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2 October 2015


Ay Weiwei exhibition

The name itself sounds like a cry of anguish...Ay! Way! Way! He has every reason for anguish but he's not crying, at least not in public. In public he exhibits two perspectives: on one hand, a calm defiance of the monolithic, arthritic, despotic regime hidden behind his country's mask of modern progress. And on the other, a display of meticulously crafted objets d'art, mixing the materials of venerable ancient Chinese artefacts with irreverent attitudes of surrealism and conceptualism - shades of Duchamp, Magritte, Carl Andre and all.

The most valuable and moving piece in the exhibition, for me, is not an art object but a video: an effective and affecting piece of investigative journalism. It was filmed in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and documents the discovery, due to stubborn and painstaking examination of the ruins by Ai Weiwei and others, that the instant collapse of several schools in which hundreds of children died, was due to local authorities' corruption leading to lax building regulations and shoddy construction. Weiwei's response to the scandal was to buy tons of the mangled rebar, the "'useless bones of all those schools that collapsed". In his studio, workers pounded hundreds of the twisted metal bars straight and kept hammering even when he was imprisoned by the government for several months.

Still from Weiwei video

After his release Wewei created, with 38 tons of those rusted rods, a respectful and defiant memorial to those lost children, titled Straight, of which he has said:

The tragic reality of today is reflected in the true plight of our spiritual existence. We are spineless and cannot stand straight.
"Straight" by Ai Wewei

The problem I had when looking at this...installation...yes, that was exactly the problem. It had become an 'Installation' because of where it is shown: in a prestigious art institution. So the whole point of the memorial- its history, its meaning - has become merely a caption for an art object and its viewers are the people who go to art exhibitions. Does this make sense? Not to me. What would make sense would be if Straight was laid out in a public place in Sechuan where the children died, for example, or in front of government buildings in Beijing. But of course the Chinese authorities would never permit this. So the next best locations for exhibiting it would be...Well, you can see what I'm getting at.

I like Ai Wewei, I respect his integrity, his courage, patience and humour, his defiant stoicism in the face of the mental and physical hardships, injustice and repression he (and thousands of his unseen, unsung compatriots) have suffered, are suffering. I just wish he was as bold, unconventional and resourceful in his choice of venues for the display of his protest-works as he is in protesting.

Peering down into the several mini-tableaux which reproduce, half life-size, the actual cell in which Wewei was detained, along with the Chinese guards who watched his every moment, I couldn't help wondering, again, if this was the relevant place to show them. In the art gallery context they were reduced to rather ironic toy-scapes, even when you had read the explanation.

Weiwei prison cell

Caption at Royal Academy, Wewei's imprisonment

As for Ai Wewei's objets d'art in the exhibition, I must admit to being underwhelmed. The joke in this one is that the object lifting its legs at tradition is made from a traditional Qing Dynasty table. Get it?

Table legs on wall  table with 2 legs on the wall

Below, I think it's the caption which is the conceptual artwork rather than the cute paint-streaked vases. Those private collectors, did they buy because their vase was a Weiwei or because it was Han Dynasty or Neolithic? And did the price reflect one or the other? And who is taking the mickey of whom?

Caption, coloured vases

Ancient vases, painted

The bicycle chandelier is rather beautiful, in the way that a twenty layer birthday cake made of sugar cobwebs would be beautiful but even the Chinese bicycle symbolism doesn't save it from being instantly forgotten (by me) once I've seen/eaten it.

Bicycle chandelier

Before I end this grumpy review, I want to apologise for it to Ai Wewei even though he surely won't be reading it. I'm truly glad that the Royal Academy is exhibiting his work, he deserves encouragement and support from every quarter, public and private. I sincerely wish him well and I hope that his country's leaders will come to their senses, in his lifetime, and recognize what he, and all the other exceptional individuals they have been tormenting and repressing, could do for China if they would only be given the freedom which is every human's right.

To comment please go to my Mirror Blog

21 September 2015


Vaguely chronological, a few examples chosen from a lot of work from different periods of youthfulness. During and after the Art Students' League, thick felt marker pens and also thin line drawings in pen or brush seem to predominate, the latter mostly made during a period when I was privileged to be one of Jack Tworkov's students at his studio in lower Manhattan (next door to his friend and fellow abstract-expressionist Willem de Kooning). Jack was an insightful, inspirational teacher, never imposing his own style but encouraging me to discover and develop my own path.

I've had only three significant teachers in my art-life and they were very fine painters as well as brilliant teachers: Jack Tworkov, Henry Hensche and Pierre Bressoud (the Beaux Arts professor). I can't find any photos of Bressoud but my memory of him, permanent Gauloise on lip and black beret on head, appears (pp.16-17) in My Life Unfolds.

My teachers   Page 16, My Life Unfolds

NdA   Study from model. Oil on paper. 48 x 60cm (18" x 24")
Colour study, at Tworkov studio

NdA  Drawing bare self. Pen & ink. 30 x 36cm (12" x 14")
Drawing self in mirror

NdA  Nude and chair. Pen & ink. 45cm x 30cm (18" x 12")
Nude and chair

NdA  Seated nude, profile. Pen & ink. 30 x 45cm (12" x 18")
Seated nude, profile

NdA  Man leaning down. Pen & ink. 46 x 30cm (18" x 12")
Man leaning over

NdA  Long-necked man. Pen & ink. 30 x 45cm ((12" x 18)
Long-necked man

NdA  Woman, elbow on table. Brush & ink. 23 x 28cm (9" x 11")
Woman, elbow on table

NdA  Blanche asleep on sofa. Marker pen. 22 x 30cm (8.5" x 12")
Blanche asleep on sofa

NdA  Sacha & Blanche on sofa. Marker pen. 22 x 30cm (8.5" x 12")
Sacha, Blanche on sofa

To comment please go to my Mirror Blog

20 September 2015


Old Masters can't have all the attention and who says I won't be up there with the great old mistresses (single or double entendre) when I'm no longer here?

