Relics of London Past: Afterword

norfolk

The contraposition inherent to death and memory are beautifully and modestly recorded by W. G. Sebald, who speaks of the lost tangibility of past civilization, and the concurrent weight of this loss upon the living individual in his remarkable book Austerlitz. As he walks down through the concrete tomb-like spaces of the Breendonk fortress in Belgium;

‘the darkness does not lift but becomes yet heavier as I think how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on.’

Where Harold Clunn and his generation of Brutalism-empowered socialists discussed the optimism and potential of new urban systems, out of which more life could be sustained and supported, and in greater conditions, Sebald, and Benjamin as well in his way, suggests that all of this progress serves only to aid the process of recovering from/forgetting past realities. By thus forgetting, our collective ability to learn from the dead, or more importantly, to allow their histories to sound, is kept present only by a minority, including certain artists and writers, who shun this understanding of progress and who seek to return to the individual through a kind of anthropological and phenomenological salvage, digging at the hard stuffs of the made world or landschap, to reconstruct pasts as real and as fundamental as our own.

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Relics of London Past

Christ's

Images such as this one of the entrance to the now lost Christ’s Hospital, taken by the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London c.1879, transform many of London’s spaces into monumental relics, abstracted of people and petrified under soot-soaked chiaroscuro. They are at once impenetrable and unrestricted; we cannot inhabit or circulate their lost spaces, but the images are classless, interrogated under the pseudo-scientific lens of the project’s executors.

Of the photographers commissioned by the Society, William Strudwick, A & J Bool, and Henry Dixon and Son, it was Dixon who concerned himself most with the interiors of buildings, understanding that any record of London’s architecture would be incomplete without some preservation of its lived, domestic spaces. Accompanying many of the photographs are details of the signified building’s history, or exclamations of its architectural and artistic importance. The staircase of No.10, Austin Friars, is especially melancholic, its penned notes by the secretary of the Society, Alfred Marks, describing “a painted ceiling, the only one, perhaps, yet left in a City house.” Tantalisingly caught at the top-left corner, this last specimen of a painted Queen Anne ceiling is nevertheless hidden by the gloom of the negative’s near-focus. We are admitted to the guts of London’s houses (barley-twist balusters pattern the photograph like ripples in the developing fluid), yet we are barred from anything more than the barest of their visual facts; their spaces yet lie out of reach.

Austin House

Alongside domestic views, historic monuments from the Tudor and Stuart eras formed the focus of the Dixons’ efforts, including the tomb of the founder of Charterhouse, which had been sculpted from alabaster in 1615; “The boys already in their seats, with smug fresh faces and shining white collars; the old black-gowned pensioners are on their benches; the Chapel is lighted, and the Founder’s tomb, with its grotesque carvings and monster heraldries, sparkles and shines with the most wonderful shadows and lights. There he lies, Fundator Noster, in his ruff and gown, awaiting the great Examination Day.” [William Thackeray, The Newcomes, 1855]. By the time the Society’s photograph was taken, these ‘shadows and lights’ had worn down to a dulled mass from a distant past, hulked inconveniently in the corner of the chapel.

chartehouse tomb

Where Thackeray writes of a living throng still occupying the space of the Charterhouse chapel, the image presented by the Society includes enough of the building’s romanesque stone arch to suggest an ecclesiastical context while simultaneously removing all traces of the chapel’s moveables, and thus its capacity for a human congregation, save for the single carved pew-end tucked at the bottom of the frame. Columns border the sides of the photograph, separating the space of the tomb from the author’s own [and by extension, that of the viewer] within the nave. The tomb’s elision from any notion of ongoing use may indeed have been a response to a waning congregation by the end of the nineteenth century, but it is kept at a further remove by a sharp and densely aligned row of Stuart railings, erected both to preserve the carvings, and suggest another, intangible realm, which could be occupied only by the deceased. This iron barrier serves as a metaphor of the photographic project itself, suggesting a presence beyond the plate while removing any sense of the subjects’ viability in the ever changing metropolis.

