The cultural biography of objects and museum contexts: inside Grayson Perry’s head at the British Museum


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Not, for once, a comparison between two exhibitions, but I found I had quite enough to say about this one individually.

Grayson Perry: the Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, British Museum (visited 21st October 2011)

In the early years of the British Museum (est. 1753), collections consisted of tokens drawn from all over God’s world, natural and man-made.  The Museum also provided a concrete proclamation of Britain’s imperialist standing on the world stage, one that in today’s post-colonial era it has needed to discreetly step back from.  For example, the mammoth History of the World in 100 Objects celebrates the totality of the human endeavour, with Britain’s role and the history of the Museum’s collection sidelined.

It has also been seeking to break down barriers between modern disciplines – barriers which it had no small role in creating.  For example, the Statuephilia exhibition (2008-9) juxtaposed modern art by five household names among the museum’s permanent collection of anonymous antiquities, raising fascinating questions between the nature of art and artefact, representation and context, and ancient and modern (see blog 5th September 2011).

In The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, a well-known artist explores the two-way relationship between past and present, us and the ‘other’, and the individual and his or her society, with a particularly delicious ambiguity between personal pronouns.  Grayson Perry has clearly had fun, and, while Anish Kapoor remains the only artist who’s managed to make me laugh out loud in a gallery (the shooting gun in the Royal Academy’s 2009 exhibition), Perry won a fair number of smiles and grins.

Reference is not made to the Cartoon Museum, located conveniently close to the British Museum.  The line between cartoon and art is one that Perry might have articulated more purposely given the nature of his ceramics (and the suggestion that the Haidan figure of a man in European dress threatening a woman was a satirical comment on European culture).  I agree with him that there should be more humour in modern art, rather than the endless deadening thuds of hollow seriousness.  However, since Perry openly sets himself apart from those artists, can he see craftsmanship in cartoons, and align himself with, say, Steve Bell?

But that is an aside: what I find particularly impressive is the sheer bravery of the undertaking here, and the confidence and flair with which it has been pulled off.  The exhibition can be interpreted in a number of ways, but for me it provides a rare and clear introduction for the general public to museology – the study of museums, not what is in them – and from the point of view of an artist, not a curator.

The visitor’s attention is drawn to the difficulties involved in interpreting material and visual culture in general.  For example, The Frivolous Now is a comment on such a specific modern British moment that it brings into question the longevity of the ‘original context’ (as if there would ever be a single one – the ‘cultural biography of objects’ is a wonderful way of describing the varied life-histories of things).  Perry himself dismisses the ‘Duchampian power of the context’ (Guardian 17/09/11), whereby a piece becomes ‘art’ by being placed in a gallery, but this is just one kind of context.  By extension, Perry embraces fakes – ‘I love fakes for they make us think about what it is we see in the authentic’.  How much do we value an object because of its perceived context?

Do we learn anything new about any of the pieces drawn from the museum’s collection?  Florence Waters, writing for the Telegraph (05/10/11), felt not: ‘this is not a museum exhibition, nor will you learn anything of much significance about the things you see’.  I view this as unfortunately missing one the key points of this perfectly museum-like exhibition.  Museums are all about context, or contexts – they do not ‘decontextualize’ objects as often stated, and nor do they ever ‘reconstruct’ history in the sense Waters seems to assume.

The objects are not now silent because they have been ripped from their historical context, or that of their more ‘legitimate’ museum setting – and they’ll still sing to you if you’ll listen.  The harmonies in this exhibition arise from cross-cultural comparisons derived from personal choice, linked to questions, concepts and statements where each object plays a very significant role.  Maybe it would have helped if Perry had explicitly referred to the field of museology, or at least not have been so self-depreciating from the outset (the first thing you read is a declaration of no historical expertise – honest, but detracts from the positive contribution or the intelligence of the contributor).

There is also the issue of relevance, itself closely interwoven with context.  Perry has sought objects that match or at least fit in with his works, rather than seeking objects that have inspired him, which is normally how artists present their interactions with the past and other cultures.  In doing so, he has opened a new chapter in the lives of these busy objects.  Their relevance to us is questioned, altered and refreshed – although, admittedly, the reasoning behind the choices was not always made clear.

There is a degree of self-indulgence concerning the focus of Perry’s childhood teddy bear, a would-be deity in today’s increasingly secular times.  The story of the journey to Germany comes across slightly as a forced backdrop, and unnecessary scenery.  It sounds much worse than it is – the bear soon becomes a useful, easily recognizable symbol that provides coherence to the collection.  The bear as companion/god worked surprisingly well with the idea of a tomb, not merely as an exhibition, but as the British Museum as a whole.

