Sunday, 17 May 2015

Recent exhibitions visited - May

Emil Nolde - Nolde Stiftung, Germany

I mentioned in another post that I recent visited the Nolde Stiftung in Seebull, northern Germany. This is a wonderful place. When Nolde died the collection of his art work was left to a foundation that now house his works and present them, I think, on an annually rotating display to show different work every year. This is great, it means that the watercolours are protected from excessive light, and it means that visitors get to see a fresh display if they return.

Last time I was there was perhaps 7 or 8 years ago. Since then the Foundation has build a splendid new modernist building with a big shop, a good restaurant and educational rooms. We spent the first hour there viewing a documentary film of Nolde's work before going to the dislays themselves which are shown in a building Nolde designed and had built in the late 1920s. Here's the Nolde house seen from a small patch of garden, which in early May does not have many flowering plants in it:

The exhibition was very good. There was a large room of oil paintings, landscapes, flowers and still lives. A room with some cabinets showed Nolde's designs for small cushion covers which his wife had translated into diagrams for knotted weavings, which was quite interesting as the work of his wife, Ada, as his companion and support, is otherwise not visible in his work. There were rooms with watercolours and a good selection of his ungemalte Bilder, the small watercolours he painted during the war when his artistic 'licence' or rights were removed by the National Socialists as his art had been seen as 'entartet' i.e. the Nazis thought his work degenerate. The large 'altarpiece' of a crucifixion and other paintings with religious motifs were also on show, as were a series of great watercolours of flowers which he is so famous for.
So, there was plenty to see and reflect on. Nolde was clearly absorbed by romantic notions of the land and nature, of a spiritual connection of the person with the forces of nature, the land, the weather, the sea and the life of plants. There is something otherworldly about his flowers, there are big blooming poppies, but they are not those exact poppies in the garden, although he may have drawn on them, but they are Poppies in nature or life beyond the real of the earth they grow in. His skills in watercolour were great, so simple is the application of colour to a wet paper that colours mingle just enough, but not too much, and you can detect in some of them an interest in Japanese aesthetics maybe, in his compositional approaches. Anyway, I enjoyed the visit and would suggest anyone visiting Schleswig-Holstein take a journey there, this art is a gift to the world.
Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector, Barbican
The second exhibition I went to see in May was the Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector at the Barbican. This was a selection of collections by British and North American artists, divided into displays based on each separate collections. Overall I found it interesting, and there were some beautiful and precious objects on display (Howard Hodgkin's amazing Indian paintings from the 16th century), there were scientific books and surgical models and illustrations from the 18th century (Hiroshi Sugimoto's collection of Enlightenment items) and kitsch pop art objects such as cookie jars (Andy Warhol), record sleeves, amateur paintings and mass produces silk scarves. Each artist also had one of their work on show which seems to have been selected by the curators to resonate with the collections. Thus Damien Hirst had a display of pinned butterflies in a large framed piece, Edmund de Waal showed a piece called from the collection of a private man (2011) and Sol Lewitt's photo series hung near his collection of Japanese prints and historical art photographs.
The concept was interesting; here were artists whose works were clear inspired by things they harboured in their homes in their collections. Some seemed to be purist about their collecting habits, selecting only the best, and indeed being selective about what they would draw in to their collections (Hodgkin's paintings and Arman's African masks and other face/head gear, while others were truly obsessive and seem to have collected indiscriminately from within a category of objects such as the strange collections of kitsch Chinese stuff that did not seem to have a remit other than they were from that ethnic culture in the US.
I felt there was one large gap in the display: why did the curator's not show how the artists lived with their work, or how they displayed this in their private spaces? Some of these collections suggested compulsion of acquisition and suggested that perhaps the objects were collected in such large quantities that they have been a problem (not far form the compulsion of hoarding some people suffer), and some collectors display with pride their objects, or as the exhibition suggested, some artists used their collections was inspirational routes into their work. Showing a selection of objects form a collection in an otherwise white empty space may disguise the actual volume and density of the setting in which the artist-collector lives with their objects.
I also think that since there were only to women artists shown in the display it might have been interesting to think about whether there is a gender dimension to the collecting habit. The majority of artists' work in the display were men, and although I have eluded to the differences in collecting habits they showed, I wonder whether there was something else to be said about the nature of collecting that was missed here.
Edmund de Waal's collections seemed a bit out of place to me - yes, he has two collections of smallish objects of great value to him in his work, but they were both inherited. The first collection was a series of stones, shells and other small objects a vicar had given him when he was a child, the other collection is the netsuke collection he inherited from his uncle, and which he has written about in his book, The Hare with the Amber Eyes. I am not completely sure de Waal actually adds to these collections from his personal perspective. His ceramic work feeds into other people's collections, and he works on series of objects and maybe that is what his own piece on display alluded to. But in all the other cases on display the collections had been personally conceived, developed, added to and worked on to create very particular wholes, of series or of jumbles, but nevertheless very personal collections.
When you are given collections can you really be said to be a collector, or are you more a custodian and curator of someone else's series or jumble? And what does it mean when a  collection  is curated anyway, especially as it was in this exhibition? What meaning did the artist-collectors have in gathering this stuff to themselves and what happens when someone else selects form this and tries to interpret this? Although an interesting display of glimpses into a world of looking and holding objects, I think a bit more work could have been done to place collecting in a wider context than the solely personal level we briefly shared as visitors to the exhibition.

Maybe I should admit to be a bit of a collector-hoarder myself? I have a substantial collection of embroidered table cloths, tray cloths and other linen. Most of it is not great works of art, but there are some very good pieces, and I have an amazing Danish arts and crafts table cloth which I can recount a great tale of finding and treasuring. I also did a bit of work on collecting once for some written work and read a small article by Walter Benjamin where he speaks exactly of this pride in finding a wonderful specimen (he collected books) at a particularly good price, or containing a somehow unique quality. But something can happen when the collection takes over, in terms of volume and value: you need to start investing in all manner of conservation materials to preserve the pieces, and you know that no-one else will have the same feelings you had in treasuring the collection, so how will the things be treated if you were unable to pass it on in trust? I haven't seriously thought about whether anyone might be interested in some of the better pieces, but have been thinking that it is probably time to start making something from the lesser quality items. The linen is still good, even if the lazy daisies are boring or faded, so maybe something useful and contemporary can be gained from this?

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