William Kentridge at the Royal Academy of Art in London

THE ARTIST WILLIAM Kentridge (born 1955), son of a prominent lawyer, is a South African. His creations are usually highly imaginative and often politically challenging and critical of the subjugation of non-European African people. This is fascinating given his privileged background – having been brought up in a South Africa where the ‘white’ people were a highly advantaged section of the population until the ending of the apartheid regime (and maybe even now to some extent).

His artworks are frequently dramatic, often employing cinematographic and sometimes theatrical techniques. The messages they convey to the viewers can be both disturbing and humorous, sometimes both simultaneously. Whenever I have seen them, I have been both fascinated visually as well as moved emotionally.

The Royal Academy of Art in London’s Piccadilly has a large retrospective exhibition of Kentridge’s work until the 11th of December 2022. Apart from numerous drawings, tapestries, and other static artworks, there are plenty of his cinematographic installations on display. In fact, there are too many of these installations. Each one is amazing to see, but having so many together in one place spoiled their intended impact. Just as the first chocolate from a box is wonderful, eating all of them at once gives one indigestion, and this was the case with the Royal Academy’s crowded assemblage of Kentridge’s works. Too much was crammed together in insufficient space. To be fully enjoyed, each of his installations should be seen on their own in a sufficiently spacious environment – they need ample room to breathe and express themselves.This overcrowding was a pity because the exhibition does not allow his works to shine in their full glory.

Celebrities and criminals in Hampstead

THE ACTOR AND STAGE impresario Gerald Du Maurier (1873-1934) lived in Cannon Hall (14 Cannon Place in Hampstead) from 1916 until his death. His children, who lived there, included the novelist Daphne Du Maurier (1907-1989). The house was built in about 1720 and altered in the 19th and 20th centuries. Despite these changes, it remains an elegant residence in the heart of Hampstead.

The former lock-up

Steeply sloping, narrow Cannon Lane runs alongside the eastern wall of the grounds of Cannon Hall. About halfway down it (between Squires Mount and Well Road), there is a doorway in the wall. There is one semi-circular window on each side of it. Each of the windows is behind a lattice of metal bars. A plaque nearby informs the viewer that this was once a parish lock-up in which prisoners were held temporarily in a dark cell. The lock-up was established in about 1730. In that era, magistrates held court proceedings in Cannon Hall. In 1829, when a police force was set up in Hampstead, court business and prisoners were held in the Watch House on Holly Walk.

At the bottom of the grounds of Cannon Hall, stands Cannon Cottage, which faces Well Road. This was constructed in the early 18th century. Between 1932 and 1934, Gerald du Maurier’s daughter Daphne lived in this substantial residence with her husband Frederick Browning, whom she had just married.

Further west along Well Road, there is what looks like a small factory with skylights. This was built as artists’ studios in the late 19th century. Known as Well Mount Studios, the artist Mark Gertler (1891-1939) moved into number 1 in 1915, and worked there. I am uncertain how long he remained at this address, but I know he had moved from it before he committed suicide.

The places described above can be seen by walking only about 335 yards. This is typical of Hampstead Village (or Town, according to some), which is literally packed with interesting sites, both historical and contemporary. If you wish to discover much more about this fascinating part of north London, you can buy a copy of my informative book “Beneath a Wide Sky: Hampstead and its Environs” (from https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09R2WRK92).

Body Politics at the Barbican Gallery

AT THE TICKET desk of the Barbican Gallery we were hesitantly asked if we knew about the exhibition of Carolee Schneemann (1939-2019) because it contains some sexually explicit exhibits. We said we knew roughly what we were heading for.

The exhibition is laid out on two floors and visitors are given a suggested route that allows one to see the gradual development of Schneemann’s work from abstract and semi-abstract painting through to highly adventurous installations and happenings (to use a word that assumed a special meaning in the 1960s).

The artist’s earlier works are on the upper floor. Dissatisfied with the relative flatness of painting on canvas, she began adding a third dimension to her paintings. Soon she was producing collections of objects in boxes, rather like the kind of things produced by Joseph Cornell. Unlike Cornell, who filled his boxes and frames with intact objects, Schneemann filled hers with damaged objects, such as rusty musical boxes and fragments of broken glass.

