The body beautiful
Helen Chadwick: A Retrospective Tina Modotti and Edward Weston: The Mexico Years Barbican Art Gallery, until 1 August
The Barbican Art Gallery has reopened after an 11-month closure, looking very much the same as it always did, despite what is termed 'a dramatic renovation scheme' costing a million pounds. There is more display space on the lower of its two levels, but the unsympathetic character of the building has not changed — impossible, perhaps, without demolition. The alterations — essentially sealing off the gallery from the library floor below it, rendering the exhibition space 'environmentally independent' — are apparently required for the sort of climate controls nowadays necessary to obtain prestigious loans for blockbuster shows. I hope the Barbican's exhibition programme will repay the investment.
In the main space is a retrospective devoted to the work of Helen Chadwick (1953-96), who died tragically young of a heart attack at the height of her powers. Once more, a public gallery is scented with melting chocolate, as Chadwick's dramatic sculpture 'Cacao' is brought out of storage, the centrepiece of her 1994 exhibition which drew so many visitors to the Serpentine, breaking all previous attendance records. Once more we are shown the bronze 'Piss Flowers', made by casting the urine patterns in snow of Chadwick and her boyfriend, and once again the photographs of meat and viral landscapes are brought before our startled eyes.
Chadwick was an artist of considerable
intellectual standing, insisting on formal precision and immaculate presentation in her work. Her art appeals to the mind as much as to the senses and the emotions. Its enduring strength is evident: it looks as fresh today as ever. It's also revealing to position Chadwick within the context of the Sensation artists who came after her. Although there is an overlap of interests — in the body and animal flesh, human waste and detritus — the approach is considerably at variance. Where the YBAs are loud and slapdash, Chadwick is meticulous and subtle. Her art has a commitment, range and resonance which is refreshingly adult in comparison to the YBAs' yobbo adolescence. Even in a comparatively small retrospective such as this, Chadwick's work stands head and shoulders above the crowd.
Literally head and shoulders, for in the early part of her lamentably short career Chadwick made full use of her own body in performance and photography to explore the notion of self in relation to others — her principal subject. A key early work, 'Ego Geornetria Sum' (1983), presents the artist's past through everyday objects which act as way-stations on her passage from childhood to maturity: font, pram, wigwam, piano. Photographs of Chadwick re-enacting her life are exposed on to the surfaces of geometricised plywood objects. In the same way, her later installation, 'The Oval Court' (1984-6), employs a dim collage of blue photocopied images of her naked self cavorting through 12 settings in a kind of magic world-pool. Unfortunately, the impact of this piece is lessened by the deadening pictorial effects of the blue toner Chadwick used, which makes the whole rather dingy. Furthermore, the use of the autobiographical female nude was so controversial that she decided in 1988 not to represent her own body quite so much in her work. Flowers remained her chief metaphor. Even the chocolate fountain 'Cacao' (described by the artist as 'a pool of primal matter, sexually indeterminate, in a perpetual state of flux'), bubbling like a mud geyser around its central pole, is like an enormous flower. The 13 colour-framed roundels surrounding it, entitled 'Wreaths to Pleasure' and defined by Chadwick as 'libidinous bubbles' thrown up by the fountain, are photographs of flowers arranged against toxic fluids, such as orchids in pink Windolene. The effect, as well as being highly decorative, is of tissue culture in a laboratory. By daring to investigate in her work the complex relationship between art and science, Chadwick offers us insights into our own spirit/matter dichotomy. Her work remains formally inventive, disturbingly beautiful and, above all, thought-provoking.
The upstairs galleries look exactly the same as ever — lifeless, low-ceilinged boxes, deprived of all natural light. Their unfriendly spaces make any exhibition difficult to look at, even such an impressive array as the combined Mexican photographs of Tina Modotti and Edward Weston. There are some 150 works on display: too many, perhaps, but it's not easy to close off a room here, and when the works are relatively small-scale, as many of these are, there has to be a lot to fill the space. That said, it's remarkable how the intensity of vision of both these photographers is uncornpromised by their surroundings.
The story of Modotti and Weston's personal and professional involvement is wellknown: how the Italian actress and film star Modotti (1896-1942) met the emerg
ing Modernist photographer Weston (1886-1958), how they became lovers and went off to Mexico together, where Weston taught Modotti the technical aspects of photography in exchange for her partnership in running a commercial studio. This exhibition focuses on that Mexican interlude, from 1923 to 1926, a period during which the passion between the two waned, but Weston matured as an artist and Modotti found her own voice as a photographer. The examples of their work selected here show just how powerful an image-maker each could be.
Some aspects of the exhibition's arrangement and hang help to counteract the dreariness of the physical context. Principally, the grouping of images in threes: sometimes in deliberate trios, sometimes in hidden clusters. For instance, Weston's near-abstract 'Circus Tent' with one of his views of the pyramid of Cuernavaca, matched with Modotti's 'Stairs, Mexico City'. That is a more revealing grouping than the more obvious comparison of Weston's circus tent with Modotti's shot of the same subject. The formal structuring of Modernist photography is emphasised in the group of three, and we can see how well Modotti takes to it. It is often said that her work is more aligned to the depiction of peasants and workers, and Weston's is more monumental. Further, that Weston practised art for art's sake, while Modotti tried to ally art with political action. This is in fact how her work developed (she virtually ceased to make still-life photographs after the brilliant 'Telegraph Wires' of 1925), but her initial range was wider than that.
Look at another Modotti marvel: 'Interior of Church Tower at Tepotzotlan' (1924). How quietly understated are the textures and angles, the orchestration of light and shade, the meeting of the organic and geometric — how quiet and yet how telling. Or the exquisite geranium, placed next to the nearly as good Nopal Cactus'. It's a different way of picturing than Weston's. Look at another electric grouping: Weston's 'Aqueduct, Los Remedios' next to his statuesque palm tree, juxta posed with Modotti's magisterial 'Telegraph Wires', Are these of more artistic value than the sumptuous Weston nudes of Tina? Certainly they're better (or at least more interesting to this writer) than the increasingly politicised human subjects that Modotti came to favour. Weston, on the other hand, returned to California and moved deeper into still-life with an amazing series of shell photos and sexualised vegetables. They kept in touch by letter, at one point Modotti writing revealingly: 'I cannot — as you once proposed to me — "solve the problem of my life by losing myself in the problem of art"... ' How great a loss that was to photography is adumbrated in this compelling exhibition, and in the excellent accompanying book published by Merrell at £29.95.