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Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions

Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain

You could almost miss it – a small house-like structure, whitish-grey under a pale January sun, like a shy guest in Tate Britain’s front yard. Rachel Whiteread’s Chicken Shed (2017) is one of the many outdoor structures which the British sculptor has chosen to cast from the inside out – recording its absence rather than its presence, making it a ghost of its former self. She calls these works from this recent series “shy sculptures” – usually located in remote landscapes that are far less accessible than a museum in Pimlico – an endearing term that gives them a personality and life while also establishing their relationship witin a space. There is a paradox in showing a “shy” sculpture in the gardens of Tate Britain, as an opening note to a major retrospective of Rachel Whiteread’s works. Yet, in many ways that is precisely the point – showing the way in which a shy idea, a shy presence (or absence) can create a quiet murmur in our head, calmly question and make us reassess our relationship to objects, their presence and the way they relate to our own memories.

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Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (Yellow Torso), 1991, Private collection (c) Rachel Whiteread

Curated by Ann Gallagher, Linsey Young, Helen Delaney and Hattie Spires, the retrospective exhibition is a testimony to the power of a single idea to be broken down and turned up on its head…or in this case, inside out. Starting with early domestic experiments in the late 80s, the artist’s fascination with the nature of the plaster cast is established from the very beginning is established ; so is her obsession with casting not the presence of an object but filling in its negative spaces. Her takeover of domestic objects and those she finds in junk shops or on the streets soon expands to take over a variety of materials such as resin and rubber. The power of such a simple but perfected experimentation is shown with series such as the Torsos series. Aluminium, wax, concrete or rubber poured into a “torso-like” structure are laid bare in their cast final form. It feels very weird to say that you spent twenty minutes in front of the casts of the insides of water bottles or enemas (yes, enemas) but…somehow it works. There is something immediately attracting and satisfying about the way these structures play off each other with their change in colour and texture while retaining the same basic shape, one that Whiteread has described as resembling “headless, limbless babies”. In any other body of work (pun intended), that would be ideal nightmare fuel, yet Whiteread makes it work and throughout the display manages to create this visual tension between the material used, the industrial processes of filling and destroying and the organic elements it reminds us of. An obsession with the material to convey the body but also its immateriality, its absence, its ghost.

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Rachel Whiteread, Stairs, 1995, Private collection (c) Rachel Whiteread 

Whiteread’s works on paper provide a rare insight in the way in which these sculptures take shape, showing her dissection of the structures whose presence we take for granted : houses, staircases. As a response to these small sketches, two monumental results : Untitled (Room 101) (2003) and Untitled (Stairs) (2001), both white, hollowed out fragments of two fragments of literature and history. The first is the cast of a room of BBC’s Broadcasting House in which Orwell was said to have found inspiration for the Room 101 in 1984. The second is a cast of the stairs of an East London warehouse repurposed into an old synagogue in which she moved her studio. One immortalises the legacy of a room on modern literature, the other the life of a building reflecting the life of London itself, made of repurposing and transformation. The monumental is contrasted with the minimal – in the case of a small selection of composition presented on neat shelves, small still life composition cast from mundane objects like loo rolls. Here shape counts as much as colour coordination, a rare splash of colours together in a room of plaster whites and green and pinkish resins. In a display that at first sight looks so polished and neat, ghosts and remnants of memories abound and surround the objects. The cast boxes in a corner may seem like another formal experiment ; yet they indicate a childhood spent moving around, box to box. The power of everyday objects to convey memory and make us reflect upon the spaces we live in – and how we live within them – is never drowned out by the monumental sculptures around. Among these is an arresting fragment of the process behind the public commission of the Holocaust Memorial in Vienna (2000) – a cast of books in a library, a library that cannot be opened or perused, walled into silence and commemoration.

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Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (Stairs), 2001, Tate (c) Rachel Whiteread, Photo (c) Tate (John Humphrys)

While the plan indicates a loose chronological narrative which can be experienced counter-clockwise, the immense room breaks down any notion of chronology and fragmentation in its very format. Its layout without walls or partitions means visitors are left to wander around, either free to follow a loose sense of chronological order around the room, abandon it halfway through or ignore it entirely, creating erratic patterns that lose the obsession with a timeline or “progression.” The curators and designers of the exhibition may have anticipated the way in which Whiteread’s works creates latent ripple effects that often produce their first effect after you have wandered away ; you feel compelled to return, look closer, look again. You also probably want to bite into some of the resin. I’m sorry, but we were probably all thinking it, especially with sculptures as mouth-watering and beautifully executed as Hive (2007-8) below. One of the highlights of the exhibition was actually to see it work on so many levels, with many children within the space taking full advantage of this experience of sculpture conveying so many different sensory impressions and recollections. Touching with the eyes is a passé expression, but it works here, for a series of works which feels so sensuous and tactile at times. For a popular and crowded exhibition which did actively welcome such a free pattern of wandering around, it never felt claustrophobic – proof that the response to the increasing popularity of museums is not to limit entry or hike up fees, as some have unconvincingly argued lately, but to adapt your exhibition design accordingly. As people took the time to sit on the vast bench at the centre of the room, rest and talk amongst themselves within the vast negative spaces between works engaging with that very idea, and as the space became visibly more accessible to people with pushchairs or wheelchairs, the experience felt a lot more restful than it usually does, without the sensation of being shepherded through a succession of corridor-like rooms on to the next decade, and the next, and the next.

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Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (Hive), 2007-8, private collection (c) Rachel Whiteread

Furthermore, this could not be more fitting for a body of work which many have often qualified as repetitive, but which, in the artist’s books, is intentionally embracing this by responding to an issue whose variations and possibilities are endless. The white room does literally respond to the idea of an impersonal white cube, but in this case it beautifully fits the very spirit around which Whiteread’s work finds its sources of inspiration : an immaculate shell encompassing upside-down casts, fascinating and unearthly in their pristine nature. Yet in some ways this could be seen as an issue : too white, too clean and too polished in contrast with the artist’s process and her sources of inspiration rooted in a very real, dirty, organic world. The elements of this inspiration and process can be found outside the ticketed entry to the exhibition space, in an interesting corridor display that displays a collection of eccentric found objects. It feels odds to have such a strict seperation of these in contrast with the finished work inside  and it would have been interesting to compromise with a few more sculptures on display in this freely accessible corridor with, in exchange, a few more found objects inside. However, the format of an exhibition spreading beyond its ticketed  room is interesting and shows a willingness to acknowledge not only different ways of experiencing an exhibition within a museum space, but also a conscious effort to have new, free alternatives for visitors outside of shifting collection display for people who understandly find the price of exhibition admission too steep.

This is the same corridor which displays a series of her public commissions – also questioning whether or not the cast bookshelves within the main room could have been shown here in some shape or form. While her works such as Monument for Trafalgar Square (2001) or the Holocaust Memorial are documented through photographs, perhaps one of her more famous projects, House (1993) benefits from its own film to replace the work itself destroyed back in 1994, a step by step exploration documented by the artist herself of the casting of an entire Victorian-style house within an East London park. It is fascinating in its uncovering of the « messiness » of her process in contrast with the pure, finished results. The vacant home she takes over for the project also shows something of the violence in stripping down and hollowing out not only a historically relevant piece of housing but perhaps one that could have still been lived in. An arresting moment in the documentary shows Whiteread filming a set of clothing drying on a hanging line near the boarded up house just before it is to be emptied and expressing concern because the house is “meant to be unoccupied.” The owner of the clothing is not found nor is the incident mentioned again ; a ghost and a visible absence within a documentary about making a house a shell of its former, lived-in self. The finished result is arresting, disturbing : seeing the process of upturning an object full of context has almost more impact after marvelling at the neatness of the translucent shells within the room.

Documentary of Rachel Whiteread’s House (1993) (Online version via Artangel)

Wandering outside of the corridor, the Duveen Gallery is invaded by two displays facing off on one another. There is Whiteread’s installation Untitled (100 spaces), translucent, gelatin-like resin casts of the underside of chairs, glistening as they are walked around (okay, my first serious art critic thought was actually “Gummy bears”, and I stand by that). Facing it, another fascinating sidenote to the exhibition : a selection of sculptures from the Tate collection selected by Whiteread in collaboration with curators. These are fascinating in their lack of an obvious narrative linking back directly to Whiteread’s work, instead allowing for a look at sculpture’s play with monumentality, texture and perception, playing with what we think we expect from sculpture and what it makes us discover instead through experimentation and risk-taking. This is a great idea, one that allows to link back a temporary exhibition to a wide-ranging experience of both the collection, British sculpture and contemporary sculpture as a whole.  Modern British sculpture such as Barbara Hepworth rubs shoulders with Sarah Lucas and Rebecca Warren, a casual fragment of sculptural art history seen through the eyes of one of its contemporary pioneers.

The exhibition is strong through its fluidity, perfectly reflecting the way in which Whiteread’s work has articulated itself through a single, shy but persistent notion : inner lives, presences and absences. She shows a vision of the world in which we should question why we preserve things, how and why – and does so in a way which always feels deeply intimate yet casual, like a quiet but engaging conversation. Shyness sounds underrated. Rachel Whiteread’s expression of the quiet but magnetic power of objects over the past few decades shows that it is anything but.

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Rachel Whiteread, Chicken Shed (2017), the artist and Galleria Lorcan O’ Neill (c) Rachel Whiteread, photo (c) Tate 

 

Rachel Whiteread, Tate Britain, 12th September-21st January

 

 

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Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions Uncategorized

The Japanese House at Barbican Centre

A chaotic queue of people leaving their luggage at the cloakroom and half blocking the doors to the exhibition entrance created a strange contrast with the calm and minimalistic atmosphere I found there when I made it past the doors. As a display text unfurled on the right, a white staircase awaited ahead, underneath which I noticed a neat little kitchen, as though I was about to intrude on someone’s breakfast. It takes a few moments to adjust to the clever and artfully executed premise of The Japanese House: an exhibition and an installation rolled in one, both explaining the particularities of Japanese postwar architecture and showing it through an impressive to-scale reconstruction. Ambitious, sleek and beautiful, the exhibition is as flawless in design as it is dense in terms of information, providing an insight into the newfound creativity of architecture as an extension of Japanese art, traditions and ways of life.

