Richard Hamilton



RICHARD HAMILTON: Word and Image: Prints 1963–2007, Alan Cristea Gallery

Mark Godfrey Paul Schimmel and Vicente Todoli, editors, RICHARD HAMILTON (352pp. Tate. £29.99)

Jonathan Jones, RICHARD HAMILTON: Word and Image: Prints 1963–2007 (155pp. Alan Cristea Gallery. £25)

Richard Hamilton was a relative unknown when in 1956 he produced the collage for which he is still, perhaps, most famous: “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?” (The original is too fragile to travel, and a print version produced by the artist in 1992 takes its place in the Tate’s show.) The piece was included in the Whitechapel Gallery’s seminal This is Tomorrow exhibition, and it would be difficult to claim that the British art establishment ever overlooked him again: the Tate’s current retrospective is its fourth since 1970, and includes some 200 works covering an almost sixty-year career. With two installations from the 50s re-created at the ICA, and fifty prints on show this month at Alan Cristea, this is a useful opportunity to take stock, three years after the artist’s death.

In a world that jostles for firsts, Hamilton has frequently, and plausibly, been put forward as the first Pop artist. “Just what is it . . .” with its rich panoply of consumer objects contains not only the first appearance of the word “Pop” (on the muscleman’s badminton racquet), but also a tin of ham, eight years before Andy Warhol’s soup cans went on show in New York in The American Supermarket exhibition. In a letter around this time, Hamilton defined Pop’s preoccupations, as a school that is: Popular, Transient, Expendable (easily forgotten), Low-cost, Mass-produced, Young, Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous and Big business. Most, apart from “easily forgotten”, can be found in “Just what is it . . .”

And then, over the next five decades, it seems as though the artist set out to test the boundaries of all of those categories in turn. In terms of technique, Hamilton produced installations, oil paintings, prints, drawings, photographic works, computer-manipulated images, industrial design, multiples and collages. He was also one of the early enthusiasts to work substantially in the interstices between techniques, what he called the “marriage of brush and lens” as he painted over photographs, or manipulated layers of mechanical reproductions.

His subject matter, too, was both wide-ranging and unusual. His work adheres to very traditional genres – still lifes, portraits, landscapes, conversation pieces, agitprop and religious subjects – but his most steadfast commitment was to the products of the modern world. In this he was (apart from, in different ways, Warhol) working almost entirely on his own. David Hockney’s subject matter would not have surprised an eighteenth-century artist, allowing for the substitution of river-bathing with swimming pools; Roy Lichtenstein’s would have been (mostly) familiar to the Impressionists. But toasters? Toothbrushes? “Just what is it . . .” included a television, a tape recorder, a vacuum cleaner, a magazine; when Hamilton revisited the idea in 1994, the new print now showed a computer, a microwave and a video-recorder. A 2004 work, “Chiara and Chair”, returned full circle, to 1956’s vacuum cleaner, even as computer-aided perspectival possibilities allowed the artist to take his exploration of the modern interior further.

The two great subjects that spanned Hamilton’s career were consumerism and the industrial world, and space, and how it can be interpreted. “I would like”, he said, “to think of my purpose as a search for what is epic in everyday objects and everyday attitudes.” In this search, he turned initially to James Joyce and Marcel Duchamp. Joyce taught him that he “did not need a style of working”, while from Duchamp he took the idea of the artist not merely as craftsman, but as someone who chooses objects, and by his selection, and scrutiny, turns them into art. A third influence, it seems to me, was Le Corbusier: in Hamilton’s work the “machine for living” appears to be both the artist’s eyes and the screen, whether film, television or, latterly, computer.

The first big step forward was in the 1960s, when Hamilton moved on from the constricted perspectives of “Just what is it . . .” to a series of interiors, a subject that would continue to provide him with creative impetus until his death in 2011. “Any interior”, he said, “is a set of anachronisms”: the objects that fill our houses, whether purchased or inherited, create layers of time. In the transformation from lived space to artist’s vision, further layers of potential are imposed on the subject.

At this stage, Hamilton worked with photocopies and photographs, cutting and rescaling elements to create perspectival shift, to build mood as well as shape. In “Interiors I” and “II”, and “Desk”, he inserted a cut-out photograph of the B-movie starlet Patricia Knight into an office of terrifying instability: the black, thrusting rectangle that is the side of the desk suddenly wavers; the desktop, at one side solid enough to hold a pencil so realistically reproduced that any nineteenth-century copyist would have been proud, on its other side slithers away into white nothingness; in the second version, the desk itself vanishes, and only its identifiable angular thrust remains: the smile of a deskbound Cheshire Cat.

In the 1990s, computers gave Hamilton the ability to go further, producing two brilliant series, Seven Rooms and Annunciation. In Seven Rooms, Hamilton engaged with the idea of the installation, but reconsidered it for our computer age, to become what might be thought of as non-site-specific-site-specific work. He photographed a series of rooms, and the images were digitally printed onto the gallery walls; this print, complete with gallery wall, was then in turn photographed, and printed onto canvas, some overpainted, some not. Rehung as they are in the Tate, the viewer sees a Russian doll installation in two dimensions. The distancing forces us to examine not merely the life on show, but how lives are lived. These repetitions and reiterations become a way of considering the expressive capabilities of scale, perspective and harmony, in emotional as well as technical terms.

While this is where Hamilton’s significance will, in future, surely be seen to lie, the Tate retrospective reminds us of what a skilled craftsman he was too: an early oil, “Chromatic Grid” (1950), with its swirly pinpoints; or “d’Orientation” (1952), and the Trainsition series, show a lovely delicate colourist in watercolour and gouache.

