Mayfair Meandering: Avigdor Arikha and Keith Arnatt

Self Portrait hand on head 2003 drypoint

Midway between lunch in Soho and Green Park tube I detoured down Albemarle street on a gallery trawl.  My first port of call was Marlborough Fine Art, where I found a retrospective of Avigdor Arikha’s paintings and works on paper dating from the mid-1960s until his death in 2010 (‘Self-Portrait Hand on Head’, drypoint, 2003, above).  The gallery represents the artist’Samuel Beckett Seated, etching, 1972s estate and has curated a concise exhibition representative of the many different mediums and subjects that attracted Arikha after his return to figuration in 1965.
Having begun as an abstract expressionist in the 1950s this was quite a sudden about-turn, which is attributed to the artist’s friendship with Giacometti whom he met after settling in Paris in 1954.  Certainly Arikha’s etchings and drypoints reflect something of Giacometti’s austerely monochrome style with their layers of nervously jagged marks creating tight and psychologically penetrative portraits.  Robert Hughes described Arikha’s works as having an “air of scrupulous anxiety”.  The adoption of printmaking went hand in hand with Arikha’s return to figuLe Pain 1976 etchingration, as if in turning away from the abstract he felt the need to turn away from the loose painterly qualities of oils to in a definitive and decisive manner. Looking back on his abstract period, Arikha recalled “I was quite successful as an abstractionist. But I started painting my own set of forms over and over again. Finally, it repulsed me.” His portraits – mainly himself, his wife and his great friend Samuel Beckett – are precise, with an intimacy and directness that makes one feel almost uncomfortable (‘Samuel Beckett Seated’, etching, 1972, above right).
Alongside these are studies of trees and flowers in soft drypoint or sugar lift aquatint, and still lifes such as ‘Le Pain’ (etching, 1976, above left) or a pair of shoes that in their isolated centrality seem to deserve the status of ‘portraits’ too.

Jerusalem Bread 1981 oil on canvas

Trees at Evian 1997 Sumi ink

Orange tie folded 1975 watercolour

By the early 1970s, Arikha began painting again, but continued to experiment with different materials.  The greater part of the hang alternates his charcoal drawings – soft, loose, expressive but ascetic portraits – with drawings in Sumi ink, paSleeping nude and indian rug 1985stels and oils that range from the human figure to still life and studies of natural forms (‘Jerusalem Bread’, oil on canvas, 1981; ‘Trees at Evian’, Sumi ink, 1997; and ‘Orange Tie Folded’, watercolour, 1975, above; and ‘Sleeping Nude and Indian Rug, 1985, left).
All have a contemplative stillness that turns the trivial – a piece of toast sitting on the grill, a jacket carelessly strewn or a glimpse through a doorway – into something abundant in meaning.  These are almost surreal in their awkward simplicity, their latent anthropomorphism, speaking of a wealth shared history with poetic concision.

A dead leaf 2002 - pastel on board

A little further up on Grafton Street Spruth Magers is showing the photographer and conceptual artist Keith Arnatt. ‘Absence of the Artist’ focuses on Arnatt’s work between 1967–72, key years in which modernism began to be replaced by a more sceptical post-modernist ‘dematerialisation’.  For Arnatt, at the forefront of this movement, this took the form of site-specific or time-based performances, which he recorded by means of photography.


As the title suggests, Arnatt’s work questions the role of the artist. “He thought there was a governing idea of art as driven by a central figure – the artist – and he was interested in what happened if you made that person disappear,” explains Matthew Arnatt, the artist’s son.  This is explored in literal terms in ‘Self Burial’ (1969, below) in which a sequence of nine photographs documents the gradual disappearance of the artist into the ground.

self burial 1969Arnatt wrote of this:

An interest in illusion (and delusion), in the sense of creating a false impression runs throughout much of my work. For example, the ‘Self Burial’ photographs create the illusion that something is happening to me’

‘… it is true to say that the apparent absurdity, or silliness, of Self Burial is an important part of what I liked about it … And I also rather liked the slightly Chaplinesque quality of the photographic sequence— the fact that it shows me just standing there whilst something quite alarming seems to be happening to me (a metaphor for my condition as an artist?).’

A Line Made by Walking 1967 Richard Long born 1945 Purchased 1976

A self-parody-cum-postmodernist-critique perhaps – but with a good dose of self-indulgent wit. A more interesting investigation of illusion and perception is ‘Mirror lined pit (grass bottom)’ and its companion piece ‘An invisible hole revealed by my own shadow’ (1968-9) which trick the eye, the ‘invisible absence’ of the pit only revealed by the artist’s shadow, which is yet another absence. Performance art – by nature transitory and preserved only through photographs and documentation – gained status during the 1960s and 70s, and Arnatt’s work is closely related to land art such as Richard Long’s ‘A Line Made by Walking’ (1967, above left). In this photographic piece the artist, though absent, records his physical presence within the landscape.  It was a radical new approach and hugely influential in expressing contemporary concerns with impermanence, motion and relativity.

Keith Arnatt ~ Art as An Act of Retraction (Eating His Own Words) -3

While Long’s work is ultimately reflective, and expresses a quietly powerful, elemental dialogue between man and nature, Arnatt takes radical ‘dematerialisation’ to ridiculous levels.  ‘Is it Possible to do Nothing as my Contribution to This Exhibition?’ is a perverse and pointless pseudo-philosophical text. However, on the adjacent wall hang a series of eleven photographs representing Arnatt eating various bits of paper (‘Art as an Act of Retraction’, 1971, above right); the final frame contains the words in list form: ‘Eleven Portraits of the Artist about to eat his own words’.  Perhaps a repentant acknowledgment of the lengthy and pretentious tract…

Absence of the Artist 1968

As a photographer, Arnatt’s talent is undoubted.  And he is at his best here in the witty, quasi-surreal images that hark back to the visual puns of Rene Magritte, such as the eponymous ‘The Absence of the Artist’ (1968, above) – a sign bearing these words, pinned to a stone wall – and ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self’ (1969-72, below).

Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self 1969-72 Keith Arnatt 1930-2008 Presented by the artist 2000

The show is sparse.  In fact, any fewer works and it would hardly justify the title of exhibition. Perhaps this is standard for the presentation of ‘conceptual’ art?  But, having first come across his work at The Photographer’s Gallery exhibition in 2007, which considered his later career from 1972-2002, I have always considered Arnatt an inspiring photographer, and while interesting in revealing his early work, this display did not do justice to his considerable talent in this field.

Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy


An antidiluvian forest has materialised in the courtyard of the Royal Academy; at night it feels almost like stepping into a fairytale.  These natural forms, sprouting from the concrete paving, are at the same time relics restored to a semblance of life. Tree 2009-10As curator Adrian Locke writes on the RA blog: ‘In China, trees are venerated as important counterparts to the dead on earth … Ai’s trees are made from parts of dead trees that are brought down from the mountains of southern China and sold in the markets of Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. Ai transports these to his studio in Beijing where they are made into trees … Tree has been likened to the modern Chinese nation, where ethnically diverse peoples have been brought together to form “One China”.’

This prelude encapsulates the recurring themes of the exhibition: scale, materials, recycling/renewing, politics – and the human factor: all are united in this preliminary concept, the largest gathering yet of Ai’s trees, thanks to a massive Kickstarter campaign of public funding.


Inside the echoing neo-classical galleries of the Royal Academy with all their gilding, plasterwork and marble one is yet struck by the scale of the work, the quality and weightiness of the materials. ‘Bed’ (above, 2004), its outline following the pattern of China’s borders in fragments of demolished Imperial temples, unfurls its ironwood form across the floor of the first gallery. Its impact is architectural, enduring and resilient – but at the same time isolated and dislocated in time and place.  In ‘Grapes’ (below left, 2010) a troupe of Qing dynasty three-legged stools perform a gymnastic back flip, while similarly venerable tables begin to climb up the walls.

Grapes 2010Ai Weiwei is best known as a political dissident, famously undergoing incarceration and constant surveillance by the Chinese state authorities.  This experience and his personal struggle for freedom of expression permeates the exhibition.  However, the extensive texts introducing each gallery were crucial to understanding the layers of meaning contained within each piece. The porcelain crabs, for instance, though lovely objects in themselves, made a lot more sense once one knew that the Chinese word for crab is a homonym for ‘harmonious’, which is a catchword of the Chinese state and is also consequently used as slang for censorship.  But these little crabs are not just metaphorical statements; they tell the story of an actual event. Souvenir from Shanghai 2012On the night that his Shanghai studio was demolished at the insistence of the state in 2011, Ai organised a public dinner where thousands of people dined on crabs. Ai himself was under house arrest but orchestrated this subversive ‘performance piece’ nevertheless – now marked by an edifice of rubble and a pile of porcelain crabs (one escaping up the wall…)


People are at the heart of Ai’s conceptual approach.  The handmade or artisan nature of every element is emphasised, reflecting the status of the individual as opposed to the mass-produced, the human as opposed to anonymous cogs in a communist machine.

Straight 2008-12This last is made tragically clear in the lists of names of all the individual children killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that line the walls around ‘Straight’ (above and below, 2008-12), an arrangement of thousands of metal bars made to strengthen the concrete of the jerry-built schools that collapsed. They trace the jigjagged path of a fault line in rusty earth colours, signifying the terrible power of nature. What gives the work such power is the history behind these objects (brought home by a documentary style film) and the scale of it once massed together, each rod representing a human life lost, as well as the time and effort that went into straightening each and every one by hand, despite Ai’s imprisonment and every other effort of the authorities to impede his message from reaching the world.IMG_3770

Ai’s skilful recycling of materials, creating a new beauty out of destruction, is ruined by his own acts of vandalism in the gallery of vases.  Here, neolithic vases are variously dipped in garish industrial paint (below), emblazoned with modern commercial logos, or smashed – as in the triptych of photographs ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’ (1995). unnamed-1This wanton destruction in the name of ‘art’ seems a facile statement made in bad taste, but Louise Cohen plays devil’s advocate on the RA blog, asking: ‘was he sacrificing one pot for the greater good, highlighting what’s happening to Chinese heritage every day? Or was he asking us to question what we value?’  It is pointed out that fakes are rife on the Chinese market, while the techniques used to make them are probably the same as those used originally. Equally, once branded as the work of Ai Weiwei, is the ancient Han vase more or less valuable? It is food for thought.

flba0ckbfloyxgvnmcxuAll the materials used are distinctly Chinese, speaking of China’s history, its cultural and political identity.  Besides the wood of the Imperial temples, there is marble sourced from an Imperial Chinese quarry – the same used for Chairman Mao’s mausoleum – fashioned into a marble surveillance camera (right, 2010) trained upon a marble pram upon a marble lawn.  There are jade handcuffs displayed like precious ornaments in glass vitrines, and hand-painted porcelain fitting together into a map of China, the ‘Free Speech Puzzle’ (below, 2014).

z8czyhksjtkdj0fpv1rnSo although this is in many ways conceptual, performative art it confounds these boundaries to present room after room of visually astounding and materially exquisite objects.  And although Ai exploits the publicity and the PR stunt, his work speaks of more than yesterday’s news – it engages with history, culture, civilisation and humanity in a simple and powerful way.  And he has created a chandelier from bicycles – no excuse needed to love that.