Saturday, 14 September 2019

Hamburg 5

Gentrification on Alsterglacis, near Dammtor

As you would expect, after slightly less than a week in Hamburg, I have returned as a complete authority on its dialect, history, architecture, and customs. Um, not. To be honest, I'm not sure I could even say that with any confidence about our own house (what is in that box on the landing?), let alone any larger geographical entity. However, having walked quite a few miles through its streets, I am now a bit of an expert on Hamburg's weather.

Like Mancunians, the inhabitants of Hamburg have an intimate relationship with precipitation. They are resigned to – indeed, celebrate – Schmuddelwetter, a persistent drizzle that periodically tunes up into full-on rain, and occasionally and mysteriously switches off to allow a muggy spell of sunshine. If you look at the geography, it's obvious that – like driving behind a heavy truck in rain – Hamburg is picking up the spray from Britain's wheels, plus whatever the North Sea happens to be stirring up. Or, in a Hamburg saying: "Wenn es in London regnet, spannen die Hamburger die Regenschirme auf" ("If it starts raining in London, people in Hamburg open their umbrellas"). People seem to think there's some kind of metaphor at work there about the closeness of links between Britain and Hamburg, but I seriously doubt it: this is about rain from the west, pure and simple [1].

As a consequence, a few hours in an air-conditioned museum or gallery were even more welcome than usual. And Hamburg, as it turns out, has two of the best art galleries I have ever visited, plus a pretty decent natural history museum.

There's not a lot of point in me describing in any great detail the Kunsthalle Hamburg, with its contemporary wing Galerie der Gegenwart. It is simply one of the best public art galleries I have ever visited. If art is important to you, then Hamburg is worth the trip for this experience alone; go and see for yourself. Its stellar content aside, I think what makes it exceptional is the quality of the displays and the "interpretation". I have never seen pictures so well lit. The diffused ceiling lighting means there is little or no reflection in the glass, and you can comfortably examine the texture and brushstrokes of a painting, or the ink and plate-tone of an engraving, in a way that would normally require much awkward neckwork and hand-shading. Look at this close shot of Paul Klee's Der Goldfisch:

Yes, that is behind glass. What a pleasure, to get nose-up to a favourite image like this, and also to be virtually alone in the room, surrounded by work of similar quality, but with each picture given plenty of space to breathe. Especially compared to the Klee exhibition at Tate Modern a few years ago, where you had to sharp-elbow your way to the front of the crowd bent in front of each ill-lit picture, to get just a few seconds of awkward squinting. Or what about these two Rembrandts (in a whole roomful of Rembrandt prints): one the original ink sketch, the other the worked etching, shown side by side:

As for the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, that has to be a contender for Best.Museum.Ever. I've already mentioned it (Hamburg 3) and, again, you need to see it for yourself. It's essentially what the V&A in London could be, with some thinning out of the displays and the application of a little North European taste. An example: where the V&A would fill a room with Japanese scrolls, to no great purpose other than to say "what a lot we've got!", the MKG settles for just a handful, beautifully displayed in a room that echoes the minimalist Japanese aesthetic it illustrates:

Some readers may recall my own experiments in this direction (Roll Up!). It was instructive to see the real thing, and be able to examine the way a hanging scroll is assembled from its multiple elements. It's what a "museum of arts and crafts" is all about, after all.

Now, the monetary value of gallery exhibits is not normally the first, or even the last thing to enter my mind – you could go crazy calculating the value of even a small room of Impressionist paintings – but when I entered a tiny room of Pictorialist photographs in MKG and saw this...

... I was all, like, WTF, LOL, OMG, and other initialised expressions of gobsmackifaction. For that is Edward Steichen's "Moonlight: The Pond", which set an auction record for a photograph in 2006 at $2.9m. I calmed down a bit when I realised it was "just" the photogravure version, extracted from Camera Work, but that's pretty scarce, too (the MKG claims to be one of only eight institutions, worldwide, to own a complete set), and is to my taste actually preferable to the slightly queasy false coloration of the original photograph.

It goes without saying that I made a bee-line (wasp-line?) for the Zoologisches Museum. Although not large, by big-city standards, it is yet another exemplar of how display and interpretation should be done. It hits just the right balance between accessibility and specialism, without at any point resorting to oversimplification or condescension (I'm still reeling from the London Natural History Museum's re-labelling of its invertebrate gallery as "Creepy Crawlies"). On the evidence of Berlin and Hamburg, it seems the Germans have a real talent for this aspect of curation, from which our own museums could learn a lot.

Big whale, little whale...

Llama chameleon...

By the way, in that room of Pictorialist photographs in MKG, there is a copy of Camera Work (No.1, 1903) on display opened in a vitrine, at a page where Steichen has written a little essay, "Ye Fakers", concerning the debate between "straight" and "manipulated" photography. It is composed in such an ironic manner, verging on sarcasm, that even I, an over-educated Brit, had difficulty extracting his real point but, essentially, he is making the argument that the whole process of photography is manipulation (or, to the critics of the Pictorial style, "fakery") from beginning to end; there's nothing "straight" about it. In Steichen's words, "In fact, every photograph is a fake from start to finish, a purely impersonal, unmanipulated photograph being practically impossible. When all is said, it still remains entirely a matter of degree and ability." Sound familiar? It's a point that is still being made, every ten minutes or so, somewhere out there on the Web.

And, talking of tiresome, consider these prophetic words from the same essay (written, remember, in 1903):
Some day there may be invented a machine that needs but to be wound up and sent roaming o'er hill and dale, through fields and meadows, by babbling brooks and shady woods – in short, a machine that will discriminatingly select its subject and by means of a skilful arrangement of springs and screws, compose its motif, expose the plate, develop, print, and even mount and frame the result of its excursion, so that there will remain nothing for us to do but send it to the Royal Photographic Society's exhibition and gratefully to receive the "Royal Medal."
We're not quite there yet, but some clever idiot, somewhere, is doubtless working on it. Robotic factories, driverless cars, artistless art... Who needs jobs? And who needs messy, fallible people, anyway?