The scale of time within the image is one laden with constant pressure, perpetually threatening the eroding stasis of the monument;

“…They would not think to lie so long. 
Such faithfulness in effigy 
Was just a detail friends would see: 
A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace 
Thrown off in helping to prolong 
The Latin names around the base. 

They would not guess how early in 
Their supine stationary voyage 
The air would change to soundless damage, 
Turn the old tenantry away; 
How soon succeeding eyes begin 
To look, not read. Rigidly they 

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths 
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light 
Each summer thronged the grass. A bright 
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same 
Bone-littered ground. And up the paths 
The endless altered people came, 

Washing at their identity. 
Now, helpless in the hollow of 
An unarmorial age, a trough 
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins 
Above their scrap of history, 
Only an attitude remains: 

Time has transfigured them into 
Untruth. The stone fidelity 
They hardly meant has come to be 
Their final blazon…”                Excerpt from Philip Larkin, An Arundel Tomb, 1964

The Society’s approach to the project seems scattergun and at times tautological, shaped more by what buildings they knew of personally, and to those they could gain entry, than by any strict taxonomic record of the city’s streets, houses, and precincts. It is perhaps exactly this that sets them apart from their contemporaries, C.A Mathew for instance, who captured the noise of a populous street and the hubbub of industry, with nothing of their impending loss. The truly scientific, it would seem, such as Eadweard Muybridge over in America, who was mapping the gridded conurbation of San Francisco in his vast panoramas around the same time, miss the point just as much. The warmth of the Society’s one-offs, their idiosyncratic method of urban portraiture, catches the viewer off guard, sentimentally, but with a debilitating recognition of the shock of the future, which bears down upon each frame, and cracks the nostalgia from within.

Though precious sections of the London cityscape recorded by the Society’s photographers have been preserved (for example, see http://spitalfieldslife.com/2010/12/30/in-search-of-relics-of-old-london/ for a concise comparison of past and present images), most are now destroyed, which is hardly surprising considering the continuous devastations to the city’s fragile history that have been effected by war and human progress. As Benjamin’s Angel of History is blown to a point of catastrophe, London’s lifeblood has been perpetually battered by the winds of change, and the city’s population forgets its closest ancestors in an instant. As Harold Clunn wrote in his 1947 guide to London’s perpetual re-birth London Marches On, ‘one must face the fact that the unwieldy town houses of our grandfathers … are doomed.’

Image copyright Bishopsgate Institute.

 

 

Exhibition – David Breuer-Weil | Project 4 – open until 01/03/13

David Breuer-Weil’s Project 4 is the most ambitious of the artist’s Project series to date, utilising the vast Victorian brick tunnels underneath Waterloo station. For the first time Breuer-Weil’s renowned monumental canvases are juxtaposed with large-scale sculpture in bronze and marble, materials he has increasingly turned to in recent years, as well as a selection of graphic works on paper.

Project 4 First Edit 2000px-2

Project 4 First Edit 2000px-19

Project 4 First Edit 2000px-10

Project 4 First Edit 2000px-24

David Breuer-Weil, Project 4, is showing at The Vaults, Arch 233, Leake Street, London SE1 7NN until 1st March

 

The collections of Jean, duke of Berry (1340-1416) – Vastari Online Journal – January 2013

Hans Holbein
Jean de Berry in Prayer,
after a statue of the same figure from the Sainte-Chapelle, Bourges.
Circa 1523-4.
Black and coloured chalk, 39.6 × 27.5 cm.
Basel, Kunstmuseum.

