Wolfgang Tillmans 2017

“What attracts you if anything about this exhibition!? Any work that strikes one?” asks OCA tutor Jayne Taylor as a group of over a dozen students meet. I have been reading the catalogue beforehand and find myself intrigued by Tillman’s approach yet wonder about what he is saying. It seems he is making observations of the world around him and using the medium of photography to do it; a stream of consciousness technique. Being allowed to photograph this exhibition made it more approachable! A previous visit to a Tillmans exhibition in 2013 is HERE

This exhibition is curated by the artist Tillmans rather than by a professional curator; there is no linear progression to the work being shown which presents a wholistic vision of the world. Open ended, not making a statement rather revealing something.

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The initial photo on entry is reminiscent of a TV screen suffering interference. Colour here is interesting as it seems to change according to the angle of view. It is called “End of Broadcast 2” 2014. I find that it resonates on a personal level. It is repeated at the end of the exhibition which is where this image is from.

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There are travel images yet also close to home images such as those of computers and printers. His setup looks not unlike mine!

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I like the single blocks of colour such as the beige “Lighter, unprocessed ultra 1” 2010; the photograph of this contains an outline selfie!

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17 years supply, 2014 (refers to medical supplies) is a very well lit photograph that looks stunningly real from a distance; I needed to go close up to make sure it was not a sculpture. A reminder that Tilmanns did actually train as a photographer and is technically proficient. In fact, although from Germany which is where he now lives, he did study at art school in Bournemouth and lived awhile in London.

A lot of the work is pleasant to look at remaining free of easily definable meaning.

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Auto crusto a, 2017 has a touch of Martin Parr about it but the presence of the fly is different. The photograph above is of the poster used to advertise the exhibition.

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Ethiopian market is a huge photo without a trace of grain. Tillmans makes use of Photoshop to present his photography.

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I have limited interest in politics but a blow up of text about Saddam Hussein having no WMD that Western politicians refused to accept brings back memories of a time when the West got it wrong and went to war on a whim!

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The solid blocks of colour are also presented with marks on. These are hung around the walls while political print outs are on tables within the room. In fact, the large colour blow ups do not feel out of place here; they are allowed to merge with the other more grounded exhibits.

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Metallica is another theme that emerges. Car headlights also close ups of metallic objects.

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The images are varied; a lot of different subjects covered. From solid colour blocks to  intricate detail sometimes in the same image.

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The exhibition space is a labyrinth through which one is free to wander. One room contains large grey panels and blue walls; a sound system plays both music and sound bytes. One can sit here and relax, take a break from the main part of the exhibition! It is called “Playback Room” and is an ongoing project from 2014. The music is background rhythmic; I would happily get up and dance. The sound bytes are of human voices drawn from different sources. I could stay here for much longer but am in a group due to meet again soon! Reluctantly I leave this space!

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A lot of Tillmans published work is also displayed (under glass) including books and posters for exhibitions etc

There is also a video room that feels uncomfortable to me. A man runs on the spot facing a wall while in another image only a jogging shadow is seen. The music is discordant! Am not sorry to leave!

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A mosaic of portrait sized photos on one wall; one of these looks strange! Unlike the others it is not a straight image. The head looks as though it has mould on it!

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Simple yet amazing photographic reproductions!

Tillmans seems to be inviting us into a stream of consciousness … he says, “The beginning of the Iraq War was 14 years ago now!”

The photographs are unframed!! ” … encouraging the viewer to interact with the photograph as an object, rather than a conduit for an image.”

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We, a group of Open College of the Arts students, find some LUNCH and then CHAT in one of the rooms that the Tate Modern makes available! Some points are made …

_ Need to look at videos from exhibition. Is the artist successfully in saying what they want!? What about the way they are expressing it?

_ Display tables important in supplying necessary context. Keep a file of relevant information encountered!

_ Way images were hung with clips and tape etc

_ Show itself a giant collage !

_ Unconventional approach to exhibiting. Lack of logical order to exhibits.

_ Captions not next to images allows them to breathe; they are not entirely necessary.

_ Travel photography beside domestic views

_ Life is now deluged by a plethora of images as this exhibition demonstrates. Placing of images appropriate as well as varied.

_ Exhibition like an album, each room a different track! Not being told how to see the work.

_ Tender portraits made without judgement.

_ The lobster photograph which also has a fly; other artists like Damian Hirst have objectified animals in close up and made them large.

_ Tillmans has a lot of self confidence? Secret of his success? I think he has the ability to see!!

_ The Turner Prize has given Tillmans carter Blanche to do what he wants and forge a way for photographers generally!

_ Was the exhibition too much about Tillmans?? He is working with others!

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The Radical Eye: Modernist photography from the collection of Sir Elton John

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What is this exhibition about? The private collection of a very famous musician who is also well known for being gay, a fine collection of Modernist photography … yet this body of work from a variety of photographers has been curated and a monograph reproduced. I have not as yet read any reviews!

Adrian Earle writes an interesting piece in The Guardian; he sees the tonal depth inherent in the prints, a quality that most reviewers do not tend to notice. There is also mention of the frames which have been criticised as being too flamboyant; Sir John defends his choice of frames by saying the invaluable prints deserve it.


