Vermeer Centre Delft

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coot nesting on a canal in Delft

One wanders from the station through the old town of Delft past churches along canals.


The Vermeer Centre and former Guild of Saint Luke

The Vermeer Centre is housed in a building that was the place where the painter’s guild Vermeer headed was based. There is of course a shop selling the predictable bric a brac as well as books.


view of Delft on stairs

I hire an audio-guide and wander downstairs, admiring a large reproduction of “View of Delft” on the way. The view is barely unrecognisable now, much having changed since the 17th century when Delft was considered one of the most beautiful townscapes of its time.

On entering the basement level, there is a short video playing on a loupe, Dutch and English. It recreates the historical setting, what the town looked like then and the influence of the Dutch East Indian Company. It also recounts the fatal explosion of 1654.


early paintings

Vermeer’s first three paintings were biblically and mythologically inspired. Caravaggio can be seen as an influence but it is not known who his teachers actually were. Leonaert Bramer is one suggestion. Vermeer’s father was an art dealer and weaver. There were many talented artists living and working in the city. Copying or being directly inspired by other artists was a recognised practice.

reflection in window

in close up one can see the reflection of the woman in the window pane

Although the paintings are only reproductions, one can see details I had not noticed before such as in “A girl reading a letter by an open window” in which her face is reflected in the window giving a different albeit vague view of her face. In “woman holding a balance” it can be seen that the woman is pregnant, a taboo subject at that time.


a pregnant woman was considered a taboo subject at that time


The Little Street is full of detail and the commentary argues against the likelihood of camera intervention because of the composition although the very isolation of this part of the street does to me suggest a camera as in a narrow confine photographs often have no option but to reveal a cropped scene. It seems likely that Vermeer added details to The Little Street since the street scene bears characteristics not likely to have existed in Delft at that time. The location was finally rediscovered in 2015!

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“The Little Street” as it is today; part of the original painting has been inserted!

The Milkmaid stands out from other works as it features someone of more humble origins.


The Milkmaid

Wine and pewter jugs are a repeating detail; as in “The Glass of Wine”.

pregnant woman

The Glass of Wine

sky detail

Vermeer’s skill in reproducing light is evident in the view of Delft where the clouds come under scrutiny. This appears to have been a time when the Dutch were not only discovering and exploiting the outside world they were also becoming more conscious of the interiors of their homes and placed a high value on family life.

There is mention of Vermeer’s friend, it is assumed, van Leeuwenhoek who was a contemporary of Vermeer (they were born a few days apart in the same area of Delft) and pursued the science of that time. However, no mention of van Leeuwenhoek’s interest in and acquisition of optics and the likelihood of Vermeer becoming interested in using the camera obscura as a result!

Art of Painting

“The Art of Painting” Vermeer

“The Art of Painting” (see above) has a special place in the work of Vermeer. It was never sold and on his death, documentation reveals it was passed by his widow to a close relative. It is now in Vienna. No evidence of any use of optics here!

Girl with Pearl Earing

“Girl with a Pearl Earing” Vermeer

“Girl with a Pearl Earing” has achieved iconic status; it suggests a young woman on the edge of adulthood!?

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“The Guitar Player” Vermeer

The “guitar player” is a personal favourite which I have tried to recreate on more than one occasion. She is described by the Vermeer Centre as “not being disturbed in her playing” and that “it is perhaps Vermeer’s most cheerful painting”. The landscape painting in the background might be significant.

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Vermeer made a number of paintings featuring women and music. His last three covered this subject! Earlier works include “The Music Lesson” and “The Lute Player” also “The Concert” and “The Love Letter” in which a woman holds what appears to be a lute.

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last three “known” paintings by Vermeer

On the second floor, one is invited to unlock the secrets of Vermeer’s paintings. What Vermeer saw and what he showed us were two different things!


The first part of this floor is dedicated to Vermeer’s application of light; we are asked to believe that “Vermeer is light!” I think that elevating Vermeer to the level of Christ is misleading but analysis of his approach to light interesting.

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Clear and Bright” coming from one side hence directional. Initially more important and striking than subject matter.

Light on light” so that there can be different tones of white some of which can be altered with additional blue. Figures have white backgrounds whereas Rembrandt often employed black backgrounds.

Falling light” is never harsh often being broken by window panes, curtains etc Different intensities with different effects.

Mirror images” is another device Vermeer uses and reflected light plays an important part in some paintings. Of course, the reflected images may be manipulated by Vermeer into enlargening the narrative of his paintings!

