An ambitious show at the Whitechapel seeks out the real forebears of today’s Turner-winning video artists. A brave idea, says Waldemar Januszczak
Faces in the Crowd is a brave failure. But it is a failure. Not in any dramatic, insistent way: you don’t pass through it counting the missed targets. There is much here that is fascinating, rarely seen and potent. The selectors have a good eye for an oeuvre and an outstanding contacts book. In the final analysis, however, the only one that interests history when it decides on the worth of portentous theme shows, this one doesn’t quite make the sale.
The title is taken from a poem by that florid old anti-semite Ezra Pound. In 1913, Pound took a journey on the Paris Métro and encountered “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; petals on a wet, black bough” — by which he meant everyone he could see through the window. Us, basically. The crowd. Everyone who wasn’t him. This crabby relationship between the haughty artist, who thinks he is above the crowd, and the crowd itself, is, indeed, the relationship that lies at the heart of the Whitechapel experience.
The work that sets this agenda, the first picture you see, slap in front of you when you walk in, is Manet’s Masked Ball at the Opera, from 1873. In a traditional history of modern art, the agenda-setter would have been Cézanne, whose extraordinary decision to discover the geometry that underlies every vista led quickly to cubism and then to abstraction. A century later, it resulted in minimalism. The trouble is, it did not lead anywhere beyond that. Most certainly, it didn’t lead to the video art of today. Or the complex identity games of Cindy Sherman. Or anything by Joseph Beuys. Or the past five winners of the Turner prize. So, what did? That is the question Faces in the Crowd asks itself so ambitiously.
The answer, according to this map, is Manet, whose marvellous painting of a night out in fashionable 1870s Paris shows a crowd of guys in top hats and frock coats mingling with a sprinkling of girls in masks and harlequin get-ups. The men get to be themselves on this predators’ night out; the girls have to dress up as clowns and milkmaids. It is a picture of a Parisian reality that feels transient and unreal. The whole painting sparkles and flashes like a champagne bottle under a candelabra. And all the while, the artist is on the other side of the glass, peeping in, Ezra Pound-style. Most of the exhibition’s themes are introduced right here.
After this opening firework, the display spends a couple of rooms flashing impressive imports at you. There’s a Toulouse-Lautrec of a fat man with a thin prostitute that amplifies the comic inequality of the sexes noticed by Manet. Next on the wall, George Grosz visits an altogether nastier cafe at night, from which gentlemen are barred: it’s pimps and junkies only. Various artists interest themselves in masks and the compulsion to dress up. There’s a Picasso of a harlequin, and James Ensor, that most agitated of Belgians, gives us a line of crazily scowling mask-wearers who surround you at the front of the picture like a mad medieval mob in a mystery play. Magritte, Munch, Max Beckmann — it’s surely one of the most impressive selections of loans to have arrived at the Whitechapel since Picasso’s Guernica came here to drum up support for the pacifists.
Holding it all together is a crude chronology, which gives us a beginning of sorts and an end of sorts, but which displays the firmness of purpose of a jumping jack in between. It manages, for instance, to skip from a 1920s Hopper to a 1960s Bacon in an instant. Mixed in with the paintings is a selection of photographs by the usual suspects who get rounded up whenever the city is being cross- examined by art curators — Atget, Brassaï, Cartier-Bresson. Fragments of sound seeping out from becurtained secret rooms reveal that there are films playing as well. As the number of paintings decreases, the number of films increases. Thus, the show’s real ambition is slowly revealed.
I am happy to admit it took me most of the journey to realise what this real ambition actually was. Initially, I found much of the display fidgety and annoying. Things pop up, shout at you, and go. You want to linger in front of the Manet, but with so much coming up, you daren’t. The opening focus on the city splits almost immediately into various mini-focuses, few of which make immediate sense. In the alcove next to a Munch woman sleeping off her drink, from 1894, the second world war suddenly starts up, and the Russian revolution, and the Mexican one, and John Heartfield is making those vicious collages of his, accusing the crowd of stupidity. I particularly liked his head bandaged in the newspapers of the day, underneath which is the caption: “Whoever reads bourgeois newspapers becomes blind and deaf.” Who can he mean? This frenzy abates a tad in the second half, where circumstances, rather than any particular twist in ambition, force a partial slowing-down. As we get nearer to our own age, the works grow massively in size, and the cramped Whitechapel spaces simply cannot accommodate as many of them. As various circles are neatly completed, you begin to recognise the show’s underlying direction. Cindy Sherman, to pick a clear thread, pretends she is a screen goddess and acts out various roles in various fake film stills, in an obvious conclusion to that irresistible need to dress up and mask yourself already noticed in the opening Manet. Nan Goldin, hunting for low- lifers and transvestites in today’s Manhattan, is exploring the same urban basements into which Grosz strayed in Berlin in 1920: the ones where the pimps and junkies go.
As film and photography begin to predominate, you begin to see why so much photography and film was crammed among the paintings earlier on. This is a show written from the back to the front. Which explains its wayward progress. The journey reaches its climax with an impressive hand of Turner winners — Jeremy Deller, Gillian Wearing, Steve McQueen, Douglas Gordon — all working in video and all hitherto unsupplied with a proper artistic genealogy. Faces in the Crowd certainly sets out to give them one.
As I said, it’s a brave and stimulating effort. Yes, most of this thinking about the crowd, the spectacle and the rest is standard polytechnic thinking from the 1980s, and seems rather dated. But the show itself feels fresh enough. For all its wild leaps across styles and decades, the display successfully sketches in a legible genealogy for lots and lots of new art. The reason why this impertinent challenge does not, in the end, get it right, is that the range of experiences it presents to us is so very limited. If you are a single, angsty city dweller who goes to clubs and reads Lacan, the show has you and your art taped. But if you are like me, a happily married father of two who reads to his kids at night and books months ahead for The Polar Express at the Imax theatre, you’re out of this exhibition’s conceptual loop. You’re never out of the loop with Cézanne. His art has a quality to it that trumps all others in art. I’m thinking of universality.