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Tierra y Mar: Lost Landscapes series, mixed media on board, 2014 Sonia Boué

It must be a rare thing for one exhibition to generate four blog posts from one artist, but Conscience and Conflict at the Pallant House Gallery is in my view an exceptional show. It is also entirely ‘on topic’ with my artistic practice. So it continues to resonate all the way from 1936 into the contemporary, becoming an important touchstone in my own dialogue with the Spanish Civil War – the conflict that spawned me. My painting called Tierra y Mar is one of a series of ‘paisajes perdidos’, which explore the inheretance of post memory exile. I suspect some would find the inclusion of a landscape painting in the context of a post about art and social engagement a bit tame, but bear with me.

I was truly overwhelmed by the contribution of British artists shown at Pallant House and have since been haunted by the following excerpt from Laura Cummings’ review of the show for the Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/nov/16/conscience-and-conflict-british-artists-spanish-civil-war-review-pallant-house,

“Roland Penrose and three fellow surrealists wore Chamberlain masks, top hats and tails during a May Day protest in 1938, marching through Hyde Park performing fascist salutes in front of a wheeled cage containing a skeleton. If only we had such art groups in modern times.”

I think I know what she meant; viewing this exhibition you come away with an impression that this was a singular moment of cultural coherence, in which humanitarianism, solidarity and art coalesced in ways now perhaps lost forever or impossible to find comparison with in our extraordinarily complex post modern world. These are the questions that haunt me about the then and the now – don’t we have such groups or even individuals in modern times? What has become of art and activism in relation to human conflict in Britain? I suspect the answers to be elusive, possibly partial and needing a greater knowledge than I have about British contemporary art which responds to wars/conflict in all the possible media and fora that exist today.

Arguably not even in WW2 was there such active and political engagement by artists as was inspired by the Spanish Civil War, and it may be that curator, Simon Martin, has captured a unique moment in our recent history. This must be set against the temptation for contemporary comparison and lament. Nonetheless, I can’t help asking where the latter day Ursula McCannell might be?

Ursula McCannell, Family of Beggars, Oil on board, 1939

Exceptionally gifted and aged just 16, Ursula painted this family group of Spanish refugees, echoing religious iconography and giving remarkably sophisticated references to the elongated forms of El Greco and perhaps the Family of Saltimbanques by Picasso, both of which she may have seen at this time. My first thought on seeing this work was of the iconic photo reportage by Robert Capa documenting the Retirada. She entirely captures the atmosphere of many examples of Capa’s photographs of Republican exiles on the road. My question is foolish. Ursula is surely a one off example of prodigious talent who, exposed to first hand experience, reflected the spirit of that exact and singular moment. The notion of singularity must not be glamorised. We simply don’t know if a such a moment were to arise again how today’s artists would respond or how networks might be mobilised.

Referring to my own practice and the seeming conventionality of the abstract landscape form I employ, I want now to move sideways and step into another blog from which this image emerges. https://www.a-n.co.uk/blogs/tributes-and-offerings The blog came into existence precisely to offer responses to conflict and terror.

Ofrenda for Peshawar, 2014 Sonia Boué with photography by Paul Medley

I include it as an example of the diversity within my practice; generally speaking artistic practices are often fluid and multi-faceted these days. It also demonstrates how one history can intersect with others, so that I respond to the contemporary through a heightened sensibility to conflict and terror as I engage ever more deeply with my own background rooted in a bloody war and the massacre of innocents. I wonder if in 75 years time it would even be possible to trace this photograph of the Peshawar Ofrenda? This last point is why I include atomisation in my title. There must be many artists on this globe responding to conflicts through instant and possibly impermanent means, reaching a multitude of audiences on a range of issues with bewildering speed I, for example, engaged with a community of follower through the online project La Retirada in February 2014.This work can still be seen but it’s live manifestation has passed. Yet the power of such work (both for artist and viewer) was genuinely surprising. Powerful enough to make me wonder if there can still be a hierarchy of public engagement with gallery and museum remaining at the top?

Through this online work it has been my joy to meet other artists working in similar ways, and to build a network of creative colleagues who are up for the artistic ‘cafe society’ that the internet provides us with on the likes of Twitter etc. Along with the atomising effects of the digital era (information spray and documentation challenge) comes the democratisation of the art experience – accessibility is enhanced and a conversation with the artist can result. Galleries can’t compete with social networking platforms in this sense. Yet viewing painting, sculpture, photography and installation at first hand remains vital.

Sonia Boué Performance in Without You I Would Not Exist, 2014 Film by Jonathan Moss.

This still from the film made with Jonathan Moss this Summer shows the performative side of my practice. Through research and performance I immerse myself in the history of my forebears. It’s my method, but I also do it to understand what they went through as most oral testimony was suppressed, both by the Franco regime and through a pervasive emotional mutism generated by trauma. Somehow those seemingly ‘conventional’ landscapes I paint emerge from this need to embody the past, and contain many layers of the research, (historical texts, documentary photography, film, and primary source material in the family collection). My father’s exile theatre; his attempt to translate his experiences across two cultures also rest in canvas and board and form ‘windows’ for my installations. Thus they are not landscape in the conventional sense at all. Okay, they aren’t exactly radical but again, bear with me.

Truly it is still controversial and political act to make these works of mine. Spain has yet to come to terms (can it ever?) with it’s recent and bloody past. ‘National memory’ about the civil war remains contested and each move towards acknowledging and honouring the Republican victims is hampered by retrogression and continuing conservatism particularly with the Partido Popular in power. Some say fascism never left Spain, it merely went into hiding, and in such a climate old wounds don’t heal so quickly.

