Saturday, July 08, 2006

All art is quite useful

The immediate problem with Modernism – Designing a New World 1914-1939, at the V&A, is that the exhibits are united by philosophy, not form. You can be studying a reconstruction of the austere Kleinstwohnung, the German minimal dwelling that everyone was going to inhabit in the utopian, concrete future – and then turn to see Soviet ballet costumes that wouldn’t disgrace the campest of Dr Who villains.

In theory, the two extremes were united by a Modernist ethos that fused art and technology for the improvement of society. However, there was no one, unified Modernist dogma to which everybody who assumed the mantle could adhere. This makes the exhibition slightly confusing, as we hop from Russian films to Chicago skyscrapers and then to a bust of Mussolini that makes him look like one of those ceramic knobs on a power line.

But this incoherence seems to be part and parcel of the time. There’s a photograph of Mies van der Rohe’s monument to the November Revolution, which was destroyed by the Nazis in 1933. But its hard-lined brutality and fuck-you sloganeering – "I AM, I WAS, I WILL BE" – could just as easily have been appropriated by Hitler. Similarly, the assembly-line economics of Henry Ford and FW Taylor, emblematic of 20th-century capitalism, were revered by the Soviet government in the 1920s. These ideas in turn, become the inspiration for film-makers as diverse as Eisenstein, Chaplin and René Clair, with humans turning into disembodied components of what the Futurist architect Sant’elia dubbed "the urban machine".

It’s not all doom and dystopia, though. One snippet we pick up is that the Bauhaus organised, of all things, a weaving course, and Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky were both tutors on it. Loomcraft aside, which one of them finished the last custard cream in the staff room, one wonders. (Kandinsky, incidentally, has his own show at Tate Modern, documenting his movement from representation to abstraction. It’s good, but slightly pointless, because on the evidence here, he never went fully abstract, in the way Rothko or Pollock did. There’s always something that looks a bit like a cannon, or a penis, or a couple riding the log flume at Alton Towers, that penetrates the chin-stroking with a giggle of recognition.)

Like Kandinsky, it seems, the Modernists never quite had the courage of their own convictions. One of the last sections is devoted to the Highpoint buildings in Hampstead. The architect, Bernard Lubetkin, occupied the penthouse in Highpoint 2, but despite his nominal adherence to Mies van der Rohe’s "Less is More" credo, he decorated his abode with garish images from Pollock’s toy theatres and the weirdest manifestations of marine life. If your best aesthetic intentions have been hijacked by Fascism, Stalinism and the wilder excesses of industrial capitalism, maybe Surrealism is the best refuge.

On the other hand, Surrealism could also be a tricky beast. Undercover Surrealism: Picasso, Miró, Masson and the Vision of Georges Bataille, at the Hayward, is an apt if unwieldy title, as Bataille was always at odds with André Breton and his Manifesto gang, the self-appointed bearers of the lobster-flavoured torch. Like the V&A show, it flirts with incoherence by insisting that true Surrealism existed before and beyond those who appropriated the name. It’s a sound point, but it means that we have to get past a 17th-century Abyssinian prayer scroll and photographs from the abattoir at La Villette before we reach the arty bits.

And that’s the point. Bataille was the founder of the magazine Documents, a precursor to the likes of Roland Barthes in that it found meaning in the manifestations of mass culture that, in the 1920s, still slipped under the critical radar. He was as fascinated by the Buster Keaton movie on show by the entrance as he was by what the likes of Breton, Magritte and Tanguy chose to define as art (their own stuff, mostly). No wonder relations were a wee bit frosty.

The rampant eclecticism here means that the works by the headline artists (including some glorious, purple-slashed Mirós) play second fiddle to Bataille’s fixations, notably his obsession with headless forms. Despite the feud, this is something he shared with the paid-up surrealists, as his favourite images of acéphales tie into the Freudian notions of the subconscious imagination bypassing the rational brain; easier, surely, if there’s no brain to bypass.

Bataille’s world view is a real thumb in the eye to the Surrealists because, despite their Dadaist, anti-Art roots, most of them still craved acceptance (not to mention cash) for their ability to put oil on canvas. The two most memorable pieces leap out of that self-imposed box. One is a drawing of giraffes, by André Masson’s nine-year-old daughter Lili. ("A child could do that!" is the philistine response to modern art. To which the obvious retort is, "Of course a child could. But for an adult to be able to do it as well is something special.")

The other is more a happy accident. There are listening posts, allowing vistors to log into the music that soundtracked Bataille’s world. At the end of the day, nobody’s listening; the headphones lie empty, but the music – Stravinsky, Duke Ellington, voodoo rituals – still leaks out, different sounds from different posts, mushing together, fighting and then reaching some sort of equilibrium. It sounds like a thousand drunken bagpipers playing Radiohead, and it’s beautiful.

