Category Archives: Research and Reflection

Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the mask, another mask

 

WaringThis exhibition was interesting if at times unbalanced and a little muddled, its overall theme seemed to be around creating and manipulating identity. Both Claude Cahun and Gilliam Wearing have created work that shows them moving between genders and personas in their photographic self-portraits. Cahun was part of the Surrealist movement in the 1920s and much of what remains of her work dates from then. Wearing is working today and acknowledges Cahun as one of her influences.
The exhibition starts with one Cahun’s images from her series “I am in training do not kiss me” along with Wearing’s homage to this work called “Me as Cahun”. Cahun’s image gives the impression of her as a circus act sitting heavily made up holding what, today at least, look like rather comic dumbbells. To me this sense of humour is largely missing from Wearing’s picture in which she is wearing a mask and makeup took like Cahun, sitting in a very similar pose and holding another mask.

When writing about an exhibition like this there is always a temptation to present it as a competition, who is the winner the 1980 Surrealist or todays conceptual artist? I do not want to fall into that trap so I will discuss each artist’s work independently before drawing some comparisons at the end.

Claude Cahun

Claude Cahun was one of the few woman Surrealists in Andre Bretons group in the 1920s but her work was largely forgotten until she was rediscovered in the 1980s. Since then her work has featured in many exhibitions around the world.
Due to her sexual ambiguity Cahun’s work is very much in tune with the sexually ambiguous looks that are popular with today’s Instagram generation. She has been called by critics “Cindy Sherman before her time” and has been positioned her as a forerunner to the work on many artists working today. However, there is no evidence Sherman or many other artists whose work critics claim was preceded by Cahun had ever heard of Cahun before she was rediscovered. However, Gillian Wearing is of a few artists who does acknowledge Cahun as an influence.
Cahun has a complex character, born Lucy Schwob she changed her name to one she regarded as being gender neutral and in her self-portraits, she appears in both mescaline and feminine dress.
Some of her work has a surrealistic style, notably the picture below of her reflected in a mirror with close cropped hair and sexually ambiguous dress. As her eyes are looking to the right the camera her reflection in the mirror looks quite different from the face the camera sees directly. It almost looks like we are seeing her twin through a window rather than two pictures of the same person. Considering this work was created in 1927, it looks very modern, It has a style that is reminiscent of the 1980s or perhaps even more recently.

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The picture below of Cahun as “a dandy” shows a very male persona both in dress and pose. This picture is perhaps a typical example of a  Cahun self-portrait in a masculine persona it shows that rather than just dressing in male clothes she is able to project through her pose more of a male presence and does not look like many pictures of women in drag.
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In another work from the 1920s she appears in a female persona wearing a clock decorated by masks. We can think about this image as having a message, which is the real me the face you see or one of the masks?

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Masks appear in several Cahun’s works, like the one below her posing naked except for a mask.
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Cahun was imprisoned and even at one time sentenced to death during the Nazi occupation of Jersey. Shortly after the war she is seen in the self-portrait below dancing on a sea wall that had been built by the Nazi’s this image a care free celebration is perhaps a comment on the defeat of the Third Reich or just an expression of joyous relief that occupation is over?
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In a more obvious way the picture of her biting on a Nazi medal seems to be a clear statement of victory over the Nazis.
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Claude Cahun wrote “Behind this mask another mask, there can be no end to these disguises”, this thought is reflected in some of the examples of her work above. Which is the real Claude Cahun? Dressed as man she doesn’t look masculine but neither does she look like a woman in drag similarly dressed as a woman she does not look feminine but again neither does she look like a man in drag. Her work is all about creating her own identity or perhaps many different identities to mask her true personality.
Claude Cahun’s work was largely forgotten until she was rediscovered in the 1980s.In her latter life she lived in Jersey and much of her work was destroyed during the Nazi occupation but what remains has made her something of an icon for art critics who have praised her blurring of gender and identity and recognise in her work themes that are much more common today

Gillian Wearing

Gillian Wearing is one of the so called YBAs (Young British Artists) who emerged in the late 1980s she is best known for her work documenting everyday life through photography and video. A lot of her work focuses on individual identity and blurring the line between reality and fiction. This exhibition is not a full retrospective of Wearing’s work rather it focuses on her self-portraiture. In this work as she often uses makeup and more recently computer image processing to appear as others or herself at different times of her life.
Position in one of the first parts of the exhibition was a work with a similar theme of multiple personas to the Claude Cahun mirror picture above. In Wearing’s self-portrait, she is seen sitting holding a picture of her sitting holding the same picture giving the idea of an infinite number of persona’s rather than just two in Cahun’s work.

