A Bigger Splash: Painting After Performance - review

The Tate Modern’s new exhibition asks how painting and performance art met – and parted.

Only ten minutes long, Hans Namuth’s film of Jackson Pollock painting caused a major crisis of confidence for the American artist. He felt that in explaining his "action painting" methods, Pollock Painting stripped the mystique from his work: Namuth’s step-by-step direction of things he usually did spontaneously led him to believe that the film was “phony”.

The Tate Modern’s exhibition Painting After Performance, which runs until April 2013, takes Namuth’s film as its starting point, placing it and Pollock’s Summertime: Number 9A (1948) in its first room alongside David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash (1967) and Jack Hazan’s documentary on Hockney of the same title. The crucial point here is that the "splash" in Hockney’s acrylic painting of a fantasy Californian residence looks unplanned, but wasn’t – he had tried numerous ways to represent moving water, rejecting the possibility of throwing paint at his canvas as some assumed Pollock did to create his works and instead meticulously thinking through every brushstroke that created the striking ‘splash’.

Hazan’s exposure of Hockney’s processes did not cause Hockney any of the existential crises that befell Pollock, and many of Hockney’s contemporaries began to put their performative methods on a par with their finished paintings, if not making them more important. Room 2 offers artists who recorded for public consumption the ‘actions’ they used, with films or photographs and paintings placed alongside each other – Niki de Saint-Phalle shooting paint at a strip of material, Yves Klein using naked female models covered in blue paint and dragged across a canvas (documented in Anthropometry of the Blue Era), Japan’s Gutai artists who used other parts of their bodies besides their hands to paint, and Situationist International member Pinot-Gallizio, whose Manifesto of Industrial Painting led him to produce huge rolls of painted canvas, simultaneously unique and mass produced, sold by the metre or turned into dresses and modelled at Italian galleries.

The room given to the Vienna Actionists, chosen above several other Sixties organisations who devoted themselves to "action art" (the US Fluxus group, for one, are not mentioned here), emphasises both the contrast between the façade of spontaneity and the detailed structuring, and the stakes of certain performances. Günter Brus was arrested immediately after filming his Vienna Walk in 1965 for presenting his ‘potentially disturbing’ spectacle to the public, and the Austrian police frequently apprehended other Actionists. Besides Kurt Kren’s short films in which Kren refused to make "straight" documents and instead played with the time sequences of actions, the most intriguing object here is Brus’s Run-Through of an Action, a blueprint for every movement in an unperformed 56-minute piece in which he intended to move around a room, unsettling the audience with his reactions to recorded sounds.

Striving to weave together major and minor post-war narratives whilst using as much of its own collection as possible (over a third of these works belong to the Tate), A Bigger Splash shows how feminist and queer artists grew tired of being used as props by Klein, the Vienna Actionists and others, leading them to find new directions for autonomous body art. Rooms 4 and 5 incorporate a far larger number of artists, opening with VALIE EXPORT’s Identity Transfer 1, in which she experimented with symbols of masculinity and femininity, claiming control over her female body rather than having it directed by a male artist.

Over half of the artists in A Bigger Splash are women, and the range of responses shown to the objectification of women and exclusion of gender variant and queer perspectives by the Fifties and Sixties performance painters is the exhibition’s most captivating feature. If Cindy Sherman’s photographed self-portraits may be familiar to many observers, Sanja Iveković’s investigations into make-up and the images of beauty promoted by Yugoslav women’s magazines or Helena Almeida’s pictures of herself inhabiting her paintings may offer something new to those aware of those who have traditionally been more prominent in the narrative that this exhibition unpacks.

Such spectators, however, would then have to go away and explore by themselves any of the artists or stories here, offered in great number but without great coherence. The line between artists who continued to paint, on canvas or on their bodies, and those who abandoned painting in favour of video or installation constantly moves, and neither the first five rooms, which explore the overarching story of painting and performance from the Fifties to the Seventies (or Eighties in China, due to the effects of Mao’s Cultural Revolution), nor the rooms given to individual artists using paint to create social or theatrical spaces during the last thirty years, provide a satisfactorily in-depth investigation into those artists’ practices.

For example, we are told that Lynn Hershman created an alternative ‘self’, named Roberta Breitmore, which raised the fascinating question of how far a second persona must be lived before it becomes equally valid as the first (or more), with her "performance" lasting from 1974 to 1978 and being documented by private detectives who followed ‘Breitmore’ and took pictures. All we see, however, is one image – Roberta Construction Chart #1 which colourfully deconstructs the character that Hershman created. But without any other context, how can the viewer meaningfully engage with it?

The individual rooms set aside for Edward Krasiński, Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Karen Kilimnik, Lucy McKenzie, Jutta Koether, Ei Arakawa and Slovenia’s IRWIN/NSK groups cannot delve much further into the totality of their outputs, and ultimately the impression is left of an exhibition that attempts to introduce the newcomer to the idea that painting and performance interacted with each other, and provide something new to those already familiar with it. The structure chosen to straddle these seemingly contradictory aims may overwhelm the beginner and underwhelm the connoisseur, ultimately feeling like a way of minimising the risk of presenting avant-garde ideas to an audience: A Bigger Splash signposts art and certain artists effectively but too often fails to dive beneath the surface in the way that exhibitions devoted to any one of them could do.

Painting After Performance runs at Tate Modern until April 2013.

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism