Mixed Media, Mixed Results

Three shows run the gamut of artistic expression, from the glorious Goya to risibile performance art

Michael Prodger

Ian Hamilton Finlay, who died in 2006, was the poet-artist-gardener who gave conceptual art a good name. He was, above all, refreshingly reticent, once winningly telling an interviewer: “You have to understand that I consider myself a very modest artist, or whatever, and of no importance really at all … I am only a wee Scottish poet on the outside of everything.” 

Tate Britain’s appropriately modest new display of 24 of Hamilton Finlay’s works is a welcome reminder of the originality of this avant-gardener. It shows that he was much more than just a “wee Scottish poet”. Although he started as a writer of “concrete poetry”—where the typography is as important as the meaning of the words or the rhyme—he quickly expanded beyond ink and paper. When he inscribed his words on stones and columns, urns and pieces of wood, they gained added resonance. The garden he created at Little Sparta in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh—which in 2004 was voted “Scotland’s most important work of art”—is the prime example. It is dotted with his engraved objects, like half-buried stele from a forgotten civilisation, that make an Arcadia of the place.

The carved words themselves allude to a set of favourite themes: Classical philosophy and poetry (Virgil and Ovid in particular), the French Revolution, the Second World War and fishing boats. In a landscape setting they invoke the Neoclassi- cal gardens of Stourhead and Rousham with a political twist. His words, whether in stone, light tubes or ink, have both heft and humour. He may have frequently quoted his hero, the Jacobin Saint-Just, but he also goaded antipathetical institutions. For example, in a beautifully rendered sheet of lettering he turned Cato the Elder’s anti-Carthage battle cry into something equally impassioned: “Concilium artium delendum est”—“The Arts Council must be destroyed”.

Tate Modern meanwhile has let its curators loose on an unlovely aspect of postwar culture, the performance art that baffles and enrages in equal measure. Nominally A Bigger Splash is about the effect of performance art on painting; in reality it is a rather formless and not entirely coherent overview of some of the bizarreries that burgeoned under its name.

The confusion starts with the title, taken from David Hockney’s swimming-pool painting. The only real link with performance, though, is the BBC documentary that followed the making of the picture. The splash itself is a piece of traditional high illusionism and took two weeks to paint.

More consistent is the use of Jackson Pol- lock’s Summertime: Number 9A, although even here it was really Hans Namuth’s photographs of “Jack the Dripper” at work that most influenced later artists. His balletic movements around the canvas turnedpainting into a drama in which the painter was the most expressive of participants. Yves Klein took this to another level with his “anthropometric” pictures where naked girls doused in blue paint writhed on canvas on the floor to the accompaniment of an orchestra and with a champagne-sipping audience looking on.

Among others who saw the canvas as a stage for gestures and performances were Niki de Saint Phalle, who would shoot at her pictures with an air-rifle; the Japanese Gutai artists, one of whose key works was Hurling Colours, the result of Shozo Shimamoto standing on a department store roofand throwing jars of pigment at a canvas. The Vienna Actionists meanwhile used the body to create “living paintings” and recorded the procedure on film. Others painted with their feet. The curators stretch their inclusiveness to include the work of Cindy Sherman even though her self-portraits as different characters are photographic rather than painted

While the exhibition lays out a historical moment it still takes a Wildean heart of stone not to laugh. It is no coincidence that many of its parade of names are little-known (Stuart Brisley, Ana Mendieta, Karla Woisnitsa . . .) and if there is a message of hope among the more risible “happenings” on display it is that they represent the futility and aesthetic bankruptcy of self-important artists. Not that it is a lesson too many of today’s practitioners—artists or perhaps more pertinently gallerists—are likely to learn.

The antidote to A Bigger Splash is the British Museum’s Renaissance to Goya: Prints and Drawings from Spain which sets out to give the lie to the old saw that the Spanish weren’t interested in drawing. The artists drew alright; it was just that there were few connoisseurs to collect them. This is the third recent show to explore the theme, following ex- hibitions at the Frick Collection and the Courtauld Gallery, and many of the works here have never been ex- hibited before. Not all of them are Spanish; the exhibition also looks at those European artists who spent time in Spain, such as the Tiepolos, father Giambattista and sons Domenico and Lorenzo. There is real quality among some of the lesser-known names—Herrera, Cano, Coello, Paret and Roelas—even if the showstoppers come from the 17th-century Golden Age artists, from Velázquez (unfortunately only one but they are as rare as hens’ teeth) to Zurbarán.

All, however accomplished, are in a sense merely the scene setters for Goya. Technically and imaginatively he is sui generis and although he couldn’t be mistaken for anything other than Spanish his Disasters of War or the Bulls of Bordeaux prints have almost nothing in common with the artists who preceded him. He is also responsible for the true masterpiece in this exhibition—a red chalk drawing of the Duke of Wellington, c.1812. In the painted portraits that are based on it he smoothed and dignified the Duke. In the drawing though Goya showed a man with hollow cheeks and sunken eyes and, above all, the expression of a first-hand witness to those very same disasters of war. 

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