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Masks also play a significant role in Wearing’s work, she has used masks in a series of work where she recreates herself at different ages, for example “Self Portrait of Me Now in Mask” shown below. Initially this work looks like a straight forward self-portrait but looking closer around the eyes the edges of the mask can be seen, looking more closely the mask gives a rather unrealistic almost frozen appearance to the portrait.

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Waring has also used masks and other prosthetics to appear is self-portraits as other members of her family or other famous people. The works below “Self-portrait as my brother” and “Me as Mapplethorpe” are examples of this aspect of her work. In all this work Wearing is stretching the idea of self-portraits and confusing the concept of persona.

Finally, there are examples of portraits by Wearing of other people where masks are feature, for example the portrait of Shami Chakrabarti the human rights lawyer and campaigner where Chakrabarti holds a mask of a sterner looking version of herself. This portrait is a response to those people who in the past criticised Chakrabarti for her worthy mask like face but in the context of this exhibition it appears as yet another way presenting different personas or perhaps question what is the real persona of the subject.
NPG 6923; Shami Chakrabarti by Gillian Wearing
Before visiting this exhibition, I had not been aware of Cahun’s work and had not really looked at Wearing’s work beyond the series of pictures of people holding up signs on which were written statements which represented what they wanted to say. I really enjoyed the exhibition and found it very thought provoking, I wish I had seen this work before starting the people and place module. If I had I would have taken a very different approach to some of the early exercises and assignments.

The Radical Eye

The Radical Eye: Modenernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection
Tate Modern, Nov 2016-May 2017

I went to see this exhibition twice while it was on, once shortly after it opened in November and once in January. On both occasions, I thought I was one of the most best exhibitions have seen for a long time. As well as feature the work of photographers I had studied while working through this module eg Irving Penn, Richard Avedon and Paul Strand it also featured work by photographers I have long admired Man Ray, Edward Weston and included original prints of classic 20th century works like Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother.

With such a wide-ranging exhibition of great works it is hard to know where to start when writing a review so rather than trying to write about the full range of work I will focus on a few works that really stood out for me.

Firstly, the portraits of Irving Penn really stood out for me, perhaps this was because I had done some research of Penn’s work before visiting for the exhibition for the second time. I was surprised by the power of this work particularly the portrait of Salvador Dali where the sitter really dominates the tight space he is posed unlike the portrait of Noel Coward who seems to be intimidated by the space and is apparently trying to shrink back into it.

For some years I have admired the very precise work of Edward Weston and seeing the classic 1936 nude study below with its careful pose and lighting in its original form was something of a revelation.

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I have always liked the work of Man Ray and the chance to see prints of many of his works was good, if I had to pick one of the it would be Tears shown below. I really like the way the woman is staring upwards, almost like a silent movie star expressing excessive emotion which is echoed by the huge glass tears.

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The very surreal headless swimmer captured by Andre Kertesz in his “Underwater Swimmer” was another picture that stood out for me. It is a great example of a photographer capturing exactly the right moment so the swimmers head effectively invisible. Also, this work was displayed as a contact print which made it appear like a little jewel that you needed to stare intently add to appreciate all the detail.

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Although I have largely picked out portraits and other pictures of people there were also a lot of other types of work included. There were many examples of close-ups of objects out of context and architectural studies using exaggerated perspectives. Of this work, I liked Aleksander Rodchenk’s picture of the Shukhov Tower taken in 1927. Today this type of perspective distortion is common but it was new in the 1920s and it really seems to work with this curved steel tower probably making it look much more interesting that it really is.

