Review of Hal Foster’s ‘Brutal Aesthetics: Dubuffet, Bataille, Jorn, Paolozzi, Oldenburg’

By Christian Kile

“For if Hitler and Auschwitz, Nazism and Guernica, Stalin and Hiroshima do not mean the end of art” wrote Arnold Hauser, “it is nevertheless unthinkable that they could have had no influence on the structure art took”. [1] This book by Hal Foster, Brutal Aesthetics, is concerned with the repercussions of these events, and it is a bleak read. The volume charts how Jean Dubuffet, Georges Bataille, Asger Jorn, Eduardo Paolozzi and Claes Oldenburg pursued their work in the aftermath of World War Two, and forms the second part of a project that aims to reconsider the responses of the twentieth-century avant-garde in times of acute political trauma.

The artists are broadly defined by their violation of classical humanist ideals as a result of their failure to avert catastrophe. We commence with Walter Benjamin’s notion of ‘positive barbarism’ which is taken to contend a type of survivalist modernism, stating that in the midst of ruin it is necessary for humankind to begin again, resisting the ‘civilised’ values which had produced such destruction. It would be the results of this barbarism that amount to what Hal Foster calls ‘brutal aesthetics’, an art of survival. Perhaps the main problem for this group was defining precisely how to ‘start over’ when even defining an adequate foundation for this intention was unattainable; seemingly there was no tabula rasa. As a result, the manipulation of “fractures” within official culture became the practice, employing subversion, debasement and disfigurement rather than achieving negation.

In the case of Dubuffet, his brutal aesthetic would manifest itself in art brut: high regard for art of the non-artist; that of the child, the mentally diseased and graffiti of the ‘common man’. However, for Dubuffet, the attempts of these groups to abandon civilised values would prove ultimately futile. Art brut proved nigh on impossible to fully realise, as it tended to acculturate and merely prove temporarily disruptive. Art brut or the quest to inhabit a space beyond and untouched by culture was defined by Dubuffet as an art “that doesn’t know its name” [2], hence his rejection of André Breton’s view that art brut was a development out of Surrealism.

With Bataille, we see an enthusiastic return to prehistoric art and the embrace of darkness in the caves of Lascaux in the Dordogne region of France [3], today dated to between 15,000 and 20,000 BCE, which symbolised for him the origin of art. For Hal Foster, it was here that Bataille not only found a world far removed from the utilitarian and instrumental reason that gave rise to World War Two and its associated horrors, but also a vital outlet for human energies and a source of sacred encounters. Prompted by his experiences of the caves, Bataille made notes for a film; it was to remain unrealised but included the themes of ritual and violence, tracing the development and eventual annihilation of humankind. Life would again return, only to destroy itself yet again. The project would illustrate how the path of man between the bestial and the civilised could run both ways, these spheres not always clearly distinct.

The caves for Bataille became the location of sacrifice, ritual and an alternative to the social control of architecture that equally served as womb, tomb, or most ominously, a bomb refuge: “In a sense his cave is the opposite of Plato’s: if we are enlightened at all, it is only in darkness and through darkness”. Bataille construes the animals on the cave walls as fulfilling roles of both beasts and gods, one below, the other transcending human law. It would be through the reclamation of sacred experience that Bataille hoped somehow to attain a new beginning, one that resulted in no more than one more reinscription of the law; in Bataille’s terms, it was an “impossible” project.

In the work of Jorn and affiliated Cobra artists, it was through the animal and the ‘creaturely’ or that between man and beast that their work often manifested itself. In an attempt to salvage Nordic culture from Nazi degradation, Jorn posited it as a pagan alternative, derived from the peasantry and exemplified by the Viking, in opposition to the classicism and Christianity of Southern Europe with its aristocratic connotations. Jorn’s work was at times collaborative, ranging from various projects including murals, texts and ceramic experiments, to the founding of the Situationist International with Constant Nieuwenhuys and Guy Debord in 1957.

The theme of going beyond distortion, and butchering the classical continues with Paolozzi’s work. Combining urban detritus and ‘creaturely’ effects, both the organic and machine appear irreversibly enmeshed and damaged. Even versions of archetypal figures such as Icarus and Saint Sebastian are reduced to rough assemblages with barely a human aspect: “Whereas technology sexed up the machine for the Futurists, it desexed the human for Paolozzi; whether the rough surface of his bronze figures suggests flesh petrified or machine fleshed, it is the opposite of a desired outcome”. This was an art born of The Second Machine Age, that of the 1950s, on the cusp of radical alteration as a result of electronic imaging and information. This state of mind was echoed in the thought of Hannah Arendt. In 1958 she voiced her fears in The Human Condition about increased mechanisation of work resulting in a reversion of humans to animal like states. [4]

Of our group of artists, the pursuit of an art free from the restraints of commodity culture is perhaps most pervasive in the work of Oldenburg. Arriving in New York in 1956, it was not long before he focused on the city’s disordered urban landscape, including its filth and streets strewn with commercial refuse. For Oldenburg, Abstract Expressionism had begun to grow tiresome and his interest led towards found objects, assemblages and happenings.

In 1959 when asked about his preferences, Oldenburg stated that what interested him most were primitives: children, madmen, the American cultureless, the modern man in an urban environment. Unsurprisingly, we find that Dubuffet and art brut were a strong influence on him, as was Céline. Through his installation The Store, Oldenburg sought to salvage, at least partially, everyday objects from the world of rationalised commodities and put them to what he perceived as more human ends, making them “bodily and erotic again”. 

Having exhibited a number of works from The Store in 1962 and garnering success, both critical and financial, an uneasy Oldenburg abandoned New York, moving to Los Angeles, to find that in the city of angels the detritus of production was nowhere to be seen and a more highly finished consumerist environment had taken its place. Reflecting this, his main LA project Bedroom Ensemble is free of the organic features present in his earlier work and a clinical rationale takes its place. Spaces designed for humans are presented as utterly inhuman, “If, not long before Bedroom Ensemble, Abstract Expressionism could claim to express a ‘new man,’ here there is no subject at all; literally no one is at home (the title suggests an arrangement without inhabitants, who would only sully it)”. Various attempts by Oldenburg to outpace the market force failed, and we end on a dark note. For Hal Foster, Oldenburg’s time, as our own, offers no “redemptive last word”.

I expect those coming to this work will be well aware of Hal Foster’s place in academia. A stalwart of October journal, he is strongly influenced by theory in the broad sense. Similarly, those readers are likely to be well acquainted with typical points of reference in this book: Benjamin on civilisation and barbarism, his best known essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Adorno on poetry after Auschwitz and ubiquitous Freudian ideas. Although relevant, this writer found it somewhat disappointing that there was not more on the lesser known areas of work from such renowned figures. As the artists had their own contradictions, so too Hal Foster. When his politics come through in trite lines like “the dark forces of capitalism”, his stance is difficult to reconcile in the context of his funding “entanglements” with the Mellon family which he recognises.

As acknowledged by the author, the earlier post war years have been neglected by his generation, who reacting against formalist modernism, have tended to concentrate on the later fifties onwards, emphasising the neo-avant-garde and postmodernism. For this reason it is heartening to see an academic art historian of Hal Foster’s calibre turn his characteristic erudition more towards the kind of painting and sculpture in this book. Hal Foster’s research sets the figures in context, compares them in an original way and skilfully manages to identify common aspects of their work. For those interested in modern art, intellectual history and politics of the cold war era, this book comes strongly recommended. There is also a detailed notes section that includes some unfamiliar and thought provoking further reading.


[1] Arnold Hauser: The Sociology of Art, London 1982, trans. by Kenneth J. Northcott, 669.

[2] Jean Dubuffet: “Notes for the Well-Read”, 1945, in: Jean Dubuffet: Towards an Alternative Reality, ed. by Mildred Glimcher / Marc Glimcher, New York 1987, 86.

[3] Martin Jay: Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought, Berkeley / London 1993, 230.

[4] Hannah Arendt: The Human Condition, Chicago 1958, 322.

Hollis Frampton: Photographs

18 September – 13 December 2020

Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art

By Christian Kile

Wherever there are saints, there must also be heresiarchs like Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, and heretics.[1]

It was in 1958 that Hollis Frampton moved to New York and began to take photography seriously as a discipline. Previously Frampton had harboured poetic aspirations, and having struck up a relationship with Ezra Pound, came to the understanding that ‘I was not a poet.’[2] So for a time he turned, perhaps unexpectedly, to photography. Although primarily known as an avant-garde filmmaker, Frampton’s work also comprises a significant showing of still photos and this is the first retrospective of this work to be held in the UK.