Another Guardian article is a meeting between Sir John and Sean O’Hagan


As one might expect, there is a homeo-erotic side to this exhibition but it is not overwhelming. After all, homosexuality did not have the legal status then that it has nowadays. Examples of this include the contact print of Kertesz’s Underwater Swimmer from 1917 to  Csik’s Diver in 1936 and maybe even Weston’s Gourd from 1927. There are however a selection of female nudes including Man Ray’s Juliet and Nieman from 1945 and Koppitz’s Movement Study from 1925.

What makes this exhibition worthwhile is the way it moves beyond personal choice to reflect the Modernist era of photography here seen as corresponding from about 1920 to 1950. The exhibition itself has been divided into sections such as portraiture and documentary as well as less obvious distinctions such as perspective and abstraction.

Something else that I like about this exhibition is that it is not too big. A little over 175 images is digestible assuming one has the time to view it all without rushing. One can enjoy the body of work without thinking one is missing too much although there is always going to be work that might be explored more deeply.

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I found the audio guide helpful particularly in the way it combined the curator’s view with Sir Elton John’s obvious love of photography. Reading the essays in the catalogue also helped; this is an exhibition worth studying as well as seeing.

My second visit to this exhibition is with students from The Open College of the Arts.

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Before visiting, I read through the text on the Tate website  relating to this exhibition that the college send us a link to and I can’t help notice the way that this exhibition is being hyped up. No doubt Sir Elton John’s name will encourage people to see this exhibition yet the mention that “An incredible group of Man Ray portraits are exhibited together for the first time, having been brought together by Sir Elton John over the past twenty-five years, including portraits of MatissePicasso, and Breton.” is misleading as many such portraits were exhibited by The National Portrait Gallery in 2013. When a gallery resorts to advertising the art it shows rather than providing an accurate context, the viewer can be discouraged or simply reminded that it is their own interaction with the work that matters rather than one mediated by commentators with vested interests.

The Tate website also suggests that “this is a chance to take a peek inside Elton John’s home” which does not really feature in the exhibition where the arrangement of photographs is not the same as in Sir John’s home although linked.  Clearly celebrity is being used to sell this exhibition rather than the fact that it is a stunning collection of major artworks from the Modernist period of photography.

The catalogue takes a more balanced approach.

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Simon Baker in his introduction quotes Moholy Nagy as saying “that we see the world with entirely different eyes” as a result of photography and that this has brought about an entirely “new vision “. What the Modernist period in photography generally considered as taking place between 1920 and 1950 saw was an attempt to establish photography as a medium in its own right rather than relying on a painterly approach.

An interesting quote on the photograph comes from Salvador Dali who describes it as “unprecedented reality“.

At the back of the catalogue, there is an essay by Shoair Mavlian, the curator, called  Between Precision and Abstraction which sounds like an accurate description of this era in photography that came later than the Modernism that affected other arts such as painting and literature of the latter part of the nineteenth century. One might of course argue that photography helped give birth to Modernism but that is not an argument to consider here. One might though ask whether Modernism is the best term to describe this era in photography! It actually corresponds with the Surrealist period.

Moholy Nagy commented “a knowledge of photography is just as important as that of the alphabet. The illiterates of the future will be ignorant of the use of  camera and pen alike.”  There are a lot of comments by Moholy-Nagy both in and around this exhibition; he had a great insight into the medium.

While photography benefited from advances in modern technology, this also allowed for further experimentation not possible previously.

OCA tutor Russell Squires explains that genres tend to blend into each other. To refer to this exhibition as Modernist is a loose term. Certainly it is a period when photography was establishing itself as an independent medium and put aside attempts to ape painting.

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Entrance to the exhibition: a member of staff objected to me photographing here!

A photo of Elton John inside the entrance is by Irving Penn and was made in 1997; more Surrealist than Modernist but then it is not really part of the exhibition though other earlier work by Penn is. Penn lived to 2009.

View from Berlin Radio Tower looking downwards by Moholy Nagy is a very experimental approach that manages to be both document and artistic composition in one.

Modernist  photographers were using black and white although some colour processes were available;

Many photographs in this exhibition are “vintage”‘ which means they were made not long after the time of shooting if not by the photographer then someone working under his direction.

Man Ray’s famous image “Noire et Blanche” from 1926 hangs above his bed both in print and negative form. Man Ray’s Pablo Picasso shows the artist with a belly even at a relatively young age. Other Man Ray portraits include those of the musician and composer Erik Satie, the surrealist Andre Breton and the artist Matisse.

Penn’s Salvador Dali is a portrait that differs from his others since the background has three sides not two as in the other Penn portraits. Of the photograph, Dali compared his painting as “hand-done colour photography”.

So many portraits of interesting people from the Modernist era are included here.

A Forgotten Model by George Platt is poignant; relevant to today’s treatment of women in the model business.

Gloria Swanson does not look very happy yet her eyes are piercing and gaze directly through the black lace that covers her face while being photographed by Edward Steichen.

