David Hockney, once again, with feeling

I’ve just been to see the David Hockney show at the Royal Academy, which is amazing. Some of the (more idiotic) reviwers are praising with faint damns, I think because he’s popular, therefore they’d better look austere and elite. Tuh. (Noise of contempt.)

An iPad drawing, 'The arrival of spring in Woldgate, 2 January', courtesy the artist/RA

I am slow to praise, and my friends tell me I carp too much. Yet my considered response yesterday was ‘The man is a fucking genius.’ The work on show at the Royal Academy is almost entirely work from the last few years, but in 2006 the National Portrait Gallery had a retrospective which was a revelation. My review from that, and from a concurrent gallery show, from the Times Literary Supplement, below:

David Hockney

A Year in Yorkshire: Annely Juda Fine Art (to 28 October)

Portraits: National Portrait Gallery (to 21 January 2007)

 There are three David Hockneys, I think, and only one of them matters. The first one, and the least important, although the most intrusive, is the public David Hockney, the 1960s owl-bespectacled mop-top turned 21st-century curmudgeon, the one who writes letters to the newspapers and fusses about what the modern world is coming to. He is amusing or irritating, depending on one’s own personality, but he is also easily pushed aside. The second David Hockney is more difficult to overlook. This is the David Hockney of reproductions, the Hockney of A Bigger Splash and Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy – not the paintings themselves, but of postcard and poster reproductions. This David Hockney is troublesome, because he stands in the way of the real David Hockney – and more worryingly, he stands in the way of a clear view of the real David Hockney’s work.

For the surprising fact is, David Hockney’s work does not reproduce well, does not give a good idea of the real thing. This is the case with many artists – Francis Bacon springs most readily to mind. But reproductions of Bacon’s work look just plain bad: unclear, muddy and fussy. Unless one is of the ‘all modern art is a scam’ school, the paintings look so bad in reproduction that it is always immediately clear that they must be poor facsimiles. Reproductions of Hockney’s works, however, look sensational. They are vibrant, clear, and full of Pop-y joie de vivre. They are slick and cheery, picking up and even intensifying Hockney’s great graphic strengths. Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970-71) is not just an iconic image of the 60s and 70s. It is also one of the Tate’s best-selling postcards, and it was number 5 in the BBC’s poll of ‘The Greatest Painting in Britain’ (as well as being the only 20th-century image to make the list). The image, almost certainly, is far more often seen in reproduction than it is in reality.

Without access to the actual artwork, therefore, one can easily lose sight of the fact that the reproduction is only a pale reflection of the reality. Even when one knows Mr and Mrs Clark well, and knows how reduced it becomes in reproduction – how the whites, from Clark’s cigarette, forward to the cat, back to the balcony railing, forward to the white table and lilies, back again to the white line on the wall, how these whites, that in the painting hold the composition in a tension of combatative planes, vanish and flatten completely in a photograph. Then there are the fluctuating proportions (a telephone nearly half the size of a lamp, and the same size Read more of this post

Selling our souls

The Ambassador Theatre Group has just announced a wonderful new innovation. Before a play begins in one of their theatres, Gordon’s gin ads will be projected onto the safety-curtains. Maybe I’m old and sad. I’m certainly grumpy. But really, does everything have to be an opportunity for advertising: do we really have to ‘monetize’ life? Isn’t there some way of living without people shrieking ‘Buy buy buy’ into our ears every moment of the day and night?

Libraries used to be a place where one could read, or borrow, books that took you into a different world; now they are told to sell services to survive. Tubes and buses took you from point A to point B, yes, with ads on the walls, but the ads didn’t actually sing and shout, and the public-transport system was not expected to make money, just get people around the cities. If you looked something up in the encyclopaedia, the publishers didn’t have a way of selling your searches to advertising companies. National museums hand out press packets that say to journalists, ‘Pretty please, mention that Crappy Merchandise is our sponsor, otherwise we’ll never be able to put on a show again.’

And now, when we go to see Hamlet, we’re going to be bombarded with messages to drink gin. God knows, it’s enough to drive one to drink.

