Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Prints at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge


George Shaw - Twelve Short Walks

Two exhibitions currently on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge offer a wide ranging survey of various prints, ranging across the centuries and ending with two contemporary British artists who are well aware of the history which shores up their work. In the lowlit, air-conditioned chamber of the Shiba Room, with its heavy glass doors which instantly swoosh shut to seal you into the hushed space, prints by George Shaw and Michael Landy were mounted behind the glass wall cabinets and layed out in the standing display cases in an exhibition entitled Edgelands. This set-up, redolent of natural history or geology museums, was particularly appropriate for Landy’s prints, which were detailed line etchings of plants. The specimens which he’d chosen were all gathered from his inner London environs, and are all generally regarded as weeds. Shepherd’s purse, annual wall rocket, common toadflax, herb Robert and creeping buttercup. Generally ignored, if they attract any attention whatsoever it is in order to be dug up and burnt or thrown on the compost heap. Landy reproduces them in fine detail, down to the tiny hairs on the stems, the folds and curls of the leaves, the unprepossessing but individually defined flowers, and the delicate, intricate tangle of the roots. He nurtured the plants, keeping them alive once he’d uprooted them, hence the title of the series, Nourishment. This also acknowledges the fact that several of these plants are edible, pointing towards an idea of self-sufficient city dwelling. Landy reproduced the plants he’d found and identified as accurately as possible and to exact scale. This lends them a permanence at odds with their transitory and provisional nature. Clearly there is an element of symbolism at work here. In lavishing such fine art attention and skill on flora considered disposable and of no intrinsic worth, if not as actively disruptive and invasive, he seeks to draw attention to qualities which are not readily perceptible. Laid out flat on the paper and etched in thin, fine lines, these plants look like dead specimens, ready for dissection and study. But they are hardy, those gossamer roots ready to find purchase once more in the most unpromising of environments, having been unceremoniously uprooted. As with plants, so with people, the underlying message would seem to be. But the prints exist as their own justification, beyond any added symbolic or metaphorical meaning – a record of hardy urban nature. Also included is Landy’s index of objects from his famous 2001 exhibition or installation Break Down, which immediately preceded the production of this series. Break Down involved the cataloguing and subsequent destruction of everything which Landy owned, which trundled before his eyes on a conveyor belt set up in a temporarily empty shop premises in Oxford Street before tumbling into an industrial shredder and crusher. The book records the material components of a life, and the ritualised destruction suggests how inessential they really are. The page to which it is opened indicates that several plant recognition books were amongst the objects consigned to oblivion, showing that Landy was already contemplating this series. Break Down shares something of the idea of being uprooted and starting over which is inherent in Nourishment – apparent erasure concealing essential continuity. As such, these could almost be considered sacred works, looking beyond the concern with surface appearances and self-definition through materialism characteristic of the age and seeking something deeper beyond.

Michael Landy - Nourishment - Creeping Buttercup
George Shaw’s prints depict the hinterlands of the Tile Hill Estate in Coventry in which he grew up and around which he went on numerous exploratory childhood expeditions. These are neglected no-place locations which children would have colonised at the time and made their own. Rough but rich soil for the imagination, setting readymade for mental realignment as backdrops to ongoing fantastic adventures. The paths circling the estate walls, the pitted and potholed road alongside the garage doors (and what secrets lie behind each one?), the scrubby ‘recreation’ area and the narrow canyons between the blank-faced ends of houses. Shaw has painted such scenes with bright, glossy enamels of the sort once used to decorate Airfix model kits. If these versions, some of which were displayed at the recent British Art Show 7 touring exhibition at Plymouth and elsewhere, offer a preternaturally clear-eyed and colourful take on memories of childhood geographies, the black and white prints present their penumbral side. The contrasts between areas of light and deep shadow which can be emphasised in black and white prints here shade the remembered settings of youth with a sinister and ominous ambience. Someone or something waits in the darkness beneath the underpass, lurks in the garages or stands around the corner of the path sunk between steep grass banks. Shaw renders his estate pictures blurred and hazy, rejecting the sharp and well-defined lines which etching can produce (as Landy’s prints show), as if the memories are a little out of focus. Perhaps less than happy events are being kept from manifesting themselves by an effort of will, conscious or subconscious. In many of the prints, stands of trees abut the built environment, an incursion of the remnants of wilderness into the borderlands of human civilisation. Hence the overall title of the exhibition – Edgelands. In Playtime, a tree rises in dark and solid outline in the centre foreground of the composition on a small area of fenced off grass, the buildings of the estate clustering in the background. A straight and sturdy branch juts out at right angles, a piece of rope looped around it, with frayed ends dangling just below like Spanish moss. It’s obviously the remains of a makeshift swing, but it can’t help but look like a natural gibbet, the rope the evidence of a lynching or suicide. A fearful boundary marker which warns the unwary that they are entering a zone in which rules must be obeyed and justice will be swift and merciless. In The Birthday, the white, sunlit buildings of estate flats are once more in the background. In the foreground is a nondescript shed or outbuilding of some description, around which the columns of white trees are gathered, dappled in areas of light and shade. They seem on the verge of movement, limb-like branches poised to creak into barely perceptible motion which will take them a little nearer to the flats. In the background, the woods thicken and accumulate solid shadow. The idea of the dark woods abutting and making slow incursions into the built-up environment suggests both the grimmer, submerged aspects of childhood fairytales and the repressed subconscious forces which they express creeping towards the edges of the everyday.

