art

London: Paula Rego @ Tate Britain

I realise that it’s already October, when I normally try to blog about spooky stuff, but because I didn’t want to postpone the Durham posts any more, this was the only time I could squeeze Paula Rego in that would still leave time for people to see the exhibition if my glowing review convinced them to give it a go. However, some of her paintings are quite unsettling, so hopefully that will suffice until I can get to something spookier. There are still not really that many Halloween events on this year, so I’m having to scramble a bit to come up with creepy content.

I have to admit that I’ve been struggling to write about this Paula Rego exhibition for a few weeks now, and I’m not sure why, because I really enjoyed it. I also recently read an interview with her in Art Fund’s quarterly magazine, and she seems like she’s led a fascinating life, from her childhood in the 1940s spent in a repressive dictatorship in Portugal, to attending boarding school in England as a teenager and eating so many of the cakes the other girls didn’t want because she didn’t have access to sweets growing up (this was while England was still under rationing, mind, so the cakes couldn’t have even been that nice) that her mother didn’t recognise her when she came back due to all the weight she gained, to her love of fairy tales and her passionate fight for women’s rights as an adult, so it’s not as though I have a shortage of content. Maybe it’s just that I’m a bit burnt out on writing after doing a fair bit of writing at work lately and going back to blogging regularly after posting sporadically for most of the first half of this year, but whatever the reason, I’m going to give myself a break on this one and let some of my favourite pictures from the exhibition do most of the talking, with only brief captions from me. Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll be back to my normal long-winded self in no time!

This painting was influenced by Rego’s childhood experiences in authoritarian Portugal, and shows the dictator Salazar vomiting (vomiting was definitely a recurring theme in this exhibition!) next to what is meant to be a woman with exaggerated pubic hair (representing Rego’s belief that women’s lib was the way forward for Portugal).

 

This painting shows a young murderess-in-training practicing for her first victim, so of course I loved it and had to have a photo with it.

 

This was one of the most poignant paintings, completed shortly after Rego’s husband Victor Willing died. Rego and Willing are one of the dancing couples.

 

I was sitting on the sofa watching TV and minding my business a few weeks ago when a spider literally the size of my palm scuttled out from underneath the sofa and just stood there and stared at me with impunity until I trapped it under a tin (big spiders only ever seem to come out after Marcus has gone to bed, so I trap them under a tin and leave a note on top to alert Marcus, who puts them outside in the morning). This picture is not dissimilar to my experience, right down to the expression on Little Miss Muffet’s face.

 

These are part of Rego’s abortion series in support of decriminalising abortion in Portugal (which was illegal until 2007). They show women in the aftermath of undergoing illegal, unsafe abortions.

 

Love this powerful woman holding a dagger and a sponge (meant to represent the one soaked in wine offered to Jesus on the cross) who is meant to be an avenging angel figure.

 

The last room of the exhibition had paintings featuring monstrous beings, including this triptych with a creepy pillow-headed figure.

 

This is The Barn, inspired by a Joyce Carol Oates short story. This was just one of many creepy and wonderful paintings based on stories and fairy tales. I particularly liked the distraught faces on the watermelons.

Other than the fact that there were way too many people inside (back to pre-Covid times at the Tate, apparently!), I absolutely loved this exhibition. Her artwork is amazing, and I can’t believe I’d never heard of her until recently. Paula Rego is at Tate Britain until 24th October (£18 admission or £9 with Art Pass), so definitely go see it if you can. It gets a 4/5 from me.

London: Sophie Taeuber-Arp @ Tate Modern

Maybe everyone has heard of Sophie Taeuber-Arp but me, but my first introduction to her was a post on Tate Modern’s Instagram advertising this exhibition. If you are as in the dark as I was, Taeuber-Arp was an early 20th century Swiss artist who dabbled in a number of media, including painting, sculpting, architecture, performance, textiles, jewellery, and puppetry (and though I think her name is pronounced “tauber” I have to rhyme it with George Costanza’s description of what the Kruger Industrial Smoothing sign looked like after the “r” fell off (“k-ooger”) and think of it as “tae-uber” in my head to spell it correctly). Because I will go see pretty much anything that looks even vaguely creepy, the images the Tate had posted of some puppets she’d made convinced me that it was worth seeing, and I booked tickets for the opening week.

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The exhibition at Tate Modern runs until 17th October, and is £16, or £8 with Art Pass. The galleries were pre-booking only when we visited, and things were strangely quiet for a Friday, not that that’s a problem, perhaps because this and a Rodin exhibition were the only things on. We quickly made it up and into the exhibition, which began with a timeline of Taeuber-Arp’s life, and a video montage of her work, but there were a lot of people gathered around the video (which appeared to be in German), so we skipped it and headed straight for the next gallery.

  

This exhibition space was very large and open, which made a nice change from some of the narrow galleries I’ve been to lately, as everyone had plenty of space to social distance (I guess people aren’t doing much of that these days, but this was back in July when there were still officially some restrictions). It also helped in terms of social distancing that there wasn’t a huge amount of content in the biggest room, but it was a bit of a disappointment otherwise, because this was my favourite part of the exhibition, mainly because it contained her puppets! These were made in 1918 for a puppet show production of a fairy tale called King Stag. I’m not familiar with the original fairy tale, but this appeared to be a Dada-esque interpretation of it that was probably not aimed at children, judging by the character named Dr. Oedipus Complex (the guy in black with the hat and cape) and the general scary appearance of the puppets.

  

This gallery also contained some of Taeuber-Arp’s photography, where she would artistically photograph herself in totally insane costumes, and I can definitely get behind that as well. Even her weird creepy Dada head (a very smooth head inspired by her woodworking background) was kind of cool, but it was mainly downhill from there. I know this is already the second time I’ve referenced Seinfeld in this post, but you know the episode where Elaine is dating that artist who makes triangle sculptures who they keep referring to dismissively as “the triangle guy”? Well, Taeuber-Arp was VERY into geometric shapes, so I am tempted to refer to her as “the square and circle woman”.

 

To be fair, she did embrace a range of techniques, and made her shapes by painting, weaving, and even glass working. The stained glasses were probably the coolest looking (they reminded me of a Catholic church my grandparents attended that was built in the 1960s and had geometric shapes in its stained glass instead of the traditional Bible scenes, I guess in an attempt to be groovy), and I’ve no doubt the weaving took some serious skill to give the shapes such perfectly pointed edges, but really, how many squares can a person look at before getting bored? Yes, there were circles too, but you know what I mean.

 

The exhibition talked a fair bit about her life and work – she married an artist called Hans Arp in 1922, which is when she began hyphenating, and they moved to a studio home outside Paris in 1929, where they remained until the Nazis invaded in 1940. They fled to the unoccupied south of France, and eventually received visas to travel to Switzerland, where Taeuber-Arp died from carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty stove in 1943 at the age of 53, which was rather depressing to read. Her work seemed to go from minimalist to even more minimalist, with the exception of a piece she made whilst living in the south of France, when she only had pencils to work with. This sketch of the French countryside confirmed that she was actually very artistically talented in a conventional way, but apparently opted to create shapes instead, which is not the choice I would have made, but I suppose going the Huey Lewis route (“it’s hip to be square”) helped her make her name in the art world.

