ARTIST ROOMS: Self Evidence Photographs by Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe

6 APRIL – 20 OCTOBER | SCOTTISH NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY

FRANCESCA WOODMAN (1959-1981) Francesca Woodman, Untitled, 1975-80 Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper, 15.60 x 15.60 cm (paper 25.20 x 20.30 cm) (framed: 45.80 x 40.20 x 2.00 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 © Courtesy of George and Betty Woodman

‘If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself.’ Diane Arbus

In the 21st century, the Selfie has become an extended form of advertising and validation, increasingly in step with corporate interest. People are the app for 24hr addictive consumption of who they aspire to be, driven by market demand, or perhaps more accurately, corporate engineered desire for the next upgrade. Rapid fire clicking and scrolling is the order of today, in how photography and images of self are consumed, liked and followed. The idea of ‘self-evidence’ in this Artist Rooms exhibition is extremely compelling and timely, examining ‘three of the twentieth century’s most influential photographers’ and reactions to their work from a younger ‘Snapchat’ generation. It’s a moment to take stock of the extraordinary work of Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe, what photography is in human terms and what it really means to take a shot.

2. FRANCESCA WOODMAN (1959-1981) Space 2, Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-1978 Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper, 13.90 x 13.90 cm (paper 25.20 x 20.20 cm) (framed: 45.80 x 40.20 x 2.00 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 © Courtesy of George and Betty Woodman

The work of Francesca Woodman (1958-1981) provides a quietly subversive sucker punch opening to the show. This series of beautifully layered photographs are on an intimate scale, naturally inviting closer inspection and defying narcissistic, grandiose expectations of self-portraiture.  From the telling age of thirteen, to her untimely death by suicide aged 22, Woodman explored an ever-shifting state of being and becoming. Using long exposures and slow shutter speeds, she retains a fluid sense of movement and obscures identity, effectively blurring the fixed time and truth certainty of her chosen medium. Woodman’s work is often described as “experimental”, however there is more deliberation and thematic consistency in her work than this label suggests. The way her photographs are staged are technically adept and complex, rather than angling towards brilliance by randomly shooting at it. As a student taking part in the Snapchat element of the exhibition very accurately observed, ‘Woodman has power over her own image.’ It’s an enviable position, given the state of unrelenting judgement and self-censorship metered out via the internet / smartphone in your pocket.

Woodman illuminates in Black and White what it is to be female, the dilemma and desire of being seen, which is still so socially/ culturally loaded, with the resistance of being an enigmatic, ghostly presence. That tension at the heart of photography, between fixing the moment, (becoming immortal, documenting or memorialising the subject) and acknowledging human mortality, is particularly poignant in Woodman’s work. I’ve always felt that she was “fixing the shadows” in her own heart/ mind, dancing death and the maiden style towards photographic illumination, as a statement of self-worth. With over 10,000 negatives and 800 prints, Woodman’s output was prolific, though only a small fraction of her work has ever been seen publicly, demanding further study and exposure.  She’s a fascinating feminist, vulnerable before the camera certainly, but entirely on her own terms. Woodman resists reductive definition in fleeting glimpses, becoming one with a medium that reaches for permanence whilst standing on a cliff edge of mortality with every momentary shot. She effectively haunts her own images, using her body as a prop and vintage clothing to ambiguously alter time. Tonal shifts in her work have a psychological edge of loss, a sense of disintegration and elusiveness in striving to know who you are that is universally human.

In Space 2 Providence, Rhode Island 1976, Woodman evades identification as an individual, grappling with herself inside the frame, turning her head during a long exposure so that what remains is movement where we expect her face to be. This idea is attached to a body in relative focus, gesturing forward, hands open and semi-outstretched towards the viewer. Her work reveals how self is realised, grasping for something (and someone) just out of reach. In Woodman’s hands, photography is an act of control for the female protagonist/ artist, usually in decaying, abandoned building surroundings. An image that exemplifies this dynamic comes from the Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island 1976 series, where Woodman is seen semi crouched on the floor in a polka dot dress. One hand is raised to her mouth as if something has just happened in a gasp, the other held to her chest. A residual patch of patterned wallpaper against bare, plaster wall is echoed in her clothing, semi unzipped at the side, revealing a pale gape of flesh. Debris on the floor adds to the sense of unease, glancing sideways, somewhere between dark glam fashion shoot, personal recognition and implied violation. There’s knowing in the setup of the shot, and in Woodman’s eyes, that pose questions for the viewer about what they are seeing or witnessing. It’s a halt to the screen swipe that hits you between the eyes.

There’s nothing accidental about how Woodman simultaneously hides and reveals herself. This residual presence means that the viewer can never own or possess the subject completely. It’s a quality that feels like a psychological imperative of self-preservation and discovery in her work. Vintage dress and decrepit setting toys with youth and beauty. The gaze is self-determined and positioned ambiguously within the set. The photograph is a dialogue, not an answer, about who the subject truly is. Images taken as personal communications with her boyfriend are more fixed in terms of the designated viewer, but still float as enigmatically as Woodman’s handwriting before our eyes. She’s playing with what it means to take an image, with photography as mechanism, mirror and conscious choice.

1. FRANCESCA WOODMAN (1959-1981) From Angel Series, Roma, September 1977, 1977 Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper, 9.30 x 9.30 cm (paper 9.80 x 9.80 cm) (framed: 45.80 x 40.20 x 2.00 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 © Courtesy of George and Betty Woodman

We have only begun to examine the work of Surrealist photographers such as Lee Miller, Claude Cahun, Dora Maar and Florence Henri in recent years. Woodman is an interesting inheritor of the inward facing camera in that respect. In From Angel Series, Rome 1977, we see the female protagonist, a shadow presence enveloped in large sheets of white paper, through a doorframe that reads like a proscenium arch. Another smaller door prop with a hand reaching round like a handle is as curious as Alice in Wonderland, drawing the eye further into the photograph. The overall framing is slightly skewed, like the geometric tilt of the figure, feeling to the edge of her paper costume with a bent elbow. The naked body/ self is screened by abstract form and tonality. What casts the eye across the foreground layer and deeper, through the doorway into the space beyond, is a tonal shift from left to right, from beached light to progressive darkness. This isn’t just physical or aesthetic but psychological. That emotional gravitas dances uneasily with the comic, play element of staging to create heightened, internal realism, or Surrealism. The shift in tone also evokes the passage of time inside the composition and in that moment of seeing.  It is imaginatively fluid, rather than presenting an absolute image of self. This is one of the smallest images in the show, so you are compelled to approach it closely, like seeing through the crack of a door left ajar. In historical terms the door left ajar that Woodman is stepping through is Surrealist and conceptual.

