Art Binge

Phew! it’s been a busy first week back at work, with a very excellent Nils Lofgren concert thrown in last night. More of that in due course. But I started the new year nice and chilled with a week off. My intention was to catch up on a whole load of art exhibitions I hadn’t seen and to finish the first draft of my music book. Well, I succeeded on the first objective and came really close on the second – just a page or so left about some of the music writers and DJs who’ve inspired me over the years.

I’m lucky enough to live in one of the world’s greatest cities and get paid enough to be able to enjoy it. Some of these exhibitions aren’t that cheap to get into. But all the major museums and galleries are free apart from special exhibitions, so there is some amazing art from centuries past to the modern day available to everyone. This is a fantastic thing and I sincerely hope that no future government tries to re-introduce entrance fees. It’s a fact that the central London galleries are still populated mostly by the middle classes and tourists, but there are school parties too and at least they are there for all.

So I had a bit of an art binge.

I started on 2 January when I went up to Kings Cross to take a look at the new developments. lovelondonscenes – 83 covered that. Afterwards I wandered down to Somerset House on the Strand to see the Guy Bourdin photo exhibition. Somerset House is home to the Courtauld Gallery, which has a superb permanent collection of paintings, with a lot of very fine Impressionist art. It also has an ice rink in the winter.


The Bourdin exhibition actually took me a while to find – it was underground. In a lovely space. This photo sort of captures it.


Guy Bourdin is an avant-garde fashion photographer, whose hey day seems to have been the seventies and eighties. He was displayed in many of the major fashion magazines, including Vogue. He was clearly a creative and provocative artist.

Guy Bourdin 1

There was an amusing selection of photos from Britain in the seventies when he went on a tour and photographed a mannequin’s lower leg, with shoes, sitting in lots of rather unusual locations. The weird juxtaposition did make you get more from the background scenes, so it worked.

A lot of the photos inevitably featured semi-naked women and a hint (or more) of lesbianism. There were some rather obviously phallic objects too. No doubt radical stuff when they were taken; maybe rather easy to dismiss as borderline pornographic now. But art, so it’s OK!

I did wonder, when these photos appeared in Vogue or elsewhere, what fashion they were actually promoting. Perhaps that’s not the point!

It was an enjoyable exhibition, not particularly profound, which I’d recommend unless you take exception to pictures of unclad women.

On my way out I diverted to take a look at a free photo exhibition called “Chris Stein/Negative: Me, Blondie and the Advent of Punk”. Chris Stein played guitar in Blondie. He took a lot of photos. Many of them are of Debbie Harry. Many others are of other New York punk and new wave bands, with a few English bands for good measure. If you love that era of music and can get to Somerset House, I encourage you to do so! I snapped one photo. I love the way that everyone on the street is looking at Debbie Harry – and maybe Chris too.


Into the working week, when it feels so good to be off and just doing things at your own pace. On Monday I went down to Tate Britain – which is a bit like going to work – and spent a good couple of hours having a really good look at the Late Turner exhibition. I think it was my fourth visit. This time I focused more than before on the watercolours. They are wonderful intricate sketches, splashes of colour – often ideas for bigger canvasses later. If you haven’t been to this exhibition, but are thinking about it, get on down. It closes on 25 January. I’ll say no more on Turner as I plan to do something in a separate blog soon.

On Tuesday it rained and rained, and I stayed at home and worked on my book. wrote pieces on The War On Drugs and Royal Blood. Almost finished!

On Wednesday I went to two big exhibitions: “Rembrandt: The Late Works” at the National Gallery and “Constable: The Making of a Master” at the Victoria and Albert. They are both finished now, I’m afraid. Rembrandt was sold out, but I bought a membership, thinking it will be handy for future exhibitions too. It was packed at the 1pm viewing. A scrum. If you’ve ever tried to view the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris, it was like that. You couldn’t really linger and examine a painting, or even get near sometimes. It was wonderful of course. The self portraits especially. But if you want to linger over Rembrandts, best to get over to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Constable was also very busy, but in a bigger space and with a more extensive collection. It was a revelation. Like many people, I suspect, Constable for me had largely been “The Haywain” and one or two others of his bucolic Suffolk masterpieces. There is so much more. By the end, I understood much more why he was so much a rival to Turner in the first half of the nineteenth century. And it’s fair to say that they both took inspiration from the landscape painter Claude Lorrain and from the great Dutch landscape painters of the eighteenth century and before. It was also fascinating to see how Constable finalised his big paintings. A sketch first, then increasingly elaborate pieces, until the final version was conceived. The exhibition had those sequences all on display. So interesting! I found this exhibition really inspiring.

