Continent: Asian art

Kicking back with the South China Morning Post on Sunday morning, as one in London with no connections whatsoever to China does, I read a very interesting article on Asian artists to watch in 2013.

In my three years studying the history of art, I think I had a grand total of one two-hour seminar on art from the Orient. Until recent years, Asian artists were largely ignored by us in favour of the more relatable artists in the Western world.

There have been a couple of exhibitions of Asian artists lately. Yayoi Kusama at Tate Modern springs to mind, as does my favourite photographer ever, Daido Moriyama (juxtaposed with William Klein). Mariko Mori at the RA was happily received as well. I sought out Daido again at the Michael Hoppen Gallery too.

We're finally waking up to Asian art - perhaps realising it isn't all Confucian poetry and minimalist gardens - and Anh Jun is the artist I'll be watching (biting my nails, with just a hint of vertigo). Take a look at some of her images below...


Having heard German artist Georg Baselitz say that female artists "simply don't pass the market test, the value test," I'm looking forward to seeing Anh and her endless list of female artist peers shout 'BULLSHIT' in unison with more pieces like the above.

Artwork: Hogarth's A Harlot's Progress

I think I’ve mentioned Hogarth once or twice. Filthy man. Among his most famous work is a series of six paintings depicting the innocence, and then downfall, of London prostitute Moll Hackabout.

Told you us Brits love depravity...

The story Hogarth tells in these images is cyclical. I've Vined a video of them so you can see the images going round and round and round...

In the first scene, she has arrived in London with scissors and a pincushion. She probably came down from York to become a big city seamstress. However, she has caught the eye of the real-life brothel keeper Elizabeth Needham – and some punters nearby.

Lots of symbolism here – the punters are standing in front of a decrepit building (mirroring their decrepit morals etc). One of them is touching himself. Keep it classy, guys. More symbolism: Moll is dressed in white. The white goose in the bottom right hand corner is dead. Like Moll’s fate. Sorry for the spoiler.

A little ways down the road, Moll is a merchant’s mistress. Old Testament paintings in the background show a lack of empathy between Moll and her ‘master’. Her exotic bits and bobs (the monkey, the make up, the mask) show how she was tempted into this lifestyle. She kicks over a table to distract the merchant from her second lover, who escapes from behind the door.

Oh Moll, it’s all going  a bit downhill, isn’t it?

In the third image, Moll is a common prostitute. Look at the cat at her feet – bet Moll spends a lot of time in that position (sorry for being crude, it’s just one of those undeniable reflections of reality. And like I said, Hogarth was a filthy man). Syphilis is all around her – her maid is syphilitic and cures are above the two portraits on the left hand side. I could go on for hours about all the symbolic parts of this image, but for the sake of conciseness, I’ll leave it (but look into it, it’s like a big old syphilitic web of crap).

The men coming through the door are on their way to arrest her. And her boob’s flopped out. It’s not looking good...

And now our girl’s in Bridewell prison, beating hemp for the hangmen’s noose. Dear oh dear. But it doesn’t stop there...

Here she is, dying of... You guessed it, syphilis. Her quack doctors are arguing about how to treat her while she slips further away. A woman is rifling through her things, cashing in on Moll’s death. She has a son now, and he’s picking fleas... I guess Hogarth’s hinting at the whole ‘poverty is cyclical’ thing.

Dead at the age of 23, her wake is only attended by those who led her to her coffin. One man has his hand up another woman’s skirt as his brandy spills. A woman checks her appearance in a mirror in the background, ignoring her syphilitic spot. She’ll end up like Moll too – you can’t help but wonder whether she’s at the same stage at Moll in plate 3.

So there we go, a nice little Hump Day treat for you – no pun intended!

Artist: Jack the Ripper (supposedly)

“We like a good murder,” said Walter Sickert, the great British artist regularly touted as a top suspect in the Jack the Ripper murders.

He’s right. French artists paint beauty; we paint depravity. Prostitution, disease and murder are often the subject of our top artists. This is true of leading artists ranging from Hogarth (who I will blog about at a later date because he’s superb) to the crowd-splitting Tracey Emin.

But back to Sickert. His London was brutal, and he loved it. His aversion to gentility manifested in some brash and squalid nudes. These were not the figures of painters past; there were no soft-featured goddesses in his images. He focussed on women, some prostitutes, bearing all on cheap iron beds in dirty, early 1900s Camden.

He used his images to hint at a story, allowing the mind of the viewer to run wild with morbid fascination. A dressed and contemplative man sat on the cheap iron bed of a prostitute could mean any number of things – an imaginative freedom afforded to the viewer by the artist. It is said Sickert enjoyed social scandal to the point of fuelling it - perhaps a continuation of his distaste for the upper crust.

I went on a Jack the Ripper walking tour the other night and inevitably, Sickert came up. The tour leader said Sickert revelled in the mystery of the murders and, crucially, was a member of the highly suspect Freemasons. Patricia Cornwell has flirted with obsession in her opinion that Sickert himself was Jack the Ripper (though this is a theory largely discredited by the fragmented truths of Sickert’s son).

Do I think Sickert was Jack the Ripper? No, probably not; but his unapologetic appetite for depravity represents a truer reflection of British interests than a still life painter. Who said we were all stiff-upper-lip?

Exhibition: Manet: Portraying Life

I was pretty damn hungover when I popped along on Friday evening. Kinda overdid the wine the previous night and had one of those hangovers that just. won't. budge. So I'm not sure whether my view was clouded by the haze of a thousand wines; or whether that room really was as crowded as I imagined. Either way, popular exhibition - and rightly so. I'd advise holding off a few weeks so you can really enjoy the view. Try half way through the exhibition (beginning of March) and, if you're not a 9-5er, on a Tuesday afternoon. They're nice and quiet.

Anywho, to the exhibition itself. I've spent the past week or two avoiding the reviews to make sure my reception is completely my own. I'm in the happy position of never having studied Manet so, to use a relevant yet totally corny phrase, I am a blank canvas in my opinion of the artist. This also means I could be speaking rubbish, but I'm willing to take that chance!

One of the first paintings that really stood out to me was The Luncheon, 1868:

It looks a bit like a photograph, no? Well it's not painted in the hyperreal style, like the portrait of Kate Middleton, for example; but its composition is very photo-like. The focus of the figure in the foreground compared to the soft-focus of those in the background is photo-like; the fact that the man-boy is about to up and leave is photo-like in its instantness.

This was something the Impressionists did quite a lot. By relaxing the boundary between subject and background, their paintings often looked like they'd just been snapped. They really focussed on the moment, as well, like in Monet's Haystacks, where he is looking at what a subject looks like at a particular time of day. It was a trend down to techno-social progressions - photography was becoming more common as cameras were becoming more portable (this would reach a head in 1925 with the invention of the hand held Leica camera).

As I went through the rooms at the RA, something else became clear: Manet was not a painter of single style. Look at these two:

They kinda look like they were painted by different artists. And Manet didn't restrict this to separate canvases; check out this one. See the difference in style between her face and her hands...

I really enjoyed the RA, but I'll have to go back again in a few weeks once the crowds have died down. No matter how great the art, a gallery just ain't a gallery when you're craning your neck to see the works. Or collapsed in room seven because your hangover got the better of you.
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