Self-Deceit

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Self-Deceit (Roma), Francesca Woodman, (1977-78)

It has been a long time since I have posted on this blog. For me, this has always been a platform for expressing my creativity and although I am inherently and without question a creative person, my creative impulses have recently been more dominated by my academic ones. The reason for this is I am currently doing a Masters in Modern and Contemporary Art History at The Edinburgh University. I therefore spend most of my time reading, an impulse that has always been natural to me, but until now one I have never been able to nurture quite to this extent! Already, in the time since September, I feel I have gained so much knowledge and learnt so much. We are constantly learning in our day to day lives of course, but I feel so privileged to be able to dedicate this time to my specific field of interest. This university course, although incredibly challenging at times, is perfect; I get to combine my love of reading, art, history and writing in one.

Alongside this Masters, I am doing an Internship with The National Galleries of Scotland (NGS). Another creative outlet which allows me to express love of writing and research. Below therefore, I attach a link to one of my written texts which has been published on the National Gallery’s website. My focus was American photographer Francesca Woodman, b.1958. Although most of the works in the National Gallery’s collection are co-owned by Tate under the umbrella organisation of Artist Rooms (see more information here), there were five works in NGS’s collection which I had permission to write about. See link below for more (in order to view this essay, you must first scroll right to the bottom of the page and click on the ‘plus’ sign at the right hand side, adjacent to the ‘more about this artwork’):

Self-Deceit, (1977-1978), Francesca Woodman

See also my publications page for more.

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Self-Portraits

I’ve been thinking a lot about imagery lately.

I have an exhibition that I keep meaning to return to so that I can write about it, as wherever possible I far prefer sourcing my own images. Otherwise it kind of feels like stealing. Especially when I have the chance to photograph work in the way that I, as opposed to others, see it. Photographing and capturing something visually is as much a language as a piece of writing. This urge to document and provide my own source work has led me into thinking about the necessity of images and how we use them to frame both our written texts and our lives. Particularly in terms of how people constantly feel the need to document not only the world around them, but themselves. The way in which we can convey, warp and shape the reception of our persona through our careful selection and sensoring of our own imagery. How, through specific choice we can create the perfect presentation of ourselves. A facade that once the spell is broken and the true self becomes revealed, can never return to the idealised perfection. Once the mask has been removed, there is no return.

I find this very interesting, as in the sea of images out there, people attempt to make their own mark; to create an identity for themselves and a projection for the world. I think this way of thinking and my interest in this peeked following my visit to the exhibition at the Portrait Gallery. ‘Facing the World: From Rembrandt to Ai Weiwei’ is an exhibition that I have now visited…four times. I would highly recommend going more than once. Or even, like myself, splitting your visits into two so that you view only half the exhibition at first and then return another day to view the rest of it. I have never done this before, however I found it incredibly fulfilling, as it enabled me to better absorb the artwork as my mind was not too saturated with it all at once. It gave me more time to reflect and made me realise the works that I was truly interested in. It’s difficult, as there is so much to gain from every work in the exhibition, however the self-portraits that really struck a chord with me were Andy Warhol’s and Robert Mappleforth’s. You could argue I am cliched in my Warhol orientated interest, he is after all, renowned for his self-portraits. However these were works that I have never studied up close and they had quite the impact on me.

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Warhol in drag. Yes, I’ve come across it before, but there was something about it in the context of the exhibition. The scale I should have realised were small poleroids, whereas when I’d seen the work in books, I’d mistakenly imagined it more A4 or even large scale. The size of course, changes the meaning of the self-portrait entirely. In my imagination, the large scale of the portrait was garish and intruding to the viewer, cocky even. However, when I viewed it during my ‘Facing the World…’ visit, I was struck by the intimacy that the poleroid scale allowed. I had to stand up close to study it. There were four of these small self-portrait’s of Andy’s on the wall and from afar all you could see was the stylish black frame, you could not make out the facial features. Yet upon close inspection there was so much to see and draw out, a rawness and an insight which felt personal and floor shattering. Almost as if I was an intruder catching Warhol in a moment which belonged only to him.

