9 March 2020


Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger. © Bonniers konsthall, Stockholm.

English landscape was invented by gardeners imitating foreign painters who were evoking classical authors. The whole thing was brought home in the luggage from the Grand Tour. Here look – Capability Brown doing Claude, who was doing Virgil. Arcadia!

– Hannah Jarvis in the 1993 play Arcadia by Tom Stoppard

The landscape, vast and lovely. A green field with flowers white and yellow, a line of trees in the hazy distance and further afar the soft contours of a hill range in northern France. Arcadia, no doubt. Seconds later the camera sweeps us backwards to a spot where two young Britons are discourteously awakened by their sergeant. It is the first Friday in April 1917 and William Schofield hands over a letter to his friend – “Myrtle’s having puppies,” Tom Blake tells him before they walk down the trenches – and the camera turns around to face their suicide mission in this harrowing bedlam of barbed wire, filth, fear, nothing but death and a few trees that look like burned toothpicks. In areas where recently there was life, the Germans have chopped off the blossoming cherry trees and gunned down the cows. There will be no time for these boys in Sam Mendes’s profound achievement 1917 (2019) to reflect about White Male Privilege around fat rats having a banquet on laddie cadavers with mouths choked with worms in landscapes far surpassing the demonic imagination of Hieronymus Bosch. 

Rilke observed how the bleeding hearts and artists “see their task in grasping Nature, in order to insert themselves somewhere into its great contexts”. Nature is not a work of art. However, for the last five hundred years of Western civilisation the landscape has been a standalone genre, judged, painted and enjoyed for its own sake. A poet and a newspaperman who delineated this change of the landscape in art, from an earlier position as a mere backdrop to a noticeable subject for artistic imagination, was William Bryant in his 1882 study Philosophy of Landscape Painting: “Throughout the whole of what has become known as the period of the Renaissance there is observable a steadily increasing clearness and penetration in man’s view of, and a consequent deepening of his sympathy with, nature; and in precisely corresponding degree do we see that landscape backgrounds were wrought out with greater elaboration and care until they began to acquire significance apart from the personages represented in them.”

Caspar David Friedrich, who of course painted the almost too famous Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) with the red-haired man in the dark green outfit and the walking stick at the summit of a misty sublimity, believed that “Every manifestation of Nature, recorded with precision, with dignity, and with feeling can become the subject matter of art.” Friedrich’s Wanderer was done in the thick of Romanticism, painted in a rare spur of happiness when the artist was honeymooning and briefly returned to the humanistic practice of putting people at the centre of everything. “This attitude is completely reversed in Romantic thought,” explains Moshe Barasch in Modern Theories of Art: From Winckelmann to Baudelaire. “In Romanticism in general, and in the views of Romantic painters in particular, comparatively little attention is paid to the human figure as an expressive medium. It is now the landscape, animated by a mysterious life and reflecting human moods, that takes the place and traditional function of the human body.”

Landscape painting, as Maggie Chao points out in The End of Landscape in 19th-Century America, is “defined by its philosophical underpinnings – its metaphorical modes of address” yet gains much of its value and significance through “a set of pictorial conventions that became steadfastly aligned with the genre’s cultural mandate”.

An artist duo that opened this closet of conventions in the mid-1990s was Komar and Melamid who launched a large-scale international consumer questionnaire as a serious and well-intended effort to specify the general public’s Most Wanted Paintings, which pretty much turned out to be the same kind of painting: a generic, idealised landscape of pastoral kitsch comprising a uniform set of people, wild animals, some trees, lots of blue water and remote blue montane ripples. “Can you believe it? Kenya and Iceland – what can be more different in the whole fucking world? – and they both want blue landscapes,” commented Aleksandr Melamid in 1997 while trying to soften the disastrous result: “Maybe paradise is not something which is awaiting us; it is already inside of us, and the point is how to figure it out, how to discover it, how to get it out.”

A young black man and the murdered The Shining twins lately announced in Scandinavian Airlines’ two-and-a-half-minute-long commercial designed to diss their customers and to pander to the PC in-crowd – the company’s tribute to the ideological inanities and the bewitchment of majestic trite in the Swedish distorted society where extremists and amateurs are authorities – that the merit of our culture is “absolutely nothing” and that we are still no better than our looting, raping Viking ancestors. So how do you make an exhibition about Swedish landscape painting then when (according to SAS) “everything is copied”, worthless and ho-ho, Eric?

The Trees, Light Green is an exhibition about landscape in two respects: the landscape as nature, the forest, the soil, but also landscape in the painterly tradition,” says Theodor Ringborg who is the new artistic director at Bonniers konsthall in Stockholm. “It brings together historical works and contemporary works in an attempt to discern differences, expressions, concepts between these two periods of time and between these artists. The idea is that the historical artists come from a period of mass industrialisation in Sweden, especially the forest and mining industries, and that the contemporary artists are a generation that observes some of the consequences of the massive expansion.”

Ringborg was hiking in the northern province of Jämtland in the summer of 2018 when (in his own words) “Sweden was on fire!” – yes, due to a singular heatwave, arsonists and the fact of the matter that Sweden is a woodland without legitimate fire prevention – “and we started to talk about signs in the landscape”. The Trees, Light Green: Landscape Painting – Past and Present comprises eighty-one works by twenty-eight artists, fourteen dead and fourteen alive. It is an exhibition that splits into a ridiculous part that bumbles on “ideologically”, and a so-so part that is what is physically shown on the walls. The latter does not take any part in the adolescent hysteria of the Greta cult however.

With his eight-hundred-and-ninety-word essay for this show that is (or is it really?) about landscape painting, Ringborg has composed an apocalypso of Luddite stubbornness and climate doom. “The typical landscape painter of the past depicted a seemingly unspoilt nature,” he argues. “The landscape still remains a motif in contemporary art. The problems with the environment serves [sic] as the subject of a painting at times, but not always. However, whenever depicting nature today, contemporary artists must surely be aware that the landscape is undergoing a historical transformation. An underlying connection to the current climate catastrophe is inevitable, whether or not it is made visible in the work.” So far, so predictable.

Here is the worst part (warts and all), and it is as messy as Greta’s Tesla: “This exhibition primarily features our immediate environment. But as climate change is global, so too is the exhibition. Just like a fire that pays no heed to divisions between a national park and a cultivated forest, the climate could care less about regional boundaries and frontier lines. On the very same day this exhibition ends – on the 29th of March, 2020 – humanity will have most likely have consumed this year’s resources. In other words, the natural resources our planet can produce in a single year will then be depleted. From that day on, we will be living off resources we essentially do not have. We take from future reserves that are diminishing by the minute. The planet itself, naturally, is anything but frail. It is rather we, pathetic latecomers, who arrived in the most recent microseconds of the planet’s history, that have constructed a system wreaking havoc. Without us, Earth would repair itself in time. To keep existing we must reassess how our system is currently prioritised, with economic growth prevailing over all else that grows. At one point in time, laws were put in place to enable industrial expansion. Many now believe we have enough information to regulate in the opposite direction.”

The curator of this show appears to be a flower from the same garden as Cambridge professor Patricia MacCormack who in her new book The Ahuman Manifesto: Activism for the End of the Anthropocene proposes that “The only solution to climate change is letting the human race become extinct.” (Speaking words of wokeness, let it be, let it be.) Ringborg’s exhibition fits perfectly well with a quote from William John Thomas Mitchell’s book Landscape and Power in which the author maintains that “It is almost as if there is something built into the grammar and logic of the landscape concept that requires the elaboration of a pseudohistory, complete with a prehistory, an originating moment that issues in progressive historical development, and (often) a final decline and fall.”