Photographs emphasising the form of the body!

Herbert Bayer Lonely Metropolitan  What draws me to this image? I know it yet it also is mysterious. The fact I can’t pin down a single reason that makes me drawn to it is perhaps why.

Emmanuel Sougez Carnival is Dead another’s image featuring masks. This photographer has also made some interesting detailed studies as in those of wheat and tulips as well as cabbage.

FSA documentary approach resulted in some superb portraits such as Allie Mae Burroughs by Walker Evans and Migrant Mother by Dorothy Lange the latter being prominently placed so that it can be seen from other rooms

Just one Ansel Adams, a photograph of a lone church; this absence of his work is perhaps significant or it maybe that Adams is not really considered to be a Modernist.  Ostrich Egg by Man Ray is an excellent example of tonal rendition in a photographic print during the early days of the medium. Adams was very influential in improving the basic quality of black and white prints..

A couple of noisy children are in the gallery being pushed around in a double push chair. Their mother tries hard to keep them quiet but without success.

While surrealism is inherent in the medium of photography, many of the photographs in this exhibition reveal a Cubist influence.

Kertesz works reveal his brilliance. Not Polish as Elton John says during the video installation but Hungarian like Moholy Nagy.

Edward Weston writes in 1924 that “The camera should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself…

The Modernist era, (one might question the applying of that label to this exhibition), is always encouraging as it saw photography creating new guidelines that are largely unique to the medium.

The OCA discussion follows for an hour afterwards. This tends to be rather opinionated with familiar voices airing their grievances while our tutor for the day, Russell Squires, is hardly listened to yet graciously concluded afterwards that there was at least a discussion.  Much of it seemed to centre around Elton John who was not what the exhibition was about; the obsession with celebrity though played a part in this exhibition! Some of the criticism from students seems based on ignorance; they have not done their research or looked very far into the information about this exhibition. Most students however are reasonably quiet and listen; some provide valid viewpoints based on observation rather than prejudgement.

I enjoy seeing other OCA students I know and meeting ones I do not. In spite of lively exchanges on Facebook and in the forums, it is good to see a human face to face.

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A visit to the Rene Magritte Museum



from a photograph by Duan Michals

As with everything, I live in the mystery.” Magritte to Carl Wai, Bruxelles April 1967.

Before travelling to Bruxelles to see this museum exhibition for the second time, the first was a few years ago soon after this larger museum opened (there is also another one based around a house he occupied for many years) I decided to do some research into the artist to try and get to the bottom of his message. In this I have not been successful since I do not think there is a bottom line to Magritte or is it that there is no top to his work!? Continuing the interview with Carl Wai, given not long before his death in august 1967, Magritte says, “There has to come a moment when suddenly mystery is no longer an object that can be talked about … ” and about his painting he says that it “evokes mystery, but it is conceived in order to evoke it.”


a variation on the pipe theme !

There is one famous work of his, a painting of a pipe while underneath is written the words “this is not a pipe” ( Ceci n’est pas une pipe). The “treachery of images” is an understanding that is not unique to Magritte but has roots in semiology and particularly the work of De Saussure. Magritte was a thinker who painted.

While I do not find it easy to explore the written work of Magritte, he was after all a painter who worked visually, the following lines full of mystery do make some more obvious sense … “It’s a complete break with the mental habits of those artists who are prisoners of their talent, their virtuosity. The point is a new vision, where the viewer rediscovers his isolation and hears the silence of the world … Neither modest nor proud, I’ve done what I thought I had to do.” (From L’Express, Paris, 16’th January 1967).


from a photograph by Duan Michals

This year marks 50 years since Magritte’s death though I have not as yet heard anything about this anniversary. The details of his life do not seem so important yet he did not adopt a Bohemian kind of life style in the sense that he was married to one woman and appeared to live an ordinary life. He referred to himself as a double agent.


work by Gavin Turk

I walk to the museum from my hotel. It takes me about half an hour as I wander along an indirect route. In the museum entrance, there is a security guard. After buying tickets in the foyer along with use of an audio-guide, I go down to level 2 to put my coat and bag in a locker. There is a Magritte exhibition here before entry that includes two art pieces by Gavin Turk, a U.K. artist, who made models of Magritte’s works (cripple and oscar) in the year of Magritte’s death, 1967.


Words and Images (Les Mots et les Images)

There are also three large black and white photos of Magritte by Duan Michals on the walls, a blow up of his diagrammatic Words and Images, (Les Mots et les Images), and a series of 8 Magritte painting reproductions in a circle above and around the entrance hall.

One then enters the museum proper by means of a lift which now takes one up to the third floor. Magritte’s work used to be scattered around the place mostly in different Belgian museums and departments until it was decided to bring it into one place so the public could focus on the work of this one man. Although regarded as one of the great Surrealists, Magritte was only really a member of the group lead by Andre Breton for a relatively short time while living in Paris for three years with his wife.


More larger than life black and white photographs are on the third floor.