As I’ve suggested in previous posts on Lee Miller and coverage of the Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous exhibition (SNGMA, June 2016) [i], Surrealism as a concept, rather than a movement, gave women unprecedented latitude for exploring Self. Woodman’s use of the female body embraces the essential negotiation between seeing and being seen, exemplified in the work of Miller. Contrary to popular belief, Surrealism isn’t about the dreamy fantasy, but confrontation. ‘The free form craft of association, placing contradictory ideas beside each other in denial of the absolute,  asserts the political right to freedom of expression.’[ii] In the 1970’s, an era of activism, Woodman conceptually grasps the mettle and beauty of Surrealism in its purest form, which ‘brings us into confrontation with ourselves on an intensely psychological level; individually and collectively.’[iii] To photograph the self, disappearing and emerging in the same frame, celebrates that free, associative tension and also expresses an existential crisis of being.  There’s a feeling of profound liberty and isolation in Woodman’s photography, the idea that ‘You cannot see me from where I look at myself’, as she expressed it. We are confronted time and again with her essential mystery and our own as human beings.

In the popular imagination, photography is the ultimate proof of existence- that we have lived, yet it documents a singular moment of life and the loss of that moment, for the individual, generation and era. Woodman’s Untitled, Concord, New Hampshire,1977, taken after the death of her grandmother, brings us to a moment of profound silence and lengthening shadow. It’s a spectral image of the living and past generations, in the framed family photographs illuminated on the table and in the seated female presence, defined almost entirely by shadow. Light is cast on the side of the face, hands and into the corner of the room. Influenced by the sequential, emotive work of Duane Michals (b 1932), Woodman creates a self-portrait grounded in observance of loss. Although it is a deeply personal response to her grandmother passing, what we are confronted with is our own mortality. At its birth photography was described as a process of ‘fixing the shadows’, a metaphor in tune with Woodman’s singular command of the medium.

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971) The King and Queen of a Senior Citizens’ Dance, N.Y.C. 1970, 1970. Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper. 37.20 x 36.90 cm (framed: 50.80 x 40.60 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 work of Diane Arbus (1923-1971) is defined by her approach to portraiture, the essential relationship between artist /photographer and subject. Her congruence in making images and identification with her subjects remains compassionate and contradictory. Arbus presents alternative ways of life to the white picket fenced American dream and her eye to eye stance behind the camera continues to introduce audiences to taboo subjects. Debates still rage about whether her depiction of marginalised individuals constitutes empowerment or exploitation. The argument in this show unfolds empathically as ‘a de facto self-portrait,’ in the form of her Box of Ten Photographs (1969-1971). These images convey how Arbus saw herself and how she wished to be remembered as an artist. The self-evidence in this self-edit is significantly greater than the individual, revealing aspects of American society and humanity that still resonate very powerfully today. However you regard her images, here the box is semi opaque and articulates her signature loud and clear.

These 10 original prints are her intended legacy and proof of life. They expand her enduring statement:  ‘My photos are proof that something was there, which no longer is. You can turn away but when you come back, they’ll still be there looking at you.’

What seems to strike people, looking at the photographs she is famous (or infamous) for, those of disadvantaged people, perceived social outcasts or “freaks”[iv], is a combination of shame and pity, not coming from the subject, but as an aspect of self-projection on the part of the viewer. Photography as a medium is meant to reassure us, Arbus explodes that abject sentimentality completely. ‘I would never choose a subject for what it means to me. I choose a subject and then what I feel about it, what it means, begins to unfold.’ There is a sense of detachment in her initial approach, but also a powerful sense of connection and agency that endures in her work.

Images from Two American Families, published in the Sunday Times Magazine, Nov 1968, are a great example. It’s a revealing, uncomfortable juxtaposition that establishes where real tenderness lies. In A Young Brooklyn Family Going for a Sunday Outing, NYC, 1966 we see the family unit dressed proudly for a day off, though it is far from being carefree. The baby in a white playsuit and bonnet, gravitates towards the photographer with a hand semi outstretched. Her mother is naturally glamourous, offset by a weary, faraway expression that extends beyond the frame to what might have been. Her dark bouffont hair, Liz Taylor style eyeliner and flash of leopard print coat lining are contrasted with the baby held in front of her and the idea of motherhood experienced aged 16. The young father’s soft, serious gaze meets Arbus’s/ the viewer’s, holding the hand of their older child. There’s a feeling of youth confronting aged responsibility in the care of a child with learning difficulties. There’s also an edge of fractured separation, in individual familial gazes that do not meet each other. The descent of stairs creates an emotional trajectory, caught in the trap of the camera. We feel the unease of being brought so close in contemplation of someone else’s family unit, because it naturally causes us to reflect upon our own. This isn’t a private family snapshot, but documentary with ethical implications. That precarious line between viewer as witness and complicity of the gaze, in appreciation or ridicule, is part of Arbus’s potency as an artist. The human subject is unapologetically left open to scrutiny. Thankfully Arbus honours the complexity of that exchange.

The companion photograph, A Family on Their Lawn One Sunday in Westchester, NYC, 1966 widens the social commentary in comparison. It’s a we want what they have capitalist dream turned on its head, an indictment of American values where humour and tragedy collide. The expanded view is of aspirational property and status. The Mother, father and child are depicted at leisure on a lawn so large it feels more like a swimming pool they could collectively drown in. The mother resembles a Barbie doll, lying on a banana lounge in a swimsuit. It’s impossible to tell if her eyes are closed, or watchful beneath the fake lashes. Lying on a parallel sun lounge Dad looks like he’s having a breakdown, hand raised to his brow, like the cost of this upper middle-class suburban dream is all too much. The child in the background is bent over a paddling pool, which in relation to his parents, feels like a well he’s destined to fall and disappear into entirely. As Arbus stated; ‘They are a fascinating family. I think all families are creepy in a way.’ Western consumer/ popular culture engineers the desire for this lifestyle. Looking at Arbus’s take on identity, family and success, my first thought is seriously?! If there’s an aspect of absurdity and potential ridicule here, then its wrapped around a lie, rather than the human subjects. Arbus received two John Simon Guggenhiem Fellowship grants, to examine ‘American rites, manners and customs’ which I’d say was a perennial investment.

