Alexander McQueen at the V&A

I went to see the McQueen show at the V&A — ‘Savage Beauty’, the same one that was previously at the Met — and it was terrific: enormously varied and inventive, with loads of striking and interesting stuff to look at. Being a bit sleep-deprived after staying up late to watch the election results come in (and what a depressing vigil that turned out to be), I did find it all a bit oppressive by the end; too much visual stimulus, loud music, dark rooms and spotlights. It’s the feeling I get when I’ve been in a supermarket for too long.

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Still, the frocks were great. Like a lot of haute couture, much of it is spectacular but barely wearable, and it’s tempting to call it ‘theatrical’, although in fact theatre rarely has this kind of spectacular costume; and film perhaps even less so. It reminded me how terrific the Jean-Paul Gaultier costumes are in Fifth Element; it would be great if more films had that kind of extravagant visual aesthetic. Imagine a superhero movie with the costumes designed by Alexander McQueen, instead of the blandly, generically ‘cool’ versions that the studios manage to produce. Or one of the new Star Wars movies, or the Lord of the Rings; movies set in alien worlds where anything is possible, and with enough money to actually make these kind of incredibly labour-intensive costumes… wouldn’t it be great if they were just able to be a bit stranger, and more extravagantly individual?

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I was slightly uncomfortable with some of the tribal-influenced collections though; I’m generally a bit wary of claims of cultural appropriation, just because throughout history, culture has always been invigorated by the mixing together of influences from different traditions. I understand why people are uncomfortable with white European fashion designers using ‘exotic’ influences in their designs in a rather unthinking way, but I think it can be done in a way which is fairly innocent — although as a white European man perhaps I’m just showing my biases.

However: taking a load of imagery from indigenous African and South American peoples, lumping it all together as ‘tribal’, combining it with animal imagery and throwing around a lot of rhetoric about primitivism and the noble savage… that is definitely the wrong way to do it.

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» Images all from the Met website for the exhibition and © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce.

 

Steve Jobs and William Morris

In my post about Steve Jobs I quoted William Morris’s famous dictum ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’.

I just wanted to say: yes, I am aware of the irony of quoting a socialist and anti-industrialist in praise of a great capitalist, a titan of industry who sold products by the hundreds of millions, each one assembled by low-paid workers in vast, sterile, soulless factories in China.

But then Morris’s vision of handmade, artisan production was quixotic even when applied to things like furniture and books; he couldn’t uninvent the industrial revolution. It certainly wouldn’t work for smartphones.

And to leave the politics to one side for a moment; aesthetically the Arts and Crafts movement was a reaction against the way that mass production cheapened and coarsened material culture. It was a reaction to all those second-rate industrially produced imitations of traditional craftsmanship. Well, Apple’s best products have also fought against the shoddy and second-rate; but instead of rejecting mass production, Jobs wanted to do it right.

I suppose Morris would argue that was little consolation to those workers in their factory in China.

» The wallpaper is Morris’s ‘Fruit’ pattern. I picked it because it includes some apples.

Steve Jobs RIP

On the desk in front of me are a computer and an external hard drive for backup. The computer is a 24″ aluminium iMac from 2007, and the hard drive is a Western Digital My Book Pro from about the same time.

The iMac is 4 years old, so the novelty value has long worn off, but I still get a degree of satisfaction from looking at it: it’s an obviously high quality object, well-made and well-proportioned. The design, with the whole computer and screen suspended from an angled metal foot, might be precarious if it was done badly; but in fact it is solid as a rock, and the angle of the screen adjusts easily but stays where you put it. The Apple logo on the front is the same glossy black as the screen surround and contrasts with the soft, non-glossy brushed aluminium of the body.

