November 27, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Three weekends ago, in Paris, I discovered a new photographer entirely by accident. (As one does.) I had gone to the Maison Européenne de la Photographie to see Sebastião Salgado’s exhibition Genesis (which, by the way, is very much worth a visit if you happen to be in Paris before 5 January). On the way out, during the obligatory browse through the bookshop, a rack of postcards caught my eye.
They were Polaroids, soft and grainy, their palette reduced to the primaries. They were mostly cityscapes, yet devoid of people, a human presence sometimes suggested by a statue, a wind-whipped flag. Most of them were suffused with brilliant sunlight yet the overwhelming air these delicate square slices of reality exuded was of melancholy and nostalgia. I recognised a kindred spirit – not only because the imagery had a deep and instant appeal, but also because it was so close to what I’ve been trying to do with my own photography… except, obviously, much better.
I turned over one of the postcards and learned that the photographer is Marion Dubier-Clark. I’ve since found out (mostly from her gorgeous website) that she’s based in Paris but has travelled the world – indeed, most of her published photographs were taken on several trips across the States.
Some of Dubier-Clark’s most striking photos were shot on a road trip between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Looking at them made me regret that my own interest in photography had lain dormant during the two and a half years I lived in California, and certainly inspired me to pack my Diana, a roll of slide film and my wide-angle lens last week when I was getting ready to head across the pond for Thanksgiving.
As to the results, stay tuned…
November 10, 2013 § 1 Comment
I saved the Ben Uri Gallery for the end of the year for a particular reason – I was waiting for their new exhibition, Uproar!: The First Fifty Years of the London Group. The trouble with the Ben Uri – London’s museum of Jewish art – is that in its venerable 98-year history it has yet to find a permanent home. It has a collection of some 1300 works but nowhere to display them, so for now it is, essentially, a Kunsthalle, hosting temporary exhibitions that relate to its collection or its objectives (which, as stated in its subtitle, are ‘art, identity and migration’).
The Ben Uri also holds the dubious distinction of being the hardest to find of all the museums I’ve visited on my voyage through London museums this year. Admittedly, this is partly my fault. I looked up the address on their website, found that it didn’t appear in my A-Z, and decided to chance it – after all, every time I’ve gone to visit a museum in the outer reaches of London (like Osterley, or Eltham, or Bexleyheath) it’s been clearly signposted from the nearest Tube or train station. So I got off the Tube this afternoon at St John’s Wood and… no sign to be seen. I had a look at the map just outside the station and it wasn’t indicated. I was now slightly nervous, but I knew which street it was on so I headed off down Finchley Road in its direction.
When I got to Boundary Road, there was still nothing to indicate its presence. Boundary Road also turned out to be a. a lot longer than it looked in my A-Z and b. apparently entirely residential. There didn’t appear to be any museums hiding among the houses or the council estates on either side of the street. After about ten minutes I began to wonder whether I’d have to give up, go home and write a post about how Museum #22 had eluded me (oh, the shame!).
When I crossed Abbey Road the street’s character changed – it was now lined with shops and restaurants. And there, in the middle of a block of shops, was the gallery. I was… a little surprised. But I pushed the door open and just like that, I was surrounded by the work of the likes of Jacob Epstein, Mark Gertler and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.
The space (two rooms – ground floor and basement) was cramped and oddly configured (and my inner curator agonised over its probably not being brilliant in terms of environmental conditions for the art), but the curators had obviously made the best of it. The selection of works was very strong indeed and there’s certainly something to be said for being brought face to face with it in such close quarters.
There was one painting in the show from the Ben Uri’s permanent collection – David Bomberg’s savage and brilliant Ghetto Theatre (1920). If it is representative of the quality of the collection as a whole, then I sincerely hope the Ben Uri Gallery is able to find a permanent – and larger – home soon, so that justice can be done the rest of it.
Tally: 22 down, 1 (!) to go
October 31, 2013 § 7 Comments
I bought this postcard at the antique market in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue two months ago. The dealer had his wares sorted into boxes by geographical region, as is the habit of his trade, and I went straight for the one marked ‘Vaucluse’, thinking that whatever I found would make a rather more interesting souvenir of our holiday than one of the dozens of generic postcards of lavender fields on offer in every souvenir shop and café-tabac in the land.