I have written an article for Vastari, an exciting new online association with a scholarly focus on collecting and patronage across the centuries;

Jean, duke of Berry, count of Poitou, Auvergne and Estampes, was son, brother, and uncle, to three successive kings of France. Born in 1340 in the royal chateau of Vincennes, situated in the dense hunting forests outlying Paris to the east, he lived a long life, dying at the age of 76 in his Parisian residence, the Hôtel Saint Pol. He became regent of France on two occasions, alongside his younger brother Philip the Bold; firstly when his nephew king Charles VI was too young to govern the country, and latterly when the same monarch fell into successive bouts of insanity at the end of the century. These snatched moments of power were largely diplomatic, and he failed to make much of an effect on the fiscal and political direction of the state. Instead, it is the legacy of Berry’s collecting habits that has been passed down through history. His was a singularly obsessive program of acquisition of some of the most richly made and decorated objects that survive from the late medieval period. Read more…

David Breuer-Weil – The Vaults, Arch 233, Leake Street, London, SE1 7NN – 07/02/13-01/03/13

Emergence
David Breuer-Weil,
Installation view of ‘Emergence’, Hanover Square, 2012
Patinated bronze,
Dimensions variable

I am pleased to announce that I am working with London-based curator Chris Craig to organise the upcoming solo exhibition of works by David Breuer-Weil, entitled Project 4, which will open to the public from 7th of February until 1st of March inclusive. One of the largest exhibitions of Breuer-Weil’s work to date, Project 4 will bring together over 70 paintings and sculptures within the cavernous Victorian railway arches of Leake Street, near Waterloo station.

David Breuer-Weil’s website can be found here

I can be contacted on p4admin@breuer-weil.com with any enquiries.

Exhibition – Lothar Götz + Special Guests | DomoBaal Gallery – November 2012

lothar large space 2

In November I installed the second in a two-part exhibition of the work of German artist Lothar Götz (the first part can be seen here). This section of the project included important objects and works of art that have all influenced Götz’s practice, be they in formal or intellectual ways, through familial relationships and the ties of friendship, shared affinities, or the beauty of production. 14 objects were included within the large gallery space, consisting of works on paper, sculpture, painting and fine porcelain, which were all hung or juxtaposed with the five large gouache on ply works that Götz made for the first installment of the exhibition. Importantly in this respect, the show displaced the focus from Götz’s own work to that of those individuals or manufactories he strongly reveres.

lothar large space

A series of drawings made in response to each object and hung directly on top of the small gallery’s site-specific painted mural, manifested the artist’s own working practice as being directly linked to each of his ‘guests’, at a point somewhere between subliminal influence and overt recognition. The drawings veer between psychographical automatism and strictly controlled inquiries into form and colour, and all are executed within the strictly defined boundaries of a single size of paper. Where some seek to explode form forcibly, prostrating it onto a flat surface and contorting it into a new illusionism akin to Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs of 1923, others delight in the innately two-dimensional nature of the original, such as ‘Retreats (Ben Nicholson)’, and ‘Retreats (Ernst Wilhelm Nay)’, in which Götz reapplies colour to imagery already flattened and abstracted by the compositions of the artists referenced in the titles.

lothar small space

‘The Line of Beauty + Special Guests’ included works by Eric Bainbridge, Neil Gall, Joachim Grommek, Daniel Robert Hunziker, Paul Huxley, Ernst Wilhelm Nay, Ben Nicholson, Uli Nimptsch and George Shaw.

Website for Domobaal

Phil Collins – ‘jalan braga’

jalan braga, 2009
Silver gelatin print on paper.

The following is a short piece of text I wrote in 2010 concerning a little-known photographic image by Phil Collins, entitled jalan braga (above). Taken from a wider series of works first exhibited at Tramway in Glasgow, jalan braga proffers the artist’s usual glib commentary on forms of mass-communication, and his wry and somewhat pessimistic enjoyment of social disillusionment and the falsities of celebrity aspirations;

Phil Collins was born in 1970 and studied first in Manchester, then at the University of Ulster’s School of Art, Belfast. He lives and works in Berlin.

Investigating the inherent problems of representation within different media, Collins repeatedly underlines the complex and unpredictable transferences that occur between the producer, the participant, and the viewer.’

