First of all, apologies for the late delivery of last week’s essay and I hope it didn’t spoil anyone’s weekend too much. I’m still not exactly sure what caused the computerised glitch that prevented the usual Saturday morning dispatch from going out but my guess is that the software technology embedded within the WordPress blogger’s template that I use, finally got fed up with me ignoring its serial critiquing of my literary style and decided to try to put a stop to things once and for all. The point being, that every time I scribble off one of these little vignettes of diaristic musing, all the pages get automatically scanned and evaluated by some kind of remote robot editing machine gizmo prior to anything actually getting posted out into the ethereal cloudscape and on towards the phones, tablets and laptops of the faithful band of trusty subscribers. And, doubtless, the software script pulling the strings of binary digits that directs this particular piece of artificially intelligent interference engine was designed by one of those wide-eyed teenage Californian techno-nerds, more used to reading twitter feeds and Superman Comics than Ruskin, Proust or Henry James. Consequently, I’m always being awarded a very low, C- scoring for literary technique and told that I must shorten the length of what I’m writing; cut down on the use of long words; and immediately stop engaging in the use of far too many circumlocutory sub-clauses and alliterative paragraphs of parenthetical persiflage.
Well, thankfully, we haven’t quite reached that feared for singularity point where the machines take over running everything and so, Elvina, my personal techno-wizard wunderkind, was, once again, successfully able to battle with the would-be literary termination squad, override their misgivings and so allow my loquacious pontifications to continue to be pushed out into the etherospheric cyberspace where they so rightly belong. Normal service will, hopefully, be returned forthwith, starting with this current report back from my biennial wander around Liverpool, the famous city of the two cathedrals where everybody really does seem to speak with that endearingly funny peculiar accent.
And so it is that when I emerge from Lime Street station, I head off in the direction of the muddy fluvial swirl of the mighty River Mersey – not to embark on the famous Pacemaker ferry ride but to detour into the pleasantly refashioned and regenerated dockland area wherein resides the Tate gallery’s northern outpost franchise. I’m fairly certain that the last time I blogged about this place, I had a moan about the messy, Post-Modernistic mish-mashy way in which they have chosen to display items from the permanent collection and so it’s sad to have to report that they’ve utterly ignored my commentary and decided to continue to exhibit their art in this willfully unstructured format. Instead of offering up an introductory chronological sweep through the history of Modern Art, or grouping works within styles, compositional genres or any other linked thematic strands, the curators have decided to absolve themselves of any didactic responsibility and merely scatter artworks around the galleries in casual random abandonment. Presumably the idea is to encourage the visiting public to attempt to find connections between the individual works but (to give just one example) sticking a Mondrian abstract next to one of LS Lowry’s naïve industrial landscapes, next to a large Andreas Gursky photograph of dealers at work in the Chicago Stock Exchange, just highlight their differences and forces the viewer to keep refocussing between their alternate stylistic methods and interests. The result, for me at least, is to ensure that the whole display is considerably less than would be the sum of its parts were they more sensibly arranged. Oh well, I feel that I’m arguing for a very lost cause here and so move quickly on to take a look at the main temporary exhibition, Portraying a Nation. And this is quite an interesting double-header show centered around an examination of the social history of Germany during the Weimar Republic through the combination display of paintings, prints and drawings by Otto Dix alongside a large selection of black and white documentary portraits by the photographer August Sander.
I think it’s probably fair to say that the exhibition reveals no great surprises or revelations about this particular period of history as even those unfamiliar with the caricatures of George Grosz, the photomontages of John Heartfield and the paintings of the various other Expressionists, will probably know something of the plays of Brecht, the stories of Christopher Isherwood or have seen some version of the pulchritudinous Sally Bowles strutting her stuff in the musical Cabaret. In which case, the cast of characters paraded here will all be instantly recognisable, whether it’s the haughty baron, the cigar-smoking banker, the slick art dealer, the policeman with the enormous silly moustache or the poor displaced beggars. Ok, I admit I hadn’t come across the rather nervous looking gentlemen described as a Turkish mousetrap salesman but I think that the rest of the crew that Sander portrayed looked pretty much as expected. Although, having said that, it’s still hard not to feel an awful depressing shudder when, towards the end of the display, Sander starts to include the armbands, tin hats, peaked caps and other slick regalia that announces the arrival on the scene of the National Socialist criminals.
