Giacometti: Tate Modern

Alberto Giacometti (1901 – 1966)

I was introduced to Giacometti at a Morley College drawing class in September last year, just as I was starting this OCA course (see Blog posts 1st October and 12th October 2016).  I noted then that Giacometti drew and painted his brother Diego many times and that he took pains to scrutinise his subjects intensely – saying even of his brother “when he poses for me I don’t recognise him” such was his concentration on portraying what he actually saw, rather than what he was familiar with.  Yet this is at odds with the connection that Giacometti obviously felt for his sitter.  While he may not have recognised the physical elements of his brother he obviously saw deeper.  “It was not his aim to create likenesses but a reality in real space corresponding to the essence of a personality.” (Tate curator notes)

So it was exciting to be able to see this Tate collection of Giacometti’s works, with some paintings of his brother.  The exhibition also included examples of his sculptures, decorative objects (such as lamps and vases) and drawings.

Modelling space

The portrait paintings were even more complex in real life than I had imagined from looking at photographs.  While initially appearing random, the lines had a definite structure – veering towards the figure, linking the subject and his/her background in a flowing dance.  There wasn’t much variation in colour – just some hints of red here and there.  But the point wasn’t colour – it was about form and space.

Kaupelis (1992: 87) discusses “modeled space” and highlights the importance of drawing empty space around, and even in front of, a model.  He writes about “Masters” of art – “Everything is one to them and they don’t really think about first drawing this object and then that object.  They all flow together and become one thing, a totally integrated drawing.”  This is certainly true of the way that Giacommeti draws.


I admired Giacometti’s bronze sculpture  “Three Men Walking”  for the simplicity of the arrangement – three elongated figures seemingly the same yet facing different directions, on the point of passing each other by, looking towards where they are going rather than at each other.  We know they are walking by the purposeful bend of the body and the stretch of the limbs.

It reminded me of when I was attempting to sketch the commuters at Liverpool Station recently.  I marvelled at how they all managed to avoid bumping into each other, particularly the ones staring intently at their mobile phones.  It was as if they had a sixth sense – something like a murmuration of starlings who flock and billow in the air making fascinating shapes without ever crashing.  They are interesting individually but the instinctive, unacknowledged interactions add up to much more.  Perhaps “man’s spiritual alienation in tune.”?  (Honour, 2009:  841)

I was amused to overhear a mother explaining another sculpture “Walking Man” to her child by saying “his feet are stuck” – and indeed the overly-large feet of the figure do appear to be almost part of the ground beneath them.  Yet such is the forward angle of the body you have no doubt that he is striding forcefully forward with purpose, overcoming whatever may be trying to hold him back (the stuck-ness).


I think what I took away from this exhibition most of all was the importance of relationships.  The relationships between the:

  • artist and his materials[1];
  • artist and the subject;
  • subject and its surrounding and/or other subjects.

I am starting to learn that when I am more engaged with a subject that the outcomes are more interesting – and the process certainly more enjoyable.  Part of this is to try and move beyond recognisable representation towards capturing the essence of the subject, particularly in portraits.  How we see things has to be personal, not contrived or copied.  I am not sure how to arrive at this point as I am still overly-concerned about adhering to what things “should” look like.  But I know that in my more successful drawings I have either been engaged with the subject matter, or at times the process.  I don’t feel that I have yet identified a preferred medium to work in, but I do find mixing mediums exciting.

[1] “Giacommeti preferred to work with clay or in plaster, materials which he could form and shape with his hands.” Exhibition notes.

Graphic Witness: Drawing Room: Nidhal Chamekh

Drawing Room, Bermondsey:  Graphic Witness:  18th May – 9th July 2017

I have only recently discovered Drawing Room in Bermondsey.  Apart from being a little tricky to find it is a great resource, with exhibitions, courses, talks and a comprehensive reference library on contemporary drawing.

I visited the Graphic Witness Exhibition in June and went back to a talk by the artist Nidhal Chamekh, who kindly also discussed his work Studying Circles, 2015 with me (through a translator) after the talk.  It was illuminating to discover the artist’s intent and working methods of a work I had seen and made notes about a week earlier.

My original notes on Studying Circles, 2015

I was permitted to take a photograph of the drawing (Fig. 1.) and I explained I would be using it on my public student blog.  Apologies that the photograph isn’t very good.  You can see a better image on his website.