Here is one of his wilder and, dare I say it, impressionistic, sky paintings. Ahead of its time.


Then, on Thursday, 20th century weirdness and blues at the Tate Modern.

First Sigmar Polke, a German avant garde artist, at his peak in the sixties through to the eighties. His art is obscure, quirky, sometimes rather obvious, other times intriguing. It reflects the times in a country going through a huge post war transition and recovery. Complex, contradictory, anguished feelings. Some of it, to the layman, is plain daft. You get a lot of those I could do that feelings. While you know you wouldn’t have thought of it at the time, or for the same reasons. Well worth a visit.

And while you are there, the photo exhibition, “Conflict, Time, Photography” is essential viewing. Its core theme, for me, is man’s inhumanity to man, from the American Civil War (with photos of the aftermath of Sherman’s rampage through the South) to Afghanistan. Some of the Nagasaki photos just take the breath away. It’s horrible, but also essential that we are reminded of these things. Maybe one day humanity will learn, although there is not much sign of that at the moment.

The time element of the exhibition is about photographers going back to places at different times after particular events, sometimes years afterwards. So it’s not all about the destruction of war. Some is how people recover and rise up from that. But the most striking stuff is the devastation. It’s sobering, but I’d recommend it highly.

That was the art art. On Friday I drove to Nottingham and back to deliver my son Kieran’s belongings back to University. The nice things about that are that Kieran and I spent a bit more time discussing things than usual and the rockmix shuffle was on the iPod for seven hours. Now that was art!

And on Saturday Quins beat Leicester 32-12 with four brilliant tries. The way Marlon Yarde somehow carved through the Tigers’ defence: that was art too!

Some people get their kicks from jumping out of helicopters, yachting, running marathons, doing all sorts of amazing physical things. I admire them. And I love sport. I cycle a lot. But spending a week wallowing in art and writing about music was as good as it gets – for me.

(PS. I appreciate that a lot of people reading this won’t be able to get to these exhibitions, but the good thing these days is that you can usually see plenty of the images on the internet if you google the artist or the exhibition. Not the same as being there, but still amazing. As far as I can tell, pretty much all the Bourdin photos are on images, for example. And the Tate has a wonderful gallery of Turner paintings).

About John S

I'm blogging about the things I love: music, sport, culture, London, with some photos to illustrate aspects of our wonderful city. I’ve written a novel called “The Decision”, a futuristic political thriller, and first of a trilogy. I’m also the author of a book on music since the 1970s called “ I Was There - A Musical Journey” and a volume of poetry about youth, “Growin’ Up - Snapshots/ Fragments”. All available on Amazon and Kindle.
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4 Responses to Art Binge

  1. dc says:

    congratulations, probably the first and last article on art ever that combines guy bourdin and marlon yarde

  2. Dood says:

    Yep, that Anselm Kiefer. He’ll never get in the Sarries back row unless he bulks up….

    Nice art tour, John, which rather metamorphosed into your daily diary!

    As I mentioned, I got to see Conflict Time Photography at Tate Modern just after you, and (finally) caught up with the Late Turners, which I loved.

    Conflict, Time I had slightly mixed views about, As I said earlier, I thought the concept was brilliant, viewing conflict photography from literally the instant of violence (that opening panoramic shot from Afghanistan was amazing – the “innocent” puff of smoke denoting a moment of sheer brutality) to another single point up to a century later.

    I felt that some of the treatments worked better than others. The documentary work and photo books around the atom bombs were incredibly powerful, but in some other instances (Germany, Mesopotamia) I thought it worked less well. Lots of highlights, though, including the concentration camp survivors in the Ukraine, the Nazi “lineage” project – very compelling – and the ruined Afghan cities. All in all, a very impressive show.

    But I managed to missed Constable and Rembrandt. And I’m supposed to be WORKING in the art world….

    Always more great art to come – and yes, we are fortunate to live in this fine city. We just have to make the most of it: you most certainly do.

    • John S says:

      Agree with you on the Conflict etc exhibition. The things that have stayed with me are the Sherman’s devastation in the American Civil war – perhaps because I’ve recently read a book about Lincoln- and the ultimate devastation that was the nukes on Japan. That really made me choke. I think I’ll go back for another look.

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