David Hockney at Tate Britain: To Go or Not to Go?

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David Hockney’s paintings never really grabbed me. I was familiar with some of his iconic yet dissimilar works such as We Two Boys Together Clinging and A Bigger Splash. I knew both were considered “important” but never really knew why. I couldn’t get too enthusiastic about his 2012 exhibition at the Royal Academy.

Tate Britain in London announces it is showing the first ever exhibition that covers the sixty years of Hockney’s work. After some reflection, I get on a plane.

The exhibition is causing quite some excitement in the UK and even on the BBC. I am determined not to be swept up by the hype. If I am disappointed or confused by the exhibition, I am going to say so. Harsh critic, me! The day does not start well. Yesterday’s visit to the dentist is proving painful. I am crammed in a commuter train. It is cold and raining hard. I arrive at Tate Britain fifteen minutes before the doors open. A crowd has already gathered. Friendly staff eventually unlock and let us all in. We drip our way across the marble floor to get in line to check our umbrellas and soaked coats. By the time I am in the first room of the exhibition, it is packed. A child is crying loudly. At this point, I consider walking out. But, with aching jaw, I decide to shuffle along with the rest of middle-class England. A man in a tweed jacket say to his wife “He was gay, you know!” She replies “Well, never mind, dear!”

The exhibition occupies twelve spaces arranged by chronolgy and/or influences. After my first tour, I go around again with the audio guide. I buy the handsome 270-page catalogue. I return the following day. This show is monumental in its scope and presentation. It contains some exceptionally beautiful pictures. To say I am bowled over is an understatement. Exhibitions will never be the same. Tate Britain makes manifest something about David Hockney that has previously eluded me; that he is Britain’s best-known living picture-maker because he is a towering genius. Yes, my opinion is modified somewhat!

We have to be “wowed” these days. As (or if) you view the Hockney exhibition, do not expect to be wowed by everything. Do not even expect to be wowed by the majority of his pictures; you will be wowed by some. What will certainly wow you is to reach the final space having glimpsed the sixty year creative trajectory and the staggering output of a man whose life is dedicated not only to picture-making but also, and more importantly, to addressing the inadequacies of all means of picture–making when it comes to representing in two dimensions the world we see and move in. My road to Damascus moment comes after viewing and reviewing Hockney’s life, influences and pictures along and in light of this trajectory.

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“We Two Boys Together Clinging” 1961 Oil on board 122cm x 152cm

The first room (A Play Within a Play) establishes a critical element of Hockney’s work. This is that a person’s visual perception of the picture is taken into account; the spectator is challenged, intrigued, amused, teased, confronted or manipulated. The collection from the early 1960s in the second room (Demonstrations of Versatility) amply demonstrates the 25 year-old Hockney’s disdain for painting’s protocols and etiquette and his rejection of social convention. His work at that time has been labelled both “pop” and “abstract expressionism.” In Hockney’s view, neither term applies. The paintings outrageously promulgate his homosexuality at a time when it was illegal. They are difficult to like. However, they show that whatever trajectory young Hockney was on, it was never going to be ordinary.

The next three rooms (Paintings with People In, Sunbather and Towards Naturalism) show Hockney abandoning his previous style and slowly progressing towards naturalism. This phase is closely linked to his love affair with California which began when he moved there in 1964. Expansive canvases show illusional domestic scenes, couples in relationships, sun-blessed swimming pools, light on water and glass, bare-bottomed young men, palm trees and a squeaky clean suburban Los Angeles. The later paintings are precisely executed. He waves two fingers at the Abstract Expressionists when he points out that the splash of his A Bigger Splash was meticulously painted with a small brush over weeks.

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A Bigger Splash 1967 Acrylic on canvas 242cm x 244cm

In the last of these three rooms are two paintings that in different ways reveal the full extent of Hockney’s technical mastery of painting. Mt. Fuji and Flowers (1974) and Contre-Jour in the French Style (1974) are both mesmerisingly beautiful.

The exhibition leads us on to a room (Close Looking) that contains sketches from Hockney’s extensive travels and some truly exquisite drawn portraits. They provide a welcome break from the preceding huge canvases. This room is particularly popular with other viewers; they take much longer to stop and discuss. It prepares us for what comes next (A Bigger Photography.)

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The Scrabble Game 1983 Photographic collage 99cm x 147cm

Hockney found photography an inadequate means to make pictures. He felt it was limited by the one-point perspective and the “frozen moment” of the image. Allowing himself the influence of cubism, he embarked on a process involving hundreds of photographs per work that resulted in some of the most arresting pictures – including portraits – ever produced by this medium. Fast forward four rooms to The Four Seasons (2010-2011.) On each wall of a square hang nine crystal-clear video screens that show a coordinated nine-screen-slo-mo-scene of the same English country lane; but each wall is dedicated to one of the four seasons. I am captivated and abandon any attempt to find adequate words. I steal them from the catalogue: “high-def post cubist movie”! And Hockney’s extraordinary digital adventure has only just begun!

