by Sue Hubbard
In their last White Cube show it was nasty Nazis doing rude things in public. This time, at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in Kensington Gardens, elegantly revamped by Zaha Hadid, it's the Klu Klax Klan. Larger than life figures wearing hand-knitted hippy rainbow socks and Birkenstocks, watching us from behind their pointy hoods, watching them. The fact that the Princess Diana Memorial is just down the road might, for those of an ironic disposition, raise a wry smile. It seems that the professional bad boys of Hoxton, Jake and Dinos Chapman, are working their way through the list of clichéd baddies. What next? Members of Al-Qaeda in polka-dot bikinis?
They are very clever. Clever in the sense that they anticipate all criticism of their work and incorporate it into what they do. The whole point is to fart loudly in the drawing room, to épater le bourgeois, as if the bourgeoisie actually care very much, for we've seen it all before. Their comic book imagery looks tired and passé: the appropriation of and drawing on older art work, the sexualised manikins of children, the Boy's Own Air Fix models of Waffen-SS killing fields – the piles of maimed bodies, the severed heads, the disembowellings and Nazi symbols ironized by the McDonalds logo – like some Disney version of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. That the self-appointed naughty boy of literature, Will Self, (forgive the pun) was asked to write their catalogue essay is no surprise. Boys like gangs.
When interviewed they are extremely articulate. They use all the right jargon. The bronze sculptures at the beginning of the exhibition play with modernist notions of the body as machine and bronze as the ultimate fine art material. Their Little Death Machine (Castrated) is a Heath Robinson contraption of hammers, circular saws, castrated penises and sliced brains. It's as if Mary Shelley's Frankenstein had collaborated with Goya. Of course the whole point of these school-boy doodlings – as if under the desk, away from the teacher's gaze, they've drawn the rudest and naughtiest things they could think of – is that they've been cast in bronze and are now ‘art'. You can almost hear the Chapmans guffaw in the wings as they watch visitors peer at each piece in deep concentration as though some arcane truth might be revealed. But the titles: I want to be popular, Striptease, I laughed in the face of adversity but it laughed back louder show their hard-wired cynicism. The Chapman brothers don't do ‘meaningful', though they do do irritating particularly well.
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The rather amorphous group of artists known as The Glasgow Boys emerged at the end of the 1870s to reject Victorian sentimentalism, staid academicism and the execution of idyllic Highland landscapes in favour of painting scenes taken from everyday life. The first significant group of British artists since the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood they consisted of twenty young artists, including twelve key painters who took their ideas largely from European artistic models. Whilst the French Impressionists may have seemed a little too outré for their taste, they were attracted by the naturalism and realism of Jean-Francois Millet and by James McNeill Whistler’s austere and limited palette. Now the Royal Academy has mounted a major show of their work, billing them as ‘Pioneering Painters’. The first large-scale survey of the work of 'the Boys' to have been staged in London for 40 years it reveals, to a largely new audience, the work of James Paterson, William York Macgregor, James Guthrie and George Henry, together with younger painters such as John Lavery and Thomas Millie Dow, who were among the group’s leading figures. Though, sadly, the Royal Academy has only 80 out of the 130 included in the original version of the exhibition, which had a hugely successful run at Glasgow's Kelvingrove galleries earlier this year.
Condemned by some critics for a lack of originality and plagiarism (The Observer newspaper accused James Guthrie's opening painting A Funeral Service in the Highlands 1881-2 of being over reliant on Courbet's A Burial at Ornans 1849-50, in fact, what is interesting about this work, is how much it reflects the political mood that was sweeping Europe at the time, one that portrayed peasants and farmers in a sympathetic but unsentimental light. In atmosphere and composition Guthrie’s funeral is very similar to Fritz Mackensen’s Sermon on the Moor 1895, which shows a group of German Lutheran peasants dressed in their Sunday best, listening to an outdoor sermon. It is unlikely that Mackensen would have known Guthrie or Guthrie Mackensen, who lived in an artist’s community in Worpswede on the north German moors that counted the poet Rilke and the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker among its participants. Guthrie's work was actually inspired by a painting expedition to Brig o' Turk in the Trossachs. The dark, almost monochromatic canvas is based on a tragic, real life incident, an outdoor Presbyterian service held for a young boy who had drowned in the river during the artist’s stay. The weight of the community’s grief can be felt in the stooped stature of the men who surround the coffin under the metal-grey sky.
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by Sue Hubbard
Little could the British inventor, William Henry Fox Talbot, have imagined, when in 1841 he developed the calotype, an early photographic process using paper coated with silver iodide, where this nascent technology would lead; the ethical and moral questions that photography would raise. From Fox Talbot’s point of view the camera was about producing ‘natural images’. But more than 150 years later we know that the photographer’s relationship with his subject is more complicated. As Susan Sontag perceptively put it in her seminal book On Photography: “like a pair of binoculars with no right or wrong end, the camera makes exotic things near, intimate; and familiar things small, abstract, strange, much further away. It offers, in one easy, habit-forming activity, both participation and alienation in our own lives and those of others – allowing us to participate, while confirming alienation.”
Voyeurism and its cousin, surveillance, have been one of the unforeseen consequences of photography. We take it as a given of modern life that the celebrity is both hungry for photographic coverage, whilst feeling that the paparazzi (as in the case of the late Princess Diana) is constantly hounding them. One of the most complex questions raised by photography is what constitutes private space, provoking slippery questions about who is looking at whom and the degree of surreptitious pleasure and exploitation of power involved. Since its invention the camera has been used to make clandestine images and satisfy the desire to see what is normally hidden or taboo. No one knows exactly how many CCTV cameras are spying on us in the UK as we go about our day to day lives. A figure of 4.2 million cameras has been cited. That’s about one for every 14 citizens and means that most of us will pass an average of 300 cameras a day. Mobile phone and digital cameras are now ubiquitous, making voyeurs of us all.
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