40 seems to be an age where it is perhaps more comfortable to look back on the past than think about the future. Early visual influences can shape your thought processes, creativity and visual tastes in ways that are not instantly recognisable in the present, until can you look back and see them with a sense of perspective.
Certain images and memories have stuck in my imagination over the past few decades and evoke nostalgia for lost times, memories, moments, thoughts and people. Here I would like to examine some of the works of art and art criticism that have made a powerful impression on me in the past, and to which I still periodically return for inspiration.
Pieter Bruegel’s ‘The Hunters in The Snow’ hung on a wall in my parent’s front room for a number of years. The picture has left a long and lingering impression on me. The deep framing of the multi-layered landscape, the beautiful textures of the whites of the snow and the browns and blacks of clothing and the glimpses of the small towns in the distance were deeply evocative for me.
Especially I was interested by the tiny people far off in the distance, playing sports on the ice and doing chores, all playing out their own personal stories. It was an example of how the still image can speak to people years after it was produced.
I may have taken it for granted at the time, though ever since it has stayed imprinted in my imagination and has been instantly recognizable to me ever since, evoking a powerful, if melancholy, feeling of lost moments frozen in time.
My second example of a nostalgic impression from media is John Berger’s 1972 series ‘Ways of Seeing’. This is a four part series about the different political and social attitudes we have towards painting in the modern mechanized age, a time when photography is all powerful. I first saw this series as a VHS recording and it has haunted me ever since.
Berger’s large shock of wavy hair, his intense gaze, his slight speech impediment and that very seventies shirt at the time seemed slightly creepy to me. My dad had recorded the series on Vhs when video recording was still a novelty. He had been using it as a teaching aid I expect (apparently the resulting text from the series is still used widely for teaching visual media in colleges and universities today).
I still associate ‘Ways of Seeing’ with the static and visual noise of worn VHS tapes. All very eighties, even though the original series had been produced before I was born.
However, Berger’s highly skeptical inquiry into the forced mysticism and absurd commercial excesses of the art world The series was made as a further exploration of the themes explored in Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’.
Interestingly, this essay was from a collection of Benjamin’s works called ‘Illuminations’ which was my keyword for my critical analysis and practical module. Marxist ideas form the bedrock for Berger’s critical analysis, as painting was as he put it, primarily for the rich and for the glorification of private property.
To quote the book:
‘Publicity is, in essence, nostalgic. It has to sell the past to the future. It cannot itself supply the standards of its own claims. And so all its references to quality are bound to be retrospective and traditional. It would lack both confidence and credibility if it used a strictly contemporary language.’
He also explores how women are depicted in oil painting, and how their depiction in today’s mass media, with their naked bodies treated as private property and commodity, has not changed very much at all. It is still an enduring and very relevant point.
‘Ways Of Seeing’ has been Berger’s most notable legacy in art criticism, although he is known as a poet and artist in his own right. I have since watched the series a number of times, and it stands up to repeat viewing for anyone interested in art, culture and critical thinking.
The whole series is available on Youtube, although I wonder if I would even be aware of ‘Ways Of Seeing’ if it was not for those old VHS tapes.
Among my very earliest memories as a child are of the Scottish new town Cumbernauld, on the outskirts of Glasgow. We lived there for a short time when I was around 4. It was a world of concrete and tarmac, in stark contrast to my upbringing in rural Perthshire. It is a place I still dream of (or have nightmares about) and it probably had a direct influence on my love for concrete, harsh textures and hard surfaces in photography, as well as a strong interest in brutalist architecture.
The harsh severe patterns and lines of the new town seem to me to be perfectly encapsulated in my next example of nostalgic art.
Eduardo Paolozzi’s sculpture on the doors of the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow. Paolozzi’s machine modernism in collage and sculpture left a lasting impression on in the shape of the huge monolithic silver doors that formed the entrance to a museum I remember visiting a good deal as a child.
Walks around Glasgow University and Kelvingrove park often led to a visit here, and every now and then I go back to see those amazing doors. They do not look quite so huge now, though they still hold an odd emotional pull for me even after all those years. They seemed to be the doors to a very mysterious and valuable domain of memory.
I learned later that Paolozzi had a close relationship with one of my favourite authors, JG Ballard. The impersonal alienation of a town like Cumbernauld, with its tainted weathered surfaces and utopian architecture transformed into a dystopian landscape of barbed wire and empty shops would have been a perfect backdrop to any story of Ballard’s. Paolozzi found a visual language for this with his angular abstract collage and sculpture, capturing the lost dreams of a cynical age at the end of modernism.
The influence of the town and of Paolozzi’s art perhaps explains why concrete, tarmac and hard shadows have been such an inspiration on my own photographic images.
My last nostalgic reference is also an historical treasure trove from the end of the seventies and start of the eighties. I cannot quite remember where I first saw it. No doubt it was also included in my dad’s recorded VHS tapes (he was an art and media studies teacher).
Generally I have very little tolerance for art and cultural critics. However Robert Hughes is an exception. He really knew what he was talking about, and, like Berger he made no attempt to hide his strong and erudite opinions on the increasing commercialism and homogenization of artworks.
Hughes’ ‘The Shock of the New’ series is a peerless historical evaluation of the late 19th to mid-20th Century modernist art movements, arguing that our shared common culture now is modernism. Exploring Dadaism, Surrealism, Futurism and Fauvism in the inspired way Hughes does, it is hard to find an argument to deny this. Hughes is endlessly quotable and engaging as he leads us on a tour through the vaults of modern art.
The Shock of the New make for compulsive viewing and like Berger’s series makes ongoing relevant points about art and the art world. It was in this series that first became aware of the subject matter of my critical analysis, László Moholy-Nagy’s ‘Light Space Modulator’.
Hughes quotes Mohology-Nagy : ‘Constructivism is pure substance, it is the socialism of vision’.
It is this kind of strident idealism that Hughes argues has been lost. As such his history touches on the political factors of art and its increasing commercialisation, something he would go on to explore in more detail in ‘The New Shock of the New’.
Like Berger he describes the prices of the artworks he examines as ‘absurd’. The often subversive message of a given artwork is crushed under the weight of its price tag. He finishes this episode with a chilling and damning appraisal of current commercial and political (or a-political) artistic trends.
All these influences have had a profound and ongoing influence on me in ways that I cannot properly measure. I expect I will go back to them again and again to relive the emotionally and creatively invigorating mysteries of nostalgia.