Bryan Robertson: a hero for our times

I’m off to a preview of the new Rothko show at the Whitechapel Gallery in a few minutes, which marks the 50th anniversary of the first showing of that artist’s work in Britain, curated by the Gallery’s then-director, Bryan Robertson. I posted a somewhat bilious piece a few weeks ago about the use of the word ‘curate’ to mean ‘look after’, so I think that it’s probably only right I post now about ‘curate’ to mean ‘look after’ in the greatest sense – the way Bryan Robertson looked after artists – and art.

Robertson was mostly self-educated, without the university education that would have made him the right contacts (and the lack of which probably cost him the directorship of the Tate – that and his flamboyance, and his love of mischief, of which more below), yet by the age of twenty-four, in 1949, he mounted the first British museum exhibition of contemporary French art at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge. Then, at the age of 27, he beat out the ostensibly more qualified candidates to become the director of the Whitechapel, at the time a shabby gallery in a part of town that was not only unvisited, but unknown by the art world that clung to the West End.

And there, for nearly 20 years, he showed, as well as the great European modernists, Rothko, Philip Guston, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and some of the lasting names of British mid-century art: Hepworth, Richards, Clough.

I met him in the early 1980s, when he was preparing his great Dufy show at the Hayward (1983). This was a revelation – not only an artistic one. It was a revelation because I had thought I knew what I thought about Dufy, but through the care and love and sheer blazing intelligence that Robertson gave to the show, I realized that I knew nothing. It was a revelation, too, because it took away that adolescent sense of certainty and made me see that aged twenty (or thirty, or forty, or fifty), there is always space for rethinking. That was Robertson’s gift. And he taught me, too, that you can have fun while you do it. He would talk about Dufy, and then leave messages on my grandmother’s answering-machine, claiming to be the Scotland Yard vice squad (all of it, I assume): ‘We have been watching for days, and we’ve seen 37 young men going in to your flat, and all coming out exhausted. And we just want you to know that we think it’s disgusting.’ (She was amused and more than a tiny bit thrilled.)

He got pipped to the Tate directorship, it going to someone who more closely resembled what the trustees thought a civil servant should be like. But he was a hero. And hooray for the Whitechapel for remembering not just Rothko, but 50 years on, Robertson’s brilliance, and foresight, and courage.

Editathon-ing away, the Victorians rule the waves!

Well, that’s a Saturday spent usefully. No, I haven’t joined the Boy Scouts — although it’s a thought. Instead I spent the day at a seminar organized by the British Library in conjunction with Wikipedia. From the BL’s point of view, it was a way of promoting its special collections and areas of interest to a wider audience, and particularly to those who cannot travel to the library itself.

The group seemed to be mostly divided between computer-folk and Eng.Lit. people, with the odd sprinkling of historians (well, one, I think, me) and a classical music person, plus a table-ful of enthusiastic sci-fi-ers.  (Did you know it was a BL speciality? Well, now you do.) Plus Lauren Collins from the New Yorker, taking notes so as to write us all up, we assume as hopelessly comic characters.

We split up into groups to create pages highlighting different areas of the BL collection that we were interested in. The table I was on was Victorian, and we produced Wikipedia pages on Barry Ono, whose train-spotterishly vast collection of penny-dreadfuls is now owned by the BL; on Andrew Forrester, who wrote short-stories with one of the very first female detectives; on Ruth Traill, as far as I have determined, the first fictional female detective; and on a late Victorian novelist whose name I have shamefully forgotten.  I also added a bawdy 1830s song about the fire that destroyed the old Houses of Parliament to the Burning of Parliament page, just to lower the tone.

At lunchtime we broke off to find out what everyone else had been doing, and lo and behold, the Victorians had conquered the world — the sci-fi buffs had been working on Mary Shelley and the Brontë’s juvenilia; the poetry table on Victorian poets; and even those working on the BL table had focused on their 19th-century collections.

I’m sure there’s a lesson to be learned from this, although I’m damned if I know what it is. In the meantime, if you need a rude drinking song, check out Wikipedia’s Burning of Parliament page.

Counting women — Counting enough to be counted

Yesterday, International Women’s Day, I went to see the new small exhibition at the British Library. And while the census is not obviously about women, the question of counting women matters.

