La Luz de la Mente, by Luis González Palma

Gonzalez Palma 1624

Luis González Palma. 1624, from the series La Luz de la Mente, 2005. Película orthocromática y láminas de oro.

 

One of the perks of working at Sotheby’s is that you can keep works by your elbow a certain time as you put them through the cataloguing and valuing process.  Some years ago, I kept by me a print from this series in just such a way and christened it the Underpants of Christ. I have wanted one ever since.

La Luz de la Mente is a series of re-creations of the loincloth of the crucified Christ in pictures by artists including Velázquez, Zurbarán, Murillo, Bellini, Rubens, Guido Reni, El Greco and (more surprisingly) Eustache Le Sueur. It is a mad idea: the devout obsession of a small boy used to praying in the presence not of a painting or a carving, but – as the church insists –  in the actual presence of Christ.  In González Palma’s hands, it is not so mad . He has taken pains to recreate the drape and fold of each painter’s version of the loincloth, and he shows us his workings in the bits of string that hold his arrangement together.

Making this sculpture is slow careful work of the kind thought particularly apt to the greater glory of God.  He photographs it as a rich devotional object in its own right.  The print is about 1 metre wide and high, which makes the loincloth more or less life-size. Most of the series are (as this one is) kodalith prints with gold leaf and resin, a few are kodaliths with silver: rare processes with precisely that same intention of giving richly to God as the original paintings.

I am hazy on the doctrinal implications, but there may be a thought that the loincloth has importance as the only bit of Christ’s equipment left behind at the Resurrection.  (A recurring medieval dispute pitted against each other competing owners of the prepuce — the foreskin — of Christ, a relic to be venerated for precisely that reason, as the only part of Christ’s person known to have been removed while he lived. You can see that anybody who claimed this relic would dispute anybody else who did.  There can only have been one.)

González Palma is a contemporary Guatemalan artist much of whose work has revolved around the strange hybrids of race and culture that add up to Latin America.  This series was shown at the Venice Biennial in 2005, but has not sold particularly well at auction.  That means nothing.  I love the twisty way this picture is both a heartfelt religious object and at the same time a reflection on the depiction of religious objects. It’s gorgeous, too.

 

Here’s another one:

Gonzalez Palma 1580-1585

Luis González Palma. 1580-1585, from the series La Luz de la Mente, 2005. Película orthocromática y láminas de oro.

 

 

Iago, or Study from an Italian – by Julia Margaret Cameron

iago1

Julia Margaret Cameron           Iago – or study from an Italian 1867       Science Museum Group collection

What follows is the next instalment of my re-posting of the various pieces that first appeared in the Financial Times in early 2013, in my discontinued series Hodgson’s Choice.  I have had some misgivings about this one, not because of any doubt that the picture is wonderful – it is, and my insistence on having it in my ‘collection’ is unchanged.  But re-posting reminds me of the deficiencies of my own scholarship – and nobody much likes that.

Once it appeared in the FT, I was contacted – very civilly – by Scott Thomas Buckle to point out that some weeks before, he had published a long and detailed piece of research updating the rather older research by Colin Ford upon which I had based myself here – to the effect that the model used by Julia Cameron pretty certainly was not the one I wrote about, but another.  I simply hadn’t read his article.  According to Buckle – and his view will not, I think, be displaced as the orthodox one in the future – the model for the great Iago was not Angelo Colarossi but a member of another family of professional models connected to his, Alessandro di Marco, who posed, among others, for Frederick Leighton and Edward Burne-Jones and the sculptor Sir William Hamo Thornycroft.  I don’t doubt that Scott Thomas Buckle is right.  But I don’t want to re-write the piece because I’m reposting the series as they were.  I hope that the gist of the little piece I wrote is not too badly affected by having the wrong name, because the new sitter proposed was another professional model – a rarity in Cameron’s portraits. The best I can do, I think, is to acknowledge my error and Buckle’s careful research.  If anybody wants to follow in his tracks – and you all should, for it’s a fine piece of detective art history – his article is to be found here :

Is this the face of Alessandro di Marco?  The forgotten features of a well-known Italian model, by Scott Thomas Buckle.  The British Art Journal, Volume XIII No.2, Autumn 2012, pp 67-75

And with that mea culpa, here’s what I wrote, warts and all.

