Bandits, Wilderness & Magic (Salvator Rosa) – Autumn 2010 – Dulwich Picture Gallery

Salvator Rosa’s paintings are old style, the type of pictures that you imagine hanging in a musty museum, or in the hallway of a fading English country house. Ask a non art person to imagine an ‘Old Master’ and the pale colours, lack of visual clarity and the inexplicable narratives of some of Rosa’s weakest paintings might be a useful template. In fact, ask an art fan about a dull day at the gallery, and Rosa might well feature.

Yet Salvator Rosa remains appealing, particularly in England. It’s partly because the idea of Salvator Rosa fascinates, more so than his actual oeuvre. He is a painter with a strong literary bent, a noble outsider, a proto-Romantic with a love for dramatic countryside. These are the kind of the things that appeal to a certain English mentality.

Additionally, his biography reveals him fighting desperately to be an artist, and to be an artist in a sense that is familiar to contemporary eyes, i.e. someone who allies their creativity with their independence and integrity; someone who defines themselves as an individual, rather than simply turning out soulless work for philistine patrons.

The plots which fill his paintings reflect this well. The storylines themselves are full of invention dramatic gestures and emotions – the philosopher Empedocles, for example, throwing himself into a cavernous Etna

Picture 2.png
The Death of Empedocles, 1665–70, Eastnor Castle, Ledbury

Yet in their execution they lose much of the drama that Rosa wanted to convey. The classical nature of seventeenth-century easel painting, with its demand for rational explanation of the actors in a scene, mitigates against Rosa’s sense of drama. Rosa’s personal instincts were much more Caravaggesque; but his style of painting was inherited from the much more classical school of seventeenth-century easel painting (as exemplified by the cool, rational oeuvre of Poussin). It’s this contradiction that so undermined what Rosa wanted to achieve.

Picture 1.png
The Death of Attilus Regius, 1652

The Death of Attilus Regius is certainly a dramatic conceit. The story concerns a Roman politician being placed in a barrel studded with spikes before being rolled down an obliging hill to his exceedingly painful death. A Carvaggesque treatment would have involved an intense focus on the central character, closing in on his stoic (or maybe not so stoic) acceptance of the pain about to be endured. But Rosa steps back and includes a host of other figures – horsemen, assistant workmen, ancillary spectators – and provides a calm, reflective skyscape, widening the panorama of the painting. The result it that there is too much distance between spectator and the painting’s central character. Any anguish or acceptance on the face of Attilus Regius is lost in a more generic, melancholy reflection.

But that’s not to say that Rosa’s paintings are not interesting. You just need to approach them from a different angle. He avoids so many of the cliches of seventeenth century Italian painting, the softened angels, the reductive piety and instead travels down entirely different avenues of the imagination.

The pressure to invent created some awfully strange paintings, almost surreal in the metaphorical complexity.
His enthusiasm for taking well-established genres (history painting and landscape) and then injecting them with his own imaginative distortions produce unlikely works of art.

WitchesWitches at their Incantations, c.1646, National Gallery, London

The National Gallery’s Witches is a strange painting, a nocturnal landscape filled with disfigured outsiders, with little rich patches of colour shining out against the darkness. The painting is the flip side of Claude’s sun dappled perfections. With magic, death and disfigurement, Witches at their Incantations could be seen as a stab in the eye of religious orthodoxy. Yet I suspect it never induced really induced fear or indignation in the seventeenth century mind, but rather, just as it might today, curiosity and pity. The figures are certainly evocative, but the any evil intent is diminished. The monsters are exaggerated and fantastic, the saggy woman in the centre seems sad, the plotters on the left oblivious to any spectator, and the gaping beast seems to be rather pantomime in its expression. It’s an engaging and unusual painting, but the effect is one of humour rather than fear.

