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.

mcqueen

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.

 

Exhibition roundup: History is Now, Marlene Dumas, & Cotton to Gold

The South Bank Centre is marking 70 years since the end of WW2 with a collection of events entitled Changing Britain. The Hayward Gallery’s contribution is an exhibition History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain.

Filtering collective history through their individual perspectives, seven British artists of different generations and backgrounds – John Akomfrah, Simon Fujiwara, Roger Hiorns, Hannah Starkey, Richard Wentworth and Jane and Louise Wilson – each curate distinct sections of the exhibition and provide their unique ‘take’ on recent British history.

As you might imagine, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. John Akomfrah has selected a whole range of films from the Arts Council Film Collection, which I pretty much skipped, because who has the patience to watch seventeen different pieces of video art in a row? I hope some people do, but not me. Roger Hiorns has put together a whole exhibition of material related to the BSE crisis, arranged chronologically, and I found it really interesting to go back and revisit that period but I’m not sure I was responding to it as art — whatever that means. The only reason it couldn’t have been an exhibition at the Science Museum is that contemporary art has a willingness to be more boring — or at least dense and text-heavy — than a traditional museum would dare.

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The two I enjoyed most were Hannah Starkey and Richard Wentworth. Hannah Starkey selected 70s, 80s and 90s photography from the Arts Council Collection, which she juxtaposed with commercial photography in a somewhat heavy-handed but still effective way. So glossy ads for fashion and booze were contrasted with grimy, peeling 1980s unemployment offices and so on. I don’t know if that contrast was absolutely necessary — the photographs would have been effective on their own — but it was still good. Richard Wentworth’s was the most crowd-pleasing section. To quote the blurb: ‘Through his eclectic selection of objects, artworks and artefacts Wentworth takes us from post-war austerity to the optimism of the 1950s and into the gloom and paranoia of the Cold War.’ So there was some art by people like Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, and Henry Moore, lots of press clippings, lots of old books which were thematically appropriate but also appealing for their mid-century graphic design, various objects like a 1950s TV, and most dramatically a decommissioned anti-aircraft rocket launcher out on the balcony.

Meanwhile at Tate Modern they have Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden. Marlene Dumas is a South African artist who paints rough, blobby paintings, nearly all of people. I enjoyed it much more than I expected because the Tate have done a terrible job of marketing it. Or at least a terrible job of marketing it to me. All the pictures I’d seen made her work look dismal and unattractive, and quite a lot of it is a bit like that: lacking immediate visual appeal (which is not the same as being bad, but doesn’t make me rush to go and see it). Particularly, there are paintings in black ink which are dark and grey and miserable looking. But actually her larger oils are much more likeable, and some of them are even quite colourful. I didn’t come out of the exhibition as her biggest fan, but I certainly liked it more than I thought I would.

And at Two Temple Place is Cotton to Gold: Extraordinary Collections of the Industrial North West. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were some people in Lancashire making a hell of a lot of money from cotton mills and other industry. And some of them put that money into collecting historical manuscripts, or old coins, or beetles, or Turner watercolours, or Japanese woodcuts… With the result that there are apparently some particularly notable regional museums up there. But for the moment a lot of those coins and beetles and whatnot have been lent to Two Temple Place.

It’s an enjoyable kind of exhibition to visit: the building is attractive, entry is free, and if one cabinet leaves you cold, well, the next one will have something completely different. Last year they had a similar exhibition of items from the various University of Cambridge collections; I think that one was better, with more varied and more remarkable exhibits, but Cotton to Gold is enjoyably eclectic in the same way.

» The painting is Evil is Banal, Marlene Dumas, 1984. Collection Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands. © Marlene Dumas. Photo credit: Peter Cox, Eindhoven, The Netherlands.

‘Venice: Canaletto and his Rivals’ at the National Gallery

On to more cheerful subjects — I went to see the Canaletto exhibition at the NG the other day. Which i enjoyed, entirely predictably; because I’m not sure Canaletto is one of the very greatest painters in the European tradition, but he is one of the most likeable. I’ve never seen a Canaletto I wouldn’t like to own. He clearly had a bit of conveyer belt going on at one stage, producing standard views of Venice for English tourists, but even at their most formulaic, his paintings are cheerful, decorative and full of engaging details.

This exhibition puts his career in the context of other painters of Venetian view paintings at the time, which makes for interesting comparisons. For example, there are three paintings displayed alongside each other of regattas on the Grand Canal, one by Canaletto and the others by, I think, Michele Marieschi and Bernardo Bellotto. The stylistic differences are interesting, but the most striking thing is how differently they portray the physical reality of the scene; the canal is about half as wide in the Marieschi* as the Canaletto, presumably to create a livelier, more crowded scene.

The other two most notable things, for me, were Canaletto’s early style and the works of Francesco Guardi. Canaletto’s earliest paintings of Venice were rather looser, with much broader brushstrokes; but they are also greyer and a bit grittier. They don’t have that amazing glowing Mediterranean light which is so much part of the later works, but also they make Venice look a bit shabby, a bit dirty; a city of faded glories. There’s a painting of St Mark’s square with market stalls clustered around the bottom of the basilica and campanile, and the size of the building makes the rather ragged stalls and people look paltry and insignificant, while the stalls in turn undercut the grandeur of the basilica.

I wouldn’t want to read too much into it — I daresay he was aiming for straightforward realism rather than biting social commentary — but it does make you realise how much more flattering his later paintings are. They are all glowing and sparkly, and while they do still have disreputable looking characters in them, they now look like lively local colour rather than slightly seedy. I have to say I rather liked the early paintings, but I can see why it was the later work that was so commercially successful. I don’t know whether he consciously changed his style specifically to make his work more marketable: it seems quite likely. And why not, after all.

