Sunday, February 04, 2007

We are the moderns

Currently at Kettle's Yard there is a great exhibition "We are the moderns" which is launching their 50th anniversary celebrations. Although Kettle's Yard often has some top notch stuff in it, this exhibition is really going the extra mile and is packed full of some "names" that you'd often only see if you went to the big smoke.

Jacob Epstein - hard at itI wandered in half-accidentally the other day and was momentarily shocked when I realised I was standing in front of Matisse, Rodin, Gauguin, Picasso and others. In fact it's difficult to explain exactly the level of pleasure I felt when I realised that both Jacob Epstein and Modigliani was represented too.

They've used a really interesting device of taking one lesser known artist, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and placing his work alongside contemporaries from the same pre-WWI period. This allows for the exploration of art poised at a crucial juncture. Whilst many school kids in this country have the poetry of the period drummed into them, the sculpture and paintings of the time exhibit exactly the same tensions.

This moment where pure tangental abstraction is emerging but it's still caught inside the more figurative, representative art of the impressionists and before is, for me at least, absolutely fascinating. I often feel when looking at certain artists of the period that a kind of anti-birthing process is going on, moving from sensuous life into geometric, quantifiable, measurable, angular mechanisms.

I'm a great fan of sculpture, although it's something that's far more difficult to convey on the page photographically, which has limitted the level of reproduction in comparison to painting. However, even paintings which are obviously two dimensional, in a way, lose something in their reproduction. I remember going to see Ophelia in the Tate (as was) and being completely blown away. I had a little postcard of the painting on my bedroom wall and simply was not prepared for the massive, wall sized art work that entirely captured the senses.

Archipenko - someone I'll have to explore more thoroughlyWhat I also enjoyed in Kettle's Yard was some of the really lovely stuff I'd never come across before. I'm sure this reveals the depths of my philistine ignorance but I found the pieces by Archipenko really cool, and I need to explore this gap in my knowledge in more depth.

This period where artists are trying to go beyond simply representing the physical shape of objects in an aestetically pleasing way but using abstract concepts to try to dig beneath the surface appearance is the basis for all modern art, even when it has retreated back into more 'realist' forms.

Trying to express the social and psychological consequences of the modern era was impossible without straying from previous styles and the use of lines, angles and rigid shapes to represent our bodies frees up the imagination and opens up the possiblities of portraying grief, love and a tired alienation in a far deeper way.

One War Poet said that it was impossible to accurately portray the experience of the trenches without telling lies. I think this sums up for me exactly the essence of this period of art. It is impossible to convey the experience of life under modern capitalism without stretching and distorting the human form - because this is exactly what it does to us inside.

The exhibition is on until March 18th at Kettle's Yard (Castle St. Cambridge) - check it out


Louisefeminista said...

I adore Millais's Ophelia and have seen it so many times at the Tate and had a poster of it on my wall as teenager (being the depressive I am...)...and he was the better by far of the Pre-Raphaelites.

But also when you think about that specific period of time there was a massive political upsurge during and after the First World War, for example, and this undoubtedly had an impact on art and would reflect this political climate. Art around that time did experiment, pushed the boundaries and weren't constrained by the usual limitations. Just before the First World War, Marcel Duchamp's cubist "Nude Descending the Staircase" scandalized New Yorkers who were used to more traditional forms of art. The influence artists had on each other such as Picasso, Braque , Grosz, Otto Dix, Vladimir Tatlin and Hannah Hoch and many did belong to the same political movements. It must have been an exciting time for art.

Btw: have seen any Camille Claudel scupltures (student of Rodin)? Superb! Unfortunately her work lurks in the shadows while Rodin gets the spotlight in the Louvre.

Renegade Eye said...

Very nice post. I wish I was there.

Jim Jay said...

I did think about introducing some comments about the political upheavals of the time, but decided to stay focused - but it's certainly true what you say LF that moments of crisis or transformation can't help but be reflected in cultural life.

What's interesting (to me) is that whilst individual artists often did have political affiliation artistic movements often did not. The obvcious example being the futurists many of whom in Russia supported the Bolshevik revolution, many of whom in Italy supported Mussolini and many of whom in the US smoked.

I've not come across the name Camille Claudel before - where would be a good place to start? (with pauper's purse)

Louisefeminista said...

I agree with what you re: The Futurists.

There is lots of stuff on the web about her (there was a film about her made in 1988 and due to the outcry re: the way she was treated the mental health laws which go back the start of the 20th century were improved. It is a very sad film esp. highlighting the probs she encountered as a woman artist and being accepted in a male dominated art world)

Hope that helps...

Jim Jay said...

Thanks for the link, which I will now render html-like so people can just click on it Viola it's well worth visitting people, because although it's difficult to get across scultpure in photos she was clearly extremely talented and on a par with Rodin.

I also checked out her Wikipedia article which looks good and has links (although I don't have time to check them at the mo)

LF: if you ever want to guest post on Camille Claudel you have an open invitation...

Louisefeminista said...

Thanks Jim!
I might take you up on that offer as she is one of my favourite artists.