I saw five exhibitions in this week – I’d thought that some of them might have something in common and that I’d see common themes but the five things I saw reinforced each other in a wonderful way. I have a bit of free time at the moment before I start feeling guilty about not doing something with my life and I told myself that this was an experiment to be carried out over a working week. Come Friday afternoon I was very tempted to extend this to Culture Month but in the interests of my feet and my shoe budget it’s probably best I leave it here until the next time.
I find myself having more thoughts than I know what to do with, so with your time management in mind we’ll do very brief reviews, then fuller thoughts can be found below.
Monday: Mass Observation: This is Your Photo, The Photographers’ Gallery, Free entry
Good, split between professional and amateur ‘observers’ and your responses may also split accordingly. Fuller review
Tuesday: Alternative Guide to the Universe, Hayward Gallery, Entry £11
Lovely, mostly cheering, occasionally creepy survey of ‘outsider artists.’ Fuller review
Wednesday: Propaganda: Power and Persuasion, British Library, Entry £9
Amazing, stuffed to the gunwales with thought-provoking exhibits, may not feel revelatory while you’re there but is a slow-burner. Fuller review
Thursday: Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life, Tate Britain, Entry £16.50
Made me realise I love Lowry more than I knew, paintings excellent, I have reservations about some aspects of the exhibition (which are possibly down to me and my chippiness). Fuller review
Friday: Estuary, Museum of London Docklands, Entry free.
Very evocative of the silver water and wide skies of the estuary. Unexpectedly heart-filling. A calm and happy end to the week. Fuller review
The exhibition splits into two parts, where the first concentrates on professionals who had been hired by MO to take pictures to illustrate the MO work and the second consists of selections from the archives of MO ‘observers’ writing and submitting pictures in response to the directives they were set. My response to it all was equally split – I loved Humphrey Spender’s pictures of Bolton and Blackpool (but then I’m a total sucker for that type of thing for reasons we’ll go into below). Where you did eventually find something engaging in the public submissions, the impact was much more directly emotional – I particularly liked the woman writing from a distance of forty years about the wedding presents she’d received, and how they served to remind her of the people in her life at the time. It seemed odd that so much was on fire on the one day in the eighties chosen for ‘One Day for Life’, a day publicised nationally for people to submit photographs. I didn’t walk away from this exhibition amazed, but I should be honest and tell you that a lot of this was down to post-redundancy flatness of mood.
This was the surprise package of the week – I hadn’t read any reviews at all about this, and had only seen it mentioned in passing on Twitter. Alternative Guide presents the work of several ‘outsider artists’ from across the world. It affected me the same way that a Björk gig I once went to did: it was reassuring to be confronted with oddness and to come away with the impression that the world is a big place that has room for many of us and our daft ways. I think you can detect an underlying argument that says that after all, what is mental illness, who are we to judge and so on – and this is easier to buy where the intention behind the work is aesthetic or exhibitionist or working out a pattern. Where the work is intended to be didactic and explaining revelations that the rest of us don’t have access to it all gets a bit TimeCubey. But there is so much here that made me happy to see: the cardboard models of fantastic cities by Bodys Isek Kingelez, the higgledy-piggledy shacks held together with twine by Richard Greaves, shining Ankor Wats, ziggurats and impossible cathedrals in beautiful inks by Marcel Storr. My favourite section dealt with Achilles Rizzoli, who was a architectural draftsman who devoted his spare time to drawing metaphorical depictions of his friends and family in the shape of buildings. There is a distinctly creepy drawing here that has to do with his seeing female genitals for the first time at the age of forty, but in general this is quite sweet, with buildings dedicated to children who had visited his annual exhibitions of his drawings. You might be – or at least, I was – reminded of the Chicago World’s Fair sections of Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth.
There is a lot here, and I enjoyed the first half of the exhibition far more. The second half includes unsettling portraits of plaster dolls by Morton Bartlett, self-portraits in a photobooth by Lee Godie, and portraits by Eugene Von Bruenchenhein of his wife in the guise of Hollywood superstars. By the time I saw these, I began to think that really the internet will meet all of our outsider art needs for the future. It’s mentioned that Bartlett taught himself to sew and knit in order to clothe his dolls – if you’ve ever read about Blythe dolls you’ll know that people are similarly knitting and sewing in order to photograph dolls today, and the internet is full of people dressing themselves or their significant others up to take photos. Nor will people think of themselves as outsiders for doing these things – if you like taking photos of dolls you can find thousands of others that like to do the same thing. This is a little unfair – the Hayward in its publicity doesn’t mention the word ‘outsider’ and plays up the visionary qualities of the artists. You would be unlikely to find knitted villages or scarecrow competitions here. But it does feel a bit like the necessary conditions for many of these works of art are no longer there, and that those that made them would find their attentions directed elsewhere these days.