Whoah, more people... Who says the Germans are dying out?

View from the Kennedy-Brücke into the Binnenalster

1. As well as German and English, I studied Geography at A-Level. One of our teachers, Les Ransley, was a dab hand at blackboard art. Quite often, we'd come into the classroom and find him preparing an elaborate graphic illustrating some geographic or climatological concept. A favourite was a large chalked "W" out in the Atlantic, alongside which were the smaller, partial words "arm", "et", "esterlies", enclosed in a fat arrow pointed at the British Isles. Hence, rain...

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Hamburg 4

View of the Elbe from the Altonaer Balkon

Stuhlmannbrunnen, Altona

It's not much of a boast to say that I speak better German than most of the British population. After all, most of the British population don't speak any German. Or, increasingly, any foreign language at all; the requirement for state schools to teach one foreign language to GCSE level was removed some years ago, with the inevitable consequences. German was never widely taught to start with, and it is estimated that teaching has declined by 64% since 2000.

However, it is true that my German is quite good, having studied the language to A-level, and handled German books most of my working life. That "quite good" is not false modesty: until relatively recently I had not visited a German-speaking country for decades, so lack the sort of everyday fluency that can only be acquired by, say, trying to find a universal plug for your hotel bathroom sink in a department store. I'm sure I must sound like a memory-impaired dotard who has been locked in a library for 30 years (not an unfair description, now I think of it): not so much Kaspar Hauser as Kaspar Bibliothekar. Nonetheless, I am able to say, with a surprising degree of conviction, "I am in need of one of those whatsits that makes the water remain in the sink, but of uncertain dimensions, please, Miss". My accent, I'm told, is quite posh, which must be doubly unsettling.

I was lucky enough to be taught by a brilliant man, one Dr. Arthur Splett, who had studied at Downing College, Cambridge in the days when F.R. Leavis held sway there. Known to all pupils as "Arfur" or "Doc", and for some reason widely (yet falsely) assumed to be gay, he was a fine example of a breed of teachers that may have died out with the state grammar schools: an engaged scholar of his subject, a profoundly cultivated man, uncompromising in his standards, yet caring deeply about the education of unlettered New Town oiks like me. I wouldn't say I was his star pupil – that honour went to another Mike, the extraordinary M.A. Rogers, son of a local vicar [1] – but I like to think I made an impression. I know he was disappointed when I chose to study English at Oxford, and not German at Cambridge.


Durchschnitt, Rotherbaum

Despite this excellent preparation, I always seem to be ending up in parts of the German-speaking world where the local accent or dialect is verging on the impenetrable. Most recently in Austria, Berlin, and now Hamburg. I mean, it's quite a stretch from the conventional Hochdeutsch "guten Morgen!" to the Hamburg Plattdeutsch equivalent, "Moin Moin!" I suppose it's the equivalent of an English-speaking German ending up in Newcastle or Glasgow, with the rather significant difference that the locals there won't immediately and cheerfully switch into fluent German in response to your first blank and baffled look. It's no wonder Brits and Americans feel no pressure to learn foreign languages: it can sometimes seem as if English is the universal substratum of all languages, a rich seam of common understanding into which all foreigners can delve, if only they have the sense and good manners to take the trouble. A foreigner who insists on speaking in Foreign is therefore – by definition, to this way of thinking – simply a rude, ignorant bastard. After all, what language is the Bible written in?

As a linguistically-curious person I'm in the habit, when abroad, of always carrying a small dictionary with me. There's always some new word, or some important ambiguity to resolve, especially in the sort of dense officialese employed on crucial things like railway timetables or, most crucially of all, restaurant menus. Not that most small dictionaries are much help with the latter. One particularly delicious meal I had was a Hamburger Pannfisch ("Hamburg-style fish-fry") which included Rotbarsch ("red rough"), Seelachs ("sea salmon"), and Meerzunge ("sea tongue") [2]. None of which were in the dictionary but, hey, in for a fishy pfennig... I also enjoyed myself in the Zoologisches Museum, figuring out the German names for various creatures: I was particularly taken by Siebenschläfer ("seven sleeper" a.k.a. the Dormouse) and Saatkrähe ("seed crow" i.e. the Rook) [3].

But, as it happens, my main linguistic takeaway from my brief stay in Hamburg was the word Kiez or Kietz, which seemed to be cropping up everywhere, but which also didn't figure in my dictionary. There were posters for things like Klassik in deinem Kiez ("classical music in your Kiez"), a radio station called Kiez 1, and even a kebab joint called Kiez-Döner. I began to suspect it was some new, all-purpose word for "good". When I eventually looked it up on the Web, however, it turned out to be a northern German word meaning something like "neighbourhood" or, if one wanted a British slang equivalent, "patch" or "manor". But THE neighbourhood, from a Hamburg perspective, is always the red-light and night-life district centred around the Reeperbahn. Alles klar!

Reeperbahn hoarding

View of the "Warehouse District" and Elbphilharmonie concert hall

1. To my surprise, Mike Rogers turned out to be a lecturer in German at Southampton University when I arrived at the library there in 1984.
2. These turned out to be Red Perch, Pollock, and Sole... All very tasty.
3. An observation: bird-life seems awfully scarce in Hamburg. Apart from the odd pigeon or crow, and a single Jay, I saw hardly any birds, even in the park-like areas. Certainly there were none of the urban flocks of sparrows or starlings you'd expect in Britain. OTOH, I was delighted to see Red Squirrels in the tree outside my hotel window. I don't think there's a connection...

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Hamburg 3

A spectre haunts Germany...

