Designs for a modern world

By Geoff Cumming

Geoff Cumming visits three exhibitions in London by artists linked by their capacity to polarise

Sympathy in White Major - Absolution 2006 by Damien Hirst. Photo / Geoff Cumming
Sympathy in White Major - Absolution 2006 by Damien Hirst. Photo / Geoff Cumming

A hairdryer blowing vertically balances a ping pong ball. A collection of coloured spots seem to float like balloons. Old aluminium pans painted pastel colours are mounted on a wall ...

These are not artworks that many of us on this side of the world associate with Damien Hirst. Think Hirst and we think of sharks suspended in formaldehyde, bisected farm animals, perhaps the diamond-encrusted skull - art whose shock value can mask its point.

A Hirst retrospective at Tate Modern on London's South Bank is a chance for those whose idea of Hirst is drawn mostly from media coverage to set his more notorious works in the context of a career; to appreciate that Hirst's outlook (and output) is more diverse than his well-known obsessions with death, decay and life cycles.

Tate Modern is one of three London galleries hosting shows casting fresh light on three of the most important - and hotly debated - artists and artistic movements of the past 100 years. If you're visiting Britain, it's a chance to reconsider the legacies of Englishman Hirst, Spain's Pablo Picasso and the German Bauhaus school of art and design.

Picasso's influence on British artists is the theme of an exhibition across the Thames at Tate Britain - artists as renowned as Francis Bacon, Henry Moore, Duncan Grant and David Hockney - but there's no escaping the fact that Picasso is the main attraction.

The Bauhaus exhibition at The Barbican is the biggest collection from the short-lived but still-influential German school to reach Britain in 40 years. All three are perhaps too easily categorised: the Bauhaus is identified with functional, modernist architecture and tubular steel furniture; Picasso with Cubism and "modern art", and Hirst as conceptual art's leading shock-jock. The Tate Modern caused a critical storm in even hosting a major retrospective of a mid-career artist who has yet to convince the snobs.

Hirst's conceptual works ensure a more interactive experience than your standard art exhibition - you might even become part of the show in the butterfly room, a hot humid environment where colourful butterflies roam freely.

The chronological layout of the Hirst exhibition makes for a surprisingly soothing introduction: examples from his early Spot Painting series; the aluminium pans; medicine cabinets neatly arranged with their pills and potions corresponding to different ailments. Rows of pills, apparently colour-coded - greens and whites; reds and oranges - in cabinets, have an almost tranquillising effect. Sausages (1993) is a string of sausages preserved in formaldehyde.

But it's not long before visitors are confronted. Inside a glass cube, blowflies are trying to get out, then falling to the floor, dying. In an adjoining cube maggots are hatching to feed on a severed cow's head, sitting in a pool of blood. Talk about life cycle - A Thousand Years (1990) draws you into a world of death and decay.

Hirst's best known work, the floating shark - also known as The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) - is so notorious it no longer frightens. Looking at the slightly withered, shrunken skin of the shark, I feel sorry for it.

Themes of life and death, beauty and horror, are highlighted in a different way in In and Out of Love, a humid, temperature-controlled room full of butterflies. Visitors enter the white room through thick plastic screens to prevent the butterflies escaping. Laid on a table in the middle are bowls of decaying fruit, which the colourful butterflies feast on. On the walls, fluids from broken pupae drip like blood. Even in here there is fear - when a butterfly settles on the head of a visitor she freezes in panic and a curator intervenes.

A few rooms along, people seem happy to walk between the dead - inspecting the innards of the bisected cow and calf in Mother and Child Divided, the halves of each animal in cabinets separated by walk-between gaps. The embalmed innards are a dull grey: living form drained of life. The effect is desensitising - but the image lingers long after.

Elsewhere, there is plenty of evidence of Hirst's appreciation of simple beauty, most notably in his butterfly-motif patterned stained glass windows - Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven and Sympathy in White Major - Absolution II. Elsewhere are Christian icons and other symbols in gold and diamonds. As Hirst says: "In an artwork, I always try to say something and deny it at the same time."

The retrospective is attracting big crowds despite the savaging Hirst received just before it opened from art critic Julian Spalding. Writing in the Independent, Spalding branded Hirst's conceptual works "the sub-prime of the art world" and predicted they would soon be worthless. He pointed out that though Hirst had ideas, he left it to hired hands to execute many of them: "The plain truth is that he isn't an artist and his work shouldn't be in the Tate." Spalding was promoting his new book: Con Art - Why You Ought To Sell Your Damien Hirsts While You Can, but it seems not to have harmed the gatetakings.

Another who was no stranger to bad press when his works first went on display in Britain a century ago, was Pablo Picasso. His genius was eventually appreciated but the exhibition at Tate Britain (a ferry across the Thames links the two Tates) recalls the consternation with which British critics greeted his early London exhibitions.

A cabinet of reviews and newspaper clippings includes this gem from the Daily News in 1921: "The war has left the world rather topsy-turvy. Nature, the great restorer, will set most things to right, but it will take her a long time to creep up on Cubism."

But, even in the 1920s, Picasso's influence on British artists was immense: it is seen here in the paintings of Ben Nicholson, Wyndham Lewis, Duncan Grant and Graham Sutherland; in Henry Moore's reclining figure sculptures and Francis Bacon's distorted human forms. Bacon's Interior of a Room (1933-35) nods respectfully to Picasso's Head (1929). Seminal Picasso works include Still Life with Mandolin (1924), Nude Woman in a Red Armchair (1932) and The Three Dancers (1925) which Picasso sold to the Tate in 1965.

Picasso's influence even extends to the Bauhaus exhibition, where Johannes Itten's Cube Composition (1919) is instantly familiar to Picasso fans and reminds that Bauhaus was about much more than "form follows function" and linear design.

The exhibition traces the evolution of the school, started by Walter Gropius in Weimar. It had three homes in its 14-year span before the Nazis closed it down - an act which ensured Bauhaus' influence would spread around the world.

An early Gropius "manifesto" calls for artists to respond to industrialisation by rediscovering craftsmanship, typified by Moses Mirkin's Contrast Study in Various Materials (including metal fragments, a sawblade, leather and lamp cylinders on wood); in sculptures by Itten and Otto Werner and in the mahogany bookcase of Gropius and Adolf Meyer. But the early craft aesthetic morphed into the use of mechanical production processes and pieces with commercial potential - most famously in the tubular steel furniture of Marcel Breuer and in Josef Albers' stacking tables.

Photographs show how enthusiastically the students and teachers embraced Gropius' philosophy of merging work with play. And there's playful humour in some wooden puppets made for an Oskar Schlemmer play, The Adventures of the Little Hunchback, performed in 1923 at the school's first home in Weimar; and in Theodore Bogler's intersecting teapots.

The range of paintings, sketches, sculpture, photography, film, textiles - even clothing - shows the school was a much more diverse and lively place than its best-known legacy of modular buildings, and those tubular chairs, might suggest.

Exhibitions
* Damien Hirst: Tate Modern, to Sept 9

* Picasso and Modern British Art: Tate Britain, to July 15 (then to Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh)

* Bauhaus: Art as Life, Barbican Art Gallery, to Aug 12

* Also: Andy Warhol: The Portfolios, Dulwich Picture Gallery, 80 works from the Bank of America Collection, to Sept 16

* Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye, Tate Modern, to Oct 14

Geoff Cumming flew to London with Korean Air.

- NZ Herald

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