Arbus brings us face to face with the licence a camera gives you, prompting questions about how it is used, directed towards the self and/or others. Sometimes the closeup takes us to places that mainstream culture, or the powers that be, don’t think it should go.  A Young Man in Curlers at home on W20th St, NYC, 1966, was a daring imagewhen it was taken and in many countries around the world still is. Arbus’s photograph of a Boy in a Straw Hat Waiting to March in a Pro-War Parade, 1967 with his “God Bless America” badge, could be straight out of Trump’s America if it weren’t for the period clothing. The irony being, that this face of youth, aged by forefathers’ ideals, is wearing a hat from an earlier period, popular in the 1920’s and 30’s- otherwise known as the Great Depression. Nostalgia and nationalism go hand in hand before the camera in a wholesome march towards aggressive dominance. The war in question is Vietnam, one of many invasions on foreign soil in the interest of putting “America first.” That plain belief is presented as an honest portrait, however as part of Arbus’s self-portrait it is deeply subversive. The problem with being hardwired for subversion is that you don’t achieve that level of awareness without digging the earth out from under yourself, acknowledging that you don’t belong to the status quo, even if “success” depends upon it. A photograph as Arbus described it is “like a stain.”

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971) Xmas Tree in a Living Room, in Levittown 1963, 1963. Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper. 36.80 x 37.60 cm (framed: 50.80 x 40.60 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

I enjoyed the opportunity to revisit Arbus’s work as a self-portrait. The complete immersion of Retired Man and his wife at home one morning, NJ, 1963 (gelatine silver print) which is such a homage to normality, despite the nudity of both subjects and photographer and Xmas Tree in a Living Room, in Levittown 1963, reveal underappreciated facets of her personality. Xmas Tree never ceases to be both horrific and hilarious. It is devoid of any obvious human subjects, apart from the viewer, who is positioned in the foreground armchair, virtual reality style, with the viewer/participant’s hands resting on the edge of both arms. The discomfort is ours, seeing the celebratory, festive gaudiness of the tree, shoved into one corner of a disconcertingly clean and orderly suburban living room, which feels more like an internal void. Arbus is an artist who confronts us with belonging (or not) and this collection of self-evidence cements her legacy as a socially conscious artist, rather than a sensationalist, ghoulish collector of souls.

ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE (1946-1989) Self Portrait, 1983 Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper, 37.40 x 37.50 cm (framed: 50.80 x 40.60 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 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

Driven by ego and craft, the work of Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) presents a face to the world through role play and extreme duality. Mapplethorpe’s controversial S&M lifestyle and his death from Aids tends to draw focus away from his undeniable skill and sensitivity as an artist. Whatever attendant beliefs the viewer might bring to consideration of his work, the value of experience and the life of the photographer were of paramount importance the artist. This self-belief permeates all his work. The viewer may see it as destructive, immoral or offensive if they choose, however an image such as Self Portrait 1978 confounds notions of obscenity or moral judgement, because it asserts the individual’s right to be so powerfully. In this case, and in the context of the exhibition, the act is entirely self-directed. The photograph is an extreme confrontation and explicit provocation, in profane defiance of his Catholic roots, yet employing all the theatricality of a devotee. There’s no doubt that the play enacted between good and evil is dangerous, but for Mapplethorpe that’s the attraction- in art and in life. There’s no escaping that fact in his oeuvre. It’s woven into everything, from the delicate interplay of masculine and feminine in Self Portrait 1983 (printed 2009) to Self Portrait 1978 where the bullwhip reads like a devil’s tail. He’s a master of role play, perhaps best summed up by Self Portrait with Knife 1983, where we see him posturing with polarities- one hand raised, palm flattened in gesture of defence, while the other is extended to attack. The choreography could belong to no one else.

ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE (1946-1989) Self Portrait, 1980 (printed 2009) Photograph on paper, 35.20 x 35.00 cm; framed: 68.40 x 66.20 x 3.10 cm ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation 2014

There is a right to self-expression which Mapplethorpe asserts throughout his career, in all his varied personas and this is perhaps where progress has been made in the 30 years since his death. In the late 1980s, his retrospective The Perfect Moment was cancelled in one venue, while another found itself at the centre of an obscenity trial. This is the first time Mapplethorpe’s work has been displayed in the dedicated photography gallery at SNPG that bears his name, originally established with assistance by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. This is cause for celebration, as is the recent news of a patient in the UK who due to advances in Aids treatment is now free from infection. I imagine that had Mapplethorpe lived, he’d be enjoying the spoils of a culture that elevates the artist as celebrity, building his legacy and continuing to unashamedly explore every facet of himself.

Although we see his declining health in the later self-portraits, above all else it’s the sheer force of his personality/ego that remains to the last. In Self Portrait 1988 we see that self-possession in action, despite his dishevelled hair and pallor. The hand on his knee appears to grasp mortality, the other clenched purposefully by his cheek. Sitting cross legged on a black leather armchair in a silk robe and embossed slippers, he resembles an aging tycoon. A Hugh Hefner type, slightly tainted by scandal, the kind of entrepreneur so revered in American popular culture as a model of success. The ripple in his brow and questioning mouth, partially open as if about to speak, issues an underlying challenge to, and affirmation of, white middle-aged male dominance.  It’s a fascinating image of wealth, respectability and mortal decay.

ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE (1946-1989) Self Portrait, 1988 Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper, 57.70 x 48.10 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 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

In a later Self Portrait 1988, he delivers one of his most iconic images, the head of the artist receding into a dark ground, while his hand rests steadfast on a walking cane, carved with a skull. It’s a universal memento mori, an individual confronting death and Mapplethorpe making a statement of power in composition and tonality, even as he fades. He’s become the force that’s stalking him, that stalks us all, and he does so with immense dignity. Seeing this image always makes me think of Shakespearean tragedies like King Lear, Hamlet or Macbeth. The immensity of darkness engulfing the protagonist is absolute, yet Mapplethorpe still rules the frame. Immortalised in a signature moment of brilliance, something he never doubted possessing, he sits hand in hand with God and the Devil, between the darkness and illumination of his craft.

The final ‘Snapchat’ section of the exhibition, where school students, photography and art students have responded to the exhibition with images, text and filmed interviews was incredibly moving and insightful. What struck me most was the element of shock and surprise in relation to photography as a discipline, rather than tool and the degree of artistic agency identified in the work of Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe. The concept of ‘making the image instead of taking it’ felt like a generational penny dropping. I also felt an acute sense of loss, in terms of how human creativity and expression is being indiscriminatingly shaped by technology. I was left wondering if a Woodman, Arbus or Mapplethorpe would even be possible today, whether their bold self-determination would be too easily quashed beneath an avalanche of self-censorship.

