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VM inspiration: Alexander Calder at Tate Modern

All VM professionals and students should rush to the Tate Modern to take a look at the current Alexander Calder exhibition. It provides an exemplary model of the theory and principles of VM.

American sculptor Calder (1898 – 1976), is best known for his gigantic metal mobiles that grace international public spaces, but he also created metal jewellery and a charming miniature wire circus too. The exhibition, the majority of which is loaned by the Calder Foundation in New York, focuses attention on his smaller mobile experiments, both geo-tropic and airborne, and the circus.

This 3D wire portrait of French cubist artist, Ferdinand Leger (1881 – 1955), demonstrates Calder’s skill in ‘drawing’ using wire. Created in 1930, when stone, bronze, or wood was the accepted medium for sculpture, it hangs like a mobile, a precursor to the familiar 3D computer images of today. And like any 3D image, as the visitor walks past the piece, hung adjacent to a white-painted wall and spot-lit, the perspective changes and the shadows lengthen and then shorten, adding complexity and catching the eye. Like static VM that relies on a changing perspective to create the illusion of eye-catching movement, this works because unexpected movement attracts the audience’s attention.

The exhibition has a host of similarly constructed charming wire animals. Notably a leopard, which has a particularly elegant and lithe essence from an economy of wire, the loops conveying its spotted coat, and again conveying the essence of VM: to suggest a figure or a scene, and to create an emotion, without resorting to verisimilitude or simulacra.

This section of the exhibition is enhanced by film footage of Calder’s circus performances. Some of these, like mechanical toys, rely on simple hook and trip mechanisms. Others are manipulated, puppet-style, by Calder. They make charming inspiration for any novelty-themed windows, perhaps for Christmas, and again embody the essence of VM: to suggest without resorting to the real.

An experiment in colour and balance - both classic VM principles - this vane from 1934 visually balances a larger red disc to the left, the side from which we tend to look first as we read from left to right, with a slightly smaller, higher, black and white vane. Linked by twisted wire, both elements would move if positioned in a current of air. Standing on a tripod of wire, the movement of the spinning black and white discs would compliment the undulating movement of the red disc, anchored by its counterbalanced weight. And both work as an exposition of VM colour and form: the larger red disc balanced by the higher position of the smaller black and white discs.

Calder experimented with a number of abstract canvases with mobile-like projections. This version is from 1936, with a suspended red panel and a blue fin, itself pierced by a suspended white shard, in front of a yellow canvas.

These relate directly to VM in their use of colour balance and repeated shape. The red oblique ‘arm’ at the top is echoed in the angle of the blue fin, the white sliver, and the parallel oblique edges of the red panel. A classical window display by, say, Fortnum & Mason conforms to exactly the same principles: the same use of repeated shapes, merchandise set at the same pleasing angle, and use of equally saturated colour, in this case, primaries plus white.

This untitled piece from 1937 is almost a VM exercise: held within a circle, and mounted on a circle on the floor. Given a full-size window small accessories or home merchandise might replace the coloured pipes and a current of air would add movement.

This 1942 exercise in counterbalance works as a pleasing decoration we might find in a department store today. Use of the ceiling for VM is increasing as more of the sales floor is given to franchises or concessions. The red-painted wooden blocks on the lowest level neatly underline the airier red bars, bringing a satisfying full stop to the silhouette created by the outline, much as repeated lines of the same merchandise are often used to create a form in VM.

This is probably the prettiest of Calder’s mobiles in a room filled with them. Employing related leaf shapes and with uniform colour, it would grace almost any retail space as it is. A similar idea using a selection of seasonal floral fashion prints instead of black sheet metal would underline a plant-inspired theme without conveying a twee image.

In Calder’s exhibition are all the lessons that a VM professional intuitively understands in composition of a window or an in-store display area, balancing form and colour to create harmony, and attracting attention through the illusion of movement.

Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture, 11 Nov 2015 – 3 April 2015.

 

 

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