 

As you can probably tell, I was pretty damn underwhelmed by the vast number of geometric shape paintings in here – I could have done with about 80% more puppets and photographs, and I can tell why Tate Modern are heavily using the puppets and photos in promoting the exhibition. However, that gives a false impression as to what is actually here. Had I known I would just be looking at room after room full of circles and squares, I would have given it a miss. At least I only paid £8, and I learned about an artist I was previously unfamiliar with, but it only took us 20 minutes to look around this exhibition, and I certainly won’t be rushing out to see more shapes anytime soon. 2.5/5.

Compton, Surrey: The Watts Gallery Artists’ Village

Even though I tend to think I’ve covered London and its surrounds pretty well on this blog, every once in a while I manage to track down a museum that has previously escaped my radar (sometimes simply because I dismissed it years ago due to it looking tiny or boring). The Watts Gallery Artists’ Village is one of those. Although I haven’t been out to Surrey as much in recent years as I had back when we owned a car, I have managed occasional excursions when we’ve borrowed Marcus’s brother’s car, and we recently had access to it for a couple of months, hence some of the recent-ish posts on non-London locales. Knowing we would have to return the car soon, I was searching for one last place to visit that we hadn’t already been that was also open on a Monday (a tricky task these days when a lot of museums are open weekends only or Wednesday-Sunday) and found the Watts Gallery. Assuming I had seen it advertised it somewhere before, I know why I would have instantly dismissed it. It absolutely looks boring, and I suspect something about it reminded me of other, creepier art collectives, like Eric Gill’s incestuous paedo group in Sussex. But then I read they had a tea room, and whilst in pre-Covid times that wouldn’t have been enough to get me to make a special trip, in this corona-world, I had not been to a tea room in bloody ages, and the idea of a pot of tea, a piece of cake, and their supposedly famous Welsh rarebit sounded absolutely delightful, especially as the weather had abruptly taken a turn for the cold again (in June).

 

I booked tickets the night before, and there were still plenty of time slots available, though it being a Monday probably helped somewhat with that. Admission is £12.50, though the main house, where the Wattses lived, is currently shut. I can’t say if it is normally more expensive, or if we were just being ripped off by paying full price and not being able to see half the property. But since we were only paying £6.25 with Art Pass, I decided I didn’t care all that much and just went ahead and booked. We arrived a bit early, as the website stated that we only needed to check in to see the gallery at our appointed time, and were free to explore the rest of the property until then. Upon pulling up, I noticed we were at least thirty years younger than any of the other visitors, and though this of course could have been because it was a Monday, I typically see at least some other people my age when visiting exhibitions in London during the week, so I suspect we simply aren’t Watts Gallery’s target audience, which was pretty much confirmed by our experience there.

 

With half an hour to kill before our admission time, we headed down the road to see the cemetery and Watts Chapel, which is meant to be one of the most important Arts and Crafts buildings in Britain designed by Mary Watts (much more impressive until you get to the disclaimer “designed by Mary Watts”). The chapel is a terracotta affair, and does look pretty cool from the outside, but unfortunately my view of the inside was initially hampered by a man with a tripod set up in the middle of the chapel. He appeared to be a professional photographer accompanied by a member of staff, and I get that sometimes photographers make special arrangements to come photograph things, so I was fine with waiting a few minutes for him to finish. But then, as he was finally packing up his equipment, an older lady who had also been waiting marched over and stood directly in front of me so she could take a few photos. The entranceway is pretty small, so I backed up to give her some room, but she just kept backing up into me, and backed me right out of the door without an apology. Then, she just stood there for about five minutes holding her phone up but not actually taking any photos with it, so that she was blocking off the chapel for everyone for no real reason. Eventually I just got super irritated and stalked off angrily to explore the rest of the cemetery. Marcus did come back after she’d finally left to grab some pictures, but I was so irritated and afraid of running into her again that I just stuck my head in for a quick peek and returned to the cemetery, which did have some interesting graves in it, though I was disappointed I couldn’t find any pet ones, as I recalled reading about a pet cemetery on their website. Maybe they were in another part of the estate? Apparently Aldous Huxley is buried in the cemetery (non-pet one, obviously), but I totally missed his grave.

 

By the time we’d waited to get photos and looked around a bit, it was time to see the gallery, so we headed back down the road. We were not allowed to take photographs in the gallery, but it contained pieces by GF Watts, who was one of the founders of the Watts Artists’ Gallery along with his wife Mary, who built the aforementioned chapel. GF Watts was a painter and sculptor who was part of the “Symbolist” movement, whatever that means, but his stuff bore a resemblance to the pre-Raphaelites, and indeed, he seemed to be kind of in with that crowd. He married actress Ellen Terry when she was 16 and he was 46, which is super disgusting, though they soon divorced and he married Mary instead some time later, when he was 69 and she was 36, though the museum glossed over the huge age gaps (I only found out about them when doing research for this post). I found his art mostly pretty meh – didn’t hate it, didn’t love it. Fortunately, the museum is also home to a collection of art by the DeMorgans, William and Evelyn, who were frequent visitors, and I like their stuff a whole lot better, even though the display was rather small. William’s animal tiles and pots are excellent, and Evelyn’s paintings look weirdly modern and New Age-y for the 19th century, with rainbows and sparkles everywhere.

   

The gallery also hosts temporary exhibitions, and the one at the time of our visit was on Henry Scott Tuke, who is best known for painting a lot of nude boys and men. He liked to hang out in Cornwall where there were lots of private beaches where his models could pose nude. I don’t know if this was a special display for Pride, or if the two just happened to coincide, but it did discuss Tuke’s sexuality, and how his adoration of underage boys is problematic today, but was common amongst Victorian gay men. I don’t know why they didn’t similarly discuss this with Watts’s apparent fascination with much younger, sometimes underage women, but whatever, I’ll just always think of Watts as a gross old pervert in my head. After the Tuke section, there was a gallery of Watts’s sculptures, but they were even more boring than his paintings. The little railroad tracks he’d built to transport pieces a few metres forward so he could work on them outside was the best thing about this gallery. The gentleman working there was having a friendly and lengthy conversation with the visitors ahead of us when we walked in, but after they left, he settled back into his chair to silently glare at me from the corner, so I didn’t linger here, even though the woman at the front desk had told us we could photograph the sculptures if we wanted.

