The Tate Modern galleries were thronged when I was there last week. This was a major tourist attraction. A smaller building would have seemed impossibly crowded. It certainly wasn't easy to get shots without people in them, so I made them part of the composition. In one room some kids asked me why I was standing in a corner. I explained that I was waiting for the right people to wander into my shot.
Modern art can be rather difficult, with abstractions and the artist's often very personal symbolism to contend with. So I was surprised how patient and seemingly interested the visitors were when faced with something that was impenetrable or inexplicably grotesque. How they assumed 'church' or 'museum' behaviour, and generally treated all the artworks with equal respect, even though they didn't have to. Here are some shots to illustrate what I mean. In this first one, a long queue had formed, simply to look through the eyepieces at the end of several long wooden boxes:
Was it 'what the butler saw'? I shouldn't think so. I didn't have the time to find out. Or this couple, getting intense about some paintings by Gerhard Richter:
Or these women, formed up before a darkly shimmering Mark Rothko painting, their postures for all the world suggesting entrancement and deep appreciation:
Or these people, silently watching patterns projected onto a wall in a dark room. Absorbed, unable to leave:
In a book I possess (presently out of print) the author (a photographer) says that galleries are the very best places for illicit couples to meet in secret. You can sit together in front of a picture or sculpture, and nobody will guess that you are connected in any way. The book also says that galleries are where such affaires end, the woman, forsworn, sitting alone until she breaks down and cries in her aching despair. It's rude to come between anyone seated and the artwork they are contemplating, so only her shaking back can betray her grief. Only the painting sees the tears.
The exhibits in the Tate Modern are not all abstract and obscure. There are some easily-absorbed (though not necessarily easily-understood) paintings. Such as this Dod Proctor from 1926:
Or this Meredith Frampton from 1928:
And even this claustrophobic Francis Bacon from 1961 - which shows his suicidal homosexual lover I believe - is not at all hard to digest:
But some knowledge of conditions in German-occupied Belgium during the Second World War is needed to unravel this eerie painting called Sleeping Venus from 1945 by Paul Delvaux. It was the best painting I saw:
Delvaux has gone to town with naked women in this picture. There are no less than six of them. Apart from the two in the foreground, there are four kneeling women in the background, all making wailing gestures of despair, just like the standing woman on the foreground right. On the left, a clothed woman with a strange red hat does her best to plead with the skeleton, Death - or the German occupiers, if you like - but you know that he will be possessing the reclining Venus soon enough, no matter how the negotiations go. She, the sleeping Venus, seems oblivious to her fate. The other women's anguish reflects their terror of the violation to come, and the knowledge that they may be next. The thought of a skeleton laying a bony hand on warm living flesh is peculiar, surreal; but for all that the reclining woman is made to look calm, serene, almost anticipatory.
She certainly has a womanly body, and I found it very easy to imagine myself in that picture. My self-view has developed that far! However imperfect one's body, there comes a point where it unmistakably resembles the classic female form, in my case the classic fleshy female form, and can be taken for nothing else. And you also realise that such a body has a natural purpose that you ought not to deny or resist. I am starting to feel that way. In this mood, a gallery full of voluptuous Restoration beauties with bare shoulders might fire me up! (Watch for signs in my posts)
There were several Picassos, of course, but I couldn't identify with the women in them, whether from 1925, 1937 or 1968:
I don't know why Picasso felt compelled to pull the physical features of women apart, and display them in such an ugly and distorted way. Why not reveal the inner life of a woman in a beautiful way? After all, he loved women all his life, and presumably valued them as more than a collection of sexual parts. He was also extremely proud of his virility; its loss in old age disturbed and depressed him.
The purely abstract works were more subtly unsettling. Like this off-balance Mondrian painting from 1935:
Or Cy Twombly's work from 2006-08. This was my favourite from a series of four very similar paintings:
It looks dashed off in a few paint-laden sweeps of the arm. It probably took a bit more planning than that. Not clever enough? No message? Maybe. But then I came across this, a photograph-based creation by Lorna Simpson from 1991 called Five Day Forecast:
The five days are named along the top: Monday to Friday. The same person shot each day, dressed in the same plain dress, though creased in subtly different ways. The same pose. Clearly the forecast is for five days of humdrum repetition. It may be significant that this is a black person. It may also be significant that we can't see her face. Is it a woman at all? There is no bust, and those arms look a bit muscular. Along the bottom are words that all begin with Mis-. Misdescription. Misinformation. Misidentify. Misdiagnose. Misfunction. Mistranscribe. Misremember. Misguage. Misconstrue. Mistranslate. Mis- or Miss? The accompanying note on the wall suggested that calling attention to gender differences was part of the artist's concern. I think I agree.
Then there is art which deals not with a general condition, but accuses and vilifies an individual. Such as Margaret Thatcher in her handling of the Falklands War of 1982, in this textile work by Tracey Emin from 2004:
I was very much exhilarated by a collection of Soviet Russian propaganda posters from the 1930s and 1940s:
The last, with this brave and determined Woman in Red exhorting us to fight, is a lithograph by Nina Vatolina from 1941, a fateful year, and the words say: Fascism - The Most Evil Enemy of Women. Everyone to the struggle Against Fascism! You can't argue with that.
Finally, I must show a very colourful work by Dan Flavin that was a firm favourite with children and adults alike. Me too!
I think you'll agree that I got a lot out of my visit to the Tate Modern!