Much of Schneemann’s work became involved with the human body and sexual experiences, as depicted from the female point of view. In many of her creations, she used her own body as a prop. For example, there is a film recording of a ‘happening’ during which she painted glue on her naked body and then applied scraps of paper to herself, creating a human collage. Many of her other works either defy description or if described might disturb the squeamish or prudish reader.

Later in her career, she moved from depicting the body and sexual matters to political comment and protest. Most of these often powerful works are in the form of videos and installations.

I much preferred the earlier works on the upper floor. They were created as timeless artworks that could be looked at whenever. The more adventurous and innovative works on the lower floor are mostly almost static records of events that would have been seen to full and maximum effect when they took place in real life so many years ago. That said, this exhibition was both exciting and interesting.

Throwing light into the darkness and shadows

FOR UNKNOWN REASONS, we were initially reluctant to bother with viewing the exhibition (at London’s Tate Britain until the 18th of September 2022) of paintings and drawings by Walter Sickert (1862-1942). However, I am glad that we did because we got to know and appreciate an artist, of whom I had heard but knew little about. That little which I did know was that for a brief while Sickert had one of the Mall Studios in Hampstead, where years later the sculptor Barbara Hepworth worked and resided with one husband, and then another. Later, Sickert moved from Hampstead to Camden Town.

Sickert was born in Munich (Germany). He and his family moved to Britain when he was 8 years old. His father, Oswald Sickert (1828-1885), an artist, introduced him to the works of important British and French artists, but Walter’s inclinations led him to study acting. However, in 1882 he entered London’s Slade School of Art (at UCL) and he became a student and assistant of the artist James Abbott McNeil Whistler (1834-1903). Soon, he began spending a lot of time in France, where he met Edgar Degas (1834-1917), whose work was to have a great influence on his style.

The exhibition at Tate Britain successfully demonstrates that Sickert was a highly competent artist. His topographical paintings (notably of Dieppe and Venice) are superb, as are the many of his portraits, some of which verge on being impressionistic, on display. His depictions of scenes within theatre show his great ability to portray light and shade. A series of paintings of nude women, some of whom are shown being in the company of often disinterested-looking men in far from elegant clothing, throw light on the shady world of the poor in places such as Camden Town and its environs.

Although some of Sickert’s paintings show features that later would become associated with artists such as the impressionists, Lucien Freud, and Francis Bacon, he is not one of the first artists that springs to mind when thinking about the great artists of the late 19th and early 20th century. Why is this the case? Despite hinting at what was to become common in the works of the Abstractionists, he never broke through the barrier into Modernism as did painters such as Braque, Picasso, Miro, Kandinsky, Matisse, and Mondrian. In no way does this detract from the brilliance seen in Sickert’s work. In a way, he was born too late to be considered as distinguished as those I have mentioned. Considered alongside 19th century artists, he shines. But, although he received many commissions, he was painting during an era when the more adventurous and innovative artists were in their heyday. That said, I can strongly recommend the exhibition at the Tate, which demonstrated to me that Sickert, a master of light and shade, was an artist who deserves much more attention than he gets today.

Looking at Music

THE ESTORIC COLLECTION in London’s Highbury houses a fine permanent exhibition of modern Italian artworks, mainly creations of the so-called Futurists. In one of the galleries, I spotted the name of an artist who was born in a town, which I have visited, in the northeast of Italy: Gorizia. When the artist Anton Zoran Music (1909-2005) was born, Gorizia was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. After WW1, the town became part of the Kingdom of Italy within the region of Venezia-Giulia. Soon after WW2, the eastern part of the region became absorbed into the Yugoslav republic of Slovenia (now an independent state). When that happened, the border between Italy and Slovenia ran through the eastern part og the town, the part in what was then Yugoslavia (a country I visited often between 1973 and 1990) became named ‘Nova Gorica’. Most of Gorizia, an attractive old town, is on the Italian side of the border.

Slovenians still live on both sides of the border. Music, actually Anton Zoran Musič (pronounced mus-ich) was born into a Slovene-speaking family. Zoran, who went to schools in Maribor, studied art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb between 1930 and 1935. His first one-man exhibition (outside Yugoslavia) in Venice in 1943, where he had moved. Soon after this, he was arrested by the German Gestapo and then sent to Dachau concentration camp. After WW2, he moved to Ljubljana (in Yugoslavia), but soon shifted to Venice, where he lived (on and off) for the rest of his life. His career after the War was successful: he received several prestigious prizes for his artistic creations.

