art

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.

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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!

 

London: Pitzhanger Manor and Gallery

 

I think we’ve established by now that I am not the sort of person that gets invited to premieres. However, because my friend works at Pitzhanger Manor, I was invited to their opening weekend (this wasn’t an exclusive event though, I hasten to add – anyone was allowed to book a spot, provided they did so early enough), and I was very happy to attend and feel like one of the special people for once, even though it takes about an hour to get to Ealing from where I live.

 

Pitzhanger Manor was John Soane’s country estate from 1800-1810 (because back then, Ealing was in the country instead of just being absorbed into the sprawl of London), and a place where he could show off his architectural skills to potential clients (Soane is known for designing the Bank of England and Dulwich Picture Gallery, amongst various other things). He actually worked on a wing of the house as a young apprentice, and this was the only part of the original 1768 building that he left intact after moving in. Soane was forced to sell the house after only ten years for a number of reasons, which I’ll get to later, and it passed through a number of hands over the years (including the daughters of Spencer Perceval, who has the unhappy distinction of being the only Prime Minister to be assassinated) before being taken over by Ealing Council in 1900. They decided to turn one wing into a library (which is one of the few acceptable uses of a historic home, presuming they leave the interiors intact as much as possible) which remained open until 1984, when it was decided to restore the house and open it as a museum. It opened in 1987, only to be closed again in 2015 for a major restoration/conservation project, and it finally re-opened on 16 March 2019, which is when I went to see it.

Pitzhanger will normally cost £7.70 to visit, but was free on opening weekend, which is one of the reasons it was completely booked up, with a queue of people waiting to get in if there were cancellations. I breezed past them all, because I was on the list (again, the same list that anyone could have gotten on by pre-booking. I’m really not any kind of VIP, though I like to pretend). I met up with my friend shortly after arriving, and she was obviously super busy and kept getting stopped by visitors to answer their questions, but she still managed to give me a little tour of the house, which I appreciated. The interior of the house is fairly empty – this is mainly because the vast majority of John Soane’s possessions reside in his house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which is also a museum (which I still haven’t gotten around to blogging about! I guess I’m due for another visit), but the rooms have been painstakingly restored, and there are a lot of gorgeous features. My friend explained how Soane’s architectural style was heavily influenced by the time he spent in Italy during his Grand Tour, and that one of the ceilings in the house was modelled on the Italian sky.

 

You can see a bit of that sky ceiling in a corner of the photo above left, but my personal favourite feature in the house was the fabulous hand-painted bird wallpaper in the Upper Drawing Room, followed closely by the ceiling in the “Eating Room,” below left (which is what the dining room is called – maybe Soane liked to keep things casual?). I still desperately want a house with some Georgian blue and Scheele’s green interiors (though preferably sans the actual arsenic). John Soane and his wife Eliza were circulating whilst we were at Pitzhanger (or, you know, some actors playing them), so we had to get a picture with Soane that mimicked our photo with the actual Gary Oldman (which I realise most of you probably haven’t seen, because I only put it on my personal Facebook, but it’s a good one!), with Soane in place of Oldman.

But Pitzhanger isn’t just an historic home – it’s also an art gallery (the £7.70 admission price I mentioned includes both house and gallery)! The wing that used to be Ealing’s library has been turned into a gallery space, and the inaugural exhibition is by Anish Kapoor. I have to confess that whilst I certainly recognise Kapoor’s name, I’m not terribly familiar with his work, and this is the first exhibition of his that I’ve seen. I read before going that his “sculptures echo Soane’s complex use of mirrors and light and will enable visitors to Pitzhanger to see Soane’s architecture from a fresh perspective,” and I must have skimmed over the part about the mirrors, because what I was expecting from “sculptures” was certainly not this!

To be honest, at first glance I was underwhelmed, because it just appeared to be some mirrors on a wall. But after interacting with them, I realised they were actually pretty fun! I’m not sure if I necessarily saw the connection to Pitzhanger Manor, but it didn’t really matter because they were a good time, and people inside were really friendly due to obviously enjoying themselves as well (a lady offered to take our photo, as seen above).

 

The only critical comment I would make is that aside from an introductory panel to the exhibition, there was virtually no text inside, but I guess sometimes it’s better to experience than to just stand there reading something (my friend also told me they had a problem with people touching the mirrors and leaving fingerprints, so please, look but don’t touch!). The gallery is also home to the shop, which features quite a lot of merchandise inspired by the bird wallpaper, because why wouldn’t you highlight your most fabulous feature?

After finishing with the art gallery, we returned to the house to explore a few of the rooms in a bit more detail, including the basement, which talked about Soane’s desire to become a hermit (he apparently used to hide down there or wander his gardens pretending to be one, which I can certainly relate to), which is perhaps indicative of his mental state near the time he decided to sell Pitzhanger. He was feeling depressed because both his sons were ne’er do well types who had no desire to follow in his footsteps and become architects, as he was hoping, and because Eliza was suffering from ill health and disliked being in the country. I’m sorry that Soane had such a hard time of it, but I did like all the masks on the walls used to illustrate his changing moods.

Because my friend works here and gave me a special tour which is probably not the normal Pitzhanger experience, I don’t think it would be right for me to give Pitzhanger a score, as I normally would. But I will tell you what I liked and disliked. It is a gorgeous house, and it is clear that a lot of love and care have gone into its restoration. I also think the inaugural art exhibition is fun and interactive, but not very much else in the house was. There were a few areas for children to get more involved, and the Eating Room had some sound effects, but other than a few faux old books you could flip through to learn more about Soane’s life, and a neat little moving timeline diorama, there wasn’t a whole lot for adults to do other than admire the property. I think they would do well in future to try to get a few more artefacts and things in (maybe Soane’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields House could loan something?) to make the house more of an experience, because for £7.70, it is fairly small (there were only a couple of rooms open on each floor, maybe seven rooms overall?), even with the art gallery attached. Still, I’m glad I got to check it out on opening weekend, and thoroughly enjoyed my experience there, thanks in no small part to my friend.

 

London: “Spare Parts” @ the Science Gallery

I think it’s fair to say that I was pretty excited about the opening of the Science Gallery and their first exhibition, “Hooked,” on addiction, and shared that enthusiasm in my post last month. Which is why their current exhibition comes as something of a disappointment. (If you’ve read my post on the Migration Museum, you will notice that I’m wearing the same outfit as in this post. This is because I visited both on the same day, not because I have a weird closet full of twenty sets of the same outfit, like Jerry’s girlfriend in that one episode of Seinfeld. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Based on my initial positive experience (and my passion for Kappacasein’s grilled cheese) as well as my promise to blog about their next exhibition in a more timely fashion, I went out to see “Spare Parts” only a week after it opened. Like the previous exhibition, this was free, and I’m glad, because I got a taste of the general underwhelmingness of this exhibition right from the start. We walked in and were greeted by the first piece of art, which was supposed to be a series of four lights that flashed when you put your hands on some sensors, but it wasn’t super obvious where the sensors were at first, and even after I figured it out, they didn’t do anything (I know the lights are on in the photo, but they didn’t flash on or off no matter where I put my hands). This didn’t bode well.