As the students described; ‘technology has made us less free.’ ‘Everyone is able to see us’ and it has become more difficult to approach life online and day to day on your own terms.’ Examining the work of Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe, there’s a more audacious sense of identity in play and techniques that demand greater deliberation, in their handling of materials and negotiation with the subject. Taking the kind of portraits and self-portraits seen in this exhibition requires expanded self-awareness beyond the trigger- happy selfie.  In the case of Arbus, you have to admit something other than your carefully censored self into the equation/ workflow. Self-portraiture comes with humility and admission of the ‘other’, rather than simple self-gratification or promotion of the individual. Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe, don’t just vainly declare ‘I am’ in their photography, but significantly alter our perception. They stand uniquely for themselves and for humanity in the process, in all its darkness and light. The beauty in this exhibition is self-reflexivity, realised unapologetically and with compassion through craft. Advancing technology has made photography available to more people than ever before, however it’s not the tool that creates art and critical self-reflection, but the human being standing behind the camera. I say standing, because that stance or attitude of self-awareness is so critical in framing the subject in the mind’s eye, before the image is taken. In a world awash with rapid clicks, evidence of that vital human faculty appears to be rapidly diminishing.

It’s a great pleasure to see this work brought together and to consider the responses of students to such unexpectedly radical images. This is a deeply affecting show, for the ways that Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe confront their own truths about being human and for the questions the exhibition raises about ‘self-evidence’ in the 21st Century. This is photography as a matter of survival and in the words of one student, art that ‘makes you keep looking.’

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/artist-rooms-self-evidence-photographs-woodman-arbus-and-mapplethorpe


[i] Georgina Coburn Blogpost Surreal Encounters Collecting the Marvellous, June 2016 http://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/surreal-encounters-collecting-marvellous/ Georgina Coburn Collective Action, article for the Times Literary Supplement July 2016 https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/private/collective-action/ Georgina Coburn Blogpost Lee Miller and Picasso June 2015 http://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/lee-miller-and-picasso/ Georgina Coburn Blogpost Lee Miller A Womans War IWM, London Jan 2016 http://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/lee-miller-a-womans-war/
[ii] Georgina Coburn Blogpost Surreal Encounters Collecting the Marvellous June 2016 http://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/surreal-encounters-collecting-marvellous/
iii] Georgina Coburn Blogpost Surreal Ensounters Collecting the Marvellous June 2016http://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/surreal-encounters-collecting-marvellous/
iv] I use the word ‘freaks’ here in the context of Arbus’s statement which indicates an attitude of respect on the part of the artist; “There’s a quality of legend about freaks.Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”

A New Era

SCOTTISH MODERN ART 1900-1950

2 December 2017 – 10 June 2018

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.

Charles PULSFORD (1912-89)
Three Angels, 1949
Painting, oil on board, 91.4 x 174 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland
© The Estate of Charles Pulsford
Photo: John McKenzie

The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s latest exhibition A New Era: Scottish Modern Art 1900-1950 examines how Scottish artists “responded to the great movements of European modern art, including Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism and Abstraction.”  Featuring over 100 works by 51 artists, drawn from public and private collections in the UK, it’s a show that shines a light on Scottish Modernism.  The bold “New Era” of Scottish Modern Art is perhaps a time when a broader range of artists are publicly recognised, less for their relativity to European “Masters” and more for what they uniquely bring to our understanding of the period and ourselves.

There are many forces past and present in art training, collecting, curation and politics which define the “most progressive” artists of this period- or any other. Even after SNGMA’s Modern Scottish Women (2015) exhibition, the overarching cultural statement of progressiveness in this show is predominantly male. In the context of a period in Scottish Art where female artists weren’t permitted to attend life class at the ECA until after 1910, (effectively barring them from elevated professional status) the representative ratio of 7 female to 44 male Scottish Modernists isn’t surprising. As early policy towards female art college staff demonstrates, you only had an artistic profession until marriage and motherhood forced you to resign. The promising careers of some female artists were also cut short by becoming widows during WWI and WWII, being the sole breadwinner and raising children on their own. When Scottish Colourists “JD Fergusson (1874-1961) and SJ Peploe (1871-1935) experienced first-hand the radical new work produced in Paris by artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse,” their position was of relative privilege aligned with professional status and gender. Leaving the country to have contact with the European Avant- Garde was pivotal in terms of how their work developed, but what interested me most in this exhibition was grappling with the nature of that liberation.

William Watson PEPLOE (1869-1933)
Orchestral: Study in Radiation, about 1915
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, purchased 1990
Drawing, pen, brush and ink on card, 28 x 23.6 cm

Rapid industrialisation, the carnage of two World Wars and the collapse of Western civilization were potent catalysts for the radical art movements of the early 20th Century. Too often the canonical roll call of famous creative male geniuses, with talent delivered from on high, clouds perception of how vital an act of survival, resistance and change Art can be. It’s true that the radicalism of Scottish Modernists springs from a more conservative foundation than that found in Paris in the early 20th Century. William Watson Peploe’s Orchestral: Study in Radiation (c.1915 Pen, brush and ink on card, 28 x 23.6cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 1990) springs to mind, with its explosive waves of sound and angular shards of beautifully composed beige and black. It infused with manners, despite the obvious energy Peploe celebrates.

John Duncan Fergusson (1874-1961)
Étude de Rhythme, 1910
Oil on board, 60.9 x 49.9cm
Collection: The Fergusson Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council: Presented by the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation 1991
The conservation of this work has been supported by the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation
© The Fergusson Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council, Scotland

I’ve always found the label “Scottish Colourist” a very complex proposition. As a uniquely Scottish group, the implied expressive freedom and celebration of colour (on every level) feels muted. To these contemporary, Antipodean eyes, the self-conscious, reductive pink fleshiness of JD Fergusson’s nudes feel strangely at odds with the idea of unbridled female sexuality he is often celebrated for. He is above all true to himself, seen in the emboldened black lines and heightened abstraction of Étude Rhythm (1910, Oil on board, 60.9 x 49.9cm The Fergusson Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council: Presented by the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation 1991). It’s an image of sex in terms of male dominance, form and light; a stained-glass convergence of masculine desire, heat and energy, receding to the edges of the frame in crimson, fragmented blue and green. The female form is the background locus of desire, with the male form literally thrust centre stage, curiously adopting abstraction for modesty in a moment of climatic immersion. Although a daring work for 1910 in subject matter and style, there is something maskingly self-referential about it, which holds the image in the time it was made, rather than transcending it.

