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June 12 2012

Rachel Whiteread: 'I'm not thick-skinned'

Her massive works of art have caused both wonder and controversy. As Rachel Whiteread's latest piece is unveiled, Mark Lawson hikes up a ladder to talk to her about thick skins and ageing YBAs

On a morning in late May, wearing hard hats and high-vis jackets, Rachel Whiteread and I climb up flights of aluminium ladders through three levels of scaffolding to inspect the progress of her latest work: a frieze on the facade of the Whitechapel Art Gallery in east London. Whiteread ascends as swiftly as a seasoned sailor on a ship's rigging, the journey now a familiar one, although we go up on a rare day when rainwater on the metal steps hasn't been a worry.

"We hadn't realised we'd be doing this in the monsoon period," she says, "so it's taken longer than we thought." Her first experience of this perspective, she explains, was "from a cherrypicker on one of the coldest days of last year, in snow and blizzards. But I've lived and worked in this area for 25 years, so I know the landscape very well."

This is the second time in her career that Whiteread has filled an accidental artistic absence: for the fourth plinth in London's Trafalgar Square, she created a double-take by casting a resin replica of the plinth itself. On the face of the Whitechapel, which has carried a bald patch since the original design by Walter Crane in 1901 was judged too expensive, she has extended a tree motif already on the frontage and created a pattern of gilded leaves. On the platforms, her assistants are handling fragile strips of gold leaf, like glowing Post-it notes; these have been going up and down in value as Whiteread and her team have worked through these tense economic months.

She was drawn to gold while taking photographs from the roof of St Paul's cathedral. "I wanted to put something there that wasn't bling, but sort of lit up the building. And, looking out across the city from that height, I was struck by the sun alighting on a streak of gold in a miserable part of London and going ping." To work on the frieze, which will be unveiled tomorrow, she built a plywood model of the Whitechapel facade. "Luckily, I've got quite a tall studio."

Whiteread is best known for bringing to life the insides of buildings – in Ghost (1990) and House (1993), which made solid casts of the interior spaces between walls. Did the Whitechapel put a proviso in her contract that she couldn't remove the gallery and display its interior on the facade? "Yes, exactly," she laughs. "It was always clear that there was never going to be anything like that." Even so, in deference to what she recognises is "sort of my signature", the frontage contains four reliefs cast from the concave gap between the glass and frames of the gallery windows – another of Whiteread's explorations of what she calls "negative space"; these began when, as a young artist, she had the thought of "mummifying the air" in a room. She has also used the technique in her "nameless library" Holocaust memorial in Vienna, an impression of a room of books with their blank pages facing outwards.

Back at ground level, we talk at a varnished table in a Whitechapel meeting room, a fitting symbol for the numerous bureacratic discussions, involving the gallery, the local council and English Heritage, in which the artist has had to take part. "An enormous number of meetings," sighs Whiteread. "Absolutely everyone had a say. It took me five years to put up the memorial in Vienna because of the same sort of process. But you can't make a good piece of public art by consensus; it's just not possible. So I really had to stick my heels in." Does she ever lose her temper? "Yes. Yes, I do, a few times."

While Whiteread has never become a public figure in the manner of contemporaries such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, her projects have become the subject of fierce public debate, both in Vienna and in London: House won her the Turner prize in 1993, but was the subject of some local hostility; some found her fourth plinth commission repetitious. Has she had to become immune to criticism?

"I'm not thick-skinned at all, which is why I don't do very many of them. I find it really difficult. I'm learning to get a thicker skin. House nearly killed me; the Vienna memorial nearly killed me. The Whitechapel hasn't been quite as bad, but it's really hard. There are a lot of voices, and I try to think that you just have to let it go. But everything I make is a part of me. I don't hand it over to an engineer to make; I'm very much a hands-on artist. You mention Tracey and Damien and they've worked very hard – this isn't a criticism of them because it's what they want to do – at making their personalities and their lives very much a part of it. I've worked very hard at a quieter approach. A lot of the work has been temporary. Probably the most powerful thing about House is that it doesn't exist any more."

This surprises me because even I get intermittently upset at the absence of House, which was demolished in 1994; surely the artist must? "Well, yes, I do get upset. And I'm incredibly proud of making it. The Tate buying Carl Andre's bricks and then House were the two most controversial things to happen in art in 20 years. Now people can't get enough of it; the papers can't get enough of culture and it's just rammed down everyone's throat. And actually I think to the detriment of culture, because it belittles it. Everyone can have a say, but not everyone's an expert, not everyone's an art critic. It's become far too easy to have a pop at modern art."

She again distances herself from contemporaries. "Damien's been very savvy, Tracey's been very savvy, Grayson Perry's been very savvy at becoming almost cultural commentators themselves. And that's interesting in itself, but it's a very different thing from what I do."

Is she still close to the other YBAs? Whiteread exhibited alongside Hirst, Emin and others at the Royal Academy's landmark Sensation show in 1997. "Er, yes. I used to be a very good friend of Damien's, don't see him so much now. I'm a friend of Tracey. Grayson and I had studios together, where the Olympic stadium is now. But I have always been a bit of a loner within the YBAs. I'm not a very good joiner-in, not very good at staying under the umbrella."

Is she competitive? "No, I don't think so, not in the obvious way. What really annoys me is when people make shit work and it's still out there and it's emperor's new clothes, and people lose their critical distinction." Whiteread declines to name names, so I ask if she would ever tell an artist friend that their latest work was shit. "Erm. Ur. Ah, now there's a question …" A five-second pause. "Sometimes I find a way of telling them that I don't necessarily say it myself. I might try to pass it through someone else. Look: anyone who makes art over a long period has to know when they are making good art and bad art. But money and fame are very addictive."

Are there pages in her own career catalogue that she now flicks quickly past? "There are a few things that I believed in at the time, not so much now. But I don't have an enormous output. I try to avoid that risk."

Whiteread is sometimes presented as something of a feminist pioneer, because she was the first woman to win the Turner prize. But the artist has always deflected such a reading; her mother was an artist, she says, and so she was never conscious of what we might call a ceramic ceiling.

Does the art world have gender equality now? She laughs before answering. "Well, I think the answer to that question is probably no. Although, saying that, I've always been very comfortable with my position in the art world. An American artist friend a few years ago said: 'Do you know, you single-handedly make the largest pieces a woman artist has ever made?' And I hadn't thought of that before. That does make me proud."

I mention that the sculptor Barbara Hepworth once said something similar about people expecting small works from women. "Yes, but mine are much bigger than hers!" A long burst of laughter. "Oh, God, I sound like one of those men. OK, maybe I am competitive."

Critics have always read death into Whiteread's work, even before it became most explicit in the Vienna Holocaust sculpture. Was she one of those children with a precocious awareness of mortality? "Erm. I had a pet sparrow who died and stayed under my bed for three months in a cardboard box. My mum kept saying: 'What's that awful smell?' But it was just that I was sad and didn't want to bury it. I don't think I've had an unhealthy interest in death – it's just something I've always been interested in. A lot of my work isn't intellectually based, it's emotionally based and I think that's where that comes from."

It strikes me that, like musicians and actors who call themselves Kid or Junior, being a YBA becomes complicated as the birthdays accumulate. In middle age, should they become MABAs or, later, OBAs? "I don't think the label will ever change. We've discussed for a long time now setting up an old people's home we'll all go into." And presumably, at some point in the 2040s or so, there will be pressure for a reunion group show at the Royal Academy, a sort of Sanatogen Sensation? "Yes. I think that's almost bound to happen. But hopefully, by then, there'll be a rush of new young blood – out storming the world." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 23 2012

Caro at Chatsworth, Gillian Wearing and Michael Canning – the week in art

Sculptor Anthony Caro puts together a tasteful show amid Chatsworth House's stupendous gardens, as Wearing lands at Whitechapel Gallery – all in your favourite art dispatch

Exhibition of the week: Caro at Chatsworth

I'll be looking at this exhibition in depth in a Guardian video to be launched next week, so I won't anticipate. I'll simply say that anyone anywhere near the beautiful countryside of Derbyshire this spring should take the chance to see this exhibition, not least for its stupendous setting. Chatsworth is one step beyond other stately homes. The seat of the Duke of Devonshire and an aristocratic dynasty that goes back to Tudor times, the house has a history that includes such figures as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and today's dowager duchess, Deborah Mitford. Famous characters aside, it's a jaw-dropping wonderland set in a superb landscape that was sculpted especially to show it off by no less a designer than Capability Brown. Now I see what was so capable about him. The gardens surrounding the house are a magical blend of rococo fantasy – including the Cascade, a fast-flowing river carved by hand in a hillside on top of which is a lake created to power the park's waterworks – and the 19th-century garden engineering of Joseph Paxton. The Rockery is made of gigantic boulders in genuinely terrifying arrangements, with a full-scale waterfall: a sublime landscape rather than a gentle feature. Nearby, a colossal fountain soars up from a lake around which the sculptor Anthony Caro shows this well-selected and artfully positioned survey of his works from the 1960s to this decade. They frame views of classical statues and the newly restored facade of the house itself. Caro's exhibition sets off the strange and prodigious art of Chatsworth's gardens.

Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, from 28 March until 1 July

Also opening

Gillian Wearing
There was always a humane wit and poetic realism about Wearing that made her early work hugely attractive. How good does she look now?
Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 28 March until 17 June

Printed in Norfolk: Coracle Publications
Artists' books by Gustav Metzger and Kurt Schwitters and the work of artist poet Ian Hamilton Finlay feature in this retrospective of an important small press.
The Gallery at Nuca, until 21 April

Michael Canning
Eerie and surreally beautiful modern flower paintings whose precision paradoxically leaves everything uncertain.
Waterhouse & Dodd, London, until 20 April

Secret Egypt
Want to know where the archaeology of Egypt ends and modern myth begins? Find out the facts behind the Hammer films, and while you are here check out a superb permanent collection of Roman antiquities.
Tullie House, Carlisle, until 10 June

Masterpiece of the week

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Madame Moitessier, 1856
The reflection of Madame Moitessier in a mirror behind her transforms this painting from a simple portrait into a reflection on the nature of beauty. For Ingres, beauty is eternal and unchanging. It is the source – the essential truth of life. He is a classicist who believes in the perfection of an ancient Greek ideal of beauty, reflected in the proportions of temples and the harmonies of music. In the philosophy of Plato, this ideal truth is not carnal but intangible. The world of the mirror in Ingres's painting is like the philosophical utopia of Plato: in that perfect place beyond the glass, forms are pure and true, and the stilled beauty of Madame Moitessier is set free from everyday bourgeois life to be revealed as something absolute. Ingres dwells on this woman's beauty not just as a random accident of good looks, but a revelation of the underlying order of the universe. Nothing could contrast more with the impressionists who, soon, would plunge French art into the randomness of the everyday.
National Gallery, London

Image of the week

What we learned this week

How to sketch a David Cameron caricature

How great your art is

Whether tiffs ensue when artist sweethearts join forces

That violent LS Lowry robbers have been jailed

Exactly what the start of spring looks like


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Farshid Moussavi will be in conversation with Rowan Moore at the Guardian's Open Weekend. Find out more and book tickets here. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 04 2012

'I've always been a bit of a listener'

As her forthcoming Whitechapel show illustrates, the artist has a rare talent for persuading people to disclose their private thoughts. So why is the former Turner prize winner reluctant to reveal what troubles her?

On the way to meet Gillian Wearing in her studio in Hackney, east London, I'm sitting on the top deck of the 55 bus, listening to the troubles of the young woman behind me, who is talking into the phone, unaware or uncaring who hears. It's a version of the drama you can tune in to most days on public transport, the intimacies of life and love turned casually outward. In this episode, the woman's man has left her and taken up with her friend, and she's been trying to sell a bag he gave her for Christmas on eBay. "I'm not going to use it no more," she's telling another mate, and her fellow travellers, "but I'm not just gonna give it away neither." The problem is, I've heard several times already, because it's Prada and she doesn't have the receipt her buying public thinks it's knock-off. The current bids are taking the piss, because at £400 it's still a bargain. She had a woman contact her asking for more details of the purchase but she can't get that off her bloke, since no way she's calling now he's with that slag. She said she would take the woman down to Selfridges and get them to verify it. By the time I reach my stop I would happily vouch for the bag's authenticity myself.

