I was born in Serendipity on a Wednesday in July. The temperature had been so hot that week in Hampstead that my mother had been forced to give birth to me with all the sash windows in the front bedroom wide open. I would forever hear about the heat of the summer of my birth, about the lunchtime my father fried an egg on the bonnet of his Sunbeam Talbot and the tale of the three alligators that crawled out of a sewer in Kensington in the middle of the day, prompting a citywide panic and newspaper sensation. Many people over a particular age still remember those blistering weeks in the middle of 1949 only as the ‘Alligator Summer’, but it’s a piece of history that never meant very much to me.
Serendipity was a magical house to grow up in, nestled amid the greenery of West Heath Road. It had seventeen rooms, living rooms, sitting rooms, single bedrooms, double bedrooms, two bathrooms, a library, a study for my father and a greenhouse. The greenhouse stood at the far end of the garden, bordering the fence, its rusting metal frame filled in with squares of glass, some of them cloudy with mold and condensation, others cracked and broken. Low hanging branches from the great elm tree next to it brushed the top of the glass on a breezy summer’s day and in the autumn leaves cascaded down and covered the glass entirely rendering the insides obscure to me.
Winter was the best time to be in the greenhouse, winter was the best time to be anywhere. There was light inside when the leaves were cleared away and the glass got too hot in the summer. I would brush aside the terracotta plant pots and rusting spades and trowels and I would climb up on the bench that ran around the edge of the interior, in my parka and my gloves and sit with my back to the wet glass and read for hours. Under the benches there were crates and crates of brown bottles, the labels all faded from the damp, I assumed they were beer, stashed there for storage before a party years ago and forgotten about. I kept quiet about them.
My father bought the house from an eminent psychologist Dr. Louis Rose, my nominal godfather, who was not exactly Freud, but he could spin an engrossing sentence out of thin air.
His wife, Maria, had been a Christian Scientist and she would refuse any medical intervention favouring the power of prayer to cure any ill. Serendipity, she told my mother as she handed over the keys, had a remarkable sense of serenity, which she believed enabled her to tune into the Almighty more easily. Four weeks after they moved to Belsize Park, so Dr. Rose could be nearer to the Royal Free, she died of a cerebral haemorrhage.
I can remember vividly running madly from one room to the next at great speed, dashing across landings and down staircases. If you run down staircases, as fast of you can, without holding onto the balustrade, your feet barely touching each step, you can sometimes, very briefly, get the sensation that you are flying, that you aren’t touching the steps at all, but are some how staying upright.
The staircase wall was lined with pencil pictures in varnished frames of scenes from fairy tales by the Brothers Grim and I used to sneak out of bed and stare at them long after I should have been asleep because the flickering shadows cast by the electric lights from the floor below seemed to bring them to life.
I was sat there one night when Dr Rose called by. He’d never called before, not since the move, so it was strange. My mother had taken me to see him a few times in Belsize Park and we’d sat in his consulting room me lying on his red settee like a patient while my mother sat opposite him as his desk imploring him, in cooing tones, not to abandon his love life despite his loss.
“Do you want me to analyse your dreams Miles,” he would always ask me.
“Yes, tell him your dreams Miles,” my mother would say, expecting revelations each time.
“I don’t really have any,” I’d say, which was true then, I wasn’t really a dreamer in those days, my dreams would only liven up when my surroundings became duller.
I liked Dr Rose there was something very real about him. I think it was because he was a very honest man and it’s only through honesty, as I was to learn later, that you can project any kind of sincerity.
“If you want it back you can have it, we can make other arrangements,” my mother would say of Serendipity, at least twice during every meeting with Dr Rose.
“It would have happened anyway,” Dr. Rose would reply every time.
“Yes, but she loved that house,” my mother would counter. “You loved being there with her, surely being among all those memories would be a comfort.”
What a stupid thing of her to say, looking back, she hadn’t lost anybody close then, she’d lived thirty seven years seemingly untouched by real grief. She’d lost her mother, who she wasn’t very close to and numerous sets of grandparents and great grandparents. She seemed to put all the stock of her life into the men that surrounded her. Other women never interested my mother much, they were like a conquered country to her, nothing much to see.
“It would have happened anyway,” Dr. Rose would repeat, “there is no telling when these things are going to happen the bricks and mortar of house couldn’t have stopped it, nor the power of prayer, or any of that hokum.”
I often wondered how Dr. Rose could claim to be so much in love with a person who’s faith and appraisal of life he so doubted, but that night I realised, when he called round and I was sat at the top of the stairs, you have to let some things go for the sake of the greater whole. Just like for some people the summer of 1949 is an agonising memory and for others it’s only alligators.
The construction of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s was, like seemingly everything in that era, a Cold War altercation between East and West. America and Britain refused to pay for the building of Aswan, which fans out into the blue Nile like the Art Deco proscenium arch of the Hollywood Bowl, its desert shades matching its parched surroundings. Nikita Khrushchev was willing to aide Egypt with the building costs though and the Soviet premier, performing some first rate Cold War posturing, appeared with President Nasser, cutting the red ribbon to open the first stage of construction with ceremonial aplomb.