One of the unexpected highlights of the show was gaining an appreciation of Fergusson’s strength of composition, founded on associations of his own making. What was so compelling wasn’t looking for the influence of French painting on his work, but seeing how Fergusson addresses his own radicalisation, emotionally, psychologically and technically, led by human relationships. The dominant Feminine in his life was his partner, pioneering dancer and choreographer Margaret Morris, seen in Éastre (Hymn to the Sun) (1924 (cast 1971) Brass, 41.8 x 22 x 22.5cm, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 1972). It’s a symbolic and representational work- a realisation of the Saxon Goddess of Spring and a portrait bust of Morris. Highly polished, rounded brass forms, create circular bursts of radiance and refracted light. It’s an object of love, worship and renewal, as Modern as a Brancusi sculpture and as ancient as the mythology that inspired it.

In La Terrasse Café d’ Harcourt (1908, Oil on canvas, 108.6 x 122cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: On loan from a Private Collection) relationships between men and women are cast with skill and intrigue, in black silhouette, between rose pink blooms and ripening, acidic green lit tables. Standing at the centre of the composition is a young woman in a large, curved hat regarding the artist/ viewer and holding her own in the scene. Aligned with the rose at her breast is the face of a man in the background, like a mirror image of the artist. We can’t see her eyes, they are characteristically in shadow, but her stance tells us that she feels his gaze and 110 years later, so do we. The serpentine sweep of line and form draws us seductively to the heart of the painting and in that moment of connection, Fergusson creates the most exquisitely balanced composition, based on the primacy of his attraction. In painterly terms it’s faultless and as our gaze expands beyond the central protagonist, relationships between the surrounding couples begin to emerge, spinning their own narratives.

In At My Art Studio Window (1910, Oil on canvas, 157.5 x 123cm The Fergusson Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council: Presented by the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation 1991) the female model holds the frame/ canopy aloft with a burst of yellow- green rounded foliage behind her. She is rendered as part of cyclical Nature. Fergusson’s attention is drawn to the torso, the rounded breasts and belly, accented by a crimson sway of mark extending to her thighs. It’s an interesting, veilled mark, which at first feels like reluctance to go a step too far, to paint her entire body with equal definition. The effect is a strange smear, at odds with the rest of the paint handling, but accentuating womanly fertility. Like all of Fergusson’s women, attitude through body language is the primary means of communication, rather than facial expression. Here it’s the tilt of the head beholding the artist/ viewer and the way she supports the picture plain like an internal caryatid, dominating the frame. As a professional model she’s naturally at ease with the full-frontal positioning of the body, stepping into the metaphorical light of the artist’s studio. However, there’s something essentially decorative and therefore contradictory in Fergusson’s vision of the Feminine, a pink patterned accent of desire seen in so many of his paintings, drawing the masculine eye. She is Fergusson’s type of woman and muse, but she is also cast as an undeniable force of Nature.

Conflicting forces of Nature, human nature and industrialisation are the catalyst for all artistic “isms” of the 20th Century. Stephen Gilbert’s Dog, (c.1945 Oil on paper laid on board, 71 x 51cm Private Collection) an expression of pure Zeitgeist in stark, canine form, ravaged by hunger and living on instinct. It’s a painting reminiscent of the Australian artist Albert Tucker, notably his Images of Modern Evil series, painted during the WWII blackouts in Melbourne. Base human instinct comes to the fore in the darkness and psychological onslaught of an age defined by industrial scale warfare, genocide and the atomic bomb. Merlyn Evans’ Cyclops, (early 1940s Serpentine stone, 28 x 45 x 13cm Private Collection), is a modernist manifestation of Classical mythology and collective fears. This works encapsulates the true origin of horror, a monstrous hybrid of man and industrial geometry, consuming humanity.

Eric Robertson (1887-1941)
Cartwheels, c.1920
Oil on canvas, 103 x 144cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, purchased 2007
Image: Antonia Reeve

Eric Robertson (1887-1941), an artist who served in the Friends Ambulance Unit during WWI, navigates his own path through the horrors of war. Shellburst (c.1919 Oil on canvas, 71.2 x 83.8cm City Art Centre, Edinburgh Museums and Galleries: Purchased 1976) has a particularly British, Vorticist aesthetic, finding beauty and dynamism, even here on the battlefield. It is a strange, stilled painting, perhaps an exercise in self-preservation with the stylised, corkscrew auditory whirl of falling bombs overhead and the geometrical trajectory of the blast. There’s a sense of placing a template of controlled design over the annihilating violence, with the curvature of soldier’s helmets and bodies leaning into the earth for protection.  Cartwheels (Cartwheels, c.1920 Oil on canvas, 103 x 144cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 2007) depicts a group of young people enjoying a day out in a Scottish Mountain landscape, shafts of shifting light and the shorthand spin of legs animating the scene. Robertson’s protective aesthetics are akin to his wartime battlefield scene, albeit with an injection of peacetime Joy de vivre, in the eternally grounded presence of the mountain.

William MCCANCE (1894-1970)
Abstract Cat, about 1922 – 1924
Sculpture, clayslip, glazed, 9.4 x 15.2 x 8.6 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, given by Dr Margaret McCance 1992
© Margaret McCance
Photo: John McKenzie

Painter, printmaker and sculptor William McCance (1894-1970) together with fellow artist and partner Agnes Miller Parker (1895-1980) based themselves in London during the 1920’s. McCance’s sculpture Abstract Cat (c.1922-24 Clayslip, glazed, 9.4 x 15.2 x 8.6cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Presented by Dr Margaret McCance 1992) echoes Franz Marc in its claw-like curved geometry and natural feline suppleness. Using the cheapest material available and of a hand-held scale, it is an expression of potential. His series of carved lino blocks, including a study for the adjacent painting Mediterranean Hill Town, (1923, Oil on canvas, 92.1 x 61cm Dundee City Council (Dundee’s Art Galleries and Museums) give fascinating insight into his interdisciplinary practice. McCance’s Study for a Colossal Steel Head (1926 Black chalk on paper, 53.8 x 37.8cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 1988) dehumanises the traditional portrait bust, whilst the narrative of masculine sexuality in The Awakening (1925, Oil on board, 61 x 46cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 2007) is a more humane vision of self-discovery. The influence of Cubism via Picasso and Picabia is easily seen in McCance’s work. However, it’s the artist’s visual grappling with contradictory impulses and aspects of self, finding his line in an increasingly fragmented Modern world, that really speaks.