Picture 4.jpg
Soldiers Playing Dice, c.1656 (?), Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Picture 4.png
Lucrezia as Poetry, 1641, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut

It’s perhaps in the portraits of individuals that Rosa approaches the grandeur the craved. They allow Rosa to focus on the sitter, and thus by removing the poetic details and environments that intrude in the other paintings, the sitters’ characters shine through. The Soldiers Playing Dice stands out, particularly the brooding figure, replete with glinting silver helmet, overseeing the game with philosophical intent; his noble contemplation rather at odds with his rather desolate surroundings. The allegorical portrait of Poetry also contains not seen elsewhere, her rather haughty, precise gaze possibly reflecting the difficulty Rosa had throughout his career, of attracting, maintaining and fulfilling his artistic muse.

1 Comment

Filed under Baroque, Dulwich Picture Gallery, Rosa

Gauguin – Tate Modern – Winter 2010

Though ephemeral events, exhibitions can have powerful effect in redressing the reputation of an artist, uncovering previously hidden gems or revealing new aspects of a known master, perhaps. In the case of the current Gauguin show at the Tate, it has utterly destroyed his reputation as an artist of the first rank. In his poor sense of composition, complete mishandling of colour and his inability to develop a sense of narrative, Gauguin has revealed himself to be, at best, a brave decorational painter, and at worse, an over zealous amateur.

The Tate exhibition parades numerous chapters of his incompetence. Take a picture such as Te Poi Poi. From a distance, a vibrant splash of colour. But up close the painting falls apart; a mad rainbow in a blender.

gauguin-te-poi-poi.jpg
Te Poi Poi, 1892, private collection

The woman in stark red (whom I presume is cleaning clothes in the river, but her unfortunate posture makes it seem as if she is relieving her bowels) provides some focus in the foreground, but all around her is a maelstrom of confused colour. The blurry morass of black, blue, green and white in front of the woman makes it unclear what is land, stone or water; where does she actually exist? Above her head, daubs of livid green form a tree, painted in a manner of a ten year old copying Howard Hodgkin. The river is a bizarre colour – a creamy white giving way to an unforgiving dark blue. Further back, nothing much happens – just more application of bright colours, with an ill painted stick figure on the other riverbank. What is this picture about?

gauguin-te-pape-nave-nave.jpg
Te Pape Nave Nave, 1898, National Gallery of Art, Washington

Gauguin’s insistence on using as many colours as possible detract from the paintings. There is no articulate use of the palette to encourage a particular emotional environment. Rather, he is like the primary school pupil let loose on the colouring set, a meaningless melange of reds, oranges, purples, yellows etc etc. Sometimes, the colours coalesce in a blackening mess. In Te Pape Nave Nave, the characters become lost; to work as as a painting, the characters need to be bigger and dominate the canvas; instead they are overwhelmed as the kaleidoscopic landscape prevails over them, reducing their presence to bystanders.

Of course it wasn’t Gauguin’s aim to create realistic or perspectivally true images. As contemporaries such as Cezanne and successors like Picasso would explore with far greater rigour, there was a lot painterly mileage in such investigations. And perhaps I am being unfair to him in criticising him for his obvious weaknesses as a figurative painter, when his oeuvre is part of the pathway to abstraction. You can see Gauguin in this exhibition (which really emphasises the experimental nature of his art, his constant dallying with different media and styles of depiction) trying to explore the ramifications of the flatness of the canvas he is painting on. But it becomes sloppy. So instead of the landscape spitting up and then reforming itself in renewed and different dimensions, the landscape itself just falls apart, leaving its unhappy combination of colour.

gauguin-arearea-no-varua-ino.jpg
Arearea No Varua Ino, 1894, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

Arearea No Varua Ino is perhaps beguiling at first glance, but quickly becomes ludicrous. The woman leaning downwards has no facial features; she is a just a chunk of body, seeming to wash her hair in the inexplicable pink flames. The other woman, on the left of the canvas, is surly in expression, possibly under the malign influence of the totem behind. But it’s difficult to unpack why. Two figures in the background gesticulate aimlessly. As happens elsewhere, his characters lack in an emotional narrative – they become passive, shorn of activity and Gauguin ends up not painting individuals but cyphers. It is difficult to read, empathise or admire Gauguin’s paintings; any sense of drama evaporates in the coloured fuzz of Gauguin’s own view of paradise.