 

The property has quite a large shop full of products designed to appeal to people more in my mother’s age bracket (I definitely saw multiple things she would have liked), and there was also meant to be a “Contemporary Art Gallery” upstairs, but it was just a collection of fairly uninspiring prints all by one artist that they were trying to sell, with not much explanation about the pieces. We quickly left and headed over to the much-anticipated tea shop to settle down for that pot of tea. They hype up the rarebit quite a lot on the menu and their website, and it certainly looked good when it arrived, but unfortunately it tasted super strongly of mustard (it actually burned my throat, there was so much mustard) and not at all of cheese, and had a horrible claggy texture, possibly from the granary bread not being sufficiently toasted. I make rarebit at home a lot, and though I do have a bit of a heavy hand with the Colman’s mustard powder (though obviously not as heavy as theirs), I also put a TONNE of cheese in it so it tastes really cheesy and lovely. The cakes were a bit better, but Marcus said his coffee and walnut tasted really artificial. Mine was chocolate fudge, which is hard to go wrong with, and it was fine, but it did taste more like those little chocolate fudge “celebration cakes” you get at Sainsbury’s than something homemade, even though it allegedly was. The tea shop is also incredibly expensive – it was almost thirty quid for two small pots of tea with no refills offered, two orders of rarebit, and two small slices of cake. Them’s even higher than London prices!

Having finished our rather disappointing tea, we finally walked across the road to see Limnerslease, the Watts’s home. It’s a mock Tudor Arts and Crafts style home, which they thought of as a small country retreat, but of course it is practically a mansion by today’s standards. As I said earlier, it is not currently open to the public, so we just stood outside and looked at it for a bit, and also checked out the terracotta cross designed by Mary to mark the part of the Pilgrims’ Trail to Canterbury that runs through their estate (after my experience with Thomas Becket’s relics at the British Museum, I was scared to even look at it in case he cursed me again, but I fortunately escaped unscathed this time). I think the buildings of the “artists village” promised in the name of the place were also on this side, but they weren’t open, and we didn’t even see where they were, so I don’t really know anything about the village and who lived in it, since I assume they were keeping all the information in the village itself. This is also probably why we didn’t learn much about the Wattsespresumably all the info was in Limnerslease. As you can probably tell, I was not impressed by my experience of the Watts Gallery, and I highly doubt I’ll be returning, even when Limnerslease reopens. I’m relieved I only paid £6.25 for admission, because I would definitely have been annoyed about the £12.50 (spending all that money on tea was bad enough, but at least we got some food in exchange). The chapel and cemetery are the best things about the property, and you can see those for free, which I would advise doing and giving the gallery a miss. 2/5.

London: “Epic Iran” @ the V&A

With a name like “Epic Iran”, you’d expect something, well, epic, right? Did the V&A’s new exhibition live up to expectations? Read on to find out (with a lot of waffle in between, though sadly not actual waffles).

I had not been to the V&A in a very long time indeed, considering how regularly I used to go. My last visit was in the last of the pre-Covid days, back in February 2020. I did try to see the “Bags Inside Out” exhibition last December when they were briefly open, but it was sold out on all the days I could visit (it’s still on, so I will hopefully make it there eventually). So when they opened slots for pre-booking in April, I hedged my bets (since we still weren’t 100% sure museums would be able to open on the “Covid road map” schedule at that point) and booked a ticket to “Epic Iran” for early June, because it looked more appealing than the Alice in Wonderland exhibition (which I’ll probably see too eventually, but I’ve never liked the book, and it looks like it will be a case of style over substance).

On a very hot day, we queued up outside the Exhibition Road entrance of the V&A (the main entrance is currently exit only) and got processed more quickly than the people who had just booked a free ticket to the permanent collections. Admission to “Epic Iran” is £18, or £9 with Art Pass, and it runs until September. It wasn’t super clear where we had to go when we first entered the building, as staff seemed mainly focussed on directing people to Alice, but we soon caught sight of some signs and made our own way there. The exhibition aims to explore “5000 years of art, design, and culture” which is quite a big ask for an exhibition space that isn’t even the V&A’s largest, but they certainly took a stab at it.

The Persian Empire got its start in the sixth century BC under Cyrus the Great, who conquered what was once Babylonia and united the region. At its height, the Persian Empire was massive and went well beyond the boundaries of modern day Iran, stretching over much of Asia, to the Balkans in Europe, and parts of Libya and Egypt in Africa. Early Persia was firmly Zoroastrian, which I remember learning about in a World Religions class I took as an undergrad. I found the religion memorable mainly for its practice of ritual exposure or “sky burial”, the idea being that to bury a corpse would be to pollute the earth, so better to leave it out to be picked at by vultures. Other than that, it seems to be your standard good vs. evil mostly monotheistic religion that Christianity and Islam both borrowed from. If you like little clay pots with animals on them, and vases of men with erect penises holding water jugs, you’ll like Zoroastrian art.

There were an awful lot of objects in this exhibition, objects that, to be fair, probably shouldn’t even be in British collections, including the Cyrus Cylinder, made in about 539 BC, which tells the story of how Cyrus the Great established the Persian Empire, and normally lives at the British Museum. Also some bad-ass animal horns and various things made from gold.

There were also some pages from a manuscript of the Shahnameh, an epic poem that tells the story of the Persian Empire through the rise of Islam in the seventh century. Like most epic poems, it involves a lot of killing, so those made for some fun illustrations. There were also early Islamic manuscripts with illustrations of various monsters and demons, which of course I loved. And brutal looking armour with pointy kneecaps, I guess so you could poke someone’s eyes out with your knees. Fun!

The little lion incense burner on the left reminds me of the robot devil from Futurama. He was in the section on poetry, which also featured a recording of someone reading out poems in Farsi. There were of course some Persian rugs here, but honestly they were probably the least interesting things in the exhibition. Who wants to look at rugs when you could be looking at paintings of people with aggressive eyebrows, women included? If I relinquished my tweezers, I think I would fit right in.

Obviously, most of history is male-centric, but the exhibition did have a section of the role of women in Persia. Women went from having some rights to having no rights, back to some, and then finally back to no rights again after the Iranian Revolution. In much of recent-ish (the last few centuries) history, women lived in harem-type arrangements where they were sequestered from men, and couldn’t leave the house without being heavily veiled; however, from the Victorian era onward, fashions within the harem setting changed greatly depending on the whims of the ruler at the time. I was interested to learn that skirts gradually got shorter, inspired by Nasir al Din Shah’s love of ballet, until the women in his harem were basically wearing miniskirts (in the 1870s!). Women eventually got to modernise and reclaim some rights, just in time for the Islamist Revolution to send them right back (actually quite a bit further back than) where they started.

The exhibition, having taken us on an accelerated ride throughout history, got to contemporary art by the end, and I really loved some of the pieces here, especially the photograph by Azadeh Akhlaghi recreating the 1974 shooting of activist Marzieh Ahmadi Oskuie, the photographs of modern Iranian women done in a Victorian style, and a shrine style collage piece with dancing blue lights. This was also the part of the exhibition where we encountered a pair of exceptionally annoying school-aged children who had borrowed a pair of those fold out chairs intended for people who struggle to stand for long periods and were proceeding to smash them repeatedly into the floor, much to the consternation of the gallery attendant, so it was fortunate we were spared them for most of the exhibition (it was half-term, but maybe a more child-friendly exhibition would have been a better choice for them). So this is maybe not one to bring the kids to, but as an adult, I really loved it. I thought the art was fabulous, and I enjoyed learning a bit more about Iran’s history, though obviously a seven or eight room exhibition about 5000 years of history is never going to be comprehensive. Maybe not quite “epic”, but it was certainly a good attempt. 4/5.

