Archive for the 'illustration' Category

08
May
16

Exhibition: ‘Gerda Wegener’ at ARKEN Museum for Moderne Kunst, Ishøj, Denmark

Exhibition dates: 7th November 2015 – 8th January 2017

GERDA WEGENER: The unusual story of a love between painter and muse that transcends gender boundaries.

 

 

Just a small comment on this posting as I am still recovering from a root canal operation at the dentist.

A fascinating, historically significant, love affair. Beautiful, stylish art painted with panache and flare. The two intertwined as, “The depictions of Lili are quite central to Gerda Wegener’s oeuvre.”

Much admiration and love to both.

Marcus

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Many thankx to ARKEN for allowing me to publish the art work and texts in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

Read an extract from the catalogue on ISSU.

 

Gerda Wegener (1885-1940) is an outstanding figure in Danish art. As a woman artist she uniquely depicts the beauty of women with equal proportions of empathy and desire. Flirting girls, glamorous divas and sensual women are among Gerda Wegener’s favourite subjects. And to these we can add the pictures of her transgender spouse, Lili Elbe, who developed her female identity as a model in Gerda Wegener’s art. Gerda Wegener’s ambivalent sexuality and the story of her spouse were too difficult for people to relate to in her time. On the whole, she broke down the boundaries of gender and sexual identity.

Today the themes of her works are highly topical. Transgender people have loomed large in the mass media, and trans icons like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner give the transgendered a voice in popular culture. Hollywood has seized on the story of Lili and Gerda, and the film The Danish Girl will have its Danish premiere in February 2016. In the biggest exhibition so far of the work of this pioneering artist we meet an experimental zest for life from the colourful, abandoned 1920s which hits a nerve in our own time.

 

 

 

“Woman must unleash her womanly instincts and qualities, play on her feminine charm, and win the competition with man by virtue of her womanliness – never by trying to imitate him.”

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Gerda Wegener, 1934

 

“Einar Wegener felt like a person who was forced to go around in a costume that stifled him and in which he felt ridiculous.”

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Lili Elbe, 1931

 

“Once one has found Paris, one cannot imagine living anywhere else. Although I love Italy, when I return and smell Paris, then I am happy.”

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Gerda Wegener, 1924

 

 

Gerda Wegener. 'Lady in a large hat' 1909

 

Gerda Wegener (1885-1940)
Lady in a large hat
1909

 

 

Painter and muse

In 1904 Gerda Wegener, born Gottlieb, married the landscape painter Einar Wegener (1882-1931), who is known today as the trans woman Lili Elbe. Lili was Gerda Wegener’s favourite model, and together they created a place of freedom in art where Lili could live out her female identity. In 1930 Gerda Wegener supported her spouse when Lili became one of the first in history to undergo a series of gender-modifying operations in order to become a woman both physically and legally. She died the next year as a result of complications after a last operation.

In her art Gerda Wegener is profoundly fascinated by people’s games with identity through dressing-up, masks and theatre. In the depictions of Lili, Lili poses as a woman in make-up, a succession of wigs, dresses, shoes and exotic fans. We come close to the couple’s friendship and love as each other’s painter and muse across the normal gender boundaries.

 

A controversial work rediscovered

One of the biggest disputes in the history of Danish art followed from the rejection of Gerda Wegener’s Portrait of Ellen von Kohl (below) by both the Charlottenborg Exhibition and Den Frie Udstilling in 1907. It led to a storm of contributions to the newspaper Politiken for and against the spiritualized, refined Symbolism that the picture was taken to represent. The opponents were given the name “the Peasant Painters”. Wegener herself remained outside the “Peasant Painter Feud” but organized her own exhibition of the picture at an art dealer’s. Afterwards the work has never been shown, but now it has been rediscovered and hangs at ARKEN so everyone can see it for themselves and think about how the portrait could divide opinion so much on the Danish art scene in 1907.

 

“After many years in the wilderness a harbinger of spring has once more appeared in Danish art.”
The artist Gudmund Hentze on Gerda Wegener’s Portrait of Ellen von Kohl in Politiken in 1907.

 

Gerda Wegener. 'Portrait of Ellen von Kohl' 1906

 

Gerda Wegener (1885-1940)
Portrait of Ellen von Kohl
1906

 

 

“Ever since. the work has been known from an old black-and-white photograph, but in 2015 it has been found for ARKEN’s exhibition and photographed in colour, and it is now being exhibited again for the first time since 1907. This provides a suitable occasion to note that there is nothing wrong with the technical execution. Ellen von Kohl sits like a Renaissance woman in a 16th-century portrait, viewed obliquely from the side with her face turned towards us. The dress, the background and the hair are in the darker colour, while the face, the skin in the neck opening of the dress and the beautiful hands are in lighter shades. The long, slender fingers are typical of Gerda Wegener’s visual idiom, elegant and mannered. To these we can add the strangest thing in the picture, the only thing that our eyes tell us may have seemed objectionable – the eyes and the woman’s gaze. The is are not clearly open. Ellen von Kohl both sees and does not see. She appears to be half in a trance, present not only in this world, but also in the one she sees with her mind’s eye. The model is not a worn-out old women “with mittens and a back bent by work”, but a well-dressed, highly cultivated and sensitive being, so sensitive that for better or worse she seems sensual and erotic to the viewers of the time…

The portrait has several resemblances to a number of other portraits by Gerda Wegener in these early years in Copenhagen, which typically show women who were themselves active in various arts such as literature, dance, or theatre. Many have a similar gaze, and they are all shown with the greatest possible beauty.”

Andrea Rygg Karberg. “When a woman paints women,” in Gerda Wegener (exhibition catalogue). Arken, 2015, p. 17

 

Gerda Wegener. 'Lili with a Feather Fan' 1920

 

Gerda Wegener (1885-1940)
Lili with a Feather Fan
1920
Photo: Morten Pors

 

Gerda and Einar Wegener in front of Gerda’s painting Sur la route d'Anacapri during the exhibition in Ole Haslunds Hus,1924. Photo The Royal Library, Denmark

 

Gerda and Einar Wegener in front of Gerda’s painting Sur la route d’Anacapri during the exhibition in Ole Haslunds Hus, 1924
Photo: The Royal Library, Denmark

 

Gerda Wegener. 'Sur la route d'Anacapri (On the Way to Anacapri)' 1922

 

Gerda Wegener (1885-1940)
Sur la route d’Anacapri (On the Way to Anacapri)
1922

 

 

“Gerda Wegener also drew and painted several pictures of Gerda and Lili together. In 1922 she painted one of the finest examples on one of the couple’s many journeys to Italy, including several to Capri – the double portrait On the Way to Anacapri (above). Gera and Lili are seen standing in profile in front of a magnificent view of a sea bay in moonlight surrounded by mountains and with the town below. Lili turns her head and looks directly at the viewer, holding her arm fondly and protectively around Gerda. Gerda looks forward dreamily with an apple in her hand. Both women wear make-up as well as jewellery and dresses in red shades. Lili is tallest and brownest; their rings are identical. The picture is painted in delicate colours and has an almost ethereal, dreamlike lightness as if the moment is timeless. Again there is a certain Renaissance atmosphere, especially in the strict profile of the self-portrait…

It is as if this particular borrowing of the formal language of of a bygone time elevates the scenario beyond time and space and gives it the character of the eternal. The works take on a special meaning, showing both Gerda’s and the couple’s love of Italy, art, beauty and each other.”

Andrea Rygg Karberg. “When a woman paints women,” in Gerda Wegener (exhibition catalogue). Arken, 2015, p. 21

 

Gerda Wegener. 'Two Cocottes with Hats' c. 1925

 

Gerda Wegener (1885-1940)
Two Cocottes with Hats
c. 1925
Photo: Morten Pors

 

 

“In Gerda Wegener’s Two Cocottes with Hats, 1920s, it is presumably Lili in the light-coloured wig with flowers and feathers in her hair, who looks at us with seductive bedroom eyes. In her hands she holds the symbol of the female sex, a rose whose scent permeats the atmosphere of the picture and probably helps to attract the other woman’s attention. The two stand close to each other and are further united by the compositions close cropping of the subject.”

Andrea Rygg Karberg. “When a woman paints women,” in Gerda Wegener (exhibition catalogue). Arken, 2015, p. 26

 

Gerda Wegener. 'On the banks of the Loire' (the artists' colony at Beaugency), Paris, 1926

 

Gerda Wegener (1885-1940)
On the banks of the Loire (the artists’ colony at Beaugency)
Paris, 1926

 

 

The female gender role in transition

“In Gerda Wegener’s On the banks of the Loire, 1926, we see innumerable Bohemians from the artists’ colony on a summer’s day in swimsuits far from the city of Paris…

For female artists just a generation before Gerda Wegener’s it was not possible at all for a woman to move around freely in the spaces of the city without being accosted and misunderstood. The definition of the Impressionists as ‘the painters of modern life’, for example, is therefor problematic in the case of an artist like Berthe Morisot. Gerda Wegener on the other hand romped freely through city life, whether this was well received or not. At any rate it became normal – not least during the First World War, when the french men were at the front, and the women had to take over many of the men’s former tasks. The women grew stronger… After World War One, Europe was traumatised, and the survivors lived wilder lives than before – quite simply so they could feel alive. The 1920 were thus typified by festivities and amusements and by gender roles in transition. Everything was permitted, much more so than before.”

Andrea Rygg Karberg. “When a woman paints women,” in Gerda Wegener (exhibition catalogue). Arken, 2015, p. 28

 

Gerda Wegener. 'A Summer Day' (Einar Wegener behind the easel, Lili nude, Elna Tegner with accordion, publisher wife Mrs. Guyot with book) 1927

 

Gerda Wegener (1885-1940)
A Summer Day (Einar Wegener behind the easel, Lili nude, Elna Tegner with accordion, publisher wife Mrs. Guyot with book)
1927
Photo: © Bruun Rasmussen Auctioneers

 

 

“The painter and illustrator Gerda Wegener aroused a furore in Denmark, but was fêted in Paris because of her sophisticated line and her elegant portraits of women. In November ARKEN presents the biggest exhibition so far of works by the pioneering artist whose life and works strike a chord in our own time.

Gerda Wegener (1885-1940) was a woman ahead of her time. It was not in the cards that this minister’s daughter from eastern Jutland would become Denmark’s foremost exponent of Art Deco and one of the most colourful personalities of her time. In 1904, she married the landscape painter Einar Wegener (1882-1931) who today is better known as the trans woman Lili Elbe. Paris was to be the city where they unfolded their artistic careers. There the couple lived a fashionable life, enabled to a great extent by Gerda’s success as a portrait painter and an illustrator for the leading fashion magazines. Decadent, frivolous Paris also made it possible for them to live out their controversial love affair in which playing with gender and identity became the central focus.

 

A tale of metamorphosis

La Vie Parisienne, La Baïonnette and Le Rire – Gerda Wegener’s technically superb and sometimes daring drawings could be found in the leading French periodicals of the time, and often it was her spouse who posed for her. The depictions of Lili are quite central to Gerda Wegener’s oeuvre. Gerda Wegener idealized Lili’s tall, elegant figure, the gloved hands and the wistful face crowned by a succession of wigs. But outside the canvas too Einar dreamed of merging with his wife’s depictions of Lili. He was unhappy in his male body and Gerda supported her husband in having the operations done that were to effect the physical transformation from man to woman, but ended in Lili’s early death.

 

Renewed topicality

ARKEN’s exhibition is a tribute to a strong artist whose works and extraordinary life strike a chord in our own time. With 178 works the exhibition will be the biggest ever of her work – and one of the first at any art museum. While in Paris Gerda Wegener won great recognition and fame – among other things three of her works were incorporated in the Louvre’s collection and are today at the Centre Pompidou – she never achieved the same status here in Denmark, because she was a woman, because she also expressed herself in commercial mass culture, and because her ambivalent sexuality and the story of her marriage were too difficult to relate to.”

Press release from ARKEN

 

Gerda Wegener, advertisement for powder in the French magazine La Vie Parisienne, 5 June 1920

 

Gerda Wegener (1885-1940)
Advertisement for powder in the French magazine La Vie Parisienne, 5 June 1920

 

Illustration by Gerda Wegener for the erotic book 'Les Délassements de l’Éros' 1925

 

Gerda Wegener (1885-1940)
Illustration for the erotic book Les Délassements de l’Éros
1925
Photo: Morten Pors

 

Illustration by Gerda Wegener for the erotic book 'Les Délassements de l’Éros' 1925

 

Gerda Wegener (1885-1940)
Illustration for the erotic book Les Délassements de l’Éros
1925

 

Front page illustration by Gerda Wegener for the Danish magazine 'Vore Damer', 19 October, 1927

 

Gerda Wegener (1885-1940)
Front page illustration for the Danish magazine Vore Damer, 19 October, 1927

 

Gerda Wegener. ' Girl and pug in an Automobile' (sketch for front page illustration in Vore Damer, 1927) c. 1927

 

Gerda Wegener (1885-1940)
Girl and pug in an Automobile (sketch for front page illustration in Vore Damer, 1927)
c. 1927

 

Gerda Wegener. 'The Carnival' c. 1925

 

Gerda Wegener (1885-1940)
The Carnival
c. 1925
Photo: Morten Pors

 

 

A Danish Parisienne

Gerda Wegener divided opinion in Copenhagen, but enjoyed great success in Paris, where she and Lili lived for two decades from 1912. They participated enthusiastically in the Parisian entertainment world, as is evident from Gerda Wegener’s many depictions of festivities and carnivals. Gerda quickly became a popular portrait painter and exhibited at the most important annual art exhibitions in Paris, and even in the French Pavilion at the World Exposition in 1925, where she won two gold medals. She provided illustrations, especially of erotic literature, and designed glass mosaics for Parisian shops and prosperous homes.

None of the major Danish art museums bought any of Gerda Wegener’s works, but the French State bought three. Today these are in the Centre Pompidou’s collection – and two of them can be seen at ARKEN’s major exhibition.

 

Artist, illustrator and cartoonist

Throughout her artistic life Gerda Wegener worked with both art in the traditional sense and popular mass culture. She alternated between participating in important art exhibitions, primarily in Paris, and supplying huge numbers of advertisements, newspaper and magazine drawings and book illustrations in the fields of fashion, satire, humour and the erotic.

Gerda Wegener had her breakthrough as an illustrator in 1908 when she won a drawing competition in Politiken with the set task of portraying ‘Copenhagen Woman’ and again in 1909 with ‘Figures of the Street’. After this she had a regular association with Politiken as an artist. At the same time Gerda Wegener supplied drawings to several other magazines such as Klods Hans, Tik-Tak and Vore Damer, and in France her drawings for leading French magazines were her primary source of income until the middle of the 1920s.

 

Gerda Wegener. 'Lili Elbe' c. 1928

 

Gerda Wegener (1885-1940)
Lili Elbe
c. 1928
Watercolour

 

Gerda Wegener. 'Queen of Hearts (Lili)' 1928

 

Gerda Wegener (1885-1940)
Queen of Hearts (Lili)
1928
Photo: Morten Pors

 

“Gerda Wegener was a curious observer in this whole period as she participated in life in the metropolis of Paris. In her innumerable pictures of women she accordingly revealed very different female types, just as the pictures of Lili send out a wide variety of signals. Lili who is often sweet and innocent looks rather like a provocative sinner in Queen of Hearts from 1928. Here she is playing cards, which in the history of art has always been symbolic of a life of sin, and in the sixteenth century was regarded as ungodly. An ashtray, a bottle and a glass are on the table, and Lili has a cigarette in her mouth. She has her feet up on two different chairs and is wearing snakeskin shoes and a red dress that has slipped slightly down along her legs, revealing the petticoat. The room in which Lili sits is more well-defined than in most other Lili portraits and is full of realistic details. The picture is no longer detached from time and place or ethereal. The hands are not long and graceful. It is the real Lili of flesh and blood that we see here, an emancipated and erotically self-assured woman. And so it is naturally the Queen of Hearts that she holds in her hand.”

Andrea Rygg Karberg. “When a woman paints women,” in Gerda Wegener (exhibition catalogue). Arken, 2015, p. 28

 

Gerda Wegener. 'The Ballerina Ulla Poulsen in the Ballet Chopiniana' Paris, 1927

 

Gerda Wegener (1885-1940)
The Ballerina Ulla Poulsen in the Ballet Chopiniana
Paris, 1927
Photo: The Theatre Museum at The Court Theatre

 

 

“In Poulsen, Gerda Wegener cultivated the perfect classical ideal of beauty fro a woman. Ulla Poulsen was well known for her pure, oval face and could have posed from the most beautiful Madonnas of the Italian Renaissance. She met the Wegeners during a tour of Paris in 1927 and ever afterwards appeared in many of Wegener’s works, both when she has posed and when Gerda depicted her from memory.

In the best known and most monumental portrait of Ulla Poulsen the ballerina takes her bow after a performance of the ballet Chopiniana. A typical Wegener bouquet lies on the edge of the stage, and in Toulouse-Lautrec fashion a little piece of a bass or cello projects from the orchestral pit. Again the light beams shine down over the main figure in a fan pattern, and the ballet skirt spreads around her in a circle. The ballerina is set up as the most beautiful imaginable object for the viewer’s gaze, as is the point of ballet and theatre, for the delectation of everyone. The awareness that someone is looking is so to speak a condition of all theatre, and for that matter of the existence of the phenomenon of fashion – another of Gerda Wegener’s favourite fields.”

Andrea Rygg Karberg. “When a woman paints women,” in Gerda Wegener (exhibition catalogue). Arken, 2015, p. 32

 

Gerda Wegener (1885-1940) 'Eva Heramb' 1934

 

Gerda Wegener (1885-1940)
Eva Heramb
1934
Photo: Photo: The Theatre Museum at The Court Theatre

 

Eva Betty Koefoed Heramb (24th November 1899 in Aarhus – 9th January 1957 in Copenhagen ) was a Danish actress. She made her debut in 1921 at Odense Theatre, at which theater she was employed the following six years. From 1927 – 1935 she was engaged to the People’s Theatre, where she received a variety of roles, including appearances in this period with several other Copenhagen theaters. She also recorded a few films.

 

Gerda Wegener. 'Young Man, Bare Chested' 1938 and 'Adrienne Sipska' Paris 1925

 

Gerda Wegener (1885-1940)
Young Man, Bare Chested
1938

Gerda Wegener (1885-1940)
Adrienne Sipska
Paris 1925

 

 

“The mixture of sources of inspiration and materials is yet another characteristic of Art Deco – and in the portrait of the short-haired, long-necked Adrienne Sipska from 1925 Gerda Wegener has painted the hard with gold. The young man she paints with a bare chest in 1938, on the other hand, has soft locks on his brow and marked, almost feminine facial features. Men and women cross over imperceptibly in many of Gerda Wegener’s pictures as the boundaries between the normal gender roles are gradually erased more and more.”

Andrea Rygg Karberg. “When a woman paints women,” in Gerda Wegener (exhibition catalogue). Arken, 2015, p. 30

 

Gerda Wegener. 'Carnival, Lily' Paris, 1928

 

Gerda Wegener (1885-1940)
Carnival, Lily
Paris, 1928

 

Gerda Wegener. 'At the mirror' 1931-1936

 

Gerda Wegener (1885-1940)
At the mirror
1931-1936

 

 

“In Gerda Wegener’s At the mirror, 1931-1936 (above), the directions of the gazes are more complicated. A woman sits in front of the mirror and forms a beautiful S-shape with the low-cut back and neck of her dress and the turning of her head. She looks herself deep in the eyes. We see he both from the back in front of the mirror and her face from the front in the mirror. In the mirror we also see an elegantly dressed man, presumably standing more or less where we are conceived as standing, looking at the woman’s beautiful neck with a slightly worried expression. For she is not looking at him, although she is well aware that he is there. Nor is it certain that it is only for him that she is putting on make-up. He is like a perplexed voyeur who has been discovered. He seems a little superfluous as a moment of profound solidarity arises between the woman and her ‘sister’ in the mirror.

Gerda Wegener does not only depict empty decorative dolls, but also strong personalities who stage themselves as beautiful women and exercise much of the power at play in their relations with other people. ‘Girl Power’, quite simply.

As mentioned, a viewer is always latently present in Wegener’s works, as the figures are so aware of the signals they are sending out. The women display themselves with a clear exhibitionistic tendency which is taken to extremes in the pictures of theatre, masquerade and disguise. At the same time the very act of looking at themselves in the mirror is associated with narcissism. This beautiful woman in front of the mirror and in the mirror exhibits and enjoys herself at one and the same time. As always the work is charged with an intense eroticism. This woman is attracted by herself and is also ready to attract others. And these others could be of either sex depending on who is looking at the picture.”

Andrea Rygg Karberg. “When a woman paints women,” in Gerda Wegener (exhibition catalogue). Arken, 2015, pp. 32-34

 

 

Arken Museum for Moderne Kunst
Skovvej 100, 2635 Ishøj, Denmark

Opening hours:
Tuesday – Sunday: 10.00  – 17.00
Wednesday: 10.00  – 21.00
Monday: Closed

Arken Museum for Moderne Kunst website

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21
Feb
16

Review: ‘On the beach’ at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery, Mornington

Exhibition dates: 11th December 2015 – 28th February 2016

Curator: Wendy Garden

 

 

This is another solid thematic group exhibition at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery (curator Wendy Garden), following on from their recent success, Storm in a teacup.

The exhibition is not as successful as Storm in a teacup, mainly because most of the works are based on the monolithic, monosyllabic representation of beach culture, and its figuration, during the early decades of the twentieth century (White Australia policy, Australian stereotypes of the interwar period) and the re-staging of these ideas in the contemporary art presented through a diachronic (through/time), performative discourse.

