Cindy Sherman at the National Portrait gallery

Q.  When is a selfie not a selfie?

A.   When it features Cindy Sherman.

Cindy Sherman’s work has a simple concept at its heart – she takes photographs of herself. In fact she has been taking self-portraits since long before the term ‘selfie’ entered common usage. But she does not take selfies in the generally accepted sense of the word – Sherman adopts a persona but leaves the viewer to decode what the image is all about. Her works have no title that would assist in interpreting her images, although most belong to a series that is titles, e.g. History Portraits, Fashion or Film Stills.

Her conceptual approach is alarmingly simple -she constructs (or chooses) a suitable backdrop, dresses up in clothes and changes her appearance with make-up, wigs and (more recently) prosthetics. It was fascinating to see a copy of Sherman’s notebook where she had written how she was going to achieve the portrait she wanted. Although the concept is simple – a huge amount of detail goes into constructing the scene just as she wants it.

The images I admired the most were in the Film Stills series, produced between 1977-80. Scores of relatively small portraits filled one of the gallery rooms – each a distinct scene from a film that you think you have seen. They are not copies of scenes from any particular film, rather generic scenes that remind you of something you had seen.

In this way the viewer is invited to bring their own interpretation to the scene – what’s happening here, what is she doing, what might happen next? Sherman has the ability to construct these scenes in both simple and complicated settings. For example #48

Seen from the rear, Sherman stands alone with her back to the camera and with just a suitcase as a prop. But the dramatically lit figure and dark brooding background convey a sense of danger. A simple scene where the questions and suspense are made by the setting and lighting.

 

 

By comparison # 14

This is a highly complex setup, where the expression on Sherman’s face, reflection in the mirror, the glass of wine on the table, jacket on the chair, portrait on the sideboard all offer pointers for interpretation as to what the scene is all about.

 

Sherman doesn’t give answers in these portraits, she asks questions of the viewer who bring their own prejudices and stereotypes as they decipher the scene. I could have spent most of my time at the exhibition in the room containing the Film Stills series, investigating the scenes and considering the ingenuity of the concept.

In some ways I found that the rest of the exhibition suffered from following on from this series. Sherman’s later work embraced colour and were printed on a much bigger scale but, to me, seemed less intriguing than the Film Stills series. I admired the Centrefold series as well as the Fashion images. The fashion series especially were, literally, larger than life, and lost the intimacy that was generated in the Film Stills.

It is interesting to consider Sherman’s influence on photography. Gerry Badger writes

“Sherman’s work as a whole has been a crucial component of the feminist influence upon women’s photography, yet it seems clear that she came to it by examining personal concerns – a love of movies, a penchant for dressing-up. She claims that she had never heard of the ‘male gaze’ theory when she began Untitled Film Stills. Yet, through this exploration of the personal, she instinctively created a body of work of work that touched upon wider issues concerning the representation of women”.

Badger, G. (2014) The genius of photography: How photography has changed our lives. London: Quadrille.

The Disasters of War – Don McCullin at Tate Britain

 

“catalogues the brutality and fatal consequences of war in such a stark, confrontational and unflinching manner”

“There are many scenes of savagery and suffering”

“another dismembered carcass, this time impaled upon a tree-trunk”

These quotes could be applied to the Don McCullin exhibition at Tate Britain which I attended as a member of an OCA study visit. Room after room displaying the horrors of war and scenes of absolute inhumanity.

In fact, they are from the art critic Alistair Sooke and do not relate to the McCullin exhibition. In a BBC article he considers what is the most powerful work of war art from the last two centuries. He concludes that

“nothing quite matches the originality and truth-telling ferocity of the Disasters of War, a series of 80 aquatint etchings, complete with caustic captions, by the Spanish artist Francisco de Goya (1746-1828)” (Sooke 2014).

 

 

Plate 37: Esto es peor. (This is worse.)                                         

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plate 39: Grande hazaña! Con muertos! (Great deeds! Against the dead!)

(Francisco Goya [Public domain])

 

 

Some people have questioned the display of McCullin’s work in a public art gallery such as Tate Britain.

