‘Death:A Self Portrait’ and ‘Seduced by Art’

We had a weekend in London just before Christmas, and I’ve been a bit delayed in writing it up. The art highlights were a visit to the Wellcome Collection on Euston Road, and the National Gallery. The Wellcome are showing an exhibition of Richard Harris’s collection relating to death. The exhibits ranged from 16th century paintings contemplating death, to a huge plaster chandelier by Jodie Carey constructed from moulds of human bones. The pieces that held my attention and haunt me still, were a series of 51 etchings made in 1924 by Otto Dix based on his experiences fighting as a machine gunner in the Great War. I was struck by the incredible mark-making, particularly in pieces such as the crater field below, but also his unflinching portrayal of shell-shock and the alabaster dullness in the face of the dead. There was a tenderness and reverence about this particular portrait pictured below, that conflicted with the reality of a man fallen and left unceremoniously in the mud. The composition and light and shade in the ‘dance of death’ was captivating and horrifying all in one.

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Crater field near Dontrien lit up by flares [Trichterfeld bei Dontrien, von Leuchtkugeln erhellt]

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Mealtime in the Trenches [Mahlzeit in der Sappe]

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Totentanz anno 17 (Hohe Toter Mann) [Dance of death 1917 – (Dead Man’s Hill)]
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Dead man in the mud [Toter im Schlamm]
Next up was the relatively lighter relief of ‘Seduced by Art’ at the National Gallery. Modern photography was juxtaposed with art from the national collection in a series of broad themes such as portraiture and still life. The piece that stayed with me the the longest was Blow Up by Ori Gersht in 2007. He froze a flower arrangement and butterflies in liquid nitrogen, and took a series of photographs whilst small explosive charges were deployed, shattering the flowers in a mist of vivid fragments. This was shown alongside traditional still life, as was the time-lapse video by Sam Taylor-Wood showing the moulding and decay of a bowl of fruit. The main challenge here is the very notion of any life being truly still and finding beauty in destructive forces.
Another idea I picked up along the way was from Helen Chadwick’s One Flesh, 1985 – a montage of photocopied objects, fabric and a mother and child. I have used my scanner quite a lot for scanning sketches, but liked the idea of using lace and fabrics in this way. I was also inspired by an exhibition of Richard Hamilton’s Late Works, also at the National Gallery. He airbrushed and painted directly over his own photographs that had been printed on canvases. For me this echoed his earlier collages, and brought together modern ideas of airbrushing and photographic manipulation with the work of old masters – adding and removing people and details in response to the whims of their patrons.
A final scoot around the National Portrait Gallery delivered me face-to-face with a self portrait by Frank Auerbach 1994-2001. I admired the mark making and enjoyed the evolution over time. A living portrait that moved with it’s subject as lines were blurred and redrawn repeatedly over several years.
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