Magritte’s early life was marked by the suicide of his mother when aged only 14, first meeting his wife to be at around 15 and studying fine art, learning the necessary tools of the trade which he regarded as important if not essential. He came into contact with Dadaism and was involved with Surrealism. Some of his early work reveals a Cubist influence.


painting made by Magritte using his wife as a model

Following meeting his wife to be when she was only 12 at a fairground in Charlesroi, Magritte (the I in his name is short so that the second part sounds a bit like grit) met her again some years later in a park by accident and after that they never seperated. Georgette Magritte donated much of the work on show in the museum.

Initially, Magritte came into contact with Futurism and Impressionism which made a great impact on him. His earlier work in this style did not however sell and he was forced to undertake what he called “idiot work” that included designing wallpaper and covers for musical scores (his brother was a music publisher).

Colluding with artists inspired his early work and also resulted in a newspaper called 7  Arts which stated “Art is an active expression of civilisation” and “Art is an organised invention”; one has to create an art based in the present without any references to the past. This paper was challenged by the Surrealists with whom Magritte was already drawn to; he therefore left the constructivist Bauhaus based artists under accusation that he was being Bourgeois.

The Shooting Gallery (La Salle d’Armes) from 1926 is an example of the early Surrealist influence.


It is interesting to see how photography plays an important part in this museum to recreate the era Magritte lived in yet also as a counterpoint to his work; his art has a photogenic quality. One feels that were he alive today, he would be using computer software like Photoshop. The museum walls are black as if the viewer is inside a vast photographic album! Magritte was not however interested in developing photography as an art form although he did use it to document goings on, ideas for paintings perhaps and to create little cameos with friends.


Paintings like The Man from the Sea (L’homme du Large) from 1927, mark the beginnings of Magritte’s unique approach.

Magritte was more profoundly influenced by painters such as De Chirico. Chirico was creating something genuinely new unlike the Futurists who were more concerned with discovering just a new way of painting. Paintings like The Man from the Sea (L’homme du Large) from 1927, mark the beginnings of Magritte’s unique approach.


Paul Nouget, painted by Magritte in 1927

Paul Nouget, painted by Magritte in 1927, was a Belgian critic who regarded the 7 Arts as too formalistic and espoused Surrealism. Magritte was drawn  to him as were others and so the Belgian Surrealist group was born; they maintained independence from the French Surrealists.

Georgette emphasised an important function of Magritte’s work. He thought of something, he painted that something, the viewer saw what he painted … there was nothing more to it than than that and to look for symbolic meanings is fruitless.

In 1927, Magritte went to Paris with Georgette, hoping to find a more appreciative public and drawn by the Surrealists, went to Paris for three years. He did not become close with the Surrealists and eventually argued with Andre Breton who ordered Georgette to remove the cross hanging around her neck that was a gift from her grandmother. Magritte had absorbed the Surrealist message in his own way.


In 1929, Magritte sketched his famous Words and Images that was published in The Surrealist Revolution, December 1929, Paris. This is easy to read and consider yet the meaning is profound hence requiring contemplation.

The first gallery ends with a reproduction of the pipe image, the treachery of images, as the original is in Los Angeles, California. The text hear reads “this continues not to be a pipe.” Simply put, one can not put any tobacco into the pipe Magritte has painted; it is the representation of a pipe not an actual pipe, a simple truth that needs stating even more today than ever in our image saturated world.

Magritte using painting to say what the mind wants to but is not yet known. This is second hand translation and seems to miss the point. In fact, Magritte in translation seems compromised often with words assuming different meanings. An example is the painting called L’homme du Large in French but The Man from the Sea in English. The French word directly implies size which the English translation misses.

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Louis Scutenaire is seen smoking and wearing a helmet

On level 2, there are some cameos playing. These little dramas are spiced with Surrealistic humour and feature Little Red Hood; Magritte liked Lewis Carrol. One of his friends, Louis Scutenaire, is seen smoking and wearing a helmet; there is much footage of his wife, Georgette.

Although basically chronological, this exhibition jumps around a little as different influences in his life are explored.

Magritte returned from Paris in 1930. He had to return to advertising work to make a living but after some years his work started to sell.

He painted a statue of the Venus de Milo, giving her a flesh coloured coat. Paul Nuget commented on this as did Andre Breton. Magritte started to be exhibited.

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God is no Saint

Titles play an ambiguous role in Magritte’s work and were conceived later in the process of making a painting. For instance, a bird possibly a Jackdaw, perched on the side of a shoe is called “God is no Saint.” Birds feature frequently in Magritte’s work but have no stated symbolic meaning. Life is a mystery!

Using painting to create another dimension, another space … as in a door with a shape cut in it. Depth! A partially hidden layer.

Symbols that Magritte used were the sky, the sea, small spherical bells and, as with other Surrealists, mirrors.  Play of day and night. Metamorphosis. Stone, cloud. Crescent moon. Trees, eggs, dusk … his visual vocabulary. Bowler hatted, figure in coat, houses,

During the war, Magritte started using bright colours in a more impressionistic style. Trees which bore one large leaf instead of many (The Blaze, 1943), a group of owls growing from the ground like leaves (the companions of fear, 1942) and also in 1942, Treasure Island, with doves growing out as plants. Andre Breton was not enthused.