William MCCANCE (1894-1970)
Study for a Colossal Steel Head, 1926
Drawing, black chalk on paper, 53.8 x 37.8 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, purchased 1988
© Margaret McCance
Photo: John McKenzie

As “a pioneer of British Abstraction”, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s Upper Glacier, (1950 Oil on canvas, 39.4 x 62.9cm Courtesy of the British Council Collection) goes further, directing the Modernist gaze inside Nature in a work composed of thin washes and vibrant drawn marks. The artist’s direct experience of the Grindwald Glaciers in Switzerland is realised in shifting ice greens, blues and smoothed, interlocking forms. Barns-Graham describes the way that she was naturally led to a different way of seeing by the landscape;

“The likeness to glass transparency combined with solid, rough ridges made me wish to combine in a work all angles at once, from above, through and all round, as a bird flies, a total experience.”

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004)
Upper Glacier, 1950
Oil on canvas, 39.4 x 62.9cm
Collection: British Council Collection.
Purchased from the artist 1950.
© The Barns-Graham Charitable Trust

The total experience of art is also expressed in Eduardo Paolozzi’s Table Sculpture (Growth), (1949 Bronze, 83 x 60.5 x 39cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 1988). It’s the multidimensional concept of creative process, above and below everyday consciousness, pierced by thought and practical action. Hand-made tools are the legs of the table, holding the structure up and joining the unconscious layer below to what is seen or experienced above the surface. It feels like the visionary integration of traditionally separate realms of heaven and earth, transgressed by imagination in solid bronze.

Charles Pulsford’s (1912-89) Three Angels, (1949 Oil on board, 91.4 x 174cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 2012) is a particularly arresting image. It feels like standing on the post-war wreckage of the earth, with a triptych of figures, wings enfolding their bodies like sarcophagi, set against an Armageddon cadmium red sky. The central figure encompasses a trinity of circular light. A clashing palette red, green and black outlines and the sequence of figures have an assaultive quality, like Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) halted in petrification. As described in the accompanying exhibition text, the poet Norman MacCaig also identified the apocalyptic quality of the painting in an unpublished poem, “Three Angels (a picture) April 1952. It begins; “Three in a row and each one mad/ looking with innocence upon/ the smiling, cruel and gaily sad/their witless eyes beam down/ on struggling song and word and stone/ each bears a blinding crown…” Pulsford creates a deeply confrontational image of hope and deliverance stripped away by the harsh reality of survival post WWII. Heaven has crashed to earth and the unnerving solidity of these winged visions communicates the collective trauma. It’s an image with no national borders around it.

Edward Baird (1904-49)
Unidentified Aircraft (over Montrose), 1942
Oil on canvas, 71.1 x 91.4cm
Collection: Glasgow Life (Glasgow Museums) on behalf of Glasgow City Council: Purchased 1943.
© Graham Stephen

There’s an eerie feeling of suspension in Edward Baird’s (1904-49) Unidentified Aircraft (over Montrose), (1941-42, Oil on canvas, 71.1 x 91.4cm Glasgow Life (Glasgow Museums) on behalf of Glasgow City Council: Purchased 1943), not just in the hovering clouds or in the anticipatory, upturned gaze of the central protagonists. The church spire pointing towards the heaven and the island world of the town, connected to our foreground space by a bridge (which is also the painting) is held protectively in the mind. Bands of white and deep blue ultramarine define a moment of wilful preservation from the ongoing threat of German bombers. The unease created by the cut-off figures, decapitated and disarmed, is accentuated by a single raised hand and the head of the central figure. With the neck uncomfortably tilted back, it appears as if this were a collaged Christ from a Northern Renaissance crucifixion and simultaneously, an everyman civilian or soldier about to fall into shadow. The human subject is emotively pushed right to the edge, beneath the picture plane. This isn’t just looking up but within, a response rooted in the psychic resistance of Surrealism, not as a style, but a way of seeing and surviving. Sitting between the mouths of two rivers, the Scottish town of Montrose was targeted as a training ground for fighter pilots. However, Baird’s painting also suggests a struggle which eclipses the locality. It is the faithful, heightened reality of Surrealism that Baird employs in this image of human fear, resistance and comfort. It’s not just a scene of Montrose, but an image of the world.

William TURNBULL (1922-2012)
Untitled (aquarium), 1950
Painting, oil on canvas, 71 x 91 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland
Purchased from the Henry and Sula Walton Fund with help from the Art Fund, 2014
© Estate of William Turnbull. All rights reserved, DACS 2017.
Photo: Antonia Reeve

From James Cowie’s sublime Evening Star, (c.1940-44 Oil on canvas, 137.5 x 133.4cm, Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections) to the monochrome abstraction of William Turnball’s Untitled (Aquarium) (1950, Oil on canvas, National Galleries of Scotland), the exhibition offers many surprises, found in the works of known artists and in new discoveries. With many Scottish artists working outside Scotland during this turbulent period, bringing them together is a crucial step in terms of reappraisal. Rather than being cast in eternal relativity, perhaps Scottish Art and artists can finally step out of the shadows and stand where they have always been, consciously and unapologetically, on a world stage.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/new-era-scottish-modern-art-1900-1950

Dreamers Awake

White Cube Bermondsey, London

28 June – 17 September 2017

Jo Anne Callis Untitled (Woman with a Black Line) Archival Pigment Print. ‘From Early Color Portfolio’ Circa 1976 Credit: © Jo Anne Callis, Courtesy of the artist, Rose Gallery and White Cube.

“I warn you- I am not an object” Dorothea Tanning

The prospect of exploring “the enduring influence of Surrealism through the work of more than 50 women artists” filled me with high hopes in terms of repossession of the Feminine and reappraisal of Surrealism in the popular imagination. Art historians have only begun to scratch the surface of female artists written out of the original movement, relegated to roles of lover, wife or muse in the biographies of male artists.  Dreamers Awake features “sculpture, painting, collage, photography and drawing from the 1930’s to the present day” including works by Eileen Agar, Leonora Carrington, Lee Miller, Dorothea Tanning, Leonor Fini, Claude Cahun, Edith Rimmington, Helen Chadwick, Louise Bourgoise, Alina Szapocznikow, Tracy Emin, Sarah Lucas, Carina Brandes, Hayv Kahraman, Eva Kot’átková, Nevine Mahmoud, Penelope Slinger, Shannon Pool, Jo Anne Callis and Julia Phillips. Whilst I welcome and applaud exhibitions bringing marginalised and neglected work by women artists into greater public awareness, this show left me feeling conflicted about the nature of Feminine reclamation, particularly in relation to contemporary art/ life.