And the Francesco Guardi paintings were interesting to me just because I was unfamiliar with his work. It’s much more stylised than Canaletto, with suggestive little brushstrokes and curious little pin-headed figures. You can see why his work was rediscovered and celebrated by C19th artists as being ahead of his time; he’s clearly moving in the direction of painters like, to make the obvious Venice comparison, Turner. Like Turner, he favoured scenes with a lot of water and sky — boats on the lagoon, rather than, or as well as, more architectural subjects.

* I think. I suppose I could try taking notes at these exhibitions if I’m going to blog about them later… nah.

» The picture is a detail from Francesco Guardi’s Venice: The Giudecca with the Zitelle.

‘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.

Physical tumbling

I went along to the V&A today to check out the second phase of their new ceramics display. The first phase was arranged by technique and theme; the new bit is by place and date. Some of the displays have helpful information, but much of it is effectively the collection being stored in plain view: all-glass cabinets with shelf after shelf of ceramics packed five or six objects deep.

It means that they’re not always as easy to see properly, and there’s no accompanying information, but it’s a way of making as much of the collection visible as possible: over 26,500 pieces in the new section, apparently.

I’ve actually spent a lot of time recently browsing the V&A’s collection online find things to post to A London Salmagundi. It was a healthy reminder that, although it’s marvellous that they are making such an effort to digitise their collections, and no matter how endlessly fascinating it is searching through museum collections online, there’s nothing quite like being close enough to appreciate the actual physicality of an object: the textures, the way it catches the light.

Or even more basic, the size. I posted this picture of a porcelain goat made by Meissen in 1732, and it’s a striking image; but nothing about that picture prepares you for the fact that it is over two foot long. Nearly life size — for rather a small goat, at least. Apparently it weighs 25kg.

Unfortunately the technology is not yet there for me to have a physical tumblelog. Although having an image blog is a kind of curation, I can’t, sadly, actually choose real objects and put them in front of my readers.

I suppose the closest I could come would be if the V&A gave me a long display case and the licence to roam the museum, picking out objects. Then I could put each new choice at one end of the case and shift all the rest a few inches further along; and as each one reached the other end, I would take it out and put it back where it belonged.

In fact, if anyone from the V&A is reading this: have your people call my people. Let’s see if we can work something out.

‘Picasso: The Mediterranean Years (1945-1962)’ at the Gagosian Gallery

Or ‘Picasso: The Cheerful Years’. I have no idea how cheerful or otherwise Picasso really was during the late 40s and 50s, but that’s the impression given by this exhibition.

The style which is most famously used in his earlier work, in paintings like Guernica and the Weeping Woman, to express something about the darker sides of the human experience, is here used in cheery, brightly coloured pictures of children playing.

A painting certainly doesn’t need gloomy subject matter to have artistic merit, but even so, this felt like Picasso-Lite; enjoyable enough, but more decorative, less intense. And why not, after all. He didn’t have anything to prove by that point.

‘The Wyeth Family’ at DPG

The Wyeth Family: Three Generations of American Art is an interesting little exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

There are three main Wyeths featured: N.C. Wyeth, an illustrator notable for cheerily technicolor illustrations for books of adventure stories; his son Andrew Wyeth, the most famous of the three, who painted highly realistic, formally composed, rather chilly new England landscapes, often with figures in them; and his son Jamie Wyeth, who paints rather freer, rather more colourful paintings, also largely of New England subjects. Andrew is clearly the pick of the bunch, though I certainly would have loved reading books with N.C.’s illustrations when I was a child… you’ve got to love pictures with titles like Sir Nigel Sustains England’s Honor in the Lists, Up and down went the long, shining blades with flash of sparks at every parry. Jamie is the least interesting of the three.

Although there can’t have been many exhibitions which cover the whole C20th, from 1916 to the present, and show less influence of Modernism. This really is Ron Silliman’s School of Quietude in paint. But since the SoQ appellation always annoyed me when applied to poetry, I’m not going to complain on that basis. Avant-Gardeism for its own sake doesn’t strike me as particularly worthy, and I’ve seen far too much boring contemporary art already, thank you. On the other hand, if you are going to be this technically conservative, you’d better be good, because unambitious mediocrity is really deadening. Andrew Wyeth I think clearly is good enough and distinctive enough to stand out from the crowd a bit… I’m not sure Jamie Wyeth is, though.

‘Rude Britannia’ at Tate Britain

I went along to Rude Britannia, the Tate’s exhibition of ‘British Comic Art’. Which was likeable enough, although much of the ground covered is pretty obvious: Hogarth, James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson, Gerald Scarfe, Steve Bell, Spitting Image, Donald McGill, Viz. Bits of Punch, Aubrey Beardsley, Beryl Cook. There are also some pieces from the contemporary fine art world: the Chapman brothers, Sarah Lucas, Grayson Perry.

All of which is somewhat interesting and even sporadically amusing — although both 200-year-old social satire and wryly humorous conceptual art tend to be quiet-smile-funny rather than uncontrollable-belly-laughter-funny.

I suppose the suggestions is that there is some kind of overarching narrative about the British sense of humour or the British approach to art, but I’m not completely convinced. I guess if you were not British and were encountering all this material together for the first time, you would come away with a somewhat coherent overall impression: a kind of anarchic vulgarity which attempts to undermine anyone’s attempts at self-importance. Scatological humour and knob gags not just for their own sake but also because they are the enemy of dignity.

» Donald McGill, A Stick of Rock, Cock?
British Cartoon Archive, University of Kent
© Donald McGill Archive

Exhibition roundup: Nash, quilts, Moore

Dulwich Picture Gallery currently has an exhibition of the English painter Paul Nash, best known I guess for his work as a war artist in both world wars. I know I first encountered him at school, when we were doing Wilfred Owen or Robert Graves or someone.

