I love a folly, and Palais Ideal du Facteur Cheval (Postman Cheval’s Ideal Palace) is more special than the usual folly because it was the result of an artistic vision and pure determination, rather than excessive wealth. It was built between 1879 and 1912, by, as you might have guessed, a postman named Ferdinand Cheval. As the story goes, he was out on his mail route one day when he saw a stone that was so interesting it inspired him to build this entire palace (damn, it must have been some stone!). Cheval had rather a difficult life, struggling with poverty and the deaths of his first wife, first born son, and his daughter, so the attention the palace generated was probably a rather welcome respite from his daily life, but this palace was definitely primarily a labour of love. Even after stopping construction on the palace (which Cheval worked on well into his 70s), he went on to spend eight years building a family tomb in the nearest graveyard after being told by the local authorities that he couldn’t interred in his palace (he died in 1924, aged 88).
I know that most people have a soft spot for Vincent Van Gogh, and I am certainly no exception. I’m staring at Cafe Terrace at Night, which hangs above my fireplace, as I type this, and my old bedroom at my parents’ house has a celestial theme, dominated by a huge copy of The Starry Night hanging above my bed. I named my life size poseable skeleton Vincent (and his pet skeleton cat is called Theo), and I can’t listen to that Don McLean song without tearing up (I completely lost it at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Like full on ugly crying in public). Hell, I even have one of his paintings tattooed on me, so I guess it’s fair to say that I take my fondness for Van Gogh further than most people, and one of the reasons I wanted to go to the south of France was to retrace his footsteps and see some of the places that inspired him.
Van Gogh moved down to Arles from Paris in 1888, hoping the climate would improve his health, and was deeply inspired by the Provencal landscape, entering a very prolific period of work. Unfortunately, when his friend Gauguin followed him down there, his mental health took a turn for the worse, and he ended up cutting off his own ear (probably, I think the jury’s still out on what exactly happened), requiring him to move into a hospital to recover. Today, Arles is home to a Van Gogh gallery of its own, but as far as I could tell, they don’t actually own any of his paintings – they just borrow some to put on their annual exhibition, which changes every year, and only contains a few of Van Gogh’s works (the rest being by other artists on a Van Gogh-inspired theme), so I decided to skip that in favour of the Van Gogh Walk, which is meant to take you past a number of Van Gogh related sites.
We drove into Arles, and obtained parking on the street. Because we hadn’t had much luck finding food that morning (I was holding out for panisse and chichi fregis from this village near Marseille, only it turned out that all the food stalls there were closed on Monday, so I ended up eating nothing), I was pretty cranky, and Arles would not improve my mood. To start with, very little was open here either, except for some super touristy cafes in the forum (everything in France appears to be shut on Sunday and Monday (and Tuesday in some cases)), so I ended up falling back on some not very nice crisps we’d bought the night before, in case of food emergency (the French do not excel in the art of the crisp, I have to say), and was still exceedingly cranky. This meant that I was unwilling to walk out to where he painted Starry Night over the Rhone (a different painting than the more famous The Starry Night), since it was far and I didn’t see much point in looking at it in broad daylight. Most of the other sites on the list also turned out to now look completely different from what Van Gogh painted, so weren’t even worth photographing. However, I was keen to see the yellow cafe portrayed in the aforementioned Cafe Terrace at Night, since I look at the painting every day.
This is still a cafe, but other than the colour, it looks very little like what Van Gogh painted, and has been turned into one of the super touristy cafes I just mentioned (it’s actually called Van Gogh Cafe), so it was quite a let down. In the end, we took a quick look at the outside of the Roman amphitheatre (which still hosts a form of bullfighting, gross) and hightailed it out of there, hoping nearby Saint-Remy-de-Provence would prove more fruitful.
Initial impressions of Saint-Remy weren’t great either, since I really had to pee by this time, and the only public toilets we could find were squat toilets that were absolutely filthy, and I was wearing sandals, so wasn’t willing to put my feet in there. I decided to hold it in until I could find somewhere more suitable (like a secluded tree), and we instead headed into the touristy centre of town to look for food. Fortunately, unlike Arles, there were appetising looking shops open, so we were able to at least get a baguette, and probably the most delicious pastry of the trip – a caramel and almond tart from a patisserie we stumbled across (and a very nice little financier type cake, but the tart was the highlight), so I was less hangry. Therefore, we decided to do the Van Gogh trail in Saint-Remy, which takes you from the centre of town up to the mental institution where Vincent voluntarily committed himself after his breakdown in Arles.
The trail itself was a bit lame, since it just consisted of pictures of Van Gogh’s work, with a brief explanation of each, plonked down at random intervals on the road to Vincent’s old hospital. I think it would have been a lot better if the trail was actually through the places where those pictures had been painted, rather than just an ordinary street. Still, I loved seeing The Road Menders featured here, which is my favourite Van Gogh painting at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and reading the caption to Almond Blossom, which included a letter from Vincent to his mother explaining that he had painted it for his nephew, his brother Theo’s son, did make me a little choked up. This trail was mainly remarkable on account of the cicadas that are apparently everywhere in Provence, and were so noisy they actually hurt my ears (the sound also fills me with dread because it reminds me of the locust years in Cleveland, but these cicadas, whilst gross, weren’t quite as horrific, in that they didn’t actively attack my head like locusts do).
We arrived at the hospital, called Saint-Paul de Mausole and still used as a psychiatric hospital, and were asked to pay 5 euros for entry to the hospital and grounds, which of course we did, because I was most keen to see the recreation of Van Gogh’s bedroom (also I was hoping there’d be a toilet). We found this rather touching statue of Vincent holding drooping sunflowers just inside the grounds, and paid a brief visit to the hospital chapel, which contained an interesting small sound and light show in one corner that was activated after we deposited 20 cents in a box (we did it with no idea of what was actually going to happen. I was hoping for automata).