 

What a piece of work Mrs Cameron was ! Eccentric, name-dropping and unbelievably pushy; absolutely incapable of taking ‘No’ for an answer, she would have been a handful in any society.  But as a grand Anglo-Indian administrator’s wife in High Victorian England, she was amazing.

Here’s her niece Laura Gurney casting back her mind:  “Aunt Julia appeared as a terrifying elderly woman, short and squat, with none of the Pattle [her maiden name] grace and beauty about her. Dressed in dark clothes, stained with chemicals from her photography (and smelling of them, too) with a plump, eager face and piercing eyes, and a voice husky and a little harsh, yet in some way compelling and even charming… No wonder those old photographs of us, leaning over imaginary ramparts of heaven, look anxious and wistful.  This was how we felt.  ‘Stand there’, she would shout, and we stood for hours… ”

Her grand-niece, Virginia Woolf, found her pretty odd, too.  Here she is: “I must note for future use, the superb possibilities of Freshwater [on the Isle of Wight, where Mrs. Cameron lived], for a comedy.  Old Cameron dressed in a blue dressing gown & not going beyond his garden for twelve years, suddenly borrows his son’s coat & walks down to the sea.  Then they decide to proceed to Ceylon, taking their coffins with them, & the last sight of Aunt Julia is on board ship, presenting porters with large photographs of Sir Henry Taylor and the Madonna in default of small change.”

For years after that departure to Ceylon, Mrs. Cameron was treated as not much more than an eccentric amateur dabbler.  She was an easy target.  Her imprecision offended those for whom photography was above all the careful following of recipes. Even today, her deep, deep sentimentality grates with many, and while everybody today acknowledges the portraits as the towering, pioneering achievement they are, there are still many who find her illustrations of Tennyson, her religious allegories, and many of her pictures of children too mawkish – impossible to bring back across the gulf of taste between then and now.

This is one of the very few pictures she made of a professional model.  Detailed research by Colin Ford identifies the sitter as Angelo Colarossi, a member of (in effect) a dynasty of professional models. Colarossi posed for Lord Leighton and John Singer Sargent and G.F.Watts among others, and his son posed for Alfred Gilbert’s Anteros, the memorial to Lord Shaftesbury that gets moved every few years as new traffic schemes alter the shape of Piccadilly Circus. The Académie Colarossi, run by a relative, was an art school in Paris, whose students included Amedeo Modigliani and Alphonse Mucha.

It’s important that the sitter was a model: it took skill to sit for the agonizingly long exposures that Mrs. Cameron required.  As a result of Colarossi’s professional patience, this portrait has less of that over-excited blur that Mrs. Cameron sometimes went in for, and more control than she sometimes achieved.  It’s partly because Colarossi could bear the exposure time that the picture is so startlingly modern.  I’ve also, on the other hand, felt it a slight shame the sitter was a model.  Given what she did to Thomas Carlyle it would be wonderful to think this a literary or cultural figure whom we could imagine we knew better through the portrait.  There’s so much expression in that face it deserves to be associated to a character rather than merely to a professional mien.

Still.  Can’t complain.  It’s as strong a portrait as anything Nadar ever made. It’s a beautiful print, too, luckily, because there’s only one known print of this portrait, in the Herschel Album which was ‘saved for the nation’ in the mid 1970s.  It’s now in the Science + Media Museum in Bradford.

The Red Bustle, by Nick Knight

Nick Knight Red Bustle for Yohji Yamamoto 1986

Nick Knight            The Red Bustle, 1986

The colours of a bullfight as the sun finally goes down. It’s not complicated. The elements of this photograph are controlled with a curious mix of indulgent austerity, and it remains seductive long after the clothes it was made to sell have passed into the archive.