This exhibition did include some of that work, but also provided a bit of context for me. It was certainly interesting to see the kind of surrealist/symbolist paintings he did, often of the English landscape, when it wasn’t wartime. But it wasn’t really to my taste; it didn’t trigger that acquisitive urge. All else being equal, I am drawn to paintings which use strong, clear colours and sharply defined forms: Vermeer, El Greco, Matisse. Provençal Van Gogh rather than Flanders Van Gogh. Paul Nash is kind of the opposite: grey-brown tones and splodgy brushwork.

Meanwhile, the V&A has its first exhibition of British quilts, Quilts 1700-2010. I went to see it at an evening event in aid of Fine Cell Work, a charity that teaches prison inmates to do needlework as a rehabilitation exercise. There’s a quilt in the exhibition made by inmates with FCW; it is given context by a quilt made in a Japanese POW camp and one made by inmates on a prison ship who were being transported to Australia in 1841. Not surprisingly, the exhibition is keen to tease out this kind of social history from the quilts, but the other pleasure of it is just the extremely high quality of work on show. I’m fairly familiar with this stuff — my mother is a keen quilter — but they really have put together some great pieces.

The curator of the exhibition has managed to seriously annoy my mother by coming out with stuff like this in the Guardian:

Curator Sue Prichard thinks this enthusiasm is partly due to the global downturn. “I started on this project in 2004. Now there is a huge revival of interest in traditional crafts. There are a lot of women out there who are really keen to learn new skills and step away from their computer and their Blackberry.”

or in the Times:

Ms Pritchard said she hoped that the museum would inspire a revival of the craft through workshops that would teach people traditional techniques.

Because if there’s one traditional craft which didn’t need a revival, it’s quilting. That’s what appeals to me about quilting; it’s a genuinely living tradition, a vernacular art form which is thriving. It doesn’t need to be supported by government grants, it’s not the preserve of a handful of obsessive enthusiasts. Quilt shows are big business; indeed, the V&A’s exhibition is their most successful ever in terms of advance ticket sales. If there’s one criticism I have of the exhibition, it’s that it doesn’t give much sense of the liveliness of that current tradition. That gripe aside, it’s well worth visiting.

And finally Henry Moore at Tate Britain. Henry Moore was perhaps the biggest name in British art in the mid-C20th century, but he’s probably been rather out of fashion for a couple of decades, so it’s quite interesting to see this big show at the Tate.

Rather like the Paul Nash, I can’t say this particularly excited me, though it had its moments. Moore’s sculptures are often quite appealing as objects, with their curves, and the textural qualities of the materials; but it often feels like they are attractive in the same way as a weathered tree stump. Don’t get me wrong, I like a weathered tree stump as much as the next person, but I kind of feel that art could aim a bit higher than that.

The most interesting bits were probably the famous drawings of people sheltering in the Underground during the Blitz. Even though he makes the people look so much like his own sculptures, they have more impact than the sculptures themselves. They seem to hit a sweet spot between sculptural dignity and living humanity. There were some fine pictures of coal miners at work that managed the same trick.

Some of his post-War sculpture had some of the same human vulnerability and oddness, a bit of edge to it; but generally he seems to have reverted to weathered tree stump territory. Perhaps his greatest strength was a knack for producing sculptures that really worked as public art: large scale, impressive, and just about modern enough while unlikely to offend anyone.

‘The Kingdom of Ife’ at the British Museum

I went to the BM to see the exhibition of art from the medieval west African kingdom of Ife (now in Nigeria). Ife is most famous for some extraordinarily high quality naturalistic heads cast in brass or copper, although the exhibitions also has various other pieces, including terracotta heads in the same style, jewellery, animal pieces and so on.

These heads are of such high quality that one of the first Europeans to see them felt they couldn’t possibly have been made by Africans: instead he hypothesised that they were evidence for the lost civilisation of Atlantis. Which is, umm, a bit cringeworthy. You know you’ve got a bit of a blind spot when you think that Atlantis is a more likely explanation than a previously unknown African kingdom with a strong metalworking tradition. Its especially embarrassing because while it sounds like something some Elizabethan explorer might have come up with, it was in fact… in 1900. Yikes.

He was at least right that these are genuinely remarkable objects, superbly crafted and of great beauty. In fact if you judge art by how much it looks like the thing it portrays — the Daily Mail school of art criticism — there is something extraordinary about this little flowering of naturalistic sculpture in a continent dominated by various kinds of highly stylised art. Certainly that was the Western press reaction when the bulk of the work was found; references to an African Donatello, to African sculpture standing comparison with the great works of Greece and Italy, and to these sculptures being a great mystery of African art. Because, of course, there is no higher ambition than to produce work which fits tidily into the European tradition, and it is inherently mysterious that Africans should be able to do it.

I’m being a bit glib, but actually the exhibition had me examining my own preconceptions about art (I haven’t reached any conclusions yet). Although these days we are all much quicker to see beauty in ‘primitive’ art, not least because its profound influence on Modernism helped change our expectations of what ‘fine art’ looks like, I think most of us have at least an implicit sense of a hierarchy which sees exquisite representational art as, if not better, then more developed or more sophisticated than the highly stylised carvings which we normally associate with Africa. And so these Ife heads seem to carry a significance beyond their beauty.

But the emergence of naturalism really require any special explanation? I guess it might need a society wealthy enough for some people to work as nearly full-time artists, but beyond that maybe all it needs is a shift in fashion. In fact, perhaps representational art is the kind that needs least explanation, since the logic of ‘making things that look like other things’ is so straightforward.

All such questions aside: it’s a marvellous exhibition and if you’re passing through London in the next three months you you should go and see it.

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.