I then hightailed it out to the garden, as I had spotted a toilet sign, and indeed, there was a non-squat model out there (albeit lacking a seat and soap, but still); however, there was just one for everyone, so I had to queue for about ten minutes for my turn (with all women – I suspect the men did just find a suitable tree, like my original plan). Thus relieved, I was free to explore the gardens, which contained small patches of both lavender and sunflowers, so that I felt I was getting a bit of the Provencal experience at last (the good Provencal experience, rather than the squat toilets, cicadas, and extreme heat). Van Gogh painted the gardens here, and loved the local cypress trees, which feature in many of his paintings, like The Starry Night, which he also painted during his stay here.
Finally, we headed up to see Van Gogh’s re-created bedroom (I wasn’t clear on whether his bedroom was actually in this area of the hospital, or they’d just picked it for the re-creation because it was out of the way, but it would have been interesting to know, given that he painted variations of the view from his window twenty one times), which was filled with very wordy signs (with English translations) on what Van Gogh’s medical diagnosis may have been today (no real consensus, but possibly bipolarism). His bedroom was quite depressing, as you might expect (this wasn’t the one he famously painted, that was in Arles), and it was sort of a relief to head down into the shop, which contained a number of artworks done by current patients of the hospital in addition to the expected Van Gogh stuff (he was given a ground floor studio at the hospital, which is where he did the actual painting (he could only make sketches in his room), but I’m not sure if this is where the shop is now, or another area entirely). I think 5 euros was a little pricy for what we got (there was apparently meant to be a museum somewhere in the hospital about the period Van Gogh was living here, but we never found it if it was there. There was a small gallery near the entrance with some wooden sculptures in it, but there were no English captions and they were extremely abstract, so I’m not sure what they were meant to be), but the gardens were lovely, and I’m glad I got to see some of what Van Gogh would have experienced, so in the end it was worth it.
I don’t think the trail gave me any special insights into Van Gogh’s mental state, but seeing the cypresses and fields up close did help me better understand the composition of some of his paintings, and it’s always a pleasure to look at his work, even if it’s just mounted by the side of a busy road. It wasn’t as moving as the Van Gogh Museum was for me, but I still felt myself getting emotional at times, and I don’t regret doing it – I just wish Arles had been more fulfilling and less of a tourist trap (my advice if you have limited time would be to skip Arles and just head straight for Saint-Remy). To end on a more cheerful note, I’ll leave you with pictures of some dogs we encountered on the trail (I got really excited when the one on the left followed us for quite a while, thinking I had a new best friend, but it turned out he was just returning to his owner who worked on a building site).
Even though it’s one of the easiest countries to get to from London, I have spent many years avoiding France based on the bad time I had in Paris over a decade ago (it was nothing terrible, like getting robbed or assaulted, more just a few unpleasant experiences and one or two potentially scary ones that I managed to get myself out of before anything happened). But Paris is not France any more than London is Britain (big cities tend to be more like each other rather than representative of the rest of the country), so I figured it was about time I gave it another chance. Why I decided to go to the south of France in the middle of July knowing how much I hate heat and sun is another matter altogether…let’s just say I took a temporary leave of my senses and convinced myself it wouldn’t be all that bad.
Turns out I was very, very wrong. The sun was unbelievably hot and horrible and strong, as I learned about three seconds after leaving Marseille airport. Therefore, as usual, museums would prove my salvation on this trip – even the ones that weren’t air conditioned were at least out of the sun! We spent the first night of our trip in Marseille (which also happened to be the day of the World Cup Final that France was playing in – yep, this trip was really not well thought through), and the one museum I really wanted to see there was Mucem, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations, so we slathered on the sunscreen and headed out into the merciless glare outside.
The Mucem is a fairly new museum, having only opened in 2013, and they have a complete English version of their website, so I was sure they would have English translations in the museum and the all-important air conditioning, and I was partly right (fortunately, I was entirely right about the air conditioning, which was the thing I cared about most at the time). Admission was €9.50, which included all of the exhibitions except for the temporary immersive experience, as we would learn later on. The Mucem is spread over two sites (actually, according to their website there’s a third one I didn’t know about, but it sounds like it is primarily for storage and conservation) which are connected by an elevated footbridge, so we were initially pretty confused about where to enter, and ended up circling the Saint Jean site before we spotted an entrance at the J4 building (the one covered in metal webbing), and believe me, I could have done without the extra time in the sun. Even once we got into the J4 building, we were a little unsure about where to begin, as the lobby area provided entrance to quite a few different galleries, but in the end we found our way to “Ruralities,” which appeared to be the first gallery chronologically.
This was about the history of agriculture in the Mediterranean region, and I’m sure it was quite interesting, but unfortunately only the main signage had English translations. All the object labels and smaller signs were only in French, which is certainly their prerogative, but I didn’t have much idea of what was going on as a result (I did take seven years of French between high school and university, but thanks to a series of terrible teachers, my French was never that great, and is now very very rusty indeed). I would say probably 80% of the signage in the permanent galleries is in French only, and they do offer English audio guides, but they cost extra and I didn’t know how much English was inside before going in, so we declined them. There were still some pretty great objects to look at however, particularly the collection of shaped gingerbread hiding in the back of the exhibition, and “Jesus of the Grapes.”
From here we moved on to “Connectivities,” the other permanent exhibition, which profiled six different historical port cities around the Mediterranean, and four modern cities (including Marseille), and the history of trade between them. Again, I think I would have enjoyed this quite a bit had I been able to read more of it, but there were interesting artefacts nonetheless, even though I wasn’t always completely sure what I was looking at. It did crack me up that in the sections on foreign cities, like Venice and Seville, they translated the summaries (like three sentences) into the language of that region (e.g. Italian and Spanish), but literally nothing else in the museum was in those languages. It was like they thought foreign visitors would be pleased that they could read three sentences in the museum. It somehow seemed like more of an insult than just not bothering at all.