There has been a lot written about the death of privacy in our hyper-connected world, but one certain casualty of our mediated lives is the sanctity of public space, the generational erosion of the idea that what you might want to tell your best mate you wouldn't necessarily expect strangers to want to hear. Twenty years ago, the bus journey would have been made without that voiceover. Twenty years ago, after Gillian Wearing graduated from Goldsmiths College, the year behind Damien Hirst, she was already quietly obsessed with that shift in propriety and candour and was among the first to anticipate and dramatise its implications.

Wearing's studio is in a side street beside the Regent's Canal in east London. Her partner and fellow ageing Young British Artist Michael Landy, who famously destroyed all of his possessions in an Oxford Street shop in 2001, has a suitably minimalist space downstairs. She works above, in a white room strewn with artificial flowers she is arranging in a homage to Brueghel still lifes.

Wearing is friendly, slightly awkward, looking inquisitively at me from beneath her trademark black fringe. When we sit down, on a pair of retro 70s chairs, I mention to her the bus conversation and wonder whether she thinks it is a good or bad thing that those public and private boundaries have been irretrievably blurred. On the whole, she likes the fact.

"I think media has changed us all," she says, referring to the shift from red telephone boxes to uninhibited mobile conversations, from passive TV to active camcorder and self-broadcast, from green-ink letters to webchat. "It has all created a bigger democracy, I would say. More people have a voice."

Wearing's first landmark work was quite a quaint exercise in exposing interior lives to the world. She approached people at random on London streets and asked them to write down on a piece of card what was on their minds. She then photographed them holding the signs. The images were surprisingly revealing, intentionally and not – the City worker with thinning hair who scrawled "I'm desperate", the black policeman who wrote "Help". They not only gave her subjects a voice, they gave viewers an instant snapshot of worlds of interiors. Some of Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say will be included in Wearing's compelling retrospective, which opens at the Whitechapel Gallery at the end of the month. I wonder how she sees them herself, now?

"Well," she says, "when I did them it was a million miles away from where we are now. In 1992, we were still being fed this line that British people are reserved and don't like to express what they are feeling. The idea of Signs is that if you approached anyone they would have something interesting to say. I never picked people. If they grasped the idea I was making art rather than a survey, then they tended to be intrigued."

Subsequently, Wearing dreamed up many other situations in which people could reveal more or less of their private selves. On the Monday before we met, I'd been sitting in a screening room at the Whitechapel watching some of these films on a loop. For her Confess all on video. Don't worry you will be in disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian… series, Wearing placed an ad in Time Out and invited people to come into a studio, put on a disguise and spill their guiltiest secrets. A 36-year-old virgin tells how watching his sister kiss his brother destroyed his life; a woman describes how she drugged and robbed the man who cheated on her; others in Neil Kinnock or George Bush masks own up to using prostitutes, or ghastly revenge on bosses.

Her subsequent films play with different ideas of self-revelation; for 10-16, she taped adolescent boys and girls talking about their fantasies and fears and then had adult actors lip-synch them, as if the authentic voice of a child within. In 2 into 1, she put the breathtaking cruelty of twin boys talking about their mother into the mother's mouth and vice versa. In all the films, you have the voyeur's sense of too much knowledge, of uncomfortable privacies invaded. Over the years, Wearing seems to have been able to get all sorts of people to open up to her. Why does she think that might be?

"I don't think I have any particular thing," she says, quickly. "I just found ideas that people relate to and they enjoy doing it. Facebook and Twitter are there for similar reasons, because people want to have their voices heard beyond friends and family."

She doesn't keep in contact with any of her subjects, and though they have been invited to the shows in which they anonymously star, she is not sure how many have come. One or two have later expressed their gratitude, though, she says, "for the opportunity to say things that they hadn't been able to express to other people before".

Wearing does not see her art as therapeutic, as such, or even particularly voyeuristic. It arises, she suggests, out of the "sense that it is better to speak than to hold things back". She has been strongly influenced by the sociology of Erving Goffman, author of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, in which he details the ways that we have "front-stage and backstage personalities, that we perform all the time, when we walk down the street, when we go into a shop. And when we are behind closed doors we go into a bit of a slump". Not surprisingly, Wearing has been a devotee of reality television since pioneering 60s documentaries such as Michael Apted's Seven Up!, right through to the latest incarnation of Celebrity Big Brother, which, she believes, "though it has become more about entertainment, still holds a mirror up, to a degree".

It would be fair to say, then, that Wearing likes the idea of what she calls people "speaking freely in a lit room". But the more I speak to her, it is hard to escape from the sense that, though quite practised, she finds that particular process quite unnatural herself. When she has been interviewed in the past, she has dwelt on her own inarticulacy. Now 48, she talks 10 to the dozen, but rarely in fully formed thoughts. Ideas come and go likably, but she is always quick to qualify and disown definitive statements about her own life. "I suppose I was always a bit of a listener," she suggests, "because I didn't speak a lot when I was younger. I couldn't string a sentence together, wasn't able to for some reason. I guess I was maybe drawn to people and language, how people express themselves."

There is a journalistic impulse to all Wearing's work. She uses the apparatus of interview and documentary and, like all journalists, she seems drawn back to subjects that not only help her explain the world to her audience, but also offer a way for her to explain herself to herself. In one way, her career looks a lot like a series of brilliant strategies to communicate an inner life by proxy. She has always been the antithesis of her contemporary Tracey Emin, who is all about shocking revelation. Wearing seems rather at pains to disappear from her art, to let others do her talking. Partly, I wonder if this reticence has something to do with the place she fell to earth.

I grew up at the same time as her in a different part of Birmingham, her home city. My mum taught very briefly at the school she attended, Dartmouth High, which experimented with large class sizes and which Wearing hated. In the 70s and 80s, Birmingham often felt a curiously alienated place, one that had lost its sense of identity, its industrial purpose.

"It was a sort of introverted city," she agrees, "at least then, but I didn't leave it because of that; I left because I couldn't get a job there." Wearing had two hairdresser friends who wanted to come to London and, at 17, she came with them, living in bed and breakfasts in King's Cross. Having failed with hundreds of unsuccessful dear sir or madam job applications at home, in London she found secretarial and temping work easily.

She was 21 before she even had a thought in her head about art. Until then, her only memorable creative act, she says, was the time when, aged 11 or 12, a teacher held up a mask she had made in front of the class and said it was good. But she dropped art in the third year of school and never thought about it until she got a clerical job at an animation studio in Soho's Golden Square. She was intrigued by the animators painting film cells, and when she wondered how they got to do it, they suggested art school. To her surprise, she was accepted to do a foundation course at Chelsea, on the basis of a few sketches she had done of her hairdresser friend, Kimberley (they drew at nights in the hostel they lived in, because there was no TV).

From there, she went to Goldsmiths. On the first day, her tutor sat her class down and said that the reality was that none of them would ever be a practising working artist and to manage expectations accordingly. She was lucky enough to be in the Saatchi and Sensation generation that overturned that idea. Having been reluctant to adopt any particular public persona, Wearing suddenly found herself in the role of Young British Artist and then Turner prize winner in 1997. Most of her work foregrounded other lives; when she stepped into the frame, it was as an entirely elusive presence. Her great video, Dancing in Peckham, saw her bopping wildly in a shopping centre, to music only she could hear; her Homage to the woman with the bandaged face who I saw yesterday down Walworth Road, saw her mummifying her features, walking down the high street and filming people's reactions.

The sense of Wearing being there and not there, of riddling objectivity, became a theme. In 2003, she began making the self-portraits that are the most haunting manifestation of her interest in masks and personae. She took her family photo album and painstakingly recreated some of its images using highly realistic wax mannequins, from within which her own eyes look out. She began with her grandmother, who had passed away, and went on to recreate portraits of her mother and father, her brother as a teenager, brushing his waist-length hair, her sister in a photo booth, and herself both at three years old and as a spirited-looking 17-year-old. The pictures have an obsessive-compulsive quality; each one took around four months to make.

When I wonder what her family made of the strangeness of the project, she seems slightly surprised by the question, as if it hadn't occurred to her. "They had to be measured [for the mannequins]," she explains. "So they knew all about it and I think they liked it. I had done my grandmother who was no longer around. So my mother was the first who was alive. She thought it was fine."

But how unnerving was it to look at the world from within the facsimile bodies of her family?

She can't or won't say: "Well, you have technical things to concern yourself with," she suggests. "It was such a long process. You are getting blouses made, bits and pieces sorted out. You are trying the mask on without the paint. You are spending a lot of time with it, doing lighting tests and so on, with the mask on a pedestal."

The impulse itself, the motivation for making these things, she is reluctant to discuss. I wonder if she felt a loss of identity when she looked at the finished photographs. Was it herself or her mother she was looking at, for example?

"You always feel that you are the mask to some degree," she suggests. "The photo of my mum I used was from before I was born, when she was 23. She was this quite innocent, optimistic young woman, I think. You are trying to get that across, somehow. I mean, my eyes are the only thing I have to use, but I try to make them as hopeful and young as possible," she says, with a laugh.

Last year, Wearing made her first full-length film, a discomforting documentary focused on method acting, called Self Made. Once again, she placed an advert for non-actors, asking for people who "wanted to play themselves or somebody else in a film". After auditions, she filmed her half-dozen candidates exploring their deepest anxieties with the method coach Sam Rumbelow. They then role-played in turn their innermost trauma – the hatred they felt for an unloving parent; the scars of childhood bullying; the legacies of domestic violence. The resultant acted scenes, both real and not real, are almost too painful to watch. The film is edited with an emphasis on the loneliness of each of the actors, the way they are shut inside their heads, and the way the method allows some catharsis.

Was Wearing tempted to put herself through the method process?

She was, she says, "but I knew Sam first so it got difficult".

I'm struck, I suggest, by the contradiction between her fascination with other people's interior lives and her apparent lack of interest in analysing her own. Does any part of her see Self Made, as well as her earlier work, as a strategy for self-understanding?

"Understanding me?" she says. "As opposed to understanding the people I am working with? I don't think so. I don't think it is about me. With the adverts I put out, it is clear I am not looking for anyone specifically. So I don't think necessarily I am looking for me, out there."

But she seems so keen to remove herself from the story that you are curious about her own anxieties. When she looks back at herself as a girl, did she imagine she would one day have a family herself?

"When I played with dolls, I was always an auntie rather than a mum," she says. "I remember my friend's brother when he was 13 saying, 'I am going to be a chemistry teacher.' I didn't have that kind of plan."

Given that her work dwells so closely on the love-hate of family relationships, has it been a regret not having children, or a kind of Larkinesque relief?

"It was more if it was going to happen then it was going to happen," she says. "It's not a regret because that is the way life is."

Were any of those feelings present when, approaching 40, she reinhabited a mask of her own mother, at 23?

"No," she says, "I didn't think that at all. It's more, when I first looked at the photograph of my mother I thought, 'That's my mother', straight away. But of course she wasn't my mother then. It's like you have certain expectations of what your family should do for you. But in that piece, I was trying to look at them as individuals. To see them in isolation."

Wearing suggests her mother has always been "loving and supportive" of her and her work. She is more circumspect about her father, who she chose to recreate in a formal portrait in a dinner suit, as a young and handsome man. Brian Wearing died in 2005, not long after that photograph was taken. Was she as close to him as she was to her mother?

"Not as much, no."

What did he do?

"He had a little shop where he sold televisions and radios."

He was more distant?

"There was a little bit of separation between my parents, though they didn't divorce until many years later. But I didn't have the upbringing where I got to know him that well. No."

Somewhere in that "no" I find myself rehashing some of the more painful unburdening of Wearing's subjects in Self Made. It's certainly where her method coach might begin his session. But perhaps, as she might suggest, I'm projecting. Before I leave, I ask why she has become interested in recreating Brueghel's flower paintings.

