DAVID COHEN every Friday at artcritical.com
April 7-14, 2001 [double issue]
The Two Tates: A Tale of Nine Cities and a Village
LONDON: Stanley Spencer at Tate Britain; Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis at Tate Modern
Since their divorce, the Tates have settled into very different lifestyles. Or so it would seem from the current exhibitions at these two institutions. Britishness and Modernism were anyway an odd couple. Forced by historic accident to share digs for the best part of a century, these two national collections each now have their own home, the British staying - and spreading itself out - at Millbank, the Modern opening up at Bankside. The shows in question are almost a caricature contrast of globalism and parochialism (sorry, I should have said internationalism and regionalism). Century City links flashpoint avant-garde responses to metropolis living across five continents and ten decades, whereas Stanley Spencer focuses on the intensely personalist mystical visions of one quirky romantic realist much of whose art centers around the "home counties" village of his birth. But stereotypes can be misleading. The Spencer show in fact works hard to place an oddball individualist within modern, international contexts. And as for the metropolis show, it's the view of this perhaps paranoid ex-patriate that a whiff of national triumphalism has entered curatorial thinking. More of that anon.
The thing is that as a boy I attended the very second class Public School [Americans, read "prep school"] whose governors, the Worshipful Company of Brewers, commissioned Spencer's late altarpiece, Crucifixion at Cookham (1958). Six days a week, chapel attendance was compulsory (Jews were not exempt, though Catholics, Muslims and Buddhists were!) and the experience rather put me off Anglican religion and Stanley Spencer for life. It might have helped if the school had relayed Spencer's message to the boys that he painted the carpenters in Brewers hats because "it's your governors, and you, who are still nailing Christ to the cross". But the discovery of art is in large measure the learning to appreciate what you don't at first like, so I won't blame my childhood. (The painter of a naked self-portrait with his to him sexually unavailable lesbian wife and a leg of mutton can blame his if he wants to.) My problems with Spencer have more than been confirmed by failures despite earnest endeavor on my part to see past his cramped design, willed awkwardness and drab use of color and paint. There are more than enough things to admire in Spencer, however, and I am always ready to be converted. If anything could have done the trick, this well-paced, judicious, beautifully installed exhibition put together by painter and writer Timothy Hyman and cultural historian Patrick Wright should have brought me to the true faith.
Spencer follows hot on the heels of Tate Britain's Blake exhibit (about to open in New York, incidentally, at the Metropolitan Museum) and there is something comparable in Spencer to the total-world-view inducing intensity of William Blake. For sure, Blake, and even more, Blake's acolyte who was revived during the period of Spencer's artistic formation, Samuel Palmer, were influences on him. But somehow, Spencer goes beyond Blake in formal weirdness just as surely as he falls short of him in spiritual wackiness. Take for instance the knowingness of the respective artists' mannerism. Blake self-consciously appropriated the language of the Renaissance - Michelangelo above the rest - and of classicism, and subjected these to his Gothic sensibility. Of Blake we can say that however odd-fitting the appropriated elements were in his cobbled-together language, it really was HIS language, forged into a soaring unity. Spencer, by contrast, often seems pulled out of shape by the struggle between mimetic finesse, of which he was supremely capable, and expressive distortion, never in my opinion forging a synthesis of the two.
After his "neuesachlichkeit" phase of glossy nudes Spencer delved into Cranach-Grien-Grunewald inspired freak shows. His peer is not to be found in the German Renaissance, however, but in modern America, in the person of Ivan Albright. A whole room is given over to his "beatitudes", his odd-couple paintings. A big-eared nobbly-kneed wimp hanging on the arm of a sack of potatoes in a curtain woman who is treading on his toe. As ill-suited as this couple are Spencer's visual contortions and the ploddingly plotted, dutifully rendered ultimately anti-painterly means by which these are rendered. After these forced extremities, Spencer settled into a private language for doing figures in moderately odd volutric forms that actually recall his Slade colleague, William Roberts, not to mention Léger and Malevich. Of course, in the old days when the Tates were still together examples of these latter could have been on hand for comparison.
