Thursday, 13 September 2012

Outsiders' London

Tate Britain's 'Another London' comes to an end this weekend. Subtitled 'International photographers capture city life 1930-1980', the show is a roll call of refugees fleeing the Nazis pre-World War II: Ellen Auerbach, Dorothy Bohm, Hans Casparius, Herbert List, Felix H Man...

Prime among them is Bill Brandt, born in Munich, and moved to London in 1933. The handful of his works chosen here, from the Eric and Louise Franck London Collection, are symptomatic of the exhibition as a whole: they're all exterior shots.

As if to underline the outsider status of these emigrés and visitors, the vast majority of the photos show familiar landmarks and everyday characters but rarely scratch beneath the city's surface. James Barnor's 'Mike Eghan at Piccadilly Circus, London' (c1967) is typical, and full of incidental information (posters in the background advertise Doctor Zhivago, Michael Caine in Funeral in Berlin and Lionel Bart's Oliver!, 'London's longest running musical'), although there is no explanation of who Mike Eghan is, unless I missed it.

Ghanaian Barnor (Eghan is a compatriot broadcaster) has one of the few indoor shots on show - 'Flamingo cover girl Sarah with friend, London' (c1965) - and how atmospheric it is: we all know these stairwells of shared accommodation. Eve Arnold goes one step further and invades the bathroom for 'One of four girls who share a flat in Knightsbridge' (1961). Along with Willy Ronis' 1955 interior of a barely changed French House, these are the exhibition's best images.

I've always been troubled by Bill Brandt's latent sadism, but how I longed for one of his nudes - 'The Policeman's Daughter, Hampstead' (1945), say, or 'Eaton Place Nude' (1951). The Eaton Place images are unforgettable to anyone who has ever visited any of the central London townhouses, while the former hints at the perversions perpetrated behind our close doors.

And if not these, why not his 'Late night coffee stall' (1939), 'Alice at the Crooked Billet' (1939), 'Young woman at Charlie Brown's' (1946) or Brandt's 1941 portrait of Dylan Thomas in the Salisbury pub. In his work, perhaps more than in any of the images on show, the German was someone who never lost his outsider's eye, but was part of British life, exactly as he wanted.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Snapping up the Munch bunch

Almost 20 years after the last major Edvard Munch retrospective in London - at the National Gallery - the Norwegian artist is being celebrated at Tate Modern until 14 October. The National Gallery show was based on the Frieze of Life series and the Tate exhibition also emphasises the cycles in Munch's work, more successfully than for Gerhard Richter in its recent blockbuster.

The emphasis does shift between the National Gallery and Tate shows, and not just because the former included a version of The Scream - notably from the figure of Tulla Larsen, with whom Munch had a relationship from 1899 to 1902, to Rosa Meissner, a model who came from Berlin in 1907, along with her sister, Olga. And while the exhibition at the National Gallery was preoccupied with an incident in which Munch accidentally shot himself after an argument with Tulla (presumably the source of the X-ray of a bullet in Munch's hand, which goes unexplained at the Tate), the Tate survey concentrates on an incident at a party when the artist threatened to shoot a younger artist, Ludvig Karsten.

While the National Gallery catalogue contains contemporary photographs of Munch's exhibitions, the Tate makes much more of the artist's photographs, in line with the current vogue. The main exhibit could be said to be a photograph of Rosa Meissner naked in a room, which inspired the series Weeping Woman. (Interested in auras and spiritualism - as well as blurs and odd angles - Munch creates a spooky shadow in the photo, reminiscent of Francesca Woodman's self-portraits, although the spectre is Rosa's sister, Olga.)

'Edvard Munch belongs to a generation of artists - that of Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, Félix Vallotton... and others - all born around 1860, who achieved their first stylistic maturity in the final two decades of the nineteenth century, at the time of the great boom in amateur photography,' writes Clément Chéroux in the Tate catalogue. This overlaps with a recent exhibition, 'Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard', whose companion published by Easton is well worth snapping up, however: 'What fundamentally distinguishes Munch from the other painters who practised photography at the same time is the quantity of self-portraits he produced.'

Many of them are included in this exhibition; they form a sort of autobiography. While he painted himself with deliberation in such wonderful works as Between the Clock and the Bed (1940-3) - one of my favourite self-portraits of any artist - in these snaps he seems to have been looking for answers to questions he didn't know how to pose.

Though the National Gallery may have presented visitors with the broader survey of Munch's work, this great show at Tate Modern has touches of Paul Gauguin, 'who Munch considered to be the greatest artist of his time' (Arne Eggum in the Tate catalogue) - see Red Virginia Creeper (1898-1900) - and Vallotton (check out the shapes in The Kiss, 1897, or the figures in the doorway of Jealousy, 1907, inspired by Munch's unhappy relationship with Tulla Larsen). His influence can even be found, more recently, in the work of another wonderful storyteller: Peter Doig - compare Ashes and Summer Night's Dream: The Voice with Doig's Echo Lake (1998) and 100 Years Ago (Carrera), 2001.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Portraits of the artists

Michel Houellebecq's latest novel, The Map and the Territory - recently out in paperback - is a neat spin on that favourite of novelists, filmmakers and, indeed, artists: a portrait of the artist. Houellebecq's work, which varies wildly in tone (translator Gavin Boyd is masochistically faithful to the original French), has an artist invade the life of a reclusive writer - Houellebecq himself.

The author is gloriously unflattering about his subject. The 'author of Platform' - the book apes the language of Wikipedia or even technical manuals - is discovered as a reticent recluse, gasping for a drink, spouting non-sequiturs. 'He stank a little, but less than a corpse...' '"I've relapsed,"' he tells his visitor, '"I've completely relapsed into charcuterie."'

It made me return to one of my favourite pen portraits of an artist: W Somerset Maugham's fictional take on the life of Paul Gauguin, The Moon and Sixpence (1919). Maugham's novel is just as reflexive as The Map... as it is told by another writer, an acquaintance of the subject, Charles Strickland (the fictive Gauguin).

Maugham reflects on the narrator's early days as a writer in a manner that seems little changed: 'Then it was a distinction to be under forty, but now to be more than twenty-five is absurd.' Although the venues may have returned to type: 'Chelsea and Bloomsbury have taken the place of Hampstead, Notting Hill Gate, and High Street, Kensington.'

Nor is Maugham any less sharp than Houellebecq: 'Mrs Strickland had the gift of sympathy. It is a charming faculty, but one often abused by those who are conscious of its possession: for there is something ghoulish in the avidity with which they will pounce upon the misfortune of their friends so that they may exercise their dexterity. It gushes forth like an oil-well... There are bosoms on which so many tears have been shed that I cannot bedew them with mine.'

And, later: 'I had not yet learnt how contradictory human nature is; I did not know how much pose there is in the sincere, how much baseness in the noble, or how much goodness in the reprobate.'

W Somerset Maugham's 1928 play The Sacred Flame is at the Rose Theatre in Kingston, 13-22 September.