Feminism, subjecthood and the right to desire

As an undergraduate in history of art at Cambridge, I remember struggling with the ‘feminist theory’ class. I found it hard to stomach what was being taught, which (it seemed) was concretely the rejection of all art which treated the female body as desirable. ‘Feminist’ art as it was presented to us seemed to embody anger and hate. Continue reading “Feminism, subjecthood and the right to desire”

Tweet Titian! Some wonderful poetry guidelines.

Having been alerted to this fun competition via a Twitter contact, I had a great deal of fun composing an entry. I wanted to share on here the guidelines for writing your poem, provided for the National Gallery by George Szirtes. I’m not generally a poet as I prefer writing prose, but these beautifully composed points could inspire any kind of writing, including art history, and could even inspire structures of thought which might not even necessarily reach incarnation via the written word.

  • Writing poems about paintings is not a matter of description. It is a matter of passing through. What you see and know accompany you.
  • You pass through into a perception you don’t yet understand. You watch and listen as you move. You are inside it, looking around.
  • You may know something of the artist, you may know something about art. That knowledge is your sense of direction.
  • Your medium is words. Words are the air you breathe in the imagined space of the image. It is the rhythm of words, their colour and weight.
  • The picture is speaking to you. It speaks to memory and the unknown. You enter and discover. You go your own way.

– George Szirtes

Tweet Titian! | Twitter poetry competition | The National Gallery, London.

Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Spring is arriving in Yorkshire and I love the breezy sunshine. A trip to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park was an obvious choice last weekend, and Miro at Yorkshire Sculpture Parkone I had been looking forward to for a while. Apparently, half of Britain agreed with me, as the place was heaving. The restaurant was a single mum’s nightmare – hours of queuing and crowds and waiting for food. Although on a quieter day, the view from the glass-fronted building would have been lovely.

The park is set in the grounds of a stately home and covers 500 acres. We covered a predictably frustratingly small fraction (with a pushchair) but what we did manage was memorable and worthwhile. The park was hosting a new Miro exhibition, although none of us were particularly taken. The children failed to sense the whimsy of the “Personnages” and I was more intrigued by an apparent reference to Brimham Rocks in a sculpture which strongly resembled the rock called The Idol…!

However, a much more natural and emotional response followed naturally, when we left the confines of the visitor centre area and started running down the sunny hill, where Barbara Hepworth’s 1970 group “The Family of Man” strides down the slope.

Perhaps it is a general feeling, or perhaps something personal to me, but the sense of serenity about this group really filled me with a sense of deep happiness, and I was very grateful that it was there, and that it had the power to evoke such positive emotions. Everything about the group, whether it was the spacing of the figures or the sense of free motion downhill through the trees, or the solid and confident weight of the bronzes whose abstract shapes were both angular and fluid, pliable and strong, suggested unity and family.

The sunshine certainly helped, but the children shared my sense of satisfaction and peaceful enjoyment, running inbetween the figures; which do have a strong sense of personhood about them, even though they are more abstract than the Miro “Personnages”. My son, in particular, had a warm and visceral response to the Hepworth figures, which expressed itself in a very tactile way. He seemed to respond not only to the texture, but also to the shape, scale, and sun-warmed surfaces of the sculptures. The liberation proposed by the Sculpture Park setting, which allows both children and adults such rare close physical interaction with art, seemed rather joyful in this context.

Other works set throughout the grounds also encourage tactile interaction, but after this first moving experience, none of the other artworks quite inspired the same feelings. However, my daughter had a sweet and personal reaction to Elisabeth Frink’s “Sitting Man” – she took hold of its hand and started singing nursery rhymes: “Round and round the garden, like a teddy bear…” Possibly, she was struck by the lifelike pose and scale, but certainly a sense of trust had been instinctively engendered. I found it fascinating to observe the children’s uninhibited responses to each work.

The monumental scale of Anthony Caro’s “Promenade” was certainly one of the most visually arresting sights in the Park, and the children enjoyed making it their playground, finding secret passages, rooms and houses in exactly the same way as all the other young visitors. I think they felt this was the sole purpose of the installation – not really ‘art’ at all – whereas I feel the Hepworth group did retain its purpose as a visual and physical object to experience.

I had been looking forward to seeing Anthony Gormley’s sculpture, “One and Other”, positioned high up on a tree in a hidden, forested corner of the Park. It was oddly small, but as with all Gormley’s human figures, imbued with plenty of intensity: and the pose indicated a resiliant human defiance, a combination of vulnerability and strength.