There is so much re-staging in this exhibition I was left to wonder whether there was any original art work being produced that does not quote sources of history, memory, identity, representation and art from past generations. Daniel Boyd re-stages Captain Cook’s landing at Botany Bay with said hero as a pirate. Stephen Bowers replicates the Minton willow pattern motif and early paintings of kangaroos. Leanne Tobin re-stages Bungaree’s disrobing on the beach during his journey with Matthew Flinders. Diane Jones re-stages Max Dupain’s Sunbaker replacing the anonymous prostrate man with her head looking into the camera, or Dupain’s Form at Bondi with her head turned towards the camera. Worst offender is Anne Zahalka who re-states Dupain’s Sunbaker (again!) as a red-headed white women on the beach; or re-presents Charles Meere’s Australian beach pattern (1940, below) not once but twice – the first time in The bathers (1989) broadening the racial background of people to depict multicultural Australia in the 1980s, the second time in The new bathers (2013) broadening the mix even further. Most successful of these re-stagings is Michael Cook’s series of photographs Undiscovered in which the artist subverts deeply ingrained understandings of settlement, that of terra nullius, by depicting Captain Cook as black and positioning him in high-key, grey photographs of impressive beauty and power, surveying the land he has ‘discovered’ while perched upon an invisibly balanced ladder.

But with all of the works that quote from the past there is a sense that, even as the artists are critiquing the culture, they are also buying into the system of patriarchy, racism and control that they seek to comment on. They do not subvert the situation, merely (and locally) extrapolate from it. The idealised, iconic representation of early 20th century Australia culture in the paintings from the 1920-30s and the photographs from the 1940s-70s – specimens of perfect physical beauty – are simply shifted to a new demographic – that of iconic, individual figures in the same poses as the 1940s but of a different ethnicity. The colour of the figure and the clothing might have changed, but the underlying structure remains the same. And if you disturb one of the foundation elements, such as the base figure in one of George Caddy’s balancing beachobatics photographs, the whole rotten edifice of a racism free, multicultural Australia will come tumbling down, just as it did during the Cronulla Riot.

What I would have liked to have seen in this exhibition was a greater breadth of subject matter. Where are the homeless people living near the beach, the sex (for example, as portrayed in Tracey Moffat’s voyeuristic home video Heaven which shows footage of male surfers changing out of their wetsuits in car parks – “shot by Moffatt and a number of other women as if they were making a birdwatching documentary” – which challenges the masculinity of Australian surf culture and the ability of women to stare at men, instead of the other way around), death (drownings on beaches, the heartbreak of loss), and debauchery (the fluxus of Schoolies, that Neo-Dada performance of noise and movement), the abstract nature of Pictorialist photographs of the beach, not to mention erosion and environmental loss due to global warming. The works presented seem to have a too narrowly defined conceptual base, and a present narrative constructed on a coterie of earlier works representing what it is to be Australian at the beach. The contemporary narrative does not address the fluidity of the landscape in present time (in works such as Narelle Autio’s series Watercolours or The place in between).

The dark underside of the beach, its abstract fluidity, its constant movement is least well represented in this exhibition. Although I felt engaged as a viewer the constant re-quoting and rehashing of familiar forms left me a little bored. I wanted more inventiveness, more insight into the conditions and phenomena of beach culture in contemporary Australia. An interesting exhibition but an opportunity missed.

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Many thankx to the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery for allowing me to publish most of the photographs in the posting. Other photographs come from Art Blart’s archive and those freely available online. Thankx also go to Manuela Furci, Director of the Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive for allowing me to publish his photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image. All text comes from the wall labels to the exhibition.

 

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'On the beach' at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

Installation view of the exhibition 'On the beach' at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

 

Installation views of the exhibition On the beach at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery with Daniel Boyd’s We call them pirates out here (2006, below)

 

Daniel Boyd (b. 1982) 'We call them pirates out here' 2006

 

Daniel Boyd (b. 1982)
We call them pirates out here
2006
Museum of Contemporary Art
Purchased with funds provided by the Coe and Mordant families, 2006

 

 

“The landing of Captain Cook in Botany Bay, 1770 by E. Phillips Fox is such an iconic and important image relating to the birth of Australia. Shifting the proposed view of Fox’s painting to something that was an indigenous person’s perspective allowed for me to challenge the subjective history that has been created.” – Daniel Boyd, 2008

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In this painting Daniel Boyd parodies E. Phillips Fox’s celebrated painting which was commissioned in 1902 by the Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria to commemorate federation. No longer an image valorising colonial achievement, Boyd recasts the scene as one of theft and invasion. Captain Cook is depicted as a pirate to contest his heroic status in Australia’s foundation narratives. Smoke in the distance is evidence of human occupation and is a direct retort to the declaration that Australia was ‘terra nullius’ – land belonging to no-one, which was used to justify British possession.

 

Stephen Bowers (b. 1952) Peter Walker (board maker) (b. 1961) 'Antipodean willow surfboard' 2012 'Antipodean willow surfboard (Mini Simmons)' 2012

 

Stephen Bowers (b. 1952)
Peter Walker (board maker) (b. 1961)
Antipodean willow surfboard
2012
Antipodean willow surfboard (Mini Simmons)
2012
Hollow core surfboard, Paulownia wood, fibreglass, synthetic polymer paint
Courtesy of the artist and Lauraine Diggins Fine Art, Caulfield

 

Stephen Bowers (b. 1952) Peter Walker (board maker) (b. 1961) 'Antipodean willow surfboard (Mini Simmons)' (detail) 2012

 

Stephen Bowers (b. 1952)
Peter Walker (board maker) (b. 1961)
Antipodean willow surfboard (Mini Simmons) (detail)
2012
Hollow core surfboard, Paulownia wood, fibreglass, synthetic polymer paint
Courtesy of the artist and Lauraine Diggins Fine Art, Caulfield

 

 

In these works Bowers combines the willow pattern motif, a ready-made metaphor of hybridity, with an image of a kangaroo as envisioned by George Stubbs in 1772. The willow pattern as an English invention, created by Thomas Minton in 1790. It is an imaginative geography and, like the first known European painting of a kangaroo, considers other lands as strange, exotic places. In this work the imagery of colonial occupation is visualised as a fusion of cultures underpinned by half-truths, fantasy and desire.

 

Installation view of Leanne Tobin's 'Clothes don't always maketh the man' (2012) (detail)

Installation view of Leanne Tobin's 'Clothes don't always maketh the man' (2012) (detail)

 

Installation views of Leanne Tobin’s Clothes don’t always maketh the man (2012)

 

Leanne Tobin (b, 1961)
Clothes don’t always maketh the man (detail)
2012
Sand, textile, wood
Collection of the artist

 

 

Bungaree (c. 1755-1830) was a Garigal man who circumnavigated the continent of Australia with Matthew Flinders on the H.M.S. Investigator between 1802-03. Unlike Bennelong, who attempted to assimilate with British ways and Pemulwuy, who resisted, Bungaree made the decision to navigate a relationship with the British while still maintaining his cultural traditions. He played an important role as an envoy on Flinder’s voyages, negotiating with the different Aboriginal groups they encountered. A skilled mediator, Bungaree was adept at living between both worlds. When coming ashore he would shed his white man’s clothes so that he could conduct protocol relevant to the local elders. In this respect the beach became a zone of transformation and exchange.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'On the beach' at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

Installation view of the exhibition 'On the beach' at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

 

Installation views of the exhibition On the beach at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery with in the foreground, Leanne Tobin’s Clothes don’t always maketh the man (2012), and in the background photographs from Michael Cook’s Undiscovered series (2010, below)

 

Michael Cook (b. 1968) 'Undiscovered 4' 2010

 

Michael Cook (b. 1968)
Undiscovered 4
2010
inkjet print on Hahnemuhle paper
124.0 x 100.0 cm
Australian National Maritime Museum

 

 

A selection of works from a series of ten photographs in which Michael Cook contests the idea of ‘discovery’ that underpins narratives of the British settlement of Australia… Cook depicts the historic Cook as an Aboriginal man replete in his British naval officers attire. His ship, the famed Endeavour, is anchored in the sea behind him. By mimicking the moment of first discovery Cook subverts deeply ingrained understandings of settlement and asks us to consider what type of national Australia would be if the British had acknowledged Aboriginal people’s prior ownership.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'On the beach' at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition On the beach at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery showing, at top left, Max Dupain’s Form at Bondi (1939); to the right of that Dupain’s At Newport (1952, below); to the right upper is George Caddy’s Chest strength and breathing exercise, 20 February 1937 (below); followed at far right by Rennie Ellis’ St Kilda Lifesavers (1968, top) and David Moore’s Lifesavers at Manly (1959, bottom)

 

Max Dupain. 'At Newport' 1952, Sydney

 

Max Dupain (1911-1992)
At Newport
1952, Sydney
Silver gelatin photograph

 

George Caddy (1914-1983) 'Chest strength and breathing exercise, 20 February 1937' 1937

 

George Caddy (1914-1983)
Chest strength and breathing exercise, 20 February 1937
1937
Digital print on paper
Paul Caddy collection
Courtesy of Paul Caddy

 

 

Like Max Dupain, who was three years his senior, Caddy was interested in the new modernist approach to photography. During 1936 he read magazines such as Popular Photography from New York and US Camera rather than Australasian Photo-Review which continued to champion soft-focus pictorialism. This photograph was taken the same year as Dupain’s famous Sunbather photograph. The framing and angle is similar reflecting their common interest in sharp focus, unusual vantage points and cold composition.

 

George Caddy (1914-1983) 'Freshwater Surf Life Saving Club reel team march past, 3 April 1938' 1938

 

George Caddy (1914-1983)
Freshwater Surf Life Saving Club reel team march past, 3 April 1938
1938
Digital print
Collection of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales
Purchased from Paul Caddy, 2008

 

 

This photograph was taken only months after an infamous rescue at Bondi. On 6 February 1938 a sand bar collapsed sweeping two hundred people out to sea. 80 lifesavers rescued all but 5 people in a day subsequently described as Black Sunday. By 1938 the Surf Life Saving Association, which incorporated clubs from around Australia, had rescued 39,149 lives in its 30 year history. In 1938 alone there were 3,442 rescues. Up until the events of Black Sunday no one had drowned while lifesavers were on duty at Australian beaches. In comparison 2,000 people drowned in England each year.1

  1. Alan Davies, Bondi Jitterbug: George Caddy and his amera, Sydney: State Library of New South Wales, p. 13.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'On the beach' at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition On the beach at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery with, at far left, Anne Zahalka’s The sunbather #2 (1989, below) and, at right, a selection of George Caddy’s beachobatics photographs.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'On the beach' at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition On the beach at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery with, at far left, Max Dupain’s Sunbaker (1937, top) with Diane Jones Sunbaker (2003, below); in the centre Anne Zahalka’s The sunbather #2 (1989, below); then Max Dupain’s Form at Bondi (1939, top) with Diane Jones Bondi (2003) underneath.

 

Anne Zahalka. 'The sunbather #2' 1989

 

Anne Zahalka (b. 1957)
The sunbather #2
1989
From the series Bondi: playground of the Pacific 1989
Type C photograph

 

Installation photograph of Charles Meere's 'Australian beach pattern' (1940, below) and Anne Zahalka's 'The bathers' (1989)

 

Installation photograph of Charles Meere’s painting Australian beach pattern (1940, below) and Anne Zahalka’s photograph The bathers (1989) from the series Bondi: playground of the Pacific 1989, in which Zahalka restates Charles Meere’s painting to subvert the narrow stereotype of the Australian ideal… In this work Zahalka broadens the racial background of people depicted to create a more representative image of multicultural Australia in the 1980s.

 

Charles Meere (1890-1961) 'Australian beach pattern' 1940 (detail)

 

Charles Meere (1890-1961)
Australian beach pattern (detail)
1940
Oil and wax on canvas
Collection of Joy Chambers-Grundy and Reg Grundy AC OBE

 

 

A now iconic representation of early 20th century Australia culture… The scene is dominated by a mass of suntanned bodies: muscular, square-jawed white Australians – specimens of perfect physical beauty – enjoying the strenuous physical activities of the beach. A glorification of the strong, healthy, racially pure Australian ideal of the 1930s, it is eerily reminiscent of Nazi German Aryan propaganda between the wars.

Notably, the figures themselves all appear anonymous and disconnected, with indistinct facial features that show no acknowledgement of their fellow beach-goers. Their identities are overwhelmed by Meere’s obsession with arrangement. Rather than reflect real life, the figures are placed to create an idealised work of perfect balance. It is fascinating to consider that this iconic representation of Australian beach culture actually came from the imagination of an Englishman, who had only lived in Australia since the mid-1930s and who, according to his apprentice, ‘never went to the beach’ and ‘made up most of the figures’.1

  1. Freda Robertshaw quoted in Linda Slutzkin, Charles Meere 1890-1961. Sydney: S. H. Ervin Gallery, 1987, p. 6.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'On the beach' at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition On the beach at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery with, at far left, George Caddy’s beachobatic photographs, and on the far wall Sidney Nolan’s Bathers (1943, below) and Jeffrey Smart’s Surfers Bondi (1963, below)

 

Sidney Nolan (1917-1992) 'Bathers' 1943

 

Sidney Nolan (1917-1992)
Bathers
1943
Ripolin enamel on canvas
Headed Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne
Bequest of John and Sunday Reed, 1982

 

Jeffrey Smart (1921-2013) 'Surfers Bondi' 1963

 

Jeffrey Smart (1921-2013)
Surfers Bondi
1963
Oil on board
Private collection

 

 

“When bans on daylight bathing were lifted in 1902, the beach became a prime leisure destination. The beach became not only as a public space of recreation but also as a place where the Australian identity was developing, for many epitomizing the liberties of Australia’s society. On the beach brings together 76 outstanding and iconic paintings, photographs and installations to consider the defining relationship we have to the shore.

Works by artists including Vernon Ah Kee, Arthur Boyd, Gordon Bennett, Daniel Boyd, Max Dupain, Charles Meere, Tracey Moffatt, David Moore, Sidney Nolan, Polixeni Papapetrou, John Perceval, Scott Redford, Jeffrey Smart, Albert Tucker, Guan Wei and Anne Zahalka, as well as outstanding recently discovered works by George Caddy (see above). A champion jitterbug dancer, Caddy’s photographs of ‘beachobatics’ were kept undisturbed in a shoebox for 60 years until they were ‘discovered’ by his son after his death. They capture the exuberance and optimism of Australian society between the wars.

The beach first became a prime leisure destination in the early decades of the twentieth century. Up to Federation many artists had looked to the bush to galvanise a fledging nationalism, but during the interwar years this shifted and increasingly the beach became the site of Australian identity. Already by 1908 one Melbourne newspaper commented upon the ‘vast throng of holidaymakers all along the coast.’ In the years following the First World War, against a backdrop of a growing interest in physical fitness, the beach was seen as a place for creating ‘a fine healthy race of men.’ Understandings of the beach as an Australian way of life emerged during this period and increasingly the Australian type was associated with bronzed athletic bodies on the beach.

On the beach looks at artists’ responses to the stereotype of the interwar period and juxtaposes modernist works with contemporary artists’ responses to include a more culturally diverse mix of people. Other artists in the exhibition challenge understandings of the beach as a benign space and consider the history of violence that is latent.”

Press release from the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'On the beach' at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

 

Photographer Joyce Evans looking at two colour photographs by Rennie Ellis in the exhibition.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'On the beach' at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition On the beach at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery with, on the far wall left hand side, photographs by Rennie Ellis.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'On the beach' at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition On the beach at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery with, on the far wall right hand side, photographs by Rennie Ellis and, at right, Fiona Foley’s Nulla 4 eva IV (2009)

 

Rennie Ellis. 'Union Jack, Lorne' c. 1968

 

Rennie Ellis (1940-2003)
Union Jack, Lorne
c. 1968
Silver gelatin selenium toned fibre-based print
Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive

 

Rennie Ellis. 'Four Sunbathers, Lorne' c. 1968

 

Rennie Ellis (1940-2003)
Four Sunbathers, Lorne
c. 1968
Type C photograph (ed. AP)
Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive

 

Rennie Ellis. 'Bondi, New South Wales' 1997

 

Rennie Ellis (1940-2003)
Bondi, New South Wales
1997

 

“On the beach we chuck away our clothes, our status and our inhibitions and engage in rituals of sun worship and baptism. It’s a retreat to our primal needs.” – Rennie Ellis

 

Installation view of Vernon Ah Kee. 'cantchant' 2007-09

Installation view of Vernon Ah Kee. 'cantchant' 2007-09 (detail)

Installation view of Vernon Ah Kee. 'cantchant' 2007-09 (detail)

Installation view of Vernon Ah Kee. 'cantchant' 2007-09 (detail)

Installation view of Vernon Ah Kee. 'cantchant' 2007-09 (detail)

Installation view of Vernon Ah Kee. 'cantchant' 2007-09 (detail)

Installation view of Vernon Ah Kee. 'cantchant' 2007-09 (detail)

Installation view of Vernon Ah Kee. 'cantchant' 2007-09 (detail)

Installation view of Vernon Ah Kee. 'cantchant' 2007-09 (detail)

 

Installation views of Vernon Ah Kee’s cantchant 2007-09

 

Vernon Ah Kee (b. 1967)
cantchant
2007-09
Synthetic polymer paint and resin over digital print on roamer, vinyl
Courtesy of the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane

 

 

Vernon Ah Kee’s response to the events at Cronulla (the Cronulla Riot) us a powerful retort to the racists and their mantra ‘we grew here, you flew here’ chanted on the beach during the riots. Ah Kee takes issue pointing out the hypocrisy in their statement.

We grew here, you flew here is an insincere statement and they were chanting it over and over again. It’s a way to exercise racism. I’m like ‘WE’ grew here, say what you want, but we’re the fellas that grew here.

The surfboards are printed with Yidinji shield designs and the portraits are members of the artists family. The work was exhibited in the Australian Pavilion at the 2009 Venice Biennale.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'On the beach' at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition On the beach at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery with, on the far wall, Charles Blackman’s Sunbather (c. 1954, below) and Arthur Boyd’s Kite flyers [South Melbourne] (1943, below).

 

Charles Blackman (b. 1928) 'Sunbather' c. 1954

 

Charles Blackman (b. 1928)
Sunbather
c. 1954
Oil on board
Private collection, Melbourne

 

 

This is one of a number of paintings and drawings made in response to Blackman’s observations of life on Melbourne’s beaches. Blackman moved from Sydney to Melbourne in 1945 to be part of Melbourne’s burgeoning art scene, making friends with John Perceval, Joy Hester and John and Sunday Reed amongst others.

During this period Blackman regularly took the tram to St Kilda beach to swim and paint. Although he enjoyed spending time on the beach, there is a sinister overtone to this painting of a prostrate figure lying on the sand. A bleak, grey palette articulates the pallid lifeless flesh amplifying a sense of death. The hollow slits that substitute for eyes further accentuate the corpse-like appearance. It is a stark contrast to many paintings of the era that emphasise physical vitality and wellbeing. Rather the sense of isolation and heavy treatment of shadows and water creates a painting that is psychologically disturbing. This painting can be seen as a response to his wife, Barbara’s developing blindness. It has been noted that as the ‘darkness grew in her life, his pictures got darker.’1 Blackman stated many years later ‘I was trying to paint pictures which were unseeable.’2

  1. Barry Humphries quoted in Peter Wilmoth ‘An artist in wonderland’ The Age, 21 May 2006.
  2. Charles Blackman interviewed by James Gleeson, 28 April 1979.

 

Arthur Boyd (1920-1999) 'Kite flyers [South Melbourne]' 1943

 

Arthur Boyd (1920-1999)
Kite flyers [South Melbourne]
1943
Oil on canvas mounted on cardboard
46.3 x 60.9 cm
National Gallery of Victoria
The Arthur Boyd Gift, 1975

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'On the beach' at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

Installation view of the exhibition 'On the beach' at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

Installation view of the exhibition 'On the beach' at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition On the beach at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery with, in the centre, Brett Whiteley’s Balmoral (1975-78, below). To the left of this painting is Nancy Kilgour’s Figures on Manly Beach (1930, below) and to the right, at top, Norma Bull’s Bathing Beach (c. 1950-60s, below) with at bottom, George W. Lambert’s Anzacs bathing in the sea (1915, below).

 

Brett Whiteley (1939-1992) 'Balmoral' 1975-78 (detail)

 

Brett Whiteley (1939-1992)
Balmoral (detail)
1975-78
Oil and collage on canvas
180 x 204 cm
Collection of the Hunter-Dyer family

 

Nancy Kilgour (1904-1954) 'Figures on Manly Beach' c. 1930

 

Nancy Kilgour (1904-1954)
Figures on Manly Beach
c. 1930
Oil on canvas
76 x 117 cm
Manly Art Gallery and Museum, Sydney
Purchase with the assistance of the NSW Ministry for the Arts, 1986

 

 

Nancy Kilgour’s artificial arrangement of figures is believed to have been painted in the 1930s before Charles Meere painted his highly contrived composition Australian Beach Pattern, 1940. The staged poses create a tableau of Australians enjoying the freedoms of life on the beach. What is interesting about Kilgour’s painting is that a number of people are depicted fully clothed. so the emphasis is not so much on toned physiques but rather the pleasures of relaxing on the beach. The painting is also unusual because, whereas most beach scenes are cast in brilliant sunshine, the figures in the foreground in this painting are rendered in shadow suggesting the presence of the towering Norfolk Island Pine trees which form a crescent along the Manly foreshore.

 

Norma Bull. 'Bathing Beach' c. 1950-60s

 

Norma Bull (1906-1980)
Bathing Beach
c. 1950s-60s
Oil on aluminium
30.5 x 40 cm
Collection of the Warrnambool Art Gallery, Victoria

 

 

Norma Bull began her career at the National Gallery School in 1929, Receiving acclaim for her portraits she won the Sir John Longstaff Scholarship in 1937 and travelled to London where she worked as a war artist during the Second World War. After nine years in Europe, Bull returned to Australia and spent the next year following Wirth’s Circus, painting acrobats, clowns and scenes from circus life. She settled in the Melbourne suburb of Surrey Hills and spent her summer holidays at Anglesea which provided the opportunity to paint seascapes and beach scenes.