The postcard of a statue of the Virgin standing in a garden had my name written all over it (not literally – and unlike the last postcard I bought, there was no message on the back). It appealed to both my love of the melancholy (obvious) and the surreal – there’s a certain disjuncture between the statue and its surroundings, and if you look at it long enough, the Virgin appears to be levitating several inches above the plinth, as if she’s either gently drifting down from the heavens or is just about to float off.
The caption is barely visible at the bottom of the photograph: ‘N.D. de Lumière – La Vierge du Jardin’. No mention of a town or village. Since the cottage we were staying in was blissfully internet-free, I couldn’t do any research while we were there and, thus, no chance of trying to track down the statue – assuming it still stands.
I’ve since discovered that the only Notre Dame de Lumière in the Vaucluse is in Goult, a village for which I remember seeing signs as we drove from Gordes to Roussillon and again, the following day, on the way from Oppède-le-vieux to Ménerbes. Frustratingly, Goult has not one, but two, Notre Dame de Lumières – the parish church, which was apparently a place of pilgrimage, and a convent which has since been deconsecrated and turned into a luxury hotel (I won’t link to the website, which is just depressing).
Since I made that discovery, I’ve been hoping that the Virgin in the garden belongs to the church, not the convent-turned-hotel. But my attempts at finding contemporary photographs of the church have met with little success. I’ve managed to find one photo of the church interior that appears to show (very blurrily) a gilt statue through a doorway. But it stands in a grotto. And the Virgin on my postcard looks as if she’s made of stone – perhaps with a bit of polychromy but definitely not gilding.
I suppose I’ll never know, without paying a visit to Goult, whether the Virgin – or the garden she stands in – still exists.
Truth be told, I think I’d almost prefer not to.
October 24, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Kensington boasts not one but two Victorian artists’ homes preserved as museums. The better known of the two is Leighton House, a gorgeously over-the-top Aesthetic confection which I made a point of visiting on my first stay in London thirteen years ago. The other is Linley Sambourne House, and I finally made it there… five days ago.
They make a fascinating study in contrasts – and similarities. Leighton was a painter of grand canvases, a wealthy bachelor who could freely indulge his love of all things Aesthetic (think peacock feathers, Turkish tiles, Pre-Raphaelite paintings). Sambourne was a cartoonist and illustrator who, although he lampooned the Aesthetic movement in his caricatures for Punch (in case you ever wondered who depicted Oscar Wilde as a human sunflower, that was him), clearly loved the style. Unlike Leighton, he was a family man (wife and two children) with considerably less money. His house could be considered a primer on how to create an Aesthetic interior on a budget.
That isn’t to imply that Linley Sambourne House is the ugly stepsister to Leighton House – it’s fascinating in its own right. Like the other houses in its street, it’s tall and narrow – six floors with two rooms on each storey – with surprises at every turn. You can only see it by guided tour, and I was glad I opted for the ‘conventional’ tour (the majority of the tours are led by a costumed guide in character as Mrs Sambourne or her maid… no thanks!), as my guide was knowledgeable, humorous and clearly passionate about her subject. (All the same, I couldn’t help but wish I had the freedom to wander around at my own pace – the rooms are so crammed with interesting objects that I would have loved more time to explore.)
One thing that immediately becomes clear is that Sambourne must have been a magpie in a past life. He loved collecting but had to find clever ways of stretching his limited means. Want to fill a wall with fashionable blue-and-white china? No problem – just buy seconds, no one will notice a chip missing here and there if you position them carefully. Can’t afford Morris & Co.? Buy your furniture from his lesser competitors – it will still blend in nicely with its surroundings. The only place this approach falls down is the paintings, which have a rather sad junk shop air about them. Maybe he’d have been better off sticking with prints and his own cartoons…
That said, Linley Sambourne House has one great advantage over Leighton House. Leighton House is splendid and sends Victorianist nerds like me into a swoon, but it feels like a museum. Linley Sambourne house may be considerably humbler, but it still feels lived in – like a genuine home.
Although that sense of warmth and homeliness may have had a least a bit to do with the weather. To visit, you have to book ahead, and it was my good fortune that the day I’d booked for turned out to be sunny. I would imagine that on a cloudy day the place could feel quite gloomy – the epitome of what many might think a typical Victorian home was like. There are stained glass panels in most of the rooms and on the landings, and on a sunny day, the whole house glows.
If you visit, may you be similarly lucky.