"I liked the fact that when he painted flowers," she says, "he painted them all individually and then put them together. I called the first one People; it's like every one is unique, you know, they are not kind of a bunch." Some flowers reveal all of themselves at once and some hardly open up at all. But then, as Wearing seems instinctively to know, there are a hundred different ways to display your self to the world. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Private lines: Gillian Wearing's signs – in pictures

The artist is showing at the Whitechapel Gallery and you can submit your own 'sign' to win a VIP trip to the exhibition

February 09 2012

Rachel Whiteread designs Whitechapel Gallery frieze

In her first permanent public commission, 1993 Turner prize winner to create huge frieze above gallery doors

Inspired by the Secession building in Vienna, and the ubiquity of a certain type of rapacious weed in Hackney, the artist Rachel Whiteread has designed a golden frieze that will finally solve a 111-year-old problem.

The Whitechapel Gallery in east London announced on Thursday what its director, Iwona Blazwick, called "the realisation of a dream" - a plan for a large and empty space on the front of its building to be filled by a permanent work of art.

In what is her first ever permanent public commission in the UK, Whiteread has been asked to fill the 8m by 15m space above the gallery doors on Whitechapel High Street, after the failure of the first attempt in 1901 when a planned mosaic by Walter Crane was judged too big and too expensive. Since then the problem has been kept "out of sight and out of mind", admitted Blazwick.

Whiteread said it had been a daunting task and one she had realised by installing a 1:1 model of the Whitechapel facade in her studio and working in wax to create a work of clusters of gilded leaves and branches.

"I find it quite difficult to work with computer generated images," she admitted. "I'm a sculptor, I like to work in three dimensions and not two dimensions."

Her influences for the frieze include the "tree of life" motif that is already part of the building as well as "the Hackney weed" she sees most days - Buddleia - which can be seen growing out of buildings or by the canal; the Secession building in Vienna with its "golden cabbage" roof and "then I went to the top of St Paul's and looked around and thought what is it that makes areas of London or just parts of buildings stand out?"

One answer was the use of gold. There will also be a more recognisable Whiteread touch to the work in that she's casting four terracotta reliefs of existing gallery windows as a counterpoint to the gilded leaves.

The work will be unveiled in June and forms part of the London 2012 festival running this summer as the culmination of the cultural olympiad.

The Art Fund is donating £200,000 to the project but Blazwick said it was too early to give further costing and funding figures as it was still "a work in progress".

The commission will fill a space that many did not even know was there to be filled; "it's part of invisible London," said Whiteread, who lives and works about five minutes' walk away from the gallery.

Her solution for the empty rectangle is quite a subtle work, although Whiteread said: "It's pretty ostentatious, there's gold leaf on it - it's the most ostentatious I've ever been."

Blazwick believes it will turn heads: "I think it will be a way of making people look up. Usually we're all busy, heads down running for the bus and the tube; this will be a way of celebrating the architecture in this part of town." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 16 2012

Echoing spaces: Zarina Bhimji – in pictures

Abandoned homes, empty beaches, faded grandeur: highlights from the former Turner nominee's new exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery

December 16 2011

Simon Schama curates the government's art collection - in pictures

Historian is latest guest curator at Whitechapel gallery's presentation of works bought for the public by the state

December 15 2011

Lord Byron takes pride of place at art show curated by Simon Schama

Historian requisitions paintings from British embassies around the world for his Travelling Light show at Whitechapel Gallery

A smouldering Lord Byron, dressed in ostentatious Albanian gear, looms large in a new show curated by the historian Simon Schama, who can't hide his enthusiasm for it. "It is utterly wonderful," he said. "The ultimate undergraduate gap year vanity."

The 1814 Byron portrait by Thomas Phillips normally hangs in the residence of the UK ambassador to Greece in Athens but has been requisitioned for the latest display of works from the Government Art Collection.

Schama is the third guest curator let loose on a collection of almost 14,000 works of art, personally choosing work which goes on display to the public on Friday at the Whitechapel Gallery in London.

He said putting the exhibition together had been great fun. "When I was a small boy I used to be wheeled into Woolworths in my pram and I remember one of the first thoughts I had in my life was, do I nick the barley sugar canes first, or do I go for the humbugs? I really do feel like a kid in a sweetshop again."

Schama has called his exhibition Travelling Light, and explores the idea of Britain as a nation of explorers. Hence his choice of the Byron portrait as well as works such as Edward Lear's View of Beirut and Vanessa Bell's portrait of a woman as Byzantine Lady.

He also chose works by artists he knew and liked, such as Howard Hodgkin, Peter Liversidge, Roger Hilton and Tacita Dean, and came across work which won him over by artists he was unfamiliar with, such as Rachel Lowe and Hurvin Anderson, whose large work Peter's 1 – showing a barber's shop set up in someone's home – normally hangs over guests at functions in 11 Downing Street.

Other work has travelled from embassies in Tel Aviv, Cairo and Copenhagen. Schama admitted a certain intoxication to be had from "demanding them from embassies and cabinet ministers – how much fun is that! It is like liberating art for the people".

The Government Art Collection has been buying art works for the nation for 113 years, although spending cuts mean it is not doing so for two years – the first time it has stopped collecting since the second world war. The next and final GAC show at the Whitechapel will be chosen by staff at 10 Downing Street.

Travelling Light, Whitechapel Gallery until 26 February. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 30 2011

From Rabbie to Rubens

To celebrate 10 years of free museum entry, Chris Smith, the politician who ended charging, introduces the big name curators and gallery-goers we asked to pick their favourite work. But what is yours? Have your say below

I remember, as a student, being very struck by a poster arguing against an attempt by Edward Heath's government to bring in museum charges. It said: "We the undersigned oppose the introduction of admission charges" and carried the signatures of Van Gogh, Titian, Turner and some 50 other great artists. It made me realise a simple truth: that free admission is all about giving everyone, no matter what their means, the chance to see the greatest works of art, science and history that our nation has.

Over the following three decades, charges were indeed brought in. Some national collections valiantly held out against the tide; but most succumbed to charging, and in some cases the charges were high. To bring a family to the Science Museum or Natural History Museum became a substantial financial undertaking.

When I became Secretary of State in 1997, I was determined to change this. I believed passionately that these great treasure houses belonged to us all, and should be available for free, for ever. It took me four years to achieve that: convincing reluctant colleagues; securing additional funding; persuading some museum directors; achieving the removal of VAT. It was worth it, though; and the surge in visitor numbers – up by 150% over the last decade – has proved it.

On the day free admission began, 10 years ago, I was invited to cut the ribbon and throw open the doors at the Science Museum. About half an hour later, I was standing in the foyer, and a man approached me, carrying his daughter on his shoulders. He looked up at her and said, "I want you to say thank you to this man. It's because of him we're able to be here today." That, too, made it worth it. Chris Smith

Nicholas Serota, director, Tate

One of the great atrocities of the Spanish civil war was the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by the German air force, lending their support to the Nationalist forces of General Franco. Picasso responded to the massacre by painting the vast mural Guernica, and for months afterwards made subsidiary paintings based on one of the figures in the mural: a weeping woman holding her dead child. Weeping Woman in Tate's collection is the last and most elaborate of the series. A portrait of Picasso's mistress, Dora Maar, the painting is an extraordinary depiction of female grief and a metaphor for a Spanish tragedy.

The Sir John Soane's Museum is one of my favourite small museums. The eight paintings in William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress series can rightly be described as one of the great masterpieces of British art. Created by Hogarth, the great 18th-century painter, engraver and satirist, they give us an acute glimpse into London life of the period, and the antics of its faded aristocracy and nouveau riche. The paintings were originally hung at Soane's country villa, but were moved back to Lincoln's Inn Fields (now the Soane museum) in 1810. They were hung in a new picture room at the rear of the house, where they remain today.

Joan Bakewell, broadcaster

If they start charging for museums I will go spare with rage; it's been a great leap forward. The Cholmondeley Ladies (1600-10) at Tate Britain is one of my favourites to drop in and see. I take the grandchildren to visit them all the time. Everyone can relate to it: they're like reassuring family friends – "Let's go and visit the Cholmondeley sisters." It's so lovely how very different from each other they are, but how much the same. You get pleasure from them: they're women; they're siblings; they look beautiful; they're a reflection of an earlier time; they're all the very simple things you enjoy in a painting. And they must have their own stories: the painting is full of possibilities.

Nicholas Penny, director, National Gallery

The painting most appropriate for this particular anniversary is Rubens's Peace and War, the proper title of which is Minerva Protects Pax from Mars – though I hate that title. It was a diplomatic gift from Rubens to Charles I, when the painter was acting as an envoy for Philip IV, but nevertheless seems to me a painting for everyone. It is allegory, it's portraiture, it's animal painting, it's fruit-and-vegetable painting, it's got quite a lot of landscape, it's got the female nude, it's got men in armour. It was a gift from the Duke of Sutherland to the newly founded National Gallery about 200 years after it was painted, an amazing gesture of support: the Duke was donating one of the most valuable paintings in London.

The work of art I always visit when I go to the Victoria and Albert museum is a white jade cup that is known to have been used by Shah Jahan, one of the great Moghul rulers of India. Curiously, it's not that different in date from the Rubens: the middle of the 17th century. It reminds me of the game animal, vegetable or mineral. It shows the transparency as well as the hardness of jade, but at the same time incorporates animal and vegetable: the lotus flower at the foot, and the head of an ibex, which forms the handle. It epitomises the art of so many different cultures although it's a quintessential, high quality product of Islamic civilisation. This and the Rubens are two pieces of court culture completely accessible to the man in the street.

Lauren Laverne, broadcaster

At the V&A Museum of Childhood in east London there is a Dutch doll's house from the 1600s. It's very beautiful and the craftsmanship that went into it is mindblowing. It's also interesting because it shows how a house ran at that time, in that place. The idea behind it was to teach little girls how to become wives; it illustrates how much of our culture is indoctrinated into us through play and leisure.

Whenever I go into the British Museum, that ceiling in the atrium makes you look up, and as soon as you look up like that you're like a kid again. It puts you into an inquisitive, exploratory frame of mind. That's what I like about the Museum of Childhood, too: it's a lovely blend of history, mystery and fun.

John Leighton, director, National Galleries of Scotland

The portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth, made in 1787, is probably the best-known portrait in our collection, which opens free to the public today. Like many people, I saw it first on a shortbread tin, but when you come face to face with the original it's astonishingly vivid, and you can feel that spirit of democracy and generosity Burns is famed for. The artist left it unfinished because he was afraid to lose what he said was a superb likeness. In among all the grand, eloquent portraits of powerful people in this gallery, this small, modest picture speaks very loudly indeed.

My favourite work in another gallery is from the National in London. It's another portrait, this time by Jacques-Louis David of Jacobus Blauw, a young Dutch ambassador trying to negotiate a peace treaty with France. It's a very direct rendering of the clarity and youthful idealism people associated with the French revolution. If you imagine that this is 1795, with guillotines crashing all over the place, you'd have to be a particularly skilled diplomat to negotiate with the revolutionary government. The portrait gives no indication of that hardship – instead, you're drawn in by the rendering of the materials, the steely blue jacket with a hint of his hair powder on the collar, and this pink face that engages you so directly you feel you've come eye-to-eye with this young Dutchman.

AL Kennedy, author

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow has a wonderful full-length statue of Robert Louis Stevenson. He's a writer I hugely admire, and the piece seems to catch something of his spirit in a way photographs of him don't. When I first moved to Glasgow and was very much a tyro writer, I would occasionally wander off to Kelvingrove and potter. The building was – and is – beautifully uplifting in itself, and much warmer than I could afford to keep my flat. I would always end up spending a while with the RLS statue. It's not idealised like his memorial in Saint Giles, or the standard depictions of the great and good; he looks like someone who thought and travelled and had a lean kind of energy and efficiency about him. I find it inspirational.

Christopher Brown, director, Ashmolean Museum

I'm going to be a little opportunistic and choose an object from our new Egyptian galleries. I'm hugely moved by a remarkable mace head we have that dates from 3,000 BC and comes from Hierakonpolis. It's called the scorpion mace head and depicts an emperor. He's wearing the crown of Upper Egypt and he's hunting. I'm just enormously impressed by its sophistication as a piece of early sculpture: eat your heart out, Donatello.

