Monday, 24 December 2012

Cotman in Normandy

Verdict: Worth a look
When: 10 October - 13 January 2013

John Cotman, Durham Cathedral. Image courtesy British Museum

John Sell Cotman was a Victorian era landscape painter and a contemporary of Turner. This exhibition is dedicated to his works – particularly those he painted of Normandy.

One of the straplines of this show is that Cotman outsold Turner in his time, but this has more to do with the popular appeal of Cotman’s works rather than a preference for his style of painting. Napoleon had just been defeated and so the British public were eager to re-discover France hence the mass appeal of Cotman’s landscapes.

Cotman’s attention to detail is immaculate as can be seen in ‘Chateau at Fontaine-le-Henri’. It’s almost on a par with Canaletto but lacks warmth in comparison. Contemporaries such as Prout and Bonnington are displayed nearby and though they may lack Cotman’s talent in capturing subtle details, their works also feel warmer and easier for the viewer to access.

Turner and Cotman’s lives did intertwine and the exhibition does a good job of recounting their stories but the gulf in creativity is vast. There is just one sketch from Turner on display – ‘Dieppe from the East’ – yet the bright evocative colours blow all of Cotman’s works out of the water; even the full scale paintings.

Cotman did a great job of capturing daily life yet the figures in his paintings never face the viewer and this gives his works a detached feeling; Cotman comes across as more of a documenter than a painter with artistic vision. His inability to impart emotion into his paintings is evident in ‘Abbatial House of the Abbey of St. Ouen’ – he struggles to reconcile the swaying trees in the background with the cold classical architecture in the foreground. It’s as if he’s painted two separate pieces and merged them together unconvincingly.

It’s disappointing that most of the works on display are sketches rather than large scale landscapes, this exhibition also shows Cotman next to his contemporaries and in their presence he comes across as fairly average. Despite these flaws Cotman’s works are aesthetically pleasing if not gripping, and this exhibition is an interesting insight into a lesser known British landscape painter.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

William Klein + Daido Moriyama

Verdict: Give it a miss
Where: Tate Modern
When: 10 October - 20 January 2013

William Klein, Piazza di Spagna, Rome, 1960. Copyright William Klein

Klein and Moriyama are two photographers who loved to use black and white to capture their native cities - New York and Tokyo respectively. This exhibition explores how Klein's work influenced Moriyama's and how their work developed over time.

The exhibition is cleverly laid out to present a mirror image of the two artists work so that you fully experience Klein before moving on to Moriyama. Klein went about trying to capture New Yorkers going about their day and juxtaposing this with the surreal such as men engaging in a ritual dance while their heads are covered with dark sacks - it's a disturbing image.

Klein proves that he has an eye for a great image. My two favourites are a photograph of two models, one dressed in white the other black, as they cross a zebra crossing - the contrast in colours is perfectly framed. The other is of the sun overlooking New York where the lens flare creates a glowing ball hovering over New York. These images are works of patience as in the day before digital cameras it was all about the processing and manipulation - creating the right effects in the dark room could take hours per photo.

My only issue was that there aren't enough of these gripping photographs and his use of a blurred image to create a style of abstract photography often misses the mark. At first I thought this was because I have a restricted view in that abstract only works for paintings, but I'm a fan of Rinko Kawauchi's work yet these pieces don't have the same effect on me.

However, one of Klein's quotes is very insightful. He states that a photograph is taken in 1/125th of a second so 100 photos doesn't even capture 1 second of life. It makes you think whether holiday snaps can ever do a foreign country justice, in that a photograph is a snapshot of a time and place and can never capture a location fully as it will evolve over time.

Klein's section ends with a video montage of a superhero that satirically mocks the cold war propaganda that was seen in the '60's. At first you chuckle at the ridiculous nature of it all, but the video just keeps on going and anything more than 10 minutes of watching leads to boredom.

Now we move on to Moriyama. As I wasn't entirely sold on Klein, it's no surprise that Moriyama's early work, where he's trying to transpose Klein's style to Tokyo, was a big flop for me. He doesn't seem to have the eye of Klein and seems to capture daily life without injecting anything of himself into his work. 

It's only when Moriyama decides to venture away from mere imitation to create his own style do we see more inventive and thoughtful pieces. Capturing his studio through hundreds of close-up Polaroid snaps taken at different moments is a fascinating concept but the results are rather lifeless. 

His use of photo manipulation of the same image of a stray dog is intriguing. He shows us that just by altering the focus and sharpness of an image he can switch the dog from appearing friendly to a wild and savage beast. It's these later works that are more interesting and I wish there had been more of them.

In terms of showing us the evolution of Klein and Moriyama's work and how the former influenced the latter, this exhibition succeeds. But in terms of proving that these were two photography heavyweights, I'm not convinced. Both artists had flashes of brilliance but the majority of their work on display seems drab and uninspired.