Magritte embraced Communism for awhile after the war and attempted to get them to see that art could be practiced in its’ own right rather than in the service of the state. He failed like others who tried, to get the communists to see this and so discarded them. He was accused of lacking political conviction and called a capitalist; by now his work was selling and being exhibited in America.

In 1947, Magritte was banished from the Surrealist group. He entered a period called “Vache” in which he made a group of paintings that were intended for a show in Paris. This included copying the style of painting found in comics. Gavin Turk is a British artist who has made sculptures from this period.

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portrait of Adrienne Crowet (1942)

Magritte sometimes undertook Portrait commissions; these were not straight pictures and showed his unique style as in the portrait of Adrienne Crowet (1942).

Magritte initially did not appeal to the Americans with his Renoirlike style and was told to continue with his former style much to his mortification. He eventually died on Assumption Day 1967.

Magritte did achieve success towards the end of his life but too late for him to really enjoy it. He did not care if a painting sold for a million because such success was based on a misunderstanding. Magritte remained true to himself.

He did have an influence on the modern world as with his Apple , adopted by the Beatles and perhaps giving way to the huge company of that name! Magritte regarded Pop Art as a watered down form of Dadaism; often it did not require much original thinking as perhaps in the multiple photos of soup cans.

In some ways, the last room is of most interest as it shows Magritte’s later work with which I am most familiar. Here, he does seem to have produced some of his best work.

Magritte was a cerebral painter, searching for something in his work. He sometimes left the titles of works to others and certainly did not agree with psycho-analytical interpretations of his work.

The Masked Ball is a strikingly mysterious image showing the sun rising or setting over the sea with a monolithic stone in the foreground. (The Masked Ball, 1958). A haunting beauty or is it just another sunrise/sunset image.

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His last painting which features a full moon in front of rather than behind the leaves of a tree and reveals a night sky with houses on the horizon, lights lit, is called The Blank Page.

Salvador Dali described him as an exemplary painter who should be used in every school in the world to illustrate what poetry is. Magritte did not know the real reason for his painting.

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A Magritte altered to fit into a local cafe

The mass reproduction of his images is really the realisation of his concept that the image is really only the vehicle for an idea.

After the shop, the cinema where a film about Magritte is playing. Painting a tool for him. The movie seems to add its’ own narrative which rather distorts what the exhibition has shown yet it is obvious he could not have done what he did without his wife, Georgette. Magritte did not play the role of artist yet he was undoubtedly one. He discovered what he had to paint. De Chirico a major influence; from the classical world while Magritte was part of the modern one.

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The museum shop is considered to be part of the exhibition

One item I purchase (along with cards, fridge magnets, books, a mug, a badge) is the catalogue of the recent Magritte retrospective at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. This gives an updated contemporary view of Magritte as a philosophic individual who painted. He managed to continue his own path and not be drawn too far into the Surrealist school which did not really accommodate him. The catalogue is yet another narrative about Magritte and one senses that the Musee Magritte gives a more authentic one. After all, the Surrealists were largely poets and saw words over images unlike Magritte who saw that images could take precedence over words.

The recent retrospective exhibition in Paris was called The Treachery of Images after Magritte’s famous “This is not a pipe” image which makes a statement about semiotics rather than merely being a witty Surrealist gesture. There is also an image of an apple that is followed by text, “this is not an apple”. The admiration of an object because it is a painted representation rather than the real object might be ultimately misleading! The Parisian exhibition seems to have done a good job of revealing Magritte’s attempt to reveal that paintings are false, they do not actually show what they claim to represent.

“Making thought visible!” was essential to Magritte’s work.

An interesting aspect to Magritte’s work is the fact that he came into contact with many different schools of art … constructivist, Bauhaus, Dada, expressionist, futurist and of course, Surrealist … he seemed to have absorbed and rejected such influences to find his own way.

creative writing workshop with Stephen Moss 18.02.2017


our meeting was held in the west room at The Brewhouse, Taunton

I arranged this day at The Brewhouse Theatre in Taunton with Stephen Moss, a former BBC producer responsible for the award winning Springwatch programme, who now teaches Nature and Travel Writing at Bath Spa University. Creative writing is a degree pathway at The Open College of the Arts and I was interested in supporting writers rather than photographers for a change. In fact, there were more photographers than writers present but this did not matter as writing is something we are all likely to do not just to support it but enhance it; photographs usually require captions and I did one assignment where words assumed equal importance alongside the photographs.

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Stephen Moss talking to us at the workshop

Before the meeting actually began, some of us met beforehand at a small cafe-restaurant nearby to discuss OCA issues which tend to centre around distance learning and in particular the subject of the courses we do and the tutors we often do not meet. These days are as much therapy as learning experiences.


The Boathouse: next door to the venue. We met here for lunch and a chat beforehand.

After a brief introduction to the day from myself, Anna Godchild talked a little about the South West OCA which has acquired funding for a series of events this year. Anna was also the first to introduce herself which everyone did in turn. Seven of us and I the only male; I sensed a feminine presence!!