Indeed, the display works best when objects and models give us an insight into the tension and harmony between tradition and innovation, continuity and change exemplified by the post-war years. Kiyoshi Seike’s furniture and design is compelling in its use of the codes of Japanese craft interconnecting seamlessly with modernist minimalism. Less is more, but is no less complex and multi-layered in its approach to Japanese history and international contemporary trends. However, another aspect of Japanese architecture and design is revealed, revolving around a messier, more organic approach to the home. Concrete may be associated closely to urban spaces but in Junzo Yoshimura’s Mountain Lodge A the concrete foundations raising the wooden lodge up to counter the risks of humidity and create a continuity with the forest floor. The lodge was for Yoshimura’s own personal use to fulfill his wish of living “like a bird atop a tree”. Further along, a surprising but welcome fashion element adds itself to the mix, as we encounter Kosuke Tsumura’s Final Home unisex coat, a transparent plastic trenchcoat covered in pockets which are padded with cloth and newspaper for insulation. The designer describes cloth as a protective element, creating a “mobile house” for the urban wanderer (surprisingly, issues relating to homelessness are not taken into account.). A particularly insightful room gives the usually dry experience of viewing architectural models a new twist, in a spectacular display showing experiments in house forms as a form of playfulness, experimentation and spirituality. Yuusuke Karasawa’s s-house, for instance (below), attempts to absorb and emulate references from the computer and cybernetics in order to incorporate them into a housing design. The result is a small, delicate and thoughtful masterpiece, presented like a jewel-like relic in dramatic lighting in a dark, immersive environment. The house appears as the site for not only an established way of living, but as part of a wider network of proposals for new, utopian lifestyles.

3. The Japanese House, Architecture and Life after 1945, Installation, Miles Willis, Getty Images (1)

The main talking point of the show, however, is not its content but rather its design. The Barbican Centre acheived the impressive feat of reconstructing the rooms from the Moriyama House designed by architect Ryue Nishizaw on a 1:1 scale. The meticulous care taken in recreating the house’s atmosphere extends to every tiny detail, every book or trinket placed with delicat, minimalistic care. Walking through these rooms at the centre of the display is oddly soothing and satisfying. The exhibition’s greatest acheivement is the way in which it seamlessly managed to navigate between this experience of the Moriyama House and the information on display about post-war Japanese architecture. Circling around the space makes the visitor alternate between reading the text and viewing the displays and models, and looking down into the garden with glimpses into some of the rooms, as the lighting subtly changes from dawn to dusk. This allows the notions to distill quietly and reach their full potential when you walk throughout the space.

6. The Japanese House, Architecture and Life after 1945, Installation, Miles Willis, Getty Images (32)

The installation is impressive, smart and unapologetically Instagrammable…not that there is anything wrong with that. I was happily snapping away with other people and was already reimagining my quaintly minimalistic lifestyle, complete with a nonchalant pile of Jean Cocteau poetry books next to a potted plant, beneath a Nouvelle Vague poster. It almost tempted me to pick up Marie Kondo’s The Magic of Tidying, before I realised I would never commit to keeping only the items which “sparked joy” and would instead commit to keeping countless quantities of years-old museum tickets and used-up pens as I do now. The immersive act of living and walking through the house is strange in its familiarity and remoteless, like a space half lived-in but somewhat unattainable.

The exhibition has pulled off a second ambitious installation with the presence of Terunobu Fujimori’s teahouse, custom-made for the purposes of the space. It is a strange liminal space in the display, navigating between its function as a ritual space for tea and as a dream-like bubble made for dreaming and silence. The sensitivity and sincerity of the space is palpable in the behind the scenes snippets Barbican Centre have provided on their blog.  People must queue, remove their shoes at the entrance (only six people at a time). A boy is staying there and playing on his phone, as people come and go. I feel as thought he has probably accidentally grasped the concept of passing time and contemplation inherent to the Tea House better than most other visitors have. The paradox of a queue of people waiting five minutes for one minute of serenity in a small designer teahouse is not lost on me (flashbacks from the overclogged cloakroom return). Perhaps this is the main issue. It is difficult to appreciate these spaces as a user rather than a fleeting visitor. I do not feel as though they could be lived in or experienced as anything other than a exhibit without a single object left out of place. Ironically, it felt as though the aesthetic of the exhibition left no room to consider its potential or intended inhabitants. There is more “architecture” than “life” in the display as a whole.

12. The Japanese House, Architecture and Life after 1945, Barbican Art Gallery, photo by Ben Tynegate

Furthermore, while this unique and ambitious installation and design made much to recreate the experience and aesthetic of “the Japanese House”, it became difficult to grasp its deeper meaning and emotional reach. It even ran the risk of vehiculating stereotypes about Japanese culture based on an incomplete stories and a few fleeting assumptions, whereas the house itself was quite one-of-a-kind. The Moriyama House was a special commission for a hermit-like owner, so the house is quite a unique reflection of his contemplative and seculuded life. Yet, there is no information at hand in the exhibition itself to explain the kind of conversations and changes that may have taken place between the architect and the homeowner. It does have the advantage, however, of making an architecture exhibition feel more accessible and less dry: seeing children play and enjoy the garden and changing lights while their parents read the information is the best argument for the installation alone.

The exhibition’s main argument is that there is not a “single” Japanese House however the access to information about other housing types is not explored sufficiently in-depth for this to become the main point to carry away from the display.  Kosuke Tsumura’s coat and Junzo Yoshimura organic lodge are in fact good examples: they both spark curiosity in their singularity but there is too much to cover for a focus on the slightly stranger examples of architecture, design and its cultural impact on visual culture. The best way to navigate the exhibition is to cater it to your intersts, jot down as many names as possible and construct a strong basis for further research. This said, the full extent of architecture’s impact on film is excellent, with two separately screenings showing live-action and animation sequences respectively (viewing Miyazaki film extracts in a zen-like artificial garden was just as serene an experience as the tea house – if not more so). Great length are taken to explain the social and political symbols behind architecture in terms of openings, enclosures, entrapments and shifts in the structures and their use on screen.

With a fascinating range of design and architecture, the exhibition shines through its flawless design and aesthetic but experiences issues when it comes to condensing its selection, which could have provided more information with more focused examples. As the architectural stars of the exhibition express all too clearly after all: less is more.

The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945, at the Barbican Centre until the 25th of June.
Between 14 and 25? Check out the free Young Barbican membership for exhibition discounts. I essentially signed up in five minutes on my phone and got in for five pounds. 

Credits for all images: The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945, Installation View, Barbican Art Gallery, London, 23 March – 25 June 2017, Photo by Miles Willis / Getty Images

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Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions Uncategorized

Georgia O’ Keeffe at Tate Modern

Georgia O’ Keeffe must be spinning in her grave: even though she actively protested against the interpretation of her close-up flower paintings as sexual organs, the easiest way to make someone’s face light up with recognition at the mention of her work is usually by adding “you know – the vagina-flower painter”. Tacky, perhaps, but a memorable selling point – furthermore, a feminine selling point that the artist Judy Chicago wanted to add to her work in establishing a list of notable women artists for a long overdue feminist reinterpretation of art history. However, this is a tagline Tate Modern forcibly brushed away with an exhibition which focuses on her entire legacy and her desire, at heart, to represent two recurring obsessions: the American landscape and the intense contemplative nature of still life.

The exhibition starts with a historical reconstruction of her Whitney Museum retrospective in 1946 in which O’Keeffe presented her work during her lifetime, complete with sightly kitsch showroom-like curtain-tables. This had the advantage of setting the tone for the rest of the exhibition – a reappraisal of her work without additional reinterpretations and frills – but falls slightly flat visually in such a large opening room. It then leads on to little-known abstract works from the early 1910s, working towards representing music through abstract colour and form. The vibrant colours and organic shapes are captivating and mysterious, drawing us into contemplation of the flat, yet infinitely expressive surface. Of course, they seem to announce the future, worldwide famous flower paintings but less with the nature of these “sexual” or “feminine” soft folds and colours, and more with a way of looking. As we move from cosmic colour-music to tulips, jimson weeds and orchids, a quote by the artist is particularly strong and resonates through the display of flowers, their delicacy made monumental and contemplative.

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Georgia O’Keeffe, Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, 1932, Oil paint on canvas, 48 x 40 inches, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas, USA Photography by Edward C. Robison III © 2016 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/DACS, London

O’ Keeffe herself commented upon the risks of her union with the photographer Alfred Steiglitz overshadowing her own work and recognition and it seems strange, therefore, that so much room would be devoted to his photography as well. There is certainly a risk in making his work and its influence on her such a large part of the exhibition, while including so many photographs of her as his “muse” in an exhibition meant to give O’Keeffe’s work room to breathe. Nevertheless, the photographs are striking, powerful testimonies to their relation and evade any risk of O’Keeffe becoming a passive subject in any given scenario.