I worked for many years at the National in London. I particularly love a late painting there by Giovanni Bellini, the Madonna of the Meadow. It shows the virgin with Christ in her lap, but it's a premonition of the Pietà. It has a beautiful, desolate landscape on the left, and on the right a prosperous landscape with a beautiful view of the area north of Venice where Bellini was working. When I worked at the National, one of the great joys was that people would drop in to the gallery between trains at Charing Cross, to come in and see something. You don't feel: "Well, I've spent £5 – I've got to make it worth my while." You can just go and look at a single picture. That to me is the key to free admission.

Michael Dixon, director, Natural History Museum

The Archaeopteryx lithographica is the most valuable single fossil in our collection. It is a famous snapshot of evolution in action that demonstrates conclusively that modern birds are descended from dinosaurs. It has huge scientific, historical and financial value. Elsewhere, the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum is fundamentally important to our understanding of archaeology and ancient cultures.

Julia Peyton-Jones, co-director, Serpentine Gallery

We don't have a permanent collection, but the Serpentine Pavilion series, now in its 11th year, allows the public to enjoy the work of international architects who haven't yet completed a building in the UK, for three months over the summer. My favourite pavilion? I couldn't possibly say!

The Turbine Hall commissions at Tate Modern are an extraordinary rollcall of some of the greatest practitioners of today. Louise Bourgeois's spider, Maman, and I Do, I Undo, I Redo, launched the whole programme in the most remarkable way. It's wonderful to see how artists address that space.

Sandy Nairne, director, National Portrait Gallery

One of our most enigmatic portraits is the famous Chandos portrait of Shakespeare by John Taylor of 1610. It's wonderfully mysterious. Taylor is not an artist we know a great deal about, and there's been plenty of speculation as to whether this was taken from life. For me, the idea of why we look at portraits of figures in history is embodied in this picture. I look at it at least two or three times a week. We refer to it as our No 1 because it is the first portrait that entered the collection in 1856, given by Lord Earlsmere.

I often go and look at Rembrandt's Self-Portrait at the Age of 34 next door in the National Gallery. It's not very different in date from the Shakespeare – it's 1640 – but is the absolute complement: whereas the Taylor is all about Shakespeare, this is about Rembrandt himself. Like all great self-portraits, it makes you question who you are and absolutely crosses time – that sense of self-examination. It's just the most brilliant painting, and to be able to just walk in and look at it is a fabulous thing.

Iwona Blazwick, director, Whitechapel Gallery

One of my favourite exhibits currently on display here is the Bloomberg Commission: Josiah McElheny: The Past Was a Mirage I'd Left Far Behind. Large-scale, mirrored sculptures are arranged as multiple reflective screens for the artist's interpretation of experimental abstract films. What is interesting is the way McElheny has responded to the site, which was previously the reading room of the former Whitechapel Library, a haven for early modernist thinkers such as Isaac Rosenberg. The library was built as a "lantern for learning"; McElheny has used the moving images and illumination as central motifs.

Elsewhere, the Sir John Soane's Museum is a delight, with important works from Hogarth to Canaletto set among drawings, historical architectural models and other fascinating antiquities.

Martin Roth, director, Victoria and Albert museum

Our medieval and Renaissance galleries opened two years ago to house one of the world's most remarkable collections of treasures from the period, marking the end of the first phase of our plan to modernise the museum. They host the greatest collection of Italian Renaissance sculpture outside Italy, with an exceptional group of sculptures by Donatello who was the greatest sculptor of his time. I particularly admire this pieceThe Ascension with Christ Giving the Keys to St Peter (1428-30) which combines two different scenes from the Gospels – one of the finest surviving examples of his astonishing low-relief carving technique.

Gauguin was one of the most important artists of the 19th century, and his experimentations with new styles and radical expression continue to inspire people today. Vision after the Sermon is one of the masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery collection and this dramatic work changed the course of the history of art. Gauguin travelled the world and it's fascinating to see the influence of many forms of art in his work, from Japanese prints to ceramics. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 15 2011

Tacita Dean: Film; Wilhelm Sasnal – review

Turbine Hall, Tate Modern; Whitechapel Gallery, London

You'd have to be blind not to notice that, from a distance, Tacita Dean's commission for Tate Modern's sepulchral Turbine Hall looks like nothing so much as a vast stained-glass window – and for this reason I fervently hoped it was going to have the same effect on me as Olafur Eliasson's numinous The Weather Project (Eliasson's commission, the fourth in the Unilever series, filled this space in 2003-4 – and oh, how I worshipped it).

A flickering, flaming 11-minute silent colour film, Dean's installation, complete with sprocket holes and random filter flashes, was made using a CinemaScope lens turned through 90 degrees, and is projected on to a vertical screen 13 metres high. In other words, its scale alone is enough to cow the visitor, and from 50 paces. Like some hungry peasant suddenly confronted with the exquisite manipulations of the medieval architect, your first inclination, as the eyes adjust, is simply to believe.

But this faith is misplaced, and fleeting: illusion not epiphany. Move closer, sit down and watch, and the jaw clamps shut again, awe turning first to disappointment, then to irritation. I have no argument with Dean's guiding impulse; her piece is intended to mourn and to celebrate celluloid at a time when 16mm film is no longer even printed in the UK. But I am amazed that it didn't lead her to produce something more interesting and beautiful than this. Film, with its assorted images of escalators, toadstools and a snail lurking on a leaf, isn't just banal (do I need to point out that when it comes to the passage of time, these metaphors have all been used a thousand times before?), it is fatally boring. Ripe tomatoes, mullioned windows, a tree, an egg, a clock... only because I wrote these things in my notebook do I remember them at all.

In a commentary on the work, Dean states that "Film is a visual poem", a remark I thought dubious even before I saw her fountains plash and her lightbulbs glow: likening other art forms to poetry is a cliche, the first and the last refuge of the shallow thinker. Afterwards, though, I thought it fraudulent too. What she has produced, however lovingly, however laboriously (she slices her prints by hand, alone at a Steenbeck cutting table), is more list than poem – and the trouble with lists is that even as they remind you of your obligations, they are so eminently resistible.

You might say that Dean's work is all technique and no content. Well, at the Whitechapel Gallery you can see a show where something approaching the opposite is the case. At his worst, Wilhelm Sasnal, the preposterously successful Polish artist, produces canvases that remind me of a certain kind of 70s album cover; his work can feel overly broad, naive, unfinished and hurried (he likes to paint quickly, often finishing a piece in a single day). I can't help but wonder just how good a painter he really is. But he has big things to say about politics, faith and community, and for this reason the Whitechapel's new exhibition of his work is both fascinating and bleak, the weight of 20th-century history bearing down on every wall of every room. It also works – what serendipity – as an interesting pendant to the unbeatable Gerhard Richter retrospective currently at Tate Modern. Sasnal belongs to a different generation from Richter; born in 1972, he is half his age. But both knew life under communism, and both have an unblinking relationship with the Holocaust, a catastrophe they simply will not ignore, not even in the peace of their studios. Sasnal has used the grey palette so often favoured by Richter; he, too, paints from photographs; and he flips easily between the abstract and the figurative, even if not with quite the same facility as his master. It's extraordinary to see. Talk about the anxiety of influence.

The show takes in paintings from 1999 until the present day, with the earlier work in two rooms upstairs. I understand why the curator decided to let people see the most recent paintings first; Sasnal's latest work is certainly the more colourful and, perhaps, the more accessible. The hope must be that visitors see Bathers at Asnières (2010), his interpretation of Seurat's painting of the same name, and feel a welcome connection (the copy's cloistered simplicity is a way of reminding his audience that until Sasnal was 17, when Solidarity was re-legalised, travel to London, where Seurat's original hangs, would have been all but impossible).

But I prefer the earlier work, which painfully embraces the fact that Kraków, where Sasnal is based, is not only close to Auschwitz, but once had its very own concentration camp (Kraków-Płaszów): the small painting Shoah (A Forest), from 2003, in which three figures are made miniature by the swirls of green (are these leafy branches kindly or malevolent?) all about them; the scenes from Art Spiegelman's Holocaust comic book Maus, which Sasnal painted large scale and without speech bubbles by way of a riposte to those Poles who couldn't deal with its implications (these paintings – bunks seen through wire, a pig in a peaked cap – somehow need no explanation, even if you have not read Spiegelman); and, most of all, a landscape called Kielce (2003), in which briars and brambles are piled high on old snow, like knives, or bodies. Kielce is a Polish city where, in 1946, Polish antisemites attacked Holocaust survivors, killing 42.

Sasnal cannot let go of these themes. He wants to pay attention to other crises – more recent subjects include a Palestinian farmer, an Iranian nuclear power plant, and African migrants – but events closer to home haunt him. Downstairs hangs his most recent work, completed this year. It is a landscape: low, green fields surround a sprawling white construction which, the title reveals, is in fact a pigsty. When Sasnal showed this piece to his family, his father asked him if it was Auschwitz. It isn't hard to see why. The crazily lush fields, though they make up two thirds of the canvas, are an irrelevance. It is the hunkered buildings you wonder about, and knowing that they house animals somehow only makes you feel worse. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

September 16 2011

Cornelia Parker selects spectrum of Government Art Collection

Whitechapel Gallery's choice of government-owned art includes works by Andy Warhol and Grayson Perry

A video of a man hanging precariously from a ladder seems somehow appropriate for a collection intrinsically linked to politics and politicians, as does the portrait of Elizabethan statesman William Cecil which recently hung in Ken Clarke's office. A phallic geyser bursting out of the earth may be less obvious.

"People will make their own links," said the artist Cornelia Parker about a new exhibition she has curated, choosing 70 works from the Government Art Collection (GAC).

The show is the second in a series of five at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in which different people are let loose among the 14,000 works in the collection.

Parker said the experience had been fun. She trawled through books and printouts before she decided that she was going to display the works according to colour. "I went through lots of ideas and this one about colour is the one that stuck and it gave me permission to be very eclectic," she said.

It means Old Masters are hanging next to modern work. A portrait of Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, for example, is near to Brews, a strikingly orange work, by pop artist Ed Ruscha and a big photograph in Liberal Democrat yellow by Jane and Louise Wilson which recently hung in Nick Clegg's office.

Other works in the show include Grayson Perry's Print for a Politician, which George Osborne personally chose for his office, a Peter Blake screenprint of the Beatles, previously in the residence of the deputy UK representative at the UN in New York, some colourful William Turnbull screenprints last in the ambassador's residence in Panama and an Andy Warhol portrait of the Queen from 1985.

Parker has also chosen one of her own works, which was one of a suite of six that for 10 years hung in the Chancellor of the Exchequer's wood-panelled dining room while Gordon Brown was there – a feather from the pillow of Sigmund Freud.

Spending cuts means the GAC is not buying anything for two years, the first time it has been forced to stop collecting since the second world war. It has been acquiring works for 113 years and around two-thirds are out on display at government buildings and embassies worldwide at any time.

Next at the Whitechapel after Parker's choice will be the selection of historian Simon Schama, and after that staff from 10 Downing Street will be making the decisions.

GAC selected by Cornelia Parker: Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain is at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, 16 September-4 December. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 01 2011

John Hoyland obituary

Prodigiously creative abstract artist whose ultra-vivid work went to painting's extremes

A painter and printmaker of prodigious creative energy and imagination, John Hoyland, who has died aged 76 of complications following heart surgery in 2008, was widely recognised as one of the greatest abstract artists of his time. From the beginning of his career, he unwaveringly championed the centrality of abstraction to the living history of modernist art. "Non-figurative imagery possessed for me," he wrote, "the potential for the most advanced depth of feeling and meaning."

For Hoyland, it was necessary for paintings to be self-sufficient machines, constructed to convey a powerful charge of visual, mental and emotional energy without recourse to any historically established figurative imagery. The expressive force of his paintings derives from the intensity and conviction of their engagement with colour, scale and abstract form, rather than with any direct expression of personal feeling. Hoyland understood the force of Braque's wonderful maxim: "Sensation, revelation!"

Hoyland was born in Sheffield to a working-class family. He was educated from the age of 11 in the junior art department at Sheffield College of Art, progressing to the senior school four years later. It was there that he met his first great friend in art, Brian Fielding, and began his passionate critical-creative engagement with painting.