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Stephen Moss soon launched into his representation which was about current nature writers and those who have preceded them. These included the following books to which I include links (these were also in the brochure I made beforehand) …

H is for Hawk by Helen Mac Donald is probably the bestselling contemporary nature book. This is an autobiographical account of rearing a goshawk which includes frequent references to The Goshawk by T.White. Mark Cocker writing about in The Guardian said, ” The English-speaking world has an old passion for books about creatures and captivating companions … Helen Macdonald looks set to revive the genre.” I have been listening to this as an audio-book. Another book that appeared recently is Looking for the Goshawk which I am also reading; although not nearly so interestingly written, it is relevant to my own experiences of encountering Goshawks in the countryside around my home.

Mark Cocker not only writes for The Guardian, he has written his own books including one about birdwatchers. The one I liked is Crow Country. Stephen suggested we read an article by Mark Cocker published in The New Statesman which questions the present state of nature writing and wonders ” … how much do its authors truly care about our wild places?”

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some of the nature books I bought along for the day

Another author mentioned was Richard Mabey, whose book The Unofficial Countryside has recently been rereleased. I have been reading him for awhile but did not much like his Nature Cure book.

I made a video of this session and am sending the edit to the Open College of the Arts.

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walking along the River Tone

We broke after this talk and went for a saunter along the Tone towards the weir at Firepool Lock; the name suggests an industrial past and indeed we see some old building work suggesting this yet nowadays it is largely surrounded by new residential housing. Fortunately, the sun was shining and a winter day felt more like a Spring one.

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signs of Taunton’s old industrial past at Firelock

We saw a lot of different birds on the way and chatted with Stephen.

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swans on the River Tone; not all swans are owned by the queen!

After the walk we came back and wrote short pieces of our own; mine is included here.

A low Winter sun beams across the  river, burnishing buildings and water; birds move across the stage that has been set. As people pass, too close for avian comfort, the winged creatures rise with a flutter, audible above the discordant background hum of city life. Yet the birds cling on here and large Herring Gulls nurture their young in the shade of a supermarket whose trolleys sometimes find their way into the murky river depths to act as safe stations for watery delights. Ducks too are not to be disturbed for here they know they will be indulged with bread thrown at them but never hitting; instead food of a questionable nature yet not questionable to the ducks who gobble it up.

Smaller birds are here too, wagtails, both Grey with its misleading yellow colours, and Pied also known as Chiswick flyover, the Chiswick not referring to a place but the sound it makes. One of the smallest birds in the country is here too, a Goldcrest singing sweetly from a tree.

There are of course other birds in the quiet corner of a city centre, robins and blackbirds, moorhens and white Swans, though one swan still has a slice of brown threaded across its body marking it out as an immature.

There is other wildlife here that we don’t see such as the otters. Then suddenly we are back in the city again where life continues apparently unaware of what we have just seen and experienced. No longer the dank smell of water bank now the invisible asphyxiation of chemical fumes.



Masters of Japanese Photography @ UEA Sainsbury Centre


There seems to be a lot of interest in Japanese photography and yet not a lot of coverage. Japan has produced and continues to produce a lot of photobooks yet these can inflate in price considerably if not bought when they are published. Even a small book of writings by Japanese photographers  has multiplied in price since I bought it; what cost me £16.50 a few years now sells for £140 while second hand prices are over the £300 mark.


Although the morning is sunny and fresh in North Norfolk, my friends and I drive down to Norwich to see this exhibition of Japanese master photographers at the UAE Sainsbury Centre. It is important for me and the reason I have come to East Anglia. I do some research beforehand and yet am surprised on entry to see a lot of smartly printed colour photographs, flowers by Nobuyoshi Araki; I was expecting gritty black and white imagery often with distinctly out of focus areas and not a lot of tone in the prints along with a lack of formal composition. Yet Japanese photography has changed since the 1960’s and 70’s although these photographers were working at that time.


Araki‘s first flower “Tokyo Still Life” (2001), a digital RP Direct Print, that shows the luscious  centre of a flower with surrounding petals. There is sensuality in this oversized upfront colour saturated image. A series of 12 more follow, hung in two rows, one above the other; these are earlier cibachrome prints from 1997 and are called Flower Rondeau.

The very first image of the exhibition, seen on entry hanging beside the introductory text, is Araki’s deeply sensual photograph of a attractively dressed Japanese woman sucking at a watermelon. The sexual innuendo of this photograph is both striking and a little uncomfortable  as the face of the woman  betrays little emotion as she sucks on watermelon that looks rather like a phallus.


Araki’s other work features women, two in bondage of which there is a tradition in Japan; the word kinky does have a Japanese etymology in fact. The kinky images are both in colour but the other photos of women are black and white images, well printed. The reclining nude at the centre from 1955 titled 1995 is in fact in colour though there is little to see,  has a classical feel that would not be out of place in Western art. Has Araki compromised over the years with a foreign culture that early post-war photographers felt at odds with?


