Thursday, 26 February 2009

America Conquers The Brits

Edward Hopper, Night on the El Train, 1918

ALVA's annual statistics were released today, confirming the British Museum as the UK's top visitor attraction, with nearly 6 million visitors in the past year. Perhaps the most surprising contribution to those numbers comes from the 355,000 who visited their temporary show, The American Scene: Prints From Hopper To Pollock. In fact, the Museum has even dubbed it "one of the most popular fine art exhibitions ever held in London." 

It is a stunning primer of early 20th Century American art, from the grim realism of the Ashcan school, via Edward Hopper's romanticised nocturnal scenes, right up to the expressive early works of Jackson Pollock. Countless social, political and artistic influences penetrate the collection, from the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism, to film noir, jazz and underground boxing matches, making it unequivocally a product of the era. 

A new discovery among the number was Martin Lewis, whose Little Penthouse and Spring Night, Greenwich Village (below) offer cute visions of life on the streets of 1930s New York, lit by the incidental light from nearby buildings. Thankfully, the exhibition isn't done yet either. The American Scene is currently on tour, taking in Nottingham, Brighton and Manchester over the coming year. 

Martin Lewis, Spring Night, Greenwich Village, 1931

Friday, 20 February 2009

Le Corbusier: Cubist Art and No Buildings

With exhibitions about architecture, you always get the sense that there is an elephant in the room that no one will mention. Or rather, there should be several massive elephants in the room but they couldn't be moved from their natural habitat and they wouldn't have fit in the gallery anyway. In other words, where are the finished buildings? 

Sure, there are many practical reasons why this is a no brainer but there is no other arts discipline in which you would see the workings out but not the final answer. Could you a fashion house holding a retrospective without a single dress on display? Or a sculpture exhibition based on nothing but sketches and maquettes? You can't help feeling that architecture is at a serious disadvantage in gallery terms.

The Barbican's new Le Corbusier exhibition, The Art Of Architecture, steps around the elephant by filling their two floors with the Swiss architect's many other artistic pursuits: pre-Ikea leather-and-steel-tube furniture, back issues of his Modernist mag L'Esprit Nouveau, the odd tapestry and a wealth of Cubist-style sculpture and paintings. Of course, this does mean that your enjoyment of the show hinges on whether you can get excited by some deft Picasso-esque murals but it makes for a varied and often unexpected collection. 

And maybe that is the point of exhibitions about architecture - that they can and should only ever be a colourful appendix to the buildings themselves. Having already been lucky enough to explore both Corbusier's Villa Savoye near Paris and the Maison Blanche in his home town of Le Chaux de Fonds, these art works simply helped to signpost his inspirations that bit more vividly.

Femme et coquillage, 1948

Friday, 6 February 2009

Wim Wenders: Lounge Paintings

Wim Wenders, Lounge Painting # 1, Gila Bend, Arizona 
from "Pictures from the Surface of the Earth"

"It took me hours to find somebody
who could open up the lobby
of the old "Stout's" hotel on Main Street in Gila Bend.
It had been closed for years already.
That painting over the Coke machine haunts me ever since.
It's the dream version 
of the perfect beginning 
of a road movie."

As if Wim Wenders' movies weren't achingly beautiful enough, it turns out he takes great photographs too. The German director carries a panoramic camera around with him as he scouts for film locations and selected prints have been collected together in Pictures from the Surface of the Earth.
     There's everything from Buddhist temples to Havana cadillacs, but he really comes to life in the US. If you've seen Paris, Texas, you'll know Wenders has a keen eye for recreating a sort of lost, mythic Americana. The photographs he took across the Southern states zoom in on individual aspects of this, picking out vintage drinks machines and deserted shop fronts like some 35mm Edward Hopper. Ok, it's not strictly mid-20th century, but it sure as hell looks like it.
     Turns out the week I picked up this book, he opens a photography exhibition at Derby Museum and Art Gallery. Once - Still Images of Moving Pictures opens tomorrow and runs until 13 April, featuring his film location shots from around the globe. 

Wim Wenders, Used Book Store In Butte, Montana