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Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie’s II, 1930, Oil on canvas mounted on board, 24 1/4 x 36 1/4 (61.6 x 92.1)Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

The most captivating elements of the display were not the ones I expected nor the ones I knew about at all. O’ Keeffe spent a vast amount of her time painting the dry, warm, rocky landscapes of New Mexico. Heat and visions of a wild, untamed America rise from the canvas in bold yet subtle shaded of black, grey, orange and pink. Another striking surprise: the paintings of animal skulls which mingle with depictions of desert flowers. O’Keeffe, once again stubbornly rejecting Surrealist or symbolical readings of her work,  celebrates instead the vitality of these bones she considers as more alive than the animals themselves through their surface and formal dynamism. They are strange and compelling fixations, like O’Keeffe’s strange obsession with the doors of houses from New Mexico and the semi-abstract shapes they create. As far as symbolism or states of mind go, the rocky landscapes are often far more telling but also more ambiguous, with warm folds which can also become menacing chasms.

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Georgia O’Keeffe’s From the Faraway, Nearby, 1937. Photograph- Georgia O’Keeffe/The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence (c) DACS

Yet as frustrating as it may be for the artist, interpretation and symbolism is inevitable. The exhibition does not aim to guilt us into rejecting any way we may consider O’Keeffe’s work whatever she may think, but simply gets rid of any pre-conceived notion that we have had before finding ourselves in front of the work. Ultimately, whether or not O’Keeffe’s work is to be analysed in terms of sexuality or femininity is not primarily relevant to who she is and why she paints. The fact that her work was not intended as a celebration of  a restricted version of “womanhood” does not make her work any less feminist and revolutionary in the way she bares a raw, unadulterated and complex vision through a unique way of painting and looking. As O’Keeffe herself said, in a quote far more memorable than any ire about flowers being compared to vaginas: “The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters.”

Visit the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at Tate Modern until the 30th of October

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Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions

Goya: The Portraits, at The National Gallery

What we make of an artist’s career after he is long gone often, inevitably, is at odds with the artist’s own intentions. Goya wanted to be known for his portraiture, and in his particular his ambitious role as a court portrait painter. He could hardly predict that the vision we have of him mainly conjure the cruel denunciations of Horrors of War engravings, or the dark creativity of Black Paintings, as well as his harsh, biting satire of Spanish society and fantastical sabbats in Caprichos.

Competing with the hype of drama, horror and scandal is a challenge for the first exhibition devoted solely to Goya’s portraiture, all the more when it starts off slowly. Goya in the first rooms is shown not as the tragic, deaf artist we all know and love, but as a late bloomer, only just starting his career in portraiture in his late thirties and whose true ambition is to become the official portrait painter of the royal family. Only a handful at this early stage allow small and often enigmatic glimpses into the informality and sincerity he will try and cultivate in later paintings. This sense of intimacy is taken to an almost bizarre extent with the vast composition juxtaposed to it, The Family of the Infante Don Luis de Borbon. The theory of the curator, Xavier Bray, is that Goya is comparing his role and that of the portraitist directly to that of the barber, listening in on court gossip…

The amount of noble and royal collections that follow in quick succession are a testimony to Goya’s ambition, but not all complete masterpieces, building up a career in progress and a patient, painstaking learning curve, leaving room for flaws as well as gems.  These are not all the most memorable paintings, nor are they particularly set out as such, more as a patient build-up to Goya’s maturing portraiture. A shorter selection would have allowed for a faster pace and more concentration on Goya’s earlier blend of tenderness and delicacy, searching for a stable identity and brand measuring up to his ambition and pride.

 

Countess of Altamira with her daughter, 1787-88

Francisco de Goya, The Countess of Altamira and Her Daughter, María Agustina, 1787-8, Oil on canvas, 195 x 115 cm, Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 (1975.1.148) © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The visitor witnesses the gradual transformation of style and substance in Goya’s portraits, the elimination of slightly hard lines and postures of previous portraits and the creation of a mesh of light, colour and brushwork that is more soft and diffuse, not concentrated equally around the canvas but focusing on specific elements. Interestingly, the moment this style reaches full maturity is the moment where, slightly confusedly, the exhibition veers away from the chronology indicated by the “First Portraits” rooms and focuses on particular themes. So far, Goya had succeeded in securing a comfortable position at court, but yearned for more that the royal tapestry commissions he regularly received. Perhaps this frustration led him further into painting not only royals and nobles but also the enlightened spirits of the time, men of power and responsibility who seem to let him grasp further than appearance and symbolism. His liberal ideals and those of the Enlightenment shine through these quiet, introspective portrayals.

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Francisco de Goya, Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, 1798, Oil on canvas, 205 x 133 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid P03236 © Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos’ portrait shows the Minister of Grace and Justice as through taking a break from work and from the task of reforming Spain, melancholic and weighed down yet determined at his desk. Layers of depth and meaning let us leave the sincerity struggling to seep through the stateliness in the previous rooms: if this room starts with a self-portrait of Goya posing in his studio, like a small advertising billboard, it ends with a starkly intense reflection in the mirror, in black and white. There is something particularly startling about this confrontation – the realization that we are engaging in a dialogue with these sitters conducted via Goya’s intense gaze.

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Francisco de Goya, Self Portrait, 1795-7, Brush and grey wash on laid paper, 15.3 x 9.1 cm, Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1935 (35.103.1) © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The idea of Goya treading the line between the flattery of portraiture and the honesty of his gaze, laying bare his sitter’s souls with audacity and, to a certain extent, because he had the skills to get away with it, is very attractive to us.Despite the subtle flattery that Goya weaves onto his double hanging portraits of Charles IV and Maria Luisa in her fashionable mantilla, they still exude a relaxed confidence that does not need props or backdrop – indeed here the backdrops are outdoors, adding a sense of softness to the scene but also a strange theatricality. Opposite them hangs a portrait that is both spectacular and far more elusive, as well as one of Goya’s most famous portraits: the Duchess of Alba, whose portrait radiates charisma and aloofness, more fantasy than reality.

Maria Luisa with Mantilla 1799

Francisco de Goya, María Luisa wearing a Mantilla, 1799, Oil on canvas, 205 x 130 cm, Colecciones Reales, Patrimonio Nacional, Palacio Real de Madrid © Patrimonio Nacional

Yet this idea is thrown off by the tumultuous shifts in governments that occur from 1808 onwards that hardly gives room for picking sides. Just as Goya condemns the horrors of war he does not have his say after the installation of Joseph Bonaparte at court, and paints the returning monarch and tyrant Ferdinand VII  in just the same way.  Is the portrait of the King truly meant to depict him in such a subtly spiteful and shallow way with his beefy face and his body dripping with pompous regalia, or are we inferring too much? This is the flip side to the depictions of the “horrors of war” that Goya portrays elsewhere and creates a far more ambivalent and realistic portrait of the painter as a man bound to a job rather than the visionary satire and denunciation which may compromise it. It may not be the aspect of Goya we enjoy the most, but it is perhaps the most realistic.

The exhibition only just decides to tackle the impact that Goya’s deafness has had on his portraiture in the penultimate even though he has in fact been deaf ever since his illness in 1793. The display’s presentation of the paintings of his friends, shows that these were all the more important to him since he was not able to communicate with them as he usually did and probably relied on the closeness of a portrait sitting to do so. This is without a doubt, with the last room depicting his last portraits and his family, the most touching and powerful part of the exhibition. It is the moment in which these portraits become people and establish a relation with us, creating a true emotion and presence that goes beyond the original context and material life of an object destined to hang in a private home or office. The warmth and raw honesty of Martin Zapater’s portrait is a face to face testimony to the strong love between the two childhood friends whose record lives on through correspondence.

 

Portrait of Martín Zapater, 1797

Portrait of Martín Zapater, 1797, oil on canvas, Bilbao Fine Arts Museum (c) Bilboko Arte Ederren Museoa – Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao

The last room is like a quiet farewell already steeped in a certain degree of darkness, suggesting the turmoil of the Black Paintings, for instance, in Goya’s self-portrait of himself as a fading, desperate man held up by the doctor who saved him and for which he offered the painting as a sign of gratitude. Even then, the tenderness and love of his family portraits, from sketches and miniatures to a portrait of his adored grandson, shows another, ultimate side of Goya. The dark Romantic visionary has left a little room for several other lesser-known Goyas – the friend, the intellectual, the ambitious courtier, and the proud and doting grandfather.

Self Portrait with Doctor Arrieta, 1820

Francisco de Goya, Self Portrait with Doctor Arrieta, 1820, Oil on canvas, 114.6 × 76.5 cm, Lent by The Minneapolis Institute of Art, The Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund, 52.14 © Minneapolis Institute of Art

The exhibition succeeds in making Goya’s portraiture not only relevant but relatable – faces and glimpses of personalities that we can recognize, identify with, laugh at, or wish to know better. It somehow tricks you into believing this is going to be a somehow technical and slightly dry account of Goya’s evolution as a portraitist at the beginning but transcends these biographical and technical barriers.

While the rythm is slow to begin with it becomes flowing and effortless, creating a walk-through that is easygoing and feels shorter than it is – in the best of ways. Small rooms with warm, welcoming colours and lighting allowed for an intimate navigation in between works that was all the more heightened by the inclusion of the captions in a visitor booklet rather than on the wall, allowing wandering around and autonomy.  The intensity and depth of his portrayals has a special depth and presence within the succession of rooms that is strangely heartening. I emerged from it with the need to return to see a few particular portraits again before they leave London again – like visiting old friends.

 

 

 

 

Categories
Exhibition review London

History is Now: 7 Artists Take on Britain at the Southbank Centre

The Southbank Centre‘s Changing Britain festival is just about to end. It focused on the ways in which social, political and cultural events have changed Britain as a nation since 1945. On paper this may sound like quite a textbook essay question, and lead to quite a dull diorama of an exhibition oscillating between Tories and Labour. In practice this was a mix of dialogue, talks, screenings and exhibitions whose primary aim was to shake things up and end with the General Election. In an excellent article only a few days ago Jude Kelly, head of the Southbank Centre reflected upon the meaning of this festival and the immense privilege that is bestowed upon the Southbank to question and challenge these cultural and political changes, while others are still censored and murdered for doing so, referring to the tragic murder of Sabeen Mahmud. In the context of the General Election, the question of culture and its freedom, critical or satitical role will not neccessarily be at the forefront of voters’ minds, but it is a right that should never be taken for granted. In Kelly’s words, it should be used as boldly as possible.