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Suddenly, my assumptions of Warhol with his elaborate pop art flamboyancy melted away and I was left with this striking affinity I felt for the pieces. I have read Warhol’s autobiography ‘The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again’ and I must say that it changed the way in which I viewed him. I think changed is actually an understatement. It revolutionised the way I view him. I feel I have a far greater insight and understanding to both his methods and intensions of working because of this book. A lot of people like Warhol and his work. A lot of people don’t. It’s always the people who don’t like him to whom I recommend read this book. I can never decide as to how I feel about him exactly; I am fascinated by his life in the Factory and his relationship with celebrity icons like Eddie Sedgwick, his intentionally monotonous yet revolutionary films like ‘Empire‘, yet I am also reserved in my interest. His fascination and fear of death is perhaps what speaks to me most. Following the assassination attempt on his life and his near-death experience, Warhol began to explore this theme in his work. He created silk-screens of gruesomely smashed up cars wrapped round trees, he did portraits of celebrities like  Marilyn Monroe and Elvis, both of whom supposedly died of a drug overdose. In among his colourful depictions and his Campbell’s soup cans, lies tragedy in the work of Warhol. There is a personal undercurrent that hums quietly underneath the elaborate facade and  his artistic persona, which once exposed, is truly magnificent. It is this undercurrent and its subtleties which I am drawn to with Warhol. I found therefore found these portraits very touching and almost kind of melancholy.

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I viewed the self-portraits of Robert Mapplethorpe with much the same air. It feels as if there is an inherent sadness to his work, one which you can’t escape from in the process of viewing. Perhaps it is his striking eyes, which pour so deeply into your soul that you can’t help feeling as exposed as he is in his portrait. Or perhaps it is the monochrome, the lack of colour an allusion to a lack of life. Yet his portraits are filled with life, with intimacy and with themes that are dictated by the erotic. Perhaps it his aura, the knowing tilt of the head and the carefully applied mascara. The sensual addition of the fur. Or perhaps it is merely the contrast provided by his opposing self portrait that was in the exhibition, which is infused with a reasserting masculinity. Mapplethorpe employs the same dark backdrop, yet creates an entirely contrasting presentation of himself. The hardened expression, the tough leather jacket. The casual cigarette protruding from his full-bodied lips. What is it about Mapplethrope that is so sensually infused? Is it the chiseled cheek bones? Or is it his defiance? His ability to present himself in an entirely modest, yet simultaneously proud way?

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I think Mapplethorpe’s work has a solid beauty to it.You can’t ignore the sensual air, or the sculpted bodies. For me, the use of monochrome is a very striking elemt. It removes unnecessary details from the work, the fact that colour is absent forces you to focus more on the features. The depth and tone created through the clothing texture (or lack of it) and pure human flesh is striking. Given the iconic features of his work and the raw portrayal of himself and his subjects, I think it is safe to say Mapplethorpe is one of my favourite photographers.

‘Facing the World: From Rembrandt to Ai Weiwei’ is an exhibition unlike any I have seen before. Mainly due to the fact I have never before encountered a portrait-based exhibition. The range of work created quite the pictorial journey with incredibly interesting content, particularly given the evolution of the portrait itself. How these days, the full human body is as much a portrait as more traditional depictions which include only the upper torso. Yet for me, it was the works of Warhol and Mapplethorpe that stood out. I felt that they were the most successful in capturing the essence of themselves and conveying who they were or what they could be. I was spell-bound by their works to the point I felt as if there was a direct correlation between myself and their portraits. As if I, stood staring up at their work as I occupied the gallery space, ceased to exist for a moment. I disappeared into them; I became irrelevant. This ability to strike up such a close and inclusive dialogue with the viewer can be a rarity within an artwork, but in this instance I left with a lasting affinity towards the works and their subjects.