Let's get this one out of the way, before moving on to more cheerful stuff. One of the many things I admire about Germany and the majority of the German people is the thorough and responsible way they have addressed the terrible burden of the Nazi past. Unlike, say, Britain's relationship with slavery or the imperial past, most Germans have accepted responsibility for crimes they themselves did not commit, but which, it can be argued, were committed in their name. British politicians cannot even bring themselves to apologise for the Amritsar Massacre of 1919. One very visible expression of this German desire for atonement is the project to insert so-called Stolpersteine ("stumbling blocks") into the pavement outside the former houses or apartments of those – mainly but not exclusively Jews – who were forcibly deported to extermination camps.

They're uniform in size with a typical German cobblestone, and simply and unsentimentally record the known facts. For example, from one of the Stolpersteine above:
Hier wohnte
Lea Kleve
geb. Bachrach
Jg. 1878
Flucht 1936 Holland
Interniert Westerbork
Deportiert 1942
Ermordert 10.9.1942
(Here lived Lea Kleve, née Bachrach, 1878; fled to Holland 1936; interned at Westerbork; deported to Auschwitz 1942; murdered 10/9/1942).

Having noticed some of these brass pavement plaques in Berlin streets last year, I had assumed this subtle memorialisation of individual Holocaust victims was a civic or governmental project. However, it turns out to be the initiative of an artist, Gunter Demnig. To call his work an "art project" may seem to trivialise it, but essentially that's what it is. It's well worth reading about Demnig's aims and methods at the link. Apparently, in 2018 the 70,000th Stolperstein was laid in Frankfurt: that's a lot, but there's still an awfully long way to go.

Talking of art, another Nazi-related problem that Germans have inherited and tackled with admirable diligence is the theft of art and antiques from Jewish families, and their subsequent deposition in various public and private collections. In the short time I had in Hamburg I managed to visit several museums and galleries, and perhaps the most impressive of these was the equivalent of London's Victoria & Albert Museum, the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, or MKG. Being a museum of art and design, MKG keeps in its collections precisely the sort of items that would have been looted from prosperous Jewish homes. Furniture, silverware, ceramics, paintings... It is a magnificent assemblage of objects, beautifully displayed and interpreted, but there is always the nagging feeling: where did all this stuff come from? Crucially, however, the museum has taken a proactive attitude towards establishing provenance and, where possible, restitution [1]. Indeed, one of the rooms is dedicated to showing the sort of research that is carried out in this regard. Where provenance looks dodgy, but the original owner has not been identified, a red Raubkunst? ("looted art?") flash is added to the label. Personally, I tend to think that all such fancy stuff is better held in public museums, anyway, but I suppose I might feel differently if the Rembrandt had belonged to my own murdered grandparents.

"Looted art? Research into the provenance of the MKG collections"

Flashed label on a cabinet of silver medallions
Typical provenance:
1892 Paris, Workshop of Oscar Roty
until 1939 in unknown Jewish ownership
1939 Finanzbehörde Hamburg (the city tax authority)
1960 via the "silver allocation" to MKG

Of course, one mustn't pretend that all Germans are of good conscience, or that Nazi-style attitudes and politics have been hermetically sealed in the past. Far from it. Sadly, fascism is not a virus that can be eliminated, like smallpox, by an assiduous programme of antifa vaccination. The far right is active here in Britain, and across most of Europe, after all; there will always be work to do to ensure that the monster does not re-awaken or, if it does, to put it back to sleep. But who is better placed or more motivated than our good friends in Germany to do that work?

Anti-AfD graffiti in Altona

1.  What do you mean, what about the Elgin Marbles? Listen, we've got a till receipt for those! Wait, it's here, I'm sure, somewhere...

Monday, 9 September 2019

Hamburg 2

Expressionist electro-punk clubbers
(Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe)

Let's face it, say "Hamburg" to most people – most Britons, at least – and two things come to mind: the Beatles and "nightlife". The two are not unconnected, of course. Hamburg has been a party city for a very long time, with a bottomless appetite for generation after generation of entertainers of various stripes and degrees of sleaziness. My guidebook tells me that "Hamburg is renowned for its electro-punk sound, which started in the 1980s and has evolved and morphed endlessly". Well, I'll have to take their word for that. In my 65-year-old world, loud noise is no longer welcome (sadly, a liking for it 40 years ago has meant that my ears now generate their own permanent ambient-techno soundtrack), and my bedtime is well before the best clubs even open their doors.

But, out of a sense of duty, I did take an afternoon stroll down the Reeperbahn, noted the absurd "cookie cutter" Beatles statues in Beatles-Platz, and watched the bars and lap-dancing clubs on Grosse Freiheit sweeping out and restocking for the night's action. And I can report that Hamburg's notorious hot-spot looks like every other big city hot-spot when seen by daylight, and stone cold sober. That is, about as alluring as a puddle of vomit on the pavement. While I concede that timing and context is everything, I find it hard to imagine that it would look much better in an advanced state of intoxication at 2 a.m., either. But then my generation was fortunate enough to escape the "clubbing" phenomenon, except insofar as it it kept us awake until 3 a.m., waiting for our daughters to return home safely.

Things looked more interesting just a block or two in behind, in the area known as Sankt Pauli. Most cities these days have at least one postcode like this, where sleaze and criminality shade into subculture and youthful experimentation, and where various semi-outlaw tribes can co-exist uneasily, united mainly by a common dislike for respectability and its enforcers, the police. Given more time, I'd have checked it out more thoroughly, but I suspect you'd need a native guide to show you around. Curiously, St. Pauli features heavily in the Hamburg souvenir trade: even at the airport you can buy a black, skull-and-crossbones "St. Pauli" t-shirt. Why? Because of the football team. It's a pretty cool t-shirt, but I'm sure most souvenir hunters would be completely unaware of its significance, and in particular the anti-racist, anti-right stance of the team's supporters.