As for Dix, he, of course, is able to add a touch of colour, both literally and metaphorically, to his contemporaneous studies and so takes the opportunity to personalise the subjects that he records – for instance by adding a leering grin to a sailor on shore leave and tastefully tarting up the trinkets on one of his prostitute friends. Although, despite that, Dix’s strongest work here comes when he revisits his experiences endured in the trenches during the First World War. And for this succession of horrorful episodes amongst the mud and blood, maggots and meaninglessness he chooses the print medium and reverts to a more simplistic monochromaticism to express the brutal reality. This War Series suite of fifty etchings still carries quite a punch and I suppose represents the grim artistic highpoint and dreadful existential lowpoint in this somewhat dour and serious pair of shows.
Fortunately, it’s goodbye to all that when I return to the city centre and go on to the Walker Art Gallery to find the absolute artistic antithesis of Dix’s vision of hell, courtesy of Alphonse Mucha and his very distinctive allegorical personifications of heavenly delights. This display of turn-of-the-century, Art Nouveau graphics may be considered to be situated at the extreme candy floss end of otiose artistic triviality but there’s no denying that Mucha was extremely skillfully adept in constructing his beautiful, intricately patterned swirls of ornamental flowers, long luxuriant tresses and free-flowing silky fabrics within which he wrapped his pouting maidens. Whether used in posters to promote the stage performances of his friend, the actress Sarah Bernhardt, or else advertise anything from a box of biscuits to a range of velocipedes, Mucha pretty much stuck to his favoured form of bedecking an innocent young lovely in a trail of colourful fripperies. It does mean that the exhibition starts to get a bit wearisome after looking at the first dozen or so of these silly frothy fantasies but then the curators have added in a bit of balancing ballast by way of a small showing of entertaining sculptural erotica from his friend and fellow sensualist Auguste Rodin.
Now, one doesn’t have to be a completely crop-haired, dungaree-clad feminist to be slightly discomforted by Mucha and Rodin’s casual commodification and objectification of the female form but then, as we all know, tastes change and matters pertaining to the perception and representation of gender, not to mention society’s concepts of acceptable sexual etiquette, are somewhat less than immutable. Which is the best I can do to segue into the Walker’s other temporary exhibition, Coming Out, which marks the 50th anniversary of the passing of legislation decriminalising acts of male homosexuality. It’s a bit of a mixed bag of gay imagery that ranges from some of David Hockney’s rather delicate line drawings of male couples to Andy Warhol’s iconic silkscreens of Jackie and Marilyn, and Sarah Lucas’ photographic self-portrait in which she slouches on a chair and defies a pair of pristine fried egss to slide from their position precariously balanced on her youthful embonpoint. I suppose the fact that, regardless of the artistic merits of these items, or any of the other more obvious expressions of the intricacies of gay subculture on show here today, the fact that few, if any, visitors are likely to be shocked, outraged, upset or even bat a moralistic eyelid at any of the subject matter, is testament to the speed and liberality of recent societal changes.
All of which leaves little time or space to comment on the Walker’s permanent collection, other than to say that it provides a very reasonable introduction to European art from the Medieval to the Modern. And that amongst the padding there are sufficient stunners from Cranach, Hilliard, Veronese, Titian, Rubens, Poussin, Rembrandt, Stubbs, Gainsborough, Millais, Sickert, Bomberg and Freud to make a visit worthwhile. There’s even quite a pretty winter scene from the greatest of all the Impressionists which, I suppose, shouldn’t really be that much of a surprise since they have a saying up North that goes along the lines of…where there’s Mucha there’s Monet.