The theme of “Spare Parts” was meant to be the “art and science of organ transplantation and tissue regeneration” which sounds interesting enough, but I don’t think that came across well at all in most of the pieces. “Hooked” was made up of a series of themed galleries, and even though I don’t think the themes were always super clear, at least the space was divided in an atmospheric way so that you felt you were having an experience whilst progressing through the exhibition. “Spare Parts” was far more open, and there didn’t seem to be any smaller themes at all within the larger theme of body tissues.

Also, I presumed that many of the pieces here were meant to be interactive, or at least reactive, like the typewriter that was meant to type stream-of-consciousness thoughts, or “New Organs of Creation,” which was supposed to play sounds unattainable by the human voice. I think I may have misunderstood the descriptions that were in the exhibition slightly, as I got the impression that we were supposed to speak to both pieces to get them to react (so apparently I kept saying “It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times” to the typewriter for no reason, as it was never going to type it. I must have looked like an idiot), though according to the online description, they were already programmed to do whatever they were going to do and my presence was never meant to have an effect. Either way, since they weren’t doing anything, they were rather pointless.

Therefore, I was excited when I found one interactive element, or at least one that sounded interactive – a 3D printer where you could print a miniature body part (not one of your actual body parts, but you could choose one from a pre-programmed selection, which is still quite cool). But it said to ask a member of staff for help, and sadly, they were all huddled in the corner having an in-depth conversation about somebody’s wedding. Marcus even approached them to try to get them to help, and they completely ignored him. Not cool. I get that the pay is probably crappy (if they’re even paid!), but c’mon, at least make an attempt. I was pretty pissed off to be honest, but I just wandered away and returned about ten minutes later to find that one of them had finally broken away from the conversation and was willing to help us (and to be fair, she was perfectly nice once we had her attention, it was just getting it that was the issue). Because the printing process took about fifteen minutes, and we’d already seen most of the exhibition, we just requested one ear between us. The end result is pretty neat, though I wish we had been able to obtain it on our first attempt!

I did find a few more interactive pieces, like a giant pair of plastic globes you were supposed to wear over your ears whilst walking around the exhibition, and some pictures of organs you could colour (somebody needs to sharpen the coloured pencils though!), although the wall where you were supposed to be able to hear your own heartbeat was just a wall with some insulation over it (as you can see above the previous paragraph), and not actually fun at all. At least some comic relief was provided by a video of an artist who had received a kidney transplant dancing around the desert in a very tight bodysuit. There was a central space in the exhibition that I think was meant to be for various activities like playing a “Superturd” card game and grafting a cactus, but other than a pack of “Superturd” cards sitting on a pedestal, where they seemed to be more of a display than something you could pick up and play, none of these activities were in evidence at the time of our visit.

Because of the lack of text outside of the object labels, which in most cases weren’t comprehensive enough for me to fully understand the intent behind a piece, as well as the disappointing lack of interactivity, we finished with the exhibition in about half an hour (and it wouldn’t have even been that long if we hadn’t had to hang around for a bit waiting for the ear to print). I like that they offer a take-home element (like the 3D printed body part, or the cool terracotta tokens in “Hooked”), which, as a free museum, they certainly don’t have to do, but the rest of the exhibition was really not great. Honestly, it felt like a bit of a rush job, like they didn’t have time to set it up properly, an impression reinforced by the empty space behind the gallery still full of water bottles and used tea things that they evidently hadn’t yet cleared away after an event (and speaking as someone who has worked in both events and museums (and events at museums), sometimes you are too busy to clear something up immediately, which I completely understand, but if you have time to sit around and chat, you probably have time to tidy up. I’m turning into a real crab apple, aren’t I?). I will still go back because I like the concept of the gallery and the subjects of their upcoming exhibitions sound interesting, but I was really not impressed this time around. 1.5/5.

 

London: John Ruskin @ Two Temple Place


I hope you’re not sick of these annual shots of the exterior of Two Temple Place, because here’s another one. But really, I think we can all take another moment to appreciate that weather vane. I guess I’m never all that interested in the topics Two Temple Place chooses for its annual exhibition, but John Ruskin ranked near the bottom in terms of my interest levels (OK, he’s better than Eric Gill, but let’s face it, it’s not hard to top that molester), so I didn’t exactly rush out to see it. But it is free, and I’ve blogged about it every other year since discovering Two Temple Place existed, so I figured I might as well make the effort (really I blame that Ancient Egypt exhibit, which was the first thing I saw there, because it was really good and now I feel compelled to keep returning in hopes something else will match it, even though nothing else has come close).

I never know if photos will be allowed during a particular exhibition – it seems like every year when Marcus brings his camera, they aren’t allowing photography, and if he doesn’t have it, they do allow pictures, but this year the fates aligned and we had both camera and permission to use it (although photos were still not allowed of about a third of the items there due to copyright reasons).  “John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing” runs until the 22nd April, and clearly waiting a bit into the exhibition’s run to go see it did nothing to reduce the crowds, as it was really really full when we walked inside, though it probably didn’t help (hurt?) that it was a really nice day outside (for February).

  

All I knew about John Ruskin going in was that he was in with the Pre-Raphaelite crowd, and that he was disgusted by vaginas, or at least, his wife Effie Gray’s vagina, as their marriage was allegedly never consummated, so I was eager to learn more (Effie later married Millais, and had eight children with him, so I don’t think she was really the problem). And whilst I did learn more about certain aspects of his life, I still felt the exhibition was very lacking as a whole when it came to biographical detail. About his marriage to the aforementioned Effie, for example, all it said was that he had produced a particular series of drawings whilst honeymooning with Effie in Venice. Nothing about the annulment or controversies surrounding his marriage (I could understand why they didn’t want to get into the nitty gritty of his sex life (or lack thereof), as it’s a fairly hoity toity venue, but they could have at least mentioned that the marriage wasn’t a happy one).

But it certainly did go into Ruskin’s interests, which were apparently pretty much everything, including geology, art, architecture, botany, social reform, politics, literature, birds, and many others – pretty much everything except sex by the looks of it, though there are rumours out there about some unsavoury proclivities he may have had (on Wikipedia, not in the exhibition, of course). He was friends with JMW Turner and other artists, and was also a lecturer at Oxford, though apparently he suffered from mental illness as he aged, and people would attend his lectures just to mock him, which made me feel bad for him.

