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August 17 2012

Exhibitionist: The week's art shows in pictures

From Oscar Godfrey in Glasgow to Superhuman in London, find out what's happening in art around the country





August 16 2012

Snap happy: photography to look forward to

From an ambitious survey of 1960s-70s photography in London to Kohei Yoshiyuki's controversial work in Liverpool and Amsterdam's Unseen Photo Fair, there's a lot to see

August is a quiet month for photography shows, so here's a preview of some of the exhibition highlights for the next few months.

The most anticipated London show is surely Tate Modern's ambitious double header William Klein/Daido Moriyama, which opens on 10 October. Taking the cities of New York and Tokyo as its starting point, the show contrasts the approaches of two pioneers of impressionistic urban photography. It considers the influence of Klein's seminal 1956 book, Life Is Good and Good for You in New York, on Japanese photography, and Moriyama in particular. The prodigiously productive Moriyama was a founder of the radical Provoke movement in Japan and, alongside previously unseen vintage prints, the exhibition explores photography's role in the representation of protest movements and civil unrest. This is an ambitious show that will be a chance for many of us to see lots of Moriyama's images outside of book form for the first time. I, for one, cannot wait.

The other big London exhibition is the Barbican's group show, Everything Was Moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s, which opens on 13 September. This survey show reflects on the radical cultural shifts that took place around the world during the two decades. It shows work by well-known names such as William Eggleston, David Goldblatt, Boris Mikhalov and Bruce Davidson alongside the likes of Graciela Iturbide, Shomei Thomatsu and Raghubir Singh. Iturbide's work was one of the highlights of last year's Rencontres d'Arles and Thomatsu is arguably Japan's most influential postwar photographer, so this show promises to be intriguing, if only for the range of styles on display from a seemingly disparate bunch of innovators.

In November, the Victoria and Albert Museum hosts Light from the Middle East, the first major show of contemporary photography from the region. This intriguing exhibition brings together 30 artists from 13 different countries, including Abbas, Yousssef Nabil and Shadi Ghadirian. I am most looking forward to Newsha Takavolian's provocative series Mothers of Martyrs, which may divide opinion, but is undeniably powerful in its evocation of belonging, belief and mourning.

Elsewhere, Amsterdam hosts the first international Unseen Photo Fair from 19 to 23 September, which will feature previously unexhibited work by emerging photographers. The aim is to give "new photography the platform in deserves" and, to this end, more than 50 galleries from around the globe will be showing work from their most promising new talents. Forty lucky visitors have already been given €1,000 each to spend on photography courtesy of the Dutch cultural lottery. There will be work for sale by the likes of Alex Prager, Pieter Hugo, Alessandra Sanguinetti and Richard Mosse. A place for the curious as well as the committed collector to look at – and buy – photography. Plus, it will be interesting to see just how far the galleries go in interpreting the definition of Unseen.

Also in September, as part of Liverpool Biennial, the Open Eye gallery presents two controversial series by the Japanese photographer Kohei Yoshiyuki: The Park and Love Hotel. Both investigate the seedier side of sex – and both precipitated furious debates in Japan about the blurred line between reportage and voyeurism.

The Park, already a cult photobook, is the end result of Yoshiyuki's participation in the nocturnal goings-on in Shinjuku's Chuo Park in the early 1970s, when he photographed voyeurs who lurked in the bushes to spy on couples having furtive sex on the grass. The images in Love Hotel were taken in 1978 from sex tapes made by clients of one of Tokyo's infamous book-by-the-hour hotels. Both series are grainy and indistinct, but undeniably evocative. And provocative.

In London on 12 October, the Photographers' Gallery presents a long-overdue retrospective of the Irish-born photographer Tom Wood, who has been working for the last 25 years in and around Merseyside and Liverpool. He also shot the unforgettable Looking for Love series in a "disco-pub" in Chelsea Reach in London in the 1980s. His book Photie Man – the name given to him by the kids he photographed on Merseyside – is the best introduction to his work, which skirts street photography, portraiture and reportage, but cannot really be classed as any of them. Great to see the work of a singular photographer who doesn't fit in neatly to any tradition being celebrated by the Photographers' Gallery.

The fifth edition of the Brighton Biennial takes place from 6 October to 4 November in venues across the city. It's titled Agents of Change: Photography and the Politics of Space, and will feature artists including Omer Fast, Julian Germain, Trevor Paglen, Jason Larkin, Corinne Silva and Edmund Clark, whose project, Guantánamo: If the Light Goes Out, is shortlisted for this year's Prix Pictet Prize. The winner is announced at London's Saatchi Gallery on October 9, and a show of the shortlisted artists runs there from 10-28 October.

Finally, and staying in London, the Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize Exhibition is at the National Portrait Gallery from 8 November to 17 February 2013. As one of this year's judges, I can't say much more about it at present, but will be commenting on it from the inside when the shortlist is announced in September. Watch this space.

Now see this

From 18 August, Third Floor Gallery in Cardiff is showing Encuentro by Irish photographer Maurice Gunning. It focuses on the Argentine-Irish community in Buenos Aries, descendants of the original immigrants that arrived there in the 1800s. Gunning's poetic, fragmentary style is perfectly suited to the kind of visual storytelling that draws on memory, text and longing to at once evoke the past and the present.


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August 15 2012

Crazy golftime for Hitler

A model of Hitler on a crazy golf course at Grundy Art Gallery has been called 'tasteless' by a Jewish organisation. But shouldn't artists have the right to offend?

Hitler golf? Now that's what I call crazy. An exhibition called Adventureland Golf that has just opened at the Grundy Art Gallery in Blackpool (where else?) features crazy golf course obstacles created by artists who include David Shrigley, Gary Webb, and Jake and Dinos Chapman.

Can you guess which of them is responsible for a lifelike statue of Hitler's head and torso, its arm poised to rise in a Nazi salute every time the ball goes through a hole between its legs?

Take a bow, Chapmans. Or give a salute, whatever.

In a bit of national publicity that must be welcome to any exhibition opening in the middle of August, Michael Samuels of the Board of Deputies of British Jews has condemned the Chapman brothers' piece, calling it "tasteless" and declaring that it has "absolutely no artistic value whatsoever".

Is it worth him making those comments? What has been gained by them? The exhibition is in the news as a result. The Hitler artwork will be seen by many more people than would otherwise have attended the Grundy. Surely this is an object lesson in how not to criticise art you find offensive.

Artists have the right to offend. We do not have the right, as citizens, to be free from every image that upsets, shocks, or even disgusts us. To call this crazy golf representation of Adolf Hitler "tasteless" is a bit like calling the Colossus of Rhodes "colossal". Does anyone think the artists were trying to be anything other than tasteless?

I only hope Mr Samuels is never exposed to the Chapmans' much more ambitious (and famous) work Hell, which features thousands of melted, melded and otherwise abused toy Nazis enacting an apocalyptic vision of torture and death.