Studying Circles 2015
Fig. 1. Nidhal Chamekh: Studying Circles. Graphite on wood-free paper. 240 x 300 cm.

I was drawn to this work initially because of its composition, and I wondered what it was trying to say.  The exhibition overall was about being a witness, and portraying this by drawing.  The drawings were political and many drew attention to issues of concern, injustice and suffering.

The person at the centre of the image seemed to a victim of some sort, he appeared to be the only black figure.  So I wondered if this was a record of  racial abuse.  I knew the artists was Tunisian, so perhaps this was a commentary on how Tunisian’s are treated as refugees.  This image is fractured, it looks like he is moving his arms about – to protect himself from attack.   He has his eyes closed or is looking down

Most of the people stood around were cut off at eye level – was this a commentary on “turning a blind eye” to abuses?  The right hand figure is holding a selfie-stick and phone like a golf club, and he has no trousers on.  Is he wondering if he will be vulnerable if he takes a photograph?  He also has an anklet on – it looks a bit like one that offenders wear when they are tagged.  The background figure with his head bowed is holding his arm.  Is he too a victim of abuse, or a perpetrator  dusting himself off?

There were also strange symbols in the drawing which looked like measuring devices but I didn’t know what their significance was.

The work was completed in graphite.  I did wonder about his technique as the drawing was very large:  240 x 300cm.  I couldn’t even begin to think how graphite could be used on this scale – it must be the powdered type I guess, which I have used a little but on a much smaller scale.

Post-viewing research revealed that the aim of Chamekh’s work was to highlight the plight of Tunisian protestors who set themselves on fire. I couldn’t find any information about the symbolism in the drawing.

Nidhal Chamekh:  Talk at Drawing Room:  19th June 2017

These are a summary of my notes, they capture an essence of the talk but I apologise if I have missed anything as they were delivered through a translator and at times a little difficult to follow.

Chamekh explained that he liked to use different perspectives and dimensions – images as if floating.  He wants things to be out of space and time and different levels.  He uses images, particularly those of the ancient world, as a way of thinking and questioning modernity.  He said that the Arabic world look at things differently.  He likes using sketchbooks, as they are less pressure (I can identify with that!).  His final drawings evolve – he doesn’t always know where he is going with an image.  He doesn’t want to adhere to a fixed style.  He mostly copies real images – his drawing is not expressive.  Drawing takes time – image crystalised within drawing.

His inspirations:  technical drawings; Middle Ages etchings; different periods combined;   different styles – as if more than one person drawing.

He is political and aims to install doubts with the way image perceived.  Images clash.  Viewer must form own opinion.  Images are as important as speech.  He talked about being inspired by art historian Aby Warburg and his work recorded in The Surviving Image[i], where he stopped writing and collected images as he believed he could say more with just images.

Another of Chamekh’s inspiration is Rauschenberg’s transfers (which I have written about in an earlier post).

Discussion with Chamekh on his drawing

On the symbolism:  the bare legs are an image from antiquity – contrasts with modern selfie-stick.  The anklet is not a tracking device but a traditional Tunisian anklet that women wear – the Kholkhal.  It is very heavy – can be restrictive so might be suggestive of power dynamic, though he said he hadn’t thought of it in that way.  The measuring devices are about space and time.  There are moons and planets in the drawing too (which I hadn’t noticed) which are also about space and time.

He was interested in some of my interpretations, and said they were as valid as his intensions and that he was glad I had taken time to think about the symbolism.

On the technical side, he said he uses large sponges on sticks to draw with the graphite.  Some areas are meticulously drawn, but others only indicated or sketched.

Reflection:  I am still thinking about this experience and digesting what it has taught me about the production of art and its appreciation and interpretation.  Some of my thoughts are:

  • Images don’t have to have a literal or metaphorical meaning, sometimes they are just there because the artist likes them or they fit his/her style or philosophy.
  • Is there any value of protest art if nobody sees it or understands it? Or if the only people who see it are those that go to the trouble to visit out-of-the-way galleries? I guess you can’t wait until you are famous or get publicity though.   Or do artists feel they have to do this to express their opinions even if it doesn’t have an audience?  Or is it sometimes done because it is fashionable or fits the remit for a commission, exhibition or trend?
  • How valid is the viewer’s interpretation of the art if it doesn’t fit with the artist’s intensions?  If it doesn’t fit has the artist failed?  Or the viewer?  Or is there no failure at all if both are honestly and thoughtfully expressed?

