Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Henri Cartier-Bresson The Centre Pompidou, Paris 12 February – 9 June 2014

Henri Cartier-Bresson
The Centre Pompidou, Paris
12 February – 9 June 2014


Approaching the vast exhibition at the Centre Pompidou this Spring, with waiting times of over an hour and rooms packed with people looking closely and intently at the many photographs, films and paintings on show, it is clear that Cartier-Bresson is a much loved figure in the capital of his country. Highly respected by the people as well as the critics, there is an interestingly serious, even studious atmosphere to the rooms, one that is as sombrely respectful as it is excited. Capturing over 500 of Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moments’, the exhibition is almost overwhelmingly substantial and worthwhile. After only one room, I am certain I will revisit many times over the next few months that it is on.
            A sense of nostalgia exists not only in relation to the images of times now past, but also in connection to the ideals with which photography, and especially photojournalism, were tied up. Each phase of Cartier-Bresson’s life and career (which forms the structure of the exhibition) notes a significant part of his vision. The first phase (1926 to 1935) is concerned with Surrealism, and is presumably as good a place as any to start a photographic voyage. As Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography:

“Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise: in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision.” (Sontag, 1979, 52)

            By starting with Surrealism, however, Cartier-Bresson provided a foundation of ideas and images that make his later photographer seem somehow more ‘real’ for being implicitly compared to these early photographs of entangled bodies and limbs, grotesque forms, and confusing effects. Although there are some interesting consistencies, and some later images retain the complex patterns and ideas of the earlier, there is nevertheless is clear shift between what looks like a dream, and what looks like ‘reality’ (a clever trick of presentation, at the very least). This was in line with the fate of Surrealism itself, which hardly survived the war.
            The second phase, 1936 to 1946, was the beginning of Cartier-Bresson’s political era, when he worked for the Communist press and traveled widely. From 1947 to 1970, he created the cooperative Magnum Photos. From this brief history, but more importantly from the exhibition, and the many rooms of very different styles and phases, it is clear that, “there was not just one but several Cartier-Bressons”. (Centre Pomidou, 2014) What emerges most dramatically, however, is the sense of history recorded (perhaps because the exhibition is after all a retrospective and the photographs presented chronologically). Not one history, but several.
The clearest, perhaps, is the history of France (and its relation to other countries): a careful, studied, and seemingly impassioned one. It is a subjective one, of course – a history of what Cartier-Bresson saw, as much as what happened, but that is important in itself. As Mitchell explains:

“Every history is really two histories, the story of what happened and the story of the perception of what happened, its representation in verbal and visual narratives, punctuated by iconic moments...” (Mitchell, 2012, 161)

Cartier-Bresson’s history is interesting also because it is a dominant narrative, or perception, of French history and people, partly because of a political and public will for that to be so.

“A photograph … cannot make a dent in public opinion unless there is an appropriate context of feeling and attitude.” Photos of Vietnam had an effect in America, but only because there was already an anti-war sentiment. Journalists felt supported in their efforts. But there was little similar feeling around the Korean War, so there weren’t the same kinds of photos published. (Sontag, 1979, 17-18)

            To study the Cartier-Bresson legacy, and the enthusiasm of the people seeing the exhibition, is to pick up on that public mood, and the revived identification with the images and history that he depicted many decades ago. At the exhibition, there are crowds around “Libération de Paris, France” (1944) for example, which shows a chaos of flags, barricades being taken down, and shaky, out of focus snapshots of Paris, still damaged with rubble and confused soldiers.
There is laughter around the photos of the Coronation of King George VI in London (1937), showing the ordinary Londoners in curious states of both interest and alienation: a child screaming on his father’s shoulders; a drunk or asleep man passed out in a bed of newspapers, below scaffolding on which rows of people look out for the King. The camera, at all times, is pointed towards the people rather than the new King. (Perhaps this is a very French or Socialist perspective of England – which, according to the laughter, is no past sentiment.)  
There are startling shots of wartime France, including Nazi rallies and bizarrely forced cheerfulness of wartime films (with a full audience), are strangely moving and sad, especially with titles such as, “The Amazing New Film from Spain: Return to Life” – with a note explaining that the film is an “aid to Spanish Democracy”. The political context seems oddly familiar.  
In the photographs taken during a year in Africa meanwhile, (shortly after his military service ended), he shows children playing in the street, fishermen, rowers, and everyday life along the Ivory Coast – with the contradiction of ‘everyday’ and ‘sublime’ that characterises the best of Cartier-Bresson’s shots. 
These “decisive moments” affect a real intensity in the exhibition – hundreds of brilliant, piercing shots, fascinating in so many ways. The experimental, Surrealist forms, the exploratory series of Africa, the tragic-comic scenes of British society… Time slips away with each new photo. All that has gone – ideals, people, politics, and even a mood of innovation and revolution that existed when the photos were taken. Now, many decades later, they seem like sudden flashbacks to another time – strangely familiar (partly because some of the images are familiar, and others refer to familiar events) as well as strange.

“All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” (Susan Sontag, 1979, 16)

Perhaps this is the gentler side of voyeurism. To walk through hundreds of photographs by Cartier-Bresson is to walk through his life, and that of France. As a visitor, somewhere between tourist, student and immigrant, it is to stumble into a world that is within view but will always be someone else’s, which is perhaps the essence of all photography. It feels particularly so with these photographs. There is such a sense of life and grounding in them, of discovery and enlightenment, that it is difficult not to think, at times, that you have lived in these moments too. And that is what makes Cartier-Bresson such a brilliant and accomplished photographer: he has opened up a world of people, ideas and life that are so clear and direct that empathy with them is tangible and unforgettable.
Sometimes, people still consider photography as a secondary art. Even Cartier-Bresson said that the camera did everything, rather than himself. Perhaps he was exposing the art of photography by saying something so absurd, since his vision and attention to other people is present and discernable, even to the most cynical critic. It would be difficult to see this exhibition, anyway, to witness so many frames of evidence of that spark that drives people to announce “this is art!” – That magic, or empathy, or brilliance in a “decisive moment” to use the photographer’s language. To see so many people intently admiring and engaging with rooms and rooms of black and white photography is outstanding in itself. Though there is a nostalgia that comes from seeing old ideals and times now gone, the exhibition is fresh evidence, nevertheless, that the effects and power of Cartier-Bresson’s vision is alive and well.


Sontag, Susan (1979): On Photography. Penguin Books.
Mitchell, W. J. T. (2012): Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present, Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press
Centre Pompidou (2014): Notes in the exhibition

Rufus Wainwright: Vibrate: the Best of Rufus Wainwright

[for Line of Best Fit]
Rufus Wainwright: Vibrate: the Best of Rufus Wainwright

Rufus Wainwright recently turned forty, and as a bookend to his youth, has released a ‘Best Of’ that is proud, passionate and impressively varied – as well as a fascinating collection of stories. Perhaps because Wainwright’s songs seem often to be fragments of a long memoir – and inspired by opera and musical theatre – his music is particularly well suited to a ‘Best Of’, which joins up the strands of stories and ideas in his various albums, to present a substantial and interesting narrative of his life until now, and an expanse of expression and experience. 