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The one picture in the exhibition that disappointed me was Edward Steichen’s portrait of  Gloria Swanson. I had seen another print of this in a exhibition in the USA a few years ago and had been very impressed but the print at the Tate just seemed dark and gloomy. Perhaps this was the effect of the wide gilt frame the print was mounted in? Whatever the reason it really didn’t have the impact of the previous version I had seen.

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This exhibition was a rare chance to see such a large collection of famous works in one place, generally I thought that in most cases seeing the original prints gave me a much better opportunity to appreciate the work than looking at what I increasingly realise are rather poor reproductions in most books.

The National

The Anglian National Pilgrimage to Walsingham in Norfolk colloquially known as The National takes place in May every year. It is perhaps an event that many people would be surprised still takes place in Britain. Events around the pilgrimage take place over a week end and on the Sunday, there is a procession from the Shrine at Little Walsingham to the Abbey ruins where a Mass is held.  In the pictures below I have tried to capture obvious character of some of the priest and Bishops in the procession.

 

Wolfgang Tillmans 2017

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16th April 2017

 

 

I didn’t really know much about Wolfgang Tillmans before visiting this exhibition, I had seen many posters around London advertising it and I had heard the name in the past. It was probably when I got into the third of fourteen rooms making up the exhibition that I began to think is this about the individual works or should the whole exhibition be viewed as a single installation. The rooms were full of images both large and small, framed and unframed, isolated and in large arrays. There were display cases of pages torn from magazines, books and images scattered on tables. In many ways, the exhibition is compelling it pulls you in and leaves you wondering what is coming next.  The photographic work is very varied, abstracts, portraits, still life, street scenes etc. Initially the work almost has a feeling on randomness or naivety but it soon becomes clear that there are clear political themes running through the works showing Tillmans as a dedicated, socially aware artist who uses his work to promote his views.

Some of Tillmans‘ work features staged pictures of his friends like the one of Juan Pablo and Karl below, these are often mistakenly thought of as documentary work whereas in fact they are careful conceived and executed to make a statement.

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There is also a lot of quite intimate portraits of both famous and anonymous people, although the picture below stretches the definition of portraiture to me it fits well into this intimate strand of Tillmans’ work.

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The anonymous Indian man below  standing next to what we assume must be his purple  car is another example of one of Tillmans’ portrait themes which he has repeated worldwide. What does this work show? Perhaps that the possessions young men take pride in is similar all over the world.

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Greifbar 29 that was used on many on the cover of the exhibition catatalog and many posters advertising the show shows another side of Tillmans. This is not a photograph taken with a camera but rather an image made by carefully controlling how light and  chemicals react with photosensitive  paper.

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Another set of abstract work I liked was the photodrop series on of which is show below, it took me a while to realise that these are just very carefully positioned and  light folded sheets on inkjet paper.

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Finally there are a number of still life pictures, the famous on below of the discarded crustacean shells with a large fly, perhaps a commentary on mortality?

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I thought when hung as a fifteen-foot-high print the picture of the weed below was stunning, not so much for the size of the picture impact but rather as an example of how great works can be made from any subject. I am sure this was not a found scene, I suspect other plants were removed and the decaying leaves carefully placed before several lights were carefully arranged to create this scene but that doesn’t detract from the work.

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In many ways, this was a roller coaster of an exhibition sometime times a little dull, sometimes joyous, sometimes challenging but every one of the works seemed to have a quite clear underlying message.

Martin Parr – The Last Resort

My tutor has suggested in the last two of his reports on my assignments for this module my tutor that I look at the work of Martin Parr. In the past I resisted this because a few years ago while I was working through “The Art of Photography” module I wrote up some general notes on Parr’s work (TAOP- Martin Parr). As I am currently considering doing my fifth assignment about a traditional English seaside resort I decided to look at his book “The Last Resort” which contains picture taken in New Brighton in the early 1980s. This work is perhaps the work that established Parr as a photographer with a unique way of capturing British population at leisure. When it was shown in the Serpentine Gallery in London this work

became notorious and Parr received some extremely harsh reviews:

David Lee wrote: “(Parr) has habitually discovered visitors at their worst, greedily eating and drinking junk food and discarding containers and wrappers with an abandon likely to send a liberal conscience into paroxysms of sanctimony.” also “Only babies and children survive ridicule and it is their inclusion in many pictures which gives Parr’s acerbic vision of hopelessness its poetic touch.” and “Our historic working class, normally dealt with generosity by documentary photographers, becomes a sitting duck for a more sophisticated audience. They appear fat, simple, styleless, tediously conformist and unable to assert any individual identity.”