But when does an image of Hitler become offensive? Hitler as a crazy golf statue apparently offends. But what about Basil Fawlty doing his funny walk, Mel Brooks's Hitler musical in The Producers, or the bizarrely characterful portrayal of Hitler in the film Downfall?

Why should the Blackpool Hitler be seen as an outrage too far, when this vicious mass murderer is such a familiar, even comic image in our culture?

The trouble seems to lie in our belief that statues are honorific. To make a statue of someone, even as a proposal for an imaginary crazy golf course, is – we assume – to praise and ennoble them. That's why statues get toppled in revolutions and wars. The exhibition in Blackpool also includes an image of dictator Saddam Hussein. Is that praising him?

Does the crazy-golf Hitler have artistic value? As an exercise in causing offence, it is apparently quite effective. That may not be the highest artistic achievement, but it's not bad for mid-August.


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August 13 2012

Jerusalem exhibition lifts the veil on Hasidic Jewish culture

A World Apart Next Door exhibition at city's Israel Museum proves an unexpected hit, attracting secular and religious visitors

The crowd standing in front of the video projected on to the museum wall was unusual. A young woman with loose curls tumbling over her bare shoulders and clad in tiny denim shorts craned to get a better view; just behind her stood two ultra-Orthodox Jews in customary heavy black overcoats and wide-brimmed hats.

This sight, rarely seen in Jerusalem, was an illustration of the remarkable success of an exhibition examining the life and culture of the 250-year-old Hasidic Jewish movement. In a city where ultra-Orthodox Jews have become such a visible and influential presence, their way of life is a mystery to most outsiders.

A World Apart Next Door, the aptly titled exhibition at the Israel Museum, has become an unexpected success since opening two months ago. It is attracting round 1,300 visitors each day – big numbers for a city with a population about a tenth of London's. Half the visitors are from the ultra-Orthodox community.

"It's a phenomenon – a kind of a blockbuster. It's definitely exceeded expectations," said James Snyder, the museum's director. "For the ultra-Orthodox, it's the first opportunity to see their communal culture elevated and celebrated in a museum setting. For everyone else who sees members of the community on the streets, it's an opportunity to learn about a culture of which you can't help but be aware, but about which you know little."

The exhibition displays historic and contemporary photographs and artefacts, with separate sections focusing on the lives of men, women, children and rabbis. Clothing and headwear, some bought especially for the show and some borrowed from members of the community, are accompanied by explanations of different dress codes and requirements.

Most compelling are the videos, around which crowds gather throughout the day. Some, projected on to big display spaces on the walls, show religious gatherings and festivals, dancing and singing. An extraordinary wedding scene shows an apparently tense masked bride being led around a big arena by a dancing rabbi as male guests, dressed in customary monochrome, ecstatically and rhythmically sway and stomp. The women – forbidden from dancing in the presence of men – appear subdued.

Smaller screens show interviews with Hasidic Jews: a young mother explaining the role of women in the community; a hatmaker describing his trade and displaying his skill; a boy having his first ritual haircut at the age of three. All are presented with empathy, and many show not just devotion and reverence, but joy and exuberance.

Curator Ester Muchawsky-Schnapper, who spent 18 months assembling the exhibition after five years of research, said there was some co-operation from the community, but she also encountered anxiety and hesitation. "I spent a lot of time building relationships of trust," she said. Photographers and videographers were careful to observe religious and cultural mores.

She is delighted with the exhibition's reception. "I expected it to be a success, but not to this extent. I didn't dream of it. It has created dialogue between groups that otherwise would never meet."

The museum, aware that the ultra-Orthodox may be unwilling to visit the exhibition in mixed-sex groups or in the company of those outside their communities, ensured that rabbis knew that special after-hours group sessions could be arranged. "There has not been a single request," said Snyder. "It's extraordinary to see all these people side by side, and talking to one another."

He was also prepared for tensions between the ultra-Orthodox and other Jews to surface in the context of the exhibition. Many Israeli Jews, both secular and religious, are deeply resentful of the ultra-Orthodox communities over their exemption from compulsory military service. They also complain of an unfair economic and social burden, given that many ultra-Orthodox men spend their lives in full-time subsidised religious study while fathering very large families.

"These issues have not come up. The abrasion that exists on the street is not present at the museum," said Snyder.

The exhibition, which runs until 1 December, contributed to a record July for the museum, with 84,000 visitors. It is expected to travel abroad next year, following requests from museums in Europe and North America.


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August 11 2012

Dieter Roth: Diaries; Philip Guston: Late Paintings – review

Fruitmarket Gallery; Inverleith House, Edinburgh

Dieter Roth was a celebrated sculptor, performer, film-maker and draughtsman whose work has been displayed all over the world since his death in 1998. He was also an alcoholic. His last video installation was a record of his final year, lived in the knowledge that he was slowly dying of the consequences.

You can watch Solo Scenes – for hours, potentially for days – on 128 video screens at the Fruitmarket Gallery, part of Dieter Roth: Diaries. It is one of the most significant shows in a particularly strong edition of the Edinburgh art festival. There he is, this old man in a soft cap with his solitary ways, seen in the low brown glow of his apartment. He is a figure fit for late Rembrandt or the novels of Samuel Beckett.

He works, he eats, he writes, he thinks. He hangs out his meagre washing. In bed, beneath the lamp, he reads late into the night; in the morning there is toast to make. Snow gathers outside, spring comes and he tends his plants. Each scene is conspicuously framed (the camera judders and shakes) before Roth appears within it. This is one of the longest time-lapse self-portraits in art: literally, life passing from moment to moment.

And what does Roth do, faced with this mortal dread? He simply goes on working, a common and quiet heroism, as the dawn-to-dusk structure of the work implies. Perhaps some concession is made to comfort – the artist very often appears in his dressing gown, frequently with a blanket – but the low buzz of activity never ceases, even against the faint soundtrack of a clock.

There are drawings to make and letters to write. Some kind of art is gathering, quite apart from these videos themselves. In the studio there are occasional glimpses of self-portraits, sculptures, paintings; and hundreds of ring binders neatly arranged in library shelves.

The actual shelves are installed upstairs at the Fruitmarket Gallery, each file containing the ill-considered trifles of Roth's daily life: bills and tickets and restaurant napkins, bank statements and parking tickets, anything and everything that was less than 5mm thick, preserved in this orderly archive entitled Flat Waste.

Shoring up the fragments was not just a compulsion for Roth, it was an aesthetic principle. He made fantastically elaborate environments – a studio, an entire bar complete with empties and overflowing ashtrays – out of junk. He also worked with chocolate, baking dough and soft cheese, the inevitable deterioration of each piece equated with life's decline. The materials of art were indivisible from the materials of life.

It might have helped to include an earlier work for those unfamiliar with Roth. But the Fruitmarket has several ingenious self-portraits rapidly executed in ballpoint (the artist as a whirring fan, a speech bubble, a weeping pig) and many of his copiously illustrated diaries. These are written in his native German, but there are tantalising entries in English: "Dorothy loves you madly. She hopes to get through this phase and love you more." What happened with Dorothy, one longs to know, after that declaration in 1967?