Many of the works come across as exercises intended to complement filmmaking; indeed, Frampton’s early forays into film after 1962 often combined fragments of his earlier photographic projects.[3] The photos frequently form part of a series and are in some cases are accompanied by texts. Amongst Frampton’s concerns was the problem of modernist reduction and its application to photography: what would the photographic equivalent of Beckett or Barnett Newman look like? Other mediums such as easel painting and literature seemingly had more to offer before they were hollowed out, whereas with photography, ‘if we strip a photographic print, we run aground upon an emptied specification that is no longer a photograph. It is only, and exclusively, a piece of paper.’[4]

The shot chosen for the exhibition poster and first work in the show is Spaghetti -it is just that, a close up of pasta in tomato sauce: a photo made for James Rosenquist, echoing his painting F-111, only here the hydrogen bomb and consumerism are reduced down to no more than a sample of that monument to the American condition of the 1960s. On another wall, a series of fourteen colour photos of preserved specimens ranging from a cuttlefish and a toad to a single white clover comprise the series ADSVMVS ABSVMVS (We are here, we are not here), each image is accompanied by a text describing how Frampton came to obtain each specimen.

Elsewhere, there are two collaborations which Frampton made with Marion Fuller, his second wife: in the first room is a homage to Edweard Muybridge, whose motion based works are playfully referenced for Sixteen Studies from Vegetable Locomotion. Here the characteristic equine and athletic subjects are absent and in their place are tongue in cheek variations of vegetables in motion. Make of the splitting zucchini what you will. The work Rites of Passage comprises twenty black and white photos of a wedding cake, eighteen of which have toppings charting the progress of a typical middling life: amongst these confirmation, car, marriage, children, allegiance to the flag, the wreathed white picket fence and perhaps most comically, a rocking chair appearing before the 50thwedding anniversary. The first and last images bear no topping; I suppose to denote the absence before our conception and the one which awaits.

On the opposite wall is a short series The Secret Life of Frank Stella, a humorous nod to David Douglas Duncan’s The Private World of Picasso and other established photographers of the time. In a vitrine close by is a collection of photos Frampton took of his fellow artists and their studios; James Rosenquist, Robert Morris, Lee Bontecou and perhaps best known, images of Lee Lozano posing in her studio.

Frampton’s notes arranged in a nearby vitrine, include references to Borges and the film theorist André Bazin, next to whose name is written ‘unique ontological link with referent’. On another sheet, ‘Meditate on title “painting is dead”. Frampton’s art is for an audience who care about theory; it has been said of him that:

While his writings and interviews do much to illuminate obscured lines of development, his highly playful approach, which embraces wit and irony, as well as indirect allusion and intertextual intricacy, seems designed to address an impossibly learned reader.[5]

For a retrospective, the showing of works comes across as rather sparse, and what is on show did not entice me to contemplation for hours on end. However, the exhibition did well to express a tipping point: the time when the high avant-garde, that of Pound’s generation was on its way out. Pollock had died before Frampton made it to New York and the turn towards the textual and the ‘idea’ had begun to predominate. Duchamp’s provocations, Pop, Minimalism and French theory all began to define artistic practice seen as advanced, but in this it is all rather understated.

That the photographic aspect of Frampton’s work is still relatively little known may be taken as a compliment, for to an extent, he has maintained even after death what so many avant-garde artists have longed for: difficulty and resistance to mass culture. Rather than full acceptance and assimilation into the museum, into the stratified roll call of ‘important’ names, he continues to remain known predominantly to a specialist audience. Today, his still photos have been allotted no more than the basement floor of Goldsmith’s CCA galleries in New Cross.

[1] Hollis Frampton, ‘Impromptus on Edward Weston: Everything in Its Place’, On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters: The Writings of Hollis Frampton, ed. by Bruce Jenkins (Cambridge, Mass.; London: MIT Press, 2009), p. 68.

[2] Scott MacDonald, ‘Interview with Hollis Frampton: ZORNS LEMMA,’ Quarterly Review of Film Studies, 4, 1 (1979), p. 34.

[3] Christopher Phillips, Word Pictures: Frampton and Photography, October, 32 (1985) 62-76, p. 65.

[4] Frampton, p. 70.

[5] Federico Windhausen, ‘Words into Film: Toward a Genealogical Understanding of Hollis Frampton’s Theory and Practice, October, 109 (2004) 76-95, p. 95.

On William Hogarth

By Christian Kile

‘He was not really a cynic or a misanthrope; he was a pugnacious individualist with a strong sense of moral justice and a love-hate of the human animal.’ Essayist Charles Lamb about William Hogarth (1697-1764)

William Hogarth retains his popularity today as a painter, draughtsman and master storyteller, triumphing in his endeavour “to treat my subjects as a dramatic writer: my picture is my stage and men and women my players.”

Besides the meticulous characterisation, satire and narrative detail that define so much of his work, his idiosyncratic interpretation of beauty’s attributes in his treatise The Analysis of Beauty and the prescient ‘impressionistic’ element of The Shrimp Girl painting, audiences today appreciate the self-made artist behind them, of whom Charles Lamb said: ‘Perhaps next to Shakespeare, the most inventive genius which this island has produced.’

To some extent his rise mirrored that of other upwardly mobile professionals who were able to take advantage of a rapidly developing economy. Indeed, he was happy in his later years to accept Royal patronage when he became Serjeant Painter to the King in 1758. But within a short time the position was tainted by a new political populism and Hogarth ironically found himself on the wrong side and was viciously ridiculed.

Then, as Hogarth’s fame declined and his desperation increased to have the Establishment acknowledge the status of the ‘Comic Muse’, he crossed swords with Joshua Reynolds, founder and first president of the Royal Academy. By now criticisms about the ‘ugliness’ of Hogarth’s work had truly taken hold, as it was clearly at odds with the Establishment’s ‘Grand Style’ of painting promoted by Reynolds.

One should not assume that Hogarth was adept only at satire. His acute observation of people can be seen in his lesser-known individual society portraits, a thoroughly conservative form of painting, as his depiction of Miss Mary Edwards in the Frick Collection demonstrates – the memory of which persists from my visit to New York four years ago.


Miss Mary Edwards, 1742, Oil on canvas, The Frick Collection

Hogarth lived through a time when Britain was becoming a dominant force in painting, the development of its distinctive tradition coinciding with the island’s growing commercial power.

In contrast, France, with its decadent monarchy, was seen as ceding its position of cultural supremacy, a situation that Hogarth played on. In his earlier years he deliberately distanced himself from what he saw as French and Italian affectation. New groups intent upon acquiring art, often prints, were forming and Hogarth benefited from this. Works were not only visible in shops but also advertised in newspapers. This coincided with the periodical novels appearing towards the mid-18th century.

O the Roast Beef of Old England ('The Gate of Calais') 1748 by William Hogarth 1697-1764

O The Roast Beef of Old England (‘The Gate of Calais’), 1748, Oil on canvas, Tate

Concurrently the ‘modern’ novel was evolving. Although not wildly popular today, the novels, Pamela and Tom Jones, are still read. ‘Turgid’ is a typical response to Richardson’s novels nowadays. But though these stories may not appeal stylistically, in common with Hogarth, the subject matter was relevant to the middle class.

During the previous two centuries, much of the nation had little or no access to art, a legacy of the Reformation. Hogarth was pivotal in rectifying this. He was popular because his work was and remains accessible – people who say they do not usually go in for art typically find something to appreciate.

A less severe Goya, Hogarth relished exploring, observing and criticising his society. Moral instruction and critiques of human folly are expressed through paintings and prints, shot through with his characteristic humour. This occasionally gives way to a more ruthless satire on poor conduct, a theme that has come to define his better-known works.

Hogarth’s images elicit the depravity and schadenfreude borne out of the 18th century social climate: such as the abject failure of a man foolishly adopting the behaviour of a higher social group and ruining his life utterly and the two ladies of leisure observing inmates for entertainment in the Rake’s Bedlam scene.

Hogarth recognised that mistakes and failures could be rich subjects for artists desiring to secure a place in history. Just think of his cycles created in the 1730s and 40s: A Harlot’s Progress, A Rake’s Progress, Marriage A-la-Mode, and Industry and Idleness, all of which have retained their appeal and remain among his most admired works.


A Harlot’s Progress (plate two), 1732, Etching and engraving, The British Museum

For those who thought Hogarth revelled in the degradation he depicted, Henry Fielding had a ready answer: ‘We are much better and easier taught of what we are to shun, than by those which would instruct us to what to pursue…We are more inclined to detest and loathe what is odious in others than to admire what is laudable…On which account, I esteem the ingenious Mr. Hogarth as one of the most useful satirists any age hath produced…’.

In Hogarth’s most famous satirical works city life is portrayed as a character in its own right – one that he knew intimately. He was born in 1697 and died in 1764 at his home in Leicester Fields, now Leicester Square and his art is inextricably associated with London. Born and raised there, Hogarth became one of the foremost chroniclers of political, cultural and social eighteenth century life in the metropolis. The settings are numerous and range from the tavern and prison to the upper-crust drawing room, from the street corner to the whorehouse.