Overall, his treatment of women is ludicrous, reducing them to mutes with a squashed inner life (although, at least they appear – apparently men hardly exist in Gauguin’s world). They are sometimes sensuous, sometimes brooding, occasionally anxious, but nearly always one-dimensional. There are no clues as to why such characters are acting in a particular way. Do any of the women in Gauguin’s visual universe actually talk or interact? Or are they simply vehicles for Gauguin’s own narrow binary views about the innate goodness and badness of women, tarted up by some cliched myths? Despite the nudity and the presumed sensuality, his females lack much trace of tenderness. Closer inspection indeed reveals something a little more interesting, a touch more ambiguous – their eyes are often askance, hinting at a kind of suspicion of the world around them. The figure at the very left of The Bathers glances out of the canvas – as if berating Gauguin or the viewer for invading their territory. At least Gauguin had the gumption to include a degree of self reflection.

gauguin-ondine.jpg
Ondine, 1889, Cleveland Museum of Art

Or perhaps it was simply the fact that Gauguin could not paint faces very well; providing the nuance of tone that would allow for the nuance of emotional expression was just beyond him. Have a look at the lumpen, boiled down profiles in the late paintings, Two Women and The Escape. He even resorted to turning females around to avoid painting their faces, such as in Ondine / In the Waves and The Bathing Place.

And yet Gauguin continues to be popular. His myth embodies the industrial dream of escaping to a personal and geographical Eden. The inclusion of text (always a handy anchor for those uncomfortable with the strangeness of the image) provide a faux philosophy to underpin such a myth, easy reference points for the cliched mind. The question “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where are we Going?” is not very original.

The exhibition does an intelligent job of deconstructing all this. Not only did Gauguin cultivate his own myth (Gauguin calls himself seduced by Tahiti’s “virgin land and its primitive and simple race .. the Eve of my choice is almost an animal”), but it blossomed after his death, Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and the Sixpence being only of many cultural productions that allowed the romantic notions of Gauguin to spin out of control.

Equally, Gauguin suits the age of reproduction. His paintings and his colours often appear in print, on television. The actual paintings are so flat, with the paint to thinly applied on the canvas (Braque is another painting in this mode), that one actually loses little when the painting are printed in miniature – the bright colours fluoresce and attract the roving eye. Compare this to Van Gogh whose shares a richness of palette but whose fecund, passionate impasto becomes lifeless when printed in a book.

gauguin-te-faaturuma-1891.jpg
Te Faaturuma, 1891, Worcester Art Museum

Is there anything to save him? Occasionally, Gauguin achieves success when he reduces the complexity of his paintings – fewer figures, fewer colours, a more confined space. Te Faaturuma sticks out. By ditching the coloured foilage that pollutes most of his paintings, replacing it with solid planes of colour, Gauguin attains a must greater psychological impact – this is one of the exhibition’s paintings where the characters inner selves have much greater resonance – it’s interesting to note that Gauguin’s paintings set inside are almost always more powerful than those set out of doors. There is a closer link with abstraction, and the destination of Gauguin’s oeuvre becomes clearer. More broadly, the colours themselves are superficially attractive, and his experiments in colour are a part of the link between the Impressions and the Cubists. I can see an argument that says every gallery in the world should have a Gauguin. But I think one is enough.

4 Comments

Filed under Gauguin, National Gallery, Tate Modern, Uncategorized

Email to Liberal Democrats

Dear Sir / Madam,

I read with some relief that the Liberal Democrat MPs are now considering voting against legislation to allow universities to make dramatic raises to university fees. (http://exquisitelife.researchresearch.com/exquisite_life/2010/11/21/)

Can I take this opportunity please urge the Liberal Democrats to remain true to the principles underpinning their oft-trumpetted election pledge to “scrap unfair university tuition fees”? As a keen supporter of recent Liberal Democrat policies, I have voted for them at the last two general elections, secure in the knowledge that they have largely reflected my own opinions on the funding of higher education, as well as a number of other concerns. The current direction of the Liberal Democrat ministers betrays that trust in a most flagrant manner.