 

George W. Lambert. 'Anzacs bathing in the sea' 1915

George W. Lambert. 'Anzacs bathing in the sea' 1915 (detail)

 

George W. Lambert (1867-1930)
Anzacs bathing in the sea (full and detail)
1915
Oil on canvas
25 x 34 cm
Mildura Arts Centre
Senator R.D. Elliott Bequest, presented to the City of Mildura by Mrs Hilda Elliott, 1956

 

 

George Lambert, Australia’s official war artist, travelled to Gallipoli where he created detailed studies of large battle scenes. He also painted a number of smaller, more intimate works which were execute rapidly on the spot such as this scene of men bathing in the sea. Lambert’s focus is the musculature of their bodies. They are depicted as exemplars of heroic Australian masculinity. Historian C.E.W. Bean reflected in the 1920s that it was through the events on Anzac Cove on 25th April 1915 ‘that the consciousness of Australian nationhood was born.’1 In this respect the painting can be seen to have baptismal overtures.

  1. C.E.W. Bean, Official history of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 Volume 2, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1934, p. 346.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'On the beach' at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition On the beach at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery with, second left, Anne Zahalka’s The girls #2, Cronulla Beach (2007, below). At left on the far wall John Anderson’s Abundance (2015, below) followed by John Hopkins The crowd (1970, below)

 

Anne-Zahalka-The-girls-#2-WEB

 

Anne Zahalka (b. 1957)
The girls #2, Cronulla Beach
2007
From the series Scenes from the Shire 2007
Type C photograph
73.3 x 89.2 cm
Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery
Gift of the artist, 2012

 

John Anderson (b. 1947) 'Abundance' (detail) 2015

 

John Anderson (b. 1947)
Abundance (detail)
2015
Oil on linen
Courtesy of the artist and Australian Galleries, Melbourne and Sydney

 

John Hopkins. 'The crowd' 1970

 

John Hopkins (b. 1943)
The crowd
1970
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas
172.7 x 245.2 cm
Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery
Gift of the artist, 1974

 

Polixeni Papaetrou born Australia 1960 'Ocean Man' 2013

 

Polixeni Papaetrou (b. 1960)
Ocean Man
2013
From the series The Ghillies 2012-13
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased NGV Foundation, 2013

 

 

The ghillie suit is a form of camouflage originally used by hunters and the military. recently popularised in the video game, Call of duty, the ghillie suit is worn a Pxpapetrou’s son, Solomon, who poses on the beach at Queenscliff. Appearing neither man nor nature, his indistinct form speaks of transformation and becoming – of prison and absence. By depicting the figure as some sort of monster emerging from the depths of the ocean, pxpapetrou creates an image that draws upon Jungian understanding of the sea as a symbol of the collective unconscious – both a source of life and return.

 

 

Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery
Civic Reserve, Dunns Road, Mornington

Opening hours:
Tuesday – Sunday 10am – 5pm

Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery website

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20
Dec
15

Exhibition: ‘Art AIDS America’ at Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma

Exhibition dates: 3rd October 2015 – 10th January 2016

 

 

This is the biggest exhibition on art relating to HIV/AIDS since the seminal exhibition Art in the Age of AIDS at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra in 1995, which I was a part of.

I was lucky to survive the initial wave of HIV/AIDS infections. The Centers for Disease Control issued its first statement about a cluster of 19 cases of Kaposi’s sarcoma (a rare skin cancer most common in elderly men from southern Italy) and Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia in young, gay men in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco in July 1981… and I had my first HIV test in London in 1983. In those days, as the wall text from the exhibition spells out below, you had to wait 16 days to get the result of a blood test. I vividly remember sitting outside a doctor’s office knowing that when I went in, if he said yes you have it, it was a death sentence. In those early days, there was no treatment. You were going to die. I only survived by luck. Many of my friends and lovers didn’t.

“Art reflects and reacts to social, cultural, and political climates, and in the past 30 years, HIV and AIDS has been a constant presence,” says exhibition co-curator Rock Hushka. “So many of us recall friends, family, and partners we have lost and the terror of the early years of the crisis, while younger people are just learning this story. We seek to create a deeper understanding of the legacy of HIV/AIDS in contemporary American art, and encourage our visitors to see their experiences in these works.”

This deep understanding can be supplemented by this posting. I spent many hours securing more images than were sent to me in the press pack, because I think it is really important to have as great a cross-section as possible of work online from this exhibition, as a record of this time and space in the ongoing HIV/AIDS story. At present, there is no website for the 1995 exhibition Art in the Age of AIDS but I am hoping to correct this in the near future, with installation images, art work, interviews and videos.

In terms of the art, I find the earlier narratives are much more powerful and focused than the contemporary work. One of the most moving of these, and one that I have never seen before, is Keith Haring’s Altar Piece (1990, cast 1996, below). Can you imagine being an artist, being Haring, working on the wax mould in hospital being treated for AIDS-related illness, thinking that this could possibly be the last art work that you would ever complete. That you would never see it produced. And then to make something that is so compassionate, so beautiful that it is almost beyond belief… my heart is full of admiration and, like the crowd in the triptych, I am washed with tears.

By comparison, some of the contemporary works seem to have become mere graphic symbolism (leaves, milk and flowers) rather than engaging activism. For example, Tino Rodriguez’s Eternal Lovers (2010, below) – while referencing his Mexican heritage through skull imagery from Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead – is not about loss with presence but loss without presence: a febrile graphic activity that is pure decoration. Other works such as Derek Jackson’s Perfect Kiss (2007, below) or LADZ’s Eden #31 (2012, below) enact only the most tenuous link to HIV/AIDS and only when it is spelled out in text. Again, while not denying the pain of the death of her mother, her persecution when growing up or the problems with living with HIV, Kia Labeija’s 24 (Mourning Sickness; Kia and Mommy; In my room) (2014, below) propositions us with a women photographed in deadpan photography style as glamorous mother with vivid pink lipstick or a Beyonce music star in sequin dress and 6 inch heels. Only in the last photograph is there any hint of vulnerability and, funnily enough, it is the only photograph that I care about and engage with.

In all of these works the key word is enact, for these works are performances of gender and sexuality conceptualised for the viewer, where living with HIV/AIDS is shown to us at a distance. Instead of ACTing up, unleashing the power of the oppressed, artists are now acting out in this (supposed) post-death HIV/AIDS climate. Look at me, I can be whoever I want to be (and still have HIV). Nothing wrong with that I hear you say, and you would be completely right… if only the art commenting on this post-death resurrection of the author, was memorable.

While 1,218,400 persons aged 13 years and older are living with HIV infection in the USA and an estimated 47, 352 people were diagnosed with the disease in 2013, people are still dying by the thousands in America (an estimated 13,712 people died in 2012 of an AIDS related disease – source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website). This is not pretty pink lipstick and sequin dresses, this is 13 thousand people a year still DYING from this disease.

Just think about that for a while.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for Art Blart

.
Many thankx to the Tacoma Art Museum, Mark I. Chester and Steven Miller for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

Did You Know?

 

Art AIDS America at Tacoma Art Museum from Tacoma Art Museum on Vimeo.

 

 

Art AIDS America aims to abolish the silence about the pervasive presence of HIV/AIDS in American art and open meaningful and respectful dialogues about our experiences with the ongoing epidemic. For too long, we have considered art about AIDS as a tragic, closed chapter in the history of American art. This exhibition demonstrates the deep and continued impact of the AIDS crisis on American art from the early 1980s and continuing to today.

For more than thirty years, artists have actively responded with exquisite sensitivity to HIV/AIDS. They have adopted a broad spectrum of styles and messages from politically activist to quietly mournful art that nonetheless thrums with political content. Through poignant portraits, some artists brought much needed attention to personal suffering and loss from the AIDS crisis. Others employed abstraction and coded imagery to reveal the social and political factors that exacerbated the spread of HIV/AIDS. Artists also widely appropriated various art historical traditions to speak about the devastating impact of the epidemic. Art AIDS America offers an overview of how these various approaches redirected the course of American art from postmodern “art for art’s sake” formulas to art practice that highlights the personal experience and expertise of the artist.

Since the first reports of mysterious illnesses in the early 1980s, HIV and AIDS have touched nearly every American in some way, and operated as an undeniable (though often unacknowledged) force in shaping politics, medicine, and culture. Art AIDS America presents the full spectrum of artistic responses to AIDS, from the politically outspoken to the quietly mournful. HIV and AIDS are not just past-tense problems. As we persist in the struggle with HIV/AIDS, these artworks remind us of humanity’s resilience, responsibility, and history. The legacy of the AIDS crisis and our new relationships with the virus continue to inform contemporary art and American culture.

 

ACT UP NY/Gran Fury (active New York, New York, 1987–1995), Let the Record Show… 1987/recreated 2015.

 

ACT UP NY/Gran Fury (active New York, New York, 1987-1995)
Let the Record Show…
1987/recreated 2015
Mixed media installation, dimensions variable
Courtesy of Gran Fury and the New Museum, New York
Photo courtesy of the artists

 

 

In 1987, the New Museum’s curator William Olander invited ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) to create a work about AIDS. ACT UP, a diverse, nonpartisan, grassroots organization, responded with Let the Record Show… providing information about the crisis.

At the time, the only visual presence of AIDS activism was the Silence=Death stickers. Let the Record Show… recreated here in full for the first time, included an LED reader board with statistics about the unfolding medical and political crisis, the neon pink triangle with “Silence=Death,” a photomural from the Nuremberg trials, and photographs of contemporary public figures with their statements about AIDS.

Using the 1986 graphics from the Silence=Death Project, ACT UP appropriated the pink triangle from the badges assigned to gay prisoners in Nazi Germany during World War II. The artists combined this historic symbol of powerlessness along with the photomural of the Nuremberg courtroom to make an explicit comparison between the severity of the AIDS crisis and government inaction and the Holocaust. The complicated installation asked whether simple silence in a crisis is as culpable as actively encouraging one. The anonymous collective Gran Fury formed as a committee of ACT UP, as a result of Olander’s invitation. Gran Fury continued to make provocative and important works about the AIDS crisis.

For the installation of Let the Record Show… at the New Museum, quotes were cast in concrete under the photograph of the irresponsible speaker:

 

“The logical outcome of testing is a quarantine of those infected.”

Jesse Helms, U.S. Senator

“It is patriotic to have the AIDS test and be negative.”

Cory Servass, Presidential AIDS Commission

“We used to hate faggots on an emotional basis. Now we have a good reason.”

Anonymous Surgeon

“AIDS is God’s judgment of a society that does not live by His rules.”

Jerry Falwell, Televangelist

“Everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm to protect common needle users, and on the buttocks to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals.”

William F. Buckley, Columnist

” …”

Ronald Reagan, President of the United States

 

ACT UP NY/Gran Fury (active New York, New York, 1987-1995) 'Let the Record Show…' (detail) 1987/recreated 2015

 

ACT UP NY/Gran Fury (active New York, New York, 1987-1995)
Let the Record Show… (detail)
1987/recreated 2015
Mixed media installation, dimensions variable
Courtesy of Gran Fury and the New Museum, New York
Photo courtesy of the artists

 

Carrie Yamaoka (Born Glen Cove, New York, 1957) 'Steal This Book #2' 1991

 

Carrie Yamaoka (Born Glen Cove, New York, 1957)
Steal This Book #2
1991
Unique chemically altered gelatin silver print
Courtesy of the artist

 

Carrie Yamaoka takes inspiration from Abbie Hoffman’s iconic Steal This Book, a counterculture manual for social revolution. By photographing a page spread and then obliterating all of the words except “slaughter” and “history,” Yamaoka rejects any passive understanding of history. As an activist and artist, Yamaoka will use any means necessary to affect change. Steal This Book #2 may be considered as referring to Yamaoka’s experience as an AIDS activist and her desire to reshape our understanding of our relations with HIV.

 

Jerome Caja (Born Cleveland, Ohio, 1958; Died San Francisco, California, 1995) 'Bozo Fucks Death' 1988

 

Jerome Caja (Born Cleveland, Ohio, 1958; Died San Francisco, California, 1995)
Bozo Fucks Death
1988
Nail polish on plastic tray
Collection of Ed Frank and Sarah Ratchye

 

One of Jerome Caja’s alter egos was the clown Bozo. Here Caja aggressively turns the tables on death and seeks to gain some control and power over the inevitable, even if only a transgressive, psychological fantasy.

 

Niki de Saint Phalle (born 1930, died 2002) 'AIDS, you can't catch it holding hands' 1987

 

Niki de Saint Phalle (born 1930, died 2002)
AIDS, you can’t catch it holding hands
1987
Book, 52 pages 8 × 10 inches
The Lapis Press, San Francisco
© 2015 Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved / ARS, NY / ADAGP, Paris

 

Working with collaborator Professor Silvio Barandun, Niki de Saint Phalle wrote and illustrated AIDS: You Can’t Catch It Holding Hands for young adults. Using her characteristically colorful and joyous style, de Saint Phalle offers unusually straightforward information about the transmission of HIV from unprotected sex and unclean needles in intravenous drug use. She also uses the same frank approach to assuring her readers that casual contact from flowers, doorknobs, and toilet seats does not transmit AIDS, notions that were not widely understood in the early years of the AIDS crisis.

 

Jenny Holzer (Born Gallipolis, Ohio, 1950) 'Untitled (In a Dream You Saw a Way To Survive and You Were Full of Joy)' 1983-85

 

Jenny Holzer (Born Gallipolis, Ohio, 1950)
Untitled (In a Dream You Saw a Way To Survive and You Were Full of Joy)
1983-85
Packaged latex condoms with printed text, each is 2 x 2 inches
Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis, Anonymous gift, 2001

 

Jenny Holzer (Born Gallipolis, Ohio, 1950) 'Untitled (Expiring for Love Is Beautiful but Stupid)' 1983-85

 

Jenny Holzer (Born Gallipolis, Ohio, 1950)
Untitled (Expiring for Love Is Beautiful but Stupid)
1983-85
Packaged latex condoms with printed text, each is 2 x 2 inches
Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis, Anonymous gift, 2001

 

Keith Haring (Born Reading, Pennsylvania, 1958; Died New York, New York, 1990) 'Apocalypse I' 1988

 

Keith Haring (Born Reading, Pennsylvania, 1958; Died New York, New York, 1990)
Apocalypse I
1988
From the series Apocalypse, 1988
Silkscreen, Edition of 90
Courtesy of the Keith Haring Foundation

 

In their first collaboration, Keith Haring illustrated William S. Burroughs’ dystopic poem Apocalypse by mixing references to advertising, art history, and Catholic theology. Haring included his “devil sperm,” the black, horned symbol he created to give shape to HIV and its reign of death and terror.

Burroughs introduced the chaos unfolding:

“The final Apocalypse is when every man sees what he sees, feels what he feels, and hears what he hears. The creatures of all your dreams and nightmares are right here, right now, solid as they ever were or ever will be, electric vitality of careening subways faster faster faster stations flash by in a blur.”

 

Keith Haring (Born Reading, Pennsylvania, 1958; Died New York, New York, 1990) 'Apocalypse III' 1988

 

Keith Haring (Born Reading, Pennsylvania, 1958; Died New York, New York, 1990)
Apocalypse III
1988
From the series Apocalypse, 1988
Silkscreen, Edition of 90
Courtesy of the Keith Haring Foundation

 

 

Grassroots Activism

Artists provided the early warnings of the AIDS crisis with their artworks deployed at the street level. Posters, stickers, T-shirts and other projects made it impossible to ignore messages about AIDS. These activist artists were informed by earlier precedents of feminist art and artists working on issues of identity politics. Communities coalesced around the calls to action.

The most prominent group to address the AIDS crisis was the anonymous artist collective Gran Fury in New York, a committee of ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). The collective used techniques and ideas from advertising, marketing, and the art world to raise awareness and affect political change. Their bold graphic style and refined text continues to influence politically-themed art.

Gran Fury and other activists changed how Americans thought about AIDS. The political and social pressure instigated by their actions and artworks played important roles in changing the approval process for AIDS drugs and treatment protocols. Women’s health issues were brought to the forefront. As a result, American society positively changed their opinions about HIV/AIDS when they had correct information.

 

Memento Mori

The AIDS crisis compelled contemporary American artists to address death with urgency. Artists witnessed a plague sweep through their communities and wipe out their friends, colleagues, and lovers. They used art to express their rage and terror when AIDS had no effective treatment. Their artwork provided a vitally important way to mourn their losses and share their sorrow.

Artists looked back to European and American artistic traditions of memento mori, Latin for “Remember that you must die,” to share their experiences, feelings, and stories. They adapted symbols like skulls and flowers to depict the fragility and fleeting nature of life.

Artists in this section shifted the intent of memento mori away from concepts of death and the afterlife. They refocused on the preciousness and precariousness of life, without forgetting the political and social realities behind the massive wave of death. Nayland Blake’s clock marks the passing of so many individuals with a call to action. David Wojnarowicz rages against the senseless death of Peter Hujar. Bill Jacobson and Karen Finley give form to the fragility of memory. Latino folk traditions connect the living and the dead in the paintings of Tino Rodriguez and Thomas Woodruff.

 

Poetic Postmodernism

In the early 1980s, American art was dominated by a new, postmodern theory. It held that meaning belongs not to the artist who made the work but to their audiences who interpret the works. Called “the death of the author,” the theory was named after a 1967 essay by the French postmodernist thinker Roland Barthes.

As AIDS actually caused the death of thousands of authors and artists by the late 1980s, this metaphor became a terrifying reality. At the same time, a powerful Christian conservative movement aggressively politicized AIDS. Using homophobia and fear of the disease, these politicians passed Federal laws that made it illegal to “promote, encourage, or condone homosexual sexual activities or the intravenous use of illegal drugs” in an AIDS awareness and education bill.

The ramifications for artists and art exhibitions were equally prohibitive. Federal laws were passed that made it impossible for museums to receive government support if an exhibition included obscene content, which was understood to mean gay themes among others, including AIDS-specific art. In this climate, artists knew that overt political content would result in censorship. So they developed a new way to smuggle political meaning into art.

In his research for Art AIDS America, Jonathan David Katz named this new approach “poetic postmodernism.” Artists used the postmodern theory “death of the author” to camouflage their own personal, expressive meanings. Many of the works in this exhibition have the same title format, the word “untitled” followed by a more specific description in parentheses such as in “Untitled” (Water), Untitled (Hujar Dead), or Untitled (Corrupt HIV Activism). The first term, “untitled,” signals the prevailing postmodernist idea that all meanings come from the audience. But the phrase inside the parentheses reveals clues to the artist’s associations and intentions. Because recognition of AIDS content was a product of the viewer’s thought and not the artist’s explicit claim, such works could be shown in museums without fear of being censored under the new laws.

 

Andres Serrano (Born New York, New York, 1950) 'Milk/Blood' 1989, printed 2015

 

Andres Serrano (Born New York, New York, 1950)
Milk/Blood
1989, printed 2015
Chromogenic color print
Exhibition print
Courtesy of the artist

 

Milk/Blood recall the pure, flat color of hard edged abstract painters such as Ellsworth Kelly. But the simple saturated color fields in Serrano’s photograph bear the evocative title Milk/Blood, the two main body fluids that transmit HIV. Serrano appropriates the formal language of modernism for political purposes, a means of potentially slipping AIDS consciousness into a museum context without fear of exclusion or censure. As with HIV infection itself, the photograph underscores how our key sense, vision, is unreliable in the face of AIDS.

 

Andres Serrano (born 1950) 'Blood and Semen III' 1990

 

Andres Serrano (born 1950)
Blood and Semen III
1990
Chromogenic color print, edition 1 of 4
40 × 60 inches
Courtesy of the artist
Photo courtesy of the artist

 

Like his Milk/Blood in this exhibition, Blood and Semen III also appears to be a rigorously formal composition, this time evoking the gestural appearance of an abstract expressionist painting. Again, the title references two body fluids that transmit HIV. As examples of poetic postmodernism, Serrano activates meaning in Blood and Semen III and Milk/Blood using formal arrangements and references to earlier artistic styles to inform his photographs with personal and potentially political content.

 

Shimon Attie (born 1957) 'Untitled Memory (projection of Axel H.)' 1998

 

Shimon Attie (born 1957)
Untitled Memory (projection of Axel H.)
1998
Ektacolor photograph, edition 1 of 3
32 × 38¾ inches
Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
© 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
Photo courtesy of the artist

 

Shimon Attie (born 1957) 'Untitled Memory (projection of Axel H.)' (detail) 1998

 

Shimon Attie (born 1957)
Untitled Memory (projection of Axel H.) (detail)
1998
Ektacolor photograph, edition 1 of 3
32 × 38¾ inches
Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
© 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
Photo courtesy of the artist

 

After an extensive period working in Europe memorializing the Holocaust, Shimon Attie returned to San Francisco in 1996 and began his series Untitled Memory. Attie projected old photographs of his friends and lovers onto places with special meaning to him, including this room of a former apartment. His photographs of these projections became personal studies of loss and melancholy.

 

David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) 'Untitled (Hujar Dead)' 1988-89

 

David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992)
Untitled (Hujar Dead)
1988-89
Black and white photograph, acrylic, text and collage on Massonite
Collect of Steven Johnson and Walter Sudol
Courtesy Second Ward Foundation

 

Wojnarowicz was briefly lovers with and then became a close friend of the famous photographer Peter Hujar, who died of AIDS-related causes in 1987. Untitled (Hujar Dead) incorporates still images from a film by Wojnarowicz of Hujar’s lifeless body on his hospital bed. Wojnarowicz then overprinted the text of one of his famous “rants.” In these politically-charged performances and texts, he laid blame for the AIDS crisis squarely on the conservative right-wing demagogues who politicised the disease and continually spewed homophobic rhetoric which only exacerbated the crisis.

 

Tino Rodriguez (Born Ciudad ObregoÅLn, Sonora, Mexico, 1965) 'Eternal Lovers' 2010

 

Tino Rodriguez (Born Ciudad ObregoÅLn, Sonora, Mexico, 1965)
Eternal Lovers
2010
Oil on wood
Private collection

 

Tino Rodriguez (Born Ciudad ObregoÅLn, Sonora, Mexico, 1965) 'Eternal Lovers' 2010 (detail)

 

Tino Rodriguez (Born Ciudad ObregoÅLn, Sonora, Mexico, 1965)
Eternal Lovers (detail)
2010
Oil on wood
Private collection

 

Tino Rodriguez’s Eternal Lovers incorporates aspects of his Mexican heritage, and especially the tradition of skull imagery from Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. This family-oriented celebration of ancestors brings the living and dead into affectionate proximity. Rodriguez here exuberantly conflates familiar American oppositions such as death and life, growth and decay, and even good and evil. Inherently androgynous, the gender of the skulls remains unknown as does their cause of death. But as in the Dia de los Muertos celebration itself, Rodriguez’s image supplants horror with humor and loss with presence, offering the triumph of love and memory over death in the age of AIDS.

