by Sue Hubbard
Ai Weiwei: Royal Academy, London until 31th December 2015
William Kentridge: Marian Goodman Gallery until 24th October 2015
The Chinese artist, designer and architect, Ai Weiwei has come to be regarded as a creative figure of global stature, largely because of his personal bravery and strong social conscience in speaking out against the repressive Chinese government. He has been imprisoned for his pains and galvanised a generation of artists. On his return to China in 1993, after twelve years in America, his work began to reflect the dual influences of both his native culture and his exposure to western art. He cites Duchamp as “the most, if not the only, influential figure” in his art practice. As a conceptual artist Ai Weiwei starts with an idea – for example China's relationship to its history – addressed in this major show at the Royal Academy by Table and Pillar, 2002, and made, as part of his Furniture series. A salvaged pillar from a Qing dynasty (1644-1911) temple has been inserted into a chair to form a totemic work. Having spent a month in China in 2000, I can confirm that Ai Weiwei has every reason to be concerned about the destruction of his cultural heritage which, when I was there, was daily being destroyed to make way for ‘modernisation'. Coloured Vases, 2015, further questions notions of value and authenticity by illustrating that fake antiquities are made with exactly the same techniques as authentic vases. In classic postmodernist style Ai Weiwei's objects take on the characteristics of a Barthian ‘text' to be deconstructed by those who are able to ‘read' and decode them.
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The rather amorphous group of artists known as The Glasgow Boys emerged at the end of the 1870s to reject Victorian sentimentalism, staid academicism and the execution of idyllic Highland landscapes in favour of painting scenes taken from everyday life. The first significant group of British artists since the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood they consisted of twenty young artists, including twelve key painters who took their ideas largely from European artistic models. Whilst the French Impressionists may have seemed a little too outré for their taste, they were attracted by the naturalism and realism of Jean-Francois Millet and by James McNeill Whistler’s austere and limited palette. Now the Royal Academy has mounted a major show of their work, billing them as ‘Pioneering Painters’. The first large-scale survey of the work of 'the Boys' to have been staged in London for 40 years it reveals, to a largely new audience, the work of James Paterson, William York Macgregor, James Guthrie and George Henry, together with younger painters such as John Lavery and Thomas Millie Dow, who were among the group’s leading figures. Though, sadly, the Royal Academy has only 80 out of the 130 included in the original version of the exhibition, which had a hugely successful run at Glasgow's Kelvingrove galleries earlier this year.
Condemned by some critics for a lack of originality and plagiarism (The Observer newspaper accused James Guthrie's opening painting A Funeral Service in the Highlands 1881-2 of being over reliant on Courbet's A Burial at Ornans 1849-50, in fact, what is interesting about this work, is how much it reflects the political mood that was sweeping Europe at the time, one that portrayed peasants and farmers in a sympathetic but unsentimental light. In atmosphere and composition Guthrie’s funeral is very similar to Fritz Mackensen’s Sermon on the Moor 1895, which shows a group of German Lutheran peasants dressed in their Sunday best, listening to an outdoor sermon. It is unlikely that Mackensen would have known Guthrie or Guthrie Mackensen, who lived in an artist’s community in Worpswede on the north German moors that counted the poet Rilke and the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker among its participants. Guthrie's work was actually inspired by a painting expedition to Brig o' Turk in the Trossachs. The dark, almost monochromatic canvas is based on a tragic, real life incident, an outdoor Presbyterian service held for a young boy who had drowned in the river during the artist’s stay. The weight of the community’s grief can be felt in the stooped stature of the men who surround the coffin under the metal-grey sky.
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