Dreamers Awake Exhibition Photograph: George Darrell courtesy of White Cube

One of the problems I had with the exhibition was the overbearing emphasis on the female body, or rather the persistent disconnect between body, mind and the Feminine. On the one hand there’s a challenge to the image of women as objects of “masculine desire and fantasy”, often “decapitated, distorted, trussed up,” “fearsome and fetishized” as “other” in the hands of male Surrealists from the birth of the movement.  Although this “fragmented, headless body of Surrealism” is a “vehicle for irony, resistance, humour” and freedom of expression in the hands of female artists in the exhibition, there is a tendency, particularly in the work of contemporary artists, to simply offer derivative nods to the body politic whilst continuing the patriarchal tradition of the headless woman. Whilst the show ranges well “beyond those who might identify themselves as surrealists”, the superficial nature of the influence (or curatorial connection) in some work left me questioning the universal ground-breaking media exclamations surrounding the show. Fortunately, there’s enough complex, intelligent and beautifully executed work connected to the body to compensate for the weaker, more obvious and mediocre elements of the show. Caitlin Keogh’s clumsy, derivative acrylics on canvas, Berlinde de Bruyckere’s basic assemblage sculptures or Gillian Wearing’s masked photographic portrait of model Lily Cole laden with illustrative symbolism are examples of work which didn’t engender critical changes in perception.

Rosemarie Trockel’s black and white digital print, reimagining Courbet’s 1866 painting L’Origine du monde /The Origin of the World, is an example of an appropriated work which became interesting in spite of itself for the questions it raised. My initial gut reaction was to sigh and roll my eyes at the projection of fear onto an image of female genitalia. Placing an enormous black spider where the model’s pubic hair should be, even to reclaim one’s own body, sex or gender struck me as perilously dull. Effectively it’s a reduction of Feminine power to B-Movie Body Horror by depicting the female body as something dangerous or deadly. This associative trope has been used since the Book of Genesis as an instrument of shame, self-loathing and control, turning desire into the fallen or demonic Feminine other. If Trockel’s intention is irony, turning the male gaze and traditions of seeing back in on themselves, then this image doesn’t really succeed, because like the disembodied woman, the work is missing its head. Perhaps what it does do, (though only if the original image is known to the viewer) is point to a canonical image of the Feminine by a male artist to generate debate in the present. Or if the historical reference is unknown to the viewer (masculine or feminine), the print could also be seen as a positive confrontation with individual or collective fears.  The curious irony is that Courbet’s title acknowledges timeless feminine creative/ biological and sexual power in a way that Trockel’s tarantulan image does not.  Strangely his full-frontal honesty is more convincing in its rejection of idealism for realism and/ or masculine eroticism. It was and is an image that in 2017 still wouldn’t be reproduced in mainstream media on the grounds of obscenity. That the female body is still regarded as shameful, scandalous, shocking or dangerous is cause for debate in itself. If Trockel’s intent is humour and absurdity in her juxtaposition of the hairy spider, then it simply comes across as a laddish joke, especially in the context of her surrounding work which is equally unconvincing in its vision.

North Gallery, Dreamers Awake Exhibition Photograph by George Darrell, courtesy of White Cube

The claim that “by focussing on the work of women artists, Dreamers Awake shows how, through art foregrounding bodily experience, the symbolic woman of Surrealism is refigured as a creative, sentient, thinking being” just didn’t ring true to me in relation to some of the celebrated contemporary artists in the show.  Sarah Lucas’s entwined chairs, The Kiss (2003, Wooden Chairs, varnish, cigarettes, wire, papier-mâché, acid free glue, leather cord) with a pair of breasts on the back rest and a cock and balls protruding from under the seat made from cigarettes is just a clumsy secondary school gag in comparison to a work such as Lee Miller’s Untitled photograph (Severed breast from radical surgery in a place setting 1 & 2, Paris, c.1929, modern gelatin silver prints) which shares the same gallery space. Then and now, Miller was way ahead of the times. Arguably her bodily experience though invisible in the shot is resoundingly present in the composition, with the raw meat/ severed breast served up on a plate with cutlery laid out for the viewer’s consumption. Many of her images cut through to the truth of lived experience, as a survivor of childhood trauma, former model and a war correspondent, Miller found liberation in the Art and life of photography. The juxtaposition of a domestic dinner setting with the disembodied breast is deeply subversive on a multitude of levels. The breast is disembodied, not as an erotic, maternal or biological focus but in the service of psychological, social and cultural interrogation. The two images served up side by side on a relatively intimate scale have tremendous power, in the equality of ideas and execution. Miller’s bloodied amputation is about as far removed from the neoclassical ideal of womanhood seen in the paintings of artists such as Magritte, Dali, De Chirico, Man Ray or projected in Cocteau’s 1932 film Blood of a Poet in which Miller appears in marble whiteout as an armless Neoclassical Goddess. Whilst narrowly fixated male artists of her generation were placing womanhood on a pedestal of passive desire, Miller fearlessly confronts us with an object which is anti-Beauty and savagely confrontational. Of the same generation, Dorothea Tanning’s statement “I warn you- I am not an object” immediately springs to mind. It’s a warning that like Miller’s photographic statement will never diminish in terms of power or relevance. Her emergence as a Surrealist artist equal to those who subjugated her to the role of muse is only just beginning. A pair of breasts, cock and balls made from cigarettes combined with a domestic chair is a lame and underdeveloped contemporary statement by comparison.

Dreamers Awake Exhibition Photograph by George Darrell courtesy of White Cube

As I wrote in a previous post about the Surreal Encounters/ Collecting the Marvellous exhibition (SNGMA, June 2016) the real power and contemporary relevance of Surrealist Art lies in “reconnect[ing] the viewer with underlying passions, obsessions and political activism”, “a collective sense” “beyond dreamy, escapist fantasies and self-promotion”. Despite the easy conversion of the movement’s famous poster boys into merchandise, Surrealism is “rooted in the reality of global conflict, persecution, economic uncertainty, the rise of totalitarianism and coming to grips with who and what we are as human beings.” The premise of the exhibition does pick up on these undercurrents to some extent; “In a world preoccupied with the politics of identity, in which the advances of previous generations must be continually defended, we see the continued- even renewed- relevance of surrealist ideas and strategies.” I couldn’t agree more. What disappointed me were the misguided allegiances to a revolutionary movement playing in the shadows of the contemporary art market.  I looked forward to seeing more evolved attitudes and refined visual language, taking a lead from female Surrealists of the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s and running with it. I certainly don’t mean “refined” in terms of gentility, but in terms of awareness and the propensity to fight (savagely if necessary) for a way of seeing based on the artist’s identity. The marginalisation of women artists as a homogenous group persists today, therefore this isn’t an exhibition of female Surrealists as much as it is a wakeup call in terms of what we bring to this work as viewers- individually and collectively. It is far too easy (literally and metaphorically) to buy into the “surreal” as a word/idea misappropriated and devalued by consumerist popular culture, creating dreamily vacuous or supremely self-indulgent Art in which the disembodied woman prevails. The best work in the show subverts what we have come to believe (or have been taught) about feminine power, Surrealism and the nature of creativity. In terms of Western society, embracing the unconscious goes hand in hand with acknowledging, confronting and liberating what is held in check beneath the surface for political or patriarchal reasons, which has less to do with sex and more to do with the balance (or inequity) of power.