 

David Wojnarowicz (Born Red Bank, New Jersey, 1954; Died New York, New York, 1992) 'Untitled (Buffalo)' 1988-89

 

David Wojnarowicz (Born Red Bank, New Jersey, 1954; Died New York, New York, 1992)
Untitled (Buffalo)
1988-89
Vintage gelatin silver print, signed on verso
Collection of Michael Sodomick

 

For Untitled (Buffalo), David Wojnarowicz simply photographed a diorama in a museum in Washington, DC. This image of buffalo being herded off a cliff served as a chilling metaphor of the politics of AIDS in the US in the late 1980s. Rather than an illustration of traditional Native American hunting techniques, Wojnarowicz eloquently expressed his rage, desperation, and helplessness through the great symbol of American identity. His shifting and layering of meaning onto this symbol is a classic example of poetic postmodernism.

One example of how artists hid their message is David Wojnarowicz’s Untitled (Buffalo). It’s a diorama of a buffalo fall, a traditional method of harvesting large numbers of buffalo by chasing herds off cliffs. The buffalo are made from plastic. Wojnarowicz photographed the diorama and cropped it. “This is appropriation,” Hushka said. “He used it as this extraordinarily eloquent cry about the state of American politics at the time.” Katz added, “It’s telling that even an artist of Wojnarowicz’s activist fervor engaged in a metaphor that only cohered in the mind’s eye. You needed to be attentive to what it might be saying to read it. There’s nothing specifically AIDS about it.”

 

 

Spiritual Forces

Because of the overwhelming number of deaths, the unspeakable losses, and the constant presence of disease, it should not be surprising that artists also turned to issues of spirituality. Yet, the art history of AIDS often neglects this important aspect. Across the United States, faith communities tended to the spiritual needs of people with AIDS and provided critical services for them. These communities continue to support people living with HIV.

The AIDS crisis exposed deep division within many spiritual traditions. Artists such as Jerome Caja, Robert Gober, and Barbara Kruger expressed discomfort and displeasure in how some religious ideologies oppressed gays and lesbians and worsened the AIDS crisis. Others made inspiring works within long-established traditions like Keith Haring’s altar piece. In other artworks, artists created symbols for the dignity of people suffering from AIDS, ranging from Christian saints and Biblical texts to imagery inspired by Buddhism and healing traditions from India.

 

Keith Haring (born 1958, died 1990) 'Altar Piece' 1990 (cast 1996)

 

Keith Haring (born 1958, died 1990)
Altar Piece
1990 (cast 1996)
Bronze with white gold leaf patina, edition 2 of 9
60 × 81 x 2 inches
Denver Art Museum, Gift of Yoko Ono, 1996.204A-C.
© Keith Haring Foundation
Photo © Denver Art Museum

 

This altar piece by Keith Haring is the last work the artist completed. He worked on the wax mold while he was hospitalized for AIDS-related illnesses. The triptych format echoes traditional Roman Catholic altar pieces. The image of the crying mother holding an infant speaks to the inconsolable losses from AIDS. The mother’s tears fall on the crowds, seeking solace and mercy from the AIDS epidemic.

 

Barbara Kruger (Born Newark, New Jersey, 1945) 'Untitled (It's our pleasure to disgust you)' 1991

 

Barbara Kruger (Born Newark, New Jersey, 1945)
Untitled (It’s our pleasure to disgust you)
1991
Photographic silkscreen on vinyl
The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Gift of Eric and Nannette Brill

 

Despite provocative imagery and text, Barbara Kruger intends no specific meaning to her artworks. Rather, Kruger wants to demonstrate how the reader generates meaning each time the text is read. She activates ambiguity and political charge with the phrase “It’s our pleasure to disgust you.” Kruger underscores the gulf between and image and its possible meanings, an issue brought into high relief in the culture wars promoted by religious conservatives, during the period when this work was made.

The work may be interpreted as evidence that artists like Kruger were deliberately insensitive to cultural norms. Alternatively, it could be read as proof that artworks were deliberately manipulated for political purpose by others. Because AIDS was framed in political terms from its earliest moment, Kruger’s Untitled (It’s our pleasure to disgust you) reflects the complexity and deliberate uses of language about AIDS.

 

Robert Gober (Born Wallingford, Connecticut, 1954) 'Drains' 1990

 

Robert Gober (Born Wallingford, Connecticut, 1954)
Drains
1990
Cast pewter Edition of 8, with 2 artist’s proofs, artist’s proof 1 of 2
Collection of the artist

 

Robert Gober’s Drains is meticulously handcrafted to resemble a mass-produced consumer good. Because we think about drains primarily as a tool to remove waste often associated with personal hygiene and cleaning, connections to HIV/AIDS are obvious. By placing the sculpture in an unexpected position on a gallery wall, Gober seeks to generate unanswerable, metaphorical questions about the functions of a drain and the unknown space behind it. The cruciform shape at the back of the drain recalls his childhood and his complicated relationship with Catholicism.

 

Izhar Patkin (Born Haifa, Israel, 1955) 'Unveiling of a Modern Chastity' 1981

 

Izhar Patkin (Born Haifa, Israel, 1955)
Unveiling of a Modern Chastity
1981
Rubber paste, latex theatrical wounds, and
printing ink on a stretched linen canvas
Courtesy of the artist

 

Izhar Patkin painted Unveiling of a Modern Chastity one year before there was any public announcement about a new disease striking formerly healthy young men. This is the earliest work in the exhibition, and, in retrospect, one of the earliest AIDS paintings ever. Troubled by the sight of a group of such young men with similar dark purple skin lesions waiting in his dermatologist’s office, he presciently titled the work to reflect what he felt might be a forthcoming change in sexual culture. The painting’s skin-like surface erupts in what looks like Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions.

Patkin’s heavily textured surface and use of artificial wounds was his effort to destroy minimalism and other traditions of pure abstraction. He wanted to expose the inability of modernist art to contain pressing social and contextual significance.

DID YOU KNOW? The Centers for Disease Control issued its first statement about a cluster of 19 cases of Kaposi’s sarcoma (a rare skin cancer most common in elderly men from southern Italy) and Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia in young, gay men in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco in July 1981.

 

Albert J. Winn (born 1947, died 2014) 'Akedah' 1995

 

Albert J. Winn (born 1947, died 2014)
Akedah
1995
Gelatin silver print
171/2 × 21 ¾ inches
Courtesy of Scott R. Portnoff
Photo courtesy of the Estate of Albert J. Winn

 

In the artist’s own words: “Every month, because of my illness, I need to undergo a blood test. During the process, a tourniquet is bound tightly about my upper arm. At times when I’ve been on a study protocol for an experimental medicine, I’ve had my blood drawn every day. Having my blood drawn has become a ritual in what sometimes seems is a new religious practice, an AIDS ritual.

“Over time, I’ve transformed this ritual in relation to my Judaism. I wonder if like Isaac, I am being sacrificed. This time to science. I pray that an angel will intercede and spare my life. When my arm is bound with a tourniquet and the veins bulge, I am reminded that I am bound to my illness. I look at the rubber strap and see tefillin. Sometimes the impression of the leather straps from the tefillin are still visible on my skin by the time the tourniquet is wrapped around my arm. The binding of the tefillin is a reminder of being bound to my heritage. The straps also make my veins bulge. Except for the needle stick the binding feels the same.”

 

 

Art AIDS America at the Tacoma Art Museum

Politics, sex, religion, loss, and beauty – all of the topics that you can’t talk about over dinner but can at a museum – are open for discussion in Art AIDS America, an exhibition that reveals for the first time how the AIDS crisis forever changed American art. Since the first reports of mysterious illnesses in the early 1980s, HIV and AIDS have touched nearly every American in some way, and operated as an undeniable (though often unacknowledged) force in shaping politics, medicine, and culture. Art AIDS America presents the full spectrum of artistic responses to AIDS, from the politically outspoken to the quietly mournful.

Art AIDS America is a story of resilience and beauty revealed through art, and the community that gathered to bring hope and change. While recognizing and honoring loss and grief, it refutes the narrative that AIDS is only a tragic tangent in American art, exploring how artists’ responses to the crisis and its legacy continue to inform contemporary American art. These artworks offer a vibrant representation of community, caring, creativity and activism. And, Art AIDS America will serve as a vivid reminder that the crisis is not over; HIV infections are increasing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 1.2 million Americans are living with HIV.

A decade in the making, this exhibition is co-curated by TAM’s Chief Curator, Rock Hushka, and Jonathan D. Katz, PhD, Director, Visual Studies Doctoral Program, University at Buffalo.

“AIDS fundamentally changed American art, remaking its communicative strategies, its market, its emotional pitch and – not least – its political possibilities. But we’ve repressed the role of AIDS in the making of contemporary American culture, as we’ve repressed the role of AIDS in every other aspect of our lives. This exhibition underscores how powerfully a plague that is still with us has changed us,” says Katz. “Art AIDS America creates spaces for mourning and loss, yes, but also for anger and for joy, for political resistance and for humor, for horror, and for eroticism.”

The exhibition assembles 125 significant works in a wide range of media. The artists are diverse, including the internationally acclaimed such as Robert Gober, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Keith Haring, Jenny Holzer, Annie Leibovitz, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Martin Wong, and those not yet as widely celebrated such as Luis Cruz Azaceta, Chloe Dzubilo, Derek Jackson, Kia Labeija, and Joey Terrill. The works date from 1981 to today, and some, like Catherine Opie’s photographs of the 1986 AIDS/ARC vigil in San Francisco, will be on public view for the first time.

“Art reflects and reacts to social, cultural, and political climates, and in the past 30 years, HIV and AIDS has been a constant presence,” says Hushka. “So many of us recall friends, family, and partners we have lost and the terror of the early years of the crisis, while younger people are just learning this story. We seek to create a deeper understanding of the legacy of HIV/AIDS in contemporary American art, and encourage our visitors to see their experiences in these works.”

Works in the exhibition will generally fall into two categories: art with a clear tie to AIDS, and art that requires the viewer to look beyond the surface to understand its connection to HIV/AIDS. Some artists addressed the AIDS crisis through activist works, community projects, graphics, and direct political statements. For example, the collective ACT UP NY/Gran Fury’s installation Let the Record Show… sears the words of public officials whose actions inflamed the crisis, including the silence of President Ronald Reagan, who would not speak publicly about AIDS until 1987. Other artists use camouflage, coding, misdirection, symbols, or other covert strategies to address the social, political, and physical impacts of HIV. An example is Robert Sherer’s beautifully rendered Sweet Williams, a basket of cut flowers, painted in HIV-negative and HIV-positive blood, about the untimely deaths of so many young men. The exhibition will be organized roughly by works created pre- and post-cocktail (in this case, ‘cocktail’ refers to the combination of drugs and therapies used to manage HIV and prevent the development of AIDS).

“Tacoma Art Museum is a safe space where people are able to address important and challenging issues. We are proud to present Art AIDS America. It is fitting that the exhibition debuts in Tacoma, the city that established the nation’s first government-sanctioned needle exchange program in a proactive approach toward controlling the spread of AIDS,” said Stephanie Stebich, TAM’s Executive Director. “TAM also has the scholarship to support this exhibition through our chief curator Rock Hushka and the exhibition’s co-curator Dr. Jonathan D. Katz, who also co-curated the award-winning Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, which we brought to TAM in 2012.”

The Art AIDS America catalogue is a significant component of the exhibition, with 15 contributors, nearly 300 pages, and more than 200 illustrations. It is published in association with the University of Washington Press of Seattle and London and designed by Marquand Books, Seattle. Art AIDS America is organized by TAM in partnership with the Bronx Museum of the Arts and will tour nationally. See it first at TAM, on view October 3, 2015 through January 10, 2016. The exhibition will then travel to Zuckerman Museum of Art, Kennesaw State University, GA; and The Bronx Museum of the Arts, NY.”

Press release from the Tacoma Art Museum website

 

Bill Jacobson (born 1955) 'Interim Portrait #373' 1992

 

Bill Jacobson (born 1955)
Interim Portrait #373
1992
Chromogenic color print
24 × 20 inches
Courtesy of the artist
Photo courtesy of the artist

 

Alon Reininger (Born Tel Aviv, Israel, 1947) 'Ken Meeks, PWA' 1985

 

Alon Reininger (Born Tel Aviv, Israel, 1947)
Ken Meeks, PWA
1985
Archival pigment print
Courtesy of Contact Press Images, New York

 

Mark I. Chester (Born Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1950) 'Robert Chesley - ks portraits with harddick & superman spandex, #1–#6' 1989, printed 2015

 

Mark I. Chester (Born Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1950)
Robert Chesley – ks portraits with harddick & superman spandex, #1–#6
from the series Diary of a Thought Criminal
1989, printed 2015
Pigment print
Courtesy of the artist

 

Mark I. Chester gives us the first portrait of a sexually active person with AIDS. Robert Chesley (1943-1990) was a playwright, theater critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and music composer. Perhaps his most celebrated play was Jerker, or The Helping Hand: A Pornographic Elegy with Redeeming Social Value and a Hymn to the Queer Men of San Francisco in Twenty Telephone Calls, Many of Them Dirty. At a time when many gay men had come to associate their own sexuality with death, the artist showed Chesley as a vibrant, active person with AIDS, intended as a rebuke to the routine AIDS portraits of mortally ill people. With this series, Chester rewrote the late-1980s codes for representing gay male sexuality from sexlessness and death towards a renewed embrace of life and its pleasure.

 

Steven Miller (Born Tucson, Arizona, 1968) 'Robert' from the series 'Milky' 2004

 

Steven Miller (Born Tucson, Arizona, 1968)
Robert from the series Milky
2004
Inkjet print
Edition 2 of 10
Tacoma Art Museum, Museum purchase with funds from Curtis Man

 

For his series Milky, photographer Steven Miller asked his friends if he could photograph them as he poured milk over their heads. These portraits capture the different reactions to the sensation and convey a sense of discomfort from being drenched by fluids like milk. Miller likens these two aspects to a symbolic infection of HIV. For many gay artists of his generation, HIV looms as a constant presence, and body fluids remain deeply ingrained as transmitters of the virus.

 

 

Portraiture

Artists used portraits to directly convey the devastating effects of the crisis on individuals. Even if we do not know the subject, portraits remind us that someone we know was likely affected by AIDS. Because the science about the retrovirus was new and extremely complicated and frightening, such portraits humanized the disease so it could be understood through personal stories.

Early portraits brought attention to the physical symptoms of AIDS such as the deep purple lesions of the skin cancer Kaposi’s sarcoma and the devastating weakness caused by AIDS-related wasting syndrome. Artists soon refocused on portraits of defiant individuals living with HIV. Refusing to show people as victims of an incurable disease, these portraits depicted fighters and survivors.

From pure abstract representations to straightforward photographic likenesses, portraits continue to illuminate how individuals respond to and overcome even the most complex aspects of HIV/AIDS such as stigma, racism, sexism, and poverty.

 

The Legacy of the AIDS Crisis

HIV is no longer an immediate life-or-death issue facing American artists, but one that quietly and continually persists in intriguing ways. The legacy of the AIDS crisis can be traced either through the motifs and influences of earlier artists or by understanding the psychological trauma and challenges that result from living in a world with HIV.

Artworks made after antiretroviral medicines became available in the mid-1990s beg the questions: If HIV is undetectable in a body and all but invisible in society, why should visibility in art be any different? How do you identify HIV if an artist is unwilling to speak about it but doesn’t live a moment of his or her intimate life without being aware of its near-certain presence?

Artists such as John Arsenault, Kalup Linzy, Patte Loper, and Donald Moffett bring their personal histories as activists and care givers into their artwork. They also use their art to express the discomfort and complexities of living in a world with the constant presence of HIV.

Works of art should be read with empathy and compassion to understand the fullness and richness of the artist’s experience. We need to remind ourselves of the stresses, anxieties, fears, and realities caused by the burden of HIV. To honor these artists’ experiences, we must insist that HIV inform at least part of the meaning of their work. This will ensure an understanding of their art as part of an art history of deep social engagement and connection.

 

Julie Tolentino (Born San Francisco, California, 1964) 'THE SKY REMAINS THE SAME: Tolentino Archives Ron Athey's Self-Obliteration #1' 2008

 

Julie Tolentino (Born San Francisco, California, 1964)
THE SKY REMAINS THE SAME: Tolentino Archives Ron Athey’s Self-Obliteration #1
2008
Chromogenic color print
Edition 1 of 5
Documentation courtesy of Leon Mostovoy
Courtesy of the artist and Commonwealth & Council, Los Angeles

 

These three photographs capture different moments in the archive/performance of THE SKY REMAINS THE SAME: Tolentino Archives Ron Athey’s Self-Obliteration #1. Tolentino first observes Athey’s performance of Self-Obliteration #1 from a nearby platform; then she and Athey repeat the action on separate platforms as a duet. Finally, Tolentino repeats Athey’s Self-Obliteration #1 by herself.

As needles hidden within the performers’ long blond wigs lacerate their scalps, blood streams down their faces and bodies and smears a plane of glass. This forces the performers into unpredictable psychic territory. The HIV status of both perfomers – Athey is HIV-positive and Tolentino is negative – informs the tension between the two performers that runs like a low current throughout the work. The simultaneous flows of blood from the performers quickly conjoins them in a profound act of communion across pain, suffering, memory, and ultimately, an affirmation of life.

 

Catherine Opie (Born Sandusky, Ohio, 1961) 'Ron Athey/The Sick Man (from Deliverance)' 2000

 

Catherine Opie (Born Sandusky, Ohio, 1961)
Ron Athey/The Sick Man (from Deliverance)
2000
Polaroid
Private collection

 

This work by Catherine Opie, taken with the world’s largest polaroid camera, was made in collaboration with the performance artist Ron Athey. Athey achieved both fame and censure as an HIV positive performance artist whose work involved physical and psychic trials, along with, on occasion, blood.

Clearly a response to AIDS, the pose of Ron Athey/The Sick Man recalls the traditional iconography of the Pieta, in which the Virgin Mary supports the body of the dead Christ. Athey is held by his performance partner Darryl Carlton (a.k.a. Divinity Fudge), two heavily tattooed men in place of the holy family. The implications of self-sacrifice and transcendence through pain and suffering animate both the original scene and this more contemporary incarnation. Opie situated the figures in a beautiful, richly saturated black space. She offers a contemporary allegory of the excluded sufferer whose exile and death can be laid at the feet of those who consider themselves pious.

 

Eric Rhein (Born Cincinnati, Ohio, 1961) 'Life Altering Spencer from Leaves' 2013

 

Eric Rhein (Born Cincinnati, Ohio, 1961)
Life Altering Spencer from Leaves
2013
Wire and paper
Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts
Purchased as the gift of Louis Wiley, Jr. (PA 1963) in Memory of Paul Monette (PA 1963) and his partner Roger Horwitz

 

Eric Rhein began The Leaf Project in 1996 to raise awareness around HIV/AIDS and chose to memorialize his friends who had died of AIDS-related causes. He selected the leaf motif to honor the individuality of each person, while also evoking the countless leaves shed by trees in autumn. Life Altering Spencer honors AIDS activist Spencer Cox (1968-2012), a member of ACT UP, Treatment Action Group, and the Food and Drug Administration’s Anti-Viral Advisory Committee. In this capacity, Cox and others became experts on drug trials and approval, successfully lobbying to hasten the approval time for new HIV medications. Cox and his group thus changed the course of medicine in America – the first non-physicians to do so – and, not coincidentally, these new treatments saved the life of artist Eric Rhein.

 

fierce pussy (formed New York, New York, 1991) 'For the Record' 2013

 

fierce pussy (formed New York, New York, 1991)
For the Record
2013
Two offset prints on newsprint, two panels, installed: 22⅝ x 70 inches
Courtesy of the artists
Photo courtesy of the artists

 

The collaborative group fierce pussy created this work for the organization Visual AIDS in New York City. Playing off Gran Fury’s 1987 Let the Record Show… and evoking postmodern text based art, fierce pussy asks that we remember the thousands of people who died of HIV-related causes before antiretroviral drugs became available to control the virus. They insist that we continue the work to end HIV/AIDS despite these new drugs.

 

Thomas Haukaas (born 1950) Tribal Affiliation: Sicangu Lakota 'More Time Expected' 2002

 

Thomas Haukaas (born 1950)
Tribal Affiliation: Sicangu Lakota
More Time Expected
2002
Handmade ink and pencil on antique ledger paper, 161/2 x 271/2 inches
Tacoma Art Museum, Gift of Greg Kucera and Larry Yocom in honor of Rock Hushka, 2008.10
Photo by Richard Nicol
© TAM

 

Thomas Haukaas (born 1950) Tribal Affiliation: Sicangu Lakota 'More Time Expected' 2002 (detail)

 

Thomas Haukaas (born 1950)
Tribal Affiliation: Sicangu Lakota
More Time Expected (detail)
2002
Handmade ink and pencil on antique ledger paper, 161/2 x 271/2 inches
Tacoma Art Museum, Gift of Greg Kucera and Larry Yocom in honor of Rock Hushka, 2008.10
Photo by Richard Nicol
© TAM

 

The horse with no rider at the center of the composition represents individuals on the reservation who have died of AIDS-related causes. Using the 19th-century tradition of ledger drawing, with a riderless horse as symbolic of a warrior who fell in battle, Haukaas weaves together the complicated issues of stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS and the Native American experience with the disease.

 

Robert Sherer (Born Jasper, Alabama, 1957) 'Sweet Williams' 2013

 

Robert Sherer (Born Jasper, Alabama, 1957)
Sweet Williams
2013
HIV- and HIV+ blood on paper
Courtesy of the artist

 

The title Sweet Williams comes from Robert Sherer’s childhood. His grandmother, an avid gardener, often asked him to help gather flowers from her garden and instructed, “Now, honey, cut down the most beautiful ones first.” Upon reflection, Sherer realized that AIDS was deeply correlated to beauty and sexual attraction. He remembers his many handsome friends and acquaintances who died too early – the Williams, the Billys, the Wills, the Willies – memorializing them in an image drawn in HIV negative and positive blood. Of all his colleague friends, two of whom were named William, only Sherer is still alive.