I was so much looking forward to this, thought when I left that it hadn’t taught me much I didn’t already know, met my husband for dinner a couple of hours later and delivered a half-hour monologue on what I’d seen and what I thought about it. Like the cleverest propaganda it had got under my skin and changed my views without my noticing.
Partly this was because I found the exhibition itself a little difficult to get round: it was busier than I was hoping, and many of the video exhibits are played over a speaker. I am very easily distracted indeed and found myself reading the captions or the exhibits several times because my ears had been caught by something a screen 5′ away was saying.
One of the arguments of the exhibit is that while we’ve all learnt to associate propaganda with lies told by repressive regimes, it can sometimes be a positive force – I’d never really thought about the London 2012 Opening Ceremony as propaganda, nor banknotes. If I’m honest, though, this is because I do identify with the UK, for better or worse. Now that I’m writing it down it is obvious beyond obviousness that we have already learnt to love propaganda if it comes from our side – the continued popularity of Fougasse posters or (ngh) Keep Calm etc will show that. Equally – I’m not sure that I would have thought about the government AIDS campaign from the eighties as propaganda, but (and?) I’m glad it happened.
Nor had it ever occurred to me during the Cold War (I was 14 in 1989) that at the same time that we were being told that the Eastern Bloc hated freedom, the USSR was telling its citizens that the USA hated freedom. Smiley and Karla were right, and the Cold War was a hall of mirrors. The freshness of Russian graphic design in the 20s was striking, and provided me with a new insight into why there were so many fellow travellers in the west until a relatively late date. If North Korea had published The Face in the eighties perhaps it would have made friends, who knows?
So the emphasis on propaganda’s possible positive effects was thought-provoking, and the worst of propaganda was represented by the Nazis’ anti-semitic propaganda from the early thirties. This would be the only slight quibble I would have about what was left out: you don’t have to go back that far to find examples of hateful state-sponsored lies. Reliance on the Nazis as the exemplar meant that this part of the exhibition could fall into the trap that the rest of it was arguing very strenuously against: that if we have thought about propaganda at all before, we’ve thought about it in the context of the Cold War or WWII and examples of the state using its communication power to tell lies or incite hatred. More recent examples might have been taken, for example, from the Hutu Power movement prior to the Rwandan Genocide. I once saw a book in China (translated to English) that purported to tell the truth about the Tiananmen Square massacre. It included a photograph of a charred corpse wearing a pristine PLA cap with an unburnt noose around his neck, which was presented as evidence that victims of the massacre were mainly soldiers who had been attacked by the students. These types of lies still get told, and not only by history’s most famous villains.
Too many words there because I had too many thoughts – and I still haven’t told you about the British propaganda in a Persian style, or the lovely economy of the French Liberation posters, or the comparison between German and British propaganda films which teach us that Nazis couldn’t tapdance and that YouTube-like silliness has been around for a long time. Go and see the exhibition, it’s a wonder.
Right. I’ll admit some of my own prejudices and problems first and we’ll get to the paintings in a minute.
Audioguides: please, Tate, no. Audioguides are a complete horror for anyone not using one, and in my sniffy way, I think they lessen the experience for people who are using one. If you’re in a busy exhibition, the people listening to audioguides survey the room looking for the pictures with the little headphones next to it, then stand squarely in front of those pictures until the mood music has played in and the expert has spoken for five minutes about context and brushstrokes and who owned the thing. During this time the listener is oblivious to anyone else trying to see the painting. When it is finished, they’re off to the next featured painting without pausing to look at the other ones. Stop this, please.