How many artists could be working ‘under cover’ due to choice or pressure, quietly seeking to make political work that engages without over-specifying? Some fudge over the political content in their work for fear of losing funding (I know of an eminent Latin American artist who is in this exact predicament). This artist conveys covert messages and those who understand the context ‘get it’. Artists also don’t want to be boxed in – once labelled political opportunities can be limited and the work dismissed.

Getting a handle on the specific and singular moment in question involves the understanding that British artists responding to the Spanish Civil War were free to do so within a climate of open public debate, which included encouragement to state allegiances from some quarters. Many roads lead to the British Communist Party in this cultural history, with an intriguingly paradoxical phenomenon of titled and wealthy CP members forming a radical activist network to which some of the artists belonged. I don’t detract from their efforts, merely to seek to explain some of the factors enabling them to step up so spectacularly.

So, I want to turn Laura Cummings’ troubling question upside-down. I don’t think that the artists willing to play dress up and engage in meaningful political satire are missing, on the contrary. I think we’re simply missing seeing and knowing about them amidst the great oceans of information we now generate; their efforts appear everywhere and nowhere. I can think of one excellent British female artist who does a brilliant turn as Margaret Thatcher, and whose performances are somewhere buried in the depths of YouTube (I couldn’t find the link). This doesn’t necessarily make today’s artists less heartfelt or radical, but they are muted by submersion. She makes her own props too.

My conclusion is that Simon Martin is to be congratulated for catching this moment so beautifully in Conscience and Conflict, but I also urge art historians and curators to look to where socio-cultural change and challenge is now substantially generated and reflected in contemporary art. It’s happening online, in ‘real’ space and in many of the gaps in-between. We need all of our viewing ‘stations’, we need places to congregate, visceral contact with works and access to a free flow of ideas. Oh, and we need the critics, art historians and curators to help us document, organise and assess what we are viewing. Otherwise we are clearly sinking under the weight of it all.

This is my last blog post for 2014. Happy New Year and thank you for reading!


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Julian Trevelyan’s painted papier-mâché “Horse’s Head” from the Surrealists’ Float at the 1938 May Day Procession. On show at Pallant House Gallery.

Prairie King.

My recent visit to Pallant House Gallery for the exhibition Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War, has proved to be a true font of inspiration. My fascination with Horse Head made by Julian Trevelyan for the 1938 May Day Parade is perhaps partly explained by my affection for my studio mate and childhood steed Prairie King. Prairie was an English playmate, British made, and occupant of a large playroom in Moseley Village in Birmingham. His fate was to lodge with my English aunt in London, when my father’s sabbatical took us for a year to California and Mexico City. For reason’s shrouded in the mists of time (and best left diplomatically to one side) Prairie never returned to us and is reputed to have rusted away in my aunt’s basement in Richmond.

Playing tea cups on the Canberra 1967 on the way to America.

The story I am about to tell somehow immerses me in the question contained in the title of this blog post. Am I a British Artist? I certainly felt that Conscience and Conflict connected me to an exemplary display of solidarity by British artists with Spain’s Second Republic, and that my current practice falls into this tradition of response to the Spanish Civil War, albeit with post memory eyes. I am British born, so where’s the doubt? Why as I pinned my colours to the flag of British art did I feel so at odds?

Let’s go back to Prairie, lost but not forgotten. About three years ago I had a minor operation and on recovery found myself one day in the Oxford Covered Market. It was with a post-op sense of queasy unreality that I first noticed Prairie tethered outside the butchers on sale for £15. Was it truly Prairie (it was) and what was the butcher doing selling vintage toys? Never again or since have I seen such a thing. Disorientated and quite unable to carry Prairie I wandered home with a few hasty images taken on my iPhone vowing to return, by which time Prairie had vanished. That was when a most sizeable feeling of regret set in, and the sightings of Prairie King began followed by a nostalgia for the English branch of my childhood.

My next encounter was months later in a Sunday magazine, Prairie emerged from the foliage of a seriously sumptuous garden in a lifestyle article which had my eyes out on stalks. Prairie! I checked Ebay, there were several Prairies at quite some cost, Prairie was desirable not only to me it seemed. So I posted my pictures of Prairie on Facebook and in an optimistic frame of mind sent a message to my old friend, “Prairie King come home!” I called into cyberspace half in jest and half not.

Some while later, I visited my cousin in Hove near Brighton, the daughter of the aunt originally entrusted with Prairie all those years ago and there ‘he’ was sitting in her living room, a recent purchase from a junk shop and not the t/rusty Prairie of Moseley Village she assured me. Now in a state of some excitement at my enthusiasm for our shared childhood icon, my cousin informed me that there was indeed another Prairie in the window of another junk shop in Brighton and we jumped in the car leaving bemused family members in our wake as we sped off in hot pursuit, but it was to no avail. No such Prairie King in the window, and the junk shop was closed it being Sunday. Someone had clearly got there first.

It was a dear neighbour in Oxford who, having followed the so near and yet so far poignancy of this saga of failed reunion, spotted Prairie next about eight months ago. My daughter and I were sitting in our front room when she appeared, banging on the bay window and gesturing frantically to the end of the street. Prairie she mouthed. Prairie King! I ran. My daughter says she didn’t know I could run so fast, but I couldn’t afford to let Prairie go again. Thus my neighbour and I torpedoed down the road and in rugby tackle mode (before the imaginary scrum) lassoed Prairie with our arms and, once secured, we gently trotted him home. You can imagine the joy.