Collins works primarily as a video artist, constructing performance-based pseudo-documentaries that combine mass-media’s typically exploitative standpoint with penetrative investigations into the nuances of social relations. He parodies mass-media’s profiteering language by filming the emotional reactions of his subjects within a scripted and manufactured scenario. Often recording the very processes of filming – the camera crew, the microphones, the stage set – Collins addresses the camera as ‘an instrument of both truth and deception.’ This particularly self-referential mode of production tests our understanding of the media’s artifice and entertains us with its flippancy. Like Michael Asher’s institutional critiques, in which he relocates a part of the museum’s fabric to re-engage the viewer with its meaning, Collins lifts whole concepts from strange or imported social systems through the medium of report-style documentary and low-budget television, and places them in the path of the seemingly wise and cosmopolitan viewer. When exhibiting a video work at the Tate gallery as a Turner Prize nominee in 2006, Collins set up an office that dealt with the audience’s general enquiries and the comings and goings of the gallery environment. Instead of being a disengaged, autonomous and finished production that we are only retrospectively invited to view, his work became a real-time project concerned with the social complexities of an audience that became simultaneously spectator and participant.

jalan braga records a poster made by the artist for the production of his recent show The World Won’t Listen (2009). The posters were plastered around the city of Bandung, Indonesia, to enlist members of the public as participants in a Smiths’ karaoke. This process led to a set of recorded performances forming the central subject of the exhibition.jalan braga shows one such poster pasted on the front of a concrete column on Bandung’s central street. Detailing some of the more banal preparations for the video piece, jalan braga stands as part of Collins’ rigorous process of cataloguing and simultaneously hints at some of the integral meanings of his wider oeuvre; namely the cross-over point between truthful reporting and the designed, manipulated and filmed social scenario.

 

Exhibition – Lothar Götz | DomoBaal Gallery – October 2012

Installation view of ‘What Makes Boys Dance?’ facing North-East
Installation view of ‘What Makes Boys Dance?’ facing West
Installation view of ‘What Makes Boys Dance?’ facing South-East

Last month I worked as artist’s assistant to the internationally renowned German painter Lothar Götz on the two week installation of ‘What Makes Boys Dance?’, a site-specific room painting at DomoBaal Gallery, John Street, London. It forms the first in a two-part exhibition, which will conclude with a select display of objects and artworks by other artists/makers curated within the context of Götz’s own work.

Press release for part one –

Domo Baal is delighted to present ‘The Line of Beauty’, the first of a two–part solo exhibition by Lothar Götz. ‘The Line of Beauty’ will be Lothar Götz’s first solo show in London and follows five solo exhibitions over the last two years in public galleries in Germany and at Chapter in Cardiff. The exhibition will show new studio–based work as well as a site–specific mural. Following on directly from the first part of this exhibition ‘The Line of Beauty + Special Guests’ (9 November to 22 December) will include works by Eric Bainbridge, Neil Gall, Joachim Grommek, Daniel Robert Hunziker, Paul Huxley, Ernst Wilhelm Nay, Ben Nicholson, Uli Nimptsch and George Shaw alongside a series of new drawings, each made in response to a work by each of the exhibiting guests.

Whilst Götz’s practice ranges in scale from site–specific wall paintings and room–sized spatial installations to paintings and drawings, there is a clear coherence and dialogue across his body of work through its continual referencing and engagement with ideas about architecture and space and its characteristic use of abstract geometric forms, fields and lines of intense colour, juxtaposed with one another.

His work is informed by real factors of circumstance, site, architecture or the particular inhabitants or histories of a building, space or place, but mixes these factors with further imaginary or fantasy ones. Similarly many of his drawings represent the floor plans of idealized dwellings, sometimes for specific people or historical figures, sometimes for imagined ones. Together they form part of an ongoing series exploring spatial ideas for domestic spaces: apartments, houses, bungalows, villas.