Chris Ofili at Tate Britain

Chris Ofili is a contemporary British artist who is, I suppose, best known for using balls of elephant dung in his paintings. Indeed I’ve been well-disposed towards Ofili for years, ever since The Daily Mail or some other self-consciously philistine rag decided to be terribly outraged when he was nominated for the Turner Prize. It’s always irritating when hard-nosed tabloid journalists pretend to have the delicate sensibilities of Victorian spinsters, but it particularly irritated me because actually elephant dung is really very innocuous stuff: I remember reading about palaeontologists in Africa having ‘snowball’ fights with elephant dung, which gives you an idea of how harmless it is. They eat lots of dry vegetable matter and it passes through them barely digested, emerging almost as tightly-bundled balls of hay.

In retrospect, this quibble about the particular characteristics of elephant dung was rather missing the point. Especially since when you look at the early paintings he clearly was being intentionally provocative; for example, one of the titles is 7 Bitches Tossing their Pussies Before the Divine Dung. And several works with ‘shit’ in the title, like the distinctly creepy little sculpted head, made with elephant dung, dreadlocks and human teeth, called Shithead. And the painting of the Virgin Mary surrounded by snippets cut from pornographic magazines. Indeed, if you’re an artist who wants to shock people the Daily Mail* provides a valuable service; it must be difficult to find anyone easily offended in the world of contemporary art.

Not that the dung is just there to wind people up; it’s also a symbol of Ofili’s African background. Apparently he started using elephant dung after a trip to Zimbabwe, along with a dot-painting style inspired by cave paintings in the Matobo hills. The style developed into elaborate paintings that combine paint with collage, sequins, resin in layer after layer, and the effect is both decorative and very visually engaging: there’s a lot to look at in these paintings. The major theme is, broadly, images of black identity: hip-hop and blaxploitation movies provide a lot of the visual cues. These paintings really are gorgeous as objects, which always helps.

Over time his paintings got less aggressively confrontational and more, um, spiritual, I guess. But he still kept developing that style, with the dots and the elephant dung and so on, in various different ways, until recently he clearly felt he had taken it as far as it could go, because his latest paintings are quite different, much more straightforward, painted with big sweeps of colour. I’m sorry to say I wasn’t really keen on these new works: they didn’t have the same visual impact and they just felt a bit insubstantial to me. But it will be interesting to see where he goes with them, because he’s a talented man.

* And, incidentally, Rudy Giuliani.

» The Adoration of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars 1998 © Chris Ofili. Courtesy Victoria Miro Gallery, London

‘The Real Van Gogh’ at the Royal Academy

Not that rubbishy fake Van Gogh that other galleries having been fobbing us off with, then.

The exhibition’s full title is ‘The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters’. The inclusion of some of Van Gogh’s letters supposedly provides a bit of biographical-intellectual-psychological context for the paintings. Which is an interesting idea, but calling it ‘The Real Van Gogh’ is still ridiculous.

The show hardly needs a special hook to attract the public’s attention; it is, somewhat surprisingly, the first major Van Gogh exhibition in London for 40 years, and I’m quite sure that it will be packed for the whole run. And rightly so: it has a lot of marvellous paintings in it. Van Gogh is so universally popular that the bloody-minded part of me almost wants to argue that he’s overrated, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Quite apart from anything else there is to say about his work, there is just such a lot of straightforward pleasure to be had from it.

Looking at the late landscapes I found myself thinking of El Greco: the strength of colour, the tension in the distorted forms, the stretching of the possibilities of figurative painting without losing that connection with real objects. By which I mean: he doesn’t seem to have been heading towards abstraction in that way that, in Cezanne’s landscapes, the mountain sometimes seems to be fragmenting into patterns of light and colour. Van Gogh’s landscapes are full of the thingness of things.

So it is a marvellous exhibition which I highly recommend. On the other hand I thought the letters were a bit of a sideshow. Most of them were written to his brother Theo; in the relatively short sections which the curators have translated from Flemish or French, Vincent talks about what he has been doing, how his work is going, and provides little ink sketches of the paintings he has been doing. It’s quite interesting; you do get some sense of his personality, of how articulate and thoughtful he was. And some of what he has to say about the work is somewhat interesting. But even without buying into the Death Of The Author idea that the artist’s life is irrelevant to understanding the work, I do think there is a limit to its value. Artists’ comments about their own work always seem so vague and generic compared to the specificity and particularity of the work itself; which I guess is why they end up as artists rather than writers. And the awkwardness of putting too much text in an exhibition mean that you’re not getting that much of Vincent’s thought anyway.

Perhaps there is a particular value in providing this kind of biographical material for Van Gogh, since he is probably still widely thought of as the mad genius artist. The letters at least give a more rounded sense of a real human being, since he comes across in them as, well, fairly normal. Intelligent, good with languages and incomprehensibly good with paint, but certainly not frothing at the mouth. I guess that point is worth making.

The Guildhall Art Gallery and Roman Amphitheatre

The Guildhall, for those who don’t know, was basically the town hall for medieval London; it is now the only surviving stone building in the City from before the Great Fire which isn’t a church. And, again for those who don’t know, when I say ‘the City’, I don’t mean ‘the city’; i.e. not the whole metropolis of London, but the City of London, the area within the medieval city walls, which now operated as its own special little fiefdom by the Corporation of the City of London. It’s the kind of place where you can’t throw a plate of tapas without hitting a banker or a lawyer.

The Guildhall Art Gallery is another gallery which I decided to check out because it’s on the Art Fund list and I’d never been there. Unlike the Guildhall, the gallery building is fairly new. The original gallery was extensively remodelled by the Luftwaffe in 1941 and didn’t reopen until 1999. And the building is rather grand — though if the City of London couldn’t grub together a few quid to build an art gallery, it’s hard to imagine who could.

The actual art was a bit underwhelming (or at least not my taste). Especially so at the moment as they are between exhibitions, so one of the large rooms was closed. What was left was a load of portraits of royalty and City grandees (Lord Mayors, heads of livery companies, yawn), some scenes of London, and a selection of Victorian/Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Some of their Pre-Raphs are rather famous, but still: really not my favourite thing.

