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.

 

‘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.

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.

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.

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.

‘Surreal Things’ at the V&A

Last week I went to ‘Surreal Things: Surrealism and Design‘ at the V&A. It explores the influence of Surrealist art on design, and demonstrates how quickly surrealist imagery was recycled as a design style; initially in very chic and expensive contexts and then in mass-market commercial design. And demonstrated in the process that it’s a very rare image that still manages to be startling, unsettling and generally unheimlich when used as curtain fabric.

Ruby Lips Brooch by Salvador Dali

That’s true even before the adoption of this imagery into the mainstream. One part of the exhibition was about the house of an art collector who was an early enthusiast of Surrealism. His house was painted purple; it had plaster shapes on the walls to look like sheets hanging out of the windows and huge model palm trees on either side of the door; he had the iconic Dali lobster telephones and Mae West Lips sofa, wolf pawprint carpets, and specially designed china, lamps and so on.

But if Surrealism is a radical exploration of the subconscious, dreams, sexuality and so on, what does it mean to fill a whole house with surreal objects? I suppose the collector might have claimed that the whole house was one Surrealist artwork, but it seems to me that once you’ve decided to use Surrealism as a interior design choice, you’ve already neutered it; it just becomes a set of visual tics.

'Eine Kleine Nachtmusik' by Dorothea Tanning

Surrealism is always very vulnerable to that loss of power; like a lot of modern art, the moment the audience stops taking it seriously, it’s very hard to recapture the mystique. The most iconic, striking surrealist works—the lobster telephone, the fur-lined cup, some of those Magritte paintings—are also the most easily absorbed as likeable mainstream objects. You can enjoy them as visual jokes or intellectual puzzles and they are memorable and interesting; but without the unsettling, dangerous quality that I think Surrealism aspires to. There’s a very easy slippage from powerfully strange to amusingly quirky.

One Day In History and At Home In Renaissance Italy

I think this is quite a fun idea — One Day In History.

Make history with us on 17 October by taking part in the biggest blog in history.

‘One Day in History’ is a one off opportunity for you to join in a mass blog for the national record. We want as many people as possible to record a ‘blog’ diary which will be stored by the British Library as a historical record of our national life.

Write your diary here reflecting on how history itself impacted on your day – whether it just commuting through an historic environment, discussing family history or watching repeats on TV.

Anyone who reads Pepys online will know that the interest lies as much in the minutiae – what he ate, the plays he went to, and just recently (or at least at this time of year 343 years ago), his doctor’s attempts to cure his constipation. So the material collected today genuinely might be of interest to future historians. There was a somewhat similar thing done over a longer period in the UK during the 40s and 50s called the Mass Observation Project, where people were encouraged to keep diaries, and the results have been made into a couple of books that I know my father enjoyed.

I’m afraid that any historians of the future wanting to know what people had for breakfast in the carefree days before the Great Squid Wars will have to manage without my input, though. But if any HotF is reading this: I had marmite on toast. ‘Marmite’ is a brand name for yeast extract sold as food. ‘Toast’ is what we call a slice of bread which has been grilled or ‘toasted’ in a special-purpose machine called a ‘toaster’. ‘Bread’ is a foodstuff made by powdering the seeds of a species of grass, mixing the powder with yeast and water, and…

In all seriousness, there would have to have been a truly mammoth cataclysm for some future historian not to know what bread is. Perhaps if the squid win the war and we all end up living underwater. Who knows what other things might seem interesting, though. It’s tempting to pick on stuff which seems shiny and new and typical of our age, like the internet, but actually it would take almost as profound a cataclysm to destroy the internet as to eradicate bread. Of course even if there’s still a network of connected computers, I daresay the user experience will be radically different. One of these days someone is going to get a working 3D display, for a start. Internet Explorer 36 will no doubt still be lagging behind the competing browsers in terms of implementing the latest technology. Sorry, that’s a very lame joke. In fact, it would be amazing if Microsoft was still a dominant company in 30 years, let alone a few centuries. By that time, Microsoft and Bill Gates will only survive as a faint memory as synonymous with money, like Standard Oil and Rockefeller and Carnegie.