So much about the concept, I also found the quality of the work impressive.  The ceramics are the work of a highly trained craftsman, and it is such a welcome change that the ‘artist’ did the work himself.  Not so the other media, such as metal casting, glass blowing or computer-controlled tapestry.  It is interesting to see here that the contributors are all carefully acknowledged in the labels – not unknown craftsmen/women/machines at all.

The quality of curatorship is particularly high as well.  One unfortunate consequence of this was frustration I felt since the (lavish) exhibition catalogue illustrates objects individually, whereas I would have appreciated a permanent record of the arrangement and interrelation of objects as displayed.  This is an exhibition about the relationship between the objects on display, and between people and those objects.  No souvenir of that is available (and Perry’s a fan of souvenirs).

This is a celebration of making, active creating, doing and producing – I found myself inwardly humming the tune to my childhood’s bossy TV show, Why Don’t You?  But for someone who professes to value doing over theorizing, this is an immensely thought-provoking exhibition.

Living dreams: the Geffrey Museum and Museum of Decorative Arts, Bordeaux


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On holiday in Bordeaux, the Museum of Decorative Arts was immensely impressive, but made me homesick for the curatorial intelligence of the Geffrye Museum, London

The Geffrye Museum, London

Museum of Decorative Arts, Bordeaux

House museums come in a variety of shapes and sizes.  The Geffrye Museum does something stunningly clever with this beautiful old almshouse.  It was once a welcome retreat for the ‘refined poor’, established by the merchant Sir Robert Geffrye from provisions made in his will upon his death in 1704.  It now presents examples of middle-class (or, as the displays like to describe them, the ‘middling sort’s’) living spaces from Geffrye’s time to the present.  This offers insights not only into changing furnishings and taste, but also into manners and domestic spatial politics, as we witness the increasing separation of space into different functions and the growing privacy of the core ‘nuclear’ family unit.

Hall, 1630, Geffrey Museum

The language used for this basic, essential space is telling.  The story begins with the ‘hall’ of 1630.  We then visit the parlour, the drawing room, and the living room – with today’s open plan living spaces ending this fascinating sweep through the innermost areas of British life.

Drawing room, 1830, Geffrey Museum

During its time as an almshouse, each individual, couple or family unit had a single room around 13 by 15 feet, a situation very different from modern British expectations, and, indeed, those of the middle-class families illustrated in the museum today.  Most inhabitants, however, were pensioners, and had already brought up their families.  Rules were invasive and strict, including a strict and early curfew; people paid a price for these benefits.  This is in stark contrast to the ‘no-strings’ benefits received today (although see on-going debates concerning the withdrawal of benefits for misbehaviour, especially since the urban riots of summer 2011).

Museum of Decorative Arts, Bordeaux

The museum convincingly argues that the tastes of the early middle-class (a much smaller group than today) were distinct from that of the upper-class – they were not merely poorer imitators.  We see a kind of fossil of an upper-class abode in the Museum of Decorative Arts, Bordeaux.  The wealthy Pierre de Raymond de Lalande commissioned the hotel de Lalande, which was completed in 1779, some time after the Geffrye almshouse.  Around a century later, it became part of the municipality of Bordeaux, and was used for the police, becoming the musée d’Art anciens in 1923.  It is explicitly a museum of decorative arts, but the rooms are a memorial to the finest domestic living of the eighteenth century.

Infant Bacchus on wine cistern

In contrast with the British Aesthetic Movement (see post of 4th August 2011), these applied or decorative arts were not for mass-production, but to reinforce social divides.  And an interesting feeling emerges when comparing this museum with the Geffrye.  The latter is warm and welcoming.  The MDA, Bordeaux is also staffed by charming people, and there are the usual trimmings expected of a well-maintained and resourced museum.  But there is no denying that the MDA show-cases a building whose main aim was to impress, which it does to great effect, but this is not necessarily the open ‘out-reach’ experience that modern British museums need to strive for, not least for funding purposes.

We hit upon an intriguing problem here, which the great old museums across the world are facing.  Often, the most spectacular exhibits celebrate elitism – of the kind that got notably crushed during the French Revolution (occurring not long after the establishment of this building).  How does one transfer cultural ownership from this highly restricted few to the democratic open-access arena demanded for the allocation of public funds?

In fairness, the MDA was free.  I respect the need for some museums to charge, but will argue that a culture that has competitions for public money to avoid fees produces immeasurable social value.  The Geffrye’s permanent exhibition (discussed here) is free.  But it has also rose to the challenge of converting ancient treasures to a modern audience in a marvellous manner – walking through a narrow corridor with rooms representing living rooms through the ages is fascinating.  Especially, since we can see the history of manners and spatial politics being experimented with and radically changed over the course of the last 3-400 years.

