It’s fairly easy to see the attraction of the big Bonnard blockbuster exhibition that’s currently packing crowds of art lovers into the main space at Tate Modern. A dozen rooms filled with bright, colourful, life-enhancing evocations of the idyllic French bourgeois good-life lifestyle enjoyed by the artist his wife and lovers during a season of endless summers and mellow fruitiness. But if wandering through that mythical world of golden syrupy delights starts to become perhaps just a little bit too unrelentingly sugary sweet a journey, then consider hopping on a boat and heading downstream to get to Tate Britain. For here is to be found the alternative.
So, welcome to hell on earth as carefully documented by the war photographer Don McCullin during a career that’s spanned the past sixty-plus years. And be prepared for a bumpy ride as this comprehensive retrospective exhibition follows his journey all the way from the old ruins of post-World War Berlin to the new ruins of the ancient monuments of Palmyra in Syria, trashed just a couple of years ago by the evil iconoclastic crazies of Isis.
Other stops along the McCullin itinerary of misery include Biafra, the Congo, Cambodia, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Beirut and Iraq – names forever associated with the chaos and carnage of warfare that seems to have run as a near continuous thread throughout recent human history since…well, I suppose you could say, since the end of the Second World War. All of which is a pretty grim reflection of the seemingly endless capacity of humanity for engaging in the most catastrophic and dreadful acts of destruction and desecration of peoples and properties, cities and societies.
Thankfully, for most people living in the West for the past seventy-odd years, the chaos and calamity of war has become just a horrorful abstracted concept which, I suppose, is one of the reasons why McCullin’s photographs prove to be so shocking and powerful. The point being that they force the viewer to confront head on the awful actual realities and terrible crushing consequences of mass conflict. A soldier presses his rifle against the head of a desperately cowering captive; a mother cradles her emaciated daughter; a family huddles together in front of the rubbled ruins of what was once their home – McCullin’s black and white testimonies are both appallingly awful and yet awfully compelling. Although, after a couple of rooms of looking into all this stygian gloom – for there is very little if, any, variation in the dark gray patina with which McCullin consistently coats his sequences of shots – I confess I started to get very war weary indeed. Not so much dulled by compassion fatigue for the plight of the poor subjects so neatly framed by McCullin’s piercing lens, but worn down by the unremitting sameness of all the desperately tragic narratives. After all, one bloodied warrior, scared civilian or blown up building gets to look very much the same as any other regardless of whichever particular benighted corner of the globe they are situated in. But it’s not just the subject matter that has a grim similarity, one of the other effects of suffering from a continual bombardment of McCullin’s depressing imagery is to start to recognize repetition in some of the photographer’s stylistic tropes. And it’s not just the ever-present penumbrous tones of gray that seem to colour – or, rather, drain the colour – from each and every scene that the McCullin has ever taken, it’s also his habit of highlighting dark-humoured incongruities. It’s a trait that seems to have started before McCullin went off to war but then got darker with the change in his circumstances so that twenty years after he spots a solitary sit-down protester holding up a placard and trying to ignore the phalanx of beat bobbies standing just on front of him, he can’t resist capturing a man in a suit casually walking off to work in Belfast and practically stepping over the prostrate form of the British soldier in full military gear, rifle at the ready as if about to shoot anything that moves.
As indicated before, when I saw the show most of the rooms were packed with a wrapt audience shuffling along in crocodile file gazing intently at each of the pictures one after the other. But, call me a wimp if you like, I very quickly gave up pressing my nose against the window into McCullin’s wicked world and carrying out a forensically detailed study of all his photographic evidence, and decided instead to stand back and settle for a more general overview. And I still think I probably just about got the main message that was being hammered home here: war is hell; we should pity the poor wretches that get caught up in it; and thank God that most of us have been fortunate enough to enjoy a life without ever having to experience its terrible ugly reality at first hand. But if these are the general, uncontroversial (one might even say facile) messages put out by the exhibition as a whole, this is to reconfigure the original very specific contextual circumstance that gave rise to the creation of all these pictures in the first place. And for me, at least, this brings into focus the whole problem of presenting McCullin or, for that matter, any other documentary photographer’s work, as an exhibition in an art gallery instead of leaving it where it truly belongs and where it has most effect, within the medium for which it was initially conceived. And this, of course, is as the visceral accompanying selection of shots designed to illustrate, bear witness, act as evidence and generally confirm the truthfulness of a news story in a paper or magazine supplement – most notably in McCullin’s case for the Observer and Sunday Times.
Having said that, I suppose I should also add that in the final room of the exhibition space is given over to take a quick look at some of McCullin’s other, dare one say, more deliberately artistic works that were taken far away from the world’s warzones. But if here was an opportunity for some light relief – in both senses of the word – well, perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s not one to which the photographer feels inclined to succumb. Consequently, both the landscapes and still life studies are as dark in tone as everything else in the show and it’s hard not to look at the bowls of apples and assume they’re full of maggots, or look over the windswept lakes and moors and wander if they might be hiding war graves or else are the suspected location of some other kind of murder crime scene.
Ok, so it seemed like a good idea at the time to follow a theme and review two photography shows in one blog but now I’m thinking that maybe it wasn’t such a neat plan after all. In fact, I think it probably would make better sense after having waded through the McCullin mire to speed back to see the Bonnard’s and hope that a sustained infusion of colourful inconsequentialities might help to clear the head of all the ghastly memories of that earlier depressing show. Instead of which, I stop off at the Hayward Gallery where the upper floor has been given over to a review of the early work of the American photographer Diane Arbus. And once again, just to get that bugbear off my chest and out the way, I have to say that again I think her work is probably better presented not on the walls of an art gallery but printed in the pages of a magazine or book, which then allows the viewer to pore more easily over the pictures or flick though the imagery and then repeat the experience at a more leisurely pace. After all, unlike paintings there’s no degradation in the mechanical reproduction of photographs, especially if they’re shot in black and white. Which, while I think of it, reminds me of another bugbear – the fact that most of the many millions of pounds spent on the recent Hayward renovation was directed towards allowing natural light to permeate the upper gallery and yet they’ve still not made use of this so-called improvement by showing any paintings or other works that might actually benefit from being seen in this space under such unmediated organic conditions.
Artificial or otherwise, frankly, I’m not sure that any change in the lighting effects would make much difference to the shadows cast by the Arbus oeuvre, most of which is probably pretty well known to anyone who has any interest in modern photography, in general, or the documentation of post War American society, in particular. So, the exhibitionists and oddities that seemed to have so fascinated Arbus – the strippers, wrestlers, dwarves, twins and transvestites- are once again paraded for the voyeuristic pleasure of the viewer. What is actually new about the display here at the Hayward, however, is that as well as the familiar main shots listed above, that formed the bulk of her first commercial portfolio, there are a whole bunch of earlier, less staged, less polished and altogether less accomplished series of works. The subjects of these snaps are similarly quirky and full of people who might generously be called Bohemian eccentrics but these have seemingly been taken in a much more disarmingly casual manner. In fact, they look to me very much like the test shots, trial sketches and experimental dry runs any artist might play around with prior to carefully constructing a final work for professional presentation. As such, it’s hard to believe that many, or even any, of these earlier items were ever deigned appropriate for exhibition by Arbus herself. So, while they retain some academic interest as being precursors to her better known works, they are otherwise of little artistic value…although her being such a very well regarded posthumous superstar, I suspect they are of considerable financial value.