As you may have guessed from the long list of subjects he saw fit to write about, Ruskin was a man of strong passions, and also hated a number of things, fifteen of which were listed on the signage shown above, and this gave me the only laugh of the exhibition (not really a complaint, because I wasn’t expecting the subject matter to be funny, so maybe I should rephrase that as being happy I got a chuckle out of it at all). The things Ruskin loathed (mostly architecture-related) are mostly not the sort of things on which I have strong opinions of my own (surprising, I know), but I’m not overly keen on rail travel – it beats air travel, which I’m sure Ruskin would have hated even more, but I’m still not keen on sharing personal space with strangers for a significant length of time. Especially the type of people who talk on their phones in the quiet carriage, who are the worst.

  

For a man with such a clearly defined aesthetic, there actually didn’t seem to be all that much art by John Ruskin within the exhibition – much of it was simply by contemporaries he admired, or modern artists from Sheffield, which is where Ruskin lived and created a museum, and is from where many of these pieces were on loan. But he did produce some lovely botanical and geological illustrations – Marcus particularly admired his drawings of cleavage (in rocks, that is) – and he was clearly a man who understood ducks, judging by his delightful description of them: “you have to consider whether the bird altogether may not be more than a fat, cheerful little stomach, and a spotted waistcoat with legs to it…fat, floating, daintiest darlings.”

  

This exhibition also seemed to be a bit smaller than they usually are. I do feel like they shrink every year, but this one had definitely left out a room or two, as I distinctly remember passing through two or three rooms upstairs before arriving in the main gallery in the past, and this year there was only one room before it, and that room had a handful of objects in, but no captions. Like I always say, I wanted more information throughout, but I suspect they purposely keep captions short to try to sell their own guidebooks (which I’m sure are lovely, but I’m just not willing to spend that kind of money for something I’m going to look through once).

  

And whilst I think Two Temple Place is a fabulous building, I’m not crazy about the atmosphere. It always seems to be full of rich, snobby old white people who feel entitled to block your view of something for as long as they want to, and are wilfully oblivious to your attempts to see around them. Some of that may be because of the time of day I normally visit, but I always visit museums on a week day if I can, and I generally see a more varied audience than this. The people working there are sometimes nice, but more typically, they’re more like old-school art gallery stewards, eager to pounce for any minor infraction, which also makes me feel uncomfortable. I’d really like it if they took this amazing space and used it in a way that was more inviting and might attract more diverse audiences, because John Ruskin, British Jazz, and Eric Gill (especially Eric Gill, blech!) really aren’t big crowd pleasers.

After viewing this exhibition, I do feel a bit more sympathetic towards Ruskin, as no one deserves to be mocked for their mental illness, but I definitely don’t think he’s going to top my list of favourite artists or writers any time soon (especially if some of the rumours about him are true). As always, I wanted more content, and a more relaxed attitude from staff (volunteers?) and visitors alike. I wanted to score this somewhere between “Sussex Modernism” and “Rhythm and Reaction,” but I see I’ve given the former 2.5/5, and the latter 3/5, so that really leaves me nowhere to go. So I’ll opt for 2.5/5, because I remember “Rhythm and Reaction” as being a bit more interesting, though I liked the art here better than that of “Sussex Modernism,” especially the wall of bird drawings and that fabulous bird lampshade (below left).

 

London: “Good Grief, Charlie Brown” @ Somerset House

I know that there are a lot of people who are really into the Peanuts (judging by the likes I got on the photos I posted on Instagram alone), and I certainly grew up reading the comic strip and watching the holiday specials, but I was never the sort of person who liked them to the extent that I collected memorabilia, for example, like my uncle who was obsessed with Snoopy. Still, “Good Grief, Charlie Brown” at Somerset House, which ends 3rd March, looked promising, more promising than most of the things on in London at the moment, so I decided to pop along and check it out.

  

Despite getting my Master’s at King’s, which is right next door, I’d never actually been inside Somerset House before, in large part due to the price of their exhibitions. They don’t accept the Art Pass or take part in National Rail 2-for-1, and I am not a fan of paying full price. However, after a bit of searching, I was able to find a discount code on TravelZoo that at least reduced the price from £14 to £9. Not quite half-off, but I’ll take it!
  
And actually, though I still think £14 is perhaps a bit of a stretch, it is certainly a £9 exhibition, because the gallery space was very large and spread out over three levels. The woman working at front desk advised that it might take two and a half to three hours to see the exhibition, but their website says an hour to an hour and a half, which I think is much more accurate, since we were there for around an hour and fifteen minutes in the end, though I suppose Peanuts fanatics who wanted to watch all the videos on offer could easily be there upwards of two hours.
  
The exhibition opened with some biographical information about Charles Schulz’s life. He was born in Minnesota in 1922 to parents of German and Norwegian heritage. He was quite a shy child, not helped by the Norwegian side of his family telling him not to have many expectations in life (not because they thought he was incompetent, but because that was their general mindset), but overall seems to have had a reasonably happy upbringing, with the help of his dog, Spike, who he later used as an inspiration for Snoopy (one of his first published cartoons was a drawing of Spike for Ripley’s Believe it or Not, complete with a caption about how his dog ate tacks and needles, which I sincerely hope wasn’t true!). He discovered a real talent for drawing, and after completing a drawing correspondence course, which was his only formal training, and a stint in the army, started work as a cartoonist. His first cartoon was called L’il Folks, but he was forced to call it Peanuts instead as there was already a L’il Folks cartoon in syndication. He always hated the name though, thinking it made his strip seem trivial (and L’il Folks didn’t…?).
  
The next section talked more about Schulz’s drawing technique and how it evolved, and provided examples of some of his strips that preceded Peanuts. In addition to L’il Folks (god I hate that name. I’m glad he wasn’t allowed to use it) he also contributed a one-panel strip to a Christian publication, which was about as funny as you’d imagine (not very). Schulz was forced to adapt his technique over the years as he developed a tremor in the 1980s, but somehow the shakier lines worked just as well as the clean ones.
  
From here we progressed upstairs to a massive central hall housing most of the exhibition. We’d already been treated to a selection of Peanuts strips downstairs, but there were many many more up here, with a description under each about events that had been leading up to that particular strip, and how Schulz used them as social commentary. Whilst Schulz was originally fairly conservative, he grew to oppose the Vietnam War, and was a strong supporter of women’s rights and racial equality. Whilst he always retained a fondness for the Bible, he also was referring to himself as a humanist by the end of his life, and this was reflected in his strips. Honestly, I wish they still ran more of the earlier strips in the paper, because these ones were much funnier than the ones I remember reading when I was growing up.
  