Robert Morris in the BJP wrote “This is a clammy, claustrophobic nightmare world where people lie knee-deep in chip papers, swim in polluted black ponds, and stare at a bleak horizon of urban dereliction.”

Interestingly when the work had been exhibited in Liverpool before the London show it had been well received and not generated the vitriol that the London critics engaged in. Indeed, over time the reaction to the work has become more positive. For example:

Val Williams in her 2002 retrospective of Parrs work wrote “So what was it about The Last Resort that so terrified and disgusted the people who wrote about it? There is some litter, admittedly, but it’s never knee-deep, and there are some fat people, but they’re not gargantuan and they’re not in the majority.

Elisabeth Mahoney wrote in the Guardian “At the time, Martin Parr’s series of photographs from New Brighton, a dilapidated seaside spot on the Wirral, were seen as condescending. But now they look humorously engaged and fond, bringing British working-class nooks and crannies into view, and reminding us how unusual that was (and is) in art photography.”

Looking at the work now nearly 30 years after they were taken and about fifteen years after it was re-assessed in Val William’s retrospective it almost seems that initial the work was hijacked to allow people to support the critics political viewpoints. On numerous occasions Parr has said in interviews that the work was not intended to be a cruel commentary on the then working classes rather he wanted to capture energy and litter of New Brighton.

In my summary below I have tried to walk through the book in sequence but I have not discussed every picture rather focus on the picture I particularly like and those that are typical of sequences of pictures with similar themes.

The Book starts with the image below showing a bored couple sitting in a restaurant. The man with a cigarette dangling from his month and the woman staring intently at her nails are clearly ill at ease. It almost seems like Parr has captured the moment after an argument when they are just trying hard just to ignore each other. As the first image in the book this photograph sets the tone for the work and is perhaps saying not everyone has fun at a seaside resort.

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In the fourth picture in the book, the infamous litter referred to in exaggerated terms in some of the original reviews of the first London show appears. Here a mother with her head cut off but visible as a reflection and her two children are eating amongst discarded polystyrene food containers. The little girl looks happy the boy is obviously unhappy, perhaps he didn’t like his food or just wants more. I really like the cleaver composition showing the woman eating reflected in the window. There is also a distinct sense of grubbiness from both the litter and the obviously worn faced of the shop.

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The next series of work in the book show adults engrossed with fruit machines and other coin operated machines while the children with them seem to be largely ignored and in some cases creating their own entertainment. I like the first picture  in this sequence shown below I particularly like the way it captures the seediness of the amusement arcade and the way at first sight the adults playing the machine are staring almost hypnotised by it whereas the slow shutter makes it look like the child is moving around employing this new environment. Looking more deeply at the picture you can see a ghostly image of the arm of the second lady as she pressed the button to spin the wheels and then waited to see if she has won.

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Following the slot machine pictures is the picture below showing an expansive view of the crowds at a swimming pool. In the foreground is a woman lying across her partner’s lap. The pink bikini that she is wearing really makes her stand out as the subject of the picture due to the way the colour contrasts with the blue water and sky. Initially the picture appears to show a very claustrophobic scene with people packed in like ants but perhaps all it shows people enjoying themselves on a day by the sea.mpf4

The next picture is one of my favourites in the book with the woman gazing out of the frame to the left while her baby is crying. This really captures the idea of holiday stress and a parent who is beginning to hope the holiday will be over soon

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The photographs in the last resort are not all about doom, gloom and stress the next two pictures capture very sweat and intimate moments. In the fits of them a father is staring lovingly at his daughter as she drinks from a can of coke. The colour contrast between the girl’s yellow clothes and the red coke can add another dimension to the picture as does the rafter gloomy expression of the woman in the background.

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The next picture continues the sweetness theme here a little girl brushes her mother’s hair as the mother looks admiringly at the girl.