Piquet: or Virtue in Danger (The Lady’s Last Stake), 1759, Oil on canvas, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo

Whether politicians or prostitutes, rogues or well-heeled, poor or somewhere in between, they can be found in Hogarth’s work. In his scenes comedy rubs shoulders with tragedy and wit with moral instruction.

William Hazlitt observed: ‘I know no-one who had a less pastoral imagination than Hogarth. He delights in the thick of St. Giles’s or St James’s. His pictures breathe a certain close, greasy, tavern air’. Today, some of his best-known works can be seen close by in The National Gallery and Sir John Soane’s Museum.

Hogarth catered to a varied public: Industry and Idleness and The Four Stages of Cruelty for the lower orders, while The Rake’s Progress and Marriage A-la-Mode served as a reminder that a misguided middle-class, hell bent on individual social ascent, were not beyond retribution. But his series were a warning and erred on the side of instruction rather than offensiveness, for artists do not enjoy losing clients.

A growing portion of society was very much concerned with individual rights and puritan morality; they believed that ambition and spurning vice would lead to riches and fulfillment.

While Hogarth’s work did not slavishly follow this line, he, like his friend, the novelist Henry Fielding, held to this type of morality, which he personally demonstrated by his own industry and diligence.

‘A true English Genius in the Art of Painting has sprung and by natural strength of himself chiefly, began with little and low-shrubb instructions, rose, to a surprising height in publick esteem and opinion.’ noted George Vertue, English engraver and antiquary.

Beginning as a silversmith’s apprentice, Hogarth gained his independence as an engraver and then painter, achieving prosperity and prestige – the very model of the sensible self-made man. One might conjecture that his driving force and adult railing against the ills of society derive from his father’s failed career as a man of letters. When Hogarth was ten, his family began a four-year stint in debtor’s lodgings.


The Rake in Prison (plate seven), A Rake’s Progress; Tom is in The Fleet debtors’ prison, 1735, Etching and engraving, The British Museum

Hogarth revered Milton, Shakespeare and his contemporary Jonathan Swift, whose satires were much more scathing and pessimistic than his own. In turn his own art was admired by prominent figures of the age: Irish novelist Laurence Sterne, actor David Garrick and Swift himself.

At one stage two patrons, Lord Charlemont and Sir Richard Grosvenor offered him the opportunity to produce work on any subject he chose and to name his price. But not everyone was so enthusiastic. Even though politician and man of letters Horace Walpole collected Hogarth’s work, compiling the largest contemporary collection of his prints, he deemed the artist a commoner whose inclusion of the crass and common were subjects too lowly for his tastes. Walpole described the images of Gin Lane as ‘horridly fine, but disgusting’.

But as critic and essayist William Hazlitt pointed out: ‘Criticism has not done him justice, though public opinion has.’

Hogarth epitomised the artist as astute businessman. He was an anti-Jacobite (against the restoration of the House of Stuart) unless the opportunity to gain greater favour presented itself and anti-foreigner, although he did admire examples of continental art.

Practically, he pushed for a copyright law to prohibit the pirating of engravings, specifically to protect his own. The situation had reached such a pitch that pirated prints were known to be pirated again. This law was passed in 1735 with Hogarth retaining his new prints until then – among them A Rake’s Progress.  Seamlessly he switched between painting and engraving, whichever offered the best prospects, as well as proving an effective way to advertise his offerings.

Hogarth’s cycles of oil paintings were troublesome to sell, whereas his printed scenes proved extremely popular, A Harlot’s Progress in particular: whoredom, it makes clear, results in suffering and death, not a meal ticket. The descent of the Harlot or Mary Hackabout takes six scenes compared to the rake’s eight.

Scene one already presents us with a procuress, while a figure in the background looks on and fondles himself. In the second scene of her descent, Mary has been transformed from the innocent provincial maiden and transported into Babylon where as a whore she has penetrated high society. Amid gilt furniture and oil paintings the urban rot has set in.

I last saw the Harlot’s Decline in the V&A’s British Galleries, where the full print cycle hangs on one wall. Seeing the first image conjured up a few lines from Michel Houellebecq’s late 20th century novel, Atomised:

‘The terrible predicament of a beautiful girl is that only an experienced womanizer, someone cynical and without scruple, feels that he is up to the challenge. More often than not, she will lose her virginity to some filthy lowlife in what can prove to be the first step in an irrevocable decline.’

Hogarth’s engravings, cheap and available to a wide public, earned him his main living and brought wide recognition. He told stories that in his best-known works were created for the many and understood by this audience.

Of The Four Stages of Cruelty, he said: ‘The leading points in these, as well as Beer Street and Gin Lane, were made as obvious as possible, in the hope that their tendency might be seen by men of the lowest rank and the fact is that the passions may be more forcibly expresst by a strong bold stroke, than by the most delicate engraving.’

Unusual for such a popular artist many of Hogarth’s portraits remain obscure. Yet he considered his painting of Captain Thomas Coram in London’s Foundling Museum to be one of his best works. His work also includes small-scale conversation pieces, refined for the ‘middling orders’ and modest gentry.


An Assembly at Wanstead House, 1728-31, Oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art

But Hogarth did not hesitate to satirise the cosmopolitan excess and dandyism emanating from across the Channel: just look at Marriage A-la-Mode; the Italianate paintings on the wall in the contract scene, and those Dutch and Flemish types in the Countess’ death scene are not there by accident. He often depicts moral corruption physically: the depraved with their syphilitic boils, commonly referred to as ‘French pox.’


Marriage A-la-Mode (Scene one: The Marriage Settlement), 1735, Oil on canvas, The National Gallery

However, Hogarth knows how to give us just the right measure of discord.  Ridicule may abound and nervous laughter from viewers continue to accompany explanations of his rake scenes but he never forgets the humanity of those he portrays.

As Architectural historian and past curator of Sir John Soane’s Museum, John Summerson said: ‘Hogarth’s people are always mimed representations of the originals – never, or rarely, caricatures. They are human beings observed as an actor might observe them and represented as an actor might represent them.’

One series of paintings, the Humours of an Election, completed more than 22 years after A Rake’s Progress, does not command anything like the same fanatical desire to view. Nonetheless, I’ve lost count of the books adorned with a scene from it printed on the cover.

Fashions aside, it could be a satire of political activities from many other times and places. That bribery took place then was well known; each parliamentary seat had a price. The parties depicted are inept and nostalgia for past achievements reigns: two men are shown recreating the 1739 naval victory of Porto Bello in Canvassing for Votes and a buckling carriage transports Britannia in The Polling.

Summerson, said of the first scene: ‘Hogarth’s ridicule is wholesale and in all the thirty-four figures there is not one which has not some degrading trait: at least, I think not one. You can have it, if you like, that the woman fiddler perched up at the back is rather an old dear – but I doubt it’.

Hogarth’s death preceded the French Revolution and the epochal change to the arts that would be brought about by Romanticism.

The motivation and inspiration behind Hogarth’s art reflect 18th century thinking. As he made clear: ‘In these compositions, those subjects that will both entertain and improve the mind bid fair to be of the greatest public utility and must, therefore, be entitled to rank in the highest class.’

Hogarth’s work features people whose frailties we can recognise if not identify with. But beyond this, his fluency in depicting human folly in its comic and tragic aspects has resonated with audiences down through the generations – his characters and their stories transcend his time and assure Hogarth’s posterity.

Hogarth: Place and Progress will be held at Sir John Soane’s Museum (October 9th 2019 – January 5th 2020)

Anne Imhof

Anne Imhof ‘Sex’ at Tate Modern Thursday 29 March 2019

By Christian Kile

To date, many of those who tell me that there is significant contemporary art currently being shown in major cities are either in someway involved with the artist and their studio or stand to benefit from well-received opinions on such work.

Indeed, I tend to hear more about contemporary performance art than experience it first-hand. So, having been told that artist Anne Imhof is our era’s Caravaggio and coming by a complimentary ticket to her exhibition, Sex, with an original working title of Death Wish, in the tanks at Tate Modern, I sought to remedy this.


I missed the start but it did not seem to matter. The exhibition mainly took place in three rooms. The first resembled a chi-chi drug den, albeit as clean as a set up of this kind can be.

Alcohol abounded: as part of the action, the liberal opening of ‘tinnies’ throughout, Stella and Guinness proving particularly popular, and as a backdrop; the space littered with bottles and cans, and a spilt pool on the floor, interspersed with bongs, some gimpy leather accessories and mattresses.

It smelt like the village hall the morning after my seventeenth birthday, which removed what little edginess was intended. True, two performers did their best to create this: one slouching on the floor, slowly parting his legs at passing women; the other, glaring at the audience around the room, strode towards one corner of the space and stared at the wall.  Not exactly visionary…

Approaching the next space it looked as if an erratic kind of rave was taking place there. It was a dark cavernous space with strobe lights punctuated by occasional stabbing distorted electronic sounds. Referring to the famed Berlin night club someone in the crowd murmured, ‘Here comes the Berghain special.’ For what this show manages to do is make visitors stop, look and comment.