The amphitheatre was quite interesting, although rather less spectacular than the word might suggest. Ephesus it ain’t. They didn’t even know it was there until 1988, when archeologists found it, and they decided to incorporate it into the building of the new gallery. So you go down to the basement and you can see a section that was the entranceway. Basically it’s a few traces of wall and some wooden drain, but it was interesting to see it.

» The painting is My First Sermon by John Everett Millais. The photo is of a bit of the 2000-year-old wooden drain from the Roman Amphitheatre. OPH 2008__0079_Guidhall.JPG is © king_david_uk and used under a CC by-nd licence.

‘Mini Picture Show’ at the Bankside Gallery

I was given a membership of The Art Fund for Christmas. For those who don’t know, The Art Fund uses membership fees and other donations to help British museums and galleries to buy art for their collections; membership gets you discounted or free entry to a range of museums and galleries. So that was a nice present.

Anyway, they sent me a booklet with all the various participating venues in it; there are 78 in London. I’m familiar with quite a lot of them, but there are still plenty that are new to me. It occurred to me that it would be quite an interesting exercise to visit all of them; I’m not officially committing myself to that right now, but it’s certainly a possible project. I might as well get my money’s worth.

In that spirit, when I went to buy coffee today I glanced at the map to see if there were any galleries near Borough Market, and sure enough, there was the Bankside Gallery, just next to Tate Modern. I’ve been past the Bankside many times, but I’ve obviously been suffering from Curiosity Fail because I never went in. It turns out to be the gallery of the Royal Watercolour Society and the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers.* Or perhaps the shop of those societies, since the work was all for sale; except that places selling art have done an excellent PR job of making sure that we think of them as part of a subtly different category from places that sell fridges or mayonnaise. Their current line of produce is

Work on a small scale by Members of the Royal Watercolour Society and the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers. Original paintings and prints are immediately available, both framed and unframed, with prices from just £50.

Which I’m guessing is basically an exhibition aimed at the Christmas present market. And why not, after all. I actually rather like going around exhibitions where everything has a price next to it; it focusses the mind a bit.

It reminded me of the rooms at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition where they stick all the small pieces, although the art wasn’t quite crowded together as it normally is at the RA. It’s the same mixture of stuff, tending toward the conventional, occasionally very covetable. Certainly well worth popping in and having a look round for the bargain price of free, and I shall do so again from time to time (to be clear, the Bankside has free entry for everyone, not just Art Fund members).

So, this may turn out to the be the first in a long series of posts about some of London’s more obscure museums and galleries; or it may not. We’ll see.

* The Royal Watercolour Society is the RWS; the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers is the RE. Obviously.

» The images are ‘Rikyu Tea Whisk’ and ‘Tea Bowl’ from the ‘One Hundred Views of MITATE’ series by Nana Shiomi. Which I really liked.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year at the NHM

I made my annual trip to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum. Which was, as always, well worth a visit. Obviously I recommend you visit it in person, because little jpegs don’t do the pictures justice, but if you can’t do that, you can see all the pictures online here.

Picking your own favourites is part of the fun of going to any exhibition, I think, but that’s even more true at WPotY, because you can compare your own choices to those of the judges. And my perennial complaint is that they tend to give the overall prize to a portrait shot of a large charismatic mammal: lots of elephants and lions and leopards. Yawn. Don’t get me wrong, those are fabulous beasties, but there’s a whole world of beautiful and curious lifeforms out there.

Well, this year, the winning shot is, once again, a portrait of a large charismatic mammal; but for once I have no complaints at all. Because the winning photograph, of a wolf jumping over a gate, is absolutely jaw-dropping. I have my quibbles with some of the other choices; I would have picked the booby or the whale as the winner of the underwater section ahead of the pike picture, for example. But for the overall winner, I think they were spot on.

» Fantail, a picture of a bearded tit landing on the ice, is the winner in the Creative Visions of Nature category. © Esa Malkonen.

‘Points of View’ at the British Library

I just visited the slightly uninspiringly titled ‘Points of View’ exhibition at the British Library, which is an exhibition of nineteenth century photography. I’ve been very impressed with the BL’s temporary exhibitions since they moved to the new site; they obviously have an absolutely staggering amount of stuff in their collections and they do a good job of displaying it, with a thoughtful selection of material and lots of interesting information.

fisherman

Not all subjects are equally interesting, of course — I glazed over a bit going round their exhibition of modernist pamphlets — but C19th photography has a broader appeal. It starts with the early history, Fox Talbot and all that, and then the rest of the exhibition is arranged thematically: travel, portraits, science, industry and so on. I liked the way they manage to provide plenty of variety: some pictures chosen for artistic merit, others for historical, social or technical interest, and some a bit quirky, like spirit photographs taken by spiritualists. Or the staged picture taken by an Indian Army officer of an officer being woken by his manservant after a drunken night before.

mussucks

One thing that is striking is the explosive speed with which photography became popular: from Fox Talbot’s early experiments in the early 1840s, it was a major commercial enterprise within ten years, and being used in every conceivable way all across the world, from Brazil to the Himalayas, within twenty. Perhaps that isn’t surprising — the advantages are obvious — but when photographs were taken with fragile glass plates which had to be chemically prepared immediately before use in a portable darkroom, it is still remarkable.

The exhibition is kind of huge, but it’s also free, so you could always take a break halfway round and go for a cup of tea and a bun.

» ‘A Fisherman at Home‘ is from Peter Henry Emerson’s Pictures From Life In Field And Fen, a photographic record of life in East Anglia published in 1887.

The other picture is a section of ‘Mussucks for crossing the Beas River, Kulu‘, taken in India by Samuel Bourne in 1865. The ‘mussucks’ are inflated bullock hides used to cross the water.

