Tate modern

How Philip Guston became a hero to a new generation of figurative painters

Why do painters represent things? There was a time when the answers seemed obvious. Art glorified power, earthly and divine, and provided moral exemplars of how to behave – in the case of sacred paintings – or how not to in the case of profane ones. When modernism threw all that into doubt, the picture frame remained. The question for modern artists was, what to put in it? Fifteen years of non-representational painting prompted Guston to question its usefulness For the first decade of his career, Philip Guston had an old-fashioned answer: the murals he painted in the style of Italian Renaissance frescoes in the US and Mexico during the

Huge, impersonal canvases designed for the walls of billionaires: Tate Modern’s Capturing the Moment reviewed

‘Photography has arrived at a point where it is capable of liberating painting from all literature, from the anecdote, and even from the subject. So shouldn’t painters profit from their newly acquired liberty, and make use of it to do other things?’ argued Picasso. The inventor of cubism took advantage of his liberty in ‘Buste de Femme’ (1938) to turn Dora Maar into a precursor of Peppa Pig, flaring her nostrils to form a snout. Perhaps he wanted to teach a photographer a lesson about paint by rubbing her nose in it. Picasso didn’t abandon the subject or the anecdote. He was one of the first modern artists to turn

The genius of Cezanne

Pity the poor curators of major exhibitions struggling to find fresh takes on famous masters. The curators of Tate Modern’s new Cezanne blockbuster have begun by dropping the acute accent from his surname, apparently a Parisian affectation not in use on the artist’s home turf. Anticipating grumbles about another major exhibition devoted to a dead white male artist, they have emphasised Cezanne’s outsider status by painting him as a provincial from Provence. It was a role the artist liked to play in Paris, once famously excusing himself from shaking Manet’s hand on the grounds that he hadn’t washed in a week. Cezanne’s peers put their money where their mouths were,

Biomorphic forms that tempt the viewer to cop a feel: Maria Bartuszova, at Tate Modern, reviewed

Art is a fundamentally childish activity: painters dream up images and sculptors play with stuff. It was while playing with an inflatable ball with her young daughter in the early 1960s that Maria Bartuszova had the idea of filling balloons with liquid plaster instead of air. The inspiration fed her muse for 30 years, seeding the mixed crop of biomorphic forms currently filling five rooms at Tate Modern. Trained in ceramics at Prague Academy of Arts under communism, Bartuszova turned to plaster after moving with her sculptor husband Juraj Bartusz to the industrial city of Kosice, now in Slovakia, in 1963. Plaster was cheap and plentiful: a 1987 photo in

Why Tate Modern seems more like a playground than an art gallery

This book covers the period 1878-2000, offering thought provoking commentary on some 120 years of experiments in being modern, and begins with the famous court case after John Ruskin accused James Whistler of ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’. But Michael Bird does not limit his perspective to a single artist or cause per chapter. Part of the deep appeal of his writing is the range of reference across literature and art, bringing in key historical events where appropriate. He does a superb job of connecting and deftly summoning context, always seeking to illuminate the larger picture. And he stitches apt quotation through the text, returning to

Guston is treated with contempt: Philip Guston Now reviewed

Philip Guston is hard to dislike. The most damning critique levied against the canonical mid-century American painter is that he is too uncontroversial, his appeal too broad, his approach altogether too winsome. None of that stopped the team behind Philip Guston Now – a travelling mega-survey of his work, which will reach Tate Modern in 2023 – from announcing otherwise. In 2020, the year the show was due to open, the curators announced that in light of the ‘racial justice movement’, the artist’s works might now legitimately be read as racist, and the show could not go forward as planned. This was and is quite obviously nonsense. The works in

A feast for geeks: The Making of Incarnation, by Tom McCarthy, reviewed

Since the publication of his debut, Remainder, Tom McCarthy has established himself as the Christopher Nolan of literary fiction: his novels play with conceptual themes such as time and motion and space. C and Satin Island were both shortlisted for the Booker. His latest, The Making of Incarnation, deals with, among other things, motion-capture technology. Even the title of the science fiction film at the heart of the novel — Incarnation — has a Nolanesque ring to it. The story is knotty. As the narrator puts it: ‘Things are connected to other things, which are connected to other things.’ McCarthy fictionalises the life of the engineer and motion-studies pioneer Lillian