We then headed upstairs in the J4 building to view the two main temporary art exhibitions: “Gold” and Ai Weiwei’s “Fan-Tan,” the latter of which Marcus was quite excited about, so we went in there first. “Fan-Tan” had English translations on everything, which was much appreciated, and probably why I ended up enjoying this exhibition the most. Ai Weiwei did an exhibition here because Marseille was where his father first landed on his way over from China to attend university in Paris, so he felt a certain connection with the city, and the exhibition was meant to be loosely themed around his father, who was a poet. The centrepiece was “Colored House,” which dominated the first room of the exhibition, but there were cases lining the walls to show off smaller pieces of work, and a chandelier and sculptures of the animals of the Chinese Zodiac in the last room. I think most of the pieces here were older works, but Ai Weiwei did create two artworks made of Marseille soap specifically for it (which were honestly just meh, because soap). I’m not convinced about the “everyday” objects molded out of jade series (like the anal beads, though really, I’m not judging if that’s your thing, but I feel relatively confident that there aren’t many people who use anal beads on a quotidian basis), but I quite liked the death mask of his father (which was one of the few pieces that was obviously tied to his father. There were also old racist French cartoons showing how the Chinese were portrayed at the time his father was living in France), the Marcel Duchamp inspired shoes that were impossible to walk in, and his re-creation in Lego of the time he broke an ancient Chinese pot.
“Gold” was back to mostly French again, and I’m not the keenest on gold jewellery or anything anyway, but the giant nude sculptures cast in gold were pretty good, as was the giant gold thumb. After finishing up with this, we wandered outside to the ramps that looped around the building that would ultimately take us to the footbridge over to Saint Jean Fort (which may not be for acrophobics, though I’m not overly keen on heights and I was fine with it). The walkways around the building and the footbridge were probably one of the coolest parts of the experience (not literally; the footbridge was boiling, as you might expect an exposed surface made of metal to be), because you could view the sea and the port from in between the metal webbing, and the footbridge had great views of the city as well.
We were a little worried by the time we made it to Fort Saint Jean (which was built in 1660 by Louis XIV, and was used as a fort and prison through the Second World War), because it looked like there were a few exhibitions here as well and we wanted to grab dinner and get back to the hotel before the football ended in case of any craziness (it wasn’t as full on as Paris looked, but there were people driving around sitting on top of their cars waving French flags and honking their horns until like four in the morning, so it was probably for the best that we weren’t out), and it was already around five (the museum is open until eight pm). Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), one of the exhibitions advertised in the catalogue wasn’t opening until a few days after our visit, and the immersive one wasn’t included in our ticket price (despite what the guy working there claimed, though if they were just going to immersively speak French to us, I wasn’t that bothered about it anyway since I wouldn’t understand most of it), so the only thing that was open to us was “Love from A to Z” which I thought was quite cute, despite it being almost entirely in French. I could easily figure out what thing was representing each letter, and some of the objects, like the miniature version of a love triangle and the French version of what appeared to be a Mystery Date style game, were downright adorable.
I was reluctant to leave this air conditioned gallery to go try to find food (we just ended up at a dingy small supermarket inside a mall that had almost nothing on its shelves (not even bread!) because it was Sunday and July and barely anything else was open, plus we were in a hurry), but needs must, so we made a brief trip back down through the museum gardens and out onto the cruel shadeless streets. I definitely appreciated the air conditioning in the museum, and I enjoyed what I was able to understand, but due to my lack of language skills (which is admittedly my own fault), I don’t feel I was able to get the most out of this museum. It’s a neat concept, and the buildings themselves are really cool, but I think I was hoping for a little more from such a new museum. 3/5, but I did really like “Fan-Tan,” and if you can understand French, you’ll probably like Mucem a lot!
I was apprehensive about visiting the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft after learning about Eric Gill, who was an incestuous paedophile, at the Sussex Modernism exhibition at Two Temple Place last year. Gill was part of the Ditchling group of artists, so I knew there was a good chance this museum would have some of his work, but I was hoping that because the Ditchling Museum hosts a number of temporary exhibitions, Gill’s work wouldn’t make up a significant part of what was on display. I eventually just reckoned that because National Art Pass holders get free admission (normally £6.50), at least I wouldn’t be contributing any money to it if it was Gill-centric (other than what they get from the National Art Fund I guess), so on a recent trip to Brighton, we stopped off there on the way.
Diverting Journeys turned five yesterday, which is pretty exciting (though admittedly I didn’t actually do anything to mark the occasion other than eating some oreo cake I made, and I would have done that anyway, but I think it’s still worth a mention). I’m currently up to 340 posts, and the most popular is still (still!) the Arnold Schwarzenegger Museum, which I wrote in my third month of blogging, so I suppose I could have just stopped there, but I really am glad I’ve been able to have so many adventures over the years, and that a very small (and very awesome, obviously) subset of the population seems to be interested in reading about them, so a big thank you to everyone who has stuck around and still reads (and comments on, especially – I love comments!) my ramblings – I hope you’ll all stick around for the next five years, or however long I manage to keep this thing going for! Now, on with the regularly scheduled post!
I’m pretty lazy most weekends – even leaving my flat can be a stretch, since I’d prefer to just sit on the couch in my jimjams all day, but if I actually take a day off work, I feel like it’s a waste if I don’t do something. So it was that I decided to head up to Oxford for a day last week, and get in some good solid museuming. My Cambridge expedition last year was such a success that it seemed only right to give Oxford its turn. I’d been to the Pitt Rivers years before, and was dying to go back and take some decent photos this time around so I could blog about it (or more accurately, for Marcus to take some decent photos so I could blog about it), and also explore some of Oxford’s other museums, which I hadn’t had a chance to do on my previous visit.
However, I only reluctantly agreed to visit the Ashmolean, despite it being one of the most well-known museums in Oxford (maybe even in all of England), since for a museum person, I am weirdly not that into art and archaeology. But Marcus knows how to sell me on things, and it was the “dish with a composite head of penises” that did it. Also, the museum is free, which meant I could pop in and just see the things I wanted to see without being compelled to look at all the boring stuff in order to feel I got my money’s worth.
