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Hell and Beyond: 25 Years with the Chapman Brothers

Jake & Dinos Chapman

Photo by Rachel King, courtesy of Blain Southern.

Jake and Dinos Chapman

A quick overview of the most important works by the notorious artistic duo.

Jake and Dinos Chapman grew up largely in Hastings, a faded seaside town in southeast England. After studying art separately in London, they began their collaborative career in 1988 by enrolling together at the Royal College of Art. From the get-go, they were involved with one of the most famous, and provocative partnerships in world of modern British art, working as assistants to Gilbert & George.

 

Jake and Dinos have the same tendency to combine sophistication and gutter humor, the same desire to explore the topics most likely to cause offence, and, of course, the same sense of working as an indivisible artistic unit. But, since they began their career a quarter of a century ago, the Chapmans’ work has had a strange and disturbing identity all of its own.

 

From the moment they burst onto the art scene, the brothers have had a reputation as provocateurs. Their fondness for the sexually explicit, the grotesque, and the politically sensitive helped catapult them to fame – attracting outrage in the popular press as well as accolades in the art world. Whether it is creating manikins of children with genitalia for noses and mouths, or buying and altering paintings by Adolf Hitler himself, this is work designed to make the viewer stop and stare. Behind the provocations, though, is a sophisticated, teasing oeuvre that surgically dissects the absurdities and hypocrisy of the world.

“Despite their differences, it is easy to see a kinship between the two duos.”

Much is built around the brothers’ ongoing relationship with the great Spanish artist Francisco de Goya – whose own fascinations with religion, social hypocrisy, violence and brutality inspire much of their work. His meditations on real and imagined horrors from an eighteenth and early nineteenth century Spain torn apart by war and fundamentalism, are a continuous presence in Chapmans’ approach to our own society. They have drawn on his work (both figuratively and literally) to ask, among other things, if we really live in a better world than he did.

 

Out of all this has come one of the most diverse and fascinating oeuvres in modern art. From heavily detailed works on paper, to pseudo-African totems of corporate mascots as tribal gods, to vitrines crammed with toy soldiers trapped in gruesome Hells, the Chapman’s output has, for 25 years now, kept viewers both puzzled and enthralled. Refusing the kinds of easy moral stances their critics might take, the brothers offer few, if any, answers, but their works demand and dominate the viewer’s attention. Even within their most puerile seeming jokes are questions that cut to the heart of modernity. How can we be outraged by the manikins of Tragic Anatomies in a society that routinely sexualizes children? Does capitalism, for all its disinterest in belief, amount to a religion of its own? Why do we attach value to some objects and not others? And, perhaps, above all, why do certain things make us uncomfortable?

 

Now, 25 years after the Chapmans began their career, we look back at some of their most famous works to date.

1. Tragic Anatomies, 1996

Twenty years after they were first shown, the manikins of Tragic Anatomies remain startling. Their mutated and conjoined bodies cavort, naked but for designer trainers, in a subverted Garden of Eden. Invoking the commercial world of shop displays, the naïf jungles of Le Douanier Rousseau, and the otherworldly carnivals of Hieronymus Bosch, this is very much a Garden of Unearthly Delights.

 

TA © Jake and Dinos Chapman

2. The Disasters of War, 1993 - present

The title refers to Francisco de Goya’s graphic etchings of the Napoleonic occupation of Spain in 1808 – a series that has returned in the Chapmans’ work time and time again. Bought by the Tate in 1998, the Chapmans’ original take on the series recreates each scene from the Disasters as a 3-D model, at one in thirty-second-scale. Bringing to the series’ horrors to life in the round, it demands we look carefully at precisely the things we most want to turn away from.

 

D of W j© Jake and Dinos Chapman

3. Hell, 1998-2000

One of their most famous and controversial works, the original Hell casts the viewer as a voyeur present at the ultimate punishment. Creating the piece involved remodelling and mutilating some 60,000 toy soldiers, which were then staged in an elaborate inferno spread across nine vitrines, arranged in the shape of a swastika. Jake Chapman later called the spectacle of Nazi soldiers being tortured for their genocide ‘one mass moment of nastiness’. Burned in a warehouse fire in 2004, the brothers later joked that it took ‘two years to make, and two minutes to burn’.

