‘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.

Culture Other

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.

Culture Other

FSotW: Fibre “Quick on the Draw” Drawings

Flickr set of the week is actually two sets; Fibre “Quick on the Draw” Drawings and Fibre “Quick on the Draw”. ‘Quick on the Draw’ was “Fibre’s stall at the 2006 V&A Village Fete. Each artist had one minute to draw a picture of Queen Victoria without taking their pen of the paper.” As usual, you can click on any picture to get to the relevant Flickr page.

Culture Other

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.