“I don’t have a particular issue with being exposed to the terrible side of human nature, seen in the right context this can be edifying as much as it is alienating. In this case however the horror of much of the subject matter is made more still uncomfortable and harder to bear by the handling of the work and the context it is being viewed in. It’s an old quandary, but what does it mean to view an image of someone blown apart by a land mine, presented as a work of art, and then to shortly afterwards to exit through the gift shop and buy a similar image on a postcard.” (Bush 2019)

I agree with the sentiments concerning the gift shop, although such merchandising seems ubiquitous, nearly all the exhibitions I have been to recently seem to have the same arrangement. But what about the claim that the handling of the work and its context make the horror of it harder to bear? This seems to relate to the printing, framing and display of the work, presented in a ‘fine art’ fashion, emphasised by these images being displayed in an art gallery, the Tate. Does the display of the work in such a fashion elevate it to a status it does not deserve, or does it detract from the subject matter?

The photographs were originally taken for publication in newspapers and magazines, mostly accompanied by articles or explanatory text placing them into a certain context. Does experiencing them in a gallery change the way in which we view them? In a way yes, it is bound to – apart from anything else the size of the prints on the gallery walls is much greater than when originally published in The Observer. In addition, the gallery images are printed in exactly the way McCullin wanted them to be (he printed them all himself) rather than being subject to the vagaries of the newspaper printing processes of the time. So the experience of viewing them is different, but not necessarily inferior, in fact in some ways it is vastly superior.

But does the display of such images in a fine art setting affect how we view them. Again I think the answer to this is yes, it must do. It is a very different experience to shuffle around an exhibition room with scores of others rather than the solitary practice of viewing them in a magazine. The images themselves are elevated to a different setting on the gallery wall – you want to study them in detail, consider the message, the composition, how they have been printed. But does the setting – Tate Britain – make the horror of the images harder to bear. Art galleries have long depicted images of war and suffering, I doubt that anyone would query the display of Picasso’s Guernica in a gallery or Paul Nash’s The Menin Road. I wonder if this has something to do with the images being photographs rather than any other art form. Is it because of the realism of the photographs in displaying the horrors that brings it closer to home for the viewer and therefore less suited to display in an art gallery? Or could it be the sheer number of images of suffering that are on display that induces a sense of ‘compassion fatigue’?

On many occasions McCullin has denied that he regards his images as art or himself as an artist but has acknowledged Goya as an influence in his own work. But the mere fact that he has such an exhibition at Tate Britain suggests that influential others regard his work as an art form.

To me, the discussion around whether the images are suitable for display and the quality of the exhibition should not solely be about how the images are shown or experienced. Would similar comments about the “handling of the work and the context it is being viewed in” have been made had the exhibition at the Tate been Goya’s 80 etchings in Disasters of War. Somehow I doubt it.

To go back to Alistair Sooke’s article, he quotes the art historian Juliet Wilson-Bareau commenting on Goya’s etchings

“I have lived with these prints, which many people consider too shocking, absolutely unbearable, and I find in them – besides the heartbreak and outrage at the unspeakable violence and damage – a great well of compassion for all victims of the suffering and abuses they depict, which goes to the very heart of our humanity.”

This, I think, is how we should judge McCullin’s work do we find in them that “great well of compassion for all victims”?

I think that the answer to that is ‘yes in some of them’. For me, I think that his image of a grieving Turkish family does that, as does his image of the shell-shocked GI in Vietnam.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In other images he more displays the reality of everyday life in conflict zones such as his early photos from Berlin. Some display the horrors of war in a similar fashion to Goya’s – but don’t necessarily convey the same effect of compassion with the victim.

Does the way in which McCullin’s images are displayed and the fact that they are in an exhibition at Tate Britain influence how we view them – definitely. In some ways positively, in others less so.

Does the exhibition have flaws – yes. Should it have been put on – definitely.

 

Bibliography

Bush, L. (2019) Nihilistic Photojournalism? Don McCullin at Tate Britain. At: http://www.disphotic.com/nihilistic-photojournalism-don-mccullin-at-tate/ (Accessed on 28 May 2019)

Sooke, A. (2014) ‘Goya’s Disasters of War: The truth about war laid bare’ In: BBC 17 July 2014 [online] At: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140717-the-greatest-war-art-ever (Accessed on 28 May 2019)