The comic strip displays were accentuated by displays of modern art that had been inspired by Peanuts – a lot of them were fairly meh, but I was quite taken with one that showed Charlie Brown and Snoopy in quite a lot of interesting situations, such as Snoopy using a toilet with Charlie Brown’s face, because, like the artist, I have a fairly juvenile sense of humour. There were also displays of retro Peanuts merchandise, including items from the “Vote for Snoopy” campaign of the 1970s (until California outlawed writing in the names of fictional characters on the ballot), and some that I owned (hand-me-downs from my mother. Inheriting isn’t the same as wilfully collecting) like a set of posters and a sheet set (which was honestly my favourite one growing up, since I, too, hate mornings), although actually the die-hard Peanuts fans back then didn’t like how the strip became increasingly commercialised, and thought Schulz was a bit of a sell-out (he even opened a Snoopy themed ice rink in the town where he lived).
  
There were yet another set of stairs leading off this gallery with two larger art installations on either side of the hallway, though I would be hard-pressed to tell you what was going on in either of them, I just wish someone had told us if we were allowed to lay on the beds or not (I wasn’t bold enough to do anything more than perch on the edge). There was also a movie room showing an hour’s worth of Peanuts cartoons with loads of comfy looking bean bag chairs spread on the floor, so this is definitely somewhere I could see people spending a lot of time if they came with kids or didn’t grow up watching all the holiday specials like I did (they’re always on TV in the US, but I’m not sure about the UK. I’ve never noticed them). I only watched about five minutes before I got bored though, because it was during one of Snoopy’s Red Baron scenes, and I’ve always found those really dull (I’m not that keen on Snoopy generally, I have to say. He’s cute and all, but I much prefer the strips with the kids and actual dialogue in them).
  
After we finally made our way across the massive upstairs gallery, we got to the bit I was most excited about – the interactive section! This included an adult sized mock-up of Lucy’s psychiatrist stand, a tracing station where you could design your own strip, and a writing station where you could finish Snoopy’s “It was a dark and stormy night” story – not quite as much stuff as I was hoping for, but still an entertaining space.
  
I think the shop is probably fantastic for Peanuts fans, with a custom selection of clothing, pins, books, and the like, but I personally think wearing Peanuts stuff is not really my style (which is also how I feel about Disney stuff, although Disney is probably worse), so I didn’t buy anything (no offence if you’re into it – this is coming from a woman with a collection of sweaters with stupid animals on them, so I’m really not in a position to judge). As we were leaving, we passed a display of wooden Peanuts characters that you were encouraged to rearrange and have a selfie with, but I found angling myself in for a selfie with them was nigh-on impossible (you probably need one of those stupid sticks), so I just had Marcus take some photos instead. I’ve always thought of myself as a cross between Charlie Brown and Lucy (as illustrated by some of the comics I’ve included in this post), so those were the two I wanted photos with.
  
Overall, this exhibition was much bigger than I thought it would be, and despite the price and my annoyance at their lack of participation in most discount schemes, I would definitely return to Somerset House for future exhibitions. Though I was sort of down on the Peanuts going in, I left with a new respect for Schulz’s skill and gentle humour – actually, some of the strips were genuinely laugh out loud funny, which is more than I can say for most comic strips (except Pearls Before Swine, which I love, and of course Georgian cartoons, which are one of my favourite things ever, but those aren’t really comic strips), so I feel like a bit of a grinch for my initial lack of enthusiasm. If you’re a Peanuts fan in London, I’d say this is a don’t-miss exhibition, but I think almost anyone who likes newspaper comics could find something to enjoy here. 3.5/5.
  

London: “Hooked” @ the Science Gallery

Yes, you read that right. The Science Gallery, NOT the Science Museum. London’s got a new museum (at least, I think it’s new – more on that in a little while), and as usual, I’m first on the scene I visited the museum as soon as I found out about it, via a London Museum Development newsletter I get at work, because I am definitely not high on any publicity department’s list. “As soon as I found out about it” turned out to be a week before their first exhibition closed, which is why I am sadly blogging about it too late for anyone to visit. But they will have future exhibitions, with a new one every quarter, so I might as tell you about the venue anyway for future reference.

   

The Science Gallery is located on King’s College London’s Guy’s Campus (and as King’s is my alma mater (I think? Is your alma mater the first place you went to school or just anywhere you did a degree?), you’d think I might have heard about it through them too, but no dice. They can sure send me plenty of emails about donating (never gonna happen), but can’t seem to send ones about things I might actually be interested in) – if you go out the Shard entrance of London Bridge Station, you will find it directly in front of you, just across the street (the Shard will also be directly on top of you, looming menacingly). This means it is also conveniently near to Borough Market, so you can easily pop over for a toasted cheese from Kappacasein after, which I definitely did.

   

The Science Gallery appears to be part of a larger international organisation, with branches in places like Dublin, Melbourne, Detroit, and Rotterdam. Judging by their website, the London Science Gallery seems to have been active as a project since 2014, but if I understand it correctly, this is their first exhibition based in this gallery space. And looking at their exhibition programme for the year, it appears to be Wellcome Collection-esque, with a sort of science-art hybrid going on that I quite like, and I especially like that admission is free. The exhibition I saw was called “Hooked” and explored addiction through science and art.

   

Each section of the gallery was meant to have a different theme, but I didn’t necessarily get that throughout. The first room was called “Natural Born Thrillers” and was supposed to be about the sorts of things people can get addicted to, but that also seemed (more or less) to be the theme of the second section. Nevertheless, it got off to a promisingly interactive start with a machine with a slot you could insert a coin into to see what happened (someone had thoughtfully left a 2p coin on top, and since the whole point of the machine was that the coin came shooting back out at you with surprising force, it could be used again and again). There was also a virtual reality mask that allowed you to watch drunk mice, and a video of a guy playing Playstation whilst coming down from speed. The table made out of sugar grossed me out a little because of all the sticky spilt tea around it, but not quite as much as the marshmallow pants (not entirely sure what addiction those were representing. Perhaps something sexual?).

   

The second section was quite dark and moody and seemed mostly to be focused on the addictions unique to modern life, like video games and mobile phones. There was a game that tracked your eye movements (not entirely sure to what purpose) and a room full of flashing low battery symbols from phones. I did manage to resist pressing the “Do not like this” button on Facebook, and didn’t watch the video about twisted fairy tales because the room looked quite full and I didn’t want to step on anyone, despite the presence of comfy looking cushions in front of the screen.