Col. William Thornton, who fought under the Duke of Cumberland in 1745, and was later MP for York, thundered that there was no ‘individual of the human species so presumptuous and abandoned as to make the proposal we have just heard’ — the horrifying and radical notion that the country’s population be counted. The very idea was, he said, ‘totally subversive of the last remains of English liberty.’

Uh-huh. Luckily for Thornton, he died before the idea became a reality (of apoplexy, I assume, if the above is any measure of his general level of calm). Even in 1801, the first census was merely a numbering: how many people lived at each address. It was not until 1841 that really nosey questions appeared: name, age (within a five-year-guesstimate) and how the residents were related to each other: head of family, wife, children, servants etc.

In 1911, however, the Suffragettes responded robustly to the coming census. If they didn’t count enough to be given the vote, they decided, they didn’t count enough to be counted. Many women refused to participate, pasting over their forms with flyers reading ‘No Votes for Women. No Census.’ Emily Davison, the Suffragette who died by throwing herself under the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1912, on census night 1911 hid in the chapel of the Houses of Parliament, so that her residence, on the official return, was of necessity ‘House of Commons’. Many others, not willing to go that far, spent the entire night as special events, so that they could legally not appear on the census.

The 2001 census counted 1 million people who acted as unpaid carers for more than fifty hours a week. We can make an educated guess how many of those were women. It brings into focus another statistic that year, that 10 per cent of women worked less than 30 hours a week. Of course, in bureacracy-speak, the latter means paid work, while the former is not called ‘work’ at all.

Perhaps for the next census, it is time to focus government minds on the idea of all women’s work being dignified as ‘work’? Or perhaps, like the suffragettes, we should simply get those 1 million carers to withdraw their labour, even for a couple of hours — 2 million woman-hours of work not done, because the government of men by men fail to connect the dots the census lays out so clearly.

New business opportunities, 19th-century style

Want to rent some housebreaking tools? Never thought of burglar-rental as a way of earning a living?

Mr Zachariah Philips of White Hart Yard, Drury Lane, ‘Lends out Pistols to Highwaymen & others by the Night at so much for their use’, while Mr Baker, of One Tun Court, the Strand, ‘Keeps a Drag [cart] & lets it out to Thieves to convey Stolen Property.’ Mr Garratt, of Moor Street, Soho Square, is more of an all rounder, keeping ‘Instruments for Housebreaking to let out.’

Most days historical research is like any other (really nice) job. Read more of this post

Room 1: How do I love thee…

There is, of course, much to be said for the blockbuster art show, with glamorous paintings being jetted in from across the world — the supermodels of the art-world, if you like — for us to ogle. But while blockbusters often fill in a big gap, or are  blindingly wonderful, they are all too often just exhausting, both physically and mentally. You really have to be ready for them.

More often, something small but perfectly formed is what I want. Something wonderful, certainly, but not something that needs hours and hours of my time and energy. And Room 1 at the National Gallery has, reliably and dependably, for years now been the answer.

Room 1 is just up from the main entrance under the National Gallery’s portico, a single small-ish room, cut off from the rest of the museum because it has no other entrance: it is a destination, not on the way to somewhere. And it is the destination, cut off from blockbuster-dom, for small, eminently civilized shows.

Sometimes, as with the very splendid ‘The Making of a Spanish Polychrome’, Room 1 links in with a bigger show in the gallery (in that case, with the profoundly moving ‘The Sacred Made Real’, an exhibition of Spanish religious sculpture from the 17th century).

Sometimes they just show a rarity — say, Titian’s ‘Triumph of Love’, which had not been seen in public for half a century — with a few other pieces that link to it, or amplify its meanings.

And now, about to open, is a show on the American Ashcan school of early 20th century artists, another gem. As an introduction to a school of art almost unknown in Europe, this would be a useful show no matter what; but in fact, at least half of the dozen canvases are incredibly beautiful. And because it’s six, not sixty, they can all be appreciated.

Not every show in Room 1 is always first rate, of course. But the idea of the room, and the idea of the shows, are right: something bite-sized; miniature but carefully curated shows that we can look at, reflect on, consider.

Room 1 is a space in which to think. And those are rare enough to treasure.

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