[i]The Surviving Image, originally published in French in 2002, is the result of Georges Didi-Huberman’s extensive research into the life and work of foundational art historian Aby Warburg. Warburg envisioned an art history that drew from anthropology, psychoanalysis, and philosophy in order to understand the “life” of images. Drawing on a wide range of Warburg’s unpublished letters and diaries, Didi-Huberman demonstrates unequivocally the complexity and importance of Warburg’s ideas and the ways in which his legacy was both distorted and diffused as art history became a “humanistic” discipline. The Surviving Image takes Warburg as its main subject, but also addresses broader questions regarding art historians’ conceptions of time, memory, symbols, and the relationship between art and the rational and irrational forces of the psyche.”  Amazon website.


Robert Rauschenberg: Tate Modern

Robert Rauschenberg (1925 -2008). I had never heard of him before the Tate Modern exhibition. I didn’t know what to expect except I had seen pictures of a goat with a tyre around it – which set off alarm bells. The promotional blurb said he was influential, and that he “changed the course of American art forever”.  So I mustered my “do not pre-judge” sensibilities and plunged right in.

Set across a number of themes or periods, there was a lot to take in – too much, but I had left it until the last week so one visit will have to do.  I will concentrate on just a few things that particularly caught my attention.

Factotum II and Factotum I. (1957) piqued my interest.  Both were painted simultaneously– one is not a copy of the other.  I often have more than one drawing on the go, it helps to distance myself to achieve some objectivity, but I have never tried drawing two identical things at the same time.  It’s an intriguing thought.  The outcomes, although similar, are very slightly different. It’s as though he is trying to point out that not everything is in the artist’s control – slight differences: the flow of the paint; the twitch of a hand; a lapse in concentration; can all lead to variance.  I also noted that these are on loan from different museums.  So they are not one piece but separate artworks.  Or are they?  Identical twins separated at birth and brought up by different parents, but with the same DNA.

The thing that next caught my eye were his transfer drawings.  Rauschenberg’s depiction of Dante’s Inferno and the circles of hell.  34 illustration of ghostly images, our worst fears only partially revealed – vague tortured, and torturing, souls.   The on-lookers appear to be people caught in (snatched from?) daily life.  Fashioned with a restricted colour palette, mostly black and white.  I have recently been experimenting with using photo images of and with my art, so this has given me further food for thought.  I have read about the technique for transferring images but have never tried it.

The mainstay of the exhibition is Rauschenberg’s Combines (1953 – 1964) in which painting is combined with everyday contemporary objects and magazine images (Braque and Picasso had experimented with collage too, and Kurt Schwitters’ assemblages was an influence).  These representational images were in direct contrast to the prevailing Abstract Expressionist art movement in America (Honour/Fleming, 2009: 843).

The most famous work within the Combines (and the arresting visual image for the exhibition) is Monogram 1955-59.

Rauschenbergs goat
Robert Rauschenberg, Monogram, 1955-59 Combine: oil, paper, fabric, printed paper, printed reproductions, metal, wood, rubber shoe heel, and tennis ball on canvas with oil and rubber tire on Angora goat on wood platform mounted on four casters 106.7 x 160.7 x 163.8 cm.

It appears to be a real goat, dead (thankfully) and has a tire (tyre) around its neck, standing amid a variety of objects in a glass case.  I stared at it reverently as it is an acclaimed work of art but I couldn’t stop thinking that it was funny – and wondered if this was the artist’s intension, or if he would have been offended.  I also laughed out loud when I saw an extractor fan randomly (probably not) inserted in one of his works. 

At least David Shrigley makes it evident that he means his works to be humorous. 

Shrigly dog
David Shrigley I’m Dead 2010 © David Shrigley, courtesy Collection Hamilton Corporate Finance Limited, Image courtesy Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

However, no amount of staring at the goat would help me understand the aims of the artist with this piece so I decided to do more research when I got home.

Research:  Monogram

Honour and Fleming (ibid.) refer to Monogram’s “visual puns” and its “hidden and not-so-hidden meanings”.  So at least it wasn’t totally inappropriate for me to laugh. They also say it is one of Rauschenberg’s “most daring” works because of its “overt sexuality”, which I must admit escaped me.   (Unlike when I looked at Epstein’s Jacob and the Angel – see previous post).