 

Joey Terrill (Born Los Angeles, California, 1955) 'Still-Life with Forget-Me-Nots and One Week's Dose of Truvada' 2012

 

Joey Terrill (Born Los Angeles, California, 1955)
Still-Life with Forget-Me-Nots and One Week’s Dose of Truvada
2012
Mixed media on canvas
Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, Foundation purchase

 

Long-time Latino queer rights and AIDS activist Joey Terrill makes paintings that resemble the work of such well-known pop artists as Tom Wesselmann. Departing from Wesselmann’s 1960s pop still-life paintings, Terrill subverts the genre through his many queer references, not least the regular inclusion of the HIV medication Truvada. In these his appropriations of the American dream, Terrill shows himself to be a political activist – a role he has inhabited since the 1970s.

Terrill’s addition of the forget-me-nots at the center of the composition pays homage to his artistic hero David Wojnarowicz. He also alludes to the daily routine of the antiviral medicine Truvada and pointedly questions why changes in the social and political realms have allowed this to be a normal part of so many people’s lives.

 

Derek Jackson (Born Boston, Massachusetts, 1972) 'Perfect Kiss' 2007

 

Derek Jackson (Born Boston, Massachusetts, 1972)
Perfect Kiss
2007
Slideshow with found music and original still imagery
Courtesy of the artist

 

Derek Jackson enacts a series of “hookups” in which his sexual activity should necessarily raise issues of HIV. Although not explicitly mentioned, HIV is evoked by the lyrics of his soundtrack. Jackson relies on New Order’s 1987 hit Perfect Kiss to equate unsafe sex with a suicide. The lyrics of the chorus plead with a suicidal friend, “I know, you know, you believe in a land of love.” Jackson’s hookups demonstrate how self-esteem, mutual respect, and communication are necessary to avoid becoming HIV positive.

 

LADZ (John Arsenault and Adrian Gilliland) John Arsenault, Born Haverhill, Massachusetts, 1971 Adrian Gilliland, Born Douglas, Arizona, 1980 'Eden #31' 2012

 

LADZ (John Arsenault and Adrian Gilliland)
John Arsenault, Born Haverhill, Massachusetts, 1971
Adrian Gilliland, Born Douglas, Arizona, 1980
Eden #31
2012
Chromogenic color print
Courtesy of the artists

 

LADZ coined their name after a humorous autocorrect of “ladies” while texting on their smart phones. The artist group finds virtually abandoned industrial spaces where they enact elaborate scenarios reflecting the complexities of life in Los Angeles. The heightened sexual tension combined with the boxing gloves provides a glimpse into the daily navigation of sexual activity and HIV.

 

Kalup Linzy (Born Stuckey, Florida, 1977) 'Lollypop' 2006

 

Kalup Linzy (Born Stuckey, Florida, 1977)
Lollypop
2006
Single-channel video
3 minutes, 24 seconds
Collection of Driek and Michael Zirinsky

 

Kalup Linzy and his friend, artist Shaun Leonardo, lip sync the 1933 Hunter & Jenkins tune. Laden with the sexual innuendo of the song’s lyrics, Linzy attempts to coax treats from Leonardo. The artist playfully raises issues of gender and performance.

Given the high rates of HIV infection of men of color who have sex with men particularly in urban centers, a viewer should keep in mind that individuals like Linzy continually navigate HIV in all their sexual encounters. Unlike a generation ago, young men and women have come to have a different relationship with HIV and no longer fear the virus as a death sentence. Empathy toward their experiences is key to understanding how they cope and survive.

 

Deborah Kass (born 1952) 'Still Here' 2007

 

Deborah Kass (born 1952)
Still Here
2007
Oil and acrylic on canvas
45 × 63 inches
Private collection
© 2015 Deborah Kass / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photo courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery

 

Deborah Kass painted Still Here as part of a group of paintings called Feel Good Paintings for Feel Bad Times, beginning in 2006. A response to the ongoing foreign wars and domestic political issues after the second election of George W. Bush, Kass underscored the gulf between the literal and metaphorical significance of the phrases she painted. Still Here comes from the Stephen Sondheim musical Follies in which a faded film star recalls how she persevered. The song opens “Good times and bum times, I’ve seen them all, and, my dear, I’m still here.”

The sentiment of the song speaks to the resilience of the many people who lived through the AIDS crisis and those who continue the struggle against the virus and social injustice. Kass’s title may also recall Still/Here, a dance about perseverance, dying, and HIV by the HIV positive choreographer Bill T. Jones.

 

Kia Labeija (Born New York, New York, 1990) '24' 2014

Kia Labeija (Born New York, New York, 1990) '24' 2014

Kia Labeija (Born New York, New York, 1990) '24' 2014

 

Kia Labeija (Born New York, New York, 1990)
24 (Mourning Sickness; Kia and Mommy; In my room)
2014
Inkjet prints
13 × 19 inches
Courtesy of the artist

 

Artist and performer Kia Labeija was born HIV positive. She struggled with HIV throughout her childhood, including the side effects of the medications, the stigma associated with the disease, and the death of her mother. In her three photographs titled 24, she celebrates coming to terms with the disease and her new-found role as advocate and spokesperson for AIDS awareness. The title also commemorates her 24th birthday and her home on the 24th floor of a Manhattan apartment building.

 

 

 

Tacoma Art Museum
1701 Pacific Avenue
Tacoma, WA 98402

Opening hours:
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Free Third Thursday 5 pm – 8 pm

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11
Oct
15

Exhibition: ‘Karl Blossfeldt. From Nature’s Studio’ at Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich

Exhibition dates: 24th July – 25th October 2015

Curator: Simone Förster

 

 

Karl Blossfeldt’s photographs have been associated with Modernism (Bauhaus), Surrealism and New Objectivity / New Vision.

“Blossfeldt’s factual yet finely detailed imagery was praised by Walter Benjamin, who declared that Karl Blossfeldt ‘has played his part in that great examination of the inventory of perception, which will have an unforeseeable effect on our conception of the world’. He compared him to Maholy-Nagy and the pioneers of New Objectivity, and ranked his achievements alongside the great photographers August Sander and Eugene Atget. The Surrealists also championed him, and George Bataille included his images in the periodical Documents in 1929.” (Wikipedia)

Hailed as a master for discovering a hitherto ‘unknown universe’ and for his exemplary technical feats as a photographer Blossfeldt’s work is, nevertheless, decidedly subjective as author Hanako Murata notes in her excellent essay on the artist Material Forms in Nature: The Photographs of Karl Blossfeldt (2014). “Not only did he carefully select, arrange, and in some cases physically modify his specimens, but his meticulous attention to detail and image refinement continued throughout each step of production, beginning with his negatives.” Blossfeldt uses the logic of the plant and the logic of his mind to achieve his final vision. A/symmetry as art form.

It was Blossfeldt’s conception of the world that created this inventory of perception. He was the human being who recognised these structures, who used the photographs as teaching aids, who saw them as art and a way of restoring the link between man and nature. His vision and his alone. Nothing was left to chance, everything was controlled. You only have to look at his Self portrait, Rome (1895, below) to see that here is a determined man. His body points one way in suit with braces and stiff, high collared shirt, hand clenched at waist while his head snaps towards us with the most incredible stare, almost piercing the viewer with its ferocity. You can still feel that stare after all these decades.

Ranking his photographs alongside that of Sander and Atget is a big call. Personally, too big a call. If I had to put my finger on it, what they lack for me is any form of context in relationship to an externalised nature. They rely on the form of the plant and not its relationship to the world in which it lives. To discover those forms in science and then transfer them to the field of art is a truly inspiring vision that only Blossfeldt had. He manipulated reality to achieve his beautiful, formal re/presentations. But do they take me to the places that Sander and Atget’s photographs do. No. Here is the thing itself, and not what else it can stand for. Despite their call to Surrealism, their attention to detail leaves the images little room for rumination. Perhaps he took each step of that image refinement too far. Sometimes you need a little chaos in your world order, for the world of pattern cannot exist without randomness and mutation.

Marcus

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Many thankx to Pinakothek der Moderne for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

Download Hanako Murata’s essay Material Forms in Nature: The Photographs of Karl Blossfeldt (2.3Mb pdf)

 

 

“If I give someone a horsetail he will have no difficulty making a photographic enlargement of it – anyone can do that. But to observe it, to notice and discover its forms, is something that only a few are capable of.”

“My botanical documents should contribute to restoring the link with nature. They should reawaken a sense of nature, point to its teeming richness of form, and prompt the viewer to observe for himself the surrounding plant world.”

“The plant never lapses into mere arid functionalism; it fashions and shapes according to logic and suitability, and with its primeval force compels everything to attain the highest artistic form.”

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Karl Blossfeldt

 

“The striking uniformity of Blossfeldt’s photographs suggests an excellent mastery of studio technique, and indeed, for all the prints’ subsequent associations with New Objectivity, Blossfeldt’s work was decidedly subjective, insofar as he was not shy about modifying his subjects or his images to achieve his final vision. Not only did he carefully select, arrange, and in some cases physically modify his specimens, but his meticulous attention to detail and image refinement continued throughout each step of production, beginning with his negatives.”

.
Hanako Murata Material Forms in Nature: The Photographs of Karl Blossfeldt 2014, p.2

 

 

Karl Blossfeldt. 'Self portrait, Rome' 1895

 

Karl Blossfeldt
Self portrait, Rome
1895
Stiftung Ann und Jürgen Wilde, Pinakothek der Moderne, München

 

Karl Blossfeldt. 'Self portrait, Rome' 1895 (detail)

 

Karl Blossfeldt
Self portrait, Rome (detail)
1895
Stiftung Ann und Jürgen Wilde, Pinakothek der Moderne, München

 

Karl Blossfeldt. 'Nature study (chestnut)' 1890s

 

Karl Blossfeldt
Nature study (chestnut)
1890s
Stiftung Ann und Jürgen Wilde, Pinakothek der Moderne, München

 

Karl Blossfeldt. 'Four Herbariums with groomed Thistels and Delphinium' undated

 

Karl Blossfeldt
Four Herbariums with groomed Thistels and Delphinium
Undated
Stiftung Ann und Jürgen Wilde, Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich

 

Karl Blossfeldt. 'Papaver orientale. Oriental Poppy' before 1928

 

Karl Blossfeldt
Papaver orientale. Oriental Poppy
Before 1928
Stiftung Ann und Jürgen Wilde, Pinakothek der Moderne, München

 

 

“The photographs of plants by the university professor and amateur photographer Karl Blossfeldt (1865-1932) are among the milestones in the history of 20th-century photography. To mark the 150th anniversary of Blossfeldt’s birth, the Ann and Jürgen Wilde Foundation at the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich is staging a comprehensive exhibition on his life and work.

Focal points of the exhibition are Blossfeldt’s early training as a modeller, his work together with the reformer Moritz Meurer, the photographer’s own handcrafted designs and his teaching at the Königliche Kunstgewerbeschule in Berlin. The preliminary works he made for his seminal publication Urformen der Kunst (Art Forms in Nature) of 1928 and the reception it received at that time, for example at the Bauhaus in Dessau in 1929, form an additional aspect.

The exhibition comprises some 120 photographs, including numerous large-format, historical exhibition prints. Collages of his work, drawings in the artist’s own hand, drafts, archival material and documents render the concept behind Blossfeldt’s teaching and work visible.

The Ann and Jürgen Wilde Foundation manages the Karl Blossfeldt Archive with its unique holdings of original photographs, negatives and documents by Karl Blossfeldt. Together with a large volume of photographs in the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, an exceptionally high-quality presentation of Karl Blossfeldt’s photographic work can now be staged and its development shown by means of historical documents and archival material that have hardly ever been seen by the general public.”

Text from the Pinakothek der Moderne website

 

Karl Blossfeldt. 'Adiantum pedatum. Maidenhair Fern' before 1926

 

Karl Blossfeldt
Adiantum pedatum. Maidenhair Fern
Before 1926
Stiftung Ann und Jürgen Wilde, Pinakothek der Moderne, München

 

Karl Blossfeldt. 'Eryngium bourgatii. Bourgatis Eryngo' before 1928

 

Karl Blossfeldt
Eryngium bourgatii. Bourgatis Eryngo
Before 1928
Stiftung Ann und Jürgen Wilde, Pinakothek der Moderne, München

 

Karl Blossfeldt. Heracleum sphondylium. Hogweed' 1898-1932

 

Karl Blossfeldt
Heracleum sphondylium. Hogweed
1898-1932
Stiftung Ann und Jürgen Wilde, Pinakothek der Moderne, München

 

 

 

Karl Blossfeldt (June 13, 1865 – December 9, 1932 – age 67) was a German photographer, sculptor, teacher, and artist who worked in Berlin, Germany. He is best known for his close-up photographs of plants and living things, published in 1929 as, Urformen der Kunst. He was inspired, as was his father, by nature and the way in which plants grow. He believed that ‘the plant must be valued as a totally artistic and architectural structure.’ Among his students at the Berlin Arts and Crafts School was Heinz Warneke. From 1924, he was professor at the Vereinigte Staatsschulen für freie und angewandete Kunst (United State School for Fine and Applied Art) in Berlin.

Blossfeldt made many of his photographs with a home-made camera that could magnify the subject up to thirty times its size, revealing details within a plant’s natural structure. Appointed for a teaching post at the Institute of Royal Arts Museum in 1898 (where he remained until 1930), he established an archive for his photographs. Blossfeldt never received formal training in photography. Blossfeldt developed a series of home-made cameras that allowed him to photograph plant surfaces in unprecedented magnified detail. This reflected his enduring interest in the repetitive patterns found in nature’s textures and forms.

In Berlin from the late nineteenth century until his death, Blossfeldt’s works were primarily used as teaching tools and were brought to public attention in 1928 by his first publication Urformen der Kunst (Art Forms in Nature). Published in 1928 when Blossfeldt was 63 and a professor of applied art at the Berliner Kunsthochschule (Berlin Academy of Art), Urformen der Kunst quickly became an international bestseller and in turn, made Blossfeldt famous almost overnight. His contemporaries were impressed by the abstract shapes and structures in nature that he revealed. Swiftly regarded as a seminal book on photography, Blossfeldt’s factual yet finely detailed imagery was praised by Walter Benjamin, who declared that Karl Blossfeldt ‘has played his part in that great examination of the inventory of perception, which will have an unforeseeable effect on our conception of the world’. He compared him to Maholy-Nagy and the pioneers of New Objectivity, and ranked his achievements alongside the great photographers August Sander and Eugene Atget. The Surrealists also championed him, and George Bataille included his images in the periodical Documents in 1929.

In 2001 Urformen der Kunst was included in “The Book of 101 Books” as one of the seminal photographic books of the twentieth century. (Text from the Wikipedia website)

 

Karl Blossfeldt. 'Blumenbachia hieronymi. Blumenbachia' 1898 - 1932

 

Karl Blossfeldt
Blumenbachia hieronymi. Blumenbachia
1898-1932
Stiftung Ann und Jürgen Wilde, Pinakothek der Moderne, München

 

Karl Blossfeldt. 'Dipsacus laciniatus. Cutleaf Teasel' before 1927

 

Karl Blossfeldt
Dipsacus laciniatus. Cutleaf Teasel
Before 1927
Stiftung Ann und Jürgen Wilde, Pinakothek der Moderne, München

 

Karl Blossfeldt. 'Equisetum hyemale. Winter Horsetail' before 1929

 

Karl Blossfeldt
Equisetum hyemale. Winter Horsetail
Before 1929
Stiftung Ann und Jürgen Wilde, Pinakothek der Moderne, München

 

 

Pinakothek der Moderne
Barer Strasse 40
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Opening hours:
Daily except Monday 10am – 6pm
Thursday 10am – 8pm

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25
Sep
15

Exhibition: ‘Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust’ at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

Exhibition dates: 4th July – 27th September 2015

The Sackler Wing of Galleries

 

 

Now, Voyager

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“The untold want by life and land ne’er granted,
Now, voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.”

Walt Whitman (1819-1892). “Untold Want,” from Leaves of Grass. 1900

 

Joseph Cornell is my favourite artist who has ever lived on this Earth. I do not make this observation lightly, but after much consideration, thought and reflection.

I have always loved his work, from the very first time I saw it in a book. To then see a recreation of one of his 1950s exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2001 was one of those seminal moments where you are lifted out of yourself, where your life becomes forever changed. For me that transcendent experience is up there with being alone with the Rembrandt portraits in the Louvre for 10 precious minutes. Both were among the most exquisite, poignant and beautiful spiritual experiences I have had in my life.

I am not an expert on Cornell, although I have read many books on his work and on his spirituality. He saw himself as an “armchair voyager”, a bit like a latter day Baudelaire, a man who has romantic notions of travel but never actually goes anywhere, who has romantic notions of love but never finds it, except in his imagination. Cornell never left his native New York. Cornell expressed his self through a passion for the artefacts he collected, through his assemblage of those artefacts into magical boxes that addressed unrequited love and faith – for Hollywood and movie stars, ballerinas, hotels, birds, the Renaissance, princes and princesses, the stars, games and chance. He was an avid collector, rummaging through the junk shops of New York and storing his collectibles for his art, something to which I have an affinity, being an avid op shopper (or thrift shopper) myself.

Here I can see an association with the words of Walt Whitman in his lines “Untold Want” from Leaves of Grass, those lines forming the title for the book upon which the film Now Voyager (1942) with Better Davis was based. “The untold want” of Whitman’s lines are whatever you yearn for and cannot get in the social context (“life”) and place (“land”) where you are born. Whitman says, stop “studying the charts,” and “now obey, thy cherish’d, secret wish,” – in other words he’s saying that your heart’s desire is the best indicator of where your destiny lies, but it is possible to miss out on it by not going for it. Fast forward to Now Voyager where frumpy Bette Davis has an affair with a married man, becomes independent, defies her tyrannical mother who promptly dies, and ends up circuitously looking after her lover’s daughter. They decide to have a platonic relationship “sustaining a romantic, unconsummated relationship and creating a ‘family’ by becoming the surrogate, adoptive care-giver for his daughter.”

There is a specific desire here. Davis and Whitman are freed to love without restriction in a romantic way, and after the end of Now Voyager, perhaps Cornell is channelling Bette Davis. He loved in his mind, he created boxes in his imagination (and then physically), he astral travelled through the stars, he created games of chance (such as penny arcades and slot machines) and shooting galleries (that exposed his inner mind) letting the air rush out into the world. He created surreality itself but he was never surreal, for his work is always based on the collision of realities. His boxes are tiny cosmos, like the Tardis from Dr Who, the interior (under a microscope, within four walls) larger than the exterior … yet, magically, they inhabit the whole world, they inhabit our mind. He used the alchemical reaction of elements, the elementary, to affect travel, love, life and change. And he did it in four dimensions for his boxes affect us as much today as he did when he created them. Perhaps that is why I like his work so much… he used seemingly mundane materials, multi/media objects, imagination and love to let’s our spirits soar into the universe. No other artist has ever affected me so much. No one ever will.

Undeniably, Cornell’s poetic theatres are joyous creations that free our soul from the everyday.

Perhaps it is through love, or in death, or the afterlife, that the Voyager can seek that untold want.

 

My Mind to me a Kingdom Is

Sir Edward Dyer (1543 – 1607)

1 My mind to me a kingdom is;
2 Such perfect joy therein I find
3 That it excels all other bliss
4 Which God or nature hath assign’d.
5 Though much I want that most would have,
6 Yet still my mind forbids to crave.

7 No princely port, nor wealthy store,
8 No force to win a victory,
9 No wily wit to salve a sore,
10 No shape to win a loving eye;
11 To none of these I yield as thrall, –
12 For why? my mind despise them all.

13 I see that plenty surfeit oft,
14 And hasty climbers soonest fall;
15 I see that such as are aloft
16 Mishap doth threaten most of all.
17 These get with toil and keep with fear;
18 Such cares my mind can never bear.

19 I press to bear no haughty sway,
20 I wish no more than may suffice,
21 I do no more than well I may,
22 Look, what I want my mind supplies.
23 Lo ! thus I triumph like a king,
24 My mind content with anything.

25 I laugh not at another’s loss,
26 Nor grudge not at another’s gain;
27 No worldly waves my mind can toss;
28 I brook that is another’s bane.
29 I fear no foe, nor fawn on friend,
30 I loathe not life, nor dread mine end.

31 My wealth is health and perfect ease,
32 And conscience clear my chief defence;
33 I never seek by bribes to please,
34 Nor by desert to give offence.
35 Thus do I live, thus will I die,–
36 Would all did so as well as I!

 

Dr Marcus Bunyan for Art Blart

.
Many thankx to the Royal Academy of Arts for allowing me to publish the art work in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the art work. The excellent, educational text was written by Asha McLoughlin, Learning Department © Royal Academy of Arts.

 

 

 

 

“Cornell was a voyager, travelling through space and time to dimensions of the imagination and the spirit. He infused this sense of adventure and an infinite beyond into modestly scaled works whose fragments of reality give way to worlds to be explored.”

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Robert Lehrman, Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay Eterniday, 2003

 

“White is just what I mean. Not monstrously, but in wonderful variations. All I want to perform is white magic.”

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Joseph Cornell quoted in Tracking the Marvellous: A Life in the New York Art World, John Bernard Myers, 1984

 

 

Unidentified photographer. 'The Cornell family' c. 1915

 

Unidentified photographer
The Cornell family
c. 1915
Joseph Cornell (far right) with his parents (Joseph I. Cornell, Sr. and Helen Storms Cornell) and siblings (l to r: Elizabeth, Helen, and Robert)
Joseph Cornell papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

 

Hans Namuth. 'Joseph Cornell' 1969

 

Hans Namuth
Joseph Cornell
1969
Courtesy Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona
© 1991 Hans Namuth Estate

 

 

Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), born on Christmas Eve in Nyack, New York, remains one of the most enigmatic yet influential American artists of the twentieth century. Almost entirely self-taught as an artist, Cornell lived quietly for most of his life with his mother and younger brother, crafting in the confines of his basement or on the kitchen table the ‘shadow boxes’ for which he is best known.

