Tate Modern Turbine Hall
19 April – 30 August 2004
A new display in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern brings together over forty heads from the Tate Collection. Through a wide range of works in plaster, bronze, stone, lead, steel and video and techniques as varied as carving, casting and filming, Head to Head explores the ways in which artists have approached the subject of the head over the course of the last one hundred years.
Of all aspects of the human body explored by sculptors over time it is the head that has most frequently been the focus of special attention, traditionally in the form of the portrait bust. Head to Head includes a wide range of works from Auguste Rodin’s strikingly expressive Balzac, 1892, which epitomises the portrait bust as commemorative icon, to more recent video works by Gilbert and George and Absalon, which show how contemporary artists have used performance to extend the language of portraiture into video.
Historically the portrait bust was a way of commemorating an individual. With the invention of photography and as modernism developed, through impressionism and away from ‘representation’, portraiture seemed less and less relevant to modern art. However for a number of artists, such as Jacob Epstein and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, the human head remained a central focus for innovation. In the aftermath of the Second World War artists returned to the head as a concentrated image of humanity at a time of global suffering. This display includes Alberto Giacometti’s emaciated studies of his brother, Diego and wife Annette, and Jean Fautrier’s Large Tragic Head 1942 and Head of a Hostage 1943-4, searing portrayals of anonymous suffering in sculptures from which personal identity has all but been obliterated.
In more recent times artists have adopted the tradition and its conventions to explore other aspects of human identity. Braco Dimitrijevic’s Louvre series, from the late 1970s and early 1980s, brings together portrait busts of famous individuals with completely ordinary people exposing the arbitrary nature of fame and anonymity.
Radical innovation often coexists with convention – artists continued to make more or less traditional portrait busts throughout the twentieth century - and as time moves on our view of the conventional changes. This display includes an extraordinary group of heads by Russian-born Dora Gordine which were deliberately sculpted to represent the physiognomic characteristics of different racial types. Reflecting on these works now it seems impossible to ignore the questions about western art, representation and attitudes towards race that they prompt. These are questions that have themselves been brought powerfully to the fore by contemporary artists such as Mona Hatoum who sees her own work as “about being an outsider, about occupying a marginal position, being excluded, being defined as ‘Other’ or as one of ‘Them’”.