Tate Britain: exhilarating and exhausting

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Tate Britain bowls me over again. In one hit – in retrospect, a mistake – I get to take in the work of Vincent Van Gogh and Don McCullin with Mike Nelson as the bonus prize. These three stunning exhibitions could not be more different. I only have the morning. I move through them perhaps too quickly; the resulting cocktail of emotions takes me surprise.

Van Gogh came to London in 1873 at the age of twenty; he lived here for three years. England and english people inspired him; when his work became well-known, he in turn inspired English writers and painters.

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Vincent Van Gogh “Prison Courtyard” Oil on canvas 1890 (after Gustave Doré, “The exercise yard at Newgate Prison” Engraving on paper 1872.)

Long after leaving England, he painted a prison exercise yard. This was inspired by a fascination for London’s seedy underbelly and descriptions of the city’s prisons by Charles Dickens: a writer whom the young painter admired greatly.

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Vincent Van Gogh “Starry night” Oil on canvas, 1888

Years after his death in 1890, Van Gogh’s work was labelled “post-impressionism.” Some found the style shocking but exhibitions of his paintings in London drew thousands. The hall-mark brushstroke technique was eagerly adopted by the Camden Town Group of painters.

Soothed and enchanted by Vincent’s starry, starry night, I believe myself ready for Don McCullin. Wrong again!

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Don McCullin “Londonderry, Northern Ireland” 1971

Don McCullin is a legend. This comprehensive show covers his extraordinary sixty-year photographic trajectory through the world’s worst trouble – misery spots. There is a reason that the Tate has an advisory notice pertaining to his images. Much of the subject matter is heart-wrenching; the outstanding quality of the (self-printed!) photographs only serves to make them more powerful still. And there are hundreds of them. I recoil from the man-made suffering, the executions, the starvation and the dead bodies. It cuts just that bit close to my bone. I notice that the many viewers fuse into a sort of silent, shuffling, heavy-weight-around-neck chain gang tasked with looking at McCullin’s photos. Some of us loiter around his own escapism in the relatively few but exquisite landscapes and still-life studies.

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Don McCullin “Shell-shocked US Marine, the battle of Hué” 1968

I confine my focus to his portraits. Even these can be harrowing. Probably the best known is the Vietnam shell-shocked American soldier of whom he took several photos and who neither moved nor blinked over several minutes. In the trade, this is known as the “thousand-yard stare.” McCullin admits that receiving praise for photographing the suffering of others sits uncomfortably in his soul.

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Don McCullin “A boy at the funeral of his father who died of AIDS, Kawama cemetery, Ndola, Zambia” 2000

I try – and fail – to imagine how McCullin has been able to cope with the extreme insecurity and distress inherent in his chosen contexts and then function professionally and creatively. I leave this landmark exhibition steeped in admiration for the man, his endurance, his compassion and for what he has achieved with his talent.

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Mike Nelson “The Asset Strippers” (part of) 2018

I literally stumble into the Duveen galleries; the main central space of Tate Britain. I am looking at some old telegraph poles and a section of a wide concrete pipe laid out on some canvases all in a kind of makeshift roofless shed.

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Mike Nelson “The Asset Strippers” (part of) 2018

The galleries are full of old machinery and a variety of heavy objects mostly associated with manufacture. Everything sits on a neat stone plinth. Is it an industrial museum? Is it a contemporary installation? Is it a tongue-in-cheek collection of big old heavy mechanical and electric stuff. Well…. all of the above! And what’s more, it contrasts rather deliciously with the classic architecture of the space. What I am standing in – and enthralled by – is “The Asset Striipers” created by Mike Nelson for the annual Tate Britain Commission.

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Mike Nelson “The Asset Strippers” (part of) 2018

Nelson’s concept for the commission is that the Duveen Galleries become a kind of warehouse of objects that serve as monuments of Britain’s former industrial wealth just as the industrial is being superceded by the digital; as manufactrure is being superceded by service. To make the point, he selected and purchased all the objects through on-line auctions of asset strippers and company liquidators. I find the concept at once brilliant and intriguing.

Then suddenly I am drained. I feel as though I have just climbed off one of those roller-coaster rides that is supposed to be fun but, in reality, precipitates spells of wheeeeee… and white-knuckle nausea. I head for the main exit with a haste that surprises me. I find calm on Millbank; the black taxis, the River Thames and the unseasonably warm May London sunshine.

All images reproduced here thanks to Tate Britain.

Ben Wilson: “Chewing Gum Man”

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I have little left of my day in London. I hurry past the Black Friar pub and find the north end the pedestrian-only Millennium bridge. It is busy. Like everyone else, I am determined to get to the Tate Modern that beckons from the south side of the river. I want to see The Clock.

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In the middle of the bridge there’s guy lying down next to an open tool box. His clothes are daubed with paint of every colour. I say hello. He’s very friendly. I ask his name. “Ben Wilson.” He replies with a broad smile. “But people call me ‘chewing gum man’!”