The very heart of our (middle-class, but increasingly standard) homes has changed so much, almost beyond recognition.  We view history from the point of view of major events, political reforms and ‘Great Men’.  But those changes in the home have had far greater repercussions for the wider population than the history book acknowledge – and precisely why we need such museums.

René Magritte, and how to represent the world


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Magritte is a wide-ranging Surrealist artist, who rejected cultural, rational norms in his art – an approach that the curators appear to have followed with more mixed success  

René Magritte: The Pleasure Principal: Tate Liverpool

Room 1 The Enlightenment Room (permanent) and the Statuephilia Exhibition (4th October 2008 to 25th January 2009): British Museum

The Tate Liverpool has brought together a rich collection of Magritte’s work, and apparently focuses on his desire to subvert expectations and undermine the world order familiar to us since the Enlightenment.  It seemed pertinent, therefore, to consider his ideas in comparison with Enlightenment values, as excellently displayed by the British Museum.  After leaving the Tate exhibition slightly bemused, and reading Richard Dorment’s review in the Telegraph (27th June 2011), it transpired that the sense of disorder I felt may have had more to do with the exhibition’s lack of clarity, rather than being a fair representation of the artist’s oeuvre and intentions.  Nonetheless, Magritte (1898-1967) is known as a surrealist, and the realism such artists attempt to sabotage is that set by the modern, Western classification of the Enlightenment.

Magritte is famous for his bowler hats and interplay between word and image.  This is not a pipe is written underneath an image of a pipe, because this is an image, not a pipe.  Classicists will be used to this problem – Plato was very wary of the artists, or ‘imitators’, of his day.  They lead us one step further from the pure, essential ideal or ‘Form’ of objects and concepts.  What does Magritte do with this conundrum, beyond simply point it out?  One approach was to explore the nature of representation.  A key issue is surely that representation and reality are not the black-and-white polar opposites that we might often assume, a legacy of our Enlightenment heritage.  Magritte was fascinated by framing, where the real world ended and the ‘art’ began, seen for example in The Key to the Fields and The Human Condition.  But this theme is fragmented in this exhibition, since the ‘The treachery of images’ and ‘The pictured frame’ are separated by a rather random (but interesting, and rarely-shown) collection of ‘Photography and film’.

Magritte: One-Night Museum

One picture that caught my attention was One-Night Museum, apparently influenced by the cabinets of curiosities (random, disorganized collections) of pre-Enlightenment times.  We see a box divided into four sections; in the first section is exhibited a severed hand, the second an apple, the third an unidentifiable metallic blob, and the fourth is papered over, hidden from view.  Representative examples of various phenomena was displayed with little sense of rational order.  We can see why this would appeal to Surrealists.

Magritte said: ‘To be a Surrealist means barring from your mind all remembrance of what you have seen, and being always on the lookout for what has never been’.  A more contrasting statement of Enlightenment aims is difficult to imagine.  What is this worldview that Magritte was running from?

The Enlightenment Room, BM (Greek vases)

The Enlightenment Room in the British Museum is the best place I can think of to realize the monumental task of categorizing, ordering and displaying the world undertaken in the Eighteenth Century, which the Surrealists came to feel was suffocating.  We can see the struggle to keep on top of the new plant and animal types being discovered in the New World as well as Old; several kinds of categorization were experimented with before the current taxonomies were agreed upon.  Polymaths were the norm at this time, before the extreme specialization which inevitably exists today (and can in fairness feel suffocating itself).

Hirst 'Cornucopia', BM

Developments in classification originated in the natural world, but then people began to wonder how similar rationales might be applied to the artificial, manmade world.  Perhaps surprisingly, Greek vases played a key role in this – recognized by the British Museum’s display.  The BM’s Statuephilia exhibition presented the opportunity to set these historical developments next to modern, or postmodern, responses to it.  Damien Hirst offered a display entitled Cornucopia of brightly-painted skulls in one of the cabinets in this room, and it was striking how easily they blended in with the Greek pots.  Quite how these 200 skulls added to the theme of classification is unclear, but they were excellent for provoking questions about the relationship between art and artefact, ancient and modern, object and meaning.  Where does modern art fit in the commonsense of the Enlightenment?

Finally, the curation of the Magritte exhibition.  In a recent posting, I criticized Tracey Emin’s work, but admired the Hayward’s curation of it (posted 15th August 2011), here I feel the opposite (although the exhibition remains well worth visiting).  The work is not laid out chronologically, which is fine, but the rationale of the themes is unclear as well. The free booklet handed out at the entrance turns out to be a timeline of his life.  One would hope for clarification in the exhibition catalogue, but the decision was unfortunately taken to produce and A to Z dictionary of random words and concepts associated with Magritte.  It in no way appears to correspond to the exhibition rooms, and, indeed, the attempt to organize a surrealist in this alphabetical manner feels a little perverse.  It is almost as if the curators realized too late that the themes did not make sense, panicked, and decided to avoid the issue altogether.