Nature is interchangeable with weather when the curator speaks, as both are consequences of “human impact” and hence “unnatural” he figures. It is more than ever enormously beneficial for one’s career to cautiously declining to produce anything like a thought of one’s own in the Social Democratic La La Land – this groupthink-tank nation of soulless Me-centrics who think that they have all the answers. The science of climate stupidity is the Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle of our time, yet everyone is expected to kneel before these fools and their “discovery” that our solar system is a precious clockwork and that the climate is changing over time (and always has), and because of that we must all live in a state of panic, the worse, the better. People are not nice but our planet is fine. We have now a much more balanced weather system and the Earth is greener than in ages thanks to the sound levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Try to ask Greta a relevant question and you are briskly surrounded by her eight totalitarian bodyguards who will tell you to fuck off because, referring to her homeland, “This is a Communist country.” Recently in a cold and damp Bristol, where thirty thousand little planet savers wrecked the public College Green in order to get a few minutes with their callow commander, Greta lifted her new Iphone to read out what the speechwriter had typed for her: “The world is on fire!” (Ha-ha, charade you are.)

“As I write this,” the curator stresses in his introduction to the essay, “contemporary art is a much-debated topic in the media. In some places people are opposing ‘challenging contemporary art’ and restrictions have been made on art’s place in the public sphere.” Well, almost everything in this country is judged on how you play along with the emotional Marxism in the Swedish Opinion Corridor and its instinctively constipated resistance towards sincere new thinkers, people who see things differently and have the courage to be good. (It is like what Houellebecq said in The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, exactly thirty years after 1984: “Sweden is one of the most undemocratic countries in the world. Sweden is a real dictatorship. It is impossible to think what you want.”) A generic blue landscape painting is not a work of art, but the same goes for art class suck-up Margaret’s tampon-in-a-teacup piece – “The shocking image of repressed femininity!” – in Ghost World (2001) and all that kind of “challenging” crap for the taxpayers’ money. It is the death of art (life, joy, lust, truth, creativity), either way.

The French 18th-century painter Claude Joseph Vernet quipped that “If it is good enough for nature, it will be good enough for painting.” The Trees, Light Green exhibition at Bonniers konsthall puts the past and the present (and nothing in between) in Swedish landscape painting under one roof with “a modern, contemporary salon hang that is made to break relationships and also create relationships”, but is it good enough, does it work? Is the line of tradition and the quality of these paintings strong enough for this higgledy-piggledy? Nah, these now-and-then squares are as bad at getting along as they are at ignoring each other, and though the works from the past are goodies they are hardly any goldies.

“He discovered virgin lands where no one had yet placed a foot, aspects and forms of landscape that one could say were unknown before he painted them,” wrote art critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary in 1882 about the greatest artist of physical landscape painting, Gustave Courbet. “Each time he plunged into the bosom of deep nature, he was like a man who has penetrated a beehive and come out covered with honey; he returned charged with perfume and poetry.”

Ringborg says that the ambition of the exhibition is “to give people a place to reflect on their relationship to what we call nature or the environment or landscape, but also to give people an opportunity to experience landscape painting as it looks today and what it has looked like earlier”. The title of this honeyless show is taken from a late-1960s poem by Göran Sonnevi which he ends with an essential urge to make “the distance between trees and between people disappear”.

The world did not end in 1917 or in 1918, not in 1933 or in 1942, nor has it ended at present day in spite of these drastically pathological loudmouths who really aim to sink the world to beige. 1917 closes just like it begins with Will against a tree, and once again he is looking out at a vast and lovely landscape. The young man pulls out a small metal box from his uniform pocket and picks up a photograph of his loved ones at home with somebody’s handwriting, “Come back to us x.” Here is the paradise within us.

Sara-Vide Ericson, Surface, 2017.

The Trees, Light Green: Landscape Painting – Past and Present at Bonniers konsthall in Stockholm through March 29, 2020.

10 January 2020


Photo: Anna Danielsson. © Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.

Disregarding entirely the generality of men whose gross retinas are capable of perceiving neither the cadence peculiar to each colour nor the mysterious charm of their nuances of light and shade; ignoring the bourgeoisie, whose eyes are insensitive to the pomp and splendour of strong, vibrant tones; and devoting himself only to people with sensitive pupils, refined by literature and art, he was convinced that the eyes of those among them who dream of the ideal and demand illusions are generally caressed by blue and its derivatives, mauve, lilac and pearl grey, provided always that these colours remain soft and do not overstep the bounds where they lose their personalities by being transformed into pure violets and frank greys.

– Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against Nature (1884)

She comes in colours everywhere, and the chosen outfit this late morning in Stockholm is green, green, green. However, since it’s Hella Jongerius (b 1963) who we are talking about, it is not green as US one-dollar bills, Spock’s blood, Irish identity or David Banner when he is very angry, nor is it – heaven forbid – in any of the greens out of the Pantone plumage. To Goethe, who sampled “light’s suffering and joy” beyond the confines of the lab, green was the representation of heaven and of hope.

Whenever this Dutch-born industrial designer becomes engrossed in a subject, owing a lot to Jongerius’s probity and persistent determination, it will take her to the core and essence of that matter. Her tenure at Vitra as the Swiss furniture company’s art director started in 2005 with a new kind of kick. For years, Jongerius’s obsession buzzed and hummed around such matters as isabelline, puce, orpiment, gamboge, cochineal, hematite, madder, woad, cerulean, celadon, orchil, heliotrope, buff, fallow, mummy, obsidian, bastard, beryl, coquelicot, nymphea, jasper, peridot, quimper, watchet and puke. It is this keen love for the chromatic that has made her think of colour as “a metaphor for life itself”.

“As a designer I feel responsible to be in between the consumer and the Industry because I know what the Industry could make, or what the full potential of the Industry is,” says Jongerius when she presents her personal and analytical Breathing Colour exhibition at Nationalmuseum (the National Gallery of Sweden) this very morning. “And that is why I also work with the theme of colour because in Industry the colours are all created in a certain pigment range that keeps colour very flat. Only a part of the full pizza is used. The biggest reason is of course money and to keep colours stable the whole day long so that they don’t react on the light. Colour is only experienced because of light visions. In the morning, light is very different than at noon or in the evening. I think that if a colour is not reacting on light you really lose the quality of colour and that is what I wanted to show here.”

Hella Jongerius’s entire career has basically been a case of Jongerius versus the Industry, so to say, manifested in her Frog Table (2009) in which a sculptured frog not only (unnecessarily) supports one of the legs of the table but annoyingly takes up considerable space for no good reason – the Industry portrayed as the boastful Mr Toad in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908). 

“What most design events have in common are the presentations of a depressing cornucopia of pointless products, commercial hypes around presumed innovations, and empty rhetoric,” Jongerius and her theorist accomplice Louise Schouwenberg wrote in their manifesto “Beyond the New: A Search for Ideals in Design” in 2015. “We advocate an idealistic agenda in design [since] the discipline lacks an intimate interweaving of the values that once inspired designers, as well as the producers of their ideas.”

For reasons not quite clear for anyone outside the domain of corporate S&M, Jongerius’s pertinacity is serving her well in the same international design industry that she is in the habit of chiding at every possible turn. Arguably, her greatest strength as principally a conceptual designer – her physical designs are really not that special – is this ability to win these figurative frogs over so that she can beat them at their own game, over the whole table top. Poet, misfit or hippie? All three according to the discontented designer who still works towards a poetic conclusion.