But the dickhead plate, as I chose to crudely refer to it, would have to wait, because there were other objects in the museum that commanded my more immediate attention, by virtue of being on the same floor as the bathrooms (look, I’m not going to use a train toilet unless it’s an emergency, so I needed to pee by the time I arrived), the first being Powhatan’s cloak (yes, THAT Powhatan, as in the father of Pocahontas). I’ve visited Pocahontas’s grave in Gravesend (or at least the spot where she was meant to be buried), and I was also interested to see her father’s cloak (above left). Well, it was more likely just a decorative piece of fabric than a cloak, and may not have belonged to Powhatan, but it did come from one of the tribes in his chiefdom, and was from the right time period, so still pretty cool.
Some other really neat things were in this area too (as you might expect, since it was the highlights of the collection gallery), like the lantern Guy Fawkes carried when he tried to blow up Parliament, and Oliver Cromwell’s death mask. I feel like I should have saved this area for last though (and you’re probably meant to, since the shop is down here as well, but my bladder doesn’t give a crap about my looking around a museum in the correct order), because the rest of the collection paled by comparison, especially in terms of the density of cool stuff.
The Ashmolean is the first university museum in the world, started by Elias Ashmole, who bequeathed his collection of curiosities to Oxford in 1677, which included earlier curiosities from the Tradescants, who were collectors themselves (I’ve been to their grave too – they’re buried in the same churchyard as William Bligh, which is now part of the Garden Museum), and has been greatly expanded in the ensuing centuries, so the collection is varied enough that there were other interesting things to look at, including more recent objects like robes belonging to T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia. You’ll see him crop up a lot in this series of Oxford posts), but I have to admit that the bulk of it was not really to my taste.
Their ceramics collection was sadly nowhere as full of delights as the one at the Fitzwilliam, but I did find a couple of gems, like that James II and Anne Hyde plate, and the Frederick the Great teapot that I originally thought was George III (I just went to see Hamilton (after having to book tickets way back in January 2017), and King George was one of my favourite parts, so I think I have George on the brain (definitely his song, actually most of the songs. And Peggy)).
The ceramics, though mostly disappointing, were exciting mainly because I felt like I was drawing closer to the dickhead plate. And indeed, my hunch would have been correct, had the damn thing actually been there! (Actually, I did anticipate this, mainly because it seems like things I’m most excited to see are never on display, but that didn’t make it any less disappointing.) We were sadly met with this sign in lieu of the plate, which is really irritating, because the website didn’t mention that it wasn’t there, like it did with some of the other highlights, and also the exhibition it was in ended last September, so where the hell is it now? I know Tokyo is a long way away, but even if they’re sending it back via ship, it doesn’t take six months! You would think a museum wouldn’t be content to let one of its star objects just float around in the ether for that long, but I guess this is one of the dangers of having such a large collection – they barely miss something when it’s gone!
Honestly, after that disappointment, I was ready to just leave. I had a lot of other museums I wanted to see, and a limited amount of time, and I didn’t want to waste any more of it in here. But we were in the middle of the museum when we discovered the dickhead plate was gone, so I still ended up looking around on the way out, as you do. Most of it was really boring furniture and art (like early modern European stuff, and despite the fact that I liked early modern history enough to do a Master’s in it, I’m pretty meh about the art, especially shit commissioned by various European minor royals I’ve never heard of. Give me medicine and literature any day over that!), but there was one of Stradavari’s violins, and more excitingly (to me) those charming ducks (or maybe geese, but they look friendly, which is why I’m going with ducks. Geese are jerks).
A lot of the rest of the museum (as you might expect from an archaeology collection) was antiquities, which again, I’m not super enthused by, but I do have a bit of a soft spot for the Ancient Egyptians, so we detoured from the path to the exit to check some of it out, inadvertently absorbing some other ancient cultures on the way. That picture of me and the derpy lion is sort of unintentionally hilarious, because of the hand-wrapped-around penis statue looming behind me (it would have been more impressive when it was made, as he would have had a four foot dong). Even though the delightful dickhead plate wasn’t there, at least there was no shortage of penises (penii?) on display, thanks in large part (ha!) to the Greeks and Romans in the hall of statues.
Though there are undoubtedly many treasures here (probably many more than I saw, since I skipped two-thirds of the museum), it just wasn’t really my cup of tea. Except for the really rare objects from historical eras I’m actively interested in (the early modern stuff in the rarities section), most of the rest of these kind of artefacts blur together after a while for me (probably because I don’t understand enough about the cultures they came from, which I admit is my own failing), and I can only take so much before I get cranky and want to leave. They have an exhibition about witchcraft coming up this summer that I might consider returning for (though I’ll gauge the contents online first), but I think I saw enough to get a good sense of what’s here, and know that whilst most people probably love the Ashmolean, it’s not for me (except for the big, grinning sarcophagus below. He can move in with me if he wants to. Don’t know where I’ll put him, but we’ll work something out). 2.5/5. (I know, it’s such a low score for such a big important museum, but I enjoyed it less than all the other Oxford museums, so that’s really all I can give it.)
This is the third post I’ve written about the Guildhall Art Gallery, but the first one that has actually made it on to the blog. My initial post on it was sort of a panic-post written a few years ago as filler when I thought I would run out of things to write about, and was based on a visit from before I started blogging, so I had very few pictures (the post was actually mainly about their toilets). The second version was a revamp of the first that included a temporary exhibition I went to see there, as well as a few more pictures, but it turns out that I didn’t have much to say about the temporary exhibition either, and it was still mainly about the toilets, so I never ended up publishing it. This post, however, is a completely new effort, primarily about the special exhibition on until 2 April, called “Nature Morte” (though I will mention the toilets at some point).