Colour in these drawings is used to denote the functions and atmospheres of rooms, or the situations and qualities of the surrounding landscape – whether a schloß set in a meadow or a bungalow overlooking the sea. It also cues off the identity of the person who is thought to live there, in a web of imaginative factors that continually feed into the geometrical arrangement of forms and the colour decisions for each drawing.

Götz sees colour as both beautiful and a key aspect of life that surrounds us, drawing comparison with other passions of his: gardens and flowers, and Nymphenburg porcelain.

Whilst Götz often references the creation of a garden or the making of a piece of architecture in his work, he sees his practice as opposite in process to that of architectural design, which concretizes ideas and designs as built form, connecting it rather to the Classical idea of art as active fantasy – something practiced as part of a personal strategy to escape from reality.

Götz completed an MA at the Royal College of Art after studying in Germany at Aachen, Düsseldorf and Wuppertal. He currently lives and works in London and is Senior Lecturer at the University of Sunderland.

Recent solo exhibitions include ‘Don’t Look Now 1990 – 2011’ at Galerie der Stadt Remscheid and at Kunsthalle Wilhelmshaven, Germany, both in 2011 and ‘Wait Until Dark’ at Chapter, Cardiff in 2012. Currently his solo show’ Don’t Look Now’ is showing at Städtische Galerie Wolfsburg, Germany until 9 September 2012, and his installation ‘Crash’ will remain in situ at Stufen zur Kunst, Künstlerhaus Hanover, Germany until 20 March 2013. A monograph ‘Lothar Götz, Works – 2011′ with texts by Christoph Asendorf, Hans Günter Golinski, Rob Wilson and Oliver Zybok and graphic design by Frank Mueller, edited by Oliver Zybok in German and English was published by Hatje Cantz in 2011.
 
Group shows include the Contemporary Art Society’s ARTfutures, Bloomberg SPACE, 2005; David Risley Gallery, London, 2007; mima, Middlesbrough, 2007; and shows in Amsterdam; Dublin; Hamburg; Hanover; Salamanca; Wilhelmshaven and Wuppertal since 2005, including participation in the 2008 Prague Triennale. In Spring 2010 he contributed a major work to an international showcase exhibition on wall–painting at the Miró Foundation in Barcelona. Public commissions include Platform for Art at Piccadilly Circus underground station in 2007, a collaboration with Caruso St John Architects at the Arts Council England Offices in 2008, Haymarket Metro Station, Newcastle in 2009 and the offices of the Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw in 2009.
 

An interesting interview with the artist conducted by Sam Cornish, concerning The Line of Beauty, can be found at abstract critical‘s site.

 

PART ONE

Lothar Götz
The Line of Beauty
 
21.09.12 – 03.11.12
 

PART TWO

Lothar Götz
The Line of Beauty + Special Guests:
Eric Bainbridge, Neil Gall, Joachim
Grommek, Daniel Robert Hunziker,
Paul Huxley, Ernst Wilhelm Nay, Ben
Nicholson, Uli Nimptsch, George Shaw
09.11.12 – 22.12.12
Opening: Friday 09 November 6–8pm
 
DomoBaal Gallery
3 John Street
London
WC1N 2ES
 
 

Review – Cy Twombly The Last Paintings – September 2012

Untitled (Camino Real), 2011
Acrylic on plywood
99 3/8 x 72 7/8 inches
252.4 x 185.1 cm
© Cy Twombly Foundation

Gagosian’s Britannia Street gallery has mounted an intimate selection of the late Cy Twombly’s last paintings, alongside a survey of the artist’s photographs from the past seven decades.