Phaidon’s article by “Rauschenberg scholar” Catherine Crafton, offers some further explanation of the possible meaning of the piece.  On the “overt sexuality” she offers that “some observers have proposed that conjoining a goat and a tyre alludes to anal intercourse, making the work a representation of homoerotic themes”. The punning element, it is suggested, revolves around the tennis balls and Abstract Expressionism (and not in a complimentary way).  It records “other observers” as seeing fetishistic or sacrificial links.  I think I will just stick with finding it funny.  But I guess that’s the joy of conceptual art – something for everybody.

Reflection:  I cannot fault the man for his energy and inventiveness and willingness to collaborate outside conventional boxes.  I feel the need to remind myself of the era that Rauschenberg was active in, particularly his early years. What seems every-day to me now was ground-breaking in the 1950s (before I was born, and I am quite old), including his use of eclectic material and working in collaboration with other art forms (music, dance).

I felt that Rauschenberg’s work was very cerebral, internal even, and I must say masculine (which is an observation not a criticism). I could keep track of his intellectual development, could admire his restless and inventive mind, but I couldn’t quite see where his heart and soul was.  Which raises a number of questions for me.  Why do I think art should be emotional or spiritual, or at least invoke that in my response to it?  Why do I see this as a feminine quality?  Do I see this as a feminine quality?  Why can’t art just be exploratory/intellectual for me to like it?  Is the best art both?  More thinking to do I guess.

Some of it particularly piqued my interest (the transfers) from a technical point of view, but I am not sure what I have taken away. His work does stick with me in some way – lodged in my brain somewhere – and, who knows, perhaps in my heart and soul too?  I do still think back to some of the things I saw – trying to forget the cardboard boxes stuck on the wall though.

Paul Nash: Tate Britain

I visited the Nash exhibition with a study group on a very busy day (26th February 2017).  I left before the discussion with the group as I found the atmosphere at the Tate that day too claustrophobic for comfort.

Overall I enjoyed the exhibition and found Nash’s work interesting, taking a few things away with me for further thought.  I am not going to run through all of the periods and types of his work that the exhibition covered (it was impressive: including the range of materials he used, including collage; use of geometric shapes; how he used shadows – some of things out of the painting; and photography) but just highlight a few things that I found inspiring for my own work, and one less so.

Many artists (including Picasso) have been influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, Nash it is stated, was influenced by Rossetti and William Blake.  I could see the Blake influences in Nash’s love of the “monstrous and the magical” and his aim to “paint trees as though they were human beings” (Tate exhibition quotes).

Early on in the exhibition I took some time to look at what most would probably think of as an unremarkable still life ‘Still Life with Bog Cotton’ (1926).

Nash, Paul, 1889-1946; Still Life with Bog Cotton
Nash, Paul, 1889-1946; Still Life with Bog Cotton. Photo credit: Leeds Museums and Galleries.

I was particularly interested in this as I only recently completed the still life section of Drawing 1 and was looking for ideas to make my work more exciting.  I noted:

  • While muted in colour, mostly tans and browns, blue and grey tones were also used in reflections and surfaces
  • The use of diagonals in the composition – the background in particular looks designed to bring this in, giving an art deco feel.
  • The delicately drawn bog cotton itself was set off well against the hard lines of the table and shelves.
  • The way that the table surface was depicted – the variety of marks, colours and tones has turned what could have been a boring flat surface into a study of the surface textures that could stand alone outside the painting as an abstract work.

I even did a little sketch to remind myself.

Still Life with Bog Cotton sketch
Still Life with Bog Cotton sketch

The next work I want to concentrate on is Nash’s Woods on the Downs (Ivinghoe Beacon) which shows the surreal qualities of his 30s work.

Again, quite a muted palette – I could learn from this, I have a tendency towards the bright and cool end of the colour spectrum.  The smoothed-out rolling hills disappearing into the distance contrasted by the upright (oversized?) stand of thatched or be-wigged trees shaped by the wind, simplified branches indicating form.  Clearly recognisable as trees but other-worldly.

I find I am increasingly drawn to works that are surreal or supernatural in nature.  I have found these elements, to a lesser or greater degree, in works by other artists such as Peter Doig, Odilon Redon, Samuel Palmer, Graham Sutherland and Leonora Carrington.  Not the obvious far out quirky, obviously imaginary so much (Carrington for example), but images just slightly nudged off-piste beyond the representational.  Actually, probably not surreal at all.  I will have to think through what I do mean on this one and explore more artists.