St. Pauli: a better class of graffiti

Sunday, 8 September 2019


Grindelallee graffiti 

I've spent most of the past week in Hamburg, Germany. My partner was involved in an academic conference there so I tagged along, as is increasingly becoming my MO, these days. Much as I hate travelling, I love being abroad, free to explore and photograph in an unfamiliar city. Although, as another North Sea / Baltic port on a river estuary, Hamburg did seem oddly familiar after similar recent excursions to Amsterdam and St. Petersburg. Inevitably, it also has certain similarities with Southampton, too.

Over the next few days I'll publish some little galleries of my photographs, together with whatever commentary seems appropriate. If any of my German readers are familiar with this fine city, feel free to tell me what I'm getting wrong!

Hamburg waterfront

Sunday, 1 September 2019

Revolution No. 9

Staircase at Tyntesfield

Name-dropping is one of the more tedious habits in the humanities, especially at the fuzzier end of the spectrum, where artists, curators, and writers about art congregate. Indeed, it can sometimes seem that name-dropping is the name of the game. When I was young and impressionable I abandoned a promising academic career, in part because I thought that anyone who repeatedly cited the likes of Plato, Descartes, Wittgenstein, or Derrida must necessarily also have read those authorities. Preferably in the original language. I had not, and didn't much want to, so folded my hand before the stakes got too high. I know better now, but don't regret my decision. The bare-faced fraudulence of much "scholarship" is breathtaking.

Understandably, this fake-it-to-make-it tendency applies ten-fold to actual practitioners. This may be rank prejudice on my part, but it stands to reason that, at the fluffiest extreme of that fuzzy end of the spectrum, the sort of person attracted to mucking about with paint is not likely to have spent much of their time reading, say, Foucault or Deleuze, much less have arrived at a considered view of their place in the traditions of philosophical thought. I'd go further, and suggest they are unlikely to be capable of doing so; very few of us are. Life is too interesting, and making art too much fun, to spend long evenings puzzling over difficult books which engage with dry, twisty issues you hadn't even realised were issues. It's unrealistic, I think, to expect practising artists to have engaged with heavyweight, brain-taxing, aesthetic, social, and philosophical problems, much less to imagine they are in any position to offer useful contributions to the debate, even if that is so often the pitch of much contemporary art-speak. Enough, surely, to wear the Foucauldian black leather and turtleneck, and maybe flirt a little with S&M, at least until the next new intellectual fashion sensation comes along.

Fraudulent or not, it has to be acknowledged that the humanities industry is nothing if not industrious, not to say fashion-forward, so new names-to-know are getting churned up all the time. A cynic might say that merely keeping up with the latest fashionable look is what much "scholarship" has become. Foucault? Deleuze? Really? Are you seriously going to be wearing that this evening? In my former trade as an academic librarian, obviously, this kind of superficial familiarity was not so much a con-trick as an essential professional skill: like knowing how to find a good plumber, rather than pretending to know how to fix a leaky pipe. So I have always liked to think that I know at least enough of – and enough about – the pantheon of unread-but-droppable names to navigate most literary and art talk and, if necessary, bluff my way with the best. After all, it is still my proud boast that I have never read a single Jane Austen novel, and of these Persuasion is my favourite. Consequently, my bluffer's ears pricked up when I read this recently:
This opening was not altogether unlike the dozens of staid institutional receptions I’ve attended in New York—there was a tasteful jazz quartet, an open bar, an impressive spread of canapes, and the guests were mostly rich people who all seemed to know each other—but at the entrance, I was offered a Cato-branded pocket Constitution along with the exhibition catalogue, and people namechecked Hayek and von Mises instead of Jacques Rancière.
Rachel Wetzler, Culture Worriers: the libertarian struggle to understand contemporary art (The Baffler, issue 46)
No, wait... Jacques Who?

Well, it seems I have not been paying attention. Just about everybody has been talking about Rancière, apparently, and for some time. If you care, his Wikipedia article is here, a moderately informative review of one of his books is here, and a lively idiot's guide (appropriately titled "Who the Fuck is Jacques Rancière?") is here. If you don't care, I don't blame you. What possible stake do most of us have in the incessant chatter of academics, aesthetes, or their hangers-on? But I was intrigued: is Jacques Rancière really a name to conjure with in such circles? So much so, that his is the obvious, telling name to drop in an article, in order to differentiate the "OK" woke'n'wealthy art-lover from the neoliberal "Not OK" sort?

I suppose it could simply be the writer engaging in a little sly one-upmanship. Such things are not unheard of in academic-critical circles. But I find it hard to believe that the sort of wealthy patrons, gallerists, and art collectors who are, as I imagine, the usual invitees at upscale gallery events would have the slightest clue about a character like Rancière, or where he fits into the three-dimensional chess game of French philosophy. Although I suppose a hot-cheeked moment of embarrassment over the canapés might lead some humiliated socialite to google "Who the Fuck is Rancière?" later that same evening. Except they'd probably be looking for "Ron Seer".

One takeaway from my own hasty googling is that Rancière seems to have taken ownership of that venerable anarchist credo that, left to their own devices, free from the interference of teachers and bossy experts, people will teach themselves what they need to know. I'm not sure whether the example of this process offered in the less-than-scholarly source cited above ("Who the Fuck is Jacques Rancière?") is the author's or Rancière's own, but I'm afraid I find it hard to accept, at least in the version on offer. I believe, as fervently as I believe anything, that intelligence is evenly spread through the world's population, and that bright kids will always find a way through oppression and injustice to improve the quality of their lives, by innovative criminality if necessary. But I'd want to see some solid evidence to back the claim that a group of kids in Ethiopia, left alone and unassisted with an unopened box of electronic tablets – unable to speak English and allegedly even unaware of the function of an "on/off" switch – ended up not just mastering the device but also hacking Android within 5 months. I'd like to believe it, I really would – just as I'd like to believe in a tablet device that works without a recharge for months on end – but it smells too much of the sort of Panglossian wishful thinking that leads NGOs and charities to crash about the world, unintentionally paving the road to Hell. And I say this as someone who did not cancel his standing-order tithe to Oxfam, following the revelations of the unsavoury activities of some of their field-workers in Haiti and elsewhere.

