Head down to Vauxhall tube station and then take the short walk round to Bonnington Square where I manage to meet for a catch-up chat with my old old friend, the great artist, raconteur, bon viveur and wit Rita Keegan. It was over thirty years ago when we both worked together helping to run the Brixton Art Gallery and, oh, what fun we had back then but tales from those happy anarchistic days will have to wait for another time. And so, instead of looking backwards in happy nostalgic reverie, the current blog will, as always, stride confidently out into the future which, in this case, starts with a brisk walk across Vauxhall Bridge. I’ve no particular plan for today’s excursion but, being in such close proximity to Tate Britain it would almost be a discourtesy not to just call in, take a look around and see what’s new to look at.
Before getting into the galleries of that great institution, however, there are a couple of other visual distractions en route which warrant a bit of consideration and comment, the first of these appearing as a view from the Bridge. For, as the keen-eyed prospector will note, that gleaming lump of bronze situated on the far embankment is not just some pile of detrital scrap or casually discarded flotsam that’s accidentally washed up ashore, but one of those great hulking public sculptures by Henry Moore that are dotted all around the capital. By a bit of careful positioning it’s possible to frame the faraway work between the trees on either side of it and then make it stand out against the contrasting white backdrop of the houses sited behind it. And this is probably the best view of the piece it’s possible to achieve – except that it’s really too far away to get any proper sense of its imperial scale and majestic proportion. Unfortunately, by the time the viewer has crossed the river, sidled up alongside the work and can finally get a better focus on what looks to be the roundly weathered pair of interlocking vertebrae from some giant metallic brontosaurus, well, it’s hard to find a really satisfactory standpoint to view the beast. Having circled it a couple of times I couldn’t find any particular sweet spot where the suggestive forms over which Moore had so obviously laboured ever really managed to satisfactorily resonate with its built up surroundings, whether they were the nearby Modernist offices, the Post-Modernistic ones across the river, the Georgian houses over the road or the timeless Thames that flows so closely behind it.
Never mind, it still looks pretty good and anyway there’s another Moore just round the corner in the forecourt of one of the University of the Arts’ older admin buildings. And today I’m in luck as someone has left open the usually locked gates which means that instead of having to view the piece by gazing through the somewhat tatty and distressed cast iron railings, on this rare occasion, it’s possible to get round this awkward blockage and view the sculpture in unhindered close up. This time the much more intimate setting, complete with a background curtain of clinging ivy foliage that neatly complements the darkly patinated bronze, seems entirely more appropriate. It definitely helps one appreciate the formalistic forms of this two-part abstracted recliner which, while perhaps not the absolute best example of this clever configuration of body parts that was such an appealing and important part of Moore‘s artistic repertoire is, nevertheless, still one of the better works of outdoor sculpture on view in the capital.
Having started off following this al fresco sculptural thread, I suppose I should offer a brief commentary on the two large shiny complicated black bronze works that are stationed outside the main entrance to Tate Britain, albeit that they’re both slightly obscured by being situated at perpendicular angles to the full frontal facade. But today, sadly, both these heroic works from an earlier more classical age are blocked off from the enquiring visitor by signs deterring the curious from gaining the requisite proximity to fully discern what fascinating scenes of mythological action are taking place. Suffice to say that I think dragons are being slain, monsters dispatched and maidens saved by the heroic actions of some muscular young demi-gods who prefers to engage in combat without the encumbrance of wearing armour or, indeed, any other form of suitable attire.
Of course, for a contemporary audience, it’s easy to mock and titter at what looks like the somewhat ludicrous subject matter favoured by the artists and their public a century or more ago but the skill in producing these vivacious, anatomically correct tableaux, with all the complicated casting of interwoven limbs and epidermal variances – from the buff beauty of the action heroes to the serpentine scales of the reptilian villains – certainly deserves acknowledgement. Especially, perhaps, when contrasted with what currently passes for sculptural artworks as evidenced in the large display now filling the entirety of the central Duveen Galleries. Having already blogged some weeks ago about Mike Nelson‘s collection of redundant industrial machinery, I won’t bother with further comment, except to say that maybe the Tate should consider showing a bit more classical sculpture in this space.