But this hand-on-canvas work was soon left behind. Hamilton was far more interested in ideas, and these found their expression most often in prints. His 1970 series, Kent State, uses an image from the recent killings at Kent State University, when students protesting against the Vietnam War were shot by the Ohio National Guard. Hamilton selected one image, a student lying paralysed on the ground, replicating it over and over, his heavily mediated framing device never allowing us to forget that the work is not only about a government murdering its citizens, but also about the dissemination of that knowledge.

Hamilton described how he first came across the Kent State image on television, sandwiched between The Black and White Minstrel Show and Match of the Day, and his consequent reluctance to use it: “It was too terrible an incident . . . to submit to arty treatment. Yet there it was in my hand, by chance – I didn’t really choose the subject, it offered itself. It seemed right, too, that art could help to keep the shame in our minds”.

His concern to separate entertainment from an exploration of a state’s abandonment of morality appears to have passed the Tate by. Hamilton elsewhere warned that “Political or moral motivation is hard to handle for an artist”, but so it is too for those who show the art. Here, however, the curators have chosen to display the Kent State pictures across from Swingeing London, Hamilton’s series showing Mick Jagger being arrested for dope smoking, and another series, Fashion-plate, collages of women’s faces taken from fashion photographs. Absent Hamilton’s thoughts on art and morality, the suggestion presented by this hanging is that all three series have some sort of equivalence. (The quotation instead is to be found in the very good Alan Cristea catalogue. The Tate catalogue, hefty even by modern museum standards, has splendid reproductions, but the essays take a lot of space to say remarkably little, while Cristea’s carefully selected quotations from Hamilton himself are consistently enlightening.)

More generally, the Tate’s panels supply minimal information, not even a single biographical outline. That is left to the ICA, which has on show recreations of two installations Hamilton made in the 1950s. There we learn that Hamilton was born in 1922 (although, mysteriously, there is no mention of his death in 2011). As was common for working-class children at the time, Hamilton left school at fourteen, finding employment as an office boy in the advertising department of an electrical engineering firm. He received wartime training in technical drawing, and then worked as a mechanical draughtsman creating templates for tools – that is, making reproductions, the subject that was to consume him.

The ICA’s concise but well-rounded display of his graphic design work shows yet another facet of this protean artist. His typographic skills were not merely comprehensive, but joyous – a poster advertising a Francis Picabia show is an object lesson in how to make grey fun. Alan Cristea Gallery’s selection of fifty prints is similarly astutely pared down, offering an almost flip-book-like ride through six decades.

For Hamilton produced vastly, prodigiously. Often an engagement with new techniques took decades to come to fruition. The late Rooms series is a masterful summation of a lifetime’s work. So, too, are his photographic self-portrait projects, some in the style of Francis Bacon, others tiny Polaroids taken by his friends over a quarter of a century. Other areas are less successful. The Tate has devoted an entire room to what it primly refers to as his “scatological” period (in reality, brightly coloured prints of turds). In retrospect these works appear to be more experiments in new printmaking technology. Similarly, his incursions into politics, whether a portrait of Tony Blair as a gunslinger, or a triptych of reflections on the Troubles, are clearly heartfelt, but their didactic finger-waving brings them perilously close to kitsch.

Hamilton was a trailblazer, and his best work belongs with the very best, a fizzing, dazzling reminder of what a great intelligence brought to post-war art. A pity, then, to dilute it with so many dead ends and false beginnings.

Published in the TLS

Modernism and Dance

Susan Jones: Literature, Modernism and Dance (360pp. Oxford University Press. £55)

In 1930s literary London, ballet was everywhere. Virginia Woolf, several Stracheys, the Bells, E. M. Forster, H. G. Wells, John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield, Aldous Huxley, the Sitwells and T. S. Eliot all attended the Ballets Russes. Louis MacNeice’s Les Sylphides appeared in 1939, and in the same year Henry Green’s Party Going used the same ballet as a structural underpinning. It wasn’t just the intelligentsia, either. Compton Mackenzie wrote two novels with a dance protagonist, and even Eric Ambler’s Cause for Alarm (1938) contained a reference to Diaghilev.

All the more peculiar, then, that those who have since studied modernism, both in the visual arts and in literature, have barely acknowledged the movement’s links to dance. Where is the equivalent to Adorno on Stravinsky and Schoenberg? Where the monographs to match those on Cubism, or the modern novel? If the link between the “Demoiselles d’Avignon” and temporality in fiction is worth examining, why not between that same painting and Nijinsky’s Sacre du Printemps?

A few dance writers have attempted to bridge the gap, but almost no literary specialists. Now Susan Jones, a Conrad scholar as well as, before that, a dancer, is ideally placed to take the subject forward, as one who can see how, “At the still point of the turning world . . . there the dance is”. For the relationship between dance and literature is not merely “one of the most striking but understudied features of modernism”, but one of reciprocity: dance drew on modern literature as much as modern literature was shaped by dance.

Until now, literary theorists seem almost deliberately to have turned away from movement and its presence in their subject. In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, there is a famous scene generally referred to by scholars as “the image of the African woman”, even though Marlow is plainly describing movement, not a static “image”, a woman “treading the earth proudly” until “she stopped . . . . Suddenly she opened her bared arms and threw them up rigid above her head, as though in an uncontrollable desire to touch the sky . . . . She turned away slowly, walked on, following the bank, and passed into the bushes to the left”. Everything in that moment is about movement, even as its acquired tag reduces it to a tableau.