Mainly including this photo so you can see my apricot dress, because I ❤ it.

London: Ritual Britain @ the Crypt Gallery

I went to see the “Ritual Britain” exhibition, a collaboration between artist Ben Edge and the Museum of British Folklore, at the Crypt in Euston a few weeks ago, and though the exhibition ended on the 4th of July, I still wanted to post about it so people who didn’t get the chance to go can at least see some photos and read about what it was like.

I’m interested in folklore generally, maybe because America hasn’t really been around long enough to have developed folk traditions in the way they exist in Europe (though I guess we have urban legends that are gradually becoming folklore – it’s been a while since I’ve read Ghostland, but I seem to recall Colin Dickey addressing this very subject more extensively than I can do here), so I’m trying to fill the void with other countries’ traditions. Given all the super weird and highly regional British customs and practices (straw bears, Burry Men, cheese rolling, shin kicking, etc), I think it’s a bit odd that there isn’t a permanent folklore museum here, since I’ve certainly been to ones in other European countries, though maybe it has something to do with the legacy of imperialism and some British traditions being a bit controversial (burning Catholics in effigy springs immediately to mind). At any rate, the Museum of British Folklore normally only exists online, with occasional temporary exhibitions hosted in various galleries and museums around the UK. This was the first one I’d heard of taking place in London, so I was excited to attend.

The exhibition was free and there no pre-booking required, which is a bit novel in itself these days, but I was worried that it would get crowded on the weekends, so I took a Friday off to go (I mean, it wasn’t just for this. I also wanted to hit Borough Market, because it’s too busy on weekends and I never get to go anymore since I changed jobs and thus my working days last November, and I had to use the leave up soon anyway), and there was only a handful of people inside, so this was obviously a good plan. I’d been to St. Pancras Old Church (my computer wants me to change Pancras to pancreas so badly) before to see their awesome tombstone tree, but never St. Pancras New Church (which was built in 1819, so isn’t really that new anymore), and the Crypt is an awesome and creepy venue, as you can see from the photo at the start, which made it perfect for this exhibition, as I tend to think a lot of British folklore is vaguely sinister in a Wicker Man sort of way.

The exhibition consisted of Ben Edge’s “Frontline Folklore” series of paintings interspersed with objects from the museum’s collection. Now, I LOVE Ben Edge’s paintings (I just ordered a print of that Clown Church one for my house to go with the clown eggs Marcus made – I have a real obsession with creepy-ass clowns lately, maybe because of the clown episode of Wellington Paranormal, which literally made me laugh until I cried), but the real stuff is even scarier, and an old crypt that was full of actual stacks of tombstones was an excellent way to showcase it.

Just look at the unsettling stares of those Morris dancer dolls (designed to showcase the costumes of different troupes) or that giant corn dolly (those always make me think of that Jeffrey Ford “Word Doll” story, which I recommend if you haven’t read it). I actually took a Morris dancing class once, and it is a LOT harder than it looks, so I’m impressed by anyone that can actually do it, but I have to admit that there is something a bit off-putting about the whole thing to anyone who is a bit of an outsider, especially the sides (fortunately not many, these days) that still insist on using black face (when I went to the Morris class, I deliberately picked an all-female side with more progressive views (they dance at Pride and stuff), but I was still scared they’d hear my accent and tell me to get lost or something, and I really had to work up my courage to actually attend. They turned out to be perfectly nice, but it was still a blindingly white affair, and I can see why, if I felt intimidated about going just on account of an American accent), and I would say that Morris is actually one of the more accessible British traditions. Some of the hyper-localised customs give me Tubbs and Edward from The League of Gentlemen vibes (“this is a local shop, for local people; there’s nothing for you here.”), I guess because they seem designed to make outsiders feel like outsiders, but I suppose that’s also how places develop an identity for themselves, so maybe I’m interpreting things in an overly negative way due to my lack of exposure to these customs until moving to the UK as an adult. With all that being said, I think it is the fact that a lot of these practices are contained to one specific village or area that makes them so strange and fascinating to me.

There was a video at the end of the exhibition, made by Ben Edge, where he had filmed some of these practices in action back in 2019, including the Mari Lwyd, which is basically a skeleton ‘obby ‘oss (hobby horse) used in Wales in a sort of caroling tradition, where men carry it from house to house demanding food and drink and singing a special song in Welsh, and if you aren’t expecting it, it has to be way freakier than any carolers at your door (though I would hide from them too). He had also filmed himself in 2020 talking about the way that the pandemic and the BLM movement were changing British folk traditions, such as the elimination of black face from Morris dancing (except for the resistant troupes I mentioned earlier). It seemed really interesting, but it was also very long, and I wasn’t inclined to sit there for an hour and a half in a tiny room with strangers watching a video, so I only caught about ten minutes of it, but maybe it’s available somewhere online. They did have an events programme tied in with the exhibition that included some film screenings and Morris dancing, but I’m still not super keen on the idea of standing in a big crowd, even outside, so I deliberately didn’t visit on one of those days.

Even thought the exhibition was fairly small, I really loved it. The venue was ideal, and the stories behind Ben’s paintings were fascinating (they’re all available to read on his website if you click on the individual paintings), as were the objects selected from the Museum of British Folklore’s collection. I do wish the museum had a more permanent home, because I’d love to see more of their collection as well as learn more about the history behind the traditions. I also think a larger space would give them room to address the ways that some of these traditions have become problematic, and the ways that other customs have evolved to stay alive to the present day. I’m sorry I’m blogging about this too late for you to see this exhibition for yourself, but if it sounded appealing, at least now you’ll know to keep an eye out for any future Museum of British Folklore/Ben Edge exhibitions popping up near you! 4/5.

Churt, Surrey: The Sculpture Park

Well, it’s been a bit longer than I intended since my last post, and I see horrible things have happened to WordPress in the interim. Seriously, I hate it so much now (I could go on all day about the reasons why, but they include: that you now have no choice but to use Block Editor, that you can’t just buy extra storage space anymore but have to pay out the ass for a stupid plan, and that you can no longer view which photos are unattached, so you have to be really careful to only upload things you’re going to use so you don’t get screwed out of the now hard-to-come-by storage space) but I already have so many posts on this blog that I don’t really know if it’s worth the effort of changing to something else, which is probably just what they were hoping. Anyway, museums still aren’t reopening here until next week (which I have to admit I’m dreading more than anticipating, because as much as I like visiting museums, I hate working in the office more), but outdoor attractions are very much open, and since we are borrowing Marcus’s brother’s car at the moment, there was no reason we couldn’t drive out to the Sculpture Park, near Farnham in Surrey. I’ve been intrigued by this place for a while, especially after seeing all the photos of skeleton sculptures online, but with one thing or another (mainly Covid restrictions), we didn’t make it out there until now. The Sculpture Park costs £11.20 to visit, and you must book in advance through Eventbrite (having set up tonnes of Eventbrite events myself, I assume it’s normally £11, and they’re passing the Eventbrite fees onto the customer, hence the weird price). We visited on a weekday, and had no trouble booking a spot, but I think it gets a bit booked up on weekends.