Perhaps the aim is to provide a ‘fresh’ view of the artist by completely confusing the visitor, forcing them to dismantle all prior conceptions of the artist.  In this case, the problem remains that there is no guidance for how we might reconstruct our understanding of the man and his work, and, for that reason, there is a feeling of missed opportunity around this particular exhibition.

Building models and architectural displays: the Parthenon


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A small but perfectly formed exhibition of models in the Soane Museum triggered questions about how architecture can be displayed in buildings (visited August 2011) 

Wonders of the Ancient World: François Fouquet’s Model Masterpieces: Soane Museum

The Duveen Gallery (Parthenon Room 18): British Museum

The Soane Museum is a truly idiosyncratic house-museum of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, an astonishing assemblage of ancient and modern sculpture, architectural casts and fragments, paintings, books and the massive sarcophagus of Seti I.  Sir John Soane was the architect responsible for the Bank of England’s design (since replaced) and a serious collector of art and antiquities.  While Soane had conducted a Grand Tour, it was not until later on in life that he could afford to collect art.  Antiquities played an important part in his collection, not only for the status symbol they represented, but also because he was greatly influenced by classical architecture in his own designs.

The Parthenon

At this time, Greece was relatively under-explored in comparison to classical Rome.  Greece (not yet a nation state, and part of the Ottoman Empire) was dangerous, riddled with bandits, and only for the very adventurous.  François Fouquet was able to use travellers’ drawings to reconstruct notable classical buildings in plaster of Paris models, twenty of which may be seen in this display.  In Soane’s day, these objects would have been placed with his own models of architectural buildings, made before the buildings were constructed.

It is not fully understood how Fouquet made these models, and they vary in accuracy.  The stark whiteness of the plaster of Paris reinforces modern ideas about what ancient buildings looked like, but in fact the sculptures would have been painted, rendering it easier to see them from the ground (for example, painting the background a deep dark blue).  Plaster of Paris was used for reconstructed models, whereas cork was used for antiquities depicted in their ruined state.  This exhibition exhibits models of both states of the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli for comparison, although unfortunately they are not juxtaposed.  This building provided inspiration for Soane’s ‘Tivoli corner’ of the Bank of England.

Subject of Parthenon frieze (BM sign)

The accuracy of some of these models is open to question.  Let us focus on the Parthenon, the fifth-century BC great temple of the Athenian Acropolis.  Fouquet based his work on Le Roy’s (1758) images, even capturing the sculptures of the metopes and pediments.  The metopes are all of the centauromachy, which were originally placed on the south, rather more inaccessible, side of the Parthenon.  These did not suffer the iconoclasm conducted by Christians when they converted the building to a Church.  This is also why Lord Elgin chose these to bring back to England (purchased by the British Museum with the other marbles in 1816), leaving the others behind in Athens: one can now see fifteen of them in the BM.  The pediments are both of the east pediment: Le Roy did not reproduce the remains of the west.

Position of Parthenon sculptures (BM sign)

The frieze, for which the Parthenon is justly famous, does not appear to be depicted by Fouquet, and nor, presumably, by Le Roy either.  Pausanias, the second century AD Roman travel writer does not mention the frieze: when one considers the original position of the frieze, it is quite possible that he simply failed to notice it.  It was, after all, placed behind the outer line of columns.  Nor is the architectural frieze of the Erechtheion depicted on Fouquet’s model.  Soane actually had part of this frieze in his collection, although it was not identified as such until after his death.

This raises the issue of displaying architecture inside buildings – how should this be done?  Soane’s Museum itself is a model and monument to architectural greatness, inspiration for future generations.  But can the display of ancient buildings ever be authentic?

Position of sculptures in BM (BM sign)

One productive way of exploring this question is to consider the display of the remains of the Parthenon as housed in the British Museum.  Here, the once neglected frieze is the main draw of the Duveen gallery, the room designed to house the Parthenon marbles.  The display inverts the original design, while remaining loyal to certain aspects.  The frieze faces into the room, rather than decorating the outside of the building, and is placed at eye-level for easy visibility.  The two pediments, with sculptures conducted in-the-round, are placed so that one can walk around the sculptures, and we can see for ourselves the care bestowed on the backs of sculptures not intended to be seen by living mortals.

The most important side of any Greek temple is the eastern one, and it is here that the main focus of the processional frieze is located: the so-called peplos scene framed by two sitting groups of Olympian gods.   This is not placed beneath the East Pediment, as it would once have been, but it is still placed in a focal point, opposite and to the right of the entrance.  The procession runs in either direction from the entrance, encouraging the visitor to follow it around.  The Duveen gallery also does a clever job of disguising the fact that only half of the sculptures are on display.  This ancient religious building is now a display of art, de-ritualized and de-contextualized, a model of the modern idea of the ancient world as much as Fouquet’s concepts.