High light” refers not to the fact that the light is coming from above although this is sometimes the case owing to high windows, but to the specular highlights that feature in his work and are illustrated with a blob of white paint.

3-light studio

view of different kinds of light from The Light Studio at The Vermeer Centre

All these kinds of light are actually illustrated by light falling on to a wall in a cubicle.  An outstanding piece of museum creatorship in my view.


Details of the colours used by Vermeer. To a photographer these are of interest as Photoshop allows for refinement of colour either for effect or correction. The main colours he used in varying intensity are blue, red and yellow; a CMYK view rather than RGB. His tools however are not so appealing to the photographer !


camera obscure by a window; one could see people moving outside on the street

The museum contains a working camera obscura through which one can see the street outside. The curator however questions whether Vermeer actually used one as there is no piece of hard evidence to suggest he did. Experts however do agree that Vermeer did; the question is as to the manner and extent of that use. What Vermeer was good at was his handling of space; quiet encounters in constructed spaces.

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It seems he did use a technique of the time which involved stretching string across the canvases to aid in creating perspective as in the floor tiles. X rays of paintings show holes to the edges where pins were placed to support this practice. Another argument against extensive use of the camera obscura which the Vermeer Centre does not encourage very much.

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details about the restoration of The Woman in Blue

There is a fascinating film about restoration work carried out at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam of Woman in blue reading a letter. Various levels were encountered in the surface of paint and different kinds of photography were used to decipher the original. The restoration made the original size of the painting visible as well as the original blue!


photographing myself with an iPhone to create a kind of Vermeer selfie !

There is also an intriguing setup to allow one to make a Vermeer selfie.

On the top floor, an exhibition space explores the different kinds of love found in Vermeer’s paintings. The Romantic with allusions to landscape and music as in The Concert also A lady seated at a Virginal and a Lady Standing at a Virginal, the last containing Cupid images; Seductive Love in which a glass of wine featured also fruit and musical scores as in The girl with a wine glass and the Wine Glass as well as Officer and Laughing Girl; Paid Love is the subject of The Procuress; Unattainable Love is the subject of The Love Letter in which various symbols are evident including a musical instrument, slippers, a broom, a ship and a figure walking away.


Vermeer’s first home to the left; guild of St.Lucas centre background.

After visiting the Vermeer Centre, I walk around the town of Delft, visiting some of the spots associated with Vermeer. There is the place of his birth near the Vermeer Centre which was formerly The Guild of Saint Luke of which Vermeer was a member and twice head. The New Church (a few hundred years old) is a significant landmark nearby.

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New Church Delft

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The “view of Delft” today; the New Church spire (centre right) is the only recognisable landmark.

There is also the place where he painted his view of Delft although little of the original view remains however. One of the old city gates still exists but elsewhere.

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The Eastern Gate Delft

I spend a whole day in Delft and arrive back in The Hague at nightfall, feeling somewhat exhausted … too much culture perhaps … yet it is good to get a clearer understanding of Vermeer … there is so much to Dutch painting from the 17th century and yet one can not know it all … a taste helps!

Fotomuseum The Hague Holland 21.07.2017

When I stumbled upon the Fotomuseum in The Hague, I was put off by the name; museum suggests the past, the old, the forgotten and I was not encouraged by the possibility of such immersion. However, as I walked by the gallery I was struck by the fact there were three exhibitions showing and realised this was the chance to see new and different work. None of the names meant anything to me yet obviously these were highly competent photographers, ones that had found their way to Holland rather than the United Kingdom.

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Fotomuseum The Hague

When I stumbled upon the Fotomuseum in The Hague, I was put off by the name; museum suggests the past, the old, the forgotten and I was not encouraged by the possibility of such immersion. However, as I walked by the gallery I was struck by the fact there were three exhibitions showing and realised this was the chance to see new and different work. None of the names meant anything to me yet obviously these were highly competent photographers, ones that had found their way to Holland rather than the United Kingdom.

I excuse myself from the friends I am spending the weekend with and walk to the Fotomuseum which I chanced upon yesterday. The building is smart with a colourful exterior, brick and glass. There are a few books and cards on sale in the foyer where one can purchase a ticket.

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The first exhibition I am directed to is by Gerard Petrus Fieret, a photographer I have never heard of but described as the most “quirky and eccentric” of the 20th century. In fact, he only really photographed for about ten years between 1965 to 1975 yet built up a huge body of work during this time photographing anything and everything. The exhibition is titled “There are no failed photographs”.