The hard drive is designed in broadly the same style: it’s a plain metal box formed out of rounded rectangles, with a simple glowing blue ring on the front. But the metal doesn’t have the same quality of finish as the computer: it’s greyer and slightly shinier, and it’s held together by an ugly plastic rim that immediately makes the whole thing look cheap. And it’s flimsier, and it’s been manufactured via a cheaper process; I think the iMac was machined out of a block of aluminium, whereas the hard drive looks like it was made by bending sheets of metal into shape. And the logo etched onto the side is a bit ugly. And the grille on the top is cut with an odd pattern of square holes and slots which is presumably intended to be attractive but just looks like design for the sake of design. And having managed to find, download and install the right driver to make the button on the front work, it now communicates with me via an arbitrary and completely unintuitive system of flashing lights: if the light is going round in a circle, that means one thing; flashing means something else; a steady light means something different again. If I ever need to know what they mean, I look it up in the manual, then immediately forget again.

Don’t get me wrong, the Western Digital drive is entirely good enough for my purposes and I would cheerfully recommend it to a friend. And despite my nitpicking, it’s not a hideous object, it’s a normal-looking bit of consumer electronics. I’ve seen much worse. But when Apple made the iMac, they didn’t settle for ‘good enough’, ‘not hideous’ and ‘normal looking’. They made something excellent.

I know Steve Jobs didn’t personally design my iMac. The credit for that has to go to Jony Ive and his team. But Jony Ive was already at Apple before Jobs came back, and the company wasn’t winning any design awards. And I bet there are talented designers working at Samsung and Nokia and Sony and even Microsoft. But what Jobs did was create the environment where design is able to survive. He made sure that the good work of designers was not always being undermined by the pressure to ship products quicker, to make them cheaper, to include badly-executed features so you can list them on the box. I bet there are amazing, beautiful prototypes sitting in labs at HP and Sony and Samsung; but at Steve Jobs’s Apple they were still beautiful when they reached the customer.

William Morris said ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’. Under Jobs, Apple made products that were more beautiful — something that seemed to irritate a lot of technology people, who apparently regard the quest for beauty as suspicious and potentially subversive. But they also made products that were more useful, because Jobs understood that it doesn’t matter how many things a device can do; it only becomes more useful if you actually use it, and you only use it if it’s easy enough to use.

‘The Cult of Beauty’ at the V&A

The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900. I’m tempted to sum up the exhibition as ‘The Pre-Raphaelites and their furniture’, given my recent post about how much I dislike the Pre-Raphaelites. But actually the exhibition is rather broader than than that. The Pre-Raphs do feature heavily, but it’s also the Arts and Crafts movement, Japonisme and so on; lots of Whistler, William Morris, a bit of Aubrey Beardsley, and designers like Christopher Dresser and Edward William Godwin.

And although most of this stuff is not to my taste, the V&A does this kind of exhibition superbly well. The quality of the exhibits is extremely high (I would expect nothing less), and it is always interesting to see fine art and decorative art from the same cultural moment displayed together; so often we see paintings hanging in plain, austere galleries, with no context but each other.

All the things that annoy me about the Pre-Raphaelites annoy me much less when it comes to furniture and ceramics and wallpaper. My problem with them, essentially, is that they are superficial: flashy, decorative, overly obvious. And the way that the paintings tend to pick other ancient or exotic cultures and reduce them to a stylistic quirk actually offers a clear parallel with the ‘Japanese’ furniture of the time. But it doesn’t bother me because after all, the decorative arts are, well, decorative. The moment you make a table which tries to do anything other than provide a stable flat surface, or a pot which does anything other than hold water, you are in the world of decoration and surface. Which isn’t intended to belittle those things: I’m fascinated by design, I love beautiful objects and I think that anyone who works to make sure that the objects around us give us pleasure is doing something very important.

But it says something about my different relationship with ‘fine art’ that I actually find Pre-Raphaelite paintings almost offensive. They irritate me in a way I can’t say I’ve often been irritated by a wardrobe or a candlestick, however ugly or ill-conceived I might think it is. I might be similarly annoyed by an object which doesn’t work properly because of bad design, but not usually by simple ugliness. What exactly that says about me… I’m not sure.

The figure who sits slightly oddly at the centre of this exhibition is Whistler. He seems stylistically apart the other artists; his paintings are exercises in understatement and control, and instead of scenes from myth and legend, he mainly paints people in houses. There’s a painting in the show (no doubt called something like Symphony in White) of a girl in a white dress. Apparently, when other people offered ingenious interpretations he insisted that, on the contrary, it was just what it looked like: a girl in a white dress standing in front of a white curtain.