This uncanny atmosphere is heightened by the fact that all of Shaw’s scenes are devoid of human presence. This gives them an air of imminence, a feeling that something is about to happen, or perhaps has just taken place. The Other Side once more looks onto the boundaries of the estate from the perspective of a muddy path running alongside an area of woodland. The backs of houses can be seen beyond a hedge on one side of the path, whilst the trees loom on the other. One tree has strayed into the centre of the path, like a sentinel presaging a more general shift across the divide. At the top left hand corner of the composition, jagged black outlines of branches in the foreground appear to reach over to rake the roof of a nearby house in the background with menacing, clutching twigs. It’s like the arm of an Arthur Rackham tree. In the centre foreground, again in the middle of the path, there are the blackened remains of a bonfire. Another straying tree reduced to ashes, or a ritual offering to propitiate the hungry spirits of the woods?

George Shaw - The Other Side
Further prints form a series called 12 Short Walks. These offer a fragmented guided walk through the estates dead places. Again, they are all marked by absence and an air of suspended time, a held breath before the motion of the world begins once more. In one, a wall beside a neglected path acts as an object lesson in perspective. In the foreground individual bricks are initially carefully delineated, but as it recedes, the detail of their patterning and arrangement devolves into single lines narrowing towards a vanishing point. It is as if our gaze is being ushered along to the juncture at which we will be transported to the next site. The sense of gliding motion is continued through the following pictures, a mystery tour leading us towards unknown destinations. Paths direct us down a slope towards an underpass or arc us between grass banks around the next bend, finally pulling up at a tree-lined cul-de-sac identified as the end of a bus route, although there is no sign of any houses or shops. We are thus instantaneously teleported from one site to another in the blink of an eye, a smooth, barely noticeable transition between states. There is a sense of circularity to these short walks, all of which are linked together in one chain (like South London’s Green Chain walks). On one level, this represents a kind of beating of the bounds, a proprietorial marking out of personal territory. On another, they could be scenes observed in a kind of internal system of security cameras: projected slides of unfocussed memory seeking to prompt clearer recollection of past events which unfolded within their indeterminate but suggestive frames. A soundtrack of woozy electronica from Boards of Canada or one of the Ghost Box artists would be an appropriate accompaniment.

Durer - The Four Horsemen
Bursting through the heavy doors and emerging into the Dutch and Flemish masters, it’s a few short strides before you come to an open doorway leading into another windowless room. The sensitive nature of the inks used in prints, requiring them to be shielded from bright light, means that they tend to be housed in such small, enclosed spaces, like the side chapels in cathedrals. This gives the impression that you should approach with some reverence and contemplative seriousness. The marshalling within siderooms, and the covering of some prints or books with heavy drapes, gives them a secretive, almost furtive aspect. There’s a feeling that this is work which is an adjunct to an artist’s main body of work, a necessarily small scale diversion from grander paintings. All of this is refuted by the pictures and illustrations on display in the exhibition here, entitled Designed to Impress: Highlights from the Print Collection, which seeks to show off the historical range of the museum’s impressive holdings, and which includes some of the finest examples of the art. Durer is represented by two prints, an engraving and a woodcut, from the turn of the 15th century. The engraving Nemesis (1501-2) depicts the Greek goddess of retribution as a heavily built figure balancing implausibly on a small globe, like a circus elephant perching on a coloured ball. The clouds below her are formed from the spreading folds of the material gathered around her plump, winged form. Above is nothing but emptiness, a blank area of paper representing the void. Beneath her hovering mass, Durer has built a detailed landscape, with houses and castles clustering around a river in the lee of jagged mountain slopes. All of these signs of life, the mills and the livestock and the cultivated fields, seem fragile and vulnerable from the elevated perspective of the goddess. It is all utterly at her mercy. She could descend and crush it at any moment, leaving the splintered fragments to be washed away in the mountain waters. Durer’s woodcut The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1498) envisages the apocalypse in action. The four heralds of the end of all things thunder across the canvas with intensely felt motion. They are all in contemporary dress, apart from Death, whose rags are indistinguishable, and they carry bow, sword, scales and a pitchfork, as prescribed. As they ride through the sky, they trample on those in their path below, no matter what their station in life. A richly dressed man with the crown of a king is being swallowed headfirst by a large-mawed and sharp-toothed beast who appears on the borders of the picture, sweeping up in the wake of the apocalyptic horsemen.