 

The third section, entitled “Free Will,” was meant to be addressing the question of who was to blame for addiction, but I didn’t really get that from the “Hashish Club,” which was a hallucinatory video meant to recreate the experiences of 1840s pot smoking intellectuals. I did like standing in front of the Victorian parlour video screen with the trippy green lanterns though. I listened to “Short Periods of Structured Nothingness” for quite a while, which featured a woman talking about her experiences with her deadbeat dad after her parents divorced, and was eagerly awaiting the opportunity to answer some questions myself that I’d been promised early in the conversation (well, I say conversation, but I was just listening to a recording), but it went on for too long and I hung up as other people were waiting.

 

I have to confess that I didn’t understand the suit hanging in a geometric frame in one corner of the gallery at all, but I thought the curtain made from wedding rings in “Divorce Index” was quite cool, though I thought tying it into addiction was a bit forced (apparently it was chosen because addiction can often lead to divorce, but that didn’t really come across in the piece).

  

The final bit of the gallery, called “Safe from Harm,” featured a series of short films called “Twelve,” where people struggling with addiction re-interpreted scenes from films (which sounds like it should have been entertaining, but it was actually quite depressing and bleak) and a very frustrating video of someone only scrubbing one tile of a tiled floor clean, while I was sitting there dying for them to wash the whole damn floor. There was also a reading room where people could read books about addiction or share their own experiences of addiction.

   

I assumed we were finished at that point, and was already rather pleased with what I’d seen – even though I didn’t always understand how the pieces tied to the theme, it was interactive and entertaining, and most importantly, free, so I was glad I’d stopped in. But then we went downstairs to check out the shop and encountered the final piece of art, “AGAIN” by Lawrence Epps. I’ve seen those coin pushing machines plenty of times at the seaside, but never played because I hate gambling. Doesn’t stop me from watching the very stupid Tipping Point though, because those machines are mesmerising. Well, “AGAIN” was free to play – staff members gave you a small envelope full of tokens if you asked, and if you won any tokens, you got to keep them. Apparently some of them were meant to be actual 24 karat gold, but all the ones we won were just terracotta. They had loads of different designs, and I desperately wanted a white one, only to have one fall and get stuck in the chute, so I spent most of my other tokens trying to get it out. Unsuccessful, and the one staff member said the artist claimed it was purposely supposed to do that, but she suspected it was just a design flaw. Either way, it did demonstrate the power of addiction in a very clear and disturbingly fun way. (I stood there for a good fifteen minutes feeding in tokens trying to get that damn white one – so long that everyone else had moved off, but I did go home with some terracotta ones at least.)

   

This was overall a very fun and interactive experience (more interactive than the Wellcome usually is, I have to say, but I still love the Wellcome) and I will definitely return to see their future exhibitions (the proximity to Borough Market doesn’t hurt, because Padella and Kappacasein are two of my favourite places), including the next one, “Spare Parts” which opens at the end of February (and I will try to see that one in a timely enough fashion that other people can still go after I blog about it). It’s always exciting to see a new museum open in London, and if it’s free and has constantly changing exhibitions, so much the better, though I am a little upset this wasn’t a thing when I was a student, as it could have provided me with some valuable museum experience (so maybe it wouldn’t have taken me like 8 years to find a job in a museum)! 3.5/5 for “Hooked.”

Youngstown, OH: Butler Institute of American Art

I might have taken a bit of a break from blogging over December (though you wouldn’t know it because I wrote so many posts in November, which went out in December), but I certainly didn’t take a break from visiting museums, since that is fortunately still more of a joy than a chore (even with working at a museum. I wouldn’t visit the museum I work at on my days off though!). I was back in the States as usual for Christmas, and actually managed to hit up a few new-to-me museums on this trip, which was great!

  

I had never actually been to Youngstown before this trip, but I did have some negative associations with it, thanks to my disgusting pervert former boss. I worked at an ice cream shop throughout high school and college, as I’ve mentioned before, and the owner was truly revolting and sexually harassed us pretty much every time he was there (fortunately, because Youngstown is over an hour away, he only came up once every couple of weeks, which is the only reason that job was bearable. Well, that, and the free ice cream), and it soured me on the whole city, especially because Youngstown (or rather Boardman, just outside Youngstown) is where Handel’s Ice Cream was started in the first place. So when my mother suggested checking out the Butler Institute of American Art there, I was initially apprehensive, but their website actually made it sound pretty good, so I acquiesced.
  
The museum is located right on YSU’s campus, and was easy both to find and access, with parking out front. On the day of my visit, they were evidently going to be hosting a wedding later in the day (and having seen the place, I would absolutely get married there. And have a buffet table full of dumplings, as the couple in question seemed to have been planning, judging by the signs on the tables), so the main hall of the museum was somewhat taken up by people setting up tables and the like, but there weren’t very many artworks in that section, so it didn’t overly affect my visit.
  
Admission is free, and there wasn’t even really an admissions desk. The only members of staff we saw on our visit were the ones setting up for the wedding, and a security guard by the back entrance, so I guess it wasn’t great if you’re the sort of person who has a lot of questions, but I am not that sort of person. The museum opened well enough, albeit not terribly excitingly, with some 18th century American landscape painters, but quickly got a bit creepy with these terrifying twins and disturbing Santa (I don’t want to find him coming down my chimney), which is really what I prefer to landscapes anyway. I thought Washington looked rather fetching in the painting of his wedding to Martha, but it obviously wasn’t drawn from life since it was done about a hundred years after the fact by the excellently named Junius Brutus Stearns, who was born 11 years after Washington’s death.
   
One of the Butler’s prize pieces is Winslow Homer’s Snap the Whip, which is totally charming in a ye olde kind of way, even though some of the children’s faces look a bit too adult, in my opinion. They even have a Van Gogh (despite being called an institute of American Art), though it is definitely one of the lesser known, fairly unmemorable ones (so much so that I can’t even remember what it was). William Paxton’s painting Sylvia (pictured above left) caught my eye though – there’s something about her expression that I really love.
  
From here, we wandered into a gallery with some holograms on the wall and a giant zoetrope, then into a section with a video showing the destruction of an IKEA living room set, and then into a really cool display of lenticular photographs by Margeaux Walter, which all starred Walter herself (I didn’t realise this until after reading the exhibition description, even though one of her photos was of an entire crowd of people doing the wave. I did think that one man who kept appearing in all the photographs looked a lot like the woman who was in them all, but figured they just might have been siblings). I also really enjoyed the mirror art just outside this gallery, which had an X to stand on in front of it so you could get in the optimum spot to capture yourself in all the mirrors (I’ve failed slightly, but it was a nice idea).
  