The diaries, like the videos, put everything on the same par, from the love letter to the last cup of coffee. And that is the ethos of the whole show. It doesn't feel desperate – a clutching at straws – so much as ravenously interested in everything that exists. Solo Scenes is only finished, so far as I can tell, in that there is a last monitor showing a last piece of video. The death is unrecorded and the work feels energetic, relishing every minute of every day. Roth's curiosity never dies.

The art festival this year feels pensive, profound. The Ingleby Gallery has a rediscovered work by that great Scottish original Ian Hamilton Finlay – a lethal air-sea battle played out on an ironing board with wooden planes and irons, tragedy somehow miniaturised with no loss of effect. At lunchtime each day, in response to Edinburgh Castle's one o'clock gun, you can hear the disembodied voice of the Turner prize winner Susan Philipsz hanging in the air at evocative staging posts around the city: a siren song drawing you into the past.

And the Dutch artist Melvin Moti has made a spectacularly beautiful work for the National Museum of Scotland simply by passing UV rays over objects from the collection – scorpions, fluorescing fossils, perfume bottles made from uranium – and filming the high-chrome effects. These visions appear vast and small, planetary and yet subatomic.

But best of all is the show of late paintings by the American master Philip Guston at Inverleith House, the first to be staged in Scotland. This is the Guston of the great tragicomic period with its near-cartoonish vocabulary: men with heads like lima beans, huge flatiron shoes, hoods riding the streets smoking cigarettes in open-top cars, gigantic hands reaching down from the heavens to make a point (in this case, the point of a pencil).

In The Studio, a hood paints his own portrait, appraising his art through Disney eye-slits and smoking as he works. The cigarette has been airbrushed from the picture on the easel, along with the light bulb, the palette and the one-handed clock, but in every other respect he paints himself exactly as he is painted by Philip Guston himself.

For this is Guston's allegorical self-portrait: the artist as antihero and nicotine addict, getting through two packs of Camel a day. The picture is full of jokes, from the rueful allusion to Velázquez in the silver, pink and black of the colour scheme to the fact that you can't tell whether the smoke is issuing from the cigarette or the paintbrush.

The bulb, the Klannish hood, the ciggy with its orange tip: Guston evolved a pungent vocabulary of forms that couldn't stand for anything except themselves and yet always meant so much more. Those hoods, hugger-mugger in some kind of office, what are they up to with their arms raised against each other? That curious citadel, pink, fat and squat, ascending like Brueghel's towering Babel, seems both ancient and yet so modern you might turn a corner and find it before you today, a sinister bureaucracy rising up to blood and milk clouds.

Guston's late paintings have become archetypes, irreducibly simple, translating the world. Like good cartoons, and great paintings, they reveal what cannot easily be said.

This is an ideal introduction for newcomers and a perfectly condensed anthology for Guston's admirers, especially since many of the works have never been shown in Britain before. There are only nine paintings, all borrowed from private collections in the United States. But with Guston, a little goes a long way.


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August 10 2012

Exhibitionist: The week's art shows in pictures

From relationships with the urban landscape in Walsall to the Clays Lane Live Archive in London, find out what's happening in art around the country





August 06 2012

Mining the past: art takes on the coal industry – in pictures

The Manifesta 9 biennial takes place at the former Waterschei mine in Genk, Belgium. Featuring work from Deller and Duchamp, The Deep of the Modern – its subtitle – explores the general history of coal-mining, pays tribute to its local legacy, and features contemporary artists attempting to connect it to global environmental issues





August 04 2012

Van Gogh to Kandinsky; Edvard Munch: Graphic Works; Picasso and Modern – review

Scottish National Gallery; Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

There is a painting in the Scottish National Gallery so ominous one cannot immediately shrug off the memory. It shows a grey stone colonnade in some nameless place stretching away into infinity. An esplanade on the right is depthless and deserted, more like dark water than land. The interior of the colonnade is an open tomb. The painting puts you on the spot, confronts you with its eerie perspective beneath a rain-laden sky that is not quite day and not quite night. But where exactly are you?

This startling watercolour is by the Belgian artist Léon Spilliaert. It was painted in 1908 in Ostend. You might wonder, as some have, whether it has something to do with those murderous times, when millions of Africans were slaughtered during Leopold I's reign in the Belgian Congo. And perhaps it carries deep overtones of horror and sorrow.

But it may also come from Spilliaert's own experience as a chronic insomniac who walked the streets of Ostend by night to distract himself from the pain of a stomach ulcer. His scenes are silent, monochromatic, empty of all human presence except his own wretched solitude; this is the art of a noctambulist.

Spilliaert's work is not often seen outside Belgium. Indeed many of the names in the tremendous Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910 may be unfamiliar, since symbolist art of any sort has had mixed fortunes, and symbolist landscapes in particular. Indeed this is the first pan-European show, to my knowledge, and not the least thrill of it is the sight of the continent stretching out before you, from the Scandinavian fjords to la France profonde, from the ravines of Mallorca to the dark forests of Bavaria.

The facts of a landscape are never supposed to be the point for these artists – "don't paint the thing itself, paint the effect it produces" wrote the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé – but one cannot help relishing the sight, and not just the sense, of place; the lakes of Finland, bright as mirrors, and the blue snows of the Eiger even in high summer.

As for the effect produced, it is almost overwhelmingly intense. More than a hundred paintings have been borrowed from museums across Europe, including masterpieces by Van Gogh, Munch, Arnold Böcklin, August Strindberg and James Ensor, and the mood plunges and soars by the room. It rises to ecstasy with Ensor's great vision of Christ Calming the Storm, in which sea and sky appear to unite in radiant meltdown; and it sinks into the most plangent gloom with the German painter Franz von Stuck's Evening Landscape, in which dark trees glower against the fading twilight.

Light, to adapt Manet, appears to be the main protagonist of the symbolist landscape. Indeed it is hard to see what else connects the works in this show. Symbolism is such a vague term – especially when it is made to stretch all the way from the Victorian visions of GF Watts to Paul Signac's pointillist arcadias – that it may be worth ignoring altogether in Edinburgh. It is self-evident that these landscapes are more than descriptions; that you're not just meant to admire the view.

But while it may be very clear that Léon Bakst's aerial view of an Aegean archipelago struck by lightning while a Greek statue breaks into a sinister grin must have the decline and fall of ancient civilisations in mind, it is less obvious that Spilliaert's art can be understood in terms of colonial politics. German symbolism, for instance, is routinely diagnosed as a reaction to Bismarck's modernised materialist state, but that doesn't begin to explain the immense variety of these German landscapes, from von Stuck's opalescent puddles at dusk to the island graveyards of Böcklin.