The tyranny of the visual

In 1450, the Duke of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro, became monocular after losing vision in his right eye following a jousting accident. In order to improve the peripheral vision of his left eye, he had surgeons cut off the bridge of his nose. In Piero della Francesca’s 1472 portrait, the Duke is depicted in profile, so we can see that an equilateral triangle of flesh and bone has been chopped from what must have been an elegant aquiline beak. I have been more fortunate. In the past year I’ve had four operations at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London to repair a detached retina that made me blind in one eye.

Deserves to be much better known: Sophie Taeuber-Arp at Tate Modern reviewed

Great Swiss artists, like famous Belgians, might seem to be an amusingly underpopulated category. Actually, as with celebrated Flemings and Walloons, when you start counting you discover there are more of them than you thought. Paul Klee, for example, and Alberto Giacometti. A third, whose work is reassessed in a large exhibition at Tate Modern, was Sophie Taeuber-Arp. Clearly, unlike the other two, hers is far from being a household name even in fairly artistic homes. There are several reasons for this, one perhaps being the unwieldiness of that cognomen itself. She was born Sophie Henriette Gertrud Taeuber in 1889 at Davos, and as was then the custom, hyphenated her

The art of selling vaccines

I was bemused when I first saw the photograph of spaced-out chairs and vaccination booths in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. Was this an art installation designed to probe the relationship between personhood and state? Were we supposed to question the transformational power of medicine, in a live enactment of biomedical transubstantiation in the cathedral-like space? Alas, this was not art, à la Kara Walker, Olafur Eliasson or Carsten Holler. This was an NHS pop-up vaccination clinic, replete with a DJ ‘spinning tunes’. Presumably some clever behavioural psychologists have had a stab at what ‘groovy’ looks like, in an attempt to induce London’s trendy youngsters to be vaccinated. The

Rodin was as modern as Magritte and Dali, but more touching and troubling than either

Rodin’s studio at Meudon in the suburbs of Paris is huge and filled with light — a sort of combined warehouse, factory and conservatory. It’s crammed with white plaster figures: battered, writhing and fragmentary. This strange, almost surreal effect has been recreated in The Making of Rodin at Tate Modern. The result is more interesting than beautiful. Few exhibits would normally be classified as finished pieces. Most are plaster casts of clay studies, ranging in scale from miniature to gigantic. Quite a lot aren’t even works in progress, more ingredients for art, bits and pieces he could play around with. Rodin called these ‘giblets’ (‘abats’). Their effect can be macabre:

The truth about my father, Philip Guston

Philip Guston’s later work is — and I say this with love — nails-down-a-blackboard weird. The vapid pinks and flat reds lend a nightmare cheerfulness. The menacing American figure wearing Mickey Mouse gloves is rendered in cartoonish style. The clock shows it is time to panic, challenging you to call out the hood for the Ku Klux Klan symbol it appears to be. By the time he started making these paintings, in 1968, Guston was pretty much post-everything: post-realism, post-abstract expressionism, post-criticism (he and his wife Musa sailed to Italy the day after the show’s opening night, and when a review found him in Venice, poste restante, he dropped it

What’s an art form that feels unpopular and pointless, but isn’t?

How did the universe begin? Did the great god Bumba vomit us up, as the Kuba believe? Or did we emerge, as the Navajo think, from a cloud of coloured mist? Or do we listen to the ancient Egyptians who thought the curtain opened on a giant cobra slithering across the oceans? Perhaps it starts with a computer screen: Milky Way wallpaper, a folder labelled ‘History_Of_Universe’ and a sharp intake of breath. That’s how one of the great video artworks of the 21st century begins anyway. This summer New York’s Museum of Modern Art uploaded Camille Henrot’s ‘Grosse Fatigue’ (2013) to its YouTube channel. It gives you the birth of

