Art: Edvard Munch, The Modern Eye

Modern inventiveness abounds, but can Munch escape his reputation for angsty introspection?

-James Piper

It has become impossible not to mention The Scream when talking about Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch. This is precisely why an exhibition that relegates his most famous work to just a brief cameo is more than welcome. The key theme running through Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye, is that there is much more to Munch than angsty introspection. True as that may be, there’s no escaping the deep sadness that permeates his work and this is the feeling that resonates long after leaving the gallery.

This exhibition seeks to recast Munch as an innovative, experimental artist of the 20th century, rather than the troubled and melancholic figure that often comes to mind, painting at the tail end of the nineteenth century. Showcasing his paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, sculpture and even film, The Modern Eye presents us with an artist caught up in the fresh, new and exciting ideas of the day.

Born in 1863, Munch was raised in Christiania, Norway’s capital city, later renamed Kristiania and then Oslo. After a rather bleak childhood, which saw him witness the deaths of both his mother and sister by tuberculosis, Munch spent his twenties mixing with a bohemian circle of writers and artists, sporadically taking off to Paris and Berlin in pursuit of creative enlightenment. However, a nervous breakdown in 1908 saw him return to Norway, by which point he had come to be seen as an important figure in the art world.

Munch’s paintings are the stuff of nightmares; gaunt and ghoulish faces glare at you from all sections of the canvas, expressions are obscured and exaggerated as they melt into the scenery, from which they seem almost inseparable. There is nothing to split subject and object. The surroundings in which Munch’s figures find themselves interminably trapped become merely an extension of their mood and, by association, the artist’s own emotional state. Munch’s paintings serve to signify himself.

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Art: Yayoi Kusama, Tate Modern

Mental problems, minimalism and psychedelic drugs: Yayoi Kusama explores our obsession with the self 

-Mirka Virtanen


I really liked it. But I am easy to please, and the Tate rarely disappoints. Visually, I liked the show. And in terms of yet another lesson in history of art, I liked it. I feel like I learnt something: I thought that, as an artist, Yayoi Kusama was victimised. Victimised into being a woman and being crazy and obsessive – that is what I was taught at university – and every single review of this exhibit does use the words compulsive and obsessive either together or separately (always be cautious of those two words when used in any relation to a female or womanhood in general) – and, also, during my walk around the exhibition space, I did overhear someone saying ‘I know she has mental problems… that’s probably the biggest influence.’

But hey-ho. The lady who came up with that (and it does make it worse that it was said in a very matter-of-fact, almost indifferent, tone of voice), was clearly missing the obvious. I know not everyone in London can read but I do assume that the target audience of the show are all literate people, and thankfully, at the Tate, they are so generous with the information, it’s like wowza I need to write this down so that I remember and I can quote it to someone as I would have just thought of it myself when I went to see this exhibition, I just got it, what a great artist, I just got it by looking at her work.

Anyway, lady, you get a blurb per room. That is fourteen rooms. Fourteen chances to get it right. And then you get the artwork. The text is just there to acknowledge that no matter how upper middle class your social status is, your talent might not be abstract thinking. And that is where you missed your chance. Tate’s exhibition does not focus on Kusama as a bunny boiler crazy woman. It is a retrospective of the work of an artist, who constantly and continuously stages herself as a character in a fucked-up society that is also beautiful, and ever-changing, and challenging to live in.

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Art: David Hockney, A Bigger Picture

David Hockney’s infectious enthusiasm is abundantly on show in this exhibition, centred on colour, repetition, and sheer enormous scale

-James Piper

Winter Timber, 2009, oil on canvases (36 x 48″ each)

As an exiled northerner living down here in the big smoke, I feel an almost obligatory respect for Bradford born David Hockney. Fortunately his latest exhibition at the Royal Academy, A Bigger Picture, confirms that this respect is most certainly due.

There’s no denying Hockney’s infectious enthusiasm. Despite a long and remarkably prolific career stretching back to 60s, this is no retrospective. The older pieces on display serve to contextualize and inform an abundance of recent work produced over the last ten years. Indeed, if there is one word to describe this exhibition, it is abundant.