There are some real surprises in this exhibition. The reclusive Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi, master of the mysterious interior, steps out into the streets of Copenhagen to paint Amalienborg Square in the queerest of filtered brown shadows: out of time. There are passionately beautiful treescapes by Mondrian before he turned to abstraction. August Strindberg's harried surfaces seem to prefigure the art of Anselm Kiefer just as surely as many of the artists in the Silent Cities section get there before Giorgio de Chirico.

And there is a show within a show here, as well – a survey of landscape painting at its wildest. Vertical versus horizontal, near against far, the effects of close-up and cropping, of vantage points high above, or way below, with a disappearing horizon or a double focus or no focus at all; it is a masterclass in radical landscape painting.

These are pictures to send shivers down the spine, and even to fill one with dread, above all in the case of Edvard Munch. In Winter Night, the great shape-maker coins a bat-black tree with its branches out-flung like a cloaked figure before an immense frozen waste as night falls. The tree is as frightening as the dying light: will we get away before darkness overwhelms us?

The Scream counts, I suppose, as a symbolist landscape plus figure. It is also on view in Edinburgh in the form of a hand-coloured woodcut in Edvard Munch: Graphic Works From the Gundersen Collection at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Munch's prints are as articulate as his paintings – sometimes more so – and this show of 50 works goes as deep, in its incisive way, as the superb tribute to the exuberant old miserabilist currently on show at Tate Modern.

The big festival show at the SNGMA, Picasso and Modern British Art, originated at Tate Britain in February. It is more successful in Edinburgh than it was in London. This is not simply because the rooms in Edinburgh, with their natural light and human proportions, are a better place to look at paintings than the subterranean galleries at Millbank, but because this version is so well edited.

The idea is to look at three artists who paid sharp attention to Picasso without being overwhelmed – Wyndham Lewis, Francis Bacon, David Hockney – plus several more who fairly swooned. In London the comparison was often cruel, but some of the weaker painters (the Bloomsburys) have been cut back here and the main trio given much clearer representation. The show becomes a concise evolution of British modernism in which the influence of Picasso now looks more like learning and less like theft.

Picasso himself springs alive in zany photographs and drawings from the collection of the British surrealist Roland Penrose at the SNGMA, and, of course, in many stunning pictures, including the Tate's Three Dancers and his beautiful portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter in blue moonlight. It is also excellent to see those two Scottish mavericks, the Roberts Colquhoun and MacBryde in the cubist context. Look out for MacBryde's aggressive cucumber and apocalyptic, wild-eyed kipper.


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August 03 2012

Exhibitionist: The week's art shows in pictures

From Philip Guston in Edinburgh to Dada Fest in Liverpool, find out what's happening in art around the country





August 02 2012

London arts venues report mixed fortunes during Olympic Games

London 2012 Games causing low turnout at British Museum and West End theatres but National Theatre and BFI report boom

Despite the eerily deserted streets of central London, arts and entertainments bosses are reporting very mixed fortunes during the Olympic Games. Some have seen visitor numbers plunge since the Games started, such as the British Museum where visitor numbers are down by 25% and some West End theatres down by a third, but others including the National Theatre report business as good as last year, with near full houses every night.

Although box-office figures have not yet been compiled, anecdotally many venues report that business is picking up this week as Londoners realise there are bargains to be had, and that travel – after warnings of transport chaos initially scared people into staying home – has so far been easier than before the Olympics.

Terri Paddock, editor of the Whatsonstage website, said many of their posts are reporting empty streets, and theatres surviving by heavy discounting and last-minute sales. "I live in Lambeth, work in Tottenham Court Road and am walking through the West End throughout the day and evening. I can tell you personally that I have never seen it so quiet during my 20+ years living in London," she said.

The British Film Institute is on track for a record month, with the Batman film The Dark Knight Rises sold out for the next six weeks on their giant Imax screen, and at its South Bank cinemas spectacular advance sales for its season of every Hitchcock film. "We are forecast to exceed target for attendance during the month," a spokeswoman said.

However at the British Museum, normally a heaving mass of overseas visitors in August, visitor numbers are down 25% on July/August last year, and there are plenty of tickets available on the day for the major exhibition, Shakespeare: Staging the World – which was expected to be one of the blockbusters of this summer. "We know this is the general picture from speaking to other venues," a spokeswoman said. "We've very deliberately scheduled the Shakespeare exhibition to run on to 25 November, and we're expecting a very different picture after the Olympics and when the schools go back. It's actually a really nice time now to visit cultural attractions, without the usual crowds and it's so easy to get around in London."

In stark contrast, at the National Theatre it has been standing room only on many nights for all their shows, with the starriest, Simon Russell Beale in Timon of Athens – traditionally regarded as one of Shakespeare's least appealing plays – selling out for almost all shows, and 90% sold for all the Olympics dates. George Bernard Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma is doing least well, but has still already sold 60% of available tickets for the same dates.

A spokeswoman said the bulk of ticket sales are to their regulars in London and the south-east, but sales to overseas visitors wandering in on the day are healthy too, and all the free activities in and around the building on the South Bank are very well attended.

The Society of London Theatres, representing 52 theatres mainly in the West End, said numbers are picking up this week, compared to last week when many had banks of empty seats to rival any of the Olympics venues. They also report that people are recognising there are bargains to be had: business is brisk at the TKTS discount ticket booth in Leicester Square, operated by the society. Ticket sales for the Kids Week promotion, now expanded to the whole month of August, which offers free or heavily discounted tickets to under-16s accompanied by a full paying adult, are well ahead of last year – 100,000 tickets have already been sold, compared to 70,000 for the whole promotion last year.

The Tate Modern gallery has been on a roll this summer, with massive publicity for its new Tanks underground space, a string of new exhibition openings, and many of the Festival 2012 events happening around it on the South Bank. However a spokeswoman said that although the place is still buzzing, ticket sales are down for the charging exhibitions. Further down on the opposite bank Tate Britain – not helped by its main restaurant closing until next year for renovations – has also seen a sharp drop in ticket sales.

At the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, which would normally expect 20,000 people a day at this time of year, and long queues outside the gates before opening time, staff say they are "still busy, but noticeably quieter". A spokeswoman added "it makes it a really fantastic time to visit". The Museum of London also reports visitor numbers well down, and suspects that their mainly family audience was put off by the warnings of transport problems.


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July 31 2012

The world's two great walls get together - Hadrian's and the Chinese

Steel Rigg takes its place among history's roll-call of sites where international agreements have been signed. Stand by for lots more tourists

It is the obvious twinning arrangement, the one made in Heaven, unlike some of the curious pairings which flash past on welcoming signs to towns and villages in the UK.

Huddersfield's snuggle with Kostanay in Kazakhstan is always intriguing, for instance, or the fact that Wakefield has eight twins, three of them in Germany.

But who could cavil at the growing relationship between Hadrian's Wall and the Great Wall of China, especially as the benefits in terms of tourism and publicity are likely to be lopsided in our favour? There are many more of them than there are of us, and the Great Wall attracts visitors nowadays on a mammoth scale.

