Richard Billingham

The Human Document makes engrossing study of suffering and desperation

humandoc3

Photographs of people facing despair and suffering, decades and thousands of miles apart, make up the engrossing exhibition The Human Document.

Subtitled The Photography of Persuasion from 1930s America to Present Day, the exhibition at the Mead Gallery, is based largely on works shown at a 1962 New York Museum of Modern Art exhibition, The Bitter Years.

This used 200 images taken in the 1930s by a group of photographers working for the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration Programme, with the aim of proving to better-off Americans the desperate state of rural communities and the need for the New Deal programme.

During the Second World War 70,000 prints and 170,000 negatives were transferred into the Library of Congress in Washington (and many are now available to be downloaded).

This exhibition shows many of the images from The Bitter Years exhibition, alongside photographs by contemporary photographers also documenting sides of life that would otherwise remain hidden to many people.

humandoc4

The American photographs are fascinating. All small and black and white, they show an unimaginable life. In the first image inside the door, by Arthur Rothstein, two wagon wheels lie in a pile of dust in front of abandoned farm, making the point that the resident of the shack behind isn’t going anywhere useful on their cart any more. Rothstein’s other images include an animal skull on cracked ground, and a withered crop. He also showed people being forcibly moved from living alongside a road to land between the Mississippi and the levee, and abandoned furniture of those on the move.

Marion Post Wolcott’s Old Negro shows a miserable man picking at a thread on his worn clothing. Ben Shahn has captured images of destitute Ozark people in Arkansas, including a girl clutching a damaged doll, itself wearing rags, and a little boy cuddling two kittens, his clothes as ragged as the those of the doll.

Dorothea Lange’s many images are some I kept returning to. She has photographed a sharecropping family on the move, mum in a bonnet clutching her baby, a sad little boy and anguished father.

She also pictured black cotton pickers, who worked from 6am-7pm for $1, and the image is hung next to another of hers, showing a fat white plantation owner with his car; the documentary and persuasive nature of the photographs is important to note too.

However it wasn’t as simple as black vs white; a white tenant family’s home is shown, a plain bed on the porch of a house propped up with bricks. Lange is particularly good at capturing images of young mothers, old before their time, trailing across the country with their husbands and children in search of any sort of better life.

humandoc1

Her photograph of the 32-year-old ‘migrant mother’ of seven children, Florence Thompson, pictured (above) with a baby and two young children in a pea picking camp, became a famous image, her tough life leaving her looking more like 45, and is included here, as well as a fascinating interview with Florence in the accompanying free catalogue. Despite her incredibly hard life she lived to 80, though her own mother had made 108.

Lange also photographed an old woman in Kern County migrant camp in California, her only comfort a rocking chair in an open-fronted tent.

There are countless images here all showing homelessness and suffering seen many times around the world, including of course now on the daily news.

The works by contemporary artists are mostly also from the west, and show a side of life missed by many. Three sets stand out.

Chris Killip’s photographs from the north of England from the 1970s-90s, show bleak back streets in Tynemouth, and what appear to be travellers but are specifically sea coalers, people who harvest then sell washed-up coal. Their messy camp and a little girl playing with a hoola-hoop next to a burnt-out fire and wrecked furniture document a difficult way of life at the time.

Paul Graham’s colour collection, Beyond Caring, is made up of covertly-taken photographs of people in social security offices. Fed-up faces, and bored body language dominate here. People forced into a community in the offices where they don’t communicate with anyone.

Richard Billingham’s Ray’s A Laugh series are painful for the knowledge they feature his own family. His dad falls from a chair in their cramped flat, or glares at a cat hissing on a cabinet cluttered with ornaments. His mum hand feeds a kitten, and his brother licks yoghurt from the lid of a basic brand.

Different times, and different viewpoints set the more recent works apart, but it’s a show not to be missed for work by talented photographers capturing images from the times they lived in, and looking to tell a story to others.

* Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre, University of Warwick, until December 10.

Advertisements

From the ruins of ancient Rome to Coventry’s conceptual artists in one packed day in London

A day trip to London for a gig always means an early start and a late night for me, and the chance to fit in a few exhibitions.

I got around five this time, and they were certainly varied.