Effat Nagy’s The High Dam is a depiction of the construction of Aswan and is featured in the first part of a showing of the Barjeel Art Foundation’s collection at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. The painting has a slight Soviet overtone, the scaffolding, which covers a steely industrial backdrop, bringing to mind the spiky edges of Kazimir Malevich. The initial impression is one of great might and muscle being employed in the name of an impressive undertaking, a symbol of the construction of a new Egypt, but look a little closer and the scaffolding appears frail, suggesting that this solidly built future may turn out to be flimsy.
Nagy and her husband Saad al-Khadem, were both pioneers of folk art in Egypt and she was invited by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture to visit the gargantuan construction site at Aswan. The poor labour conditions and the forced relocation of entire villages played on her mind and the minds of others who painted the scene. The poor conditions are echoed in Ragheb Ayad’s Aswan, which depicts skeleton figures doubled over in toil, working in a seemingly endless chasm.
The Barjeel Art Foundation is a United Arab Emirates-based initiative established to manage, preserve and exhibit the personal art collection of Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi. Thirty eight pieces of art will ultimately feature in the four part Whitechapel show, which will run in instalments into next year, charting the development of Middle Eastern art from Modern to Contemporary.
The seed that gives birth to this freewheeling collection is the Armenian artist Ervand Demirdjian’s Nubian Girl. Painted between 1900 and 1910, the canvas is beautiful and traditional, with the evident influence of Modern western and, in particular, Dutch and French portraiture. The painting bears a passing resemblance to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and is, perhaps, more mystical, her enchanting eyes seemingly outshining her jewels to become the brightest thing on the canvas.
Traditionalism is swept away when the exhibition considers art from another, more contemporary cause célèbre of western interference in the Middle East, Iraq. Kadhim Hayder uses the country’s rich library of myth and symbolism to critique more recent events, such as the toppling of the monarchy by what would become Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party.
The Hayder painting featured in this exhibition is Fatigued Ten Horses Converse with Nothing (The Martyrs Epic) a ghostly image of several white desert horses howling at a fiery sun. Though painted in 1965, the image is still searingly modern. The horses are in fact weeping, perhaps the first of millions of tears to fall on Iraq’s bloodstained sand, for Al Husayn, an important Islamic figure who was killed at the Battle of Karbala. He is still mourned on the Day of Ashura by Shia society, when it is said that a tear only as little as the wing of a fly will have the power to put out the fire of hell.
Hamed Ewais is another Egyptian artist present in the Whitechapel show. Le Gardien de la Vie (The Protector of Life) depicts a machine gun-toting fighter as almost a fatherly figure, protecting civilian lives by force of arms. It is again a modern image belying its fifty years and could easily be passed off as a 21st century example of propaganda. But the work instead elucidates the desire of a nation to look after and nurture its own citizenry, free of the interference of foreign colonialism. It depicts another desire too, a hope given voice by this entire collection, the artistic desire for unfettered self expression.
Barjeel Art Foundation Collection: Imperfect Chronology – Debating Modernism I runs until November 6th 2015. Images courtesy of the Whitechapel Gallery.
The flickering outdoor light cast a milky pattern across the back yard pond Oonagh had dug on her forty fifth birthday. Michael stared at the water and remembered the dirt piling up beside the wooden deckchair he had sat in while she worked.
Oonagh had the habit of making household rearrangements to mark milestones. On her fortieth birthday she had smashed through a partition wall to open up the dining and sitting rooms and on her fiftieth she had uprooted several conifer trees that had grown so tall they blocked out the sun for the majority of the day.
He’d objected to the pond, he’d objected to chopping the trees down. He’d become unforgivably objectionable after he stopped working at the military installation down by Cogley Wood, and he had mercilessly dragged his feet as she hacked away at the tree trunks.
“Why don’t you go a little easy,” Michael had shouted at her, “you’re fifty now, you’re not as young as you used to be.”
“If it wasn’t for me,” she said breaking to breathe after each swing, “nothing would change around here.”
The fact that he could gaze out across the square to the Robinson place, the fact that he could sit and watch people come and go from the Horse and Jockey pub, the fact that he could make note of the changing seasons, the maypole in the summer, the lighting of the tree in winter, this was her gift of openness to him, chopping those trees down had kept him connected to the world when he most wanted to be out of it.
“To accept the immediacy of death is the only way to overcome anxiety,” she would say, and, “To grow nightingale roses on the eastern side of a garden is to open up your life to a host of secrets,” among other such maxims that were deemed not so serviceable for reality, but certainly were worth bearing in mind for the next world.
Micheal still hated it when people sang ‘Jerusalem’ at weddings, everybody likes the tune but the words are hardly fitting and although they had really belted it out on that summer’s day in 1952, he couldn’t help but cringe at the memory. Although her countenance was divine, the holy city paled in comparison to the passion she would bring forth every Sunday night, in the old place, down by the beach, with the leaky roof and the jet planes from the military installation at Cogley Wood roaring overhead as they did it.