Studio Assemblage, May 2014

The striking element to this story of return is that somehow, Prairie (under his own steam) made it to the corner of my road and no other road in any other city. I don’t know by what means other than the mysterious yet tangible power of synchronicity. He is very rusty, but I’ve had to admit that I can’t truly know he is my Prairie. That’s a detail we must fudge over a little with a sprinkling of poetic license. I’m certain it’s this narrative that drew me to the Horse Head on sight. There is a kinship between them in my mind’s eye – a kind of family resemblance which takes me back to playtime and early ‘theatrical’ forays in the play room. So carefully constructed and conserved is Horse Head that I was also drawn by the hand that made it. Here there is no doubting the piece is the original, a one off not mass produced like my Prairie. I would love to know the story of it’s survival and how it came to find it’s place in the gallery. Of course Horse Head must in some sense pay homage to Picasso’s Guernica (a major influence on the British artists) and I find through my comparison the innocence of Prairie King’s function (to be played with) a sudden sharp reminder of the child victims of the three day targeted bombardments by Franco an his allies. You can’t have a horse head in this context without Guernica.

So Horse Head has proved to be another such point of significance and intersection with the Pallant House show, as Henry’s Moore’s Spanish Prisoner which I talked about in my review https://www.a-n.co.uk/blogs/barcelona-in-a-bag/post/52398292 It hooks into my childhood – the part spent in England rather than those times spent shuttling to Spain, which have been my more recent focus. But it is this very shuttling in which I think my hesitancy to call myself a British artist probably lies. When I began my project it was with a dawning realisation that my subject is exile, most specifically post memory exile. In my Pallant House review I talk about exile as a no choice and no place existence, a no man’s land of psychological disorientation. I have also written about this in relation to Mira Schendel http://soniaboue.co.uk/section726751_277607.html as my chance encounter with this extraordinary artist on the last day of the Tate retrospective proved seminal in my growing understanding of the psychology of displacement and our creative responses.

Post memory refers to the osmotic transfer of trauma in the family from one generation to another usually in relation to war (particularly used in relation to the Jewish Holocaust). One effect for me of my father’s exile appears to be that although I am by birth and education British I don’t ‘feel’ it or identify with the culture – I feel like an observer. There are times when I probably have to ‘act’ British, yet I am not Spanish and must ‘act’ it sometimes too. The shuttling explains some of this situation; I was brought up with two cultures after all – but it goes deeper. It’s to do with internal geography and the powerful echoes of displacement, in which I find myself rooted here yet not of here – neither am I quite of there, my other place.

Tea lights form a ritual and part of my practice becoming also a medium. Post memory work for me includes the notion of vigil.

The role of art is crucial in mediating such experiences. To create is to be, to be present and to feel present in authentic and congruent spaces, and this is one of the attractions and great benefits of a creative life. It is partly why I think my father was married to theatre as a form of expression, as audience and critic but most of all as playwright. It was the urgent quality I felt I recognised in Mira Schendel’s work too as time and again I witnessed the here yet not here in many of her pieces.

In answer to my own question, I don’t know where the boundaries of internal and external geography quite meet. This business of post memory exile can sometimes feel like a nebulous yet thorny beast.

It perhaps helps to consider the difference between this and the experience of other bilingual people living with dual cultures. Choice or compulsion, and the emotional landscape of each cultural collision will surely determine outcomes and levels of engagement with host countries and identity for second generations. In my case the post memory experience appears to engender a persistent ambivalence I can’t dislodge. My formulation in answer to my title question is therefore as follows; I am an exile’s daughter, I am an exile artist. Neither wholly British nor entirely Spanish, I am irrevocably tied to both yet I’m something in-between.

My second hand dislocation doesn’t stop me, like my father before me, from deriving great riches from the meeting points between my two languages, my two cultures. Exile was my father’s curse, but his dedication to cross cultural translation in the field of literature and performance also provided extraordinary meaningful encounters. My own experience is that residing in the in-between spaces of this cultural ambivalence also lend a privileged and often original vantage point.

Some days after writing this blog I happened on a photograph of the Prairie King outside the butcher’s shop in the Oxford Covered Market. Synchronicity at work again. 


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R.B. KITAJ (1932–2007), La Pasionaria, 1969

So finally I made it to Pallant House Gallery to view Conscience and Conflict. A much anticipated viewing of any exhibition always runs the gauntlet of anti-climax, but there was no such trouble at this seminal showing of British artist’s responses to the Spanish Civil War. As the daughter of a Spanish exile and an artist working with this very history I was particularly keen to view and cast a post memory eye over the artistic milieu of the country in which my father found himself exiled at the mere age of eighteen.

To recap for those who don’t know my history, my father José García Lora, was a Republican journalist, and I am here – British born – both because of the dictator Franco, and a philanthropic Quaker Spanish Medical Aid Committee (SMAC) volunteer called Alec Wainman who rescued him and fourteen others from the Barcarès camp in the Summer of 1939. I have written about this and made a film this Summer with artist Jonathan Moss about my father’s rescue http://soniaboue.co.uk/section765387.html

It’s important to say that my father left Spain (as half a million Republican Spaniards did) in fear for his life, a fear entirely justified. This was no ordinary exit, and there was no return, and so England became home. My father never was reconciled to this situation but nonetheless there was immense reason to feel gratitude, for while the British government took the exiles in with huge reluctance, there was an extraordinary community of volunteers like Alec Wainman and the International Brigades who not only supported the Second Republic in the fight against fascism but were also willing to act, often putting their own lives at risk. Indeed many fell for a free Spain. This exhibition explores the artistic effort which itself involved casualties, Felicia Browne being notable not only for a handful (which remain) of beautifully executed drawings but also for her tragically early death in 1936 in action on the Aragon front. These drawings brim with promise and her self portrait presents us with a bold gaze – here was a woman of obvious talent and resolve. The loss of young lives to fervently held ideals lends a further layer of emotionality to this show and to modern day comparison. Conscience and Conflict thus has an urgent contemporary relevance and begs questions of us all.