Similarly, Gilles Deleuze wrote absorbingly on Samuel Beckett’s three languages, languages of names, voices and images, but despite Beckett’s fanatical care for stage directions, Deleuze never appears to have contemplated the author’s language of movement. Yet Beckett’s knowledge of dance was formidable, and formidably integrated in his work, which drew on Eurhythmics, music hall, ballet and commedia dell’arte. In a more populist vein, Sjeng Scheijen’s acclaimed biography of Diaghilev (2010) referred to the designer, librettist and composer of Parade as its “three creators” with, apparently an afterthought, “Massine as choreographer”. It is not Scheijen’s blind spot that so intrigues: it is that so few – or no? – reviewers even noticed the blind spot. Oversight is the norm for dance.

Jones locates the origins of the modernist nexus of dance and literature in the nineteenth century, with the performances of the only now critically reassessed Loïe Fuller, and with Stéphane Mallarmé and Nietzsche’s writings. Fuller was an innovator, creating mesmeric effects through swirling steps and long silks which were manipulated with her body and with hidden sticks, highlighted by new techniques of lighting. Only a year after her first dance performance in 1892, Mallarmé was already describing her art as a model for literature, both dance and symbolist poetry using compressed forms of expression, with Fuller’s “écriture corporelle” permitting a “poetics of potentiality . . . a signifying practice that in its most abstract and ideal form dispenses with the generation of verbal meaning”, the dancer’s gestures creating an indeterminacy that allowed each viewer to create their own meaning. Three decades earlier, Mallarmé’s “new poetics” had concentrated on “not the thing itself, but the effect it produced”; now Fuller’s “bodily writing” gave the poet a way to become the poem.

Fuller had no formal training. Classical dance was Apollonian, an art of courtly symmetry, restraint, gravity and balance, while the new dance forms that were emerging embraced the dissonance and conflict of the Dionysian, and, possibly most importantly, rhythm over melody. “Now the world of nature is to be expressed in symbols”, Nietzsche wrote; “a new world of symbols is necessary, a symbolism of the body for once, not just the symbolism of the mouth, but the full gestures of dance . . . . Then the other symbolic forces will develop, particularly those of music, suddenly impetuous in rhythm, dynamism, and harmony.”

The struggle between the Apollonian and Dionysian might be said to have created twentieth-century dance, and literature. Modernism turned to the ancient, to ritual, to express itself, with its dichotomies of attraction and repulsion, of the individual and the community. One of the most compelling sections in Jones’s book is her analysis of Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces, recognized by the dance world as a masterpiece on a par with the “Demoiselles d’Avignon”, or Mrs Dalloway. It was, she demonstrates, a complement and response to Nijinska’s brother’s more famous (in reputation, although in reality lost) Sacre du Printemps. In both, a female is sacrificed to the greater community through ritual, and rhythm takes precedence over melody, dissonance over assonance. Both concentrate on symbolic forms, flattened, two-dimensional shapes, scenes rather than narrative, and primitive designs – in Nijinska’s case, constructivist art, in Nijinsky’s, Roerich’s quasi-pastoral primitivism. Both incorporate Mallarmé’s “poetic impersonality”: movement was “pure, self-contained”, not a conduit for dancers to express themselves. And in both the stylized choreography required the “active engagement on the part of the viewer to complete its meaning”. When movement stops, Nijinska wrote, “an illicit ‘intermission’ begins”, not a pause, “for a pause is also movement – a breath, as it were” – that is, Woolf’s “still space that lies about the heart of things”.

This is only one small example of the many cross-fertilizations that Jones so ably explores. Her chapter on Eliot breaks new ground, whether it is the discussion of Petrushka and “The Hollow Men”, or Murder in the Cathedral and Antony Tudor’s Jardin aux lilas, the two pieces staged at the Mercury Theatre in tandem. Tudor’s poetic evocation by elision of “what might have been” displayed in moments of frozen gesture may well have influenced Eliot’s still points. Both men similarly returned to the past – Eliot to the Elizabethans, Tudor to the Edwardians – to create a new present. Her chapter on Beckett is equally enlightening.

But it is these chapters that make other sections of the book so frustrating. Jones has chosen to structure her book chronologically around the development of modernist aesthetics as writing, and thus privileges literature over movement. Given that most of her readers will have a better grasp of the history of literature than of dance, this is unfortunate, as the book dashes ahistorically through the dance world wherever a literary strand takes her. It also forces her into many repetitions, some even word for word.

Another, more uncomfortable reality is the ephemeral nature of dance. Jones devotes a long section to Andrée Howard’s The Sailor’s Return, another vanished work. A few of its scenes were filmed, and there is a programme synopsis. But that is all, and yet Jones discusses the piece as though it can be intimately studied: “Howard’s use of textual detail helped her express in dance the fine gradations of tone and register in the novel”. This may be so, but I would like to know how Jones knows.

What modernism means, for dance, too, is a vexed question, and one that needs to be confronted directly. One of Jones’s definitions is that, as with modernist literature, narrative and character are treated in a non-linear, non-realist fashion. But as early as 1841, Act Two of Giselle was already reaching for the abstract, as was Act Three of La Bayadère in 1877, and Ivanov’s white act for Swan Lake in 1894. Jones discusses the changes to Balanchine’s Apollo from its inception in 1928, when it had a prologue narrating the birth pangs of Leto, and a set with a tumulus up which Apollo climbed to reach his apotheosis as “Musagète”, to the 1979 version which omitted both birth and tumulus. But to describe the loss of the climb, as she does, as a shift from the Dionysian (as demonstrated in the physical manifestation of the upward struggle) to the Apollonian (achieved) is to ignore a number of productions which to this day contain a set of stairs, up which Apollo and the muses continue to progress.