The audience made its way onto a raised platform towards the centre of the space, and unless one arrived quickly it was a challenge to see what was going on around this, not that there was much in the way of action.

Three white platforms running along one side were occasionally used by the performers: they might sit or lie down on these, or even vape. Vaping was as prevalent as drinking and many viewers seemed mesmerised by watching someone smoke.

Then a snap! The audience on the stage immediately moved itself closer to the source of this sound. A man with his back to the crowd whirled a whip above his head, bringing it down in successive flailing motions against a wall. This slashing continued for some time.


The audience who could see stood transfixed, those who could not looked up at an iPhone video recording above them. Alongside them another performer appeared and sat on the floor – more vaping ensued.

The performance, I was told, deliberately included multiple acts taking place at the same time, making it impossible to see the exhibition in its entirety, or at least in one visit.

So when noise from a neighbouring room jolted visitors from their stupor, they had to choose whether to rush there on the off chance of finding a prime viewing position, or remain where they were in the hope something significant (if happenings in this exhibition can be described as such) might happen. At which point there was the agonising choice to be made about persevering with the wall whipping or passing on.

Walking through Imhof’s show it was often more interesting to observe the audience – the security guards too. After a quiet period, and there were many, a few performers moved at their characteristically slow pace past a guard carrying bouquets of dried, withering flowers that had been set alight. The smell of charred flowers combined with that of the beer and vape smoke. If ever a face expressed, ‘Give me strength’, it was his.

Whether soaking members of the audience was in the script I don’t know, but two particularly well-dressed unsuspecting unfortunates were on the receiving end of an open can of Stella given a robust shunt out of a hole in a Perspex wall by a performer.  There was a short shriek from one of them and from then on the dramatic intensity level went up as the audience realised they could not be sure if they were about to become uncomfortably involved in proceedings.

The trick was to confound the audience by building up a sense of confusion, Imhoff managing to incorporate this uncertainty into the performance so that it became an integral part of the choreography. It went beyond normally understood audience participation where performers may acknowledge the off stage reaction but do not incorporate the audience response into the work.

No matter where one stood a performer might appear, slow and erratic like a zombie, or occasionally swift with flailing arms. Sometimes people were knocked. Meanwhile a stone-faced camera team patrolled. For the most part it was a nonsensical experience: when I was told that I was standing too close to a performer, I took one step to the side only to find the camera crew bearing down on me.

Periodically Imhof, complete with bodyguard, would spring up. She was hunched over her phone, issuing instructions to the cast – humour is lacking in this performance but despite this, or maybe by taking themselves oh so seriously, Imhof and the performers were offered this exhibition space in Tate Modern.

Actor Dennis Hopper’s comments on Andy Warhol’s 1964 film Empire came to mind: ‘I can understand the idea of running something like Sleep or running something like Empire at a party where you don’t have to concentrate constantly and see that one light come on the Empire State building. Somebody says, ‘Oh look a light went on!’ And you say, ‘Oh yeah, well, great, I missed it, I was dancing, you know.’

The film of The Empire State building was more than eight hours long, documented from a single view. Very little happens, lights switch on or off, and weather conditions may alter marginally.

What Warhol did then and Imhof does now is to lull viewers into a state of inertia: where a puff on a vape or a raised arm is enough of an action to get people shuffling vigorously to see what, if anything, no matter how negligible has happened.

In the booklet, handed out on leaving the show, Imhof said of her drawing and painting ‘…there’s a moment where it’s really important to know when to stop, because if you go on forever, it gets horrible’. In view of the interminable gaps in the action where we are simply waiting, perhaps she should adopt this approach to her performance works, too.

There was the option of adjourning to the entrance hall for a break if it all became too much. As one might expect, it seemed to me, the performers and most of the crowd were under thirty. It would be very interesting to see a show like this staged at the Royal Academy. How would an older demographic or family groups react?

In Susan Sontag’s 1962 essay ‘Happenings: an art of radical juxtaposition’ we are presented with a similar arrangement, only today these partly spontaneous and at times dream like performances can be siphoned off from the more eccentric parts of town and transplanted to institutions like Tate Modern. Tonight there are no drugs, needles or soiled detritus, only their artifice. The concept has been largely neutered to conform with museum standards, we now have stewards, security guards and in our age the audience can take their experience home to view indefinitely.

A memorable experience, but not one I consider worth repeating. As art it did not register – and as for Imhof being likened to a twenty first century Caravaggio the comparison is fatuous. How can one compare late sixteenth and early seventeenth oil paintings with a 2019 performance in a Bankside basement in Southwark on a Thursday evening? Lager and discontent don’t equate to The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew.

The Tate Modern ticketed performances were held 22nd, 23rd, 28th, 29th and 30th March 2019

Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele

Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele

By Christian Kile

It is fitting that the work of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele — two artists who have come to define twentieth century Vienna before the Anschluss and who both died in 1918, the year that marked the end of the first world war and the demise of the Habsburg Empire — are being shown together in a current exhibition at the Royal Academy.

While they were fortunate to practise their art in Franz-Josef’s Vienna, where artists enjoyed great social prestige, there is no doubt that the popularity of their work in the 21st century supersedes the high regard they attained in their lifetime.

Their continuing appeal lies in their mastery of drawing and their focus on and depiction of women. So the RA exhibition, Drawings from the Albertina Museum, on these aspects of their work is welcome.

Klimt and Schiele’s draughtsmanship has saved them from the disdain meted out to much twentieth century art for being yet another example of the “the naked Emperor”: their figurative drawings whether nude, erotic or otherwise, demonstrate that they did not abandon established representation to the point where it becomes too uncomfortable, or inaccessible for a general audience.

That is not to say that the artists avoided controversy. When Klimt formed and became president of a new movement known as the Secession in 1897 he forfeited his reputation as an establishment painter.

Such was the adverse reaction to Klimt’s painting, Philosophy in conservative Viennese society that he repaid the advance he had received and took back the work. No matter that the French awarded him the gold medal for Philosophy when it was shown at 1900 World Fair in Paris!

Medicine created an even greater stir. The naked woman at the top of the picture was far removed from the traditional 19th century academic portrait. Her pose is one of total abandonment and a sketch for the figure shows how Klimt’s fine draughtsmanship achieved this: the subtle shading draws the viewer’s eye to the woman’s groin and her pubic hair.


Gustav Klimt, Medicine, 1900-1907, Oil on Canvas

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Gustav Klimt, Two Studies of a Standing Nude, 1897-1898, black chalk on paper, Albertina Museum, Vienna

What increased public outrage towards the painting was the disquieting vulnerability of the figure; completely exposed, unsupported and leaning backwards, on the verge of falling. It differs from Klimt’s preliminary drawings of the nude, which shows the model either leaning against something or lying down.

They are typical of his sketches of women: drawn in outline, he uses formal techniques, such as perspective, foreshortening and distortion that draw the viewers’ gaze to the genitalia, buttocks and breasts. They result in drawings that reveal a sexual freedom and eroticism familiar to western society today — but a world away from the repressed society of the early 1900s in which he moved.

Equally scandalous was Klimt’s depiction of female self-confident sexual awareness. In his final drawing for lust, Nuda Veritas (1902), this is conveyed in the woman’s upright stance and luxuriant hair, and was loudly decried by one profoundly shocked aristocratic patron and collector as “hideous.”


Gustav Klimt, Final drawing for ‘’Nuda Veritas’, 1898, black chalk, pencil and Indian ink on paper

However, what was once reviled now appeals in the 21st century.  “Klimt had created from Viennese women an ideal female type: modern, with a boyish figure”, observed his contemporary Berta Zuckerkandl in her memoir, I Witnessed Fifty Years of World History.

“They had a mysterious fascination; although the word ‘vamp’ was still unknown he drew women with the fascination of a Greta Garbo or a Marlene Dietrich long before they actually existed.”

The women in Klimt’s drawings are often beautiful, sometimes angular and androgynous. They are usually long-haired and long-legged, and in their nudity exude a self-assurance and power borne out of their explicit sexual allure.

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Gustav Klimt, Semi-Nude Lying Down, 1914, blue pencil on paper, Historisches Museum, Vienna

However, it is worth pointing out here that unlike his drawings, which are unashamedly erotic and peaceful and dreamy, Klimt’s paintings of women arouse mixed feelings because of their ambiguity: I have heard them described as being in a trance or even dead.

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Gustav Klimt, Woman seated with Open Thighs, 1916, pencil and chalk on paper, private collection

His overwhelmingly famous painting The Kiss is of a kneeling woman being kissed. Yet, consider the ambiguous nature of the couple’s relationship: there has been much speculation about whether there is tension between them — is her averted face a sign of resistance? Is her hand clasping his or could she be trying to remove it?