Tally: 21 down, 2 to go
October 14, 2013 § 2 Comments
My boyfriend had a meeting in Oxford over the weekend and I tagged along. I too had a mission – think of it as an extension of my London Museum Challenge. You see, I’ve been to Oxford many times over the last thirteen years, but I’ve never been able to resist the siren song of the Ashmolean Museum. Not that this is in any way a problem – the Ashmolean is one of my favourite museums in the country – but it means that in all this time, I’ve never visited the Pitt Rivers Museum. And, having had a small taste of the collection at an enchanting exhibition of charms and amulets at the Wellcome Collection last year, I’d decided that had to change.
The Pitt Rivers Museum, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is Oxford’s anthropology and archaeology museum. It was founded in 1884 by the archaeologist Augustus Pitt Rivers, who gave his collection of 22000 objects to the university on the condition that they appoint a lecturer in anthropology. The original collection has now grown to about half a million objects, but the museum itself – a splendid Victorian glass-and-iron edifice, like a modest younger cousin of the Crystal Palace – still looks much the same. What really sets it apart from other museums of its type is the way the collection is displayed… but I’ll get to that presently.
After saying goodbye to my boyfriend in front of Christ Church, I headed off to the Pitt Rivers, deliberately choosing a route that wouldn’t take me in sight of the Ashmolean. I then made my way through the labyrinth that is the Natural History Museum (which is partly closed until next year – a pity because it looked interesting in its own right), through the portals of the Pitt Rivers… and immediately underwent a severe, Grade A curatorial geek-out (what, you didn’t know that was the scientific term?).
I don’t quite know where to start. The fact that the Pitt Rivers is so gloriously old-fashioned in its setting and its display, with its army of wood-framed vitrines, that it puts the Horniman to shame. The sheer mad overabundance of both the cases on the ground floor, through which you have to sidle and twist like a rock climber, and of their contents, crammed in with a profusion that seems in some instances to defy the laws of physics. The truly mind-boggling variety of the exhibits. It would take much less time to say what the Pitt Rivers doesn’t have in its collection than what it does. In fact, I’m not entirely sure there is anything in existence, an example of which cannot be found there.
The most striking element of this overflowing treasure house of a museum, though, is the order imposed on the objects. Augustus Pitt Rivers insisted that they be arranged not by the culture that produced them, but by type and function, and that, by and large, is still the approach the museum takes today. Compared with other museums of its type, that method can at first seem hopelessly outmoded, but the closer you look and the more time you spend watching the displays unfold, the more illuminating it becomes.
Take, for example, a case full of ceramic vessels with animal decorations, or a case filled with lamps and other forms of lighting. They contain objects of their stated type, made all over the world, over the course of centuries, in some cases millennia. Taken together, they suggest that people, wherever and whenever they lived, have always had the same basic needs and desires (light, shelter, food and places to store it, clothing, the need to believe in a higher power, to create) and have found ways to satisfy them that show both remarkable creativity and unexpected common ground.
One of the most extraordinary aspects of the display – although it doesn’t in any way trumpet itself – is that in stark contrast to the ethnographic museums I grew up with (I’m thinking of Chicago’s Field Museum), European objects are present in the vast majority of the displays. Implicit in so many ethnographic collections in Europe and North America is the assumption that their purpose is to represent the Other, the foreign, the exotic – that all the cultural artefacts on display are inherently different and separate. From that point it becomes dangerously easy – the road to hell being paved with good intentions – to be patronising, or worse, about the Other.
Not so at the Pitt Rivers. Displaying objects from the world over cheek by jowl not only establishes a sense of humanity’s interconnectedness, it also has a very healthy levelling effect. In the section devoted to body adornment and modification – just to give one example – one’s first reaction to learning about Maori moko tattoos or the neck-lengthening bands worn by Padaung women might be of shock, repulsion or puzzlement, but the English corset in the next case, accompanied by a very graphic rendering of the effect prolonged use has on a woman’s body, is bound to make you think gosh, what we do to our bodies in the name of beauty [well, mercifully in the case of the corset, used to do] is every bit as bizarre.
I only lasted two hours in the museum – partly because I only arrived two hours before closing time, but even had I had longer, I was too overwhelmed by the dazzling and bewildering volume and variety to have been able to take in much more. But even as I made my way back through the Natural History Museum and out, I was already hoping for another chance – and soon – to revisit this marvellous, old-fashioned yet quietly ahead of its time Museum of Everything.