 

Hell, Royal Academy and © Jake and Dinos Chapman

4. The Chapman Family Collection, 2002

At once a homage to and a critique of the vogue for African art among early twentieth-century artists like Picasso and the cubists, The Chapman Family Collection is an elaborate spoof on old and new gods. The sculptures are not, despite their appearance ancient or primitive, but totems of capitalism drawn from the corporate iconography of McDonalds. With their echoes of ethnographic collections, the 34 carvings pose the question of whether our society too revolves around ‘primitive’ beliefs and faith in magical powers of gods whose symbols are on every street corner.

 

CFC Courtesy Tate Britain, London and © Jake and Dinos Chapman

5. Insult to Injury, 2003

Goya has had a central place in the Chapmans’ work since its early years, but Insult to Injury marked the start of a new, more controversial phase in their engagement with him: physically reworking original editions of his prints. Covering Goya’s originals with cartoon grotesques, the work created a press outcry that saw the brothers accused of cultural vandalism. But, as the title suggests, the controversy was deliberately courted to pose questions around authorship and originality. Are these etchings, printed from Goya’s original plates more than hundred years after his death, really original? And do the brothers’ additions add value, or as their critics cried, destroy it? Whichever stance one takes, the additions draw painful attention to something central in Goya’s own work: the fantastical absurdity that haunts his documentary eye.

 

I to I © Jake and Dinos Chapman

6. Sex and Death, 2003

Nominated for the Turner Prize in 2003, the Chapmans presented Insult to Injury alongside two monumental bronzes, Sex and Death. Sex magnifies the scene from Goya’s print Great Deeds Against the Dead! into a kitsch life-size sculpture, exaggerating everything until Goya’s dismembered bodies become clown-headed skeletons, pullulating with maggots and flies. Opposite it, Death, stages two inflatable sex dolls on an inflatable mattress, in a never-ending sixty-nine. Both hyperreal and not, the pair examines the two drives which, according to Sigmund Freud, control all human behaviour. What appears at first to be an inversion, is not: the sex dolls were always lifeless, whereas the corpses no longer are lifeless. On their tree they are now the site of frantic copulation and reproduction of the insects swarming over them.

 

S & D, for Sex © Jake and Dinos Chapman and Death © Jake and Dinos Chapman. Courtesy Blain Southern (Image: Peter Mallet)

7. One Day You Will No Longer Be Loved, 2008-2010

Continuing the Chapmans’ fascination with death and decay, One Day You Will No Longer be Loved is a series of nineteenth-century portraits systematically altered to show their sitters in various states of decomposition. These are people long dead, once loved but now no longer, and their paintings are unloved too. A variation on the classic theme of vanitas, the series reminds the viewer that we too will die, and be forgotten.

 

ONDYWNLBL © Jake and Dinos Chapman

8. Shitrospective, 2009

A riff on the Chapmans admission into the canon of respected modern artists, 2009’s Shitrospective critiques the idea of the career-defining blockbuster retrospective. Rather than gathering their works together, the installation shoddily recreates the Chapmans’ most famous pieces in unevenly painted cardboard. The message was clear: the brothers had no intention of stopping to look backwards just yet.

 

SHITROSPECTIVE © Jake and Dinos Chapman Courtesy Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin/Photo: Jochen Littkeman

9. The Same Thing Only Better, 2010

The same warehouse fire that destroyed the Chapmans’ Hell also claimed their contemporary Trace Emin’s Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995 (1995). The brothers recreated the piece almost exactly – just as they had returned to their own work after the fire. The question of whether it is a crack at the confessionalism of Emin’s work, or an exploration of repetition and difference, or both, is key to the piece’s ambiguity.

 

Tent © Jake and Dinos Chapman

10. The Sum of All Evil, 2012-13

The fourth in the Chapmans’ series of hells, The Sum of All Evil is the most monumental in scale. Combining the original Hell’s Nazis with the corporate mascots of The Chapman Family Collection and details lifted from children’s cartoons, it is a vast absurdist vision of an afterlife in which all imaginable evils are committed over and over again. Among dinosaurs and walking skeletons stands a forest of crucified Ronald McDonalds – returning the viewer to the Chapmans’ continuing scepticism of any form of worship.

 

SOAE © Jake and Dinos Chapman Photo: Todd-White Art Photography

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