Doing eight exhibitions in a day and a half in London is madness, I admit, and not conducive to serious consideration of any of them. But there was no stand-out show that I had wanted to see in advance – lots that were interesting but nothing that felt ‘must see’ – so I went for quantity over quality (of appreciation, not work). Reflecting afterwards, these two women, Hannah Höch & Isabella Blow (my wife’s choice for a visit), had the strongest impact on me & I also couldn’t get the physical similarity out of my mind, either, hence the compiled image above. And the shortage of colour? The men – Ray-Jones & Parr at Media Space; Chris Shaw & Moriyama at Tate Britain; David Lynch, William Burroughs & Andy Warhol at the Photographers’ Gallery – almost without exception (those being a handful of Burroughs’ photos) these were black and white prints – hundreds of them!
Hannah Höch at the Whitechapel Gallery (here) was excellent. “Well, I can’t exactly see them needing to close Whitechapel High Street because of the stampedes to see this one” is the opening sentence of Alastair Smart’s Review on the Telegraph website! So attitudes to her work haven’t improved much since 1930s Germany, it seems! (Though, to be fair, his comment is more about the attitude of others than his own.) Actually, even though the High Street was indeed still open, there were a lot of people viewing the exhibition last Sunday – and rightly so.
It’s the first dedicated UK exhibition of her work – more than 35 years after her death and nearly a hundred years after the creation of some of the earliest works. Reading other reviews and the exhibition information, one gets the impression that there are what one might call some ‘standard’ views of her and her work – another classic being the comment from one of her fellow Berlin Dadaists that (more or less) she was good at providing beer and sandwiches (as the only female on the team, of course). I tried, in my rapid scan around this show, to focus on the work and, on the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed what I saw. There was some early stuff on show; then a wide selection from the Dada-influenced period in the 20s & 30s; and then a whole room dedicated to her Post Second World War work. It was the middle group that was strongest for me – deftly cut and assembled collages in subtle muted colours which, clothed in a velvet glove and presented with good humour, poked a forceful finger at pretty much everything around her – art in general; her fellow Dadaists; pompous politicians and business men; and, albeit with some care, the principles of the Nazis (from whom she eventually had to quietly hide away until the previously mentioned post-war period). I got a strong sense of the subversive anarchist, which appealed, and she still managed to organise the beer and sandwiches! Good for her! The more abstract post-war work just seemed more formal, more distant – also more thoughtful, perhaps, but lacking some of the energy and directness of the previous work. I’m delighted to have seen the show and may yet purchase what looked like an excellent catalogue – for further study and to help inform and inspire as I, potentially, do more collaging and montaging of my own.
Now, on to Somerset House and an exhibition which, I suppose, would not normally fall into the art category, but which made an impression in all sorts of ways – Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore. No photography was allowed, but somehow this image found its way onto my memory card.
Blow was, of course, highly influential in the fashion world in the eighties, nineties and noughties, until she took her own life in 2007. Her influence partly came through writing and editorial roles with Vogue, Tatler, Sunday Times etc, but she is probably best known as the champion of some of Britain’s most successful young designers at the start of their careers – Alexander McQueen, Philip Treacy, and Julian MacDonald being some of the best known. Now let me emphasise, the world of fashion has only a passing interest for me, and whatever else I might be about to say about the show, it certainly emphatically re-affirmed notions of superficiality, extreme commercialism, indulgence, fierce pressure and competition, one might even go so far as to say pointlessness! However, here was another woman with strong convictions, determined to pursue the ’causes’ she supported, and with a ruthless determination to make things happen. Here also was an opportunity to see, up-close and in-the-flesh, just what all the fuss is about in terms of the clothes. For example, Philip Treacy’s hats – I don’t suppose an endorsement from me is going to do much to further boost his reputation (!), but to see them in reality is to understand why so many women want wear them. Genius – a kind of irreverent attitude to the whole spatial and formal notion of what a hat might be!
Also worth a mention is the presentation of the exhibition itself – the use of the space; the steady build up from informative words and pictures on an intimate scale; through the placing of McQueen designs on museum-like pedestals; to the spectacle of the room above; industrial-style plastic hanging dividers and specially constructed staircase; then an insane large-screen presentation of one of McQueen’s Paris shows; then a soft, slow exit to Bryan Ferry’s voice! It works well – but it also left that feeling of insane pointlessness and waste! She took her own life; Alexander McQueen took his own life; the huge global commercial fashion circus rolls on, drawing in, chewing up and swallowing, sometimes spitting out, endless talent and creativity.
Then’ it’s just going to be, for now certainly, a passing mention for some other shows seen this week:
‘Making it Up: Photographic Fictions’ at the V&A
It was good to see originals from the likes of Hannah Starkey & Gregory Crewdson; but this type of mixed show, many artists all presented together in a single, relatively small room, doesn’t really inform or inspire.
Media Space (Science Museum) – Tony Ray-Jones & Martin Parr
A very big show, which we ‘consumed’ rather quickly, late Sunday afternoon, but I’m glad to have seen it. It’s in, broadly, three parts – Ray-Jones originals; Parr’s Hebden Bridge images, which were directly influenced by and closely followed the Ray-Jones work; then Parr’s selections from other Ray-Jones contact sheets (also on show), digitally printed for this show. A lot of the work is familiar, from books or previous shows I’ve seen, but it’s a very comprehensive and informative (and amusing) exhibition – all in black and white! The contact sheets would have been worthy of more detailed study. It looked, from a quick scan, as though Ray-Jones typically shot four or five images of a particular scene, and that one or two selections from each roll of film was about the norm.
Tate Britain – Chris Shaw (and Daido Moriyama)
We hadn’t planned to see this, but stumbled upon it in the Tate. The link is here. It covers three (black and white!) series from British photographer, Chris Shaw, with whom I was not familiar before. They are displayed alongside 3 or 4 Moriyama’s (black & white – naturally) – he having been a major influence on Shaw’s work. I enjoyed Shaw’s ”Weeds of Wallasey” – shot in the post-industrial wastelands of the Wirral, where he grew up. Look out for ‘The haywain by constable‘!
Photographers Gallery – Three Shows – Lynch, Burroughs & Warhol
Three (black & white!) shows were on at the Photographers’ Gallery – all by ‘non-photographers’,so to speak – David Lynch; William Burroughs; and Andy Warhol. It was free entry day on Monday and the place was heaving mid-afternoon; and I was suffering exhibition (black & white!) fatigue by this stage. However, I did take one gem of a notion away from these shows. Andy Warhol liked to stitch images together. We’re all familiar with his multi-exposure, colour screen print portraits, or bean cans, or whatever – but here we had photographic prints of, for example, Jerry Hall reclining on a sofa with a glass of champagne, nine of them all developed slightly differently, actually stitched together, with white thread, on a sewing machine by the look of it. That’s one to think about in doing collage work!
As I said at the start of this post, eight shows in one and a half days doesn’t really work. However, I’m particularly glad to have seen the Höch show and to have experienced something different with Isabella at Somerset House; now for a lie down.