BBC BLOGS - The Reporters: Razia Iqbal

Archives for September 2008

Reflections on Rothko

Razia Iqbal | 11:49 UK time, Thursday, 25 September 2008

rothko234.jpgThe mythology that surrounds Mark Rothko and his work has made him an iconic figure well beyond the art world.

News of his suicide in 1970 came on the day the Tate took delivery of nine of his Seagram murals. Now the Tate has mounted an exhibition bringing these nine paintings together with six others in the series.

These paintings are at the heart of the show, and if the press view at Tate Modern is anything to go by, this exhibition of his late works will be heaving with fans - many who probably profess not to understand modern art, but love Rothko.

The Seagram series are vast canvasses, hung in one room. It feels like a cathedral; low lit and forcing meditation. The murals were created for the Four Seasons restaurant, in New York, a project Rothko turned his back on because he thought it an unsuitable place for his work and ideas. Walking among these deep, brooding blood-burgundy paintings, there is a strong sense of awe akin to a place of worship.

Imagining the room full of people, as it will undoubtedly be, begs the question whether viewing a Rothko amongst large crowds will really give you the experience he felt the work demanded.

As his son Christopher told me: "Unless you look at the paintings slowly, allow them to percolate, and almost go through a tenderising experience, there is little reward. If you walk through the rooms quickly, what are you going to see but coloured rectangles on the wall?"

Indeed, slow or fast, there will be people who will think the latter anyway. None of this should stop you from making the journey to Tate Modern, if you can.

Standing in front of a Rothko painting can be a profoundly emotional experience. Don't be intimidated by the crowds; take your time. His work reflects back at you what you put in. And at different periods of my life, I have seen different things in them. The black paintings, for example, are less a signature of bleakness and despair (they were among the last things he painted) than an attempt to test abstraction to its limits. There is nowhere to go in these paintings, except reflect on that which goes beyond the material.

Gerhard Richter's patchwork mystery

Razia Iqbal | 17:33 UK time, Monday, 22 September 2008

gerhard226.jpgA great deal that I read about Gerhard Richter interests me.

Billed as one of the world's greatest painters, he is interested in chance. He believes in nothing. During a provocative youthful moment, he once said that now that there are no priests and philosophers, artists were the most important people in the world. His paintings sell in the high millions, and since the 1960s, he has had more than one hundred solo exhibitions around the world. And I have seen many of his paintings which have made me think, particularly some of his photography-based portraits.

But his new exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery has left me cold, and wondering about the labels of greatness attributed to him. Entitled 4900 Colours, it comprises a series of 49 paintings made up of bright monochrome squares randomly arranged in a grid formation.

So, 196 square panels of 25 coloured squares, configured differently each time using enamel paint, which has been sprayed on and then fixed onto the panels. Anyone who has encountered the children's stories about Elmer the Patchwork Elephant will be familiar with the images. There is much in the catalogue about the arbitrary distribution of colour and about uncertainty etc. Can you tell it hasn't made a big impression?

I would like to see Richter's design for the south transept window of Cologne Cathedral - destroyed during World War II and newly unveiled last year; there is a connection between this work and (from the photographs) the impressive design for the window.

I can see that in the context of a church there would be something mesmersing and possibly even spiritual about the arrangement of colours, but on the white walls of the Serpentine, for all the clever computer programming, it just felt like a cold concept.

There was though, a surreal quality to the press viewing; everyone waited for Richter to speak, but the bad sound system, and acoustics in the room meant little of what the great man said could be heard. He seemed quite uncomfortable in a public setting, though he appears not to be painting much these days, but doing a lot of putting exhibitions together and talking to the press, so you would think he would be at ease.

In a short, more intimate chat with a few journalists afterwards, he was charming, though clearly a man of few words. Given that marketing has become an art form in itself, given the hype and spin of recent weeks at auction houses, it's surprising how badly Gerhard Richter was presented.

Who is Kongthin Pearlmich?

Razia Iqbal | 17:59 UK time, Friday, 19 September 2008

A story in the Daily Telegraph has set me on a trail to discover more about an artist called Kongthin Pearlmich, if indeed there is anything to discover.

Apparently, a 15-foot-high triptych, by Kongthin Pearlmich, which weighs a total of three tons, and which went on display this week in the chapel of King's College, Cambridge, is being offered to Canterbury Cathedral. The story carried a photograph of the work, entitled The Man Delusion. Little though is known about the artist, who apparently sells only to a handful of private clients.

In this work of three panels, each a sculpture of Christ on the cross, the central figure is holding pearls; diamonds hang off his feet, and rubies on his chest. Four of these triptychs exist, one of which has been offered to the Vatican and another has gone to a private collector, reputedly sold for nearly £70 million.

