Archives for posts with tag: women in art

I’ve always been sceptical when people say they’ve cried in art galleries, their breath literally taken away by a piece of art. I always believed it was at best an exaggeration, at worst a pretension. 

‘Fire’ by Fahrelnissa Zeid


It happened to me yesterday. I walked into a room of Zeid’s glorious abstract paintings, riots of colour, peaceful and dynamic. I stood in front of Fire, 1964, and fought back tears. There is magic in this painting, the rich vibrancy of the blues, the light and depth, the texture of the scratched oil paint, the flash of red flame. It’s like a shower of sparks in a pine forest at dusk.

Next to Fire hangs Puncta Imperica (‘Sea Cave’), 1963. Rounded forms, like rocks worn away by the sea, fill the canvas in blue, orange, green, pink. Looking at this, I can smell the ocean.

Detail from ‘Untitled’ by Fahrelnissa Zeid


This show took my breath away. I will always sing the praises of a smaller space – a blockbuster of 12 rooms leaves me grumpy and exhausted. Five or six rooms is enough to show Zeid’s mastery of colour. Sitting in the middle of a room of her gargantuan abstract, mosaic-like canvases is an act of meditation. Her portraits are potent, her subjects wear clothes that could be made from her canvases.

‘Self-Portrait’ by Fahrelnissa Zeid


As a middle eastern woman, Zeid’s work has a different flavour and feel from most of the art available in museums and galleries. You can feel the difference radiating from the canvases. It is exciting. This is what happens when galleries move away from the white male dominance of art history. The viewer is no longer missing out, deprived of art made outside such a narrow perspective. We can see art history with the blinkers off. 

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I managed to avoid most of the history modules during my Russian degree, preferring to read novels and learn about the country through its fiction. I found the Soviet Union aesthetically depressing – drab and dreary run-down buildings, all in grey and red. But the Revolution had always been thrilling to me, the promise of such radical change for the better, the promise of a utopia. I love the art that it produced. I like that when I see an exhibition of Soviet art, there are works by women on the walls, presented as artists in their own right rather than members of an imaginary art movement known as ‘women’s art’, separated from ‘proper art’.

This year is the centenary of the Russian Revolution so London has been inundated with Russian exhibitions. I liked the Royal Academy’s ‘Revolution: Now!’ with all its Kandinsky, Goncharova and Malevich, and I loved the Design Museum’s ‘Imagine Moscow’ for bringing to my attention the Soviet plan to build a building taller than the Empire State, topped with a 100m tall statue of Lenin. I felt something akin to grief when I found out this laughably ridiculous dream never came to fruition.

‘Angels and Airplanes’ by Natalia Goncharova

The British Library’s ‘Hope, Tragedy, Myths’ has been the most politically interesting of the three. It’s more a museum exhibition than an art show, heavy in historical documentation, including Lenin’s handwritten application for a reading pass at the BL. The variety and quantity of the documents – manifestos, diary entries, propaganda posters, maps, letters, decrees – makes clear the confusion and chaos around the Revolution. My personal myth of the glorious Revolution is shattered and I start to understand quite how frenzied and bloody it was.

The show examines mythologies at length. Stalin made serious errors in his various roles under Lenin’s leadership, but once Stalin’s leadership was underway, all his previous roles were mythologised to show him as a hero. Both the Red and White Armies perpetrated myths that they alone were defenders of the people while their opponents were bloodthirsty murderers. A particularly strong curatorial choice was to have audio recordings of diary extracts of soldiers from both the White and Red armies. Both extracts describe the brutality and violence of the other side, and it is horrible listening. A propaganda poster showed Bolshevik soldiers ransacking a village, including killing the villagers’ goose, reminiscent of a grim scene from Isaac Babel’s short stories ‘Red Army’, a copy of which was also on display.