The picture comes from early in the series of clothing catalogues Nick Knight made for Yohji Yamamoto and is dated 1986.  The model was Sarah Wingate and Knight was an outsider. He’d made a documentary series about skinheads (the disaffected right-wing youth movement which was both scary and deeply fashion-conscious) and a series of exaggerated portraits of a new London in-crowd of the early 1980s in a commission for i-D magazine. Still not thirty when the Yamamoto commission came his way, his collaborations with graphic designer Peter Saville and with art director Marc Ascoli were relatively new.

The catalogues were an experiment in how these confident, even arrogant talents could work together, and they were a departure for the client, too. It is always a wrench for a fashion house to publish pictures which give no very clear idea of the garments.

These pictures were a reaction against a period when fashion had been for a while even more overtly all about sex than usual. They are deliberately non-sexy in the same way that a Mohican and a pair of Doc Martens had been a few years before. They have technical brio. Knight flirted between flat representation and three dimensional: almost all of the girl, her cap, her long coat, most of her shoes are in inky black silhouette.  It could have been drawn with a Rotring.  The bustle that flares out behind her is glittery translucent pink net, and every pleat catches its full complement of zinging highlights and dark shadows.  The pool of shadow on the floor reminds us that this is a person, not just a graphic.  The little highlight on the heel is important: that’s where the flat blankness finally begins to curve into relief, and it’s the only place which shares something of the rival qualities of a map (on the left) and a sculpture (on the right). There is originality here, but there are debts, too, most obviously to Erwin Blumenfeld, the great innovator. It’s a cultured picture as well as a brash one.

Later in the same series of catalogues, Knight made a set of four pictures of Naomi Campbell in a red coat, the shapes as full as the sails of a J-Class yacht.  Those are perhaps better known than this one, but in the Red Coat, Knight made a formal error which jars badly:  he cut the girl off at the ankles, and in one version, at the top of the head, too.  This is better.  There is no slippage here.  This is a collision of punky daring with a very British Puritanism.

L’Accordéoniste de la Rue Mouffetard, by Robert Doisneau

The Accordionist Rue Mouffetard

Robert Doisneau                                      L’Accordéoniste de la rue Mouffetard (1951)

I like a bit of French humanist photography as much as the next man, and often for very simple reasons. But they’re not always simple pictures. Brassaï was an intellectual, a writer and a thinker as well as a snapper, whereas Robert Doisneau is thought of as an instinctual, reflex, photographer. He certainly had prodigious reflexes. A picture like this has to be rapidly seized. But that by no means implies that it need be slight. The elegant complexity of what is going on in this charming street scene still takes me by surprise. Never underestimate a great photographer.

The nominal subject of L’Accordéoniste de la Rue Mouffetard  (1951) is a musician. He is facing us, but his eyes are a dark bar across his face, a clear indication that he cannot see. As if that were not enough, he has a very visible white stick. Above his head, a No Entry sign looks for all the word like a blindfold on a child’s drawing of a face. A blinded smiley would look just like that. It acts as a graphic shorthand of the whole picture: a visual title. So we have three separate, very clear suggestions that this cute picture is not about street life or music but about blindness.

Let’s go on: the group on the left are all looking with concentrated attention at something, but we cannot see what. The lady on the right, too, is staring at something, but in her case it’s out of shot. Between them, a very obvious “frame” in the panelling of the shop front is empty. Where we might expect an advertisement or a trade-name, there is only the varnished grain of bare wood. So the frame is “blind”, too. Only one figure is caught looking with attention: the sturdily poised artist square on his feet, drawing. We can’t see his page: too far, and protected by the angle of his pad. We can guess what he’s at, though. He must be drawing the blind accordionist. And then it finally dawns: he is drawing the musician, certainly. But he’s drawing him in a scene just like the one we’re looking at. And the only person looking intently back out of that scene, into the picture that Doisneau has made, is you. It’s a cheerful enough scene. But the joke is on us, the viewers. We are the only ones in the whole equation who are not seeing anything of what all the others are looking at. We are the blind viewers of the Rue Mouffetard.

It’s still cute, full of lovely period details like the baggy trousers and the battered soft hat. But it isn’t just cute, by any means. It is a beautifully crafted essay on the business of looking. As such, it’s amazing.