It’s Grim Oop North an’ all that: I don’t sound much like it – and haven’t since I was about 5 or so – but I am Lancastrian. I was mucking about with a bit of family history recently and it looks for all the world like my mum and dad were the first people on either side of their family since the early 19th century not to live their whole lives in Lancashire (well, direct descendants anyway. Everyone has a flash uncle.) I’m 2 generations away from mill workers, and I think often about how lucky I’ve been to be born when I was. I tell you this because I think some of my response to the way that this exhibition is staged is down to defensiveness.
I really, really wish that Tate hadn’t decided to play a George Formby song next to one set of the paintings, and that it hadn’t decided to have a glass cabinet of famous books about the northern working class – The Uses of Literacy, The Road to Wigan Pier – in the room dedicated to ‘The Social Life of Labour Britain’. The exhibition seems to take ignorance of conditions in the industrial North as given. This (perhaps unfairly) enrages me. If you don’t know that people worked in dire, drab, poverty-ridden conditions in the north west, you should. The paintings tell you that anyway, without a need to read George Orwell’s thoughts about it. I’ve never had can-can music played at me while looking at a Manet or had it suggested that I can’t form an opinion about Renoir without reading Baudelaire.
So I’m in the odd position of arguing for less context in an exhibition. Meanwhile, where more context might have been helpful – was The Procession a union march, or a Whit Walk, or what? – it wasn’t there. We can tell from the picture that the Fever Van is something terrifying, but some more background here might have been helpful too. Lowry is described in one place as a ‘Lancashire Conservative’; I am not convinced that this is a thing. Which is to say, I’m not convinced by the implication that a Lancashire Conservative is something apart from a Tory-voter who lives in Lancashire. So then I’m expected to know something weird about the type of conservative voter in the North but not that George Orwell once popped round to Wigan.
I was surprised by how much I found to love in the paintings. I knew I liked Lowry, but if I was honest with myself it was more a fondness for his subject matter that I felt. What I admired by the end of the exhibit was actually the coldness, the dispassionate look at the world. We see terrible things – accidents, suicides, children taken from their parents – and feel the pity of it, but there’s nothing of the individuals. The swarms of people in the mill paintings illustrate the system, not the people. And yet the scoured whiteness of the skies, the lack of vegetation, the bent backs of the people going to work and the flat, precise buildings allow us to feel the drab horror of their lives.
My favourite things were: the Lytham beach pictures (but this is totally because of fondness for subject matter – we used to live there), the comparison of the going to and from the mill pictures (where the picture cramped and hurried going to the mill and stretched out and relaxed coming from it), the panorama pictures, the picture of a lonely funeral on top of a hill. The last picture in the exhibition is amazing: it shows the landscape of Bargoed, and it seems to suggest that after a lifetime of looking at industry, its effect on the landscape and coming to pessimistic conclusions, right at the end Lowry saw something magical in Wales.
Further reading if you fancy it: Mike Atherton’s – yep, that Mike Atherton. He’s great, isn’t he? – piece on Lowry
Further looking if you fancy it: this panorama of Oldham which compares it as it was in 1876 to how it is now, and shows you that while the panorama pictures were ‘made up’ they weren’t fictional.
A couple of years ago, my husband and I took our bikes for a ride along the Thames path to Crossness, eventually ending up at Lesnes Abbey. It was a hot day in October, too hot for long sleeves, an unexpected mini-summer. The stillness and silveriness and big skies and loneliness as the river widens made a big impression on me.
Go and see this exhibition, it’s great, but if you can grab one of these last sunny days and go to the estuary first. The show does such a fantastic job of evoking the feel of the Thames estuary it will be a shame if there’s nothing to evoke. My highlights were:
- Thames Film: sinister and fun and nice hypnotic patterns made by reflections in the river
- the Bow Gamelan Ensemble: some conceptual art makes you think ‘why?’ some makes you think ‘why not?’, this was the latter. Also made me think about the usefulness of the definition of ‘outsider art’
- Horizon (Five Pounds a Belgian): meditative, calming – looped sound, pictures of light playing on sea.
- Portrait of a River: reminds me what odd things I live near to. The O2 at sunset and the Thames Barrier are sci-fi things in our world. I’m a little in love with the barge captain who is interviewed in this film: a non-judgemental man who seems to have found his place in the world.
- Paintings by Jock McFadyen and Michael Andrews
I also liked the Seafort project – I would love to go to the Seafort – but if I’m really honest with you I think you might be better off having a look at the blog rather than trying to stay still for the 30min selection of slides from it.