The Estorick displays five of Music’s paintings. They were created between 1951 and 1983 and illustrate his versatility as a painter. All the paintings hanging are between abstract and figurative in style, but slightly nearer the latter than the former. I had seen his paintings on previous visits to the Estorick, but until my most recent viewing of his art, I had not been aware of how many aspects of his life mesh with things that interest me.

Drawn to remember: an exhibition by an Indian painter

THE PAINTER MAHESH BALIGA was born in the south Indian state of Karnataka in 1982. He studied painting at The Chamarajendra Academy of Visual Arts (CAVA) in Mysore, and then received a postgraduate qualification at the prestigious Faculty of Fine Arts, MSU, in Baroda (Vadodara in Gujarat). He has taught at various art schools in India and exhibited in several countries including India. Currently, he lives and works in Baroda. Between the 12th of April 2022 and the 28th of May 2022, some of his works are being exhibited in a solo exhibition, “Drawn to Remember”, at the David Zwirner Gallery in Grafton Street (in London’s West End).

The paintings on display were created using casein tempera. This kind of paint has a glue-like consistency, but it can be thinned with water. According to Wikipedia, artists like this kind of paint because:

“… unlike gouache, it dries to an even consistency, making it ideal for murals. Also, it can visually resemble oil painting more than most other water-based paints …”

At first glance, it is difficult to discern whether the Baliga’s paintings on display at Zwirner’s resemble water colours or oil paintings; some of them seem to look halfway between the two mediums. All of them, except one, are quite small canvases and without exception they are all attractive. The subject matter depicted in the works is varied, from studies of plants and animals to everyday scenes (often with depictions of Indian life) to the slightly unusual. An example of the latter is in the only large canvas of the show in which there is an image of a man with sticky plasters over his left eye. Another odd subject shows a man with flowers growing out of his shirt. This is appropriately named “Flowering Self”.

The small size of most of the paintings, which the artist described as ‘lap-sized’, has a reason. Many of them were executed on the journeys the artist made when commuting to and from Surat (in the south of Gujarat), where he held a teaching position for a while. Though they are not large paintings, each one of them provides a window on the artist’s experiences and and his take on them. Although the paintings are far from mundane, they are not over-dramatic or excessively visually challenging. The exhibition is well worth seeing.  I would be happy to hang any one of the works I saw at his exhibition on my walls at home.

Vanishing point

OF JAMAICAN HERITAGE, the artist Barbara Walker was born and brought up in Birmingham where she lives today. During her childhood, she was taken to see museums and galleries. She noticed that in many works (paintings and other images) of western art, Black people play a peripheral role, depicted as servants and so on, serving the ‘white’ people who play a central role in a picture. Recently (April 2022), we visited an exhibition of her works at the Cristea Roberts Gallery in London’s Pall Mall. Called Vanishing Point, this superb display contains artworks, prints, which address the issue that Barbara noted when she was younger.

At first sight, most of the framed prints appear to be large sheets of white paper with a few beautifully drawn details depicting black people or parts of their bodies. Closer examination reveals that there is more to the white spaces than first meets the eye. The white areas are embossed. The black people, who have been drawn, are surrounded by the embossed areas of the print. Together, the drawings and embossed sections of the print can be seen to be a whole picture. Walker has processed an original image to create a new one in which only Black people in the original are easily visible and the rest of the picture forms a ghostly background. Unlike the pictures she saw when a youngster, the Black people in the picture are prominent and the others are barely detectable.

I am not sure exactly how the artist achieved this interesting effect and these powerful images, but I will have a go at explaining, using my experience of having once made etchings in the past. Metal plates are first coated with a photographic material. Then images of an original painting are projected on to it and processed in some way that produces a photographic reproduction on the plate. The artist, then blocks out selected areas on the plate with an acid-resistant material to produce a pattern that includes many details of the original image, including all of the parts of it that contain depictions of Black people or the parts of their bodies in the original painting or image. The plate is then immersed in acid, which eats into all the parts of it, which have not been painted over with the blocking agent. Then, a sheet of dampened paper is placed on the plate and the two are run through a printing press. The pressure exerted by the rollers of the press force the dampened paper into the depressions on the plate caused by the action of the acid. The result is a sheet of paper with embossed indentations. When the paper has dried, the artist then draws on the flat areas, which are in fact silhouettes of the Black people (or details of them) which appeared in the original painting. The rest of the embossed area, containing details and enough outlines of the original image to make it recognisable, is left white. The result is an image in which Black people become the focus of the viewer’s attention.