That ultimately encapsulates the difficulty of dance scholarship. There is no one, definitive, Apollo, and thus its meaning, or even its style, is elusive. And this example can be multiplied endlessly. Jones sees the choreographer Léonide Massine as a stark modernist, which in his choice of collaborators he certainly was, working with assorted Cubists, Fauves, even Dalí, and among the first to use symphonic music for dance, “and yet”, she laments, “his impact on modernism in a wider field has been overlooked”. This might be, I would suggest, because his choreography was not modernist at all: working with modernists does not make you yourself modern. As Eliot harked back to the Elizabethans, so choreographers of real modernism – Fokine, Balanchine – frequently invoked the past, while old-fashioned choreographers like Massine, who resisted a deeper modernism, superficially embraced all the current tropes.

As the historian Jennifer Homans has reminded us, dance, with its ephemerality of performance, is an art of memory, not history. Most of dance has vanished into the great unremembered. Where work has survived, and can be analysed – Les Noces, for example – Jones is a peerless guide, moving us back and forth between art forms with a dizzying virtuosity of her own. More generally, the great strength of Literature, Modernism, and Dance lies not in (the impossible) re-creation of the invisible, but in Jones’s exemplary account of how performances and performers endowed artists in other genres with ways to think about their process.

First published in the TLS

Hannah Höch, Whitechapel Gallery

Two large collages bookend Hannah Höch’s career. First, the cumbersomely titled “Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser Dada durch die letzte Weimarer Bierbauchkulturepoche Deutschlands” (“Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany”, not on show in this exhibition), a centrifugal spray of creation which made her reputation when it was exhibited at the First International Dada Fair in Berlin in 1920; and, half a century later, the grid-like “Lebensbild” (“Life Portrait”, 1972–3). Together they display this astonishing artist’s many preoccupations and her range of approaches.

Born in 1889 into comfortable upper-middle-class circumstances, Höch arrived in Berlin to study at the School of Arts and Crafts, in the feminine disciplines of glass design and embroidery. The good girl soon vanished in Berlin’s post-war ferment, however, as she began a relationship with Raoul Hausmann, then at the centre of the Weimar Dadaists. In the early pieces, one can feel the young artist’s excitement as she drinks in influences – Henri Matisse, Raoul Dufy, then the Fauves, Paul Klee, the Russian Constructivists. Her chosen medium swiftly became collage, and, more specifically, photomontage, as the new print culture made cheap photographs available to recycle into art. Höch’s originality was to take the rhythms and patterns from her applied-arts background, and splice onto it the compulsions and concerns of modernism. “Weiße Form” (“White Form”), in 1919, is underpinned by Constructivist theory, but the forms, which themselves resemble sewing patterns, are laid out in an almost Cubist shape, pressed over a delicate spider-web tracery of embroidery. It was a powerful statement of intent. “I would like”, she wrote, “to blur the firm borders that we human beings, cocksure as we are, are inclined to erect around everything.” And she did.

The same year, “Porträt Gerhard Hauptmann”, a collage depiction of the playwright and Nobel Prize-winner, continued her anatomization, now not merely of art-forms, but of cultural achievement. A famous photograph of the Dada Fair in 1920 showed Raoul Hausmann ready to declaim, with Höch by his side, leaning in submissively, head inclined, shoulders bowed. But it is her collage, not his, that hangs in the background. Her portrait of Gerhard Hauptmann suggests that this gender inequality had long been clear to her: Hauptmann’s head is divided in two, his unsmiling mouth and eyes bracketing another, smiling, female mouth and eyes. “Da-Dandy” shows a man’s profile in red and yellow; inside, his head too is filled with women.

The critic Adolf Behne thought Dada an art of advertisements, photographs, ticket-stubs, “iron crosses, razor blades, cords, braid” and newspaper: pieces of modernity, of masculinity, and of a country emerging from war. It produced, he wrote, an “uncanny suspense”. “Uncanny” in German is unheimlich, un-home-like, unlike-the-place-women-are-supposed-to-be. Höch begged to differ. Women were to the fore again in her series “Aus einem ethnographischen Museum” (“From an ethnographic museum”), where ethnographic elements were conflated with photographs of women from topical magazines, the resulting figures set on plinths, their race and gender displayed for examination by experts. Doing and being done to, self-reflection and self-display, otherness, all are here.

Long before it became an adage, the personal was political for Höch. “Staatshäupter” (“Heads of State”) puts at its centre a photograph of the Weimar Republic’s president, Friedrich Ebert, and its minister of defence, Gustav Noske. These two men, responsible for the brutal suppression of the Spartacist uprising, are here not in formal dress but on the beach, in saggy bathing trunks. Behind them, mockingly cartoonish butterflies, beach balls and a bathing belle cavort, while what may perhaps have been cut from a photograph of a piece of furniture looks like a slightly shocked sea monster staring at a paper sea.

Despite this overt political engagement, Höch has been too frequently dismissed as a woman consumed by “women’s” concerns, photomontaged out of art history. Most accounts of the period omit her entirely, or damn her with patronizing faint praise. Only in the past few decades has her reputation in Germany begun to approach the real merit of her work, and this exhibition is her first in Britain. In part, however, Höch removed herself from the story. In 1926 she began a relationship with a Dutch poet, Til Brugman, later moving to the Hague to be with her. She left the art world once again, in 1936, when she became seriously ill, and again, as the Nazi grip on culture tightened, she left the centre of Berlin for a quiet suburb.