I don’t know when I’ve been more moved: Ora Singers at Tate Modern reviewed

It’s the breath I miss most. The moment when a shuffling group of men and women in scruffy concert blacks breathe in as one and become an ensemble. Now that our breath is diseased, shrunk from, masked, now that performances are digitally distanced and filtered, smoothed and flattened out on screens, there’s something dangerously poignant about that physical swell of inhalation and exhalation that sets the air in motion at the front of a concert hall. Which is why, when I heard that 40 singers would be coming together in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall to sing Thomas Tallis’s Spem in alium, I twitched with need to be there. We talk

The joy of socially distanced gallery-going

Not long after the pubs, big galleries have all started to reopen, like flowers unfolding, one by one. The timing reminded me of an anecdote that Lucian Freud used to tell about a Soho painter friend he took into the National Gallery after it had shut (as some senior artists are entitled to do). They arrived after closing time in the drinking holes of Soho, and the painter friend was staggering and swaying so much that Lucian — who was not easily rattled — became alarmed that he was going to put one of his flailing arms through a Rembrandt. I wonder how those art-lovers of yesteryear would have coped

Slight: Steve McQueen at Tate Modern reviewed

Steve McQueen’s ‘Static’ (2009) impresses through its sheer directness — and it’s very far from static. A succession of helicopter-tracking shots around the Statue of Liberty, it’s the first film you encounter in this quasi-retrospective from the Turner Prize-winning conceptual artist-turned-Oscar-winning film director. Shot shortly after the monument reopened after the 9/11 attacks, it offers the eye an exhilarating whirl of light and colour, while the mind — given the potency of that historical context — goes on an equally dizzying train of associations through the notion of American liberty. While you bring these associations yourself, they seem to emanate naturally and directly from what you’re seeing. It’s that essential

To fill a major Tate show requires a huge talent. Dora Maar didn’t have that

Dora Maar first attracted the attention of Pablo Picasso while playing a rather dangerous game at the celebrated left-bank café Les Deux Magots. She ‘kept driving a small pointed penknife between her fingers into the wood of the table’. From time to time she missed, and a drop of blood appeared on her gloves. This alarming form of digital Russian roulette was the basis for an early work by the performance artist Marina Abramovic, who will be featured at a major show at the Royal Academy next autumn. There is nothing so arresting in the large exhibition devoted to Maar’s work at Tate Modern as the images of the artist

A triumph: ENO’s Mask of Orpheus reviewed

ENO’s Mask of Orpheus is a triumph. It’s also unintelligible. Even David Pountney, who produced the original ENO staging in 1986, admitted to me in the interval that he didn’t have a clue what Harrison Birtwistle’s opera was about. But who cares when, visually and musically, you’re being socked between the eyes? Mask makes sense in the same way an earthquake makes sense. Fittingly we begin with total nonsense: Orpheus, in the bath, attempting to reform language. This is Orpheus the Man, in red velour and gelled-up hair, looking like Rod Stewart. An unlikely charmer of fishes and trees, it has to be said. But soon enough another Orpheus pops

You’ll be blubbing over a wooden boulder at David Nash’s show at Towner Art Gallery

Call me soppy, but when the credits rolled on ‘Wooden Boulder’, a film made by earth artist David Nash over 25 years, I was blinking back tears. Funny what the mind will make human. Within a few minutes I started to think of Nash’s boulder, hewn from a storm-struck oak in the Ffestiniog valley in Wales, as ‘the hero of our story’. A hefty hero, weighing half a tonne, but buoyant. In October 1978, Nash launched the boulder into the Bronturnor stream near his studio at Capel Rhiw in the slate-mining village of Blaenau Ffestiniog in Snowdonia. For 25 years, switching from crackling film to high-def digital, Nash filmed the

Modern sublime

Superficially, the Olafur Eliasson exhibition at Tate Modern can seem like a theme park. To enter many of the exhibits, you have to queue. The average age of the crowds in the galleries is much lower than it might be at, say, the RA. And most visitors keep their phones permanently ready to snap a selfie — which isn’t really what the artist has in mind. He wants you to concentrate on a reaction that is internal and unphotographable. Eliasson — as the title of the show, In real life, might suggest — offers sensory experiences. One of the most memorable of these is produced by ‘Din blinde passager’ (‘Your