Words, words, words… Tracey Emin, meet Vincent van Gogh


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I was at a loss for what to pair up with Emin’s show, until I recalled the Royal Academy’s show on van Gogh (23rd January – 18th April, 2010).  Visited April 2010/August 2011

Tracey Emin: Love is what you want (Hayward Gallery)

The real van Gogh: the artist and his letters (Royal Academy) VL: Vincent catalogue

David Levene for the Observer

Tracey Emin’s show is referred to as a ‘major retrospective’ in reviews, and I did enjoy the curation of the show; the use of space was exceptionally intelligent.  She is one of the better-known members of the (not-so) Young British Artists.  Given the extent to which her art refers to her life, it is much a retrospective on her life as it is her art.  She is quoted in a Guardian review (16th May 2011) as saying that young women should particularly benefit from the show: ‘They can see that I’ve been on a journey and they are on a journey themselves and they relate to that’.  Aside from sounding dangerously ‘X-factor’ with this talk of journeys, the questions I am left with are: whether, why and how is her journey particularly educational or entertaining, representative or exemplary?  Emin turns up in many videos, sometimes speaking (most memorably about her abortion), sometimes not (on a horse on Margate beach).  She has literally made an exhibit of herself.  This makes it particularly harsh and personal to ask: is she special enough to warrant all this attention?

I don’t leave with the answers: I have no idea why Emin should deserve or demand my time (she states in interviews that she believes that visitors should easily spend three hours browsing – I didn’t).  I didn’t particularly dislike any of the exhibits either – so I don’t even feel that she can really be defined as a love/hate artist.  I just couldn’t understand why her, and I wanted to.   The emphasis on the suffering in her life makes me feel churlish to ignore her – but this is a form of passive aggressiveness, or emotional blackmail.  I considered buying the catalogue, not because I would treasure it (and I generally find them hard to resist), but because I thought it might contain some answers.  Which is precisely why I didn’t buy it – art, especially art so reliant on words, should be able to narrate the story itself.

The presence of words in Emin’s art is striking.  The blankets, neon lights, letters and notes (which are not art, I feel, but a personalised kind of gallery label) reveal the desire to narrate her stories by as many means as possible.  She is on record in the exhibition guide as saying: ‘it’s my words that actually make my art quite unique’, ‘quite’ here presumably meaning ‘completely’ rather than ‘somewhat’, since something cannot be ‘a bit’ unique.  That’s part of the problem – she isn’t very articulate, in that the meaning is not always clear.  (Is this deliberate?  She is an artist after all – do I not ‘get’ it?)

This love of words doesn’t extend to spelling them correctly.  One reviewer (Charles Darwent, Independent 22nd May 2011) relishes this rawness; apparently you can’t convey the horror of rape and the experience of life in general if you bother with spelling and ‘sound like you went to Girton’.  Bollocks – to express my point in a manner he might appreciate.  Articulation of emotion is not simply gained by inarticulate communication, whether verbal or visual or whatever.  It can do, but to say it must places our great writers as artificial, insincere frauds.  Bollocks.  In fact, it serves to cast her in the role of victim rather than agent even more – and much of her story consists of what has happened to her, rather than by her.

The Real Van Gogh

In contrast, it has took a good deal of research – 15 years worth – for Leo Jansen, Hans Juijten and Nienke Bakker to assess what van Gogh’s letters can teach us about his thought processes and work.  The letters are not often exposed due to their fragility, they were not intended to be monuments – in fact, van Gogh frequently destroyed his letters (VL 16).  Van Gogh’s letters ‘constitute the bridge linking the man and his art’ (VL 15).  Which begs the question – which of Emin’s notes are ‘genuine’ personal documents, and which are written for the whole world as the intended audience?  To my mind, this makes a difference.

Don McLean’s wonderful song ‘Vincent’ captures the isolation of van Gogh’s genius, the painter ‘with eyes that know the darkness in my soul’.  The depth of his vision about and into the world drives us to learn more about the human who created them.   He died in squalor, completely unrecognized: ‘They would not listen, they did not know how. Perhaps they’ll listen now.’  It is less clear how much Emin looks beyond herself.  She is generous and brave in holding up herself as a mirror for others to look into, and it is this that stops her work being entirely narcissistic, but this engagement with the world is the opposite of empathy.  Emin is (how?) rich, presenting a retrospective, and famous for her art – which is her life – which is why we should listen – so she is famous – as an artist – who has lived – so we can emphasize with her – so she is a model – who is exhibited by herself…

There was little about van Gogh’s self-portraits in the RA, but we could explore the letter written with reference to ‘Self-portrait as an artist’ from 1888.  He emphasizes the difference between photographs and portraits, the former being one-dimensional, the latter achieving a ‘deeper likeness’ (VL 130-1) for which he is now famous.  There is also a sharp contrast between Emin’s shouting-from-the-rooftops neediness, and that of Vincent thanking his brother Theo for his letters and gifts, which ‘did me an enormous amount of good in giving me back a little energy, or rather the desire to climb back up from the dejected state I’m in’ (VL 232).  Van Gogh really is a mess.