Eight untitled paintings, all of the same large, portrait format, regurgitate variations of acid-toned swirls over a uniform green ground. Their corkscrews of colour record the action of an arm circling at the elbow, looping red on yellow from left to right across each plywood panel. Occasionally, overpainted arcs of either colour redraw elements so that no single passage ever dominates.  Grouped together, they reverberate hotly across the space, and though individually they hum with polychromatic intensity, it is serially that they work to their full potential. ‘Drips’, ‘drizzles’, neither word adequately describes the fall of paint from their burning, brushed-on swathes, rippling down the panels with disturbance, violence, and urgency. They are related to the Camino Real series that inaugurated Gagosian’s Paris gallery in 2010, a group of works linked to Tennessee William’s 1953 play of the same name, concerned with aging, artistic courage, and the atrophy of dreams. Twombly’s dynamo-like explosions of red and yellow have much the same climactic quality, always grating from the inside out, and spinning with a kind of fatal velocity.

Every so often, near the top of each work, where the colours filter out to cleaner lines against the green behind, letters loom into view – ‘a’ or ‘e’ perhaps – maybe even a word – ‘read’ or ‘greed’. At the point of becoming recognisable, these scrawling phrases seem immediately to scramble before your eyes, pulsing in and out of focus and blending together as parts of an overarching, abstracted language. Perhaps Twombly felt his paintings could no longer be communicated through anything but pure colour. Many artists turn to broad brushstrokes in their late surges, removing all but the vital, immediate man-made mark in time. Certainly, those definable, mythologically imbued, or sexually charged words and names visible in many of Twombly’s earlier series are absent here. In their final move to abstraction, they are more like Albert Irvin’s canvases, though that artist is not producing anything nearly as potent a symbol of abstract colour as Twombly could in these last works, pregnant as they are with colours humming in tension.

Just as enticing for me are Twombly’s photographs, displayed in an adjacent space. They touch where, in my mind, the paintings cannot. Many of them record Twombly’s sculpted works, the act of sculpting in plaster, and the resultant objects in transition, affirming such processes through a medium at once instant, intimate, and distant, impartial, and mediating of their subjects. They observe spilt plaster, mounds of material and pseudo-plinths, building blocks of his sculptural style scrutinised in great depth. They are private images most of them, like Medardo Rosso’s studio shots; part of a process of assimilating and qualifying the sculptures by interrogating them through a lens. Can the objects they record stand up on their own? Are they of sufficient force? This is a fascinating strain to, and ability of, the photographic medium, and one which Twombly obviously felt very keenly indeed. These shots took time to develop of course, and as such also speak of that cooling off period after something is made, cast, or poured; they capture that precious gap between frenzied creation and the final, cold editing process.

Like many of Twombly’s paintings, particularly series overtly concerned with life and death such as the remarkable Fifty Days at Iliam, these photographs also express the temperament of an artist at home with death. Indeed, it seems as if, for Twombly, whatever subject appeared in each photograph was being judged on its ability to succeed or fail, live or die, as an object first and foremost. Gravestones and memorials, columns, flowers, or people – it didn’t matter to him, one senses. One of the more self-consciously posed images in the selection appears in the gallery’s grouping of early works. In it, a boy sits alongside a columnar plinth supporting a large marble bust above. Heightened exposure has caused tones to essentialise, and the boy’s form and planted chair legs serve to balance the monument beside him in binary opposition; light and dark, dead and living. Much of the bust is turned black (though it sits only in soft shadows), and the hard light hitting its back tears the stone in two in midair. It is clear from such an image that Twombly’s preoccupation with the essence of form and tone, a concept carried through to the very last works he made in every medium, was hatched from the very beginning, inbuilt and untaught.

Light Flowers I (Gaeta), 2008
Color dry-print
17 x 11 inches
43.2 x 27.9 cm
Edition of 6
© 2012 Fondazione Nicola Del Roscio

Having suggested the elisions between Twombly’s chosen media, his photographs do serve to corroborate and explain the paintings. When chromatic qualities are at the forefront of the artist’s mind, focus is often compromised. Where colour is absent, the focus is pin-point, precise, and hard. However, the two are never far from each other, and each image appears to be permanently and precariously on the cusp of change. Alongside this, Twombly’s photos dip into colour with an acute feeling for what the subject communicates about forms in the moment of flowering, of vitality. As with a series of stunning sky-scapes, in which azurite skies hang between clusters of black canopic branches, where colour is used in the photographs it is simultaneously cool, yet full of the density and emotional redolence of the pigments that mark his paintings.