Quite why this sort of thinking has taken a hold in the rarefied field of art theory is a good question, and is one of those subjects that would require a book-length examination, not a mere paragraph in a blog post; it would certainly take more googling and more reading to resolve than I am prepared to do. Libri longi, vita brevis, and all that. But I suspect it must be connected with that strange, century-long urge of some artists to remove all traces of their own skill and agency from their work, an urge which is the democratically-inclined cousin of the equally strange, but rather more aristocratic urge to produce work that hardly anybody actually wants to hear, read, or look at.

These two related tendencies clearly originate in the artists' perennial desire to disrupt and refresh the exhausted or compromised artistic traditions and practices that went before, but both have relied rather too heavily on a series of theoretically-inclined guides who have led them down some strange paths indeed. Take serialism and atonality in music, for example. I know nothing about "serious" music, really, except that I am certain that if I never hear another piece by Stockhausen or Boulez I will be perfectly content. Which may, of course, mean that I am just a smug, narrow-minded, parochial philistine. That is, assuming the definition of an engaged, open-minded, metropolitan aesthete is someone who can stand more than two minutes of aggressively tuneless plinky-plonk, or can happily chuckle over the Sanskrit puns in Finnegans Wake. So be it: such people must exist, although I have yet to meet one; perhaps they cross the street when they see me coming. Or perhaps they are never to be encountered in the public street, and are those name-dropping patrons of art, insulated by wealth from any infectious contact with our trashy bourgeois complacency?

I very much doubt that, however. One of the most annoying things about the improbably rich, apart from simply being improbably rich, is their desire to corner the market in admirable but actually demographically-widespread attributes such as intelligence, education, and taste, exclusively rebranded for an upscale clientele as sophistication and savoir faire. It's a game long played by the aristocracy, and since taken up by their modern-day equivalents: a mask to wear over the ugliness of the essential injustice and exploitation that lies behind all disproportionate wealth. I'm sorry, but we're just naturally smarter and better than you! This charade is constantly reinforced by portrayals of the rich in popular culture. In TV shows and films, toffs and Trump-alikes are rarely portrayed as morally ugly, gold-plated twerps, semi-literate monsters of ego haunting characterless, hotel-standard accommodation. On the contrary, they are inevitably elegant, beautifully-dressed alumni of top universities, fluent in a dozen languages, connoisseurs of fine things, occupying tastefully-decorated pieds-à-terreMy God, is that a real Matisse? – or book- and antique-crammed mansions surrounded by park-sized lawns. Now, I have even less evidence for this assertion than the advocates of teacher-free education do for theirs, but I'd guess this assemblage of traits and tropes actually belongs to no-one: these are merely the signifiers of wealth in the popular mind, and are never its diagnostic symptoms in the real world.

No, what I'm pretty sure is the case is that, guided by gallerists and art advisors (this is an actual job), the rich buy the art they are advised to buy – whether they like it or understand it is irrelevant – just as I expect they wear what they are advised to wear, support the Good Causes they are advised to support, and delegate all financial investment to their trusted brokers. Personally, I admit I have a tough time differentiating the Good Rich from the Bad Rich; I'm no connoisseur of wealth. But maybe it's just a case of which advisors they choose? And perhaps it's those same advisors who hand out executive summaries of what names to drop this season, and why.

So, at the same time as you invoke the egalitarian, armchair-revolutionary anarchism of Rancière, you drop a few mill on a large smeary daub by Gerhard Richter (when you'd really rather have a Jack Vettriano), simply because you have been told that the Richter best denotes the intelligence, education, sophistication, etc., that you would like to be presumed to have. You being rich, and that. It must be quite something, though, to be in a position to carry off the material embodiment of name-dropping, by hanging some eye-stretchingly expensive piece of canvas on the living-room wall. Oh, sure, that's a Richter... Goes quite nicely with the upholstery, don't you think?

Besides, hold on to it for a few more years and then you can get Sotheby's to flog the bloody ugly thing for a fat profit. Bad rich person! Or maybe lend it to a museum, where arty proles can gaze admiringly on your discards, free of charge. Good rich person! Why, sir, you're practically a revolutionary yourself!

Baby, You're A Rich Man...

Sunday, 25 August 2019

Guardians and Ghosts

I've spent so much time in the past few months hunched over a hot computer, working on digital collages, prints, and books, that it has come as something of a relief in recent weeks to re-connect with the pleasures of simple, serendipitous photography, just wandering about with a camera slung over my shoulder, seeing what there is to see. Unfortunately, the weather – alternately too wet and too bright – has meant that the best wandering was to be had indoors. But this is precisely why museums, galleries, and the National Trust exist, as far as I'm concerned.

National Portrait Gallery

For my daughter's birthday we met up in London and, after a pleasant meal down in Brixton, visited the National Portrait Gallery to see the major Cindy Sherman retrospective there. Sherman is not really my taste in photography, but then it wasn't my treat, after all, and both the daughter and the Prof loved it. So, having given the exhibition the obligatory once-over, my son and I wandered off into the dark patriarchal backwoods of the rest of the gallery. It's a real treasure-house, if you like portraiture, although – having visited several times in the past couple of years – I do think they could refresh the displays more often from their vast collection held in store. Anyone know who the pensive bloke above is? I forgot to note down his name. But I love the way the camera has turned this negligible little niche into a Renaissance portrait painting.