‘The Sacred Made Real’ at the National Gallery

To quote their own blurb:

The Sacred Made Real’ presents a landmark reappraisal of religious art from the Spanish Golden Age with works created to shock the senses and stir the soul.

Paintings, including masterpieces by Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Zurbarán, are displayed for the very first time alongside Spain’s remarkable polychrome wooden sculptures.

By ‘polychrome wooden sculptures’ they mean things like this, Christ as the Man of Sorrows, 1673, by Pedro de Mena (I’ve had to take the picture from the Guardian, which has a good selection, because the NG has got no images on the exhibition website at all):

Sacred-Made-Real-Christ-a-016

I find this business of coloured sculpture intriguing, because of course if you’re aiming for verisimilitude it makes perfect sense; and yet, largely by historical accident, we have come to expect sculpture in the fine art tradition to be in the bare material, whether marble, bronze or whatever.

These works looks especially foreign from a Protestant perspective. And yes, I know I keep going on about being an atheist, but I’m clearly a Church of England atheist when it comes to my religious sensibilities. And the Protestant aesthetic of whitewashed churches and plain glass is explicitly intended to contrast with this kind of art; it is sculptures like these that are processed through the streets of Seville in Holy Week by masked penitents, which must be the apotheosis of the bells and smells side of Catholicism. Protestants over the years have found that either tawdry and vulgar or solemn, dignified and mysterious, according to taste, but one way or the other it has a fascinatingly exotic quality for those of us brought up with the tea and biscuits kind of Christianity.

My initial reaction to these sculptures was ambivalent; there was something spooky or creepy or just a bit odd about them. And I don’t mean the gore; the head of John the Baptist where the cross section of the neck looks like something from the butcher’s, or Christ bruised and dripping with blood. No, even the statues of saints and the Virgin seemed a bit creepy at first encounter. St Ignatius Loyola, with his dark robes, looks like something that might lurch out of the dark at a carnival ghost train.

I’m tempted to invoke the uncanny valley, but actually I think it’s mainly simple unfamiliarity. The sculptures only seem like something from Madame Tussauds — something other than fine art — because of my expectations. Eventually, once I had been in the exhibition for a while, that sense of novelty wore off a bit; and eventually I was able to stop overthinking it and start to respond to the works as pieces of art.

And once that happened I did start to appreciate them and find them quite effective. They are not my new favourite thing, and I’m still not sure I’d say I really like them, even. But I’m certainly glad I went. Thought-provoking stuff.

There are also some fine paintings in the show as well, incidentally, by Velázquez and Zurburán particularly; but those were more familiar and less interesting to me, except in the way they provide a context for the sculptures. It is interesting, for example, that although they are recognisably part of the same religious culture, the paintings are immediately and obviously ‘art’, while my reaction to the sculptures was so much more difficult.

‘Pop Life’ and ‘John Baldessari’ at Tate Modern

Two superficially very different exhibitions at Tate Modern at the moment. One is Pop Life: Art in a Material World; to quote the blurb:

Andy Warhol claimed “Good business is the best art.” Tate Modern brings together artists from the 1980s onwards who have embraced commerce and the mass media to build their own ‘brands’. Pop Life includes Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami and more.

Which is flashy, exhibitionist, loud — several rooms have music playing — and vulgar. I don’t mean to be snobby; much of it is intentionally vulgar. Not least Jeff Koons’ kitschy hardcore porn imagery.

The other is John Baldessari: Pure Beauty [which doesn’t have much of a website just yet… they may just be running a bit late]. The tone of which is much more Serious and Arty. Not that it’s humourless, there’s plenty of dry wit on show; but it’s all very restrained and low-key. Series of small photographs, made with an eye on content rather than beauty. Stills from black and white films with sections blanked out. Rather formally-constructed photocollages. The later work gets larger in scale, more complex and I think more human, in the sense that his collages refer more directly to emotions and issues and almost form proto-narratives; but it’s still very tightly controlled and visually restrained.

So stylistically, they’re quite different. It’s a distinctly different experience going round them: the Baldessari is much less likely to give you a headache, for a start. To some extent, though, I think it’s as much a difference of personality as of kind. Not everyone enjoys celebrity and celebrities, and money and noise and going to Studio 54 with Grace Jones — or whatever the equivalent was for Damien Hirst in the 90s. But if you were an art critic from Mars, or a few hundred years in the future, the similarities might seem more significant than the differences.

Though having said that, the artists brought together in the Pop Life show are themselves a slightly mixed bunch, so perhaps I should resist making any more sweeping generalisations anyway. I mean, Tracey Emin, Keith Haring and Jeff Koons don’t necessarily have a great deal in common beyond a talent for self-promotion. Perhaps the Tate thought it would be a bit blunt to just call the show ‘Masters of Hype’.

Incidentally, having been at school at the time when Keith Haring merch — bags, pencil cases, whatever — was all the rage, it seems odd to find him in the Tate. It’s like finding a room dedicated to seriously analysing the artistic importance of Hello Kitty. Or Thundercats.

‘Moctezuma — Aztec Ruler’ at the British Museum

So, I went to see Moctezuma at the BM this week. And yes, if you’re wondering, Moctezuma II (or even more correctly, according to Wikipedia, Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin) is the man I always thought was called Montezuma: the ruler of the Aztec empire when Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors conquered Mexico. Except that apparently they weren’t ‘Aztec’ either; they referred to themselves as ‘Mexica’.

knife_xray

It’s hard to believe it has been seven years since the Royal Academy’s mega-exhibition about the Aztecs; this show is nowhere near as large or spectacular as that one. And it’s more narrowly focussed on a particular geographical and historical moment; the city of Tenochtitlan and the fall of the Aztec empire. Which does at least mean that it’s easier to take in the information, even if most of the exhibits are a bit less jaw-dropping. And it means that they can supplement the Aztec material with stuff from the Spanish perspective: colonial paintings and so on.