At this point we made our way upstairs via the flight at the back of the gallery, even though there was obviously still more to see downstairs, as I was hoping to escape some of the noise that the wedding set-up was creating (nothing too noisy I hasten to add – just people discussing where to put things, but still a bit more background noise than I like in a museum). This floor was much quieter and contained a nice mix of temporary and permanent exhibitions, an example of the latter being the American Western gallery with loads of paintings of Native Americans (and I hope it’s not culturally insensitive for me to say that I think the mask in the above picture is kind of adorable), as well as some background information about their lives and culture. There was also a gallery full of busts, including a giant one of Martin Luther King.
  
I wasn’t too keen on Todd Gray’s Pop Geometry, as it was meant to be a sort of homage to Pop Art (even though it was just mimicking Pop Art as far as I could tell, which isn’t really an homage), which is far from my favourite genre. I did love Winfred Rembert’s pieces though, which were made with carved and dyed leather, and featured vignettes from Rembert’s difficult life, including growing up black in the still heavily segregated South, picking cotton, and being forced to work in a prison chain gang. Despite the often depressing subject matter, his paintings were vibrant and full of life (as seen above).
My absolute favourite part of the whole museum was the Americana and Folk Art Gallery, located in a separate wing of the museum (accessible by a footbridge, and overlooking the interior of a chapel). I love American primitive folk art, and there was loads of that, including wooden signs (the Raven and Ring is the best. I would go to that pub for sure) and a whole room full of carousel animals (I felt bad for the poor sad donkey stood in one corner all by himself).
 
I also loved the intricate wooden bird carvings by Cliff McGinnis, and the giant facsimile of Audubon’s bird book, and even the collection of glass bells, though I couldn’t quite see the point of them (they were given as wedding gifts, but were obviously strictly for decoration, because how do you use a glass bell?). But I think the best and creepiest part was the gallery full of dolls showing off a century of American fashions. Both dolls and outfits were made by Pete Ballard, and he even gave them all names (Marcus was so freaked out by them that he spent no time in this gallery at all, other than to snap a couple quick photos, and I did my best to scare him even more by seeing if I could bring the dolls to life by calling them each by name. No dice). The only improvement would have been to move the captions explaining each outfit next to the doll in question, as they were all just up on the wall, and the dolls weren’t numbered in order of display, so it gave me a headache to keep looking back and forth to figure out who was wearing what.
  
The final room in this section was about ship art, and even contained a tiny diorama of a whale hunt (I in no way condone the killing of whales, but I am fascinated by how horrible whaling was, and I also love tiny models of things, so pretty great).
  
Having seen all this, we still had a few galleries downstairs to check out, including one with sports themed art that only got a cursory look from me, and then a few galleries of more modern stuff. Marcus and I were both initially a little apprehensive around the “Security Guard” installation, as we both thought he was a real person at first glance (and the painting on the wall behind me with all the faces is by the singer John Mellencamp, aka John Cougar, aka the voice of the Midwest, which I didn’t realise until I was researching this post). The other piece shown above is a triptych featuring residents of Youngstown in 1978 (I would totally wear the one woman’s penguin sweater).
  
Because the shop was on the other side of the museum from where we ended up, I gave it a miss, and I also didn’t get to see the Print Room downstairs because they were installing 100 Years of Print at the time, which opened in January. Even without these things, the museum was so much bigger and better than I was expecting, and I really enjoyed myself. It felt much more laid back than the CMA (even though I do love the CMA), with the only steward being an automated voice that came on and told you to step back from the paintings if you accidentally stood too close, and as a result, I felt more at liberty to really enjoy myself and interact with some of the art (unlike in some museums where I’m terrified that my shoe will accidentally squeak and a security guard will yell at me for it). And there were a lot of secret corners and stairwells with things hidden on them, like one containing a miniature of every single US president (including the current one, sadly) – it seems like you really need to visit more than once to find everything, since Marcus and I walked around separately from my parents, and we found that my parents had seen things we hadn’t, and vice versa. This is really a fantastic, little-known museum (at least in NE Ohio, maybe the CMA overshadows it?), and I highly recommend paying it a visit if you’re nearby. 4/5.
  

London: “Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up” @ the V&A

Frida on the bench 1939. Nickolas Muray. V&A Museum

Tickets had sold out for the day the first time I tried to visit “Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up,” back in the summer when I ended up visiting “Fashioned from Nature” instead (and I remember that day well too. It was unbearably hot so I got an ice cream that dripped all down the front of my dress on the way there, and I didn’t notice until after I entered the exhibition, so people probably thought I was a slob). So I went home and booked for the first available date on one of my days off, which ended up being the 15th of October. Despite the lengthy wait, I suppose I should consider myself lucky for having gotten in at all, as the exhibition is now sold out for the remainder of its run (through 18th November).

Guillermo Kahlo portrait, V&A Museum.

So clearly, there are a lot of Frida Kahlo fans out there – even with my timed ticket (normally £15, £7.50 with National Art Pass), I still had to join a queue to be let into the exhibition (there was presumably a one in, one out system). And of course, once I made it inside, it was super crowded (and photographs weren’t allowed, though it didn’t stop half the people there from attempting to take them. It was gratifying when the stewards caught them and yelled at them. To avoid this fate myself, I am illustrating this post with objects and art in the exhibition that I found images of online). Not quite Harry Potter exhibition bad, but unpleasant enough. The worst part was the opening gallery, which was long and narrow and had photographs grouped together in clumps, which does not lend itself well to orderly viewing. It was very much a “push in where you can” system, at least at first, and I am not shy about shoving myself in if it means avoiding a queue.

Frida (far right) and her sisters, taken by Guillermo Kahlo.

The exhibition was based off of a selection of Frida’s clothes and personal possessions which were walled up in a bathroom in her home after her death, which was opened fifty years later (so, 2004). It wasn’t really explained why they were walled up in the first place, but this exhibition marks the first time they were shown outside Mexico, which does explain its popularity. The opening section was about Frida’s family background; she had a German father, Mexican mother, and three sisters; two older, one younger. After she contracted polio as a young child, she became very close with her father, who struggled with his health himself, but had a rather distant relationship with her mother; obviously her style and artistic interests very much favoured the Mexican side of her background, but she always used the Germanic name her father had chosen for her. The polio left her with uneven legs and a resulting limp, but she was still on track to attend medical school when she famously suffered a horrific accident after the bus she was riding collided with a streetcar, forcing an iron handrail through her body, damaging her spine and reproductive system, and leaving her in chronic pain for the remainder of her life.  However, this was also the catalyst for leading her into art, since her poor health made it impossible for her to return to medical school. This section covered all of this biographical information, as well as Frida’s communist leanings (although it didn’t go into great detail), and contained a rather splendid collection of photographs of Frida and her family, many of them taken by her father, Guillermo (he adopted the Spanish version of his name, William, after moving to Mexico), who was a keen photographer.