The idea that the stuff of everyday life is sometimes more interesting than the Big Historical Events makes a neat connection with the exhibition I went to see at the V&A today, called At Home In Renaissance Italy. I vaguely had it in my mind before I went that it was going to be about everyday life for ordinary people. It wasn’t, of course; it was about everyday life for the mega-rich. ‘Home’ sounds so cosy, but in this case it refers to huge palazzos (palazzi?) full of all the most fabulous and luxurious stuff that money could buy. For example: the exhibition was divided up according to the different rooms of the Renaissance house, and the scrittoio (study) was illustrated using stuff from the study of Lorenzo de’ Medici. Apparently Lorenzo distanced himself from the family business, but his grandfather really was the Gates or Rockefeller of his day. Although Gates, bless him, doesn’t strike me as much of an aesthete, so I doubt if his own mansion is full of the kind of beautiful objects on display here.

The reason they focussed on Lorenzo for that part of the exhibition is that the V&A owns the ceramic panels from the ceiling of his study, although they’d borrowed stuff from other collections to complement it, including a lavish copy of Pliny’s Natural History which must be the most elaborately decorated secular text I’ve ever seen. Not surprisingly, a large proportion of the stuff in the show comes from the V&A collection, but the act of curating it into a well-organised exhibition easily justifies an entrance fee to see stuff that would be on show in the permanant display anyway. And there are lots of things which they’ve borrowed from elsewhere as well.

I felt that the exhibition made a bit of a statement when you walked in and were confronted by a pair of grand Veronese portraits, displayed together for the first time since they were moved from the room where they originally hung, and in front of them is a case with a sword like the one carried by the husband and a gold marten head like that carried by the wife (above). Which seemed a bit like saying ‘we’re so grand we can use a Veronese just to illustrate a sword’. And on the other side of the room was a Botticelli which served to illustrate the layout of a Renaissance house. This is presumably the curatorial equivalent of name-dropping. As well as some other fine paintings, including a couple of Lippis and a Crivelli, there was loads of interesting stuff — fireplaces, furniture, ceramics, glassware, board games, instruments, clothes, inkwells, spectacle frames, wafering irons — and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The V&A online

The V&A seems to have put lots more of their stuff online since I last looked, and it’s all searchable. I wondered if there was a photo of the terracotta Virgin Mary and Child I wrote a poem about a few years ago, but it seems not. Lots of other good stuff though, like this C15th English alabaster carving of Saint Michael Attacking the Dragon and Weighing a Soul that was lucky enough to survive the vandalism of the Reformation.

‘Undercover Surrealism’ at the Hayward

Going to them one after the other, it’s hard not to see the Undercover Surrealism exhibition at the Hayward as some kind of riposte to the Modernism exhibition at the V&A.

The Hayward exhibition (full title: Undercover Surrealism – Picasso, Miró, Masson and the vision of George Bataille) is about a magazine called Documents which Bataille ran from 1929-30. Bataille was most closely associated with the Surrealists – he had a falling out with the ‘official’ surrealists and was never really a surrealist himself, but that was the circle he moved in. Documents was notable for juxtaposing articles about high culture, popular culture and ethnography. So you get coverage of Stravinsky, Duke Ellington, Picasso, Dali, Buñuel, Hollywood, trashy novels, African masks, Ethiopian iconography, and the development of the horse imagery from Roman coins into the coins of the Dark Ages. To be honest I was unexcited by the prospect of an exhibition devoted to a magazine, but the curators have done a good job of tracking down plenty of the objects that were covered; so there are Miros, Picassos, Giacomettis, as well as African masks, Dark Age coins; all sorts of stuff. Including some music and film, which was a good move. Apart from the intrinsic interest of most of the exhibits, it did a good job of evoking a particular artistic moment. You can see some of the work here.

Documents existed bang in the middle of the period covered by the V&A Modernism exhibition, but while Corbusier and the Bauhaus were building their airy white machines for rational hygienic living, the Surrealists were more interested in violence, sex, fetish, blood, transgression and distortion. Here’s a typical bit of Bataille:

The slaughterhouse is linked to religion in so far as the temples of bygone eras (not to mention those of the Hindus in our own day) served two purposes: they were used both for prayer and for killing. The result (and this judgement is confirmed by the chaotic aspect of present-day slaughterhouses) was certainly a disturbing convergence of the mysteries of myth and the ominous grandeur typical of those places in which blood flows. In America, curiously enough, W. B. Seabrook has expressed an intense regret; observing that the orgiastic life has survived, but that the sacrificial blood is not part of the cocktail mix, he finds present custom insipid. In our time, nevertheless, the slaughterhouse is cursed and quarantined like a plague-ridden ship. Now, the victims of this curse are neither butchers nor beasts, but those same good folk who countenance, by now, only their own unseemliness, an unseemliness commensurate with an unhealthy need of cleanliness, with irascible meanness, and boredom. The curse (terrifying only to those who utter it) leads them to vegetate as far as possible from the slaughterhouse, to exile themselves, out of propriety, to a flabby world in which nothing fearful remains and in which, subject to the ineradicable obsession of shame, they are reduced to eating cheese.