Submerged Trailer, Salton Sea, 1983 by Richard Misrach

Richard Misrach, Submerged Trailer, Salton Sea 1983

Richard Misrach: Submerged Trailer, Salton Sea, 1983. Richard Misrach is represented by the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, California.

As a co-founder of the Prix Pictet, awarded since 2008 for images on the theme of sustainability, I have thought a lot about environmental photography. I know that Richard Misrach takes his place in a long line of predecessors, from Carleton Watkins through Ansel Adams and the New Topographics. I know that both irony and the sublime had been found in the landscape many times before him. I’m British, and know well that tradition of engaged landscape photography represented by Fay Godwin and before her by Bill Brandt. But somehow, for me, it always goes back to Misrach, who was born in Los Angeles in 1949. Nobody else has made such a sustained political enquiry into our maltreatment of the wilderness in a vocabulary of such exquisite beauty.

 

This 1983 view of a flooded campsite, “Submerged Trailer, Salton Sea, California”, is so simple. Yet it goes so far. Misrach’s big subject for some 40 years of photography at the very highest level has been the complex relationship between man and the environment. Much of that work takes its place in his huge Desert Cantos, which is mainly a catalogue of dreadful abuse, although the occasional noble moment intervenes. As his projects accumulated, it began to seem that here we had someone whose scope and range were as monumental as the area he worked in, the deserts of the south-western US. As sustained serial works go, the Desert Cantos are on the scale of Balzac. One of the Cantos is on the subject of a mysterious pit in the desert, full of dead horses and cows. A nuclear accident? An epidemic of some sort? Misrach’s point (or one of them) is that the whole mythology of the West was centred on those beasts: the 1,000-strong herds of cattle driven to the railheads, the cowboys on horseback. Suddenly Misrach was looking down at John Wayne and the Marlboro Man, caricatured in a pit full of dead beasts. He photographed them with the twisted agony of Goya or Géricault.

 

The Salton Sea was created in 1905 by bad management of irrigation waters from the Colorado River. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was substantially enlarged by more mismanagement. It is, in other words, both a part of the larger story of the struggle to bring water to the arid West, and a symbol of the chronic failure of that intervention. Misrach offers us this rare watery tourist spot in the desert, turned sour. Yet his camera is not so very different from the tourists’ cameras that would have pointed the same way before the water level changed. We gaze, as sightseers, at a sight no longer fit for sightseeing. There is blame to be ascribed, fault. Yet it is photographed with Misrach’s particular genius for light, caressingly.

Konditormeister by August Sander

August SanderPastrycook,

August Sander Pastrycook, 1928. © Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne; DACS, London, 2011. © Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne; DACS, London, 2011.

I have been inconstant about my favourite August Sander photograph. For a long time I had postcards of the three most perfectly Weimar of them pinned just to the right of my desk. The high-school graduate (1926), the secretary in a Cologne radio station (1931) and the wife of the painter Peter Abelen (1927/8). Three twisty Mannerist poses, three exquisitely languid cigarettes. Those three fabulous photographs are direct photographic parallels to the savage portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Hardem by Otto Dix, in her red-checked dress and monocle, which dates from 1926.

At other times, it’s been “The Three Farmers”, one of the very few photographs to inspire a full-length (and very good) novel: Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance by Richard Powers. Or the travelling mason at the bend in road, in his startling flared trousers and fancy waistcoat. The bartender, with his absurd black toupee . . .

It is conventional to read Sander’s portraits as historically and prophetically laden; they throw light back on the collapsing orders of 19th-century Germany, and forward to the horrors of the early 20th. His great catalogue, Men of the Twentieth Century, is cited as a fundamental source so often, and by people expressing so many different things in so many different ways, that it is sometimes hard to see quite what the original added up to.

In the end, it was a heroically ambitious project by a photographer at the peak of his powers, but even he didn’t quite know what it all meant. He was a politically cautious man moved to great anger. He was a local patriot from the Westerwald unable to conceal his contempt for some of what his world had fostered. I see Sander crashing the studio habits of the generation before his into the newer habits of lightweight portable cameras and available light. Above all, I see a true photographer; somebody who believed that if you just look well enough something will become clear.

