The last time I got out at Finchley Road tube station I remember feeling decidedly under the weather, suffering from what I initially thought was the malignant revenge of an currified crustacean although, as it eventually turned out, the cause of my considerable discomfort wasn’t the previous evening’s prawn bhuna but the stuttering transit of a kidney stone en route to its eventual, excretory expulsion. Thankfully, I’m feeling better today and returned to my normal fine state of physical fitness, although I admit I’m left puffing by the steep climb up the Trinity Walk avenue that diverts me off the busy Finchley Road and into the more peaceful and pleasantly verdant surroundings of Maresfield Road. Frankly, I put the cause of the laboured breathing and perspiring brow down to psychosomatic symptoms arising from my previous illness and triggered by my subconscious becoming aware that I’m now heading towards the Freud Museum. Although, I suppose that if my conscious knew it was going to the Museum today then the subconscious should already have been informed…unless my id has decided to stop communicating with my ego in which case…or perhaps it’s better not to start delving into those kinds of murky waters as heaven only knows what horrors might emerge and I’m sure it’s far better to suppress all that kind of stuff and just stick to eating lamb biryanis and drinking lots of water.
Now, where was I? Oh yes, I remember I’m off to Sigmund’s old house, not for any analytical appointment – definitely don’t need any of those – but to see the latest artistic intervention made amongst the good doctor’s permanently preserved rooms, filled as they already are with all the original furniture, books, ephemera and small cultural artefacts and archaeological relics that he so assiduously collected. Those unfamiliar with the Museum will undoubtedly have an interesting time rummaging around the rooms here, admiring the furnishings and cluttered, dark, almost Victorian ambience of his interior décor, and peering beyond the protective partitioning to get a good look at the famous client couch, imagining what secrets might be revealed were they to repose in its relaxing embrace. Having already poked around the place on previous occasions, I’m just here to see the special little temporary exhibition set up by Mark Wallinger in order to mark the 30th anniversary of the Museum’s inauguration. And I have to say that it’s all a bit of a surprisingly disappointing, damp squib. In the past, other artists have filled the Museum with reasonably substantial selections of their sculptures, paintings and drawings, either relating directly to Freud and his theories or else, more obliquely, to their responses to his various therapeutic practices. Unfortunately, Wallinger, who is renowned for the sophistication and wit of his clever Conceptual Art conceits has only managed to come up with a couple of pretty thin ideas this time. Maybe he was simply overwhelmed and humbled into the artistic equivalent of a writer’s block on consideration of the cornucopia of possible potential puns and paradoxes, gags and games, jokes and jeux d’esprit that could be attached to Freud and the massively influential intellectual framework that he created and then worked within. At any rate, all there is to actually see here is one painting of a black rectangle and one metal column sited in the garden, both of which, I think, are meant to be physical representations of the letter ‘I’. Presumably the point of the column is that it sort of looks like the perpendicular pronoun from back, front and all the way round, although I’m not sure if that is particularly interesting, inspiring or revelatory. As for the final fizzle of artistic ingenuity, that comes from the artist having organised the installation of a massive mirror in the ceiling of Freud’s study, thus providing the punch line to the exhibition’s title, Self Reflection. Geddit? It’s a joke that, I think, seriously backfires since expending such an obviously large amount of time, money and effort to make such a very small pun, surely says more about the size of the Wallinger ego than anything else.
And so for something completely different as I get back to the tube and head down the Jubilee line and on to the Photographers’ Gallery which, more considerately means descending a small string of steps near Oxford Circus to get to their smart, newish building in Ramillies Street. Made You Look, is a fairly odd little exhibition, a sort of exercise in urban anthropology examining the somewhat arcane area of specialist interest defined by its subtitle of Dandyism and Black Masculinity. The phrase might sound like the title of a doctoral thesis dreamt up by a desperately earnest, guilty white liberal postgrad trying to ingratiate himself with the tutors on a course in aspects of contemporary multicultural behaviour but, in fact, the curator is Ekow Eshun. No callow caucasian youth, this media celeb is a journalist, broadcaster and former artistic director of the ICA. Consequently, it’s all a bit surprising that the exhibition he’s managed to pull together does actually look like it’s composed of a selection of distinctly downbeat illustration from a dull but worthy academic paper. Ok, I’m sure that there are doubtless fascinating cultural insights to be gained from a close examination of the phenomenon of extrovert expressions of sartorial extravagance in specific ethnic communities, sufficient to fill the many densely packed pages of a meaningful manuscript…but when it comes to an exhibition, surely what the viewer is expecting is a parade of supercool dudes in outrageously flamboyant threads. There are a couple of examples of what might be called flashy dressers but for the most part the characters in the pictures are all remarkably restrained and while not exactly models for a Marks & Spencer’s catalogue, are not all that noticeably more exuberant.
If that show falls a little flat then the two-floor retrospective of work by the fashion photographer Terence Donovan is a much more entertaining and exhilarating display of celebrity and clobber in all its absolute fabulosity. At least, that’s how it strikes me, as I sort of remember just how exciting was the sudden was the switch from the grey gloom and repressive austerity of the 1950s to the colourful glamour and all round gorgeousness of the swinging ‘60s that photographers like Donovan, and his contemporaries David Bailey and Brian Duffy, to such delight in recording. Even all these years later, the work that Donovan produced, working on features or fashion shoots for some of the dozens of colour magazines that had suddenly sprung up during the period, still retains a tremendous vitality. The women all look slick and sexy and the men rugged and handsome which is probably exactly the kind of terrible example of gender stereotyping that would appal a younger, more sensitive and media-savvy generation trained to deconstruct and disentangle the shreds and strands of cultural constructs and body objectification. But for a grizzled old grump like myself everything here just looks so wonderfully exciting and fresh, whether it’s characters on the wall of smiling ‘60s celebs that runs from John Hurt to Henry Cooper; a tremendously multicoloured Jimi Hendrix (now, here’s a real, proper dandy); a pendant pairing of the ultimate beautiful couple Terry and Julie; or any number of pouting and preening models. Though forever associated with the ‘60s, as the exhibition here confirms, Donovan was still producing smart images of the younger generation of groovers like Jarvis Cocker and Jazzie B a couple of decades later, until his sad suicide just after he turned he turned sixty in 1996.
There’s one final, curiosity of a display in the basement gallery where Alma Haser presents Cosmic Surgery which proves to be a mixture of photography meets origami. Fairly conventional portraits are given a 3-D twist by having part of the facial features constructed from various bits of folded up paper. I guess you could call it multi-faceted but whether these primped up portraits do anything more to reveal hidden aspects of the sitter’s personality seems doubtful and it’s hard not to just see the tricksy technique as anything more than a rather contrived marketing gimmick. Then again, if you’re working in such a crowded and competitive field as photo-portraiture, you probably need an angle or two to get ahead and make your work stand out, which is something that Haser has unquestionably, and very literally, managed to do.