Review: Crisis Commission, Somerset House

Some of the leading names in the British art scene have made or donated works to the Crisis Commissi

Displayed in the East Wing galleries of Somerset House the opposition between the shows themes of isolation, property, security and space and its grandiose setting are set in grim opposition.

In the centre of the second room, Gillian Wearing’s Craig, a hyper-real 45cm bronze sculpture of a young ex-serviceman, stands trophy-like on a thin wooden plinth. The work’s scale creates a sense of isolation, it is emasculating, dislocating. Craig is lost in the vast space. The plinth’s transcription tells of Craig’s descent from soldier to homeless man, “Craig became homeless soon after returning from Afghanistan by rapidly spending all of his savings on alcohol. He was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder”. Commenting on the work, Wearing asserts, “I see all of my work as a portrait of people and the individual stories and experiences they go through”.

Again, a strong sense of narrative is evinced in Bob and Robert Smith’s Kite whose fraying flags trail across the gallery floor. An upturned bucket and rusting saw suggest a party that has long finished. “Help”, it reads, an explicit reminder of the need for intervention.

The fourth room is dominated by Nika Neelova’s Partings. Here, conventional architectural space is shattered. Concrete casts of the interior doors of Somerset House are taken out of context; they strain from ropes tied to a burnt timber frame, while fragments of broken wood litter the floor. No longer providing the entrance to a welcoming space, a refuge, a home, the doors instead present ominous barriers.

Further in, Yinka Shonibare’s crouching mannequin, Homeless Man, strains under the weight of a towering pile of suitcases. Though his dress is made up of vibrantly patterned, African textiles, his bent globe head betrays his burden. The hands that reach up to grasp his loads are disturbingly realistic. ‘Black, dark and piercingly cold,’ reads the swirling text, that spans the mannequin’s head, ‘it was a night for the well housed and fed to draw round the bright fire and thank God they were at home’. “The cases, stacked tall”, describes Shonibare, “weigh heavily. They represent all that is left from a previous life; any privileged person can become vulnerable at any time”.

This sense of vulnerability is shared amongst much of the work. Though, their interpretations are often radically different, the contributor’s representation of the subject is, for the most part, starkly effective. However, there are some pieces, such as Tracey Emin’s self portraits Deep Blue III & V that have less apparent links to the show’s theme. Indeed, in the 1999 documentary Mad Tracey From Margate, Emin commented, "It's pretty difficult for me to do drawings not about me and about someone else”. In light of what we know of the vast sums ammassed by today's big-name contemporary artists, it is hard to draw parrallels between Emin's situation and that of the figure of Craig.

All the work in the exhibition will be auctioned at Christie's on the 3rd of May. All proceeds will go to the charity Crisis. The Crisis Commission will be on display at Somerset House until 22 April.

Jonathan Yeo, The Park Bench. Photo: Mark Bourdillon ©
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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser