Rachel Whiteread


As there are signs of emerging from lockdown Rachel Whiteread’s House (1993) resonates with our experience in isolation.  House is the sheltered space we have been living in for weeks during this global pandemic, where we have become disconnected from the world.

House, 1993, front view onto Wennington Green.

House was a concrete cast of the insides of a late Victorian house, part of a war-damaged terrace that had been deemed unsafe and the council was demolishing.  When House was revealed, it was surrounded by controversy. The piece was shockingly new: a brutal concrete construction of an inside-out house.  Public opinion was ferocious. Some hated it. Others loved it. Things came to a head on the evening of the 23rd of November. Inside the Tate Gallery, Rachel Whiteread was awarded the prestigious Turner Prize in a grand ceremony while outside the K organisation were gathering to present her with £40,000 (twice the value of the Turner Prize) for being the worst artist.  On the same day, the Council rejected the proposal to keep House. House was demolished twelve weeks after it was first unveiled. Usually, art has the chance to age, for its newness to fade and its poetry to speak to generations to come. 

Wennington Green after demolition

A sense of loss always lingered over House. Like a fossil, the concrete cast revealed a house that no longer existed.  A sense of loss can heighten an experience. We pay attention to things we’d ordinarily ignore.

Detail of a door

House touches something primal- a need for shelter. Rachel Whiteread is open that her interest in internal spaces came from reading French theorist Gaston Bachelard.  Bachelard extols: “The virtues of the shelter [which] are so simple, so deep-rooted in our unconscious.”.  Out of the surface of House protrude those essential components of a shelter: the fireplaces that offer warmth, the windows that bring light in, and the doors that release us and let us back in. The intimate space where we work, sleep, bring up our families is given significance.  The artist found poetry in the ordinary. And we’re drawn to the irregular features like the staining on the walls: traces of where the wallpaper hung in the original house, and the higgledy-piggledy spaces of the outhouses at the back which conjure the odd spaces we inhabit and relish from our childhood homes. 

Side view of House.

Bachelard is effusive about the home as a place “for cheer and intimacy”. He argues: “the recollection of moments of confined, simple, shut-in space are experiences of heartwarming space.”   The meaning of House is open.  And this openness is unusual and sets Rachel Whiteread’s work apart. Artists exploring the theme of the home tend to ascribe particular values or emotions- that may be the homely cheeriness Bachelard talks of, or in the case of contemporary artists Louise Bourgeois and Mona Hatoum, who have subverted tradition, a state of oppression.  Resisting a fixed meaning, House could change. It could look monumental as it does in the first photo. But equally, it could seem diminutive.  

House from above

One feels a vulnerability more realising that House had no exterior walls.  Rather like King Lear when he takes off his clothes and stands naked, removing the walls- the outer fabric- is exposing, but it also serves to reveal something precious: an authentic, inner world.  Rachel Whiteread, talking about the earlier work Ghost (a plaster cast of an entire living room) describes a moment when she walked into her studio and saw the light strike Ghost and realised that “I am the wall.”   Imagining herself as the wall, she wrapped a protective layer back around the intimate space.

Children’s model houses.

The stripped-back Minimalist aesthetic of House has the simplicity of a child’s block house, delivering the concept of the house but allowing us to dream and bring our own experiences to it. Today, our perception of House might be coloured by our experience in lockdown and fluctuate between seeing it as a safe haven and it being the cell of isolation we want to escape from. In the future, people will find different things.  What’s sad is that its poetry is only there in photographs and video footage.  We should have found a way of protecting House.


Picasso in Isolation

That short first line of W. H. Auden’s Funeral Blues, “Stop all the clocks” poignantly echoes life in lockdown. Covid 19 has stopped the clocks of businesses, schools, restaurants and just about everything. The art world has gone quiet. There’s no buzz of people gathering in front of the Duomo or the Taj Mahal. Galleries and museums across the world are closed. Probably it’s my own bloody-mindedness, but as art is quarantined off, I think about it more.

At the Royal Academy in London ‘Picasso and Paper’ hangs in ceremony, without an audience. During WWII Picasso experienced artistic isolation when the Nazis declared his art to be degenerate and forbid him from exhibiting. Throughout the war, he remained under surveillance. There’s evidence that officials sent orders for Picasso to have a full medical in preparation for being transferred to a labour camp. Offered refuge in the USA and Mexico, Picasso chose to stay in Paris, a place he considered home, even though daily life was tough, with food scarce and his studio often perishingly cold. Staying home was an act of defiance, a voodoo marking of territory. Picasso was going to outlast the Nazis.

Wartime Paris had the ghostly quality of our deserted streets and abandoned public life. Like today, outside was somewhere unsafe, especially if you were Jewish. From the Summer of 1941 Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps; Picasso’s great friend, the poet Max Jacob died en route to Auschwitz. Picasso’s girlfriend Dora Marr had Jewish heritage.

With art supplies in short supply, there are few paintings and large sculptures from this period. Picasso made art from things that came to hand: bits of old wood, bottle tops and stones. Rarely discussed in Picasso literature, this bric-a-brac art is often radically forward-thinking. The tiny sculptures of the bird and dancer are made from water bottle tops. Creating art from a commercial product has a Pop art sensibility and brings to mind Andy Warhol’s silkscreens of Campbell’s soup cans.

Dora Maar saved a large collection of paper cut-outs from this period. Very different to the melodious line of Matisse’s cut-outs, Picasso’s execution is raw. Using old tablecloths and paper napkins, he tore the paper to leave a jagged edge and often burnt in facial features with a cigarette. The figure below was made in 1943. A war victim, the raised arms, withered legs and scorched features scream the brutality of war.

Some of the paper cut-outs are in lockdown at the Royal Academy. The floppy eared dog below was made for Dora Maar when she lost her beloved Maltese lapdog.

Also, on exhibit at the Royal Academy is this mask. Perhaps, it was an after-dinner plaything? One can imagine Picasso’s hiding behind it and acting out to make friends laugh. His visual wizardry transforms the throwaway tablecloth into something artful. In his early career, he discovered the African masks on display at the Trocadero in Paris. He knew a simplified visual language (in this case two circles, a vertical slit, and wiggly line) could conjure human form powerfully. And he uses the grid of the tablecloth to structure the face, with the nose slit into the central block of pattern.

We see the same wizardry at play in the cardboard figure below. This time typeface from a commercial packet delineates the body parts- the letter O forming the head and the text CELTI marking out the trunk.

Picasso’s friend, the photographer Georges Brassai documented some of his 3d constructions. Often, there’s very little artistic process involved. A cigar is balanced on a matchbox. For Picasso, who is known for his craftsmanship, it’s an unusual move into Marcel Duchamp’s territory where everyday objects are taken out of context and given the status of art.

The Bull is made from an old bicycle seat and some handlebars Picasso found in the street. The bric–a- brac artist is a visual poet. Metaphors unveil the essence of the animal: the bicycle seat is the bull’s head; the handlebars mark the shape of the horns and their metal surface is as cold and uncompromising as the bull’s weapon of destruction. Again, the sorcerer transforms yesterday’s refuge into something timeless, at least for a while. Picasso reasoned, ‘What I really ought to do is throw the bull out of the window. The kids who play down there would pick up the pieces. One of the kids would be missing a seat and handlebars. He’d fix his bike up like new. When I’d go down, the bull would be a bike again.’

The artist in isolation looked for life to resume, the bicycle wheels to turn and the clocks to start ticking.