The tiny car park was full when we drove up, so we had to park further up the road and walk down (a bit hazardous) but at least parking was free. Finding the admissions office was also a bit of an adventure – there were signs, but it felt like we walked through half of the sculpture park before getting there. This turned out to be wrong, because thanks to all the winding trails, the Sculpture Park is very big indeed. At the office, we were greeted by breast shaped birdhouses hanging from the wall (they are “tit” boxes, get it?) and a sign directing only one member of each party to enter, so I waited outside whilst Marcus got our names ticked off the list and collected a laminated map, which we were assured was cleaned between uses. You kind of need the map, because although the trails are marked with artsy arrows, it can get a bit confusing in places.

There are actually four different trails: red, yellow, green, and blue, and we started with the yellow one, which was one of the shorter trails (the red one goes on FOREVER). At this point, we had definitely not realised the extent of the place, so we started out taking pictures of every sculpture and walking at a leisurely pace. We put a stop to that real fast after discovering the length of the red trail.

I had never actually heard of any of the sculptors who made the pieces, but that’s not really saying much since I know very little about sculpture (said by someone who works at a sculpture museum, but in my defence, we only have the work of the sculptor who used to live there at our museum). However, that doesn’t stop them from commanding very high prices. We were told that all the sculptures here were for sale, and I was briefly intrigued, thinking that if we could pick something up for a couple hundred quid we could stick it in the garden, until I actually saw how much these things cost! There was minimal information provided on the signage (basically just the artist’s name and the name of the piece) but you could scan a QR code next to each sculpture to view more on the Sculpture Park’s website, including the price. The first one I scanned was £78,000 (the stags pictured below left)! Yikes. I gave up scanning after realising I couldn’t actually afford anything here except the £10 tit boxes (some of the sculptures were only a couple thousand, but that’s still way out of my price range. The most expensive one I saw was absolutely huge, and cost almost £500,000, which you can see below right, though it might be hard to get a sense of scale since I had to take a photo from far away to get it all in).

But we could still enjoy looking, and we very much did, at least until we got tired and hungry. As seems to be the nature of sculpture, a lot of these were very phallic, or bosomy, or bummy, so that was entertaining in itself (I also really loved the leaf man, below left, who was none of those things). The skeleton guy seemed especially prolific, and there were absolutely loads of skeletons here in various poses, but again, all out of my price range. The trails loop around a pond and through a bunch of woodland, so even though I don’t think the place is actually all that big, you go up and down hills and in and out of trees a lot, so it feels quite varied. Frankly, I’m not sure all of the walking uphill was strictly necessary, as we seemed to double back on ourselves a couple times, but it was all meant to be part of the one-way system, so maybe it’s not normally quite so long.

I really wish they had a café on site (maybe they do in non-Covid times, but I didn’t see one), because I was dying for tea and cake after the first two trails, but alas, it was not to be. They do have numerous picnic tables, so you could definitely take your own food, which I would probably advise doing, Other than the picnic tables, you’re not meant to touch anything, which was a shame, as there were quite a few sculptures that seemed as though they could have been interactive, like the giant piano and wind chimes. There also appears to be some kind of dark maze thing you can normally walk through that was closed because of Covid, which I’m disappointed to have missed out on. I do hope the sign outside about watching out for the scorpions and exotic spiders was meant as a joke!

I wouldn’t say I’m the biggest sculpture fan, but a lot of the pieces here were just kind of kooky, and it was fun walking around and looking at everything (at least until about midway through the red trail. That red trail kind of broke me), even though I think I would have been happy if we’d finished about an hour sooner, since I was pretty tired by the end (they advise spending 2-3 hours here, and I think we spent around 2.5 hours). Fortunately, there is an ice cream place a few miles down the road, in Haslemere, called Dylan’s, which we had been to a few times years ago, but they seemed to have improved quite a lot since our last visit, when I remember being underwhelmed. They had birthday cake cookie dough ice cream, which was really delicious. So at least that’s an option if you find yourself famished after the Sculpture Park.

All in all, it was a good day out, and almost like visiting a museum, but made me feel a bit less icky than spending time inside with strangers does right now, especially since it wasn’t very busy and we only encountered other people a handful of times, so that’s definitely a plus. I’d pick a nice day to visit, if possible (especially with the crappy weather we’ve had lately), because I imagine it would be a lot less fun in the rain. 3.5/5.

London: Bruce Nauman @ Tate Modern

Was Bruce Nauman an artist whose work I could have identified before seeing this exhibition? No, but my quest back in October was to pack in as many exhibitions within walking distance of Waterloo on my two journeys into central London as I could (both to minimise my time on public transport and to build up a bank of posts, since by the middle of October, I strongly suspected we would go into lockdown again, and look, I was right!), I looked to see what was at Tate Modern, and here he was. Given a choice between what I could see of his work on Tate’s website, and the Andy Warhol exhibition, I chose Bruce, and after seeing the queue for Andy Warhol, I think I made the right decision.

 

You had to prebook to visit Tate Modern, even if you were just there to see the permanent collection (though those tickets were free), but there were still plenty of slots available for Bruce Nauman when I booked it the night before, which I suspect would not have been the case for Warhol. Tickets were £13, or £6.50 with Art Pass, and the procedure at Tate Modern was that you joined a queue upon entry for whatever you were there to see (Bruce had no queue, so we could breeze straight through, but Andy’s stretched the length of the Turbine Hall), someone scanned your ticket and told you where to go, and then someone checked your ticket again at the entrance to make sure you were there at the right time. There was also no queue at the entrance to the exhibition, and we could go straight in, but the queue for Andy was very long indeed (yes, I am quite smug about this, first of all because I don’t even really like Andy Warhol, and if I did, I know there’s a museum in Pittsburgh that I could easily visit any time I go to visit my family in Cleveland, though who knows when that will next be).

 

The exhibition was spread out over 13 rooms, and since most of Nauman’s pieces were installation style, there were only one or two semi-immersive pieces per room, making it easy to socially distance (and of course, face coverings were required inside). Bruce Nauman is an American artist (from Indiana) who has been active since the 1960s, and is probably best known for his neon sculptures and video installations, though he has dabbled in a range of media, including more traditional sculpture and photography. He’s the type of artist whose work you have probably seen without realising it’s his work. (And yes, that is Nauman’s butt and face in the above pieces.)

 

I could definitely see some of the pieces here as being the reason some people hate modern art, like “Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square”, which is exactly what it sounds like – though we got the excitement here of looking at the square he had taped out on the floor and a plank of wood leaning against the wall, we couldn’t actually walk in an exaggerated manner ourselves, since it was behind a rope.

 

Nor could we go inside the “Double Steel Cage,” which is meant to provoke feelings of “anxiety and entrapment”, though since Nauman’s intention was that the door be left open so visitors could go inside and experience anxiety for themselves, I think this was probably a Covid-related decision made by the Tate. However, we could try out the “Going Around the Corner Piece” where we literally walked around a corner to try to catch a glimpse of our own backs on a TV monitor as we were being filmed on the opposite side of the wall, which was quite fun.

