Head down to Pimlico tube station today which, of course, means that I’m going to be visiting Tate Britain but this time en route I make a couple of interesting diversionary detours, initially prompted by a sign outside the small @ work gallery that boldly announces a Frida Kahlo jewellery exhibition. While I’m not actually seeking out any trinketing adornments to enhance my own battered body image, and would be wary of trying to second guess a selection to purchase on behalf of anyone else, I suppose like most people I’m susceptible to the beckoning allure and flickering appeal of carefully crafted concoctions of glistering metals and glittering gemstones. On top of which, there’s something so powerfully magnetic and curiously compelling about the nature of the Kahlo brand that I find myself inextricably drawn into the Alladin’s cave of this pretty little colourfully cluttered boutique.
I think it’s fair to say that Kahlo’s own artworks were a kind of crossover mix of sophisticated European Surrealistic tropes and the more naïve naturalism of South American folk art, and its clearly this spirit of quirky cranky radicalism that the Gallery has endeavoured to echo, not just in its choice of items to display but also with the really rather bizarre manner of their presentation. And so it is that all the earrings and necklaces, brooches and bangles, featuring either the face, features or associated imagery and iconography of the saintly Kahlo, are laid out on an inflatable mattress that has been placed on a sort of catafalque-cum-bed arrangement. Evidently this is being offered up as an homagic echo of the occasion when the artist herself attended a private view hoist into the gallery ensconced in her own favourite four-poster.
For real fans of the monobrowed Mexican monoped, there’s also a comprehensive show of her own private ornaments and ephemera currently running at the Victoria & Albert Museum which I’ve been advised is well worth visiting. Along with a collection of her skirts, coats and blouses are some rarely seen documentary photographs and films – special footage, as it was described to me – which sounds a wonderfully appropriate accompaniment to the highlight of the exhibition which is, apparently, a display of Frida’s very own custom built, leather-booted prosthetic leg.
There are certainly enough pretty little ornamental knick-knacks and doodads at @work to detain a whole charm of magpies and human birds of similar feather, and anyone looking for a special kind of treat or gift will surely find something here to take back to their nest. In the meantime I walk on the short distance to my next itinerary stop at the Chelsea Space where they’re showing another fascinating display of archival material under the wonderful title: Astro-poems and Vertical Group Exercises.
Now, aside from a bit of Betjeman, a few snatches of Ogden Nash and a handful of vulgar limericks, I’ve always struggled to gain sustenance or even make much sense of most of the canonical word sculpturing works emanating from the proper classical poets or their more oblique Modernist successors. Although, having said that, I’ve always liked the ideas behind the anarchic nonsense verse of Schwitters and the other Dadaists and its later swinging ‘60s variant that came to be known as concrete poetry (which I guess was meant to be brother to rock music and nephew to stone dancing).
Looking around here now at all the carefully curated photos and programmes, scribbled letters, typewritten texts and other collated scripts, there’s something still rather wonderful and inspiring about all this paper and ink and the sense of mad-cap earnestness and energy that led to its production. It certainly brings a nostalgic smile to my face and I can’t help feeling a little sorrowful for the post-millennial cyber cloud generation who will have no idea of all the hard copy fun that could be had when scratching a freshly inked nib across an expanse of virgin white velum or hammering away at the qwerty keys on an old Olivetti Lettera 35.
Happy days, but time now to exit the reverie and finally enter Tate Britain for the Aftermath exhibition, a thematic display designed to explore the impact that the First World War had on contemporary European art. Well, that’s what the exhibition booklet says but, once again, I can’t help thinking that here comes a show prompted not so much by the eager academic curiosity of the curatorial staff who are clamouring to examine or revisit a particular facet of artworld history, theory or analysis, but more by the desperate demands of the back office accountants urging the production of another shoe-string show composed of re-jigged items from the permanent collection plus a few free on-loan additions from other provincial public galleries.
