Pilgrimagical Trail

Looking back through the diary, I seem to have spent the last few weeks covering all the big would-be blockbuster shows at London’s main public galleries – Blake at Tate Britain; Gormley at the Royal Academy; Bridget Riley at the Hayward; Nam June Paik at Tate Modern and Gauguin at the National Gallery. And while I daresay if I took the time to reread my recent commentaries they would probably contain a fair amount of grumpy critical mitherings – that being the general default setting for the blogistic tenor of the reviewing position of this writer’s textual appraisals – I can’t help but think what a fortunate position it is to be in whereby such a great and varied selection of major exhibitions are concurrently concentrated and readily available for personal and public perusal, all within such a relatively small geographical area.


And even that impressive list of exhibitions above isn’t totally exhaustive, since there’s still the show of Freud‘s self-portraits running at the Royal Academy‘s Sackler Wing to report on before the old year comes to a close. But before going to take a look at that, I thought I’d try to catch up on some of the other smaller cultural treats also now on offer in the capital for the enlightenment and entertainment of the discerning viewer. Which is why today I’m now on board the number 139 bus heading northwards away from Marylebone station in the direction of St Johns Wood and Abbey Road. Not, I hasten to add, in order to pay pedestrian tribute to the Fab Four by joining in the demi-centennial commemoration of the release of their final long playing disc which, of course, requires the celebrant to take the pilgrimagical trail across the most famous zebra crossing in the world. Tempting though the thought of re-enacting part of that ancient iconic pop parade is, in fact my destination this morning is the Ben Uri Gallery, which is situated on a small turning off the main eponymous highway and where the current display is a small showing of work by Mark Gertler, timed to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the artist’s death. As usual with shows at the Gallery, the selection of paintings and drawings is enhanced by the addition of assorted background photographs and other historical ephemera, as well as the fairly lengthy texts on the explicatory wall panels and labels annotating all of the individual works.

The general picture that emerges is one of a tremendously talented draughtsmen who shifted away from the traditional figurative templates of his initial early student days to engage in experimentations with the Modernist styles that were such a defining aspect of the early years of the last century. Gertler seems to have been blessed with a wonderful natural facility for drawing and composition but very sadly cursed in later years by ill health and the depression that ultimately led to the tragedy of his suicide aged only 48. The selection of exquisitely sensitive pencil sketches of family and friends, along with the dozen or so portrait and landscape paintings that echo the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist influences of the times, are all fascinating high quality works that definitely leave one wanting to see more. Indeed, the only real criticism of the exhibition here is that it’s a pity that logistical and, presumably, financial constraints prevent it from being the fully comprehensive retrospective that the artist almost certainly deserves.

Anyway, after that outing to north London, it’s back on the bus and a return trip into the centre, stopping next at the two Gagosian Galleries, both of which feature work by Cy Twombly – the smaller one in Davies Street turned into a pop-up shop offering catalogues, posters and prints, mainly featuring the artist’s works on paper and canvases; while the much larger space in Grosvenor Hill concentrates on displaying a large selection of his sculptural agglomerations. And I have to admit that while I quite like some of Twombly‘s earlier collages, the works for which he is generally most renowned – those fraught caligraphic scribbles and dribbles – leave me utterly exasperatedly chilled. To me they really do look exactly like the work of the fabled four-year-old child whose na├»ve pencil marks are indistinguishable from the work of the celebrated master except by those who have witnessed their execution.

On the other hand, I’ve always rather liked the – some would doubtless say – similarly childlike constructions of detrital junk that Twombly liked to paste together and then unite by adding a coagulating slurpy coating of plastery gunk. Admittedly, I’m not sure I could be entirely confident of being able to immediately discern between the works of the great American artist and some of the better efforts emanating from an average pre-school art class, or even the amateur bus-building efforts of our own current prime minister. But then I’m not sure it really matters. When created with integrity and devotion, each in their own way can be equally enchanting, rewarding and aesthetically appealing and, in the end, it’s easy enough to tell the difference by simply taking a look at the associated price tags.