Eileen Agar Butterfly Bride (1938, Gouache and collage, 17 15/16 x 15 3/16 in)

In Eileen Agar’s Butterfly Bride (1938, Gouache and collage, 17 15/16 x 15 3/16 in) the blue Renaissance silhouette of a woman collaged on a ground of text, essentially the cut out of one age informing the reading of another, operates in a self-reflexive way. The encyclopaedic/ historical text, with reference to British colonies, historical rule and exploration works in counterpoint with the beauty and implied fragility of two exotic looking butterflies and the figure of the “bride”, anonymously blue and as collectable as a specimen in an age of discovery. Agar’s collages are frequently not just about the absurdity of images out of their elements, juxtaposed for 30 second amusement or shock value, but are far more texturally layered and sophisticated in terms of ideas and technique. Here the use of collage doesn’t feel random or automatic but considered in terms of dialogue between elements and the wider context of the work, transcending the time it was made. We may well question the freedoms afforded the Butterfly Bride in our own times.

Louise Bourgeois Breasts and Blade (1991, bronze, silver nitrate and polished patina, 11 x 32 x 16 in.) Reverse View. Photograph: G.Coburn, Dreamers Awake exhibition, White Cube.

There is also more than meets the eye in Breasts and Blade (1991, bronze, silver nitrate and polished patina, 11 x 32 x 16 in.) by Louise Bourgeois. What we see from the front is a sculpture composed of folds of flesh and five breasts like cushions with the pronounced geometry and provocation of protruding nipples.  As you move to the side and back of the structure the overall form comes into view. The associations of comfort and domesticity in an everyday piece of furniture and the couch as a repository of the traditional female nude in art comes into play. Then you come to the switchblade behind, the threat of violence where you’d least expect it, a warning against stereotypes and reductive visions of femininity, maternity and eroticism. The artist’s sculpture is like a surreal beast not in an aesthetic but a revolutionary sense. It defies and changes your perception as you move around and find yourself in relation to it. It’s a tangible presence that nourishes, intrigues, seduces, challenges and menaces the viewer from the plinth. It isn’t fantastical but potently real, infinitely more complex than simple dualism or juxtaposition of opposing elements. The inference of soft comfort is rendered in the solidity of polished metal, the couch accommodating the whole family and its needs, equally a source of feminine disquiet. It lives and grows in the imagination as you experience it resoundingly in three (or more) dimensions, as one would expect from a Master of her own Art. The femininity here has multiple layers, views, identities and hidden capabilities against type- it’s a work which refuses to be boxed, with its own distinct voice. I never cease to be amazed, elated and inspired by the penetrating honesty of this artist’s work. Bourgeois brings much that is held beneath the surface into the light with immense courage, consummate skill, tenacity and feeling.

Hayv KahramanT25 and T26 (2017, Oil on Linen 80 x 60 in) © Hayv Kahraman. Courtesy of the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery and White Cube.

Shannon Bool’s exquisite monochrome tapestry The Five Wives of Lajos Bìrò (Wool tapestry, 98 1/16 x 156 11/16 in), Carina Brandes’ Untitled (2012, black and white photograph on baryta) a triangular, mythical inversion of Leda and the Swan and Hayv Kahraman’s T25 and T26 (2017, Oil on Linen 80 x 60 in) rooted in contemporary war on terror were similarly multifaceted engagements with the highly active nature of Surrealism, rather than giving passive aesthetic nods to it. Jo Ann Callis’s Untitled (Woman with Black Line) c.1976, archival pigment print, 22 1/8 x 19 7/16 in) further articulates this idea. It is an image of a woman photographed from above, with just her head and neck visible, face down in a pillow. There’s a drawn line like a seamed stocking along her back and forming the part of her hair, as if she could come apart, be peeled or shed her skin. Is she alive or dead in this sheath of image making? It’s a very intelligent image in terms of where the framing places the camera/eye/ viewer. We are placed in the uncomfortable position of being complicit in this bloodless, internalised crime scene, rendered with a deceptively soft palette of muted colour.

Alina Szapocznikow Autoportrait II (1966, Bronze, 8 1/16 x 10 ¼ x 4 5/16 in). Front View Photograph G.Coburn, Dreamers Awake exhibition,  White Cube

A work which perhaps summed up the exhibition for me was Alina Szapocznikow’s Autoportrait II (1966, Bronze, 8 1/16 x 10 ¼ x 4 5/16 in). On one side, there is a bird-like creature, composed of cast toes for the two feet, a mouth and chin and what look like outstretched wings, a playful, ingenious, hybrid fusion of a human/ bird free spirit that immediately made me smile. Then on the reverse, a different projection of Self, composed of just the cast mouth and upper breast, defining the “automatic” portrait of a woman. When viewed from this position the potentially shapeshifting woman is invisible. One seeing, the other being seen, one free, the other defined by her body, the living contradiction of what it is to be female in a world that hasn’t progressed far enough. Perhaps it was exactly that which disturbed and disillusioned me considering the exhibition as a whole. As I walked around Dreamers Awake I experienced the hope and exhilarating liberation of Art in terms of human expression, bringing what is hidden into awareness. Equally I saw the retrograde dictation of art by market values and a tendency to adopt traditionally masculine tactics to gain attention. I left this exhibition with faith in the tangible power of imagination and the extraordinary vision of female artists as an agent of positive change. I also saw what Surrealism and Feminism is not. That polarity reflects the wider world of Art/ life and the hard reality of creative work as ever more vital, resistant to or complicit with the political, economic and social extremities of the 21st Century.

www.whitecube.com