But let's go back to youth. I know I was sixteen when I did the drawing below because it's of my baby brother in the first year of his life.

NdA  Sleeping baby brother. Ink. 45cm x 61cm (18" x 24")
Sleeping baby brother

I was in Rio de Janeiro, under protest, when I drew the next self-portrait. I had wanted to stay in Paris and continue lessons with my adored Professeur but my father said no, I must go with the family to Brazil, I was too young to be alone in Paris. There was a big argument. I lost.

NdA  Young self in mirror. Charcoal. 15cm x 22cm (6" x 8.5")
Young me in mirror

After Brazil there was New York and I enrolled in the legendary Art Students' League, the most unorthodox art school in town. A roster of well-known artists were part-time tutors and there was a whole menu of other classes which you could attend if you wanted to. It was a free-wheeling, stimulating, heady atmosphere and my first experience of belonging in a community of people who took art very seriously and wanted to make it their life's work. I was thrilled, fired up, not least because of the competitive challenge. I wanted to show off, prove I was better, bolder than the other, mostly male students, some much older than I was. They gave me a nickname (Nippy) and I got lots of attention.There was no formal teaching as such - nothing like my Paris teacher's admonitions, vigilance and discussions. The tutor would come in once in a while, say a few words, suggest an exercise, but mostly we were left to our own devices. The art-mood of the period was towards expressionism, stylisation, abstraction and I was certainly influenced by this trend but what I'd absorbed in Paris about intense observation of the model never left me. Below are a few of the many life-drawings I did at the time.

NdA  Fierce female.  Charcoal. 35cm x 42cm (14" x 16.5")
Fierce Female

NdA  Intense head. Charcoal. 48cm x 59cm (19" x 23")
Intense Expression

NdA  Three-quarter profile. Charcoal. 47cm x 60cm (18.5" x 24")
Three-quarter profile

NdA  Big nude.Charcoal. 47cm x 60cm (18.5" x 24")
Big Bold Nude

NdA  Nude with stool. Charcoal. 43cm x 58cm (17" x 23")
Nude midel with stool

NdA  Thin nude. Charcoal. 48cm x 60cm (19" x 23.5")
Thin nude

NdA  Small nude on black. Ink & pencil. 13cm x 21cm (5" x 8")
Nude on black

Much more to come.

To comment please go to my Mirror Blog

15 September 2015


I don't know why it's become so hard to write a blog post or to write anything at all, even a letter. You could say I'm blocked - writer's block, artist's block, blogger's block. Do blockers (those who are talented at blocking other people) ever suffer from blocks? Rhetorical questions aside, putting one word in front of another in some vaguely interesting manner has become a chore to be avoided by any means and there are always plenty of avoidance means at hand. Yet I still have a sense of duty (how vain!) to turn up and remind anyone who happens to be passing by that I'm still here. Or maybe to remind myself that I'm still here.

So: I've been looking through portfolios of my old..very old..drawings and will pin some of them up on this blank wall. It's both annoying and challenging to re-visit these youthful works and conclude that many are better than anything I've done in recent times. I don't believe the theory that artists' best work is created in their youth and anyway I can't speak for anyone else. But I want to look into possible reasons why some  - I've picked out around 100 drawings - of my early works seem to achieve something (I'm not going to try and define that something) which I'm not achieving now.

I can easily teleport myself back to those years (17-18-19 years old) and remember clearly what I felt when I was drawing then. I believed in Art, I was romantically in love with Art, it was my mission. I wasn't hesitant or doubtful but confident in my ability to take on anything Art could throw at me. The first five large drawings below were done from sculptures in the Louvre where my tutor, an école des Beaux Arts professor, would meet me every day and teach me to draw in the classical manner, with plumb line and pencil held out at arm's length to measure proportions: "Aplomb! Proportion!" he would repeat like a mantra. I can still hear it now. Each drawing took weeks and he was wonderfully severe but after a while, when he saw that I was making real progress, we became friends. He said we were now equals and that I could draw "like a man". Yes, this was before feminist consciousness-raising but my joy at this verdict was boundless.

More old drawings to come.

NdA Charcoal. Roman bas-relief, Louvre. 42cm x 47cm  (16.5" x 18.5")
male bits in the facing warrior were missing. Not my doing!)
lLouvre, drawin from plaster cast 1

NdA Charcoal. Roman portrait, Louvre. 48cm x 63cm (19" x 25")
Charcoal drawing from Roman bust, Louvre

NdA Charcoal. Roman head, Louvre. 48cm x 62cm (19" x23.5")
 Charcoal drawing, Roman head, Louvre

NdA Charcoal. Old Roman Senator, Louvre. 48cm x 63cm (19" x 25")
Charcoal drawing, bust of Roman, Louvre

NdA  Charcoal. Roman bas-relief. 48cm x 62cm (19" x 23.5")
Charcoal drawing, bas-relief of head, Louvre

NdA Charcoal. After El Greco "The Holy Trinity" (19" x 25")
After El Greco

NdA Young self, Paris. Charcoal and wash on oiled paper. (12.5" x 17")
young Natalie, Paris

To comment please go to my Mirror Blog




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