The three intervening rooms (Experiences of Space, Experiences of Place and The Wolds) comprise large brightly coloured canvases painted from the early 1980s through to 2009. People move past them quickly. Experiences of Space is strongly influenced by Picasso and Chinese scroll painting as Hockney freely admits. These paintings also reflect Hockney’s interest in the design of theatre sets. Perspective is flattened and one’s eye is forced to move around the fragments of the composition. The provenance of Experiences of Place is Hockney’s draw to wide open spaces. It is the least approachable part of the whole exhibition. The three garish renditions of the Grand Canyon do not work as landscape pictures. The Wolds brings Hockney back to England. These large, bright, multi-canvas, non-naturalistic landscapes are certainly intriguing but don’t set my senses a-buzz.

The penultimate room (Yorkshire and Hollywood) contains 25 closely mounted, stunning charcoal drawings from 2013 of a springtime Yorkshire woodland. Shortly after their completion, Hockney returned to his home in Hollywood where, in 2015, he completed his most recent large canvases of his garden and famous blue balcony. Hockney is now 80 years old. Is the juxtaposition of the spring drawings with these paintings to be seen as a kind of beginning and end? Are we about to arrive in the final scene of an epic film?

I stand in the middle of the last room (iPads) surrounded by his digital paintings done between 2009 and 2016. Some evolve as I watch. I am enthralled as an original Hockney of a small cactus in a red pot in a blue mug on a yellow tablecloth appears in front of me over two minutes. Every style, subject, influence and medium finds its way onto these screens. His extraordinary trajectory is encapsulated here. It is the most brilliant summary of his life’s work and of the exhibition. It is also his legacy. However, I suspect Hockney’s trajectory is yet to come to ground. Whilst this room may, in reality and metaphorically, represent the final scenes of Hockney’s blockbuster, there is a hint of more to come; another episode. A bigger exhibition even?

So, here’s what I think. This is the most important, beautiful and satisfying exhibition you will see. Go! Even if you are determined to dislike or dismiss Hockney’s work, go! Mix with the crowd! Get stuck in! Lap it all up! Be outraged! Be awed!

All images of David Hockney’s work are reproduced here thanks to Tate Britain.

He photographs the songs of Charles Aznavour!

This is photography in a league of its own. Imagine you have the words of songs on paper with no opportunity to hear them sung. Imagine also that the songs are amongst the most iconic of French songs sung by one of the most iconic of French singers. In his exhibition “Viens voir les comédiens,” photographer Patrice Fileppi sets out to deliver via images the passion, heartbreak, despair, nostalgia, jealousy and love-misery that the songs of Charles Aznavour engage. Does he succeed? You bet!

Charles Aznavour 1

Fileppi gives me a tour of his exhibition. His iPhone allows me to hear Aznavour croon the most famous line of franglais: “You are the one for me, for me, for me formidable!” The corresponding photo is immaculately and beautifully staged. It radiates the misty-eyed moment of madness when a frenchman declares his love for a freckle-faced English beauty. The pigeons and the bronze horses share the startled excitement as she runs towards her new amour to throw her arms around his neck. The dress and indeed the freckles reflect the texture of the polished marble of the fountain (that in turn subtly alludes to multiple ejaculations.) A London bus goes by. It bears an advertisement urging us to fly British Airways; this is maybe how our gallant arrived in London. Was he invited over by a call from an O-so-British telephone box?

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An elderly gentleman watches old films at home. We have no idea what is being projected. Whatever it is, it has reduced him to a kind of stupefied half-smile of nostalgia and regret. His hands are clasped as if in anticipation of a particular moment in the film. He is twenty years old again. Aznavour’s “Hier encore” is about times passed, time lost on stupidities, loves lost and a life that has achieved only a well-furrowed brow. In creating such a poignant image, Fileppi surrounds the man with fragments of his past but denies us, the viewers, a glimpse of what is moving him so. A large oil painting shows a half-open garden gate with nothing beyond. Despite its extravagant frame, the painting sits on the floor leaning against the wall. It is not hung because preference is given to a jumbled gallery of small photographs of people. The man wears a thick woollen pullover that gives warmth and protection against a cold and menacing loneliness.

Whist on a relaxing holiday in 2011, Fileppi’s mind idled. He then heard an Aznavour song. He then found himself really listening to “Comme ils disent.” He was profoundly moved. In his mind a scene appeared. He then wanted to photograph this scene… but first he had to create it. And so the story starts. This former electrical engineer – self taught in photography – tells me the exhibition “is a visual reflection of the emotion I feel while listening to the songs of Charles Aznavour. It is a tribute to him.” The exhibition comprises twenty large square photographs each representing a song that has touched him most. Why the square format? It is a timely allusion to those old vinyl album covers!

