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February 04, 2005

Richard D. North considers the masses: Faces in the Crowd and The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon

Posted by Richard D. North

Faces in the Crowd
Whitechapel Art Gallery, London
3rd December 2004 - 6th March 2005
Tuesday to Sunday 11am - 6pm (Thursday to 9pm)

The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon
BBC 2, 14th, 21st, 28th January 2005
Released on DVD

A small Manet painting is one of the few pre-Twentieth Century works which makes the most interesting bit of the argument the Whitechapel is pitching in this rambling show. Taking an Ezra Pound quotation,

"The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
petals on a wet, black bough",
we are invited to consider "representations of the modern individual and society". But the first bit of this proposal (looking at modern individual portraits) is something we can do anytime, and which in particular we had a big bite at in a recent Hayward show (About Face: Photography and the Death of the Portrait, autumn 2004). Frankly, the works of this kind we are offered at the Whitechapel wouldn't be amazing enough (in themselves or as an assembled argument) to make the schlepp worthwhile.

It's Manet's Masked Ball at the Opera (1873) which does the better piece of work. Here we get onto the modern crowd – the society bit of the offer -and how we have seen it differently than our forebears saw theirs. We are, I think, looking for the romance of Everyman. That was always easier in medievalist fantasy than in, say, the 17th and 18th centuries, when "The Mob" was a source of worry more than civilisation. But in the 19th Century, when socialism, the suffrage and social awareness flourished, somehow we changed our feeling about the masses. In spite of understanding the horrors which mass propaganda can unleash, we are constrained to value the merest speck of a face in a crowd scene as in some sense our equal. It would be Christ-like to do this really well, or wholly enjoy it, but we know it is our duty.

So we moderns get the point of the Pound imagery as it applies to the Manet: those top hats do indeed gleam – though they become the blackest of petals. The point one takes away from this show is that we can't look at crowd scenes, can't portray them, without producing a paradoxical effect. Our eye and mind are drawn to select, even if at random, an individual in the mass. So a crowd scene is an exercise in inadvertent portraiture. Of course there is audience participation here: looking at a crowd scene, each spectator makes his own choice of subject. It's the viewer's choice which face is zoomed-in on. It is the viewer who invests interest – who sees merit, beauty, ugliness – in some individual whose image was captured not unintentionally but not quite intentionally either.

We've had a lot of material recently on this theme, and it's all interesting. The Cartier-Bresson photographs at the Hayward in 1998 (for his 90th birthday celebrations) set us up beautifully for the Lartigue's which packed us in there in the summer of 2004. Take the Lartigue's: one thought at first one was looking at a little social documentary about a rich man and his pleasure-seeking friends. But it wasn't just historical or social curiosity which made these pictures so telling: it was the often rather haphazard portraiture involved – the personal curiosity one felt towards these new and long-dead people of whom one knew nothing and who would never be more than the briefest acquaintances. Unless one read the captions closely, these subjects were strangers – often in a crowd – and yet they seemed very real. Walking by too quickly seemed almost rude.

These were the effects, too, of the wartime and Holocaust images we have been seeing for the first time in colour on television (Carlton TV, 1999 and 2005). We've all seen reels of black and white footage of the period: it was eerie suddenly to see these people in colour. Trained as we think we are in reading our screens, the characters managed to surprise as they came alive. The monochrome ghosts were pumping real blood again.

The same effect is to be had from the newly-discovered Mitchell and Kenyon black and white film from the first years of the last century (BBC2). This time, we thought we had safely packed the late Victorian and Edwardian northern working class and their cities into still photographs. Now they have shrugged themselves free from their double-sided sticky tape mounts and come alive as movie.

All of these images, like the many stills and movies in the Faces in the Crowd show, provide startling and moving unintentional portraiture. People we thought were still, turn out to move; people we thought were monochrome are in colour; people we thought were walk-on extras, turn out to be intensely – if momentarily – interesting as characters.

Something quite big has been going on in our thinking about the individual and society. It is arguable that for most of history we have had the idea of the powerful, great, or gifted individual. We understood the idea of the genius or hero, as someone we admired. We did not see them as "role models": rather, we put our heroes on a pedestal. We could aspire to be as talented, honourable or useful as these heroes, but we understood that it was the fact that they were very different from us which mattered. We understood the "reach" that would be required to be like them. We knew that a Nelson was beyond imitation for all but the bravest and barmiest, whether it was on the quarterdeck or in Emma Hamilton's bed. We drew moral lessons from our heroes and especially understood the enormous cost individuals incurred as they sought to make a mark.

There is a decent case to be made that mass culture has replaced heroes with celebrity. It is of course a debasement of our values. Celebrities are, after all, famous for being famous. They are ordinary people we pump up with attention until they burst. They are a case of fame inflation.

The late 19th Century mind understood that in the modern age there was something fine in the humble, the overlooked and humdrum, and it thrived in what Henry James might have called the "elemental blur" of industrial society (he used the phrase of the First World War, but it fits his awe of the modern rush and roar very well). In the writings of late 19th century America we come across the transforming individual whose imagination undoes his anonymity and can work magic even within mass industrial society. The desire to imagine and to achieve brings moral value to the amazing volume of activity in the modern world. These are some of the themes we come across in Louis Menand's book The Metaphysical Club: A story of ideas in America, 2001. Ray Carney in his book American Vision: The films of Frank Capra (1986 and 1996) talks of that film-maker's

"bouyantly Emersonian faith in the power of the human spirit to re-form social structures and ways of understanding and not merely to be forced either to come into slavish congruence with them or to leave them behind….".
As Carney ranges far and wide over this terrain, he can put, say, Capra's It's a Wonderful Life or the paintings of Edward Hopper (much admired all over again at the Tate Modern in 2004) into a context which contains Thomas Eakins' paintings of darkly resentful wives, and Singer Sargent's uneasy and disaffected society ladies. Their faces all both hide and show worlds within which are not suspected by the role society – the crowd - assigns them.