Marcantonio Raimondi - The Dream of Raphael
Durer showed that prints could combine fine detail in terms of landscape and figure with the realisation of the wildest imaginings. Both are present in two sixteenth century prints, Marcantonio Raimondi’s The Dream of Raphael (1507-10) and Giorgio Ghisi’s Allegory of Life (1561). Raimondi’s dream has two classical, Raphaelesque nudes sleeping in awkward positions on a dark shore. Bosch-like creatures are scuttling up the beach towards their vulnerable forms, eliciting a shudder of disgust at the thought that they might soon be touching naked flesh. There’s very phallic bug, a flaccid lizard with long, spiny claws which would seem more at home on a sea anemone, a bizarre duck-like creature with a long, wiry, segmented neck which doesn’t look capable of supporting its head, and fused concatenation of shells with eyes poking out at a disconcertingly impractical point. On the opposite shore, some cataclysm is in the process of destroying a strangely ill-defined city. An MC Escheresque architectural conglomeration of block and cylinder buildings and towers joined by steps and walkways is engulfed in flames. Black and white outline figures are climbing, diving into the sea, hauling each other up and generally attempting to flee the destruction. Black billows of ominous stormclouds amass in the background, casting everything in a sombre, doomy light. The whole thing looks remarkably modern. The blocky, simplified representation of the city, the abstracted outlines of figures, the cartoon-like spears of light and explosive dazzle, and the juxtaposition with the classical figures who like they’ve strayed from an entirely separate picture, together with the gleeful grotesquerie of the nightmare shore creatures, make it look like it could be the blown up panel of a comic.

Giorgio Ghisi - Allegory of Life
Ghisi’s Allegory of Life is absolutely packed with extraordinary detail, as if he wanted to fit in everything his imagination could come up with. It is divided between day and night sides. On the darker left hand side, a tired old man leans against a blasted tree which is blasted, bloated and warty with scars where dead branches have broken off. It is a deformed thing of the wasteland, with a plump owl and a crow sitting in its upper reaches, a bat hovering about the old man’s head. Above rises a mountain which appears to have been hollowed out to contain a vast colosseum. From its outer corridor waters pour, falling in a great torrent to form a river on the plains below, which winds its way down to the sea which fills the centre foreground of the picture. A large, scallop-shaped ship has run aground on the rocks in this tempestuous ocean, which is filled with all manner of serpents, leviathans, behemoths and crocodiles. Perhaps the skeleton which is floating in the waters, the last remains of its eyes being pecked out by a crow, was one of the crew. To the left of the picture, snow is falling over a dark coniferous forest, and a spectral hunter is darting from its dark spaces to fire his bow at a stag just beyond its borders. Maybe the old man has just emerged from this wild, benighted region. Just behind where he is now standing, a key lies at the bottom of a straight and narrow tree trunk, glowing with an intense radiance which sends a winding filament of light threading through the snowflakes to the starry firmament above. The old man seems to be reaching out to the figure in the right foreground of the compostition, a goddess who floats through a stand of sunlit palm trees, a swarm of cherubs and summer birds flocking above her. She carries a spear which might offer him protection, but they are separated by the ocean and by a plain which is crawling with an exobiological bestiary of fantastic and deadly creatures: cockatrices, leopards, warthogs, griffins, wyverns and manticores. In the distance, beyond the colosseum-crowned mountain and monster-filled plain, a rainbow casts its benevolent arc over a land filled with golden cities and palaces. Noble creatures roam around, including a centaur, who rears on its hind legs, as if to get a better view of the old man’s progress. This would seem to be the golden land which is the ultimate destination of his wearisome quest. I can’t help feeling he should have picked up the shining key, however.

Rembrandt - The Three Crosses
Rembrandt’s etching the Three Crosses (1635) is presented in two very different impressions. The first shows beams of light diagonally shafting down, illuminating Christ and the ‘good’ thief in their final moments, along with the prostrate centurion and the Marys. The third crucified man is left enveloped in darkness. The crucifixion seems like it is taking place in some huge, overarching cavern, the light penetrating its Stygian gloom through a small opening far above. Around the central, illuminated area, all is shadow and darkness. The figures on the edges of the central gathering are shuffling away into the obscure depths, their backs turned to the agonies of the executed men. They are engaged in their own affairs, the drama unfolding behind them an everyday occurrence of no great moment. The transcendent moment, the sacrificial transference of original sin, a rebalancing of universal forces, goes unnoticed. The other version on display here is far darker, both in its surface composition and in its overall mood. This is the fourth impression, and the plate on which the scene was first etched has been further scored, scratched and scraped, a visual palimpsest which erases extensive elements of previous versions. Diagonal swathes of cross-hatched lines cast veils of obliterating darkness which occlude the figure of the good thief on the cross and Christ’s mother, as well as the centurion. Figures in contemporary dress sat on horses gather at the foot of the cross like disaster tourists, time-travellers dispassionately observing the human reality of a legendary sacred event. They don’t bother to dismount, eager to ride on to the next spectacle. The figure of Christ is wracked with pain, his eyes clenched shut and his mouth agape. This is the moment of doubt, when he feels abandoned by God, and perhaps even has the horrific thought that he might have been mad all along, the divine voice merely an empty echo in hemispheric canyons. It’s the instant when, according to Matthew 27:46, he cries ‘my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ In its emphasis on texture, shade and tone as opposed to clear form and composition, the print feels ahead of its time; a kind of dark impressionism, or a monochromatic Turner.

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