Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919 – 1933

TATE LIVERPOOL 

23 June – 15 October 2017

Otto Dix, 1891-1969
Self-Portrait with Easel 1926
(Selbstbildnis mit Staffelei) 1926
800 x 550 mm
Leopold-Hoesch-Museum & Papiermuseum, Düren
© DACS 2017. Leopold-Hoesch-Museum & Papiermuseum Düren. Photo: Peter Hinschläger.

“Photography has presented us with new possibilities and new tasks. It can depict things in magnificent beauty but also in terrible truth, and can also deceive enormously. We must be able to bear seeing the truth, but above all we should hand down the truth to our fellow human beings and to posterity, be it favourable to us or unfavourable.” August Sander

Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919 – 1933 is an overwhelming experience and a profoundly relevant exhibition in a “post truth” world. It combines two extraordinary shows Artist Rooms: August Sander and Otto Dix: The Evil Eye, each giving context, insight and new perspectives to the other. With over 300 works on display there is a lot to take in, including Dix’s devastating War etchings. Visitors are directed first to the Sander exhibition which is completely absorbing, so allow yourself ample time to spend with Dix’s compelling work in part two. (You may well need a break inbetween!)  Entwined with a historical timeline in handwritten script, August Sander’s black and white photography brings humanity and compassion into focus, in perfect counterpoint with the psychological extremities of Dix’s paintings, drawings and prints. Curated by Dr Susanne Mayer-Büser, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Francesco Manacorda, Artistic Director and Lauren Barnes, Assistant Curator, Tate Liverpool in collaboration with Artist Rooms (a collection jointly owned by the National Galleries of Scotland and the Tate) and the German Historical Institute, the exhibition is an inspiring collaboration, moving beyond words and essential viewing.

August Sander, 1876-1964
Secretary at West German Radio in Cologne 1931, printed 1992
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
260 x 149 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010
© Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

The Weimar period in Germany between the first and second World Wars has always fascinated me, because the outpouring of Art it produced illuminates the best and the very worst that human beings are universally capable of. Art has a pivotal role to play in acknowledging, understanding and potentially altering human perception. It can confront us with uncomfortable truths and with the timeless necessity for ongoing ethical, social and cultural reappraisal. Weimar Germany produced astonishing, disturbing and visionary work in film, literature and visual art, dancing on the edge of an abyss, or peering courageously into it as Germany descended into Nazi radicalisation. Sander and Dix were witnesses to the monumental collapse of civilization around them. Their work is testament to “magnificent beauty” and “terrible truth” of the human condition, encompassing our propensity for creation and destruction as a species. To have lived through such a time is something of an abstract to 21st Century eyes, which is why this work needs to be seen, doubly so in the times we’re now living in. This history lived visually displays how chillingly easy it is to deceive ourselves, individually and collectively.  In terms of freedom of expression and tolerance, Art is a matter of life and death, something totalitarian regimes have always understood and that we forget at our peril.

The effect of seeing this exhibition may be jolting, shocking and highly confrontational to some viewers, especially in relation to the savagery of Dix’s work, but grinding poverty, dispossession and the depravity of war exist all over the world today and that should shock everyone.   Sander’s epic photographic project People of the 20th Century, which began in 1910 and was still unfinished when he died in 1964, endures as a creative act of responsibility, reconnaissance and remembrance. The exhibition presents 144 photographs from the series, mixing the various categories and portfolios: The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, The Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City and The Last People. Sander sought to create “a social atlas of Germany”. His categorisations responded to the descent into fascism with the addition of The Persecuted and Political Prisoners portfolios, the latter made by his son Erich Sander in prison before his death in 1944. Significantly August Sander doesn’t preach or denounce, but allows the character and dignity of each sitter to speak for itself. These aren’t portraits taken for aesthetic reasons or commission, but with the objectivity demanded by the political, social, cultural conditions and constraints of the time. Sander’s lens, like his mind  and heart, were egalitarian by nature. He was leftist, antifascist, aligned with the Cologne Progressives and worker’s movement, politics that made him a target for the National Socialist party. In 1936 stocks of his first book Face of our Time (German: Antlitz der Zeit), published in 1929, were confiscated by the Nazis and the photographic plates destroyed. His work was considered “un German “by the Third Reich in its essential connectivity. What speaks to the viewer across time are the faces of individuals and the humanity at the heart of Sander’s life- long project. Photographing German society according to hierarchical occupations and class was entirely in keeping with his worldview. To contemporary eyes, categorising human beings may seem extremely clinical and ironic given the systematic application of that methodology to the Holocaust. We may also perceive categories such as The Last People; idiots, the sick, the insane, and the dying or The City; Travelling People, Gypsies and Transients as dispassionate and potentially inflammatory, however Sander’s intent was inclusion, highlighting marginalisation in German society.

August Sander, 1876-1964
Disabled ex-serviceman c.1928, printed 1990
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
260 x 190 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010
© Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

In Disabled Ex-Serviceman (1928, gelatin silver print on paper) for example, we see the human cost of industrialised warfare in his image of an amputee at the bottom of the stairs, literally and metaphorically, unable to rise. After the disastrous First World War, the pointed gaze of the soldier confronts us with the pariah status of an entire nation and our own complicity or resistance in the world. There is no glory or heroism, just damaged, desperate lives in a climate of inflation, unemployment and poverty.  Sander’s portraits affirm the relationship between photographer and sitter as one human being beholding another, appealing directly to the emotional intelligence of the viewer. Whether fixing his gaze upon a Mousetrap Salesman, Proletarian Intellectuals, Blacksmiths, Bricklayers, Mothers, Artists, Circus Performers, Industrialists, Philosophers or SS Officers, Sander’s grasp of humanity allows him to craft an image of everyone without judgement, a quality that should never be mistaken for neutrality. The eyes of his sitters meet ours in moments of recognition that are immensely powerful, poignant and prophetic. We see in Sander’s photographs so many people who would have been reclassified by the Third Reich as less than human. We will never know how many of these people were tortured, starved and murdered as part of Hitler’s “Final Solution”. Political activists, so called “degenerate” artists, disabled people, homosexuals or anyone of non-Aryan descent were all marked for extermination by the regime. Thankfully in Sander’s work we can still see some of their faces, long after the generation who survived WWII have passed.

One of my favourite Sander images is Girl in A Fairground Caravan (1926-32, silver gelatin print on paper). Framed by a small window with just her head and shoulders visible, her hand extends to the outside lock on the door, within a stain-like pattern on the side of the caravan. On the cusp of adulthood her face is solemnly fixed on the viewer, poised, wary, with eyes far older than her years. Far from a youthful, carefree existence, we feel her confinement and the edge of trust in the camera as witness. It is an intensely psychological portrait of a threshold stage of life and its attendant fears, together with a burgeoning climate of isolation and persecution. With the hindsight of history, the caravan resembles a railway carriage. Whenever I look at this photograph I wonder what became of this young woman, how her story unfolded in the gathering storm and whether she survived, existed or eventually prospered. Sander’s images are timelessly potent in that respect. Even though many of his sitters are nameless, they are real, relatable and hauntingly empathic, as fragile as we all are in the midst of events we cannot control. The girl looks as though in the next moment she could turn the key in the lock and step outside, but here she remains, held in a single breath of hesitation, suspended forever in the photograph between childhood and adulthood, life and death.

There’s unexpected beauty and grace in Sander’s image of two Blacksmiths (1926, silver gelatin print on paper), part of the Skilled Tradesman / The Worker- His life and work portfolio. The older man, hammer in hand is so positively strong, proud and confident in his skill, gained through years of experience. We feel that he is at a stage of life where he is comfortable in his own skin, whilst his younger apprentice, with a heavily defined and doubtful, creased brow, hasn’t matured into his profession or himself yet. Side by side with the anvil between them they are level, part of an endless cycle. Humanity is Sander’s baseline in every shot.