He rarely travelled, and almost never left New York, yet his work, based on collage and assemblage, resonates with references to foreign places and distant times. In the course of his life he befriended ballerinas, film stars, poets and generations of world-famous artists. He showed in a succession of New York galleries, participated in landmark group shows at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and was honoured before he died with major surveys at the Pasadena Museum of Californian Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

A popular romanticised image of Cornell pervades as an ascetic outsider – a shy, eccentric man yearning for intimacy, unable to converse with the women who enthralled him but with a vibrant interior life of daydreams and an imagination capable of crossing oceans, centuries and the celestial realm. Yet this mythologised version of the man belies his active interest in the art movements of his time, and the innovative nature of his creations which have paved the way for today’s appropriation and installation artists, contemporary collage and archive based practices.

This exhibition at the Royal Academy brings together 80 of Cornell’s most remarkable shadow boxes, assemblages, collages and films, including many works held in private collections and a number never seen before outside of the USA. The first major UK exhibition solely devoted to Cornell in almost 35 years, it presents a rare chance to experience a concentrated survey of his oeuvre, and to journey inside the mind of an artist who described himself as ‘an armchair voyager’. The ‘wanderlust’ referenced in the exhibition title – the desire to explore and travel the world – is central to Cornell’s art, as was his penchant for collecting and his astonishingly wide-ranging interests. His creations transport the viewer into private universes, populated with objects and ephemera imbued with personal associations.

 

Cornell's basement studio, 3708 Utopia Parkway, Flushing, New York, 1964

 

Cornell’s basement studio, 3708 Utopia Parkway, Flushing, New York, 1964
Collection Duff Murphy and Janice Miyahira. © Terry Schutté.

 

 

From a basement in New York, Joseph Cornell channelled his limitless imagination into some of the most original art of the 20th century. Step into his beguiling world at this landmark exhibition. Cornell hardly ventured beyond New York State, yet the notion of travel was central to his art. His imaginary voyages began as he searched Manhattan’s antique bookshops and dime stores, collecting a vast archive of paper ephemera and small objects to make his signature glass-fronted ‘shadow boxes’. These miniature masterpieces transform everyday objects into spellbinding treasures. Together they reveal his fascination with subjects from astronomy and cinema to literature and ornithology and especially his love of European culture, from the Romantic ballet to Renaissance Italy.

Wanderlust brings together 80 of Cornell’s most remarkable boxes, assemblages, collages and films, some never before seen outside the USA. Entirely self-taught, the independence of Cornell’s creative voice won the admiration of artists from Marcel Duchamp and the Surrealists, to Robert Motherwell and the Abstract Expressionists, with echoes of his work felt in Pop and Minimalist art. Wanderlust is a long overdue celebration of an incomparable artist, a man the New York Times called “a poet of light; an architect of memory-fractured rooms and a connoisseur of stars, celestial and otherwise.”

 

“What kind of man is this, who, from old brown cardboard photographs collected in second-hand bookstores, has reconstructed the nineteenth century “grand tour” of Europe for his mind’s eye more vividly than those who took it, who was not born then and has never been abroad, who knows Vesuvius’s look on a certain morning of AD 79, and of the cast-iron balconies of that hotel in Lucerne?”

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Robert Motherwell on Joseph Cornell, Joseph Cornell’s Theatre of the Mind, 1993

 

“He uses selected, sought-for, desired objects. He must have been clipping all the time, poring through magazines, collecting things and haunting junk shops and flea markets, looking for the images that corresponded to his imagination.”

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Susan Sontag, Joseph Cornell: Worlds in a Box, directed by Mark Stokes, 1991

 

 

Lee Miller. 'Joseph Cornell, New York' 1933

 

Lee Miller
Joseph Cornell, New York
1933
Vintage photograph. ‘Joseph Cornell, New York Studio, New York, USA 1933’ by Lee Miller (96-2)
© Lee Miller Archives, England 2015. All rights reserved.

 

 

Early Life

Joseph Cornell was the eldest of four children – he had two sisters, Elizabeth and Helen, and a brother, Robert, who suffered from cerebral palsy and was confined to a wheelchair for most of his life. When Cornell was thirteen, his father died of leukaemia and Robert became Joseph’s responsibility (partly to assuage their overbearing mother). Robert however was a cheerful child and took pleasure in drawing and collecting model trains. Cornell considered Robert to be a pure soul, and willingly took on his brother’s care. A salesman and textile designer, Cornell’s father had left considerable debts for his family to manage and for several years Cornell’s mother was forced to take odd jobs to support the family, and move them into a succession of smaller rented houses. In 1917, with the help of his father’s former employer, Joseph was able to enrol at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts: a highly regarded private school. There he discovered an interest in American and European literature, poetry, history and French. Yet, away from his close knit family and after the relatively recent death of his father, Cornell struggled and was a mediocre student. He developed the first in a lifelong series of nervous crises and stomach problems, and left the Academy in 1921 without graduating.

Upon his return home, Cornell assumed the role of ‘man of the house’ and became a sample salesman in his father’s trade for a wholesale textile business, the William Whitman Company on lower Madison Avenue. Cornell found the job mundane and himself unsuited to its demands. In his twenties, a time when the stress of supporting his family was exacerbating his stomach ailments, he converted to Christian Science. This religion teaches that reality is purely spiritual and the material world an illusion, so disease and other afflictions associated with the physical body are thought to be manifestations of a troubled mind that ought to be treated with prayer, not medicine. Joseph remained an active member until his death and recruited his brother Robert and sister Elizabeth into the fold.

In 1929, Mrs Cornell moved the family to an unassuming house at 3708 Utopia Parkway in Flushing, Queens, New York. Here, Cornell would live with his mother and brother until he died. His main escape from the tedium of domestic life and the awkward social interactions thrust upon him at work was to walk the city streets in his lunch hour, browsing the second-hand bookshops on Fourth Avenue, the flea markets and dime stores, collecting keepsakes and scavenging for relics and once-precious fragments of other people’s lives. Cornell loved to explore Manhattan and the ‘teeming life of the metropolis’, which seemed to him the epitome of glamour. These wanderings led to Cornell amassing a vast personal archive of treasured finds – books, prints, postcards and three-dimensional ephemera such as clay pipes and watch springs – often tinged with the romance of foreign places and the nostalgia of times past, which would in due course form the material elements of the very personal poetry that is his art.

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Untitled (Schooner)' 1931

 

Joseph Cornell
Untitled (Schooner)
1931

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Untitled [Sagittarius, Scorpio, and Lupus Constellations]' c.1934

 

Joseph Cornell
Untitled [Sagittarius, Scorpio, and Lupus Constellations]
c. 1934
Collage with ink on paper
14 x 18.6 cm
Drs. Steven and Sara Newman. Photo Collection of Drs. Steven and Sara Newman, Chicago, Illinois, USA
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Untitled (M'lle Faretti)' 1933

 

Joseph Cornell
Untitled (M’lle Faretti)
1933
Box construction
27.9 x 20.3 x 5.1 cm
Private Collection
Photo: Michael Tropea, Chicago
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015

 

 

Play and Experiment

Although he did not complete his formal education, Cornell was extremely well read and kept abreast of Manhattan’s literary, musical and artistic events. Not only did he regularly attend the theatre and the ballet, but he also became an avid cinema-goer, thriving on the excitement of the city. Indeed, Cornell often waited at the stage door of theatres and opera houses for a glimpse of the female performers he idolised. He also spent time in art galleries, and in 1931 at the Julien Levy Gallery he came across collages by Max Ernst (1891-1976), a pioneer of Surrealism, who combined high art and popular imagery in his work.

Although Cornell was never officially part of the Surrealist movement and came to dismiss Surrealist associations with his own practice, it had a major influence on him, most notably inspiring his embrace of unexpected juxtapositions in his assemblages and his experimental films, like Rose Hobart (1936). Rejecting Surrealism’s more violent and erotic aspects – the shock effect of jarring images – Cornell preferred instead what he described as the ‘white magic’ side of Surrealism, and the poetic connections between everyday objects.

By 1931 Cornell had shifted from simply collecting objects to creating them. He began to make collages and assemblages first in a style resembling Max Ernst’s, then in his own manner. The basis of collage – piecing together and assembling – would be central to Cornell’s works throughout his life, be they two- or three-dimensional. At this early stage he took images from the dense dossiers of engravings and clippings that he had accumulated by this time, fashioning compositions from seemingly unrelated cutout images to create whimsical pairings, which often revealed his dual interests in science and the world of children. Both these themes would recur and overlap throughout his career…

After viewing a number of Cornell’s small surreal collages, such as Untitled (Schooner), 1931, Julien Levy invited him to show in his exhibition, Surréalisme, which opened in January 1932. Later, Levy offered Cornell a solo show, the first of several that were held at his gallery. Entitled Objects by Joseph Cornell: Minutiae, Glass Bells, Shadow Boxes, Coups d’Oeil, Jouets Surréalistes, it included a series of collages and small three-dimensional objects such as bell jars and pillboxes. All the works were made at his kitchen table at night as his mother and brother slept.

Uneasy about his work being associated with Surrealism, Cornell later wrote to Alfred H. Barr, founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and organiser of the 1936 exhibition, Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, in which Cornell’s work was to feature: “In the event that you are saying a word or two about my work in the catalogue, I would appreciate your saying that I do not share in the subconscious and dream theories of the Surrealists. While fervently admiring much of their work I have never been an official Surrealist, and I believe that Surrealism has healthier possibilities than have been developed.” Regardless of Cornell’s own attempt to distance himself from the movement, Surrealism provided him, at least, with a context in which he could make his collages and objets, and understand them as deserving of a mature and discerning audience.

Around this time, Cornell encountered the collages and box constructions of Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), composed of urban detritus, and the ‘readymades’ of Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), which are ordinary, unaltered manufactured objects designated by the artist to be works of art. In Duchamp, Cornell discovered an unlikely friend; the two regularly corresponded throughout their lifetime. When Duchamp visited New York in the 1940s, he enlisted Cornell to help him with a new project, a miniature ‘museum’ of his work, known as the Boîte-en-valise or ‘box in a suitcase’. Cornell already had his own ‘valise’ experiment, Untitled (The Crystal Cage: Portrait of Berenice).

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Object (Soap Bubble Set)' 1936

 

Joseph Cornell
Object (Soap Bubble Set)
1936
Box construction

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Object (Soap Bubble Set)' 1941

 

Joseph Cornell
Object (Soap Bubble Set)
1941
Box construction
46.4 x 31.4 x 9.5 cm
The Robert Lehrman Art Trust, Courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015
Photo: Quicksilver Photographers, LLC. Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Object (Soap Bubble Set)' 1941 (detail)

 

Joseph Cornell
Object (Soap Bubble Set) (detail)
1941
Box construction
46.4 x 31.4 x 9.5 cm
The Robert Lehrman Art Trust, Courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015
Photo: Quicksilver Photographers, LLC. Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Pharmacy' 1943

 

Joseph Cornell
Pharmacy
1943
Box construction
38.7 x 30.5 x 7.9 cm
Collection Paul Schärer
Photo Dominique Uldry, Bern
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/ DACS, London 2015

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Pharmacy' 1943 (detail)

 

Joseph Cornell
Pharmacy (detail)
1943
Box construction
38.7 x 30.5 x 7.9 cm
Collection Paul Schärer
Photo Dominique Uldry, Bern
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/ DACS, London 2015

 

 

Collecting and Classification

In the 1930s, Cornell began to make the ‘shadow boxes’ for which he is best known – glass-fronted box constructions containing intimately-scaled arrangements of found objects and paper ephemera, assembled in a sort of three-dimensional collage. The 1936 exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at MoMA, New York, showed one of his first shadow boxes, Untitled (Soap Bubble Set) (above). This was the first in a long series of the same name and recalls the children’s pastime of blowing bubbles, as well as the eighteenth-century European painting association of bubbles as memento mori, a reminder of the transience of life. Precisely what led Cornell to the idea of the box remains unclear. In a Life magazine article from 1967 he said that it came to him during one of his walks through Manhattan, as he passed a collection of compasses in the window of an antique shop:

“I thought, everything can be used in a lifetime, can’t it, and went on walking. I’d scarcely gone two blocks when I came on another shop window full of boxes, all different kinds […] Halfway home on the train that night, I thought of the compasses and boxes, it occurred to me to put the two together.”

Before Cornell developed his own carpentry skills, his early shadow boxes were housed in prefabricated, semi-antique wooden boxes, popular during the Victorian era for displaying small paintings, ship models, ladies’ handiwork and mementoes. In the nineteenth century, a similar tradition existed in China, where hardwood boxes with sliding glass covers and papered or silk-lined interiors were used to display fine ceramics, especially figurines made for export. Cornell’s approach also recalls European traditions that began to appear in his research dossiers during the 1930s: small seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Dutch and Flemish kunstschranke or kunstkammer – cabinets that housed separate elements assembled to represent the world in miniature. In the mid 1930s, Cornell’s neighbour Carl Backman taught him some basic carpentry skills, which allowed him to construct his own boxes. The boxes are often hard to date accurately, as Cornell would tinker with and refine his constructions over several years, returning to them gradually. However, except for his early boxes which tend to be singular, we can see patterns emerging in his practice as he worked on larger ‘families’ of works that share discernible visual motifs, often unfolding over a decade or more. These series include: ‘Hotels’, ‘Pharmacies’, ‘Aviaries’, ‘Dovecotes’, ‘Observatories’ and ‘Night Skies’.

The ‘Pharmacy’ assemblages, with their compartmentalised structures and associations with collection and classification – a nod to the ordered world of museum display – are a good illustration of one of Cornell’s ‘families’. Here, in this early example of a series that stretched over a decade with at least six similar works, we see a small specimen case containing four ordered rows of five glass jars. Its title appears to refer to medicine and healing, yet as a practising Christian Scientist, Cornell was forbidden to take medicine. Instead, in this miniature apothecary, he has created tonics for the soul and the imagination, with each fragile jar containing an object or substance that has poetic connotations – shells and sand for travel, feathers, delicate butterfly wings, tiny snippets of parchment. The interior is lined with mirrors, creating echoing reflections of the jars that line the shelves. Though its contents may seem trivial, each jar is imbued with significance, its humble items elevated and made precious through the language of their display. Looking into this box, we see a world of associations, nostalgia and elusive meaning.

By the time Cornell created Pharmacy, he had stopped working, and was pursuing his art full time. From this point on, Cornell regularly exhibited and sold his artwork. He also did freelance design work and picture research for magazines such as Vogue and House & Garden. He set up a workshop and storage area in the basement of the house on Utopia Parkway. Working in his new studio, which he sometimes referred to as his ‘laboratory’, Cornell was able to conceive works with more complex craftsmanship than he had been able to do when working at the kitchen table. While most days were spent at home, he would still escape into New York in search of inspiration and to visit friends. A keen diarist, he would sit in Manhattan coffee shops, indulging his notorious sweet tooth with sugary snacks while furiously scribbling notes on scraps of paper that would later be typed up into more formal diary entries.

As well as being an avid people-watcher, Cornell enjoyed ornithology and expressed his love of birds in the ‘Aviary’ and ‘Habitat’ series, which speak of their exoticism and beauty. Birds often symbolise freedom, their flight paths linking the heavens and the earth. In myths and religion, small birds in particular have been used to represent the souls of children freed from their earthly bonds.

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Palace' 1943

 

Joseph Cornell
Palace
1943
Box construction
Glass-paned, stained wood box with photomechanical reproduction, mirror, spray-painted twigs, wood and shaved bark
26.7 x 50.5 x 13 cm
The Menil Collection, Houston
Photo: The Menil Collection, Houston. Photography: Hickey-Robertson
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Untitled (Tilly Losch)' c. 1935-38

 

Joseph Cornell
Untitled (Tilly Losch)
c. 1935-38
Box Construction
25.4 x 23.5 x 5.4 cm
Collection of Robert Lehrman, courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman
Photo: The Robert Lehrman Art Trust, courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman. Photography: Quicksilver Photographers, LLC
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015

 

 

“Creative filing
Creative arranging
As poetics
As technique
As joyous creation”

.
Joseph Cornell, diary entry, 9 March 1959

 

“On the way to ART OF THIS CENTURY from Julien’s, carrying De Medici girl Slot Machine and bird with cracked glass saw Marlene Dietrich in polo coat and black beanie cap on back of hair waiting at curb of Jay Thorpe’s for a taxi. First time I’d seen her off screen and brought an unexpectedly elated feeling. Working in cellar that night on Soap Bubble Set the green glass locket portrait of her on the floor evoked very special feelings.”

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Joseph Cornell, diary entry, spring 1944

 

“Original inspiration of the bird store, windows, simplicity of magic, pet shop.”

.
Joseph Cornell, c. 1943, Joseph Cornell Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

 

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Untitled Object (Mona Lisa)' c. 1940-42

 

Joseph Cornell
Untitled Object (Mona Lisa)
c. 1940-42
Box construction
3.5 x 7.6 cm
The Collection of Marguerite and Robert Hoffman
Photo: Brad Flowers
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Untitled (Owl Habitat)' c. mid- to late 1940s

 

Joseph Cornell
Untitled (Owl Habitat)
c. mid- to late 1940s
Collection Jasper Johns Photo Collection Jasper Johns
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015

 

“Some of his boxes are less cryptic, and more naturalistic, such as Untitled (Owl Habitat), from the 1940s. The snowy owl trapped behind a pane of glass is not a fancy piece of taxidermy fit for a natural history diorama, but a mere paper illustration pasted onto plywood. The midnight-blue forest the owl inhabits is contrived from painted bark and lichen. Cornell, of course, was himself a famous night owl. In some ways the owl box can seem as close as he ever came to self-portraiture, with its majestic creature alone in the woods, eyes wide, watching.”

Deborah Solomon, May 2015

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Habitat Group for a Shooting Gallery' 1943

 

Joseph Cornell
Habitat Group for a Shooting Gallery
1943
Mixed media
39.4 x 28.3 x 10.8 cm
Purchased with funds from the Coffin Fine Arts Trust; Nathan Emory Coffin Collection of the Des Moines Art Center, 1975.27
Photo: Collection of the Des Moines Art Center
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015

 

 

While visually distinct from the ‘Pharmacy’ series, Habitat Group for a Shooting Gallery (above) continues the theme of arrangement and classification in Cornell’s work, with the cut-out illustrations of macaws, a parrot and a cockatoo mounted like museum specimens or dioramas against a bright white background. However, this dynamic construction has an uncharacteristic aura of violence, and contrasts with other pieces where the box is seen as a safe environment in which objects could be placed, secure and cherished. In this case, the glass that protects the sanctuary of the box has been cracked, its contents exposed to external elements. The central ‘bullet hole’ directly in front of the cockatoo’s crown acts as a focal point for the assemblage, guiding our eye in and then out to the four corners of the box. Bold splashes of colour convey a sense of theatricality and drama (Cornell referred to some of his boxes as ‘poetic theatres’), and the game counters placed over each bird evoke the targets of shooting galleries in penny arcades. Scattered feathers at the bottom of the construction, the shot glass and splotches of paint all suggest a violent event. In a rare moment of political commentary in Cornell’s work, this habitat serves as a metaphor for the horrors of the Second World War, with the birds embodying the innocence of victims caught up in the destruction of war.

 

Observation and Exploration

One of the great paradoxes in Cornell’s life was the gulf between the multitudinous references in his work to distant times and foreign places, and the fact that he himself never physically left the USA. He was a devotee of nineteenth century European culture and a collector of Baedeker Guides (to travel, published in the 1830s), timetables and travel literature, yet he never went abroad – not because he didn’t have the means to do so but because, as one commentator noted, he ‘preferred the ticket to the trip’, which makes his evocation of a traveller’s sense of wanderlust even more remarkable. Cornell let dreams of voyages, particularly to Europe, remain imagined and thus unrealised, preserving his reveries in the same fashion as his glass-fronted boxes. Recurring often in his work are poignant emblems of transience and travel – birds, celestial maps, exotic-sounding hotels and luggage tags – but they remain frozen in their boxed confinement. Thus, fittingly, the central paradox in Cornell’s life found expression in the very medium for which he is now best known.

“Original inspiration of the bird store, windows, simplicity of magic, pet shop.”

Joseph Cornell, c. 1943, Joseph Cornell Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

.
Cornell also dreamed of celestial navigation and was fascinated by the night sky and planets. In Soap Bubble Set (1948, below), Cornell arranged fragments collected during his Manhattan wanderings against the backdrop of an antique lunar map, the roundness of the moon alluding to the titular spherical soap bubble. In his shadow boxes, soap bubbles came to symbolise the relationship between science and childhood imagination, knowledge and wonder, as well as serving as an allegory of vanitas and the ephemerality of life. White Dutch clay pipes, the signature motif of the ‘Soap Bubble’ series, are positioned symmetrically in side compartments, laid out like scientific instruments in a lab, gleaming against the dark velvet interior of the case. These pipes, used as toys for blowing bubbles, suggest the element air, while at a lower level a fragment of driftwood (probably scavenged by Cornell while beach combing on Long Island) grounds us in the natural world and hints at the weathering effects of wind and water over time. A cordial glass stands alone, delicate and vulnerable, empty in this construction but in others from this series cradling a marble, perhaps as a metaphor for forces securing the planets in place. At the top of the construction, the artist has hung a row of seven cylinders, the number possibly invoking the Copernican model of the solar system (in which seven planets orbit the Sun). The overall impression is of a poetic understanding of science, the infinity of space made bearable by the inclusion of objects whose culturally recognisable associations position us, along with Cornell, on Earth.

Ironically, Cornell’s first recorded response to the cosmos was fear. According to his sister Elizabeth, after having returned from school for the Christmas holidays, he woke her one night, ‘shaking like a leaf’, and stood at the window while confessing his anxiety about the concept of infinity. His concern translated to intrigue later in life and his shadow boxes abound with references to astronomy and space exploration. Cornell kept up to date with the latest scientific discoveries and was a keen stargazer, regularly observing the night sky from his backyard, or his kitchen window, sometimes referred to as his ‘observatory’.

In 1949, Cornell joined the Egan Gallery in New York, run by Charles Egan. Around this time we can see a fresh approach emerging in his work, as he branched away from the more theatrical Victorian constructs of his early career, which can appear comparatively dense. This may have been a reaction to Abstract Expressionism, a new movement developed by American painters such as Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) and Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) who used abstraction and gesture to convey expressive content. The Egan Gallery’s roster of artists included notable Abstract Expressionists such as Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) and Franz Kline (1910-1962).