First stop, the British Museum for Francis Towne’s watercolours of Rome. Towne, who lived 1739-1816, visited Rome in 1780-81 and made a large selection of paintings of its famous landmarks and the surrounding countryside. He continued to work on them for many years afterwards, and some have clearly added extra pieces of paper on the side or bottom, with the scene continuing, or extra trees added later.

In the British Museum’s lovely cool print room with its muted lights the watercolours are lovely, delicate and somehow relaxing. However they were not really appreciated in Towne’s lifetime, though they were first displayed together in 1805; this is the second time. Towne tried several times to be admitted to the Royal Academy, but was always rejected; he was from Exeter and hated being seen as a provincial drawing teacher. Small comfort that we can now go and enjoy them and he is appreciated as a skilled watercolourist. The exhibition is on until August 14.

In the gallery leading off the print room, is Krishna in the Garden of Assam, until August 15. Subtitled the cultural context of an Indian textile, the main piece is the largest surviving example of an Assamese devotional textile, the Vrindavani Vastra.

The nine metre long cloth, made in 12 segments, is covered in detailed scenes from the life of the Hindu god Krishna. It was made in the late seventeenth century, but oddly found its way to the British Museum via The Times journalist Perceval Landon when he was covering the Younghusband exhibition to Tibet in 1903-4; it would be interesting to know both how it got there, and how he acquired it to bring it back.

A trip by Tube down to Tate Britain, and it’s almost from the sublime to the ridiculous. Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1979 is less a visual feast and more a lot of reading. However you can become part of the art; in the first room, Roelf Law’s Soul City, a pyramid of oranges, gives you a chance to change the art by taking an orange.

An excellent small leaflet given out at the exhibition explains conceptual art simply and in a way that makes sense. Longer descriptions in the galleries left me more baffled. Some conceptual artists I get. Hamish Fulton and Richard Long’s documenting of their walks with photographs and descriptions seems to make sense. Gilbert and George’s performances as The Singing Sculptures appeal and make me wish I had seen them back in 1970.

There’s quite a lot of space devoted to Art & Language, the Coventry College of Art-based group who were so important to conceptual art, but also controversial, not least in the Lanchester Polytechnic they were based in. As one piece of information tells us: “Theorising here was not subsidiary to art or an art object but the primary concern of this art.” The show includes Hot –Warm-Cool-Cold, which was on exhibition at the Herbert in 1968, and consists of 43 pieces of paper on the wall, apparently on the theme of weather.

It’s a large exhibition with lots of info and a variety of work to serve as a good introduction, or to expand your knowledge. It’s on until August 29.

Also at Tate Britain, I popped into a BP Spotlight exhibition, Art and Alcohol, which is on until the autumn. It juxtaposes vastly different works and their different views on alcohol. There’s Gilbert and George again, with Balls: the evening before the night after – drinking sculpture 1972, 114 posed photos of the Balls bar on a night out.

Richard Billingham’s photo of his parents from 1994 shows his unwell-looking father being berated by his mother, and was groundbreaking at the time. There’s a Hogarth etching from 175 of Gin Lane, showing a drunken woman dropping her baby and other delights including violence, madness and a hanged person, showing the horrors said to come from gin drinking.

Other works are also morality tales. George Cruickshank’s enormous The Worship of Bacchus from 1860-62 depicts people celebrating life events with drink in the foreground, and then fighting and being destroyed by it behind.

It’s an interesting exhibition showing the move from trying to make a moral point to just depicting the facts over the years.

Back at the National Portrait Gallery until June 26 is Russia and the Arts, the age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky, which is described as a once in a lifetime opportunity to see masterpieces from the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. It focuses on the cultural heroes of the period 1967-1914, and the artists who painted them.

There are figures you may expect to see – Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Turgenev and the two named in the title, plus others I hadn’t heard of. The composer Modest Mussorgsky appears dishevelled and in a dressing gown, but this was painted a few days before his death in hospital at a young age from alcoholism.

Towards the end as time move on in Russia, contemporary life intervenes. The poet Nikolai Gumilev is depicted as he was known at the time, as a dandy, but he was executed two years later in 1921 for counter revolutionary activities.

It’s a sobering end to an exhibition which was smaller than I expected, but still had lots to offer, with a lot of information about both sitter and artist and often the relationship between them, in some cases the friendliness or contempt visible in the work.