August Sander, 1876-1964
Turkish Mousetrap Salesman 1924-30, printed 1990
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
260 x 191 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010
© Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

In the photograph Turkish Mousetrap Salesman (1924-30, gelatin silver print on paper) from the portfolio The City/ Travelling People, Gypsies and Transients, we see strength, resilience, weariness, fear and sadness in the face of a man, perhaps in his late 40’s or early 50’s. His intense eyes convey vulnerability and stature, transcending his position in society. Economic hardship and uncertainty are etched across his face. Sander’s choice of a large format camera, glass negatives and long exposure times, capture with care every detail of the person. We feel the rough texture of the salesman’s worn jacket, delicate wisps of aged hair and patches of loss, his scars, beautifully defined mouth and soulful eyes. Rejecting the latest photographic equipment, Sander favoured the daguerreotype, declaring that it; “cannot be surpassed in the delicacy of delineation, it is objectivity in the best sense of the word and has a contemporary relevance.”  The choice of analogue in our own time and what it signifies in terms of Craft and human values, equally so.


August Sander, 1876-1964
The Painter Otto Dix and his Wife Martha 1925-6, printed 1991
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
205 x 241 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010
© Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

Sander’s double portrait of The Painter Otto Dix and his Wife Martha (1925-6, silver gelatin print on paper) presents an interesting dynamic of equality. Martha, a fashionable socialite, faces the camera in a frontal pose, whilst her husband with his unmistakable profile is positioned behind her, blonde hair slicked back in an “American style”. We are left in no doubt that the primary subject is Martha and she’s confident in the role. The image is from Sander’s portfolio The Woman and the Man’, classified in the group ‘The Woman’, part of his ‘People of the 20th Century’ project. In spite of the classification of “wife” Martha is in no way subordinate and in her direct gaze we see a person in her own right with a strong, intellectual presence. It is a fascinating partnership which reveals itself further in Dix’s paintings and drawings of his wife, clearly in a different league to many of his other depictions of women. Referred to affectionately as Mutzli, we see her dignified profile in Woman in Gold (Mutzli) (1923, watercolour, gold paint and pencil on paper), her face partially concealed by a sophisticated, decadent hat. In Dix’s beautiful drawing Portrait of Mutzli Koch (1921, pencil on paper) we see only her face and neck, draped in the suggestion of a luxurious fur, hair pulled back into a bun with arched eyebrows framing her gaze. Dix draws the curve of her cheekbones, nose and cat -like almond eyes with the strength and delicacy of a caress, every mark declares his love for her, a quality more frequently absent from his Art.  The tenderness and sensuality in this drawing is equally met by Mutzli’s direct gaze at Dix. The artist’s picture books for Hana, his wife’s child from her first marriage, are fantastic and delightful, with scenes from Fairytales, the Bible and hybrid creatures rendered in watercolour and pencil. Although they are not without a Dixian edge, fused with the dark spirit of the brothers Grimm! Dix’s Bremmen Town Musicians, part of his Cornucopia for Hana (1925) are rather demonic looking in contrast with scenes such as Knight Hans at Hoher Randen and His Family on Horseback with its bright, buoyant palette. This aspect of the artist’s work, combined with domestic family life is a recent discovery, bringing a surprising dimension to an artist famed for his acute lack of empathy.

Otto Dix, 1891-1969
Assault Troops Advance under Gas (Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor) 1924
Etching on paper
196 x 291 mm
Otto Dix Stiftung
© DACS 2017. Image: Otto Dix Stiftung

Serving as a machine gunner in WWI, Dix was exposed to unspeakable violence and killing on an unprecedented scale. We cannot begin to imagine the horror of trench warfare, the loss of life or the social disintegration which followed the annihilation of an entire generation, but in his series of 50 etchings War/ Der Krieg (1924) Dix gives insight to his experiences on the front line, attempting to purge himself

“All art is exorcism. I paint dreams and visions too; the dreams and visions of my time. Painting is the effort to produce order; order in yourself. There is much chaos in me, much chaos in our time.

Like Goyas cycle of over 80 etchings and aquatints The Disasters of War (1810-1820) which he consciously studied, Dix’s War etchings are among the most powerful, visceral and damning images ever created in response to human atrocities. The process of etching was intensely physical for Dix, like scratching his wounds, a cathartic bloodletting, burning away the surface metal with acid to banish his nightmares. It is hard to describe the way that these monochrome images of a modest scale conjure the smell of death and rotting flesh, the terror of men driven mad by fear, hollowed out by exhaustion and the relentless shelling, reducing the earth to a pitted, desolate landscape of body parts. Dix leads us into his memories of the Western Front, battlefields where the horizon is ruptured, disappearing into broken lines like lost hope. Human bodies are caught on barbed wire, impaled, mutilated by machine gun fire or dismembered by bombs. Surprisingly one of the most disturbing images is the most still, completely uninhabited by the human figure. Shell Holes near Dontrien Illuminated by Flares (1924, etching on paper, 195 x 260 mm, Otto Dix Foundation, Vaduz), conveys a moment of profound, out of body stillness, when the world slows in the face of severe shock and trauma. This is a print that you can actually hear, held in the breath of the artist/witness and the viewer beholding it. It is an image etched in my mind forever.

Otto Dix, 1891-1969
Dying Soldier (Sterbender Soldat) 1924
Etching on paper
198 x 148 mm
Otto Dix Stiftung
© DACS 2017. Image: Otto Dix Stiftung

In Soldier and Nun (1924, etching on paper, 200 x 145mm Otto Dix Foundation, Veduz) the artist depicts the desecration of rape, placing the viewer behind the soldier in the composition. This voyeuristic positioning on the threshold mirrors the scene before us, amplifying the horror of bearing witness. There is also, in the context of Dix’s oeuvre, a very uncomfortable edge of complicity in how the image is composed. The print was withheld from the original cycle, deemed too shocking to be shown, but like all of Dix’s war etchings it is a document of modern warfare that needs to be seen and acknowledged. Dix’s Sex Murder (Lustmord) (1922, Etching on paper, 275 x 346mm, private collection, courtesy of Richard Magy Ltd, London) displays a bloody crime scene, clotted in black with two dogs copulating in a corner like a cartoon. There is no empathy in Psychopathy and none here either in the rendering of the female figure as a mutilated, discarded doll. The misogynist violence in early pulp fiction, the plotlines of contemporary thrillers, TV cop shows and interactive games like Grand Theft Auto aren’t so far removed from Dix’s Sex Murder as a recurrent obsession in 20th and 21st century popular culture.  Dix often depicted himself as a predatory, lurid and monstrous figure in his work. He projects severity and power in his self-portraits, a veneer of fashionable respectability that is prone to disintegration in the fluid immediacy of his watercolours and hard-edged drawings. Dix displays his own morality and logic in chaotic and highly disturbing scenes which would be confessional if they weren’t so entirely without remorse.

Otto Dix, 1891-1969
Corpse Entangled in Barbed Wire (Leiche im Drahtverhau) 1924
Etching on paper
300 x 243 mm
Otto Dix Stiftung
© DACS 2017. Image: Otto Dix Stiftung

There is undeniable madness, depravity, societal decay and death in Dix’s Neue Sachlichkeit /New Objectivity, elements shared with fellow artists George Grosz and Max Beckmann. Satirical and abhorrent depictions of the human figure were weapons Dix and Grosz used to attack middle class complacency, the military, church and state. The unflinching reality of their work is grounded in human behavior and experience, their rejection of Romantic idealism and expressionism. In the aftermath of WWI and the “Golden Age” of the roaring 20’s, Dix declared that;

“People were already beginning to forget, what horrible suffering the war had brought them. I did not want to cause fear and panic, but to let people know how dreadful war is and so to stimulate people’s powers of resistance.

Whilst I don’t doubt the artist’s intention of resistance, there is also an aspect of his personality, arguably unleashed by his war time experiences, which revels in the adrenalin fueled excitement of killing and sexual violence. It is a source of masculine power for Dix, coupled with personal revulsion and disgust. The artist’s commitment to depicting “life undiluted”, to “experience all the darkest recesses of life in order to represent them” is a double-edged credo. He admitted that “the war was a horrible thing, but also something powerful. I was not about to miss it. You have to have seen people in this untethered state to know something about humans”. Dix’s response to what he saw around him, later manifested in immersion and participation in the underworld of Weimar Germany’s streets, nightclubs and brothels, a search for truth devoid of nobility or redemption. His works on paper explore a nocturnal world distorted by fear, loathing and collective psychosis.