Mr Pearlmich is a recluse. The art world is not huge, so come on, who is this man, and why have we not heard of him before now?

There is an artist website, but it has restricted access to existing clients and patrons of Mr Pearlmich. I have requested entry to the site and await a reply. Any information on him would be very welcome.

Helen Mirren returns to the National Theatre

Razia Iqbal | 17:20 UK time, Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Oscar winning actress Helen Mirren will tread the boards at the National Theatre next June in Ted Hughes' translation of Racine's Phedre.

mirren211.jpgThe last time she appeared at the National was in Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra in 2004. Racine's play is based on Euripides' Hippolytus and is about the fatal and taboo love Queen Phedre harbours for her stepson, Hippolyte.

Nick Hytner, the artistic director, will be directing the production. The cast will include Margaret Tyzack as the nurse Oenone. She told Hytner she saw the role as as lacking in laughs: "I get to play the side-kick, but I do get to say I'm going to Argos". There's unlikely to be a single empty seat.

But then the National has been doing particularly well under Hytner's leadership. The Travelex £10 season continues to be successful and has drawn audiences of 90% capacity.

The National Theatre's biggest earner, Michael Morpugo's War Horse, which displayed the height of puppetry as a craft which can move and engage, returns to the venue in November. For all those who haven't seen it yet seen it, book now. It is a very exciting theatrical experience. It took £2.3m at the box office and also attracted a large percentage of under-18s, though it really isn't just a children's play.

As for how the credit crunch is impacting on audiences, Hytner thinks that theatre is one of the last things people stop doing in a recession. And as though to underline how much of a comfort it can be, Andrew Lloyd Webber is offering free tickets to his two big West End hits - the Sound of Music and Joseph and his Technicolor Dreamcoat - to anyone who has lost their jobs in the current economic meltdown. Two free tickets will be given on production of a P45 issued after 1 September 2008.

Generous offer, or endurance test?

I am reminded of Meryl Streep's discovery of the musical Mamma Mia post 9/11 when she took a group of teenage girls, including her daughter, to see it. And look how it changed her fortunes.

Credit crunch? What credit crunch?

Razia Iqbal | 13:13 UK time, Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Love him or loathe him, argue that what he does is not art, but it is almost impossible to contest that Damien Hirst has changed the art world. He has challenged the rules of the art world and his big gamble has paid off.

I was at the opening of the landmark auction at Sotheby's, and it was pure theatre; we all had an idea how the script would go, but anything could have happened. While the artist played snooker at the Groucho club in nearby Soho, he was adding £70m to his already considerable wealth.

With every room in Sotheby's packed, the main room was an unusual supermarket for the super-rich. Filled with cosmopolitan, open-shirted men and women with big hair and big purses, which had clearly already paid for their expensive facial features.

Lining two walls were around 40 telephone bidders. The 650 odd seated ticketed bidders in the main hall included many who already own Hirst's work. They have a financial interest in sending it higher.

The first lot, Heaven Can Wait, 1 went to Jay Jopling, although the identity of the client he was representing is unknown. Jopling, an influential figure in the contemporary art world, is one of Hirst's dealers. In this instance, he was cut out of the loop, as Hirst chose to go to auction directly.

Hirst's diminished Shark in formaldehyde, entitled The Kingdom, went to a telephone bidder, represented by Sotheby's best Russian speaker, the only hint to the buyer's identity. The whole room erupted into shocked applause at the final figure of £8.5m. On the day when major banks either collapsed to teetered on the brink, the art market was as buoyant as it has ever been.

The art critic Robert Hughes is a loud, though probably not lone voice in criticising Hirst's work as absurd and vacuous. But even he cannot convincingly contest Hirst's chutzpah.

The glitzy, gold plated Golden Calf, which sold for £10.3m is an emblem of our times: this biblical symbol of a false god is a totem for the unstoppable and absurd rise of the art market itself.

Hirst is a ringmaster extraordinaire. Mounting a successful exhibition and challenging how art is sold and talked about, is he the art world's rock star or is he a fine example of the emperor's new clothes writ large and obscene?

About Razia Iqbal

Razia Iqbal | 10:00 UK time, Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Since 2004, I have been the BBC's arts correspondent, mainly working on television news. But I've been involved with the arts on and off since 1994, when I started making programmes for BBC Radio 4, and later as the arts correspondent on BBC World Service and Radio 4.

Razia IqbalI have also presented various programmes over the years - from Radio 4's PM programme, to Front Row and Woman's Hour as well as hosting various programmes on 5 Live and the World Service.

This is what I love about the arts: At their best, artists deal with the biggest issues going - life, death and love.

Forget politics, money and business, if you want the greatest rewards and riches, the arts are where it's at.

Below, you'll find a sample of my TV reports from the last couple of years.

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