Images sourced from:

http://67.media.tumblr.com/ead8fd2dbfd137095a33ae12ed892ca3

http://theredlist.com

http://www.tate.org.uk

Surreal Encounters: Collecting The Marvelous

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Installation shot including various works by Salvador Dali

“Everything tends to make us believe that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions.”
– André Breton, Manifesto of Surrealism

Recently I visited the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art on what I thought would be a brief afternoon excursion. Almost four hours later I emerged from’Surreal Encounters: Collecting The Marvelous’ enlightened and inspired. Marvelous; there could not be a more apt word to apply to this broad collection of artworks. Immediately upon entry you are greeted by renowned and famous names including Picasso, Man Ray and Duchamp. Seeing a collection of those artists merely in the corridor – before I’d even entered a room – made me realise the sheer stature of this exhibition. This was and is quite the collection of Surrealist works. Never before have I seen so many Dali and Magritte pieces clustered in such close proximity. The result was mesmerizing. I felt like Alice in Wonderland tumbling down the rabbit hole into a world of dreams, blue endless skies, obscure depictions and dripping, blurring creatures. For someone who has read countless books on Dada and Surrealism, two art movements that changed and shaped the course of art history, it was like walking into a shrine dedicated to works of the past. I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing.

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Installation shot hosting the works of René Magritte

The exhibition was beautifully curated and very insightful in terms of how the collections came about. As a viewer you are given an in depth account of how Roland Penrose, Edward James, Gabrielle Keiller and Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch came to acquire the works. This was done through a series of conducted interviews. I thought this was a very effective component of the exhibition as in among all of these monumental and historical works by Miro and Magritte, there were TV screens with the interviews being played out. With the giggles between partners Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch echoing throughout the space as they discussed their plans for their collections, I couldn’t help but feel that their stories brought the collections and the artwork even more to life. As a viewer, not only were you busy plummeting into a whimsical world within the frame and trying to decipher and make sense of something so non-nonsensical, but you also became aware of how it came to be hung on the wall in front of you. The care and thought that went into the collections and the articulate eye required to amount such works, was extraordinary. It was fascinating hearing how Gabrielle Keiller had realised Duchamp’s artistic potential and decided to gather his works. Of course it was equally fascinating seeing the works themselves; Duchamp’s mini replication of ‘The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors‘ was rather mesmerising in itself. 

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‘Female Fig Leaf’,  Marcel Duchamp, 1961

Marcel Duchamp is an artists I have studied very closely, so for me seeing his work was kind of like seeing a celebrity on the red carpet. His concept of the Readymade turned the art world upside down when he declared a urinal a work of art. A Readymade is a work that consists of objects that were, believe it or not, ready made. They become an artwork essentially through the declaration of the artist. This of course caused outrage in the artworld at the time and Duchamp’s urinal, or ‘Fountain‘ as he named it, was in fact refused entry to the Parisian Salon des Indépendants. At the time it was revolutionary and outrageous, now this act and the creation of the readymade is just another dictionary term in the art collection alongside Minimalism, Impressionism and all of the other movements which were not accepted at the time as they are presently. I loved’Female Fig Leaf‘ (above), I think it was one of my highlights of the exhibition not only because it was a Duchamp piece, but also because of its cheekiness. It is an imprint of the female genetalia, which Duchamp actually gifted to his wife. 

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‘Nude Woman Lying in the Sun on the Beach’, Pablo Picasso, 1932

Picasso, dare I say it, has always been very hit or miss for me. I can appreciate his work, his technique, his skill and his status. However his work has never quite struck the cord with me on a personal level. That is of course with the exception of ‘Guernica’ (1937), one of his most famous works depicting the horrors and brutalities of war. However, in this Surrealist exhibition, I was for once incredibly taken by a Picasso piece in the form of ‘Nude Woman Lying in the Sun on the Beach’. It absolutely fascinated me. The title provided the perfect insight into the subject of the work and the colours and composition were incredibly satisfying to my eye. I love the muted and restricted palettes of mint green and baby blue alongside the triangular creations. I was so drawn to this work that I even bought a postcard of it as a momento to the exhibition! 