Miraculous moments come and go in the blink of an eye and then, the miracle done, you are left to wonder if it was all just a predetermined certainty you were made to wait a little longer for than you were entirely comfortable with.
Oonagh saw the world in Micheal and the generational back and forth continued until probability conspired that they chop down the trees together and she looked back at him from amongst the fallen wood, the world opening up before him again, as time proved his heart faithful and she told him about the changes.
A century has passed since Kazimir Malevich’s Black Quadrilateral was unveiled in Russia and the painting forms the starting point of the Whitechapel Gallery’s Adventures of the Black Square, which examines the influence the painting has had on abstract art in the years that have followed.
Malevich developed his artistic style to the point of pure abstraction using geometric shapes in his work to express ideas and sensations. The Black Quadrilateral and the 39 paintings that premiered with it were the first paintings that were not depictions of something else, constituting one of art’s first steps outside of a physical reality. “I am trying desperately,” Malevich wrote, “to free art from the dead weight of the real world.”
The artists featured certainly took Malevich’s aspiration to heart and those present do not only represent nations one would immediately associate with abstract art, but are from countries ranging from Argentina, to Israel and Iran.
The exhibition, which meanders over two floors, begins in Russia with images of the Shukhov Radio Tower, the winding conical steel structure that was saved from demolition just last year. Placed next to these images is a depiction of a megaphone, something of a motif throughout the exhibition. Design for Loundspeaker No. 5 by Gustav Klutis, is a Constructivist take on what was then a brand new means of mass communication and is in itself an attempt to use bright colour and brash form to communicate with people in a manner that transcends language and social rank. The megaphone theme is picked up later by Zvi Goldstein, an artist from Romania, who reminds the viewer that megaphones can be used to both rally people to social revolution and to suppress them with propaganda, something that can equally be said of art.
Malevich’s immediate influence can be seen more readily in Lyubov Popova’s Painterly Architectonic. Created just a year after Malevich’s Quadrilateral, shape is used to represent the encroaching modernity that was taking hold in the early years of the twentieth century, with the square being used to represent skyscrapers and cars.
The notion is progressed with the conjoining of abstract art and architecture seen in the selection of Proun lithographs created by El Lissitzky, which he created to represent “the interchange station between painting and architecture.” Proun is an abbreviation for the Russian ‘Project for the affirmation of the new’ and was formulated to encourage the creation of a new society in the wake of the Russian Revolution. The lithographs are otherworldly to look at, but there are practical considerations at their core.
Theo van Doesburg’s ‘Colour design for ceiling and three walls, small ballroom, conversion of Cafe Aubette interior, Strasbourg’ continues the consideration of how geometric abstraction was developed into a three dimensional form to slot within our built environment. Van Doesburg was a Dutch poet, painter and architect, who worked on the redevelopment of the Aubette building in Strasbourg into a cafe, restaurant, ballroom and cinema complex. Doesburg was a perfectionist and took control of all aspects of the project right down to the style of the ashtrays in the ballroom. Underlying his complex designs was a new aesthetic he termed Elementarism, a school of thought that reduced art to its fundamentals of form, colour and line with only vertical or horizontal lines being used and only paint being applied in primary colours, something that is visible in the carefully positioned rectangles, squares and colours found in van Doesburg’s plan for the Cafe Aubette. “The point is to situate man within a painting, rather than in front of it”, van Doesburg said. “Man does not live in the construction but in the atmosphere generated by the surfaces.”
Squares and geometric shapes, like the blocks of sound found in a Beethoven symphony, are, when collated together, always the building blocks of a greater whole and as the exhibition progresses towards the present day, the theme continues. In Peter Halley’s Auto Zone, one of a series of cell paintings he created, the artist uses colourful squares, intersecting and eye-catching, to depict a prison as a prime example of modern thinking and, in a broader sense, the ability of modern society to manage space, people and activity through surveillance.
The theme of space management is also confronted in Keith Coventry’s Sceaux Gardens Estate from 1995. Coventry’s Estate Series manages to create a language from the layout of London housing estates, the footprints of tower blocks replaced by colourful oblongs. The image exposes the dystopian nature of modern cities and in doing so creates an image that is in itself dystopian, a diagram beyond understanding, but something that has to be accepted and lived in nonetheless.
The exhibition concludes in the near present with Spirit Above All by Zhao Yao from 2012, the abstraction, the squares of dark colour still evident, a century after Malevich put paint to canvas on his own black square.
“Shouldn’t it give us pause,” Malevich said, “that the oldest works of art are as impressive today in their beauty and spontaneity as they were many thousands of years ago?” This enthralling exhibition proves that spontaneity and simplicity in art is long lasting, and that out of a fundamentally abstract form can come a very physical rendering of our everyday life.
Adventures of the Black Square continues at the Whitechapel Gallery until 6 April 2015. All photographs courtesy of the Whitechapel Gallery.