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Feb 2005 Journal

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Art Notes

Faces in the Crowd is an enticing title for Whitechapel Gallery's current exhibition. It implies the kind of broad brush-stroke that sweeps through post-Impressionism to Modernism, and is a brave and imaginative attempt to see man from his outer perimeters. Sometimes, it is the crowd rather than the face which offers the defining opportunity to express change.

In his poem whose title inspired the exhibition, Ezra Pound described the faces he saw on the Paris Metro in 1913 as 'petals on a wet, black bough'. In fact, the only face that stands out for me is Christian Schad's somnolent flapper girl, a tight-lipped brunette with a red hibiscus flower.

There are two magnificent paintings in which the face is subsumed by the crowd. One is Andreas Gursky's stunning May Day, in which a mass of golden hands raised up in the darkness demonstrates the communication between people through one event. The other is Manet's Masked Ball - very ominous, close up with its ubiquitous black top hats, court jester and glimpse of a white leg in a red boot. It certainly brings an eerily cultish feel to the party.

David Bomberg's Ghetto Theatre, painted in 1926, similarly focuses on thematic colour: the black hats and red suits seen in the upper gallery contrast with the duller attire worn below, as though Bomberg is commenting on a Jewish isolationism - self-imposed or otherwise. From theatre to other types of exhibitionism, there are ringside boxers showing off their brute musculature, primitive masks, and sleeping girls, such as Edvard Munch's The Day After, an erotic painting in which the girl has fallen asleep dressed in her chemise and boots. Umberto Boccioni's 1910 work The City Rises is a mass of semi-abstract movement which, in its way, epitomises the exhibition's context of the evolution of the modern city.

Marcel Duchamp - he of the famed latrine - offers a rectangular photograph of two seated men mirrored as four. It states the intention, equally mirrored in much of the work, that all is not what it seems. In fact, quoting Baudelaire's spectacle of thousands of floating existences, the whole show made me feel a sense, not of communication but isolation. The fear instilled into people by war, for example, is memorably captured in Henri Cartier-Bresson's disturbing photos of a transit camp in Germany in 1945; the returnees from the Eastern Front liberated by the Soviet Army; or most chillingly, a young Belgian woman being identified as a Gestapo informer as she tries to hide from the crowd. In similar vein, there are Reich propaganda posters typifying the totalitarian art of its time, while the deathly etchings of Kathe Kollwitz identify the victims' pain.

Humour comes through George Segal's dry cleaning shop installation and a pair of polyester resin life-size twins perched on swings above eye-level by Juan Minoz. The whole is punctuated by the mournful, repetitive strains of a bassoon accompanying an animated sketch installation by William Kentridge. All human life, it seems, is here.
Gloria Tessler

previous article:Frank Foley - the paper trail
next article:Confronting a trauma (book review)