The photographs of Eikoh Hosoe feature his well known work, Ordeal by Roses although it was initially called Killed by Roses. This work comes from the 1960’s and is composed of silver gelatin prints. It features a male model, the author Yukon Mishima who had originally asked Hosoe to photograph him. Hosoe later made this body of work at his own request! The images sometimes feature roses, often double or more exposures, Botticelli’s Venus … there is a surrealistic undertone!  There is a lot of naked flesh but there are themes running through the work that do not make it pornographic or even sexual. This is work that needs contemplating for awhile.


Kikuji Kawada is the third artist. His images feature cosmology, images of the moon and sun also stars and clouds. Made during the  1980’s and 1990’s as the third part of the Catastrophe Series and called The Last Cosmology, these images are associated with the end of the Showa period in Japan.

Only 60 photographs in this exhibition yet a lot of these images stand on their own and need time to consider and understand. They are often striking yet their meanings are not not immediately apparent.


There are a few books on a table featuring the work of the photographers. One I have, a photobook by Hosoe. There is a photofile edition about Araki in which it says of Araki, “he has consciously stripped himself of any kind of systematic aesthetic: he does not like what is called beauty … he does not believe in it.” He is not so much interested in photographing bondage rather the reaction of a person undergoing that experience. The French critic Alain Jouffroy advises one not to judge Araki too quickly and this is perhaps true of this exhibition as a whole.

As always, I could have spent more time here;  further reading seems essential particularly when informed by this exhibition. One OCA student who h lives in Japan comments “if you are really interested in contemporary work of Japanese photographers, just google: Kenta Cobayashi, Daisuke Yokota, Takashi Homma, Yosuke Morikawa, Motoyuki Daifu, Koji Onaka, Futoshi Miyagi, Osamu Kanemura, Tamami Iinuma, Yosuke Takeda, Chihiro Mori, Kenji Hirasawa, Taisuke Koyama, Yosuke Yajima, Rui Mizuki, Lieko Shiga, Kazuo Yoshida, Fumiko Imano… I would also recommend the:  http://spacecadet.jp or http://gptokyo.jp  for regular updates.

Is this exhibition contemporary? The photographers are all still alive and working but most of the work here is at least a decade old. Personally, I like it for the view it gives of Japanese photography.

Barthes on photography as art

The final chapter of Barthes’ “Camera Lucida” starts by stating …

Society is concerned to tame the Photograph.”

Such a statement sounds forthright. Barthes continues by saying that the first way society tries to tame photography is by “making photography into an art, for no art is mad.”

It seems that almost everyone is trying to laud photography as an art and make it acceptable as such yet Barthes is someone who does not go along with this train of thought; he is an original thinker.

War Photography: meeting Edmund Clarke and visiting a holocaust memorial

A talk arranged with the photographer/artist Edmund Clarke by the OCA yet it seems few students are coming; there is a women’s march in London and also an OCASA lead event for OCA students. When I arrive and make enquiries at the information desk, nothing is known about the scheduled talk. I text Gareth who is representing the OCA today, as CEO rather than tutor; he replies and sorts the matter out so that after spending almost an hour in the exhibition, I know where to find the meeting room which is on another floor.


Edmund Clarke

We are going to be given a private showing of the exhibition and will have the chance to discuss it. The obvious question would be how much control was placed on the photographer by those who allowed him to photograph? Clarke later answers this question in full.

Clarke has produced a number of bodies of work including a series about Guantanamo Bay, a well known prison for terrorists that the previous president, Obama, tried but was unable to close down as well as a series about a control order house where people are kept in detention. I have seen Clarke’s work before and am struck by reference to yet absence of the human being. Other bodies of work on show are Negative Publicity about extraordinary rendition and Letters to Omar also a video piece called One Day on a Saturday.

Apart from photographs Clarke has made on location, there is a lot of contextual information.  A letter from a child to his imprisoned father for instance but also documentation relating to detention of people some of whom are being held without formal charges. Court documents for instance give a detailed insight into legal issues surrounding arrests.

Habeas Corpus means one has the legal right to challenge any kind of detention; this right has been ignored in the war on terror which is really the subject of this show.

Part of the  exhibition is said to be not suitable for those under 14!

We meet in Teaching Room 3 on Level 2. Edmund Clarke is already present with Gareth Dent and two other students, one of them being crazylady who I have not seen for awhile. By 13.03 all students have arrived apart from 1 who never shows making just 6 of us.

We start by talking about American politics, the 45’th president of America, Donald Trump.

Clarke talks about his work. Not a straight photographer because he also uses other media. Uses different cameras. The subject of his work is interesting, informative. He has done a few books with Aperture and Dewi Lewis a well as a smaller publisher. Works closely with designers of books. Draws on documents from official sources.

Using words to communicate images rather than the actual image. This body of work is called Orange

Negotiation process required to get access to make this kind of work. For instance, visiting Guantanamo took 6 months. Backing from British magazine, help from a lawyer, restrictions on work such as need to use digital cameras so the authorities can check what has been photographed. Photographed within certain parameters but this was not too much of a problem.

Took two years to get access to the control house he photographed. Needed a solicitor to help him get the permission to photograph.   Clarke does not have a big audience!