I probably will get around to blogging about the rest of the gallery (which is free to visit) at some point, but I’ll just quickly run through what’s in there now. The upstairs gallery is primarily Victorian paintings, with modern art being located on the lower levels. There are also the ruins of a Roman amphitheatre in the building, and despite my lack of enthusiasm for the Romans, I think it’s neat that you can walk through it. After my introduction, I don’t think I can close the post without mentioning the toilets in more detail, so here we are. Basically, the museum has really nice toilets. Extremely fancy, and very private, if that sort of thing matters to you (frankly, I think it sometimes matters to all of us), and probably worth the effort of having your bag scanned if you’re in the area and in need of a loo (also, if you’re in the City on a weekend, not much is open, so your options are limited. Even on a weekday, it is creepily deserted during times when everyone is at work, which is probably why I really quite like the City (although if I had to work there, I’m sure I’d change my tune pretty quick). I was there on a Monday afternoon, and I didn’t see another visitor at the museum until as I was leaving). I’m not the biggest fan of any of the art in their permanent collections, but it is worth visiting when they have free special exhibitions, or to see the Roman amphitheatre (or use the toilets of course!). Just don’t rush out to see “Nature Morte” if, like me, you’re expecting lots of taxidermy, because you will inevitably be disappointed that there’s only one example of it there (not counting the butterflies, because I hate them).
Though I feel like I’ve gone to an excessive amount of Soviet exhibitions over the past year (so many that people are going to start thinking I’m a communist, which is not the case at all), looking back at it, it seems like I actually only went to two: the Russian Revolution at the BL, and “Imagine Moscow” at the Design Museum. And in my defense, 2017 was the centenary of the Russian Revolution, which is why there’s been so many Russian themed exhibitions in the first place. So now I feel less guilty telling you that I also went to see “Red Star over Russia” at the Tate Modern a couple of weeks ago (it closes 18 February, so hurry up if you want to see it!).
Yes, I’m still on Ohio posts, but this is the last one, for now (though I am getting so tired of London that I’m very seriously debating moving back to the US in the next year or two (yes, even with stupid awful Trump there, sigh), and editing this post made me homesick). I love the Cleveland Museum of Art, and I love 1920s fashion, so I knew I had to make sure to see this exhibition whilst I was back home. “The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s,” ran from September 30, 2017 – January 14, 2018 – I visited Cleveland in the fall, and it started right around the time I left, so I’m glad I was able to catch it this time around before it finished, especially because it was so popular that tickets were selling out most days.
I actually contemplated booking advance tickets, but they charged a booking fee, and when I looked at the website, it looked like all the time slots for the remainder of the day were still available, so we risked it. And the gamble paid off, probably because it was midday on a weekday before most people had started their Christmas vacation. Admission was a hefty $15 (which is why I didn’t want to pay a booking fee on top of it) and parking was another $10, though that was because we couldn’t be bothered to drive around looking for a spot, and just used the museum lot (there’s often metred parking around University Circle, which is just a couple of bucks). Although I hadn’t been to a special exhibition at the CMA in years, I remember always really enjoying them when I was younger, so my hopes were high.
And fortunately, I wasn’t disappointed this time around either. The exhibition was held in the basement galleries of the museum, which I don’t think I had even seen since their major remodel, and they’re actually really nice. And big! I lost track of how many rooms we walked through. And it wasn’t just clothing – there was furniture, art, textiles, jewellery – even household objects like perfume bottles and cocktail shakers – really, anything that encapsulated the style of the period was here. (The bowl above was commissioned by Eleanor Roosevelt for FDR’s gubernatorial inauguration. And how gorgeous is that dress?! I love the goat chandelier too!)
I liked that we were allowed to take photographs, and that the exhibition wasn’t at all crowded by London standards (though maybe by Cleveland ones, because I really hate crowds, but people there seem to get even more fed up with a crowd than I do). It was busy to be sure, but the exhibition space was large enough that we could spread out and I didn’t have to queue to read anything, which is always a plus, because there was a decent amount to read in here (I do wish that some of the clothing had more information, but the descriptions of the furniture and art were pretty detailed).
This is one of those exhibitions where I want to show you all the things, because they were all so damn fabulous and displayed so beautifully. They had a lot of pieces by the Rose Iron Works, which was based in Cleveland, including this “Muse with Violin” screen. They were all on loan from the Rose Iron Works collections, which makes me wonder if there’s a secret room full of these pieces somewhere that I could go and look at.
I love skyscrapers built in the 1920s and ’30s (the Terminal Tower is my favourite skyscraper ever, although it is admittedly Beaux-Arts rather than art deco), so I loved the skyscraper motif on many of the pieces, like that mural and the skyscraper book desk (the desk is pretty ugly, I will concede, but I would still have it on account of how many books I could cram in that thing).
Another motif was methods of transport, because people were fascinated by all the new technologies. I’m not a big car or plane person, but I would absolutely carry either of those adorable purses, and oh my god, that Zeppelin cocktail set is amazing. There was also a chair with a WWI plane embroidered in the back (you can glimpse it just to the left of the yellow dress in the photo above the third paragraph).
There were of course a lot of cocktail sets disguised as things, like the owl shaker, above, and even more interestingly, there was a perfume set made to look like a bar set (above right), where you could mix the scents just like a cocktail to produce your own perfume (I don’t even wear perfume (or drink cocktails more than a couple of times a year, for that matter), but I kind of want this).
To be honest, the jewellery, whilst gorgeous, was less interesting to me than many of the other objects, and was certainly difficult to photograph (shiny + behind glass is not a great combo), so I hope you enjoy this selection of fans and cigarette holders instead (I especially love the fan with the stars and moon on it, which is of course the hardest one to see, because it’s shiny).
A lot of the furniture was admittedly not really to my taste (ugh, avocado green!), but it was still neat to look at, even if I wouldn’t want it in my house (I wanted pretty much everything else though (as you can probably tell). Especially that bathing suit).
This quilt represented the quilter’s hope of how Hoover was going to end the Depression (sorry to burst your bubble lady, but it ain’t gonna happen), with people of many different professions all looking towards Uncle Sam, who strolls in at last in the bottom right square with a big barrel of “Legal Beer.” (“Beer. Now there’s a temporary solution.”)
