Magazine article The Spectator

London Suprises

Magazine article The Spectator

London Suprises

Article excerpt

I here are times when a good exhibition in a commercial gallery outdoes the best efforts of the big public institutions. Thus both Kandinsky at the Royal Academy and the Russian modernists at the Barbican are disappointing. But those people who felt let down - as I did - will find their faith in the early 20th-century avant-garde of Mitteleuropa and points east restored by a beautiful show at Annely Juda Fine Art, 23 Dering Street, London W1, 4th Floor, devoted to the Russian constructivist, Naum Gabo (until 26 June).

As it happens, Gabo's work does not feature in the exhibition at the Barbican, although it could have, and indeed should have. In those days that followed the Russian revolution - both dreadful and, for the tiny group of modernist artists, full of hope and fierce in-fighting -- Gabo was a prominent figure. But, like many gifted artists whose careers passed under the shadow of Marxism, Gabo finally concluded that obedience to the party line and individual creative freedom were incompatible.

He pasted his dissident artistic manifesto on the walls of Moscow in 1922, and left for Berlin, taking with him much key work, since he did not expect to return. From Germany he moved on to Britain when Nazis came banging on his door, and during the war he lived near St Ives (indeed his style, and belief that his abstract art followed the same patterns of growth as natural forms and forces, were hugely influential on St Ives artists such as Peter Lanyon and John Wells). He spent the rest of his life in the United States.

In 1992, however, he had left the original, cardboard versions of two early works - female heads - with his brother Alexei. These were finally smuggled out of Russia in 1968, but Gabo - still fearful of the Soviet government - decided that they should remain secret as long as his wife and daughter were alive. The latter, however, decided that circumstances had changed enough for them to be seen, and so here they are - the centre-pieces of this show - on view over 80 years after they were first made (although subsequent versions in less fragile materials are well-known).

They are modernist madonnas, quiet, reflective, inscrutable, but - especially the larger one - with a powerful presence. Like so much of early modernism, they are clearly derived from cubism, in this case Picasso's early cubist heads. But Gabo has scooped them out, leaving nothing but a honeycomb of thin membranes and empty space. It was the latter that preoccupied him for much of the rest of his life in his later, abstract, work.

His celluloid sculptures of the Twenties and Thirties are virtually made out of light and space, carved up by transparent plastic planes. The large 'Vertical Construction No. 2' of 1969/70 slowly turns so that the skin of fine wire which surrounds it flows and flickers. Looking at it, and at many abstract pieces by Gabo, one thinks of stresses and forces, vortexes and whirlpools, but also of the inner architecture of a flower or a crystal. Austere at first glance, they are surprisingly lyrical.

Another artist who uses movement, but in a quite different way, is the contemporary South African, William Kentridge, whose work is on show at the Serpentine (until 30 May). Kentridge is two apparently incompatible things - a rather old-fashioned draughtsman, who claims the influence of Hogarth and Goya, and a filmmaker.

In his most interesting pieces, a series of short animated films, he uses a novel technique of his own invention. …

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