Her first exhibition at the Design Museum in London in 2003 was Jongerius’s door opener to a greater world. When Deyan Sudjic offered her a second show after he took over as director there in 2016, she made it very clear to him – as described in the September 2017 issue of Domus – “that she was not interested in another retrospective. Instead of showing us what she has already done, she wanted to spend some time exploring colour, a subject that has fascinated her throughout her career, to use that research to help give our audience a new perspective on how we see colour and perhaps to use it to help share her future work. It is a theme that has clearly been important to her in her recent work with Artek and Vitra where the sensitive new colours she has given Alvar Aalto’s Stool 60 for example are one of the few entirely convincing such exercises. It is not a banal attempt to modernise an object by using present-day fashionable colours. Rather Jongerius has given us a new way to look at Aalto’s original design not as cosmetic but as a response to its essential form.”

Before her Breathing Colour exhibition opened in London in the summer of 2017, Jongerius was the thirty-seventh recipient of the Dutch Sikkens Prize, an international award that was instigated in 1959 to honour “individuals or institutions that are considered to have made a special contribution to the field of colour”. She opened her speech on March 26 by saying that “I feel like an absolute beginner when it comes to colour. Even though I have learnt a great deal about colours, I still can’t really get my head around the subject.” There are a number of notes in Josef Albers’s book Interaction of Colour (1963), however, that surely must have influenced Jongerius’s way of thinking about this, shall we say, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious subject:

With the discovery that colour is the most relative medium in art, and that its greatest excitement lies beyond rules and canons, a more sensitive discrimination was needed.

The more a creative use of colour developed, the less desirable became a merely trustful and obedient application.

As with tones in music, so with colour – dissonance is as desirable as its opposite, consonance.

When Hipgnosis designed the artwork for Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, the album came out in early 1973, they actually repeated what Isaac Newton had achieved in 1665: he put a second triangular prism next to the first to prove that the pure white light which dispersed into all the colours of the rainbow was not, what had always been presumed, a consequence of some impureness of the glass but instead the true nature of light. It was not yet understood that these spectral colours are electromagnetic waves and that they are only wavelength sensations until our brains convert them into colours. The Dark Side of the Moon gatefold displays six rays of colour whereas Newton had people memorise the Roy G Biv colour acronym of seven letters:

“In a letter written in 1675 to Henry Oldenburg, the secretary of the Royal Society, Newton confessed that his eyes were ‘not very critical in distinguishing colours’. Once he saw eleven in the rainbow. Usually he saw only five – red, yellow, green, blue, and violet – until he looked again, or, rather, until he stopped looking. There were seven musical notes in the diatonic scale. The world was created in seven days. And the rainbow was a sign of cosmic harmony, so it had to have seven colours – and Newton added (saw?) orange between red and yellow, and indigo between blue and violet,” explains David Scott Kastan in On Colour. “Our seven-coloured rainbow was born, though more as a child of faith than as one of science.” 

Newton’s widespread Opticks: A Treatise of the Reflections, Refractions, Inflections and Colours of Light, issued in 1704, was followed by a great many treatises on colour by artists, poets and intellects, however not the physicists. In his book Colour and Meaning: Art, Science and Symbolism, John Gage – another Sikkens Prize recipient (1997) – implies that “One of the reasons why scientific students of colour have been reluctant to draw on the experience of art is that artists are generally considered a small, untypical and commercially insignificant group in society.” 

Hella Jongerius has been on a mission to save the world from “colour anorexia”, and in doing so she has applied the artists’ creative use of colour. “For me, colour is material,” she told Icon in September 2017, “it can help you shape an object, downplay it or lift it up, make it look bigger or smaller, or give a shadow. It’s a powerful tool, but it’s something designers forget, or are afraid of. They think it’s something you do at the last minute or that it’s just decoration. I think it’s something our profession needs more knowledge of.” To prove how much of a colour even black is, Jongerius developed sixteen different paints of black from a number of pigments that the Industry – by convention – considered to be nothing but a hassle.

The desire for dissonance is obviously present in her design. It is the coincidental, the imperfect, contorted, unfinished and the marred which is heightened when her traditional handicraft methods blend in with the spirit of contemporaneity; the hand of the creator, the “fingerprint” of the machine tool and the seriality of the process. In an interview in Disegno (July 2011), Jongerius argued that “there is a generation that don’t want to work with their hands. But I think your hands are intuitive and if you work manually then surprises inevitably emerge. You can recognise it when people only design from a computer and when Google is the only inspiration – you can always tell. You’ll see there’s no tactility, no knowledge of the material.”

Two such series in which her design faces monitored fortuity are the pretty enticing Soft Urn (produced by Droog in 1993) – petite rubbery pots in the same material as skateboard wheels, and hence unbreakable, with the combined aesthetics of a little more colourful future and something dug up together with the Pompeii body casts – and the other is her somewhat warped tableware series B-Set (1997), heated in a kiln so fiery that the porcelain will forget what it was supposed to be. A wonderful thing is that this series is manufactured by Royal Tichelaar Makkum, a Dutch company that has been in existence since the Renaissance.

Jongerius was brought up in the Dutch countryside, in a house full of her mother’s sewing machines, pattern designs and textiles, though it was the men in her family who offered her young self a few good ideas about independency. She claims that it was “the freedom and non-conformism of the art world” that in 1988 drew her to Design Academy Eindhoven, which was hardly (and hardly surprising) an ideal place for Jongerius after all. In 1993 she set up her Jongeriuslab in Rotterdam, which grew with the success stories, until she finally moved the studio to Berlin in 2009 in order to reintroduce herself as the constant outsider – and to redesign the North Delegates’ Lounge at the United Nations’ East River base in New York together with a small group of Dutch designers.

The cover design for the catalogue to Jongerius’s Misfit exhibition in 2010 at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam depicts a drawing of one of the almost three hundred vases from the Coloured Vases series. For her many vases, manufactured at Tichelaar in Makkum, Jongerius applied layers of different kind of glazes based on both the synthetic mixtures used by the Industry today and old mineral pigment formulas from (oddly enough) the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Consisting of one hundred and fifty colours in all (many of the vases are also painted), the work was presented as a viable colour wheel at Boijmans.

In the January/February 2011 issue of Frame, Jongerius applauded the “unbelievably rich and irregular” properties of mineral colours: “They really melt into the ceramic, while the industrial glazes remain on the surface. And it’s noticeable how the vase changes form because of the colour – colour reacts with shape.”

Boijmans was also the second venue for the Breathing Colour exhibition in 2018. The show at Nationalmuseum in Stockholm is its third instalment and the one that the designer is most content about. Two shows worth mentioning after Nationalmuseum’s reopening in the fall of 2018, after a four-year-long complete and very satisfying overhaul, are the excellent Danish Golden Age (in painting) exhibition and one about die Mauer and beyond, 1989 – Culture and Politics, which worked as a pretty good primer to the full-blown buffoon world that is Sweden today and where the lives of others carry on in the absence of a wall.

Cilla Robach, curator at Nationalmuseum, enjoyed Breathing Colour at the Design Museum in the summer of 2017, “and I thought it was so exciting because she is an industrial designer, but these are not products. It is about the process, about the artistic research method, how she has tested and rummaged around with colour, texture, material, form, light and shadows. This is a process description that is very visually attractive,” she affirms.