This made me want to reflect on the exhibition that took place at the Southbank Centre during the festival. History is Now: 7 Artists Take on Britain. The aim was for these seven artists to reinterpret and reassess their own views of Britain, through the lens of art, history, and social change. These all created six distinct exhibitions in a single exhibition (two of the artists, Louise and Jane Wilson, work as one artistic duo). The very thought of six huge displays taking on Britain isenough to take in, but each of them is completely independant from the other…or only dependant a far as our own experiences as visitors go. Does this create a messy but well-intentioned confusion, or a complex and acute visual mind-map of a complex, fragmented and ambiguous Britain? And did it live up to the expectations of a festival meant to confront and explore these different British identities?

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Installation view of Simon Fujiwara’s curated section at Hayward Gallery, History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain. Photo Linda Nylind
Nigella Lawson Living Kitchen Serving Hands Photo credit: Roger Wooldridge
Nigella Lawson Living Kitchen
Serving Hands
Photo credit: Roger Wooldridge

Simon Fujiwara and Richard Wentworth’s rooms are at extreme opposites of the exhibition, as respectively an introduction and a conclusion. The first is concerned with a definition of Britain rooted in contemporary art and everyday occurences since the 90s with objects shaped by our needs, desires, and the pervasiveness of commodity culture. It welcomes us with a child’s rendition of M.Bank’s song in a primary school play of Mary Poppins given to us from an old television set. It turns out that the child himself is Simon Fujiwara and behind the cheery reminder of traditional, ridiculous Britain that is associated to the tune, the realities of the market seep through. A display of the costume Meryl Streep used to portray Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady is displayed not far from a set of minimalistically arranged Waitrose plastic food packages. A set of designer Nigella Lawson ‘Serving Hands’ are next to a menu for ‘The Clink Restaurant’, a restaurant in Surrey managed entirely by prisoners as an initiative for futur reinsertion in everyday work.

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Irony cuts through the cheeriness as cheap commodities mingle almost seamlessly with high-end design. The emergence of the service sector and polished marketing are juxtaposed with works from the Young British Artists such as Sam Taylor-Johnson’s David Backham (‘David’) portrait or Damien Hirst’s dots. Why? Because arguably, they also needed a “story” to sell: their own lives and personnalities of artists become as important and marketable as what they were portraying.

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The display lacks emotional warmth, like a laboratory of sociological occurences. It is intentionally smooth and sanitized in its exploration of the “Happy Economics” studies that calculates a nation’s comfort and overall mood into a precise statistic, inspired by his brother’s studies in this field.

Fast-fowarding to the display by Richard Wentworth shows us a much more nostalgia-tinged panorama. The exhibition ends on a more conventionally historical note that is not neccessarily any more static, yet feels a lot more patriotic in a quiet, unassuming tone undermining a beautifully curated selection of artists both modern and contemporary.

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L.S. Lowry, July, the Seaside, 1943 © the estate of L. S. Lowry. All rights reserved, DACS 2014

Wentworth focuses on a postwar vision of Britain anchored in art history, including artists such as Paul Nash, Tony Cragg or Lowry that don’t only situate Britain in relation to itself but in a larger historical context. The artwork contrasts with the physical designs or scars of war, such as the menacing Bloodhound Mark 2 surface-to-air missile on the gallery terrace.

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Installation view of Jane and Louise Wilson’s curated section at Hayward Gallery, History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain. Photo Linda Nylind
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Penny Slinger, Perspective. 1977 Copyright the artist © the artist Courtesy Penny Slinger/Riflemaker, London

Jane and Louise Wilson are a sibling duo of artists and as such shared their exhibition space, presenting several small subjects and ideas with the idea of focal moments of tension and social unrest in Britain’s 20th century history. From the personal archives and diaries of the activists of Greenham Common Peace Camp to the conflict in Northern Island to the architecture of Pasmore in the town of Peterlee, they manage to work to and fro within different ideas with depth and sensitivity. The photographs, archives and artwork that mingle with one another are deeply linked to intimate childhood or neighborhood experiences and a complex view of women’s bodies, in activist or aesthetic spaces. As Penelope Slinger reimagines herself and her view of women’s bodies within an architectural collage, Mona Hatoum recites the correspondence between her mother and herself, superposed upon candid images of her mother exiting a shower, in Measures of Distance. For me it is the most personal display, dealing with the ways in which emotions and memories seen as a childhood memory become at odds with the vision inscribed in an “official” history. The part about Northern Irland hit a nerve, an uncomfortable truth that played against Wentworth’s ideal vision. However my favourite part was the idea of asscoiating women reclaiming their bodies visually to a stronger political voice and agency.

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Installation View Hannah Starkey’s curated section at Hayward Gallery, History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain. Photo Linda Nylind
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Victor Burgin. Possession, 1976. Gift of the artist 1980 © the artist

After an array of media and materials following Fukiwara and the Wilsons, Hannah Starkey concerns herself with the purely flat and photographic, aside a few painterly exceptions, delving inside the Art Council’s collection to reveal a mixture of satirical imagery and photographs of the anonymous British eveywoman or everyman. These pictures usually have something to say of the social and economical difficulties of the 1970s and 1980s; yet beyond that the selection creates a powerful language around new urban spaces and their anonymous nature, and the construction of a new identity around a “low” form of visual culture and collection, photography, which is now accessible to all. At the same time, she plays and confronts the ways in which corporations have attempted to capitalize on this visual appeal and create their own visual culture of mass consumption.

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David Chadwick A Woman on a Hulme Walkway, Manchester, 1976 Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © the artist

Roger Hiorns’ decision to devote his entire exhibition to BSE and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (or “mad cow disease”) is startling in its cold and documentary eye to scientific evidence and press cuttings, mingling with anthropology and artworks. The choice could appear puzzling or even sensationalist: out of all the events that could have been defined as British, why did this one occur? Ultimately what I took from the display was not a new heightened knowledge of BSE but a consciousness of the way in which a single event could send shockwaves into an entire community and trickle down into every outlet and document. It could also be a way for the artist to explore how obsessive curating on a single, precise subject and remodelling it around Britain could become.

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Damien Hirst, Out of Sight. Out of Mind, 1991. Roger Hiorns’ curated section at Hayward Gallery, History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain. Photo Linda Nylind
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Prionics Ag Switzerland Prionics®­Check WESTERN Kit, Article 12000: Test for in­vitro detection of TSE­related PrPSc in cattle Courtesy Celtic Diagnostics Limited Photo credit: Roger Wooldridge

The glut of information was nauseating, overwhelming, and definitely intended to be that way, while challenging to what extend we could be encouraged to look more. The entire display provoked a mix of disgust and morbid fascination that could almost tempt the visitor to browse through neat typewritten archives on a table piled with resources…but not quite. Hiorns plays with the rural image of Britain and its cattle and ultimately turns the tables on us.

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Tony Ray-Jones Picnic, Glyndenbourne 1967 1967

Ambling from Hiorns’ stark and painfully precise display of mad cow disease in all its historical, cultural and political ramifications leads us onto John Akomfrah’s series of confrontational experimental films without much notice or warning. It takes a while to adjust completely to this change of pace, from documentation area on BSE and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease to dark screening room. John Akomfrah’s room, very much like Hannah Starkey, chose to go with a single genre that also drew on the extensive archives of the Arts Council: an immense array of experimental films where the medium, movementand expression are played with.

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Gilbert and George World of Gilbert and George, 1981 HD Projection, stereo sound 1 min, 8 secs © the artists, 2014

Gilbert and George perform their own lives in The World of Gilbert and George, facing on the oppsote wall the intensity of Ballet Rambert in Imprint, where the cuts and edits made to the film become as much a choreography as the movements themselves. This is a room that demands time and contemplation; unfortunately its presence just after five large rooms does not neccessarily allow for this and it is probably impossible to view all of the works at a time, unless you have an entire afternoon to spare. Sadly I had a train to catch in a few hours and could only view some out of a great selection. However, there is also something strangely statisfying about the idea of a shifting exhibition where each visitor would view and experience some slightly different set of films than their neighbour. In my case, aside from Imprint, another short was particularly arresting -The Beard of justice, directed in 1994 by Rodreguez King-Dorset, about three men arrested during the riots of 1987 in London, only proven innocent and release in 1991. The power and intensity of their voices and the injustice made to them rings all the more clearly and painfully today.

The immense advantage of this exhibition is ultimately its versatility: the seven stories of the seven artist-curators are all connected one to the other yet do not have to be visited in a particular order. Then again, this can mean that there is a sense of discontinuity between one and the other. What weakens the exhibition could also create its strength in the right mood and context for the visitor, with the possibility to take breaks, take time to amble through different rooms without speeding through a set itinerary.  I have seen this exhibition marked down as a a hotch-potch of confused ideas and as exhausting. However, the fact that it mingled a set “response” to the idea of defining Britain mingled with personal sparks and ideas, like an elaborate visual brainstorming session, is what made it most interesting.

Categories
Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions

Conflict Time Photography at Tate Modern

Images of war and conflict invade us more than ever before. The constant presence of them in photographs and videos, on television, in press, on the internet, is both an eye-opener to the horrors of wars far away from us yet strangely desensitizing when we become “accustomed” to them. 2014 has been rife with these images while museums have been concerned with a similar topic: the centenary of the beginning of World War I, which has launched a certain number of commemorative exhibitions documenting these first raw depictions of war in photography and painting.