A few well-sited images of the Roman counterpart, which has glorious stretches on its 73 mile (120 km) meander between the Solway and Wallsend, would do wonders at Great Wall honeypots such as Badaling. That prospect has come a little nearer with a visit to Northumberland and Cumbria by the organisers of a Chinese exhibition of Great Wall photographs which opens at Central Hall, Westminster, on Thursday 2 August.

The show itself suggest the way things are going. Although entitled The Great Wall – Photographs Then and Now, it includes pictures of Housesteads Crags and Castle Nick alongside images from China covering 140 years of exploration and archaeology. Chinese photographer Zhang Baotian picked them from photographs collected by volunteers between 2001 and last year. Like both walls, the organisation of the display has been epic.

Both countries are enthusiastic about the prospect of more co-operation, with Linda Tuttiett, the chief executive of the Hadrian's Wall Trust, taking the exhibition's chief curator Chen Haiyan, chair of the Chinese publishing company Phoenix Publishing and Media Group, on a ramble round the wall before signing a memorandum of understanding at Steel Rigg. She says:

The Great Wall and Hadrian's Wall were both inscribed as world heritage sites in 1987, so this year is the 25th anniversary of the status for both monuments. UNESCO's vision for world heritage sites is to promote understanding, tolerance and co-operation amongst the peoples of the world through respect for their shared heritage. Working together, we hope to raise awareness of both sites among new audiences across the world. In turn, that should help their potential to contribute to local communities through sustainable tourism development.


Chen Haiyan adopted appropriate building metaphor and some interesting linguistic info in reply:

In Chinese, the words 'peace' and 'integration' share the same pronuciation.  Peace is the eternal theme of the Great Wall, and integration is the basis of development. It is our hope that through cooperation we can promote historical and cultural exchange between China and the UK. We are confident that the agreement will build a bridge of communication between the two countries for future collaboration and development.


The exhibition will come north to Hadrian's Wall country in November – venues to be announced - after London spells at Westminster from Thursday until Saturday 4 August, Charing Cross library from 17 August to 17 September and the School of Oriental and African Studies off Russell Square from 18 September to 2 November. Entry is free.


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Mannequin, Le Corps de la Mode (Models, the Body of Fashion) - review

Exhibition examining the history of fashion photography is being shown at Espace Van Gogh as part of Rencontres d'Arles festival

A good exhibition often starts with a smart idea. Something surprising, such as telling the story of how fashion photography has evolved, taking as the starting point neither garments, designers, nor even photographers, but models, looking at their style, personality, body shape, aura and status. Models, the Body of Fashion (part of this year's Rencontres d'Arles festival), does just that with 120 photographs, 10 films and 40 magazines.

My intuitive impression, before seeing the show, was that in the early 20th century the predominant concept was a submissive, anonymous female model, shapely but clothed from head to toe, paid a pittance, and about as charismatic as a coat-hanger. Now, in the glossy pages of magazines we are presented with forceful women, with pencil-like bodies, sometimes surgically enhanced, who undress without a fuss, act provocatively, are as highly paid as stars, and just as important as the clothes they wear.

There is some truth in this, but it is mainly mistaken, according to Sylvie Lécallier, an expert on fashion photography at the Galliera Museum in Paris, who put the show together. She maintains that the difference between the two centuries is not that great, apart from the nudity, which started in the 1960s and has been gaining ground ever since.

Pictures from the late 19th century show apparently wooden models, wearing dresses over black jerkins. The pictures mainly served as a basis for drawings in fashion journals. Typically we see designer Paul Poiret landing in Copenhagen with five women wearing the same striped overcoat, surely a complete negation of personality. As for the women, their trade did not command much respect.

But in 1947 photographer Irving Penn asked the year's most sought-after figures to pose for him. In Henry Clarke's 1955 picture of Dorian Leigh, wearing a dress by Jacques Heim, we see not a model but a defiant women. The shift to stardom culminated in the December 1991 issue of Vogue Hommes, featuring the world's five top female models.

Lécallier illustrates this narrative, in which models have progressed from worker to star-status, but also delights in picking holes in it, citing three examples. In 1900, "singers, actresses, society women and celebrities [...] posed, wearing garments by brands such as Poiret or Lanvin to promote them", she says. Among the professional models there were many Russian aristocrats, exiled in Paris, who were "much in demand and well paid".

The second example is more recent. In 1999 the German fashion photographer Jürgen Teller photographed dozens of young women who, in the course of the year, visited his studio in the hope of catching his attention and gaining a toe-hold in the trade. Here the star was the photographer, not the models, though they did feature in the book Go-Sees.

The exhibition looks at changes in body shape. Early in the 20th century designer Jean Patou started hiring US models. "They were younger than before, tall and slender, with standard measurements [...] People started looking at the model as much as the garment. A trend was set," Lécallier says.

Here again there are again contrary examples, particularly from the 1990s. The Face, a British magazine, once published a dozen black and white photographs of a 15-year-old woman at the beach. It was a fashion feature, but seemed to show a weekend with friends. The model was Kate Moss, she was 1.7 metres tall, her body was far from perfect and she did not pose like most models. She was approachable, laughing loud and showing her feelings. "It's more a portrait than a fashion piece," says Lécallier. Many art photographers subsequently adopted the style.

Mannequin, Le Corps de la Mode, is at Espace Van Gogh, Arles, France, until 23 September

This story originally appeared in Le Monde


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July 28 2012

Tino Sehgal: These Associations – review

Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London

They walk slowly towards us, a rival crowd approaching out of the darkness at the far end of Tate Modern. What will happen when we come face to face with all these strangers? Just as the tide of figures is about to surge around us, or perhaps overwhelm us, a young man detaches himself and begins to tell me about the great error of his life, which was to send an email instead of a handwritten letter and how it altered everything. I was so enthralled I fell in step beside him, unable to tear myself away.

But soon he seemed to cede to a girl who told of a party thrown to celebrate her sister's recent recovery – from what? We were immediately deep in conversation about the swiftness of cancer in the young. Next, a wise woman recalled the jar of dolly mixtures that sat on top of the classroom cupboard as a reward for good behaviour when she was a child, and the fear of never receiving a handful. A fourth stranger who had migrated from London to a new life in Sheffield found himself amazed to hear the sound of voices everywhere: people actually talking to one another. His story is emblematic of this whole marvellous project.

These Associations is the latest iteration of the Unilever Series. Conceived by the Berlin-based Tino Sehgal, it is by far the most radical and humane of all the Turbine Hall commissions to date. There is no object, as with Louise Bourgeois's giant spiders or Carsten Höller's spiral slides. There is no installation, as with Miroslav Balka's apocalyptic black void. There is no fixed image or sculpture or outcome.

Sehgal's event – as always with this 36-year-old artist – consists entirely of encounters between living people that are as potent, ever-changing and unique, minute by minute, as they are in the world beyond this museum. Except that they might never happen out there.