In 1946, however, she re-emerged. She was, she said, “Uninhibited, in the sense of being unburdened”, and her openness to new schools and styles returned unabated, as she returned physically to the materials she had gathered before the war, to her store of clippings, cuttings and patterns. One room at the Whitechapel Gallery is devoted to these albums of images. Ralf Burmeister, head of the archive that holds Höch’s work in Berlin today, queries in his catalogue essay whether these scrapbooks are in fact an achieved work, or simply Höch’s filing system. By giving them their own room, albeit the show’s smallest, the curators have come down on the side of the former. Whether or not this is the case, the bound books can be shown only in limited fashion, and the space could have been better used to show some of Höch’s paintings, none of which figures in this “overview”.

Technology improved colour reproduction, and after the war Höch’s work took on a new visual richness

Technology improved colour reproduction, and after the war Höch’s work took on a new visual richness. The curators and catalogue essayists see, too, an increasing tendency to abstraction, but the world remains ever-present in her work. “Friedenstaube” (“Dove of Peace”), which marked the end of the war, continues her engagement with politics, as barrels of guns turn into letter punches, or perhaps it is vice versa: is she saying information is power, or that power constrains information? The essayists suggest that Höch’s anger is new, but the exhibition as a whole shows that this wonderfully angry woman had long had much to be angry about. No one did, or does, want to know about women and their anger. No one but a woman could – or would – have produced “Der Traum seines Lebens” (“The Dream of His Life”, 1925), a soubrette dressed in frills, bows and flower-bedecked headdress, cut up, cut apart. What is “his dream”? Her face, her legs, her ankles, her breasts.

Towards the end of her life, Höch said, “Plants are simply beautiful. Humans and animals – questionable”. But she went on asking questions. In “Lebensbild”, created when she was well into her eighties, she anatomizes herself as severely as she did others. The eyes, so important in her earlier works, here soften, but the hands come to the fore. A hypnotist’s hands in one of her albums, held to his temples, now move down, to be held judgementally, in front of her, right at the centre of the work; at the top, in the same judicious pose, they cover her eyes; at the bottom, once more, they now hold – a crystal ball?

Hannah Höch may not have had a crystal ball in which to see her terrible century play out. But that this furious, fastidious, feminine artist was there to witness, to record and to report is our great good fortune. That it has taken the best part of a century before she received even a measure of her due is her age’s shame, and ours.

Published in the TLS

Peter Doig Revisited

In 2007/8 the Tate had a splendid Peter Doig show. In honour of his Edinburgh retrospective, I am resurrecting my TLS review.


One of the quietest but most resonant presences on the art scene since the early 1990s has been Peter Doig. He is resolutely unfashionable: not just a painter, nor even a figurative painter, but a landscape painter. What could be more out of sync with his contemporary YBAs than that? Yet at the same time, Doig – Scottish born, Canadian raised, resident in Trinidad – is more perhaps more easily described by what he is not.

He is not, for instance, despite this showing in Tate Britain, particularly British. Also, for all that this show is called a ‘mid-career retrospective’, the retrospect is fairly limited, blanking some the interesting deviations his career has encompassed. There are no works pre-1989, and a resolute rejection of all his North American ‘city’ images – no comic cowboys floating in the sky over Woolworths, no luridly coloured, brilliantly lettered city-scapes.

Instead, what might someday become known as ‘Doig-land’ begins in Canada’s snowy backyards and suburbs. In subject the images are ‘homely’ – both in the sense of plain, and frequently, too, of ‘homes’: a standard Canadian country house in The House that Jacques Built (1882), or the truck trundling across country in Hitch Hiker (1989-90), Wyeth-ey not only in theme but also palette. Yet there is a constant tension in his images: Hitch Hiker is Wyeth in theme, but Richter in treatment; The House that Jacques Built is divided horizontally into three, with the house in the centre, all coloured bricks, fairly lights, even a somewhat anthropomorphized ‘face’ in the windows; then the upper and lower strips magnify tiny elements, taking us unnervingly in close-up, finding the strangeness in the mundane.

This strangeness is located in a variety of ways – images of houses that have been destroyed in Pine Houses (Rooms for Rent); or in buildings that are falling apart in the Concrete Cabin series of a decaying Le Corbusier development gently mouldering in the woods. It was with this trip that the painterliness for which Doig has become noted begins to take over. The first Concrete Cabin image is fairly figurative – the building appears sharply behind a painterly scrim of trees. In Concrete Cabin II painterly elegant begin to float in, the light diffused on trees becoming concrete, as white rectangles that punch sharp holes in the picture surface, pushing back the ‘concrete’ of the buildings.

This tension between painterly style and figurative shadow becomes a major preoccupation. The small Snowballed Boy (1995) is covered by a white tracery that is visibly the trajectory of snowballs. By Figure in a Mountain Landscape (1997-8) these white skeins have become a maplike tracery covering the large figure looming over the landscape, echoing the filigree of the landscape itself. Ski Jacket appears twice, as a tiny study (51 x 46 cm) and as a vast (nearly 4 x 3.5 metre) oil. The original study is a ski slope filled with tiny figures, in colouration more beach- than ski-scene, while dark bands of trees, Munch-like images of doom, creep in at the edges. The larger work was amended in progress by turning it into a diptych, which moved the trees from the sides to the centre, surrounded now by candy-coloured skiers. The trees thus become festive ornament; a perspectival shift that changes everything.