In Blake, to go back to that comparison, there is often
a bewildering amount going on, textually and formally, but this never
distracts from the expressive compactness, the gestalt. In Spencer, by
contrast, detail can seem alienated from design. I suppose if one wanted
to mount a defence one would say, Precisely! Blake takes his figure-centeredness
from Michelangelo, whereas Spencer subscribes to an earlier Renaissance
notion of picture organisation, like the Italian Primitives he so actively
emulated in his precocious student works. But we don't have to be bad
old formalists (Fry and Bloomsbury get it in the eye - the right figure
of speech - from both Hyman and Wright for their Spencer persecutions)
to balk at the subservience to illustration in Spencer's picture-making.
Leonardo scoffed at the Primitives (Giotto included) for the jumble of imagery in fresco cycles, arguing for the superiority of easel painting. Spencer, even while producing individual canvases, apparently thought like a fresco painter. Like Munch's Frieze of Life and Rodin's Gates of Hell, the invidual canvases were configured within their author's mind (or longings) sequentially. He showed himself a master of church decor in his murals for the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere, present in this show in a tastefully-executed video. Spencer elaborated at great lengths his fantasy of arranging his works in a personal architectural statement, a marriage of his private mysticism and life experience, which he called Church-House. Individual chapels were to serve as memorials to both the war, the women in his life, and his religious visions, his works spread over ceilings and walls. Brilliantly (if only vision and technis were are harmonised in Spencer himself) Adrian Glew has created an animated virtual reconstruction of Spencer's schemes, using sketches, lists, and photos of realised works to visualise Burghclere-like chapels on the computer screen. A cathedral of erotic misery in England's green and pleasant land!
Century City offered nine flashpoints of avantgarde interaction with urbanism. These were (as listed alpabetically in the catalogue but arranged kind of chronologically on the ground) Bombay in the last decade, Lagos in the fifteen years after Nigerian independence in 1955, London in the last decade, Moscow following the October Revolution, New York in a tight squeeze of years, 1969-74, Paris 1905-15, Rio 1950-64, Tokyo around the time of '68 and all that, and Vienna, 1908-18. The premise behind this selection is that the avantgarde, in each time and place, responded in a unique way to their metropolis to produce innovative urban art. Well, it is a sine qua non that the city and the avantgarde go hand in glove. Whether the results are celebration or acute alienation, urban living is the essence of modernity and thus the principal subject of modernism. And we are, in case you haven't noticed, in the era of the theme show. Pastoralism certainly features in modern art, too, but invariably when it does, pace Stanley Spencer, it is as much as anything a comment by way of reaction on urbanism and modernity. (Incidentally, his realistic landscapes, produced with reluctance for the market, are often telling and poignant in their insights into modernity's impact on the countryside.)
The idea of focusing on specific scenes, as Tate Modern
does, is commendable. I'm all for this show in theory. The fact that it
has fallen flat on its face shouldn't prevent them from such bold experiments
in the future. The show is a shambles because its selection has been delegated
to nine individualists who have not been held to account by a cogently
enforced guiding ethic. These boroughs needed a tougher mayor. The Knightsbridge/Gramercy
Park (wherever you want to live neighborhood) of this show was Moscow.
Lutz Becker has gathered together and exquisitely installed a superb mini-show
of Russian Constructivism which needs no justification in terms of the
city, though the film materials and architectural models and jacket covers
underline the urbanity of the paintings and sculptures without reducing
them to illustrations. From Moscow one moved to Lagos, and although there
was much to learn from Okwui Enwezor and Oiu Oguibe's display, one had
to make a pretty special effort after going from Rodchenko magazine covers
to twee, tastefully "mod" 1950s Penguins. Music and literature
were the main claims for Lagos's inclusion, but these forms are hard to
represent in an art museum. Family snapshots were a frankly patronising
attempt to contextualise the scene. Much was made of the post-colonial
modernist architecture, but the work on show was actually rather limp
sub-Corbusier provided by London architectural firms. In contrast, architecture
received short shrift in the Rio section, with barely a nod towards Oscar
Niemayer, the great Brasilian innovator who put the style back into international
style. The art in the Rio section, however, was a wonderful revelation,
especially the quirky modern architecture inspired canvases of Milton
Dacosta. Bombay, put together by Geeta Kapur and Ashish Rajadhyaksha,
gave a much more visually vital sense than Lagos of art energized by a
city's unique culture, movies in their case, and responsive to a political
situation. Sad, but sectarian degeneration seems to make for better art
than independence euphoria. Whereas the Moscow section was just the right
size for a familiar period, the Rio section left us hungry for more. Vienna,
like Moscow, was focused and made good sense.