The artworks in the show, as in revolutionary Russia, were largely restricted to propaganda posters and book illustrations, but a couple of others stood out for me. Two lithographs by Natalia Goncharova encapsulate the dichotomy of the times – her mix of angels and architecture is at once mythological and practical, hopeful and destructive. Another image that stands out is The Burial of the Victims of the Revolution by Edward Barnard Lintott. It’s a journalistic watercolour depicting an icy funeral, red flags providing the only colour against a darkening white and grey landscape. It shows the hardship of the Revolution, fighting for change on the ice.

‘Hope, Tragedy, Myths’ is a great show, offering a fairer portrayal of the moods and circumstances in Revolutionary Russia than I’m used to. By including items from other countries where people were in support of the Russian Revolution, the British Library shows Russia as part of a global whole. Communism, after all, is pointless unless it’s global. A pleasant respite from the common portrayal of Russia as isolated in its own Marxist madness. The Revolution is shown as hopeful and desperate. One Red Army soldier wrote in his diary: ‘People have only one way to go – towards the light. And the light is Communism.’

This show of women artists with surrealist practices delighted me. I felt so much more at home here than in the Queer show at Tate.

There’s an enormous sense of reclamation. Women’s bodies are so often the object in art, a way of allowing the male artist to fully express themselves, or as a representation of monstrous form for the male artist to overcome to reach true abstraction (this is plucked from Carol Duncan’s ‘Civilising Rituals’ which is a fantastic educational experience and you should read it, especially the last chapter).

 Corpus, Penelope Slinger

In Dreamers Awake, the body is reclaimed as ours, but not without laying bare some of the pain of being an objectified woman. Mary Ann Caws is quoted on the wall:

There they are, the surrealist women, so shot and painted, so stressed and dismembered, punctured and severed: is it any wonder she has (we have) gone to pieces?

Below this is a masterful demonstration of pain. Penelope Slinger’s Corpus is a collage of an open female corpse, chest, heart and intestines hung on a leafless vine crawling up a derelict building. It’s dark and hauntingly sad, a carcass of a woman. Woman is bound by rope in both Maria Bartuszová’s Rebound Torso and Jo Ann Callis’ Untitled (Tied Up).

Rebound Torso, Maria Bartuszová, and Untitled (Tied Up), Jo Ann Callis

A room of collaborations between Tracy Emin and Louise Bourgeois is a treasure chest. I love it when you can understand a work without any written interpretation, and here is a room of works which reached inside me and spoke truth. It’s all mothers, pain, and women hanging themselves from dicks, so read into that what you will. It was like therapy, a little catharsis to open the show.

Leonora Corrington, Title Unknown

The other works are less raw but still dark and unsettling. Works by Alina Szapocznikow, Rachel Kneebone and Berlinde de Bruyckere show body parts in a mix of comedy and uncanny. I love the creepy, desolate, two-moon landscape of Loie Hollowell’s Body of Water (in Yellow). Sarah Lucas and Mona Hatoum are at their finest funny-at-first-and-then-you-start-to-think. There’s a whole host of Leonora Carrington, whose work I love but until this show I had never seen in real life. I like the immense detail of her work and its illustrative quality. I’m never sure if they’re dream-like or nightmarish.

 

Body of Water (in Yellow), Loie Hollowell

 

Identity underlies many of the works. Elizabeth Jaeger’s works Wrapper, Sleeve, and Cloak show ceramic women’s bodies as costumes draped over stands, waiting to be worn. Gillian Wearing’s portrait of Lily Cole wearing a cracked mask of her own face is unsettling, a beautiful but broken china doll staring at the viewer.

Walking round the gallery I felt an affinity with many of the works on show. I can understand so many of them. It’s empowering to be in a space full of women, and White Cube managed to avoid what so many people and institutions do (‘look at all these ladies doing art, haven’t they done well?’), but instead created a show where women artists demonstrate all their multiplicity and intellectual strength.

Lily Cole, Gillian Wearing

 

 

I like the wetness of Maisie Cousins’ work. The sexuality is so obvious it screams at you. A wet finger enters the petals of a flower, with red flecks like menstrual blood. Viscous, clear liquid dripping off orchids. Turgid flower stems. Cousins doesn’t fuck about.