So it’s tempting to see him as out of place in this exhibition, to think that really he should be over in some other gallery, maybe with the Impressionists. But clearly he is part of the same movement. There’s a room he designed for someone’s house (or at least a projection of it you can walk into) and it is full of the typical aesthetic motifs: peacocks, sunflowers, bamboo, blue and white porcelain. In his hands it’s rather lovely, I think; a lot of the interiors in the exhibition look like they would be claustrophobically busy — decorative knickknacks arranged on decorative furniture in front of elaborately patterned wallpapers and richly coloured patterned fabrics. Whistler uses the same motifs and while the result is still pretty full-on, with lots of strong colours and decoration everywhere, it is relatively cohesive and elegant. Even so, it’s hard to reconcile the richly decorative style with the simplicity of his paintings.

Although, having said all that, the exhibition did provide a good example of why the whole concept of ‘good taste’ should be treated with suspicion. In about the second or third room there was a group of paintings by Albert Joseph Moore. In some ways they are fairly typically Pre-Raphaelite: blank-eyed women with indistinguishable faces lounging around wearing ‘classical’ robes in a generically exotic interior. But the palette is all restrained pastels, and composition is carefully balanced and designed around a strict grid system. And I found myself thinking that’s a bit more like it, because they were more ‘tasteful’. But that seem like a pretty dismal way of thinking. To prefer the anaemic, milquetoast, decaffeinated version because it’s more restful: well, it’s not exactly going to produce art which is ambitious and interesting.

It is a fascinating conflict: I do think our lives would be hugely improved if more of the things around us showed evidence of good taste. Buildings, household appliances, packaging, signage, clothes, websites, books, posters, furniture… we are surrounded by things which are ugly or just mediocre. Which make our lives just slightly worse rather than better. But I also think that good taste is the great enemy of creativity and individuality, a stifling force that needs to be continually pushed back against. Especially since it is very difficult to separate an even somewhat objective idea of ‘good taste’ from simple social conformity.

» The vase is designed by Walter Crane, the sideboard by E.W. Godwin, the sconce by Thomas Jekyll, the wallpaper by William Morris, and the teapot by Christopher Dresser. The two paintings are Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 2: Portrait of Thomas Carlyle by Whistler, and Reading Aloud by Albert Joseph Moore.

‘Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes’ at the V&A

I went along to the Diaghilev exhibition at the V&A. He’s kind of an interesting figure to name an exhibition after, since he was an impresario, rather than an artist or designer, or even a composer or choreographer. But under his stewardship, the Ballets Russes really does seem to have been an extraordinary focal point for European culture. I’m a complete philistine about music and ballet, so none of the choreographers meant anything to me, and the only dancer I’d heard of was Nijinsky; but even I’ve heard of composers like Prokofiev, Satie and of course Stravinsky. And even I know that the first performance of The Rite of Spring is one of the significant cultural moments of the twentieth century.

And I’m slightly less of a philistine about art, so I’ve definitely heard of some of the people who designed sets and costumes for him: Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, André Derain, Giorgio de Chirico, Natalia Goncharova, Coco Chanel. And apparently Joan Míro and Salvador Dalí as well, although neither of them featured in this exhibition. And that’s apart from some, like Léon Bakst, who are specifically known for their design work for the ballet. It is a hell of a list.

And it’s a fun exhibition: lots of cheery colours, and gorgeous costumes that have a battered glamour to them; and costume designs, which are often even more appealing than the costumes themselves. And the single largest item in the V&A collection: the back cloth for one of their ballets.

I also checked out the Raphael tapestries. Pope Leo X commissioned Raphael to design a set of tapestries with scenes from the lives of St Peter and St Paul, to hang in the Sistine Chapel, and one of the treasures of the V&A is the Raphael cartoons: i.e. the full size painted designs which the weavers worked from. To coincide with the current Pope visiting the UK, the Vatican has lent four of the actual tapestries to hang alongside the paintings for a bit.