Leftish intellectuals had drummed up support for the idea that the modern mass world – the crowd – created the alienated individual, and Hopper shows us that face of modern society in image after image, as loners or isolated couples are caught in public, uncosy places. They stare at nothing in particular – but perhaps at their future, the wider world, their miseries and hopes – as they sit in unpromising cafes and hotels.

When we see such images, we dump our indifference toward strangers. But they do rather become ciphers and symbols. Hopper is a better dogmatist than he is a painter. Oddly, whilst he makes the Faces In the Crowd case, he also reminds us that good propagandists don't necessary make good portraitists, even unintentional ones. Hopper's paintings look better on a psychiatrist's wall as a warning or invitation than they do in an art gallery.

Still, in Hopper or anywhere else, the modern individual caught in a crowd or caught incidentally in a public scene has been served up to us, and since we've gone to the trouble of sharing a mite of the artist's trouble, we take note. We are voyeurs, maybe; consumers, even. And yet we are improved by our moment or two of empathy with these persons we snatch out of the flux of humanity.

But it may be that this is work we ought to be a little sceptical about. In the age of the Chav and the affectation of dislike for the "Forces of Conservativism", the traditional right naturally dislikes the cult of "The People" and the Vox Pop. Why should we go along with the chippy and uppity voices who affect to like the masses; why endorse those downspeaking, half-educated media-populists and focus-group politicians who want to merge with the unthinking herd sooner than admit to and assert middle class virtues? When we suppose it matters that individuals work for the attention they get, why should we volunteer to admire the nerdy undifferentiated herd queuing to wear football strip?

Did people of good sense ever really love the crowd? Did they see art in it? Touring the late 19th and early 20th century crowd films and photographs at the Faces In the Crowd show at the Whitechapel we are aware that they were often shot as sociology. We are watching these faces – the boys in the slums flickering in the Whitechapel – as portraiture, but they were a cause when they were filmed. The workers who come pouring out of the Edwardian factories in the Mitchell and Kenyon films are relatively affluent, a force to be reckoned with. They were filmed partly because they had the cash to watch themselves on the screen later. We realise quite soon that it would be a profound mistake to pity them. They were coming into their own: they were not oppressed, down-trodden or likely to revolt. They were simply advancing.

The distinction between art and documentary is interesting: in a gallery, we search the document for portraiture, whilst the same image on television can do that work, but must also do more. On TV, we want to know the history of the thing, the context. What happened before, what happens next? Not to over-egg the difference, but of a painting we ask what the painter wants to say, and maybe what the subject thinks; of the documentary we want to know about the history and circumstances of the society we're watching. In Nation on Film (BBC4, 2005), the desire to be documentary overwhelms the periodic inadvertent portraiture old film is bound to bring: its people become social curiosities in an exercise which is pure contemporary history.

And so we come to the disappointment of the acres of modern material – much of it video installations – included in the Whitechapel show. These things can sometimes be mildly artful, say in the hands of a Bill Viola, as we saw in his show at the National Gallery (2003/2004), and do sometimes go toward the Faces In the Crowd sort of case. But they usually fail as art or document. They usually seem unlikely to deliver anything that makes it worth standing around for long enough to see what they're going to unfold. My dislike of the video installations at the Whitechapel may simply be generational: I'm too old to get them. But I'd be inclined to say that they fail the test of unintentional portraiture. I assert that these are not lovely or interesting accounts of anonymous people (Bacon's paintings of depersonalised people, trotted out again at Whitechapel, at least are the latter). They are not even artlessly useful accounts of people we are surprised to find revealed by such unpromising means. Installation artists seldom involve one in their work or their subjects. I turn away from them with even greater ease than I turn away from Big Brother, since they don't even offer me a game of any sort. The older stuff in the Whitechapel show is full of unintended charm and a certain amount of studied alienation: that's fine. But most of its later installations seem to this eye to be full of posy nihilism.

So perhaps works using The People, the Mass, and the alienated - the unintended portraiture of the early photograph and film (and the lovely Manet) - which are celebrated at the Whitechapel are a part of history. When we think to recreate them in the video installation, they fail and tell us that it's time to move on. The masses have moved on, and so our reading of them ought to. We are no longer riveted by the modernity-stunned alienation of the flapper. We can be grateful to the Whitechapel for making its points – but the best ones are about the past. Documenting tedium, the ebb and flow of life, the unconsidered and the inconsiderable, that's all been done to death. It has been exciting to find that historical faces were documented, when we thought they had not been. But now that everything's documented, the flow of material is too huge to want to have artists imitate it. Better they get on with intentional, and intentionally artful, portraiture now.

Richard D. North's Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence will be published in April by the Social Affairs Unit.

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This really is an excellent review and more generally a thought-provoking piece. I am looking forward to "Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence". Should be a great read.

Posted by: Jane at February 17, 2005 04:54 PM
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