“Hella Jongerius talks about how flat the industrial colours are. If I buy a coffee maker that I perceive as green in the store but which feels brown at home in my kitchen, perhaps I would return it, and then it becomes difficult and problematic for everyone. But if we can see that colour is just something that isn’t solid or stable but vivacious and personal, something that can enrich our world, it can give us an emotional connection to things that make us nurture and care for them so that they last longer. I find this to be the basic purpose of her work.”

That modern colours are rubbish is testament in the Netflix film The Two Popes (2019) during the conversations between Pope Benedict XVI and his successor Pope Francis in the Sistine Chapel, which was laboriously recreated in full scale at Cinecittà Studios in Rome. The problem here is not just that there is no individual in the world with the might to copy Michelangelo straight off the bat, but that the colours themselves look so lifeless.

Matching Jongerus’s pieces in the Breathing Colour show are twelve old-to-very-old paintings by Dutch and Scandinavian artists, most of them portraits, and the designer explains that they were chosen from the perspective of light, colour and atmosphere. Cilla Robach fills in that what Jongerius requested from the collections were pictures of “interiors and people with a slightly contemporary feel so that you can recognise yourself a little in them”.

When Ken Nordine recorded his album Colours in 1966, he made thirty-four spoken word vignettes directly addressed to each colour as if all of them were characters to be loved (or at least liked) in good times and in bad. The purpose of the many and oddly beautiful colours next to each other that are covering the podiums, and the cubes on these podiums, in the middle of the exhibition is to shack up with a strange looking group of round origami-like objects that has some visual punch, but they fail to do what they are there for. 

Jongerius has a name for these things, “colour catchers”: “They are a kind of an abstract way of looking at shapes out of our daily life. The colours of the bases are reflected on the shapes. It is about reflection and shadow. A shadow is never black but a reflection of the object itself,” she says without mentioning the origin of these hollow structures. “From the early 18th century onwards, many colour systems and diagrams were designed and applied in both the arts and sciences,” Alexandra Loske explicates in Colour: A Visual History. “Other diagrams are more fanciful and experimental, in the shape of triangles, diamonds or stars, or attempting three dimensions with ‘colour globes’, pyramids and cubes.”

“I took the colour catchers as a symbol for the different stages that light goes through during the day – just to know where you are,” Jongerius says with a diminutive laugh. Breathing Colour is premised on a twenty-four-hour periodicity, like the circadian movement in The Swimmer (1968), one of the greatest films of the 1960s, before Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) reaches the first swimming pool in the neighbourhood and decides to swim home: “Pool by pool they form a river all the way to our home. I’ll call it the Lucinda River, after my wife.” This is a day that goes from a summery Slim Aarons-y poolside mood to the total autumnal breakdown of the treacherous swimmer. Breathing Colour ends (or begins) with black walls, black colour catchers, dark paintings and the designer’s black weaves as window covers (“where the light is having a coma”), for how can you have a day without a night?

Jongerious chooses to begin her presentation where we would find the Piper at the Gates of Dawn: “This is an invitation of the morning light. In the morning the light comes up and there is a lot of water in it which makes it hazy, and the temperature of the colour is blueish, very gentle and fragile so the interpretation we make is paper weave in pastel colours. In translucency you see the reflection of the morning.”

The almost three hundred vases from the Misfit show are lined up after their colour schemes on a large shelf construction, paused by a few paintings (one is a Renaissance portrait of JC by Dieric Bouts) against a very “now” orange fund. “Later in the morning, say eleven o’clock, yellow comes in the temperature of colour,” she continues. “This is the afternoon so the light comes from above with a very strong yellow colour, and the colours are very sharp. Further in the afternoon there is a more reddish colour.”

J-K Huysmans was only thirty-six years old in 1884 when his masterpiece Against Nature was published. The connection between colour, philosophical ideas and the flavour of life looms large through Chapter Two in which Huysmans’s supreme dandy Jean des Esseintes is making design decisions for his new Fontenay house: 

Blue inclines to a false green by candlelight: if it is dark, like cobalt or indigo, it turns black; if it is bright it turns grey; if it is soft, like turquoise, it grows feeble and faded. There could be no question of making it the dominant note of a room unless it were blended with some other colour.

Iron grey always frowns and is heavy; pearl grey loses its blue and changes to a muddy white; brown is lifeless and cold; as for deep green, such as emperor or myrtle, it has the same properties as blue and merges into black. There remained, then, the paler greens, such as peacock, cinnabar or lacquer, but the light banishes the blues and brings out their yellows in tones that have a false and undecided quality.

No need to waste through the salmon, the maize and rose colours whose feminine associations oppose all ideas of isolation! No need to consider the violet which is completely neutralised at night; only the red in it holds its ground – and what a red! a viscous red like the lees of wine. Besides, it seemed useless to employ this colour, for by using a certain amount of santonin, he could get an effect of violet on his hangings.

The Pravdas in Sweden have all concluded that Hella Jongerius is a “world famous” designer and consequently has a great show to give us. But her clout on the Industry is only one thing. When Des Esseintes is reasoning with himself in his splendid isolation, he also prepares us readers for unhampered new proposals to the beauty and mystery of colours. For her Breathing Colour exhibition, Jongerius has followed Goethe’s belief from Theory of Colours (1810) that “light and its absence are necessary to the production of colour”, and it might be a good place to start for a show like this. Still and all, Breathing Colour falls short of its mission to attest how colours actually “breathe” with the light, and the exhibition is far too cold and insipid. 

When the cops ask Nicolas Cage to describe the strange meteorite that struck his family’s property in Colour Out of Space (2019), he replies that “It wasn’t like any colour I’ve seen before.” That is not the way to describe Breathing Colour, unfortunately.

In Beanpole (2019), the most stunning piece during last year’s Stockholm International Film Festival, Kantemir Balagov depicts the life of endurance in Leningrad straight after the end of WWII through the friendship of two young women whose garments, in bright green or red, work like insults of happiness. A few dots of colour by a master filmmaker is just what it takes to give complete meaning to the artwork of The Dark Side of the Moon album where the green among the six rays of colour inside the gatefold loop forms a cardiac cycle, a heartbeat.

Hella Jongerius – Breathing Colour at Nationalmuseum in Stockholm through March 1, 2020.

16 November 2019


Margaret Watkins, Domestic Symphony, 1919. © Joseph Mulholland Collection.

Some people regard their work as a sort of remunerative sideshow to a light and festive existence (I want it to be everything).

– Margaret Watkins

“We can still look through your eyes. Thank you.” The narration is as comely and precise as ever when Mark Cousins rounds off his love letter to the greatest voice in filmmaking in The Eyes of Orson Welles (2018). When Canadian-born photographer Margaret Watkins (1884–1969) needed a promotional portrait of herself during her thriving career in modernist photography (her pictures were exhibited all over the world in the 1920s and 30s) and as a transformer of advertising image-making in New York City, it was evidently a picture that was going to be modelled on time and light and through her own discerning eyes.

Here, Watkins portrayed herself like the Finnish artist Helene Schjerfbeck would later do in her famous last series of paintings from the Second World War – the bare essence of a female face, pursed lips, head tilted slightly backwards and seen a little from below; unflattering, uncompromising, but in no way without beauty. “Miss Watkins took this portrait of herself by means of an ingeniously devised mechanism,” she typed at the bottom of the prints that went out to the press. Dismayed by a New York newspaper’s refashioning of her portrait into a flapper temptress in a feature of October 1923, headlined “Feminine Photographer Whose Domestic Symphonies Reveal Beauty of Objects Heretofore Considered Most Prosaic”, she extended her message on the back of these prints: “To ye engraver: Don’t clip prune or place this in an oval. Neither retouch or paint to the semblance of a snake-eyed vamp.”

She called herself “fussy” (Watkins’s mind was continually at work) but it was the fussy particulars of her photography – her fastidiousness, resolution and integrity – and every aspect of how she looked at the world and what she did with it which made her photographic work everything. She was tuned-in to this current world where, as Lynn Dumenil argues in The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s, “There was not a new woman, but many new women.” Watkins made no concessions to folly: “I can’t brazen my way through a business deal the way so many do, nor have I the cutely kittenish capacity for vamping the office-bond male, and you would be startled to know how much the supposedly soulless and impersonal world of trade is managed by these two extremes. Yet critical folk are keen on my work, both in craftsmanship and originality, and working with the right people I can turn out a corking good job.”

Alfred Stieglitz’s good friend Charles Henry Caffin wrote as early as 1901 that the photograph as a work of art “will record facts, but not as facts”. The “Domestic Symphonies” addressed in that verbose newspaper caption above refer to a number of household pictures – which are anything but household pictures – that Watkins took in 1919 and which could be regarded as her chef-d’oeuvre. This series alone is a testament to her wonderful understanding of photography’s intrinsic nature, to her sheer modernity and keenness in approaching the medium. Watkins described how “It took hours and infinite patience to create a rhythmic whole in line and tone values.” You hear her singing in the wire in these sonorous compositions. She arrayed and transcended the everydayness of her odds and ends (which could have been sampled from anyone’s Manhattan home in the late 1910s) into pure photography. 

When “Domestic Symphonies” and twelve hundred other photographs of hers resurfaced in Glasgow at the beginning of the 1970s, Watkins’s name had long gone faded into absolute obscurity. Her homebound existence at Westbourne Gardens, where she had gradually tapered off for the last forty years of her life and where she was living the art of selfhood as a recluse with a brilliant mind in a Victorian house full of books, and all of her dusty suitcases packed and ready for an expeditious return to New York City (“home”), was altered by mere coincidence one day when she received a phone call from a friendly neighbour who asked her if he and his family could pay her a visit. Many visits to 41 Westbourne Gardens would follow, with sparkling discussions (BBC’s Third Programme was always in the background) and never a dull moment. But there was never a word about her past.

She took bennies to keep her homesickness and the “curdled despair” in check, and jolted down her tempers and her thoughts on life’s vicissitudes on any available piece of paper: “I miss the artistic crowd most desperately. Collectively they may have every falling under the sun, but, in spite of their sins (or because of them) they have a strange gleam of vision, something worth striving after, something a bit beyond the end of their small human noses,” she wrote. “I want to go hooome and I haven’t got any home! I feel like a lost cat on the roof of the world!”

Before long the old lady entrusted her new friend with a sealed treasure chest that was only to be opened after her death: “There were palladium prints and silver gelatine prints. And there was a series so unusual that my attention was riveted on each of the images composed around what turned out to be the kitchen sink and bath in her New York apartment in Jane Street, Greenwich Village,” explains Joseph Mulholland in his foreword to Seduced by Modernity: The Photography of Margaret Watkins by Mary O’Connor and Katherine Tweedie. “For hours I stood there looking and looking – enthralled and totally at loss. I had thought I knew Miss Margaret Watkins.”

Miss Watkins came from Hamilton, Ontario, a city on the outskirts of Toronto. She grew up on King Street East with her Scottish mother Marie and her merchant father Frederick in a house that befittingly was the birthplace of the original female photojournalist Jessie Tarbox Beals. Watkins’s home was a place that would warrant her a happy childhood – until her early teens, when the family disintegrated after Margaret’s father was seriously injured in a bicycling accident on a family trip to Europe in 1897. Both of her parents went into different states of aberration. One of Margaret’s aunts arrived from Glasgow to take care of her while the mother was recuperating in the Hamilton Asylum for the Insane and the father was losing his wits in the course of Dr John Harvey Kellogg’s pious brainwashing at the Battle Creek Sanatorium. Eight months after her father reopened his grand dry goods warehouse in the city, he went bankrupt. For the rest of her life, Margaret Watkins discarded anyone’s attempt to interfere with her capacity “to observe and consider my own impressions”.

In November 1908, at the age of twenty-four, Watkins had had enough of both Hamilton and her family situation, and left. “Some people’s thoughts are so nice and orthodox – like woolly toy dogs on wheels, carefully drawn by the string of inherited opinions, in fact unable to move in any other manner,” she wrote. “People are such sheep – let me be a black sheep, just to relieve the monotony.” Her first station towards excellence was an industrial Utopia in the village of East Aurora (near Hamilton, on the US side of Lake Ontario) where she stayed for a year and a half, both as a housemaid and as a student of book design. 

The Roycroft Arts and Crafts community is described by Marie Via and Marjorie Searl in Head, Heart, and Hand: Elbert Hubbard and the Roycrofters: “What began as a modest printing establishment in 1895 soon evolved into a community of five hundred artists, craftsmen and other workers who were drawn together by Hubbard’s charisma, by the congenial atmosphere, and by a loose allegiance to the social and artistic ideals of the English reformers John Ruskin and William Morris. Once fully developed, the Roycroft flourished for about a dozen years on the strength of Hubbard’s energetic leadership, his wealth, and his ability to attract people of talent to the enterprise.”

The ensuing Utopia was the Sidney Lanier Camp (in Eliot, Maine), a sanctuary for people of all ages who wanted to learn “the art of living”. Watkins stayed there for the next three years, even though her initial judgement was that they were “all mad”, doing the camp’s administrative work and discovering the possibilities of photography. Later, when Watkins had moved to Boston in 1913 to train in a photo studio for a few years, she returned as the official photographer and designer of the community’s outdoor performances of biblical parables. It is some kind of irony that one of modernism’s finest photographers who has ever been recovered from oblivion worked for the clearly antimodernist Sidney Lanier Camp, taking pictures much influenced by the pictorialism of the day.

Pictorialism took a backward stance on life. The pictorialists’ outlandish idea for making photography valuable for upper-class appetites in a time when cameras had become an everyday article was to photograph the daughters of dawn singing the praise of Pan in painterly forests drawn on a fairy-tale past, and so on and so forth.

In her book Clarence H White and His World: The Art and Craft of Photography, 1895–1925, Anne McCauley delineates how “the extent of participation and the increase in institutional structures such as regional and international exhibitions, journals directed to the amateur market, and clubs that took place after the commercialisation of the gelatine dry plate (which simplified the preparation of negatives) signal a watershed change even prior to the development of the Kodak camera in 1888. Like today’s Snapchatters, everyone by the 1890s seemed to be making pictures, but they were doing so in groups – shooting on excursions, comparing works in exhibitions, meeting monthly to hear lectures, and gathering in club darkrooms to share processing tips.”

Margaret Watkins paid one hundred and fifty dollars in 1914 for the first of a string of summer camps organised by the Clarence H White School of Photography, where she eventually would become a demanding but popular and highly estimated teacher herself. The summer schools were based on White’s more modern take on pictorialism, inspired by compositional geometry. The communal spirit of the Arts and Crafts-y gatherings under the trees were not about pre-industrial innocence but rather part of the great teaching from some of the best instructors in the United States (the painter Max Weber was one of the lecturers in 1914). It was with White that Watkins found her true calling in photography. He became her tutor, friend and possibly, at one point or another, her lover.