Allowing learners to incur debts of at least £30,000 by the time they graduate is not only immoral but will have serious impact on British society – restricting social mobility, dampening opportunity and reducing the richness of the UK’s higher education – currently one of the greatest in the world.

Therefore, can I please ask the Liberal Democrats to avoid voting for this change, thinking hard about the trust they have built up with the current supporters and the future of the British education and society? It is this which is important, not the glitter of a short period in power with the wreckers of the Conservative party.

Warm regards,

Alastair Dunning.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Alternatively, not free market enough. More on the arts and humanities.

The current arrangement proposed by the government is something of a mish-mash, stuck between officious government control and free market economics, and ending up being neither.

One of the great advantages the arts and humanities has is its relative low cost – a pen, a goodish library and an Internet connection and away you go. (1) Compare to other subjects – particularly lab based sciences and medicine – and the arts and humanities have an in built advantage. Given this, you would expect a+h subjects to have strategic strengths in the newly privatised higher educational world unfolding rapidly around us.

But two aspects of the proposals radically curtail this strength. Firstly, the government still want to provide teaching subsidies to a number of the expensive subjects, largely the ‘critical’ science, technology and engineering subjects. This has common sense appeal – “we need doctors more so let’s pay for them”. But, vice-chancellors have long been pointing out that this creates a false imbalance – current demand within society sees a lack of skills in the arts, business and the law rather than the science subjects. Moreover, some research highlighted in the Times Higher the long-term futility of trying to engineer societal change by meddling with subject areas. (2)

Secondly, the proposed government cap on the price of a degree further undermines the a+h competitive advantage. If universities are to be charged by the government for going over the £7k cap (a notion that seems crazy to me), then there will be a tendency to try and round out all courses at the same cost around this cap – again compare this with a proper free market solution where the arts and humanities courses could be offered at much cheaper rates. (3)

So the current arrangement proposed by the government is something of a mish-mash, stuck between officious government control and free market economics, and ending up being neither.

So, should we in the arts and humanities actually ditch our leftist banners and celebrate the free market? Well, that’s certainly a pragmatic option. One does not want to lose sight of the larger moral imperative – thousands of students graduating with debts over £30k is not good – but as it seems the coalition government is blind to this, what else can be done?

(Thanks to Tim Hitchcock for bringing these ideas to light)

—-

Footnotes

(1) Some courses are more expensive, however – doing archaeology fieldwork for example.
(2) http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=413171
(3) Although a recent story in the Daily Telegraph mentions this could be around £9k – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/universityeducation/8098534/Universities-get-power-to-raise-fees-to-9000.html

Leave a comment

Filed under Arts and Humanities, Universities

The Roundheads and the Cavaliers: The Arts and Humanities Now

The threat has been hovering for a while, but first with the Browne report and now with Gideon Osborne’s spending review, two almighty strikes have been made. Presuming the Liberal Democrats betray their election promises and the Browne report is passed through Parliament, the third and final strike will be administered and government support for teaching the arts and humanities in England will be, in an instant, destroyed.

There has been a fair bit of lamentation in the arts and humanities community. I don’t actually think they have been singled out in particular, as there are plenty of other disciplines which will not be receiving funding – business studies, geography, media studies, psychology, economics (!).

The logic is much simpler than this – the arts and humanities don’t make big money, save lives nor provide any extra special interest that helps the country, so they do not deserve any extra support. Full stop.

It’s a simplistic, roundhead view of the world which has been gathering pace for many years. In some respects, I surprised it has taken this long to happen. Labour MP Charles Clarke made noises about medieval historians a while back.

More generally, the logic that underpins this argument has been in place for a while. Anything creative or reflective, anything that does not provide obvious tangible benefits, anything which provides difficult ideas that may question current orthodoxy, or anything that, say this quietly, may be related to pleasure and enjoyment in any sense should not be supported by the government, ie the tax paid by the ‘ordinary man on the street.’ If you want it, then you have to pay for it yourself.

But I also wonder if we in the arts and humanities have been too cavalier in our approach. Have we done all we can to fight for the arts and humanities? It may be due to the pressures of the REF and specialisation, but have there been too many scholars studying their own special interests and not painting a bigger picture? Too concerned with Edward Gibbons’ footnotes, with Dutch headdresses in seventeenth-century Leiden or with the changing notions of gender in the Spartan army. Valuable research, but without sight of the bigger picture it fits into, too isolated to convince the public of its worth.

There may also have been confusion over what the arts and humanities do and mean – the type of work done is actually much broader than the somewhat clichéd examples in the paragraph above.

But reputations in the world of education change slowly, and the undoubted enthusiasm of the humanist to seek out and analyse recondite knowledge still sets a tone that the roundhead mentality will struggle to comprehend.

What is / was needed then was this bigger argument. I see scraps of the (argument) all over the place; university brochures talking about the skills learnt as an historian, research council publications on the disciplines’ economic impact; the obvious evidence provided by the country’s love of family history, costume drama, its somewhat skewed sense of historical Britain

But there is never one big winning argument that would make you sleep more safely at night. There is no real voice for the arts and humanities as a whole in the UK (1). No one body or group presenting a dazzling argument as to the intrinsic nature of the arts and humanities to society.

It never seems to have punctured public consciousness that the arts and humanities might be a good thing. And therefore the reductive nature of the puritan argument – either save lives or earn money – has squeezed out the more nuanced arguments for the arts and humanities.

So what will this all mean? There is plenty of talk about the class divide being widened by the reforms of the universities, of the poor being left behind. I don’t think it will be as quite straightforward as that. Scholarships and hard work will allow (some of) the less well off to find lucrative careers in business, medicine and the law.

But what it will do is further divide the whole world of culture and the humanities. Unless you come from a very financially secure background, the prospect of running up c.£20k (2) debt in tuition fees (plus interest) and then another £25-30k in living costs will put off all but the very idealistic. (3)

Salaries for humanities graduates mean the debts will be a long-time burden, not something that can be ditched with the first few pay packets. It will not be an attractive proposition for those from non-wealthy background. Studying history or archaeology will become a further sign of wealth, of a certain class position. And therefore owning the knowledge related to those field will further become a sign of a certain class position.

The roundhead view of the United Kingdom already equates enjoying the arts, investigating others’ culture or questioning common sense as an indulgent middle class pursuit. This can only be heightened as the cost of the principle (although not the only) route to such knowledge is substantially raised.

What else might it mean. Well it’s difficult to predict the future and a market-driven Higher Education system may bring some odd surprises – the situation is not apocalyptic yet. But if we don’t start to fight and agitate about this then we run the risk of a whole range of problems – fewer well-trained musicians; fewer artists and actors (two fields in which the UK has been remarkably successful); fewer archaeologists to protect our heritage; (even) fewer citizens who can speak a foreign language; many academics, particularly those outside the wealthy Russell Group universities, will find their job security threatened; with such changes, there will be fewer people to correct mistakes and question commonly held opinions, there will be fewer experts on the cultures of others’ countries; there will be fewer people to teach students that not all they see in the media is true. When you tie this in with the fact that exactly the same is happening to the social sciences, you suddenly have a prospect in a vacuum in the whole democratic apparatus of considered and critical debate.

—-

Footnotes

(1) On the day of the Comprehensive Spending Review, the Arts and Humanities Research Council was remarkably silent. Its twitter account stated that “AHRC funded research has shown, thanks to isotope analysis, that York’s ‘Headless Romans’ had exotic origins” But the AHRC is in a very difficult position. It does not have true independence; to stand up and fight government policy would be biting the hand that feeds it.

(2) One chink of light – the arts, and especially the humanities are very cheap to teach, in the required infrastructure is a good library and an Internet connection. Perhaps tuition fees will be low … one can but hope

(3) And given the costs, wIll anyone ever do a Ph.D in the humanities again … ?!