Look at his “Konditormeister (Pastry Cook), Köln Lindenthal”, c.1928. See how his ring bites into that fleshy finger. See how he wears the pin-striped trousers and highly polished shoes of a master of his trade. See the tense compromise between the strength of his right fist and the delicacy of those fingers in his left hand. Remember, if you will, that this man must have served in the Great War, and try to imagine what that left in him. See the three great round curves, of his head, his torso, and his mixing bowl. Admire the dusting of flour or sugar on the floor. Admire the way his coat has so much texture it’s almost a skin. And once you’ve done all that, see if you really can read the odd expression in his eyes. He looks a bully, but he wanted Sander to approve of him. You won’t lose interest. This is a masterpiece.

Georgia O’Keeffe by Mari Mahr

 

New Mexico 1931

Mari Mahr – New Mexico 1931.     From the series Georgia O’Keeffe (1982)

Mari Mahr is a brilliant artist of Hungarian origin who divides her time between London and Berlin.  Too gentle a person ever really to push herself forward, Mahr has had the kind of career which is faultless, but not really very visible.  No longer a young woman, she remains insufficiently appreciated by a large factor.  She works in relatively small series, often about her family, occasionally about figures of more public standing. In series after series, she has produced works of astute elegance seeking to situate her own affective existence among the objects of affection or culture around her. Her hallmarks are exquisite delicacy of psychological enquiry, matched and made visible in exquisite delicacy in the photographic object. By quality of work, she is one of the very great artists of recent years; by the amount of limelight shone upon her, almost invisible.

In 1982, as something of a feminist looking for strong women models, Mahr came upon the figure of Georgia O’Keeffe.  This is how she herself described it:

“In the very last scene of a documentary movie, an old woman climbs a ladder all the way to the top of her house. I was impressed by the strength and charisma of such an old woman and decided to find out more about her.  I learnt she was partly Hungarian, but what is more important I absolutely loved how her career came about, the way she made her choices, how she chose her men, how she made situations awkward for herself, painting away when it wasn’t a womanly thing to do.

I’d read her diary where she writes so eloquently about Taos, Black Place and so on — I saw it all in colour. This was before I’d been to America, so all the knowledge of the country came from Technicolor movies. I did the series in 1982, about her travels in the 1920s, using a black car like the one Stieglitz (the photographer, her husband) had given her.”

New York 1925

Mari Mahr – New York 1925.  From the series Georgia O’Keeffe (1982)

 

New York 1918

Mari Mahr – New York 1918.   From the series Georgia O’Keeffe (1982)

In Search of Ghost Ranch 1934

Mari Mahr – In Search of Ghost Ranch 1934.  From the series Georgia O’Keeffe (1982)

Black Place 1944

Mari Mahr – Black Place 1944.    From the series Georgia O’Keeffe (1982)

georgia_o_keeffe_ghost_ranch_1941

Mari Mahr – Ghost Ranch 1941.   From the series Georgia O’Keeffe (1982)

It sounds simple, and so perhaps it is, once you’ve done it. By making the stagey elements of her pictures completely apparent, Mahr let us know immediately that we weren’t looking at fact.  Every standard picture element is up for revision: scale, perspective, narrative… this is a complete taking of control by the artist of those things which more normally constrain photographers.  The obvious edges and folds, the block colours, the ultra-plain symbolic elements (skyscraper, cow, adobe, car, flag…) give the clues to a reading of O’Keeffe’s story which is both heroic and curiously domestic in scale.  What results is a tribute and a separate work in its own right. Mahr has admiration and respect for O’Keeffe, and a point of humour about her, too.

These are variants of collage, set design, maybe diorama. A few recurring themes make them understandable as music.  They’re lovely as little post-cards, and sensational as the chapters in an episodic biography. They’re anything you like except flat photographs.  No matter that it is little known; this is one of my great series.

Canyon 1916

Mari Mahr – Canyon 1916.   From the series Georgia O’Keeffe (1982)

[Another in the series Hodgson’s Choice, assembling a virtual collection guided by no more than my own taste, interest, curiosity, amusement or any combination of those. This piece was originally published in the Financial Times in January 2013 and reposted as part of a larger piece on these pages in 2015.]