The classics are all there: “Hallelujah”, “Poses”, “Cigarettes & Chocolate Milk”, “Out of the Game” and “April Fools” – and with them a repertoire of familiar stories of love, charm, heartfelt jadedness and occasional yearning. The album’s lead single, a playful and sultry “Me and Liza” teases elements of Liza MInelli’s own sound and attitude, with a music hall flourish.  “Going to A Town”, meanwhile, contains the melancholia and regret that Wainwright sings of so charmingly and uniquely: “I’m so tired of you America / Making my own way home… I’ve got a life to live, America” - there is both regret and an underlying sense of unrequited love, or at least a complicated one. Romantic and political, both the capital ‘R’ and little ‘r’ – he casts an image of a disgraced and tragic ‘home’ that he returns to and leaves in circles. The implications of absurd, homophobic moralizing and the idiocy at its core - “Tell me, do you really think you go to hell for having loved? / Tell me, enough of thinking everything you’ve done is good” – make a song about home, belonging and rejection exceptionally moving and pertinent.

The deluxe version of Wainwright’s Vibrate contains two discs of 34 tracks – combining songs from six studio albums as well as seventeen rare and unreleased recordings, some live, some studio, and including “Chic and Pointless” and “WWII” – both produced and the latter co-written by Guy Chambers. This disc is perhaps the highlight of the album, especially for fans or anyone who is familiar with the better known tracks of the first side. A beautiful cover of “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” is also included on the second disc, having been previously used in the soundtrack to the film “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man”. There are many covers of this song, but Wainwright’s is somehow more fresh and youthful than the rest. Other soundtrack songs released on Vibrate include “La Complainte de la Butte” (from Moulin Rouge) and “The Maker Makes” (from Brokeback Mountain). The latter is especially charming and sad, and although he is not drunk on the record, somehow it seems the kind of song a drunk and regretful person would sob at the end of a wedding, full of whiskey and melodrama (in a good way).

In the best possible way, in fact, this record is defiantly proud, and defiantly discontent. It is full of songs of adoring and missing people, of being in love and in rage, and even if one does not go for the overtly flamboyant and joyful tracks, there is something quite moving about the album as a whole, and the stories wrapped up in a familiar but increasingly intriguing, soulful voice.

Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making, 1789 - 2013

Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making, 1789 - 2013
Tate Liverpool
8 November 2013 – 2 February 2014


On a single floor of Tate Liverpool, 200 years of art influenced by the Left is exhibited: a big idea, in a small space. And rather than take a Marxist or Socialist approach to curating the show, the organisers seem to have gone with a more Anarchist approach. From the Guerilla Girls’ posters, to Alan Kane’s touring art show, Folk Archive, and from Bauhaus democratising pleasure, to David’s stabbed Marat of the French Revolution, the exhibition is certainly an excellent opportunity for those with prior knowledge of political art, or rather, some of the individually brilliant works on show. But for anyone seeking to understand, in any depth or with any coherence, how values changed making art, as the title suggests we will find out, the show will likely confuse.

“Art Turning Left” says little of substance about art has changed, as there is no wider reference or intellectual discussion about how left wing values contributed to art practice; rather, it seems to exhibit token ‘protest art’ alongside aesthetic ideas about giving artistic pleasure and access to the masses, which although all “Left” in some respect, are extremely diverse ideas and approaches. There is no engagement with politics, or the context of the works, which would better explain their relevance and significance, and perhaps their connection to one another. This is almost certainly because the subject is too big, and the works, though exhibited thematically, are too diverse and unrelated to make sense of. 

Put another way, imagine an exhibition entitled “Art Turning Conservative”: it would be completely impossible to even conceive of an exhibition that would cover the Decadents of the nineteenth century alongside portraits of the Royals and aristocrats, Nazi propaganda, the whole Renaissance, most Medieval Art, and even the self-confessed Thatcherite Tracey Emin. “Conservative Art” would likely be a much bigger sample, but even “Leftist Art” is far too big and diverse to include in one room. Even the whole of Tate Liverpool, or all of the Tates in the UK, could not contain it, or explore it with enough breadth and depth. The problem, in a sense, is assuming that “Leftist Art” is a minority or a niche, even if many of the works of art in the History of Art have been in some respect Conservative.

“Socialist British Art” might be niche enough to warrant a focussed, in-depth exhibition, but the whole Left Wing is not. On that note, what of Communist art from the U.S.S.R? What about modern Chinese art created under Mao? What of Latin American left wing art? What of all the activist art from the 1950s, criticised and censored by McCarthy? What of the protesting activism of 1960s and 1970s America? Where these artists not influenced by the left? And what of political art from the same period in South Africa, Ireland, Germany and Australia? Or the Russian Revolution? What of all the other instances of revolutionary, or made-during-revolution art work? Of course it would be near-impossible to exhibit a representative and substantial exhibition that truly taught us about “Art Turning Left”, and that is the problem: this exhibition sets out to do the impossible. Its ideals are too great to ever be turned into a reality that makes sense. It is quite frustrating, really, that the exhibition manages to embody the simplistic criticisms so often thrown at the “Left” – and that is perhaps because it uses a term than is so vague and wide-ranging that it ends up referring to nothing in particular.

Another problem with the show is the assumption that these artworks are influenced by the Left, rather than by other factors such as Libertarianism (the Guerilla Girls could be considered Libertarian, which is far removed from Communism or Socialism, usually), globalisation, urbanisation, fashion, or reacting to the Right Wing (not necessarily being Left, but just apolitical, or anarchic). Then there is the problem of Capitalism: this exhibition is situated in a Capitalist society, and many of the works created with that context, even as Left ideals may have been in effect also. These works are bought and sold within that structure, and have a price tag – they have not left the Capitalist art world, and so it is doubtful how influential left wing politics have been on art, compared to any other ideology. An artist may profess to be left wing, but the practice of making art is naturally quite individualistic. Even the most collective art groups are working within a structure that values them in terms of monetary value and public image. Even if art is or wants to be Left, there is a responsibility to acknowledge the many other layers of influence, ideology and input. In not defining “Left” properly, the exhibition has inevitably fallen against the criticism of inconsistency.

There is no doubt that left wing ideals have influenced some artists, some of whom are shown in this room. But in lumping them into a single room with little explanation about how they were influenced leaves us no more enlightened than before entering the room.
As in a badly organised (if extremely good-looking) protest, there is no central aim, no clear, collective characteristics, no direction, and no serious understanding of politics. This is unfortunate, because many of the works are valuable and exceptional as individual artworks, but this brilliance is often obscured or cheapened in being shown in a crowded room. People may have power simply in congregating in a square; but artworks require a little more organisation.

One positive aspect of the show, however, is the great range of talks, events, and educational initiatives that are organised in parallel to “Art Turning Left”, however. If this show is anything, it is a starting point in a conversation, and there is certainly enough inspiring work in there to inspire those who attend. The exhibition itself does not answer any questions, but it does provoke more questions, and it has the structured education program to go with it. And that is where the “Art Turning Left” saves itself: through education, discussion, and at the very least, a means of attracting like-minded people into one space. It is tempting to think that such a small space has been chosen so that the visitors may spill onto the streets.