I must admit that I didn’t find Nash’s foray into Modernism/Cubism particularly inspiring.  According to the Tate he “adopted the angular avant-garde styles of Cubism and Vorticism and produced powerful and confident landscapes that were both visionary and terrifyingly realistic.” However, Equivalents for the Megaliths (1935), where objects in the landscape are literally shown as cubes and tubes, I find not the least interesting and it feels like an exercise rather than a natural extension of his works and ideas.  It was a relief to me when he, and the exhibition, returned back to his more lyrical, mystical work towards the end of his life.

I am aware that I haven’t mentioned the war!  I did note however, that there was no mention in the exhibition (well I didn’t spot any) of his contemporaries and fellow war artists John Piper and Graham Sutherland.  But I guess they couldn’t fit everything in.

So, overall lots of things to inspire my artistic endeavours – just need to put them into practise now!


National Portrait Gallery: Picasso Portraits

I have not studied Picasso very much, though I have visited the wonderful Picasso museum in Malaga which holds his family’s collection of his work.  I was impressed then with the variety of his work and different approaches, which went far beyond my clichéd understanding of his work as being mostly about Cubism.  

This exhibition at the London National Portrait has added to my understanding of the breadth of methods, media and innovation he used in his art.  It contained over eighty works from all periods of his long career.  The range of things that surprised and intrigued me included:

·         his quirky, playful cartoon-like caricatures – he was always sketching;

·         the tiny sketches  on pieces of paper no bigger than a playing card (which he went on to use as a basis for two major portraits (1903));

·         how Art Nouveau influenced him – but he adapted it to his own looser style;

·         his use of photographs for portraiture (which accelerated during cubist period);

·         Munch’s influence on his early portraits;

·         his paintings from memory.

I decided to take a closer look at one portrait in particular (Fig. 1.)

Fig. 1. Paloma and her Doll on a Black Background. Lithograph, crayon and scraper on zinc, printed on Arches vellum paper (un-numbered artists proof), 1952.

The portrait interested me because of the mark-making.  It depicts Picasso’s young daughter Paloma and her doll.  Both subjects were drawn in a representational but cartoon-like fashion in monochrome (lithograph).  Not the overly distorted, near-abstract of his earlier work, but I hadn’t seen the type of marks as used here applied by him before, or elsewhere in the exhibition.  They seemed at odds with the delicate flawless skin of the gently smiling young child.  The use of shading was interesting too.  To some extent it was used to indicate tone and shape (Paloma’s face) but the dark tone across the dolls face was puzzling. 

The exhibition notes (Curator Elizabeth Cowling) opined that the subject is ‘calm and self-possessed’ yet the ’patterns resembling tattoos on her face and ornamenting her dress are disturbingly aggressive.’ ‘Picasso was deeply troubled by the on-going Korean war, but the tensions in his relationship with Paloma’s mother (and painter, critic, and bestselling author ) Françoise Gilot (b.1921) may also have contributed to the atmosphere of menace.’

I found this observation interesting but personally did not find the marks ‘menacing’.  I knew that Picasso was political and that he had turbulent personal relationships, but was intrigued to read further about what may have influenced his approach to this portrait of his daughter. 

Further research and reflection

Paloma’s birth in1949 did, indeed, coincide with the period leading up to the start of the Korean War (1950) and it has been suggested that it is ‘impossible to isolate this event from the portraits Picasso did at that time of Claude (his son) and Paloma, alone or with their mother.’ (Daix, 1965: 202).

However, John Richardson on the Ledor Fine art website makes no mention of conflict or tension in the portrait but enthuses about ‘her chubby cheeks rendered in a beautiful, complex, inimitable, iconic Picasso style’ and that the face is ‘nothing short of a miracle, complemented by the remainder of the composition, most memorably her frilly collar and puffy sleeves.’ But I guess they are trying to sell images, and linking the portrait with war and marital tension may not be the best marketing strategy. 

Also, Wikipedia states that when interviewed in 1945 Picasso stated “I am a Communist and my painting is Communist painting … But if I were a shoemaker, Royalist or Communist or anything else, I would not necessarily hammer my shoes in a special way to show my politics.”  (Reference quoted as Ashton, Dore and Pablo Picasso (1988).  Picasso on Art:  A Selection of Views.  Da Capo Press. P. 140.)