The authorities have not got back to him over any of the work he has done. Is Clarke helping terrorists? None of the people he has worked with have been convicted of terrorism offences. Clarke has played a part in exposing illegal activities by Western governments. So much about the war in terror is communicated through imagery.

Terrorism is going on in our midst. The war on terror has become part of our everyday lives.  Clarke is documenting this.

How did this exhibition come to the Imperial War Museum? At first, the idea for an exhibition did not work out but later two curators were involved. War not just about guns and tanks and men in uniform! New form of conflict. The Imperial War Museum shows consequences of conflict whatever kind.

Clarke does not really know why the Home Office allowed him to do the work he did. Owing to support from a solicitor, they could not in the end stop him.

Does Clarke feel he has been able to photograph enough? He does though is aware of subjects he could have covered more fully. His work is about secrecy and its implications.

I ask Clarke about the absence of the human image in his work which seems to be an important part of his work. He replies that is an essential part of his work and if he did show pictures of the people he is dealing with, then superficial notions would result of what a terrorist looks like and the main subject, terror, would be avoided.

How does Clarke protect himself mentally and emotionally? He manages to cope with the subject of torture also secrecy and terror, disorientation. About the lack of legal process around rendition of people.

Not trying to tell people what to think.

We visit the exhibition with the photographer.

He explains the large photograph of a wood with part of it digitised so as to obscure the dwelling of one of those people apparently responsible for torture. Clarke has censored part of the photograph in case the person who lives there feels it necessary to take action against him, claiming a freedom he has denied others.

Exhibition includes a film about the way the exhibition was put together. He worked with an investigator.

His imagery has a disorientating narrative to give the feeling of the disorientation that prisoners feel. Subjects photographed include a mobile force feeding chair, cell interiors, interrogation space, eating area, uniforms with helmets left standing outside a door.

A lot of this work refers to something other rather than photographing it directly. Everything from documents where the interesting material has been blacked out to locations devoid of people even though they are interiors some domestic.

Clarke gives more background to his work, explaining how he interacted with people. The documentation includes letters to prisoners notably Omagh; this provides an angle into his subject that photographs could not furnish.

Section 4 part 20 is a film Clarke made. Images blend into each other. An expressionless female American voice talks. There is also a man’s voice talking about how he is tortured for information. The images show none of this but are pastoral in nature, a counter balance to the voices.

Clarke also photographed someone under a control order or more specifically the environment! Details of the house for instance. Clarke interested in control and its’ relationship to personal space. There is also documentation on show about the control order. There are floor plans of the control house illustrated on the floor of the gallery and a wall. A light box is used to illustrate a photograph of a curtained window, a clever idea as it enhances the light coming in from the window. Another two screens show very short videos one of which does contain a small part of a subject (his hands, belly and upper legs) who suggests anxiety in the way he moves his fingers and breathes.

One whole gallery is taken up with detailed shots of the control house. JPEG images printed at about 9 by 6 inches. Someone presumably a child has used a pen to draw lines across some of the images.

Clarke presently finds himself moving more towards documentation rather than into photography. This is one aspect of his work I question since although I can understand the conceptual nature of his work I still see photographs that require explanation as somewhat problematic. However, photographs do need some kind of context even if they are beautiful landscapes!

The day ends with us leaving the exhibition and going downstairs to get a book signed by Edmund Clarke. He has three books for sale in the shop and I decide on the body of work about Guantanamo Bay where suspects relating to the bombing of the Twin Towers or 9/11 have been held, mostly without trial or charges brought, which is illegal under international law. The book is a chilling reminder of what goes on these days and an excellent example of a photobook.


historic town centre Mechelen Belgium

Almost a week later, I find myself in Bruxelles and it is World Holocaust Day. This is surprising news because this was unknown to us when we booked to go and see Kazerne Dossin, described as a memorial, museum and documentation centre on the holocaust and human rights. We walked through the old part of Mechelen to reach the museum, a new building but constructed from an older one.

Of Mechelen, Wikipedia says the following, pointed out by travelling companion Hans Craen … “Most cities in Flanders have a mock name for their inhabitants. Since 1687, for their heroic attempt to fight the fire high up in the Saint-Rumbold’s Tower, where the gothic windows had shown the flaring of only the moon between clouds, Mechlinians have been called Maneblussers (moon extinguishers).”


a willow growing outside the Kazerne Dossin

The museum stands on the edge of the old Jewish area and opposite the former army barracks, four rooms of which were set aside for holding Jewish people before they were transported to concentration camps where they were usually either gassed soon after arrival or forced into hard labour.


entrance to the old barracks where Jews were kept prior to transportation

I do not find this an easy visit. The use of photographs with accompanying text is somewhat overpowering. The photographs are well made documents yet nothing more than that … they do the job of showing what is going on but do not touch one directly. There is audio and video to conjuring up a time when a different kind of terror ruled and a race was systematically persecuted.


kind of carriage used for transporting Jews


a video gives an introduction to the museum; it deals with anti-semitism


photographs of Jewish victims on the museum walls