Otto Dix, 1891–1969
Reclining Woman on a Leopard Skin 1927
(Liegende auf Leopardenfell) 1927
Oil paint on panel
680 x 980 mm
© DACS 2017. Collection of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University. Gift of Samuel A. Berger; 55.031.

Dix’s grotesque, almost hallucinogenic depiction of prostitutes and their clients, including sailors and soldiers (including  himself), achieve a heightened state of animalistic abandon and debauchery. Even his society portraits, rendered with the finest technical precision, amplify the prevailing sense of Nietzschean annihilation, a philosopher Dix was drawn to at an early stage of his development. The artist’s extremism is centred on the body, in the coupling of sex and death, the dominance of instinctual drives and inevitable decay, which he projects onto the human figure as Germany personified. His iconic portrait of nightclub dancer Anita Berber (1925) in garish, pursed lip red is a parody of glamour. Reclining Woman on a leopard Skin (1927, Oil paint on panel, 680 x 980mm, Collection of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Gift of Samuel A. Berger, 55.031) is a superb example of the dangerously mesmerising spirit of the age. The woman in the painting with her cat-like eyes and claw-like hands holds the mask of her pale, made up face temporarily in place, coiled like a caged animal about to strike. The red folds of fabric and leopard skin feel strangely alive, with the figure positioned in the draped, though spartan, recess of a boudoir/ lair.  The acidic green gossamer dress garishly clashes with opposing red, while the woman’s glazed eyes are remarkably cold and fixed, seeing right through to the flesh and blood that you are. In the background a Hyena-like creature lurks in the darkness, teeth bared, a manifestation of raw instinct and animus/anima depending on your point of view. The arrangement of the body is a series of highly articulate serpentine curves, painted with consummate skill. The calculation in this image is frighteningly compelling, concealed and revealed by the artist’s technique. We sense that we are only a second away from the mask of the subject or artist being torn away and that anticipatory tension permeates much of Dix’s work.

In Vanitas (Youth and Old Age) (1932, tempera and oil paint on canvas) the subject is at once a rendering of Death and the Maiden, derived from the medieval Dance of Death and a visual statement of Dix’s contemporary Germany. The proudly smiling, golden haired nude, every inch a beamingly healthy Aryan maiden, could easily be a poster girl for the Nazi propaganda machine. However, Dix places her on a distinctive edge of shadow, framed in judgement within an allegorical tradition. We feel immediately that she would not be out of place in a tableau of the Seven Deadly Sins. Her expression is so righteous and sure of itself that it is faintly ridiculous, whist a skeletal crone hovers in the background. It’s a reminder that the girl in the foreground is just food for worms as we all are and that her idealised beauty is preposterously shallow. It’s an ugly, repulsive image in the association between ethics and aesthetics, but that is precisely the point. The artist’s rendering of the figure is sharp as a blade in his exposure of the subject as part of a cultural tradition of seeing.

Dix was acutely aware of his German artistic heritage like a Faustian pact. His use of tempera techniques, oils and the woodcut reflect the influence of German Renaissance masters such as Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Crannach the Elder and Hans Holbein. The fastidious delicacy of his paint handling meets the savagely critical depiction of the rich, privileged and famous. Even at this level, flattery is exceedingly rare in a Dix painting and sentimentality categorically dead. Then as now, the gap between rich and poor was ever widening and Dix captures the outrage and repugnance of those conditions, whilst denying political motives in his art. His searing body of work remains anti-war, in spite of the revelry he conveys in minute details of violence. The objective recognition and striking calm of a prostitute meeting the gaze of the artist in Dedicated Sadists (1922, Watercolour, graphite and ink on paper, 498 x 375mm), suggests that although Dix defended his art as a moral imperative, on a deeper, personal level he is confronting aspects of himself with the same brutal honesty. Dix’s humanity ultimately resides in his complexity as a man and an artist, holding up a mirror to the ugliness every human being is capable of. Dix doesn’t just paint, etch and draw death as the great human leveller, he strips it naked and makes no apologies.

There is a profound sense of darkness, light and the internal struggle between the two present at the beginning of his practice, when Dix was experimenting and finding his voice. Birth (Hour of Birth) (1919, Woodcut print on paper, 180 x 156mm, Galerie Remmert und Barth, Düsseldorf) in starkly, chiselled monochrome is a fine example. The sun and moon are attendants, the nipples and belly button are stars in a body bisected by the absolute values of black and white. The child’s path into the world is, at least initially, an angular projection of light from its mother’s open thigh. There is a trajectory of fate in this black and white vision of the world that feels inescapable. Dix’s painting Longing (Self Portrait) (1918-19, Oil on Canvas, 535 x 520mm, Galerie Neue Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden) is a fractured face in deep blue/ black with red mouth agape, a man divided between a quartet of dualistic elements. Between sun and moon, the impulse of life in the pink embryonic form in the top right-hand corner and a red devilish goat in opposition. A green star and branch springing from the artist’s head implies creativity and intellect as the anguished man’s only means of survival and integration.

Dix had eight works in the infamous “Degenerate Art Exhibition” held in Munich in 1937. He lost his teaching position and 260 of his works were confiscated by the Nazi’s between 1937 and 1938, some of them destroyed. Looking around this phenomenal exhibition, it is a miracle that the works we see today survived. Like Dix, August Sander created a prolific body of work and whilst their images may confront us with uncomfortable truths, their New Objectivity is pertinent to unfolding events on the contemporary world stage. We are witnessing the largest displacement of people ever seen since WWII, growing inequality, economic turmoil, modern slavery, increasing radicalisation of politics and the threat of environmental catastrophe. In viewing this exhibition, we cannot hide from the powers of creation and destruction wrought by human hands and are forced to examine our own resistance, complicity and responsibility for the history we are making today.

Tate Liverpool, Portraying a Nation Germany 1919 – 1933 exhibition trailer:

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Karla Black and Kishio Suga: A New Order

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art  22 October 2016 – 19 February 2017

Kishio Suga Condition of Critical Boundary, 1972. Wire mesh, brick, wood, stone (dimensions variable) Installation view at Tamura Gallery, Tokyo, 1972. Photo: Kishio Suga. Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo.

Each thing and space had belonged to particular worlds of their own before they were hand picked up by the artist and in these worlds they all had preconditioned orders labelled by nature or by people. Orders here mean ranked situations or hierarchy, whether they have certain parts in the place or not, their values, demands, qualities or quantities…my final point in making artworks is to introduce ways to see and learn about things, to perceive an existing space differently so that viewers can experience a new kind of order. If they can apply their experience with art into their daily life, the new order may find settlement there. I would like to introduce a new way of reacting (to situations) in all viewers.”  Kishio Suga, essay Between ‘being’ and ‘nothingness’ (2005)

The pairing of Glasgow based artist Karla Black (b. 1972) and Japanese artist Kishio Suga (b.1944) is inspired in terms of the questions raised about how we experience the world and the entire arena of Contemporary Art. A New Order is the first in a proposed series of exhibitions placing the work of Scottish contemporary artists in an international context. It is also the first major exhibition of Kishio Suga’s work in the UK, coinciding with his solo exhibition at the Dia Foundation in New York and his retrospective at the Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan. Part of the informal, pioneering, and experimental Mono-ha (“School of Things”) movement in 1960’s and 70’s Japan, Suga’s work incorporates everyday organic and industrial materials including stone, wood, iron, wire, glass, zinc, earth and paraffin wax. “Rejecting representation” and the “illusionism” of Western Art, he presents the viewer with “situations” where materials are placed in a specific location to explore the relationships between them, the surrounding space and the human mind perceiving them.