For the connections are sudden and immediately open. There is no preamble and the register of the conversation is quite extraordinarily frank. Yet these strangers are full of respect in forging this vital sense of connection. There is no social barter; you feel no pressure to divulge anything in exchange. It is like the best, and least demanding, party.

The crowd walks faster, breaking into a sprint or suddenly slackening and losing formation. It looks at times like a game of tig, or a football match without a ball. There is a sense of starlings mysteriously gathering or shoals of fish somehow darting in the same direction without any obvious leader. Above all, it looks atomic, especially as the participants spin away from the group to talk to the rest of us. It is like a microcosm in reverse: Brownian motion enacted by full-size people.

And into this benevolent force field we visitors are drawn, welcomed from all over the world. One man tells of a love affair gone wrong. Another shares his experience of vertigo with a colleague who discovers something vital about his own condition. I had a piercing exchange about fathers with a man I will never see again, so that its contents remain sharp and intense in that isolated moment but have unfolded with new meaning in my memory ever since.

I imagine that Sehgal has asked his volunteers to talk of life-changing moments, of feelings of belonging or its opposite, but each story is altered by the mutual dialogue. Whether you do or don't talk back is up to you; indeed you might reverse the exchange. I still wish I had talked to the woman in red, or had longer with the American in the black and white stripes. They move away – they have to because time passes, after all, and the museum will eventually close. But there is an immense freedom in Sehgal's orchestration, given how hard it might be for some of the volunteers to speak of their lives to total strangers and how wary those strangers may be. They don't approach the reluctant or defensive, as it seemed to me, but I have no idea how it works precisely because these figures manage to appear and disappear out of the blue.

But how could one not be interested? It is almost a test of human solidarity.To call the experience Sehgal has set in motion life-affirming would be no more than platitude. This is a profound work and at the same time riveting; a new form of art somewhere between theatre, performance art, dance and memoir and yet based on an immense gathering of humanity that includes all of us as live participants. Life art, I suppose.

If you are able to visit Tate Modern during These Associations, give them as much time as you possibly can. The cycle lasts for an hour or so, and you could easily stay all day. Attention is what it is all about, this precious thing we scarcely give one another and which is both the substance and the object of Sehgal's work. We often speak of art as life-changing; this event truly has that potential in all its fullness and humanity. One learns about other people, and one learns about oneself. I shall never forget it.


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July 27 2012

The Saturday interview: Howard Hodgkin at 80

He is given to saying 'Look! Just look!' when asked about his pictures, and insists recent works have nothing to do with depression. Howard Hodgkin reflects on turning 80

One day nearly half a century ago, Howard Hodgkin stood on the tube platform at London's Paddington station, poised to commit suicide. "Oh, that was amazing," he says as we sit in his studio near the British Museum, "standing on the platform ready to jump". What made him contemplate suicide? Something the artist Richard Smith said. "He said, 'It doesn't matter if you're a painter or not.' Just the kind of poisonous remark that stays in your head and tortures you."

Hodgkin stepped back from the platform having resolved to give up his teaching job at Bath Academy of Art in Corsham, Wiltshire. Instead of what he calls "that substitute life", teaching, he would devote himself to painting.

As Sir Howard Hodgkin CBE, Turner prize-winning artist and arguably Britain's greatest living painter, celebrates his 80th birthday next month, it's worth reflecting on how much poorer the world would be had he jumped. Frequently pigeonholed as the last great English romantic painter in the vein of Constable and Turner, Hodgkin is more incendiary than that – a sunburst of an artist who exploded counterintuitively from a British visual culture temperamentally uneasy at depicting sensuality or expressing intellectual thoughts.

In a five-star review of new work at Oxford's Museum of Modern Art in 2010, Guardian critic Jonathan Jones pegged Hodgkin as giddy colourist and daring philosopher in paint. "Ideas, associations, affinities, memories, longings constitute, for Hodgkin, our real experience of the material world," he wrote.

"I am a representational painter, but not a painter of appearances. I paint representational pictures of emotional situations," said Hodgkin once. But for the most part, Hodgkin doesn't talk about his work. Paint is, for him, more eloquent than words. When people ask him what he means by a painting, he's given to saying: "Look! Just look!" This makes him difficult to interview, as I learned when I met him here in this same studio three years ago, and even harder to write about.

In a catalogue essay, his friend Susan Sontag tried: "Note that Hodgkin says 'emotional situations' not 'emotions'. He is not licensing the attempt to read a specific emotion from a picture, as if that were what the picture was 'about'."

Was it not tempting, then, to paint a picture representing the emotional situation on the Circle and District Line platform all those years ago? "No, much too private. Couldn't." A surprising remark: Hodgkin has always been hailed as an intimist; one who doesn't shy from depicting intimate emotional situations. One of his most intense recent paintings, an explosion of black, red and orange, was called Privacy and Self-Expression in the Bedroom (2004-06).

Are there emotional situations you can't depict? "There are some that are insufficiently visual – that's all." The on-rushing train and you on the platform isn't an image? "Not at all, nor the person I was talking to at the time." Does that mean there are certain emotional situations that are suitable for art? "No, it's not as simple as that. There are some where it becomes inevitable. Where I'll have to do something with it one day, but at the time, not at all." So there are emotional situations that linger for you? "Yes. Years and years. As Andy [his assistant Andy Barker, who sits in on our interview] would tell you, I can sit looking at a wall trying to think what I'm going to do."

Some people, among them Prince Charles, don't get what Hodgkin does. He winces as he recalls the moment royalty visited the mural he made for the facade of Charles Correa's British council building in New Delhi. It's one of Hodgkin's favourite works, not least because he has long been enthralled by India and collected Mughal paintings (Oxford's Ashmolean Museum had a lovely exhibition from his collection this year), but also because he thinks he's rarely succeeded on such a grand scale before. Then the Prince of Wales came to see it in Hodgkin's presence. "That was horrible. He didn't know what to make of it. Poor man. He said: 'When you get close to it, it's really striking.' That was the best he could manage."

A happier memory comes from a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1995. "For me it was a moment of truth – I hate to say that because it sounds far too pompous – but it was that. A nice family came up, and the father said: 'Stop driving my wife mad.' And I couldn't think what he was talking about. I later realised. She understood exactly what my paintings were about. I thought, that's one worry I'll never have again in the same way." What had he done to the poor woman with his art? "It had a cumulative impact on her." Was that why the husband was irked? "He wasn't, really. It was a way of paying me a compliment." Perhaps the Met show did to her what the Oxford show did to Jones, who found himself seduced by the "demonic power of these life-affirming paintings". Tracey Emin has been similarly seduced: she's calling for changes at Broadgate swimming pool in London, now part of a private gym, so that a lovely mosaic Hodgkin did there can be seen by the public.

