It’s time for big buttocks and thighs, bigger than anything that Lucian Freud daubed. This is Jenny Saville time, whose oeuvre in my opinion outclasses that of ‘the greatest British artist since WWII’ anytime (or one of them at least). I know we’re not supposed to rate artists in this way (judge not lest ye be judged) but what the hell? Another gallery here has some Bacons in it, where he is described as the Greatest British Artist of the Post War Era (GBAPWE). And as the Turner Prize Committee ordained, ‘anything you think about art is right.’ No, in my opinion Saville is miles ahead of Freud. Freud only says ‘this is flesh’ whereas Saville says this is flesh, this is movement, this is profound and above all meaningful. She’s not here to paint breasts as if they were merely swirly flowerpots in a kind of post-Rubens semi-industrialised porn-scenario with some lovingly portrayed floorboards underneath. She is capturing much more than that, and the scale of these works begs us to engage with it. Scale isn’t everything of course, least of all when it exposes an absence of imagination (in other words when it seeks to hide something in plain sight). There’s none of that here. References to Plato, to conflict, pain, etc., etc., abound. She relates to her subjects (all women), she doesn’t stand above them with a salacious brush panting with hues of pink.
A New Era: Scottish Modern Art 1900 to 1950, Modern Two to 10th June 2018
Across the road at Modern Two we see a collection of works by disparate artists influenced by the major European movements (mainly from Paris) of the day. There’s a whiff of apology that the assembled artists were not at the forefront of these movements. But there are some outstanding examples and I’ll mention the one that stood out most for me. This was Robert Henderson Blyth’s In The Image Of Man (1947) a large oil painting showing a smashed and headless crucified body on a blasted cross against a background of war torn devastation. On the figure’s body there remains some gold gilding, suggesting the statue had a happier life perhaps on the high altar of some church. The still fully gilded decapitated head lies amongst the rubble, eyes closed in a peaceful repose, perhaps in silent contemplation of the hollow statue which is centrepiece in the picture. Henderson Blyth served in the Royal Army Medical Corps during World War Two, so was familiar with mortality. The catalogue suggests that the head of Christ reminds us that “resurrection followed crucifixion and provides a glimmer of hope.” Of course, with my new atheist hat on, I can’t see much hope in having your head blasted off, least of all if it reveals the shattered hollowness of your body. The catalogue notes that the work’s title quotes a reference in Genesis – man ‘made in the image of God,’ and suggests that the painting shows a humanity that “is broken and degraded and far from the image of God.” I prefer the artist’s Wikipedia entry which says more bluntly “the painting's title parodies the Judeo-Christian concept of man made in the image of God.” This suggests not a lament but a more critical attitude on Henderson Blyth’s part. He produced this picture when he was only 28, and sadly he died at age 51.
Warhol and Paolozzi: I Want To Be A Machine to 2nd June 2019 Modern Two, Edinburgh
A free exhibition at Modern Two – I only get here once or twice a year, and this was a change – usually their upstairs gallery exhibitions are to be paid for in my experience. Consequently and predictably the Warhol half of the show was full of teenagers taking selfies in front of an array of fluorescent Marilyns. I recognise Warhol’s importance in art historical terms, and I realise he still ‘speaks’ to a younger audience (he said with condescension) but I have never been excited by his work. The trouble with pastiche and the superficial allure of consumerist imagery is that it is eye catching but not necessarily eye retaining if nothing else comes with it.
So, quickly turning to the less crowded galleries containing the Paolozzi contribution is far more engaging for me. His series of screenprints, with attendant quotes from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico Philosophicus is definitely more my cup of tea. I can’t remember now whether or not I once read a quote of Paolozzi denying that he was ever a ‘pop’ artist, even though he was bracketed with that movement. Yes, his use of collage, combing the consumer world for images of consumption have irrevocably tied him to it. But he constructed his own language, whereas others, like Warhol and of course Leichtenstein (ever popular) never broke genuinely new creative territory. Yeah well, I can have my opinion can’t I, yeah look it up on yer moby in between yer bloody selfies wi’ yer bloody floursecent Marilyns. Oooppps! There I go again! I have to say on this reckoning Warhol’s Marilyn has achieved the status of the Mona Lisa – it is simply to be selfied with. Nothing more.
Now I have to confess despite my admiration for Paolozzi, the highlight on this visit for me to Modern Two was to be found in the print room. Here was a small exhibition of art looking at or springing from the mechanical, art full of industrial motifs. Showing on a small screen was a thirty minute film, dating from 1987, by Fischli and Weiss, Der Lauf der Dinge (The Way Things Go). I am hoping that when I get home this is available on Youtube (some of it is here). Two years in the making, the film is an apparently seamless take on the progress of fire and objects (with some extra ingredients such as acid) moving through various hurdles, overcoming different obstacles, almost as if this were an attempt on a mini crazy golf course of seemingly impossible tasks. I can’t see that the film has been manipulated, but some motions of objects in it seem impossible. How do those bits of tube climb a ladder, merely because they’ve been touched by a tube lower down the ladder? Trick photography? An unseen hand? Or very carefully calibrated weights just waiting to be nudged into a gravitational pull? The result does look impossible. What I like about this display is that it is physical and material, not the product of CGI – I can acknowledge the astonishing effects of computer assisted imaginations, but there is something special about preparing things in actual three dimensions, as opposed to virtual three dimensions. Can we still have both? (Of course we can, but one day in the not too distant future the virtual gallery could replace the actual gallery. Just like we have doubts about the future of the actual high street.)
Funnily enough, a real coincidence has led me to think more about this conundrum (the actual being replaced by the virtual). Shortly after seeing the Fischli and Weiss film, I was reading Ways of Curating by Hans Ulrich Obrist, the world famous curator. I had just got to page 84, and there he is, the renowned curator (when he was only 12 or thereabouts) inviting a load of artists into his flat to create an exhibition, and the aforementioned duo did something amazing in the fridge. Well, you’ll have to read the book to find out more (I recommend it). Art can be fun, but these days often isn’t.