“Modernist photography developed somewhat differently in Europe,” says Gerry Badger in The Genius of Photography, “but for American modernists the purity of the medium was paramount. Image sharpness and tonal quality were also important, and there was almost a fetish about obtaining the ‘fine’ print, one in which tonal values shone like a jewel.” Watkins cultivated her fetish for making the best possible prints already when she was toiling away in the darkroom of Arthur Jamieson’s portrait studio in Boston. At the White School she became an expert in what different soups and techniques would do to the negatives in the developing process. 

It was also at the White School that Watkins became a quality modernist. As O’Connor and Tweedie write in their book, “Somehow White was able to instil the idea that the design of the image must be structurally sound no matter how common the subject.” Watkins’s early masterpiece Opus I (1914) is a triangular symphony with a trinity of fishing skiffs. One of the two fishermen at the top is simply cut in half (he is not necessary for the composition), and despite the fact that the photographer has employed a slight pictorialist dim to this picture it still shines with the pure light of modernist perception. This is not a photograph of a seaside reality but a glimpse into the actualities of photography.

Her portraits of women, until the early 1920s, were drawn on Renaissance portraiture without further regard to pictorialism’s mimicry of painterly modes. Watkins was an instinctive advocate for womanism and revered the sisterhood of the day. And she celebrated the French 19th-century animalier Rosa Bonheur who rambled the Parisian livestock markets, slaughterhouses and similar areas, off limits for women, in the guise of a gentleman in order to gather fresh imprints for her art: “At a period when all genteel and delicately-reared young females were swooning at mice or embroidering weird beasts with beads and wool work, Rosa Bonheur, in peasants’ blouse and trousers, her hair cut short and neatly parted, was studying first-hand, the cattle and horses in the markets of Paris. Not pretty work, not ladylike, but it made her a master among animal painters.”

The move to Manhattan took place in mid-October 1915. After inheriting a reasonable sum of money in 1917 she was able to move into her personal space at 46 Jane Street in Greenwich Village. From her crestfallen exile in Glasgow only twelve years later she relished the times of yore: “‘Home sweet home’ was not even thus to me, and for the first ten years on my own I perched in rented hall bedrooms or odd corners of other people’s homes. So that it was a joy and delight to have bedroom, bath and living-room (with a discreet ‘kitchen corner’) and an extra room for renting or guests; to haunt junk shops in cellars and old furniture shops in lofts, to pick up fascinating if slightly decrepit odds and ends and to pull the whole thing together and flavour it with a few choice bits from home – well, I had the time of my life.”

That Watkins had the time of her life is evident from the photographs she created in this period. It must be underlined that the decade on Jane Street was the only time in Watkins’s life that she was free to roam in a place that was entirely her own. Modern life is ravishing in The Kitchen Sink from 1919. (“The ‘objects’ are not supposed to have any interest in themselves – merely contributing to the design,” she explained.) Surely, this was the ripper that Walker Evans so much desired in art photography – “the defining of observation full and felt” – a visual chord in the mind.

“Domestic Symphonies” resounded very well with what the Imagists were achieving in their poetry of the 1910s. “An ‘Image’,” Ezra Pound suggested, “is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” They summarised their endeavours in six points (here slightly abbreviated): 1. “To use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word.” 2. “To create new rhythms.” 3. “To allow absolute freedom in the choice of subject.” 4. “To present an image.” 5. “To produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite.” 6. “Finally, most of us believe that concentration is the very essence of poetry.”

“Domestic Symphonies” are embodiments of female ingenuity. They are also made with reference to Watkins’s obsessive darkroom chores (which often continued through the nights) at a point in her life when she had just finished four years in a studio on East 23rd Street owned by the successful portrait photographer Alice Boughton. Watkins addressed this special kind of labour in her “How Art Enriches My Life” speech to the Newark Camera Club when she talked about photography’s “mean, messy, technical side calling for patience, perseverance and a very nice precision. Long before signing a masterpiece you roll up your sleeves, play about in poison – keeping the cyanide out of the soup – and work in icy water till the hand hangs dead on the wrist.”

Alice Boughton was an untidy woman who was annoyingly careless about the technical facets of photography. However, she and Watkins were united in their efforts to create business alliances between female entrepreneurs in the city, and Boughton introduced her acolyte to a host of conspicuous individuals (some of whom she would later portray). One of them was Nina Broderick Price whom Watkins photographed in the publisher’s flourishing art deco home. The picture that is called Portrait of Nina B Price (1925) is in fact void of the sitter. Watkins included a print of this cerebral portrait at the back of Katherine Dreier’s book Modern Art, which was published at the occasion of a show at the Brooklyn Museum in 1926, and her portrait of Katherine Dreier at Home (1926) at the front. Dreier was famous for her participation in the American avant-garde movement and for originating the Société anonyme together with Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp in New Jersey in 1920, yet something drove Watkins to add an ambiguous line on the print: “Does this suggest the habitat of a ‘modern’ artist?”

The American 1920s were roaring with traditional values. “The Progressive reform era (1900–14) that had proceeded World War I gave way in the 1920s to a period of conservatism in which politicians and pundits alike celebrated Big Business as the saviour of American democracy and enterprise,” writes Lynn Dumenil in The Modern Temper. Watkins had her own jeering name for her portrait of the stern-faced H E Vance (1926) – “Babbitt” – one of the pictures she used to send to exhibitions. “The intellectuals had only to read [Sinclair] Lewis’s books [Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922)] to realise that the qualities in American life which they most despised and feared were precisely the ones which he put under the microscope for cold-blooded examination. It was George F Babbitt who was the archenemy of the enlightened, and it was the Main Street state of mind which stood in the way of American civilisation,” argued Fredrick Lewis Allen in Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s which came out in 1931.

Despite Watkins’s long-serving occupation at the Clarence H White School, when the post as the head teacher in New York became vacant in 1924 it went not to her but to an undergraduate at the school, Paul Outerbridge. For her remaining years in the city, Watkins continued to stay in the thick of things by turning to advertising photography, and she did it with the same level of artistic fervour and finesse as in her other pictures – she sure applied to what advertiser Earnest Elmo Calkins pronounced in 1928: “The men who produce advertising art are the men represented in the art exhibitions. There is no longer any distinction, and no stigma attaches to art used for business. Artists realise that advertising offers them an opportunity as great as any in the world today, not merely to be well paid for their work, but also to realise their artistic ambitions without sacrifice of their standards or their ideals.”

One of the strongest admirers of her work, particularly the pictures with the immaculate geometry of her surfaces where she isolated groups of singular objects and fragmented them for a whole new vision, was Condé Nast’s Art Director Heyworth Campbell. Between 1924 and 1928, Watkins’s commercial work was seen in magazines all over the United States. “Even the plain businessman, suspicious of ‘art stuff’, perceives that his product is enhanced by fine tone-spacing and the beauty of contrasting textures,” Watkins suggested in her 1926 text “Advertising and Photography”:

“With Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, came a new approach. Soulfulness was taboo, romance derided, anecdote scorned; beauty of subject was superseded by beauty of design, and the relation of ideas gave place to the relation of forms. Weird and surprising things were put upon canvas; stark mechanical objects revealed an unguessed dignity; commonplace articles showed curves and angles which could be repeated with the varying pattern of a fugue. The comprehending photographer saw, paused, and seized his camera! And while the more conservative workers still exhibited photographs beautiful in the accepted sense, strange offerings startled the juries; prints original perhaps, but hardly pretty, and showing an apparent queerness of choice most painful to the orthodox.”

