UK

London: “Secret Rivers” @ Museum of London Docklands

 

I went to Oslo and Gothenburg a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve got lots of great (and some not so great) museums to show you from there, but I’m going to first take care of some temporary exhibitions in London that will probably be close to ending by the time I get done posting about Oslo (we went to a LOT of museums), starting with “Secret Rivers” at the Museum of London Docklands, which runs until 27th October.  In many ways, I think I prefer the Docklands Museum to its Museum of London sister site, but I don’t often get out to that part of London, so I was pleased that this exhibition would give me the excuse to do so, not least so I could detour by Greenwich Market and get one of my beloved Brazilian churros.

 

This exhibition is free to visit, and is pleasingly just the right size – large enough to make it worth the trip, but not so big that I got tired of looking around before we finished. Also pleasingly, it is located on the ground floor, so we didn’t have to hunt it down somewhere in the belly of the museum. The exhibition opened with a map of the Thames and its tributaries, including all of the “secret rivers” featured in the exhibition: the Effra, Fleet, Lea, Neckinger, Tyburn, Walbrook, Wandle, and Westbourne (there’s a fun quiz on their website to determine which river you are – I’m the Walbrook, which except for the spiritual stuff is basically accurate). I think most Londoners will have heard of at least some of these – certainly the Fleet because of the famous street bearing its name – but they are secret in the sense that the rivers were wholly or partially buried under London (mostly during the Georgian or Victorian eras as the city got more built up), and some are only now, after many centuries, undergoing regeneration.

 

I have to admit that though I am not the most interested in rivers from a nature point of view, I think they’re super interesting for their role in London’s history (especially the Thames, which I have a real soft spot for, though of course that is not hidden), so I was definitely keen to learn more. The exhibition briefly profiled each river, showing its course on a map and explaining how/why it had become “secret,” and displayed a handful of artefacts relating to each river, often things that had been pulled out of it. Some of this was simply garbage, but there were also things like axe heads, swords, religious badges, metal oil lamps used for Diwali, and even a skull.

  

Since human waste was a big part of why most of the rivers disappeared, there was also a mock-up of a three seat privy (the seat of a real one was on display) so I could sit down and give you my obligatory pretend pooping face (apparently I also flail my arms, based on the way one has completely disappeared). One of the more interesting sections was on Jacob’s Island, a slum formerly located in Bermondsey where the Thames and Neckinger met. Dickens used Jacob’s Island as the inspiration for “Folly Ditch” in Oliver Twist, where Bill Sikes died, but according to the exhibition, he actually made it sound a bit nicer than it would have been in real life. The whole thing was a warren of ramshackle shanties with secret tunnels so its inhabitants could escape the police, and residents were forced to get drinking water from the same area where they emptied their chamber pots. Yum. I have a weird fondness for London tap water (I swear it tastes more full-bodied and delicious than the water in other cities, probably because it’s clogging my guts with limescale), but that’s a bridge too far even for me.

 

Not all of the rivers profiled here were in slum areas – the Westbourne ran through classy parts of town like Chelsea, and its banks were home to an upmarket version of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens called Ranelagh Gardens, which offered a range of china souvenirs to its visitors, many of which were on display here. However, even rich people produce effluvia, and it too eventually became clogged with shit. Today a much cleaner version of it feeds the Serpentine in Hyde Park, though it is mostly buried.

 

Marcus took a particular interest in the section on the Wandle, as he is one of the volunteers who has helped to clean it. There used to be a tonne of industry on the Wandle, which runs through Merton, including William Morris’s factory and the Ram Brewery, and it was in a pretty sorry state, but has gone massive regeneration in the last couple of decades, and is now mostly pretty pleasant (save for the occasional discovery of a headless torso), though I’m sure Marcus and everyone else would appreciate it if we could stop carelessly disposing of plastics that make their way into the rivers.

 

There were a few interactive bits in this exhibition, like chamber pots with authentic smells and an installation where you could listen to the sound of the Thames at Windsor, but it was mostly a lot of text, nicely broken up by images and artefacts, which I was totally fine with, especially the excellent “anecdotal view” of the City, shown above. Marcus was even able to pick up a Wandle pin badge in the shop, though I would have liked to see more exhibition-specific things rather than generic London tat (though their shop is tiny, and I am all too aware of the challenges of ordering in custom merchandise for a special exhibition, but I think they probably could have worked with a local artist to produce some river-themed prints. They did have a couple on sale, but they were tiny A4 sized ones where you couldn’t even see the detail from a distance). However, overall it was truly a riparian entertainment with a good flow (ha!), where I learned about some rivers that I didn’t know existed before visiting (probably exactly what they were aiming for!), and got a kick out of all the scatological humour, like Ben Jonson’s poem, shown above. 3/5.

  

On a much less positive note, I also popped in to the Science Gallery to see their latest exhibition on Dark Matter, and I wish I hadn’t even bothered. It was possibly even worse than the last one. The theme of dark matter was really taking the piss – they literally included a jar of air and even worse, a display case filled with nothing, and called it art. Even amongst the pieces I liked, like this really cool map showing all the imaginary islands that had appeared on maps over the centuries with descriptions of how each of the islands had come to be imagined, the connection to dark matter in a scientific sense was tenuous at best. I’m not even bothering to give this one a proper post of its own, because I would struggle to fill it. Pretty lame, Milhouse. 1.5/5.

  

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London: “Food: Bigger than the Plate” @ the V&A

The V&A’s exhibitions have been quite fashion-heavy of late (Dior, Mary Quant), and whilst I do like historical fashions, I’m not so keen on designer-based things (I seem to be in the minority though, as I think Dior is completely sold out for the rest of its run, and you’d probably be wise to pre-book Mary Quant). So I was glad to see they were offering an alternative to fashion in the form of Food: Bigger than the Plate, which runs until 20th October and is all about the future of the food industry.

 

I tend to book ahead at the V&A just to avoid queuing at the ticket desk, but it probably isn’t necessary for this exhibition, at least on weekdays. Admission is £17, which is a lot, but as usual, I only paid half with National Art Pass (if you visit as many exhibitions as I do, you definitely end up getting your money’s worth). There weren’t many people inside the exhibition, but I had to wait for a few minutes to enter because they were changing over staff at the entrance. This wasn’t a problem for me, but it clearly was for the old woman behind me who passed the time by loudly complaining about them (and possibly me, for not just walking right in? It was hard to tell who she was angry at. Everyone, I guess). After dealing with people being rude to me and my volunteers on a regular basis at the museum where I work, I have very limited tolerance for this kind of behaviour, so because I wasn’t at work and was free to do so, I may have made a comment right back to her. Seriously, please do not be horrible to customer service people who’ve done nothing to deserve it. Their jobs are awful enough without having to deal with your abuse.