I don’t have sufficient knowledge of Picasso’s approach to his subject matter and the use of symbolism to gainsay Elizabeth Cowling’s views, but it does seem to me that correlation doesn’t always lead to causation in Picasso’s art.  Picasso was political, but he also liked experimenting with different approaches and effects. I am agnostic as to his intentions with the marks on this piece, and their direct influence from world or personal tensions. 

Indeed, I note that Honour and Fleming (2009: 787) say that Picasso’s use of ‘words printed on the newspaper cuttings, cigarette packets, bottle labels etc.’ in collage ‘may have had some urban associative value for the artists but seldom if ever any other verbal significance, and it is misleading to read anything into them.’

The same, perhaps, could be said for the mark-making on this portrait. 

What I take away for my practice from this exhibition is:

·         It probably helps to be a genius to make great art, but lots and lots and lots of practise and experimentation is necessary too;

·         Mark-making need not be too literal – sometimes marks are just interesting in themselves;

·         Grab an idea and record it whenever it strikes you – even on the back of an envelope if that is all that’s to hand;

·         I want to read more about Picasso.


Abstract Expressionism: Royal Academy: Clyfford Still

I was looking forward to an afternoon wallowing in the gorgeous colour and scale of the Abstract Expressionism exhibition at the Royal Academy.  I had become a fan of Mark Rothko’s work in particular after seeing it in the flesh a few years ago at an exhibition at Tate Modern.  His vibrant (they look as if they are vibrating too) works left me emotional.  Such depth of colour!

But in the spirit of learning I decided to focus on an artist I didn’t know.  I settled on Clyfford Still as I had done a jokey quiz on the RA website before I visited and in their view I am most like him.  I had not heard of him.  I also set myself the test of picking a work I didn’t particularly like to test my analytical skills. 

Luckily early on (the earlier works) I came across a work by Still which fitted the bill nicely.

PH – 726. 1936 Oil on canvas. 512 x 652. Clifford Still Museum.

I didn’t find the picture immediately attractive at all.  The soft, muted tones, abstracted but not quite abstract, a man and a woman in some sort of hold/embrace.  Is there a child in the picture too?  Difficult to judge the mood exactly, but definitely not cheerful.  And I didn’t know anything about Still to put this in context.  It was painted just pre-WWII but other than that I had nothing to go on.  It seemed out of place amongst the large expressionistic paintings, including Still’s own later works in the rooms further along.

Still (pun intended) I stuck with it.  Initially I had failed to note the yellow and red colours used within the overall putty-coloured painting.  The yellow in the woman’s flowing hair hanging down at the right was expressive, tinges of red in her nipples. The brush strokes (oil) were restrained, yet flowed around the work giving it a coherence, as did the composition – drawing you in to the scene. 

Then I tried to fathom what the portrait was about.  Were the couple in a loving embrace, the man protecting the woman (and the child?)?  Or was he dominating and restricting her?  Her face is hidden – in sadness, or grief, or shame or fear?  And what does the man’s overly-large open hand signify?  His face appears expressionless – arrogant or resigned?  Is he protecting his family and asking our help, perhaps inviting us to look at the tableau and pity them? 

I think I can safely say that this was probably the longest I have ever looked at a painting I was not immediately drawn to.  I can’t say that I like it any better, but I am intrigued to find out more about it and about Still.  There were no clues other than the title (and that gave no hint), the year and medium used.

Research:  Clyfford Still (1904 – 1980)

Born in North Dakota, and brought up in the Far West and Canada.  Best known for his later ‘color field’ artworks, Still’s work shifted from representational to abstract in the 1940s.  He was an early pioneer of a move away from a European tradition of art towards what was dubbed Abstract Expressionism (though he wouldn’t have identified himself with such an epithet).  Sparing with the titles of his work he is described by Christopher Le Brun (Royal Academy of Arts Magazine/No132/Autumn 2016) as being ‘aware of the false light that words can cast and the responsibility of the artist not to undermine art’s natural subjectivity with the assimilation society seeks.’