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Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, 1907-1908, oil paint and gold leaf on canvas, Belvedere Museum, Vienna

Egon Schiele is also well known for his portrait of an embrace Death and the Maiden. While Klimt, represents the transitional period at the end of the 19th century, Egon Schiele belongs in the early 20th century and his work represents the beginnings of expressionism – the art of anxiety.

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Egon Schiele, Death and the Maiden, 1915, oil on canvas, Belvedere Museum, Vienna

Klimt’s paintings often portray an inner tension that reflects the ominous atmosphere that marked the end of the fin de siècle that George Clare describes so well in his book Last Waltz in Vienna.  The artist was aware of a horror about to descend, but was reticent in acknowledging it and any feelings were internalised.

Not so Schiele: whatever horror was coming was inevitable and had to be explicitly confronted. Consequently, his work reflects an understandably tortured and anxious psyche. Self-portraits abound: he is at his most subversive as the Cardinal lover and agonized as St. Sebastian. On the other hand Klimt, steadfastly avoided self-portraits, saying that if anyone wanted to know him, they had only to study his work.

Self Portrait as St. Sebastian

Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait as St. Sebastian, pencil on paper, 1914, Private collection

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Egon Schiele, Hands, black crayon on paper, 1917, Wien Museum, Vienna

We routinely find in Schiele’s drawings of the female nude a blend of realism and distortion, and a kind of spatial dislocation that conveys a sense of disorientation. This has been interpreted as Schiele’s attempt to check raging sexual forces, not because he wants to deny or conceal these — the opposite in fact — for he is credited with being one of the only male artists to attribute female sexuality with its true power.


Egon Schiele, Seated Female Semi-Nude, 1914, pencil on paper, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Throughout his artistic career he was preoccupied with the themes of mortality, procreation and artistic transcendence, ultimately believing that only art could conquer death.


Egon Schiele, Mother and Child, 1910, pencil, watercolour and gouache, Neue Galerie New York

Klimt was the most important artist in Austria when Schiele, 28 years his junior, met him at the 1908 Kuntschau (art show), a watershed moment in the history of the turn-of-the century Viennese avant-garde. The younger man, inspired by Klimt’s 16 paintings on show, took on board the master’s style and made it into something of his own.

A year later, Klimt invited him to take part in the second Kuntschau and Schiele, who was boldly calling himself the ‘Silver Klimt’, submitted three portraits. All three contain Klimt-like ornamentation but already Schiele had done away with the abstract background favoured by Klimt, and set his figures in a void, accentuating their vulnerability.

Aged just 20, he was precocious and prolific. Like Klimt, portraits of women were the major stimulus. From 1910 onwards he produced nearly 3000 drawings and watercolours, and hundreds of oils, mainly of nudes – works for which he is renowned.

Schiele briefly produced drypoint prints – where an image is incised into a plate with a hard-pointed, sharp metal or diamond ‘needle.’ But he found the medium too time consuming when compared to drawing. For unlike Klimt, whose income derived entirely from his painting, Schiele earned most of his living from his drawings.

He had initially believed, as some of his expressionist contemporaries did, that patrons should think themselves lucky for being allowed to share in the artist’s vision, and that dealers were corrupt profiteers. Unfortunately, his sense of entitlement was misplaced and his paintings did not easily attract buyers.

In 1912 he asked Klimt for financial help, who introduced him to one of his own patrons, industrialist August Lederer. Schiele’s relationship with the family, particularly Lederer’s son Erich, who became an avid collector of his drawings and watercolours, helped him professionally, personally and artistically to mature.

Both Klimt and Schiele have escaped the fate of having private lives that overshadow and adversely affect attitudes to their work.

In the older artist’s case, the sheer ‘blockbuster’ appeal of his work ensures this, as well as the prices some of his paintings can command: his 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer sold for £73m in 2008, causing experts and the press to wonder how a Klimt could outsell a van Gogh or be more valuable than a Rembrandt. However, nowadays it is common to find twentieth century art dominating the market.

Also, mystery surrounds Klimt’s private life. We know very little about him — what we have is merely hearsay. On one hand he has been described as an unmarried lover, who has slept with all his models and fathered 14 children, and on the other hand, a confirmed bachelor and hypochondriac living in the suburbs and leading a bourgeois life! He steadfastly avoided self-portraits, saying that if anyone wanted to know him, they had only to study his work.

Schiele, on the other hand, broke prevailing social taboos. Police raided his studio in 1912 because he used underage models, destitute street children, and he was tried and jailed for a morality offence. Throughout the ordeal, he was supported by his first major muse, 17-year-old Wally Neuzil, who brought him art supplies and fresh fruit. The fact that Schiele cohabited openly with her also caused offence to the people in the neighbourhood where they lived.

Nonetheless, his paintings of children have avoided censure unlike a painting of a young girl by Balthus, Thérèse Dreaming (1938), which last year was accused of “romanticising the sexualisation of a child.” An online petition demanded its removal from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was refused.

One can only think that Schiele’s charisma and mastery of the human form, accomplished in 12 years, before his early death at the age of 28 in the flu epidemic of 1918 trump everything.

Klimt and Schiele are connected not only by their consummate draughtsmanship and the time in which they lived but also by their artistic conviction, encapsulated by the Secession movement’s motto: ‘To each age its art, to art its freedom.’


The RA Exhibition opened on 4th November 2018 and runs until 3rd February 2019


On Arshile Gorky

On Arshile Gorky (1904-1948)

By Christian Kile

‘Without tradition art is no good. Having tradition enables you to tackle new problems with authority, with solid footing.’ – Arshile Gorky

‘…And for some mysterious reason, he knew lots more about painting, and art – he just knew it by nature – things I was supposed to know and feel and understand – he really did it better. He had an extraordinary gift for hitting the nail on the head.’ – Willem de Kooning


Some artists come in and out of fashion. Others, though considered important, are written off by many as a ‘bridge’ or a stepping stone to what is to come. In Arshile Gorky’s case this seems particularly so. He is cited as a forerunner to the New York School whose work is often written off as a derivative of modern European art.

This is largely due to his extensive workings from certain modern masters. However, had he destroyed them or if these had been of the traditional classical ilk, his place in the history books perhaps would be different. Even today, working from 20th century art so extensively is unusual. The critic Harold Rosenberg noted that for Gorky ‘imitation was a learning to be, as well as a learning to do.’


Gorky at his easel in Central Park, Late 1920s

What is interesting about Gorky is that while he worked from Picasso he did not suspend his critical faculties, and changed his mind as he developed his own style. Later, when he looked at the Spaniard’s works, he noted:

‘The more I admire them (Picasso’s paintings) the further I feel myself removed from all art, it seems so easy, so limited.’

Sadly, and wrongly in my view, historians have dismissed Gorky’s achievements so that he now seems to occupy a space that detracts from the significance of his work. In the same way that Braque and Picasso took what they needed from Cézanne so did ‘The Irascibles’ (a group of American Abstract artists) take from Gorky – though, of course, few if any would describe Cézanne as merely a ‘bridge’.


Paul Cézanne, Rocks at Fontainebleau, circa 1893, Oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Arshile Gorky, Staten Island, 1927-28, Oil on canvas, Collection Richard Estes, New York


Paul Cézanne, Curtain, Jug, and Compotier, 1893-94, Oil on canvas, Collection of Mrs. John Hay Whitney


Arshile Gorky, Pears, Peaches and Pitcher, Late 1920s, Oil on canvas, Private Collection

The influence of Gorky’s homeland Armenia was important to him throughout his life. He was exposed to biblical Armenian sculpture from an early age, and despite having to flee his country’s genocide he always longed to return. This was not to be, and recollections of his childhood and youth in Armenia remained a strong stimulant for his work. In a letter to his sister following their emigration to America Gorky wrote: ‘Our beautiful Armenia which we lost and which I shall repossess in my art…I shall resurrect Armenia with my brush for all the world to see.’

Gorky was born Vosdanik Adoian in 1904 to a peasant family in Armenia. His father abandoned the family in 1908 to escape the draft into the Turkish army. Later, the Armenian Genocide committed by the Ottoman Turks, who were allied with Germany in 1915-18, exterminated the Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire.

The Turks justified the massacres and mass deportations of survivors on the grounds that the Armenians would otherwise ally themselves with the Orthodox Christian strength of Russia. During this period Gorky’s 39-year-old mother Shushanik der Marderosian died of starvation.

Gorky arrived in the United States in 1920 and in 1924 moved to New York to seriously pursue a career as an artist and about this time he decided to change his name. He settled on the name Arshile Gorky: Arshile is a form of the Armenian royal name ‘Arshak’ and ‘Gorky’ means ‘bitterness’ or ‘the bitter one’ in Russian. Both names suited this imposing artist, who stood six foot tall, and became well known for his authoritative presence and forceful, outspoken personality.