At the end of his song, with wonderful simplicity, McLean states of both the man and his art:

‘But I could have told you, Vincent, This world was never meant for one As beautiful as you.’

Van Gogh’s letters offers true insights into his life and art, while Emin’s approach to her life, art and language appears simply to merge them.  The term YBA suggests angry young (wo)men breaking down boundaries, a post-modern deconstruction of traditional norms; in fact, her art appears to be based on confusing boundaries.

A politicalized Miró and religious relics: creating and challenging ideologies


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How do religious artefacts become art, and how can art challenge ideologies?  Visited August 2011.

Joan Miró: the ladder of escape (Tate Modern).  M: exhibition catalogue

Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe(British Museum). TH: exhibition catalogue

At face value, there is little cause to compare these exhibitions.  One is a retrospective of the surrealist artist, Miró (1893-1983), with a focus on the relationship between his art and politics.  The other is a richly illustrated history of an aspect of Christianity up until 1540, namely the physical remains of saints and their role in devotional practice.  The Tate presents Miró’s work in its typically light, stark and well spaced out manner.  The BM’s exhibition is set against a richly dark background, with exhibits spot-lit (candle-lit?) and religious music piped throughout for added atmosphere.

Despite these and many other differences, they both explore fundamental questions and carry explicit messages.  Surrealism searched for hidden truths while abandoning the ‘false’ comfort of realism, and many of its protagonists pushed a strong political ideology.  The religious relics, however, reach into the heart of religious faith in order to offer a concrete, physical presence.  One goes beyond perceptible reality, the other bestows physical reality to the intangible.

The atmospheric setting of Treasures does not quite disguise the fact that these religious artefacts have been brought into the museum setting to be viewed as ‘art’.  This tension between art and religion provides an artificial similarity between the two collections.

Miró was Catalan, and lived through the period that witnessed religious and royal authority give way to dictatorships, when the Spanish Civil War tore the country (including Catalonia) apart.  Could modern modes of art, including surrealism, offer a new religion, or even replace it?  Is this what all modern ‘-isms’ attempt to do, including communism?

This is an exhibition that invites these kinds of questions.  But it is unclear whether they are the right ones for this particular individual.  Miró was not a member of the communist party (M 35), but he is presented here as practically being one.  Likewise, he was less likely to call himself a surrealist than to be called one by others.  He was very nationalistic concerning Catalonia, but saw himself as an ‘international Catalan’, someone who did not need to be based in the region to support it.

The contrast between Miró’s world and that of early Christianity is striking.  It is difficult to comprehend a sharp distinction between religious and secular in the medieval world, whereas it is perfectly possible to engage with an artist like Miró with little understanding of his response to religion, in particular, the Catholicism of his native country.  One rare reference to Miró’s ideas of spiritualism is quoted (M 99): ‘The moving poetry that exists in the humblest things and the radiant spiritual forces that emanate from them’.

Taking these shows side-by-side, one can observe how complicated the relationship between text and object or image is.  It is argued (TH 155-6) that the enamelled figures needed to be identified by inscriptions – that this lent authenticity to the represented individual.  Likewise, one is often reliant on the title in Miró’s work to ‘explain’ the narrative – such as ‘Young Girl with Half Brown, Half Red Hair Slipping on the Blood of Frozen Hyacinths of a Burning Football Field’ (1939).  Even the title itself is playful, with the slightly disconcerting incorporation of fire: title and image tease one another.  The reliquaries in the Treasures exhibition performs a similar role, acting like archival documentation and conformation of the genuineness of the real ‘treasure’, the relic enclosed.

Triptych Reliquary of the True Cross, c. 1160-70

Both shows include triptychs – three adjacent panels for altars, often attached by hinges, the outer flaps of which fold on top of the main, central panel.  ‘Treasures’ contain some exquisite examples; rather more surprisingly, we encounter ‘triptychs’ as part of Miró’s later work.  These impact in terms of scale, and the Tate presents them very well.  ‘Painting on White Background for the Cell of a Recluse I, II, III’ and ‘The Hope of a Condemned Man I, II, III’ inevitably impress due to their size, and the contrast in the emptiness their subjects referred to.