Felicia Browne, Self portrait. Not dated

The hang in the opening room emitted order and reverence lending an immediate reassurance that the grave nature of much of the material before us was in safe hands. So often in this kind of exhibition the visual hang can be sacrificed on the altar of knowledge and works are cramped, there is excess verbiage and an over emphasis on didacticism. Here the balance between visual appreciation and informative comment was perfectly gauged and this standard continued throughout.

I had arrived feeling that what would matter most was not so much the artistic quality of the work as the groundbreaking bringing together of this moment in history, in which artists stood up in significant numbers and declared allegiance to a cause. A moment, revealed to us for the first time here, when great creativity was lent to the war effort for both the raising of funds and awareness, and in which artists were also moved towards thematic sympathy with Republican Spain in their work through a connection with ideology or exposure to the culture. I left feeling overwhelmed by the truth of this perception and thus the weight of British artist’s contribution, yet also that I was mistaken about quality. This exhibition is of great importance in showing us what British artists achieved in response to the inhumanity of this particular war, and has many excellent pieces to surprise us with, and some true gems. There are many new friends to be made and old ones to admire, thus I came away both moved by the riches of human solidarity before me and enthused by some wonderful discoveries which are of interest in their own right. Above all I was charmed.

This is also an exhibition of great art historical depth and rigour which seeks to detail works and influences of both earlier and contemporary Spanish artists Like El Greco, Picasso and Miró, on British artists. It thus also presents us with a visually exciting moment of cross cultural pollination in which new ideas and motifs are lent to the cause or woven into an individual artist’s work. There are approximately 80 pieces on view so this blog review provides only highlights and observations. Of course we must also deal with the rather large elephant in the gallery. Picasso’s The Weeping Woman (both versions) purchased directly by Roland Penrose and needing no introduction from me, apart from to observe Picasso’s obvious dominance in this context as in most others. The gallery plays this nicely however, and here it’s not about Picasso as protagonist so much as his influence on the British artists whose response is allowed to shine in it’s own way.

I particularly liked the showing of works by Goya to contextualise, as in the 1938 Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition of prints and drawings by Goya, the print series ‘The Disasters of War’ were shown. Pallant House maintains that showing them at this time “.. was politically charged as they provided a historic parallel to the contemporary conflict and the brutality depicted served as a highly relevant inspiration to many contemporary artists.” Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’ are of course without equal and I found their inclusion almost overwhelming in this context. Their mournful implication is that we learn nothing, bringing us up short to the contemporary once more.

FRANCISCO DE GOYA (1746–1828), ‘Nada el lo dirá

All of the above speaks highly of the curation of this show, which I am not alone in noting is outstanding. Simon Martin is to be greatly applauded in drawing together so many disparate works and contextual material from such scattered sources, and in his knowledge and sensitivity to his subject. The thematic organisation is inspired and empathic enabling the viewer to move through the various narratives of this show with ease.

For the reviewer there are two general categories of art to deal with, one being propaganda art, notably on posters and other design based artefacts, and the other being fine art responses in drawings, prints, painting and sculpture. But I’m not a fan of design/fine art boundaries so my highlights appear from across the board, all the works on show are after all the fruits of inspired creativity and enough good will to warm the coldest heart. The only exceptions will be the sprinkling of Nationalist works whose presence, while important for context and balance, are given the cold shoulder by this most partisan of viewers. The Spanish exiles were to all intents and purposes excommunicated by fascist Spain and suffered beyond Franco’s forty long years dictatorship with it’s silent erasure of them from the public memory, as the negotiation of democracy was built on a pact of forgetting which further prolonged the agony of the abyss that was their negation. Inroads into this orchestrated public amnesia are recent and slow. I don’t think I can be blamed for staunchly refusing these minority Nationalist sympathising artists even the last dregs from this blog’s reviewing teapot. Not a drop of tea or sympathy from me.

Pere Català Pic “Aixafem el feixisme” 1937

In very many ways this injustice to the memory of exiled and executed Republicans is touched on in this show. Through these British sympathisers their story is taken up at one remove. The Basque children rightly appear here, as just under 4,000 were rescued from the threat of further vicious bombing raids after Guernica in 1937 and brought to England. Their story is now well rehearsed among insiders but needs to break out and become part of the national memory in Britain. Too long overshadowed by WW2 and the evacuee narrative, this was also ultimately the fate of all the Spanish exiles, to be ejected by one war and buried by another so close on it’s heels. Posters using images of child victims were almost too much to bear yet I know they made a vital contribution to the propaganda war. They made Pere Català Pic’s “Aixafem el feixisme” elegantly mesmerising poster of an espadrille clad foot crushing a swastika look tame by comparison. The British artists here are revealed to be brimming with compassion and displayed a raw emotionality in the designs shown, such as the wonderful Felicity Ashbee poster (see below) which exhibits extraordinary draughtsmanship and design but was deemed too distressing for it’s purpose.

FELICITY ASHBEE (1867–1956), They Face Famine in Spain: Send Medical Supplies, 1937

It is interesting to observe both hints of Picasso’s blue period in Felicity Ashbee’s work and to compare it with Pic’s. In Pic’s there is optimism about the rising up of the people (el pueblo) to crush fascism and it is a call to arms, in Ashbee’s there’s a desperate victimhood and it is a cry for help. Both were vitally needed yet tragically neither was enough. These British artists lobbied and laboured for a free Spain against the backdrop of their government’s fatal and dissembling policy of ‘neutrality’ which assisted Franco in demolishing the Republic thereby contributing to the national bloodbath.

