The next essay deadline looms, and I have only just got a subject, and a working title – natural beauty in the philosophies of Kant, Hegel and Adorno, with reference to contemporary art practice (meaning now, not contemporary with the aforesaid philosophers – that would be just too historical, even for me) and concentrating on specific photographers. One initial thought is to look at landscape photographers like Thomas Joshua Cooper, who could be said to work with ideas of the ‘sublime’ dating back to 19th. century landscape artists who were much influenced by Kant’s Critique of Judgement, as in this amazing image. I dream of taking pictures like this.
Thomas Joshua Cooper, A Premonitional Work, The River Findhorn
(Message to Timothy H. O’Sullivan),
Morayshire, Scotland, 1992
©Thomas Joshua Cooper, Courtesy Haunch of Venison
Here the sheer beauty and power of the natural world is centre stage, in contrast to another image by Tracey Emin, in which the representation of nature is only one element in a complicated set of references to art history and the artist’s psyche.
Tracey Emin – Monument Valley (Grand Scale) 1995-97
© Tracey Emin
Ideas for my research project have not exactly been flooding into my mind; so far a couple of possibilities have suggested themselves only to founder on doubts about their viability and/or practicality. For example, I thought of exploring the correspondences between Rodchenko’s portraits of Mayakovsky and religious icons of the Russian Orthodox Church (the full-frontal stance, the penetrating gaze), only to find that there is already a very good book on the persistence of Russian religious art forms in the post-revolutionary avant-garde – a fascinating thought (although it doesn’t actually mention Rodchenko’s photos, so it may be worth a try…).
Tom Hunter. Woman Reading a Possession Order, 1998
My latest idea has a bit more mileage, I hope – I’m thinking of researching the “tableau photography” of Tom Hunter, particularly his re-working of Old Masters into contemporary images, and linking them to photographic history, for example the Victorian “art photographers”. Possibly the best-known example of his approach is Woman Reading a Possession Order, which almost completely re-creates the composition and structure of Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window.
Jan Vermeer, Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window, 1657
Tom Hunter’s picture is not only a stylish art-history conceit, it’s also an authentic picture of contemporary London life. The situation in the image is real; a neighbour served with notice of eviction from her east London home by the local authority. Tom Hunter’s photograph created such a stir that the eviction never took place. I think this is a very unusual combination of method and intention, and it would be very interesting (well, for me) to determine if there are precedents for his art-historical approach to image-making being used for social ends.
“The Immaculate Conception” is perhaps not Velazquez’ best painting, but I love it so much, and always go to see it when I am in the National Gallery. It always has a very strong emotional effect on me, not easy to explain since I am not myself religious. Perhaps it’s the image of celestial beauty , out there beyond mortal reach and at the same time deep inside the heart. There’s more information about it on the National Gallery website.
Diego Velazquez, The Immaculate Conception. (1618-19)
Finally got to the exhibition at Tate Modern, just a few days before it closes – a pity, as I’d have liked to see it again. Both photographers are so forceful and confrontational, it was like being hit over the head, twice. As the Moriyama images came after the Klein, I didn’t get as much from them, so I bought a book about him. I also bought a poster of this beautiful photogram by Klein.
I haven’t been posting to this as much as I intended. So many other things get in the way, both within the course (masses and masses and masses of background reading) and in life. Still, I have at last finished the essay on Aleksandr Rodchenko, submitted it in accordance with the correct procedure, and I am trying to put out of my mind all the things wrong with it. It certainly made me think a lot more about Rodchenko – he was not only a great artist and photographer, but a complex and in some ways disturbing personality. It’s fascinating that he was a key member of the avant-garde movement in pre-revolutionary Russia, defining the start of abstract painting, yet because he stayed, committing himself to the Soviet regime, he is much less known than other Russian artists of his generation who moved West, like Wassily Kandinsky, or Marc Chagall. There has been relatively little written about him, and his work deserves wider recognition.
Aleksandr Rodchenko – Wild Flowers (the artist’s daughter), 1934
Going through his pictures, I found this lovely portrait of his daughter Varvara, which immediately made me think of Chagall. I couldn’t use it for the essay, as I had already overrun the word count, but I really like it, so here it is. Although most of his photography was public and relatively impersonal, from the mid-1930s his work became much more private and emotional, and he even turned to figurative painting, which he had previously rejected. Another image I found on Pictify was the one below, of Evgenia (the subject of Woman with a Leica)– it couldn’t go in the essay, as frustratingly I don’t have a proper reference for it, but its intimacy would have added to my argument that Rodchenko’s images of her are in effect enactments of their relationship. Whether my tutor agrees, I can only hope.
Aleksandr Rodchenko – Evgenia Lemberg, 1932-34
I haven’t written anything in this blog for over a month (apart from reblogging other people’s writings, a bit sneaky really) mainly because of laziness, but also because I’ve been engrossed in my first essay, on the subject of Rodchenko’s Woman with a Leica, one of his best known photos.
Writing about it was really more than would fit into a 5,000 word essay, as I kept adding in, then removing, bits of really interesting background information, but I think I’ve got it about right. The woman in the picture is Evgenia, his student and lover, who died in a train crash not long after this was taken. I have tried various explanations for her enigmatic, melancholy expression, none of them satisfactory.
Rodchenko’s work is not as well known as it might be, partly because he was a committed communist and much of his photography is propaganda for the Soviet regime in its darkest time, the Stalinist period. In particular he produced a very fine set of photos for a magazine of the White Sea canal construction, which was carried out by prison labour in dreadful conditions, with a death toll well into six figures, but his pictures, and the accompanying text, only refer to the ‘glorious achievement’ of the canal. This raises an interesting question – can an evil regime produce good art? Answers in 140 characters, please.
By the way, the caption on this copy is wrong – she wasn’t married, and she was dead by the date given.