 

One of the reasons I decided to see this exhibition was because of Nauman’s clown pieces, since this visit took place in October when I was in full Halloween mode (as opposed to the partial but still enthusiastic Halloween mode I’m in the rest of the year), and I thought clowns were appropriately creepy and Halloweeny. This series of videos was called “Clown Torture” and filled the entire room, and was very creepy indeed. Nauman finds clowns very menacing, and this really came across here. There’s a clown screaming “no, no, no!” in one of the videos, and another where he keeps repeating the children’s rhyme, “Pete and Repeat sat on a fence. Pete fell off, who was left? Repeat. Pete and Repeat sat on a fence…” and so on, which I definitely remember reciting to irritate my mother when I was little (along with “The Song that Never Ends” from Lamb Chop. I was an annoying child), which made this installation very much an assault on the senses, as was “Anthro/Socio”, which is the piece pictured at the start of this post, with an actor shouting “Feed Me, Eat Me, Anthropology” and “Help Me, Hurt Me, Sociology” again and again whilst his head spun around on a video monitor.

  

Nauman also finds many children’s games quite sinister, as reflected in his “Hanged Man” neon, which was my favourite piece here (I mean, he’s not wrong about Hang Man – what a weird children’s game!). This was definitely not child friendly, as the hanged man goes from being alive with a flaccid penis, to dead with a huge erection, as you can see above, based on the old myth about what happens to hanged men (which maybe isn’t a myth? I don’t even know).

 

I liked the neons here generally – the coolest one was probably “One Hundred Live or Die” which is a grid of one hundred different declarations that light up in turn, such as “Live and Piss” “Die and Shit” “Smell and Live” etc. Unfortunately, I do not have a photo of it because it was impossible to photograph, so you get to look at “Human Nature/Knows Doesn’t Know” and “Black Marble Under Yellow Light” instead, and it is probably self-explanatory which is which.

 

There were also a couple more video installations; one featuring a mime (also creepy), and another showing sleight of hand tricks close up and various people falling, all shown in the RGB colour spectrum. Honestly, one of the coolest parts of the exhibition was all the huge period video monitors and projectors, mostly from the ’80s and ’90s, which reminded me of the technology we had elementary school.

 

Tate had a couple more of his installations scattered throughout the museum, including one on the wall of the cafe, and a sound installation in the stairs we used to exit. I think they have a couple pieces of his on permanent display too, but we didn’t attempt to go in the permanent galleries. Considering I’m not usually the biggest fan of modern art, I surprised myself by enjoying this quite a bit, since it was quite immersive – my only complaint would be that it only took us about half an hour to see the exhibition, even with lingering in some of the rooms, which is a bit light for a £13 exhibition, but since we only paid £6.50, I didn’t mind so much. 3.5/5 for Bruce Nauman – definitely worth visiting after lockdown if you’re in the area and don’t feel like spending your day queuing for Andy Warhol! It’s currently meant to run until February, and they might extend it further depending on when museums are allowed to reopen.

 

Bath, Somerset: “Grayson Perry: the Pre-Therapy Years” @ Holburne Museum

I finally visited a proper museum for the first time since March, and certainly not without trepidation. But in light of the fact that I thought I might have to return to the office in September anyway (which has fortunately been postponed til October), I reckoned I should take the plunge and see how other museums were handling opening in the age of Covid. Because I am still apprehensive about taking public transport, I was actually more comfortable with visiting a museum two and a half hours away in Bath than one in London, since at least we could drive there, and because Holburne Museum’s Grayson Perry exhibition was one of the places I was planning on visiting right before lockdown happened, I thought it was fitting that it was the first museum I visited after lockdown.

  

Holburne Museum advised pre-booking (admission is £11, or £5.50 with Art Pass, which you better believe I used after not getting the opportunity to for most of the year!), although they didn’t have timed slots available; you just had to book for the day you wanted to visit. Since I’m new to the socially distanced museum experience, I had thought that pre-booking would mean we could skip the ticket line and just go right in. Nope, there was a whole lot of queuing just to get in the door. Normally I wouldn’t care so much, but we were booked to see an exhibition at the American Museum at 2:30 and would have to leave the Holburne by 2:15 at the latest, and it was already after 12:30 when we arrived, so when we saw the sign saying it would be a half an hour wait from the point where we queued up, I was anxious we wouldn’t have time to see the exhibition before we had to leave. Once we got inside, the reason for the queue became clear – there was a one way system in place, and since only one set of staircases was open, they were sending everyone up in the lift, one group at a time, so you had to wait for the group ahead of you to go up before you were allowed into the ticket area. So there was absolutely no point in pre-booking since we had to pass through the ticket desk anyway, and they didn’t seem to be limiting numbers so much as just staggering entry. Considering I paid a £2 booking fee to book online, I think it’s worth knowing that it’s unnecessary!

 

At any rate, at least everyone was wearing masks, including all staff members (which made a nice change from some of the shops I’ve been in – looking at you M&S Food Hall), and people were practicing social distancing for the most part. There was one member of staff who was solely responsible for sending people up in the lift, and she was spraying down the lift buttons between each group, though I imagine there was still some risk just from breathing in the enclosed air in the lift if the group ahead of you had coughed or sneezed in it, but if I spent too much time dwelling on that thought, I’d never go anywhere, so best not to think about it really. Honestly, it felt safer to me than a supermarket since we weren’t touching anything and people were generally being respectful of the rules. And now (finally) to the exhibition itself!

 

I had never been to the Holburne before, but I get the impression from the reviews I had read of the exhibition before lockdown that it had been moved into a different area in the museum, as it was originally meant to have been in quite a small space, but the space it’s in now was reasonably open, with rope barriers set up to make sure traffic only flowed through one way. I also think only some of the museum was currently open to the public, and that the Grayson Perry exhibition was in what were normally permanent galleries. And honestly, I really liked some aspects of the new museuming experience, such as the fact that the staggered entry meant that there weren’t many people in the gallery, so we didn’t have to wait around to look at things like we normally would in a special exhibition; we could just flow through (at least until we worked our way up to the slow moving group in front of us, and had to wait for them to finish since we couldn’t go around them, but we were fortunately near the end of the gallery, so we didn’t have to wait for long).

 

I also liked Grayson’s art, which was in his typical irreverent style – in fact, probably even more irreverent than some of his later work, as there were penises (penii) and sacrilegious imagery aplenty in here (I especially like Charles I hunting with his dong out, above right)! The works on show were from early in Perry’s career, from the years 1982-1994, and this seems to have been before he started using tapestries and other media, since nearly everything here was pottery. These were also the years when Perry was beginning to explore cross-dressing and was in the process of developing his Claire persona (if you’re not familiar with Perry, he sometimes appears in drag as his alter ego Claire), so a lot of the works were explorations of masculinity or depictions of middle aged women that he was using as inspiration to develop Claire.