 

At least the mean lady had the decency to disappear quite quickly after we got inside the exhibition (I think she might have been embarrassed after I called her out), so I didn’t have to keep awkwardly bumping into her as I wandered round. The exhibition covered four separate themes: composting, farming, trading, and eating, but it was more free-flowing than a typical exhibition here, which is probably why they had a round flow-charty thing serving as a map in each room to indicate how far along you were. And I have to say that the exhibition was definitely bigger than I was anticipating, certainly “bigger than the plate.” (Huurrrp.)

 

Of course I think sustainability is important, but I have to admit that I don’t think it’s the most fascinating of topics, so I was impressed that the exhibition held my attention throughout, right from the toilets near the entrance, though they definitely were display-only (I did kind of have to pee, but not in public)! They were water-free toilets, where the poop is caught in some kind of biodegradable bag. To be honest, the mushrooms grown out of bags of used coffee grounds were way grosser – just look at them! I’m not a mushroom fan at the best of times though.

 

There were a lot of examples of plant-based leathers and plastics, a collection of leather goods made from the hide of one poor cow, maps showing fruit trees in London where you could do a bit of urban foraging, and zines covering how to make beer from things like yogurt, but lest it all become a little too crunchy, there was also this great booklet/artwork parodying sustainability taken to extremes by offering ideas on how best to capture your tears to either make your own salt (you need something like 200ml of tears for one gram of salt) or to feed moths (and believe me, the pictures of moths licking tears off someone’s face were terrifying, especially for a lepidopterophobe like myself).

 

And then we got into farming, which was a mix of delights and horrors. There was a collection of tinned pork products that had all come from one pig who had been followed from birth to death by an artist. This was accompanied by a video of the pig’s life, up to and including slaughter (hence the horrors). I watched a bit of cute baby pig doing pig stuff, but moved away pretty quick before they got anywhere near the slaughterhouse. Since I don’t eat them, and I know damn well what happens to them (I’ve watched enough PETA propaganda films in my day), I don’t particularly want to watch it happening again, but I think it is good that it was there so those who do choose to eat meat can at least see where that meat is coming from (I’m really not a particularly ethical vegetarian, but I do think it’s only right that if you’re willing to eat it, you should be willing to watch it die).

 

On a happier note, chickens! Some guy is trying to breed healthier chickens through crossbreeding (as an example of how factory farming has destroyed the health of most modern breeds, a woman had attempted to make bone china from the bones of factory farmed chickens vs. organic chickens, and the factory farmed china was all grey and crumbly and horrible. Made me sick just looking at it), so there was a chart of chickens showing the breeds he had mixed and some (admittedly taxidermied) examples of the new breeds he created. There was also Florence, an adorable little strawberry plant who was having her environment monitored by a computer, and you could ask her questions about her mood, interests, etc, and get a fairly incoherent response in return. And after passing through all the horrors of factory farming, we got to sample an herb-based beverage from a kiosk, though sadly not the cherry one that was sitting out on the counter.

 

On the subject of beverages, the trading section (which was the smallest section here) contained the recipe for Coca Cola, at least as determined by the company that makes Cube Cola, after much trial and error. And now I guess you’ll be able to make it too, though I strongly doubt many of us are going to go out and buy nutmeg oil and powdered caffeine. There were some nice posters in here, and it’s always interesting to think about how far some food travels, like bananas to Iceland, which was the subject of a video here, though I confess I am definitely not a locavore sort of person (though we might all have to be if Brexit goes ahead. Have you actually looked at how many things in British supermarkets are made in the EU? Because it’s seriously most foods. It’s almost like no one actually thought this through…).

 

I was most excited for the eating section – the name was a bit of a misnomer, as there was only one thing you could eat in here, but I’m way more interested in culinary history than eating weird “foods of the future,” so that wasn’t really a problem for me, at least until I got to the diagrams of various cakes known only in Portugal. My experience of Portuguese baking (as sold in London) has not been great, but some of these cakes looked awfully tempting! I can’t say the same for the cheese made from celebrity cultures, including a cheddar from Suggs’s ear wax, and a Comte made from Heston Blumenthal’s pubes (I’m throwing up in my mouth a little just thinking about it). I guess I would eat cheese made from my own bacteria, but I can’t imagine it would taste particularly nice, as anyone who has smelled my feet would likely agree.

 

This section wasn’t only about food, but also about the nature of consumption. There was a display of pottery with designs depicting the early sugar cane industry, and all the slavery and suffering that went along with it, and objects from the intriguing project “Enemy Kitchen” by Michael Rakowitz, who started serving Iraqi food in Chicago during the Iraq War, to try to increase cultural understanding. He even served a dinner off of Saddam Hussein’s personal china, and imported a box of dates into the US from Iraq just to show that despite the difficulties that arose during the importation process, it could be done.

 

The last section of the exhibition was a massive dining table set with different dishes at every place – some were examples of art, others were inventions that could help people with various disabilities, like Parkinson’s, to feed themselves – and a counter where you could order your own food of the future. You didn’t have a choice of dish, you just selected three qualities you thought the food of the future should have (such as sustainable, vegan, delicious, affordable, etc), and they would make you a teeny cracker based on your choices. I am far too much of a picky eater to gamble like this, but Marcus gave it a go and ended up with some kind of courgette crisp topped with mushroom puree. He said it tasted sort of like pizza.

 

I have to say that I enjoyed this exhibition much more than I thought I would, given the emphasis on the future of food (when I’d usually prefer to learn about the past). I learned a lot, and it is definitely interesting, though not always appetising, to think about what food might become in the future. If I had one complaint, it’s that this exhibition featured an awful lot of products, most of which were conveniently for sale in the shop, which gave it rather a corporate feel (and because most of the products were pretty cool, I ended up buying more than I usually would at a museum shop. I’m a sucker for Tarot cards, and they had a food-themed pack you can use when you can’t decide what to have for dinner), which didn’t seem to match with the ethos of the rest of the exhibition. However, this is a fairly minor quibble, and I think it is very much worth seeing if you can get in for half-price (£17 is a bit steep), since it’s always good to know more about where your food comes from. 3.5/5, and I’ll leave you with a collage Marcus put together of the gorgeous wallpaper (if I ignore the butterflies) commissioned specially for the exhibition, and found throughout the gallery walls.

 

London: Stanley Kubrick @ the Design Museum

I am not a Stanley Kubrick fan. To be honest, every time I’ve seen one of his films, I’ve felt sick afterwards. But this is not really an example of me taking one for the team/sake of the blog, because Marcus does like him, and wanted to see this. Also, “The Shinning” is one of my absolute favourite segments in The Simpsons‘ “Treehouse of Horror,” so even though I don’t particularly like the Kubrick version of The Shining, I thought it would be worth going for the memorabilia from that film alone.

Of course, The Shining was only one small part of this comprehensive exhibition. The grandly titled: Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition is at the Design Museum until 15th September, and costs £14.50 (half off with Art Pass). I would recommend pre-booking at least a few days in advance, as it does seem to sell out, even on weekdays. I booked on a Friday for a Monday visit, and it was pretty crowded inside, mainly with American tourists (I suppose they could have been living here like I am, but they had the air of tourists. You can tell).