Cartier: Le Style et l’Histoire

Cartier: Le Style et L’Histoire
Le Grand Palais, Paris
04 December 2013 – 16 February 2014


At Christmas-time in Paris, the city sparkles and glimmers on every street. Shop windows are lit up with extravagant displays, selections of antique rings and costume jewellery shine from boutiques next to patisseries and cafes displaying equally sumptuous macarons, cakes and éclairs. Bon-bons are wrapped around gateaux like beads on haute couture, fairy lights sprinkle over trees, and the Eiffel Tower, as usual, glimmers on the horizon. The churches are lit with more candles than usual, and the evening twilight filters through stories in stained glass. The water of Canal St-Martin reflects crimson, green, blue and white lights from the restaurants along the edge, and the Seine reflects the stars.

This brilliant Parisian spectacle makes the wintertime exhibition of Cartier’s history well-timed and yet unexceptional. In the City of Lights, a collection of diamonds in a dark room – however rare the rocks and however magnificent the surroundings – is only one more corner in such an array of glamour and style that the richest details are not necessarily the most fascinating. The most extravagant tiaras in the world cannot compare to the stars or the moon reflected in the Seine. Diamonds may be forever, but there is something rarer, somehow, in catching the transient beauty of a Parisian night.  

And yet the many reviewers of this high-profile show have almost consistently sung its praises, especially in the British media, as if swapping words for diamonds themselves, or as if they had not experienced the rest of Paris at that time. Or, perhaps, diamonds really are fascinating to many people. Certainly there were crowds in awe of the various show-stealers: Elizabeth Taylor’s earrings from her third husband, and the necklace given to her by Richard Burton; the tiara Catherine Middleton wore for her wedding to Prince William; jewels made for Princess Grace of Monaco, and a 23.6 ct Williamson pink diamond, set in a flower brooch for Queen Elizabeth II. Wallis Simpson, too, had a number of pieces commissioned, when exiled in Paris, and rejected by the British Royal family: an exquisite scattering of amethysts, diamonds and sapphires; a brooch the shape of a flamingo, a panther made of diamonds. 

It is all quite extravagant, and yet writing about jewellery – or jewellery written about – is far more attractive and exciting than the jewels themselves. The stories behind the gems – the romances, inferiority complexes, the charisma of Elizabeth Taylor playing to the camera in a gift from Burton – are entertaining and interesting. The jewels, when displayed on black velvet, behind glass, with security guards, are less so. They have become rocks again, devoid of glamour, which has never really been wealth, but rather, spectacle. These are the tools of glamour, the currency of elitism. It is hard to wander around such an exhibition without feeling a slight bemusement, or even revulsion, at the crowds of ordinary people bustling in front of these windows for a chance to glimpse a princess’s brooch, or an oligarch’s ornament, or a movie star’s status symbol. For as much as Cartier say and believe that this exhibition is interesting because of the exquisite craft and design involved, or the natural dazzle of rare diamonds, it seems far more obvious that it is an attraction because of the people who have bought them. That is less an art exhibition, and more of a symptom of celebrity obsession, one with a clear historical precedent. Here we have a history of colonialism, slave labour, and oligarchy. Here we have monarchs spending money on pink diamonds during wartime, and rejected socialites making themselves feel better by buying from those royals’ jewellers. Wandering round, it is as if the ghost of the Great Gatsby haunts the exhibition: all these jewels, all this wealth, all this materialist desire, and for what? The designers of these pieces were no doubt brilliantly talented, but those designs (more beautiful on paper than realised in rocks, it must be said) have ended up mere mergers and investments (and a huge PR stunt for Cartier) explained as art. The Grand Palais is magnificent, with its Salon d’Honneur decorated with projections like a kaleidoscopic Rorschach test, though in a way that upstages the jewels themselves.

The most interesting part of the exhibition, in my opinion, were those displays ignored by the crowds: the Art Deco drawings and paintings, the costumes designed for the stage, and dresses studded with jewels for the ballet, including Ida Rubinstein’s headdress in “Scheherazade” – made of blue feathers, crimson and green stones, and pearls, and inspired by the designs of the Ballet Russes. Most fascinating of all was the bird made of jewels the colours of the French tricolour, in a golden cage, which was Cartier’s protest against the Nazi occupation of Paris during WWII. A caged bird, of course, where the jewels do not matter so much as the principle, which on this case is a noble one, and a brave one, and a story that runs deeper than the many marriages and romantic gestures that Cartier has cast in diamonds through the ages. This single piece saves the exhibition, reminding us that some things are worth saving, some things are precious and rare. Freedom and spirit, whether expressed through diamonds or not, seem all the more desirable having spent time in “Cartier: Le Style et L’Histoire”. Walking outside into the Parisian night, the city aglow with its many natural (and not so natural) lights and all that glitters, we can be in awe once again.

Philippe Parreno: Anywhere, Anywhere Out of the World

Philippe Parreno: Anywhere, Anywhere Out of the World
Palais de Tokyo, Paris
23 October 2013 – 12 January 2014


It is an opportunity most artists would dream of – a carte blanche invitation to transform the magnificent space of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. Philippe Parreno was given that dream job, and has risen to the occasion, with a stirring and eerie exhibition that asserts his central vision of the exhibition as an art form. Drawing on a long fascination and dialogue with architecture, and using work he created recently and years ago, Parreno’s creation is a successful synthesis of ideas and execution, of vision and style.

The visitors to the exhibition are given great consideration, and the experience of seeing the exhibition is quite like entering an interactive theatre or film rather than the static expectations of many contemporary art exhibitions. While Paris has long been a centre of thoughtful and meticulous curation, the idea of the exhibition as its own art form is nevertheless rare outside of the city. Parreno’s exhibition takes the idea further than usual, even by Parisian standards. His direction was central to the realization of the exhibition, and the Palais de Toxyo’s faith in him and freedoms given to him, are quite extraordinary and unusual. It is not inevitable that an artist-centered direction would lead to a visitor-centred experience, but Parreno and the Palais de Tokyo have managed to pull it off.

“You always have to establish a relation between the production of form and the exhibition of form. For me, they are both totally dependent on each other. There is no object of art without its exhibition.” Philippe Parreno.

The whole structure of the Palais de Tokyo’s building is reimagined and reinterpreted, so that rooms are given new functions and the experience of the artworks within those rooms is altered too. This process of reinterpreting the building used the expertise of set designer Randall Peacock and sound designer Nicolas Becker, to create a magnificent world within the Palais de Tokyo. Through a spectacle combining objects, lights, music, and film, visitors to the exhibition are absorbed into the exhibition’s world, and as in a theatre production there is less a sense of choice or freedom and more a sort of submission to the exhibition’s ideas.

