The beauty of beauty innocence in an age of experience a fresh wistful face
as yet unlined by life a body scarcely knowing love details yet to be added language without words she on the verge of womanhood the purity of the body as yet unveiled in the rite of love simplicity of the pose the dress and hair an almost boyish look slant of the shoulders her top rolled down but barely revealing the simplicity of the pleated skirt elegance of the arms relaxed by her side we wonder what became of her with her quizzical smile and where she went when she left the painter’s life
One of the most curious artworks on display at Tate Britain, is a two-dimensional sculpture by Bob Law (1934–2004) entitled “Is a mind a prison”. This piece is an obelisk-shaped tablet of lead, upon which some seemingly incoherent lines of poetry have been etched. The title of the work is a question, which in itself is unusual in the world of art: despite the fact that one of the fundamental aspects of art is the asking of questions, most paintings and sculptures have simple affirmative titles. Bob Law’s obelisk is also simple in form: it could represent a chapel, or perhaps even a spaceship, one of the notions clearly indicated in the poetic text. If we examine the geometrical shape of the lead tablet it is basically a rectangle topped by two equilateral triangles which suggest a roof structure. The words on the tablet are imprisoned within the space, just as the words in our minds are locked in. Cell within cell.
We are all on a journey, all travelling through space aboard planet earth, and in the course of our journey we will all be confronted with a series of adventures, highs and lows, as though the gods have taken offence and set out to make our homecoming as difficult as possible, just as they did for Odysseus in Homer’s poem.
Bob Law’s reference to redshift is to the cosmological effect caused by the expansion of the universe whereby light sources moving away from the observer are red in contrast to light sources that approach the observer which are blue. Expansion is process. Expansion within the space of our minds within cosmic space. Would you like to be the daddy longlegs, the kingpin, the big daddy on this trip at the end of which we will all be judged for our actions? And so on. . . .
Bob Law was known as one of the founding fathers of minimalism. However, this piece demonstrates that a minimalist technique can be highly expressive. Minimum of resources for maximum effect, Samuel Beckett might have written. Here the combination of sculpture and poetry challenges the observer to stop and to think about structures, about cells contained within cells and questions contained within questions, one art form contained within another.
On the afternoon that this piece caught my eye as I strolled through the beautiful, spacious, well-lit galleries of Tate Britain, and perhaps because of its location by a doorway, it reminded me very much of one of the Stations of the Cross that can be seen in so many churches. This in turn made me think that art galleries do, in fact, have a strong spiritual dimension, not so much because their spaces can replicate churches, but rather that underpinning the work of all the artists on display is the common link of spirituality, albeit manifest in disparate forms. Their work makes contemplatives of us, urging us to meditate on the nature of the human condition. What is it to be human, what is beauty, what in the world around us is worthy of note, what values best define the essence of human goodness, what content and what colours and shapes should be used to celebrate life even as we question its purpose?
All of which explains why the appreciation of art is so liberating and uplifting and why it is so important to incorporate it in the educational process for our young children. But it also has to be appreciated, where possible, in situ. So get down to Tate Britain in Pimlico as soon as you can and when you’re there, take your time, it’s all you have.
Educated at Winchester College, John Latham (1921-2006) commanded a motor torpedo boat in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve during the Second World War. After the war he studied art at the Regent Street Polytechnic and later at the Chelsea College of Art and Design. He was married to fellow artist and collaborator Barbara Steveni.
According to the Tate Britain display caption: This work was titled Film Star because it appeared in Latham’s film Unedited Material from the Star. It incorporates books whose pages have been painted in twelve colours. Because the books can be opened at different pages, the work can exist in different states. The film consists of static shots of opened books. During production, Latham would stop filming at various points, turn the pages of the books, and start filming again. When the film is shown, the books appear suddenly to open, close and change colour.
There is something erotic about the red version of the books, as though the books are about to swallow, to devour the observer, the reader of the painting/sculpture. This sensation would be heightened when watching the animated film. The human presence on the canvas appears to be signalled by what could be a spinal cord and eyes so that we are in fact looking at a portrait. But perhaps that’s just my interpretation. Why not pop down to Tate Britain in Pimlico and see for yourself!
There are so many things to like about this piece, but what struck me, having observed it in situ in the gallery, was the speed with which most visitors glanced at it and moved on. Art appreciation deserves more than a knee-jerk reaction! Latham is inviting us to share some time with his work because its content and its energies cannot be appreciated in haste. He knows that our time is precious, all time is precious. We could all be doing other things rather than traipsing round an art gallery, we could be living and loving in other ways, travelling in other directions. But then, why visit a gallery if we are not going to take the art seriously, if we are just going to shoot through the rooms clocking one exhibit after another as fast as we can?
Art bundles time and energy. As consumers of art our task is to unbundle it, using all our powers of perception and the generosity of our hearts and minds. Furthermore, the creation and appreciation of art should be central to the education of young people and not be relegated to the status of an optional, peripheral activity on the curriculum.