The dominant fashion of American Regionalist and realist painting throughout the 1920s and 30s and lack of an American avant-garde was plain. Gorky was not concerned with this. He immersed himself in what he considered to be leading contemporary art, without adhering to the provincial fashion, years ahead of the opening of the Museum of modern Art to the public in 1929. His exposure to Parisian art came from private gallery exhibitions and two prominent European art publications, ‘Cahiers d’Art’ and ‘Transition’.

The American public’s limited opportunity to view these actual European works − indeed, its experience of them as printed reproductions may have intimidated or mystified those who did see them. So besides the prevailing taste for provincial art one suspects Americans also developed an inferiority complex that resulted in the lack of consideration and attention paid to Gorky’s work in the early 1930s.

The criticism aimed at Gorky’s early work seems inexplicable to me. He was in line with other artists who drew substantially from the work of past masters. He drew from the Medieval Armenian manuscript illuminator Toros Roslin, French Neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and early Renaissance artist Paolo Uccello whose compartmentalised spaces he studied closely.


Paolo Uccello, Scene 2 of ‘The Miracle of the Host’, circa 1467-68, Tempera, Galleria Nazaionale della Marche, Palazzo Ducale, Urbino

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Arshile Gorky, Untitled, circa 1931, Pencil on paper, Private Collection


Pablo Picasso, Studio with Plaster Head, 1925, Oil on canvas, The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York

But Gorky also focused on 20th century artists. He conducted many experiments to develop his tones and composition, drawing from Henri Matisse and Surrealist André Masson. He studied Cézanne and Picasso intensively during this period; this would have been considered a gamble by any other artist but Gorky, who was driven by his ambition. His decision to commit to this apprenticeship reveals his single-minded determination and focus, and his choice not to destroy these works, equally so.

He was renowned for keeping his materials meticulously: ‘There was nothing haphazard about the piles of left-over or unused paint; there was no bit of material that he was indifferent to…’ and ‘…the feeling it evoked is of work done there, work in progress, day and night, through long years of passionate, disciplined and dedicated effort’, recalled Gorky’s friend, Ethel Scwabacher of his studio methods.

Gorky recognised the importance of draughtsmanship in past and present art works, leading him to concentrate on drawing in the early 1930s. Aside from alleviating financial restraints it allowed him to experiment and work through ideas in quick succession.

‘…drawing is the basis of art. A bad painter cannot draw. But a good drawer can always paint…’ he said.

He felt too that in order to create his own style of painting it was necessary to consider only the quality of the artwork without the distraction of the political conditions that were pervasive in his time. Gorky’s comment, ‘Proletariat art is poor art for poor people’ was his judgement on the Social Realism.

Unfortunately, the amount of art he produced, referencing Cézanne and Picasso in particular, has had a detrimental effect on his reputation. Hoping they would inspire him to develop his original paintings, their pervading presence, Picasso in particular, perhaps left him with no other direction to go but to push on into abstraction.

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Pablo Picasso, Seated Woman, 1926-27, Oil on canvas, Art Gallery of Toronto


Arshile Gorky, Head, Early 1930s, Gouache on cardboard, Private Collection

As an artist who had searched through the European order to establish himself, Gorky’s choice to study the modern masters is not surprising. Despite their influence his painting of an antique cast (1926) shows his change of direction: he aimed at a more pared down style and a timeless quality in his paintings; wine bottles, notes, newspapers, pipes and playing cards are absent!

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Arshile Gorky, The Antique Cast, 1926, Oil on canvas, Private Collection

Picasso’s Seated Woman (1926-27) prompted Gorky to continue on the path of selecting and reducing parts of structures. He combined his reduced motifs with objects and settings often found in the work of de Chirico – anatomical samples, shadows unexpectedly placed and manipulated perspectives.

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Giorgio de Chirico, The Fatal Temple, 1913, Oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art

It was not until the mid-1940s that he went out of his way to gain the acceptance of a group, the Europeans. When Surrealist Andre Breton acknowledged Gorky, he felt he had arrived, said artist Isamu Noguchi.

Breton’s endorsement of Gorky’s work does not help much: Gorky is an artist primarily preoccupied with nature in all its variety and not by irrational dream states. Towards the end of his life he became disenchanted by the Surrealist movement, alienated by its veiled academic features, which he felt lacked conviction –a case perhaps of never meet your heroes!

By the 1940s Gorky was consolidating the ideas formed through drawings and earlier paintings. In 1946 a cancer operation and studio fire that destroyed a significant number of his paintings drove him to work furiously and resulted in a late body of work. It was in the country, away from city, where he produced some of his best and most original paintings.

Gorky knew that to advance modern painting demanded a willingness to work through its history so that he would be able to recognise the point at which a new style was forming, and be ready grasp the opportunity and give his intuition free rein.

However, in charting the traditional and chronological span of art history, he is an artist who has been used as a convenience to illustrate the rise of the New York School and little more.

On one hand he is ignored by those who dismiss ‘abstract’ art as requiring little or no skill and on the other, his work is easily accessible on the Internet alongside good and bad Abstract Expressionist works without any accompanying discriminating comment. That he was thoroughly drilled in more traditional approaches, and the artist de Kooning, with considerable academic training, saw so much in Gorky’s work does not appear to have made a jot of difference.

His approach has and will continue to polarise: it is an irony that despite Gorky’s ultimate misgivings about Surrealism and his divergence from it his paintings have been labelled and criticised as such.

The detractors of Abstract Expressionism have derided its works as facile, the triumph of theory over the actual art − long established academic art in particular − and a prime example of the American tendency to idolise European Art taken to extremes.

American writer Tom Wolfe has bemoaned the impact of the International style on American Architectural practice and the way in which the deans of architecture got rid of all the plaster casts of classical details and pedagogical props accumulated over a half-century or more. He voiced their view in the following satirical quote:

‘I mean, my God, all those Esquiline vase fountains and Temple of Vesta capitals…How very bourgeois.’

These sentiments resound too in the realm of fine art and Gorky’s ‘mature’ style is not likely to disabuse anyone with this view! While remaining steadfast to maintaining a natural element in his late paintings there is little in the way of an illusionary perspective. What’s more, because he died before he was able to develop his full range, he shares a fate similar to Modigliani– being criticised for repetition.


Arshile Gorky, The Liver is the Cock’s Comb, 1944, Oil on canvas, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York


Arshile Gorky, One Year the Milkweed, 1944, Oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

At the other end of the spectrum there are those who regard Gorky as producing some of the last great paintings of the twentieth century, at the point when America became the dominant force in the fine arts, outstripping France, which had reigned supreme since the classical French artist Nicholas Poussin brought back the honour from Italy. In their view Gorky was at the forefront when America was established as the new centre for avant-garde art and all that came with it.

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Arshile Gorky, circa 1935

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Arshile Gorky, Water of the Flowery Mill, 1944, Oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Arshile Gorky, Diary of a Seducer, 1945, Oil on canvas, Collection on Mr. and Mrs. William A.M. Burden

Many of Gorky’s paintings are as much talked about as looked at because they provoke such different responses in viewers and diverse interpretations − so it is difficult to do them full justice. But that just goes to show how multi-layered his work is.

The ‘Abstract Expressionism’ show at London’s Royal Academy (24th Sept 2016-2nd Jan 2017) revealed Gorky as one of the most promising modern painters that America has produced. The tragedy is that he died too early and never realised his range. Yet though the Gorky room was small, the paintings on show easily held their own with those of Pollock, Rothko and the more celebrated usual suspects.


Amedeo Modigliani

On Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920)

By Christian Kile

‘…and all around us raged Cubism, all conquering but alien to Modigliani…’- Anna Akhmatova

‘Modigliani’s drawing is supremely elegant. He was our aristocrat. His line, sometimes so faint it seems the ghost of a line, never gets bogged down, avoiding this with the alacrity of a Siamese cat.’ – Jean Cocteau

The first sculpture I saw by Amedeo Modigliani was the kneeling Caryatid (1914) in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, carved in limestone, with both arms raised and planted on one knee – a reprise from the antique. Hung beside it was a reclining nude by the same artist painted five years later, about as carnal as painting is likely to get.


Reclining nude, 1919, oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) – Seeing the Venus de Milo, Modigliani told his friend and muse, poet Anna Akhmatova that ‘women with beautiful figures who were worth modelling or drawing always seemed unshapely when clothed.’

They are far removed from the preoccupations and modern approaches pursued by Modigliani’s contemporaries: anxiety, the cult of the machine and Futurist rejection.

No doubt this plays a part in his immense popularity today, augmented by his life that conforms to the reckless, romantic stereotype of the artist: his appeal to women, self-destructive behaviour and early death; he died from tubercular meningitis in 1920 at the age of 35.

Modigliani is the type of artist that many people feel they ‘get’, whose work does not draw blank or bemused looks − the sense of accident and ugliness so often felt to be characteristic of modern painting and sculpture is absent.