Perpsective is the key: Red House (1995/6) is virtually the first image in this show where a house is part of a neighbourhood, not isolated and damply brooding. But it too is estranged, distanced by a series of shadowy figures in the lane, some talking together, some alone, but all looking like grand opera assassins, held in place by a dead, leafless silver birch that rips the canvas into two. More frequently, it is water that divides the canvas, or a wall, or both. In the excellent Laperyrouse series, of a waterfront wall (four versions, ranging from a 2.5m canvas to a 30cm study), we move in and out, like a camera, focusing and then withdrawing: the head of the passing figure, the umbrella over it, the diffuse light, then, in a tight shot, the wall and its peeling texture.

Doig’s handling of paint shifts with his focus, from thick gobs floating on the surface to a pigment that is so thinned down that the canvases can appear almost flayed: the combination of saturated, lush, dense colours, and bone sharp, thin washes is extraordinary. In Figures in Red Boat (2005-7) the background has been pared down to the most vestigial gesture: the shore is a single line of white around a grey-green line of pigment only slightly darker than the blue-grey sky: the red boat is the single concrete object, bleeding its fine, thin colour into the water as the ghosts of passengers stare out blindly.

This late painting is from his more recent work in Trinidad. This section could perhaps have been more rigorously edited – many of these images seem transitional. But where Doig is going, as much has how, is consistently engrossing.

TLS, 14 March 2008

Pompeii Live, from the British Museum

The hot exhibition ticket in London is the British Museum’s Pompeii show. For the rest of the summer, many dates have only late-evening tickets available. So the expanding reach of cinema experience of live events (previously confined to opera, dance and theatre) is very welcome.

We open to hustle-bustle music, to get us in the mood for our guided exhibition tour, and a crane-shot zooms down on Peter Snow at the front entrance, telling us how exciting this all is. Then another introduction breathlessly itemises the number of people involved in putting the show together. And Neil MacGregor, the Museum director, appears for a third introduction, again stressing numbers. It’s as though they don’t trust their material.

Which is odd, because the material is fabulous. Telly dons abound – Mary Beard, Bettany Hughes – as well as the chef Giorgio Locatelli, who gives a recipe for stuffed dormouse. “Just like rabbit!” he cries. “Use pine-nuts”, he encourages the appalled Peter Snow.

The brilliant Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, director of the Herculaneum Conservation Project, enthuses about sewer archaeology to the still-appalled Snow: “The Herculaneum sewers are an absolute joy,” he cries. And it is a joy that he can make us understand why, as he shows the jewels, ceramics, even statues that slipped down the drains.

Bettany Hughes takes over the appalled slot, as Mary Beard looks at a winged phallus windchime. We don’t know what the phallus represented, she makes clear; she lists possibilities, but is good on the great uncertainty that is the past.

Hughes then warns us to avert our gaze as we get to a statue of the god Pan having sex with a goat. (“How do you make love to a goat?” she asks nervously. Very carefully indeed is the obvious, but unspoken reply.)

After a reconstruction of the eruption and the pyroclastic surge that engulfed the two towns in volcanic ash, the final display, a collection of possessions found on the beach at Herculaneum, is heart-breaking: a lantern used as the fleeing crowds stumbled around in the night that descended at midday, a key to a house to which its owners will never return.

Peter Snow, no longer appalled, is now thrilled. “Isn’t it terrible?! What exciting things!” he crows. “An intense human tragedy,” he adds, chuckling over the plaster cast of a couple and their two children in their death-throes.

With gracious restraint, the exhibition’s curator Paul Roberts provides a measured and touching response to this curious empathy-bypass: the tragedy, he explains to Snow and us, enabled those who died so suddenly to live on, to share their lives with us 2,000 years later.

The camera could linger longer on the exhibits, and it would be nice if, every now and again, the talking heads just stopped talking and let us look. But the British Museum’s Pompeii is an extraordinary achievement, a fine combination of scholarship and showmanship.

That it can, via Pompeii Live, reach a wider audience can only be a good thing.

The Colourist of the Future: The van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Van Gogh at Work: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam Marije Vellekoop, with Nienke Bakker; translated by Ted Alkins, Michael Hoyle and Beverley Jackson (304pp. Brussels: Mercatorfonds. £40)

On May Day, thousands of Amsterdammers queued in the spring sunshine as the Van Gogh Museum formally reopened its doors after a seven-month refit, for the kind of invisible but essential works art requires: lighting, humidity-control and so on. What the museum made triumphantly visible, however, was the public face of their eight-year research project into Vincent Van Gogh’s studio practice, both on the walls and in an excellent catalogue. To stress how research, exhibition and publication are a continuous process, the exhibition and publication were all designed, impeccably, by Pièce Montée.

The museum’s first room, and the first pages of the catalogue, set out their stall. The catalogue shows a series of sensually close-up images of nineteenth-century artists’ materials – paints, charcoal, pencils – as well as some of Van Gogh’s surviving sketchbooks, and his palette, loaded with paints and seemingly ready and waiting. The exhibition begins with two self-portraits only a couple of years apart. But while the one from 1886 is a traditionally hued conventional image, the one dated 1888 is in the vivid, slashing palette we know so well.

And that is, in miniature, what the exhibition so ably explores. Van Gogh decided to become an artist aged twenty-seven, after eleven years working for an art dealer and as a teacher/missionary. He painted for a mere ten years, less than half his working life, and his start was unpromising, as the early apprentice copying from “how-to” manuals shows. Watching Van Gogh develop into “Van Gogh” is like one of those speeded-up films of a flower unfolding. In his early years, he studied books, and for a few weeks at a time, here and there, with various teachers – possibly for eight months altogether. His application of what he read and learned, therefore, was idiosyncratic. He read about colour theory, or examined the techniques of painters of the past, but in his early years had to find ways to apply them himself. For example, while many artists used perspective frames, Van Gogh was the only one we know of who physically drew the frame and the threads onto his canvases – there was no one to tell him differently.

