Street singer, Brick Lane, 1982. © Marketa Luskacova.
I have not found a better place than London to comment on the sheer impossibility of human existence. – Marketa Luskacova.
Anyone staggering out of the harrowing Don McCullin show currently entering its final week at Tate Britain might easily overlook another photographic retrospective currently on display in the same venue. This other exhibit is so under-advertised that even a Tate steward standing ten metres from its entrance was unaware of it.
I would urge anyone, whether they’ve put themselves through the McCullin or not, to make the effort to find this room, as it contains images of limpid insight and beauty. The show gathers career highlights from the work of the Czech photographer Marketa Luskacova, juxtaposing images of rural Eastern Europe in the late 1960s with work from the early 1970s onwards in Britain. There are overlaps with the McCullin show, notably the way that both photographers covered the street life of London’s East End in the early ‘70s. Their purely visual approaches to this territory are remarkably similar: both shoot on black and white and, apart from being magnificent photographers, both are master printers of their own work. The key difference between them is that Don McCullin’s portraits of Aldgate’s street people are of a piece with his coverage of war and suffering — another brief stop on his international itinerary of pain — whereas Marketa’s pictures are more like pages from a diary, which is essentially what they are.
Marketa went to the markets of Aldgate as a young mother, baby son in tow, Leica in handbag, to buy cheap vegetables whilst exploring the strange city she had made her home. This ongoing engagement with her territory gives Marketa’s pictures their warmth, which allows her subjects to retain their dignity. They knew and trusted her.
Marketa’s photos of the inhabitants of Aldgate hang directly opposite her pictures of middle-European pilgrims and the villagers of Sumiac, a remote Czech hill village — a place as distant from the East End as can be imagined. Seeing these sets alongside each other illustrates her gift for empathy, and some fundamental truths about the human condition.
Two images on this page are of men singing: the second is of a man singing in church as part of a religious pilgrimage in Slovakia. This is what Marketa has to say about it:
During the pilgrimage season (which ran from early summer to the first week in October), Mr. Ferenc would walk from one pilgrimage to another all over Slovakia. He was definitely religious, but I thought that for him the main reason to be a pilgrim was to sing, as he was a good singer and clearly loved singing. During the Pilgrimage weekend the churches and shrines were open all night and the pilgrims would take turn in singing during the night. And only when the sun would come up at about 4 or 5 a.m., they would come out of the church and sleep for a while under the trees in the warmth of the first rays of the sun [see pic below]. I was usually too tired after hitch-hiking from Prague to the Slovakian mountains to be able to photograph at night, but in Obisovce, which was the last pilgrimage of that year, I stayed awake and the picture of Mr Ferenc was my reward.
Mr. Ferenc, Obisovce, Slovakia, 1968. © Marketa Luskacova
Marketa’s pictures are the kind of photographs that transcend the medium and assume the monumental power of art from the ancient world. As it happens, they are already relics from a lost world, as both central Europe and east London have changed beyond recognition. Spitalfields today is more like a sort of theme park, a hipster annexe safe for conspicuous consumers. In Marketa’s pictures we see London as it was, an echo of the city known by Dickens and Mayhew. And the faces in her pictures …
Spitalfields, 1976. © Marketa Luskacova.
Sleeping Pilgrim, Levoca, 1968. © Marketa Luskacova.
Spitalfields, 1979. © Marketa Luskacova.
Sumiac, 1967. © Marketa Luskacova.
Tailors, Spitalfields, 1975. © Marketa Luskacova.
Bellringers, Sumiac, 1967. © Marketa Luskacova.
The photo at the top, of a man singing arias for loose change in Brick Lane, has featured on The London Column before. It is one of the greatest photographs of a performer that I know. We don’t know if this singer is any good, but that really doesn’t matter. He might be busking for a chance to eat – or perhaps, like Mr. Ferenc, he just loves singing – but his bravura puts him in the same league as Domingo or Carreras. As with her picture of Mr. Ferenc, Marketa gives him room and allows him his nobility.
As they say in showbiz, always finish with a song: this seems like a good point for me to hang up The London Column. I have enjoyed writing this blog, on and off, for the past eight years; but other commitments (including another project about London, currently in the works) have taken precedence over the past year or so, and it seems a bit presumptuous to name a blog after a city and then run it so infrequently. And, as might be inferred from my comments above, my own enthusiasm for London has suffered a few setbacks. My increasing dismay at what is being done to my home town has diminished my pleasure in exploring its purlieus (or what’s left of them).
