It is the third of ‘Three studies at the base of a Crucifixion’ (1944) that haunts my imagination every time I hear the word ‘painting’. It may be the animalistic scream echoing from the mouth of the spliced subject or perhaps it is that this painting seems to carry the brightest orange of them all, and with it the most excruciating pain. Either way, memory does not do justice to the reality of standing before this triptych that is so vibrantly dark, it steals the natural light that flows through Tate Britain’s glorious architecture.
If you are able to drag yourself away from this introduction to the galleries, it is possible to take yourself on a tour of some of Francis Bacon’s most famous works within the BP walk through British Art display. Moving into the gallery exhibiting works from the 1970-80’s, one will find another dramatic expression by Bacon, ‘Triptych’ (1972). Here we can see the development of both Bacon’s painting style and subject, but when looking around the rest of the room we can also see the development of the art world as a whole. From Antony Gormley’s bread ‘Bed’ (1980-1) to Eddie Chambers’ ‘Destruction of the national front’ (1979-80), signs of post modernism are everywhere. At both sides of the rooms entrance sit two quadrilateral monochromatic pieces; to the right, Stephen Partridge’s ‘Monitor’ (1975) and to the left, John Hilliard’s ‘Camera Recording its own Condition’ (1971). Both of these pieces seem so far removed from the emotion and exploitation of Bacon’s ‘Triptych’ that it seems strange they can even be displayed in the same room.
It was the performativity and playfulness of Partridge’s ‘Monitor’, a video displayed on the screen that is the subject of the video itself, which initially led me toward it. Displayed at eye level, the screen rotates and twists, hypnotizing the viewer with its slow, rhythmic beat, making it difficult to distinguish from the physicality of the real monitor and the representation of itself within the film it shows. It was this use of entrapment and reflection within a single medium that also drew me towards Hilliard’s ‘Camera Recording it’s own condition’. Just as repetitive as ‘Monitor’, but on a much larger scale, this piece both critiques the analogue photography process whilst also showcasing its possible perfection. Hilliard is most famous for his photography work that exposes the faults and subjectivity of the medium. I was aware whilst at Tate Britain that his piece ‘Cause of Death’ (1974) was being displayed down the road at the Hayward Gallery’s exhibition ‘History is now’, demonstrating the relevance of Hilliard’s technological exposures 40 years on.
Both of these pieces by Hilliard and Partridge were born out of the rise in technology and although they are created from documentation, they subvert the limitations of the mediums used, marking the birth of photography and video as an art form. Meanwhile the use of these accessible tools, materials and simplistic processes also diminish the social boundaries of high and low art. In comparison to Bacon’s paintings these pieces are devoid of emotion and cultural history, but because of this they become limitless. They swap emotion for playfulness and cultural history for technological boundaries, finding the foundations and limitations of these new mediums before they can be developed into artistic expressions. Although I will always find the paradox of an art display funded by BP hard to swallow, this longstanding display at Tate Britain is always giving. There is always something to be learnt in the static interior of these gallery spaces whilst the world outside its walls continues to shift and change, just as the worth and relevance of the work it holds.
Almost ironically I found this exhibition to be a visually and intellectually overwhelming display of a genre of art that began by simplifying perspective into geometric forms. This notion of abstraction as a universal language felt absent in the curation here as I fought my way through a bombardment of imagery and descriptions in my own adventure of the black square.
Opening with Kazimir Malevich’s visual representation of utopian ideals through the compositional balance of ‘Black quadrilateral’ (circa. 1915) we witness the birth of abstraction, and with it the notion of revolutionary art. From here on the exhibition traces the development of artistic abstraction over the past centaury, observing its on going relationship with an ever-changing society. We are followed by Malevich’s paintings and those he closely influenced until we are introduced to Piet Mondrian’s painting; ‘Composition with Yellow, Red and Blue’ (1937-42). The exhibitions curation suggests the influence of Malevich’s black square in Mondrian’s foundations of neoplasticism. Yet here we see Mondrian’s visual practice of the dynamic equilibrium theory coming together with the abstraction of natural perspective into primal shapes that influenced a movement of aesthetic design.
This tangent of abstraction that talks about consumerism in the Western world was the easiest for me to follow due to my own reality. Following Mondrian’s composition I was struck by the lack of colour in both Dóra Maurer’s ‘Seven Rotations’ (1979) and Hassan Sharif’s ‘Drawing squares on the floor using a cube’ (1982) that seemed to continue Mondrian’s message. Both are similar in their process of squashing 3 dimensions into 2 dimensional representations but I think it is their suggestion of the endlessness of both art and abstraction where their strength lies. The presentation of Maurer’s photographs was worth the trip to the gallery itself. The transformation from the initial image to the last exploits the audience’s process of image reading. Demonstrated by the simplicity of the first image of Maurer holding the emptiness of the white square alongside the complexity of the final photograph, where the audience is asked to mentally deconstruct the image to understand it’s origins.
Upstairs this theme of materiality and disorientation in abstract art lead me to Gunilla Klingberg’s video piece ‘Spar Loop’ (2000) where I began to see evidence of contemporary abstractions perception and interaction with society. Klingberg’s kaleidoscopic animation of logos explores the abstract of the everyday in Western society by mimicking the spiritual capacity of consumerism. In some ways this piece echoes the realization that Roland Barthes had that; ‘the cultural work done in the past by gods and sagas is now done by laundry detergent commercials.” Spar Loop demonstrates the way that the general public is exploited by capitalist structures of society that allow advertisements to excite us in a way that was once done by transcendental powers.
This is not the only place in the exhibition where Barthes theories seemed relevant. For an exhibition that explores the liberation of abstract art I felt that too much emphasis was put on the authors. Alongside each piece was a lengthy description citing the authors past inspirations, although useful, this meant that it was easy to spend more time reading than looking. As Barthes points out ‘To give an Author to a text is to impose upon that text a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing.” This is precisely what I felt happened here, although the artists exhibited used abstraction as a universal language to cover a variation of themes and mediums, the emphasis put on Malevich’s realization of the Black Square meant that all focus was on the fact that the work was abstract. In this space the works cannot individually grow or adapt to their audience as they have been forced into a curated timeline where there only purpose for display is the fact that they were in some way inspired by a black square, all other purposes are cut off within the walls of the White Chapel Gallery until the 6th of April.