In my own practice objects form my materials, hence I was drawn to the objects in this show, most especially Julian Trevelyan’s painted papier-mâché “Horse’s Head” from the Surrealists’ Float at the 1938 May Day Procession. I’m sad not to find a photograph to share with you as I found it extremely moving to observe the care of it’s construction and it’s conservation as it is a delicate creature of immense charm. The excitement and resolve of this piece of street theatre is also contained in a large black and white printed photograph in which the horse’s head can just be observed in the distant right hand side of the picture. This is precisely what this show does so well, assembling connecting fragments of the history and arriving at groupings which add layer upon layer to our understanding of this rich moment.

There is so much more to talk about here, and so it is with a sense of regret about the many worthy omissions that I press on to my own personal favourite work. Before doing so I must note that the Kitaj work at the top of this review was a very close second, showing the most sensitive of lines in rendering the profile of La Pasionaria, Dolores Ibárruri, the revered visionary Basque Republican leader. The subject and treatment both have me wishing I could tuck it under my arm and take it home. It’s a precious piece, which demonstrates the continued influence of this war and elements of it’s iconography on one British artist’s imagination.

I turn then to Henry Moore, an artist whom I’ve had on a slow burner for some years. Over time I’ve come to appreciate Henry Moore more and more (excuse the irresistible urge to use more three times in a row!). Having dismissed Moore as a stolid pipe and slippers kind of guy it was with a true sense of revelation that I encountered a large and exciting collection of works at Toronto’s AGO this Summer. I had revelled in texture and form with Henry so it was with a sense of joy and deep gratitude that I discovered his response to the Spanish exile’s captivity in the internment camps of France.

Henry Moore, Spanish Prisoner 1939
 

For me this work signified a kind of arrival for the show, from my own perspective. It was the moment when my (post memory) history truly intersected with what is on offer at Pallant House and we were in that instant at one contemplating the same memory site, the gallery, Henry and me. Spanish Prisoner was my father, and my own work has been to reconstruct this hideous moment in his history, which had remained buried under the sands of Argelés and Barcarés. The silencing by the Franco regime and of the traumatising brutality of life in these camps rendered my father mute on the subject. Also it is my huge regret that I didn’t know and therefore didn’t ask. He died in 1989 not knowing that I would one day take up the threads, compelled to do so by a handbag. As a playwright and admirer of Oscar Wild I’m sure he would appreciate this unusual catalyst.

So now seventy five years later I find myself in a curious position, on inheriting my grandmother’s handbag a Proustian cache of memories have revolutionised my artistic practice and I inhabit a duel existence journeying between 1939 and 2014 uncovering the history of my constant travels as a child between Birmingham and Barcelona. So powerful is this experience of immersive practice that at times I find myself rubbing the sand from my eyes and prone to traffic violation due to intense distraction. I am learning to switch out of 1939 mode while driving.

I am of course intensely moved by Moore’s poster design and wonder if my father’s rescuer set eyes on it in 1939. It’s very possible. The barbed wire is of course wholly accurate and I was interested to see the progression to lithograph of this work in which two further faces appear, the lower of which surely alludes to the children in the camps many of whom didn’t survive the unsanitary conditions and starvation due to lack of food supplies.

I have a feeling that there is more to come from this encounter and in turn, in some form I will respond to my new friend Henry and his Spanish Prisoner through the project. I was with a guest at Pallant House and we had a booking at El Castizo tapas restaurant in Chichester and thus it was that I left this airy gallery longing to return again, but grateful and in need of a smooth and full bodied glass of red on arrival at this Chichester gem. Emotionally drained by Conscience and Conflict (in a good way) my guest and I fell into the warm arms of genuine Spanish hospitality at El Castizo and put ourselves into James Pound’s cheery hands for wine choice and a selection of tapas recommended by the house. I highly recommend El Castizo and experienced in combination with Conscience and Conflict it was perfect.

Reflecting on this important exhibition I return to Spanish Prisoner and observe that while this is but one aspect of the multi-stranded narrative before us it is entirely under told in Britain. It is almost beyond me to imagine the grief of washing up in foreign shores never to return to live in the home you left behind and never quite to feel you belong in your adoptive land. Exile is about having no choice and inhabiting a curious no-place or no man’s land. Displacement of this kind can be permanently disorienting to the psyche, an observation of continued relevance as civil wars rage all around us. It matters to keep talking about this.

I came away feeling that a final room holding many examples of Kitaj’s later work in response to the Spanish Civil War provided a link to contemporary practice and that Jonathan Moss http://www.jonathan-moss.com/photos/rivesaltes-project/ and myself with our current focus on the camps of France are part of a tradition of British artists responding to this history, that the echoes of this ghastly conflict continue. I felt enormous pride in British artists and sense of responsibility for my part of the story. It’s therefore with a genuine sense of guardianship that I carry on. Conscience and Conflict will be one of my beacons.


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One of an occasional series of reviews which also appear on my website when exhibitions are of particular relevance to the work.

Anselm Kiefer at the Royal Academy: A Post Memory Perspective

Chance brought me to the Royal Academy on a day you could cut the London sky with a knife. The kind of day the sky literally takes over shrouding the city in a blanket so dense, so uniformly grey and so inhospitably cold that I was in some need of shelter on arrival. In terms of atmosphere for viewing Anselm Kiefer, whose major themes encompass the horror that is Germany’s part in WWII, it was a perfect day. It had grimness covered.