Two things unite these exhibitions. One is the cheeky perversity of their respective settings: the minimalist functionalism of the Modernism nestling in the camp, imperial finery of the V&A; Bataille’s magpie tendencies occupying the austere, urban lump that is the South Bank.

The other is that the exhibits themselves are mostly of secondary interest. The individual pieces exist to tell a story, to support an idea, a concept; there’s no single work here without which either exhibition would fail. The message transcends the medium, and the most important ‘artists’ at work are the curators. The conceptualists have taken over the asylum.


patroclus said...

Great post. It was the 'eclectic' aspect of the Modernism exhibition that I really liked - one moment you're looking at the tiny, tiny architectural drawings that arose from someone or other's' wild visions' (which made me laugh a lot), and the next you're looking at a flashing-eyed robot version of an Indonesian dancing puppet, whose owner used to join it on stage during performances 'barking like a dog' (which made me laugh even more). It was fabulous.

Although the whole urban housing bit was yet another example of middle class intellectuals determining how working class people should live (i.e. in buildings that are meant to function like machines - talk about the culture industry organising leisure time along capitalist-industrialist lines...)

Err, right, yes, sorry, went a bit pretentious there.

Should really see that Surrealism exhibition before it finishes, thanks for the reminder...

Little 16 said...

I agree with you. my opinion is that art and music are very important in peoples lifes. I have a post about Salvador dali. What do you think about that kind of art?

Tim Footman said...

Patroclus: One other thing I like was the way that mundane objects (that Bentley engine; ball bearings) achieved a kind of beauty because of the context. Who defined art as "what goes in galleries"? It's true.

Little 16: I do like some Dali, but I always get the idea that his biggest work of art was himself. Also, I remember seeing his actual paintings for the first time, in New York when I was about 18, and being amazed how small they were.

Have you seen a Hitchcock movie called Spellbound? Dali designed the sets for the dream sequences. Fantastic.

Molly Bloom said...

Excellent post, excellent discussions. I loved the part about the headphones with no-one listening but still...the music/ideas pouring out. Brilliant writing. Enjoyed this v.much.

patroclus said...

You can't help but admire Dali - the amount of stuff he produced is breathtaking. The man must have been working 18 hours a day his entire adult life.

The Dali Theatre-Museum in Figueres in Northern Spain is absolutely brilliant. Nuts, but brilliant. Packed full of stuff, in a building he designed himself. Well worth a visit.

First Nations said...

i so wish i could have seen it! and heard it! bagpipers, radiohead and all. i did manage to see the modernists exhibition in Seattle...the one thing you take away from it all is the same old pissy ideological dissonance between high forms and popular forms. me, i like the purdy pichers.

Billy said...

Fascinating stuff. I really must get up off my arse and go to both of these.

Robert A. Swipe said...

Nice one Tim - will have to check them out.

Further reading: anyone who hasn't already, should read the chapter in Greill Marcus's Lipstick Traces concerning the Cabaret Voltaire and the parallels bewtween those early months of Dada and the London Punk scene. The activities of Huelsenbeck, Ball and co. represent an extremity which art very rarely reaches. Likewise, the hanging of the first Surealist exhibition in Paris (by Dali and I forget who else - Bunuel, perhaps?) which featured a cat's cradle of string through which the viewers had to crawl in order to make their way around the gallery.

Those were the days....

A fellow student at art college chose surrealism as the subject of his special exercise. He wrote 4,000 words, cuth the essay up and put the pieces in a jam jar and handed it in.

The bastards failed him!

Tim Footman said...

That's interesting, Bob. I thought of Lipstick Traces (certainly one of my Top 10 pop books of all time) at various points during both exhibitions. I think the main thing is the way Marcus brings apparently irrelevant elements (eg the photos of disfigured German WW1 soldiers) into play, and makes you do the math - ah! Lydon's bug-eyed, meningitis-riddled, gargoyle glare! Got it!

Is it Duchamp you're thinking of? He had a piece called The Mile of String.

Tim Footman said...

Actually, your student pal should have come to Exeter. I remember one guy a couple of years below me who was taking Fine Art despite the fact he couldn't draw, and all he wanted to do was be a pop star (see Lennon, Townshend, Ferry, etc, etc).

Fortunately, in his last year the Art School took delivery of a big glossy Mac (must have been a IIx or something like that) and a scanner (almost certainly one of those big, noisy Kurzweils, known to their enemies as Rottweilers because they were as likely to chew your stuff up as store it). So he scanned an image of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and fucked around with the colours. Effectively, he got a 2:i for colouring in.

I think Patroclus can probably guess the identity of the chancer in question. And yes, he did go on to become a pop star of sorts.

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patroclus said...

>>I think Patroclus can probably guess the identity of the chancer in question. And yes, he did go on to become a pop star of sorts. <<

And he has the same birthday as me, *and* I had a one-night stand with his housemate. (Just on the offchance that there's someone left on the internet who hasn't heard me tell that story already).

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