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‘Couple aux tȇtes pleines de nuages’, Salvador Dali, 9136

‘Surreal Encounters’ was surreal for me in more ways than one. It was of course surreal in the sense that I was seeing the biggest body of Surrealism I have yet witnessed in my lifetime, but it was also because I was in a dumbfounded haze of surreal disbelief at seeing works such as these. Particularly the large scale Dali pieces. The skill and techniques, the mastery Dali displays with his paint and the colour choices and balances are all compiled together to form compositions so breathtaking that I was grateful to be able to occupy the seats dotted throughout the gallery space! It was one of those exhibitions where you really have to sit down and just breathe in and absorb the work in front of you. Realise how insignificant you are when faced with these grand works, grand scales and even grander artists. There was a room filled only with Dali and Magritte pieces which has to have been my favourite. Mainly because René Magritte is in fact one of my favourite artists. Coming from someone who has a very long list of favourite artists, that is quite the compliment to Magritte. I will never forget the first time I saw his work. It was at The Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. Again, there was a room filled primarily with Dali and Magritte and I remember feeling as if the air in my body had been physically knocked out of me. I had only ever come across these works in books or on the internet prior to that moment and to be greeted face to face with the brush strokes (or lack of them) of Magritte was truly one of my most memorable moments in my experience of viewing art.

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‘La Représentation’, René Magritte, 1937

Walking into the Dali/Magritte room in the Modern Art Gallery was very much like experiencing my Guggenheim epiphany all over again. Seeing Magritte’s countless sky scapes, his mysterious face reflections and erotic depictions cast a spell of serenity over me. Time seemed to stand still as I immersed myself in the works, trying to read them and imagine what strange things had been blurring through the mind of Magritte as he painted. I tend to avoid reading the information that sits alongside a painting, at least until I return to the exhibition a second time, as I prefer to formulate my own ideas and opinions about a piece before giving in to the direction leaflets and writings provide. Trying to read a Surrealist work however is quite the task and I decided that the best way to do this was to free my mind. To allow my conscious to let go of assumptions and float and drift instead into more sporadic realms.

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‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’, Dorothea Tanning, 1943

I think ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik‘ was one of my favourite works within the exhibition (not counting all of the Magritte’s, that goes without saying given how big a fan I am!) However, I have never come across Tanning’s work and this piece really stuck with me. It’s predominantly the bold colours that appeal to me; the blood red carpet against the sunshine yellow of the sunflower. The angles of the staircase alongside the open door at the end of the corridor. The way in which the girl’s hair appears to be sucked and gusted upwards towards the ceiling, yet she remains stood still and straight as if the presence of a giant sunflower on the stairwell was a perfectly natural occurrence. Yet there lies the success of the Surrealists; the ability to take the abnormal, the strange, the absurd and transform it into something so nonchalant that we begin to question our own senses of normality. They take the ordinary and transform it into such an extraordinary that we are left both stunned and speechless yet simultaneously brimming with an overflowing cauldron of ideas in our heads. In heads thatupon witnessing these works of art suddenly feel too small for all of these bizarre and beautiful notions. Consequently, the only thing that we can do is release ourselves to the surreal and the experience it provides. Needless to say, this exhibition succeeded in providing that experience and more. I was left reeling and contemplating it for days and this contemplation will continue, as will our own surreal encounters. 

 

We were not allowed to take photographs in the exhibition,therefore my images are sourced from the following websites:

https://www.nationalgalleries.org

http://georginacoburnarts.co.uk

http://www.arts-press.co.uk