The power dynamics have therefore changed: it is harder not to be engaged in the work, and not to be part of it. While many artists and curators have experimented with these shifting dynamics, and varying degrees of audience interaction, Parreno has perfected his methods of manipulation. He plays with words, sounds, and images to distort people’s perceptions of space, and therefore redefine how they experience parts of the exhibition, even commenting and suggesting new ways for art to be experienced. One could parallel Parreno’s ideas with the film industry’s foray into 3D film; perhaps that is even a technology Parreno will use one day. The vision of all-encompassing experience, anyway, is central to Parreno’s work, as is the idea of the artist as director (rather than simply observer). This does seem quite megalomaniac, as an idea, but because the show is realized so well and the audience is considered so carefully, that it works. An artist having control and direction, and shifting the power dynamics of the artist-audience relationship, may therefore be a good development, if that power is used in such a way as to benefit the audience and be artistically innovative. And it is in realizing that responsibility that Parreno’s exhibition does work, and succeeds as an ‘art in itself’ as well as an experiment with audience perception and crowd control.

Anywhere, Anywhere Out of the World is a spectacular and hypnotizing experience: visitors are absorbed by visual and sonic tricks and effects, including parts of Stravinsky’s Petrushka (performed by Mikhail Rudy, via a self-playing piano, for added mystique), alongside an apparent ghost of Marilyn Monroe (his 2012 work, Marylyn, intended to be “a portrait of a ghost”) and an eerie garden in Portugal. The sound of dancers’ footsteps (from the Merce Cunnigham Dance Company) and pointe-work add to this ghostly, intriguing atmosphere, as does the bizarre encounter with the character “Annlee” and a seeming street lit with bright marquees. Multiple screens run clips from Zinedine Zidane, and secret passageways emerge from a bookshelf. Parreno uses the soundtrack of Stravinsky’s Petrushka to signal these different ‘scenes’, as well as to create an overriding presence of the puppet from Petrushka, a ghost of ghosts, acting as a sort of Underworld guide for visitors in this alive but fantastical, magical but melancholic new world. Although the spirit of the exhibition seems to have power over its visitors, that power is transient and directed from a director (Parreno) who is absent – much like the puppet in Petrushka who inspires and haunts the show as a kind of automaton, in Parreno’s words:

“By definition, an automaton mimics life, but it essentially does only one thing over and over again. For me, the exhibition is like an automaton.” Philippe Parreno.”

The exhibition, then, feels more like an interactive theatre show, a ghost tour combined with an eerie circus, in a strange, imaginary town. Parreno’s playful and imaginative approach to his invitation from the Palais de Tokyo is a delight – combining excellent technique and collaborations, with a simple but brilliant style, and a complicated yet involving realisation.  To “see” this exhibition is to fall into a dream – someone else’s – but all the more fascinating for that. This is an experiment in subconsciousness and relationship: to become a visitor to someone else’s mind, is truly an exciting idea, and one that has rarely been so well presented since the Surrealists. Parreno does not alienate with his dreams, as many performance and conceptual artists tend to, he does not really frighten or intimidate, or abuse his invented power; instead he invites and involves, and creates bridges between one mind and many others, which seems a noble vision to have realized.

The Scottish Colourists Series: JD Fergusson

The Scottish Colourists Series: JD Fergusson
The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
7 December 2013 – 15 June 2014


Though perhaps not as well known as Ireland for producing swathes of young artists and rebels intent on leaving the country in search of adventure and success, Scotland has a similar tradition of inspiring departure. The Scottish Colourists, a group of painters who left their Scottish homes and families in the early twentieth century, to find inspiration mainly in France, are some of the most notable of this sprawling group. The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh is hosting a series of retrospectives of the Colourists, and the work of J. D. Fergusson (1874 – 1961) is exhibited there until the summer, following retrospectives of Cadell, Hunter and Peploe.

One of the most adventurous of his group of émigrés, J. D. Fergusson was born in Leith, not far from the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and probably more famous for being the setting of Trainspotting than for its artistic community, past or present. Since Fergusson’s retrospective opens in December, one of the bleakest months, merely the experience of walking to the exhibition in such weather helps explain the artist’s attraction to colour and flamboyance that these paintings are testament to. There is nothing like a childhood and adolescence of seemingly impenetrable greyness to inspire escape, and a persistent, life-long desire for something more colourful. Combined with the steely determination that enduring years of such weather gives rise to, the sustained dedication of the Scottish Colourists, and Fergusson especially, makes sense. 

“To go to Paris was the natural thing for the Scot… It doesn’t seem to have occurred to the modern Scot that the Scottish Celt when in France was among his own people, the French Celts. French culture was founded by the Celts and… if Scotland or Celtic Scotland could make a ‘new alliance’ with France, not a political union like the ‘Auld Alliance’ but cultural, it would perhaps put Scotland back on to the track of her culture, and see the Scots do something Scottish instead of imitating the English or rather second-rate British.”[i]

Moving to Paris in 1907, Fergusson absorbed that French culture and innovative styles of painting there, which revolved around a love of light and its colourful effects. Perhaps more so than the other Scottish painters in Paris, he assimilated into life and art there, and came to be known as the more bohemian of the émigrés, as well as the most vivacious, considered as, “the leader of the English-speaking artistic community.”[ii] Rather than simply becoming French, however, Fergusson’s move to Paris was ultimately a way of being Scottish, and understanding his Scottish identity. Perhaps one cannot appreciate the subtleties and possibilities of a grey and blue palette, without immersing into the giddy colours of the ‘other Celts’. Certainly for Fergusson, living in France not only realized dreams of colour and light, but led to a fuller understanding of Scotland, and its subtler palette.

The exhibition of over 100 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper, viewed all together express a real vitality and sense of victory, that this exploration and adventure were successful and productive. Though some of the images of coffee-houses and nocturnal celebrations may now seem overly familiar, given the popularity of those subjects with their French contemporaries, to see them in the context of Edinburgh, and Fergusson’s early paintings of Scotland, is to glimpse the wider narrative and depth of the scenes shown. It is also to see that the attraction of Paris, and of travel, for Fergusson, was not simply about colour, or exploring techniques used by French artists; it was about people. His canvases painted in Paris are full of lively figures – dressmakers, dancers, artists, and drunks – milling around coffee houses and bars – reclining on park benches, or kneeled on exotic carpets – amid flowers and a city enchanting and alive. These paintings express love and enchantment through colour and light, not simply with it. These glamorous women and beautiful dancers, these relaxed, sunlit bodies, required some traveling to find.

Compared to the rugged hills of Scotland and the gloomy Forth, where any people seem to vanish in the presence of such a domineering nature, or the shipyards of Glasgow, where ships sink slowly, (Damaged Destroyer, 1918), Paris gave Fergusson crowds of new faces, fashions and bodies, which are celebrated in so many of his works. In Les Eus (1910 – 13), an impressive, well-constructed and vivacious painting, Fergusson depicts nude couples dancing in a frame of green foliage, probably inspired by Les Ballet Russes and other dance in Paris at the time, and of course by his wife, Margaret Morris (1891 – 1980), a dancer and choreographer originally from London, whose original techniques and ideas about ballet, and the dancers who attended her summer schools, became inspirational to Fergusson. Paintings such as Etude de Rhythm, Seated Nude, and Bathers, The Parasol, continue to show his fascination with the female form, as well as the influence of Matisse and Picasso, and his Parisian contemporaries.