We're sitting in perhaps one of the most beautiful studios in London, a former dairy suffused with light from a glass roof. Hodgkin comes here almost every morning. He sits and stares at the blank wall. As he's aged, the ratio between thinking and painting has changed. Barker says: "You do most of your work in your head now." Hodgkin finds it hard to stand, and to walk. "I've suddenly grown old and frail. Even crossing the road to go to the BM [British Museum] is more than I can manage at the moment."

Despite his frailties, Hodgkin is working harder than ever. "He's finished 11 paintings so far this year. The normal average would be 10 to 11 pictures a year," says Barker. Among them is a little painting called Porlock, about being interrupted in mid-creative flow, as Coleridge was in Porlock. "It was the phone ringing in this case," says Hodgkin. Some of these new works will be exhibited by his dealer Alan Cristea in his London gallery until October, in celebration of Hodgkin's birthday. The day itself he will spend in France with close friends.

Cristea says his series of handpainted intaglio prints, titled Acquainted with the Night, are probably the largest prints ever made. The title comes from Robert Frost's poem, often interpreted as describing depression. The reference might make you think he was depressed. "No, no!" exclaims Hodgkin. "I mean, look." He points to a work from the new suite of prints, entitled Attack. "That's not a picture of depression. I'm not depressed. Where does depression come in?"

The title Acquainted with the Night is recycled. Hodgkin used it for his first lithograph print in 1953. "It's a poem I much admire, and many years ago when I was a student, Clifford Ellis, who was the principal of the art college I was at, commissioned several illustrations to poems, and he offered me that."

Was he thinking you were a depressive type and it might suit you? "Not at all, no. He thought the nocturnal would appeal to me, which it did." Do you remember what it looks like? "I remember vaguely what it looked like." After the interview, his partner, the music critic Antony Peattie, emails to say: "I wish someone would come forward with a copy and let us photograph it!" So if you have a copy, get in touch.

Hodgkin knew he was going to be a painter aged six, after doing a bright red painting of a woman's face. Nobody else shared his conviction. When I interviewed him in 2009 he told me he remembered running away from school in frustration. Which school? "I can't remember. Eton, Bryanston, Pangbourne – I ran away from them all." Why? "Because I wanted to be an artist and no one wanted me to be." But this time he was stopped by a policeman. "It was a great moment. He was the first person who ever took me seriously." Your parents weren't encouraging? "No, they weren't."

Gordon Howard Eliot Hodgkin was born in Hammersmith on 6 August 1932. His father worked for ICI and was a noted amateur horticulturist. His mother, a housewife, was also a botanical illustrator. His parents bought one of Hodgkin's paintings in 1967. "But eventually," Hodgkin said once, "my father said that he couldn't possibly hang it up in the house. And he was quite right. It was a brown-furniture sort of house, and there was just nowhere for it to go." Eventually, they gave it to the Tate.

The critic David Sylvester wrote that Hodgkin found his pictorial language early on and exploited it ever since. "No! It never comes. You keep struggling to find it. It's particularly sad in England. You come across these artists who think they've found it, and haven't, but they've grown old gracefully. They're like some Saga holidays advertisement." You're not going to name names? "No, but I can see you're thinking of them!" Was your artistic evolution more like Matisse's – a series of hard-won liberations from previous constraints? "Exactly. 'Liberation from previous constraints' is excellent."

It's difficult not to imagine Hodgkin's sexuality as similarly liberated from previous constraints. He was married in 1955 and had two sons (Louis and Sam) with his wife, Julia Lane. Today he's a gay icon. Or, rather, an unwitting gay icon. Were you proud to be on the Independent's Pink List? "What is that?" The newspaper's annual list of gay icons. You're a regular fixture – beneath Carol Ann Duffy but on top of Rabbi Lionel Blue, so to speak. Hodgkin looks blank. "You're often in them," says Barker. "Well, good," says Hodgkin. "I'm glad." You were cited for your contribution to the emotional well being of – Hodgkin interrupts " … gay people everywhere, probably".

The citation seems to suggest there's a therapeutic value to your work. Is there? "No, I don't think there is. I have painted, very rarely, small pictures for people who are dying, or great friends who are sliding over the edge. But I don't believe in it."

He tells me it's a great relief when he sells pictures, so he can get them out of his sight. You don't want to be haunted by your artworks? "No, I do rather lose interest in them. Once I'm finished, I'm out of here. I forget about them as much as I can." Why do you want to forget them? "It makes room for the next thing, which is very important. And that does come from old age, I suspect." Why? "There's less time, so on one goes." Very Beckett. But you're not painting for posterity? "I don't think of posterity ever. What would be the point? I wouldn't be around to enjoy it all."

Time for pictures. Sarah, the photographer, praises Hodgkin. "You have exactly the right expression," she says, "of pain and scepticism." He giggles himself out of that expression. Sarah tells Hodgkin she's very open to ideas if he thinks her composition is ghastly. "On the contrary, I think the only ghastly idea is to put me in it."


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Susan Philipsz guns for glory at Edinburgh festival – the week in art

The Turner prizewinner's voice will ring out across the city in response to Edinburgh Castle's One O'Clock Gun. And did we heed Martin Creed's Olympic bell-ringing cry? – all in today's weekly art dispatch

Exhibition of the week

Susan Philipsz
The One O'Clock Gun is fired nearly every day from Edinburgh Castle in a tradition dating from 1861. It once had a practical function as a message to shipping. At this year's Edinburgh festival, it becomes the focus for a meeting of the city's cheerful tourist side and coolest artistic ambitions as Turner prizewinner Susan Philipsz installs sound works around the city that respond to the gun at 1pm daily. Her voice replying to the gun can be heard by Nelson's Monument on Calton Hill, in Old Calton Cemetery, on North Bridge, Waverley Bridge, next to the National Gallery on The Mound, and in West Princes Street Gardens.
Edinburgh art festival, Edinburgh from 2 August until 2 September

Other exhibitions this week

Callum Innes
This Edinburgh painter works with light to illuminate the underside of a beautiful bridge.
• Regent Bridge, Calton Road, Edinburgh from 2 August until 2 September.

Dieter Roth
An intimate encounter with a fascinating European artist.
Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh from 2 August until 14 October

Catherine the Great
This great patron of the 18th-century Enlightenment is celebrated with treasures from the Hermitage in St Petersburg.
National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh until 21 October

Ian Hamilton Finlay
The poet and artist whose garden is a national treasure gets a welcome showing in the Edinburgh art festival.
• Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh from 2 August until 27 October

Masterpiece of the week

Goya, El Médico (The Doctor)

This shadowy vision of the human predicament is one of the most haunting paintings in Edinburgh's greatest art collection.
Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh

Image of the week

What we learned this week

How a 10km-long computer "cemetery" in Ghana provides an income for many of the people living there – and how photographer Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo is bringing its health risks to light

That Diana Athill remembers a London when Kew was exotic, Selfridges was vulgar and all men wore bowler hats

Why Tino Sehgal's work at Tate Modern is the most difficult and dangerous project director Chris Dercon has ever put in the museum

That more and more people are creating DIY photobooks, spawning a collection that celebrates "naughty pics"

That Chief Joseph's shirt auctioned for $900,000

That two men have been charged with stealing a Henry Moore sundial

And finally

Post your personal images that sum up what London means to you on the Guardian Art and Design Flickr page

Share your art on the theme of sport now

Check out our Tumblr

Follow us on Twitter

Are you the person the Contemporary Art Society are looking for?