 

The exhibition opened with a small section on Kubrick’s life before he became a director (seriously small. Like two cases worth. All I got out of it was that he liked chess). Apparently people often don’t realise he was American, because he spent almost the whole of his adult life in Britain (wonder if that’ll happen to me after I get famous, though I suspect the accent will give it away). It then talked about his method of directing (obsession basically), illustrated by his personal copies of some of his scripts. And I mean literally illustrated, because he drew little pictures in the scripts of how he wanted certain scenes to look. His drawing was about as good as mine (which is to say terrible), so these were pretty funny.

 

From there, the exhibition segued into a series of small galleries for each one of his films, including props, film clips, and some making of/behind the scenes facts. The trouble with not being a Kubrick fan is that I’ve only ever seen three of his movies: The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and A Clockwork Orange, so those were really the only parts that held my attention (and I seriously hate A Clockwork Orange so much, so it wasn’t necessarily holding my attention in a good way. I genuinely felt ill just looking at some of the props).

 

Like the one above left, for example. Not on account of it being a penis, but because I know what Alex does with that giant penis, and it is not pleasant. Because of this film, Malcolm McDowell totally gives me the creeps, but the photo shoot of him trying different hats to find one that suited his character was still pretty amusing. I think the bowler hat probably was the right way to go.

 

Speaking of creeps, how about Jack Nicholson? I think that’s why I hate the film version of The Shining so much, because Jack Nicholson taints everything he touches with his creepy creepy smile (I had to go see the first Batman movie in the cinema when I was about 4 (don’t think my parents realised how scary it was, since the TV show was super tame and campy), and his portrayal of the Joker has put me off Jack Nicholson for life). I have read The Shining, and of course it’s still scary, but the whole point is that while Jack Torrance clearly had his demons, he was trying his best to be a normal family man at the beginning of the book, which is what makes his descent into insanity so terrifying. Jack Nicholson was clearly just waiting for an opportunity to murder his family from the start, so all you’re left wondering is why they would be stupid enough to agree to be holed up with him for the winter in the first place.

 

But true to expectations, The Shining section was my favourite one by far, with all the props you’d want to see: the typewriter (“no TV and no beer make Homer something something”), the twins’ dresses, the axe, the photograph at the end of the film showing the Outlook Hotel at the July 4th Ball of 1921, and a miniature version of the maze from the movie made by Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame. There was even a patch of the Outlook Hotel carpet at the entrance to the exhibition (“that’s odd, usually the blood gets off at the second floor.” I really could quote classic Simpsons all day long (and often do))!

 

But I must reluctantly move on from “The Shinning” and get to the rest of the exhibition. I’ve never seen Barry Lyndon, apparently about a Georgian rogue, but the making-of in this case was quite interesting. Apparently no electric lighting was used during filming, so they had a lens with a super wide aperture to film in candlelight. The resulting film was also meant to look quite flat, like 18th century paintings, and certain scenes were even supposed to match up to various famous paintings, like Gainsborough’s Blue Boy (Hyacinth Bucket’s favourite). Because Kubrick didn’t want to have to leave England to film it, it was shot at about twenty different stately homes around the South of England, so Kubrick didn’t have to travel too far from London.

 

I’ve also never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that one is at least ingrained enough in popular culture that I knew all about HAL and was willing to pose for a photo with him. There was also a gorilla suit that apparently features at the start of the film, a creepy (god, I’ve used that word a lot in this post) baby in a floating sphere, and a set of rather groovy furniture that was meant to be the interior of a Hilton Space Station.

 

Because I’m not familiar with Kubrick’s entire oeuvre, I think my views will be quite different than those of a fan. I enjoyed seeing the props I recognised, and some of the stuff about censorship and the film-making process was quite interesting, but personally, I would have liked to know more about Kubrick’s life, other than a brief blurb about his childhood and the fact that he married an actress from one of his films (in fact, she was the only female actress in the entirety of Paths of Glory, his WWI film, which looks like it actually might be worth watching). For one thing, I’d like to know what inspired him to make such violent films, or why he seemed to really like Jack Nicholson, who he had also marked down to play Napoleon, had that project not fallen through.

 

But I’ve little doubt that Kubrick fans would have been delighted with this, and even with me skipping over the sections I had no interest in (Eyes Wide Shut, for one), we still spent around an hour in there, so I think it was worth the price of my half-price ticket. In fact, I am intrigued enough to possibly check out Lolita and Paths of Glory, though whether I’ll actually like them is a different story altogether. The shop is also rich in Kubrick merchandise, though sadly nothing that could double as a “Shinning” reference, so we only got a postcard. For me, this was a solid 3/5, but fans will probably score it significantly higher.

London: “Writing: Making Your Mark” @ the BL

Am I alone in thinking that “Writing: Making Your Mark” is a really dull exhibition title? Well, for better or worse, that is the title of the BL’s current exhibition, which runs until 27th August (my birthday!). Admission is £14 (half off with Art Pass), and this is one where there probably isn’t any need to book ahead. Certainly the galleries were the emptiest I’d ever seen them when I went inside, though in typical BL style, some of my fellow visitors still seemed to go out of their way to be as irritating as possible: blocking cases whilst having extended conversations in front of them, bending down so far to read the signs that the entire case was obscured, and one very strange dedicated mother and teenage son duo who analysed everything single thing in every single one of the cases, even translating some of the foreign texts into English (the son made a valiant attempt to escape at one point, and totally ignored his mother calling him from across the exhibition, but she nabbed him in the end). So even though there were only about ten other people in there, they still all conspired to make my visit more of a trial than it needed have been.

Limestone Stela with Mayan Glyphs, BL.

Also complicating things was the BL’s usual prohibition on photography, which makes it especially difficult to talk retrospectively about an exhibition with a theme as, well, vague as this one (all photographs in this post, aside from the first one, are taken from the BL’s website). Like all of the BL’s PACCAR Gallery exhibitions, this was divided into sections, each as thrillingly titled as the exhibition itself: The Origins of Writing, Writing Systems and Styles, Materials and Technology, People and Writing, and The Future of Writing. These divisions weren’t always super clear, as most of the exhibition simply consisted of the written word, be it on the page, a stone tablet, or in the case of one of the most memorable objects, a piece of pottery that was used as a work permit giving a prostitute the right to ply her trade in the confines of a city (in Ancient Greece? I can’t remember, and I cannot decipher the writing on that shard (sherd). Somewhere in the ancient world anyway) for a day.

Prostitute Day Pass, BL.

The best thing about this exhibition was definitely the interactive elements, which I got to use for once, since the small number of other visitors strangely didn’t seem interested in them (they only cared about being annoying about the stuff in the cases, which I guess is good, in a way). These included tablets where you had to guess which language each writing system belonged to (surprisingly difficult), a station where you could try your hand at typesetting (though you disappointingly didn’t get to print anything, as you were just lining up letters on a board), and my favourite thing of all: a tablet where you submitted a writing sample, and it analysed your handwriting (I don’t know if it was entirely correct, but still, fun! Apparently I write with an upward slant and have well-defined dots and crosses, which can mean ambitiousness (definitely not) or arrogance (probably, though I think I’m more of a snob than arrogant. Arrogant implies a certain self-confidence that I don’t really possess) and a well-ordered mind (hopefully?)).

