beautiful book about a long lost era.