I was intrigued (not to say slightly spooked) by the veiled Victorian figure above, one of many busts to be found in the Gothic clutter of Tyntesfield, a 19th-century monstrosity near Bristol now in the care of the National Trust, built by one William Gibbs from the profits of the South American guano trade. The Gibbs family had strong Hispanic connections, and many of the rooms have an unmistakably heavy Iberian overlay on top of the plush Victoriana. Despite their no-expense-spared opulence, most of the interiors are as a consequence rather oppressive, and it's not a place I can ever imagine wanting to live. The sheer skill involved in rendering this veiled woman in marble is extraordinary, though, and she makes a nice enough photo on that sunny windowsill. But it's obvious that what she really wants is to become an excellent ghostly Guardian. Patience, madam, patience.

Clevedon Court

In another part of the Somerset woods, this jolly fellow is part of an Elizabethan carved limestone doorway at Clevedon Court, another NT property near Bristol. I'm intrigued by his insouciantly folded arms, and whatever it is he is doing with the fingers of his right hand. Is that some sort of gang sign? The Wodwo Boyz, maybe. If you've ever watched The Draughtsman's Contract you can easily imagine him stepping down when no-one is looking, like one of those motionless living statues you see everywhere these days, and sneaking around the place in search of mischief.


Now, I really like this photograph. It actually needed some rather serious editing, to remove some distracting surroundings and some poor framing on my part, but is still essentially a truthful representation (yeah, yeah, that's what they all say). We were going down a dark, narrow corridor at Tyntesfield, when we spotted this pair of framed prints of the Avon Gorge. As it happens, we ourselves have a copy of the right-hand print in the Bristol flat, dated 1756, although in rather better condition than this and also lightly hand-coloured. So, simply for record purposes, I grabbed a shot of the pair. But, as so often happens when the brain concentrates on a strong "subject", it fails to see what else is present in the frame of vision; in this case the reflection of the elaborate window in the opposite wall. The ability to see and not to ignore such intrusions, and then either to incorporate or exclude them, is one of the traits that mark a competent photographer. Serendipitously, though, my lapse produced a photograph of greater interest than a mere record shot. I love the ghostly blue shimmer of that reflection in the imperfect, antique glass of the frame. So much so, I, um, edited it a little more...

That may be taking the idea of "reframing the shot" a little too literally for some, I imagine. I also rather like the offending window itself, a classic Victorian Gothic confection, and you can expect to see it reappearing here, from time to time, in one new guise or another.


Thursday, 22 August 2019

Look On This Picture, And On This

Just in case you were thinking I was exaggerating about the height and clutter in some rooms of the salon-style hang at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, here is some evidence. That BIG painting is, unmistakably, by Anselm Kiefer; but who knows who the smaller ones above it are by? I can't even read their catalogue numbers by enlarging the photo 1:1. Notice, too, the cordon sanitaire around the Kiefer; the surrounding pictures are basically acting as a frame. It seems disrespectful and not a little unfair, doesn't it?

And how about this other Big One (502 cm x 284 cm), which was sucking any remaining oxygen out of the same room. It's called "Hey Wayne on the Meath Estate", by David Hepher. It's a very detailed, quite impressive painting of a block of former council flats in south London, not unlike the block I grew up in myself, and is self-evidently based on a photograph. The sense of variety within uniformity is nicely done. It seems the first thing anyone does, on buying an ex-council property, is to replace the front door.

However, Hepher has then scrawled graffiti over it ("Hey Wayne", etc.), together with a small rendering of Constable's "Hay Wain" (geddit?) on an overlaid central panel of what is, I think, concrete. These extra, conceptual layers strike me as both superfluous and condescending, exaggerating as they do some superficial and clichéd signifiers of "urban working-class life", presumably as some kind of gesture of interest in and concern for the lives and souls of those within. Whatever: it may look like human warehousing, David Hepher, but it's really not so bad, living in a block of flats! Note that the painting is also priced at £90,000 (I make that over £6000 per square metre), and clearly far too big to fit anywhere other than a substantial gallery like this or, alternatively, on a wall in the residence of a very wealthy person indeed. Which would be weird, wouldn't it? Such are the contradictions of art, I suppose.

Talking of which, being in Bristol last week, I went to the Royal West of England Academy, where an interesting exhibition is currently on (Fire: Flashes to Ashes in British Art 1692-2019). It's one of those loosely themed miscellany shows, that depends entirely on the quality of what the curators have managed to pull together. In this case, it's quite a stellar assembly: William Blake, J.M.W. Turner, Joseph Wright of Derby, John Martin, Eric Ravilious, John Nash, Stanley Spencer, Graham Sutherland... A roll call of major British artists, and well worth seeing if you get a chance. But I was struck by the comparison between these two contemporary works:

Here are their respective gallery labels:
Cornelia Parker OBE RA
Red Hot Poker Drawings 5, 2 and 7
acid-free paper folded and burnt with a hot poker

Parker's crisp clean sheets of paper are folded in layers then brutally punctured by a red hot burning poker. The works suggest order and chaos, a constant reminder of the tools of their production. Parker's work often explores the notion of uncontrollability. Volatile process, such as fire and explosives are used to transform otherwise everyday objects and materials. Here, the expanses of white paper take on a perilous fragility as if the singed edges might relight at any moment.

