Monthly Archives: September 2013

Bill Brandt: A World Fresh and Strange

Bill Brandt (1904-1983), a founding father of modernist photography and one of the ‘greats’ of British photography, believed in “the power of seeing the world as fresh and strange” and thought photographs could help people “see the world anew…as something interesting and exciting.” His images are atmospheric – a penchant was for sombre, brooding scenes, with strong tonal contrasts and dramatic formal compositions. His vision and reputation were cemented in the 1930s in London but drew on his time in Man Ray’s studio in Paris, which gave his work a psychological complexity, even latent surrealism. While his style is distinctive, he was known for the diversity of his subjects, from social class, to London in wartime, to Northern industrial towns during the depression, to portraits of British literary and artistic figures, to landscapes, to strange, sensual nudes on the Sussex coast.

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Bombed Regency Staircase (1942)

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Battersea Bridge (1930s)

Bombed Regency Staircase (1942) was part of his series photographing London during the Second World War. Although the subject is obviously bleak, Brandt brings to the staircase a startling vision and latent beauty, with its arresting contrasts of shadow and light and sweeping lines of the cast-iron banisters, which seem to twist back on themselves improbably. In Battersea Bridge (1930s), taken from a low angle, the curves of the River Thames and its shoreline have a sensual, organic quality, while the sharp distinctions in tone and bold horizontal line of the bridge with the bus add visual drama. Francis Bacon (on Primrose Hill, 1963) combines portrait and landscape, the receding diagonal of the wet path contrasting dynamically with the oddly tilted lamppost and with Bacon himself, who has a dour, introspective expression yet stands solidly against the stormy weather. There is a surreal sensibility here, the work seeming both familiar and strange, and a narrative quality – the image could be a still from a film about Bacon or one captured at a significant point in a story. These three photographs all attest to Brandt’s sophistication as an artist. “[The] viewer will sense himself in the presence of a rare concentration of thought and feeling,” observed Clive James in 1981.

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Francis Bacon (1963)

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Filed under Arts, Black and white photography, Francis Bacon, Photography, Surrealism

Odilon Redon: Dark Luminosity

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Dark luminosity: that’s what for me the Symbolist artist Odilon Redon (1840-1916) does so well. Black and white lithography was an early technique used by Redon to produce what he termed his ‘noirs’; the expressive power of chiaroscuro, of strong contrasts between darkness and light in the lithographs, allowed the kind of illusiveness and mystery he sought in his art. His first 10 lithographs, Dans le Rève (In the Dream), were published in 1879 but garnered little public attention. A series of fantastical images that occupy a lonely region between the real and the imaginary, they are consistent with Redon’s pictorial world more broadly – a world of floating heads, mythic figures, shadowy beings, ghosts, cyclops, fallen angels, composite creatures. In Germination (Plate 2 of Dans le Rève, see image above), a disembodied pale head, eyes downcast in introspection, is set within a large black nimbus. The head floats in an indeterminate, nocturnal space; beneath hover (germinate?) a sequence of ever-smaller heads, the first with wide-staring eyes, the others more skull-like with empty eye-sockets; and around the heads drift smaller white spheres – perhaps seed-heads or star-forms. The mood of the lithograph is melancholy, but it carries a strange luminosity too. The artwork is  hard to interpret, although it brings to my mind, among other things, the gestation of thoughts and feelings in a space that is dark and mysterious.

Redon was part of the Symbolist movement which rejected naturalistic art and placed more emphasis on the reality of the imagination. His originality as an artist lay in the way his works suggest meaning without being specific. The use of symbolism had been important in art for several centuries, but Redon’s innovation lay in his ability to create symbolic forms that exist in their own right without any clear or definable associations. His symbols embody a mystery which diffuses through the painting. The works evoke particular subjective states – an intense emotion, a mystical sensibility, a dream fragment – but do so without one being fully aware of what this is. He described his artworks as intending to ‘arouse in the imagination [of the viewer] any number of fantasies whose meaning will be broad or limited according to his sensitivity.’ Redon’s lithographs, such as Germination, attest to his singular vision, which is both equivocal and eloquent, dark and luminous.

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Cobweb, a Secret Music Score…

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“And the cobweb is the secret score/ To the music we are searching for.” Hugo Williams.

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Kurt Schwitters: ‘The Profoundest of Nonsense’

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Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), a key figure in European Dada, originally lived in Hanover, Germany, but after being labelled as ‘degenerate’ by Hitler, fled first to Norway in 1937 and then to Ambleside, UK, where he died (unaccountably) unknown and in penury in 1948. His art, like his life, was bizarre and epic – he did everything and often, it seemed, at the same time: he made deft collages; wrote Dada poetry, ‘anxiety plays’ and bizarre stories; published a periodical; gave exuberant Dada performances; painted bad portraits which he ripped apart to make materials for his collages; and constructed the ‘Schwitters Column’, a huge, interior, fantastical sculptural form that, in its first, Hanover incarnation, eventually took over six rooms of his house. Schwitters is best known for his ‘Merz’, skilful collages made from found and thrown-away materials – feathers, tram-tickets, skittles, cut-out words from magazines, shoe-laces, feathers, dish-cloths, stones – which he affectionately returned to a place in life through his art. Although Schwitters’s accomplishments weren’t recognised in his lifetime, his collages were subsequently a revered influence on British art from Richard Hamilton to Damien Hirst. Like many Dadaists he saw art as a form of protest: “One can even shout out through refuse, and this is what I did, nailing and gluing it together”.

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(Merz from 1920)

Schwitters was often known for his liveliness, uninhibited nature and wit – “with his incessant magical gesticulations, he seemed about to break free of the fetters of reason”, as historian of Dada, Hans Richter, observed – but some of his art, especially the Column, with its grottoes dedicated, among other things, to his dead child, hint at a darker side to his personality. No one could give Dada performances like him, though, whether he was barking wildly like a dog on stage or loudly declaiming his sound poems like Ursonate or more naturalistic poems like Anna Blume:

“….Blue is the colour of your yellow hair
Red is the cooing of your green bird
You simple girl in a simple dress, you dear
Green beast, I love your! You ye you your,
I your, you my. – We?”

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Schwitters began work on the first Column, the Merzbau, in his house Hanover in 1923 and finished it around 1933, a project that grew and grew, threatening to take over the entire building – he once joked it would eventually reach Berlin. It was destroyed in a bomb raid during the war but the photos that remain show a massive, angular, white construction, bizarre and disorienting, comprised of a series of grottoes, shelves and columns with many inserted objects – collages, found things, personal items, artworks. The grottoes were dedicated to fellow painters (eg Arp, Mondrian), themes (eg war, love), writers (eg Goethe), and family members. The Merzbau was more a living, changing document of his and his friends’ lives than a sculpture, which he constantly added to – a lock of hair, half-smoked cigarette or child’s watering can here, a china egg, lump of string or artwork there. The Merzbau was part folly, part temple, part modernist fantasia. In exile in Norway he began another Column and finally a third, the Merz Barn, in a barn in Ambleside, UK. Some of the strangest works of art ever constructed, the Columns marked him out as someone with a truly original vision, a man who may have courted apparent ‘nonsense’ but did so in the profoundest way, and a quintessentially artists’ artist – Herbert Read, the famous UK critic, described Schwitters as “a parallel to James Joyce”. His work on the Ambleside Merz Barn only lasted a few months as by then his health was rapidly declining and he was only kept alive by the emotional and financial assistance of his new partner Edith Thomas. He was dedicated to creating the Merz Barn until the end: “We must keep on playing,” he said, “until death confines us.”

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Littleness in the Bigness

A boy on a bicycle rides along a difficult path, between a corridor of tall cow parsley and other vegetation; woods rear up in the distance and a hint of storm menaces the sky. I don’t know who the boy is – it was a serendipitous snap as he just happened to pass when I was sitting a distance away. The line of an e.e. cummings poem came to me as I watched: “man plays with the bigness of his littleness”, which evokes human hubris with deceptive simplicity. The boy in this photograph, though, is the inverse of that line – he plays with his littleness in the bigness. For me, the photograph seems to be about the humility and innocence of a boy alone in the engulfing largeness of the surrounding world, a world which appears intimidating but which he negotiates through determined play. I liked the photograph best in sepia as here the foreground vegetation and background woods joined up in a continuum, and the sky took on a more perilous tone.

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Photographs Dense with Experience: Eugène Atget’s Paris.

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Misty mornings in parks, the shape of statues echoing that of nearby trees; long cobbled streets that invite the eye to wander down them; mannequins in shop windows that appear oddly animate. These are some of the 10,000 images that Eugène Atget (1857-1927) took of Paris in the first quarter of the 20th century, which are both visual documents of the city and carriers of a poetic sense of place. Atget’s photography was a quiet, personal obsession – this was long before the advent of the ‘photo-essay’ in contemporary art, in which a subject or world is photographed multiply and explored in depth. Atget didn’t even consider his work as art although his work was lauded by the Parisian avant-garde, by Man Ray who saw in his work a latent surrealist sensibility, an unexpected evocation of the unconscious life of the city; by Andre Breton who published him in Le Revolution Surrealiste and in his own books.

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Atget used old photographic equipment with very long exposures so his photographs are often devoid of people. This allows the form of the city to be clearly seen, its architecture and arched bridges, its sweep of streets and stairwells. Yet the empty city still bears a palpable, if mysterious, presence of real lives lived and so invites narratives, stirs the viewer to imagine. Atget’s images also appeal through their nostalgia. They were memory traces of a vanishing world – he worked in the old parts of Paris being bulldozed to make way for wide modern boulevards. John Szarkowski, former director of photography at MOMA in New York, believed that the way Atget blended documentation and a distinct personal vision made him the first real modernist photographer: “The pictures that he made…are seductively and deceptively simple, wholly poised, reticent, dense with experience, mysterious, and true” (from Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs).

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The Colour of Water

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I’m not sure why exactly, but I like to sit by my local river and try to name the various colours on its surface – pewter, grey-blue, cup-of-tea brown, slate grey, silver, sand, diamond glint, eucalyptus-leaf green. Just as the tidal river ebbs and flows, so the colours in it are constantly changing. Perhaps this is part of the appeal for me: an awareness of a visual transience, of an ever-mutable liquid canvas. The hues relate to the quality of light and to what is reflected in the water – sky, clouds, sun, trees, boats, houses, lampposts, passing people. In these particular photographs the colours and abstract forms put me in mind of pre-Hispanic textiles. Certain pre-Hispanic peoples believed that rivers and lakes were mirrors in which the gods could behold themselves. If there happened to be any pre-Hispanic deities loitering around this corner of East Anglia (UK) that day, I like to think they’d have been chuffed that their fabrics, if not their faces, featured in the river, even if for a brief time.

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