When art museums and collectors get together, there is always a danger that the art gets overlooked in the mutual admiration. So it is – sometimes – here. Radiant Circus doesn’t doubt the quality of photographs in Sir Elton John’s collection – many of the images and their prints are sensational – nor the developing quality of his eye for a masterpiece – but the serial celebration of how works are displayed in the collector’s home becomes a major distraction. Look, we are told, Sir Elton & David sleep under this one! This grouping is exactly as it appears in Sir Elton’s hallway! All the frames are Sir Elton’s own! Not without regret did I overhear reverential mutterings from a New York couple of their voyeuristic journeys through Sir Elton and David’s lavish art-filled homes in the pages of Architectural Digest.
And then there are the curatorial choices. Tate Modern is often guilty of cluster-bombing art up its epic walls, but the final room – Objects, Perspectives, Abstractions – throws photographs together in such a way as to render individual images and their makers meaningless. Whilst this works with cherished family photos scattered up our stairways – you can get the same look in your humble(r?) home with these handy IKEA templates – here it puts opportunity to seek and soak-in seriously at risk. The bobble of audience heads competes with the clumpy display – this is wealth (and taste!) beyond your reach, it seems to scream – making it barely possible to appreciate an image let alone trace a favourite to its title card.
And finally, there are those gaudy frames; an excess of mitred board and silk, submerging sublime images so deeply into their unflattering surroundings they sometimes sink without trace.
Yet, this is all unbelievably grumpy. Rest assured, there are wonders to behold. Here’s a sample of Radiant Circus’ favourite images from this truly extraordinary collection:
- André Kertész – Underwater Swimmer (1917)
- Imogen Cunningham – Gas Tanks (1927), Oil Tanks (1940)
- Irving Penn – Spencer Tracy, Noel Coward (1948)
- Dorothea Lange – One of the Homeless Wandering Boys, Migrant Mother (1936)
- Everything by Tina Modotti.
Go see. You really should. There are some astounding images here and the exhibition more than merits a repeat visit. Just be prepared to dive a little deeper than you might expect to appreciate the sometimes submerged beauty on display.