Monday, 7 September 2015

Chairman Mao smiles down on William Morris

As you walk into Jeremy Deller’s Morris/Warhol exhibition in the Birmingham Art Gallery, you at once see a vivid Warholian image of actress Joan Collins set next to a Rossetti painting of Jane Morris as a Dantesque 'Donna della Finestra’; and that seemed entirely as it should be – at least to my preconceptions about how a show like this might work. The mournful enigmatic depth or Walter-Benjaminian ‘aura’ of the Victorian work contrasts so strikingly with the glittery, cheery, in-your-face one-dimensional brashness of the 1980s celebrity image, just as Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes contrasts with Van Gogh’s dour but resonant painting of a pair of peasant boots in Fredric Jameson’s now canonical analysis in his great Postmodernism essay of 1984.

David Mabb, in his own artistic work around Morris, has been brilliantly clashing the visual iconography of our Victorian hero against the early twentieth-century visual ethic of Soviet Constructivism. Morris versus modernism: who knows, really and finally, what emerges from the explosive montage of those two things? And now, it seemed, Deller was having a stab at montaging Morris and postmodernism (in the iconic personage of Warhol). Whether you feel that ‘works’ in this exhibition or not - and what would it mean for it to ‘work’, anyway? - that seems to me to be, in principle, an absolutely worthwhile thing to have a go at.

So two surprises, then, as I finally got to this exhibition with my good friend Dave Cumner, first, that Deller doesn’t use the term ‘postmodernism’ anywhere. But no matter: it is the word we none the less need to conceptualise what he has tried to do ‘in the practical state’ (as Louis Althusser used to say). Secondly, and more importantly, that there was a fascinating vein of Warholian political art which I hadn’t been aware of, in the room devoted here to ‘Hopes and Fears for Art’. Not diamond dust shoes but white American policemen with vicious dogs attacking black protestors, and, above all, not the faces of Marilyn Monroe or Jackie Onassis or Shirley Temple or Elizabeth Taylor but rather of Chairman Mao Tze-Tung, five times over, above a display of Morris’s own political pamphlets and other writings.

What do the Warhol images have to say about China’s Communist leader? Do they celebrate him, satirise him, exploitatively play with an already iconic image to no particular effect, combine all of these in various proportions, or do something different entirely? You tell me. The same Jamesonian issues of one-dimensionality, depthlessness and ‘waning of affect’ seem to apply here as in the US pop-celebrity portraits, but none the less I felt productively unsettled by learning that there might be a postmodern political art of sorts after all. And since I had just spoken about ‘William Morris and the Return of Communism’ at the Birmingham Morris symposium, Warhol’s five Chairman Maos poised with their faint smiles as teasing as the Mona Lisa’s own above that range of Morris political pamphlets will be my abiding memory of Jeremy Deller’s fine exhibition.


Kotick said...

You've got some slightly odd aesthetic tastes, Tony, perhaps to do with your personal political predilections (communism) coming through too strongly here. Surely most people's "abiding memory" of Deller's Birmingham show (which definitely seemed bigger and better than its Oxford version) will be the central room where the Morris/Burne-Jones Holy Grail tapestries surrounded us on three sides. Immensely impressive and haunting - "auratic", to use your term - even if Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe was on the fourth wall!

Tony Pinkney said...

I liked the connections between Morris and Warhol that Jeremy Deller tried to make under the heading "mythology and romance", i.e., Hollywood is to the twentieth-century American artist what Arthurianism was to Morris and his Victorian circle, a place of extreme glamour and charisma, of dreams larger than life, so Marilyn Monroe equals Guenevere, and so on. As for Warhol's Mao, well, yes, I hadn't known he had done those images, so perhaps I'm over-emphasising them. But then, all interpretations involve hermeneutic violence and one-sidedness of some sort!