So it was with dismay that this weary art enthusiast discovered the Royal Academy’s bizarre innovation of an outside kiosk for ticket purchase. Perfect for prolonging the gloom and flirting with frostbite. I wasn’t impressed and neither were my fellow queuers – although as I stood in line I sombrely noted echoes of other human queuing in the history of Anselm’s key subject and began instead to count my blessings. This queue and not that queue, or those queues. I shuddered.

Once inside, and a little recovered, I made my way up the RA stairs to meet Kiefer, carrying a mental image, borrowed from a recent viewing of the Alan Yentob Imagine http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b04pzt6g/imagine-winter-2014-5-anselm-kiefer-remembering-the-future documentary, of the artist with a cigar stuffed in his mouth careering around his colossal studio cum playground exhorting his technicians to move things here and there, punctuated with expressions of delight at a particular pile of rubble or the angle of a charred aeroplane. It really is worth watching. I was particularly taken with Anselm’s early rout in taking recent Germany history by the scruff of the neck. We all know about the ghastly greeting sieg heil (meaning hail victory) accompanied by the then mandatory Nazi salute, but I didn’t know that in Germany after 1945 it was banned. Kiefer somewhat shockingly had himself photographed in his father’s uniform and what looks like a knitted dress, making the salute in various romantic settings. This was not only controversial but represented an assault into forbidden territory, a bold refusal to collaborate with an attempt to expunge this abominable history. For this alone, Kiefer is to be admired and these photographs could arguably still be his most compelling work. I must here note that they are among his smallest pieces and thus make a comment about size not being everything – something to bear in mind when presented with an oeuvre largely comprising works of great magnitude.

I had some misgivings about the documentary however, which revealed a manic Kiefer engaged in a project so outsized it reeked of vainglory, and yet which also could be read as a kind of verisimilitude, a recreation or borrowing of sorts. The documentary certainly suggested it with cut-away shots to bombed out Germany – Kiefer’s childhood playground in the rubble created by the devastation of defeat. I’m just not sure. Are the early and late Kiefers perhaps at the same game? Is it simply that a concern with this history through it’s monstrous gestures has become over time architectural in scale? Kiefer it seems to me constantly grapples with how to place (embed) gesture, an obsession with scale and architectural spaces, and the ambiguous or perhaps fluctuating position of the figure, of the artist himself, in it all. Kiefer’s wrestling match with the weight of this history and his own intellectual pondering is tangible in every room of the RA show. How to avoid the overblown in such an enterprise and with such resources at one’s disposal is another matter entirely and more of a tightrope walk. It’s not surprising then that Kiefer sometimes falls.

Room 1 provided a confrontation with early Kiefer, on a more intimate scale, with watercolours, sketchbooks and paintings on view. The ‘sieg heil’ photographs I mention above are of course riveting. I can’t take my eyes away, but many are contained in a closed book held in a cabinet and only really viewable in the catalogue – I pour over it. Their atmosphere and intensity is extraordinary. There is a fitting madness about them a kind of quiet yet demented flavour to this work. I longed for more such explorations.

There is undoubtedly a certain beauty within Kiefer’s watercolour works such as Winter Landscape 1970, and the hint of a powerful narrator seeming to channel and blend the figurative and landscape at will. Important to say that Kiefer is simply not interested in representation in the slightest, and there is often an awkwardness of expression in this naive style of illustrative depiction. I found this fascinating and perhaps a signal that Kiefer’s greater strengths lie in textural and atmospheric expression. Anselm cares more about different modalities and their potential for expression and there is a constant moving between forms in this show; the sculptural and painterly, the image and the word, and a longstanding bid to find a means to make them coalesce, more and less successfully at turns I felt. I sense this as an itch that Kiefer simply has to scratch, but perhaps I’m being too suggestible to all that hay embedded in the surfaces of later paintings such as Margarethe, 1981 (more of which later). The watercolours and books, while a constant in Kiefer’s lifetime of practice feel too limiting ultimately for such a restless and ambitious mind. Though they recur – especially the books as a motif and potent symbol for civilisation and destruction both in their various forms. We need only to remember that the Nazi’s burned books to understand why.

The closely related Heroic Symbol I, II & V paintings again reference the grisly Nazi salute, and move me with their curiously knowing naivety. Boldly disarming, it seems to me, they catch the viewer out with their homeliness, their folkish charm, and their badly painted statues hovering in the air. I want to laugh and at the same time I find this response outrageous. These paintings are extremely clever.

Room 2 houses the ‘Attic paintings” in which Kiefer imagines his studio as a stage. They are far more textural than his previous works and hint at what is to come but they are heavy and claustrophobic, laden with reference so I move swiftly on with a sense that I’m cutting through, searching for something I can recognise. In any such encounter as this one with Kiefer, as a post memory artist I inevitably bring much of my own perception and a need to comprehend the processes at work. I become aware that I’m looking for a common ground in the art of uncovering buried history; in my case it is one of Hitler’s friends, General Franco, who almost succeeded in wiping out a generation of executed and exiled Spaniards from the national memory who so often occupies my thoughts and working life. As I view here, I’m looking for something in Kiefer that relates to my own practice. I want thus to empathise with Kiefer, begin a conversation in which we can ‘talk’ about the development of a language adequate to the sensitivity our tasks.

In Room 3 with Margarethe 1981, one of a two part response to a poem called Death Fugue by Paul Celan, written shortly after liberation from a Nazi labour camp, I begin to glimpse what I’m looking for. Here Kiefer plunges us directly into death and mourning. It’s complex in origin but essentially all about indelible taint, smoking pyres, memorial candles and the ugly tattooing of the aryan myth into the German historic landscape. The RA, which should be commended for the curation of this show, helpfully print the poem next to this painting. I quote here from the final verse.

“Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at noon death is a master from Germany
we drink you at sundown and in the morning we drink
and we drink you
death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue
he strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
he sets his pack on to us he grants us a grave in
the air
He plays with the serpents and daydreams death is
a master from Germany”

It is a dark, scorched, ugly painting in which Kiefer awkwardly writes the name Margarethe in black paint in a seeming afterthought. There appears to be no careful planning in this choice to wind these letters around the paint and pressed-in straw, which provides a hostile and bumpy surface for this text. I stop rueing Kiefer’s penchant for writing so clumsily into his work, moving from a sense that this is overkill (my first response) to understanding. Kiefer is literally writing back in both poetic and factual truth – he is of course, as from the beginning with those ‘sieg heil’ gestures reclaiming history. Of course I must now pick myself up off the floor – weeping isn’t enough I tell myself, only art will do, and so I move on to Ash Flower 1983 – 1997.

This painting comprises three panels with a more subtle architectural suggestion than it’s painterly room mates in which he moves out of the studio for inspiration and gains a greater sense of space. I like the subtlety, the sublime suggestion of a burned out, ashen shell, parched and dusty with a single dried sunflower suspended the centre. The head of this once bloom whitened and ghostly hovers. It is interesting in comprising both painterly and sculptural elements and, in my view, represents a successful union – squint, hold your hand up to block the sunflower head from view and you have nothing. This is a painting in which we are unsure of our own location, are we inside or outside – there is a feeling of being inside-out, dazed indeed. I loved the stairs to this wreck viewed more closely as abstraction – a stairway to hell, indicating the steps we must take to such abhorrent actions on a mass scale. I notice a lone straw poking out of the canvas.

Room 4 The Orders of the Night, 1996 finds another repeated motif of a man, the artist, supine, impaled or flowering, we are left uncertain. There are variously branches and sunflowers emanating from or lodged in his chest in all these re-visitings, we have first met this figure in Room 1 among the watercolours. I notice that this work is on two canvas’ of vastly unequal proportion, supine man can be removed and I practice holding up my hand and squinting first to eliminate him and then to isolate him from these towering flowers brooding with menace. I leave behind a mild irritation with Kiefer for failing to care about the proportions of his figure, in the realisation of course that the important relationship here is between the upright sunflowers and the prostrate figure. I truly believe this work and the motif to be about the weight of this work on Kiefer the man and of course the responsibility of the artist – it surely relates to his much smaller works where a palette features, one suspended (Palette 1981) on ropes aflame, another (Resumptio 1974) in which the palette emanates on wings like a soul from a tomb and finally (Painting of the Scorched Earth, 1974) where we look into the blackened scene through the ghostly aperture of a palette in outline. I unreservedly love these intimate early paintings, while faced for the first time with The Orders of the Night I’m less enamoured. I don’t think Kiefer minds. These aren’t works to be loved, the proof of which I reckon probably follows. My very first association on seeing Orders of the Night was with the Billy Holiday rendition of ‘Strange Fruit’. The dead headed sunflowers are of course abhorrent – they should be resplendent, as golden as straw or Margarethe’s hair, but they can never be so. Germany has passed through a nuclear winter and the artist has no choice, he must work with the dead heads, the strange fruits of our inhumanity.

My own work is with objects, I also paint and as a such I am an abstract artist committed to texture and the evocation of exile. My primary textural medium is sand, which signifies the beaches of France on which thousands of Spaniards were held captive at the fall of Spain in 1939. It is with some joy then that I approach Room 5 and find a painting which makes me want to cheer. Gone (almost) is the awkward painted writing, there are no worrisome proportions to bother us and there is sand. For Ingeborg Bachmann: The Sand from the Urns 1998 – 2009 had me scribbling even harder at my improvised notepad (the verso of the print out of a play). This is what I wrote, “ …a painting of such subtle beauty! I want Kiefer to let his paintings speak and my small regret about the letters on this canvas diminishes – they are smokey, whispered only. Kiefer is learning to pipe down.”

Room 5 also houses Osiris and Isis 1985 – 1987 in which Kiefer again seeks to combine sculptural and painted forms with both wit and success. I gaze at the tangled wires emanating from what the gallery notes tell me is an old television fuse box. They cascade down the sides of a painted pyramid off which fragments of ceramic are suspended like archeological finds, only while carefully numbered like valuable exhibits, are probably bits of household plumbing. I get close up and see if I can piece together a toilet, but it’s only a suggestion and probably pieces of sink. I’m a little disappointed. Wouldn’t a nod to Duchamp be fun? Then I remember, we’re not here for that.

By the time I find myself in Room 6 I need to sit down and am joined by two delightful women who want to talk to me for quite some time about the show. It’s the kind of exhibition where people engage you. Untitled 2006-8 is a vitrine triptych – a sculpture which incorporates dead branches, curiously ashen structures and a painted forest landscape. We are back in the nuclear winter but there is also a fairytale feel. These charred structures are uncertain, and we don’t have a clear sense of the function of these buildings, which could equally be Rapunzel like towers, or bird houses. The ambiguity works. The nuclear winter is preserved for viewing behind glass. The scene cannot be changed or erased. We are invited to imagine. The very lack of a title tells us so.

Room 7 contains Kiefer’s site specific installation for the RA entitled Ages of the World, 2014, billed as ‘part totem, part funeral pyre’. This provokes another conversation, several people join in. The question becomes whether the sunflowers weaving through this racked up pile of canvas’ and rubble are real. The gallery assistant claims they are too tall to be real, some visitors agree. We are allowed to touch them, proving them to be light and thus not casts. Finally my old friends from Room 6 reappear and testify as to the tallness of their own sunflowers. Of course they’re real these women say and I have to agree that I thought them so all along. Another conversation begins about the smell of this work – dusty – we agree. It smells of rubble says one man. My attention turns to a large boulder resting improbably on the edge of the pile above my head. A health and safety matter surely! I reach up to feel the boulder and find that it’s a fake. Suddenly I feel cheated and find I dislike this piece, having initially fallen for it’s superficial charm. It’s like a window display and I move on looking once more for the authentic Kiefer whose company I’m coming to so enjoy.