Frida Kahlo, by Leo Matiz, 1943, Coyoacán, Mexico. Private Collection. © Alejandra Matiz. Leo Matiz Foundation.

From there, the gallery progressed into a section about Casa Azul, Frida’s childhood home, which was also the home she returned to as an adult with her husband, Diego Rivera, and painted it an amazing deep blue. I loved the map that Frida drew of the house, with a little unibrowed stick figure to indicate where she was born (which wasn’t accurate, since she was actually born at her grandmother’s house, but was no less charming for that), and all of her animals carefully labelled, with the exception of what were clearly ducks in a pond, because, as she put it, she didn’t know the English name for them. She owned a special breed of Mexican dogs that looked rather like larger chihuahuas, and also had pet monkeys and a deer.

Votive offering dedicated to the Virgin of Talpa. I don’t remember if this particular piece was on display, but it’s just so you can get an idea of the style.

The next room was about Frida’s interest in native Mexican art, in particular votive paintings, which are amazing. Votive paintings are a tradition that originated in rural Mexico as a way of thanking the saints after someone was saved from bodily harm. If someone survived a life-threatening experience, they would commission an artist to paint a small picture showing the event in question, which they would then hang as an offering in their local church. Though they are obviously very heartfelt, due to the melodramatic nature of the things they depict, and their rather primitive style, they are often unintentionally hilarious, and I love them, as did Frida. She had a whole wall full of these paintings at Casa Azul, and they were a major influence on her art, as can be seen in the paintings she made of herself after various operations (some of which were in the final room of the exhibition). The best piece here, in my opinion, was one that showed a man being hit by a train, and this was Frida’s favourite as well, because of its similarities to her own accident.

Frida, by Guillermo Kahlo, about 1926, Coyoacán, Mexico. © Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera Archives.

The next gallery was probably my favourite, and was all about Frida’s health and how it affected her art. She was very frail, and had to wear a corset to support her spine, which she used her elaborate and beautiful dresses (based on the traditional dress of the women of Tehuana, Mexico, which was a matriarchal society known for its exceptionally lovely clothes) to try to conceal. The central theme of this exhibition was that everything about Frida’s outward appearance was very much an intensely cultivated persona, and a way for her to transcend her pain and frailty and become something magnificent (hence the double meaning of the exhibition’s title, in that she both made herself up with makeup, and she made her “self” up). She even tried to make her plaster corsets (which were moulded to her body, and could stay on for months at a time) reflect her personality by painting them with things like sacred hearts and hammers and sickles. I would say that it seemed like a lot of effort for something she tried to keep concealed, but that wasn’t quite the case, as Frida, despite her marriage to Diego, had a number of affairs with other artists (as did Diego, including one particularly hurtful one with Frida’s own younger sister, who lived with them), and allowed herself to be photographed topless, and in her corsets, by one of her lovers. I can’t say I blame her, as in addition to Diego’s affairs, he was also a rather unfortunate looking man – her nickname for him was Sapo-Rana (Frog-Toad), and I can see why.

Cotton huipil with machine-embroidered chain stitch; printed cotton skirt with embroidery and holán. Photograph Museo Frida Kahlo.

While celebrating Frida’s indomitable spirit (there were plenty of photographs of her painting while on bed rest, on an easel suspended above her head), this gallery was also depressing, because of course her ill health got the best of her in the end. She struggled with gangrene in her toes, which eventually led to the amputation of one of her legs, so the exhibition included a prosthetic leg clad in one of Frida’s signature red embroidered shoes, though by this point Frida was confined to a wheelchair. She died only a year after her leg was amputated, because her body had pretty much given up the fight at that point (after more than 30 surgeries), even though she was only 47. She also had some struggles with addiction to painkillers (there is some speculation that her death was the result of an overdose), which is understandable, given the amount of pain she seemed to have been in at all times from the aftereffects of both polio and her bus injuries.

Dress display inside exhibition, Wikimedia Commons.

I know talking about her death probably makes it sound like I’m approaching the end of this post, but there was one remaining gallery. This was the one that held all of Frida’s dresses, which were incredibly gorgeous, especially a blouse embroidered with animals and Aztec dancers. I did find the labelling a bit confusing though, as the dresses appeared to have been arranged more to make a statement than for clarity, and with dresses displayed in rows, it was hard to tell which sign went with each dress. There was also some of her jewellery – my favourite piece had little leg and arm shaped prayer tokens, which were probably chosen somewhat ironically by Frida in reference to her health issues (she renounced her Catholicism after discovering communism).

Aztec dancer blouse.

This gallery was even darker than the rest of the exhibition (which was already quite dim), presumably to protect the fabric, but I think it led to a woman mistaking me for her daughter, as she put her hand on my shoulder and began speaking to me in Spanish (at least, I think that’s what was going on. I did have similar hair to her daughter, so we might have looked the same from behind, but it did weird me out a little). It also contained some of Frida’s art, which had been on rather short supply in the rest of the exhibition (where the focus was more on photographs and the art Frida collected), so we could see for ourselves how she created her image from all the aspects of her life the exhibition had been talking about.

Necklace of coral beads with metal milagros in the form of legs Mexico, early 20th century. Photography Javier Hinojosa © Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Archives.

Although I think some people may have been disappointed by the fact that more of her art wasn’t here, since I’m not that familiar with most of her work anyway (other than all the iconic images of her with unibrow in full bloom. Not snarking, because mine would look exactly the same in a couple weeks if I stopped plucking today), I wasn’t all that bothered by it. I was less impressed by some of their poor choices of signage materials – the labels in the corset room were all just stickers stuck on the outside of the cases, and some of them had peeled off to the extent that you couldn’t even read them. Actually, they were difficult to read anyway, because they were white letters on a glass case in a dark room, so you had to angle yourself just right to see them, which wasn’t always easy to do in an exhibition as crowded as this one. That said, although it was quite crowded, other than in the first gallery, the objects were generally spread out enough so that you didn’t have to queue to see everything, and could just kind of wander around to whatever was free, which was a pleasant change from the initial part of the exhibition.

Self Portrait with Braid, 1941.