It’s also gross, with slugs crawling over boobs and ants over fruit, and a video of a millipede squirming around over roses. Bodily-fluid-esque slime mixes with snail slime. The natural grossness that exists in sex is addressed in Cousins’ photographs.

The erect stems of flowers drip with sex much more than the nudes do. A hypersexualised flower next to a natural bum is refreshing – you can see hair where hair normally grows.

The show is pretty and femme. The flowers are pink and white, the walls are bubblegum, and the floor is gold mirror – a little sexy disco grotto. I could see up my own skirt in the reflection from the floor and I spent some time trying to make my own bum mimic the massive bum print on the wall (I had the gallery to myself). I don’t know if that was what the gold mirror floor was there for but I enjoyed it.

Cousins’ work feels very cool. The show is like walking into an uber-femme zine. I am looking forward to seeing how her practice develops as trends change and I suspect she will be leading the charge.

CN/TW: Mention of rape

Picasso by now has been the subject of endless solo shows, you can’t really give him a retrospective – you have to find a theme in his work. This exhibition was a close reading of the Spanish artist’s work on bulls, bullfighting, and the myth of the Minotaur. The show purportedly examines the following Picasso quote: “If all the ways I have been along were marked on a map and joined up with a line, it might represent a Minotaur.”

Commercial galleries like Gagosian don’t tend to have interpretations on the walls explaining or discussing the works like the national institutions do, so in this case it is up to the press release and the viewer (hello) to connect Picasso’s life to the myth of the Minotaur through this selection of works. This quote isn’t sufficient to fully describe the themes of Picasso’s Minotaur work – the exhibition doesn’t reflect the sense of journeying that his words convey. I think the exhibition also needs to be read alongside Picasso’s famously complex (shit) attitude towards women: “For me,” he told his mistress in 1943, “there are only two kinds of women, goddesses and doormats.”

The bull and the Minotaur clearly represent male sexuality and virility, nicely demonstrated in Faune Priape, 1957, a little sculpture of a man/bull with a massive boner approximately the size of the figure’s torso (I wish I could pop a photo here because  it was high lols but they were very strict on the no photography rule). Unusually for any art exhibition there was a lot more male than female nudity, and by ‘male nudity’ I mean copious amounts of aggressively huge dicks and bull testicles.

fig. 1 Pablo Picasso

La femme torero, 1934

The heterosexual masculinity of Picasso’s work plays out in opposition to femininity. There are two female ‘types’ in this show that correspond with two ‘types’ of masculinity. Mostly, the man is the Minotaur, all macho violent strength, and the woman is at best object, at worst victim. There are reams of rapes, women with their heads thrown back and their eyes rolling. Even in the works that depict consensual sex, the woman is lying back, being done – the Minotaur is active and the woman is passive. Minotaure dans une barque sauvant une femme, 1937, could show a Minotaur saving a woman from drowning – he’s carrying a limp female form from the sea into the safety of a boat  – but this surely refers to the myth of Europa, ‘seduced’ (read: raped) by Zeus disguised as a bull. As much as the bull head in this work appears impassive and non-violent, Picasso has made sure to depict the figure’s balls at almost the centre of the work, so there is no avoiding the reference to sexuality.  My copy of Ovid (Raeburn’s translation if  anyone wants to check) describes Europa as a ‘frightened prize’ – this is a rape as much as Picasso’s more overtly violent Minotaur series. FYI Zeus’s bull became the constellation Taurus – the most enduring vision of a bull that we have in Europe is a by-product of a rape. La femme torero, 1934, is another example – the woman Matador is thrown backwards by the bull, penetrated by the bull’s horn (probably a penis metaphor as usual), and she is carried off on the bull’s back, just like Europa. Picasso’s violent bull exists in partnership with his view of a woman as ‘doormat’, as object.

