After believing that I could spend some time away from the nineteenth century and my research interests I need to immediately report that I am wrong and it cannot happen! I can provide testimony for this in the three exhibitions I went to this week. I didn’t mean to go to three this week, however, somehow it happened and I am not at all sorry that it did!
The first exhibition I attended was at Leighton House, A Victorian Obsession and was co-curated by Véronique Gerard-Powell and Daniel Robbins. The exhibition has been widely publicised and the backs of several London buses have been covered. I have been to Leighton House a few times before, however I really felt that this exhibition bought not only the paintings to life but also the house itself. Frederic Leighton (1830-1896) had the house designed by the architect George Aitchinson and it really is the most incredible fusion of Eastern and Western influences. I think one of the most beautiful parts of the house are the exquisite tiles going up the main staircase which are a vibrant greeny-blue. Anyway, onto the exhibition! The works were from the Pérez Simón collection and each room held a different range of works pertaining to a particular style. The primary focus was upon the female form and works from artists such as Leighton, Albert Joseph Moore (1841-1893), William Clark Wontner (1857-1930), John William Godward (1861-1922) John Everett Millais, (1829-1896), John Melhuish Strudwick (1849-1937), John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), Talbot Hughes (1869-1942), Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), Simeon Solomon (1840-19005), Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), Henry Arthur Payne (1868-1940), Arthur Hughes (1832-1912), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), William Clark Wontner (1857-1930), Edwin Long (1829-1891), Frederick Goodall (1822-1904), Edward John Poynter (1836-1919), Charles Edward Perugini ( 1839-1918) and Emma Sandys (1843-1877) . It was a real treat to go round the exhibition and every room had something of note. I think what particularly struck me was the classical and medieval quality of some of the works; this was particularly true of Alma-Tadema’s work. The attention paid to the folds and patterns of the fabric was remarkable and the scenes were hugely evocative. I also particularly liked the smaller works, one of which was by Strudwick entitled Passing Days (1878). The painting captured a young man who was so preoccupied with the past that he was letting the present pass him by and the disengaged from the future. The details of the faces and the wizened old woman to the left of the corner was rather beautifully conceived in what might ordinarily be considered grotesque. Another painting by Alma-Tadema which I found evocative was The Architect of the Coliseum (1875), the figure is privileged and the pensive look upon his face as his gaze settles on the ground was, I felt, extremely well conceived. Whilst the focus is supposed to be on the architectural achievement, for me at least, it felt that the figure was carrying the weight of expectation which made the experience more personal to the architect than the grand ambition. Undoubtedly the star of the show was The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888). The painting was incredible with delicately painted, yet effusively produced, roses, dispersed like confetti in the left hand side of the painting, though they appeared to be blowing in from the right. Faces peeked out from underneath and some of the men and women were locked in intense gazes. The woman dressed in softly draped materials looked out piercingly towards the spectator and you really felt drawn into the image and moment. Small studies had been made in advance of the larger painting and the sketches of these were placed around the room. The couch that Alma-Tadema had used in several other of his paintings was also there in the painting and available to be seen ‘in person’ in one of the other rooms. The room was also scented with Jo Malone diffusers from which wafted a rose scented perfume. It was an extremely sensory experience and one which I thought was immensely powerful. One challenge that I felt was experienced in the hanging of the exhibition was the often rather heavy varnish which was used and which, as a result, shone rather brightly on the canvases as it reflected the overhead lights. Exactly what could have been done about this I am not entirely sure but I wonder whether dimming the lights a little further might have made viewing some of the paintings (especially those on the staircase, and in particular Frederick Goodall’s The Finding of Moses) easier, as what I ended up doing was repositioning myself several times in order to see all the different parts. It was a really excellent exhibition and I was very pleased to have made it before it ends on the 6th April 2015.
The second exhibition was at the Victoria and Albert Museum, curated by Kieran Long and Rory Hyde, and I attended the free evening opening. It was far more popular than I had anticipated and I stood queuing (fairly cheerfully) whilst I waited to be let in at 8pm. Upon entering my first thought was: wow! There was live music, lots of people and the sort of cheerful atmosphere of a massive crowd of people that I found pleasant. I went to the bar expecting to buy a glass of something but became somewhat captivated by an elderflower and burdock drink which I succumbed to instead – I wasn’t sorry as it was lovely! The exhibition was entitled All this Belongs to You and featured five artists who each addressed the notion of public space and ownership in different ways: ‘five eyes’, ‘The Ethics of Dust’, ‘muf architecture’, ‘ways to be public’, ‘ways to be secret’ as well as a phonological clock and a series of civic objects. The first room I entered was in gallery 50 which had works reflecting on ‘ways to be public’. The work looked at the ways in which places are conceived and engaged with and the artist moved some of the works to different parts of the room to engage with different ways of seeing. There was a rather fantastic quilt knitted by 400 refugee women as well as boxes containing different artifacts relating to different places. The room though that I found most interesting was ‘five eyes’ which was conceived of by James Brindle; the name five eyes alluded to the five security agencies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. He had processed all of the 1.4 million digital records from the items in the V&A through an intelligence analysis system. This generated connections between items in really quite surprising ways and I thought addressed questions about the links that other intelligence forms create which are quite different from the ones that the human brain might ordinarily forge connections between. Each of the five glass cabinets had a series of documents and on top of these filed documents rested three physical objects. In terms of my own research