Fileppi is welcoming, modest and generous with his time. I spend a couple of hours discussing his work. I come to appreciate his creativity and attention to detail. Both are admirable. I begin to understand the days and energy invested in these twenty images and why the whole is the culmination of four years work. I realise that, above all, Fileppi is a photographic story-teller. This is why I am drawn to his exhibition; it is strong on narrative. And I am always drawn to the narrative behind beautiful stuff. Furthermore, the narrative of Fileppi’s beautiful stuff is intriguingly layered. There is the narrative of the whole project. There is the narrative of each Aznavour song. There is the narrative of the interpretation from words to image. There is finally the technical narrative of Fileppi’s scene-setting for each photo.

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For a modest sum, Fileppi sells a sumptuous catalogue of these photographs in high resolution next to the words of the parent song. For fans of Monsieur Aznavour, my copy just happened to fall open at the pages dedicated to “La Bohème!”

This exhibition is hosted by “Images de Marque” at 12, Grand Rue (Old Town) in Geneva.  It runs until Friday, 28th October. Don’t miss it and don’t simply wander around looking. Seek out and let yourself be carried away by those wonderful narratives!

“Révélations” at the Musée Rath

I visit “Revelations” at the Musée Rath in Geneva This is that rare kind of exhibition that you can just get lost in. It is where the cultural, scientific and political history of this extraordinary town meets photography. Archives have been searched, venerable institutions have collaborated and local photographers interviewed. The exhibition is beautifully designed. No surprise that Philippa Kundig had a hand in it!

What an extraordinary invention photography is! In a week of troubled politics on both sides of the atlantic, I am reminded of just how powerful images can be. Here, I limit my self to three photos indicating the diversity of what’s on show. I hope to whet your appetite.

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Jean-Louis Populous, La rue du Marché, 1848

Yes… 1848! What an amazing image! Down-town Geneva nearly 170 years ago. I am fascinated by this photo. Where was the photographer positioned? What kind of camera? Where are the people? I imagine the taking of such a photograph was such a big event that the whole street was cleared.

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Anne-Julie Raccoursier, Remote Viewer 3 (part of), 2007

Anne-Julie Raccoursier’s contribution is two huge juxtaposed photos. One shows an aerial view of a graveyard for military aeroplanes with a road running through it. It is simply mind-boggling. I guess we understand that fighters and bombers are built and sold and maybe used in armed conflict but I am not sure we give much thought to what happens to them when they are redundant. Well, now we know!

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A. Stephani, Radiograph of a giant Dolium (Tonna Galea), 1971

My absolute favourite is an x-ray image of a sea shell. I try to determine why it appeals so much. There is something very beautiful about the rhythm and progression of the lines and curves of this creature as revealed by radiography. It speaks of the mathematics of natural forms; of fractals and the Fibonacci sequence. But there is something else; a fleeting, gorgeous pop image. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit to it, but it reminds me of Marilyn Monroe standing over the subway grate. Now, that’s a photo!!

Everyone is a photographer now and “Révélations” has something for everyone. This dazzling exhibition reveals the importance of photography in our lives and how it has advanced humanity. Go to Musée Rath. Take your time.

Nick Brandt’s African ghost animals at Fotografiska

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I’m in Stockholm and have the afternoon off. Facebook tells me there’s a new exhibition by British photographer Nick Brandt at Fotografiska. I’ve seen his wildlife photos before, but I have never seen anything like his news series, “Inherit the Dust.”

Brandt has developed life-size prints of his fantastic animal portraits, glued them to huge aluminium and plywood panels, and carefully placed these in polluted, abused and dystopian parts of Africa, where animals once roamed freely and lived in harmony.

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The panels were left long enough for the inhabitants to stop paying attention to them, after which Brandt captured the scenes as black-and-white panoramas through the lens of his medium-format Mamiya RZ67 Pro ll.

The most poignant panorama shows a family of elephants beneath a road, next to a group of homeless and glue-sniffing kids, juxtaposed to a billboard (in the horizon) of a man relaxing in a park with the text “lean back, your life is on track.”

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“Underpass with elephants (lean back, your life is on track).” inheritthedust.nickbrandt.com

Brandt’s “ghost animals” are a stark reminder of what poaching, climate change and capitalism actually put at stake here. Together with the marginalised, poor people living in these places, they are the victims of our destruction of nature.

I buy a copy of Brandt’s book, make a donation to the Big Life Foundation and leave the exhibition feeling embarrassed and hopeless. I wish that parents bring their kids to Fotografiska. They need to see this now, and I bet you: they don’t want to inherit the dust.

Isaac Griberg’s “Vortex”

I first see it on Facebook. Then it is featured as Editor’s choice for 500px. A remarkable photo. Here it is…… Isaac Griberg’s “Vortex”

Vortex

This photograph is perfectly composed. It is clean. It is full of intrigue whilst being intensely mathematical. Although I know it is a staircase in a carpark, it could be an engineer’s view of some massive turbine built to move lakefuls of water through those huge Swiss mountains. It generates a feeling that I will get sucked in to a tumbling whirling nightmare. It also oozes fractal forms from the natural world. Am I inside the shell of a mega-mollusc with each step representing a another slow year of life?

And I love its yellowness. Bravo, Isaac!