It’s certainly worth going to, although I wouldn’t say it was the most exciting exhibition I’ve been to recently. One thing I found interesting was what you might call the ‘deathcult problem’. The Mexica civilisation was kind of revolting. The sacred courtyard at the centre of Tenochtitlan was built around a temple where they ritually sacrificed their captured enemies. It also featured a skull rack where they could display the skulls afterwards. That’s the kind of design feature that would seem a bit OTT in a Hollywood representation of Mordor. And so it’s a curatorial problem: do you emphasise the gore? downplay it? make any kind of ethical comment?

Generally this exhibition chose to downplay it — not to disguise it, but not to place too much specific emphasis on it either. I guess I think that’s fair enough; better that than salaciously revelling in it, or stigmatising a whole civilisation as somehow subhuman. And presumably they can rely on their visitors to realise for themselves that ripping the hearts out of the living chests of their enemies is a Bad Thing. And yet somehow the studiedly non-judgmental tone of the blurbs and the audioguide, which seemed to treat ritual human sacrifice as just another intriguing cultural quirk like using thorny oyster shell for decoration, left me a little queasy.

Not that the Spanish were exactly saintly themselves; they killed a large chunk of the population of Tenochtitlan in a moment of panic, just for starters. But at least the killing was a by-product of a ruthless lust for gold and power, rather than the central organising principle of their society. Going round all the skull-covered Aztec stuff feels a bit like being at an exhibition of Nazi regalia. Though having said that, an exhibition of religious art from C16th Spain would probably have a bit of a death cult quality to it, with all that graphic martyrdom all over the place. So to sum up: people are a bit creepy.

Also on at the BM at the moment is a very nice little free exhibition of dogū — that is, prehistoric clay figurines from Japan. I didn’t know anything about dogū, so I found it interesting. And they are striking objects.

» The image is an x-ray of a knife with a mosaic handle and a chalcedony blade. They reckon it’s a sacrificial knife but that it isn’t robust enough to have actually been used, so it’s probably ceremonial.

Exhibition round-up

Sorry for the slight hiatus; it was a combination of the cricket and Dragon Quest: the Chapters of the Chosen. But there’s a pause in the cricket*, so I’ll just quickly round up a few of the things I’ve been to see recently.

Firstly, the big Baroque exhibition at the V&A, which I went to see a few weeks ago and actually closed yesterday. This is exactly the kind of exhibition that the V&A does a superb job with, and I was glad I went, but I couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for it because, well, it’s the Baroque. It’s the aesthetic of wealth and power, of an exquisitely crafted, gilded boot stamping on a human face forever. I didn’t warm to it.

There were interesting items and impressive ones, but not many were likeable; almost none triggered the acquisitive itch in me. The slight exception was actually a video reel of Baroque buildings. Craftsmen obviously struggled to capture the grandeur, ambition and megalomania of the Baroque in something like a  candlestick or a side-table — although it didn’t stop them trying — but if you’ve got a whole church to work with, or a palace or an opera house, you can produce something magnificent.

And I suppose you can argue that once you’ve got your church or your palace, you need some suitably pompous candlesticks and side-tables to match the decor. I still can’t get excited about going to look at them in a museum.

yogi

A more enjoyable exhibition was BM’s Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur. These are paintings that are in a style that I associate with Persian miniatures — and of course the Mughals were Persians, more or less — but on a much large scale.

Different Maharajas commissioned different works. The exhibition starts with paintings of court life, mainly represented here as lounging around in the palace garden surrounded by scantily clad women. Then as, we move into scenes from Hindu mythology — some of them looking remarkably like the first paintings except with Shiva sitting in a garden instead of the Maharaja of Jodhpur, but others with more dramatic subjects from the Ramayana. And then it shifts into a more esoteric, mystical tradition within Hinduism, with paintings of the creation of the universe from nothingness, spiritual maps of the universe, symbolic maps of the human body with chakras and so on.

The pictures were attractive, never a bad thing, as well as being interesting. And the attempts to represent the unrepresentable were beautiful and more successful (whatever that means) than most Western equivalents I can think of.

I also went to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (“now in its 241st year!”). It’s always slightly more enjoyable than I expect; apart from anything else, it’s always interesting to go to an art exhibition where everything has a price marked on it. Vulgar of me, I know. But there’s just so much of it that you’re suffering from fried brain by two thirds of the way through.

And on the subject of art prices, check out this link: ‘If Famous Architecture Were Priced Like Paintings, a Le Corbusier Would Cost the Same as the Entire American GDP‘.

*after a heroic win for England at Lord’s, the first time we’ve beaten the Aussies there for 75 years. I could probably find quite a lot to say about the first two matches in the series — that 75-year losing streak is a fascinating subject in itself — but let’s stay on topic.

»The picture is Chakras of the Subtle Body, 1823, © Mehrangarh Museum Trust.

Futurism at Tate Modern

I went along to the Futurism exhibition at Tate Modern. Having sometimes commented on the excellence of past Tate exhibition websites, I have to say they’ve fallen down on this one — nothing to see at all. And they also didn’t have any exhibition booklets, so I have no aide-mémoire at all.

EDIT: they now have a much improved website up, so they obviously just hadn’t got their act together yet. Who knows, maybe they have some booklets ready as well.

CRI_151141

The Futurists were the early Italian Modernists — most of the paintings were pre-First World War — who were keen to embrace modernity, speed, machines and suchlike. They’re probably most famous not for any of the paintings but for the Futurist Manifesto, written by Futurist poet Marinetti. And whatever its aesthetico-philosophical merits, it’s punchy stuff; this is point 4:

4.We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath—a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.