Having left Bradford in 1959 to study at the Royal College of Art, Hockney soon went on to leave the grey charcoal skies of England for the sunbaked highways and luminous swimming pools of Los Angeles. The second gallery sets the scene; two brilliantly dreary sketches of what could be any grim northern town are promptly left behind by the wild and surreal Flight into Italy – Swiss Landscape, culminating in a huge depiction of The Grand Canyon spread across a jigsaw of canvases. The inadequacy of a single canvas is a recurring theme throughout the exhibition. In his insatiable quest for a ‘bigger picture’, Hockney is forever seeking new ways to do justice to the raw and unmediated experiencing of ‘seeing’.

After hearing of a close friend’s terminal illness, Hockney returned to Yorkshire in 1997. He began painting the Yorkshire countryside, taking as his subject the rolling hills and winding roads that lay between his mother’s house and his friend’s deathbed. These stylized, hyperreal landscapes somehow avoid sentimentality in their vibrant immediacy. Produced from memory, they don’t suggest the passing of a golden era so much as they reveal an active and lively imagination.

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Art: Hajj, Journey to the Heart of Islam

Avoid Grayson Perry’s urns for a fresh experience of what the British Museum does best: a stunning and informative exploration of a religious practice

-George E Harris


Until 15 April 2012

Grayson Perry’s reign of terror is dissipating.  The British Museum has offered an outstanding series of special exhibitions in recent years, but for several months there has only been a confusing “art exhibition” of his unremarkable sculptures.  Opening this week, Hajj – journey to the heart of Islam is one of the Museum’s trademark explorations of a religious practice, combining history and artwork to educate the visitor with a consistent theme.  You can now save the price of a ticket to Perry’s circus for a fresh experience of everything the Museum does best.

The new exhibition is set in centre of the museum, in the dome shaped Reading Room, and is split into ten loose partitions.  On the way into the room, the Muslim call to prayer can be heard faintly in the background.  Along with an introduction to the 5th pillar of Islam, there is a collection of quotations and images of those who have made the pilgrimage.  The Hajj is described as “a journey in space to the centre towards which one has always turned one’s face in prayers”, which sets the tone in the exhibition’s task of sharing with non-Muslims an idea of the experience and undertaking.

The exhibition is not merely a study of Islam.  Like recent exhibitions including Treasures of Heaven, the metaphysical origin of the pieces is described from a secular perspective.  The five different pilgrimage routes that took prominence throughout history are presented as glimpses into the lives of those who travelled them.  There are many of the books, pieces of navigational equipment and items of clothing that ancient and medieval travellers took with them. The most impressive of these items is a large palanquin used to transport the Sultans to Mecca as recently as the 1920s.  While the focus is on history at this point, it’s disappointing that the dates and claims of the Koran are related as fact.  This was probably a pre-requisite of King Abdullah’s support for the exhibition, but the blurring of the boundaries between legend and fact tarnishes the quality of the experience.

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Art: Nathalie Djurberg with Hans Berg, A World of Glass

Haunting and disturbing scenes at the Camden Arts Centre as Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg use music and claymation to create nightmarish films

Véronique Ward

I often have trouble with contemporary art. Too much of the same old ideas bouncing off one another. However, some weeks ago I stumbled upon something which made me get down from my cynical high horse and actually enjoy my contemporary art experience: Nathalie Djurberg – aided by her collaborator Hans Berg – presents ‘A World of Glass’, a small but moving exhibition hosted by the Camden Arts Centre in Finchley Road.

The exhibition, like many of its predecessors, lends itself well to the space provided by the Camden Arts Centre and takes on a quite basic form. Two rooms – dark as dusk ebbing away – project two films each. Accompanying these is music composed by Hans Berg; a soundscape that is little more than glass tinkling and provides a background that only helps make the projected scenes all the more haunting and disturbing.

Made of rough plasticine and using the ‘claymation’ technique, each short film introduces characters in the midst of confrontation with rather unpleasant situations. The environments they are set in are dark and give little indication of their location, making them feel all the more nightmarish and thrusting the viewer into a zone of intense psychological discomfort.

This is perhaps unaided by the inclusion in the gallery space of life-sized props matching those that appear in the films. The viewer is made to feel like they are very much a part of the unpleasant reality of the characters’ fates, which unfold at an alarming rate. It is in this state of mind that we witness the protagonists’ disintegration, each in such a way that is uncomfortable to watch yet difficult to turn away from.