I want to keep showing you things, but we’ll be here all day, so suffice it to say it was a wonderful exhibition, with a good amount of explanation about the trends and themes of the era, and obviously fantastic objects on display, though I’ll downgrade it a teeny bit because it was so expensive, and I wanted to see more clothes! 4/5. I also REALLY wanted to buy that hat in the gift shop at the end, but it was like $95, so I had to let it go. I think it suited me though (since first writing this post, I have given into temptation and purchased an elaborately beaded flapper dress for myself (seriously, it must weigh at least ten pounds) that I will probably never be brave enough to wear anywhere. I need to start going to fancier places I guess, and then I could justify buying the hat too).
There was also a free temporary exhibition of Depression-era photography in a gallery upstairs which we stopped to see (I love old photos), and it was a good counterpart to the excesses of the Jazz Age exhibition, since it more accurately represented what most people’s lives were like towards the end of that era. We were meeting friends nearby later that evening, and had originally planned on going back home for a few hours in between, but then I discovered the new interactive gallery at the art museum (I think it had been there on my last visit, but it was busier then so I didn’t get to try anything out). Well, there went those plans, because we ended up spending almost two hours in there, which worked out well because it meant by the time we grabbed dinner, it was time to meet my friends, and we saved ourselves a drive home and back again.
They had a bunch of different stations which all seemed to have slightly different games on them, and because there were only a handful of other people there, we were able to try them all. They had computers that scanned your face to track your reaction to different works of art, and others that followed your eyes to see how you looked at a piece of art, which you could compare to how other visitors looked at the same piece.
There were also games where you had to decide what various objects in a painting were meant to represent, and an activity where you got to mash up your face with a painting (by the way, I’m super jealous of people in America who can use that face match thing in the Google Arts and Culture app, and I’m really annoyed that it’s not in the UK). As you can probably tell from the above photos though, the most fun game of all was Match a Pose, which is just what it sounds (and looks like), with points given for how accurately you matched the painting. This was pretty much the best thing ever, and I spent way, way too much time doing this, but all the games were great. Go at a quiet time and play them all, you won’t be disappointed! I love the Cleveland Museum of Art anyway (as I said at the start), and by adding so much interactivity to an art museum, they’ve made the experience practically perfect (if they lowered the price of parking, it would be very close to perfection indeed).
The Russell-Cotes House is exactly the kind of house I’d like to live in…if it wasn’t a museum, and also wasn’t in Bournemouth (not knocking the town, because it’s the first time I’ve ever been there and I didn’t really go anywhere except Russell-Cotes House, but it looked kind of seedy as we were driving through, like most English seaside towns. The beach did look quite nice though, if it hadn’t been freezing cold. In May).
It is a gloriously quirky Victorian mansion (completed in 1901, shortly before Queen Victoria died, it is also technically one of the last Victorian mansions ever built, as the museum kept reminding us) perched on a side of a hill overlooking the sea. Apparently it is built in an “Art Nouveau” style, but the turrets, bold colours, and big wrap-around front porch reminded me of Victorian houses in America, rather than the more
boring sedate brick Victorian buildings that are much more common in England (like the one I live in, which has been divided into flats and stripped of any character it might have had, save for the fireplace and high ceilings), which is why I probably loved it so much.
Admission to this fabulous building (its official name is East Cliff Hall) is £6 (or £5.45 if you decline the Gift Aid), and the self-guided tour starts with a short film about the history of the house. Built by Merton Russell-Cotes for his wife Annie, it was their dream home and a place for them to display the many, many objects they had collected on their travels through the years. They seem to have been a rather sweet and devoted couple, what with travelling the world together, and dying within a year of each other (don’t worry, they were able to enjoy their house for about twenty years first). They were also clearly extraordinarily wealthy and well-connected, though where their money came from is a mystery, at least to me, because it wasn’t discussed anywhere in the museum (I suspect there’s a dark secret somewhere in their past, albeit with absolutely no evidence to support this theory).
The house is meant to be set up pretty much as Merton and Annie would have had it (except for a few of the more museum-y rooms), and you’re free to wander through and pretend you’re visiting them, I guess. So nothing is really roped off (though obviously you’re expected to not touch things) and there aren’t signs on anything, just a a large informational guide on a stand in each room (we came right after they opened, so there were only a handful of visitors, but I suspect this gets annoying at busier times, because those books were seriously like twenty pages each, and based on my experiences in way too many National Trust properties, I can imagine that some people stand there for ages reading every page). We got a taste of their enviable lifestyle right off the bat, when we walked into the dining room and were greeted with an octagonal table and a wine cooler (above right) once owned by Napoleon that they managed to snap up whilst they were visiting St. Helena (as you do…oh wait, you haven’t been to one of the most isolated islands in the world?! Me either). I also immediately learned that Merton really liked birds (as do I, admittedly. Well, some birds. Not those white ibis in Australia. Or emus or cassowaries (also in Australia)), and had chosen to decorate the room with a splendid peacock border.
There was a collection of busts in the conservatory, my favourite being good ol’ Wellington (looking rather dashing), though his rival (archnemesis?) Napoleon was there too. However, the conservatory was locked, so we just had to peer out at them from the dining room.
Napoleon’s table wasn’t the only famous person’s furniture that the Russell-Cotes’s owned. They also had a sofa and chairs that were Queen Victoria’s (I don’t think she ever visited this home, since she died shortly after it was completed, but I believe she did visit them in a previous residence, and her daughter, Princess Beatrice, took tea here with Annie), and a cabinet belonging to Empress Eugenie of France, who they knew personally. Actually, the story behind the cabinet is that Eugenie didn’t realise it had been sold, and got a nasty shock when she went to East Cliff Hall for a visit and saw it in pride of place in the drawing room. The dress in the picture above is a re-creation of Annie’s wedding dress, based off of a photograph taken on her wedding day.