In this context, I was not certain how to approach Conflict Time Photography at Tate Modern before my visit: would this be a commemorative exhibition or an exploration of the way in which war photography has evolved in time? Would this be a display centred around photoreporters or artist’s interpretation of conflict? Time Conflict Photography was effectively made to coincide with the centenary, yet has chosen to focus on a wider scope of conflict spanning many time periods. Yet in a uniquely creative twist, these records of conflicts are not shown in their chronological order but in the order of time that followed the photographing of each conflict: moments later, days, weeks, months, several years later. As the curator of the exhibition Simon Baker elaborates, “We wanted to think about the way photographers have photographed moments of conflict after they have happened, thinking about their long-term effects.” Thus, even though a photograph of the atomic ‘mushroom’ over Hiroshima is shown in “moments later” by Toshio Fukata, further photographs of the ravaged city and its inhabitants will only appear several rooms later in “months later” or “years later”. It mirrors however Luc Delahaye’s much more recent photograph US Bombing on Taliban Positions in 2001, its peaceful depiction of a field with the dissipating cloud in the distance only making it more horrifying and ominous in its understatement.

Landscapes and buildings are the main protagonists of this series of photographs, whether this is moments or months and years later. The only survivors that will be able to last through time and serve as commemorative parts of the landscape in itself? Or the fact that the immediate human experience is too difficult to capture in film both physically and emotionally? Regardless, this only makes the appearence of portraits all the more poignant, like Shell-shocked Marine, Vietnam, Hue, taken in 1968 by Dan McCullin, a reporter, only moments after this soldier returned from the battlefield, showing the raw tramatic toll of war in a way that would be almost impossible now, due to the increasing alienation and sanitization of relations between war correspondants and the army.

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Don McCullin Shell Shocked US Marine, Vietnam, Hue 1968, printed 2013 © Don McCullin

Strangely therefore, in this exhibition, death and suffering is alluded to but very rarely shown – the only elements that we are allowed to see are those that have survived the initial blow to be recorded. Yet this is purposefully the point of the exhibition: memory, its persistence and the fact that despite the disappearance of bodies, either immediately or in time, they are still inscribed within landscapes and objects. Sophie Ristelhuber’s immense desertic series of landscapes, Fait riddled with memories and objects of the Gulf War, lull us into aesthetic and almost abstract compositions to show us how nature has “absorbed” conflict but never forgotten it, in a way alike to our own process of memory and remembrance. In the ‘days, weeks, months later’ section, Simon Norfolk embarks on a similar process: using the romanticized idea of the “ruin”, he uses it to document the destruction of sites in Kabul in 2003, such as in this photograph below, taken in the Karte Char district of Kabul, in the aftermath of the conflict between Hikmetyar and Rabbani and then Rabbani and Hazaras.

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Simon Norfolk Bullet-scarred apartment building and shops in the Karte Char district of Kabul. This area saw fighting between Hikmetyar and Rabbani and then between Rabbani and the Hazaras 2003 © Simon Norfolk

In a different perspective, the photographs are often nondescript without further context on their history and meaning. Thus, Diana Matar’s series of seemingly uneventful and unharmed buildings means nothing without her captions integrated to the mosaic of works on display – in which she describes how these were revealed as torture dungeons following Ghaddafi, in 2012. In the same perspective, Chloé Dewe-Mathews’s series Shot at Dawn, in “years later”, shows peaceful landscapes in the north of France that retain no more memories of their past use – as spaces where deserters were shot. All that remains of them and their memory are these landscapes and their titles composed of their names.

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Chloe Dewe Mathews Vebranden-Molen, West-Vlaanderen 2013 Soldat Ahmed ben Mohammed el Yadjizy Soldat Ali ben Ahmed ben Frej ben Khelil Soldat Hassen ben Ali ben Guerra el Amolani Soldat Mohammed Ould Mohammed ben Ahmed 17:00 / 15.12.1914 © Chloe Dewe Mathews

Other photographs take us back to an experience of bodies and objects that undermines the full horror of a war that can take its toll through the dead, but also through its survivors – such as those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki subject to radiation. How to represent what cannot be represented without an overwhelming feeling of horror? Kenji Ishiguro, with Hiroshima Now, shows the full frontal reality and brutality of war on surviving bodies, while Shomei Tomatsu participates in the record of objects and their ongoing, horrific reality in Hiroshima-Nagasaki document published in 1961. Hiromi Tsuchida’s photography of surviving objects coupled with quotes from the relatives and friends of the lost owners is probably the set of photographs that is hardest to watch, in its brutal and unforgiving honesty.

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Shomei Tomatsu Steel Helmet with Skull Bone Fused by Atomic Bomb, Nagasaki 1963 © Shomei Tomatsu – interface. Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo

Until now the scenography has been very sober, understated, white walls and sufficient space between the works as though to reinforce this passage of time. Sometimes an entire wall is dedicated only to one work, and allows us ample time to walk next to it, contemplate, before going on to the next set of photographs. This creates a slow, meditative pace that is quite soothing: despite the large amount of people, there was never a sense of feeling crammed into a space or crowding around to see a work. It felt appropriately timeless while showing us works recording a very precise time and place.

This setting abruptly changes as we enter a room labeled as the Archive of Modern Conflict, by the eponymous group that curated it. This somewhat elusive group houses an archive of photographs and artifacts related to wartime that publishes books based around this content, or curate exhibitions. Here, a central space was devoted to them, as “guest-curators”, interrupting the ongoing display. Contrasted with the main exhibition, this was a wartime cabinet of curiosities, with photographs collaged onto the wall like archival wallpaper, paraphernalia and trinkets in antiquated glass cabinets. This interruption was a surprise, and although it was interesting and fascinating in its own right, obviously jarring in the context of the exhibition’s usual sobriety and neatness. If I had been aware of this room beforehand, I would probably have visited it after the main exhibition, in order to view in a different mindset. Then again, it was a welcome change to the pristine nature of the main display.

Conflict Time Photography created an intense yet subtle exploration of memory, time and war without veering into pathos or preaching. It is not to be visited lighly, in a casual or hurried mindset. It is harrowing, poignant and often unbearable in a way that we have often learnt to forget in order to protect ourselves from the violence. This is as much an exhibition about conflict than the way we deal with conflict, grief and remembrance, in all its ambiguous and complex undertones.

Categories
Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions

Wedding Dresses 1775-2014 at the V&A

Many girls my age, in their early twenties, were quite dubious when I told them about the Wedding Dresses exhibition at the V&A. Cautious about how interesting it might be at the most, it certainly did not provoke a burst of excitement and enthusiasm about fashion centred around holy matrimony. This can be explained for various reason. The first is the reason why, when I arrived at the circular exhibition space layered onto two floors like a wedding cake, I found a mainly feminine audience but more specifically one filled with women in their thirties or beyond. Marriage is simply not something most students or graduates can really relate to anymore, too busy building their careers, social life…or simply enjoying a fresher take on relations and life with a significant someone…without eternal vows! The second reason is a valid point raised when a discussion arises on the evolution of the wedding dress: “it’s always going to be the traditional white dress…wouldn’t it all end up looking the same anyway?”

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Honiton lace wedding veil (detail), British, c.1850 c.1850 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Arguably, this would be the main shortcoming of any exhibition that based around the wedding dress, especially since this exhibition ranges from 1775 onwards, at the very moment when white or pastel tones start coming into fashion and disregard the brighter, bolder colours of old. Symbolic “purity” mingled with an iconic aesthetic appeal that has stuck with us ever since. Yet within this exhibition, this homogeneity also creates a single point of reference for a multiplicity of viewpoints, influences and changes.

The bottom half of the exhibition, ranging from the end of the 18th century to the 1960s, showcases the very beginning of this tradition cemented by Queen Victoria’s decision to wear all white at her wedding, her dress trimmed with British lace to support her country’s industry and thus launching the mainstream bridal fashion ever since (The last exhibition I reviewed, Making Colour, shows Queen Victoria fashionably sporting purple dresses with her family and influencing her subjects to do the same, leading me to believe that Queen Victoria was, unexpectedly, a great trendsetter). Such small details, revolving around economical and social change, focusing on a greater picture as well as an emotional and aesthetic understanding of the wedding ceremony, allowed the exhibition to take a step further than expected.

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© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This first half, with its muted lighting and powder blue and pink displays interspersed with quotes about nervous brides and excited grooms, is involved with the establishment of a recognisable tradition with its lace, wreaths and light tones, but also debunks quite a large amount of myths. For me, the greatest surprise was the relative sense of sobriety and economy based around the early wedding dresses: most of them were made to be worn again, sometimes involving simpler fabric that could be re-washed easily, as well as detachable sleeves so as to create a more fashionable and less modest outfit once the ceremony was over! The fact that church weddings were considered a lower-class option, since most upper-class members of society could choose – and pay – to wed wherever they wanted, was unknown to me. In a sense, the exhibition busies itself with easing the rigour of tradition while reinforcing it at the same time: I would have preferred to see less dresses from the 19th century but more early examples of wedding dresses before the tyranny of white set in.

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Silk brocade gown and petticoat, silk covered straw hat and silk satin shoes, 1780 Worn by Jane Bailey for her marriage to James Wickham 1780. Image reproduced by kind permission of the Olive Matthews Collection, Chertsey Museum. Photograph by John Chase.

Nevertheless, the transition into the 20th century gives a fascinating insight into the way in which weddings’ nature changes, adapting to the glitter of high society, allowing for extravagant dresses and their trains, made for the first time for a special, unique occaision. The glittery socialites of the 20s and early 30s could also celebrate in white now! Any sense of practicality rapidly flew out of the window for those brides whose wedding was broadcast on television for the record of the dress with the longest train: this was the case for the the bride Margaret Whigham, in her wedding regalia designed by Norman Hartnell.

