Dr. Philip Ward-Jackson reviews Sculptors 1986-2016: Photographs by Anne-Katrin Purkiss.
Sculptors 1986-2016: Photographs by Anne-Katrin Purkiss
Foreword: Peter Murray
Hardback ISBN: 978-0-9934111-2-0 (RRP £35)
Publication date: March 2017
Publisher: Miriquidi Books, 184pp., b/w illus.
We have come a long way since Pliny in the publicizing not to say the romancing of art and artists. The animation à la Van Gogh of Van Gogh’s own work in Loving Vincent is a pretty extreme example of where we’ve got. This is postmodern art history with a vengeance. By contrast, the black and white photo of an artist in his/her working environment can still claim to be in some degree an objective record. As such it appeals to the art-loving public and is sought after by the archive departments of our art institutions. The interest of such records for an art-historian is divided in about equal measure into what the picture shows and the conventions governing its composition. Equally, as regards the claim of a collection of such pictures to represent the art-world at a given moment, the aim at any sort of comprehensiveness must be set against the limited opportunities of the individual photographer and is probably not uninfluenced by the dictates of the critical consensus prevailing in the art world of the time.
Making portraits of sculptors, and recording the appearance of their studios only became a deliberate project for Ann-Katrin Purkiss in 2005. Her book comprises three sections. The first, entitled Sculptors in the News 1986-2001, consists of pictures taken in her freelance capacity as a photo-journalist. She had arrived in this country from East Germany in 1984, five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. After residing here for two years, she got her first commission to photograph a sculptor in his studio. The commission came from the Associated Press and the pictures were to be a celebration of the ninetieth birthday of the sculptor Arthur Fleischmann. As a sequel to one of the pictures taken on that occasion, Purkiss has included a picture taken in Fleischmann’s studio last year, showing it still providing an ideal space for the life classes organised by his widow. Similar commissions followed over the years, the subjects including such famous figures as Elisabeth Frink, Anthony Caro, Phillip King, Barry Flanagan and Rachel Whiteread. Then in 2004 the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds acquired a selection of these images, which were put on show there, and in London, at the headquarters of the Royal Society of British Sculptors (now known as the Royal Society of Sculptors) in 2007. After this her approach to the subject became more focused and self-determined. The section that follows, entitled Beginning a Collection 2005-2012 , ranges across the full spectrum of activities calling themselves sculpture, from the creation of more or less traditional figurative statues for commemorative purposes to the conceptualists and ‘land artists’. The final section, Sculptors and Studios 2013-2016 seems to celebrate the consecration by such public bodies as the RBS and the RA of Purkiss’s recording endeavour.
This might sound like a boring outcome, but Purkiss has earned her place, and, as her volume shows, she has not lost her journalistic flair. Her first portrait of a sculptor was produced one year before the appearance of that noteworthy snapshot of the post-War art world, Jorge Lewinski’s 1987 volume Portrait of the Artist, with which her subsequent efforts can scarcely avoid comparison, and to which, for sculpture at least, they provide the sequel. She is, it has to be said, somewhat more self-effacing, and her short CVs of her subjects, in tiny type, make no claim to the personal insight which Lewinski brought to his snappy verbal commentaries. However, it looks very much as though, despite their different countries of origin, his Polish, hers German, both bought into the eccentric and playful British portrait traditions of Angus McBean and Cecil Beaton. It was a tradition with strong links to the performing arts, and with this came a tendency to play to the gallery. In Lewinski’s case this was perhaps an appropriate response to London’s ‘swinging decades’. With her background in neu-sachlichkeit, Purkiss’s portrait of the sculptural profession, though not short on witty juxtapositions, is rather more sober, less given to the sort of wide-angled wizardry which may well have embarrassed some of Lewinski’s more excitable subjects. It is to be hoped that the publication of this volume will not mark the conclusion of the project.