3 Comments

Filed under Arts and Humanities, Universities

Notes on Palladio – Royal Academy – Spring 2009

The art history books put Andrea Palladio somewhere at the end of the Renaissance, but really, the architect sits rather uneasily in such a place. The narratives for painting and sculpture reach their crescendo with Titian and Michelangelo, and then they suppose that everything tails off for a while, at least until Annibale Carracci reboots the Florentine linear form at the start of the seventeenth century. But Palladio sits right in that age of elongated forms once labelled mannerism, even though there is not much about his art that could be considered mannered. Palladio is clear evidence that the Vasarian trajectory is not quite right.

The exhibition is dry. There are many drawing, prints and crinkly artifacts, which probably don’t do much to excite those new to architectural history. Neither will the beige models of his most famous buildings, however intricate and well proportioned their creation, fire the imagination. There was one innovation – a digital construction of Palladio’s rather heavy design for the Rialto bridge; but still how architecture shows cry out for more imaginative use of technology.

Andrea Palladio, conjectural drawing of Baths of Agrippa, Bath

But if you are prepared to invest some time in them, the drawings are fascinating, intricate yet precise. His drawings of the Roman Baths of Agrippa convey a sense of the building’s architectural brilliance, but without any concession to flashy stylistic devices. Equally, the plans for his own buildings convey precision and grandeur without any added devices – Palladio lets the architecture speak for itself.

Andrea Palladio, drawing of Palazzo Chiericati, Vicenza: part elevation of the entrance facade and portico, 1550s/60s

In his studies, publications, observations and measurements Palladio belongs to a intellectual narrative different to the artistic spine constructed by Vasari and repeated with many variations by art history. Palladio seems to look forward to a more rational age; the impulses to study, measure and communicate makes me think more of a creature of the enlightenment. This is emphasised by his focus on the antique and the relative lack of religious motifs, thus divorcing Palladio the architect from the familiar religious context (the Council of Trent, the Catholic Reformation) of the time.

It’s also worth comparing his sparse clean designs – so different from the glamorous confusion of the baroque, a movement about to ferment further south in Italy. It’s not clear from the exhibition I don’t now how much spiritual passion Palladio had, but the clean grand lines that inform or even the interiors of churches, such as San Giorgio, seem a world away from the coloured marbles and gold leaf that would cover the churches of the succeeding centuries.

1 Comment

Filed under Palladio, Renaissance, Royal Academy

Exposed – Tate Modern – Summer 2010

I suppose it is inevitable in a show with multiple artists, but Tate Modern’s Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera had plenty of artworks it seemed to easy just to idle past, without them making much of an impression. But, equally, there were enough photographs of stunning quality, chiming with the theme of the exhibition, to ensure this was a memorable visit.

dicorcia-heads.jpeg
Philip-Lorca diCorcia, From the Heads Series, 2001

Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s chiaroscuro Heads were arresting images, not least because of their manner of capture. While artists through time have worked in the studio trying to create images that resemble real life, diCorcia has done the opposite, using hidden cameras and lighting to take secretive photographs on streets and pavements, then polishing the final versions until they look like studio portraits. But the images’ real strength is in the ambiguous emotional territory they open up, rendering the American adolescent as strong, yet confused and possibly dangerous.

It is also worth noting the influence of Hopper on DiCorcia, and indeed on a significant number of photographers, often American, in the exhibition. The long raking, wintry sunlight, picking out isolated individuals, lost in their own confused world, features in the work of more than one artist. One of the images in the exhibition created by the Swiss artist Jules Spinatsch, of Yassar Arafat’s chaffeur waiting in a car, is a tremendous example.

The exhibition ringfenced the photographs along related conceptual lines. For me the rooms on ‘Violence’ and ‘Survelliance’ were the most effective.

The section on violence was particularly good, where the moral position of the photographer, as someone witnessing the event but refusing to engage in altering it is magnified. You sense it was this effect that the curators were wanting to flow through the exhibition as a whole.

battaglia-dead-man.jpeg
Letizia Battaglia, Dead Man Lying on a Garage Ramp

Letizia Battaglia’s Dead Man Lying on a Garage Ramp was particularly striking. Despite the bloody drama of the scene, there is a formal rigour to the design, the slope, tall walls and the position of the body having a precise geometry. All this serves to give the eye a clear sense of direction.