Superb pieces like Design – Curves and Design – Angles (both 1919) were reframed in Watkins’s commercial work. Woodbury’s Facial Soap and Phenix Cheese, or her Untitled (Still Life, Glasses and Pitcher) for the Fostoria Glass Company in 1924, in which she magnified the presence of the glassware with her passion for the intangibility of the shadows (an idea copied by the Neue Sachlichkeit photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch two years later), are all early examples of forward-thinking advertising photography. O’Connor and Tweedie are correct in claiming that “Watkins modernised her form without giving over to the cleanliness of modernity.”

In his reflection on the American 1920s, Fredrick Lewis Allen described how the intellects of a younger generation “looked at Victorianism as half indecent and half funny […] Some of them, in fact, seemed to be persuaded that all periods prior to the coming of modernity had been ridiculous – with the exception of Greek civilisation, Italy at the time of Casanova, France at the time of the great courtesans, and 18th-century England.” Watkins’s nudes and portraits and outdoor pictures with people did grasp these periods. And she made fun of the prissy mannerisms of young Victorian ladies in the jocular Untitled (Verna Skelton Posing for Cutex Advertisement), a great shot from 1924 that sold nail polish. (There is also a very beautiful study for Cutex with a close-up of a missy hand swirling a pearl necklace.) Her commercial photography influenced further personal works, such as her splendid Head and Hand (c 1925) with a woman’s curved hand and a small female head asleep in its tender hold.

In Mexico City in the summer of 1925, on a school field trip with a group of students, Clarence White suffered a heart attack and died at the age of fifty-four. He and Watkins had been working intensely together in creating a portfolio of White’s finest prints for what they hoped in due time would go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Meanwhile, White and Watkins made an agreement that she would buy the forty-four prints for the symbolic sum of ten dollars – partly because the school was in financial trouble, and Watkins had not been salaried for a long time for her teaching there, and partly because she was the one person whose expertise and authority White firmly believed in.

The portfolio was still at the White School at the time of his passing. When these prints resurfaced at the Pictorial Photographers of America’s commemorative exhibition at the Art Center in New York the following year, they had been sold to the Library of Congress by White’s suspicious wife. Once the show ended on May 1, Watkins had the walls stripped of the prints that she considered were in her custody. She lost them in the resulting lawsuit, and she lost her associates and her standing at the Art Center that she had been closely linked to for years and where she had her only solo show in 1923.

In August 1928, Margaret Watkins embarked on a journey for a trimester-long vacation in Glasgow. But never again would she return from her “rest cure” in a Victorian house full of dying aunts and leaking pipes.

Aunt Anna kicked the bucket within a week after Watkins’s arrival at 41 Westbourne Gardens. In a letter to a friend two years later she described the remnants of her mother’s childhood home: “The youngest [Grace] (!) is seventy-seven and has been in bed for five or six years; the next [Jane], eighty, valiant but very tottery and subject to the most shocking insurrections in the interior; the eldest [Louisa/Louie] eighty-six, a human dynamo, loves the movies, tries to manage the whole solar system and is furiously indignant if I suggest that she is perhaps not quite so strong as she was in the good old days.” Watkins realised that she was “the only available detached female relative who could take the job of keeping an eye on them. And a hectic job it has been, much more than I could have foreseen; and I am not just exactly suited by temperament, or temper, to be the honorary curator of an old Ladies’ home! But here you are – needs must!”

There were three escapes from the “aunthill” until all of them were gone. In the fall of 1928, Watkins took her Graflex camera to the humongous Pressa in Cologne, an international fair on recent advancements in graphic design, printing, publishing and advertising which occupied three exhibition halls and forty-two other buildings on a three-kilometre-long stretch by the Rhine. El Lissitzky (who was living in Germany at the time) curated the engrossing interiors for the Soviet Pavilion, which featured a mural photomontage – The Task of the Press is the Education of the Masses – by some avant-garde artists who were still permitted to shine because Stalin wanted to convince the West about the superiority of his first five-year plan. Watkins revelled in the experience, she loved when miracles popped out of ordinary hats.

When she came back to the Westbourne Gardens “sarcophagus” at the beginning of the new year, after a two-month stay in London following Pressa, she was broke and in an ill state of health. What worsened her condition was that her friend Polly had to clear out her true and only home that summer since the building in the Village would soon be dismantled. “All of my connections are broken in New York,” she wrote at the age of forty-six. “It’s the most disheartening problem I’ve ever been up against, and now that Jane St is gone I have no foundations left, how in heaven’s name I’ll ever make a fresh start in NY, I don’t know.” Watkins set up a minimal darkroom on the top floor of the “aunthill” just to keep herself connected to photography and the craft of playing about in poison. She became an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society in London and, locally, a member of the Glasgow and West Scotland Photographic Association, where she was known as an outsider due to her great style of dressing and her strange offerings in photography.

“Have made a good many mistakes, double exposures, forgetting to fix the time, etcetera but the lot that came from the shop today are quite hopeful. It is wiser to do one’s own developing when possible as you can vary the treatment to suit the subject, but I had to know whether I was getting anything or not and have done several things over again to improve composition or to get a better light. I would have had plenty of cash to get home on if I hadn’t spent it on films and developing but having been nearly twenty years at the game it seemed rather foolish to let the whole business slide and when the interest was revived, I decided to go at it for all I was worth and have something to work on during the winter,” Watkins told her aunt Jane in a letter from Paris on September 18, 1931.

She had returned to the Continent that summer to participate in the eighth International Congress of Scientific and Applied Photography in Dresden during the first week of August. Watkins spent some time in the German capital, which the filmmaker Walther Ruttmann had just portrayed in his modern, mechanical and rhythmic Weimar masterpiece Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1928). However, it was at the Paris Colonial Exposition, which filled up the whole Bois de Vincennes, that Watkins began to photograph for real again. France had culled a huge number of indigenes from its twenty-six territories and so had the other “empires”. These people were treated like animals in a zoo, but for Watkins this spectacle was “literally a trip around the world in a day!”

She loved the vivacity around the Seine. She wrote to aunt Jane that the river “keeps me fascinated and I’ve made a whole series of pictures of the life there. There are huge barges for washhouses for the poor; piers with fussy little steamers arriving and departing with holidaymakers: long low coal barges via canal from the Rhine; fishermen in tippy little boats, other fishers hanging over the copings and stone stairs which run right into the water; artists sitting in every likely and unlikely place where they can plant themselves and an easel; a man teasing out the innards of a mattress with a sort of rocker, while his wife puts it all back into the tick; a couple of terriers being scrubbed by their missus; cranes and steam shovels and huge piles of stone and sand for the new docks; half an acre of wine casks rolled together; beggars cooking meals in odd corners, others washing their clothes and most of themselves, and all along the parapets of the bridges, a black beading of heads and shoulders belonging to the gentlemen who are ‘doing nothing, and doing it very well’.”

In Paris she photographed posters, shop windows, tradesfolk in Les Halles, bits and fragments of buildings and the Eiffel Tower from indirect positions, not all that special. She returned to modernity in her Self-Portrait with the Vendôme Column in the background and the photographer hiding behind her big camera while a policeman joins in to complete the deformed picture, which is fully mirrored in the bulbous chromium alloy of a parked car’s headlight.