The main hall of the house was similarly extravagant, and contained even more busts, paintings by Rossetti et al, and a fountain inspired by the Moorish room at Leighton House (which was one of the only parts of Leighton House that I didn’t complain about). The ornamentation even carried on into the public restrooms…I strongly recommend that you use the ones in the actual house rather than the ones in the gift shop or cafe, because they are worth seeing, in particular the ladies’ loo (I peeped into the men’s and it was nice, but not as elaborate as the women’s toilet).
There was an extension added on to the house for art galleries (done whilst the Russell-Cotes’s were still alive, as they had always planned to donate the building to Bournemouth after they died (they had children, by the way, they probably just reckoned they didn’t need the house), and had some of the house open to the public once a month whilst they were still living in it), though unfortunately only a couple of the galleries were open, because they were in the process of putting together a new exhibit.
Merton and Annie definitely seemed to be partial to statues and busts (though apparently Merton collected most of the art; Annie was more into natural history), and my favourite piece here was a bust of George Bernard Shaw (above right) done, oddly enough, by Kathleen Scott, widow of Robert Falcon Scott of polar fame (bust on the left is Nelson, no idea who the sculptor was).
Now, I want to talk about the stained glass on the cupola over the main hall, because that is what convinced me that I needed to visit the house in the first place. As you can hopefully tell from the picture above (click to enlarge), it has bats and owls on it, flying through a night sky. If I could only have one element from this house in my imaginary dream home, this is what I’m taking, no doubt about it.
Though the upstairs rooms admittedly weren’t as grand as the ones downstairs, they were nonetheless my favourite section of the house, because they were more straightforward museum rooms, with actual labels, and I got to learn more about Merton and Annie’s travels and the things they collected. One room had objects ranging from a decorative band that was on the outside of Queen Victoria’s wedding cake (Merton and Annie were both born in 1835, so I imagine they were too young to have actually attended her wedding), to an instrument made from a crocodile’s head, and, in keeping with the crocodile theme, some child-sized ankle bracelets found in the stomach of a crocodile in India, meaning some unlucky little girl got eaten.
There was also a “Mikado Room” built to house Merton’s Asian artefacts, and another room with souvenirs from their trip to Russia and Scandinavia, including a child’s sled embellished with some scary toothed geese. The signage in here included extracts from Annie’s diary entries during the Russia trip, which were pretty interesting. They visited about twenty years before the Revolution, but apparently could already see signs of unrest.
Lest you think that the things poor Annie collected had been left out, never fear! There was also a whole room full of natural history stuff, like a case full of stuffed kiwis that she acquired in New Zealand (obviously). The bedroom she was forced to move to shortly before she died was also up here; she had to move because it was near the only room that could accommodate her nurse (I guess because all the other rooms were too nice?).
My favourite decorative border in the house was in what I’m going to call the “Crow Room” (unless those are blackbirds? I like birds, but I’m not great at identifying them). I especially love the golden moon that’s been added in. (Many of the rooms also had beautiful gold stars painted up near the ceiling. This was really my kind of house.)
The strangest room had to be the Henry Irving Room, which was like a bizarre shrine to the actor Henry Irving. Apparently he was a good friend of Merton and Annie, and they loved his acting, so were devastated when he died, and set a whole room aside for Irving artefacts. I know Irving was a famous actor, but I don’t really know all that much about him, so I couldn’t fully appreciate the Irvingness of this room, though I did admire the weirdness.
More stained glass of note (because those damn Victorians really excelled at stained glass); the piece over the centre of the upstairs hallway. It’s a little hard to see, but the corners of each larger square are the signs of the zodiac. I was particularly partial to Taurus, who you might just be able to spot (and I’ve just noticed that Aquarius looks rather like the Mannequin Pis).
There were so many more fabulous details in the house that I’d love to show you, but we’d be here all day, so let me move on to the gardens. Apparently, the gardens once stretched for quite a ways around the house, but they’ve all been swallowed up by real estate, so all that’s left now is the grotto area, and a small Japanese garden. Unusually, the Russell-Cotes’s didn’t have any live-in servants, instead relying on staff from the hotel next door to keep their house running, so there was a secret gate in the garden that they could cut through on their way over. (Merton and Annie did own the hotel too at one point, though I’m not sure if it was while they were living in East Cliff House. I do hope that the staff were properly compensated for their work, and not just expected to do two jobs for the same pay, but knowing Victorians, my hopes aren’t high.)
I certainly enjoyed pretty much every aspect of this house’s appearance, inside and out, though I’m still not sure how I feel about Merton and Annie – they were definitely a fascinating couple who had amazing experiences, but I feel like them using the hotel’s staff is probably a bit shady, and I’m still bothered that I don’t know the source of their wealth. But, they are long-dead, and the house as it stands today is magnificent, and worth the relatively modest price of admission (I mean, can you imagine what the National Trust or English Heritage would charge to see something like this? Probably at least 15 quid, if not more!). I do love labels, so I would have liked to see some in the actual house, but I can understand that it would detract from the experience they’re going for. Perhaps if they put a couple smaller guides in each room in place of the big books, it would be better, because some of the books contained stuff like a list of restoration expenses, or a lengthy history of some of the artistic styles represented in the paintings, and it was way more than I cared to read and came at the expense of information about some of the smaller, but more intriguing looking objects. Because of that, I’ll give it 4/5, but it is a most excellent looking house, and I think Merton would be happy to see all the birds that still frequent the garden.
Whew, that’s a long title, isn’t it? I have more Dorset posts, but this post covers a couple exhibitions that are ending in the near future, so I wanted to get to them first while there’s still a chance to visit them if people are interested. I recently went to go see Grayson Perry’s new exhibition at the Serpentine, and used it as an opportunity to do a whole day of arty stuff around London (I might have gotten an ice cream and a bubble tea too. It was a hot day, and I needed the energy!). I’ll talk about Perry’s exhibition first, and get to the rest later.