As a classicist, there are also interesting nuances to glean regarding the response to the classical world from these exhibitions.  Immediately upon entering Treasures, we encounter the story of how early Christians had to overcome, or be suppressed by, great persecution.  Understandably, in this context, the Romans are the ‘Other’ and the enemy, until they themselves convert.  Fascism was far more open to classicism than Miró and his contemporary artists – once again, classicism is on the side of the oppressors.  M 157 states: ‘While the fragment is frequently associated with classical sculptures that were vandalised with the Fall of Rome, Bourgeois’s and Miró’s truncated bodies appear to hark back to prehistory’.

Miró 'The Farm'

Thinking more about oppression, a contrast can be seen further between the desire to propagate religious ideology through these physical fragments in Treasures, while Miró, it is argued here, sought to undermine political oppression through his art – although this is less clear in some of his more successful work, such as ‘The Farm’.  This demonstrates a further major shift in the meaning of art in the modern west, from attempting to answer the big questions in life through religion, to asking questions of the socio-political status quo.

Beauty – debated, twisted, objectified – ever good?


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These exhibitions cover contemporary periods – but offer very different understandings of the aesthetics of ‘beauty’ (July 2011)

The Cult of Beauty: the Aesthetic movement 1860-1900 (Victoria and Albert)

Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge (Courtauld Gallery)

There has always been something of a contradiction in my mind between the call for ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ and the investment in interior design and fine everyday living as represented by the Aesthetic movement.  William Morris articulates this distinction between function and art in his statement: ‘If you want a golden rule that will fit every body, this is it: have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’.

The Aesthetic movement therefore strove to improve life-styles as well as enrich the world with beautiful objects.  There is another paradox in Morris’ rather socialist call to arms: his aestheticism was reacting against the mass-produced materialization of the industrial age, but claimed that its values were available to all.  How was this to work in practice?

The Aesthetic movement is clearly a diverse entity, which, here, is usefully broken down according to decades.  The exhibition also highlights that this was not the only approach to art at the time; many resented or even feared the loose morals suggested by the movement, with little reference to god, goodness and nature.  Oscar Wilde, a key player in the movement, came to represent its downfall.

This exhibition tells this complex story extremely clearly.  The movement did not just incorporate paintings, but also music, literature, furniture, teapots, crockery and was influenced from a host of cultures – classical, Japanese…  The legacy of classical art fits well with the degree of escapism associated with this movement – the serene, distracted, removed beauty of classical art, as celebrated at the time by the Elgin (Parthenon) marbles reflected the expectation that art would lift the soul from the dirt and grind of modern life.

Jane Avril starred at the Moulin Rouge in Paris in the 1890s, and therefore offers a strikingly different take on ‘Beauty’ from that explored in the V&A.  She was a dancer, and, with that, both exhibitions consider the relationship between painting and music.  Her dancing was idiosyncratic, eccentric and, given the activities of the setting, erotic.  Women were objectified by the Aesthetic movement, often sharing the abstract calm of classical art, but few were portrayed as inherently sad as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec presented his close friend.

His portraits became advertisements for her venue – not the high art of the exquisite individual objects of the V&A.  Here beauty shone through despite the lowliness of the surroundings, not because of their gentile nature.  Was this a freak show?  Possibly, the Moulin Rouge attracted a wild array of performers, and customers to support them.  But Toulouse-Lautrec’s subjects perhaps have more agency than those of the V&A – they are less objectified, they know they are being observed, and they have a considerable amount of control over how they will be seen.  The exhibition charts clearly how the relationship between Toulouse-Lautrec and Avril was mutually beneficial, both commercially and personally.

Seen together, these exhibitions illustrate the varied nature of beauty.  The objectification of the subjects leads us to consider whether beauty is in the eye of the holder or the beholden.  The nature of the media and intended audiences were different, but shared a desire to reach out to a wide spectrum of people, and to receive acknowledgement from them.  Together and separately, these exhibitions also indicate that Beauty need not have anything to do with happiness.  The V&A women may bring happiness to the viewer, but this is not conveyed in their faces, and the drawn ‘seen-it-all’ depth of Avril is, at times, overwhelming.

Afghanistan – under Alexander


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This compares two related, blockbuster exhibitions, visited July 2011

Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World (British Museum) 

Heracles to Alexander the Great (Ashmolean Museum)

It is Afghanistan’s position on the Silk Road and the more southerly trade routes that renders it a ‘crossroads’.  ‘Afghanistan’ is not only a modern and artificial entity, which has absorbed a whole host of external influences, but it is also immensely diverse within these modern national borders.  Created in the late 19th century, it incorporates three distinct regions (Afghanistan p. 55).  Its volatile history has also witnessed frequent clashes between politics and culture – most dramatically in 2001 when the Taliban blew up the colossal rock-cut Buddhas.