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The next picture of the contestant in a beauty contest really captures the run-down nature of the resort. The woman looks radiant as she smiles at the crowd but the stage looks so stark and empty you are left wondering if there really is a crowd.

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The next picture is one of the most popular phonographs from the book, at least it is probably the one I have seen most often in articles about Mari Parr. The young woman serving in the ice cream parlour is staring back in obvious disapproval as Parr takes here picture while her customers struggle to get to the front of the queue for an ice cream.

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Another of the litter shots, a family eating together, the mother eating, the little boy apparently having finished his food and the father trying to feed the little girl. The push chair being parked in a mound of litter from an overflowing bin mounted on the red lamppost appears to be the main subject of the picture, the family eating seems to be of secondary importance.

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The balance between the purple dancer and the green litter bin gives this picture a very cleaver composition with both the colours balanced. As well as the dancer standing tall and stretching backwards while the bin appears to be leaning forward giving an obvious tension.

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The last picture in the picture is again one of my favorite picture it has almost a surreal feel to it with a woman lying stretched out topless on a towel while her daughter on the right appears to be trying to wake her up. There is an interpretation that the caterpillar tracked digger is about to move forward and run over the figures in the scene. However, I suspect that this was just a good place out of the wind to sunbathe.

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Revisiting the work of Martin Parr and focusing on the work in The Last resort has been interesting and thought provoking. I had forgotten how important colour in Parr’s work, in several of the pictures about the composition is successful because of colour balance or colour contrast in the images. Without the vivid colour, these photographs would not be so successful.

There is also inherent humour in many of his pictures even when the subject matter is relatively gloomy. For example, the picture of the couple in the first pictures is lifted by the wall light in the top of the frame.

I am sure that the pictures in The Last Resort really capture a true image of New Brighton in the 1980s they are not pictures of a glossy seaside resort that could be used in a marketing broacher but they do show ‘’warts and all’ what you could expect if you visited there at the time.

Vanessa Puntener – Traum Alp

Vanessa Püntener is a Swiss photographer who my tutor recommended me to research as an example of an artist who really manages to capture a sense of place in her Photographs. I was something of a challenge to do too much research on her because there appears to be very little written about her in English and my German is very poor. Although perhaps in some ways the lack of material to read means that I really had to focus on her work. Rather than try to review all the theatre, portrait and documentary work on her website (http://www.vanessapuentener.ch) I focused her documentary work (or story) Traum Alp. Literally the title translates to Dream Alp (or perhaps Dream Mountain and the work focuses on people living and working on Alpine pastures during the grazing season (roughly May to October).

Püntener’s work in Traum Alp was included in a book of the same title (https://www.amazon.de/Traum-Alp-%C3%84lplerinnen-im-Portr%C3%A4t/dp/3858695572)  which she produced with Daniela Schwegler. The book focuses on the lives of fifteen women between 20 and 75 years old who spend their summers high in the alps living and working without many of the luxuries people take for granted today.

 

 

The first picture I have selected is on the book cover in a very cropped form that I assume was dictated by the book format. To me the original picture below  really tells the story behind the book; a young woman tending to a cow lying in a pasture that is flecked with Alpine flowers with more mountains in the distance. Whereas the cropped version of the book cover misses out the Alpine meadow and other cows in the background thus not really telling the story as well as the original.

The second picture has a similar style, a woman tending her pigs high in the mountains, again looking deeply into the frame there are flowering Alpines among the lush looking grass growing between the rocks. Again there is a bright blue sky and mountains still with traces of snow on them in the distance.

The third picture captures the essence of a mountain hamlet in the early morning mist which captures a sense of the isolation of these small farming communities high in the Alps. There is what looks like a 4×4 next to the nearest house but no sign of satellite disks, TV aerials or phone lines.

A person, I assume a woman working with her dog to move a heard of cows, initially there is little to identify this as an Alpine scene but on closer inspection all the cows have tradition bells around their necks. This is clearly not a warm sunny day from the lack of shadows and the way the figure is dressed and thus talks to the harshness of the mountain life compared  to that of town or city dwellers.