The work in his finals show at the Royal Academy Schools, London, in 1960, was ordered off the walls by the then president of the Royal Academy, although Hoyland was still awarded his diploma. Within months, he was exhibiting with some of the best British artists of the day in Situation, a show of "large abstract paintings" organised by the artists themselves with a little help from the critic Lawrence Alloway. Situation kickstarted the 60s art scene, and London quickly became one of the most exciting art capitals in the world.

Hoyland was the youngest artist in the show, and his career followed a spectacular trajectory over the course of the decade. After showing in the follow-up exhibition, New London Situation, in 1961, he was taken on by Marlborough, at that time the most prestigious commercial gallery in London. When a critic described his paintings as "exquisite and refined", Hoyland was shocked: "Painting should be a seismograph of the person, and if I'm being 'exquisite', I'm being false. That's why I ditched all that optical hard-edge painting." It was by no means the last time Hoyland would attain a mastery of means, only to change direction deliberately and reinvent his manner and style.

In March 1964, Hoyland was featured in Bryan Robertson's New Generation showcase of young painters at Whitechapel Art Gallery, joining a brilliant galaxy of rising stars including Patrick Caulfield (who became a lifelong friend), David Hockney, Paul Huxley, Alan Jones and Bridget Riley. Not long after, he embarked on an astonishing series of huge acrylic canvases of high-key deep greens, reds, violets and oranges deployed in radiant fields, stark blocks and shimmering columns of ultra-vibrant colour. It was an achievement in scale and energy, sharpness of definition, originality and expressive power unmatched by any of his contemporaries, and unparalleled in modern British art. Visiting the studio in late 1965, Robertson immediately proposed a full-scale exhibition at the Whitechapel.

His one-man exhibition at that gallery in the spring of 1967 was a defining moment in the history of British abstract painting. It consolidated Hoyland's reputation, and established him without question as one of the two or three best abstract painters of his generation anywhere in the world.

Hoyland went to live and work in the United States in the late 1960s, and he was welcomed into the company of New York artists and critics including Clement Greenberg, Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, Barnett Newman and Kenneth Noland. Although he counted the younger "cooler" painters such as Noland, Larry Poons and Jules Olitski among his friends there, it was always the brave and visionary older generation painters with whom he felt most sympathy.

Newman especially struck a deep chord: "The image we produce," Newman had written, "is the self-evident one of revelation, real and concrete, that can be understood by anyone who will look at it without the nostalgic glasses of history."

Hoyland never felt particularly happy in the competitive hothouse of east coast painting. Encountering in a New York gallery the work of Hans Hofmann and recognising its European roots was a crucial epiphany. Acknowledging that he belonged essentially within the tradition of British and northern European colouristic expressionism, in 1973 Hoyland returned to England. Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, Emil Nolde and Nicolas de Staël had all been deeply admired by Hoyland from early in his artistic life. His painting from this time until the mid-1980s was to be characterised by high colour, architectonic structures loosely based in geometric forms, and a richly textured, painterly surface.

For a talk at the Tate in the 80s, Hoyland wrote a wonderfully undiscriminating and inclusive list of the subjects, experiences and objects that fired his imagination: "Shields, masks, tools, artefacts, mirrors, Avebury Circle, swimming underwater, snorkelling, views from planes, volcanoes, mountains, waterfalls, rocks, graffiti, stains, damp walls, cracked pavements, puddles, the cosmos inside the human body, food, drink, being drunk, sex, music, dancing, relentless rhythm, the Caribbean, the tropical light, the northern light, the oceanic light. Primitive art, peasant art, Indian art, Japanese and Chinese art, musical instruments, drums, jazz, the spectacle of sport, the colour of sport, magic realism, Borges, the metaphysical, dawn, sunsets, fish eyes, trees, flowers, seas, atolls. The Book of Imaginary Beings, the Dictionary of Angels, heraldry, North American Indian blankets, Rio de Janeiro, Montego Bay!"

To which might be added: Zen poetry, classical, modern and contemporary painting and sculpture, domestic pottery, driving cars, humming birds, gulls and reptiles, eclipses of the sun and moon. At any time, Hoyland might be reading and absorbing the writings of Miró, the poetry of Frank O'Hara, the novels of Gabriel García Márquez, and Japanese and Chinese poetry. All of these things fed a voracious appetite for sensory, intellectual and emotional experience in a life of sharp sight and heightened receptivity, free of preconception and cliche.

Some critics found the uninhibited exuberance of Hoyland's later painting, its superabundance of effects and its technical extremism, overwhelming. But those who loved this work were exhilarated by its spectacular diversity of visual effect, and by its impulse towards fantasy released by a heroic ambition that took him again and again to the extreme of what painting might achieve. Hoyland was always a maker of evocative images, with a disposition to the grandly visionary-poetic which has been rare in English painting since that of his greatest heroes, Turner and Constable.

Hoyland was a critically generous and able advocate of British abstract art (he counted Anthony Caro among his closest friends, and acknowledged the great sculptor's enduring influence on him). He was a constant supporter of succeeding generations of younger abstract artists, who found in him an eloquent mentor and friend. In 1979, he selected the Hayward Annual, an exhibition that remains a landmark in the history of British abstract painting. In 1988, he curated an important exhibition at the Tate Gallery of late paintings by Hofmann. He was elected Royal Academician in 1991. In 2006, Tate St Ives held the exhibition John Hoyland: The Trajectory of a Fallen Angel, bringing together paintings from 1966 to 2003.

Hoyland was a man of acerbic wit, and a wickedly cruel mimic, but behind a carefully crafted persona there was enormous generosity of spirit and true kindness. A lover of pubs and restaurants, he was a man without side, utterly un-snobbish, and ever aware of his working-class beginnings. He was an inveterate traveller, visiting South America (with Caro), Australia (with Caulfield), and latterly Spain, Italy, Jamaica and Bali with his longterm companion, Beverley Heath, whom he married with great joy in 2008. Wherever he went, he relentlessly gathered ideas and impressions, in photographs and sketchbooks, as sources for imagery. Nothing was lost and nowhere was alien to this most complete of artists.

He is survived by Beverley; his son, Jeremy, from his first marriage, to Airi; and his mother, Kathleen.

John Hoyland, painter, printmaker and teacher, born 12 October 1934; died 31 July 2011 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 06 2011

Thomas Struth – review

Perpetual curiosity and the nature of seeing inform the German photographer's art, writes Adrian Searle

The Whitechapel gallery's survey of more than 30 years of Thomas Struth's photographs is full of contrasts and differences, and jumps in scale and in subject.

Brooding Edinburgh streets in grey light, jumbles of buildings in Naples, walls of glass and steel in Tokyo, a deserted downtown New York.

No one is looking except us. A city built on sand in Peru that looks as though it is sailing on silt. Suddenly we are plunged into jungles in Australia, Japan and Florida that tangle the eye; unpeopled paradises that have no room for us, only botany gone mad.

More tangles in a Max Planck astrophysics lab, a close-up photograph of wires and metal hoses, the innards of a machine cracked open and exposed, like open-heart surgery.

Then there are the portraits and the people: a panoramic image of crowds gawping, fixated by something we can't see, their eyes raised. Out of shot is Michelangelo's David, towering unseen.

More people, dwarfed by the cliff-like exterior of the cathedral in Milan, and a staged group lingering in the echoing interior of the Pantheon in Rome.

Sometimes Struth shoots what's there, and at other times he choreographs the scene. Here's a man alone, cropped and intrusive – we only see his blurry back, his hand in his pocket – looking at Albrecht Dürer's famous self-portrait in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. Dürer, aged 29 and painted 511 years ago, looks back, unperturbed. The man looming beside us is the photographer himself.

Struth, who was born in 1954 and trained in photography in Düsseldorf, began as a painter. It shows – whether in the cool, small, black and white images of city streets, or in the later, and often very large, colour digital prints.

What Struth's photographs demonstrate is range, unending curiosity about the medium and his subjects: Struth's art is about the nature of looking itself, and not just the thing seen, the spectacle or the view. His is not a tourist's eye. He photographs people milling about in front of masterpieces in museums, absorbed in contemplation – and suddenly, we're sucked in too, only to wonder what it is we are staring at.

When Struth captures families crowded in their kitchens and their living rooms, we become aware not just of their poses in front of his camera, but of their interactions with each other, their proximity and distance, how they hold themselves for the photographer, their self-consciousness.

You also see how discreet, coercive and observant he is, how he manages his human subjects and gives them space and time to be themselves or who they think they are.

This is why Struth's portrait of the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh is so deft. Visitors to the Whitechapel gallery will be disappointed, as this recent photograph is not shown. But, probably, it would have been be too distracting, drawing too much attention in an exhibition that's full of fascinating, rich, things – even when a photograph shows us not much more than an ordinary street, cars at the kerb and a day waiting to happen.

Rating: 4/5 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 02 2011

Photos so complex 'you could look at them forever'

The celebrated German art photographer talks about his London retrospective, and an 'odd experience' with the Queen

For 15 years, Thomas Struth has been practising the gentle martial art of tai chi chuan. In that time, his photography has moved tentatively inwards to address what he calls "some questions of the self". Only recently, though, did he make a connection between his personal and his artistic journey.

"I was looking for some stillness in my life, not just as an artist but a human being in a world where you are washed about by desires, plans and unsatisfied ambitions," he says matter-of-factly. "My question was: how can you not be restless? I can now see that the same question seeped somehow into the work insofar as I was trying to take the restlessness from inside myself and put it into the pictures and on to the walls."

Born in 1954, Struth initially studied painting at the Düsseldorf academy under the German artist Gerhard Richter, before gravitating to photography. His mastery of formal composition, colour and detail have made him one of the pre-eminent European art photographers of our time, and he is best known for his large-scale cityscapes and his ongoing series of family portraits, many of which nod to Renaissance paintings. He has only recently started shooting some work on digital, preferring to use 8x10mm plate cameras on tripods.

The results of his search to conquer his inner restlessness through art have been intriguing. In the late 90s he made a series of photographs of jungles. Entitled New Pictures from Paradise, they seem the opposite of his signature cityscapes and evince a kind of lush calmness that borders on the Romantic. Like much of his work, they are oddly disorienting in their clarity and detail. "I wanted to make photographs in which everything was so complex and detailed that you could look at them forever and never see everything," he says. He has since noticed that people spend a lot of time "looking very quietly into the jungle pictures" and that there "is often an even more deeper silence than usual" around them.

More recently, though, Struth has been photographing another kind of jungle: the cluttered interiors of highly technological environments. These large photographs, which have titles such as Tokamak Asdex Upgrade Periphery and Stellarator Wendelstein 7-x, are as complex as his jungles are calming or his earlier street scenes are austere. "For me," he says, smiling, "they are landscapes of the modern brain. There is this one-sided investment in technology and science as the promised better future – the iPhone, the internet, cloud computing. It seems to me that there has been a dwindling of political thought and engagement as our thinking has become problematically entangled in these kinds of self-focused, endlessly repeating desires. That is why I wanted these pictures to look somehow exhausting."

In person, Struth is not at all how I expected him to be from years of contemplating – sometimes in bafflement, sometimes in awe – his big, impossibly detailed photographs. He is dressed casually but smartly, in chinos and open-necked grey-blue shirt, and looks younger than his 57 years. He comes across as both relaxed but careful, though it may just be his concerted efforts to find the right English words to convey his often complex ideas.

At London's Whitechapel Gallery, where a retrospective of Struth's work opens on Wednesday, it strikes me that, in his pristine prints of streets, cities, museums, churches and jungles, Struth has set himself the impossible task of trying to capture some sense of the invisible or, at least, the latent. Whether it be restlessness, calm or the strange hinterland between boredom and contemplation that often holds sway in both places of worship and temples of culture, his photographs are always about this looming "other" that hovers just outside the frame.

"There is something in that," he says, amiably, as we chat in an upstairs room of the gallery. "But I think, I hope, that the photographs possess a symbolic power that the viewer can connect with. That they have a symbolic power is very important to me, even if it is often a quiet one."