Siân Bowen
Gaze: No. 14
laser cut and palladium on paper

The starting point for this series of drawings came about by coincidence. A friend's request for Bowen to burn a number of confidential letters, coincided with the artist buying a bundle of love letters at a flea market into which she burnt fingerprint size fragments. Bowen explores the relationship between damage and the creative impulse through these delicate drawings, which capture the fragile moment before the flame moves too far, eating away the paper's frayed edges forever.
Hmm. You've probably heard of Cornelia Parker (if only because I arm-wrestled her in the previous post) but may not have heard of Siân Bowen. But, making allowance for the pretentiousness of art-speak, you can see there are two very similar projects going on here, both involving fire and paper. But, what a contrast! For me, Parker's verges on the hilarious: look, I folded up some paper, poked a hole in it with a hot poker, then unfolded it! It doesn't so much "suggest order and chaos" as a miserably failed attempt at making a decorative paper chain. I love the fact that it's acid-free paper; well, you don't want to go too far exploring that "perilous fragility". Those interesting sculptural details and textures you can see in the paper, by the way, are merely reflections of the wall opposite in the glass of the frame. Bowen's work, by contrast, has an intriguing back-story, and – surely this is the important thing? – has resulted in an unusual and beautiful object, one that repays close and repeated viewing, and which would still be unusual and beautiful minus the back-story.

But, as both I and Michel de Montaigne like to say, what do I know?

The Original Reading and Writing Machine
John Latham, c.1960

Friday, 16 August 2019

Sour Grape Solution

Painting | River Avon mud on linen on wood, by Richard Long
(200 x 520 cm i.e. BIG)

We've been in Bristol for the past week, watching the torrential rain alternate with strong sunshine, and the tidal river Avon fill up and then drain away to muddy nothing twice a day from our fourth-floor vantage point over the Avon Gorge, but on Monday we caught the train to London to see an old friend and her son, who are visiting from the USA. We chose to meet up at the Royal Academy, on the last day of the annual Summer Exhibition.

It's a strangely hybrid event, the RA Summer Exhibition. Essentially, it is a combination of Royal Academicians' own choice of their own work and an open submission call, which has been shortlisted from thousands of online entries by a panel of Academicians, and then refined into a "hang" by particular artists given responsibility for one or more of the fourteen exhibition rooms in the Academy's august premises on Picadilly. I had a major RA success myself by getting a couple of prints into the 2017 show, but since then have failed to get beyond the shortlisted stage. Which is annoying, obviously, but doubly so when you visit and see what has made it to the hang.

A show of over 1500 works is difficult to absorb in a single visit, it goes without saying. Not least when trying at the same time to catch up with someone I have known for over 45 years, a member of my Elective Family, no less, who chose to make her life in America, for reasons I can't begin to remember now. But it's impossible to avoid the impression that, after 250 years, this is an exhibition formula that needs some serious reconsideration. It's stale, and does nobody's work any favours. (I know, I know: those grapes were probably sour, anyway...).

Now, I know a fair bit about art, compared to the average citizen, but not compared with the average RA. I wouldn't choose to arm-wrestle, metaphorically, with the likes of Grayson Perry or Cornelia Parker over what is or is not worthy of selection for the Summer Show. Although if it was a way to get my own stuff in I'd happily offer to actually arm-wrestle either of them: shape up and show me what you've got, Cornelia! But something is clearly wrong with a process that results in such an overwhelming sea of crap.

For a start, there's the salon-style hang: the pictures are too densely crammed together, from low down on the wall to high up: practically 20 feet above your head in some rooms. What possible point is there is in selecting some poor devil's modestly-sized painting or print, only to hang it next to an attention-grabbing, billboard-sized work by some titan of the art world or, worse, way up where no-one not in possession of binoculars can see it? Yes, it's traditional, but no, it doesn't work any more, not when so few of us produce work at salon scale. So, Solution 1:

Be far more selective, and hang fewer works in a more sympathetic eye-level display. Stop treating other people's work as mere decor, and take it as seriously as you do your own.

Then there's the general standard of competence. I get the impression that the Academy is troubled by two accusations: elitism and stuffiness. It's not just the Royal Academy, of course. Everywhere you look, standards of competence have been reduced, generally in the name of "inclusivity", "access", and "relatability". It's so patronising, though: as if the problems of education, racism, class, and gender-bias could be solved just by continually lowering the price of the ticket of entry. Or as if "talent" and "taste" were somehow oppressive attributes, deserving of "disruption", and had absolutely nothing to do with, say, your own election to the Royal Academy. The trouble is, guys, once you drop the severe judgement criteria you apply to your own work and that of your peers, all judgement goes out the window. So, Solution 2:

Stop selecting colourful, incompetent work because you think it makes you look fun and inclusive. By all means be fun and inclusive, but see Solution 1. And give drab a chance!

Now, a cynic might think that Academicians like to select obviously incompetent sunday-painter stuff because it makes them look good by contrast. But I was finding that quite often, when I looked up what seemed to me some egregious piece of rubbish in the List of Works (the hang is anonymous and numbered), it turned out to be the work of an Academician (they can't resist putting "RA" after the name). I mean, what is one to make of work like this?

Hmmm... A weaver bird (?!) and a goldfinch, two of a series of birds painted by Humphrey Ocean RA, available at just £2,700 each (framed, obvs). Admittedly, Mr. Ocean [1] used to be the bassist with Kilburn and the Highroads, but he was elected a Royal Academician in 2004, has been Royal Academy Professor of Perspective (a position once held by Turner) since 2012, and has exhibited at every major British gallery you care to name. I was not, am not, and have not achieved any of the above, needless to say, so what do I know? Well, apart from the suspicion that Humphrey is making an art out of taking the piss. I confess to having had my tastes calibrated in the mid-1970s, when Richard Long was young, Tom Phillips produced an album cover for King Crimson, and even cars were brown. But I was surprised how few people were stopping to absorb and admire Long's enormous, mesmerically rhythmic work of smeared River Avon mud in Gallery 2 (see above). Too drab, too tastefully restrained, too free of readable bien-pensant meaning?  Then, of course, there's the strange case of Rose Wylie OBE RA. Crikey... But, again, what do I know? I mean, clearly, few things are as tedious as those photo-realistic pencil portrait drawings you see all over the Web, or yet another sub-Bonnardian bohemian breakfast table in paint, but – pace Picasso – the remedy for witless skill-for-skill's-sake or oh-so-tasteful retro-cliché is surely not pretending to paint like a mentally-disturbed 6-year-old.  Solution 3:

Make Academicians submit anonymously, like everyone else. Then we'll see whether the ironists stand out from the genuinely incompetent, the truly disturbed, or the actual 6-year-olds.