 

Some of these pieces were genuinely laugh out loud funny, and though I could have done with more text in some places (although conversely, I would say some of the pieces themselves had too much text. I think Perry got a little text-happy when he was churning out pieces quickly since it’s clearly easier to stamp text on than do an actual drawing, and he admitted himself that it was a period in his life when he was just trying to make money), I think there was a good balance in terms of providing a decent amount of background, but not giving people so much to read that they couldn’t pass through in a timely manner (except the people in front of us, of course, but that’s always the way). The exhibition filled one medium sized gallery and flowed across the museum into half of another permanent gallery, with seventy items in total to look at, including a short film. Although I was worried we wouldn’t have enough time, since we didn’t even enter the museum until 1, we actually managed to see the exhibition in good time and take a quick look around the rest of the museum because only a small amount of it (I’m assuming, since I don’t know how big it normally is, but there were definitely areas we couldn’t enter) was open.

 

The Grayson Perry exhibition was on the 2nd floor, and we were asked to make our way back down via the stairs (though I’m sure they will take you back down in the lift if needed) to make the one way system work. The other galleries contained a few portraits (seemingly mainly by Gainsborough) and a collection of ceramics (though no delightful Staffordshire murdery ones, I’m sad to say. These were much more boring than that) and I was speeding through them so we had time to see everything before I realised that’s all there was! Clearly the main focus right now is Grayson Perry, since the exhibition is only temporary, though it has been extended until January 2021 to give people time to visit.

 

Since it was a long drive from London, despite doing my best to avoid using public toilets, I didn’t really have a choice, so I did nip into the basement to avail myself of the Holburne’s facilities. And I was definitely impressed! I was the only person in there, and I could tell they had just been cleaned, since they were spotless and well stocked with plenty of soap and paper towels (and hand sanitizer, but that makes my hands feel a bit gross. I’d much rather use actual soap and water if it’s available!), and a cleaner popped in right after I had finished, so honestly, museum toilets (at least at this museum) are definitely preferable to those in a service station or something. On the whole, I enjoyed my visit to the Holburne, mainly because it was nice to visit a museum again after so long! Although it would have been nice if they’d made it clearer on their website that pre-booking really wasn’t necessary, once we got inside, I could tell they were doing everything possible to ensure a safe experience for their visitors. I do think £11 is a little expensive for the exhibition, but I was perfectly happy with my half-price admission, and I know they must be in need of money, so I really can’t begrudge them trying to get everything they can right now. Having seen both now, I can say that I prefer Perry’s later work to his earlier pieces, especially the excellent exhibition I saw at the Serpentine a few years ago, but if you like Grayson Perry’s style, you’ll like his early stuff too, just maybe not quite as much. 3/5.

London: Aubrey Beardsley @ Tate Britain

Another week, another disclaimer. I visited this exhibition a few weeks ago, right after it opened  – obviously museums and most other things are shut now, but even if they weren’t, I wouldn’t be venturing into Central London or anywhere else for that matter, other than the supermarket when we run out of staples (which are almost impossible to find now anyway thanks to asshole hoarders). I hope by blogging about this that I’m giving you the opportunity to view something you would otherwise have missed, rather than upsetting you by showing you something you probably can’t see now, though I realise Aubrey Beardsley’s life and work isn’t exactly a boost of positivity unless your sense of humour is as dark as mine.

 

Aubrey Beardsley might not be an artist you know by name, but it’s more than likely you’ve seen an example of his work. As soon as I saw the image they were using to advertise this exhibition (the one of the woman holding a severed head, above left), it lit a spark of recognition in me and I thought, “Aubrey Beardsley, of course I need to see that!” but in retrospect, that may be more because of how Beardsley’s work obviously influenced Edward Gorey (of whom I am definitely a fan) rather than because of much prior knowledge of Beardsley himself. (The two pieces below are the only ones not by Beardsley in this post, but they are drawings of Beardsley, and I included them so you could get an idea of how others viewed him in his lifetime.)

 

The Aubrey Beardsley exhibition at the Tate was originally only on until 25th May (no idea what’s going to happen now), and at the time it opened, I could see which way the tide was turning (though I didn’t expect it to turn quite so quickly), so I went to see it immediately to make sure I got the chance. And clearly I wasn’t the only one being eager (or maybe blasé, in retrospect), because the gallery was pretty full, mostly with older people, since it was the middle of the day on a weekday. I’m positive this was the same gallery where we saw the Van Gogh exhibition, but they changed the orientation of the space so the entrance was now the exit. No matter, it’s still a large gallery, and it wasn’t anywhere near as packed as Van Gogh was (which could only have been a good thing, considering).
 
Admission was £16, but we got in for £8 with National Art Pass. I booked online shortly before we arrived just to save myself the faff of standing at the ticket desk (I will avoid human interaction whenever possible, which turns out to be serving me well in these times). The exhibition was divided up into fifteen sections, though some rooms held three different sections, so it wasn’t actually fifteen rooms, but it still took us a fair while to walk through them all. The advantage of having such a large space was that even though certain displays had quite a few visitors in front of them at once, the opposite wall would usually be empty, so I could just go look at something else until they cleared out, a boon for anyone who hates waiting as much as I do (and seriously, look at it, take a photo if you need, and move on. You don’t need to stand there studying a picture for twenty minutes when other people are clearly trying to look around you).
 
I suppose I should actually tell you a bit about Aubrey Beardsley at some point, so here goes: he was born in 1872, and contracted tuberculosis at the age of 7. Being that there was really no effective treatment at the time (unless you count the mountain cure, the prairie cure, or whatever other supposedly healthier air the owners of various sanatoriums were peddling), Beardsley always knew he would die young, so was determined to pack as much as possible into his short life. He was very close to his mother and sister, who supported his talent for drawing, which was evident from an early age. He mainly created images for publication, so not many people viewed his original sketches during his lifetime, and because he favoured the lewd and grotesque, many of his drawings were censored prior to publication, so this exhibition was an excellent chance to see the originals.
 
Beardsley, although probably not actually gay himself (he seemed more asexual than anything) fell in with a crowd of decadents that included Oscar Wilde, which would have profound consequences for Beardsley’s career after Wilde’s trial for gross indecency, as publishers didn’t want to do business with anyone who was associated with Wilde. Still, for someone who was effectively only working for seven years (he died at the age of only 25), Beardsley still managed to have an incredibly impressive output consisting of thousands of drawings, including the illustrations for an addition of Le Morte D’Arthur, Oscar Wilde’s Salome, and various magazines, including a stint as art editor of The Yellow Book.
And as I’ve already mentioned, and you’ve probably already seen from the photos, Beardsley had a fascination with the grotesque, and you can clearly see the influence his work must have had on Edward Gorey and other modern illustrators. He had a fetus motif running through many of his pieces (no one knows why), and did some excellent caricatures of both friends and enemies. The ones of Oscar Wilde (especially the one of him a couple of paragraphs down where he’s struggling to translate his work into French, a language Beardsley was fluent in) and Whistler, above left, (and Whistler’s wife, above right) made me laugh out loud. (He seems to have particularly had it in for Whistler, who he once admired, but Whistler snubbed him, which triggered the caricatures. An excellent revenge, I think.)
 