This is a well-considered selection of works, entirely suited to a farewell celebration. Moreover, the paintings and photographs gain strength from groupings not often available in museological contexts. The exhibition’s dedication to Twombly’s incisive powers of observation make it difficult to talk of an artist who is now dead, for in these works he feels very much alive, still scrutinizing and critical, still active in the sweep of each brushstroke. Even so, it is both fitting and fortuitous that on the return journey from the show’s opening, as I stood on Regents canal looking West, there was a London sunset of magnificent and searing beauty. It was heavy, laden with the pigments of atmospheric pollution, of light caught in an almost tangible state, with clouds, whole skies, on fire above the earth. More in the present tense, and of course infinitely more egalitarian than an exhibition at Gagosian, it was a send-off I think he think he would have enjoyed immensely.

Cy Twombly, The Last Paintings

Open 6 – 29 September 2012 at the Gagosian Gallery

6-24 Britannia Street
London WC1X 9JD
T. 0207 841 9960
london@gagosian.com
Hours: Tue-Sat 10-6

Review – Another London at Tate Britain – September 2012

Martine Franck
The Queen’s Silver Jubilee 1977
© Martine Franck / Magnum Photos

I have to apologise for such a tardy review of an exhibition that has now been open several weeks. In truth, I have been thinking about it a lot since I walked round seven rooms of vintage photographs, which are on display at Tate Britain until the middle of this month. I have been trying to grapple with its purpose and meaning in the context of our national collection, a collection that, until recently, refused to stage a show of photographs at all, rebuffing them as a lower form of artistic endeavour. The Tate’s first exhibition solely dedicated to photographs was a mere 12 years ago, and before then it didn’t have an active acquisitions policy dedicated to photographs in their own right. Only those images, which fed into a wider artist’s practice (for example, Richard Long’s photographic documents of his walks and landscape interventions), were admitted, and even then, their purpose was purely to help explain the rest of the collection.

How things have changed. In fact, Another London marks something of a U-turn in Tate’s philosophy. Around 1400 photographs are being acquired for the nation, part gift and part purchase agreement with the owners, Eric and Louise Franck (the former, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s brother in law). The display reflects its illustrious owners, who still collect voraciously; the large majority of the prints on show are by Magnum photographers, though this may well reflect the agency’s domination of mid-century photo-reportage as much as it does the collectors’ partiality or ties to the group. Indeed, the show itself seeks to dissolve such biases, in displaying works only by foreign photographers, all coming to the central theme of London in individual ways. If you got to see the Museum of London’s street photography show a couple of years ago, the current display sits neatly as a kind of sister exhibition, looking repeatedly at London’s social milieu, its public spaces, and its private conversations, but this time from the point of view of outsiders looking in. Of the photographs being acquired, 177 are viewable at Tate Britain, highlighting some of the finest images of London to have been taken between 1930 and 1980. The survey starts with luscious, dense prints by visionaries such as Alvin Langdon Coburn, Bill Brandt, and Jacques-Henri Lartigue, and punctuates the medium with brash, highly posed punk portraits taken by Karen Knorr and Olivier Richon (how the dissenters consented…), and Leonard Freed’s monographic images of city dwellers in their own worlds.