It’s easy to be dismissive of the plethora of contemporary artists now working with the assemblage of everyday, found objects/ materials and forget that not all Art evolves out of the same ground of intention as that which the 21st Century Art market made fertile. Although they have become synonymous the business of making Art and the Art World business are not the same thing and this exhibition provides a good opportunity to reappraise expectations of how full, empty or poisoned the Contemporary Art chalice might be. Historically Suga represents a different generational, ground breaking spin on re-assembling the world, a “New Order” of seeing,  which I think is at odds with how many viewers today may initially approach this work, having been lulled into material familiarity. The best works in this show from both Black and Suga arguably have their origins in a ground of understanding beyond an instantaneous, fleetingly bright idea or the desirous draw of certain materials. Connections are made holistically through the senses and with the dynamics or tensions of seeing present in each room. This is particularly true of singular works which effectively command the space they occupy.

Kishio Suga Left-Behind Situation 1972/2012 Installation view at Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, 2012
Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo. Photo: Tsuyoshi Satoh

Kishio Suga’s Left-Behind Situation (1972/2012, Stone, steel plate, brick, wire rope) is a very good example. The first thing that hits you is the smell of timber which is powerfully evocative, pieces in natural states contrasted with veneered, manufactured fragments, placed at intersections in a complex matrix of suspended wires. The primary sensation is physical rather than intellectual, which is unexpected in what might seem like purely conceptual territory. Often when encountering art installations we walk in –get the idea and walk out again; there’s nothing to imaginatively reveal itself and its game over once we read the explanatory label beside the work. What made me smile; standing on the threshold of the doorway to this work and my own curiosity was feeling slightly off-kilter. I like it when Art isn’t easy, when it intrigues or disarms me in ways I don’t expect. I don’t want to hear the punchline first or be told what to think or feel about a piece of work, which is why I avoid all text labels in the first instance to see what the work itself has to say. What I discovered in Suga’s Left-Behind Situation was a pleasing sense of precariousness in play, also seen in Interconnected Spaces (2016, Rock and rope) where the weight of a stone contained in its shadow pins down four ropes, tethered to the gallery walls. It’s strangely beautiful in its simplicity and pregnant silence. The placement of this work in the bare room made space for me to stop and pay closer attention to what was around me and where I stood in relation to the work on various levels. I began to notice circular marks on the floor, whether accidental/ residual or intentional it was impossible to say. It felt as though they were stains around where other placed stones may have stood, or perhaps they were marks left by a different artist from an entirely different show. The point was I was curious about everything in that room, including the marks on the wooden floor. The form and texture of the boulder with its aged erosion and dirt expanded my focus, framed by the tension of ropes. When I first stood in the doorway, seeing this work from a distance, I felt as though time had stopped; a moment before the possibility of ropes snapping to potentially fling the stone across the room, so where I stood in relation to it became a question mark. The large boulder felt like a living entity rather than a dead object, an opportunity for the viewer to pause and imaginatively grapple with their relationship to the raw, natural material and the surrounding man-made space. There is something very Zen about this work which doesn’t stand upon words but the dynamics of perception as an infinitely fluid process. The Art work acts as a point of reference rather than the end product representing, describing or symbolising a certain meaning. In many ways Suga’s work strips Art of its Western preoccupations of attributing value and describing meaning, reassembling materials from the real world so that the viewer can compose their own New Order.

Kishio Suga Interconnected Spaces, 2016.Installation view at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo
Photo: Sam Drake.

In a similar way I remember very clearly my first encounter with Karla Black’s impressive, resonant installation works in the barrel vaulted Hall of GOMA back in 2012 which floored me with their formal structure and fragile delicacy. (See “Writing” tab of archived reviews)There was so much more in play than just an idea or materials extracted from the mundane domesticity enshrined in an empty white space. The raw material of Black’s Art provoked a multitude of questions and associations, engaging all of my senses in a powerful, unanticipated way. Her painstaking, mindful construction inside that particular architecture naturally spawned layers of interpretation and went a long way to dispelling what I usually see as the Turner Prize nominee curse of endorsement. Ideas or technique by themselves are never enough, nor are they very satisfying for the viewer when seen consistently in isolation. Just watch people in contemporary art spaces the world over reacting to the work and then attempting to marry that response to the labelled attribution of value and meaning beside it. Be assured -your guts are never wrong! All Art stands or falls all by itself, regardless of what may be written alongside it.

What my guts told me about Black’s work in that moment was to pay attention- not to the branded ego of the artist (thankfully not present) which is often the only thing on display, but to the very tactile qualities of the chosen material and my relationship to them as a human being standing in that space, as part of a wider world of imagination. There is something very freeing and also grounded about Black’s approach and intentionality, aligned with the meaning of play in human development, drawn from the unconscious. In a low, horizontal work like Better in Form (2016, Cotton wool, kitchen towel) she encourages us to psychologically get down on the floor in terms of the inner child and move into a different state of sense recognition. Part of this derives from the artist’s own memories of play as a small child; contact with water and sand, but that tactile discovery of the world is universal in all human development. The colour, texture and smell of materials are potent triggers, providing immediately tangible ways into works which resist classification; what the artist describes as “almost” sculpture, painting and performance art, “pulling back” the work before it becomes the label. In Black’s own words; “I think of language as an inadequate, primitive tool. The primary function of the work is aesthetic, formal and material. What comes first is colour and form, composition and scale and then a very firm and separate second comes language.”

Before we learn hierarchies of class, culture and attributions of value, as children we all naturally respond to what we can see, hear, touch and smell with spontaneity and desire. Black’s materials; cellophane, ribbon, sellotape, plaster, chalk powder, soil and dominant palette of pastel baby blues, pinks, yellows and greens are non-threatening, comforting invitations to the viewer. They’re not visually or emotionally cold as they anchor the aesthetic to what is tacit. The shimmer of eyeshadow, lip gloss, petroleum jelly or the softness of cotton wool, polythene and powdered paint exist in Black’s pre-gendered world of exploration and discovery. What convinces is the physicality of material as an emotional touchstone, rather than its intellectualisation through language- it’s about human creative process rather than product or the artist as a brand. Black’s work is refreshingly real in that respect; only abstract in the sense that we are preconditioned to regard Art as something belonging to somebody else, divorced from daily life and the instinctual base of learning that is what we are as a species. Having unleashed my Id standing in the doorway of Gallery 3 viewing Black’s Too Much About Home (2016, Cotton Wool, powder paint, plaster powder, cellophane and sellotape), was frustrating because her work invites closer inspection through touch. The installation is grounded on the floor, extending to the ceiling and one wall, inhabiting the space like a growing organism and creating a topography of feeling in the gradated, low relief rise of teased out cotton wool and scattered pink, yellow, blue and green pastel pigment. You can see the imprint of the artist’s footprints into the middle of the work, still fresh from construction.  It’s a soft, cushion of an island with a triptych of paint suspended on cellophane above, hung from a pliable framework of sellotape, reawakening child-like curiosity, instinct and traditional painterly awareness of composition. Crisp, transparent material is contrasted with comforting hues and cloud-like cotton wool, evoking memories of childhood when we weren’t afraid to make anything. In the corridor outside a series of Black’s hung compositions present evolution of mark and form; progressing from the defined structure of cotton wool balls, flattened into a ground for gestural paint marks, Abstract Expressionist-like fields of overlapping pastel colours which then morph into singular sculptural forms; relatively small in relation to the space around them, but quietly commanding all the same. There’s a sense of play and experimentation with the base elements of Art making; colour, form, line and texture within a subtly equal tonal range.