A definite favourite, though, with the children was Henry Moore’s “Large Two Forms”. Every child visitor to the Park seemed drawn to it, and it was immensely satisfying to be able to walk in and around it and through the middle, touch the worn and smoothed surfaces, and observe and experience the shapes from all angles. What the children loved most, though, was the sonorous materiality of the bronze, and every child put their ears to the sculpture to hear the strange bell-like echoing within the shape.

I think what is particularly lovely about the Sculpture Park is the variety of sculptures and the informality which is encouraged. Nothing staid or restrained about this ‘gallery’ – it is all touch and running and sunshine – and really a unique and quite special experience.

For the full collection of 72 photos taken at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, please click here to visit the set on Flickr.

Gordon Baldwin – Objects for a Landscape

‘Sculptural potter’ Gordon Baldwin’s exhibition, ‘Objects for a Landscape’, is at York Art Gallery from February to June of this year. I took the children during the half term break, on a mild and breezy York day. The gallery had laid on a creative workshop and I was interested to see what my children would make of it.

Called ‘Clouds made of Clay’, the workshop was responding to one of Baldwin’s particular inspirations, cloud formations. The young participants were encouraged to work the clay freely, while trained assistance was available for older children more interested in developing different techniques.

As we had done at the Hepworth, I took the children to the workshop first, to give them a ‘way in’ to the exhibition. Photographs of some of Baldwin’s pieces, as well as photographs of clouds, were on the table as source material if needed. What surprised me was how the children responded to the stimulus.

My son made and remade several abstract pieces, oddly reminiscent of Baldwin’s own instinctive working method (which he describes in a video on the gallery website). He seemed to shape and work the clay until he achieved a form that interested him, then unmade it or defaced it in an interesting way, before crushing it or flattening it and starting again. I was amused to see that he remembered clay working techniques (such as coil and pinch) which he learned last year with ceramic teacher Jo McKinnon, at her workshop in the south ofFrance.

Only once did he start to make ‘a thing’ – an animal – but this project didn’t seem to inspire him. His final piece had holes through the middle. I couldn’t help wondering if Barbara Hepworth from last month’s gallery trip was still in his mind.

My 2 year old daughter loved cutting and pushing the clay with the tools that were at our disposal. She was obviously interested in investigating its materiality rather than making it into a particular visual form.

As we left the workshop, it turned out to have been an absolutely perfect introduction to the exhibition. Both children were curious about what the artist had made out of the same material they had just been handling.

While I found some of the darker aspects of Baldwin’s work preoccupying (in particular, I felt that one overriding theme, the sharp edges and cuts in swollen, bulbous forms, hinted at bodily violence; the black interior of pieces such as ‘Vessels for Dark Thoughts’ felt somewhat unsettling), the children enjoyed a more playful interpretation. They asked me to pick them up so they could see inside each piece, commenting on the different shapes and colours; they enjoyed discussing whether a bowl or pot was lumpy, or spiky, or smooth; they wondered what each piece might be ‘for’.

Here was a gallery which had truly engaged its young visitors with the materiality of the art objects on show. The fascinating video of the sculptor at work, which was playing on a loop in the centre of the exhibition space, clearly was suggesting that we focus on the process, rather than the outcome.

What fascinated me about the video was the sculpt0r’s uncertainty about where the work was going, what it would become, what he would do with it. Freeing his own creative process in this way also frees the viewer. While the associations and feelings surrounding the pieces had a specific and not particularly pleasant resonance for me, the novelty of cups, bowls and vases in odd shapes, with odd openings, was enough to capture the children’s attention and make them think and play with visual and physical concepts.

Click here for the Flickr set with more photos from the workshop, or click here for the York Art Gallery site with full images from the exhibition.

Clare Woods – The Unquiet Head

My children at Brimham Rocks

On the 29th January we visited The Hepworth Wakefield to coincide with the final day of Clare Woods’ exhibition, The Unquiet Head. I was determined not to miss this exhibition, as the paintings have been inspired in part by the landscape around Brimham Rocks, a stunning collection of natural rock formations in North Yorkshire, which is a few miles down the road from our house. And having offered to do some communications volunteering for the National Trust about Brimham Rocks I thought this would be a useful field trip.

The children love visiting Brimham Rocks: we’ve been several times since we have been back in the UK. The amazing rock formations, worn away by erosion over thousands of years, are a natural playground, with shapes, steps, crevices, caves, towers, hidden paths just asking to be explored. It’s a genuinely wonderful and original place, but it’s true that having visited so often with young children, where most of my time is spent clambering desperately to keep up with small people, I have not had the opportunity to take the time to explore the emotions and impressions that the landscape can evoke when alone, or in a more contemplative mood.