Once in Paris, in 1886, he found friendship and shared working practices with other artists, including Toulouse-Lautrec and Émile Bernard. Here too he tried out different techniques, keeping the elements that worked for him, and discarding the rest. Toulouse-Lautrec was a proponent of peinture à l’essence, using a very thinned paint on unprimed canvas; Signac was at the height of his pointilliste style; Adolphe Monticelli was painting still lives in a heavy, dark impasto. From one Van Gogh took the heightened colours; from the next the staccato, discrete brushstrokes; from the third, the heavy applications of paint and worked surface. From Japanese prints he assimilated cropped compositions, slashing diagonals and broad, flat areas of colour. Later, the simplifications and flat patterns of Paul Gauguin were developed into the stylized, rolling lines and rhythmic patterns that could never be anything but the distinct handwriting of Van Gogh.

And this is the key to the exhibition. This Van Gogh is not the solitary genius, appearing out of nowhere, flourishing in isolation and producing an art that was born fully formed. Instead, through Van Gogh at Work we discover how he studied, and with whom, what his influences were, who were his friends, and how his art developed, as all art does, in conjunction with, as well as in opposition to, ideas of the day. This is backed up not merely by words, but in images: around a quarter of the paintings on display are by Van Gogh’s friends and colleagues, permitting us to see at first hand this artistic give-and-take.

There are also loans from other institutions, chosen and hung to display Van Gogh’s integration into the art world of his day. London’s National Gallery has lent its “Sunflowers”, which now hangs together with the Van Gogh Museum’s own “Sunflowers”, both flanking the Stedelijk Museum’s “La Berceuse (Portrait of Mme Roulin)”, a triptych – the “Sunflowers” “like candles” lighting the centrepiece, the artist wrote – planned as a gift to Gauguin.

The catalogue and the exhibition both stress, too, how the extraordinary nature of many of Van Gogh’s works would have been less extraordinary at the time. Van Gogh was using new synthetic colours, which had been developed only in the previous few decades. Because of his colour choices, many of his works have altered in ways we are no longer aware of. “Gauguin’s Chair” now has a blue background; when it was painted, it was purple.

A self-portrait of 1887 was photographed in 1903. Even in the black-and-white photograph, it is clear how the cochineal then linked colours and brushstrokes that, as the colour has faded to merely pink, now stand starkly separate.

For colour is, of course, at the core of Van Gogh’s work. He began to read about complementary colours in 1884, only four years into his studies. Being able to use a dark colour for something light, as long as the colours around it were darker still, he realized, gave the artist true freedom, leaving “the painter free to seek colours that form a whole. . . COLOUR EXPRESSES SOMETHING IN ITSELF”, he wrote with wonder. And at the end of his life, in 1890 in Auvers, in “Wheatfield with Crows” he made the contrasts of blue sky, with its pure and broken hues, the yellow-orange of wheat surrounding a red path lined with green (today the red has turned brown), into an expression of reality, not a replication of reality. In 1888, he wrote, “the painter of the future [will be] a colourist such as there hasn’t been before”. What he didn’t realize then, in fact never knew, was that he was that colourist.

The Van Gogh Museum, however, knows it, and allows us to relearn it too, in a hang that is triumphant, not merely for allowing a popular artist to shine out once more, but for reminding us, in a measured, thoughtful and intelligent manner, what museums, and what scholarship, are for.

For those who cannot get to Amsterdam, and for whom the catalogue is out of reach, the museum plans to produce apps, the first of which, covering some of the letters, is already available for download. A second, which allows viewers to leaf through the sketchbooks page by page, will follow shortly. For those who can’t wait, the Folio Society has produced a facsimile of the four surviving sketchbooks in the Van Gogh Museum, for a mere £445.

—TLS, 7 June 2013

Tanya Harrod: The Last Sane Man

Michael Cardew, one of the great studio potters of the 20th century, was a man of doubleness. He was born into the heart of upper-middle-class establishment Edwardian England – a great-grandfather had been Lord Chancellor, a grandfather the Dean of Winchester, and he was related to soldiers, lawyers and diplomats (and Kim Philby, as well as Montgomery of Alamein). His mother was one of Lewis Carroll’s favourite child-models, his father had known Oscar Wilde.

Living in poverty, working at a craft rather than a profession – these were things that were a matter of pride: as much for what he had given up as for what he had gained. Similarly doubled, he married young and fathered three children, yet while never divorcing, his lifetime of emotional engagement was with a series of young men.

His father had collected slip-decorated pottery made by Edwin Beer Fishley, a noted north Devon craftsman: slipware was, he believed, “warm and kind and generous”, and he learnt to throw from Fishley’s grandson. Even before he left Oxford, he had sought out Bernard Leach, who had just moved into his new home in St Ives. Leach couldn’t pay him, but his youth and enthusiasm won him a place in the new studio, where he met a series of not-yet famous names: Katharine Pleydell-Bouverie, Norah Braden, Shoji Hamada, and William Staite Murray.

Studio pottery in the Twenties was a new movement with a spiritual element, one that Cardew embraced: the making was as important – more important – than the finished product. In 1926, Cardew established his own pottery, in Winchcombe, in Gloucestershire, where he hoped to put his beliefs into practice, creating works of culture as well as of skill, statements of belief as much as clay-based items. Yet here too he was doubleness personified: the idea of pottery for display rather than utility was anathema to him, and yet he was creating a very personal artistic vision. He was searching for the ordinary, even as he was forging a highly individualistic – and privileged – path.