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July 26 2012

Simon's Cat: from ballpoint doodle to Cartoon Museum star

Simon Torfield's animated invention has now been viewed more than 35m times on YouTube

When Simon Torfield looks surprised – and he finds most of the last five years, when a ballpoint doodle of his cat Hugh became a worldwide online phenomenon, pretty surprising – his round eyebrows shoot up over his round eyes, and he looks exactly like Simon's Cat.

That first animation, of a hungry cat resorting to increasingly ferocious means to rouse its owner, made when he was teaching himself to use some animation software, has now been viewed more than 35m times on YouTube. Double Trouble, the cat trying to outwit the much savvier kitten, was uploaded last October and has been viewed 12.5m times.

The YouTube films, added to monthly, are now wreathed in advertising, and the cat is also a soft toy and a newspaper strip. It is also about to star in a fourth undoubtedly best-selling book, and in an exhibition which opens this week at the Cartoon Museum in London.

Torfield is not rich – his eyebrows shoot up in surprise at the idea – but he now employs five people including two full-time animators, and the team at the studio in Islington, London, where he was once an employee. He is just back from speaking at a conference in Los Angeles after an invitation from the Disney studio – his first encounter with Tinseltown.

"I never got time to go into Disneyland," he said sadly, "but I did see it from the outside, and I saw some great wildlife. We went down to the beach and saw pelicans and falcons, wonderful birds that you wouldn't see here."

The voice is slightly familiar too. Simon's Cat just says "meow", in tones of mounting anguish while pointing urgently at its mouth until food is produced – he hears regularly from people who say the gesture has become their standard office signal for "lunchtime" – but the voice is Torfield's. He went through a whole library of cat noises, he said, but none of them sounded as if they were made by people who really listened to cats.

He still drives a battered Golf, and lives in a small terraced house in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, near the house he was brought up in and the schools he attended, where he struggled with dyslexia and people urging him to give up drawing and concentrate on preparing for a proper job.

Simon's Cat now shares the Cartoon Museum walls with much more sophisticated creatures, including David Low's TUC Carthorse – standing baffled in 1949 at a crossroads between signposts for Socialism and Private Enterprise – and Nick Park's harassed genius Gromit forever saving Wallace from the consequences of his inventions.

"I think the magic of Simon's Cat is just in its simplicity and the strength of its observation," curator Anita O'Brien said. "Anyone who has a cat, or knows a cat, will recognise these animals. They do things which cats can't do, but in a totally believable way, and a totally convincing world."

That world is almost entirely real. When Simon's Cat ventures out of doors, to be bested by hedgehogs, rabbits and obstreperous birds, it is not into Torfield's tiny back garden, but the long narrow garden of his childhood, every flower bed, hedge and pond intensely remembered.

He actually owns four cats, Jess, Maisie, Hugh and Teddy, and aspects of all of them appear in the cartoons. Simon's Sister's Dog, begging for scraps under the table, is indeed a dog called Oscar which belongs to Torfield's sister. The Rottweiler belongs to a man two doors down: when Torfield decided she was too good not to use, he knocked on the startled neighbour's door to ask permission.

Only one aspect of Simon's Cat is a complete and shocking lie. The real cat is jet black. "It had to be white to make the graphics work," Torfield explained, the eyebrows shooting up again.

• Animal Crackers is at the Cartoon Museum London until 21 October


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July 24 2012

The World in London exhibition – in pictures

To mark the London Olympics, the Photographers' Gallery commissioned 204 photographers to take pictures of 204 Londoners born in countries competing in the 30th Olympiad





July 23 2012

Bombs, bowlers and babies: Another London at Tate Britain - in pictures

As the Olympics kicks off, Tate Britain is hosting an exhibition of images by international photographers that capture London life between 1930 and 1980





June 29 2012

This week's new exhibitions in pictures

From Turner Monet Twombly in Liverpool to Edvard Munch in London, find out what's happening in art around the country





Flight exhibition reveals sense of wonder in the artistic imagination

Warwickshire show on art and the history of flight includes some of the earliest views from the air ever published

For centuries artists including Leonardo da Vinci and Francisco Goya looked at the skies and dreamed of flying.

But when, in the 18th century, the first balloons took off and artists really could have soared into the clouds, they stayed resolutely earthbound.

"It is strange, photographers were up there from the start, but I know of no artist who seized those earliest opportunities," said Sam Smiles, professor of art history at Exeter University and co-curator of the first exhibition in the UK on art and the history of flight.

"We know that Turner questioned closely somebody who had been on a balloon flight, but though he was certainly not a timid figure he never did it himself."

It was left to people such as the intrepid Mr Harper, a Birmingham hairdresser, who in 1784 took off from a tennis court and flew for 50 miles, and James Glaisher, a Wolverhampton meteorologist who flew to 30,000 feet (9,144 metres), to publish accounts of their mind-blowing adventures.

Glaisher passed out, while his pilot climbed on to the outside of the balloon and freed a trapped valve with his teeth because his hands were frozen.

The exhibition, at Compton Verney in Warwickshire, includes the earliest views from the air ever published: in 1786 a landowner from Chester, Thomas Baldwin, wrote of his experience in Airopaidia: "A Tear of pure Delight flashed in his Eye! of pure and exquisite Delight and Rapture."

The plates have a fine black line representing the balloon's flight, which readers were supposed to follow looking through a tube of paper to get the full effect of the views shared by man for the first time with angels or seagulls.

The exhibition begins ominously with Icarus, including a ravishing paper cut by Matisse, and ends with Downed, a blood-red crashed fighter plane made from women's jumpers, including the favourite cardigan of the artist Al Johnson's mother as she always wore it, with two buttons undone.

"We start with aspiration, and we end with – the end," Smiles said.

The threat was always part of the thrill.

One of Alfred G Buckham's ravishing cloud photographs, taken in the 1930s from planes he flew himself, shows the gleaming British airship R100.

When R101 crashed over France the entire British airship programme was abandoned, and R100 was sold for scrap.

There is a flying Saint Francis, said to have been capable of levitating two metres when deep in prayer; Yuri Gagarin, the first man to get beyond even the clouds, by Joe Tilson; and Mark Wallinger's Angel, in which the artist ascends via the giant escalator at Angel tube station.

"Artists have preserved that sense of wonder which we all ought to have, and they want to find ways of getting it back in their work," Smiles said.

"I'm going on holidays next week, by plane. I'm going to try and keep the vision of this exhibition in my mind, instead of fretting as usual about luggage and duty free."

Flight and the Artistic Imagination, Compton Verney, Warwickshire, until 30 September,


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