I’ve just left the Calder exhibition in Tate Modern with a big smile on my face which even grumpy London couldn’t shake. It made me think about art and why some artists and artwork can have this effect on you. I know I’m not the only person who felt it – before I went to the exhibition I had been told by both of my parents that it was “wonderful”, grins spreading across their faces. Almost everyone walking around the exhibition giggled at one point or another. The last time I had that experience was at the Late Matisse (also at Tate Modern) which I left feeling light of step and ready to skip down the street. I had a similar, though less pronounced, feeling with Barbara Hepworth at the Louisiana Gallery in Copenhagen and at a Quentin Blake drawings exhibition.
So what is it about the work which does this to me? Each of these exhibitions I’ve come out of smiling, eager to take some of the energy and inspiration to apply to my own work. Matisse allowed me to dream big, Blake and Calder’s lines look like the effects I’m aiming for, Hepworth has scale and importance to her work which can’t help to inspire.
But it must be much more than their relevance to me, or other people wouldn’t feel it. The whimsy and excitement, the movement and cartoonish quality, these are all huge factors in the way the work comes across. Calder’s wire caricatures of faces, acrobats with willies hanging out and armpit hair on show, all seem to be made with wink to the viewer. They look so swiftly done, like pen flicking in three dimensional space, but tender and cared for. The line is so sparsely used, leaving you to fill in form on your own. This allows you to fulfil the role of artist too, pulling you in to the work. He truly draws in space, sketching three dimensional cartoons, caricatures (and truly funny ones) in an unexpected way.
Calder’s use of balance is most obvious in his later mobiles, but it is also important in his earlier wire work – Hercules and the Lion hang perfectly in space. The wire work is produced so that only the bare minimum of wire is used, the balance of what is there and what is not is perfect. Moving through the exhibition to the mobiles you see where this use of line and balance can take you. While the mobiles move you can sit and watch them slowly arch over each other, arms folding around and almost colliding, performing spirals and arches that draw shapes in space, shadows dancing on the walls. Though the wire drawings made me ecstatically happy, these calm me down and make me thoughtful. If I had one I could watch it all day, gently contemplating. The flight, the weightlessness, the movement and the joy.
In the end, I think a big part of why Calder makes the viewer happy is the fact that he clearly enjoyed making these sculptures. You can imagine him in his studio surrounded by movement and form, creating things that balanced perfectly that must have been so satisfying to give form to. The artist doesn’t have to be angst ridden, perhaps s/he can be like Calder.