A Sea of Faces

Anne Gardom visits a remarkable
exhibition in London's East End

 

Faces in the Crowd is an exhibition with a message. It looks at people, how they are perceived, how they relate to their environment, and how artists from Manet’s time until the present day have painted, photographed and made models of what they saw. The exhibition includes paintings, photographs, moving images and installations of various kinds.

The Whitechapel Art Gallery has a reputation for exhibiting the work of contemporary artists and is also the focus for a great deal of local artistic life and activity. What was once the local morgue has long since been transformed into a large light exhibition area, with a modern shop and a small café.

Faces in the Crowd – a line from a poem by a Ezra Pound – starts by looking at people in an urban environment. Theatre has always fascinated painters. There is a wonderful painting by Sickert of the French theatre, Gaieté Rochechouart, with the brilliant stage lights throwing all the figures and the background into mysterious darkness. Bomberg paints a moving and quite different picture called Ghetto Theatre where the dark profiles of the spectators, lit by the lights from an unseen stage, are totally absorbed in a drama we cannot share. In another type of performance, a boxer in his moment of victory stands in the ring, illuminated by the overhead lighting, while below him the spectators wave and shout, their hands and arms a confusion of movement. In Manet's Bal Masque, the animated movement of dozens of glossy top hats, the impeccable white shirt fronts and prosperous bewhiskered young faces, give us a very attractive insight into the more sophisticated pleasures of urban life.

There is a film sequence called Manhattan, based on a poem of that name by Walt Whitman. It was made in 1921 ‘a study of the modern Babylon the Hudson’ and shows beautifully photographed views of Manhattan skyscrapers, the steam trains and the tracks beneath, and shots of the Hudson River alive with small boats and tugs on the shining water. The Aquitania, plumes of smoke coming from all four funnels, steams majestically into harbour. In another sequence the morning ferry docks, packed full of commuters – the gates slide apart and ‘million-footed Manhattan’, anonymous in dark suits, coats and hats, streams off in all directions.

In 1929 Dziga Vertof in Man with a Movie Camera made a film of the life of a city – he photographed its ambulances and its accidents, its firemen and its streets, its inhabitants, and even the birth of a baby. He shows us European domestic life which is now history.

Crowds, however, are made up of individuals – fruitful subjects of study for the artist and photographer. Toulouse Lautrec had an eye for the absurd and grotesque, and George Grosz, painting in Germany before and during the First World War mercilessly shows, in his sinister skeletal figures of men and his sagging scantily dressed women, the bitterness and corruption he saw around him. Magritte, in a painting entitled Recognition, paints man's relation to his environment in a very different way. A tiny figure stands on a sphere, floating in space over a mountain valley – isolated and alone.

Anyone who has travelled in the Underground in London will identify with Walter Evans' Subway Portraits, a wonderfully observed series of photographs taken between 1938 and 1941. They ask all the questions and provide none of the answers.

There is a wide range of photographs on show. Portraits by Man Ray, and a series of disturbing and beautiful self-portraits by Claude Cahun. There are also some of the famous wartime photographs by Capa and Cartier Bresson. They speak as sharply now as they did when they were taken – the shame of the shaven-headed young woman, convicted of collaborating with the enemy, who carries her child through a hostile crowd; the unmasking of another collaborator in front of an audience of grim-faced men – these pictures capture for ever a moment of tension and tragedy.

On a lighter note are wonderfully exotic African portraits by Seydow Keïta – often photographed in the open street with only a hanging for a background, beautiful sharp young men with rakishly tilted hats, a girl on a bicycle with an elaborate basket hairstyle, an entire family on a treasured motor bike – these are pictures of conscious achievement and success.

In another movie sequence, shot in 1952 by Helen Levitt, she looks with a human and humorous eye on a range of New Yorkers as they go about their daily lives, and also as they respond to the camera. The old ladies with their dogs, the young women in their smart dresses, and the irrepressible street children are photographed with perception and pleasure. It is a shock to see the poverty of the children, despite their gaiety and liveliness – these street scenes seem more reminiscent of the London of Dickens than New York in the Fifties.

Photographs of all kinds – wonderful ones of young black-clad seminarians larking in the snow, Andy Warhol's Orange Car Crash with the large photograph repeated eleven times in a huge picture. There is even a picture in which you find yourself mysteriously included – where the back view of two people is painted onto a mirror: as you approach, your own reflection is included in the picture and it is you, of course, whom they are watching.

In the small cinema a variety of films is to be seen – we watched a silent film shot in a wintry Central European Country – cold crowded railway stations and bus shelters, the endless patience of travellers with bags and bundles, quilted jackets and woollen hats, the film gives no clues, but looks at people and their surroundings with a neutral eye, leaving you to draw your own conclusions. The title From the East 1993 is all you are told.

Francis Bacon's paintings show the alienation of man from his environment, with the grey twisted figure centrally placed on the large canvas. His are among the many later paintings which portray the senselessness and futility of modern life, and man's tragic place in it – if indeed he has a place at all. The later paintings and artefacts are more disjointed and diverse when compared with the early works, and show how artists and the media respond to and express public perceptions today.

There is a very large and ambitious range of artefacts seen in this exhibition – paintings, prints, photographs, posters, installations, film sequences, television videos, and it is not possible to relate to, or even to enjoy, them all. It is, however, full of really interesting and unexpected things: the photographs and the films alone make it worth a visit, and there is much else besides.

The Whitechapel exhibition ends 6th March 2005

Entry £8.50, concessions £4.50. Nearest Underground Aldgate East.

 

Anne Gardom is Art Critic for New Directions

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