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Constellations

Take a fresh look at highlights from the nation's collection of modern art
Photo © Rikard Österlund

3 rooms in Constellations

Men Shall Know Nothing of This

Max Ernst, Men Shall Know Nothing of This  1923

Ernst studied philosophy and psychology in Bonn and was interested in the alternative realities experienced by the insane. This painting may have been inspired by the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s study of the delusions of a paranoiac, Daniel Paul Schreber. Freud identified Schreber’s fantasy of becoming a woman as a ‘castration complex’. The central image of two pairs of legs refers to Schreber’s hermaphroditic desires. Ernst’s inscription on the back of the painting reads: ‘The picture is curious because of its symmetry. The two sexes balance one another.’

Gallery label, July 2008

© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020

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Five Day Forecast

Lorna Simpson, Five Day Forecast  1991

If portraiture is intended to communicate something unique about its subject, Five Day Forecast might be described as an ‘anti-portrait’. The economy of the images, their serial arrangement and the use of black and white recall the conventions of nineteenth-century ethnographic photography, in which the subject becomes a de-individualised representative of a wider group. But in Simpson’s work, rather than being available for scrutiny and categorisation, the figure is photographed cropped so only her torso is visible. In this way, she remains ultimately inaccessible to the viewer.

Gallery label, November 2015

© Lorna Simpson, courtesy Salon 94, New York

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Quartered Meteor

Lynda Benglis, Quartered Meteor  1969, cast 1975

This work was originally made by pouring polyurethane foam into the corner of a gallery. The bottom and two flat sides are effectively a cast of the floor and walls, while the slumps on the front result from the unpredictable behaviour of waves of slowly solidifying foam. It was cast in lead in 1975, giving the sculpture physical weight and presence. While many artists were interested in the literal properties of materials, Benglis wanted to suggest bodily and geological flows.

Gallery label, October 2016

© Lynda Benglis

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Ikhonkco

Nicholas Hlobo, Ikhonkco  2010

Ikhonkco 2010 is a work on paper created using ribbon and rubber. Light pink and off- white ribbon stitches form chain-like shapes in a diagonal line across the paper. At the end of the chain, in the upper left hand corner, a three-dimensional shape made from sections of paper protrudes from the edges of the sheet, partially enclosing a circle of perforations resembling a plughole. Further across, towards the middle of the page, a small piece of black rubber is enclosed by pink stitches at the end of a meandering line. In the artist’s native Xhosa language ‘Ikhonkco’ literally means a buckle from a belt, but it can also relate to a genealogical chain, or family tree. Hlobo has cut and sewn the paper together with his signature ‘baseball’ stitch, which is not just decorative, but also very strong. The cuts in the paper are sharp and clean, determining where the ribbon sutures will be made and how they will overlap.

© Nicholas Hlobo, courtesy Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town

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Women and Bird in the Moonlight

Joan Miró, Women and Bird in the Moonlight  1949

This work belongs to a series of paintings that Miró made in 1949–50 in Majorca.
Miró’s use of simple shapes and bright colours constitutes a highly personal visual language, often charged with symbolic meaning. In this case, the women and bird of the title are easily identifiable under the moon and stars. This imagery suggests a harmonious and elemental relationship between man and nature, which the artist felt was threatened by modern civilisation.

Gallery label, August 2013

© Succession Miro/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020

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Exhibitionism

Renate Bertlmann, Exhibitionism  1973

Bertlmann’s work questions social conventions and traditional gender relations. Here the curved forms suggest the outlines of a body, while the pairs of polystyrene eggs allude to testicles. ‘Pornographic jokes have always been a male domain, made at the exclusive expense of women,’ Bertlmann has said. ‘I consider my series of objects an accomplished example of an obscene female joke.’

Gallery label, August 2018

© Renate Bertlmann

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Untitled

Mark Rothko, Untitled  c.1946–7

This work belongs to the transitional period for Rothko. In the early 1940s he had used references to ancient myth to express the brutal anxieties of a world at war. Increasingly, however, he saw literal depictions of mythic subjects as inhibiting the viewer’s response. Describing the biomorphic forms in paintings such as this, he wrote: ‘every shape becomes an organic entity, inviting the multiplicity of associations inherent in all living things’.

Gallery label, October 2016

© Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/DACS 2020

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Walking Dream with Four Foot Clamp

Jim Dine, Walking Dream with Four Foot Clamp  1965

Walking Dream with Four Foot Clamp comprises three rectangular canvases across which are shown nineteen pale pink ladies’ legs. These appear in profile against a sketchy grey background, making the image almost monochromatic. The legs on the left-hand and central canvases all point towards the left as though moving in that direction. On the right-hand canvas the legs point in the opposite direction, apart from the only ‘pair’ in the painting, which is seen from the front at the very end of the line and appears stationary. All of the feet are clad in pointed, black heeled shoes, and most of the legs are shown up to mid-thigh height, the level that a 1960s mini-skirt might reach, while pieces of material resembling skirts or trousers are suggested by pencil lines in the grey section above and behind the thighs. A sense of movement is achieved by the profusion of legs, and the repetition of specific styles of shoe implies the legs’ progression across the canvas. The outline of a ceiling light seen from various angles appears in several places across the background. The central canvas projects further out towards the viewer than the other two, being fastened to a slightly deeper support. A clamp is attached to this middle section and a spanner is fixed to the clamp as though the process of assembling the structure might be ongoing, and Dine has painted the shadow of the spanner onto the canvas.

© Jim Dine

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Identity Transfer 1

VALIE EXPORT, Identity Transfer 1  1968, printed late 1990s

Austrian artist VALIE EXPORT adopted her pseudonym in 1967 to reject the names of both her father and of her former husband and assume a sort of commercial brand identity. Her works – including films, photographs and performances – expanded the transgressive ideas of Viennese Actionism to include a feminist critique of the limits imposed on the individual based on their perceived gender. In the Identity Transfer series she assumes a distinctly unfeminine pose, at odds with her hair style and make-up, playing with the codes through which gender identity is traditionally conveyed.

Gallery label, February 2016

© DACS 2020

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No Woman, No Cry

Chris Ofili, No Woman, No Cry  1998

This work is a tribute to the London teenager Stephen Lawrence who was murdered in a racially motivated attack in 1993. A public inquiry into the murder investigation concluded that the Metropolitan Police force was institutionally racist. In each of the tears shed by the woman in the painting is a collaged image of Stephen Lawrence’s face, while the words ‘R.I.P. Stephen Lawrence’ are just discernible beneath the layers of paint. As well as this specific reference, the artist intended the painting to be read as a universal portrayal of melancholy and grief.

Gallery label, August 2018

© Chris Ofili, courtesy Victoria Miro, London

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Highlights

Men Shall Know Nothing of This
Max Ernst Men Shall Know Nothing of This 1923
Five Day Forecast
Lorna Simpson Five Day Forecast 1991
Quartered Meteor
Lynda Benglis Quartered Meteor 1969, cast 1975
Ikhonkco
Nicholas Hlobo Ikhonkco 2010
Women and Bird in the Moonlight
Joan Miró Women and Bird in the Moonlight 1949
Exhibitionism
Renate Bertlmann Exhibitionism 1973
Untitled
Mark Rothko Untitled c.1946–7
Walking Dream with Four Foot Clamp
Jim Dine Walking Dream with Four Foot Clamp 1965
Identity Transfer 1
VALIE EXPORT Identity Transfer 1 1968, printed late 1990s
No Woman, No Cry
Chris Ofili No Woman, No Cry 1998