His works are instantly recognisable, which may explain why, despite their popularity, he did not spawn a school. His stylisations are not something that can be easily absorbed by other artists into their work without seeming glaringly derivative.

Studying art was an escape for Modigliani from the maltreatment, poverty, distress, suicide and tuberculosis that plagued his family. Born in 1884 in Livorno, Tuscany, he was a young boy when his mother Eugenia Garsin said he ‘already sees himself as a painter’.

As his father Flaminio was absent for parts of his childhood, his mother was often the sole provider for the family and a dominant figure in Modigliani’s life. As the youngest child, she mollycoddled him and later accompanied him to southern Italy, and then on to Florence and Venice where Modigliani enrolled in fine arts courses.

At the beginning of the twentieth century Modigliani relocated to the town of Pietrasanta in Tuscany and, despite his lack of prior training, began to sculpt. It was a medium that he eagerly embraced. But having previously suffered from pleurisy as a youth, the quantities of dust involved in the process wreaked havoc on his already weak lungs, eventually blighting his efforts and physical and mental health.

His most prolific period for creating sculpture coincided with the zenith of Cubism in 1911-1912. This possibly explains the lack of success Modigliani had in realising his hopes for his sculptures to be incorporated into an architectural scheme.

Only one of his Caryatids, executed in limestone, is now known to exist. But his concept remains valid: one can imagine many of his works enlarged to a monumental scale and placed into an architectural arrangement.


Caryatid, 1914, limestone, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

Sadly, some two figures and 23 heads are all that remain of his sculptural output, their finishes ranging from the coarse hewn to a soft lustre. The characteristic curvature of the head that eventually found its way into his paintings is already present.

At the back of these often androgynous, anonymous carved heads there are usually sections of the raw stone material.  That he did not complete most of these sculptures in the round may have been due simply to his inexperience as a carver and poor health. But perhaps keeping some of the surface of the original block was deliberate − a key signifying unrealised projects: conceived architecturally, some of his sculptures could well have been installed as corbels or keystones in a building.

For in common with other artists of the period, Modigliani dreamed of completing monumental works, his idea of a temple supported by caryatids being a prime example. A series of preparatory studies boldly reveal the breadth of his vision even if they are too impractical to have served as working drawings.

‘Heads−a decorative ensemble’, comprising seven stone heads he exhibited at the Paris ‘Salon d’Automne’ in 1912, is probably the nearest he came to attaining his grand ambition.

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Head, 1911-12, limestone, Tate

Drawing from the influence of primitive art, prominent in Paris before the First World War, Modigliani sought to achieve an ‘archaic simplicity’. His carved heads, with expressions ranging from the inscrutable to the enigmatic, exhibit the characteristic elongated elegance with which we associate him.

Modigliani’s understanding of primitive art and its relationship to the modern were acquired in Paris. When he arrived there in 1906, Braque and Picasso were embarking on a period that was to produce some of their greatest work. But aside from a brief period in 1915-16 when Modigliani’s paintings show shades of a Cubist influence, he drew less on the art of his contemporaries than might have been expected.

Rather, at a time when the appeal of Renaissance classicism was on the wane, Modigliani chose to filter his artistic experience in Italy through the avant-garde atmosphere of Paris.

He used the Renaissance tradition of Giorgione and Titian as his foundation and was attracted by the way in which Manet, Degas and Cézanne applied this classicism to their own work. Significantly, it prompted him to develop the distinctive richness of his colours – nowhere more pronounced than in his nudes. I struggle to think of another 20th century artist who achieved such sumptuous colour.

Modigliani believed that ‘beauty’ is ‘truth’, and to capture what he perceived as the essence of his subjects he was obsessed with achieving purity of line, simplifying and discarding all excess.

Which is why the vitality of Modigliani’s drawing is never in doubt. It formed a vital part of his practice, often lightly handled and produced in great quantities. Their linear characteristic was developed early and remained ‘…a silent conversation. A dialogue between his line and ours’ observed Jean Cocteau.

The figures and faces of classical antiquity, from the simplicity of the Cycladic art to the Egyptian goddesses spoke directly to Modigliani, as his enthusiastic visits with the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova to the Louvre indicate, and their influence can be seen in many of his compositions.

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Cycladic female figure, 2700-2600 B.C., Marble, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The 1918 oil of a seated Jeanne Hébuterne, with her exaggerated long neck, more serpent-like than swan, and Egyptian hairstyle, comes to mind. Then there are his ¾ length portraits of her, which, like the caryatid sculptures and other portraits, are presented with a slant of the head and sometimes blank eyes, conveying a remoteness verging on apparent obliviousness to the artist.

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Jeanne Hébuterne in profile, 1918, oil on canvas, Private Collection

Modigliani achieved his greatest paintings during his final years when he was riddled with ill health and anxiety.  Always improvident – he spent money as soon as he earned it − he became increasingly despondent at the failure of his sculptural ambitions, exacerbated by his lack of patronage and the success of his contemporaries such as Brancusi and Epstein.

Nonetheless his contribution to The School of Paris was substantial. He developed a new style of reduction, simplicity and approach to colour that utilised his instincts, skill and discernment in uniting elements from a vast range of cultures.

Modigliani’s achievement is all the more impressive because he did not embrace any particular ‘ism’ or group but worked alone throughout his life to expand and develop his visionary statement of intent, made at the age of 17 years:

‘…I am trying to formulate with the greatest lucidity the truths of art and life I have discerned scattered amongst the beauties of Rome; and as their inner meaning becomes clear to me, I shall seek to reveal and re-arrange their composition. I could almost say metaphysical architecture, in order to create out of it my truth of life, beauty and art.’

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Jeanne Hébuterne, 1919, oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art – Jeanne Hébuterne, an art student, was Modigliani’s lover during the last three years of his life and mother of his child. Pregnant with their second child, she committed suicide after his death

The exhibition, Modigliani, is at Tate Modern from November 23rd 2017 until April 2nd 2018




Chaïm Soutine

On Chaïm Soutine (1893-1943)

By Christian Kile

‘The main reason I bought so many of the paintings was that they were a surprise, if not a shock, and I wanted to find out how he got that way.  Besides, I felt he was making creative use of certain traits of the work of Bosch, Tintoretto, Van Gogh, Daumier and Cézanne, and was getting new effects with colour’

Albert C. Barnes, Art Collector 1950

‘Houses’ (1920-21) – a group of twisting, contorted buildings pinioned between land and sky – is one of the surviving Céret landscapes painted by Chaïm Soutine. This painting, now in the Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, shows the subjects linked and interdependent, yet, at the same time, individually competing for their space in the landscape.

“This would be unbearable on acid”, said one of my friends on his first visit to the museum’s Soutine rooms.  And his work does have a hallucinogenic quality.

Soutine is an artist who destroyed to create, willing to slash and burn his paintings to ashes, keeping only the versions he liked, a process that has resulted in infusing them with an unsettling intensity.


‘Houses’, 1920-21, oil on canvas, Musée de l’Orangerie

But consciously or not, this painter of swooping churning anguish reigned himself in and probably saved his sanity with the use of restraining external influences.  He played Bach, the most ordered mathematically precise composer, when he painted; he adapted his primal social behaviour in the company of his highly-cultured patrons, the Castaings, and throughout his career he reworked the old masters, respectful and always mindful of their discipline.

Soutine was stirred by the work of Rembrandt whom he revered, and was particularly fascinated by his idol’s depiction of flesh, returning to an interpretation of the Louvre meat carcass more than once.  His one-time neighbour, the writer Henry Miller described his preoccupation with flesh as an obsession.

The way in which many of Soutine’s images produce an effect of life in death, notably the poultry and bulkier carcasses – mouths, beaks and eyes open wide – make us feel we have just missed the slaughter and that only moments ago these were living creatures.

Indeed, Soutine’s carcasses seem more alive than many painters’ live subjects. Adjust the canvas by 90 degrees and his ‘Hare Against Green Shutter’ (1925-26) would be seen to be loping along!

Soutine worked in spates, not painting for days, weeks or even months, and then would set to with a ferocious intensity, often for many hours at a time.  The decomposing animal carcasses sometimes had to be infused with formaldehyde to dull their stench.

It was testing for his sitters, even verging on cruelty.  Determined to see through their surface appearance, Soutine subjected them to long days and weeks of concentrated and sustained looking followed by furious action. One of his models tells of being made to pose for so long that it verged on a hallucinatory experience for both of them.

While no group claimed him, Soutine is classed as an Expressionist. Essentially though, his art is his direct response to confronting nature, and his trademark intensity is probably due to his working in isolation in France, away from the influence of the Expressionist group of artists based in Berlin, Munich or Vienna.

