Art in time of chaos and despair

by
24 June 2009

Pamela Tudor-Craig finds little comfort at the RA Summer Exhibition

Flayed: St Bartholomew: Exquisite pain by Damien Hirst, the saint with skin in place of a cloak

Flayed: St Bartholomew: Exquisite pain by Damien Hirst, the saint with skin in place of a cloak

I found me in a gloomy wood, astray

Gone from the path direct: and e’en to tell,

It were no easy task, how savage wild

That forest, how robust and rough its growth,

Which to remember only, my dismay

Renews in bitterness not far from death. . .

(Dante, Divine Comedy, Canto I) 

 AND HERE WE ARE, confronted in Room I with a vast Tryptiche (6) where bare twigs bar our way into a deep winter forest. In the 2007 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, Anselm Kiefer dared to suggest the earth’s barren surface after a holocaust that ended life upon it. He has been known to build in the courtyard ruinous towers that might finally collapse as we irresistibly explore them.

 Now, he tempts us to lose ourselves in a snowbound wilderness of trees where there will be no spring. It is an effort to tear our attention away: there is a certain magnificence in despair, as Milton and Dante knew so well, and that magnificence occasionally surfaces this year through the general ethos of despair; sometimes quiet, sometimes shrill.

As we pull away from that pine forest, we are confronted by what might have been a brilliant evocation of Lenin, seated, meditative, (Lenin im Lehnstuhl by Georg Baselitz, no. 6), conveyed in a thick impasto of white tinged with green against black — if it had not been hung upside down. Shades of Saddam Hussein, of the tumbled icon?

THERE is no comfort in Room II: the agonised head of a dying horse (Greek Horse, bronze by William Tucker, no. 48), or Polar Melt by Terry Setch (37), with drowned polar bear and cub.

Tom Phillips, to whom I always turn at the RA for the voice of sanity and civilisation, has contrived, with enviable ingenuity, a transparent cube made up of letters — and perhaps words, if I could decipher them — formed of steel wire (Wittgenstein’s Dilemma II). Inevitably, most of the conjunctions of letters at any one point are seen inside out, back to front, and at acute angles. Nor is there a position from which any one face of the cube can be “read” without interference from the rest.

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Since the philosophy of Wit­tgenstein was concerned with the meaning of language, maybe the mystery of this cube reflects an outsider’s bafflement (certainly mine) with the debate.

The philosopher’s dictum that “the structure of language cannot be said but only shown” is an open invitation to express his conun­drums visually, as artists such as M. C. Escher have shown. Phillips is using the visual tools of language themselves to explore Wittgenstein’s riddles.

FOR THE bewildered, there is usually refuge in the Weston Rooms, year after year the home of brilliant prints and sketches, treating of landscapes, of gardens, of children and animals, and of very small jewel-like paintings; intimate, delightful.

 These are the happy hunting grounds of collectors on the look-out for something to take with pleasure into their own homes. As the summer wears on, some of their frames are laden, like fruit trees with ripened plums, with rows of purchasers’ dots. It is too soon to count dots, but I doubt if they will be so plentiful this year.

A lithograph by Giulia Resteghini (225) appears to describe a bird gently extracting all the hair from the heads of four progressively bald men. Norman Ackroyd’s West Coast is an etching of a sheet of weather forecasts — of storms. Nearly everything is in unrelieved black. There are landscapes, but now shrouded in dark clouds. What about the copperplate etching of A Black Sun by David Price (166), or The Blind House 5 by Moyna Flannigan (92)?

THE colourful palette of the small oils in the Small Weston Room promises more cheer, but does not entirely deliver it. There are a number of disturbed and disturbing little pictures — The Foolish Boy by Heather Nevay (351), Shrine for a Drifter by Joseph Schneider (360), and Burning the Tree by Adrian Bartlett (377) are just three of a numerous company of images suggesting the disquiet that has overtaken our old certainties.

Even the president, Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, among provokingly original architectural designs in the later rooms, has entered a pair of etchings in white on black (384 and 406) of An Estuary, which equally cogently read as a strike of forked lightning.

Simon Turvey’s straight­forward view of the death of a shop, Woolworth’s (466), was the only example to get past the judges out of some 60 entries on the theme.

Number 418, JMW Turner about to put calm to the face of the oncoming maelstrom could serve as well as the headline for a party political broadcast. The general depression is relieved by Lex Thomas’s Second Life, after Hayman, with its witty little account of a rabbit and a cock dressed up as 18th-century gentry.

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If you have a cottage in the country, there is a corner for Marcelle Milo-Gray’s bewitching little picture of a cosy lady making friends with the birds, The Hospitable Gardener (320). I hope that that will be one of the first pictures to be sold.

But the honours of the room this year go to James Butler. Four remarkable bronzes, the brilliant low-relief Portrait of a Girl Sitting in a Chair (438); two delightful figurines of the type he has so often showed here, Dancer Holding her Shoes (564), and Dancer in a Flowered Dress (566); and, above all, Isambard Kingdom Brunel: Sketch for a portrait statue (565) demonstrate his powerful range.

We may hope to see this last at full size in an appropriate setting. The possibilities of railway stations and other terminals as settings for fine sculpture have been explored of late.