Section of a Mozart Symphony, BL.

The other best section, as far as I was concerned, was the one featuring examples of the handwriting of famous people, which contained Robert Falcon Scott’s last diary entry (which I’ve seen before, but still, so sad, and so pointless), one of Mozart’s symphonies as originally composed in his handwriting, Alexander Fleming’s early notes on penicillin, and if I recall correctly, I think either the manuscript for Pride and Prejudice or Frankenstein, or possibly both (this is the problem with not being able to take pictures. Well, that and trying to blog about something three weeks after the fact because I went to a lot of exhibitions in a short period of time and didn’t get around to this until now).

Caxton Canterbury Tales

As usual, the exhibition was illustrated throughout with lots of beautiful old texts, except for the final section, which was really pretty lame, as all it seemed to consist of was a screen where you could vote on how you thought people would communicate in 2050, and a scroll of paper where you could write how you felt about the future of handwriting (surprisingly few obscene messages, but given that most of the BL’s visitors appear to be pensioners, I guess it would have been much more surprising to find a penis doodled there or something). There were a handful of non-book related artefacts, such as a tattooing kit and some pens and pencils showing the evolution of writing implements, though I was disappointed to see there was nothing from the Pen Museum. I think I would have liked more of this sort of thing, particularly tattooing, though I guess it’s up for debate on whether it’s more of an art form or a form of communication.

Writing Composite Image, BL.

I suppose the object of the exhibition was to explore how writing evolved across cultures, and what might happen to writing in the digital age, and it did do that to some extent, though more as an overview than as a comprehensive exhibition. They didn’t use the entire exhibition space and what was here was far more spread out than usual, which I suppose is fine when you’re appreciating a beautiful object (or blocking a case, as at least then you’re only blocking one), but something about it just felt a little half-assed. This is definitely not one of their “blockbuster exhibitions,” maybe more just something to fill the space during the summer, when they presumably get fewer visitors than normal (because I’m assuming people don’t want to spend their summer hanging out in an archive? I would (well, in one with fewer rules than the BL), but I’m not normal). I liked it fine, but nothing in here was particularly memorable, as you can probably tell from the way I’m struggling to fill up this post, and if I’d paid full price, I think I’d be fairly annoyed at the lack of content, especially compared to the BL’s normal exhibitions. 2.5/5 for this one.

London: Wandsworth Prison Museum

I’ve been interested in seeing the Wandsworth Prison Museum for some time, but it only opens to the public a few days each year and I never quite managed to catch one of these open days. However, a friend of mine sent me an email about an open weekend in early June as part of the Wandsworth Heritage Festival, so I made sure to make the effort to get there this time, even though I had to go alone and take my own poor quality pictures because I was working on the Saturday of the open weekend, and Marcus was volunteering at a filming of Antiques Roadshow on the Sunday, so we didn’t have an opportunity to go together (yes, I gave up a chance to queue for hours and have my antiques appraised to do this instead. Actually, I could have still queued for hours after visiting the prison museum, but it was hot that day, and I did not fancy spending three hours standing in direct sunlight, especially since I already know that anything antique that I own is of low value. Poor Marcus had no choice but to stand outside all day, and ended up with terrible sunburn, but at least he got to volunteer with the cool militaria expert with the moustache).

   

The prison is located in the North Car Park of Wandsworth Prison (still a functioning prison), which is probably why it is only open a few times a year. It was hard to spot it because of the high walls surrounding the prison, and I didn’t see any signs anywhere as I would have expected from an open day, so I ended up circling the entire complex and walking back again from the opposite direction. It was on the return trip that I spotted the A4 sign with a tiny arrow directing me to the museum, which was completely invisible from the angle of my initial approach. I was glad I managed to find the museum on the second attempt, because I was worried I might be starting to look suspicious to the guards strolling around the site (I mean, they weren’t in watch towers with guns or anything like that, but authority figures still make me nervous). It is in a small shed right in the parking lot (as seen at the start of the post), but the current shed is apparently twice the size of the shed it used to be in, so I guess that’s an improvement. However, after looking at pictures of the old museum, I don’t think they’ve actually added anything to the new museum, just spread things out a bit more.

  

Wandsworth Prison has had some famous inmates come through it over the years, including Oscar Wilde, who spent four months here whilst awaiting transfer to Reading Gaol; John Haigh, the “Acid Bath” murderer; Ronnie Kray, and Ronnie Biggs (also Hawkwind played here, as you can see from the newspaper article above, but their female singer was advised not to take her top off on this occasion as she normally would onstage, and she apparently followed that advice). Obviously Wilde is a far more sympathetic figure than the others, but I can’t pretend I’m not interested in the lurid details of true crime, so of course John Haigh is of considerable interest as well. Contrary to his nickname, he didn’t actually kill people with acid, but battered or shot them to death first, and then dissolved their bodies in acid to hide the evidence (I’m not sure if that makes it any better than just killing them with the acid, but it does sound slightly less agonising for the victims). Although you wouldn’t have learned much of that here, as it was much more a prison museum than a crime museum, and frankly, even the history of the prison was a bit lighter than I was hoping.

 

The most interesting things in here by far were the execution box, which I think I saw before at the Black Museum exhibition, and the life mask of one of Britain’s last and most famous hangmen, Albert Pierrepoint (he featured prominently in the black comedy play Hangmen, which I saw a few years ago. The main character is a second-rate hangman who is super jealous of Pierrepoint (pronounced peer-point)). People were executed at Wandsworth Prison, including the aforementioned John Haigh, hanged by the also aforementioned Pierrepoint, but Wandsworth Prison was also the keeper of all the execution boxes for the whole of England. They had twenty boxes containing rope, straps, a sandbag, a hood, and whatever else you might need to hang someone, which were sent out as needed. There was a police officer supervising the museum whilst I was there (I wasn’t sure if you were allowed to take photos, and I was too shy to ask, so I kept trying to surreptitiously take them when his back was turned. I’m sure he was on to me, as I must have looked shady as all hell, so I dropped some coins in the donation box on the way out to look more like an upstanding citizen), and he started telling some guy about the difference between American and British noose knots, which was super interesting (basically, American knots lock on the neck and can only be cut, rather than untied, so are single use. The British just used a basic slip knot so the rope could either be reused or cut into lengths and sold to souvenir hunters to make some extra cash on the side for the hangman (I already knew about them selling the rope, but I don’t know anything about knots, so that part was news to me)). I wish he had shared more stories like that without prompting, because I don’t really like asking questions.

