Category Archives: Reviews

Tate Modern – Capturing the Moment

War (Paula Rego, 2003)

Dear Readers, today I popped into Tate Modern for some culture, and in  particular their exhibition ‘Capturing the Moment’, which looks at the relationship between painting and photography. And what a tricky relationship it is! The harrowing painting above, by Paula Rego, was inspired by a photograph from the Iraq War, showing a women fleeing with her baby in her arms and a small child by her side. Somehow the image of the rabbits, normally depicted as such innocent and docile creatures, intensifies the terror, for me at least. It seems to suggest that war makes animals of us all, as it so often does.

Not everything is so stressful though (fortunately). What about where the artist has made photographs out of paintings? The classic example is this photograph by Jeff Wall, called ‘A Sudden Gust of Wind’, and based on this woodcut by Hokusai (1760-1849).

‘A Sudden Gust of Wind’ by Hokusai (Brooklyn Museum of Art)

It took Jeff Wall over 100 separate shots (in Vancouver on windy days) and a whole year to compose the photo below:

A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) (Jeff Wall 1993)

In both painting and photo, the direction of the leaves and pieces of paper draws your eye across the image from left to right. I rather like the playfulness of both painting and photo, and admire Wall’s persistence. I can just see him looking out of the window, or checking the weather forecast, to see if the wind was going to be in the right direction for a few photographs.

Another photograph based on a painting is this one, by Indian artist Pushpamala N. The original painting, from 1898, is a depiction by Velosco Salgado of Vasco de Gama’s arrival in India.

What Pushpamala N has done is to have the parts acted out by herself and her friends. For me, the photo shows a much more sceptical and unimpressed audience for de Gama: while the painting seems to show the Indian court as somewhat overawed, in the photo there’s much more balance. These are not ‘natives’ overawed by the appearance of a European.

The Arrival of Vasco da Gama
(after an 1898 oil painting by Jose Veloso Salgado) by Pushpamala N.

Then there are the photographs of Andreas Gursky. The photo below, of a Montparnasse apartment block, had a run of only 5 prints, one of which sold for over $2m at Sotheby’s in 2013. It has the quality of an abstract painting, and the photo itself is enormous, so at least you get plenty of photo for your money.

Paris, Montparnasse by Andreas Gursky (1993)

Some paintings are based on photographs which have a troubling history. This painting, by Gerhard Richter, is based on a 1932 photo of the author sitting on his Aunt Marianne’s lap. Marianne, a schizophrenic, was later incarcerated in an asylum by the Nazis and forcibly sterilised. During the last months of the war she was deliberately starved to death, along with the other patients, and the 8,000 bodies were dumped into a mass grave. There was outrage recently when the photo was sold at auction and left Germany, to become part of a private collection. You have to wonder who would want a painting with such personal and national connections, but there we go.

Aunt Marianne (Gerhard Richter)

As you might expect, film was a big influence on many artists. Of course there was Andy Warhol – his work seems almost banal now (to me at least) but at the time he, along with Richard Hamilton and David Hockney amongst others, were doing something fresh and new.

Andy Warhol – Marlon Brando

The David Hockney painting below sold for $90.3m in 2018, then the highest price paid at auction for a work by a living artist.

David Hockney – Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) 1972

And finally, how about this last painting by Salman Toor, a gay Pakistani artist? It combines a lot of things that the exhibition has been talking about – the impact of photography and digital media on the artist and on our general consciousness. The family are sitting listening to the news. The father looks blank and numb, but his son, on the right, is naked, bleeding ink from what look like stigmata, bombarded with the images from the television, the mosque looming behind him. Toor has described the painting as a ‘‘queer self/family portrait in a conservative Islamic context’. For me, it speaks more widely about the effect of what we are seeing in media of all kinds and how it impacts us all, especially the young. Sometimes it feels like being bludgeoned over the head with a constant stream of troubling and disconcerting images.

9 p.m. The News (Salman Toor)

So, the exhibition has had mixed reviews, 2 stars from Laura Cummings in The Guardian, 4 stars by Ben Luke in the Evening Standard. I think that both reviewers are right – it is a bit incoherent, as Cummings says, but it also has some outstanding paintings, including several Picassos, Bacon, Freud, Doig, Richter, Tuymans etc etc. Some of these are part of the Tate’s general collection (so at another time you could see them for free) but most are part of the collection of Taiwanese entrepreneur Philip Chen. However, I do note that the price of entry if you aren’t a Friend is £20, which is a lot of money. I don’t think that it’s the Tate’s best exhibition, but I did very much enjoy some of the works on offer.



‘Crows Playing in the Wind’ by A.E. Stallings

Dear Readers, as you know I love corvids of all varieties for their playful nature and for their intelligence. I was delighted to find this poem in the London Review of Books this week: it is a long time since I read a rhyming poem that seemed quite so dextrous and unforced. And I love the final stanza. It gave me goosebumps.

A.E.Stallings is an American poet now living in Athens, and she has this to say about her work:

The ancients taught me how to sound modern,” she told Forbes magazine. “They showed me that technique was not the enemy of urgency, but the instrument.

And yes, the bird in the photo is a raven rather than a hooded crow, but the point still applies, though if any of you live near Portland Bill in Dorset, I would recommend a trip to watch the ravens cavorting and tumbling in the wind off the cliff. And if you don’t, and you’re on Facebook, can I point you in the direction of ‘In the Company of Corvids‘ for some truly wonderful photographs?

And now, the poem. See what you think.

Crows in the Wind by A.E. Stallings

Hooded Crow: Corvus cornix

On windy days the crows cavort
Down slides of air for autumn sport.
They dive and spiral, twirl and spin,
Then levitate to ride again.

That wind that makes their airy slide
Comes tumbling down the mountainside,
Tousles the heads of trees and drops
To the sea beyond the cypress tops,

And drinking at the sea’s blue lips
Makes paper sailboats out of ships,
Whose distant swiftness seems repose
Compared to capers of the crows.

Their calligraphic loops concur
In copperplate of signature,
Or in formation they prepare,
Drilling at dogfights with thin air.

Watching them, I want to say
They are intelligence at play
And in their breath-defying flight,
Daredevils of a deep delight.

Of course, who would not rather be
An aerobat of ecstasy?
But it takes grounding to observe
Their every barrel roll and swerve

Against the sky, the way their skill
Makes the unseen visible
With two unlikely forces twinned:
Their turn of mind, the wanton wind.