Clare Woods visited Brimham to research her paintings and describes a sense of anxiety, in particular when visiting alone, early in the morning. She explains, “it’s not a relaxing place: it’s not about, look at this beautiful view, or this wonderful panorama” (BBC News report, October 2011). The rich cultural history associated with the site – from Victorian myths about Druids and fairies, to the names affectionately given to individual rocks (The Druids’ Writing Desk, The Dancing Bear, The Smartie Tube) – gives a sense of the sheer inventiveness of human imagination when applied to this odd quirk of geology.

Brimham Rocks

relationship between the paintings and the rocks intrigued me from the outset. Some paintings clearly ‘are’ certain rocks (even are recognisable). As we walked in, I overheard a woman coming out saying “They’re supposed to be Brimham Rocks, I think.” Supposed to be? I suspected that this was missing the point on a catastrophic scale.

The BBC news report is even less ambiguous about the connection. Woods’ exhibition is captioned, ‘the work depicting Brimham Rocks’. “Having just come from Brimham Rocks, I completely recognise them. There they are!” enthuses the journalist at the end of the video report.

It has somehow done Clare Woods a disservice to associate The Unquiet Head too closely to the landscape at Brimham, which makes the question “which rock is it supposed to be?” crowd out the other impressions and inspirations the paintings evoke. The exhibition leaflet states that “Woods continues a tradition of British landscape painting characterised by artists such as Paul Nash, John Piper and Graham Sutherland”, but I’d be tempted to look further back into the stylistic history of abstraction – a characterisation of Woods as a landscape artist threatens to negate the strong and vibrant nod to predecessors in genres such as abstract expressionism, and the compelling abstract colour work, for me a major part of the appeal of these pieces, strongly evocative of some parts of the Colour Fields movement.

Clare Woods – The Intended

Because they are moving, stunning paintings in their own right. Two things struck me upon first walking into the main room (where the two large murals, Mistaken Point and The Intended, are displayed): the sheer scale of the paintings, and their glorious physicality, in the boldness of colour and glossy liquidity of the surfaces. The murals face each other across the room: one bolder with red and black hues, the rock forms looming and swaying above the viewer’s heads; the other softer, more fluid, with a palette of pinks and natural tones. They are placed opposite each other as if offering two different interpretations, or two different attitudes or emotions.

I can’t help wondering if the titles of both works are a hint that all is not what it seems. Both titles refer to intention and reception, with perhaps a hint that the artist is tantalising the viewer with the point, the intention, deliberately set aside to elude us.

Clare Woods – close up detail

The other thing which makes a visit to see the originals in the gallery (rather than a print or photograph) so compelling is the difference between the distant and the close-up view. This is touched on in the BBC documentary. I actually preferred coming in close to the paintings, enjoying the gorgeousness of the paint and texture and letting the shapes and blocks of colour smear and weave between each other, without coalescing into a rock or other shape. Some of the close-up textures are also fascinating.

Apart from the two vast horizontal murals, there are other immense works along the ‘rocks’ theme, but also smaller, more intimate works, some clearly implying faces or heads, others suggesting natural forms, perhaps nests or wood. On the day we visited, the stunning Ligeti string quartet was playing in one of the rooms, in which were displayed three vast paintings. The music had been chosen to suggest the unsettling and dark nature of the paintings. My 6 and 2 year old sat silently and watchfully through a ten minute piece by Nicola de Fanu. I’m not sure what they thought, but I do think the haunting atmosphere affected them and kept their attention. When the piece was finished, I decided to take pity on them, and took them for a drink in the café. I hope the quartet didn’t take it personally when we left (I’d have sat there for hours).

I’m very much hoping the exhibition travels to another gallery, as I caught it too late to be able to recommend it. But I think I’d definitely suggest disassociating the paintings from the rocks. They are not paintings ‘of’ rock formations. Instead they are a luxuriously crafted and compelling glance at the thoughts, passions and emotions of an artist with a gifted eye for colour. Next time I visit Brimham Rocks, perhaps the relationship will work in the other direction, and the reds, roses, blacks, taupes, oranges and greys from Clare Woods’ visions might stay with us, when we are exploring the infinity of browns, greys and greens dreamt up by the Yorkshire countryside.

To see all 54 images and viewpoints of our visit to the Hepworth Wakefield, click here to go to the set on Flickr.