 

Aside from those objects, it was fairly standard prison museum fare – lots of photographs and newspaper clippings, and a couple uniforms and a little wooden (cardboard?) model of the prison, although there were a few grisly bits thrown in here and there amongst the mundane if you took the time to look, like the innocent looking ruler and pliers that were actually tools used by executioners to measure the rope for hanging. But it certainly wasn’t as thrilling as an actual criminology museum, and for all that the museum had been recently redone, I found the information in the cases quite hard to read, as it was printed in small font on laminated sheets hung in the back of the cases, and with the sunlight streaming in through the open doors, it was hard to get the right angle to actually be able to read them and match the labels up with the objects in the cases, let alone clandestinely photograph them.

Apart from being intimidated by the location (which, as you might expect, is not the easiest thing to access. You kind of have to get a bus from Earlsfield, or walk for quite a while) and thus having a bit of a panic when I couldn’t find it right away, I certainly don’t regret visiting, but I do wish that the information was more detailed and a bit easier to read. I also wish the officer working there could have shared more behind-the-scenes stories with us, as that was what made the City Police Museum so delightful on my first visit (until they went ahead and ruined it by making it very impersonal). I imagine they’ll probably be open at some point in September for either Heritage Open Days or Open House London if you want to pay this museum a visit yourself, though I think there are certainly better crime and punishment museums out there. 2.5/5.

 

London: “Smoke and Mirrors” @ the Wellcome

What we have here, for once, is a happy confluence of an exhibition at the Wellcome that I really really wanted to see, and visitors being allowed to take photos of said exhibition (which isn’t often allowed at the Wellcome). Oh happy day (and now I’m going to have the Sister Act 2 version of that song stuck in my head for the rest of the day)!

 

“Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic,” which runs until 15 September, is basically exactly what it sounds like – an examination of how magic works on the human mind – and is free to visit, like everything at the Wellcome. It was not too crowded at the time of my visit, which made for a nice change over the usual packed rooms, though my fellow visitors still managed to park it right in front of every video screen (good I didn’t care about watching most of them anyway, though I did watch a bit of Arthur Conan Doyle talking about Spiritualism. He didn’t sound at all like I expected, as you can probably tell from my expression).

I’m not much of a fan of most magicians anymore (they tend to either be too cheesy or take themselves way too seriously), though I loved watching them when I was little, and walked around with one of those kids’ magic kits forcing my mother to watch me perform tricks (like pulling a handkerchief out of a wand, which was super magical if you ignored the end of cloth that was protruding out of the wand at all times), but I am very into the idea of magic (and magick), and all the paraphernalia that goes along with it. And of course I’m interested in historical magic and seances (though I don’t actually believe in ghosts), so I was especially excited to see the items belonging to Mina “Margery” Crandon and Harry Houdini (there’s a book called The Witch of Lime Street that details their encounter, which I read last October (part of my annual Halloween book season of spooky reads)).

 

The exhibition was ostensibly divided up into three themed sections: The Medium, Misdirection, and Mentalism, but as so often happens, I didn’t really see that much of a clear distinction between them, as the exhibition seemed to flow in more of a chronological manner than a themed one. The Medium was about the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and was thus my favourite part. There were some cases in the middle that contained an array of objects used in seances, including a rapping hand and a cool handmade Ouija board with a very happy little sun.

  

This sort of segued into a section on Houdini himself, containing a great poster for one of his shows, and a kimono style robe belonging to Margery Crandon, as well as a bunch of pictures of her manifesting her “ectoplasm” (chunks of meat, in reality). I was excited to see that Houdini’s famous bell box was here, though it looked much easier to use than I was expecting. Margery Crandon’s whole conceit was that she channeled spirits using the help of her guide, who was her dead brother Walter. In the early 1920s, Scientific American magazine promised a prize of $2500 to anyone who could demonstrate genuine telekinesis, and though Margery’s husband was a wealthy doctor, she wanted that prize (though she was probably more after the fame). Houdini was on the panel of men sent to test her using a variety of supposedly cheat-proof contraptions Houdini had devised, including the bell box, which she would have to ring whilst tied up inside a large wooden box (large enough so that she could sit comfortably inside; it wasn’t a torture device or anything) from which only her head protruded (also on display. The box, that is, not her head). But after seeing the box, I realise it was much less complicated than it sounded, as you didn’t have to actually reach inside the box to ring the bell, you just had to depress a panel on the top. No wonder she was able to ring it by leaning her head forward out of the box! Not sure why Houdini, the great sceptic, didn’t invent a better system than this, but then spiritualists did make up a lot of rules that had to be followed (like seances being held in the dark, for example, or the entire circle having to hold hands), and were conveniently unable to channel anything if these rules were broken. Makes you wonder how anyone could have believed in them, let alone the people who still do!

 

But let’s put my thoughts on human gullibility aside, and focus on the rest of the exhibition (and yes, I realise that most people who consult psychics are grieving and desperate, and I should really be angry at the people who choose to exploit them, but still). There were a series of short films in here showing how various magic tricks worked on the brain, and I’m sure these were very interesting (and maybe I should have watched them so I could have learned exactly why some people do believe in these things instead of just calling them gullible), but there were a lot of people in front of them and I have a limited attention span (far more entertaining was the early film showing a psychic being unmasked after floating a “ghost” through a room on a fishing line). So I just enjoyed looking at the props on display instead – a gorilla head worn by Derren Brown, the box Paul Daniels used to saw Debbie McGee in half, and Tommy Cooper’s fez.

 

My distaste for magicians does not extend to Derren Brown, whom I quite like, though I haven’t been to one of his shows because I’m terrified he’ll pull me from the audience (probably not, because I wasn’t susceptible to hypnotism when my high school psychology teacher attempted it on the class (much less shady than it sounds), but you never know), and I definitely enjoyed looking at some of his props, including the very cool poster shown above.

 

I know Derren Brown did something similar to this on one of his shows, but there was also a wall showing a series of random statements given to a group of people as their horoscope, who all thought it exactly described them. Of course, the catch is that all their horoscopes were exactly the same! I wish I could say this means I never bother to check my horoscope, but of course I do, if I happen to catch sight of it in the paper.

 

I think my issue, if I have to have an issue (yes I do, it’s the Virgo talking, haha), is that because this exhibition was focused on the psychology of how magic works, it was quite light on history, and I would have really preferred the history! I’m glad there were at least some artefacts here, especially those relating to the Margery Crandon case, but I would have liked to see more historical background behind them because I’m sure not everyone had read about these things beforehand. So it was disappointing in that respect, but I still think it’s an interesting subject and I’ll happily go see pretty much any exhibit about the occult, so I left reasonably content. 3/5.

  

London: “Edvard Munch: Love and Angst” @ the British Museum

I was intrigued by the advertisements I saw for “Edvard Munch: Love and Angst” at the British Museum, which runs until 21st July, so I decided to pop along to see it a couple of weeks ago. Before visiting this exhibition, my knowledge of Edvard Munch was pretty much limited to The Scream. I’m not even confident I can pronounce his name correctly (“Moonck?” “Monk?” “Monk-ch?”), which is why I ordered my ticket online, but the exhibition doesn’t seem to usually book up in advance, so there’s probably no need to do the same unless you share my fear of being laughed at by ticket desk staff.  I only just realised that the British Museum offers discounted tickets on Mondays; the exhibition is normally £17, but drops down to £14 on Mondays, so was only £7 with my Art Pass discount.