An elegiac farewell to this room is conveyed by a lovely little picture, Jean Palmer’s Doorway to a Dark Theatre (445). Nevertheless, the general impression is fraught. It is as if we were paying an annual visit to a beloved old relative, but this year her knitting has ravelled, and her slippers are lost.

NOTHING about the wild colours of the Great Room III (resorting in item 643 to neon lighting) offers any reassurance. For the first time, I find myself agreeing with Tracey Emin (579), whose bewildered Piglet, shivering at the prospect around him, declares I want it back, that feeling again. If by any chance she is referring to innocence, I am with her.

Rooms IV and V offer the relief of white and grey, with Bryan Kneale’s smaller essay on the theme of his courtyard sculpture, this time two interlocking elements, Gemini (681) to cheer us on. A life-size and skilful drawing of a Victorian wedding dress would have been nostalgic — had it not been black.

The walls of the Architecture Room this year are painted solid black. Professor William Alsop has masterminded this display himself, and his manifesto is painted on the stand: “You’ve got to work on the basis there will be no new buildings in the UK this year. So you’ve got to get on your bike, make new alliances with people from different disciplines.”

The response is remarkable — shelves of exquisite models, of long, low, graceful buildings with limpid profiles. Are these wish-fulfilment of a profession yearning to build on wide generous sites?

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One of the shelves intended for models accommodates witty three-dimensional doodles: a yellow chicken instructing several be­wildered chicks in mottled colours, presumably on how to conform, The Chirp Chirp Soldiers, by Suguru Takada (784).

I LINGERED by Tim Lewis’s Butterfly Can (motorised) 2009 (787). Having, I hope, drunk the contents, Mr Lewis cut out the silhouette of a yellow butterfly with blue tips to its wings from a soft-drink can, and so wired it to the top of the can that its wings flutter in the meaningful way of a butterfly absorbing nectar. Does this represent the activity of an architect busy in his office surrounded by colleagues with no work coming in?

The almost tangible threat of ruin is expressed by an assembly of skyscrapers falling from the angle of the ceiling, (900) Sliding, by Trine Olrik. Do you feel like that is the cavernous streets of New York?

I fled to the Lecture Room, to be confronted by haunted images of childhood; not one or two, but a nest of them (nos. 1124, 1126-30), by six women painters. Reigning alone in that room, however, is the ghastly, monumental Iraq: The sound of your silence (1200) by Michael Sandle. A totally bandaged and hooded seated woman holds on her knee her swaddled babe, a bandage across its mouth. Across the centuries, 2009 speaks to 1500, to Michelangelo’s early Pietà, with the additional burden that this is not an outrage of our ancestors, but of our own generation.

SO, AT LAST, to the climax of this year’s exhibition, Damien Hirst’s St Bartholomew: Exquisite pain (1247). Of the power, beauty of form, and classic dignity of this figure there can be no denial. Where the Apollo Belvedere has over his right arm a long cloth (dictated by the problems of marble in an outstretched position), Bartholomew displays his entire skin.

The pose is more Rodin’s John the Baptist than Phidias, but the outstretched right arm holds a scalpel instead of pointing to the heavens, and this open mouth crying in the wilderness voices soundless agony.

The horrifying martyrdom of the Apostle Bartholomew — he is reputed to have been flayed alive at Albanopolis in Armenia — would have been bound to attract Hirst. It follows naturally from his semi-flayed pregnant Virgin, and the diamond skull.

Fascination with death and torture, and the treasuring of relics is an aspect of folk-Christianity not appreciated by all, but with roots going back to apostolic times. There are seven letters by St Ignatius of Antioch that are generally accepted as genuine, and in one of them, written to the Christians in Rome, he beseeched them not to intervene with the authorities to prevent him being thrown to the lions. Accordingly, his martyrdom took place in about AD 107, traditionally in the Colosseum.

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Titian also revelled in flaying, although he described it in terms of Apollo and Marsyas; once again a subject where agony and beauty are brought into juxtaposition, for Marsyas’s death at the hand of Apollo follows his defeat in a contest of music.

THERE WAS a time when the Summer Exhibition was dismissed by those who regarded themselves as the voice of the present as a display of complacency, of old fashions. Not any more. I staggered out of this year’s display aware that it mirrored only too well the threat of chaos that hangs over not only our climate but over our entire future.

Yet, in the courtyard, my bruised attention was held by Bryan Kneale’s Triton III (1), an abstract in stainless steel of three interlocked curved forms. A friend who rejoices in a window overlooking the courtyard said to me in a conspiratorial whisper: “They are spoons, you know.” I saw what he meant, and spoons are not a bad analogy. The tortured St Bartholomew carries a lethal pair of scissors, and a scalpel.

Knives are the most primitive of all tools, from razor-sharp flints to scissors. Forks reached the table from the farmyard and the brandishing of demons. Spoons alone can carry liquid, and convey solids without damaging them. They are the kind implements.

Canterbury Museum rejoices in a set of fourth-century christening spoons. These “spoons” in the courtyard are trinitarian, interlocked in an embrace like the Three Graces, or the Trinity itself. Their shining surfaces reflect the architecture around them, as if their images were thrown back from deep waters.

This display does not confront. I almost missed it on the way in, but a skin of inner tension had been torn off by this uncompromisingly painful exhibition: do not miss the courtyard trinity, whatever else. We need it.

The Summer Exhibition continues at the Royal Academy, Picadilly, London W1 until 16 August.

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