Image result for deux faunes et une nymphe picasso 1938

Deux faunes et une nymphe, 1938

There’s a rare glimpse of woman as Goddess in Deux faunes et une nymphe, 1938. There’s no macho masculinity in the dancing faun, dancing or curtsying in front of a nymph who sits on a throne, wearing a hat that is like a crown. She holds an anchor and looks unimpressed. The second faun is non-threatening, sat quietly in the background with clasped hands. There is a noticeable lack of dick in this work, and therefore a lack of male sexuality. But then, a faun is not a Minotaur – he’s half goat, not half bull. Maybe faced with a Minotaur, with Picasso’s vision of masculinity, this imperial nymph would not remain so composed.

There are a couple of instances of masculine vulnerability in this show. A winged bull in le chaval aile, 1948, stands with his guts spilling out of a hole in his belly, surrounded by three enormous black vultures. The dying bull stands strong and upright, genitals enormous and prominent as usual. In barque de naiades et faune blesse, 1937, a faun slumps on a shore, arrow piercing his torso, with a boatful of women sailing past without assisting. There’s pain, and maybe fear in his face. Again, though, he isn’t a Minotaur. Femininity can only have power in these works when masculinity is lacking – nymphs can sail past a dying faun, but women must be subjected to the will of the Minotaur.

In minotaure aveugle guide par un fillette, 1934-5, a blind Minotaur is guided through the night by a little girl holding a dove. The Minotaur howls in pain at the starry sky, and three sailors watch from the sides of the work. There’s a Paula Rego’s Nursery Rhymes quality to this piece, with its strong shading and assorted cast of characters. It’s quite a theatrical work, the stars and sea look almost like a painted backdrop to the figures. This is the only work in the show that depicts a vulnerable Minotaur, and the girl is the only non Goddess/Doormat female.

For all that I’m not a fan of these views on masculinity and femininity, I loved this show. I love anything mythical and Picasso is generally a delight. The works are absolutely beautiful, my favourite being minotaure aveugle guide par un fillette for its nighttime theatricality. There were a couple of works that seemed a bit out of place (paintings with no Minotaurs or Matadors involved), but the show as a whole was beautiful. There are some examples of Picasso’s ceramics, and I think there’s a lightheartedness in these – wouldn’t it be jokes to eat your breakfast from a plate decorated with bull genitals? – which makes the exhibition a little less serious. It’s a nice warm up for Tate’s blockbuster Picasso show coming up in 2018. I’ll probably be going back.

I first saw this exhibition drunk and I loved it and had to go back. I imagine I’ll be going again.

Kwade’s installation is like an eery sci-fi museum. The room is dark, and the pillars in the space create shadows, turned into places to hide behind.

Around the space are placed three bronze sculptures on plinths. They’re somewhere between figurative and abstract – they could be objects from space, they could be melted bones. One looks like a figure in a shroud. They are still and they seem to be watching you. 

The exhibition backdrop is a screen showing an asymmetrical mass floating and turning on a background of TV static. I thought it was a comet, and it reminded me that analog TV static is an echo of the Big Bang (this is legit: https://www.nasa.gov/vision/universe/starsgalaxies/cobe_background.html). The whole room was very other-worldly.

The central installation is a mobile of mobile phones (I absolutely lapped this up). A motorised hanging installation of GPS tracked smartphones show images of the Milky Way. As they spin and rotate, the images change to show the part of the galaxy which the phone is currently facing. All the while a mechanised female voice reads excerpts from the book of Genesis. From where I stand, this is genius. 

The Copernicus-esque image used on the media for this exhibition doesn’t actually feature within the space, but it fits very well. The exhibition text asserts the importance of mapping and location within the universe. It’s also an interpretation of humankind’s constant endeavour to understand their metaphorical place in the universe. Kwade uses advanced modern technology to display highly scientific images all with a biblical soundscape. There are both religious and scientific ways to understand our place as humans, and Kwade’s work suggests that the two are not incompatible.