The presence of dance and fashion in his paintings is perhaps what gives Fergusson’s work an adventurous, daring quality that the other Scottish Colourists do not exhibit so obviously, and it is these scenes – these dances captured in paint and light – that linger. Fergusson was a Scot and a Colourist, but he was also in love with dance, and a dancer, and it was this aspect of his life in Paris that remains most intriguing and original. The exhibition reveals these aspects, subtly pointing out moments of success and innovation in Fergusson’s painting, and downplaying criticisms of repetition or blandness, or even, too much colour. In showing careful portraits alongside carnal dances, and reminding us of his landscapes and shipyards, as well as his well-known Parisian café scenes, the exhibition hints at a more complex painter, and a more interesting body of work, than is often assumed. 

[i] Fergusson, Modern Scottish Painting, pp. 67—69
[ii] Angela Smith ‘Tigers in Paris: Katherine Mansfield, Emily Carr, John Duncan Fergusson and Fauvism’ in Beale & Smith, Outsiders in Paris p. 38

British Sea Power – From The Sea To The Land Beyond

2 December 2013
Rough Trade Records

By Christiana Spens

British Sea Power’s latest release is the soundtrack to a mesmerising film by Penny Woolcock, which captures scenes and dramas by the British coastline from 1901 until the present day. Bringing us through two world wars, peacetime, industrialization and social change, with snapshots and snippets of archival footage, she tells the story of the people living along the coasts of this island, the film itself seeming to teeter at the edge of story-telling, film-making and memory. It is a strange way to hear a new album, and yet entirely fitting for British Sea Power, given their history of recording in small coastal towns and an existential connection to the sea and its stories. So much so, that “From the Sea to the Land Beyond” seems more a collaboration than merely a soundtrack. Given that there is no dialogue in the film, and no sound from the scenes themselves (as much of the footage pre-dates necessary advances in technology), the musical soundtrack matters even more than usual.

Made up of re-workings of previous British Sea Power songs, recorded in Brighton and mixed by Ken Thomas (Sigur Ros, Daughter, M83, Cocteau Twins, Moby), the songs manage to enable and illuminate the film’s story-telling, rather than distract from it. Including The Islanders, Docklands Renewed, Heroines of the Cliff – the album is a substantial part of the film, by connecting past scenes of sailors launching into the ocean, or girls synchonising their swimming, with modern sounds, subliminal ideas and the sense of present rather than past emotion. History is brought into the fold of the tide pictured in the film, ebbing in with each fractured stretch footage or snapshot of a catastrophe. It has not simply paid attention to the subject; it has become it.

The collaboration between the film and the music is so successful, in fact, that it is hard to describe the music without noting the scenes: crowds on a promenade, two people struggling to paddle a boat a few yards from the beach; women in grand hats looking out to sea; men fighting in the sand, troops marching nearby, planes dropping bombs into the sea; girls diving from up high, children building sandcastles, couples waltzing, waves crashing. Seagulls, German bombers, Navy sailors, émigrés seeing British shore for the first time, soldiers running onto the shore with rucksacks; synchronized swimmers and tourists on their weekends in Brighton; oil rigs and shellfish; gales in Blackpool threatening to send the scantily clad girls into the sea. The music pulls its audience into this past, as if it is a personal memory reignited by an unexpected face or an intoxicating scent. Romantic, mystifying, and stirring a kind of modern mythology, British Sea Power have shown an instinctive and intuitive integration with their muse.

Despite living by the sea nearly all my life, I sometimes forget that it is there, or that “Britain” is one vague grouping of islands (and parts of islands), and I doubt I am alone in that forgetting. This album, and the film it comes with, remember not only a century of history, or common memories, but also the fact that we are a people surrounded by oceans, tides and depths. There is a little fear in this, perhaps – the slight feeling that those edges may collapse in on a little island country like this, any day, and swallow us into those enticing, terrifying depths. As the album goes on, the music comes to be the sea, and the images the land, and the people on it – tiptoeing, diving, or falling into the abyss located a few steps from the promenade, a few steps from children building sandcastles. Wistful and romantic, the album recalls not only the history told in the film, but also the memories and recollections of whoever drifts into it.

On this occasion, for this listener, that is Scottish sea birds, walking home in the dark after dinner at the Ship Inn with a new love; waking to sea air, and running across East Sands in the morning. Listening to the gales, escaping the towns, and reading Fitzgerald books in summer, one last page especially apt: “… The orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning ——So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Water-Boarding And Romanticism: Tom De Freston Interviewed

Tome On The Range

Water-Boarding And Romanticism: Tom De Freston Interviewed 
Christiana Spens , November 3rd, 2013 03:38

