Artwork: Marcel Duchamp's Fountain

To the average Joe, 'modern art' doesn't have the best connotations. It's usually followed up with "I could have done that" or, just as insightful, "That's shit".

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square

I have to admit; I never saw anything in single tone canvases until I started researching them at uni. They're now among my favourite artworks (I pretty much had a fit when I found out Malevich, king of arty nothingness, will be at the Tate next summer). I won't try and convince you to think the same as either a) you agree with me already or b) you don't have the time to sit there and listen to me blab on and on about why a black canvas means both the death and rebirth of art, and how it all started with an upturned urinal.

However, what I will do is look at that urinal.

(There's a sentence I never thought I would declare to the interwebs.)

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain

Above, you can see the picture of said urinal. As with a lot of Dada artworks, its origins are mysterious. From reading various accounts, it looks like Duchamp went out, bought a urinal, brought it back to his flat, signed it with the pseudonym R. Mutt, and had his friend Stieglitz take a pic.

I absolutely love this. Not for the aesthetic value, because it ain't pretty. No; I love it for what it makes you think about. There are at least four possible 'makers' of this artwork:

  • The designer
  • The manufacturer
  • Marcel Duchamp
  • Richard Mutt

Who made it? You might say Duchamp played no role in 'making' this - you might say it's the product of the manufacturer. But Duchamp took some materials, arranged them in his own way, and called it 'art'. Let's think of the same issue in relation to established works of art. When Botticelli painted The Birth of Venus, he took some materials (oils and canvas), arranged them in his own way (painted the composition), and called it art. Because it surely was.

Sandro Botticelli, Birth of Venus

So, by default, Duchamp is challenging everyone. To those who think an artist is the sole producer of an artwork: you cannot deny that an upturned urinal is a work of art. And to the others: everyone who contributes to the materials necessary for an artwork (and this includes the world around us, from which the painter or sculptor draws inspiration) plays a role in creating the final artwork.

The average Joe may be capable of the physical action of upturning a urinal, but that's not what Duchamp was doing. He was giving us an ultimatum: either everything is art, or everyone is an artist. Looking at his later works (and I'll get onto those at some stage), my guess is that Duchamp thought both.

Rehang: Tate Britain

Tate Britain has had a major rehang and it has dominated the news this week. They've shaken up their permanent collection and provided us with a chronological journey through British art.

I, for one, think this is bloody brilliant (come on, you can't be surprised to see British cliches in a post about British art). There are going to be special displays of some national treasures, including William Blake and Henry Moore. On a personal level, I'm infinitely more excited about the former. Moore kinda freaks me out. It's a 'small head' thing.

See what I mean? Scary.

Anyway, I'm getting distracted. Back to the Tate Britain rehang.

There's just something didactic about a thematic hang, you know? It's as if the visitor is being forced to look at these artworks in context of the curator's reading - and being told that is the only way to read the artworks. Themes can be subjective; but chronology is undeniable. By going down the chronological route, Tate Britain is opening up its collection to its visitors' interpretations, not those of its curators.

And now, the artworks are shown within the context of their own time. They don't have to answer to their predecessors or followers. I know that sounds a little pretentious, but work with me here. By showing the permanent collection like this, each piece is given its place within a socio-historical story. For instance, you're not going to see too many works by female artists before 1900 (although two 17th Century Mary Beales will be on display for the first time). But it's important to actually see the emission of women as artists in order to understand the presence of women as subjects or muses.

Yet, while some things might be surprisingly absent, there will be other parts of this rehang that will shock you just by being there. The Evening Standard has shown two artworks depicting the female nude:

Walter Sickert, La Hollandaise, c.1906

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, A Favourite Custom, 1909

These two pieces will hang side by side; as they were painted just three years apart. Pretty amazing.

The educational element of this new approach is only outdone by the intrigue and questions that lie therein, and I'm racing down there on Saturday to learn a little more.

Exhibition: Summer in February, Penlee House Gallery

Right now, Penlee House Gallery in Cornwall is hosting one of the most popular shows it has ever staged. The Summer in February collection was originally planned to be exhibited alongside the upcoming film of the same name, but delays in its release has meant the exhibition comes as a sneak peak into this summer's big old arty blockbuster.

I should explain. This is an exhibition based on a film, which is based on a book, which is based on true events. Phew. The Summer in February story focuses on Florence Carter-Wood, who came down from London, married artist Sir Alfred Munnings in haste, and began an affair with his friend, Gilbert Evans. Florence and Alfred were part of a school of artists painting in Lamorna on the eve of the First World War who came together artistically, socially and, of course, romantically. Love triangle, ahoy.

Pretty juicy stuff. Yet, as dark as the storyline becomes, the accompanying exhibition at Penlee House is filled with light. Each artwork exhibited is b-e-a-utiful. Take The Morning Ride, for instance. It has featured on all fifteen of the book's front covers and, for me, is the visual snapshot around which the storyline pivots. It's romantic. Hauntingly so. Here, he is painting a woman so easily loveable that she will scar him for life.

Sir Alfred Munnings, The Morning Ride

As definitive as The Morning Ride is, the piece that sticks out in my mind is Laura Knight's Self Portrait and Nude (or The Model). On a visual level, it is striking (seriously, you'll be in awe of it as soon as you turn the corner and see those reds and pinks glowing from the walls). But considering the subject socially, a woman painting the nude was quite a statement. It wasn't the 'done thing', but LK did it - and showed the boys how it was done in the process.

Dame Laura Knight, Self Portrait and Nude, aka The Model

With the film released, the book reprinted and further exhibitions to come, this twisted, dark, beautiful story will be dominating the culture columns this summer. Make sure you're ahead of the crowd by getting your preview at Penlee House.
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