Consequently, the eight rooms of the show are all quite interesting – there are undoubtedly a few familiar works that are top rank and a reasonable number of diverting second division curiosities – but, taken as a whole, the exhibition itself offers no great unexpected insights or surprising revelatory theories and neither is it sufficiently comprehensive to do proper justice to its heavyweight subject matter. Moving from room to room I found myself ticking off a whole succession of the kind of clichéd imagery one would expect to find in a Channel 5 dummy’s guide documentary. So, things start off with all the shredded trees, muddy pools, discarded tin hats and wretched barbed wire that define the typical desolated battlefield. Then come the memorials – the poignant sculptures of unnamed men in capes and breeches, the draped flags, the cenotaphs and parades. What next? Oh yes, seedy cabarets and jazz clubs, bull-necked cigar smoking capitalist war profiteers and the overpainted painted ladies whose chilly cynicism contrasts with the silent heroism of the disabled, disfigured ex-servicemen. Throw in a touch of despairing Dadaistic nonsense, the return to sense by way of a Neo-Classical revival and, finally, the optimistic designs presaging expectations of a newer better futuristic skyscraper world of tomorrow, and that’s about it.
As mentioned, within this somewhat parodic selection of WW1 tourist sights there are some moving scenes to be seen and some proper pieces of heartfelt art to be grasped at. Individual works by Epstein, Jagger, Dix, Burra, Kathe Kollwitz, George Grosz, Stanley Spencer and quite a few others are all very powerful but the exhibition as a whole just strikes me as being so much less than the sum of its parts and, overall, a rather unfortunate cheeseparing attempt to mark the hundredth anniversary of the end of the war that was meant to end all wars.
Fortunately, after that disappointing display there are three other small jewels that help reprieve the Tate’s reputation and make the current visit worthwhile. And, indeed, while the curators here seem to have a real struggle when it comes to trying to put on a full-size, would-be blockbuster thematic exhibitions, they are much more successful aiming their sights lower and organising simple introductory single-room displays, drawing attention to specific little niche topics of interest or else highlighting artists who have perhaps been unfairly overlooked or otherwise underrepresented. And it’s in this latter category that a compacted mini-retrospective shows how wonderful a draftsman and how masterly a painter was the artist Mark Gertler. While Merry-Go-Round, his famous anti-war satire, takes centre stage, the surrounding chronological survey shows him moving through a variety of different figurative styles that echo early Picasso, late Renoir and even a touch of Redon-style symbolism. There are some very attractive works here that hopefully might prompt some curatorial thought about putting on a fuller, more thorough examination of his output.
The next review – a look at the works of Angelica Kauffman (whose self-portrait is shown at the start of the blog) – is somewhat larger and, arguably, somewhat longer overdue. A contemporary of Reynolds and Gainsborough and a founder member of the Royal Academy, she was highly regarded in her own time but subsequently fell out of critical favour due to the institutional sexism that permeated the sexist institutions of the patriarchal artworld establishment and so forth. That, at least, is the conventional narrative wisdom for explaining her comparative relegation to the second division of artistical hierarchies. So, well done Tate for gathering together a healthy selection of her works in order to allow for a considered general judgment and possible re-evaluation of her true status. And the show here certainly confirms she had great technical facility and could compose a very pretty picture – the two Portraits of the May Family are splendid paintings and very confidently handled. But, at the risk of offending half the population, I’m not sure that there are sufficient real stunners in this particular selection to require her repositioning into the upper echelons of the premier league
Finally, space prevents me from saying much about Antony Gormley’s Model Room except that it comprises about twenty year’s worth of maquettes and sketches outlining the artist’s obsessive deconstruction and reconstruction of the human frame. Dozens of spindly grids of wire and chunky plaster rhomboid blocks frame and reframe abstracted versions of the bodily form and confirm the unflagging prodigious inventiveness and continuing creative experimentation of one of the country’s leading artists.