Next comes a walk down the Bond Streets, New and Old, which means pressing the intercom buttons and tramping up the stairs to get to those discreet Aladdin‘s Caves that occupy some of the upper floors of the buildings in this salubrious sector of London’s luxury commercial quarter. And first off comes the show at the Olivier Malingue gallery where it’s good to see that the curatorial staff have gone to the trouble of sorting through their storeroom stocks to pull together sufficient works to constitute a properly considered thematic show. And so it is that L’Empreinte, as the glossy accompanying little guide advises, is a small exhibition centered around the theme of…well, to be frank, I’m not absolutely sure what it is that does actually connect all the works on display. There’s a two-page essay in the Gallery guide and each of the twenty or so paintings, prints and photographs gets its own little descriptive couple of paragraphs but, having started to speed-read my way through the text, such was the poetical nature of its elegantly phrased exegesis that I thought I’d probably be better off just looking at the art on the walls and trying to figure things out for myself.

I think I can see that there’s a kind of a link between the Surreal landscape that Max Ernst made by applying his frotagistic rubbing techniques and one of those famous blue body prints that Yves Klein came up with by squishing paint on a model and then squashing her body against a canvas. But how the ugly Body Art scarifications of Gina Pane or the debris of Duchampian dust that Man Ray famously photographed, tie together is perhaps less obvious. Then again, half the fun of looking at an exhibition like this is to try and find connections, resonances and patterns in the way the jigsaw parts fit together or bump apart. And however loose or tight the links may be, most of the individual works – which include pieces from Roland Penrose, Ed Ruscha, Sam Francis, Brassai (see above) and Dubuffet – are of sufficiently strength to stand on their own.

There’s more of Ernst‘s frottage inspired works along with other characteristic collages and paintings at a small display further down Bond Street at M&L Fine Art, after which I catch a cross-town tube down to London Bridge before taking the fifteen minute walk to get to the White Cube in Bermondsey. And here the vast spaces are filled with the vast works of Anselm Kiefer. The word that always immediately springs to mind when thinking about this particular artist is ‘portentous’ which, having just checked my google dictionary, does seem to be the mot juste. For to suggest that Kiefer‘s creations are all produced in a ‘pompously or overly solemn manner so as to impress’ seems to be an almost definitional description of what the artist is all about. At least, that’s my take on the stack of elaborate wall-sized muralistic canvases that the artist has once again set up here. The scrubby gray dystopian landscape scenes always seem to show the same roads or railtracks departing off into the same distant horizon of doom, the only variation being the amounts of wiry twigs and sheaves of corn that Kiefer manages to get to stick to the canvases – that and the different sets of shamanistic scripts and signs that he scratches on. I’ll concede that the first time one sees examples of these immensely imposing works of gloom they really do come across as profound and moving but the problem is that the more one sees them the more their powers subside until the law of diminishing returns reverses them into almost comical self parodying absurdities.

In addition to these familiar eschatological excursions, with their overtones of metaphysical mysteriousness, Kiefer has apparently now turned his attention to the more contemporary, yet equally arcane unreachable ineffabilities, that swirl about in the imaginations of today’s scientific communities, as they ponder the uncertainties of quantum entanglement, dark energy and other such wondrously speculative intangibilities. In particular it seems to be so-called String Theory – that great potential idea that hopes to provide a solution to the grand universal theory of everything – that has evidently grabbed the artist’s attention. At least, that’s what I assume the great corridor of glass cabinets that come at the start of the exhibition is all about. Filled with their encrustations of cables and wires and coated with the runic algebraic notations that are but meaningless doodles to we poor uninitiated simpletons, Kiefer offers up his tribute to the gallant mathematicians and heroic physicists who try to make sense of the world using only their alphabet soup servings of Greek letters and pretty hieroglyphic signage. Though whether Kiefer‘s efforts are actually capable of contributing very much to the furtherance of either scientific or artistic enlightenment seems to me to be best described by that other most favoured word of all quantum evangelists…uncertain.

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