Studying painting as a young man, Struth realised that he was "making big super-realist photographic paintings that just seemed pointless and a bit stupid". Instead, he began photographing his hometown, Düsseldorf, and showed the results to both Richter and the great Bernd Becher, whose own photographs of industrial buildings and towers, taken with his wife, Hilla, the young Struth had never seen. "Richter never liked my paintings but really liked my photographs. Bernd was a little surprised, but polite," says Struth, chuckling now at his youthful naivety. "But I had an anxious time afterwards thinking, 'Maybe he thinks I have copied him!'"

Struth's photographs of Düsseldorf's streets and buildings, where the old and austere meets the modern and faceless, suggest, he says "a kind of embedded history" of German power and identity that, in the long years of post-war silence, was not acknowledged either by those in power or by ordinary German citizens. "For me, initially, the question was: how do you live with history? Then I began to ask: how is history embedded in the architecture of a city? How does a community represent itself in its architecture, truthfully or otherwise?"

In asking these questions through photography, he found his style and his methodology. "Many people think that the impulse to take a photograph comes from the subject matter," he says, in his quiet, but emphatic, way. "But, for me, it comes from a wish to talk about certain things that fascinate or bother me, politically or socially. And then I choose the subject that will enable me to address that subject. Otherwise," he says, laughing, but serious, "I would go around aimlessly photographing anything and everything."

To some extent, then, Struth is a political artist, a photographer who believes in the humanity of his vision, even if the end result – his vast cityscapes of China or his early black and white photographs of a seemingly depopulated New York – sometimes tends towards the opposite: a vision of a world where humanity has been neutered or erased.

The exceptions are his museum series and his family portraits. For the former, taken over two prolonged periods in the early and late 90s, he spent long days patiently observing people looking – or not looking – at the pictures on the walls of major European galleries such as the Prado and the Louvre. "The gallery is a kind of unclear, in between space for many people," he says. "It's not defined like a football stadium or a concert venue. I wanted to capture that interim sense of place." He stopped taking his gallery pictures when one too many people came up to him and asked if he was Thomas Struth. "I knew then it really was time to move on."

In his family portraits, painterly composition and tonal colour combine in a way that suggests those years studying with Richter were not in vain. (In one, he captures the Richter family looking like they have been transposed from a court in medieval Florence to a modernist living room in Cologne.)

"Interestingly," says Struth, "the family portraits have lately become recognised as not so old-fashioned. I sense that they are being looked at, and perhaps understood, differently by critics. The public have always been drawn to them because they see a reflection of themselves, their own families. They sense, I think, that these are just condensed slices of an epic drama arrested in a certain moment."

Last month, the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh unveiled Struth's diamond jubilee portrait of the Queen and Prince Philip. Commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery in London, it fits quite neatly into Struth's family series insofar as it captures a similar, but perhaps more heightened, kind of relaxed formality. The Queen looks almost at ease while the Duke looks intently, almost defiantly, into Struth's lens.

"It was an odd experience," says the photographer. "They were extremely dry and, you could say, unfriendly at the start. But they were intrigued by the set-up: the big, old-fashioned plate camera on a tripod. I told them about the problems I had with it at airport security and the Queen nodded and said that maybe they should make an exception for photographers and their equipment, which was surprising. Mainly, I think they were grateful that I did not take too long."

How, though, did he prepare for the shoot and avoid the pitfalls of so many royal portraits: the over-elaborate settings, the empty gaze, the cliched compositions? "I think the Green Room worked as a setting that did not overpower the subject, and I liked that they were together but slightly apart. My approach was to say: here is the Queen and her husband, but here, also, is an elderly couple of the same generation as my own parents. What I am happy about most of all is that they are both very alert and so present in the room at this second, that they are not thinking of anything else at that moment the picture is taken." That quiet alertness is, you sense, what Struth is after in all his pictures; an echo of his own presence as a photographer and a person.

Thomas Struth: Photographs 1978-2010 is at the Whitechapel Gallery, London E1, 6 July to 16 September © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 11 2011

Paul Graham: in the frame

The influential English photographer talks about succeeding in New York after years as an outsider in London

In his catalogue essay for Paul Graham's imminent retrospective at east London's Whitechapel Gallery, the photography writer and curator David Chandler borrows a telling quotation from Richard Ford's novel, The Lay of the Land. "I do not credit the epiphanic, the seeing-through that reveals all, triggered by a mastering detail…" writes Ford in the voice of his American everyman narrator, Frank Bascombe. "Life's moments truly come at us heedless, not at the bidding of a gilded fragrance."

Paul Graham's most recent book of photographs, a shimmer of possibility, which was published in 2007, could be read as 12 visual short stories that illuminate – in their often open-ended, elliptical way – Bascombe's unvarnished view of life. Graham has said before that it was Anton Chekhov's short stories, rather than the work of any photographic precursor, that underpinned his way of seeing the world, when he began the project with the first of many journeys around America in the summer of 2004; but it is the quotidian America conjured up by writers such as Ford and John Updike that comes most readily to mind in the often interlinked images that make up his most epic, and well-received, book.

In one sequence, a man cuts a huge swathe of grass that borders a suburban car park in Pittsburgh, the haze of the setting sun suddenly illuminating the soft rain that falls around him. In another, a woman with straw-coloured hair sits on a roadside bench with a fast-food takeaway on her lap. Graham photographs her in profile, then homes in on the carton of fried chicken, then the litter on the pavement beneath her, and finally frames her dragging deeply on a post-snack cigarette. There are echoes here of William Eggleston's heightened everydayness, but, if anything, Graham's gaze is even more democratic, his subject matter even more quotidian. Life's moments might come at us heedless, these vignettes suggest, but they nonetheless contain a quiet, often overlooked, poetry.

"I have been taking photographs for 30 years now," says Graham, a softly spoken Englishman who has lived in New York since 2002, "and it has steadily become less important to me that the photographs are about something in the most obvious way. I am interested in more elusive and nebulous subject matter. The photography I most respect pulls something out of the ether of nothingness… you can't sum up the results in a single line. In a way, 'a shimmer of possibility' is really about these nothing moments in life."

The survey of Graham's work, which opens at the Whitechapel on 20 April, is surprising in two distinct ways: it shows how far this influential photographer has travelled formally, from the more social documentary-based work of his younger years, and it is, shockingly, the first solo show of his work in a British gallery since he exhibited a few early images on the walls of the Photographers' Gallery staircase in the early 1980s. "I don't want to sound conceited," he says, "but that is surely indicative of British attitudes towards photography in general. I know things are changing, finally, but London has a lot of catching up to do with New York. There is a real culture of photography out here that is very affirming."

Graham, 54, is a self-taught photographer, who first picked up a camera as a child at the bidding of his scout-master. He grew up in rural Buckinghamshire before the family relocated to Harlow new town, in Essex, where everything was "precise, planned and pristine". Initially he studied microbiology at university before happening on the works of Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Edward Weston and Paul Strand in the social anthropology section of the college library. "Suddenly, it was like this light went on," he says. "It was the discovery that you could actually say something with photography. I got the work immediately, though I was completely unable to articulate it to anyone else." He cites Eggleston, Stephen Shore and Lee Friedlander as abiding influences, alongside formalists like Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz.

Between 1981 and 1986, while living in London, Graham made three books of colour photography that are now much sought after by collectors and students alike: A1 – The Great North Road (1983), Beyond Caring (1986) and Troubled Land (1987). Back then, they were met with suspicion and even anger. "I gave a talk to photography students at Newport College of Art in 1985," he says, ruefully, "and one of the tutors described Beyond Caring as 'poisonous'. By that, I think he meant that it was poisonous to the established order of working, which was to use a Leica, shoot in black and white, and always have an establishing shot."

Beyond Caring, for all the controversy it caused, remains his most straightforward book, a work of undercover reportage shot in dole offices throughout Britain. It was funded by the Greater London Council in the last days of "Red" Ken Livingstone and, to Graham's great surprise, subsequently acquired "this strange double life: as both a political work of social reportage handed out at lefty political conferences, and as a fine art photography book". Since then his work has grown ever more elliptical. Troubled Land remains one of my favourite books on the Northern Irish Troubles, not least because it came at them sideways – highlighting the strange, normalised reality of a place that was anything but normal.

In 1994, Graham returned to Northern Ireland to make a series called Cease Fire, which is a contender – alongside his later book, American Night – for his most ambiguous body of work. It comprises photographs of the sky over some of the province's best-known trouble spots: Andersonstown, Ballymurphy, the Bogside and the Shankill Road. It is another measure of Graham's ongoing journey from the obvious to the nebulous. Likewise American Night, in which several of the images were so over-exposed and bleached out that some critics returned the book to the publishers, thinking there had been a problem in the printing process. Graham had, as he puts it, "whitened out" the images in the darkroom to emulate "the sense of disorientation and drama" he felt when he came out of a cinema in Tennessee into the bright, blinding sunlight of the American south.

"It was a shock to the critics," he says, chuckling, "but it was a shock to me, too. I always feel like I am the first member of the audience to see the work, and, in that instance, I did have to ask myself, 'Can I take this seriously?' It was a tough question, but I hope the work answered it." My own view is that the jury is still out on that one.

Like the Deutsche Börse prize, which he won in 2009, the Whitechapel show is, among other things, a long-overdue acknowledgment of Paul Graham's willingness to take risks in his work, and not to shy from making pictures that ask awkward questions about how we see – and interpret – the world through photography. "Sometimes, when I go out with a camera, I don't have a plan or even know what it is I am looking for," he says, in conclusion. "But I do go out every time and question how we make photographs of the world. It's the same question that photographers have always asked: how is this world? And, what are the new ways to find that out?" © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 06 2011

The big picture: Whitechapel 1972

Ian Berry's photograph, commissioned by the Whitechapel Gallery, captures a key moment of change in an area long used to a shifting population

In 1972, Ian Berry was commissioned by the Whitechapel Gallery to photograph the streets outside their door. "I had just returned to London after a few years working as a Magnum photographer out of their office in Paris," he recalls. "I had come back with a fresh eye and was just starting a new project when I got the call. It was too good an opportunity to turn down."

Now, almost 40 years later, the same show is being exhibited once again at the Whitechapel Gallery. Back then, Berry roamed Whitechapel with his camera for just two weeks, shooting on the streets, in shops, bars and restaurants as well as in schools and hospitals. "It was a different time and people were still not used to the notion of street photography. I just walked into schools with my camera, which you could certainly not do now. At the local hospital, they gave me a white coat, told me not to get in the way of the doctors, and just left me to get on with it. You had a freedom then that photographers no longer have."

What Berry remembers most of all about Whitechapel was "a certain palpable feeling of sadness that was in the air, the sense that one wave of immigrants were being supplanted by another. It was just becoming a multi-racial, but mainly Asian community, and the old Jewish community was in terminal decline. You could sense the sadness on their faces, in their demeanour. That's what I remember most."

This photograph, though, taken on Whitechapel Road, captures the emerging vibrancy of the area in the early 70s. It could almost be New York at the same time, the West Indian woman on the right vivacious in piled-high hair and wide-collared floral shirt, her friend just catching Berry's eye with an inquisitive, almost affronted look just as he shoots. They both have their mouths open as if in mid-song, as they negotiate the traffic, the front of what looks like a London taxi just veering into the frame. In the background, an Asian man waits to cross in the opposite direction. A snapshot of a time and place long gone, but oddly familiar. Whitechapel, this image tells us, is one of those London neighbourhoods where everything changes, but everything stays somehow the same.

"It s not my favourite photograph and it did not make it into the original show," says Berry, who, back then, worked mainly in colour and often for the fledgling Observer magazine. "The ladies make a great shape but it just misses being great because of that white car. Had I printed it myself, which I didn't have time to, I would have darkened that bloody car." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 30 2011

John Stezaker

Whitechapel Gallery, London; De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex

Two movie stars in evening dress lean in for the kiss. The air is scented, the music quivers and mounts. But just as their lips are about to meet, the moment is blocked by a quite different view – of a river at the bottom of a deep dark gorge, flowing away towards a distant light.

A sepia postcard has been glued to a 50s film still: romantic landscape, romantic movie. That is the work; the method is simple. But the alignment is so skilful that one is able to hold two (and more) opposing perceptions at once: the lovers about to kiss, evident though their profiles are occluded; the prospect of passion welling up in the darkness; but also the exact opposite: two cliff-faces opposed, blocked, never to meet, with no release. Look into the image and it deepens; look, and you see through it to another side.