The sculptural form Actually Mark (Cotton wool, balsa wood and eyeshadow) isn’t monumental in the way we might expect; with a totemic pink plinth of modest scale occupying a room all to itself, the certainty of its edges ambiguously fluffed in cotton wool and coloured by impermanent makeup, attended by a smaller familial blue form on guard near the threshold. The way the works speak to each other in terms of form, scale and colour is an imaginative trigger and although the artist denies gender or cultural associations with colour, they are unavoidable in the mind of the viewer; perhaps saying more about human conditioning than the artist’s intent.  Other Civil Words (2016, Polythene, powder paint, plaster powder and thread) is another example where pink and blue pigmentation isolated in knots are collectively suspended above the floor like a silent pause in an opaque web of relationships. The gentle tensions of the material pulled and knotted into formal opposition is fragile, equally poised and tethered inside a still room. There’s a feeling of slight unease, with the possibility of movement should the slightest breath of air or atmospheric change enter the space. It is a surprisingly human and emotive work made from ethereal, mundane materials and elevated; in physical height and by the act of display in the gallery space. Permanence, commemoration and monumentality isn’t the aim or trajectory of Black’s Art. Instead the focus is on the plinth upon which we place our own expectations and constructs which she encourages us to abandon for something arguably more experientially real.

The felt sense and physicality of the materials speaks when standing in the space that Black’s work occupies because the viewer’s imagination is free to fill it. There are no prescribed meanings, although it could be argued that titles dance along that tightrope. Similarly Suga’s use of Japanese ideograms attempt to resist the descriptive labelling of his Art, although in the context of a Western Gallery space arguably there will always be translations and explanations present. (Interestingly a resources room has been provided in this exhibition.) However Suga’s work is essentially about “Activation” in that what is intended is for the “viewer [to start] to think about what it means”, presenting the possibility of multiple layers of human thought and action without spoon fed conclusions. What said this better than any text ever could was the grainy profundity of Suga’s photograph of one of this fieldworks, Condition of Perception (1970, Silver gelatin print). This documentary image of the residual mark left by a stream of water down a residential Tokyo Street is, even in its spilled state, eternally fluid. That line of water invites your eye deeper into that fixed, two dimensional, but ever expanding space. In that moment captured on film there is something incredibly moving and humane about that vision, even though it is one step removed in being a record of a human action with a natural element in play. My immediate response to this photograph was overwhelmingly emotional. Significantly I felt the possibility of what was being said and the difficulty of communicating a temporary action or art work was overcome by the eye/ mind composing the image and activating the shutter. What shone through the image was intention, openness and hope, placing trust in the viewer to find what they will in that fluid movement between an element of Nature and human nature, which is hardwired to seek understanding.This is an exhibition which challenges the viewer; “I’m looking but am I really seeing- what could that element be? I want to unravel it.”

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/whatson/on-now-coming-soon/karla-black-and-kishio-suga/

Joseph Beuys A language of Drawing

Andy WARHOL (1928–1987) Joseph Beuys, after 1980 Print, screenprint on paper, 126.30 x 117.10 cm. ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008.© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London 2016.Image: © Tate / National Galleries of Scotland.

Andy WARHOL (1928–1987) Joseph Beuys, after 1980 Print, screenprint on paper, 126.30 x 117.10 cm. ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008.© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London 2016.Image: © Tate / National Galleries of Scotland.

ARTIST ROOMS:  Joseph Beuys A Language of Drawing, 30 July – 23 October

Richard Demarco & Joseph Beuys/ A Unique Partnership, 30- July – 16 October

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.

2016 marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Joseph Beuys (1921-1986), an enigmatic figure in the history of twentieth century art whose concept of “Social Sculpture” feels urgently relevant.  Beyond the historical context of post war Germany; his belief in the ability of each human being to use their innate creativity to build a better society remains aspirational and politically charged. Parallel exhibitions at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (SNGMA) provide the opportunity to explore and re-evaluate Beuys’s work, legacy and his relationship with Scotland as part of a wider sphere of European culture. Joint ARTIST ROOMS holdings from the National Galleries of Scotland and the Tate have been brought together for the first time in Joseph Beuys- A Language of Drawing, featuring over 100 works from 1945 to 1984. Complimenting this significant survey of Beuys’s drawings is Richard Demarco and Joseph Beuys: A Unique partnership; an exhibition of objects, photography, film, posters, recordings and original correspondence exploring the collaboration between Beuys, Edinburgh gallerist Richard Demarco and the impact of Scotland on the artist’s practice. Beuys’s choice of media and raw elements are invested with intentionality and his delight in playing with language.  He utilised his drawings as “reservoirs” of ideas, often preceding what he described as “actions” in performance, teaching and political activism. Using a wide variety of materials; graphite, ink, industrial “Braunkreuz” oil paint, watercolour, newsprint, leaves, bone, hare’s blood, felt, fat, stone dust, clay, zinc, lime, copper and iron oxides applied to paper, card, metal and wood, Beuys’s drawings are a wonderful window into the endlessly fertile ground of the thematic obsessions, concerns and beliefs that define his art.

It feels very timely to go back to the Beuysian origins of the phrase; “everyone is an artist”; to extrapolate the real aspiration behind it from what it has become in the popular imagination. In the 21st century access to technology has given many the capacity to create and perform online to an increasingly global audience. In this environment seemingly anyone with a platform is an artist. But having access to new tools to express and project your own desires doesn’t constitute “cultural democracy “(or progressive civilization) on its own. Having the purchasing power to buy the latest upgrade is a profit making trajectory that doesn’t necessarily equate to the growth of awareness and conscience needed to actually use it. Joseph Beuys declared that “the creativity of people is the real capital. Art=capital” and he was right, however the word capital in the 21st century has been reduced to only one meaning; monetary wealth. Nowhere is this more evident than in the contemporary art world aligned with the language of advertising. In looking at Beuys you have to re-examine how we define art and culture and completely re-evaluate the role of the artist as compliant agent or resistant activist as part of the wider question: “what is Art and what is it for?” The striding Western Hero in La rivoluzione siamo Noi [We are the Revolution] (1972 (phototype on polyester sheet, with hand written text, stamped (based on a photograph by Giancarlo Pancaldi), GMA 4563, SNGMA) cast Beuys resoundingly as the resistant activist. Although the cowboy swagger is arguably part of the artist’s mythical persona, within his statement that “everyone is an artist” there is also the assertion, commitment and intentionality of building a better society. Significantly there is a sense of collective responsibility underneath that iconic hat.

Joseph BEUYS (1921–1986) Ohne Titel [Untitled], 1970. Photograph, gelatine silver print on canvas, 233 x 227.5 cm. ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008.© DACS 2016.Image: © Antonia Reeve / National Galleries of Scotland.

Joseph BEUYS (1921–1986) Ohne Titel [Untitled], 1970. Photograph, gelatine silver print on canvas, 233 x 227.5 cm. ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008.© DACS 2016.Image: © Antonia Reeve / National Galleries of Scotland.

Beuys understood the power of mythology which is why, in the story of him being rescued by a group of nomadic Tartars, he rolls himself in insulating fat and felt; an act of psychological survival after being shot down in the Crimea during WWII whilst serving in the Luftwaffe. Although criticised for the lie of being rescued by a tribal culture, the truth still resides in the myth. Shamanic is a word that gets used a lot around Beuys, however he is iconic not for the cloaked mystery of his artistic persona or for the celebrity treatment of becoming a Warhol multiple, but for his actions; “My art is my teaching” was how he described his own work and his art expands way beyond gallery walls. He was a passionate advocate of the capacity of art to heal individual and societal wounds and like other German Artists of his generation, used his language of drawing as a way of coming to terms with the atrocities of Nazism and human complicity, including his own. From the end of WWII he was actively reclaiming the language of his homeland; the idea of the gesamkunstwerk; the total work of art, which had been misappropriated in Wagnerian proportions during the Nazi era. For Beuys this was an ideal within and without, a synthesis between different disciplines, a total work of art as bound to human life, manifest in the concept of “Social Sculpture”. Psychologically he was his own gesamtkunstwerk;

“I outlined a new biography in drawings. I had already conceived the idea of a social work of art upon which I am still working”. (Joseph Beuys, 1980).

The idea that people can use their creativity to bring about positive cultural, political, economic, ecological and social change is an eternally hopeful premise for reconstruction. The imperative then was a world visibly in ruin in the aftermath of industrial scale warfare, genocide and the age of the atom bomb. The imperative now is displaced humanity, global corporate rule and impending ecological disaster.