The exhibition was held in Room 35, which is one of the smaller galleries inside the big central column structure in the middle of the BM (their large exhibition gallery is currently hosting “Manga,” which I’m on the fence about visiting. I personally don’t care for manga, but I feel like other people might. Is anyone interested in reading about this?). I was surprised I was able to take pictures, since usually you aren’t able to in here, so I was unprepared for it (basically, I had neglected to bring Marcus and his camera), so I apologise for the poor quality of the photos I took with my phone. I would say the exhibition was medium crowded – easy enough to look at things, but a little more challenging to photograph the paintings without someone’s head in front of them. I tried my best!

Munch grew up in Kristiania, which later became Oslo, and also lived in Paris and Berlin for a time, so the exhibition was divided up into spaces that reflected the work he produced whilst living in each city. Like many artists, Munch didn’t exactly have the happiest childhood – his mother and older sister both died of tuberculosis, and his father was attentive, but was extremely religious, and would tell him that he was disappointing his dead mother in heaven when he misbehaved (yet would also regale his children with ghost stories that gave poor young Edvard nightmares and had an obvious influence on his later work). He also had a family history of mental illness – one of his younger sisters ended up in a mental institution, and Munch had his own struggles with depression and anxiety, which again, is fairly obvious when you look at his work.

 

He also had torrid love affairs, as artists tend to, including one with a woman named Tulla Larsen which ended with Munch accidentally shooting himself in two of his fingers, which were never the same again. He had painted a portrait of the two of them that he chopped in half after the shooting incident, as seen above (next to his drawing of Nietzsche, which I love).

 

Despite all this, Munch still manages to come across as quite a sympathetic figure, and I loved the work on display here, particularly his wood block prints. He manages to make his work bleak and beautiful, but definitely not soulless. I know the woman in the print above left is meant to be a bit of a succubus (“female entrapment” is the term they used in the exhibition), but they both look so damn happy that I can’t help but be drawn towards it.

 

There was work by other artists who had influenced Munch as well, like Acid-thrower by Eugene Samuel Grasset (acid throwing was also used by revolutionaries in Paris in the 1890s, and though she looks more glamorous than today’s acid-throwers, it doesn’t change the fact that it was (and is) a horrible, horrible thing to do) and Skull in an Ornamental Frame by Hans Wechtlin, which I just loved.

And yes, The Scream was here as well in its lithograph form, as well as an etching of a dead mother and grieving child who is using the same gesture as the figure in The Scream, sadly based on Munch’s own life experience, but it’s nice to know that although his life was not without more than his fair share of pain and suffering, there was more to the man than that.

 

Although he certainly fitted the archetype of the tortured artist for much of his life, after suffering a breakdown in 1908 that briefly hospitalised him, he stopped drinking, which led to improved mental health, and his paintings finally began to sell in Oslo, which further brightened his mood and led to more cheerful paintings (by Munch standards) with broader brushstrokes and increased use of colour. He lived to the age of 80, long enough for the Nazis to label his work “degenerate,” predictably enough, leaving Munch in fear his personal collection of his art, which he kept in his house, would be confiscated. Fortunately for the world it was not, and the Nazis even had the nerve to try to co-opt his popularity by paying for his funeral, even though they hated him in life, and he was definitely not a Nazi sympathiser.

 

I really enjoyed all the pieces in this exhibition, as well as getting to learn more about Munch’s life. I definitely consider myself a fan now! I think this exhibition was just the right size – enough space that I felt I got my money’s worth (£7, not £14), but not so big that I got tired of looking around before I finished. As usual, I could have done with slightly fewer people, but I’ve definitely experienced worse. Definitely worth a visit for the angst-ridden among us – weirdly, I find that when I’m feeling down, as I have been lately, it helps to look at slightly depressing art like this, and know that I’m not alone in my ennui (even though Munch was a lot more successful at it than I’ll ever be), so it was just what I needed. 3.5/5.

 

London: The Mithraeum

The London Mithraeum has been on my to-do list for a long time, but because Ancient Romans aren’t exactly a priority, I kept putting it off. But since I knew I’d be in the area anyway for a training course, and I was taking a trip to Rome the week following, I thought I might as well get myself in the mood by looking at some Roman ruins right here in London (I also made potato pizza al metro style, which is one of my favourite things to eat in Rome, but that was more because I had potatoes and slightly mouldy Gruyere to use up, and because you can never have too much pizza). Planning ahead with the Mithraeum is key, since they strongly encourage you to pre-book a free slot.

The Mithraeum is located in the Bloomberg building, which I was a little concerned about finding since the City is very easy to get lost in, but it is located right next to one of the many entrances to Bank Station and is clearly signposted outside. I arrived about twenty minutes early because my course had finished a bit sooner than anticipated, but I was welcomed right in (though I was asked for my ticket as soon as I walked through the door, so clearly they are serious about the pre-booking, even though it wasn’t busy at all when I was there), and given an introduction to the three floors of the space, which made it sound quite grand. The reality is a little bit different. The ground floor is meant to be the gallery space, though I really didn’t get the current installation at all, nor was there any explanation provided. It just seemed to be a load of bottles sitting on a tiled cube, with some tiled benches to one side that may or may not have been part of the installation.

The highlight of this section was definitely the big wall o’artefacts, actually a wall of Roman ruins excavated from the site, which were beautifully arranged and had a rack full of tablets next to them that you could pick up and use to learn more about each object. I’ve never seen shards of pottery referred to as “sherds” before, as they were here, but perhaps it’s an Anglicism I’m unfamiliar with (I asked my curator colleague about it at work, and she informs me that you come across it occasionally, but shard is more common now. I guess they’re more or less interchangeable, except in the case of the building. Maybe I’ll start calling it the “Sherd” just to be weird). Had I known how underwhelming the other floors would be, I might have spent more time studying the wall, but as it was, I only spent about five minutes looking at it before heading down to the mezzanine level.

This contained replicas of exactly three objects, each with a touch screen where you could learn more about it: the head of Mithras, the Tauroctony (a plaque with a bull on it, basically), and a replica of the original temple. Now seems like an appropriate time to get into the history of the site that I’ve been neglecting up til now. Basically, like pretty much everywhere in the Square Mile, this area was part of the original Londinium, Roman London. In 1952, a temple was discovered during the course of excavating a bomb site. This was the Mithraeum, a 3rd century temple dedicated to the god Mithras, who appears to have been known mainly for slaying a bull. Not much is known about the Cult of Mithras, except for it was men-only and probably involved drinking in some capacity, but it was certainly popular, as 100 different Mithraea have been discovered all over the former Roman Empire. The one in London was dismantled in 1954 and reconstructed in a different site, but when Bloomberg bought the original site in 2010, they agreed to move the temple roughly back to where it was discovered, which is where it is today.