It doesn’t take long to find him. The spirit of Paul Celan is with us again in Room 8 with two enormous visual responses, again to his poetry, from Kiefer which take up the entire wall space and sit opposite one another as if in conversation. I don’t even mind the writing on Black Flakes, 2006, as I feel all the elements here work. The writing is in any case subsumed by the visual and dances to the tune of Kiefer’s composition. In fact, the success of this work lies in the harmonious orchestration of all the disparate elements and forms, twigs become crosses, words become furrows, the leaden book floats just below the vanishing point on the oppressed horizon. Ash Flower, 2006, is the partner piece in which lead books lie pressed into or suspended in a painted ground. Of course you think of tombs, fallen bodies and the fall or civilisation all at once. A black strip of oppressive sky presses down against violently scraped or scratched in lines to suggest a geography, grimly furrowed ashen soil. I am not quick enough to stop my mind from making a devastating association with marks made by the clawing fingers of those trying to escape destruction in the gas ovens, or observing that Celan though a survivor of a work camp committed suicide in 1970. That these works are capable of evoking such powerful associations are surely a mark of artistic and creative triumph.

Oh dear. My next stop is Room 9 and I am confronted with the works in lead on a grand scale of such twinkling abstract beauty that again I must sit down to take them in. I didn’t know lead could sparkle. Yet something isn’t quite right and a strange dance like ritual is taking place. Viewers appear mesmerised and as they peer into these leaden canvas’ their feet take on a disobedient turn and step over the grey lines that demarcate the boundaries of contact with the art. Alarms bleep on and off in rapid succession and as the peering dance goes on I dimly note that this has certainly not taken place in any of the other rooms. Of course, this is because there are no diamonds in rooms 1-8. Yes, I begin to see that the twinkles are indeed genuine sparklers and that to gaze upon the surface of these works is rather like scoping out a jewellers window. It’s not a joke, there must be one hundred diamond solitaire settings in For Ingeborg Bachman: The Renowned Orders 1987 – 2014. What is it with certain artists of the 21st century and diamonds? How can this not seem vulgar and of questionable morality. I liked it better when I didn’t know and could enjoy Room 9 as a beeping installation.

Room 10 contained books in cases and I must confess to experiencing switch off (I blame the shock of the diamonds) and can’t say much about them, aside from the glorious textures of some of the book covers which ranged from rusting and verdigris lead to impasto oil painted surfaces. Under the Linden stood out and I longed to break open the glass cases to reach in and touch. The oil paint in some cases looked still wet and extremely tempting. I began to feel I was nearing the end and indeed I was.

Nothing really prepared me for Room 11 in which my empathy with Kiefer paradoxically swelled as I observed what looked like a head on collision – a car crash of a room. Here again are my hastily scribbled notes. “I feel like Kiefer – only I work on small scale, with a difficult war and in a way that acknowledges what I can’t do or what I feel doesn’t work. Kiefer says to hell with that I’m doing it anyway because I can. Some are more successful than others but he is content to risk all.” The ‘Morgenthau’ series is an astonishing group of paintings in which Kiefer kind of throws everything in but the kitchen sink. At first glance I observed how sculptural elements and the painterly had yet again been married in each of these huge canvases. Someone needed to call a divorce lawyer. A fight was surely about to break out as in most cases the objects suspended from the canvas’ seemed at odds and in conflict with the garish and corn embedded picture plane. I can’t believe that I missed the Vincent Van Gogh references as once you know that they are there, they are blinding obvious and in addition to all the iconographic and gestural borrowings there is the manic energy, the crazed undercurrent to give the game away.

Further context is given by the Morgenthau reference. It was news of the Morgenthau plan to cast Germany back into the pre-industrial era to thwart it’s potential to wage future wars, proposed in 1944 by US Secretary to the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, which is said to have fuelled German efforts to withstand the allies, prolonged the war and to have led to further loss of life.

Thus in many ways the visual pile-up before me is so apt I can only sit and nod in wonder. I consider my journey taken in but a few hours with Kiefer. From the sieg heil photographs and paintings, through the nuclear winters, the supine figures, strange fruits and floating palettes, the engagements (diamonds), marriages and divorces there has been both a tortured and at times demented energy at work (how couldn’t it be so given the history). My feeling is that through it all Kiefer carries an unusually sound compass, despite my reservations on certain aspects of the show.

By the time it came to walk through the woods with Kiefer in Room 12, an installation of huge woodcut panels, I had had much too much and made my way out through the mandatory gift shop exit with just a glance around me. I simply couldn’t respond to this sudden change in emotional temperature. Perhaps I was still in the shock of Morgenthau?

This has been a highly personal response to Kiefer. His work could be considered overblown and the product of white male privilege. However, as an artist working with post memory (the imbibed history of ones immediate family, not lived through but present as inherited memory) I recognise many of Kiefer’s compulsions and his deep need to work through this material in the way that he does. My journey takes me full circle to the question of scale and I respectfully revise my opinion. After an afternoon with Kiefer I have come to believe that scale matters, it really does. Proportionality is after all an important component of justice and redress.

It wouldn’t work for every artist but for Kiefer I think it does.

Imagine is available on BBC iplayer for 11 more days (7/12/14)


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