James Barnor
Eva, London circa 1960
© James Barnor / Autograph ABP

One of my favourites is Eva by Ghanaian born James Barnor (above), who set up a photography studio called Ever Young when he was just 21. The seductive curve of Eva’s eye, extended with a lick of black eye liner, makes her a pure study of beauty. Going back to another image right at the start of the exhibition, the same tone as Eva’s make-up draws murky figures from the grenadier guards out of the soot of London’s atmosphere. This wonderful photograph, entitled London, the changing of the guard, by Laure Albin-Guillot, is a fresson print. It uses charcoal to create tonal abysses and black-brown shadows on the warm buff-coloured paper beneath. Other images, snapping coolly at the hubbub and chaos of London streets, corner house tearooms, and grand parades, are so heavy with soft nostalgia that one yearns to have been present in their scenes, however unsettled or in crisis the moments they capture really were. Take the ménage of sexual games being played in Wolfgang Suschitzky’s Lyons Corner House, Tottenham Court Road for example, with its nonchalant sitter bored by her male companion’s obviously lack-lustre conversational efforts. His shoulders drop, his cigarette hangs as limply from his mouth as her attention to his advances does in the air, and her eyes seem to look past him as though to another, more attractive option.

Kenneth Williams argued that a critic’s greatest responsibility was to communicate enthusiasm for the art they belong to. It is easy to forget such a crucial mantra at times, but I myself cannot find a single fault with the beautiful works on display in this exhibition, though personally I prefer the carefully developed, striven over images that mark the earlier decades represented in the show; those rare survivals and experimentations with speed, unrestrained activity, and the contrapuntal imagery of disparate classes melded together in the city streets. In this respect, it was an easy show to put on, I imagine. The curators could have just chosen their favourites from an unsurpassable collection of images for all we know, and the show would be a complete success. Or maybe there were too many good ones, and the choices they had to make were thus excruciatingly difficult. Even without seeing the rest of the collection, I would probably lean towards the latter…

Having said I am in love with the show, I must concede that the labelling system the curators have employed infuriates me to the point of distraction. With so many images on display, a lot of them not often seen before, it is frustrating that one must walk to a corner of a large room in order to try and decipher a grid-like group of labels that seem to bear little relation to a raft of 10 or more images stretching away across the walls. I cannot see what they must have thought would be distracting about putting individual labels under each work. After all, if it is for purity’s sake that they chose to relegate all information to the corners of each wall, then why use such bulky black frames around every photograph? They tend to unify everything, which concatenates the labelling issue further, especially when you’re never quite sure whether the next set of labels will pertain to images on your left or right as you walk round in a heady daze. The frames’ tendency towards overall grouping is of course an understandable aesthetic aim, since the show attempts to broker a delicate line between presenting individual works, while nevertheless retaining the overall structure and nature of their relationships; the fact that they are from a single collection. Archivy and curation seem to rub shoulders quite succinctly and simply I must admit, if also a little heavy-handedly. Still, within the display, no effort is made to discuss format either, which changes so dramatically across the works. Why is a Robert Frank landscape view treated uniformly the same as a Marc Riboud or a Cartier-Bresson? For those of us with less knowledge of photographic history, the tendency of the framing and labelling choices to unify whole sections of rather distinct works, make it often difficult to remember who took what after you’ve left the exhibition.

Regardless of this, the way in which the final room’s display of photographs open up and shatter chronology is very well achieved, and one gets the sense that the images here start to sound; they rise in volume and express an ongoing cacophonic activity fostered by, and created within, our rolling capital. Suddenly, a course charted through immigrant photography in the twentieth century has the distinct possibility of fragmenting into many different paths.

Therefore, my only real reservation about Another London is how its contents, and the rest of the acquisition, are to be used in the future. Has the whole thing been a necessary, and as a result, staged part of the bequest procedure, without serious consideration of the next step? How will these images now be integrated into the rest of the collection, or will they come to reside for a few weeks at a time, as continues to be the case with many photograph shows, in a separate room of Tate Modern? This show has created some urgent questions about the strengths of our national collection, and how it is represented to us. Of course, we must wait and see how many other photographic collections are acquired by Tate over the coming years, but I am sure they will have to be pretty significant to match the roster of works represented in this astounding gift.