And they’re quite interesting to see, although they have rather fallen victim to changing tastes. The Raphael cartoons have always been regarded as some of the most important bits of Renaissance art in Britain, but I don’t think I’m alone in finding them a bit unsympathetic. It’s not just the subject matter, although that doesn’t help; there’s something about these monumental groups of posed figures that is just a tiny bit, um, boring. Maybe it’s the self-conscious grandeur of them; these really are the Catholic equivalent of Socialist Realism. Then again, if Stalin had had people like Raphael and Michelangelo available, Socialist Realism might have been pretty fabulous.

» Top: costumes for female dancers in The Rite of Spring. Designed by Nikolai Roerich, 1913. Bottom: costume for a ‘Negro Lackey’ from The Sleeping Princess. Designed by Léon Bakst, 1921.

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot and Ron Arad at the Barbican

I went along yesterday to see the new commission by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot in the Curve gallery at the Barbican. You may have seen it on YouTube, where it has been a bit of a hit:

The set-up in the video isn’t exactly the same as the one in the gallery, but it gives you the idea: a flock of zebra finches in a room with electric guitars and up-turned cymbals, who ‘play’ the instruments by hopping around and perching on them. They are free-flying in the gallery, and you can walk on paths between the instruments.

It’s an immediately appealing idea and quite memorable, so it will probably be something of a hit, at least by the standards of contemporary art installations. To be honest, though, I thought it was less striking in reality than it was in neatly-edited little close-ups on YouTube. It was more like being in a slightly odd aviary than in some kind of extraordinary art-place. People did seem to be enjoying it, though. I slightly wonder how much of that was just the pleasure of being in among all these very tame little birds, but perhaps I’m just projecting my own reactions. I did inevitably go into birdy-man mode, noticing that they were piking up nesting material and looking in vain for somewhere to put it, wondering why they were pecking a concrete wall, looking for mating behaviour.

And while zebra finches aren’t exactly imbued with an enormous amount of dignity at the best of times, there was something slightly off-putting about seeing these little birds with their own aims and desires in life being cajoled into being art. I’m not suggesting it was inhumane: they had grass and food and water, and lots of room, so by cagebird standards it seemed like pretty good accommodation.

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  • "These large gummed labels – known as cloth tickets, shippers tickets, or bolt tickets – were attached to bales of printed cotton cloth for export from Britain (read 'Manchester' in many cases). They were designed by British artists who depended on information from company agents in the various territories for subjects that were intended to be appealing for their markets.

    Most of these probably date from around the 1920s to the 1950s (but I could be wrong) and were intended for the African market. "

    (del.icio.us tags: design labels Africa )

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‘Rodchenko & Popova’ at Tate Modern

I went to ‘Rodchenko & Popova: Defining Constructivism’ at Tate Modern today. I’ve seen quite a few exhibitions in the past few years that feature Aleksandr Rodchenko*, so I wasn’t really sure how much I would get out of it, but in the event I enjoyed it. Firstly I didn’t know anything about Liubov Popova, and also they had a couple of rooms of paintings, which I certainly hadn’t seen many of before.

I think they were much better designers than painters, mind you — the paintings look like rather generic examples of early geometrical abstracts, to me — but it was still interesting to see them. And the graphic design work they had on display seemed to be a different selection from what I’d seen previously. So that was all good.

The Tate’s exhibition website doesn’t have much stuff on it — I’ve used most of the pictures in this post — but curiously enough, when I was looking for pictures, Google threw up the Tate’s Immunity from Seizure page which, currently as least, is full of (rather tiny) pictures of work from the exhibition. If you’re curious:

Part 6 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 provides immunity from seizure for cultural objects which are loaned from overseas to temporary public exhibitions in approved museums or galleries in the UK where conditions are met when the object enters the UK.

Or you could check out this page of Rodchenko stuff from Howard Schickler Fine Art in New York, or this from MoMA.

Incidentally, I was interested to note that they’ve started using touchscreen iPods for their multimedia guides. Last time I got an multimedia guide at the Tate, it was on a Windows Mobile-fuelled piece of crap of some kind and it annoyed me so much that I complained about it at some length afterwards. I didn’t try the guide today, so I can’t offer a comparison, but it seems like a move in the right direction.