In the poignant drawing Dove, Food, Rainbow (1949, Graphite and watercolour on card, AR00095 ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008.) Beuys uses simple linear graphite and white washes of watercolour on a raw, textured ground of found card, to create a feeling of profound lassitude and hope. The bowed head of the dove linked to the promise of a rainbow which has not yet burst into colour and the mountainous horizon is both a statement of loss and aspiration. When I think of Beuys I think of Maslow’s pyramid of human needs and belief in the motivational capacity of human beings for self-actualisation and self-transcendence.  As a follower of Rudolf Steiner’s teachings, there are elements of ethical individualism and spiritual science that become integrated Beuys’s in the trajectory of his drawings.

Beuys can be seen as shamanic in his depth of awareness; of the nature of mythology, culture and the universal tribe of humankind. It’s what makes the simplicity of Acer Platanoides (1945, Leaf on paper, AR00630, ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008.) so revelatory; a fallen leaf on paper, felling the then blackened mythology of the German forest to the ground.  Out of the fascist cry of “blood and soil”, Beuys leads the viewer back to the possibility of survival and growth through creativity.  Nature in Beuys’s work is very much in the German Romantic tradition of Friedrich– we are always aware of a human mind beholding it. Beuys’s drawing The Centrifugal Forces of the Mountains (1953, Graphite on paper, 3 parts. ARTIST ROOMS, National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Lent by Anthony d’Offay, 2010. AL00196) acknowledges and crystallises that dynamism. There is a human presence in all his drawings, whether they are figurative or not. A fluid horizon of hare’s blood, fat transformed by human warmth, a symbolic battery of positive and negative forces, the flow between masculine and feminine, reason and intuition, present meanings sensed and felt in the action, rather than seen. If you go looking for the artifice of beauty in this artist’s work then you are destined never to find it. The beauty in Beuys lies in belief and aspiration. His connection with Scotland and interest in Celtic mythology shares a kinship with the bardic tradition of creativity as a source of transformation and renewal. His drawings are the process, sometimes unrealised actions, part of the trajectory of a life and linked with many others. This clearly presents a problem for some art critics and viewers hunting for explanatory meanings, traditional linear narratives or illustration. There are many works in the exhibition that document actions where the artist’s presence was vital and equally many drawings and objects that stand apart from the myth of the artist, transcending their maker. Beuys challenges traditional/ art historical classifications, his art was as much about founding the green party, lecturing, teaching, performance and the energy of raw materials as it was about the fine art practices of drawing, sculpture and installation.

In Richard Demarco’s essay Ex Cathedra; he refers to performance art as: “ essentially a form of drawing through what Gaston Bachelard, the French phenomenologist called La Poetique de L’Espace. Performance art reveals 20th century man’s need for ritual. The artist’s work through performance art can be linked to that of the ritualist, alchemist, priest and master of ceremonies and guide and explorer, of all the secret places normally hidden from view, which we need to know to truly inhabit a living space, both interior and exterior.” (A Unique partnership-Richard Demarco / Joseph Beuys, P70 Luath Press Limited, Edinburgh2016)

Tails (1962, Oil paint[Braunkreuz], graphite and felt AR00654 ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008.) is a very potent expression of the artist, ritualist, alchemist, priest/ shaman and explorer, half human half animal, in the process of transformation, rendered in bloody, earthen pigment. The elongated scale of the figure gives it a monumental presence and the gestural marks have the feel of an act of worship written and illuminated on ancient cave walls. The oil based Braunkreuz paint Beuys often used in his drawings was in industrial/ domestic use in Germany at the time, it is also a play on words- translated as “brown cross” anchoring the earth bound pigment to faith, the floors/ foundations of people’s homes and to the world of the everyday. It is a powerful material anchor to what may seem a highly fantastical image. Another fibrous layer in this drawing is a sewn hole of felt heralding ritual rebirth which the figure appears to bow before. The Shaman’s Two Bags (1977, Graphite, crayon and ink on paper, AR00129, ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008.)  is another example of the artist’s preoccupation with humankind’s interior and exterior life, above and below, uterine in form and crowned with antler.

Joseph BEUYS (1921–1986) Witches Spitting Fire, 1959,Graphite and oil paint on paper, 20.70 x 29.70 cm.ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008© DACS 2016.

Joseph BEUYS (1921–1986) Witches Spitting Fire, 1959,Graphite and oil paint on paper, 20.70 x 29.70 cm.ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008© DACS 2016.

Beuys’s treatment of the feminine in his work is extremely interesting as a manifestation of creative and destructive potential. In Witches Spitting Fire, (1959, Graphite and oil paint (Braunkreuz) on paper, AR00109, ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008.) the squatting armless figures engulf the ground of the drawing in a frenzied dabbing of reddish, brown marks in stark contrast to their lithe, dellineated bodies. The energy of the drawing is intensely visceral; channelling a deeply instinctual and uncontainable drive. The female figures consume the space they inhabit with the associative pigmentation of blood, soil and excrement. The mystery of the female body is amplified by the male artist’s gaze in Pregnant Woman with Swan (1959, Oil paint and watercolour on paper AR00114, ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008.) Here the swollen female figure in silhouette contains the ghostly masculine form of the child/ swan. The head is bowed limply in a Freudian twist; vulnerability held within the body of the Great Mother. The form echoes stone age Venus figures, the earliest depictions of fertile human body and imagination in clay.

Joseph BEUYS (1921–1986)Pregnant Woman with Swan, 1959, Oil paint and watercolour on paper, 27.60 x 21.30 cm. Permanent Collection: ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008.© DACS 2016.

Joseph BEUYS (1921–1986)Pregnant Woman with Swan, 1959, Oil paint and watercolour on paper, 27.60 x 21.30 cm. Permanent Collection: ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008.© DACS 2016.

A drawing such as this has universal resonances regardless of what has been written alongside it. There is a perception of Beuys, reflected in James Fox’s most recent programme; Who’s afraid of conceptual Art? screened earlier this week on BBC4, of being bafflingly abstract or (through the eyes of art historian Fox) allegorical. However I would argue that Beuys’s work is neither too obtuse to be accessible without written explanation, nor does it operate on a level of representation discernible only to scholars. Actions like 7000 Oaks (1982), where Beuys initiated the planting of 7000 oaks, each paired with a basalt stone in the city of Kassel, has spread to other cities around the world; a collective creative act of live sculptural installation, green politics and urban renewal. I think what Beuys was about expands exponentially when seen outside a typical gallery space. This was very much the intention behind Beuys’s first exhibition in the English speaking world; Strategy: Get Arts hosted by Richard Demarco at Edinburgh College of Art in 1970.

The underpinning conceit of Fox’s documentary was that audiences require explanation in order to understand conceptual art, or rather the ideas behind it. As I made my way through the ARTIST ROOMS exhibition a group of young art students came in; “You can draw anything as long as you explain what you’re doing!”, declared one of them, laughing and pointing to the text label beside one of Beuys’s drawings. The student and his three giggling companions exited quickly, their laughter following them down the stairs.  On one level I understand their response. For a group of immature, white middle class art students the urgency of having civilization as they knew it destroyed before their eyes wasn’t part of their life experience  and nor is it mine. Thankfully we have not been faced with the physical and psychological necessity of rebuilding life as we know it. In such a context Art isn’t a subject to be studied, it becomes an imperative; because in truth it is our only means of human reflection and survival, an idea that is articulated beautifully in Schitten (Sled) 1969 (Wooden sled, fat,, felt, belts, torch, No 47 in an edition of 50) . This piece derived from Beuys’s larger installation- The Pack (1969); a Volkswagen with 24 sledges flowing from the back of it like a team of huskies, each with a felt blanket, a lump of fat and a torch, has a curiously powerful human presence. Beuys commented; “In a state of emergency the Volkswagen bus is of limited usefulness, and more direct and primitive means must be taken to ensure survival.” Seeing this singular, editioned object of endurance and exploration displayed in a glass case has the effect of relegating it as a dead historical artefact, when in imaginative terms it is the creative key to human survival for the journey ahead; the sled to move across the wasteland we find ourselves in, the protective insulation of felt, the sustenance of fat, a torch to illuminate the path ahead and human warmth to transform the world around us. Although both exhibitions are text heavy there are other ways of presenting Beuys, as part of a wider discussion of where we’re all heading. The artist’s interests and concerns were wide ranging; art, mythology, anthropology, history, science, ecology, alchemy, Nature and all of these are combined in the gesamkunstwerk of his life’s work.