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Fieret lived from 1924 to 2009 and appears to have been eccentric adopting a polarised attitude towards the Gemeentemuseum that eventually acquired his estate in 2010. Presumably he was Dutch; he lived and worked in The Hague as well as Leiden where he studied briefly. A statement of his intent reads “What I am looking for in photography is anarchy: in the context of conservative society,  my photographs are aggressive. An intense life full of passion – a sound passion for life, that’s what they’re about.

The black and white prints are not well made in the technical sense and the subject matter is often banal yet there is wonderful variety. A video about Fieret is shown in the gallery and this gives a good insight into the way he worked which was very playfully, an untutored haphazard approach yet celebrating life. He often photographed women during which time they would take their clothes off for him while he danced around. Much of his work consists of self-portraiture, an attempt to discover himself; “Who am I?” was his mantra yet he only ever encountered the external form.

The video is effective in showing him as a human rather than a deranged artist. However, Fieret did suffer from psychiatric problems and needed caring for towards the end of his life. One can’t help feeling this manic quality in his work and yet it provides a fantastic insight into bohemian life at an interesting time.

Fieret claimed “I am not a photographer; I am not even an artist … I am a visual art maker. I find the word ‘artist’ a bit too restrictive.

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The exhibition ends with touching portraits of Fieret by other photographers. He does not look deranged rather wise even if there is sadness in his eyes.

In addition to work held at the Fotomuseum in The Hague there is also an archive in Leiden University; it is considered his work will last much longer than that of his more well to do contemporaries. A sleeved photo book is on sale in the foyer and I purchase the French-English edition, a chance to reflect further on the work. The book seems poorly printed and hence probably not worth the cost which is much higher than one might expect for such a publication; an art book that will increase in value? I like the essays at the end that might point out something one has missed or just give a more considered insight into the work. Fieret’ book Le Monde Entier is probably the photo book of his work that defines him rather than a catalogue he had nothing to do with constructing.

Fieret had friends and supporters who not only allowed him to create a striking body of work but also preserved it. His brief training in art meant that he could work meaningfully as well as abstractly. There was a method to his madness!

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Peter Hujar self portrait

After a light lunch, the next exhibition I see is The Speed of Life by Peter Hujar. Like the Fieret exhibition, this is largely a retrospective and in black and white.

From the first two photographs, a gay theme is evident. A naked self-portrait of the photographer running followed by an image of a gay pride march allude to the identity of Hujar who operated at a time when the gay scene was not as open as it is now.

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Susan Sontag portrait (with gallery reflections!)

The photographs are beautifully made and well composed. The first one to really strike me is of Susan Sontag whose books I have read such as “On Photography” The image of her is well focused, the background allowed to blur slightly with the texture of her jumper, hair and face in good focus. The side view of Sontag has caught something of her character that a straightforward image might not; she appears to us as vulnerable in her prone position but in no way penetrable. The photograph was made in 1975 and is a gelatin silver print like most of the others here. A lot of the photographs are of people I have not heard of yet presumably important in their day. Hujar was associated for awhile with Warhol’s Factory. There is a list of people who were photographed and a brief description of them.

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I find the photographer’s biography outside the entrance to the gallery. Hujar was from New Jersey and he worked mostly for art’s sake though he did have a brief period of success in fashion which lead him to decide “it wasn’t right for me!” He accepted financial hardship for a life of creative freedom.

There are quite a few images of animals and nature such as water surfaces. The severed head of a cow is not typical and hence striking as is a snake hanging from a branch.

Hujar died in 1987 from AIDS. There is one monograph of his work from 1976 called Portraits in Life and Death while the catalogue to the exhibition is published by Aperture and simply called Peter Hujar. It seems that like Fieret, he was not an easy person to relate to. Joel Smith writes in the introduction that Hujar was “… difficult to know closely, to convince or dissuade. Difficult to save from his solitude, passing euphorias, self-castigation, fatalism, rage.” As Hujar said of himself, “I can express myself only through photography.”

Both these exhibitions are of late artists of a somewhat eccentric turn who seemed to have fallen on their swords to make art. As Kafka wrote, “In art one must throw one’s life away in order to gain it.”

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There are another few rooms of Hujar’s work to see, this time with white rather than grey walls. As a whole, the work does not inspire me yet there are many well made images. One wall I like shows an older man apparently in meditation while beside it is another Hudson River close up. Perhaps Hujar knew something of peace yet overall the portfolio suggests misery albeit human.

Recalling the first exhibition by Fieret, I sense a certain energy, a dynamism. Perhaps Hujar needs more attention but I have seen enough for one day.











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: or  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.