Pair IV is a collage by the English artist John Stezaker. Its impact clearly comes in part from a lucky strike, the persuasive coincidence of jaw and cliff, eyebrow and foliage, the light in the room and the light in the landscape. Stezaker has shuffled his numberless pack of images and hit upon a perfect match.

But idea precedes experiment, and for 30 years or more Stezaker has been pondering visual incongruity, inverting, rotating, slicing and splicing pairs of old images to create new works of art. His juxtapositions are anything but seamless – colour/black and white, male/female, portrait/landscape – precisely so that the eye is confronted by obvious disunities that the mind must somehow resolve.

Sometimes the idea is so simple one marvels, above all, at the strange effects. Stezaker removes the top half of a starlet in jodhpurs and her braced legs appear inexplicably monumental. He crops Big Ben so that the clockface is tiny against the glorious frame-filling sunset above, time mocked by mere elements.

He nips and tucks: one film star is blinded by the excision of a narrow strip across the eyes; another becomes bug-eyed by the doubling of this strip, which also gives the collage an optical shudder.

Two 50s children sit uncomprehending before an adult almost entirely obscured by a blank white screen. The scenario appears irresistibly comic, something like the dog in the famous New Yorker cartoon that perceives nothing but gibberish in its owner's speech-bubble, except this humour is tinged with horror. Innocent eyes, the dawn of the television age, the tyrannical adult bearing down like Big Brother: it's all there in the pale glow reflected in their faces.

There is only one (incised) image here, a movie still carefully selected for its well-placed window, true source of that glow. But sometimes the art arrives more serendipitously, as when Stezaker cut a film star out of a fanzine, then discovered that the actress on the back was now trapped in a tense double-act with a black silhouette. Dark Star, he called that series.

But Stezaker mainly works with two found images: postcards masking faces or hovering above them like ideas; silhouettes crammed with fantastical pictures; male-female hermaphrodite faces. These are his weakest works, a dilution of the surrealism to which he often alludes. Freud's photograph hangs above the couch as a postcard train rushes out of the patient's head: Magritte reduced to the absurd.

Stezaker's work has been extensively theorised in terms of popular culture, signs, signifiers, surrealism, early Hollywood and advertising history. Some of his admirers are even obsessed with the one thing he isn't interested in at all, namely the source of his images. But the strength of his best work, it seems to me, comes from something older than the original photographs: a Romantic wildness.

It's the starlet teeming with bat-wheeling visions, the lighthouse in the silhouetted head, the mother at the child's bedside, both obscured by the postcard of a lonely country lane opening up like a new story between them. Enchanting, vertiginous, darkly humorous, disturbing, the effects are masterfully achieved. Nature is matched to man, landscape to portrait with absolute precision. Waterfalls for eyes, pools of thought, the canyons of the mind: Stezaker makes metaphors visible.

An anonymous actor sits blindfold at a desk. Just above him, like an inner vision, hangs a postcard of an old castle shattered by waves and storms. It is Chillon, the prison in Byron's great poem, but it belongs to this Everyman too. Dark, mythic, rising straight out of his sightless head, this fearful image passes straight into your own. Stezaker's collage is a modern Sleep of Reason, the mind haunted by free-floating images.

When Andy Warhol asked 60s stars to pose on film for four minutes, some stood stock still as if for an old-fashioned portrait, while others broke into nervous tics or laughter within seconds. Those who knew the sitters were regularly amazed, though, because their reactions were always so characteristic.

Do moving portraits have unfair advantages? This question is constantly in play at the De La Warr Pavilion's riveting new show. Motion and narrative, the subject shown in time, in the round and in their own words: the genre seems to have a head's start.

Moving Portraits is wonderfully comprehensive. It has many classics, from Warhol's Screen Tests and Gilbert and George's Living Statues to Fiona Tan's exuberant little sons trying hard to stay in frame. Some subjects are famous – Duncan Campbell's Bernadette Devlin, Sam Taylor-Wood's sleeping David Beckham, a split-screen Duncan Goodhew – though most are intimate.

And it is beautifully curated to show an immense variety of approaches, from Julian Opie's digital self-portrait in crisp black outline, a drawing trying to hold as still as a conventional sitter while also breathing and blinking, to Gillian Wearing's 2 into 1, in which family truths are revealed by having the children lipsynch their mother's monologues and vice versa, in a work of horrifying drama.

But isn't this as much a manipulation as any of Sargent's painted socialites? What strikes is how often the same issues matter: setting, pose, expression, clothes; and how much still and unstill portraits have in common.

It is true that Margaret Tait's great 1955 film of her mother dancing through the Orkney heather could hardly give a better sense of the old woman's lightsome spirit and lilting voice, her way of unwrapping a sweet with all 10 delicate fingers. But what emerges here is the real virtue of the film portrait: its power of reciprocity. The responsiveness, the mutual exchange, the relationship recorded over time between those before and those behind the camera – this is the singular gift of making and viewing the moving portrait. We should all be doing it. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 29 2011

Brian Dillon on John Stezaker at the Whitechapel Gallery

John Stezaker's collages using black-and-white film photos and old postcards are nostalgic but also uncanny and absurd. As a career-spanning exhibition of his work opens at the Whitechapel Gallery, Brian Dillon pays tribute to a sly romantic

The English artist John Stezaker, whose uncanny collages are the subject of a career-spanning exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, tells a revelatory tale about the origins of his luminous art. Stezaker was born in Worcester in 1949; when he was 13 his family moved to London, and around this time his parents supplanted their crackling old snapshot albums with a new slide projector. The teenager was fascinated by the apparatus, and especially by the single demonstration slide that came with it: a wide-angle photograph of two men overlooking the Thames, with the Palace of Westminster and a lurid sunset behind them. Stezaker swiftly grasped that the projected image might be used to make art, thus obviating the tedium of freehand drawing. But when he took the machine to his bedroom, he found all he could squeeze on to a sheet of paper was a corner of the picture: Big Ben, a few turrets and a stretch of red sky. He tried painting over it in his best approximation of an "expressionist-psychedelic" style, but when he turned off the projector the result was "horrific".

In light of the artist's subsequent romance with the found photograph, this anecdote is almost too apt to be true. By the time he enrolled at the Slade in the late 60s, his main influences were Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke: painters whose use of photographs overlapped with and trumped, in expressive terms, the pop art of a few years earlier. But Stezaker was a student too at a time when a wholesale critique of the pop-cultural image was being launched by such thinkers as Guy Debord; the Situtationists' scurrilous repurposing of media imagery became an exemplary strategy for him, alongside his abiding, and then unfashionable, interest in surrealism. (He recalls being shown Max Ernst's Une semaine de bonté, based on the illustrations to earlier novels, by William Coldstream on his first day at the Slade.) Schooled also on the recently translated writings of Walter Benjamin, for whom the conjunction of photograph and caption had altered forever how we looked at images, Stezaker began making work with text and pictures, intent on exposing the mystique of the visual.

It was a move that was very much of its time – London-based artists such as Victor Burgin and Susan Hiller (whose own Tate Britain show opens on Tuesday) were doing parallel things in very different registers – but for Stezaker it was a dead end. He suspected that his territory was the collective fascination with image itself rather than the conceptual urge to undermine that fascination. At this point, in the mid-70s, that sliver of sunset from his adolescence unexpectedly returned. He had since learned that the complete photograph was also a hugely popular postcard, but it was still the skewed portion in the corner that obsessed him. And he began to realise, with a mixture of conceptual insight and lingering emotional attachment, that it required little or no artistic intervention beyond his first excision of the haunting fragment. (The resulting work, The End, is in the Whitechapel show.) The image itself was the work of art and, although the various painstaking subtleties of his style remained to be worked out, the mature Stezaker aesthetic was coming into focus.

He was not, of course, the first artist to deploy the found photograph, or combine such photographs, without comment. It was a favoured trick of his surrealist precursors, from Ernst to the pages of Georges Bataille's late-20s journal Documents. But it's important to gauge his careful distance from the tradition of photomontage – a term he avoids, in favour of "collage". As Stezaker sees it, the great monteurs such as John Heartfield and George Grosz always worked at some remove from the image itself – indeed, this was often the critical or satirical point of their work: to conjure radical ideas out of pictures that otherwise allured the everyday viewer. With his residual romanticism and often frank embrace of 20th-century glamour, Stezaker is perhaps closer to an artist such as Hannah Höch, whose Album of 1933 juxtaposes press imagery with ravishing fashion illustrations and fragments of a sublime or disturbing nature. In Stezaker's collages as in Höch's, images sidle up to and seduce one another, shying from overarching arguments or narratives.

That's not to say that there isn't a degree of knowing distance – and a strain of disturbing violence – in Stezaker's work. It is first of all a historical distance. Early on, he began to work with actors' portraits (mostly black-and-white) and film stills from the middle of the 20th century – images he culled from defunct cinemas and picture agencies that were then going out of business. (Stezaker once bought the entire contents of one such establishment, although the prints are now so precious and rare that he cannot bring himself to make work out of them.) The film stills are especially peculiar artefacts: posed publicity shots taken during production rather than frames reproduced from the finished film. Like the colourful, scenic postcards with which Stezaker often overlays them, they hold the same kind of attraction that Victorian engravings held for the surrealists. The distance – inflected with nostalgia and absurdism – is essential, because one of the things Stezaker is engaged in is a daring rescue of images from the memory dump of the recent past.

It's hard to say precisely what the artist does with such images. In a sense, practically speaking, it's ludicrously simple: he places one picture on top of another. Consider Negotiable Space I, from 1978. The larger, "background" image shows a psychoanalyst at his desk, his analysand stretched on a couch, a medicine cabinet in the corner and a photograph of Freud on the wall. In the centre of the image, and seeming to threaten the foreground of the scene, is a colour postcard showing a train emerging from a tunnel – its edge obscuring the face of the patient. The inference seems clear at first: this is a comically "Freudian" emanation from the unconscious of the figure on the couch – except that this initial schematic response won't exhaust the collage. The crude intrusion of the postcard makes us notice oddities about the film still – a lattice of shadows around the Freud portrait, the surprising expanse of empty floor at the bottom of the picture – as well as curious details by which the two images rhyme: railway tracks aligning with the desk so that it, too, looks about to charge out of the frame.

There are many other works of this type. In the Trial series classical ruins, a picturesque waterfall and the Bridge of Sighs at St John's College, Cambridge, all erupt among the anxious monochrome attitudes of a cinematic courtroom scene. In an untitled collage from 2008, a crowd of Hollywood bathing beauties is framed and almost overwhelmed by a sideways-on photograph showing the complicated sculptural entanglement of St George with his dragon. But the signature Stezaker gesture is more frequently the cut and splice of two or more images, doing suggestive violence to both. Here is a young Lauren Bacall, her face diagonally bisected by roiling floodwaters or – the series is entitled Film Portrait (Disaster) – obliterated by an image of torn-up trees. Here, in a series titled Third Person, are lesser stars whose faces are half-hidden by anonymous silhouettes, from the depths of which a third image obtrudes: a garish landscape or an eerie flight of birds. And in recent works the background picture may also explode through the centre of the interposed image, in a cartoon flash worthy of Roy Lichtenstein.

The mystery of Stezaker's art may be said to reside in these precise and shocking cuts. He has spoken of the moment when he takes a blade to the sleek surface of an old bromide print as one of heightened anxiety and tension – having handled and gazed at these images for months or even years, he likes to get the incision over and done with as swiftly as possible. Unfinished works in his London studio have the look of gaping wounds, something like the suddenly opened slit, product of a slip of the thumb in the kitchen, described by Sylvia Plath's poem "Cut": "a sort of hinge / Of skin, / A flap like a hat, / Dead white." They remind us that historically photographs have been as much things to be touched as looked at, that our fascination with them is at once visual and tactile, almost grisly.