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Ben is relaxed and chats to anyone who stops. He’s not obviously chewing gum. I ask him what he’s doing. It’s clear he’s been asked this a thousand times. “I’m painting the chewing gum!” I gawp. I look down around my feet and along the shiny aluminium walking surface. I see there are thousands of stuck-hard pieces of discarded chewing. The penny drops. Ben’s canvas is the chewing gum! “It’s a great day for painting.” he says. “It rained last night so the gum’s clean!”

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Using acrylic and enamel paints he has created hundreds of beautiful little fantasy designs scattered along the full span of the bridge. They include humanoid, animaloid and all sorts of -oids. Each is unique and intriguing. Some bear the names of visitors. I crouch to take photos. People trip over me; Tate-goers are too polite to curse me. Ben cheers me on.

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Ben is an exhibited painter and sculptor. This work, for which he is apparently well-known in London, was inspired by his distaste for any kind of rubbish on the streets. It is a truly imaginative initiative. However, he has generated controversy. Is this vandalism? He was once dragged down to the local police station for painting public property. Clever lawyers argued that he is not defacing private property but merely painting rubbish and therefore is breaking no law.

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Ben’s project requires an extraordinary dedication. It is as original and unexpected as it is opportunistic. I am totally uplifted. This has made my day. I skip down the steps to the Tate Modern where, I’m sure, the surface of the bridge will one day be exhibited.

Take a look at more of Bens work.

Roger Pfund at Artvera’s Gallery

Talking Beautiful Stuff takes on the opening of the Roger Pfund exhibition at Artvera’s. The invitation bears his iconic 1980 design for the last 50 French franc note. We get to the gallery early, grab a glass of champagne and soak up the atmosphere of this very classy exhibition. Geneva’s great and good drift in. Roger Pfund, who has designed bank notes and passports, created the visual identity of museums and depicted the spirit of human rights, is now a sprightly 75 years old. He sits quietly surrounded by admirers. He remains the only person to be honoured during their own lifetime with a major retrospective at Geneva’s Museum of History and Art.

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Roger Pfund, Nijinsky Dancer, mixed media, 2005, 140cm x 104cm

For Roger Pfund, the “vertebral column” of his work has always been painting. I admire and adore his huge mixed media portrait of Vaslav Nijinsky based on a 1912 photograph by Adolf Meyer

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A hallmark of his work is the mastery of and versatility with a wide range of techniques and materials including, oil, acrylic, charcoal, collage, screen print and engraving. It’s all on show this evening.

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Roger Pfund, Droits de l’Homme (Human Rights,) mixed media, 2006,  700cm x 180cm

One of Pfund’s most celebrated works comprises eight separate framed pictures together bearing the words of the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights along the outstretched arms – or wings – of a Nijinsky figure. There is something incredibly primitive about this image. It is as if the spirit of the great dancer, rather than being crucified, simply spreads its broad wings and takes flight as a result of his fundamental rights being respected.

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This is a vast work. To appreciate it, one needs a wide view……

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…… and a close up. Does this incorporated print technique allude to banknote design? And talking of banknotes, if you go to Artvera’s – and you should – before this exhibition closes on 7th April, just take note of the price tag on this one!!

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The basement is dedicated to Pfund’s banknote designs. They are printed in high definition on aluminium plate using subligraphie. The reproductions are protected by PhyGital (a merge of physical and digital technologies;) an authenticity certification system developed by a Swiss enterprise, Trueplus. Pride of place is given to an exquisite series of notes designed according to various European “époques and styles.” Each note is a masterpiece. In 1996, this series was awarded first prize by an international jury charged with finding a suitable design for the then-new Euro currency. Inevitably, European politics intervened and the second-placed design was finally chosen.

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We leave the exhibition buzzing. If you’re in town, don’t miss this opportunity for a brush with soul-enriching genius.

The Surroundings of Niura Bellavinha

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Niura Bellavinha with Lusco Fusco (Fluidos e Fixos,) 2015 Acrylic and oil on canvas 130cm x 230cm

Once again, Espace L  brings a fragment of Brazilian creative culture to down-town Geneva. The gallery’s new exhibition “Alentours” (Surroundings) opens this weekend. It’s worth checking out. The main act is the work of Niura Bellavinha. I meet her fresh from the airport. What she has brought with her awaits hanging; she takes me on a tour.

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Infiltração (Fluidos e Fixos,) 2010 Acrylic and oil on canvas 50cm x 39cm

An explanation of the technique behind her trademark, almost tartan-like, canvases gets lost in our Portufranglais translation. What I gather is that bold red paint running over delicate muted blue rectangles is achieved in part by infiltration of a heavy liquid layer of paint applied to the reverse of the canvas and allowed to permeate through. The technique is as intriguing as Niura herself; she tells me that this represents her personal surroundings.

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iTaLíTica_NháNhá, 2016 Acrylic and oil on canvas 100cm x 100cm

She becomes animated when she discusses her destructively mined home state of Minas Gerais. The rich red-brown pigment in the canvases representing her environmental surroundings is back-yard dust. She tells me of the importance of using the oldest and most basic pigments possible; the now familiar understated mineral blue is zirconium extracted from meteorites (Wow!)

The most intriguing (and the most difficult to photograph!) is a combined work representing Niura’s cosmic surroundings. Photographs of constellations taken by the Hubble telescope are juxtaposed with beautiful little dark canvases painted with ground meteorite. They glitter infinitely.

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Articulado Guignard, 2010 Multimedia

Niura is intense, other-worldly and mystical. She hands me a sumptuous book of her complete works that makes manifest her extensive career, imagination and talent. Espace L has done well to capture some fragments of her surroundings. Meeting her is a unique experience and, if I am honest, I leave the gallery a little bit in love with such an unchained spirit.

Celebrity Kiss in Vienna

Vienna! A city worth visiting. The streets are neat and clean. The people are pleasant and polite. The restaurants are wonderful. Everything works. The many well-organised museums celebrate a history steeped in the arts and science. Whole institutions are dedicated to Mozart and Freud. And, of course Vienna has Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) who is to painting what Wolfgang Amadeus is to music and what Sigmund is to Psyche; I conclude after my weekend here that Klimt has to be the greatest ever painter. Ever. But then that’s just the problem. Everywhere I look I see Klimt. The restaurant where I have lunch is decorated with tastefully lit Klimt prints. My hotel room has Klimt wall paper. Klimt posters are all over the U-Bahn metro. People flock here to see Klimt and to buy Klimt by the birthday card, teddy bear and t-shirt.

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Gustav Klimt “Flowering poppies” Oil on canvas, 1907

The Belvedere Museum has the single largest collection of Klimt’s paintings. I get there early and breakfast in the sumptuous café on coffee and apfulstrudel. In a state of delicious anticipation, I make my way to the Klimt rooms. The first has a number of his square landscapes. They are the most satisfying of paintings. They soothe the soul. They draw me into some delicate rural mystery. The technical mastery of the medium is astonishing. I feel a kind of stupefied admiration. I sit quietly with a privileged view of five of these canvasses.

I notice that the place is filling rapidly and tour guides are leading eager parties directly to the next room. I follow on their heels. I look around. I feel a sharp intake of breath, a quickening of the pulse and a tightening of the innards.

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Gustav Klimt “Judith” Oil on canvas, 1901

On my left is “Judith” in all her shining vampish glory. She is so well-known but this is the first time I see her for real. She simply dazzles. No surprise given the amount of gold flake Klimt incorporated used in this period. The apples on the tree behind her right shoulder tempt. The scaly snake skin warns of evil. I love the way her right hand has clamped onto the scalp of some poor schmuck who has given way to temptation. The painting epitomises Klimt’s golden period during which he combined themes of the naked female body, eroticism and mysticism with a range of pictorial influences including impressionism, Japanese screen-prints and ancient Egyptian symbols.

I turn to my right. I glimpse the broad and staggeringly beautiful masterpiece of the period, “Kiss;” the best known of all Klimt’s paintings and the main act of the great Viennese show-and-tell. Hang on! Has George Clooney just walked in?

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The celebrity in question is of course the canvas itself. My fellow visitors seem obsessed with taking photos. They hardly seem to look at the painting. It’s almost as if by having captured the image on their smartphones, they can now move on. I guess they will say they have “seen” Klimt’s “Kiss.” Unfortunately, a desire to stand in front of it in undisturbed admiration takes second place to the selfie-smartphone fad. What would Gustav himself have said if he witnessed this frenzy? Maybe Sigmund Freud’s observations would be more pertinent!

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The Belvedere is up to speed though. Right beside “Kiss” is a large, well lit room with a life-sized, high quality facsimile of the painting precisely for the purpose of selfie-taking. Most visitors prefer nevertheless to selfie-pose with the real deal despite the best efforts of the very tolerant but sadly cattle-prodless museum staff.

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Detail of: Gustav Klimt “Lovers (The Kiss)” Oil on canvas, 1908/9. Photo: Belvedere Museum

In the early 1890s Klimt met an Austrian fashion designer, Emilie Flöge; she became a life-long companion and occasional model. He designed dresses for her. “Kiss” is believed to be a depiction of them as lovers. One cannot but be moved in front of this painting. I just want to sit for a while and bathe in its exquisite presence. Just like I’d like to have a coffee with George Clooney. However, celebrity status precludes both. I accept begrudgingly that I have to view “Kiss” from a crowded and jostled distance.

I leave the Belvedere Museum with mixed emotions. However, whilst in Vienna, I am determined  to see more of Klimt’s extraordinary work. I take a tram to the very stylish and, happily, less hectic Leopold Museum. By weekend’s-end, I am totally Klimt out. But it is worth it!