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Embroidered silk satin wedding dress designed by Norman Hartnell, 1933 Worn by Margaret Whigham for her marriage to Charles Sweeny, 1933. Given and worn by Margaret, Duchess of Argyll © Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans
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© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The marketing of bridal dresses increases just as several brides and their seamstresses start experimenting with more daring, individual ways of expressing themselves, giving a stellar, socialite feel to the wedding ceremony. The way in which the wedding dress and its ceremony enmeshes itself with the political and social climate of its time culminates into an elegant and sober dress from WWII made of parachute fabric, below, in red. Both modest and modern, brave in its bold colour and cut perhaps due more to shortage of textile than anything else, it struck out to me as far more interesting than the traditional gauzy whiteness surrounding it. There again, possessing more information on the bride and the way in which the dress was made created a subtle but essential bond between the former bride, the dress and the viewer.

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© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

As I climb the stairs, the top half opens up the space and dims the lighting for a spectacular panoramic view of modern and contemporary dresswear. Here, the visitor winds through the space in a less chronological way, with a broader overview of micro-influences and changes from one decade to the next. It feels as though a fashion magazine column on the top ten most glamorous celebrity wedding has come to life…which can have its shortcomings as well. In terms of presentation and amount of stunning dresses, many of them presented outside the usual glass cases, like a mock fashion runway, twisting and turning throughout the 60s till today.

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© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This is the rise of the fashion designer, where the name and brand start to supersede a more homogeneous sense of fashion to be adapted to everyday life by anonymous seamstresses. If anything the wedding dress has been more spectacular than ever before: as we tend to marry later in life and therefore possess a lot more means to fund a spectacular ceremony, the wedding gowns follow suit. White still dominates the scene…except for a few exceptions, such as Dita von Teese’s glamorous punk-rock purple  dress. 

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© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The dresses are beautifully presented and we are given a immensely complex insight into the way in which they have been tailored, as well as the various textures and experiments that have been undertaken. From a fashion historical point of view, and from the point of view of design, form meets content flawlessly as each decade’s state of mind is explored. From a social point of view…less so. No more parachute wedding dresses here. Yet without rising to that extreme, the sense of diversity is slightly lost. In a sense seeing all these high-fashion dresses creates a sense of greater distanciation than the relation felt with the dresses downstairs and their stories attached to anonymous lives. The interest is diverted from the dress and its design to the person wearing it. I want to focus on the way in which the dress is made and how it makes a tradition evolve, not a case of “which celebrity is wearing which designer” (guesses are open below*) Is this also something that is going to remain relevant to mainstream wedding tradition? Most of these celebrities can afford to step out of the norm but this is exactly like assessing 19th century fashion based solely on what the upper class would wear.

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© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Another slight disappointment: the last part was quite heteronormative. Recent laws in numerous countries allowing same-gender marriage for gay, lesbian and bisexual people have created a revolution in the way in which many people can express their love and lifelong commitment. Showing how this has influenced the wedding dress or costume, even while mainly focusing on lesbian and bisexual women and their womenswear, would have been a welcome eye-opener and an interesting way of seeing the way in which tradition is tailored to social change. Would their dresses match? Would one bride still want to wear a tux to twist tradition around or consider this as weirdly heteronormative in its own right? It would also have created a very interesting contrast with a few of the LGBTQA issues explored in their current exhibition, Disobedient Objects.

This exhibition’s journey through time gave me an informative and touchingly intimate take on the way the traditional marriage was born and how it evolved in relation to our political and social attitudes, making it far less superficial and purely religious than it first seemed. Yet this realization and complexity makes it even more obvious when it does cut short of something more in-depth. It sometimes devolved from an emotional and intimate journey into a visual overload that lost its clear message, especially when it brought royalty and celebrities into the picture. I don’t need an exhibition to coo over how pretty *Kate Moss’ dress is, however true that fact may be: I need to know how it fits into a larger picture regarding marriage today and how we feel about it.

Claire Mead

W edding Dress, 1775-2014 at the V&A, until the 15th of March 2015.

 

Categories
Interview London

TalkAbout Guides

Visiting a museum or gallery can be a silent and solitary moment, despite the people surrounding us. More than once I feel that I am missing out on a great deal of discussion in front of a work of art with fellow visitors but no opportunity is given to me in order to change that.

Yet this notion is being challenged by a new generation of gallery-goers. Previously on this blog, Les Jeudis Arty were opening up art galleries to a larger Parisian audience. This time TalkAbout Guides, an Oxford-based company, are sparking off lively conversations in museums.

Eliza Easton, Communications Director for Talk About Guides, tells me all about the frustration of quiet art galleries, asking the right questions, and why overzealous shushing in museums alienates us all.

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What is the general concept of TalkAbout?
Eliza Easton: So the idea came from the fact that there was a group of us that were really frustrated with the way people were approaching art galleries that we worked in, and that people in contemplation thought of as appropriate. It was almost like a library, where you were only allowed to think about the works themselves…whereas I think that as a student the really enjoyable part about my course was having conversations about the artwork that can even be quite frivolous at times, and feeling really comfortable doing that. So that was why we started doing that. And the way we approached tackling that problem was to create kind of conversation-starting questions. So there’s a whole range of questions on different themes. And those questions invite conversations, specifically conversations that encourage you to look at the artwork closer but also encourage you to talk more to the person that you’re with. Because you remember things far better if you actually have someone to remember them with you, it’s really basic psychology. We felt that this was a problem that we tackled.

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What does the project look like, how is it used by the visitor?
E: The form that it takes at the moment is a set of five cards, each with three questions. They are fold-out cards so the questions are sort of revealed to you on an individual theme, a theme like love or beauty, or death, or fantasy… Sometimes they are themes around a specific event: we are doing one for the Breath Festival, which is themed around breath, different types of ideas to do with being alive. They come in an envelope, you can take them out, you can also keep them to have a physical reminder of the discussion. You give them to friends, to invite them to have this journey with you, or take the same journey with a different person…

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How are the themes chosen out of a wide range of subjects? Is it something that’s more of your personal preference, or is it based on feedback?
E: It completely depends on the project we’re working on. Sometimes they are separate projects, like I mentioned with the Breath Festival, working out how to present the subject of breath. Obviously we work in the galleries themselves. For example we’re doing a project at the Ashmolean at the moment on Schubert and Goethe, and we’re doing different themes within one pack based around that. The questions can be varied anyway, even within their theme. And then for another project at Waddesdon Manor where we had three themes…we actually went round, had a look, then had a meeting with some of the curators who were interested, kind of bounced ideas off them, suggested three final themes and they accepted them. If they had thought of different themes we would bounce that round a bit more. It’s similar with the objects: we go round, choose the objects, and communicate our choices to the curators. Whether they say yes to all of them, or yes to one of them, we work from that point onwards.

So really, it’s a tailored, custom-made theme for every single institution…which could take quite a lot of time I imagine. What’s the time lapse between the moment where you start collaborating with the institution and the final actual product that can be used by visitors?
E: It’s a really funny thing because first of all it’s quite a long time just because of the way that museums work! So they have to budget for things a long time in advance. So we can only take it as fast as they can take it. So they’ll decide they’re going to do it but they might not OK the objects for another two months…and so, you have it on the boil but it’s not taking up much time. The thing that does take us a long time is working out the questions. It’s a little bit design-dependant as well so if the museum wants their own design for the card, then obviously you have to work with the designer. The Ashmolean uses their own designer to help us, so it’s hard to find but they help us orchestrate it. For each question, each set of five questions between about five thinkers, question-seekers, it probably takes…four sessions, so probably eight hours for five cards. Five cards, each with three questions…fifteen questions in eight hours.

So it also takes quite a lot of time back and forth, checking that everybody in the team is okay with the questions?
E: Yes! It’s actually quite difficult to think up questions that are meant for a conversation. There are so many questions that have a yes or no answer and that people can laugh off but we choose questions that make sure people will start talking. The other thing is, we always drive ourselves in a bit of a passionate state because we’re so interested in the questions, they’re great philosophical, aesthetic or intellectual questions…It’s interesting because we’re going start bringing in other people to work on specific projects, it’ll be exciting. So at the moment we’re working on a training program to help people learn how to answer the questions. We’re looking for a kind of consultancy situation where we will have a pool of people who each have different specialties. For example, say, if you knew a lot about history of art and you knew specifically about a subject for a project then could we go to our list and look at it to select you. If we’re working on a project involving Schubert and we have somebody who knows a lot about music it’s useful to have them on board. So that’s how we can improve it a little bit at a time, because having a basic knowledge can help for a lot of things but people having selective, focused specialties on certain subjects can make everything more coherent. We also have something called a question bank, which is a big list of really interesting questions that we think up in our daily lives and that we want to get them to be talked about more at some point but we’re are still waiting on it.

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Do you think there is a definite problem of museums and cultural institutions intimidating people into silence?
E: I think it has more to do with the democratization of museums. I think that when it was all just the upper classes visiting, everyone felt comfortable because they all had training…Now everyone visits them which is such a positive thing but there’s still a problem especially in the UK where you don’t learn about art and you just don’t talk about it. So of course it’s going to be alienating. In Waddesdon Manor where I worked, you could see little schoolkids walking through and their teachers would go “Shh! Shh!” shushing them into silence, because they’re pointing out, going “What’s that?!”…but I think that’s exactly what most curators want! Especially since it’s a house meant to be visited, interacted with.

My mum is a teacher and she was showing her schoolchildren through the Musée d’Orsay…where they kept being shushed by the guard! It’s stupid because these places attract a lot of people and yet they don’t want them to interact fully with the works…
E: Yes, it’s not a straightforward dialogue. It should be a conversation…that is what’s really puzzling for me. A silent art gallery is great but it should also be a place for conversation. Otherwise it’s so intimidating! It’s like being in a library…which is nice on one hand, art is also meant to be appreciated when you’re alone, but…it should be something more.