I first encountered Grayson Perry when he was a panellist on Have I Got News for You way back in 2009, when he appeared as his alter-ego “Claire.” Not being up on the modern art scene, I’d never heard of him before, and I didn’t know quite what to make of him. But then I finally saw some of his art: tapestries at the Foundling Museum back in 2014, and I had to admit that they were really pretty cool. I’ve since been to a couple more of his exhibitions, and watched a few of his TV specials, and now I’d definitely consider myself a fan – after watching his recent TV programme about Brexit, where he made vases representing “Leave” and “Remain,” Marcus and I were keen to see the vases in person, so when we learned they’d be at the Serpentine, in Hyde Park, along with some other select pieces, we headed out to see the exhibition about a week after it opened.
“The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!” runs until the 10 September, and is free, although there is an opportunity to donate via a piggy bank Perry created with different slots to represent different identities – you could choose the slot you felt best represented you. Although I’ve of course been to Hyde Park before, I’d never actually been inside the Serpentine Gallery, and I’m glad I managed to visit on a weekday, because I bet this exhibition lives up to its self-consciously grandiose title by being absolutely rammed on the weekends. As it was, it was plenty busy on a weekday, though not to the point where we had to queue or anything.
Perry’s chosen media are typically ceramic pots and tapestries, and there were plenty of both in here. What I particularly love about his work is how detailed it is – he often uses collages, and you really have to walk completely around each of his pieces to appreciate every element. There’s often a fair bit of text incorporated within the pieces as well, which I can appreciate as someone who’s generally drawn more towards books than art.
But there were also a few other types of art in this exhibit, my favourites being the custom designed motorcycle with a special box for Perry’s teddy, Alan Measles, in the back (Alan Measles is a recurring motif in Perry’s art), and the “Marriage Shrine” with figures of Perry and his wife. I’d love something like that in my house (or garden, if I had one)!
I also had to laugh at the “Kateboard,” above, which is a skateboard deck with an image of Kate Middleton on it, and there were some excellent woodcuts, including the one pictured at the opening of the post, which features Perry himself.
And the Brexit vases (above) were of course excellent, though my favourite vase was actually the first one in this post, showing Trump, Farage, Theresa May, Boris, Corbyn, et al all worshiping Alan Measles. But I really enjoyed almost every piece in this exhibition, which is a rarity for me and modern art, as you all know. It’s certainly very timely (it actually opened on the day of the general election, which was an exciting one for me as it was the first election since I’ve become a British citizen, so I actually got to vote! Not that it did much good in decidedly Tory Wimbledon, but still), and I highly recommend going to see it if you get the chance. 4.5/5.
We went to see two other exhibitions the same day, both of them at art galleries (and as gallery installations are so fleeting, I’m not going to bother to give them a rating). I normally shy away from galleries because I’m slightly intimidated by them; it seems like whenever I walk into one, there’s just some harried person talking on the phone at the back of the gallery who completely ignores my presence, and I feel really unwelcome. But I saw these listed in Time Out London, and I was intrigued enough to take a chance (albeit with Marcus for backup; I’m still too intimidated to do it on my own).
The first was Ann Craven’s Animals 1999-2017, at Southard Reid in Soho, which ends on 24 June. This was a collection of animal paintings inspired by Youtube and memes and things. I can’t really complain about adorable paintings of kittens and deer, so I enjoyed it, even though the woman working there was indeed on the phone when we walked in, and we felt pretty awkward the whole time we were there. The gallery is also hidden down some pretentiously named “Royalty Mews” off of Dean Street that we accidentally walked right past the first time around, which made the experience that much more awkward, because it wasn’t the kind of place you could pop in whilst passing – you had to actively seek it out.
The other exhibition was Wayne Thiebaud’s retrospective 1962-2017 at White Cube Mason’s Yard, near Green Park, which ends 2 July and was poshly intimidating enough that I was worried about walking in wearing shorts and a tank top, with all my tattoos exposed. But except for the stern looking security guard in one of the galleries, it was fine. I wanted to see this one because I read that most of his paintings were of desserts, and indeed, food and landscapes were pretty much the themes.
I did like some of his paintings (particularly those of ice cream and doughnuts), and the layered paint effect was kind of cool, but I’m still not really enough of a fan of the gallery experience to be won over to doing this sort of thing very frequently in the future.
The last “arty” experience I wanted to mention, while I’m on the subject, was something I did a couple of weeks ago. It was part of the Merge Festival in Bankside, which seems to have been held quite early this year for some reason (I think it’s normally in September). I saw (in Time Out, yet again, because I’ve been reading the print edition every week lately on the train) that there was an opportunity to have your portrait drawn by a robot for free, if you booked a slot in advance, and for once I managed to book while there were still openings.
The actual name of the event was “Machine Studies” by Patrick Tresset, and what he’d done was create three robot arms that drew three separate pictures of you while you sat still and posed, as you would for a conventional portrait. This meant sitting perfectly still for over half an hour, which I realised I am incredibly bad at. An eyelash fell into my eye only about ten minutes in, and though I tried my best to blink it out, I eventually just had to rub my eye, which I think is why my one eye is blurry in some of the portraits. You can see the finished drawings above, and I think they’re quite cool, even with the wonky eye. If you’re familiar with (were traumatised by as a child, more like) the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books, Stephen Gammell’s illustrations are what I think the middle portrait looks like. I’m kind of like the girl who had a spider lay eggs in her face without her realising until all the spider babies exploded out. (Link here, but don’t click unless you want to be kind of grossed out. And bear in mind, these books were intended for children, and this is definitely one of the less scary drawings in them. No wonder I was so nightmare-prone.) You had a choice of buying your portraits for something like 150 quid each, or leaving them there to be part of the exhibition, so you can probably guess which I chose. At least I was able to get a few good photos of them first though! And it was definitely a neat experience, though somewhat marred by the fact that the London Bridge attack occurred the same night, not very far from where the installation was located (though fortunately I’d been home for hours before it happened) – as a result, it was closed on what would have been its final day (and now there’s been the Grenfell Tower fire, and the Finsbury Park attack. London’s having a tough time of it lately).
Anyway, that’s it for the artistic interlude; I’ll carry on with more Dorset museums next week.