When Margaret Watkins photographed The Bathroom Window in the comfort of her home in 1923, the windows were closed and the curtains drawn because this world in the Greenwich Village was enough. The windows in the “window scenes” that she photographed in the fall of 1931 during her stay in London are all opened by the photographer to facilitate the possibility to take off and just leave.

In London she used the same kind of template for her photography as in Paris. But these pictures are so much stronger and resolved, and this is the point where Watkins is reimagining herself in her profession as a photographer. She met her colleagues at the Royal Photographic Society and saw an exhibition there on colour photography (colour photography was something that had spurred her interest for some time), and she went to The Annual London Salon of Photography, themed Invention in Design, where a certain number of her North American pictures were included. Her London “street photography” is void of people – a sign of the dispossessed state that she was in – but full of Watkins’s delicious way of looking at things, despite the gloom and a Stairway to Where?

The last trip went on a freighter from London Bridge to Leningrad via the Kiel Canal in August 1933. Watkins was eager to learn more about Soviet avant-garde art and how Stalinism, in relation to the recent market crashes in the United States and in Europe, was carried into effect. Before the train left for Moscow, Watkins sneaked out of her Leningrad company (including the Secretary of the Royal Society of Arts, Peter Le Neve Foster) and “took my first photograph – of statue of Peter the Great on horseback – while the rest of party stayed at hotel for a second huge meal”. 

“In general, the visual and performing arts, with their radical form and content, stunned Watkins, but she was also on the cusp of a fundamental shift in the Soviet art world. In Moscow, she visited the retrospective exhibition Artists of the Russian Federation over Fifteen Years [1917–32], which she ‘assiduously prowled for two half days [and] appreciated to the limit’. The fight against formalism was a subtext of the exhibition. The show had originated in Leningrad a year earlier, and by the time it got to Moscow it had been severely edited. The major emission was the abstract paintings of Malevich, who had an entire room devoted to his work in Leningrad. This was part of Stalin’s dictated shift from constructivism to social realism. In this transitional moment of 1933, photography, too, was in the midst of change from the avant-garde formalism and fragmentation, acute angles, and extreme close-ups,” explain Mary O’Connor and Katherine Tweedie in their biography. “By stripping away individualist markings, the door was opened to selling myths about the new Soviet society.”

Watkins was not anywhere near as gullible as her student Margaret Bourke-White who swallowed the Stalinist propaganda straight off. Watkins returned from the Soviet Union with six hundred pictures which capacity and August Sander-like social critique went over the heads of the censors. One such picture was Street Photographer, Moscow, depicting a poor, knitting woman (looking much older than she probably was), with a camera on a tripod pointing towards a pathetic backdrop that would place the sitter in a world far, far away from the USSR.

In the beginning of her Glasgow days she photographed the west corner of Westbourne Gardens. Park is a wintry, semiabstract picture with a bird’s-eye view from the house that would ground her for the rest of her life. In a letter never posted she confessed that “It would be hopeless to try and sell 41 at present as there is no demand whatever for such houses and I’m told the demand for flats has slackened. I think I ought to keep up my work. If I survive the aunts it means picking up a connection somewhere and piecing out a living with what funds I have and I must retain my health and what wits I have.” Watkins began to wander the Glasgow harbour area – where she really wasn’t welcome – like an undisguised Rosa Bonheur, “to see man in his true perspective as a very small creature, creeping and scurrying about the earth” (another metaphor for her own condition). Among the harbour’s “prehistoric monsters” she especially fancied the Finnieston Crane situated on the Queen’s Dock – from the heights of her pet crane Watkins was “hanging over the rail in a stiff breeze, looking straight down on the squat dome of the tunnel entrance, with little trucks and figures making a quick beetle pattern of light and dark”. The River Clyde became her mental escape route.

“Heaven forbid that I should slump into a fussy old maid stewing about her symptoms,” she wrote. In 1937, when Watkins was living alone in the sixteen-room house, her main project was to find textile and carpet producers for the kaleidoscopic designs that she had generated from her most abstract photographs. When that wasn’t realised, Watkins started an antiques business together with a far-off friend. She had a talent for discovering the greatest paraphernalia at the Barrow’s Market across town and had her bargains shipped to Toronto until the outbreak of the World War II. During the war years, Watkins did something that other Glaswegians were not so keen to do, she opened her home to refugees. For several years after 1945, she had Walter Süsskind (the conductor of the Scottish Orchestra at the time) and other tenants living in the house.

By the mid-1950s, Watkins did not even dare to venture out to her film club any longer, and she loved film. She had become an agoraphobe and the children looked at her building as if it were a ghost house. She lived in a creative torpor together with her many books, one of her few remaining enticements, and spent her days filling diaries and catalogues with memories and notes. The authors of Seduced by Modernity explain that “the multiple revisiting of her past – conducted in annotations on her parents’ letters, in the margins of the books and exhibition catalogues she had bought, and on scraps of newspapers she kept – all indicate a project to make meaning, and to leave an inheritance. At times, we have understood this to mean that she was waiting for biographers to do a further annotation – to write her life and understand her photographs.”

Watkins’s neighbour Joseph Mulholland argues in his foreword to their book how “Margaret Watkins had achieved what I believed she had set out to do. By creating a mystery, she had left me with a legacy and a duty. That duty was to find out as much as I could about her – and see that she was not forgotten. I had started off with a little more than the labels on the backs of these glorious pictures, a birth date and a death date, a lady with a slight North American accent, and a home where room after room was cluttered with an accumulation of some two hundred years of family clothes, papers, and furnishings. During my search, I found reviews of exhibitions where her photographs had won praise and prizes, and I gradually pieced together the bones of her story.”

The Third Eye Centre in Glasgow presented the first Margaret Watkins retrospective in 1981. When the pioneering New York photo space Light Gallery showed Watkins in 1984, she finally began to receive some recognition in the UK as well. She was called “the show’s greatest discovery” when an exhibition produced by the Detroit Institute of Arts – Pictorialism into Modernism – travelled the world between 1996 and 1998. Another book on Margaret Watkins came out in the autumn of 2012 when the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa presented her art for the Canadian public with their Domestic Symphonies show.

In All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, Marshall Berman gives such a beautiful description of modernism’s vacillating nature: “To be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction. It is to be overpowered by the immense bureaucratic organisations that have the power to control and often to destroy all communities, values, lives; and yet to be undeterred in our determination to face these forces, to fight to change their world and to make it our own. It is to be both revolutionary and conservative: alive to new possibilities for experience and adventure, frightened by the nihilistic depths to which so many modern adventures lead, longing to create and to hold on to something real even as everything melts.”

In spite of everything melting away in her life, Watkins penned down these words in the summer of 1962: “In 1908, November, I left home to build a life and make a living. (The Quest continues.)” In 1919 she photographed Untitled (Woman Holding Photographic Print), a picture so dynamic that it could have been a clever painting from today of a woman with the looks of former times and a smartphone in her hands. In the mid-1930s she photographed herself climbing a flight of stairs as a shadowy figure crowned with a hat in Untitled (Self-Portrait and Shadows). What looks like an early work by the secretive Vivian Maier – whose photography was unboxed in 2007 – also very much conveys the sorrow of being the last picture Watkins ever took.

To the lost cat on the roof of the world: We can still look through your eyes. Thank you.

Margaret Watkins, Head and Hand, c 1925. © Joseph Mulholland Collection.

This essay is from the forthcoming exhibition catalogue Margaret Watkins: Black Light and is pre-published here courtesy of diChroma Photography in Madrid.