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It’s kind of like John Berger in Ways of Seeing comparing people’s visions of museums to churches.
E: Yeah but even in churches, people sing, you know? There’s something communal about it whereas in art galleries everyone walks off on their own.

Yes it’s true. Especially with audioguides…What do you think about audioguides in general as a way to engage with the art?
E: Basically I think that audioguides can be a really good thing but they can also be intensely alienating and going into the room with people listening to audioguides and being the only one without them is always weird. I think also that the Internet made it so easy to find out facts… if you’re interested in a piece and you want to go home and find out facts about it, become more knowledgeable about it, that’s easy to do. You just need to be able to remember the piece in the first place. And if you’re not doing that, if you’re just accumulating facts, facts, facts and you’re not enjoying yourself, and not really sure which direction you’re going in…it’s not that great. About audioguides, it’s a weird thing that they are so normal. Maybe there should be a way of making use of what you already know to fill in blanks rather than cutting people off from each other.

How would you picture TalkAbout evolving, about one year from now? What direction do you think it’s going to go towards?
E: I think it all depends…The team is completely brilliant, which means they’re up for doing a lot of things all the time, so it’s a bit tough to determine exactly what we are going to do but we’re definitely going to open it up more, it would be really exciting. We’re hopefully going to be in cultural institutions the US and the UK…and I think working in London museums would be good, after Oxford, and lots of other national properties are interested. If we could also get more students on board we can work on more projects as a company. At the moment we are working on three projects each, with individual questions for different museums, and that’s pretty heavy for us.

Remind me who TalkAbout has worked for?
E: The Ashmolean in Oxford, twice, Waddesdon Manor, and then we’re working for the Breath Festival which is at the Pitt Rivers and the Natural History Museum in Oxford, working at the Oxford Castle which is going to be a permanent…and our future projects aren’t yet ready for full disclosure!

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You can find TalkAbout Guides on Facebook page and Twitter!

“When was the last time you had an interesting conversation in a museum?” Talk About asks, and so do I! If you have any interesting, good, bad or downright awkward conversations in museums, I definitely want to hear about them!

Ways of Seeing by Jonh Berger is a BBC documentary from the 1970s that looks at the way in which we perceive art and visit museums now, with the arrival of photography and mass media. Find it here.

Categories
Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions

Digital Revolution at the Barbican Centre

Many exhibitions are too quiet for their own good. The cautious whispering and awkward silences do not do much to strike interest or new ideas within visitors, let alone excite them. I often wish for more noise, more bustle and movement inside a space meant for communicating as well as seeing. As I entered the Digital Revolution at the Barbican Centre, I suddenly had all of this…all at once. Within a huge darkened room with flickering lights and screens, with electronic music playing in the background and a regular hubbub of noise, people were also visibly moving, talking, having fun, as they did not only watch the exhibit but also took part in it actively.

Digital Revolution’s ambitious aim is to regroup and present the most diverse and extensive achievements of the digital medium through an impressive array of genres and formats, from video games to music, animation and art installations. It presents its complex past, retracing the history of the very first computers and their games, but also veers beyond simple documentation into experimentation and entertainment.

Digital Revolution Installation At The Barbican Centre
Digital Revolution installation images, Digital Archaeology section, Barbican Centre 3 July – 14 September 2014 © Matthew G Lloyd/Getty Images

The exhibition’s first segment, Digital Archaology, is concerned with the purely chronological, starting with relics from the 80s onwards, onto legends such as Pong, Pac-Man, Space Invaders or the first Tomb-Raider…all playable. There is a huge crowd yet surprisingly enough the glass displays that allow one player are laid out in a way that does not cram too many people in one corner…others are glad to wait for their turn or try different games, since most if not all of them can be tried out. The novelty of being in a time-travelling arcade does not wear off easily on anyone, whatever their age or experience with gaming.

This is perhaps because the exhibition made absolutely no concessions in terms of different tastes, aesthetics and genres. Commercial games like The Sims co-exist with indie DIY online games that enjoy messing with traditional programming and expectations, exploiting glitching, pixel art and the sense of powerlessness when the game spirals out of the user’s control, to become its own narrative. The section on games reveals a flurry of hideen gems, usually quite marginal and independent in nature that, in a few minutes, become their own digital performance piece, affecting us as viewers more than we affect the game. This is only heightened by our full involvement in the display, sensing the changes undergone as much as we understand them. A srange atmosphere is created, between a collective experience and a one-to-one relation with the game onscreen. The best thing is that many of these games are available online, for free. One of my favourite, Sodaplay, allows to tweak the movements of geometrical shapes to create unique objects evolving differently in an abstract space.

Digital Revolution Installation At The Barbican Centre
Digital Revolution installation images, Creative Spaces section, Barbican Centre 3 July – 14 September 2014 © Matthew G Lloyd/Getty Images

It was maybe for this reason that the section on digital art in films felt slightly more underwhelming after the video and computer games. While I was watching the way in which Inception created its paradoxical dream surroundings or how Gravity managed to make people seem as though they were spinning in space, I did not learn anything from it that I did not know before and there were limited options to engage with in terms of interaction. The short documentary on How to Train Your Dragon 2 was definitely more fascinating in the way in which it managed to tie the need for emotion and movement into more intuitive ways of animating CGI, capturing the magic and childlike wonder of animation coupled with pure skill in a way that has often been shunned in favour of its earlier, 2-D technology.

Digital Revolution Installation At The Barbican Centre
Digital Revolution installation images, will.i.am’s artwork Pyramidi in the Sound & Vision section, Barbican Centre 3 July – 14 September 2014 © Matthew G Lloyd/Getty Images

While the first part had been interactive enough, while remaining mainly involved with the history of the digital and its evolution, the next sections were involved in more experimental and collaborative contemporary works, including prestigious projects such as will.i.am’s exclusive music installation, Pyramidi, his giant and imperious digital effigy following every visitor’s movements as he sings. In the same way, DevArt, initiated by Google, showcased works that used motion capture to create digital art as an environment for moving, experimenting, even dancing.

Digital Revolution Installation At The Barbican Centre
Digital Revolution installation images, DevArt section, Barbican Centre 3 July – 14 September 2014 © Matthew G Lloyd/Getty Images

Since movement was necessary to many of them, interactivity was key yet not always a given to all visitors; maybe we are too used to standing still and waiting for something to happen within a museum space, rather than making it happen. In that respect, help and advice towards visitors on behalf of the staff within the space could have been better handled, with more communication about what to do or even tacit encourahement from the helpers by initiating the movement itself. Yet the initial awkwardness and lack of clear direction was usually quickly overcome, as most of the visitors enjoyed the exhibits with an infectious energy. If the first part could be compared to a time-warp arcade, this one would be a futuristic hall of mirrors in a funfair, where our appearances, gestures and silhouettes are reflected, recorded and distorted.

Digital Revolution Installation At The Barbican Centre
Digital Revolution installation images, The Treachery of Sanctuary in the State of Play section Barbican Centre 3 July – 14 September 2014 © Matthew G Lloyd/Getty Images

The Treachery of Sanctuary in the State of Play, above, had three people at a time standing on a specific platform as their silhouettes are affected by the elegant yet morbid black silhouettes of birds: one disintegrating into a flock flying away, another pecked at until in disappears and the other growing wings that can be moved and flapped at will through the visior-player’s movements, creating a graceful and powerful exploration of the ways in which technology eats away at us while it transforms us. As visitors we are active participants in the performance and create its true meaning. As the exhibition draws towards the end, a less agitated corner allows visitors to listen to different kinds of music created via digital means, including a soundtrack by Björk. Digital Futures, towards the end, is a mix of digital dreams and utopias that are slowly becoming a reality, like 3D printing able to shape new objects and even clothes such as Studio XO’s 3D Printed Parametric Dress for Lady Gaga. With the installation Petting Zoo, there is even a desire to look towards AI and the sensorial (even emotional) that could be created in relation to it.

Digital Revolution Installation At The Barbican Centre
Digital Revolution installation images, Minimaforms’ Petting Zoo section, Barbican Centre 3 July – 14 September 2014 © Matthew G Lloyd/Getty Images

Ultimately, Digital Revolution is not only a celebration of digital art as an immaterial, eternally flexible and complex medium, steeped in a history old enough to be extensive yet young enough to be remembered. It is before anything else a celebration of the visitor and player, of the person behind the screen that allows digital art to express itself fully. The challenges that the digital can take on in order to push further the boundaries of art and technology are truly revolutionary. Yet, the real revolution is the creation of a space of discussion, discovery and communication that breaks silences and encourages people to touch as much as they can. I hope to see much more of it in the future, in other mediums and exhibition spaces.

Discover Digital Revolution at the Barbican

Categories
Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions

Making Colour at the National Gallery

Colour is so omnipresent today that we need not worry about having to create it or search for it extensively…in fact, a main concern is rather knowing how not to use too much of it at a time. As a digital artist I can simply open Photoshop and slide a colour wheel around to obtain thousands of different colour swatches that anyone else can use. As a traditional artist I can shop around for the exact shade of red I need. Being able to access and experience these colours is taken entirely for granted as an artist and as a viewer.

For this reason, the National Gallery’s exhibition Making Colour is a perfect reminder in our saturated world of the ways in which artists have long struggled to find and make colour in order to represent their particular vision of the world. The record of this search is as vast as it is fascinating; artists up until the 19th century were still grinding colour pigments and mixing them in with egg white, yolks or oil in order to create the effects they desired. The creation of synthetic colours available in tubes then allowed for revolutionary changes as painting outside was possible. As Renoir famously points out: “Paints in tubes allowed us to work in nature… Without paint in tubes, there would have been no Cezanne, no Monet, no Sisley or Pissarro, nothing of what the journalists were to call impressionism.” Yet this chemical and artistic breakthrough could only have been achieved through a slow and painstaking historical process to find the perfect pigment in nature, whether it was through dried insects, plants, minerals….or even poison.

