Last week, when some certain election news meant I needed something to distract myself/cheer myself up, I decided to spend the afternoon visiting two new-ish temporary exhibits in London I’d been wanting to see. (Unfortunately, neither museum allows photography in the exhibition spaces, so I can’t really show you anything, which is a shame.) The first was “Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line,” at the British Library, which opened on 4 November and runs til 1 March 2017. I hadn’t attended anything at the British Library since “Terror and Wonder,” the Gothic Imagination exhibit two years ago, which I really enjoyed, so I was hoping this would be as impressive.
Admission is £12, and they offer half price admission for National Art Pass holders, so I managed to get in for £6. “Maps” was located in the same exhibition space as “Terror and Wonder” was, which I was pleased with because it’s such a nice large area, so visitors can spread out a bit. Actually, seeing something else there made me appreciate how they must have gone out of their way to create a wonderfully creepy atmosphere there for the goth thing, because it’s a fairly characterless space without all the gloomy lighting and fabric hanging down. Anyway, as you can probably guess from the name, this exhibit was all about maps of the 20th century, and how maps reflect the social and political changes that occurred over the course of the century.
The start of the exhibit was pretty cool, in that it was mapping us, the visitors, as we moved around the exhibit, with a “live” map that used different coloured dots to represent each person (the dots moved with us, which of course I had to test by running back and forth like an idiot whilst staring at the map). Other than that, the exhibit was divided up into five main sections: Mapping a New World, which was about mapmakers and how map making technology changed over time (this section included a few pre-20th century maps to demonstrate this); Mapping War, which was mainly about WWI and WWII, Mapping Peace, which showed what happened during the negotiations following the World Wars; Mapping the Market, which was about world economies; and finally Mapping Movement, which showed how both populations and individuals moved over the century.
Because it was a Wednesday afternoon, there weren’t very many people in the exhibit, which delighted me because maps are the kind of thing that you really have to get close to and study for a while to appreciate, so it can be annoying if there’s too many people in there, because they’re likely to block a map for some minutes whilst looking at it. Without having photographs of the maps to remind myself what was there, it’s hard to do a detailed recap, so I’ll just tell you some of the memorable highlights. There was a beautiful, post-WWI map of a fairy tale world, hilarious maps depicting the ways Reagan and Thatcher allegedly viewed the world (though it was a bit sobering to think that Trump probably thinks in much the same way, if not even worse), and of course, early versions of some iconic maps, such as Harry Beck’s tube map. There were also some funny cartoony anti-Nazi WWII maps (the “Adolfin Sea” made me laugh more than it should have), and an impressive map of the trenches in WWI that was handmade, with thin sheets of paper carefully layered up to depict the terrain. This being the BL, they also had some famous maps from books, like AA Milne’s original map of Hundred-Acre Wood (I would definitely be relegated to Eeyore Land, which is all boggy and gloomy), and Tolkien’s map of the Shire, though I’m not the right kind of nerd to have properly appreciated that (I’m a nerd alright, but not a Lord of the Rings type one).
I was happy to see that this exhibit was just as big and thoughtfully put-together as the Gothic Imagination, despite not being quite as atmospheric. There was also a free exhibit about Victorian entertainment when I was there, located at the back of the main hall, which contained some excellent old posters for magic shows and clairvoyants, as well as an early film of the “egg-laying man” magic trick, which was pretty amusing. Definitely worth walking to the back of the hall for! I have to admit, I was definitely happier about paying £6 than £12, because I am cheap, but I think this exhibit was actually worth the money either way, because there was so much to see, and it was very well done. Definitely 4/5 (not quite as high as “Terror and Wonder” because I just like monsters and stuff better, but still very good and interesting).
The second exhibition I visited that day was “Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans” at the Royal Academy of Arts (it runs til 29 January 2017). I’m still not real sure who Luc Tuymans is, but I don’t really care because I am a huge James Ensor fan, and he was the focus of this exhibition. I’d never been to the Royal Academy before, mostly because I balk at spending £9 and up for art, but I had to make an exception for James Ensor (I think it was actually £10, but I got a whole pound off for being a National Art Pass holder. Dunno why they couldn’t offer half-price or free admission like almost every other museum in London, but whatever).
Anyway, I included links to a few James Ensor paintings when I went to his house last year, and there’s more on the exhibition page if you click the Intrigue link in the previous paragraph, but I get the impression that his work is of a type where you either love it or hate it. I am definitely in the former camp…anyone who painted as many skeletons and fart clouds as he did is going to be pretty damn high on my list. Having really only been familiar with his paintings previously, I was delighted to discover some of his etchings at this exhibit, because I think I might like them even better than his paintings, particularly the Seven Deadly Sins series (LOTS of skeletons!). However, although Ensor’s art was all delightful, and I was very happy to see so much of it in one place, I was less pleased with the picture captions, which only provided the name of the piece and the year it was created, without any additional information whatsoever. The free booklet they gave me was pretty informative, but it didn’t talk about every single painting, and it also didn’t discuss them in the order in which they were displayed, so I really would have preferred that the information been next to each painting, as it would be in a normal art museum. There were audio guides available, but they cost an extra £3.50, which I thought was a bit excessive after already having to part with a tenner just to see the (fairly small) exhibition. So although Ensor’s art did make the experience worthwhile for me (many of his pictures made me actually laugh out loud, which was what I needed that day), I’m really not thrilled about how much I paid to see it, and how little time it took to see, because there was literally nothing to do besides look at the pictures. So although Ensor himself is for sure a 5/5 for me, this exhibit only gets 3/5 as a whole, because of the Royal Academy’s lacklustre effort.