Reality ... exposed
So vast is the photographic record of life in the 20th Century, that an exhibition in London reveals that it is just waiting to be discovered, writes GAYATRI SINHA.
A show that centres on characters and portraits.
EVEN by what is described as seasonally dull standards, British art is doing quite nicely. After a 10-year absence from the United Kingdom, Cindy Sherman, hailed as one of the 25 most influential artists of our time, is showing at the Serpentine Gallery. Photography which has lingered in the after glow of the fine arts for too long finally receives the nod with a massive showing of documentary photographs in the exhibition "Cruel and Tender" at the Tate Modern. Devoted to "the real in the 20th Century photograph", this exhibition is the first ever dedicated purely to the medium at Britain's leading modern art museum. And possibly the first televised programme on Charles Saatchi, notoriously influential and reclusive British art collector is being aired on BBC.
What David Beckham is to British football, Saatchi is to British art glamorous, pursued, vilified, essential. The critical difference is that while Beckham relentlessly pursues celebrity, Saatchi, an Iraqi Jew who emigrated to England only in the mid-1980's is famously reclusive. He is believed to be playing scrabble at home even on his own sensational exhibition openings the last one boasted about 60 nude "invitees" who mingled with the other guests. It is Saatchi's patronage that has made the YBA's or Young British artists like Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin stars in the international firmament.
After he sold Saatchi a cow and a calf pickled in brine for a one million pounds, Hirst is being pursued even for his very ordinary early work. A vitrine with shells that a younger Hirst had collected on a holiday to the seashore is now one of the prime exhibits at the Scottish gallery of modern art, in Edinburgh.
Away from the portals of the Saatchi gallery on the south bank however, London is engaging with two extraordinary photography exhibitions that deliberate in different ways on the subject of the ordinary. Cindy Sherman, one of the few contemporary photographers to be hailed as a genius is a maverick and a master of disguise. Sherman typically enacts a series of portraits Elizabethan whores, gangster's molls, and now a series of clowns. The catch of course is that Sherman plays actor-director, researching and making up herself, before she clicks the camera. In her much imitated career, Sherman in 1976 first set out to create the Murder Mystery People, comprising 17 types, like The Jealous husband, the Dashing Leading Man, the trapped heroine and so on. Because we recognise these types from vacuous hours of watching "B" grade Hollywood films, we start to construct a narrative around her strangely evocative figures. Such is the power of the photograph that Sherman suspends disbelief, even as she ironically compels the viewer to examine her own complicity in the act of fantasy. In her next phase, Sherman set out to question the stereotypical projection of women in the mass media, advertising and pornography. Sherman appeared in designer clothes mimicking the model as a seemingly bored purveyor of public taste.
These were followed by the historical portraits, where she may for instance become Raphael's Madonna now rendered mildly malevolent, or a Spanish noblewoman with a rudely exposed breast, and a mad stare. Most typically, Sherman has been compared to a child who enacts different roles, but she introduces the sharp critical adult gaze that scrutinises the changing face of the human condition. Perhaps the most moving work in the retrospective is her series on ordinary women in the supermarket, as they would like to see themselves portrayed. Sherman does little to disguise the false prosthesis, the sagging breasts and belly, the badly dyed hair, the tacky clothes or the uncontrolled drool. It is a compliment to her enormous versatility that 10 huge Sherman prints have been mounted at a London subway, where they are seen by an estimated three million commuters.
Looking at the medium ... the photograph.
A sense of the ordinary is also the glue that binds the spectacular range of photographs in "Cruel and Tender: The Real in the Twentieth Century Photograph". The Tate Modern has taken long in acknowledging photography as an art form, and in this exhibition it follows the tack in contemporary British curation, to emphasise the ordinary. In the 1930s, a critic described the photographs of the little known American Walker Evans (1903-75) as "tender cruelty", in his dispassionate, objective document of the American depression. Evans' study of white American farmers in the deep south, mired in poverty, is one plank for the foundation of this colossal exhibition; the other is the German August Sander (1976-1964) who embarked on the ambitious People of the Twentieth Century project in the 1920s. In the years preceding the Second World War, Sander roamed Germany photographing the face of the ordinary German the cretin, the beggar, the revolutionary. Partly destroyed and censored by the Nazis, Sander returned to his grand project after the war, leaving nearly 600 photographs of Germany's social outcasts and social successes.
In valorising or the documentary photograph, this exhibition acknowledges the role of the "straight" photograph in the history of image making. Sander 's document of Germany anticipates Robert Frank's colossal document of America. In the 1950's with his family in tow, Frank travelled across America shooting 28,000 pictures, of which 83 were collated for his book The Americans. Seemingly casual, they capture the pulse of American life.
Sanders' cretins and beggars also seem to directly anticipate the freaks of Diane Arbus, the looming Jewish giant, the dwarf, and in contradistinction, the aging couple dressed like clowns, or Christmas carousers. Arbus, who sought out "things which no one would see unless I photographed them" dignified the odd, even as she showed up the eccentricities of the supposedly "normal". The push towards the bizarre, photographed in the same coolly analytical vein is perhaps inevitable.
Boris Mikhailov, who did his finest work after the break up of the Soviet Union records the poverty that engulfed his homeland Ukraine. Mikhailov seemingly demeans, even as he documents. Ravaged flaccid bodies tattooed with the face of Lenin offer themselves up for the unflinching gaze of his lens. In one particularly disturbing photograph, a woman begging in several feet of snow yanks her clothes down to expose herself. Because the documentary will not sentimentalise or hide, its effect can be devastating. Rineke Dijkstra, young Dutch photographer hangs together two sets of images that have left their subjects bloodied and exhausted, but deeply satisfied. Four Spanish bullfighters, hair plastered with perspiration, and their faces and coats smudged with blood are positioned opposite three women who have just delivered babies.
The extreme emotions generated by these life and death experiences communicates with a near palpable sense of shock.
The documentary has also marked a powerful presence in the making of the landscape. Post-war Europe in particular has witnessed the erasure of particularities, the inevitable march from chimney stacks to nuclear power plants. Bernd and Hilla Becher, influential German photographers who are increasingly seen at world art fora mark how grain silos, blast furnaces and coal mines are already disappearing from the European landscape, now visual records of a formal, even an austere beauty.
Andreas Gursky, who was taught at the Dusseldorf art academy by Bernd Becher steps up the investigation even further into the citadels of capitalism. His computer generated images record the stock exchange and the supermarket as colossal hives of activity, in which the human presence, tiny and unindividuated becomes a coloured notation in the broader rhythm of powerful forces. Lee Friedlander's social landscapes of American life, or Fazal Sheikh's powerful portraits of Somalian refugees are other memorable components of this exhibition. So vast is the photographic record of life in the 20th Century, that as this exhibition reveals, it is just waiting to be discovered.
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