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Soap Bubble Set' 1948

 

Joseph Cornell
Soap Bubble Set
1948
Box construction
36.8 x 52.1 x 9.8 cm
Mr. and Mrs. John Stravinsky
Photo © 2014 Christie’s Images Limited
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Andromeda: Grand Hôtel de l'Observatoire' 1954

 

Joseph Cornell
Andromeda: Grand Hôtel de l’Observatoire
1954
Box construction
46.5 x 33 x 9.8 cm
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Partial gift, C. and B. Foundation, by exchange, 1980
Photo © SRGF, New York. Photography: David Heald
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/ DACS, London 2015

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Andromeda: Grand Hôtel de l'Observatoire' 1954 (detail)

 

Joseph Cornell
Andromeda: Grand Hôtel de l’Observatoire (detail)
1954
Box construction
46.5 x 33 x 9.8 cm
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Partial gift, C. and B. Foundation, by exchange, 1980
Photo © SRGF, New York. Photography: David Heald
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/ DACS, London 2015

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Untitled (Medici Princess)' c. 1948

 

Joseph Cornell
Untitled (Medici Princess)
c. 1948
Box construction
44.8 x 28.3 x 11.1 cm
Private collection, New York
Photo courtesy private collection, New York
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/ DACS, London 2015

 

 

Cornell continued to explore themes of astronomy and celestial navigation in the ‘Observatory’, ‘Night Skies’, and ‘Hotel’ series (the latter also playing with the notion of a hotel as a microcosm of the wider world and, for Cornell, the universe). This work, Andromeda: Grand Hôtel de l’Observatoire (1954, above), combines many of the motifs prevalent in these series, yet is noticeably pared back. The deep, contemplative blue of the composition suggests a starry night sky, and the cracked, aged, white frame evokes the faded grandeur of forgotten European hotels, built for wealthy travellers between the 1880s and 1920s but now fallen into disrepair. Cornell scrapbooked the names of the hotels in this series from adverts in turn-of-the-century guidebooks to European cities.

Despite the smallness of the box, Cornell has created a sense of space within by foregrounding a delicate silver chain and white dowel against the rich starry expanse beyond. The female figure we see in the background is Andromeda, a character in Greek mythology who was chained to a rock as a sacrificial offering to a sea monster because her mother, Cassiopeia, had angered the sea god Poseidon and the Nereids by boasting of her and her daughter’s beauty. Andromeda was rescued from her plight by the hero Perseus, who then married her. Upon her death, she was placed in the skies as a constellation alongside her husband and her mother. Like her rescuer, Cornell has liberated Andromeda from the chains that bound her to the Earth. She is not attached to the silver chain, which both recalls the myth and suggests a ladder to the heavens. With the lightest touch, Cornell has skilfully created both the physical presence of a beautiful woman, and her heavenly equivalent as a constellation in the night sky.

As well as seeking inspiration across galaxies and the limitless expanses of space, Cornell would also delve into myth and history, both factual and personal, to seek out the characters who reside in his shadow boxes. In one of his most famous series, the ‘Medici Slot Machines’, Cornell superimposed memories of his own happy childhood (before his father’s death) onto reproductions of portraits of Medici princes and princesses by the Renaissance artists Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625), Bronzino (1503-1572) and Pinturicchio (1454-1513). By mixing his personal history (Cornell recalled with fondness the outings to penny arcades and shooting galleries of his youth) with these Florentine children, and further juxtaposing Old Master paintings with symbols of popular amusement, he created a mysterious world that contrasts high and low culture with haunting beauty.

This elegiac composition centres around Bronzino’s posthumous portrait of Bia de’ Medici. Bia, the illegitimate but beloved daughter of Cosimo I de’ Medici, died from a fever aged 6, and Bronzino used her death mask as a model. Around her neck, she wears a medallion with her father’s profile on it. Cornell has effectively enshrined Bia in this box, simultaneously surrounded by the trappings of childhood (marbles, jacks, toy blocks), and, notably, the metal spirals of watch springs in the upper corners, which act as a metaphor for time cycles and life repeating itself. A bright red ball in front of the young girl attracts the viewer, as do the sightlines, mimicking the cross-hair targets of amusement park shooting galleries, which converge over one eye. Bia is flanked by columns, decorated with Baedeker maps of Italy, and further side compartments stacked with repeated images, like the spliced frames of a film, recalling Eadweard Muybridge’s (1830-1904) early sequences of animal and human movement, as well as foreshadowing Pop artist Andy Warhol’s (1928-1987) multiple silkscreen homages to celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. There is a concealed drawer at the base of the box, containing a bundle of letters tied with thread, and a paper fan, perhaps a nod to the attributes of the courtly life of a princess. Cornell’s creations often included kinetic elements like marbles or toy balls, although they are seldom activated now, as the assemblages are too delicate. In this box, the unfixed objects placed around Bia accentuate her stillness and steady gaze. Perhaps because of the blue staining of the glass, we become more aware of the wall that separates us from this young girl, frozen in a world that we can look in upon, but not enter. She looks out at us directly, but is she imprisoned or merely on display?

“Peering into glasspanelled boxes to inspect their contents is not unlike looking through a telescope in order to bring the distant closer. Windows, doors, compartments, drawers, cross-hair targets – all of these elements grant access or focus as we navigate the world Cornell has framed.”

Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay Eterniday, 2003

 

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Untitled (Celestial Navigation)' 1956-58

 

Joseph Cornell
Untitled (Celestial Navigation)
1956-58
Box construction
30.8 x 43.2 x 9.2 cm
The Robert Lehrman Art Trust, courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman
Photo The Robert Lehrman Art Trust, courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman
Photography: Quicksilver Photographers, LLC
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015

 

That he visited the opera and the ballet in New York is not surprising, as his miniature dioramas also recall stage sets with a scenic and narrative quality. As Mary Ann Caws writes in Joseph Cornell’s Theatre of the Mind, “Cornell’s shadow boxes invite us to peek, to peep, and finally to yield to our imagination… We meet in the confines of this tiny frame, this microcosm of complicity.” The boxes are filled with potential energy, as if just about to move, and are spaces in which multiple scales co-exist: time and history, the natural world and the cosmos. They are places of curious juxtaposition: take Untitled (Celestial Navigation) (1956-58, above), in which the universe is depicted through everyday objects.

 

Joseph Cornell. 'L'Égypte de Mlle Cléo de Mérode cours élémentaire d'histoire naturelle' 1940

 

Joseph Cornell
L’Égypte de Mlle Cléo de Mérode cours élémentaire d’histoire naturelle
1940
Box construction
11.9 x 27.1 x 18.4 cm (closed)
The Robert Lehrman Art Trust, courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman
Photo The Robert Lehrman Art Trust, courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman
Photography: Quicksilver Photographers, LLC
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015

 

 

Longing and Reverie

For Cornell, a relationship with a woman (other than his mother) seemed unattainable. He never married, and for him the female figure took on an elevated accumulation of hope and desire of almost mythic proportions. Throughout his life he developed obsessions with opera singers, waitresses, film stars, shop girls and most vividly, ballerinas (alive or dead). In the 1930s he discovered the international revival of the Romantic ballet, and spent the next 30 years exploring his fascination with the ‘queens of the dance’. His favourites included Romanticera prima ballerinas Marie Taglioni (1804-1884) and Fanny Cerrito (1817-1909), and their modern counterparts Tamara Toumanova (1919-1996) and Allegra Kent (b. 1937). He also became good friends with Pavel Tchelitchew (1898-1957), the Russian Surrealist painter and set and costume designer who, as a well-known figure on the international dance scene, introduced Cornell to dancers and other balletomanes.

This box (Naples, 1942, below) is a tender homage to Fanny Cerrito, a nineteenth-century ballerina who captivated Cornell (he first came across her likeness in a bookstore on Fourth Avenue, on a souvenir lithograph from 1842). Cerrito was best known for her 1843 performance in Ondine, a ballet based on a fairy tale about a knight who falls in love with an ethereal water sprite. For her first entrance on stage, Cerrito posed in a giant cockleshell, rising up on a platform through the stage. In this assemblage, Cornell celebrates her birthplace of Naples, illustrating its famously narrow streets festooned with lines of laundry. The luggage label and the handle of the box, which recall a suitcase, give a sense of travel and distance, but the seashells propped up in the corners of the box and the faded sea-green paint that borders the scene speak to Cerrito’s most famous role.

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Naples' 1942

 

Joseph Cornell
Naples
1942
Box construction
28.6 x 17.1 x 12.1 cm
The Robert Lehrman Art Trust, Courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015
Photo: Quicksilver Photographers, LLC

 

 

Another example of Cornell’s devotional works is this stunningly austere piece entitled Toward the Blue Peninsula: for Emily Dickinson (1953, below). The purity of this box and the inclusion of a grid-like structure recall the signature style of Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), a Minimalist artist who radically simplified the elements of painting to reflect the underlying spiritual order of the visible world that he believed in. Cornell admired Mondrian’s work and mentioned him in his 1946 diary: ‘Mondrian feeling strong. Feeling of progress and satisfaction.’

As the title suggests, this shadow box was created for the nineteenth-century American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), with whom Cornell felt a deep affinity. Like Cornell, Dickinson lived with her family, never travelled far from home or married, and translated her intense longing into her art. A withdrawn and enigmatic woman, she rarely left the upstairs bedroom in her home in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she wrote her poems. Dickinson’s bedroom inspired the setting for this simple, white-washed box that resembles an abandoned aviary. At first, almost everything about this box suggests containment – the white mesh cage, the dowel perch and bird feeder – but we find no resident here. In fact, the mesh has been cut open and to the left we see a rectangle of clear, refreshing blue suggesting a window open to the sky – the infinite beyond into which our bird has flown. Emily Dickinson sometimes referred to herself as a ‘little wren’ and often, like Cornell, included birds in her work. Here, Cornell ensures that she has been set free, present only in spirit, with two small scraps of printed paper at the bottom of the case the only physical reminder of her presence. The empty box is silent, a vacuum left after the action has occurred. The title of this work comes from a poem by Dickinson that begins: ‘It might be lonelier / Without the Loneliness / I’m so accustomed to my Fate.’ It ends:

It might be easier
To fail – with Land in Sight –
Than gain – My Blue Peninsula –
To perish – of Delight –

.
Here, Dickinson is asking whether longing is better than having, a question that clearly spoke to Cornell and his own deep-seated yearning. Better that dream remain imagined but unrealised, the poet advises, lest it disappoint. It seems these are words that Cornell heeded his entire life.

In the early 1960s, Cornell did finally break with tradition and became attached to a young woman, a New York waitress named Joyce Hunter. This was Cornell’s first real-life romance and he was dazzled by her, making her several gifts of his boxes and collages. Joyce eventually stole artworks from his home (though he refused to prosecute her), and was later murdered by an acquaintance in an unrelated incident in December 1964. Her death devastated Cornell, and marks the beginning of his decline into isolation; his brother Robert died in 1965, his mother a year later. In the winter of 1965 he began a series of collages dedicated to Robert’s memory…

Now alone in his family home, Cornell still received visitors (an invitation to Utopia Parkway had become something of an art-world trophy) but conditions in the house declined as his involvement in Christian Science and the metaphysical world increased. He would write letters to the ghosts of his former life – Robert, his mother, Joyce Hunter. Cornell became more and more interested in sharing his work with a younger audience and one of his last exhibitions in 1972 was expressly for children: A Joseph Cornell Exhibition for Children at the Cooper Union School of Art and Architecture, where cake and soda pops were served instead of the traditional champagne and canapés. He often said children were his most enthusiastic and receptive audience, and lent boxes to children in his neighbourhood for their enjoyment. Cornell continued to work until the end of his life, although he stopped making new boxes sometime in the 1960s, after which he focused on ‘refurbishing’ earlier boxes by breaking them down and reconstituting them. His main focus was a renewed interest in creating collages, which he saw as freer and more spontaneous than box construction. He also concentrated on making films and re-editing earlier cinematic work. Following prostate surgery in June 1972, he spent several months recuperating with family in Westhampton before returning to Utopia Parkway in November. Cornell died of heart failure alone at home, just a few days after his sixty-ninth birthday.

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Toward the Blue Peninsula - for Emily Dickinson' c. 1953

 

Joseph Cornell
Toward the Blue Peninsula – for Emily Dickinson
c. 1953
Box construction
36.8 x 26 x 14 cm
The Robert Lehrman Art Trust, courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman
Photo The Robert Lehrman Art Trust, courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman
Photography: Quicksilver Photographers, LLC
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015.

 

 Joseph Cornell. 'Untitled (Pinturicchio Boy)' 1942-52

 

Joseph Cornell
Untitled (Pinturicchio Boy)
1942-52
Box construction
35.4 x 28.4 x 9.8 cm
Photo: Tim Nighswander/Imaging4Art.com, courtesy Glenstone
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015

 

Joseph Cornell. 'A Parrot for Juan Gris' 1953-54

 

Joseph Cornell
A Parrot for Juan Gris
1953-54
Box construction
45.1 x 31 x 11.7 cm
The Collection of Robert Lehrman, courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman
Photo The Robert Lehrman Art Trust, courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman
Photography: Quicksilver Photographers, LLC
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015

 

 

Conclusion

What can we make of the life of Joseph Cornell? From his shadow boxes we get the impression of a man who preferred fantasy to reality, finding inspiration and affinity with long-dead characters from history, from Renaissance princesses to Romantic ballerinas. But Cornell was also conscious of and responded to the changing landscape of twentieth-century art – Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and Minimalism – and had a tremendous influence on other artists during his lifetime. He had an appetite for subjects that were as far ranging as his imagination, and was able to express, with the deftest of touches, huge concepts within intimate, self-contained spaces. Cornell’s cloistered worlds seem to encompass the entire universe in microcosm – its infinity, wonder, mystery and power all contained within a small box. Their appeal can only be accentuated by the fact that their creator conjured these worlds purely from imagination rather than experience. His last reported words to his sister Elizabeth on the day he died were, “You know, I was thinking, I wish I hadn’t been so reserved.” While this restraint may have caused him regret in his daily life, we see little trace of it in his art, which seems instead to be a magical, generous invitation to the viewer as a gateway to reverie, and to dream.

Written by Asha McLoughlin
Learning Department
© Royal Academy of Arts

 

 

Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust offers an overview of the American artist’s inventive oeuvre, surveying around 80 of his remarkable box constructions, assemblages, collages and films. The last major solo exhibition of Cornell in Europe took place nearly 35 years ago, originating at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1980, and travelling to the Whitechapel Gallery in the UK. With very few works on permanent display in European museums, the exhibition is an opportunity to see rarely lent masterpieces from public and private collections in the United States, Europe and Japan.

Cornell (1903-1972) never left America and hardly ventured beyond New York City, yet through his art he set out to travel through history, the continents of the globe and even the spiritual realm. His works are manifestations of a powerful ‘wanderlust’ of the mind and soul.

Collecting was central to Cornell’s creativity; he amassed a vast and eclectic personal archive of paper ephemera and found objects, eventually numbering tens of thousands of items. This material revealed his wide-ranging interests from opera, ballet, cinema and theatre to history, ornithology, poetry and astronomy. Europe held a special place in Cornell’s imagination, and many of the works selected for this exhibition highlight his love of its historic cultures, from the Belle Époque to the Italian Renaissance. Inspired by these interests, he incorporated his collected materials inside glass-fronted wooden box constructions creating miniature worlds known as his ‘shadow boxes’, as well as producing collages and film.

Cornell was entirely self-taught and has often been characterised as an outsider to the New York art scene. In reality, he was highly engaged with the art movements and artists of the time, exhibiting regularly alongside the Surrealists and Abstract Expressionists, whilst carefully maintaining his independence from any one group. He counted many vanguard artists among his friends including Marcel Duchamp, Robert Motherwell, and Dorothea Tanning.

The exhibition is arranged thematically in four sections that reflect the artistic processes expressed in Cornell’s diaries and notes; Play and Experiment, Collecting and Classification, Observation and Exploration and Longing and Reverie. The selection brings together key works from his major series: Museums, Aviaries, Soap Bubble Sets, Palaces, Medici Slot Machines, Hotels and Dovecotes.”

Press release from the Royal Academy of Arts website

 

“Impressions intriguingly diverse – that, in order to hold fast, one might assemble, assort, and arrange into a cabinet – the contraption kind of the amusement resorts with endless ingenuity of effect, worked by coin and plunger, or brightly coloured pin-balls – travelling inclined runways – starting in motion compartment after compartment with a symphony of mechanical magic of sight and sound borrowed from the motion picture art – into childhood – into fantasy – through the streets of New York – through tropical skies – etc. – into the receiving trays the balls come to rest releasing prizes.”

.
Joseph Cornell

 

 

Royal Academy of Arts
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London W1J 0BD
Burlington Gardens site
6 Burlington Gardens
London W1S 3ET

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20
Sep
15

Exhibition: ‘Storm in a Teacup’ at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery, Mornington

Exhibition dates: 24th July – 27th September 2015

 

This is the best thematic group exhibition I have seen in Melbourne and surrounds this year.

Every piece in the exhibition is visually stimulating and intelligently constructed, all works combining to make an engaging exhibition. Nothing is superfluous, every work having something interesting to say, whether it is about the ceremony of tea drinking, colonisation, global warming, Stolen Generations or social mores. Congratulations must go to the curators and artists for their efforts.

Particular favourites where the Hotham Street Ladies Dark Tea (2015, below) made of royal icing, butter cream icing, fondant, food dye, and found objects; the many sculptural objects which form the backbone of the exhibition, especially the work of Sharon West and Penny Byrne; and the wonderful vintage photographs that are displayed in the foyer of the gallery.

Accompanying this exhibition is another excellent exhibition, Ways to draw: A selection from the permanent collection by Betty Churcher, on till 27th September as well. If you want a day out from Melbourne with lunch in Mornington, some seriously good art and a drive along the coast, you could do no better than visit the gallery in the next week. Highly recommended.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for Art Blart

.
Many thankx to the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

Hotham Street Ladies (est. Australia 2007) 'Dark tea' 2015

 

Hotham Street Ladies (est. Australia 2007)
Dark tea (installation photo)
2015
Royal icing, butter cream icing, fondant, food dye, found objects
Dimensions variable
Courtesy of the artists

 

Hotham Street Ladies (est. Australia 2007) 'Dark tea' 2015 (detail)

Hotham Street Ladies (est. Australia 2007) 'Dark tea' 2015 (detail)

 

Hotham Street Ladies (est. Australia 2007)
Dark tea (details)
2015
Royal icing, butter cream icing, fondant, food dye, found objects
Dimensions variable
Courtesy of the artists

 

Charles Blackman (b. Australia 1928) 'Feet beneath the table' 1956

 

Charles Blackman (b. Australia 1928)
Feet beneath the table
1956
Tempera and oil on composition board
106.5 x 121.8 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Presented through the NGV Foundation by Barbara Blackman, Honorary Life Benefactor, 2005

 

 

Charles Blackman first encountered Lewis Caroll’s book, Alice in Wonderland, through a talking book for the blind which his wife, Barbara was listening to. Her developing blindness resulted in telescopic vision, spatial disorientation and a shrinking visual field. She was also pregnant with their first child and her distorted body image also had parallels with Alice’s experiences. By painting Alice at the Mad Hatter’s tea party Blackman could express his wife’s feeling of bewilderment and disorientation.

 

E. Phillips Fox (b. Australia 1865; d. Victoria 1915) 'The arbour' 1910

 

E. Phillips Fox (b. Australia 1865; d. Victoria 1915)
The arbour
1910
Oil on canvas
190.5 x 230.7 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Felton Bequest 1916

 

 

Melbourne born E. Phillips Fox, described as ‘one of the greatest of Australia’s Impressionist painters and the most gifted of her colourists’1 went to Paris in 1887 to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts where he encountered the work of the French Impressionists. He remained in Paris for several years but made frequent trips back to Melbourne to visit his family. The Arbour was painted in Paris in Fox’s garden but is based upon observations of family life in his brother’s garden in Malvern. The depiction of an elegant family taking tea al fresco is a study of refined gentility. The Arbour was exhibited at both the Royal Academy and the Paris Salon exhibitions and was regarded by Fox as the finest thing he had done.2 At the time the painting was much admired for its ‘subtle lights ad shadow’3 and his exemplary ‘use of delicate colour and refined harmonies.’4

  1. Courier Mail, 12 May 1949
  2. Sydney Morning Herald, 13 October 1913
  3. Sydney Morning Herald, 13 October 1913
  4. Le Courrier Australien, Sydney, 15 April 1949

 

Clare Humphries (b. Australia 1973) 'Some things were out in the open' 2007

 

Clare Humphries (b. Australia 1973)
Some things were out in the open
2007
Pigment print on Hahnemühle photo rag paper (ed. 3/5)
63.0 x 62.0 cm
Courtesy of the artist

 

Adam Hill (Blak Douglas) (b. Australia 1970) 'Not everyone’s cup of tea' 2009

 

Adam Hill (Blak Douglas) (b. Australia 1970)
Not everyone’s cup of tea
2009
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas
150.0 x 260.0 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 2009

 

Kendal Murray (b. Australia 1958) 'Exceed speed, mislead, concede' 2011

 

Kendal Murray (b. Australia 1958)
Exceed speed, mislead, concede
2011
Mixed media assemblage
18.0 x 24.0 x 14.0 cm
Courtesy of the artist and Arthouse Gallery, Sydney

 

Penny Byrne (b. Australia 1965) 'Tea for two in Tuvalu' 2011

 

Penny Byrne (b. Australia 1965)
Tea for two in Tuvalu
2011
Vintage porcelain figurine, vintage, Action man accessories, vintage coral, glass fish, epoxy resin, epoxy putty, retouching medium, powder pigments
15.0 x 19.0 cm
Private Collection

 

Penny Byrne (b. Australia 1965) 'Tea for two in Tuvalu' 2011

 

Penny Byrne (b. Australia 1965)
Tea for two in Tuvalu (installation photo)
2011
Vintage porcelain figurine, vintage, Action man accessories, vintage coral, glass fish, epoxy resin, epoxy putty, retouching medium, powder pigments
15.0 x 19.0 cm
Private Collection

 

 

This piece was inspired by an underwater cabinet meeting held in 2009 by Maldives President Mohammed Nasheed in a campaign to raise awareness for activity on climate change. The thirty minute meeting was held six metres below sea level and was attended by eleven cabinet members calling upon all countries to cut their emissions to halt further temperature rises.