This next photograph really emphasises the idea of families being together working these Alpine farms here the mother and son stare lovingly at each other while the mother milks the cow. Both figures and the cows are in a dark building that appears to be only illuminated by a single window. While this picture in isolation doesn’t have much to locate it in the Alps as part of a series of pictures about the people working the Alpine meadows in summer it really captures the sense of togetherness and family life  in what is a fairly harsh environment.

Another interior shot this time traditional cheese making, like the previous picture this captures something of the timelessness of the work on these small farms without anything to really tie it to a place independently of its inclusion in a series or work.

Finally, a portrait, I really like the expression of happiness which apparently is the result of what she is looking at outside the right-hand side of the frame. Perhaps she is looking at her child or someone telling a joke. Whatever is causing the smile the overall impression is of someone who is happy in their work even though it may be physically hard in an environment that would be alien to most people today.

I really like these pictures and the way that together they tell the story of a landscape and the way of life of people working it that has changed little over many years. However, it does also emphasise on big social change, the bulk of the people working the land are now women whereas in the past men would have dominated the workforce.  Perhaps the book addresses this change but I cannot read enough German to verify that. However, I suspect the reality is that working the high Alpine pasture is no a labour of love, the dream in the title, rather than a job that alone can sustain a family.

Horst – A Photographer of Style

In  January 2015 I went to see the exhibition Horst a photographer of style at the Victoria and Albert museum and I remember being very impressed by the work so much so that I brought a copy of the catalogue. When I was researching Richard Avedon and Irving Penn for the reviews I wrote earlier in my log book Horst’s name came up several times as a leading example an earlier generation of fashion photographers so I decided to go back to my copy of the catalogue and rather belatedly write up my thoughts on the exhibition.

Although Horst was certainly an innovator he works does seem quite dated compared to the work of Penn and Avedon. In some cases the clothes and style of his models is so 1930s but also a lot of the poses he uses seem seem very much in a art deco style rather than the more modernist style of Penn and Avedon.

Horst is perhaps best known for his dramatic use of light and contrast in his early fashion work he spent a long time working on perfecting the lighting of the clothes and as a result often had his models faces very lowly lit of even in darkness. His style very much echoed what is known as Chiaroscuro which was developed by Caravaggio among others in renaissance and later oil painting.

The three fashion shots below are fairly extreme examples on Horst black and white fashion work. Light is used carefully capture the line and the way the material of the dresses drapes but the models are largely anonymous. This is approach very much different from supermodel era when at times the model is perhaps more important that the dress.

Despite being a regular contributor to Vogue in the 1930s Horst’s Dramatic lighting style was not universally popular indeed in 1937 the chief editor of Vogue drafted a memo that included the phrase

“I have been lecturing Horst about the lack of light in his photography. We have simply go to overcome this desire on the part of our photographers to shroud everything in deepest mystery”

Even Horst’s portrait work in the 1930s was characterised by a carefully controlled play on light and shadows as illustrated by his photograph of Marlene Dietrich below

Horst was also relaised the valueof retouching writing copious instructions for the people who retouched his work. Many of his photographers were extensively retouched before being published, one famous example included in the V&A exhibition was his picture of the Mainbocher Corest that was taken in 1939 in the published version shown on the right below the corset appears to perfectly wrap around the model but in the original unretouched picture on the left the corset appears very rigid on the left hand side of the models back and really doesn’t fit well at all. This picture is not only a great example of Horsts skill in balancing light but also the skill of the retoucher who had to carefully paint in the left had side of the models back up to her shoulder to give the illusion of a perfect fit.

In the 1930s and early 1940s Horst became one of the first fashion photographers to embrace the emerging technology of colour photography. His work with colour started out being quite different to his work in black and white his pictures had bright saturated colours with some carefully placed shadows but the “lack of light” was no longer in evidence. When looking through the exhibition at the V&A and reading that all the colour photographs were new prints I did wonder if the these modern prints were much more saturated than the originals. However, surviving copies of Vogue that contain this work show that this probably was not the case.

Later in the 1940s he seem to return to embrace Chiaroscuro in his colour work as in the photograph below that was taken in 1947 which show much more dramatic lighting that his earlier work above.

Although Horst survived until 1999 and continued taking photographs throughout his life he moved away from fashion photographer at the end of the 1940s