Before branching off into one of the other smaller gallery side rooms I think it’s time to refer to the official Tate guide map, hard copies of which are available at various strategic information points for a requested donation of £1. Although, by taking a photograph of said guide on one’s mobile telephonic apparatus, it’s possible for the more ingenious of penurious pensioners to avoid the necessity of paying out this semi-voluntary charge. Which is perhaps only fair since the map seems to be out of date anyway as I discover when entering a room purporting to show paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds only to find it filled with a much less interesting display of works by John Opie. No matter, another of the nearby rooms does, as promised, contain a temporary display of works commemorating the life of the recently deceased abstractionist Gillian Ayres. And I wonder if the initial curatorial temptation was perhaps to show a sort of mini-retrospective with paintings from different periods of the artists career used to illustrate the twists and turns that accompanied her artistical evolution. While this would doubtless have provided an interesting academic overview of a life spent experimenting with the crafted combinations of shapes and colours, that is the inevitable fate of those who get drawn into dabbling among the intangible atmospherics of non-figurational formats, I think limitations of space would have made this hard to achieve.
And so, instead, the display, which consists of three very large, very exuberant works from the 1980s and ’90s, when Ayres was at the expressive energetic peak of her game, is not a dry art historical chronicle, far less a respectful memorial lament but a bit more like a hugely enjoyable and noisily raucous wake. I’ve no idea what the artist’s personal personality was actually like or whether or not she would have appreciated this form of commemorative curatorial gesture but I kind of think that anyone who could fill up a canvas with such evident uninhibited brio, elan and oomph would prefer to be acknowledged by these three deafening cheers than any more sombre, respectfully muted applause.
I confess I’d be hard pressed to offer up any particular logical rationalisation as to why I find Ayres great idiogrammatic mash-ups quite so appealing these days but I do, although I don’t remember liking them very much at the time they were being made, back when I was helping to curate in Brixton and this form of abstraction seemed very old hat indeed. Then again, I suppose times change and we change with them and with these works it’s their almost confrontational projection of an optimistic sense of messy childish freedom that, for some unresolved psychological reason, seems to run in parallel with my own current frame of mind. Which makes me wonder whether it was Ayres or me who was out of joint with the times twenty or thirty years ago. Probably me, although the idea that art and life flow together in some intertwined helix that can be seen as mirroring each other so reflecting the zeitgeist of societal trends, and all that kind of thing – well, that’s obviously open to debate.
For anyone interested in pursuing that line of thought, however, there’s another small display here at Tate Britain that might well add to the evidence. Abstraction in Britain through the 1950s is part of the general chronological route along which the general visitor is encouraged to stroll in order to fully explore the gallery’s riches in a sensible, logical progression. Broadly speaking, separate rooms are allocated to separate decades of the past century but the curators also aim to add a thematic overlay. And so, as indicated, the current display, which contains works from a couple of dozen artists, has been designed specifically to look at the various strands of non-figurational artworks that appeared in the aftermath of the Second World War but preceded the Pop Art explosions that provided such a strong symbolic statement of the colourful excitement of the subsequent swinging ’60s. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the painting here by Gillian Ayres (see above) is considerably smaller, darker and much more strictly controlled than her later work. But then everything in this room is on the small scale and is distinguished by the muted colours and, what seems to me to be a strong sense of existential pessimism with only very occasional batsqueak outbursts of very cautious optimism (as illustrated below by the next couple of paintings from Paul Feiler and Ralph Rumney).
While the American abstractions of the time were brash, forceful and full of energy, with artists like Pollock, de Kooning and Motherwell creating monumental canvases announcing the shift of cultural capitalism from Paris to New York, in this country the post-war sense of exhaustion and austerity was not just limited to the economic sphere but seems to have pervaded every aspect of society, very much including its sense of artistic expression. It makes for an interesting if slightly gloomster doomster display although maybe there’s a certain nobility in the gritty determination that’s apparent in many of the works as the artists struggle to make their marks and try to find a way of expressing their fears, frustrations and also, maybe, hopes. At which point I think it’s probably best to take another quick look at those invigorating late Ayres and head back out into the actual sunshine that, today at least is still thankfully beaming down from above.