That’s one of the entries from the Critical Dictionary that was a feature of Documents. Somehow I don’t think Bataille would have agreed that less is more. Even the ethnographic stuff feels rather fetishised – even though it is a serious and intelligent effort of early ethnography, there are enough hints through the exhibition to suggest that Bataille’s interest in black people was basically sexual. Mind you, he seems to have found most things sexual. The surrealists, of course, were also a key part of de Sade’s reinvention as an important literary figure; it was that moment when Freud was seen as validating everyone’s sexual quirks, and the quirkier the better.

It’s tempting to see the two things – Corbusier on the one hand and Dali on the other – as somehow two sides of the same coin, or each as necessitating the other. Or at the least as products of the same forces; of the Great War, and a moment of cultural and historical instabiity when everything was up in the air and no-one quite knew where the world was going. As Yeats put it in 1920: The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Perhaps it’s unwise to insist too much on the historicity of it, though. There are probably always some people who are minimalists by temperament and others who are surrealists.

‘Modernism: Designing a New World’ at the V&A

I went to see the Modernism: Designing a New World exhibition at the V&A, which was good. It was largely what you’d expect – white houses, angular furniture and posters with large sans serif headers printed at an angle – although there were some treats and surprises, like a Tatra T-87 saloon car.

Looking at the best of the modernist buildings, like the Villa Savoye and thinking of all those lumpen, red-brick, pitched-roofed houses that the British construction industry threw up over the course of the C20th, you can’t help feeling that our suburbs might be less ugly if we’d embraced modernism a bit more. Of course no style or philosophy is a substitute for a good architect. An industry that cares so little about aesthetics and design would only produce equally lumpen, graceless buildings in white-rendered concrete.

Incidentally, note that many of the most successful modernist dwellings seemed to be (like the Villa Savoye), stand-alone houses set in the country, where the trees provide a soft green background to the starkness of the design and the sweeping picture windows can look out over beautiful views. The large scale housing projects – and there were plenty of those in the exhibition as well – struggle to have the same impact. With rows of separate buildings, the effect can be rather a lot of visual clutter; perhaps because Modernism eschews decoration, so the aesthetic effects are achieved with structural elements – i.e. the shapes of the buildings. Or something. I haven’t really thought that through yet.

One of the odd things about the exhibition was that it was a constant stream of utopian, reformist ideals, but in the back of your mind was that the period it dealt with was bookended by the Great War and the Russian Revolution at one end and World War Two at the other, with the Depression and the growth of Fascism in the meantime. And yet somehow, all these idealists who were trying to change the world by giving the working man an efficient living space with Licht, Luft und Sonne seem to fit quite well into that kind of background. The wish to change the world by throwing out everything old and rebuilding it from scratch, to draw a line under ten centuries of European history and say “we can do better than that” has its echoes in the politics. Of course revolutionary Russia was one of the centres of early Modernist design.

And while I’m sure they wanted nothing but to make people’s lives better, the rhetoric – of the house as a ‘machine for living’, of progress, efficiency, mass-production – can be rather dehumanising. It reeks of top-down planning. And then there’s all the stuff about ‘hygienic’ living, with its celebration of cleanliness and the body. There’s a section about it in the exhibition, including some film of the ‘Sokol Slets’ – massed displays of gymnastics in Czechoslovakia which look like something Reni Liefenstahl would have dreamt up after eating too much cheese.


‘Performance of 16 800 women at the 1938 Sokol Slet. Strahov Stadium, Prague.’

Despite all the dubious parallels I’m drawing, it’s worth pointing out that both Hitler and Stalin disliked Modernism. Their idea of a good building was one smothered in heavy-handed political symbolism. And although some of the architects and designers were quite political (mostly leftists of various kinds, but some of the Italian Futurists were Fascist sympathisers, apparently), I’m not suggesting that any of that is terribly relevant to the actual buildings. I’m just drawing connections because I think it’s interesting.

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