Christiana Spens talks to the literary-inspired artist, delving further into the horror, politics and aesthetics of violence that are the subject matter of his most recent paintings
Tom de Freston’s body of work is a chaotic-seeming world of the grotesque and the shocking, where the darkest aspects of human nature emerge in frames and tones of comedy and tragedy, animation and rigidity, fusing an adventurous and provocative imagination with insights into a recognisable real world. His canvases have depicted Shakespearean heroes and villains in grotesque, and very modern, environments, where a sense of acute claustrophobia expands and compounds with each new room compacted in canvas. There is a careful combination of brilliant imagination, of testing the very limits of human freedom and desire, along with spaces that are prison-like and oppressive. In each canvas there is a struggle between environment and desire, between ambiguous characters, between beauty and horror.
In De Freston’s most recent works, these conflicts are brought to a new crescendo, and a fresh relevance brought to modern preoccupations, secrets, and shame. Paintings concerned with water-boarding, public (and private) violence, and ideas of dehumanisation and pain, all follow logically from his previous work, and bring the uncanny connections between Shakespearean themes of human cruelty and dark magic, to situations that reference the contemporary iconography of terrorism and warfare. The spectacles of violence, whether inspired by Shakespeare or Abu Ghraib, are consistently horrifying and fascinating; as viewers we are challenged by these twin sensations of revulsion and interest, of recognition and distance, and by the implications of these reactions for our wider culture that seems to promote a sensationalism of this performed violence. De Freston, rather than exploit that cultural, and perhaps human tendency, allows us to step back and realise how horrifying that behaviour is (rather than simply the acts of torture themselves).
'You can make it drink' is clearly inspired by images that have emerged from the War on Terror, and public debate about the use of water-boarding and torture during conflict. Why did you decide to start referencing these subjects, and why in the context of your other theatre-inspired canvases?
Tom de Freston: The nod to water-boarding in my work first came about in 2009 when I was helping to direct a disastrous production of Macbeth in Cambridge. In the production we had the witches water-boarding Macbeth. I then referenced it again in a series of drawings and a couple of canvases for the body of Shakespeare images I made in 2010-11; so it has always been tied to my wider body of theatre-inspired paintings. It is interesting that both themes emerged in my work at the same time. I don’t think this is a coincidence, as the theatrics of conflict and violence are what concern me.
A broader context is worthwhile here. I started my Fine Art Foundation course on September 11th 2001, and remember walking into my friend’s sitting room at the end of the day to see the events unfold on his TV. In that sense my artistic development has coincided with the complex ramifications of that day and the shift in the global political landscape that has followed. Water-boarding may not be the most horrific or inhumane thing to have arisen during this time, but its use is troubling. President Bush infamously claimed it was not a form of torture, despite the clear psychological and physical suffering that it induces. Even if we accept the euphemistic term - ‘interrogation technique’ - there are still huge problems with the process. Firstly, historical evidence would suggest that in most cases use of force to gain intelligence tends to lead to flawed information. Secondly, the Bush/Blair War on Terror became a broader ideological mission to promote supposedly Western values of democracy and human rights. It seems ironic that it is exactly these values that were forsaken when using techniques such as water-boarding.
All of this might seem to imply that paintings such as ‘You can make it drink’ are explicitly political. I hope they are not. I don’t think painting can, let alone should, be didactic. Rather than conveying some particular ethical stance on the specifics of water-boarding I wanted to make images which fit into a broader history of depictions of violence. My interest lies in depicting what humans are capable of doing to each other. Water-boarding is interesting in a visual sense, because there is a theatricality in its staging yet the manner in which is damages a victim is beyond sight.
Terrorism and war are often quite spectacular, especially in modern times, where media censorship is (arguably) less effective in the West, and so there is a huge audience for violence, as well as complex propaganda agendas and interests. By turning these images into art, what are you saying about this tendency for the media to sensationalise real-life violence, compared to the dramatisation of (not real-life) violence in theatre?
TF: In some ways I think media censorship in the West has grown over the last thirty years. Don McCullin was refused press accreditation by the Thatcher government in 1982, presumably due to fears that he would photograph whatever he saw uncensored by political or national bias. In Afghanistan and Iraq photojournalists are embedded within the army, primarily to ensure their safety, but surely resulting in limitations on the breadth and depth of coverage.
Of course, counter to that is the rise of the citizen as journalist, where social media and cameras on phones have allowed for the mass production and dissemination of photographs depicting events from the frontline. (As seen in the Middle East’s Arab Spring, and crucially in Syria. Though these images do not hold as much weight as ‘official’ media images.) I think the relationship between images of real life violence in the media and images of fictional violence in culture is an interesting one. In computer games, film, theatre and art in particular violence has become sensationalised to the point of being pornographic, in that any relationships between cause and effect, moral and ethical values and context are all disregarded for the sake of shock. I have no interest in shock and if I did then something as tame as painting, in comparison to the visceral nature of performance, would be a strange choice of medium.
The biggest worry is that as a society we have potentially become anaesthetised to violence. Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’ tackles this, looking at the television as a medium that feeds us a constant stream of real and fictional images of violence. Since then, the rise of twenty-four hour news coverage, social media and the internet has exacerbated the problem on an exponential scale. Images of violence now come at us as a constant stream from a vast array of sources, with the impact surely being that the layering of images culminates in a white noise, the mass repetition enacting a form of cancellation and resulting in empathy fatigue. The distressing reality is that even with all the images we are presented with on a daily basis a vast majority of conflicts across the world are given sporadic, or barely any, media attention.
I am not sure if my paintings are looking to say anything in particular about this whole process, but they are hopefully trying to do something other than present violence for its own sake. I don’t want violence to ever be the central subject of the work, but rather to be a player in a broader human drama. Yet at the same time I want to ensure there is no overt agenda to the work. Avoiding those two opposing problems, which I see as the central problems of violence in the media and depicting violence in culture, is critical to the works’ potential success.
First you painted canvases inspired by Shakespeare’s scenes of violence, now you take international politics and war as your subject: do you consider your Shakespeare paintings as a kind of apprenticeship with the Bard, which has given you the insight to tackle modern day subjects of violence and human cruelty?
TF: I think the two subjects have always been linked together in my work. When I was explicitly focusing on Shakespeare as a source I always had modern day subjects of violence and cruelty in my mind, and similarly whilst I have been focusing more explicitly on images of conflict Shakespeare - and more broadly theatre - have continued to be important reference points.
There is a danger that having made a large body of work directly related to a figure as iconic as Shakespeare that people presume his influence must be all encompassing. That said, Shakespeare’s best Tragedies are a brilliant start point for anyone wanting to engage with the potential for humans to be flawed, cruel animals, particularly when directed by ambition or ideology. The body of Shakespeare paintings also introduced me to Sarah Kane and Akira Kurosawa amongst others, who have had a direct influence on the work.
Prior to Shakespeare I produced a body of paintings for a Leverhulme-funded residency which took Milton’s Paradise Lost as a source, a project which has been equally as important to recent canvases, as more broadly have Ovid, Dante and the bible. Whilst literature and theatre have been central resources for my work, art history has been the most important source of inspiration. In regards to violence; Titian, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Rubens, J. L. David, Gericault, Delacroix, Picasso, Bacon, De Kooning and Daniel Richter are the obvious examples that spring to mind.
All these references, along with current and historical episodes of violence function like a compost heap, from which fragments can be borrowed and re-contextualised. I always have in the back of my head this pretentious idea of the process being a bit like that of Dr. Frankenstein, in which forms are constructed from fragments of matter.
The inclusion of a canvas featuring water-boarding in the same series as a distressed-looking creature in a bath (in a claustrophobically domestic space) suggests some connection between domestic and international power struggles and divisions... Do you see similarities between internal divisions and conflicts, and a country’s behaviour in the international arena?
