From English restraint to Bohemian freedom

Two of the National Portrait Gallery's current exhibitions reveal changing attitudes to the artist i

As you walk around the National Portrait Gallery's current exhibition of the works of E O Hoppé it is with the knowledge that the man, renowned in the 1920s and 1930s for his portrait photographs of the rich and powerful, has been forgotten. I spent the majority of my visit to the exhibition trying to work out why.

The answer is to be found in another exhibition at the same venue. Like Hoppé, Ida Kar was also a photographer who, despite not being a native Londoner, gained her reputation in England's capital city. The effect of going to Ida Kar: Bohemian Photographer after walking among the Hoppé exhibition is revelatory. The gap between each photographer's most productive period is about 20 years -- Hoppé in the 1920s and 1930s and Kar in the 1940s and 1950s. Yet when you look at the work of the latter it feels like an age has passed between these artists. I was aware as I looked at the work on display in the two exhibitions that I was looking at two vastly different worlds.

Indeed, the social conventions and almost restrained individuality one feels is present even in Hoppé's most daring portraits is completely absent from Kar's work.

Hoppé comes closest to losing the social conventions of his time in his photojournalism. Mainly known for his portraits, if you look to the right side of the gallery a wholly different range of photographs in this form are on show. They form the Street aspect of the exhibition and, as accomplished as some of the portraits are, it is these and their capturing of a London and its people in between the two world wars that grabs your attention.

Hoppé had an eye for what you might call the mundane eccentric. Or at least what looks eccentric now. In the Street collection he records with skill the British going about their hobbies and odd jobs. Just some of those captured here include swimming, piano-playing, bell-ringing, felling trees, ironing and flag making, and all performed with a jingoistic gusto. The photographs would provide the perfect visual companion to George Orwell's essay "England Your England", in which he described the nation's "addiction to hobbies and spare-time occupations". Even though I wished there had been more of this work on display, the feeling is that you are viewing a relic -- an England long gone. A piece of history for which, despite finding it fascinating, I was unable to garner a personal and emotional engagement.

Viewing Kar's work straight after magnified the feeling. For all the eccentricity recorded in Hoppé's Street pictures, by the time of Kar's work it is clear the definition of eccentric has altered. That change has all to do with the growth of the artist as the expression of individualism - a movement that would become all encompassing in artistic circles by the 1960s.

Her work heralds a point in which the celebration of not just the artist but the art itself becomes the focus. This revolution is discernible in the two exhibitions. As Kar captures images of artists in their natural habitats she not only creates the myth of the artist but also obliterates the once held distinction between the artist and their art. In Hoppe's portraits it is the artist who is the subject, in Kar's the artist cannot be separated from their art.

Illustrative of this is a picture Kar took of Russian composer Shostakovich. Sitting on a piano stool turned away from his chosen instrument and looking straight into the camera, he looks incredibly stiff. The burden of balancing the demands of his creative desires and the political state is etched not just on his face but body too and brought out fully in the photograph. It is this sort of autobiographical moment of truth that is something not only absent from Hoppé's pictures, but is now the de rigueur demand we make of our photographers.

Hoppé Portraits: Society, Studio and Street and Ida Kar: Bohemian Photogrpaher run at the National Portrait Gallery uintil May 30 and June 19.

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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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