Barbara Walker’s works on show at Cristea Roberts (until the 23rd of April 2022) are ingenious and extremely engaging. She has employed an interesting technique to make her statement. Rather than reinforcing the fact that Black people were often depicted as being menial as is the case in the recent display of paintings by Hogarth at the Tate Britain, she has found a way of raising their status in artworks that sought to portray them as mere subsidiaries.

Unveiled at last

THE CORONET CINEMA in London’s Notting Hill Gate was renamed The Print Room a few years ago. Once a cinema, it is now a theatre. Like other theatres, it was closed for a long time during 2020 and early 2021 because of the covid19 lockdowns. During this prolonged period of closures, a statue was placed upon the dome that stands above the theatre’s main entrance. In my book “Walking West London” (freely available as a pdf file from https://adamyamey.co.uk/walking-west-london/), I wrote about the Coronet/Print Room as follows:

“… the former ‘Coronet Cinema’. This was designed as a theatre by WGR Sprague (1863-1933) who designed many of London’s theatres. It opened in 1908. By 1923, the Coronet had become a cinema, and remained so for many years. Apart from the screen, the fittings inside the auditorium were those of an unmodernised Edwardian theatre. Until smoking was banned in all public places, the Coronet was one of the last cinemas in London which permitted smoking (but only in the balcony seating). Between 2004 and 2014, the Coronet doubled up as both a branch of the Kensington Temple Church and, also, as a cinema. And, in 2015 the Coronet reverted to being used as a theatre, now called ‘The Print Room’. This sensitively restored theatre puts on interesting plays, which are well-produced. The bar, which is located beneath the stage in what was once the stalls area of the cinema, is worth visiting to see its ever changing, tastefully quirky décor. In 2020, the theatre was redecorated and a statue by the British sculptor Gavin Turk (born 1967) has been placed upon the dome above the building’s main entrance. The new artwork replaces one that was removed many decades ago.”

When I wrote this, the sculpture was enshrouded in a tarpaulin. Only recently, the covering has been removed and the sculpture can be seen in all its glory. The artwork depicts the artist Gavin Turk posing as the famous artist Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) just as he appears his sculptural in the Annenberg Courtyard of Burlington House in the grounds of the Royal Academy. When seen from the east, the new sculpture looks like a painter holding a palette and his brush. However, when seen from the west, the viewer might be led to believe that the statue is of a man holding a gun. I feel that the sculpture is a great addition to the landscape of Notting Hill Gate, but a bit too high above ground level to be able to see it easily with the unaided eye.

Images of Africa in south London

THE WHITE CUBE Gallery in London’s Bermondsey Street is overshadowed by the recently constructed (2013) glass-clad skyscraper, popularly known as ‘The Shard’. The gallery, a single-storeyed structure, contains a long wide corridor flanked by three vast exhibition spaces and a smaller bookshop.  The exhibition spaces are deliberately sparsely decorated so as not to distract viewers from the usually wonderful contemporary artwork on display. At the end of the corridor, there is an auditorium in which videos relating to the existing temporary exhibition are screened. The current exhibition, which fascinated me and closes on the 7th of November 2021, is dedicated to displaying works by Ibrahim Mahama.

Mahama was born in Tamale, Ghana in 1987. He lives and works in the country of his birth but has exhibited widely in Africa and Europe. Not only are the works, which we saw at White Cube, exciting and intriguing visually but they also provide an interesting insight into the artist’s perception of modern Ghana and its past, when it was known as The Gold Coast.

Many of the works on display are gigantic collages, which from afar look like interesting abstracts or even modern tapestries. Closer examination of these reveals that the artist has glued fragments of photographs onto a background of usually either old maps of his country and/or a latticework consisting of numerous production order dockets issued by The Ghana Industrial Holding Company. Photographs of fruit bats in various poses often run around the fringes of the collages or appear within their main body. Photographs of aspects of life in Ghana are glued onto the backgrounds. Often, they have been trimmed so that the backgrounds intrude, and the photographs appear to merge or mingle with them. I felt that this was particularly effective when the map backgrounds mingled with the trimmed photographs, making me think that the maps were being brought to life. Also, they give the impression of modern Ghana emerging from the out-of-date maps. I was also impressed by one collage showing images of flying bats glued onto a sea of old order dockets: wildlife contrasting with man’s industrial enterprise.

One half of the largest display space is dedicated to a fantastic art installation. About 100 old-fashioned wooden school desks are arranged in rows facing a line of black boards to create the illusion of an enormous classroom. On each desk, there is an old-fashioned electric sewing machine.  Every few minutes some of the sewing machines begin operating, creating a wonderful, loud noise, which varies as different groups of machines are activated and then silenced. Sewing machines, so the leaflet issued by the gallery inform us, were often used in Ghana by labourers wanting to learn a new trade. This exhibit aims, amongst other things, to resurrect the ghosts that Mahama feels reside within these discarded machines.

In the auditorium, a short video projected onto two neighbouring screens continues the artist’s interest in sewing machines. On one of the screens, the video shows in close-up the innards of sewing machines being cleaned and oiled. Simultaneously, the video on the neighbouring screen shows workmen doing messy maintenance work through a manhole cover and beneath the ground. The circular manhole cover is mirrored in the other video by the small circular orifice through which the innards of the sewing machine are maintained. Odd subjects, but well filmed and fascinating visually.

I am neither an art critic nor a sociologist, nor whatever it takes to ponder the deeper meaning and messages that the artist is trying to convey, but I enjoyed the exhibition greatly without having to worry about its deeper intellectual content. Visually, everything on display was exciting and often quite novel: a feast for the eyes and ears. If you can get to see this show, I am sure that you will not leave it unaffected by its impact. And, after feasting your ears and eyes at the gallery, I recommend a short walk down Bermondsey Street to treat your taste buds and olfactory sense to Vietnamese food, magnificently prepared, at Caphe House.

Well travelled paints

YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT you might find by chance. While sorting through possessions in our storage unit, or ‘go-down’ as it is called in Indian English, I came across a wooden case. It contains artists’ paint brushes; tubes of oil paint, already used; pencils sharpened with a knife rather than a sharpener; a portable palette stained with usage; a couple of glass bottles; a tin containing Fortis brand thumb tacks (made in the USA); and various other items used for creating oil paintings. One of the pencils is marked “sanguine”. Pencils of this type are like charcoal sticks but a little harder. They can be used to draw lines and are also smudgeable.  On the lid of the box, there is a label issued by the Union Castle shipping line. It informs us that the case was travelling Cabin Class in Cabin number 464 on the Pretoria Castle from Cape Town to South Africa.  The name of its owner is “BS Yamey”.

BS Yamey was my father, an art lover who never ever created an oil painting in the 101 years of his life. The box most likely belonged to my mother, HB Yamey, who was a trained artist, both a painter and later a sculptor. My mother left South Africa in early 1948 and married my father on March the 16th 1948 in London. No doubt, the artists’ case was amongst her belongings being shipped from South Africa to her new home in England.

The Pretoria Castle on which the artistic materials travelled had its maiden voyage, soon after my parents married, in July 1948 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pretoria_Castle_(1947)). Constructed in Belfast, it was probably the only ship ever launched remotely. The wife of General Jan Smuts (1870-1950) launched the ship by sending a radio signal from her home in the Transvaal to the shipyard in Ulster (www.bandcstaffregister.com/page4349.html).

The dating of the launch means that the case travelled to England no earlier than July 1948. It is labelled with my father’s name and a cabin number. I assume that this means that it is likely that he travelled with it. As the ship was renamed in 1966, we can say that the case made the voyage before that year. Now, my parents spent most of 1950 in Montreal, Canada, and then returned to London by 1951. Possibly, my parents returned to South Africa for a visit between their marriage and my birth, but I have no evidence of this.  I was born in 1952, and as far as I can recall from what I have been told, my parents did not return to South Africa until 1955, when I was taken along as well. We travelled by sea, but I have no idea on which vessel we travelled and whether the artist’s case travelled with us. So, because my parents are no longer around to tell me about this case, the date of its journey from the southern to the northern hemisphere must remain a mystery.