Admittedly some of it is a bit less appealing; this would be unpleasant anyway, but it’s even more so in the context of the upcoming war:

9.We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.
10.We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.

Which segues neatly into the other thing that the futurists are famous for: Fascism. You can see how all the rhetoric about war and power and modernity might appeal to the same people who liked Fascism; and after the war, Marinetti founded a Futurist political party which ended up being absorbed into Mussolini’s Fascists. But the Tate makes a very reasonable case that it is unfair to tar all the Futurists with the same brush. So much happened between 1909 and the 1930s — the war, the Russian Revolution and the Great Depression, for a start — that you need to be very cautious in drawing any link between provocative aesthetic statements before the war and the politics of 25-30 years later.

bocc

And in fact many of the pre-War Futurists had left the movement by then, apparently. The reality of full-scale modern mechanised warfare left them less enthusiastic about the idea of machinery and war. And indeed some of them, like the Russian Futuro-Cubists, went in the other direction to produce Constructivist posters for collectivist farms.

One thing I rather enjoyed was one of the many manifestos: ‘Vital English Art’. This was published in the Observer in 1914:

VITAL ENGLISH ART.

FUTURIST MANIFESTO.

I am an Italian Futurist poet, and a passionate admirer of England. I wish, however, to cure English Art of that most grave of all maladies—passéism. I have the right to speak plainly and without compromise, and together with my friend Nevinson, an English Futurist painter, to give the signal for battle.

AGAINST :

1.—The worship of tradition and the conservatism of the Academies, the commercial acquiescence of English artists, the effeminacy of their art and their complete absorption towards a purely decorative sense.
2.—The pessimistic, sceptical and narrow views of the English public, who stupidly adore the pretty-pretty, the commonplace, the soft, the sweet, and mediocre, the sickly revivals of medievalism, the Garden Cities with their curfews and artificial battlements, the may-pole Morris dances, Æstheticism, Oscar Wilde, the Pre-Raphaelites, Neo-primitives and Paris.
3.—The perverted snob who ignores or despises all English daring, but welcomes eagerly all foreign originality and daring.

[…]

8.—The old grotesque idea of genius—drunken, filthy, ragged, outcast ; drunkenness the synonym of Art, Chelsea the Montmartre of London ; the Post-Rossettis with long hair under the sombrero, and other passéist filth.
9.—The sentimentality with which you load your pictures—to compensate, perhaps, for your praiseworthy utter lack of sentimentality in life.

[…]

WE WANT:

[all the usual Futurist guff; I can’t be bothered to type any of it out]

F. T. MARINETTI,
Italian Futurist Movement (Milan).
C. R. W. NEVINSON,
Art Rebel Centre (London).

Ah, what fun. You gotta love the ‘Art Rebel Centre’.

As a geeky aside, the multi-media guide (basically an audio guide with a few still photos) was excellent. Last time I got an audio guide at Tate Modern I said this:

The commentary has a kind of coy, knowing, vaguely patronising tone, as though the narrator was trying to seduce a slightly dim 12-year-old…. It was also short of insights that reached beyond the blindingly obvious. If I’m standing in front of a painting, I don’t need the guide to carefully tell me what the painting looks like; I want some kind of extra information that I can’t see for myself.

… instead of the standard audioguides with a big keypad, the Tate has got some little touchscreen devices. Which would be fine in principle, except that the touchscreen is erratically responsive, you have to carry around a stylus, and the user interface is badly designed…. I spent a couple of minutes trying to figure it out and nearly crumbled and went and asked for help. Even when it was working, some design decisions were just bad; for example, when you pressed the ‘Go’ button to start a recording, the screen changed and the play/pause appeared on exactly the same part of the screen, with the result that many times, I accidentally pressed the screen twice and found I had paused the audio by mistake. And just when I was coming to the end of the exhibition, it crashed and I lost the tour altogether.

Well, this time the guide was much better written; it actually added useful context and information I wouldn’t otherwise have. And they’ve sorted out the hardware by getting some iPod Touches. Admittedly since I have an iPhone it wasn’t a fair test of how intuitive it would be to just pick up and use, but it has to be better than the crap they were using before.

Personally I would like it even better if they would let me buy the guide through iTunes and use it on my own phone or iPod, with my own headphones: either as a stand-alone application or just as a set of audio or video files. Why not? That would save them worrying about people nicking their equipment — I had to leave some ID as a deposit — and it would mean I could listen to the introductory blurbs on the train on the way to the exhibition. Or refer to them at home later.

» Carlo Carrà’s The Funeral of the Anarchist Galli is currently in the Tate but normally lives at MoMA. Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space is part of the Tate’s own collection.

Van Dyck at Tate Britain

I went to see the van Dyck exhibition at Tate Britain the other day. I can’t say I was very excited by the prospect, but I’m a member and it seems silly to miss exhibitions I can get into for free. Perhaps especially if you’re English, Anthony van Dyck seems like the most establishment figure possible; court painter to Charles I, and primarily associated with grand portraits of aristocrats, above all the famous propaganda images of Charles himself. Which was what I expected and what I got: the least introspective portraits imaginable. People in shiny clothes standing around looking solid and respectable. I bet if Bernie Madoff ever produced any publicity material with his picture in, he found a photographer to make him look like that: with a sheen of prosperity, but carefully not allowed to look too exciting. Designed to conceal as much as it showed.

My favourite picture was actually one by Robert Peake the Elder, included to show what English court portraiture was like before Van Dyck, which normally lives in the Met in New York.

Gorgeous, innit. I’m not suggesting, btw, that this painting offers any more psychological insight than van Dyck does, just that I prefer it stylistically. I also preferred some of the later picture influenced by van Dyck, including some by Joshua Reynolds and Peter Lely. Most of van Dyck’s own work left me cold, although his self-portrait and his portrait of his wife have a bit more spark to them.

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