They clearly have tried to turn the Mithraeum into a bit more of an experience than what is merited by what is actually here. They only let people in every twenty minutes to the actual ruins, so you just have to hang out in the dark mezzanine area with the three illuminated objects in the meantime, which is why I regretted not spending more time on the ground level. Once you are actually inside, you experience, as they call it, “an ephemeral installation,” aka some sound and light effects: hazy light and a recording of some men mumbling in Latin. The lights gradually come up so you can actually view the ruins, which are underwhelming at best, but that is what I tend to think about all ruins. I was wondering whether I had to stay in here for the whole twenty minutes, because I’d more than finished with the ruins after about three (there being nothing to read within the temple itself), when some guy came out and told us a bit more about the site. Apparently 80% of the ruins are original, and 20% are a reconstruction, which I assume includes the metal figure of Mithras and a bull in the middle of the altar. Fortunately, after he finished talking, people started to leave, so I felt free to make my escape too.

As I always feel when something is free, I can’t complain overmuch, but the word “underwhelming,” which I’ve already used at least twice in this post, is the main thing that comes to mind. Apparently the old site wasn’t much visited, and I think they’ve tried to jazz it up a little to make it more of an attraction, but there’s only so much you can do with ruins. I suppose if they’d tried to get more artefacts in they could have made more out of it, but most of those, including ones found on the site (other than what’s on the display wall) are now housed at the Museum of London. So I’ll give it 2/5. It’s nice that they’ve tried to preserve it, and maybe people who actually like the Romans (not me, though Mary Beard tries her best (and to be fair to her, her programmes are interesting, I’m just not motivated to learn more after I finish watching them)) will get more out of it, but I certainly wasn’t thrilled.

 

 

London: “Van Gogh and Britain” @ Tate Britain

I don’t think I even need to say how much I love Van Gogh to anyone who reads this blog regularly, but yes, I love Van Gogh! And so Marcus booked us tickets to go see the new exhibition at Tate Britain, “Van Gogh and Britain” whilst there were still tickets to be had (I assume there are still tickets at this point, since it runs til 11th August, but I also know that exhibitions in London can completely book up if you’re not careful to get in early). Because Van Gogh is such a big name that they can get away with it, admission is definitely on the pricier side at £22, though fortunately they do offer discounts for National Art Pass holders, so we got in for £11. And yes, we did have to stand in the queue you see above, even with pre-booked tickets, but it moved quickly.

The purpose of the exhibition, as you may have guessed from the title, was to cover both Van Gogh’s experiences whilst living in London (between 1873 and 1876) and his posthumous influence on British artists of the early-mid 20th century. Van Gogh moved to London when he was 20 to work for an art dealer, which lasted for two years until he was dismissed (he was developing increasingly radical ideas about art, which proved incompatible with his position) and dabbled with preaching and teaching in Isleworth and Ramsgate. Although he never returned to Britain after 1876 (he left before he had even begun painting, though he did make little sketches whilst he was here, some of which were on display), the experiences he had here clearly shaped his life and art, especially the time he spent visiting museums. The exhibition had his signature in the Dulwich Picture Gallery guestbook on show, as you can see above (I can definitely read the “Gogh” and maybe a “van”, but that doesn’t look like “Vincent” to me. Honestly, it looks more like Theo Van Gogh, but they said it was Vincent, so I’ll go with it).

The first four rooms contained a mix of Van Gogh’s paintings and paintings that he saw whilst visiting London that inspired him, some of which he copied in his own style whilst learning to develop as an artist. As you can see, calling this exhibition crowded is an understatement, but due to how things were laid out, I found that I was able to slip in and look at paintings with relative ease. However, although it was clearly beneficial for me as a blogger, and I know I often complain when exhibitions don’t allow photography, in this particular instance, I felt it would have been a much better experience without it. People were just standing in front of the paintings for ages whilst trying to get that perfect shot, and not even looking at what was right in front of them, which really annoyed me – especially because Van Gogh has a tendency to make me a bit emotional, and I wish everyone could take the time to really appreciate his talent for finding beauty in the mundane.

Like me, Van Gogh had a bit of a love-hate relationship with London. He said, “I often felt low in England, but the Black and White and Dickens [“black and white” meaning British prints] are things that make up for it all.” The exhibition contained quotes excerpted from Van Gogh’s many letters, to great effect, and even some facsimiles of his letters, the originals being too fragile to travel (Van Gogh spoke four languages, including English, so the ones here were written in English, and I enjoyed reading them). He discovered Gustav Doré’s engravings of London, and absolutely fell in love with them, collecting as many as he could afford. He even made his own version of Doré’s print of prisoners exercising at Newgate, as seen above right. There was also a painting of the Victoria Embankment (above left) about which Van Gogh said, “A couple of days ago we got a painting by De Nittis, a view of London on a rainy day…I crossed Westminster Bridge every morning and evening, and know what it looks like when the sun’s setting behind Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, and what it’s like early in the morning, and in the winter with snow and fog. When I saw this painting, I felt how much I love London.” Which sums up how I feel when I cross over Hungerford Bridge at night. Oh, Vincent.

Like I said, it’s not hard for me to get emotional over Van Gogh, and that’s definitely what happened when I read the caption on the painting of a “sorrowing old man,” based on an earlier lithograph he did of a war veteran he sometimes used as a model. According to one of his doctors, when Van Gogh was mentally unwell, “he usually sits with his head in his hands, and if someone speaks to him, it is as though it hurts him, and he gestures for them to leave him alone.” Just like the man in his painting, which he did when he was staying at Saint-Paul Hospital. Reading that just about broke my heart.

There were lots of pieces here that I’d never seen before, including one of the hospital at Saint-Remy that I visited last year, which was one of my favourite pieces in this exhibition. I also really loved the sketch of Vincent and his brother Theo, done by Vincent’s friend Lucien Pissarro, which is thought to be the only image of the brothers together (and it’s gratifying to see that Vincent looks pretty much as he does in his self-portraits, so the picture we all have of him in our heads is probably fairly accurate).

My favourite part of the exhibition was definitely the half on Van Gogh and Britain, rather than on British artists and Van Gogh, but there were still some Van Gogh paintings to enjoy in the final five rooms, although they were heavily interspersed with those by British artists influenced by the Post-Impressionists. Obviously I enjoy the Post-Impressionists myself, but I still had to laugh at the cartoon showing “Post-Impressions of the Post-Impressionists” based on the first time these paintings were shown in London in 1910, twenty years after Van Gogh’s death.

There was a whole room devoted to Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, which was first exhibited in 1924 in the original location of the National Gallery at Millbank, in what is now the Tate. Since the painting moved with the National Gallery to Trafalgar Square in the 1960s, this is the first time it has made the trip back across town. The National Gallery was given permission to buy the painting by Theo Van Gogh’s widow Johanna (Theo died only six months after Vincent), who devoted the rest of her life to promoting Vincent’s work, and offered the museum the painting only a year before she died.