* There was an exhibition of his photography at the Hayward; at one stage the Tate had a room displaying his photomontages for USSR in Construction; he also featured in the V&A’s Modernism exhibition and the British Library’s exhibition of printed material from the European Avant-Garde.

» both pictures from the Tate website; the top one is Liubov Popova’s Painterly Architectonic, 1918, and the bottom is Aleksandr Rodchenko’s design for an advertisement for the Mossel’ prom (Moscow agricultural industry) cafeteria, 1923.

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‘Breaking the Rules’ at the British Library

I realised that Breaking the Rules: The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900 – 1937 was about to close, so I popped in today for a quick gander. As ever at the BL, the range of material was impressive: they really do own a lot of stuff. Eliot, Bretton, Man Ray, Lorca, Mayakovsky, Ernst, Rodchenko… you name it, they’ve got it.

I started out carefully reading all the labels and conscientiously looking at each item, because I thought it was probably the kind of exhibition where background information and context would make all the difference. And it was interesting, but I still started to speed up fairly soon. There were some items that were nice pieces of design in their own right and had an immediate appeal even for the non-specialist; but rather more that didn’t. Particularly as they were all in languages I don’t read.

Mayakovsky's For The Voice

The material was mainly grouped by city; Paris and Moscow/St Petersburg had the biggest displays, but 30 cities were included, from all over Europe — Milan, Belgrade, Vienna, Barcelona, Brussels, Warsaw, Kiev, and so on — which did give a strong sense of this as a genuinely widespread movement. Or group of movements. Mind you, I didn’t pay that much attention to the dates, but they weren’t all active simultaneously. The exhibition covered a 37 year period, which is plenty of time for artistic fashions to sweep from one side of Europe and back again several times over.

They even made a case for London as an avant garde city, but it wasn’t completely convincing, somehow. For example, there were successful exhibitions of the Surrealists and the Futurists in London: but that’s not the same as producing the stuff ourselves. Perhaps I’m being unfair. Perhaps I just find it easier to take all these Frenchmen and Russians seriously because they’re French and Russian. Still, there was a good gag from Wyndham Lewis: apparently he supported his application for a British Army commission by saying that he had masterminded the Cubist invasion of Britain ‘without losing a single cube’.

» The picture is the cover of Для голоса (‘For the Voice’) by Mayakovsky, designed by El Lissitzky.

New iTunes icon for Leopard: Aphex Twin

Some time ago I made a whole set of icons for iTunes based on old 45s because I think that the Apple one just looks a bit cheap and tacky. I’m now using Leopard, the latest version of Apple’s OS, and Leopard uses super-large icons so that they look good in coverflow mode. So I felt the need to make a new version for myself.

Aphex Twin iTunes icon

This time, instead of old soul and reggae labels, I thought I’d make an homage to one of my favourite albums of all time: Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92. I don’t listen to this kind of bleepy music as much as I used to, but this album is about as good as it gets. It was released as a double LP, and I’ve used side C for the icon because that’s the side with a track called Ageispolis on it. You can get it as an .icns file here.

Helvetica, the movie

I went to see Helvetica today. It is, as the name suggests, a documentary about the typeface, which is 50 years old this year.

Helvetica sample

I enjoyed it. My usual feeling with factual-type documentaries like this (as opposed to narrative-type documentaries like, say, Spellbound) is that they are very slow; that given the same amount of information in written form, you could take it in about ten times quicker. There was something of that in Helvetica, but it’s a visual subject, so it’s well-suited to film. It’s always good to see people talking enthusiastically about their particular area of expertise, and between them the interviewees and the film-makers did a good job of communicating what’s special about Helvetica and placing it in its historical context. It is undoubtedly a remarkably good typeface although the more I saw it over and over again on screen, the more it started looking a bit dated. Not so dated as to be unusable; it’s surely good enough to be a permanent part of the repertoire for hundreds of years. Just a bit tired.

I think you’d need some degree of interest in graphic design to enjoy the film, but you probably don’t need to be a die-hard type geek. My biggest complaint is actually with the cinema; they had the sound too loud and gave me a headache.

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