This impression of keen-eyed assault is strongest (and frequently funniest) in Stezaker's cutting and suturing of close-up portraits. Everywhere in his work there are faces made monstrous, comical or weirdly attractive by their carving up and careful wedding with others. In fact one series is called Marriages, and shows pairs of men and women – mostly, it seems, they are actors' studio portraits – incongruously conjoined to suggest new faces. A mustachioed man in a pullover meets a wavy-haired blonde to produce a figure with an oddly raffish cavalier look; a middle-aged woman with a complex hairdo acquires the aquiline nose of the actor she obscures. For all their strangeness, however, the faces are also exquisitely aligned, the arc of an eyebrow or the thrust of a jaw running on from one image to another, so that the whole is bizarrely credible as a glamorous or grotesque new being. One's eye moves tirelessly, entranced, between the two faces and their Frankenstein offspring.

What is less endearing, and more alarming, about these "married" faces is the extent to which their own eyes have frequently been attacked by Stezaker's scalpel. (There's a reminder here of the founding image of surrealist oculism: the slitting open of a woman's eye – replaced at the last edited moment by that of a cow – in Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí's 1929 film Un chien andalou.)

More generally in his work, it's often through the eye that the incision passes: whether vertically (as in the splicing of two faces) or horizontally, as in a series titled Love, where a narrow strip of the same image is inserted along the eye line, so that the subject stares out at us with expanded, blurred and alien orbs. The result is that the people in Stezaker's collages seem to suffer a variety of austerely rendered optical afflictions, from a squint or strabismus to full enucleation: in the series Blind, the eyeballs have been razored out along a straight line and the edges of the photograph brought together again.

Such images are part of Stezaker's continued investigation of the intimate strangeness of the photographed human face, the way it exposes and veils at the same time the feeling, thinking creature within. This fascination finds its fullest expression in his Masks series. Here there are no cuts, just the judicious placing of colour postcards over monochrome portraits. They're among Stezaker's slyest and most unsettling works, because what they intrude into the portraits is a series of gaping holes: chasms and waterfalls that cleave faces in two, yawning caves and sunlit sea arches that tunnel into unknowable interiors. These collages are the more ghastly and comical for once again being perfectly aligned: clumps of rock become noses, the arches of a stone bridge a pair of gawping eyes.

The Masks return us to another, less nostalgic, story that Stezaker tells us about his development as an artist. As a student, he happened on a photograph in an old medical textbook that showed a woman's face half eaten away by a rodent ulcer – inside and outside had become horribly confused. Stezaker closed that book with the thought that he must never look at it again, but in other ways he has not stopped looking since.

John Stezaker is at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, until 18 March 2011. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 03 2010

The great British art collection

Nick Clegg and Samantha Cameron among guest curators for exhibition of works normally housed in embassies and ministries

It has witnessed governments and empires collapse, heard the gossip of mandarins and seen the rise and fall of many a calculating politician. But, for the first time, the Government Art Collection is to face an entirely different audience – the public who paid for its acquisition.

The collection – which has decorated British embassies, consulates and ministerial buildings throughout the world for more than a century – is going to be displayed to the public.

Arch political operator Lord Mandelson, the prime minister's wife, Samantha Cameron, and the chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, Sir John Sawers, are among the guest curators choosing which of the 13,500 works will go on display.

Works from the collection, whose purpose is to promote the best of British art, will be on display at the Whitechapel Gallery in east London from June next year until September 2012. "The government art collection has been in existence since 1898, but this is the first time in its 113-year history that people will be able to walk in off the street to see it, we are thrilled to have it running for 15 months," said Penny Johnson, director of the collection.

The works serve an important diplomatic service, she said. "They can act as important icebreakers, or conversation starters. Of course the reason they are there is to promote British art but if they help make conversations flow a little easier, that's another positive."

The first of five displays will also include choices from the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, the British high commissioner to South Africa, Lord Boateng, the British ambassador to Moscow, Dame Anne Pringle, and culture minister Ed Vaizey.

"The collection is a unique treasure," said Vaizey. "It's run on a shoestring and shown in a haphazard way in ministries and embassies, but what better way to open it to the public than at the Whitechapel Gallery in east London, in one of the most diverse communities in the country."

Out of the thousands of paintings, prints and sculptures hanging on the walls of embassies around the world or kept at the collection's base off Tottenham Court Road in central London, Samantha Cameron chose a work by distinctly working class, unavoidably northern painter LS Lowry. Lancashire Fair: Good Friday, Daisy Nook, painted in 1946 and bought by the collection for £120 a year later, depicts mill workers enjoying one of their two statutory days' holiday a year at a bustling fair.

Mandelson has plumped for a shadowy historical portrait of the celebrated, but ruthless, Queen Elizabeth I by an unknown artist, while Boateng has chosen Peas are the New Beans by Bob and Roberta Smith.

The collection was established, in a typically British way, almost by accident, with parliament deciding that it was cheaper to buy large portraits to cover walls than redecorate Whitehall at the end of the 19th century. Since then the attention bestowed on the collection has depended in no small part on the political rough and tumble of the age, with the art in buildings such as Downing Street and the Treasury changed to suit the tastes of new inhabitants after each new government or cabinet reshuffle. And while David Cameron was too busy to chose the art for his new offices personally, both his deputy Nick Clegg and his right hand man George Osborne took a keen interest.

For the consulates and embassies around the world, the 14-strong team at the collection chose works that not only show off the best of British, but hold relevance for the countries they live in.

A dashingly romantic portrait of Lord George Gordon Byron, by Thomas Phillips, bought for £110 in 1952, resides in the Greek embassy in Athens, a nod to the poet's fateful decision to fight in the Greek war of independence, while there are no prizes for guessing where LA woman by Scottish artist Jim Lambie can be found.

Johnson and her team continue to scour small art galleries and emerging artists' studios to invest in the British art of the future with a £200,000 annual budget to add to the collection, which includes work by Tracy Emin, Damien Hirst, Constable, Lucian Freud, David Hockney and Paul Nash,

Pushing in a rail of priceless works from the 16th century onwards, at the collection offices in central London, she suggested one reason why the public should be keen to visit the exhibition. "If these paintings had ears, imagine what they would they have heard, and known," she said. "They've had very interesting lives." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 10 2010

Alice Neel: Painted Truths

Whitechapel, London; Victoria Miro, London

Alice Neel: Painted Truths at London's Whitechapel Art Gallery is the revelation of the year. How could it not be? It would be hard to think of a greater artist whose work has been so little seen in this country. At her death in 1984, aged 84, Neel was as celebrated in her native America as Louise Bourgeois, to whom recognition also came outrageously late. Yet this is the first survey of Neel's portraits in Britain.

Who did she paint? At first, it seems an outlandishly ill-matched assembly: union organisers and museum directors, communists and millionaires, ladies who lunch and nightclub strippers. The Fuller Brush salesman with his 50s bowtie and matching smile hangs next to the art historian with her tensed fingertips and brittle mask. No less attention is given to Andy Warhol displaying his wounds after being shot by Valerie Solanas than a pair of twin babies in nappies, glitteringly alert and expectant.

None of these paintings was a commission. Neel belonged to no groups, was sui generis and scarcely scraped a living when American art was dominated by abstract expressionism and pop. Her life as an outsider surfaces in the portraits of workers in Spanish Harlem, where she lived in the 40s and 50s, and in the likenesses of her lovers – the wealthy Cuban who more or less abducted their only surviving child in the 20s; the cabaret singer José Negron; radical film-maker Sam Brody and Harvard graduate John Rothschild.

Neel would, you feel, have painted almost anyone who came her way, so evergreen is her curiosity. It is no surprise to learn that when she came under FBI investigation in the 50s – the file describes her as a "romantic Bohemian-type communist" – she invited the very agents who pursued her to sit for their portrait.

Eventually, after decades in the wilderness with paintings stacking up four deep against the walls of her Manhattan flat, Neel summoned sufficient courage to approach art-world figures. Their response appears implicit in each portrait. Henry Geldzahler of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a pouting brat with anxious, twisty hands – "Oh, so you want to be a professional," his scornful denial of her appeal for help. The art critic Gregory Battock takes the opportunity to come out in bright yellow underpants. Frank O'Hara, poet and curator at the Museum of Modern Art, shows his discoloured teeth in a rictus of nervous laughter.

As well he might. For Neel's kind of portrait must have seemed more or less without precedent and still does. Her pictures are edgy, awkward, candidly unflattering, frequently humorous or grotesque. The heads are disproportionately big, the hands claw-like, the limbs flaccid or cricked and skewed in defiance of anatomy to get across further expression or character.

Freckles, fag-browned molars, awkward knees and bulging breasts, the indelible frown, the cavernous cleft, the nose that is more limb than feature: Neel cannot help but notice them all. She pays no attention to the sitter's fears of appearing graceless or gauche (her method, she said, was to converse until they unconsciously assumed their most characteristic pose in a chair, revealing "what the world had done to them and their retaliation".) Having no repertoire of conventional poses, or props, you might say she let her subjects hang themselves.

And each is described in Neel's trademark blue outline – looping, breezing, brushing, sweeping in shape and contour – a figure that is then coloured in. To say that the later portraits verge upon caricature is not much of an overstatement.

You might ask why anyone would submit themselves to such an eye. My sense, looking at this exhilarating show with its exceptional range of emotional nuances, of life lessons and warnings and compassionate insights, is to learn more than one kind of truth. What made Warhol sit half-naked before Neel, exposing his sagging nipples and tea-coloured truss, blanket-stitch sutures embroidering his torso? Look at the portrait, in which he shuts his eyes to the viewer, and you see his complexity of character beautifully condensed: fragile yet commanding, male yet female with his dainty pins, vulnerable yet powerfully controlled. The body may be assailed, but never the soul.

What made Margaret Evans pose nude on a narrow stool, eight months pregnant with twins? The catalogue suggests there is something cruel about the pose, but to me it is acutely empathetic of Evans's condition (judging from my own experience). What the portrait shows is the trick of keeping one's balance as the new life takes over, leaving barely any breathing room, of trying to sit tight in this precarious state.

Evans's beautiful face is full of returned curiosity. You see that all the time in this show: children leaning forward and staring hard at the artist who looks back at them, avidity and animation among the adults. Neel's presence, her conversation: these are palpable in every portrait. By general consent, her portrait sessions were never silent.

Precisely what strength each image gathers from the sitter's response to the artist can only be surmised. But time spent with this sagacious woman, so unembittered by poverty and rejection, was evidently prized. The paintings extend that gift, drawing each person deeper into the stream of life.

The wide-eyed mother, exhausted and frightened of dropping the infant propped on her lap, is as unsteady at this stage of new motherhood as the baby itself. The art historian Meyer Schapiro, a study in mustard and purple, declines towards death. But still his mouth quivers with the hope of further talk: promise of continuing life.

You feel you have always known these portraits. This is partly to do with their freight of universal truths and partly to do with Neel's influence, subject of a show of contemporary art at Victoria Miro, In the Company of Alice. Some painters – Chantal Joffe, Elizabeth Peyton – have been inspired by the gawky, wry and caricatural aspects of her work; others by the expressiveness and mystery. Peter Doig's painting of his teenage daughter, white legs gleaming in a jungle of dark shadows, shows the influence of Munch on Neel, as much as Neel on Doig. It is not wrong to see her legacy all over the current art scene.

This surely has a lot to do with Neel's loquacity: she is powerfully outspoken not just in what she observes but how she paints. Her surfaces are very physical, the brushwork – sketchy, exuberant or fluid – openly declared. The famous distortions always have something to say about the exasperating business of having to coexist with one's body. The novelist lays out his arthritic hand, like a passive invalid, on the couch. The art critic reclines nude as an odalisque: brazen pose, but he still has to keep an impressively stern eye on the viewer just to compete with his own mighty genitalia.

It is the face versus the physique, the person in spite of his or her body. What it is to be young and self-conscious, yet inwardly irrepressible; old and irritable and yet intellectually resurgent: the discrepancies are a potent source of tragedy or humour. Critics of the day gave it the label expressionistic realism, but the directness of Neel's art now looks like a form of free speech.

Dressed, half-dressed or nude, the sitters are all naked beneath her scrutiny. To anyone wishing to look their best – the flaws of the flesh concealed – she must have seemed disobligingly frank, though only if one believed in the body as the soul's representative. When Neel finally came to paint herself, at the age of 80, she aptly chose to strip bare. In her marvellously insouciant self-portrait, the artist appears in spectacles, wicker chair and nothing else but her own defiant intelligence. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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