In the Hellenistic period (after the death of Alexander in 323BC), the region was part of a far wider cultural entity.  The site at Aï Khanum illustrates just how much was invested in constructing the Hellenistic message and way of life so far from the increasingly fragmented centre in northern Greece.  To my mind, the Greek theatre particularly demonstrates the compromises and challenges seen at this cultural crossroads (Afghanistan p. 90).  This, the easternmost Greek theatre yet discovered, provides the communal entertainment that would have played a central role in the lives of Greek male citizens.  The ‘spacious loggias’ half way up the theatres accommodated the VIPs of the time – a nod to the deeply-entrenched social differentiation of the Eastern world.  It therefore merges the cultures in the organisation of its space.

Herakles - Afghanistan exhibition, BM

One artefact that caught my eye was the statuette of Herakles (Afghanistan, p. 113).  This, by the standards of classical bronzes, is a coarsely made statuette.  A clumsy version of the classical contrapposto, it is nonetheless loyal to the pose.  The weight is shifted to one side, with the right leg forward.  His upraised right arm (placing a crown on his head) contrasts with the other, which supports his club.  This piece meant a lot to someone, enough to repair the left leg and replace the foot that had been broken off.  This could indicate many things – was this piece revered ritually?  Was this bronze statuette of enviable quality in this part of the world?  Did it have sentimental value?  Its findspot, the Temple with niches, suggests the former.  But one answer leads to a series of questions.  Why was this hero worshipped so extensively over the Hellenized East?

Bactrian Herakles, Room 2, Ashmolean

We can study Alexander’s achievements, read the history and even watch the film, but it is only when you go and see something like the BM’s Afghanistan exhibition that the significance and breadth of land he overpowered is appreciated.  Afghanistan is well within the final eastern boundary – the scope of conquered territory is simply massive.  His Bactrian second wife, Roxana, came from the area now encompassing northern Afghanistan, eastern Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.  The statue of Heracles discussed above in Afghanistan is a reminder of the tremendous cultural impact of his campaigns, which far out-lasted the fragile military ones.  A parallel, in bronze from Bactria, can be seen on the permanent exhibition in room 2 (the ‘Human Image) of the Ashmolean.

The Ashmolean focuses less on the achievements of Alexander, and more on the history of his homeland, and the archaeological reconstruction of the Macedonian court.  The Macedonian kings traced their family tree to the semi-god Heracles, and the exhibition charts this shift from legend to history, and back again, to the myth of Alexander.  Their association with a Greek god became useful in contemporary debates concerning how Hellenic these northern upstarts were – Philip II, Alexander’s father, fought hard to achieve social recognition beyond his military successes.

The focus of this exhibition is Aegae (Vergina), the Macedonia centre practically forgotten by absent Alexander.  The objects illustrate a wide range of activities and events, from the palatial feast (symposium) to the rich royal burials.  The distance between Aegae and Aï Khanum is some 3000 miles, but the similarities between the gold burial jewellery are striking.  Taken from their ritual, mortuary context, they are now presented as art, laid (BM) or hung (Ashmolean) around the silent silhouette of the human form.

Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World Exhibition catalogue.

Getting high at the Wellcome Collection

This is an old review, written before I began coupling exhibitions, February 2011

‘High Society’ exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, London

Doctor and Mrs Syntax with a party of friends, experimenting with laughing gas

The Wellcome Collection has a fine tradition of tackling sensitive issues head-on, with intelligence, instruction, and even humour.  This exhibition is no exception, exploring the world of mind-altering drugs throughout history and on a global scale.  Such drugs offer the opportunity to escape from mundane reality, physical and mental suffering, and to engage in communal out-of-the-world bonding.  For me, this invokes a fundamental question.  Are these diversions, coping strategies and social activities fundamental to being human?  The breadth of cultural references and the organization of the display would suggest so.  Exhibits from across the world are juxtaposed, with descriptions nearby or in the detailed booklets provided.  It becomes a guessing game to identify the function of an unfamiliar piece, and the answer needs to be tracked down.  This simple tactic holds the visitor’s attention, and draws it to the similarities and differences between familiar and previously unencountered means of getting high, and the reasons for doing so.

Through a diverse collection of objects, books, art, films, music and even lightshows, the exhibition bombards the senses.  Structure is provided by clear headings such as: ‘self-experimentation’, ‘collective intoxication’ and ‘the drugs trade’, which draw together psychological, social, economic, medical, educational, ethical, legal and political issues.  From the innocuous-looking tin of citric acid (part of an injecting kit) to the arresting but deadening images of life within a crack den, we are safely exposed to the dark underbelly of this world in a rather clinical setting.  But we are also reminded of the positive side of ritualized and communal out-of-body experiences.  What is clear is that, while the particular use of mind-altering drugs might vary across cultures, our curiosity, experimentation, and drive to explore all dimensions are shared across humanity.


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