It seems appropriate to close The London Column with Marketa’s magical, timeless images. I’ve been very happy to display and write about some of my favourite photographs, by photographers as diverse as Marketa, Angus Forbes, Dave Hendley, David Hoffman, Dmitri Kasterine, John Londei, Homer Sykes, Tim Marshall, Tony Ray Jones, etc.. It has been a great pleasure to work with writers like Andrew Martin, Charles Jennings, Katy Evans-Bush (who has helped immensely with this blog), Owen Hatherley, Owen Hopkins, Peadar O’Donaghue, Christopher Reid, Tim Turnbull, Tim Wells, and others. But now, as they also say in showbiz: ‘When you’re on, be on, and when you’re off, get off’.
So with that, thank you ladies and gents, you’ve been lovely.
David Secombe, 30 April 2019.
Natalia Zagórska-Thomas wearing Julia Schrader. Photo © Jens Schaumann.
DS: Well, we managed to negotiate our way out of 2016 only to find 2017 looming before us like a rogue ice shelf. Yet although the festive season was full of foreboding there were occasional moments of optimism amidst the gloom; one of the most enjoyable events in my pre-Christmas calendar was the private view of Call of the Wild at Studio Ex Purgamento in Camden.
Antlers © Julia Schrader.
Visitors to the gallery are often wrong-footed by the address; it is located in a second-floor extension in a private home, a flat that belongs to artist and conservator Natalia Zagórska-Thomas and her husband Simon. If there was ever an enterprise that demonstrated devotion to an ideal of what art can and should be, Studio Ex Purgamento is it.
Going into the Thing Seriously; or These Influences Have Been Exerted for Good. © Natalia Zagórska-Thomas (alternative titles provided for the artist by Diane Williams).
Profit, apart from a tiny percentage above a certain price to try to recover some costs, goes to artists directly. Some years we sell a lot; others, not at all. I want to show established names alongside lesser known artists whose work interests me, and to mix visual art forms with text, design, performance, architecture, design, music and science. I show many Polish artists to promote their profile and contribution to the culture of the city.
As to the current show, Natalia describes it thus: This is not a tidy show. This is not a tidy subject. What I wanted is what I think I always want: a contemporary version of the cabinet of curiosities, a camera obscura, an idiosyncratic collection of specimens picked up along the way. It feels like life: messy, chaotic, undisciplined, joyous, violent and confusing.
Pale Blue Hexapod © Danuta Sołowiej.
Somehow, Natalia has managed to fit work by 25 artists into her small gallery; these include sculptures by Almuth Tebbenhof, Danuta Sołowiej, and Andrzej Maria Borkowski, wearable art by Julia Schrader, photographs by Jens Schaumann, Marzena Pogorzały (whose images of massive Antarctic ice sheets are elegant visual tokens of the strangled metaphor I opened with) and your own correspondent. The show also features an extraordinary ‘biological’ installation by Heather Barnett, and poems by such luminaries (and friends of The London Column) as Roisin Tierney, Christopher Reid and Katy Evans Bush.
Ice 3. © Marzena Pogorzaly.
© Andrzej Maria Borkowski.
You hardly need me to tell you that the London art scene is full of bullshit, any more than you need me to tell you that 2017 could be a rough year. We will need all the optimism we can get our hands on; and any blows against philistinism or the dead weight of cultural conformity are as welcome as they are necessary. As Katy Evans-Bush writes in Call of the Wild‘s exhibition catalogue: ‘At the time of going to print no one knows what’s going to happen next. Old ways of being uncivilised are being exhumed and new ones invented. The one thing we do know is that we will need to call on all our most civilised impulses – as well as our deepest, wildest aardvark’. Or, to put it another way, if you think the world is going to end tomorrow, plant a tree today. (Who said that? Answers on a postcard to …)
Ruan Minor, Cornwall, 1978. © David Secombe.
Gallery photos by Natalia.
Call of the Wild runs at Studio Ex Purgamento until 15 January; open weekends from 11 am — 6 pm. To visit during the week, call for an appointment. (132D Camden Street, London NW1 0HY; 07799 495549; email@example.com. http://www.studioexpurgamento.com.)