Jul 2013 Journal
Art Notes (review)
‘Saints Alive and Kicking’ might be an alternative title to the National Gallery’s Michael Landy: Saints Alive (until 24 November 2013). This exhibition challenges the holier-than-thou images of saints in the Renaissance paintings Landy trawled as a newcomer to the National Gallery to present us with the awfulness they actually experienced. He also trawled junkyards, car boot sales and flea markets for the ironmongery needed to build massive, three-dimensional images of the sublime paintings he had seen.
So, as you enter the room, you are confronted by the skyscraper-tall legendary figure of St Apollonia based on a painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The blonde and beatific saint in her red corrugated dress shudders like a haulage truck as you pass - as well she might, having had all her teeth pulled out!
Next - to the scholarly hermit St Jerome, whose appetite for pain led him to beat himself with a rock to banish ‘impure’ sexual thoughts. Landy has based him on three fifteenth-century paintings in the main galleries to create a headless figure whose torso ends in a mass of ironmongery above a single leg; with a gigantic thud a disembodied hand throws a rock at him. There’s a wooden St Catherine’s wheel - on which Catherine didn’t die because it was destroyed by an angel - but Landy lets you crank it into noisy action yourself. When she was finally executed with a sword it’s said that milk, not blood, flowed from her body. Ironically for its subject matter, this show is entirely bloodless.
The pièce de résistance is the Multi-Saint, based on four fifteenth-century martyrs who all died in horrific ways. This saintly amalgam stands with a pitchfork trampling on a green devil with webbed hands. I didn’t wait to hear the noise it emitted. I was reminded of Jacob Epstein’s poignant Rock Drill, in which the figure stands astride a mechanical drill mounted on a tripod. It was meant to convey fears of a dehumanised, mechanised society. Epstein said the piece possessed no humanity. The problem with this show - amusing and innovative in its way - is that by rendering his saints so large, Michael Landy has actually diminished them. There is no humanity here at all.
But R. B. Kitaj - Obsessions at the Jewish Museum is awash with humanity and sensitivity. The American modernist Kitaj spent 40 years in Britain describing himself as a diasporist, which defines his obsession with Jewish identity and the Holocaust. Kitaj uses primary colours to convey both the bustle and the quiet spaces in human existence. In The Wedding, the bridal couple are profiled facing the ceremony but you think the quiet, tiny figure in white left of centre is the bride. She is actually his adopted daughter Dominie. Less garishly, The Listener (charcoal and pastel) conveys the narrative of the Holocaust, crouching underground fearing discovery, while his alter ego reads in the sunlight. Kitaj depicts Holocaust refugees as alienated, crazy characters and victims as disembodied Jewish heads bounded with crosses and chimney shapes.