TF: It is probably worthwhile answering by again giving some wider context. The paintings selected for the two shows has come from a body of paintings I have been working on for the past two years. The actual collection we have chosen from is from the last 12-18 months. There are about 30 large canvases. The horse headed figures keep appearing and as such are the central protagonist. I want the paintings to feel like they are fragments from a single world, as if the viewer has been given a series of windows onto a broken, non-linear narrative, or scenes from an unknown play. The paintings act more like a collection of poems than a novel or a play, in that each painting is independent, but they look to come together as a united whole.
I am interested in creating a type of mythology, so that all the nods to art history, literature, theatre, historical events and current affairs hopefully become echoes rather than the central subject. With this in mind I am very interested in readings, which build relationships between the works. I have tried to purposefully created repetitive iconography. Horse heads, Golems, chessboards-as-stages and architectural devices, pot plants, light bulbs, Penrose tessellating patterns, weather systems, cyan blue, windows, doors, shadows and masks are amongst the motifs that reoccur. Notions such as the Verfremdungseffekt and the Uncanny are important. I am wary of throwing about fashionable theories as it tends to be what people do to try and justify their work, but I do feel that the literature around both of these notions broadly encapsulates what I am trying to do with aspects of the work. By creating a lexicon of reappearing signs I want to create a situation where scenes feel both simultaneously familiar and strange to a viewer. The original German term for The Uncanny is Das Unheimliche, which can more literally be translated to mean The Unhomely. I feel this term best describes what I want to happen in the images.
So, yes, I see a clear link between the image of the figure in a bath and the image of a figure being water boarded, and more broadly between domestic/internal struggles vs. international power struggles. This is not to say I think this link is explicit in the two works mentioned, but rather that they tap into that broader connection. It is perhaps worth saying a little more about the bathroom canvas, as a roundabout way of trying to answer the question. That work links back to a few previous (non horse headed) paintings I have done of figures in bathrooms. In all the work the architecture of the internal space is under threat from the arrival of an external organic and corrosive system, which gives nods to weather systems and abstract expressionism.
The figure in the bath had both J. L. David’s ‘Marat’ in mind and images of the Deposition by Rembrandt and Rubens. The figure on the loo, as with the figure in Mother Wept, gives a nod to the Francis Bacon triptych of George Dyer’s death. The picture, like the water-boarding images, is all about the relationship between the body and water. Here the safety and privacy of a bath is interrupted by the arrival of a weather system from off stage. It is important the collection of canvases have both these domestic scenes, where a type of space and action described is familiar, and to sit these alongside images where the space is less determined and the action less familiar.
'A pity' and 'Raft' recollect 'The Raft of the Medusa' by Géricault (1818 – 1819), itself a revolutionary and Romantic work. What impact did it have on your work?
TF: 1819 feels like a pivotal year. It was the year Goya moved into La Quinta Del Sorda and started his black paintings. It was the year Keats wrote his spring Odes and I think it might have been the year Frankenstein was first published. 'The Raft of the Medusa' is a key staging point in the History of painting. It is often labelled as the last great statement of History Painting as the dominant genre of the medium. I think the labelling of it as Romantic by Historians is unhelpful, but then the labelling of work from the period as either Classical or Romantic is limiting and unhelpful anyway. It is true that much of its spirit fits with what has been called Romantic, but much of its construction is equally close to the Neo Classical model exemplified by J. L. David. Beyond the boldness of subject matter and the socio political context of the work it is hugely impress formally.
Most early 19th century History Paintings from France and more widely Europe had been composed in a manner similar to David’s ‘Oath of the Horati’, staging action across a picture plane neatly divided and organised by architectural forms. Gericault manages to stage the action across, up and through the picture plane, by structuring the action across two diagonals. From bottom left to top right is the diagonal of hope, rising from the Pieta like pose at the foreground eventually through to the climax of the hopefully waving aloft figure beaconing the boat on the horizon. From bottom right to top left is the diagonal of logic, a corpse directs us towards a cluster of talking men below the billowing sail that seems destined to take the raft into the mouth of the stormy waves. It is the tension between these two diagonals, depicting a moment in flux and the dramatic crux of the narrative, that make the image so powerful. It is that compositional structure which I have stolen in two Raft paintings for this series, and in previous canvases, and it is this structure, which is most important to me. The works wider historical significance as a high symbol of French Romanticism and the ideologies and political and revolutionary rumblings of Europe, and particularly France, at that moment in time can’t be ignored, but are of less relevance to my appropriation of the painting. In one of the images I have set this structure inside, in what appears to be a stage setting. In the other the image the structure has been doubled and flipped to create a symmetry, which in turn forms a flat pattern across the surface. I was interested in playing with the boundaries between exterior and interior spaces and in staging a scene in which an entire raft of figures appear to be repetitions of the same character.
Would you say that your own art is in some ways in the (French) Romantic tradition, given its concern with rebellion, injustice, theatre and power dynamics?
TF: I look at a lot of Romanticism and see pomposity, egotism, pretension and waffle. But then a lot of artists who would be associated with the European Romantic tradition are hugely important to my work. The Kantian notion of the placing of the individual at the centre of their own world, Friedrich through to Rothko and the exploration of the sublime, in particular the individuals relationship to nature, Gericault, Delacroix and Manet (then through to abstract expressionism) and the re-liberation of the expressive ability of paint from the stiffing of the academies, the language and ideas in the Spring Odes of Keats, the vision of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Turner’s landscapes are all things which are ascribed the label of Romantic and which have had a big influence on my thinking. I think I certainly used to be far more of a Romantic idealist, particularly when I was making purely abstract works. I had a tattoo of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale and was convinced that the sole role of painting was to provide some kind of transcendental experience and escape from tangible reality. I am certainly far more cynical and doubting now and far less convinced of the power of painting, or any art form, to offer up theoretical solutions or spiritual experiences. But I do still believe that works of art can be part of a wider network of experiences and ways of thinking and seeing that can help shift and change the structures of our society. This is quite an idealistic, optimistic and Romantic hope.
By exaggerating the visual expression of pain, do you think you capture the feeling of it better?
TF: I think we have become anaesthetised to images of pain, through an exposure to a mass of images of extreme violence and suffering both in reality and fiction. So an exaggeration of pain, or any display of pain does not necessarily equate directly to any effective communication of pain, certainly not in terms of stimulating fear or pity. It is a generalisation, but I think that a lot of the emotional responses to images of suffering are superficial or presentations to fulfil social expectations. This may be a harsh assessment and perhaps is a comment on me as opposed to a broad social truth. I do think, however, that if we want to communicate suffering to a viewer, if we want to achieve Pathos, then we need to find other more indirect routes. I think there are a number of ways of achieving this, most notably repetition, comedy and absurdity.
In terms of repetition I tend to think of the Warhol prints of car crashes, where he presents a grid of screen prints of the same image repeated, with only subtle shifts in tone and image clarity as a result of the printing process. Confronting the image for the first time it washes over us, as images from newspapers, screen prints and most of Warhol’s work tends to. It is a dead statement, which we can read and comprehend, but which induces no feeling or reaction, it has a dearth of expressive qualities. As we move across the row and down the columns a shift takes place, we become aware that we are feeling nothing, that we are viewing the image superficially, as if a row of soup cans, as a mere statement on commodification. We become aware of the paradox between this reaction and the content of the work, an image of a person lying dead in a car, a real person. I can’t think of a less pretentious phrase, but what take places is akin to a form of emotional algebra, where the relationship between our lack of feeling and the realisation of this lack, results in a guilt that induces horror and pity. I try to use repetition, with single canvases and across multiple canvases, with this, amongst other things, in mind.