Polynesian island nation of Tuvalu, located in the Pacific Ocean midway between Hawaii and Australia, experienced a severe drought in 2011. A sate of emergency was declared and rationing of fresh-water took place which restricted households on some of the islands to two buckets of fresh water per day. Tuvalu is also especially susceptible to changes in sea level and it is estimated that a sea level rise of 20 to 40 centimetres in the next 100 years could make Tuvalu uninhabitable.

 

Kate Bergin (b. Australia 1968) 'The hunt for a room of one’s own' 2012

 

Kate Bergin (b. Australia 1968)
The hunt for a room of one’s own
2012
Oil on canvas on board
75.0 x 101.0 cm
Private Collection

 

 

Kate Bergin draws upon Dutch and Flemish seventeenth century tradition of still life painting to comment on our attitudes to animals. Bergin stages the scene on a crumpled white tablecloth upon which a large fox, based on a taxidermy fox she bought on eBay, regally sits centre stage. Meticulously rendered native birds, including a honeyeater, finch and triller, are based on photographs of specimens from the Melbourne Museum Collection. They flit about unperturbed by the introduced predator. Teaspoons, representing the impulse for collecting, entangle the fox and bird. Together with a teapot and cup, precariously placed, they contribute to the overarching sense of impending chaos.

Both afternoon tea and the fox represent English upper class social mores and were introduced into the colonies following British settlemnet. The fox arrived in 1855, brought in for recreational hunting, and has been a major cause of native bird extinctions. Fox numbers are increasing in some areas further threatening the precarious balance between wild life and introduced species.

 

Sharon West (b. Australia 1963) 'Two Koori Tribesmen receive a gift of afternoon tea from local colonists' 2014

 

Sharon West (b. Australia 1963)
Two Koori Tribesmen receive a gift of afternoon tea from local colonists (installation photo)
2014
Mixed media assemblage
15.0 x 46.0 x 30.0 cm
Courtesy of the artist

 

Heather Shimmen (b. Australia 1957) 'Tip me up' 2005

 

Heather Shimmen (b. Australia 1957)
Tip me up (installation photo)
2005
Linocut on paper and organza (ed. 7/30)
56.0 x 76.0 cm
Courtesy of the artist and Australian Galleries, Melbourne and Sydney

 

Trent Jansen (b. Australia 1981) 'Briggs family tea service' 2011

 

Trent Jansen (b. Australia 1981)
Briggs family tea service (installation photo)
2011
Slip cast porcelain, bull kelp, wallaby pelt, copper and brass
George (teapot) 22.5 x 20.5 x 13.0 cm; Woretermoeteyenner (sugar bowl) 16.0 x 13.5 x 9.0 cm; Dolly (milk jug) 12.5 x 12.5 x 8.5 cm; John (teacup) 7.0 x 8.5 x 8.0 cm; Eliza (teacup) 7.5 x 10.5 x 8.0 cm; Mary (teacup) 10.0 x 9.0 x 6.5 cm
Courtesy of Broached Commissions, Melbourne

 

 

The Briggs family tea service represents the marriage of George Briggs, a free settler, to Woretermoeteyenner of the Pairrebeenne people in Van Diemen’s Land and the four children they had together. Briggs arrived from Bedfordshire in 1791 and learned to speak the language of the local Pairrebeenne people, trading tea, flour and sugar fro kangaroo, wallaby and seal skins. It is understood that he became good friends with the leader of the Pairrebeenne people, Mannalargenna, and by 1810 he partnered his daughter Woretermoeteyenner. Their marriage meant she had to adapt to a way of life that merged her traditional cultural values with the ways of British settlers. The teapot and sugar bowl represent the parents while their first daughter, Doll Mountgarret Briggs is symbolised in the milk jug and the three cups each signify their other children John, Eliza and Mary.

The tea service is a hybrid design bringing together materials common to both cultures. To realize the set Jansen worked with Rod Bamford on the ceramic elements, Oliver Smith for the brass and copper and Vicki West, who uses the traditional methods of her Tasmanian Aboriginal ancestors, worked with the bull kelp components.

 

eX de Medici (b. Australia 1959) 'Blue (Bower-Bauer)' 1998–2000

 

eX de Medici (b. Australia 1959)
Blue (Bower-Bauer) (installation photo)
1998-2000
Watercolour over black pencil on paper
114.0 x 152.8 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 2004

 

eX de Medici (b. Australia 1959) 'Blue (Bower-Bauer)' 1998-2000 (detail)

 

eX de Medici (b. Australia 1959)
Blue (Bower-Bauer) (detail)
1998-2000
Watercolour over black pencil on paper
114.0 x 152.8 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 2004

 

 

A turning point in eX de Medici’s career came in 1998 when she saw an exhibition of watercolours by Ferdinand Bauer comprising 2,000 rarely seen images of native flora and fauna made when Bauer was official artist on Matthew Flinder’s historic circumnavigation of Australia in 1801-03. Previously working with tattoo imagery, Medici found the intricate works so compelling she decided to change course and ‘retrograde’ herself and explore watercolour as a medium.1

Referencing Australia’s Bower bird that adorns its nest with anything blue, Medici entangles the history of vanitas painting with commentary about the desire to seek permanence and affirmation in the accumulation of things. The broken willow pattern platter, upturned jugs and cups, amassed with so many other decorative and functional objects, are juxtaposed with skulls, fruit and flowers – symbols of mortality. A reaction to what she considered John Howard’s regressive politics at the time, the work ‘is a kind of a backhanded discussion about colonising our minds with retroactive ideas’.2

  1. Ted Gott. ‘eX deMedici an epic journey on a Lilliputian scale’ Art and Australia Vol. 40, No. 1, Spring 2002, p. 105
  2. eX deMedici in Paul Flynn. Artist Profile #5, March 2008, pp. 28-35.

 

 

Storm in a Teacup reflects upon tea drinking in Australia. Introduced by the British colonials, the afternoon tea party was an attempt to ‘civilise’ the land. Tea drinking became so popular in the colonies that by 1888 the amount of tea consumed per capita exceeded the amount consumed in England. Soon after, billy tea was to become an enduring symbol of the pioneering spirit, immortalised by Henry Lawson’s stories published under the title While the billy boils.

Beginning with elegant paintings of the afternoon tea table from E. Phillips Fox and Arthur Streeton, the exhibition goes on to explore the darker side of tea drinking and the social and environmental impacts of the humble cup of tea. Michael Cook’s Object (table), 2015, provides an alternative history to the narrative of colonialism while Sharon West and Adam Hill both use humour to subvert colonial understandings of the afternoon tea party as an occasion of refined gentility.

The humble cuppa has been around for thousands of years, but this exhibition explores how a popular beverage can impact on us culturally, socially, environmentally and politically. There is more to debate than just the proper way to make a cup of tea. Storm in a teacup explores far-reaching issues brewing from tea, including the imposition of one culture upon another – especially on the colonial frontier; the production of ceramics and the environmental impacts of porcelain and its production; gender stereotypes and socialisation through tea parties. The exhibition also reflects upon tea drinking ceremonies in Asia within a western Orientalist paradigm and tea drinking as an occasion for familial cohesiveness and disconnect.”

Text from the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

 

Mark James Daniel (1867-1949) 'Verandah, "Harefield" - afternoon tea' Feb 1900

 

Mark James Daniel (1867-1949)
Verandah, “Harefield” – afternoon tea
Feb 1900
Glass negative
8.5 x 11.0 cm. (quarter plate)
Collection of the State Library of Victoria

 

Michael J Drew (1873-1943) 'Group taking tea in a garden' between 1890 and 1900

 

Michael J Drew (1873-1943)
Group taking tea in a garden
between 1890 and 1900
Glass negative
12.2 x 16.5 cm. (half plate)
Collection of the State Library of Victoria

 

Rex Hazlewood (1886-1968) '[Men drinking billy tea]' 1911 - 1927

 

Rex Hazlewood (1886-1968)
[Men drinking billy tea]
1911 – 1927
Silver gelatin print
Collection of the State Library of New South Wales

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Afternoon tea at "Vivaleigh"' 1917

 

Anonymous photographer
Afternoon tea at “Vivaleigh”
1917
Gelatin silver print
12 x 16 cm
Collection of the State Library of Victoria

 

James Fox Barnard (1874-1945) 'Lawn, Arylie, Hobart' c. 1900

 

James Fox Barnard (1874-1945)
Lawn, Arylie, Hobart
c. 1900
Glass negative
8.5 x 11.0 cm. (quarter plate)
Collection of the State Library of Victoria

 

James Fox Barnard (1874-1945) '[Tea on the verandah]' c. 1900

 

James Fox Barnard (1874-1945)
[Tea on the verandah]
c. 1900
Glass negative
8.5 x 11.0 cm (quarter plate)
Collection of the State Library of Victoria

 

Installation photograph of the exhibition 'Storm in a Teacup' at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

Installation photograph of the exhibition 'Storm in a Teacup' at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

Installation photograph of the exhibition 'Storm in a Teacup' at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

Installation photograph of the exhibition 'Storm in a Teacup' at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

Installation photograph of the exhibition 'Storm in a Teacup' at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

 

Installation photograph of the exhibition Storm in a Teacup at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

 

 

“Tea is the medium of many a complex and commonplace rituals. Adopted in a variety of ceremonies and customs across the globe, its unique and symbolic place in our lives is subtle and powerful. Whether a quick cuppa around the kitchen table or a lavish display of refined gentility; from billy tea to Asian tea-drinking ceremonies, tea has played an important role in international trade but more curiously in facilitating social cohesiveness.

Comprising approximately 50 works including painting, photography, sculpture and installation Storm in a Teacup features artists such as Chares Blackman, John Perceval, Emma Minnie Boyd, E. Phillips Fox and contemporary artists Stephen Bowers, Danie Mellor, Penny Byrne, Rosalie Gasgoigne, Matthew Sleeth, eX de Medici, Anne Zahalka, Polixeni Papapetrou and a mad teaparty installation by Hotham Street Ladies.

Tea is said to have first been invented in China around 2700 BC, with the earliest records of tea consumption dating to 1000BC. Initially consumed as a medicinal drink, it became widely popular as a common beverage and traded across Asia and Europe during the 16th century. It was King Charles II’s wife Catherine of Portugal who is said to have brought the tea habit to Great Britain. Indeed, the afternoon tea party first became fashionable in the seventeenth century following Queen Catherine de Braganza’s fondness for serving the beverage at Whitehall in London. It wasn’t until the 18th century that it became widely consumed with tea smuggling bringing the tipple to the masses and later influenced the Boston Tea Party.

Tea drinking became a demonstration of social aspirations and grew in popularity giving rise to a subtle orchestration of manners, dress and serving paraphernalia which created new forms of commodity consumption. In the colonies of New South Wales and Victoria afternoon tea parties were a lavish display of settler understandings of refined gentility that were an attempt to signal allegiance to the values of the home country and ground the displaced community in their originating culture. In this respect the afternoon tea party expressed collective understandings of British identity and was a means of domesticating and civilizing the alien terrain of the colonies.”

Press release from the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

 

Clare Humphries (b. Australia 1973) 'Family confection II' 2015

Clare Humphries (b. Australia 1973) 'Family confection II' 2015

 

Clare Humphries (b. Australia 1973)
Family confection II (installation photos)
2015
Sugar cubes stained with coffee and tea
Dimensions variable
Courtesy of the artist

 

Giuseppe Romeo (b. Australia 1958) Subjective landscape, 'Of consequence rather than reason' 2015

DSC1644-WEB

 

Giuseppe Romeo (b. Australia 1958)
Subjective landscape, ‘Of consequence rather than reason’ (installation photos)
2015
Found discarded objects, bitumen, paint
80.0 x 100.0 x 60.0 cm
Courtesy of the artist

 

 

Guiseppe Rome asks the simple question: ‘What are you going to do with it all?’

Romeo recalls the tea sets his mother and aunts possessed and the ‘good set’ kept for special occasions that were rarely used. In this work a silver platter is the support for a silver cake stand upon which a teapot, creamer, sugar bowl and various serving implements jostle with items required to clean up the mess. The bat, ball and stumps are a reference to playing cricket which ‘became an excuse for a big afternoon tea party in England’. A ribbon of wire holds it all together ‘like a dream from Alice in Wonderland when nothing is as it seems’, while a tinkling melody from a music box is a lullaby that sends us in to a contented sleep.

Romeo coats the sculpture in bitumen then paints it entirely in white. The effect is reminiscent of excavated items from an ancient ruin, as if w are peering upon the remains from a modern day Pompeii – artefacts that have been covered in lava and buried. This work alludes to the ways in which we deceive ourselves and ‘attempt to keep it all together through consumption but ultimately we can’t’.

 

Samantha Everton (b. Australia 1971) 'Camellia' 2009

 

Samantha Everton (b. Australia 1971)
Camellia
2009
From the series Vintage dolls 2009
Pigment print on rag paper (ed. AP2)
106.0 x 114.0 cm
Courtesy of the artist and Anthea Polson Art, Queensland

 

Robyn Phelan (b. Australia 1965) 'Porcelain wall – ode to an obsession' 2010-15

 

Robyn Phelan (b. Australia 1965)
Porcelain wall – ode to an obsession (installation photo)
2010-15
Porcelain, paperclay, cobalt oxide, timber, pigment, Jingdezhen tissue transfer
240.0 x 122.0 x 42.0 cm
Courtesy of the artist

 

Robyn Phelan (b. Australia 1965) 'Porcelain wall – ode to an obsession' 2010-15 (detail)

 

Robyn Phelan (b. Australia 1965)
Porcelain wall – ode to an obsession (detail)
2010-15
Porcelain, paperclay, cobalt oxide, timber, pigment, Jingdezhen tissue transfer
240.0 x 122.0 x 42.0 cm
Courtesy of the artist

 

 

Robyn Phelan undertook a residency at the Pottery Workshop and Experimental Sculptural Factory of Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province in China in 2008. Jingdezhen is known as the porcelain capital because it has been the centre of China’s ceramic production, beginning in the fourteenth century Yuan Dynasty, where fine porcelain was first exported all over the world.

Deposits of kaolinite, a clay found at Mt Kaolin nearby which can sustain very high firing temperatures produced a superior white porcelain of increased strength and translucency. Items made from kaolinite were fired with cobalt landscape designs and were highly sought after by European collectors. Over the centuries, because of excessive mining, the mountain’s deposits have become depleted. Phelan’s work is a lament to the desecration of the mountain and a reminder of the potential destructiveness of consumer desire.

 

Penny Byrne (b. Australia 1965) '‘Let’s forget about global warming’ said Alice ‘and have a cup of tea instead!’' 2010

 

Penny Byrne (b. Australia 1965)
‘Let’s forget about global warming’ said Alice ‘and have a cup of tea instead!’ (installation photo)
2010
Vintage porcelain figurine, found toys, epoxy resin, epoxy putty, retouching medium, powder pigments
80.0 x 33.0 cm
Williams Sinclair Collection

 

Penny Byrne (b. Australia 1965) '‘Let’s forget about global warming’ said Alice ‘and have a cup of tea instead!’' 2010 (detail)

 

Penny Byrne (b. Australia 1965)
‘Let’s forget about global warming’ said Alice ‘and have a cup of tea instead!’ (detail)
2010
Vintage porcelain figurine, found toys, epoxy resin, epoxy putty, retouching medium, powder pigments
80.0 x 33.0 cm
Williams Sinclair Collection

 

 

Penny Byrne’s reworked porcelain conversation piece was motivated by Republican Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s cry to ‘drill, baby, drill’ during her campaign in 2008. A call for increase off-shore drilling of petroleum, including sites such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Palin claimed ‘that’s what we hear all across the country in our rallies because people are so hungry for those domestic sources of energy to be tapped into’.1

In Byrne’s piece the patriotic figures gorge themselves, blithely overindulging without care to the wastage. The new Disney production of Alice in Wonderland directed by Tim Burton had just been released and this led Byrne to reflect upon the Mad Hatter’s tea party in which tea was drunk all day because time stood still and was stuck at tea-time.

  1. Transcript: The Vice-Presidential Debate, 2 October 2008. Reprinted in the New York Times, 23 May 2012.

 

Sharon West (b. Australia 1963) 'Joseph Banks’ tea party for a Botany Bay tribesman is ruined by flies and spiders' 2014

 

Sharon West (b. Australia 1963)
Joseph Banks’ tea party for a Botany Bay tribesman is ruined by flies and spiders
2014
Digital print on paper (ed. 2/5)
66.0 x 57.0 cm (sheet)
Courtesy of the artist

 

 

Sharon West’s recreation of an afternoon tea party is set in the early days of first contact. Joseph Banks was the botanist who sailed with Captain Cook on the Endeavour on the first voyage of discovery which mapped the east coast of Australia between 1768 and 1771. While ashore he made an extensive collection of native flora and fauna which was sent back to natural history museums in England. Banks was also instrumental in the British government’s decision to colonise the New South Wales settlement.

 

Rosalie Gascoigne (b. New Zealand 1917; arr. Australia 1943; d. Canberra 1999) 'The tea party' 1980

 

Rosalie Gascoigne (b. New Zealand 1917; arr. Australia 1943; d. Canberra 1999)
The tea party (installation photo)
1980
Painted wood, celluloid, plastic, enamelled metal, feathers
83.0 x 35.0 x 20.0 cm
Private collection

 

Rosalie Gascoigne (b. New Zealand 1917; arr. Australia 1943; d. Canberra 1999) 'The tea party' 1980 (detail)

 

Rosalie Gascoigne (b. New Zealand 1917; arr. Australia 1943; d. Canberra 1999)
The tea party (detail)
1980
Painted wood, celluloid, plastic, enamelled metal, feathers
83.0 x 35.0 x 20.0 cm
Private collection

 

 

Rosalie Gascoigne found the kewpie dolls amongst a large number of discarded things from an abandoned sideshow at the Bungendore dump in the summer of 1976. ‘I thought “Oh, those dollies, they’re having a … very joyful … picnic. They’re … in the paddock, they’ve got all these old things … they’ve sat down on the teapots and waved their wings around.”

For Gascoigne beauty existed in the most humble of objects and the wear and tear from use only added to the appeal. The enamel teapots were also found at various dumps and were a particular focus of her collecting.

‘I had a thing about enamelware because I see it as being elegant. People see the holes in it. I was collecting brown and white at the same time. To me it had a sort of elegance that a Dalmatian dog has, spotty, very elegant’.1

  1. Rosalie Gascoigne, excerpts from her correspondence, email communication with Martin Gascoigne, 13 March 2015

 

Julie Dowling (b. Australia 1969) Badimaya people, Western Australia 'White with one' 2003

 

Julie Dowling (b. Australia 1969)
Badimaya people, Western Australia
White with one
2003
Synthetic polymer paint and red ochre on canvas
121.0 x 100.0 cm
Collection of Jane Kleimeyer and Anthony Stuart

 

 

Julie Dowling’s painting is a poignant reminder of the Stolen Generations and the plight of many young girls, forcibly removed from their families, who were brought up in government institutions and trained to be domestic servant to white families. Girls were targeted because women were considered the ‘uplifters’ or ‘civilisers’ of their communities and as future mothers their education into the values of white society was deemed essential to enable successful assimilation. Girls in service were supposed to receive a wage but often this was retained by their employer and not passed on. Dowling points out it is also a history of Stolen wages.

 

Michael Cook (b. Australia 1968) Bidjara people, south-west Queensland 'Object (table)' 2015

 

Michael Cook (b. Australia 1968)
Bidjara people, south-west Queensland
Object (table)
2015
Inkjet print on Hahnemühle cotton rag (ed. 2/4 + 2AP)
140.0 x 99.0 cm
Courtesy of the artist and THIS IS NO FANTASY + dianne tanzer gallery, Melbourne

 

 

Michael Cook’s photographic tableau ‘turns the table’ on racism. By depicting the body of a white woman as a functional object in service to others, Cook considers the dehumanisation and objectification of one race of people by another in the history of slavery.

The double portrait on the back wall is by Johann Zoffany from 1778, and features Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804) who was born into slavery in the West Indies. The daughter of an African mother, her father was an English naval officer who left her to the care of his uncle, Lord William Murray, where she was raised as an equal with Murray’s niece. Murray was instrumental in outlawing slavery in the United Kingdom in 1772. In the painting Zoffany depicts the two women standing together, the niece affectionately reaching out to Belle. Hence Cook’s afternoon tea is also a reminder that prejudice and racial inequality can be surmounted.

 

Yenny Huber (b. Austria 1980; arr. Australia 2000) 'Room No. 14' 2006

 

Yenny Huber (b. Austria 1980; arr. Australia 2000)
Room No. 14
2006
Digital print on aluminium panel (ed. 1/6)
27.2 x 27.2 cm
Warrnambool Art Gallery, Victoria

 

 

Underpinned by the belief that any one person is comprised of diverse, fragmentary and often illusory selves, Yenny Huber explores the various ego states that reside within. This photograph is a self portrait taken in a hotel room, but it is also an impersonation of an identity available to women. Tea-drinking was once described as ‘an infallible sign of an old maid’1 and in this work Huber offers us an image of a good Catholic girl, knees together, elbows in, sitting demurely on the couch sipping tea. It is an image of femininity constrained by the dictates of religion and outdated socially sanctioned ideals of respectable female behaviour.

  1. The Horsham Times, Victoria, 26 April 1898

 

Anne Zahalka (b. Australia 1957) 'Saturday 5.18 pm 1995' 1995 (printed 1997)

 

Anne Zahalka (b. Australia 1957)
Saturday 5.18 pm 1995
1995 (printed 1997)
Type C photograph (ed AP)
125.0 x 162.0 cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney Gift of the artist, 2011
Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program

 

 

Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery
Civic Reserve, Dunns Road, Mornington

Opening hours:
Tuesday – Sunday 10am – 5pm

Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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