Wonderful Calder show makes me think of ice age art

I may have been the only person at yesterday’s Tate Modern press view to think about cave art, but the more I looked at Alexander Calder’s dangly wires and coloured shapes, the more I saw animals on the walls of Lascaux and Chauvet, galloping in flickering flame light.

The show is a revelation from the start – in fact, especially at the start. The exhibition features mostly work Alexander Calder made in the 1920s and 30s, with just a handful of later things. The first room is full of figures. Who knew? Early in his artistic career Calder the man of abstract mobiles drew people and animals in wire, with extraordinary vitality and line.

It was looking at these that I stared to think about caves.

If you stand in front and stare, the wire figures look flat; they are confident line-drawings with a Picasso-like muscularity of form, and impossible to avoid breasts and genitals. That’s how they look in the catalogue photos. But as you move gently around the objects themselves, they spring to life (the image at the top shows three views of The Brass family, 1929: compare below, Picasso’s Acrobats before a king with his little dog in attendance, 1966). The depth in the constructions reveals an exaggerated 3D effect. At first it looks as if the figures are moving, but then they change shape until they become unrecognisable – or something new. It’s a mesmerising effect.

Photo Grosvenor Gallery

The hyper three-dimensional impression reminded me of 3D movies, in particular Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (the first full-length such film I saw, and the only one I’ve liked). Herzog used 3D cinema with breathtaking success to show us inside the Chauvet Cave, home to the world’s oldest figurative art (if, like me, you accept the radiocarbon dates, which not everyone does), made around 35,000 years ago.

The difference between looking at The Brass family in life and in the catalogue, is the difference between seeing art in a cave and reproduced in a photo. Most of us see only photos of cave art, and most of what archaeologists have written about the art is probably based on other archaeologists’ photos and drawings. Not only are these heavily edited and selected, but the art is flattened and depersonalised. As we move around The Brass family, we have a unique, personal experience that only seeing the real thing can give.

In that sense, even Cave of Forgotten Dreams fails, as it presents what Herzog wants us to see. Seeing the art itself (or perhaps the 3D reproduction) we experience the art in a way that is unique to us. Neither, without being there, can we smell the cave, or feel damp or cold. We can in the film at least hear noises (I think to myself, as I hear pings and knocks drifting in from another room), but we will hear the echo of our own voice only by being there.

And so with Calder’s work, we need to see the real thing. It’s born of dance and circus, animals and acrobats. “It’s not child’s play”, however, says one of the curators. The thrill and drama of the circus is not, perhaps, unlike the hunt. Ice age hunting is to kill and get food and raw materials, but it’s also exercise, stealth and balance, inspiring and exhilarating spectacle, electrified, like the big top, by the possibilities of danger and failure.

Later, standing in another room beside a delicate wafty construction that dawdles overhead and makes me think of falling snow (its called Snow Flurry, I find) co-curator Ann Coxon describes to me how the mobiles arrived in flat packs. They pulled up out of packaging like bones from a fish, three dimensions from two.

Two views of Snow Flurry (1948)

With light, it can work the other way, a three-dimensional form turned into two-dimensional shadow. Look at these wire heads: a man becomes a skull, an expression changes, a face becomes meaningless and a lion-like face becomes human.

A crowd of journalists stands listening to talks. Mobiles drift a little, stop, move a little more. When the show is open and busy with visitors walking round and through the room, perhaps the art will move more, sharing the experience. However you look at it, it’s always different.

Four views of Form against yellow (1936)
Tate Form against yellow
The same work, Form against yellow, in Tate’s press photo

Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture, is at Tate Modern, November 11–April 3 2016

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