October 8, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I first came across Alexander Cozens in the first art history course I ever took, during my first semester of college. Our survey text, which otherwise gave very short shrift to British artists, somehow saw fit to mention him in passing in the chapter on Romanticism, illustrating one of his ‘blots’ and commenting on the surprising modernity of his work in both its appearance and method. I was intrigued, but where was I going to find any of his drawings in St Louis? Well, nowhere at all, as it turned out.
Over the past year, I’ve been working on a show that includes one of Cozens’s fully worked up blot drawings, and in the course of my research I visited the British Museum print room to look at some of the blots themselves.
They are astonishing. If you didn’t know otherwise, you’d never guess they were produced nearly 250 years ago, the ink laid on with such rough vigour and spontaneity that the strokes only just, with much squinting and imagination, coalesce into something recognisable as a landscape. They look as if they ought to be the work of Jackson Pollock or Zhao Wou Ki, not of an eighteenth-century British artist who toiled in semi-obscurity as a drawing master.
A lot of writing on Alexander Cozens emphasises his modernity, how much he was ahead of his time, a precursor of the Surrealists or one of the fathers of abstraction. That only tells part of the story, though, and thinking of Cozens as a proto-abstractionist will give you a very skewed view of his art. What’s so fascinating about him is how much he was a product of his own time – namely, of the eighteenth-century tendency to see the world in terms of systems that could be decoded and set out for all to understand. The ‘blots’ aren’t Cozens just messing around with ink and a brush (although one of his peers contemptuously dubbed him ‘Blot-master General’). In the 1760s he first devised a system of creating landscapes (which he would spend the rest of his life refining and elaborating) from a fixed series of such blots. The aspiring draughtsman was meant to lay a thin sheet of paper (made transparent with turpentine varnish) over a blot, make a tracing of what he or she perceived as the contours of a landscape, and work it up into a finished drawing.
The amazing aspect of this apparently rigid approach – in the first version, Cozens only provided eight blots to serve as foundations for drawings, later expanding to a more generous sixteen – is that it could produce infinite variety. Formal constraints paradoxically freed the imagination.
Cozens referred to his blots as ‘a production of chance with a small degree of design’. Deliberately creating conditions in which chance flourishes – maybe it’s fairer to say that instead of Cozens being ahead of his time, what the Surrealists did two hundred years later was actually a bit… old-fashioned?
September 30, 2013 § 2 Comments
Apart from the Imperial War Museum and the National Army Museum (which didn’t make the list because I simply can’t summon up any interest), the National Maritime Museum is the only national museum in London I hadn’t visited. I’ve always felt a niggling sense of guilt about that – yes, I can make the excuse that it’s in Greenwich and therefore out of the way, but the fact remains that I’ve already visited the Royal Observatory and the Queen’s House (and the Fan Museum!) and have somehow never managed to fit in the NMM. So yesterday I headed off to Greenwich to change that.
I’ll start with the positive – the National Maritime Museum has some stunning objects in its collection. For sheer impressiveness, you can’t do much better than Prince Frederick’s barge, all elaborate carving and gilding and with about as many oars as the average porcupine has spines, but even better was the display of ships’ figureheads. Detached from their ships and marshalled into a towering stack, they somehow manage to look impressive, awkward and poignant at once.
At the smaller end of the scale, some of the early navigational instruments were works of art in their own right. Take these astrolabes – the skill of the metalworker is breathtaking.
Now for the negative – apart from these lovely and fascinating objects, I found the museum considerably less than the sum of its parts. Part of that might be down to the layout of the galleries – they are separated from each other by such distances that the displays struggle to cohere. The whole thing feels very bitty. It doesn’t feel so much as if you’re getting the full story of Britain’s relationship with the sea, more that you’re getting bits and pieces that never really add up. (To be fair, two of the permanent collection galleries were closed for refurbishment when I went, so that may have been a contributing factor.)
Some of the displays seemed less than well thought out. The museum is currently conducting a well-publicised campaign to save two paintings by George Stubbs of Australian fauna – a kangaroo and a dingo – from export. After seeing all the banners on the way from the DLR station to the museum, I was curious to see the paintings themselves. I followed the signs and discovered that they’re displayed in a case in… the shop. Perhaps I’m being nitpicky, but I think that sends a curious message, to say the least.
The next exhibition at the National Maritime Museum is on Turner and the sea, so I’ll be going back for that. And the permanent displays? Unless they undergo a major overhaul… I’m sorry, NMM, but I think that’s unlikely.
Tally: 20 down, 3 to go