But it is the photograph’s narrative intrigue that raises more questions (although given that the photograph was taken in Sicilian Mafia heartlands, perhaps these are rhetorical questions). Who has been killed? Who are the murderers? Why is there fresh blood under the man’s head, and yet a stream of dried blood from much further up the incline? What is restricting the figures at the top from walking down the slope? How did the photographer gain access when others appear unable to? Who is the almost invisible figure on the right, shiny shoes upsetting the symmetry of the images?

The quality of the body itself has a grim fascination. The bullet mark appears to be a single shot in the back, yet the blood seems to flow and congeal from the head (and why does it not run down the slope like the other trace of blood?) The recently dead victim is already reduced to solely a corpse, as if the murderers had succeeded in erasing not just the man’s life, but his identity. One might also say that the photographer colludes in this, avoiding recording his face or any distinctive features. His body displays the none of the subjective emotion of death; the legs are lifeless, and arms tucked underneath the body. His posture, which becomes more unrealistic the more you look at it, seems like a dark reflection of an earlier Italian work of art.

mantegna-dead-christ.jpeg
Andrea Mantegna, Dead Christ, c.1490, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

The surveillance section continued the juxtaposition of aesthetic appeal with testing subject matter – an approach that, when successful, fuels much good photography. So we see Jonathan Olley’s documents of the grim monolithic fortresses developed by the police and military in Northern Ireland, and Sophie Ristelheuber’s record of the dark but sometimes beautiful scars left on the Kuwaiti landscape after the first gulf war. The pockmarked soil and bright flares of burning oil stand as a realist’s riposte to the ubiquitous environmental pictures by the French photographer, Yann Arthus-Bertrand.

Golf Five Zero, copyright of Jonathan Olley
Jonathan Olley, Golf Five Zero watchtower, 1999

ristelheuber-kuwait.jpeg
Sophie Ristelheuber, one image from FAIT, 1992

One of the last images in the surveillance section is particularly effective. Shai Kramer’s wide panorama begins as an Arab town in barren scrubland. A colourless, concrete town of compact, featureless apartments blocks, punctuated only by green neon lights on the (somewhat phallic?) mosques.

kramer-tzeelim.jpeg
Shai Kramer, Urban Warfare Training Centre, Panorama, Tze’elim 2007

But closer inspections reveals something different. The buildings are just concrete shells, with no window panes, no decoration, no furniture, indeed no trace of people actually living there. There are no shops, houses, offices, hotels, restaurants. There are no cars parked against walls, no dogs curled up in doorways, no stalls of fruit, trees, no flowers, very few signs, and only the occasional Arab word pasted on a wall.

The only figures seen are troops, sometimes as units milling around, sometimes as individuals.

Obviously, the city is meant as a training ground for military. The title, Urban Warfare Training Centre, Panorama, Tze’elim 2007, tells of its Israeli heritage. Visual context provides some more information – an ugly corrugated fence surrounds the town, in the distance, an airbase.

Given this background, it is easy to see why the city has been built like this, with an emphasis on how a soldier might negotiate stairways, doorways, broken walls (are the holes in the walls six-sided stars?) , dark alleyways, sudden open spaces. Why should a military training ground include details like shops, colour, decoration, citizens? But it’s hard not to see this realist photograph as a larger allegory of how Israel sees Palestine (or perhaps how any military considers its rival) – simply a territory with a faceless population, who do not engage in the everyday activities of sleeping, eating and living and where the only defining architectural feature is the mosque. Within Tze’elim, the whole of Arab culture is signified by the mosque, as if religion were the single point of indentity and difference, to the exclusion of any thing else.

And was it my imagination or had the tiny figures of the troops, massing in nonsensical groups, been airbrushed? Reduced to figures in dark, heavy military gear? Were there identities being protected? Or were indeed they being homogenised just as the ‘Arab town’ around them had been reduced to a cipher of an enemy’s territory? As with all the interesting works of art in Exposed, Shai Kramer’s image raised more questions than it asked.

1 Comment

Filed under Tate Modern