This echoes the sentiments of an artist of a much earlier generation Odilon Redon – “My drawings are not self-defining; they inspire.  They determine nothing.  Like music, they place us in the ambiguous world of the indeterminate.” “The title is justified only when it is vague, indeterminate …” (Gibson, 1996: 22)

Research on PH – 726

On the Clyfford Still Museum website, Denver artist Adam Milner writes that the painting:portrays a nude, Depression-era couple in a sort of embrace. Their bodies, made up of cold grey lines and soft beige forms, undulate and almost even quiver before my eyes. If a vibrant life force can be found within Still’s compositions, then this work is more like a weak, flickering flame of a candle than the roaring fires we see in his later works. It’s quiet, but the despair is blatant: the man’s heavy hand falls toward the bottom of the frame like an anchor, the figures’ facial features disappear beneath their anguished bodies, and the muted color palette evokes not vitality, but weakness. And still, it is not hopeless: the bodies are punctuated with lively alizarin nipples and bold yellow hair, and the support between the figures is poignant as they become one body instead of two. The work reveals an extreme intimacy that perhaps can only be found in desperate circumstances.

Richard Dorment in his New York Review of Books article on the London exhibition refers to PH- 726 as an ‘enigmatic study of the entangled bodies of a nude man and woman, the rough outlines of their blank faces and elongated limbs ragged at the edges, like pieces of torn paper.’  He also feels that Still and his contemporaries’ work ‘must be understood within its historical setting. The majority grew up poor, lived through the Great Depression, the Spanish Civil War, World War II, the concentration camps, the Atomic Bomb, and the start of the cold war.’


So the work is from an earlier period of Still’s, where representation and symbolism were more apparent than in his later works, but they were still enigmatic. We can only guess at the meaning – and in the end interpret it for ourselves.


Seeing Round Corners: Turner Contemporary

I am a little late publishing this as I wanted to do some more research on a particular artist I saw:  Runa Islam.

David Batchelor: Mini-disco Margate 2008/16

“The circle is at the heart of our relationship to the world”

This was an unexpected break to Margate so I was delighted to catch the last day of the summer exhibition Seeing Round Corners, curated by artists David Ward and Jonathan Parsons.  I am often puzzled by the way exhibitions are curated – sometimes failing to fathom the links or overall aims.  But this was gloriously simple:  Circles.

The curators explain that the exhibition “explores the significance of the circles in art, … also architecture, science, engineering and astronomy; geometry, optics and perception; religion, culture and everyday life.”  Quite a lot to take in, with over 60 artists represented, as diverse as Runa Islam, Paul Nash, Barbara Hepworth, Bridget Riley, Richard Long, Gary Hume and JMW Turner himself.  There were even some Leonardo da Vinci sketches.  So not a totally “contemporary” exhibition, but a stimulating one certainly.

To my surprise the work that affected me most was Runa Islam’s Black Sun.  I say surprising as I am usually attracted to drawings and painting, and colourful ones at that, rather than sculptural pieces.

Runa Islam, Black Sun

Runa Islam: Black Sun, 1997, Fibreglass sphere and lamp

Runa Islam’s work was on its own in a curtained-off darkened space.  I was on my own too, everyone else enjoying the brightly lit main exhibition areas.  The work is a simple, matt black (which added a sense of weight) globe about 60 cm across, hanging from what seemed an impossibly thin thread.  Lit from above by a single spotlight it cast a black, crisp shadow on the bare floor below.

My response to the piece was immediate and emotional.  My mother had recently died and I was in a reflective mood. To me the piece embodied my feelings about how fragile our lives are:  here one minute; gone the next – hanging by a thread. But it also seemed to represent connectedness.  We are all together on the globe, floating in space, with the potential to be isolated if we don’t make the effort to support each other.

There was nothing in the exhibition literature to indicate the artist’s intent, so I determined to do some research on her later, as she is new to me.


What I took from this for my art practice is how powerful symbolism can be to convey meaning.  Also, on a more prosaic level, how the medium and colour used can help portray weight or solidity.

Further research:  Runa Islam

Runa Islam was born in 1970 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Often using film as a medium, she was a nominee for the 2008 Turner Prize.  I have not been able to find much comment or information about the particular work I saw at the Seeing Round Corners exhibition and its aims, but she did take part in an exhibition Black Sun:  Alchemy, Diaspora and Heterotopia in 2013.  The Asiart Archive website which lists the catalogue for this exhibition, explains that ‘”Black sun” is a term with multiple meanings; it represents the eclipse of the day, but it is also a symbol of esoteric or occult significance used in various belief systems.  It is linked to the metaphor “dark night of the soul”, which is used to describe a phase in a person’s spiritual life, marked by a sense of loneliness and desolation … ‘.