Beuys’s Pyramidales Bild (1979, Oil paint on printed paper, AR00687, ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008) encapsulates his philosophy in its synthesis of ideas, beliefs and materials.  The pyramid is a multifaceted form in relation to Christianity, Theosophy and Steiner, but what is so interesting in this drawing is Beuys’s use of newspaper print and the way that the halo of fat bled into the paper defines and transforms our reading of the more rigid structure within. In this vertical diptych the geometric forms are almost architectural and the fold of the newsprint holds a sun-like apex of fat. These drawings resemble a built structure/ environment but also the human body. The feeling held in this drawing is the softened rigidity of form and feeling. There’s an emotive sense of spirituality and hope grounded in a real world of possibility. This is communicated not by an illustrative, narrative imagery, but by the combination of thought and raw, found, everyday materials which are reconfigured, crafted in an apex of human aspiration, continually striving towards light.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/whatson/exhibitions/artist-rooms-joseph-beuys-a-language-of-drawing

Modern Scottish Women / Painters and Sculptors 1885-1965

7 November 2015 – 26 June 2016

Modern Two -Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Anne Finlay by Dorothy Johnstone Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collection

Anne Finlay by Dorothy Johnstone
Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collection

Dorothy Johnstone (1892-1980). Anne Finlay, 1920. Oil on canvas, 145.3 x 100.5. Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections: Purchased with the assistance of the National Fund for Acquisitions 1983.

“…there is no such thing as a woman artist. There are only two kinds of artist-bad and good.” Ethel Walker, 1938.

I headed to Edinburgh recently to see the Modern Scottish Women exhibition and to attend a study day organised by the Scottish Society of Art Historians (SSAH), examining the lives and work of artists included in the show and exploring some of the issues raised by this ground breaking exhibition.

I began with the show itself and found many brilliant, inspiring examples of self-possessed creativity: women whose paintings, drawings and sculptures resoundingly announced their undeniable status as professional artists in their own right. Out of an original shortlist of over 200 artists, this survey of 45 female painters and sculptors (1885-1965) with Scottish connections curated by Alice Strang, is an exciting expose of largely unknown work. Framed in terms of developments in Art Education (primarily in Glasgow and Edinburgh) and the impact of gender on how female artists were trained, perceived and received by the art establishment as mediators of taste for the general public, this is a challenging show in its continuing relevance. Often named as symbolically and politically subordinate to husbands or male relatives, gender has relegated many of these artists to obscurity, with acquisition of their work largely in the private domain and contemporary writing about their work often patronising or derogatory. Commentary from male critics, such as the criticism of Joan Eardley’s male Sleeping Nude (1955, Oil on canvas), dismissed as the work of a “girl artist” and an affront to the Western figurative tradition, is treatment that we sadly cannot just relegate to history. In an era of Twitter, where uninformed populist opinion is king, women being taken seriously in any profession remains a lifelong struggle.

All too often “women’s” work is written about in terms of its aesthetic appeal –adjectives like “charming”, “pretty”, or the surprise of accomplishment accompanies so-called critiques of female artist’s work. This trend persists in the media today in the discussion of female contemporary artists defined by good or bad girl status, their  sexuality, capacity for child bearing/ childlessness or the appraisal of their physical appeal and dress, rather like the limited reportage on female politicians over and above what they actually stand for. Female creativity has had to overcome significant obstacles to even begin to be seen on the same playing field as male colleagues of the same generation. It was interesting to hear the shocked amazement of visitors, discovering some of the historical obstacles to female creativity found in the battleground of the life class; an essential foundation for the practice of painting or sculpture which was deemed unsuitable for ladies or the marriage bar that prevented married women from taking up or keeping fulltime teaching positions. There is always a danger when we narrow the historical lens, of thinking ourselves to be so much more progressive than previous generations. Hierarchies of gender, culture, genre and region still prevent female artists from being shown and acknowledged more widely, even in more recent times.

Compare art writing and media coverage of the nationally celebrated GSA New Glasgow Boys of the 1980’s: Peter Howson, Ken Currie, Adrian Wiszniewski and Steven Campbell with commentary on Joyce W Cairns, one of the finest living artists in the UK today, whose large scale figurative compositions surpass them all. Major solo exhibitions held outside the central belt at the Aberdeen Art Gallery such as Joyce W. Cairns War Tourist (2006) and Frances Walker: Place Observed in Solitude (2010) are contemporary examples of artists defined by the strength of their work, rather than their gender, which is why a second and even third exhibition of Modern Scottish Women is an imperative in terms of Scotland’s capital art institutions. As part of the SSAH study day, Matthew Jarron’s talk “Placed Under no disqualification”- Women Artists in She-Town, highlighted the work of women artists championed through art education, industry and politics in Dundee, revealing alternative histories of Art outside recognised centres of cultural gravity. This “first major exhibition of work by women artists to be mounted by the National Galleries of Scotland” is an important first step in recognising the contribution of women to Visual Culture, their rightful place in Art History and in the popular imagination. Perhaps it is my impatience for equality speaking when I say that in some ways the exhibition scratches the surface with a pin, but it is also immensely valuable in generating the impetus and momentum for further study and deeper consideration of this work, based on individual merit and the equality between ideas and technique.

Although I found the contextual framing of this exhibition problematic, I must also acknowledge it as a necessity: after all, to appreciate the qualities of anything you first have to know it exists, or in the case of Art be given the opportunity to see/experience it first-hand. I am sure that the general public and art historians alike will find works in this exhibition revelatory on many different levels. That a segregated show highlighting the achievements of women artist’s remains necessary in 2015/16 filled me initially with sad resignation- is this really the only means we have of shedding light on this work- to frame it in the inequality that it grew in spite of? But as I moved through the exhibition, new voices made themselves known and the framing of the show in relation to dominant institutions seemed less important that the fact that here they were- finally being discovered. Acknowledged in a National Gallery space, these works declared themselves in their own language, revealing strength, boundless talent and human insight.

Margaret Campbell Macpherson (1860-1931) was one of a number of female artists who in the latter 19th century moved to Paris for a more progressive art education at the Académie Colarossi. Working in relative freedom en plein air in the Fountainbleu Forest and in Brittany, the artist’s palette and paint handling evolved in response to the natural environment and as part of the Concarneau artist colony. Head of a Breton Girl (c 1894. Oil on canvas) is an arresting work, rather more profound emotionally and symbolically than suggested by a contemporary critic in 1895 who praised the “admirable tint” and “sweet simplicity” of the face.  The 2015 catalogue entry describing the sunlit scene and the girl in costume, “lost in idle contemplation” misses the mark for me as well. What struck me immediately was the conscious presence of both the artist and sitter. The girl, on the cusp of adulthood completely inhabits her own thoughts, her eyes linked to the deep blue palette of foliage and to Nature. Her white cap, accented with cool tones of blue and green seems caught in winds of change, through the dappled sunlight. She holds a staff which points inwards towards her abdomen, accents of striped cadmium red in her skirt flowing downward into the foreground of the painting. In her left eye is the watery mark of a tear and she stares fixedly downwards, perhaps in contemplation of burgeoning maturity. This doesn’t strike me as an idle girl with a sweet face, but something more consciously heightened by Margaret Campbell Macpherson’s palette and composition; a sense of illumination- in light used not in the service of impressionistic prettiness or optical distraction, but to say something; about feminine experience, adolescence and the sadness that always accompanies the loss of one stage of life in exchange for growth in another. It is a painting as strong and as subtle as its cobalt and emerald shadows, conscious of Nature and demanding to be written about officially in less decorative terms.

