Now here is a thing! I was a big fan of Tate Modern when it opened, not so much because of what was in there but more because it was a Millennium project with integrity which stood in stark contrast to the Dome upriver, that monument to New Labour vacuity.
However, over the years, I have been to Tate Modern only when there is an exhibition to visit. Unlike other London galleries, I do not revisit to see the favourites I have amassed in my hinterland. So, in London recently, I decided to go through their galleries once more in the search for the pieces that resonated.
The two that had the most impact were ‘Family Jules NNN’ and ‘Vietnam 11’. Both were larger scale paintings that dominated the rooms they were exhibited in.
The painting, ‘Family Jules NNN’ is by Barkley L Hendricks and dates from 1974. The subject is George Jules Taylor, a student of the artist on a painting course he ran at Yale University in the USA. It is one of four paintings with the same subject but this is the only one in the Tate collection. What was most striking was the representation of a black person in a gallery in London without it being related to the British Empire!
Also of interest was ‘Vietnam 11’ by Leon Golub. This 1973 work is over three metres high and twelve metres long and is one of a series of paintings made by the artist, an anti- war protester, between 1972 and 1974, a period when Richard Nixon was victorious rather than the anti- war politicians, such as George McGovern, in the USA. This work was one I could stand in front for ages, taking it in. Perhaps I should now track down the others from the series. Where are they?
These works are in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Having seen his exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, I wanted to see his presence on the wall. Fortunately, his portrait is in the collection. It is fitting that he is seen as Claire, the name he uses for his little girl persona.
Richard Ansett is the artist and his photograph is from 2013 when Grayson Perry was the BBC’s choice as Reith lecturer.
Grayson Perry’s work on identity reminded me of this poem by Robert Seatter.
I Come From
I come from a suburb waiting forever
for the train to London,
from smashed windows, graffiti,
fog on the platform,
skinheads and fights
if you look the wrong way
I come from clean handkerchiefs,
dinner money, God
please and sorry one hundred times over,
draft excluders and double glazing
I come from Chambers Etymological Dictionary,
maths tables, 11+, Look & Learn
an almost complete set of Observer I-Spy books
a family of teachers and yet more teachers,
an Orkney grandfather, a Shropshire grandma
from no accent at all
I come from kindness
I come from doh-re-me: The Sound of Music
recorders, clarinets, a pianola
all the way from Scotland
I come from rats behind the garage,
and a man who followed me
back from the library
I come from silence
I come from a garden
from my father mowing the lawn into the dark
from fences, walls, gates and hedges
Cuthberts seed packets, The Perfect Small Garden
from the sound through the night
of trains, trains, trains
Fresh out of his exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, I bought a copy of the book about Grayson Perry’s early life and development as an artist. He is known as an unconventional person, mostly because of his cross dressing; his persona as a young girl is called ‘Claire’.
The book charts a disrupted childhood with parents who split up and an abusive step- father who really did not want a step- son who was unusual. His dressing in girls’ clothes only served to alienate him from his family. His father was in, out and in again in his life but both parents had moved on and their son was a reminder of a marriage that had failed. It seems odd that he was destined for a life in the army and he had Sandhurst in his sights before art became the answer. The army brings order and stability so it is possible that this was the motivation. Instead, art became the medium for expression and his turbulent route to Turner Prize winner and many of his early works show his coming to terms with his unusual life.
The book was written by Wendy Jones based on interviews she held with the artist over a long period. It is fascinating to learn about the formative influences on anyone but somebody who offers her young girl side to the world as another side to himself is a braver person than most. This book proves that the person of integrity s the person who is open about who they really are. In his early life, the need to cross dress was hidden as far as possible, even though he was discovered quite early on.
The works of Grayson Perry are in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I was fascinated by the television series on Channel Four called ‘Who Are You?’ in which artist Grayson Perry explored the idea of identity. I was keen to see the art works he created after meeting groups, individuals and partners around Britain. These are on display throughout the National Portrait Gallery so, when I was in London, I went to see them.
Grayson Perry is an amazing artist but his gift seems to be making a connection with other people. In the three documentaries I saw, his treatment of the subjects was respectful and considerate in a way that brought out key insights into identity.
‘Modern Family’ by Grayson Perry
Included in the programmes were a same sex couple with their mixed race son, a couple affected by the Alzheimer’s of the husband, a young white woman who converted to Islam, a group from Northern Ireland and a group in the Jesus Army. I was most affected by the story of Alex man who was transitioning from a girl to the young man he knew himself to be. In this case, the art work was a bronze sculpture called ‘I am a Man’ based on the Peter Pan story, since Peter Pan was so important to Alex when young.
‘I am a Man’ by Grayson Perry
It is this connection between the stories of the people involved and the pieces Grayson Perry created that was fascinating. He created a hijab for the young woman who converted to Islam and the pot made for and about the couple affected by Alzheimer’s has their family photos cut up so that only fragments are left.
‘The Ashford Hijab’ by Grayson Perry
Grayson Perry is an artist with a sense of humanity and this comes across in his work. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
In London, so off to one of my favourite places- The National Portrait Gallery. As a boy of the 60s and 70s, all of my history lessons are exemplified in this gallery and the more modern paintings make up a record of the decades since. I wanted to see the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize exhibition. I try to catch this each year but I always use the opportunity to see a few old favourites among the great and the good on the walls.
I had two paintings in mind this time. The first was ‘The Secret of England’s Greatness’ by Thomas Jones Barker from 1863. Note that the title is ‘England’s Greatness’ rather than Britain’s! Where this leaves the Scots, Welsh (and, because of the time, the Irish would have been included as well) I don’t know. This painting is one that best exemplifies the type of history teaching I received. Other countries and other races were important only to the extent that they were part of our country’s story. The concept that ENGLAND knew best and had the answer to all the world’s problems is illustrated here by Queen Victoria handing a bible to the subservient black person! It is interesting to note as well that in the gallery listing five people are named. The Queen herself, Prince Albert and Lords Palmerston and Russell (Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister respectively) and Elizabeth Wellesley, the Duchess of Wellington who acted as a Lady in Waiting to the Queen. The sixth person in the portrait is not named! He is black, from somewhere in the Empire and could be anybody. He is one of the few black faces in the gallery, though.
Also on my list for a return viewing was the portrait of the Royal Family in 1913. This painting by Sir John Lavery shows King George V, his son who was briefly King Edward the Eighth, his wife Queen Mary and their daughter Princess Mary. The reason I like this picture so much is because the promise it holds within it, that son will follow father as monarch, was not realised. We know it, looking at it now, or as I did as a boy. I knew the outcome that the people pictured here did not and all that sense of power and entitlement captured in the picture could not prevail against history.
Here are two paintings that remind me of the history I was taught complete with the messages that were conveyed in those lessons. I am grateful to my secondary school history teacher; he was a brilliant man. I have, though, spent half a lifetime discovering that there was more to history than I was taught back in the 70s.
‘The Royal Family at Buckingham Palace in 1913’ and ‘The Secret of England’s Greatness’ are in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This film, shown as part of the Bath Film Festival is the first feature film of documentary film maker Morgan Matthews. It is based on a documentary he made in 2006 called ‘Beautiful Young Minds’ about the British team in the International Maths Olympiad. This fictional version has the same theme but is able to explore the emotions and bring characters to the fore in a different way.
Nathan is the young man on the autistic spectrum who struggles to connect or interact with people. One of the people he pushes away is his mother who, like him, is mourning the loss of husband and father who was killed in a car crash. Nathan prefers the world of Mathematics. In an attempt to help him, a tutor is found. Mr Humpheys was, himself, part of the British Olympiad team in the past but he has his own issues. The unconventional teacher and the boy trying to hide from the world come together and Nathan heads off to Taiwan to compete for a place in the British team.
The big rivals are the Chinese. Zhang Mei is the niece of the Chinese team coach. Her effect on Nathan provides a centre point for the film and shows how human emotions confuse him. Their growing relationship and how this teaches him about connecting with other people is a truly affecting part of the story. I enjoyed the idea that, in their normal schools, the maths prodigies were considered weird but in the British team, they were the same as everyone else.
The cast included Sally Hawkins as the mother, Asa Butterfield as Nathan, Rafe Spall as his teacher and Eddie Marsan as the coach of the British team. What a turn out of British talent this was!
‘X + Y’ is now in my hinterland. What’s in yours?