But I think the real problem is the way those academicians tasked with organising each room decide on their theme after all the submissions are in. For example, this year one room, curated by the sisters Jane and Louise Wilson RA², "showcases work exploring light and time". So, OK, I'm not sure which room this was because, well, it could have been any of them, really, couldn't it? But I'm sure Jane and Louise had a really good look at the shortlisted works (my own distinguished contributions included) and picked out those that best met, kinda sorta, whatever it was they had in mind. Ditto all the other "curated" rooms. I wonder, though: is there a pecking order, so that the more junior RA curators only get to pick through the leftovers, hoping to find enough arguable matches for their putative themes? A certain amount of barrel-scraping must surely ensue, resulting in the rejection of much excellent work (my own distinguished contributions included) that doesn't happen to fit? It would explain a lot. Which brings me to Solution 4:

If you're going to theme rooms, then why not decide and declare the themes upfront, before the submissions come in? It can only improve the quality of the end result. You want "work exploring light and time"? We got work exploring light and time! And thank you for sparing us the not inconsiderable expense of submitting, framing, delivering, and then taking back home our works exploring various other themes we happened to find more interesting.

Proof of the solid sense of my proposed solutions came when, en route to a restorative cup of tea and a lengthy chat we stumbled into an oasis. At the top of some stairs we came upon a small room, containing just five works, some enormous and immersive panoramic colour photographs in the Düsseldorf mode of Andreas Gursky or Thomas Struth, each occupying a wall, and numbered 1574 to 1578. It was beautiful to see work of such obvious, stand-out quality so sympathetically displayed. One in particular – no. 1576, some extraordinary graffiti on a dark wall – had me completely hooked. When I looked it up it turned out to be by honorary RA and favourite film-maker Wim Wenders. In fact, all five photographs were by Wenders. Compared to the fairground chaos of the main rooms it was a haven of concentrated, contemplative calm, well worth the price of admission.

"Deep in the Railroad Tunnel #2, Wuppertal", by Wim Wenders
(183 x 453 cm i.e. BIG)

1. But born, apparently, Humphrey Anthony Erdeswick Butler-Bowdon. No comment.

Sunday, 11 August 2019


Apologies if all these recent reflexive examinations of my own "process", for want of a better word, are getting tedious, but I've been happily trapped in an intensive, recursive loop of making. Make pictures; make book; make more pictures; make another book; revise book; add more pictures; and so on. I may not sell much, or attract much attention from the "gatekeepers" out there, but it keeps me busy, and I'm determined to have a productively selfish decade or two before ... Well, before whatever comes next.

So, having played around for a bit with the panoramic crops that I used in the most recent "layflat" book Arboretum, I then thought, "Hmm, maybe those original square ones weren't so boring, after all". In fact, I realised that a dozen or so of them would make a nice little magazine-style publication. Unfortunately, Blurb's magazines can only be made using their newer BookWright software, which is a nuisance, as the original BookSmart software is still a much better set of tools for knocking out a book that looks like a book, rather than someone's first over-exuberant encounter with desktop publishing. However, I did get some useful BookWright experience both by preparing the Prestidigitation "sampler" in the "magazine" format, and also by making those recent layflat books (which also can only be made in BookWright). So, OK, Blurb, I get the message – you really, really want us to migrate to BookWright – and I have also finally come to see the real advantage of the magazine format: compared to everything else it's far cheaper, and yet gives pretty much the same print quality as their regular books.

Provided, that is, you can live with the choice of having any format you like, so long as it's a portrait-oriented, soft-covered, US letter-sized 11" x 8.5" publication. But, despite this restriction, a magazine still makes a lot of sense for small projects. After all, why expect anyone to pay £20 or more for the luxury of hard covers or a choice of papers (never mind a ridiculous £40 for a 20-page layflat book), when a perfectly decent "book" [1] of a small portfolio, of comparable quality to an exhibition catalogue, can be had for around £5?

So, here it is, at the low, low price of £8.59, which nonetheless yields a profit of £3.00, the same as I usually make on some £50 extravaganza (or would, if anyone ever bought one). I've given it the title Stand. Why? Well, it's one of those usefully ambivalent words, both a noun and a verb, with what felt to me like a number of relevant meanings [2]. If you check out the opening and closing quotations I've used in it you'll probably get the right sort of idea. So, go on, why not treat yourself? Sorry about the price of the postage, though: I have no control at all over that.
I think it's quite an attractive collection of just a dozen or so pictures, all variations on the same theme, using the same repeated set of elements. I'm pleased with how well the "magazine" format has worked out, too, and I'm fairly sure there'll be a few more similar publications to come. It's a really good way to try out provisional states and subsets of work that may or may not grow into a more fully-developed series. Even if it does mean working with BookWright. Maybe I should have called it Stand: issue No. 1 of an irregular periodical, August 2019?

1. It used to annoy the hell out of me, when my mother would refer to a magazine like Woman's Own or Reader's Digest as a "book". I know, I know... I was an appalling little snob. Still am, though, when it comes to printed matter: don't get me started on "coffee-table book" or "giclée"...
2. Irrelevant, but does anyone else who was at a British university in the 60s or 70s remember being sold a copy of Stand poetry magazine personally by Jon Silkin, the editor? He used to tour around flogging the latest issue, presumably from a box in the back of his car. Of course, there were rather fewer "universities" in those days...