Why does Latham include so many books in his composition? Books are artefacts, physical objects and they can encompass all manner of printed material, hagiographies of film stars, biographies, histories, literatures etc. The book is a fundamental building block of culture, a cornerstone, and over the course of time, the dominant books will reflect the dominant ideology. Books can be instructive, destructive, they can be articles of rebellion and they can be persecuted, they can shape and they can deform opinions, they can be lauded and loathed, they can be best-sellers, stars in their own right and they can go in and out of fashion. Plastic arts can be encapsulated within the pages of books and in Latham’s sculptures books can be incorporated into his compositions as found objects, underlying the phoniness of rigid divisions between the arts. At the heart of it all is the word and the image. Art subverts received ideas and conservative thinking. Art is a weapon of liberation insofar as it operates on the consciousness and can set it free. Plastic, conceptual and literary art all share this power. Hence the reverence that artists tend to have for writers and vice versa. We’re all in this together, all for one and one for all.
I have chosen David Hockney’s painting, A Bigger Splash (1967) from the Tate Britain collection, to accompany a new poem by Molly Rosenberg. The connection is perhaps rather tenuous, but both the poem and the painting deal with absence.
In Molly’s sensitive poem, a personal loss is registered and there is a tense equilibrium between the absence of one life and the presence of another. Hockney’s composition, however, captures the sad, dreary perfection of a Californian day by the pool. Here the pastel colours are deliberately drained of life, and the hard geometrical edges of the draughtsmanship are used to highlight the lifelessness of the scene. What is missing from this painting is the richness of life, there is no hint of a body anywhere. The splash that occurs is tantamount to an attack on the vapid soullessness of the scene, an act not of vandalism but of defiance and rebellion, a yearning for life.
Glint of shining Aqua At times almost blinding. A boy figure stands At the edge of the pool. Elongated limbs that will stretch With the promise of years to come. The grandchild he so longed for, yet never saw. Impatient, he left before age could claim him.
Corn-coloured hair ruffled beneath the surface Drifts like weeds on the riverbed. Honeyed limbs, silky smooth Bejewelled with crystal drops. He’d have held your small soft hand in his. Delighted as you tightly clasped your arms around his neck.
The English artist, Edward Middleditch (1923–1987), was a painter, draughtsman and printmaker and one-time Keeper of the Royal Academy. Despite initially being a conscientious objector at the outbreak of World War II, he did eventually see active service in France and Germany with the Middlesex Regiment; he was wounded and also received the Military Cross
Middleditch took his motifs from the natural world: grasses, water, feathers, opening petals, reflections, and in particular he sought to capture the way observed patterns in water currents and light gradually shift.
This preoccupation can be seen marvellously in his canvas Crowd, Earls Court (oil on board, circa 1953). In this study, what captures the eye initially are the swirling patterns of light on the pavement in the foreground. The human subject, relegated to the second plane, is a tightly packed crowd that appears to be trying to flee from the canvas. Beyond the crowd, to the left, there is a burst of light that emanates from an unseen source behind the wall. The entire energy of the painting travels up from the pavement, up towards the crowd and beyond, as though the crowd is being swept along by the power of the light. The clothes worn by the figures in the crowd, although indistinct, suggest something Biblical, and one wonders whether the explosion of light that appears to be attracting them may not be a Messianic figure.
The subdued use of colour further enhances the power of the draughtsmanship in this composition that I found to be truly mesmerizing. I’m sure that once you have seen this richly suggestive painting for yourselves, at Tate Britain, Earls Court will never look quite the same.
Gustav Metzger was born in 1926 in Nuremberg. His parents were orthodox Jews, and nearly all his relatives were murdered by the Nazis during the Second World War. He was saved by the Refugee Children Movement in 1939 and brought to England. Twenty years later he gave his first individual exhibition entitled Three Paintings by G. Metzger in a London café. Metzger performed his famous Liquid Crystal Projections in the 1960s at concerts of the bands The Cream and The Move in London. His lectures inspired Pete Townshend to smash his guitar on stage. Yoko Ono is among his admirers.
A founder member of the Committee of 100, led by the philosopher Bertrand Russell, and which was dedicated to opposing nuclear war and weapons of mass destruction, Metzger took part in demonstrations and was on one occasion sent to prison in Staffordshire for one month. He has cited William Blake as a life-long influence on his art.
Although dedicated to ‘the starving poet’, the three disintegrating figures in Metzger’s deliberately sub-fusc triangular composition (reproduced above) were perhaps inspired by the Crucifixion scene in the Isenheim Altarpiece, painted by the German Renaissance painter, Matthias Grünewald (1470–1528).
I could be wrong, but why leave it to me? Why not head along to Tate Britain in Pimlico and see for yourself!