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Art: Gerhard Richter, Panorama

From grey, blurry photographs to colourful squeegee miasma abstractions, this astounding retrospective showcases Richter’s varied and breathtaking talents

-Kathryn Bromwich

After exhibitions at the Serpentine in 2008 and at the National Portrait Gallery in 2009, Gerhard Richter’s profile has increased noticeably in Britain, culminating in this remarkable retrospective at the Tate Modern. The exhibition has sparked the inevitable comparisons to Lucian ‘the last great painter’ Freud. Jonathan Jones in The Guardian puts it pithily, if reductively: while Freud resisted photography, Richter embraces it. Richter’s decision to paint largely from photographs makes photography his ally rather than a competitor, using it as a tool for innovation. And the results are spectacular: his paintings have an idiosyncratically Richterian tone, although it is difficult to put your finger on what exactly this tone is.

The retrospective starts off breathtakingly. The first few rooms are predominantly grey, bleak, and stunning. Featuring WWII bombers, so small they look like toys, and a life-size tiger, the subjects are varied but tend to contain a hidden menace. The impact of the Holocaust on Richter’s family is handled with subtlety, but its representation is profoundly disquieting. Richter’s young Aunt Marianne, who suffered from mental illness, was sterilised and killed in a concentration camp. She is portrayed looking vaguely into the distance, in an unsettling painting that avoids sentimentality or idealisation, making it all the more crushing. Another emotionally charged image is the painting of his Uncle Rudi, smiling amiably in his SS uniform days before his death in action.

Moving away from representations of people, Richter becomes interested in landscapes. There are two superb pictures of water: one simply of the sea under a cloudy sky, and the other, Seascape (Sea-Sea), brings together two pictures of waves, the top half inverted to look like clouds. Another optical illusion, albeit a less idyllic one, is found in his townscapes of Madrid and Paris. Seen from close up, they look destroyed by war, like bomb sites. When you step back, the buildings start to take shape: what you are looking at are actually the reconstructed cities. There are also some interesting experiments, such as Inpainting (Grey), in which Richter covered a canvas in blobs of oil paint, dragged his brush around almost at random, and stopped as soon as all the blank canvas was covered.

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Art: Navigating in the Dark Part III

In this medieval gallery without fanfare or introduction, Kalliopi Lemos’s compelling sculptures engage with themes of spiritual and physical migration

-George E Harris

Euston Road is probably the least pleasant area of the capital.  Constantly clogged with taxis and buses, it provides a noisy intermission for pedestrians visiting the many galleries, cyclists weaving towards their offices, and travellers emerging from the railway stations.  The Wellcome Collection recently installed loud-speakers blasting out the sound of waves crashing on a Dorset beach to counteract the ceaseless racket.  What a cheering surprise it was to find a sanctuary from the thundering pulse of London’s lifeblood.

The Crypt Gallery can be found beneath St.Pancras church, at its rear entrance on Duke Street.  It is a gallery without fanfare or even an introduction; after being greeted by the warden, visitors are at leisure to enjoy the exhibition on their own terms.  It is a dark space, and eerily quiet (In fact, the whole of Duke’s Road is like this, and has a second hand bookshop at the end, specialising in Middle Eastern history).

It’s clear when first experiencing the Crypt that whatever art is shown here will be defined by its surroundings.  Unlike an art gallery, this is a medieval space, with the minimum possible lighting and only the rich aromas of soil and stone.

The current exhibition is by Kalliopi Lemos, and is part three of a series exploring “passage through life” and “themes of spiritual and physical migration”. To the visitor, the aims of the exhibition are opaque, but the lack of information suits the Spartan surroundings.  We don’t know any Greek Scrawlers who can report on the first two parts of the exhibition at Athens and Crete, but this is the only part displayed in a burial site.

The sculptures in this exhibition are arranged so that the visitor may experience them as close as possible. The first encounter is with a rowing boat filled with giant snakes, modelled with wire.  This is followed by a disturbing group of similarly modelled human figures, huddling in a boat.  Here, the audio track gives an impression of isolation, as the faint murmurs of the boat’s occupants are barely heard above the lapping water.  They appear becalmed and terrified, and the final sculpture of this trio confirms their fate; a group of crows circle and land upon the empty vessel, calling across the waves.

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