and interest in material culture I found this especially thought provoking. ‘Ways to be Public’ looked at the continually evolving nature – and uses – of public spaces and this was in part visually reliant on the holographic photos which revealed – and hid – people depending upon where you stood. I suppose one of my anxieties about such an exhibition is inherently tied up with ways of seeing. The exhibition covers a good part of the V&A and you needed to actively move between rooms and floors. On this note I found two rather amazing things, a painting of “Florence Dombey’ and some celestial balls both of which connected very nicely with my research on Dickens and China! It seemed however that rather than seeing those parts of the gallery that were being walked through and, as a consequence, the paintings and artifacts that were passed, people were on a mission to find the ‘right’ room and the ‘right’ thing to look at. It made me reflect further upon our desire to engage fully with set ideas and somehow the notion of All this Belongs to You was lost at times by a drive to reach a room rather than to witness what was around us. The artists involved with these commissions managed, I felt, to negotiate in really exciting thought provoking, and evocative ways, the ideas under discussion and the connections we all have with public spaces. The exhibition has a series of events attached and ends 19th July 2015
My final exhibition this week was Sculpture Victorious which has been widely panned by the press (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-reviews/11429728/Sculpture-Victorious-Tate-Britain-review-its-incoherence-is-frightening.html ) however I very much enjoyed it! The exhibition was curated by Greg Sullivan who was assisted by Hannah Lyons and Caroline Corbeau-Parsons. The exhibition was wide ranging yet well organised and moved between six rooms under the following headings: The Image of Victoria; The Presence of History; Art and the Antique; Great Exhibitions; Commemoration and Craft and Art. Each room addressed a different notion, aspect or role of sculpture in the Victorian period and it made me reflect on the ways in which memorialisation facilitates an engagement with ideas, objects and people. In the room looking at the ‘Image of Victoria’ there were some wonderful busts of Victoria along with some coins. There was a Jamaican one-penny coin which looked very similar in design to our current two-pound coin. This made me think about an idea addressed at BAVS in 2013 at Royal Holloway by Professor Michael Hatt entitled ‘Numbering Sculpture’ in which one of the ideas he reflected on was that we all hold sculptures daily in the our purses through the coins that are present there. The coin itself made me reflect on the ways in which we often look backwards in history when designing them and how interest it was that, in my opinion we have borrowed a design. The busts of Victoria were interesting too in as much as they showed the physical changes of the monarch, some of which were less sympathetic than they might have been anticipated to have been. In the second room, ‘ The Presence of History’, there was among other things a highly decorated staff featuring Jesus at the top and the disciples lower with a trailing plant around the main body. Perhaps unsurprisingly the room that focused on the Great Exhibitions really caught my attention! There was also a musical piece that accompanied a sculpture and this reminded me of the way that A Victorian Obsession’ had made the experience of viewing a piece more sensory. The two most prominent pieces were an elephant from 1889 made from lead and majolica and a peacock, made from the same materials that managed to survive a shipwreck. They were vibrantly coloured and the attention to detail was striking. The other piece that I was especially interested in was a finely carved piece of limewood in a glass cabinet which depicted a hung bird with ivy and a snail – it reminded me of some of the cabinets you find in the Natural History Museum of the birds. Equally of note were the small ivory pieces, one of which showed two men working on two pieces of carving and an already carved elephant. It was very small but I was amazed by the detail. The room looking at ‘Commemoration’ was interesting with a series of pieces as well as a video. I did not know that the Eros sculpture at Shaftesbury Avenue had originally had small goblets attached and had been intended as a public drinking point. Apparently some of the vessels had been cut off which marred the celebrations. I suppose, somewhat idealistically, I had not thought of Victorian vandalism – I think of it more as a twentieth and twenty first century issue but clearly I am wrong. The final room looked at some work by Edward Burne-Jones as well as a rather striking piece entitled ‘Pandora’s Box’ in which Pandora held, in a different medium, ivory, a box. The contrast in textures created an unusual effect but one which was highly successful.
The thing that concerned me about this exhibition, and something that I spoke with one of the guides about, afterwards was the expense. In a public institution like The Tate, I rather feel there is duty to make things financially manageable for all visitors. You were not allowed to take photos inside the exhibition and when you left, thinking perhaps that you would buy a few postcards instead, not only were they more expensive than anticipated there was also only a limited range so, the very things that one might want a postcard of, couldn’t be had! The exhibition catalogue was prohibitively expensive (£50). It was explained to me that a lot of items on display did not belong to the Tate and that the catalogue had, had to be outsourced to a different company. I was also told that the Tate’s budget, quite shockingly, had been cut by 1 million pounds. I am not criticising the institution itself, it does wonderful work, there are a massive range of paintings which are always free to view, and it is only the special exhibitions which are charged for, but I do feel that in order for all visitors to be able to enjoy some of the aspects that one can take home, that these should be a little less pricey. I do also want to add that usually the Tate’s exhibition catalogues are around the £25 pound mark but this is when they are produced by The Tate. This exhibition ends on the 25th May and I would suggest that the very negative reviews were put to one side so that you can draw your own conclusions after viewing it; I thought it was thoughtfully curated and presented a stimulating range of works.
So, I will now draw to a close. I have to say I have enjoyed every visit I have made to the galleries this week but this week really is an exception to the rule in as much that three exhibitions in one week is really quite a luxury and won’t be occurring too often! I am looking forward to visiting the British Museum on Wednesday and viewing the exhibition Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art.