Sleeping Mother and Child (1903-05. Bronze) by Gertrude Alice Meredith Williams (1877-1934) reveals the gaunt, high cheek boned figure of woman and her baby emerging from a hewn block of raw material and biblical association. The woman’s hands are clasped before her, around the child in a protectively unconscious state and the child’s mouth turns downward in an expression of uncertainty and consternation rather than peaceful, contented sleep. This exhausted and impoverished Parisian Madonna, a sitter who the artist paid with food and shelter, feels akin to the work of Käthe Kollewitz (1867-1945), although without the gravitas of human brutality and war. It is the protective bond of motherhood that the artist explores here and the recognition of one human being by another, tangibly in three dimensions. It is a work of great sensitivity, vulnerability, intimacy and one of the most emotionally affecting works in the show. Studying at the Liverpool School of Architecture and Applied Art and in Paris 1901-05, including the Académie Colarossi, the artist’s modelling of the figure in this and her painted plaster macquette for the Paisley War Memorial: The Spirit of the Crusaders (c 1922), was no doubt influenced by a progressive education and her scholarship abroad. The subject of a wonderful talk by Phyllida Shaw, who is bringing William’s work to light after discovering her extensive wartime correspondence, there is much more to be discovered about this remarkable sculptor.

Self-portrait (Mrs Grahame Johstone), c.1929

Doris Zinkeisen Self -Portrait (Mrs Grahame Johnstone), c 1929, Oil on canvas, 107.2 x 86.6. National Portrait Gallery, London: Purchased 1999.

Another trailblazing artist represented in the show is Doris Zinkeisen (1897-1991) who’s Self Portrait (Mrs Grahame Johnstone) (c1929, Oil on canvas) is one of several resiliently present statements of femininity and power in the genre of portraiture, characteristic of this exhibition. Trained at the Harrow School of Art and the RA School in London, Zinkeisen’s work as a theatrical and film designer finds expression in her dramatic image of Self. Draped in a Chinese shawl, her pale white shoulders, red lips and rouged cheeks take on a symbolic rather than a seductive stance. The artist’s gaze extends above and beyond the viewer, her hand on a white curtain, about to step into the dark space beyond the set. Like Dorothy Johnstone’s portrait of Anne Finlay (1920), the contentious poster image for the show, it is an image that resists feminine display for a predominantly male gaze. Zinkeisen is resoundingly sure of herself in beholding who she is- her sexuality is part of that certainly, but it isn’t the only aspect being acknowledged by the image.  In Johnstone’s portrait of Anne Finlay, the sitter meets the artist’s gaze as an equal, finding expression for the strength and dynamism of her personality, beheld and captured by another woman/ artist.

Belsen April 1945, 1945

Doris Zinkeisen Belsen: April 1945: 1945. Oil on canvas, 62.2 x 69.8cm. IWM (Imperial War Museums): War Artists Advisory Committee commission 1947 .

Although much admired in the press as a well-groomed socialite and model of femininity, Doris Zinkeisen’s tenacity extends well beyond her self-portrait to documenting the horrors of World War II. Tasked with documenting the St John Ambulance Brigade’s work in war torn Europe and therefore slipping under the radar of official war Art, Zinkeisen was one of the first to enter the Belsen concentration camp with the ambulance service post liberation. In her painting Belsen. April 1945 (Oil on canvas) she depicts a suspended, otherworldly, hellish space; blackened by death and smoke, with the glimmer of a furnace and unnatural clouds compressed into the high left of the composition. The splayed limbs of ghostly pale, emaciated bodies piled up in the centre of the painting align with the feeling in the floored pit of the viewer’s stomach – the foreground tonally falling away as if the ground beneath the viewer’s feet is collapsing. Zinkeisen’s direct response as a witness is an important, emotionally centred document of inhumanity and humanity perceiving it. Everything else including the gender of the artist is stripped away the scene before her, (and before us) heightened in shadow and universal in meaning.

Another memorable discovery was Margot Sandeman’s (1922-2009) painting 3 Bathers, one of the most beautiful and richly contemplative in the exhibition. From left to right we see three stages of life; childhood/ innocence, adulthood/ knowledge gained, and old age/death aligned with cycles of Nature. Sandeman’s symbolic treatment of her subject is reminiscent of Munch and Redon, with a dappled progression of luminous colour underpinned by a timeless progression of ages. In the figure of the child the torso is illuminated in sunlit yellow and orange, the head of the girl contrasted in cool blue, becoming one with the sky. The middle bather is in a crouched position, her face hidden sorrowfully in a towel and in the final section of the triptych-like composition we see the body of a woman, lain in a grave of deep ultramarine. Sandeman’s palette links the girl with natural cycles of life, death, decay and renewal with dominant blue defining the realm of her intellect and the flowing spring at her feet. The child’s steadfast gaze doesn’t portray a carefree state of youth but knowledge of what will come to pass, naturally in time to us all. There is a strong sense of the Feminine in Nature in Sandeman’s work which transcends her identification as a female artist.

Mabel Pryde Nicholson’s (1871-1918) The Grange, Rottingdean (1912, Oil on canvas) contains a different kind of knowing in her complex interior double portrait of her children Nancy and Kit. Her daughter is seated in profile in the foreground, staring fixedly through a window we cannot see but which illuminates both her and her brother, who we see through an open doorway to another room. Framing the space the girl occupies, and also the male child like a proscenium arch, is a wall dividing the domestic space; decorated with a series of six 18th century military costume engravings on the wall. On top of a rounded corner cupboard to the left, a statue of a blue and red coated gentleman with a cane seems to mirror the attitude of Kit, the artist’s son, looking directly at us through the open door. Wearing a Glengarry cap, his hands are steadfast in his pockets, feet apart in an assured, rightful stance. It is a Vermeer –like space in terms of its intimacy and perspective, but intensely psychological in the accents of colour and mark, drawing the viewer’s attention to status and gender, the relativity of one child to another, established in the light hitting them both. This sense of illumination invites interpretation; in the display of masculinity in the home and in the foreground space occupied by the female child, pensive, self-contained and absorbed in her own thoughts. One feels looking at this image that the boy’s experience of life has an established historical precedent of position, of the man he will become and the traditional space he will occupy within the family home. His sister’s foreground position within the composition brings her closer to the artist’s own space, feminine experience and in relation to her male sibling. Curiously in spite of the boy’s age, size and  distant position, his presence is expanded within the painting by masculine objects to the point where the artist renders him and his older sister equal human presences in the work. It is of course a mother beholding her children and one could argue an interior life/ figurative study, but the tension in this work suggests more than that; a more potent sense of psychology and a subtle, powerful comment on gender.

Born in Canada and resident in Scotland from 1928 until her death, Margaret Watkins (1884- 1969) is has been acknowledged far more widely in the New World. A pioneer Fine Art photographer working in the world of advertising, Watkins exquisite monochrome compositions are beautifully poised, her juxtaposition of objects full of associative narratives. Domestic Symphony is a photographic statement of tonal rhythm using everyday objects; eggs and the scroll of a bathtub, elegant as any treble clef. Seemingly mundane objects become elevated through Watkins’ eye and lens and in the arrangement of her still life compositions. Head and Hand (1925, Palladium print) is an elegant, though sharply ironic, image of the hand of dancer/ author Marguerite Agniel holding a carved, stylised head- a portrait of herself by the American artist Jo Davidson. It’s an image of idealised Beauty, display and possession, with the woman holding an appropriated image of Self in three dimensions, there in the palm of her hand where the gaze of others assumes its proper proportion. The hand itself adopts a pose of attention, a powerful positive surrounded by negative space.

I was delighted to see the work of Hannah Frank (1908-2008) included in the Modern Scottish Women exhibition. I had the great pleasure of meeting and interviewing her, a few years before her centenary. She was, and still is through her Art, an irrepressible spirit and I think her sculpture Woman with Bird (1955, Bronze) sums up my thoughts about this exhibition. A female figure sits cross legged, holding aloft a bird with care and aspiration, about to extend its wings to fly. Frank renders the figure with characteristic delicacy and strength of spirit. It’s an image of freedom, imagination and Hope- a work which only she could have created.