Soutine was not one for words.  He neither kept diaries nor written correspondence about his work, and whether he made preparatory drawings remains contested.  If he did, then like many of his canvasses, he probably destroyed them.  What remains is a small collection of photos taken throughout his life and the paintings.

still life

‘Still Life with a Pheasant, circa 1924, oil on canvas, Musée de l’Orangerie

Soutine grew up in the small, poverty-stricken Jewish village of Smilovitchi, Belarus.  His father, a strict disciplinarian and devout Jew, discouraged him from pursuing his interest in art for which he had shown a marked talent from an early age.

Despite much opposition, he eventually moved to Minsk and embarked on a drawing course, followed by three years at the Vilna Academy of Art in Lithuania. Afterwards in 1913 Soutine moved to Paris to further his career.  He was alone for much of the time and poor but he allowed nothing to get in the way of painting.

Here, through the artist Jacques Lipchitz, he met Amedeo Modigliani. Theirs was a close if tempestuous friendship – aggravated by heavy drinking – despite their radically different temperaments and work styles.

They were a familiar sight on the town.  Modigliani drew out Soutine socially; he complimented him and encouraged him in his work, and his premature death deeply affected Soutine.  Alcohol was blamed and from then on Soutine limited his drinking.

Through Modigliani Soutine was introduced to art dealer Leopold Zborowski, who represented him from 1917 to his death in 1932.  He also benefited financially from the arrival of Dr. Albert Barnes, an American businessman, in Paris in 1922.

A discerning collector, intent on buying paintings for his Philadelphia Art Foundation, Barnes swiftly saw the quality of Soutine’s works: delighted by the painting of pastry cook Rémy Zocchetto, he bought the series of below stairs hotel and kitchen staff portraits* by the artist.  Barnes acquired some 52 paintings, maybe more, that have contributed substantially to Soutine’s posthumous success and recognition.

The artist’s fortunes continued to look up when he met Marcellin and Madeleine Castaing in the late 1920s.  Two of the most influential figures in his career, they became his patrons and supported him for the rest of his life.  For ten years Soutine was invited to stay and work at their pastoral retreat at Lèves.

Madeleine was a successful interior designer and her circle included cultured members of the French establishment, bringing Soutine into contact with leading lights such as Cocteau and Satie, and art historian Elie Faure, who became an enthusiastic champion of his work.

If he personally seemed one step away from self-destruct, many of his paintings were not spared.  We are lucky that any of his Céret landscapes survive.  Faure said of them: “In his studio, he lacerates them with rage.”

An impoverished Soutine spent time in Céret, a town in the Pyrenees, between 1919-1922, where he was unable to get on with other artists and locals.

Nonetheless, this period resulted in a series of his most distinctive and bacchanalian paintings.  Here, figures, landscapes and buildings are compressed, distorted and thrust towards the viewer on claustrophobic canvasses.

Madeleine Castaing recalls: “While he was painting, everyone … had to disappear.  We always waited in fear of that sinister noise.  If he didn’t like the painting, he’d take a knife and slash it…Then he had to like the painting when it was finished…He would call us to come and see it…If he saw the smallest trace of disappointment, he would grab the gasoline which he had next to him and a sponge…”


Soutine and Madeleine Castaing during the mid 1930s

Perhaps Soutine believed that his later work surpassed the Céret paintings that might have signalled a dead end – that is, he felt he could go no further in this artistic direction without straying too far into abstraction.  Or, perhaps, they were simply a reminder of a difficult period he would prefer to forget.

Soutine’s late period is generally considered to be from the mid-1930s to 1943. Some critics and writers have dismissed these works as regressive. He is accused of needlessly reining himself in and being so enthralled by past masters that it reduced the urgency and potency found in the earlier paintings.

Regardless of the reduced pictorial aggression—allowing the faces in his portraits to be averted, ridding them of their dramatic confrontational stares found in the earlier works, and producing landscapes that are more classically formal in structure—Soutine’s vision, energies and painting process in these late works remain consistent.

The images– landscapes, portraits, still-lives – are a natural progression from the artist’s earlier ones and reflect the artist’s dedication, throughout his career, to achieve ever-increasing clarity and concentrated expression.

Unfortunately, assessment of Soutine’s late paintings is hampered by the lack of them on public show (many are in private collections) and that they are disproportionately few in comparison with his earlier works; 100 paintings are known dating from the 1930s onwards, compared to 400 painted in the preceding 15 years. And that does not include the early paintings he destroyed!

During this latter part of his life and despite his notorious unsociability Soutine sustained close relationships with women.  He met Gerda Michaelis, a Jew from a prosperous family, who had fled Nazi Germany to live in Paris, where she was working as a house cleaner.  Gerda kept his studio and apartment clean and orderly, and helped him seek treatment for his crippling stomach pains.  They separated in 1940 at the onset of the Second World War.  Gerda survived but never saw Soutine again.

In November 1940 Soutine met Marie-Berthe Aurenche, recently divorced from the Surrealist Max Ernst.  With the Nazi threat looming she and her friends helped Soutine escape from Paris and he took refuge near Richelieu.

But the constant worry of living as a fugitive aggravated his stomach illness, and he was forced to return to Paris for urgent treatment.  After a treacherous journey into the city Soutine underwent an operation for his ulcer but he died soon afterwards on August 9th 1943.

Soutine was buried at Montparnasse Cemetery, the service attended by a small group of artists and friends, including Aurenche, Picasso and Cocteau.

Although Soutine cannot be described as an under appreciated artist internationally, he certainly has been overlooked in the UK.  Fashion and poor critical opinion have seen to this.  So this is a rare opportunity to see a collection of his portraiture.


The Pastry Chef (Baker Boy) (Le Pâtissier), c. 1919, oil on canvas, The Barnes Foundation

The upcoming exhibition, Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys*, is at The Courtauld Gallery (October 19th 2017- January 21st 2018)







Jean-Michel Basquiat

by Christian Kile

‘Following the fashionable lead of his time (epitomized by the Prince of Wales) he dissipated his talents and his life (1763-1804). Debts forced up his output – during the last eight years of his life he produced at least 100 canvasses a year; whilst drink and false stimulation of every sort made his work even more automatic and repetitive than it might otherwise have been.’

The above is quoted from John Berger’s essay on the Georgian artist George Morland, renowned for his prolific output and problems with dealers, and it could well be applied to the life of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

More often than not, when I hear Basquiat’s name mentioned it is in relation to the sensational aspects of his life rather than his work: his relations with Andy Warhol and Madonna, the exorbitant praise from dealers and hangers on, the brief period of success, followed by the collapse into drug addiction and death. He personified the excesses of the 1980s New York art scene. Which makes Basquiat all the more appealing to dealers and the star struck. And today his prices continue to soar.

It has been almost 30 years since his death and the hype shows no signs of abating. He first gained attention in the downtown New York scene of the late 70s and early 80s with graffiti that was markedly different from his contemporaries. It involved more than tagging a name; more singular, Basquiat’s graffiti was littered with witty words or symbols – and there were plenty of them – that later found their way into his drawings and paintings.

During my last visit to the Whitney Museum, his work, ‘Hollywood Africans’ attracted crowds of visitors, dominated by those in their late teens and 20s, who appeared fascinated by his life and times and 1980s fashion, and full of admiration for his work that clearly struck a chord.

He achieved success quickly in his career and his output was sizeable. His early and late styles concertinaed within a decade and by 27 he was dead. He worked intuitively, drawing from a vast pool of stimulus: such as Dubuffet, Twombly; Picasso and Rauschenberg without the eroticism; television and radio; his experience as a young black man, and eclectic musical influences, including classical and jazz.

This is the first time a substantial Basquiat show has been held in the UK. Perhaps even now insufficient time has passed to override those critics determined to view his work as a symbol for the degradation of art history and the triumph of the art market over works of quality.

However, he is original enough to figure in the canon of art history, and for good reason. He was able to spell out and successfully communicate to us what he, young and black, perceived in the world around him and within himself through his work.

It seems to me that he is one of the last significant 20th century artists capable of creating good paintings, which hang in major museums and galleries, and will continue to do so. I do not find a Basquiat painting in New York’s Museum of Modern Art out of place.

Nonetheless, it is clear that much of his popularity is down to fashion and the market. That he emerged from a graffiti background is significant – it helped him to attract and connect with his public, whom he later secured in his transition to painting.

It could also legitimately be argued that in some quarters his contribution is overestimated, particularly if we compare him to another 20th century artist who too died early: Egon Schiele far and away surpassed him as draughtsman and painter, and his work possessed great psychological depth.

But while Basquiat may not be the genius some claim, it is also true that the financial success he enjoyed in his lifetime and excessive commercialism surrounding his work should not be used to discredit and dismiss his artistic achievements. If exploitative dealers, hangers on and drugs had not dragged him down, there is every chance his work would have continued to develop well and matured.

For now we can count ourselves fortunate to see such a comprehensive exhibition of his works in this country – it’s been a long time coming.


Jean-Michel Basquiat, Glenn 1984/5


Basquiat: Boom for Real 

The Barbican, London (21 September 2017 – 28 January 2018)

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