The individualism prodded him to leave the comfortable Cotswolds for a bleak site in north Cornwall, and then, in wartime, to the Gold Coast (now Ghana), and later to Nigeria. There too his doubleness was on display: as a colonial servant appalled by the ideas of empire that were being imposed on indigenous populations; as a teacher who, over a quarter of a century in West Africa, failed to establish functioning programmes or train protégés to a level that they would be able to forge their own careers.

One problem was his adherence to the mystic over the practical. It was not until he reached his early fifties that he finally buckled down and studied ceramic technology.

Later in life he wrote a magisterial summation of his career and beliefs, Pioneer Pottery, which won many admirers, and more than a handful of acolytes, who surrounded him in his new role of performer-magus, as he toured university campuses abroad, preaching his ideas of the intellectual’s pastoral life and demonstrating his throwing skills. Yet his “technological romanticism” demanded primitive living conditions, and an extreme level of deprivation for himself and his family and admirers: a failure to accept those living conditions was understood as a triple failure: of intelligence, of will, and of artistry.

Tanya Harrod, with an encyclopedic knowledge of craft, has spent a decade immersed in her subject’s life, and her command is obvious. Quiet, gentle and elegantly written, The Last Sane Man nevertheless pulls no punches. Cardew left a lifetime trail of damage behind him, among family, friends and students. He was, as Harrod shows, hugely personally charismatic yet was selfish, self-absorbed and had the egotistical pleasured self-regard of a toddler.

But at the end of the day, there is his pottery. An amalgam of historical influences (particularly in the early days Byzantine and Greek), of north Devon slipware, of Ghanaian shapes and Eastern brushstrokes, his work is never to be mistaken for that of any other potter.

Cardew’s idiosyncrasies as a teacher, as well as the austerity of his vision, ensured that he could not be followed. His work has therefore often been elided in histories of the craft. It is good to be reminded in this fine biography precisely how good it really was.

Lindsay Seers: Nowhere Less Than Now

Good art shows us what we see; great art makes the invisible visible, illuminating what we otherwise fail to notice. The Tin Tabernacle in north-west London, temporarily housing the latest commission by the art charity Artangel, is an architectural example of the visibly invisible. Built in 1863, it is a Victorian version of an Ikea flatpack, a corrugated iron hut that was erected while the local Methodist congregation raised funds for a permanent home. Somehow that never happened, and in 1947 the Willesden and St Marylebone Sea Cadets moved in, refitting the interior as a Royal Navy ship c.1950, complete with an anti-aircraft gun, and a wardroom where signs sternly demand, “Are you correctly dressed?”. In the chapel itself, the installation artist Lindsay Seers has turned nave into navy, building an upturned hull in which, twenty-five at a time, visitors watch a dream-imaged film projected on to two balls, one concave, one convex: two all-seeing eyes which, magus-like, stubbornly refuse to give up their secrets.

In the 2009 Tate Triennial Altermodern (reviewed in the TLS, February 6, 2009), Seers’s “Extramission 6 (Black Maria)” was a triumphant blend of documentary and confessional, a precisely calibrated blurring of boundaries between the artist and artwork, revolving around an almost pathological compulsion to record. That same compulsion, now on a larger canvas (and with slightly less impact as a result), permeates Nowhere Less Now.

Seers’s starting point is her great-uncle, a sailor with the Royal Navy named George Edwards, who was stationed off the coast of Zanzibar in an attempt to blockade slave trading at the end of the nineteenth century. A few faded photographs of him have survived, and one of his wife Georgina, who wears a dress covered with Masonic symbols. From these fragments of information, the artist imagines a future where all records have been destroyed, where photographs are outlawed, and everything is recorded as it occurs. She also conjures a future “George Edwards” to guide her. Her search becomes a filmic collage of historical photographs, modern travelogue, mysterious abstract shapes, old-style film-lettering and countdown numbers, and Seers herself in various guises, from researcher to historical recreationist to, well, seer.

Lacking the mesmeric quality of “Extramission”, the film is nonetheless hypnotically beautiful, even if, at forty minutes and without a narrative arc, the viewer’s attention can flag. And the verbal side, as so often with conceptual art, can be slack. Seers’s future George Edwards is on the run, vaguely “involved in crime”; while “in order to think about” her ancestors the artist dresses up as them and travels to Africa. Visitors leave with a 200-page paperback (produced with Ole Hagen), theoretically an elaboration of Seers’s themes, although I’m uncertain what sentences like “Normal trace-apps draw out image-links of all the people with a specific name and give you a short morph-file, which in turn gives you a moving image calculation on the most common morphlogs that person is using” mean.

Seers’s search encompasses everything from family history websites to heterochromia – the condition of having two different- coloured eyes, which her narrator claims is caused by one in-utero twin engulfing its pair (my subsequent reading suggests more mundane causes). In Zanzibar she finds the words “George” and “Dragon” (the name of her uncle’s ship) carved into a tree, and believes these have survived a century, ignoring the pragmatic inner voice that suggests neither George nor its link to a dragon is exactly rare. She conducts a blood sacrifice of a chicken (thankfully unseen) in mock-Masonic rig. She goes to Dar-es-Salaam for no better reason than that it is a place with many corrugated tin buildings, although the link to tin is not George’s but hers, and Artangel’s. But logic, and links, are not the point. The endless quest for an unnamed something is Seers’s mode, and the purpose of her images is precisely to remain forever unrevealed.