I’ve stuck to mainly including Van Gogh’s paintings throughout this post, but I had to show you this painting of a young Roald Dahl by Matthew Smith (above right), which was heavily influenced by Van Gogh’s style. In fact, the last room was entirely pieces by British painters, mainly Francis Bacon, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I felt like I had to return to the room before it to look at some of Van Gogh’s work again so I could leave on a high note. There was some discussion in here of how Van Gogh’s mental illness affected British perceptions of him throughout the 20th century, which I thought was quite interesting, and I would have enjoyed hearing more about it, though I suppose that topic could (and apparently has, judging on some of the books on display!) fill a book.

The shop had some nice merchandise, including the very expensive, but very cute crocheted Vincent doll (I went for the cheaper miniature key chain version, but he was still £8!), and I also went home with a print of the above self-portrait. The exhibition mentioned that the last Van Gogh exhibition at the Tate, in 1947, attracted 5000 visitors a day, and judging by all the people that were there when I visited, I could easily imagine this exhibition surpassing it. I didn’t love the experience of visiting because of the crowds and the issue with people taking photos (which I know is a bit hypocritical since I had Marcus take photos for the post too, but I would have been perfectly fine with no one being allowed to take photos in this instance) – lest you think I’m exaggerating, have a look at the collage Marcus made, below. It was a fairly big exhibition, and I’m delighted I got to see so many Van Gogh pieces, including some that had never been on public display before, but I’m still glad I only paid £11, because £22 is an awful lot of money (and to be fair, I spent more than £11 on stuff from the shop, so they got the full admission fee out of me in one way or another)! Nonetheless, I think the exhibition was well done, and I especially appreciated all the text, which can be rare in an art exhibition – thanks to Van Gogh’s eloquent letters, I feel I understand certain aspects of his life better, particularly the time he spent in London.  I liked that the exhibition focused largely on the lesser-known parts of Van Gogh’s life, since I think most people who are willing to pay £22 to see a Van Gogh exhibition are familiar with the most well known parts of his life story by now, and don’t need to re-read it fifty times. And of course, Van Gogh’s art is always gloriously moving. So, 3.5/5 for the exhibition, even with the issues with the crowds.

London: Dorothea Tanning and “Magic Realism” @ the Tate Modern

I don’t think I’d ever heard of Dorothea Tanning until this exhibition came to the Tate Modern and I saw an article about it in the paper. Her art looked intriguing, but to be honest I still probably would have skipped the exhibition due to the admission fee, had Marcus not been keen. But since he was, and I had been wanting to see the exhibition about art from the Weimar Republic that was also at the Tate, so this seemed like a good chance to get a look at both.

Dorothea Tanning runs until 9th June and costs £13 (but National Art Pass holders get 50% off), and there doesn’t seem to be any need to pre-book, though it was reasonably full inside the exhibition when I visited on a weekday. Tanning was an American artist (from Galesburg, Illinois originally) who escaped the boredom of everyday life by reading Gothic novels as a child, and there is definitely a strong sense of the Gothic in her surrealist paintings. The gallery was divided into rooms reflecting the different stages in Tanning’s life and career, starting with fairly tame newspaper illustrations for Macy’s from the 1930s (though I’m slightly disturbed that “beaver fur berets” are even a thing), and moving on to her first flirtations with surrealism, via her Birthday self-portrait (shown above) with a very cute little dragony-griffin thing that I would 100% have as a pet.

I quite liked Tanning’s early surrealist pieces, especially as many of them incorporated a funny little dog modelled on her husband Max Ernst’s (a German painter) pet Lhasa Apso. I was less enamoured with the ones in a more abstract style, made after she and Max moved from Arizona to France in the 1950s – I liked her use of colour, but they weren’t to my particular taste.

In the 1960s, Tanning began experimenting more with soft sculptures, which she produced on her old Singer sewing machine. They were used in my favourite installation, Hotel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (above left), which was based on a song about a gangster’s wife who poisoned herself in Room 202 of a hotel in Chicago. It was excellently creepy, with stuffed body parts emerging from the walls of an old hotel room.

The stuffed dog with the tiny turd (as it was described in the exhibition) cracked me up, and I enjoyed the video at the end of the exhibition which showed Tanning at work making some of her soft sculptures and arranging them on some stairs in a menacing fashion. It was interesting seeing the ways her work changed over her very long lifetime (she died in 2012, at the age of 101), but I wasn’t crazy about some of the pieces, and I felt it was quite expensive for what we got, especially after seeing the “Magic Realism” exhibition, which I’ll get to in a moment. I also didn’t like how you had to walk back through all the galleries to get out, which I think disrupts the flow of an exhibition. I always prefer separate entrances and exits, and I’m always surprised when larger museums with the budget to do so don’t arrange their galleries in this way, not least because it’s easier to make them flow into a shop at the end! 2.5/5.

And now for “Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919-1933,” which I was actually properly excited to see. My favourite band for years and years was the World/Inferno Friendship Society, who are rather difficult to describe – they’re sort of a blend of punk, klezmer, polka, and various other influences – and my favourite song of theirs is called “Ich Errinere Mich An Weimar,” which is about the Weimar Republic, sort of loosely based on the plot of Cabaret. So I’ve always been kind of interested in the Weimar, and this exhibition just made me even more interested.

“Magic Realism” was free to see, and runs until 14th July. It just so happened that the first room of the exhibition was the best room, so I was enchanted from the start. This room had the theme of “Circus,” mainly thanks to the excellent circus themed illustrations of Otto Dix, who was my favourite artist featured here. Lest you get too carried away with how charming all the artwork in here was, there was a timeline on the wall explaining how the Weimar Republic led straight into Nazi Germany, and how so many of the Weimar artists (who the Nazis would label “degenerate artists”) were strongly influenced by their experiences fighting in the First World War.

I was struck by how modern some of the paintings looked, particularly the woman on the right, above. I could actually see ties between some of the works in this exhibition and Dorothea Tanning. I’m not super well versed on art terminology, but after all, surely “magic realism” is just another way of saying surrealism? But I think I still prefer the style of “magic realism” to surrealism, at least judging by the pieces that were on display here.

Each room had a different theme, ending up in a particularly disturbing religion themed room (with paintings like the one below left), but I think there was nonetheless something to enjoy in each section, even the more depressing ones, and I learned a fair bit about Weimar Germany. All of the artists who remained in Germany after the Nazis came to power (some chose to flee) were forced to join the Cultural Ministry and paint only “inoffensive” things, like landscapes, and many of the earlier “degenerate” pieces that remained in Germany were destroyed, so I’m glad at least these pieces survived! I enjoyed this so much more than the exhibition we paid to see, but sometimes them’s the breaks, and there are definitely worse ways to spend money than on a museum exhibition – at least it will go to support a sector I’m passionate about. 4/5 – if you like slightly weird art, definitely go check this one out if you can before it closes!