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Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890), Two Crabs, 1889 Oil on canvas, On loan from a Private Collection © Private Collection

A short introduction shows us various colour palettes and the way in which the perception of colour evolved throughout the centuries, culminating into optical theories about light being broken down into a vast spectrum of colours. They also show us a few basic yet useful example about complementary and contrasting colours, as well as the way in which painters’ techniques of colour application varied, such as the use of orange and green with Van Gogh’s Two Crabs. Vigée-Lebrun’s neat dabs of colour in her self-portrait are challenged by Turner’s seemingly chaotic palette, showing that their brushstrokes and mixtures as well as the colours they had access to definitely influenced their styles and stemmed from their personalities.

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Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 – 1851), Chelsea Palette, Wooden palette with paint on its surface, Tate Archive © Tate, London

The following rooms are all thematic in nature rather than chronological, presenting a wide selection of works from all time periods, with one colour for each room, the dark walls and soft lighting allowing the works’ palettes to shine out to their audience. Whether it is blue, red or green, even veering onto silver and gold, each section retraces a short history of the way in which its colour was created and used on a variety of formats. The act of breaking up the discovery of colour into several sub-sections and giving them their own small history, creates a sense of harmony and casualness; I could wander from room to room without feeling as though I had to follow a specific route or chronology. The exhibition was relatively busy but never gave a sense of clutter or overcrowding, mainly because it was quite easy to wander around from object to object leisurely rather than awkwardly queue up to see a series of works in a row.

Lapis lazuli amulet carved in the form of a frog
Lapis lazuli amulet carved in the form of a frog, Lapis lazuli, 2.2 x 1.2 cm The British Museum, London 1856,0903.243 © The Trustees of the British Museum

I was slightly wary about the sheer amount of information that would be thrown at me for every single colour. The ways in which we perceive colours now is almost never relevant to the art work’s actual time period, and cannot be properly be understood without a long painstaking history of each colour. Would it prove too heavy and too much to handle for an exhibition? It soon turned out, however, that this was going to be an extremely technical take on colour based more on aesthetic sensation, contrast and form and the ways to acheive it on various mediums.

The amount of cultural, religious, social and historical complexities and significance around blue, from the mantle of the Virgin Mary to its presence on the EU flag, would be so large and shifting in itself that the colour would need its own exhibition. (Incidentally it does possess its own book, Blue: History of a Colour by the colour historian Michel Pastoureau, which I cannot recommend enough). Although each section did briefly recall the various ideas related to their respective colours (red for passion or purple for nobility), the focus was less on their symbolism or what they represented, and more focused on how they were found and used, as well as their value. Ultramarine, created with lapis lazuli, was defined in its economic value and importance in the fact that it came from “beyond the sea”, mined in Afghanistan to this day in very difficult conditions. Its intensity and long-lasting nature made it precious for artists and their patrons from the medieval period onwards, but also explains why and how cheaper alternatives were looked for in duller and darker pigments such as smalt, or in an easier form through cobalt blue, later on used in its synthetic form by Monet. From this we could of course interpret that blue was researched and paid for because of its religious importance or that on the contrary it became an important colour used for the best of religious art because of its worth. Yet focusing mainly on the purely visual and technical was a good choice: sometimes leaving one aspect out from an immense subject allows another facet to shine in a more coherent and interesting manner and this was definitely the case!

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Claude Monet, Lavacourt under Snow, about 1878-81, Oil on canvas, 59.7 x 80.6 cm, Credit Line: The National Gallery, London

Each artwork description made sure to make the viewer understand exactly which pigments the artist used and how, sometimes adding in some historical context to reinforce its point but focusing on the form rather than the subject itself. In a sense, understanding the colour of the painting gives us valuable tools to understand it on our own terms, without the need to know the story behind it or the particular symbolism of a colour at that given time. For example I was not given much in the way of context concerning the Portrait of a Lady by Moroni and the sitter’s role or social status, but the knowledge that the red and gold dress she was wearing would have never existed because it was too expensive to make in 16th century Italy told me a lot about the wealth and power associated these two colours in terms of image and status.

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Giovanni Battista Moroni, Portrait of a Lady, perhaps Contessa Lucia Albani Avogadro (‘La Dama in Rosso’), about 1556 60, Oil on canvas, 155 x 106.8 cm, Credit Line: The National Gallery, London

In the same way, The Beheading of St-Margaret by Gherardo di Jacopo Starnina did not inform me about her martyrdom and its significance but rather about the narrative power of colour as our eyes move from the purple of the executioner to her form shrouded in blue against the dark background and crimson city walls.

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Gherardo di Jacopo Starnina (Master of the Bambino Vispo) The Beheading of Saint Margaret (?),probably about 1409, Egg tempera on poplar, 42.3 x 65.2 cm, Credit Line: The National Gallery, London

A great deal is also learnt about what we can no longer see or understand, due to the fact that either colours or our perception of them has been changed, either physically or psychologically. For instance, in Masaccio’s Saints Jerome and John the Baptist, while one red (vermillion) has remained vibrant in  the other (red lake, considerably cheaper, made with crushed dried insects or bark) has faded away, showing the stark difference between one and the other in terms of quality and durability.

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Masaccio, Saints Jerome and John the Baptist, about 1428-9, Egg tempera on poplar, 125 x 58.9 cm Credit Line:The National Gallery, London

In the same sense, the use of gilding is described as something that would have a lot more power for the Renaissance viewer by candlelight due to the flickering of the surface making it seem more tridimensional, while our electric light makes it flat and dull. In the same vein, flesh was painted with a greenish base to give it more volume but now that the flesh colour has faded away we see these painted figures as far more sickly than they actually were! These are only a few of the little tidbits of information and detail that made the exhibition so fun and refreshing, veering away from what we usually focus on in such paintings.

The visual impact of the pigment’s source versus the final work is often visually striking and makes for an informative and aesthetic experience. Seeing lapis lazuli evolve in a small display from its original rock, into pigment and then eventually object, breaks down colour from elaborate artwork to simple component in a way that mingled art history with science in an effective and pedagogical way. Another example is the delicate still life painting by Ruysch, just beneath an orange mineral in a glass display. The comparison seems slightly underwhelming until we read that the mineral in question contains arsenic, making its use very scarce amongst painters. Rachel Ruysch, however, was one of the foolhardy artists so intent upon using orange for her flowers that she took the risk…a risk that evidently paid off.

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Rachel Ruysch (1664 – 1750), Flowers in a Vase, about 1685, Oil on canvas, The National Gallery, London. Bequeathed by Alan Evans, 1974 © The National Gallery, London

The clear and concise information and descriptions are complemented by videos that show exactly how the artists mixed these pigments and then used them; several show the different effects of pigments mixed with egg yolk or oil, the first creating an opaque, fast-drying tempera and the second allowing for a more translucent glaze ideal for multiple layers. The final room even shows the careful process of gilding, in a reconstruction by students of the Hamilton Kerr Institute in Cambridge and the National Gallery Conservation Department.

I feel that in terms of variety and presentation the exhibition did remain extremely centred around Western European paintings from early Renaissance to the early 20th century; although some variety was provided in time period or format, I would have been glad to see more diversity. However, this can be explained by the fact that the main curators of the exhibition are Caroline Campbell, Curator of Italian Paintings before 1500 at the National Gallery, and Ashok Roy, Director of Collections at the National Gallery: where their expertise and choice is obviously tied to their own tastes, knowledge and collection. This is also reinforced by the fact that most of the scienfic observations about pigments and their application is born from the microscopic study of the fragments of paint on the dedge of canvases: it is therefore logical to keep the range of works presented to those that can be most effectively studied (for example, the work beneath, Degas’ Combing the Hair, was studied using a fragment of paint made into a cross section and then observed under a microscope to discern its different red pigments).

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Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas, Combing the Hair (‘La Coiffure’) about 1896, Oil on canvas, 114.3 x 146.7 cm, Credit Line: The National Gallery, London

This crucial aspect is actually shown to us through the final part of the exhibition, a short film showing us the scientific study of colour, and the way in which the colours of the past and their uses are rediscovered. It also allows us to partake into small experiments around our own perception of colour, which will be assembled into data for a survey, advancing the research the exhibition showcased in a different light. It gave a sense of interactivity and involvement as well as a definite sense of ambiguity surrounding colour and its interpretation, either optical or psychological.

This exhibition was a perfect example of the way in which a large and extremely technical subject could be broken down into a simple yet intelligent way for a diverse audience to understand and appreciate further the use of colour. It definitely felt as though this was an exhibition in which definite new skills and visual tools could be acquired and then applied to paintings beyond the exhibition’s walls, in the National Gallery and elsewhere. Highlighting the expertise of both artists and the scientists dechiphering their works’ colour, it did not clutter itself with additional historical context, leaving the colours speak for themselves and letting us appeal to our own senses and artistic taste. Like a few primary colours creating a large variety of tones, I think that a simple yet intense exhibition such as Making Colour will be able to provoke different interpretations and ways of seeing in its wake.

The  Natural System of Colours Wherein is displayed the regular
Moses Harris, The Natural System of Colours Wherein is displayed the regular and beautiful Order and Arrangement,… 1769/1776 Book, Credit Line: Royal Academy of Arts, London

Making Colour, at the National Gallery, from the 18th of June to the 7th of September

Did you see the exhibition? Want to talk about colour and its history? Do you think there are better ways of talking about colour? Feel  free to speak up here, on the new Facebook page or on Twitter!