Given my love of medical history, I actually really loved that the focus was primarily on her health, with a bit of fashion thrown in, as those things are so much more my cup of tea than art. I think there could have been more about her life in general, because as I said earlier, her political beliefs were only very lightly touched on, as were some of her family relationships (I didn’t realise she’d had a difficult relationship with her mother until I did a bit of research whilst writing this post, because all the exhibition said was that she was upset because she was suffering from her own health problems (it might have been one of her miscarriages. The accident left her unable to carry a child to term) in America around the time of her mother’s death, so she couldn’t make it back to see her, which seemed to imply at least some sort of loving relationship). But I think, given the title, the exhibition did pretty much deliver on what it promised, which was to explore Frida Kahlo’s artistic persona and what went into creating it (and my god, it must have been an effort for someone as ill as Frida was. She got fully dressed in her ensembles every day, regardless of whether she was expecting company. I change into jimjams the second I walk in the door, and if I don’t leave the house at all, I might not put on actual clothes for days at a time).

Frida Kahlo in Blue Blouse, 1939, Nickolas Muray. Bentley Gallery.

I guess I should also comment on the shop, because the V&A’s exhibition shops are always so fabulous it makes me feel a bit sick with jealousy, given how crap it makes the museum shop I run look in comparison. They had brought in a lot of Mexican art, and even though I kept bitching about how much cheaper it was to buy these things in Mexico, I still paid £6 each for two little Dia de los Muertos style metal skeleton wall hangings (I know that sounds cheap, but they really are very thin and small. I reckon I should just go back to Mexico one of these days though – I’ve only ever been to Tijuana, and that was 15 years ago. I would absolutely love to go for Dia de los Muertos one of these years), and there were plenty of other things in there I would have bought as well, if I were a wealthier woman. In the end, it was actually more enjoyable than I was anticipating, despite the crowds, and I’m glad I had the chance to see it. 4/5. The V&A is also hosting a Day of the Dead celebration this Saturday which they’re tying in with this exhibition, but as it’s free and unticketed, I’ll probably give it a miss, though I will of course report back if I decide to go. My brother’s visiting this week, so I’m off doing vaguely touristy London things, but I will have something relatively Halloweeny to post about next week!

Hauterives, France: Le Palais Ideal du Facteur Cheval

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’m not quite sure what the commune of Hauterives was like back in Cheval’s day (it is just described as being a “rural village” in the 19th century) but nowadays it is quite a thriving tourist village, thanks entirely to the palais (people have been visiting the palace since around 1905, so it’s been a tourist attraction for a while). There is a large parking lot in the centre of Hauterives (which sure came in handy) and the village itself seems to consist mainly of cafes and tourist shops selling Palais Ideal tat. Despite the palace being THE attraction here, we somehow managed to miss the (small) sign pointing to it, and wandered around aimlessly for a bit until we found the way (it’s really not that hard though, we were probably just being dumb).
 
Admission to the palace is €7.50, which I thought was a bit on the expensive side for an attraction of this size, but it’s not as though we’re likely to be in the area again any time soon, and after all, it’s not every day you get to see a palace built by a postman (actually, it’s a little weird to me that they emphasise the postman angle so much. Is a mailman not supposed to be capable of being creative? Or is it just that they’re meant to be so hard at work they shouldn’t have time to build a palace?).  We were given a brochure in English that had some information about the palace, and there was more in the small museum in the form of laminated fact sheets that translated the French captions (they had fact sheets in a variety of other languages as well) which was much appreciated. The only things we couldn’t read were Cheval’s little poems, quotes, and sayings, which were hidden in and around the palace.
  
The palace itself, whilst not quite as big as we were expecting (it is 26 metres long and 14 metres high, which is really big for something with this many intricate carvings that was made by one man, but not very big as far as palaces go), is incredible, as you can probably see. Each facade has a different theme; Cheval began with the east facade, which took him twenty years to build. The carvings on this side include the Source of Life, an Egyptian temple, a tomb that he wanted to be buried in (until permission was refused), three giants, and a niche for his wheelbarrow. The south facade is where his favourite stones live, and the west facade has elements from different cultures coexisting, like a mosque, a Swiss chalet, a medieval castle, and a Hindu temple. The north facade was the last part of the palace to be built, and is the story of the Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve and loads of animals. Actually, there are weird little animals, both real and fantastic, throughout the whole of his palace, which were of course my favourite part.
  
Though the palace doesn’t really have rooms as such, you can go in and around it. There were entranceways that led to little tunnels that were lovely and cool and contained some of the best animals, and several staircases that let us explore the upper level of the palace, which was quite nice because sometimes you’re not allowed to touch things of this nature at all, but here you could be as tactile as you wanted. So it perhaps won’t come as a surprise that Cheval’s palace is in regular need of restoration, which makes me feel a little better about the entrance fee. There is also a small lookout point, also constructed by Cheval specifically so people could have a better view of his palace (he seemed like a thoughtful guy).
  
The palace was great, but it was, yet again, about a million degrees and horribly sunny outside, so I was glad to step into the small museum, which in addition to containing information about Cheval’s life, also contained a series of photographs of famous people visiting the palace (Picasso was a fan), early postcards available at the palace (I wish you could still buy those designs, because they were great), and art inspired by the palace, which was mostly amazing. (There is also a clean set of non-squat toilets by the museum, which I highly recommend using before you leave if you’re driving around all day like we were, because decent toilets in this part of France are few and far between.)
  
The shop was also surprisingly good, with loads of (modern) postcards and prints of some of the palais-inspired paintings inside the museum (of course I bought the one with all the animals in it shown above (the trumpet turtle sold me on it), even though I’m running out of space to hang things). We did successfully resist the allure of the other tourist spots in town (they all seemed to be selling ravioli gratin, which actually sounds delicious if available in a non-meat version and not made by a tourist cafe) except for the place with a case full of cold drinks, which are oddly hard to find in France (I don’t mean in restaurants, like the classic American tourist complaint about the lack of ice, I’m talking in the supermarkets. Even the hypermarches (possibly my favourite French word to say) seemed to only have fridges for Coke products, which isn’t really want you want on a hot day, except for the small Carrefour by our hotel in Lyon that had 1.5 litre bottles of iced tea in the fridge (I gratefully chugged down a whole one of those by myself after spending an afternoon walking around in the heat and sun, but then paid the price by having to pee every five minutes or so for the rest of the night. My tiny bladder is not really my friend, especially when travelling)). We then headed slightly out of town to Cheval’s tomb, which is well sign-posted and also has a parking lot (though you can walk if you wish, which I would have been fine with if it hadn’t been in the 100s). The tomb is also great, especially the intertwined snakes on one side, though it did seem to end rather abruptly on the side with a plain wall.
  
I can definitely relate to Cheval and his love of slightly derpy animals, even though I don’t share his talent for palace building. He clearly must have been a very interesting and talented man, despite all the hardships in his life, and I’m really glad I got to experience his palace. 4/5 for Postman Cheval’s Ideal Palace (Jessica’s ideal palace would have a lot more shade and ice cream, but I still respect Cheval’s vision and the limitations of 19th century technology).