Comedy is a useful tool, and the relationship between comedy and tragedy is key. I hope that in some paintings the horses heads are comic. I want people to find them absurd, foolish, ridiculous, to laugh at them. But a similar contradiction takes place to that induced by repetition. The laughter at a situation and context, which however caricatured or comic, is full of suffering, hopefully causes an uncomfortable dialogue between two sets of emotions. I hope that both devices come together across the canvases. Whilst the horse headed character is foolish, unreal, caricatured, childish and crude, I want the viewers, over the course of multiple canvases, to build up a relationship with the characters, to care about them, to believe in them as things with emotions and to be concerned with their plight. Hopefully what happens is that at first the horse headed characters are a type of other, an unreal, inhuman thing which we can’t and don’t feel any desire to relate to. On a simpler level I think something like this happens when we view images of people involved in conflict, we find ways to enact a process of ‘othering’ on them. Yet hopefully after seeing multiple canvases a reversal happens, where rather than seeing all the things that make the characters other we start to see them in relation to ourselves. If this happens then hopefully we understand that the suffering of the character, however much they are horses headed, painted, foolish and crude, is something we should care about.
I think all of this fits into the connection to theatre in the paintings. Beyond actual collaborations with directors and productions the works are clearly inherently theatrical. Scenes are staged. I often start by staging performances and photographing set scenes, which are then the basis for drawings, which provide the foundations of the paintings. At other points I will build small sets or use collage and digital collage to construct scenes and spaces. It is not a direct observation or analytical shift from observed reality. The process in which the images are put together is synthetic, in that it is constructed in the way a set designer or director devices a scene form a play. The faces are theatrical, false, mask like, puppet like. The action is theatrical, acted out and clearly performed for an audience rather than trying to imitate any actual event. Everything about how the paintings are formed, painted, constructed and viewed is theatrical rather than offering up a pretence of a mirror on the world. It is this unreality that is central to the emotive impact of the works, which tries to create a feeling which is real and to induce empathy by its very lack of reality.
Collingwood once wrote that art is moral, and valuable, through telling the truth about society – its secrets and darkness:
“The artist… as spokesman for his community, the secrets he must utter are theirs. The reason why they need him is that no community altogether knows its own heart… For the evils which come from that ignorance, the poet as prophet suggests no remedy, because he has already given one. The remedy is the poem itself. Art is the community’s medicine for the worst disease of the mind, the corruption of consciousness.” (Collingwood, 1938, 317)
… Do you agree with Collingwood on this point, and is there a conscious effort, in your own practise, to expose horror and violence? Or, are you fascinated, independent of ideas about value and morality, by the sensationalism and entertainment of violence, and how people interact accordingly?
TF: I think we need to be very careful about think art can or should offer up any clear moral code. I worry about art that tries to be instrumental or moralistic, I am just not sure it works. I am certainly not sure that painting can offer up the kind of clarity that the notion of the artist as spokesperson of moralist would suggest, it is too inherently ambiguous. I don’t believe in the painter as any kind of authorial voice, and I certainly make images with that thought in mind. By which I mean I think that it is pointless trying to produce paintings that articulate some premeditated notion, it doesn’t work. So what I try to do is take the role of the reader/viewer, making sure that at every stage of making the painting I am engaging with it, trying to work out what it is about and making decisions based on that. I always worry that sounds a bit mystical, but actually it is very pragmatic.
It is a case of trying to make sure you are open and fluid to what a work can be about, and that you are making decisions based on what is happening in the painting rather than based on what you want it to do. As such the notion of the artist as a guiding force is flawed. But the notion of the artwork as potentially moral value is of interest. It is also worth pointing out that I don’t believe that this openness means that a work is a totally blank canvas, which can be interpreted in any way the viewer sees fit. Any interpretation has to fit with the work, which means that a broad array of readings can work, but not an infinite array, there are right and wrong readings and associations. With this in mind I hope that the canvases deal with violence and cruelty in a way that get people to consider ideas about the morality of images of violence and cruelty, and more broadly the consequences.
I have some other reservations though. I am making images that draw inspiration directly from contemporary and historical instances of conflict, from episodes which have led to suffering, pain and death. It is all well making intellectual claims about the worthiness of the work, about its ability to contain some moral value. But the reality is that they are likely to be viewed by a narrow, quite elite audience. They are going to be exhibited in a commercial gallery, and the mains aims are likely to focus around interest, sales and critical acclaim. What actual worth this has in terms of moral value or social worth is highly questionable, the audience is too narrow. I find this uncomfortable and feel there is a risk of the whole process being exploitative. I have some things in mind to try and temper these problems, but listing them is likely to just sound like an exercise in easing guilt. I think if art of any kind has the ability to have any true impact or to induce any kind of change then it needs to find a way to appeal to a broader audience. The problem is that a lot of art (which is intended to be moral) is often so esoteric that it has no ability to communicate to a broader audience. If I am honest I am aware that the whole process risks being a selfish game of egotistically believing that something might be having an impact when it might just be white noise or the equivalent of shouting into the abyss.
On a broad level though art is important. 'Guernica' is a clear example in terms of exposing the horrors of humanity. But it is only one player in a broad network of players, and ultimately it is politics and communities that make changes, not art.
What are your views about sensationalism, art and violence? Do you see yourself as having a responsibility to paint in a certain way, with a certain moral structure – or do you believe in art for the sake of art, in the more Wildean sense?
TF: In his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde states ‘all art is quite useless’. It is the term most frequently used to paraphrase his views on aestheticism, or more specifically art for arts sake. It is a presumption and an ideal that directed much of the production and consumption of 20th Century art. It is the foundations of High Modernism in painting, the belief that painting should focus and celebrate on its unique properties of paint being spread across a flat surface. It is the Kantian belief in the autonomy of the thing in itself. It suggests that painting, and more broadly art, can and should only be self reflexive and considered the mechanics of its own existence. I don’t believe this is necessary or possible. This is not to say that I don’t think that such values should be placed centre stage in any reading or appreciation of art. I believe that the formal content of the work comes first, and that a work can only be as successful as these values, but I just don’t believe the can or do exist in isolation.
It is worth pointing to a less quoted passage for Wilde’s preface, ‘all art is at once surface and symbol, those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril’. Wilde is acknowledging that art by its nature will always offer up associations beyond its aesthetic content… When I am making or viewing my own paintings I don’t think they can ever be totally closed objects and they will always be offering up connections to the outside world. As discussed before I neither believe in some authorial voice of the artist as godlike figure or gospel, offering up a clear moral message. But I believe in the idea of the artwork as an object, which will open up a dialogue with the viewer, not a dialogue where anything goes, but with a series of signs that can be read in a range of ways. As any reading works its way outwards from the canvas it is important to constantly test it against the work itself, to check it comes from the work and it not just the projected fantasy of the view.
Which brings me to the question of whether I feel a duty to paint in a particular way or to make certain types of images. On a simple level I know I want to paint, and that I want to paint images and that I want those images to tell stories in a way unique to painting. That comes first. With the subject matter of recent work I do feel a responsibility, or at the least feel I understand that there is a danger that the work is drawing from and dealing with (amongst other things) events which of real human suffering. But there is a two-fold danger of trying to be too pious or moral.
Firstly the entire process of making a painting is, and has to be, open to constant shifts and changes and surprises. It is not possible to make work that communicates some preconceived idea. Secondly, art that tries to be didactic, outwardly moral or instrumental tends to be worthy but flawed artistically. As such there is a certain loss of control, which means you have to make the images you make and then put them out into the world and hope that they are part of a network of conversations which is positive in its impact rather than negative. I again point to the fact that at present it would be fairly arrogant and naive to believe that the works involvement in such a network was at all significant.