He also, though expressing no obvious sexuality himself, liked to do vaguely pornographic drawings, and these were kept in their own special “adults only” room of the exhibition (though I didn’t see any children in the exhibition anyway). They were primarily illustrations for a privately printed edition of Lysistrata, a Greek play by Aristophanes where women attempt to put an end to the Peloponnesian War by denying their husbands sex (I had to read it for a class I took on Eros and Love, and it wasn’t the worst thing we read in that class by a long shot. That honour goes to Wuthering Heights. Blech), and there was, to my great delight, an illustration depicting a fart cloud, and a whole lot of giant erections. He also tried to sneak sexy bits into illustrations intended for more mainstream publications, like a tiny erection he stuck on a drawing on John Bull for The Yellow Book, which was sadly discovered and removed prior to publication.
 
Obviously I loved Beardsley’s work, and I think we could have definitely been friends (we have the same big nose, and I can relate to the pain of that caricature at the start!). His work was popular in his lifetime, but then forgotten about until the 1960s, when the Tate held an exhibition of his work that prompted a revival of interest (though they claimed exactly the same thing in the Van Gogh exhibition, so maybe it should be taken with a grain of salt. I really don’t think the Tate is solely responsible for people liking Van Gogh), and there were some examples of ’60s art at the end of the exhibition so you could see the way his monochromatic style influenced a lot of artists, including the artist who did the cover of the Beatles’ Revolver (but I’m just including more of Beardsley’s work, because I love it so much. The guy wearing the crown of vine leaves in the picture below right is meant to be Oscar Wilde. So many great caricatures).
 
Sadly, the shop didn’t have postcards or prints of his more erotic work (no fart cloud print for me) or his caricatures, which were basically my favourite things, but we did get a few postcards of other pieces. £16 is a lot of money, so even though it was a big exhibition with great content (and just the right amount of text), it’s hard for an exhibition to live up to that, but I definitely think I got £8 of enjoyment out of it, if not a bit more, and considering it was one of the last exhibitions I got to see for who knows how long, I certainly have no regrets. 4/5.
 

London: “Unbound” @ Two Temple Place and “Mushrooms” @ Somerset House

The title of this year’s exhibition at Two Temple Place is “Unbound: Visionary Women Collecting Textiles.” Sounds marvellous and wild and free, doesn’t it? Well, unfortunately it’s still Two Temple Place, so it had the usual crowd of stern biddies staring us down to make sure we didn’t accidentally brush up against anything. I know the photo above makes it look as though there were interactive displays, but what you can’t see is the rope barrier that ensured you couldn’t actually get anywhere near those fun looking yarn balls.

 

Anyway, even though I’m less than enamoured with the atmosphere of Two Temple Place, as well as its last few years of exhibitions, I do think it’s a fabulous building, and it is free to enter, so I normally pop along at some point to see their annual exhibition, which runs from January-April (this year’s ends on 19th April). This year’s theme was the work of seven women, five of whom were roughly contemporaries born in the mid-late 19th century, and two modern women, all of whom were involved in collecting textiles. Most of these women, as is typical of collectors, were fairly wealthy and had the time and funds to devote themselves to their passions, and I’m sure they must have had interesting lives, though unfortunately those stories didn’t always come across in the text. However, I did note some tidbits on Louisa Pesel, who travelled extensively, taught shell-shocked WWI soldiers embroidery to help with their convalescence, and designed the cushions for Winchester Cathedral. Another of the collectors (whose name escapes me), bought her pieces mainly from street markets in London, which apparently had beautiful 18th century garments on offer for cheap back in the 1920s and ’30s (sounds way nicer than the piles of cheap knock-off shoes and handbags they seem to primarily sell today).

 

As always with Two Temple Place, there were some really lovely artefacts here, but the curation felt lacking. Instead of providing a narrative, the signage was basically: short biography of a woman and a brief description of a handful of objects she’d collected, with no attempt to tie the pieces together in some cohesive way. The text panels were all quite dry, and I found my eyes glazing over as I tried to read them to the point where I had to read some of them several times because they were too boring for my brain to absorb the content (I used to have the same problem during lectures – no matter how much I told myself to pay attention, my mind would start wandering, I’d look up, and it would be the end of class and I’d have absolutely no idea what was discussed), which is why I can’t recollect which woman collected which things. In an exhibition that was meant to be about the pioneering spirit of these women, I think they could have tried a bit harder to make them stand out as individuals, though maybe that’s partially my fault for being bored so easily.

 

Still, despite my short attention span, I did take an interest in some of the artefacts, especially the Georgian dresses, the traditional straw dollies, and Yinka Shonibare’s reimagining of the slave ship The Wanderer, a voyage made well after the slave trade from Africa was banned (shown above right). In Shonibare’s version, the slaves managed to take control, hence the colourful batik sails. I wanted to like the Balkan textiles more, but without much description of how the objects were used and what the patterns meant, they all got a little samey. One plus side of the rather dour atmosphere was that it managed to work magic on the group of schoolchildren that were visiting the exhibition at the same time as us. I know I’ve complained about unruly children at various places lately, but these ones were completely silent, to the point where it was almost eerie. I can only assume one of the stewards terrified them into submission. We were done with this exhibition pretty quickly (though I made sure to use the upstairs toilets before I left – they’re fabulous!), and though I enjoyed it more than that awful molester Eric Gill exhibition (how could I not?!), it definitely wasn’t great. 2.5/5.

 

Since we were only a short walk away, we then headed to Somerset House to see the intriguing sounding “Mushrooms: The Art, Design, and Future of Fungi,” a free exhibition that runs until 26th April. Even though I am a vegetarian, I loathe mushrooms (in my experience, many other vegetarians do as well, so it escapes me why some places offer mushroom risotto as the sole vegetarian option (not really an issue in London in this day and age, but I still encounter it at weddings, in smaller British towns, and in Ohio, which is mostly not down with the whole vegan thing)), so my only real experiences of willingly eating mushrooms are the few times I dabbled with the magic variety in my younger days. But I still think fungi are weird and interesting, and provide exciting possibilities in terms of being a sustainable material, so I was keen to see some mushroom art!

Even though the exhibition space was much smaller than that of Two Temple Place, I think Somerset House managed to cram quite a bit more content in, as each of the three rooms was jam-packed with art on the walls and display cases on the floor. There was a guy who had collected mushroom stamps from all over the world, which filled up an entire wall, and some excellently bizarre collages by Seana Gavin. I also loved the William Morris inspired mushroom wallpaper designs above the previous paragraph, though I think I’d prefer a different colour scheme – maybe blues or greens?

   

I thought the Infinity Burial Suit was really kind of awesome – it is woven from thread implanted with mushroom spores, and the idea is if you bury a body in it, the mushrooms will feed off the body as it decomposes and eat up any contaminants to prevent them being released into the environment. I’m not sure that I prefer it to a traditional body-shaped coffin lined with velvet, and massive statue of myself either reading or looking sassy (or both!) on my grave, but by the time I die, I suppose it might be one of the only options available, depending on how much Earth has degraded by that point (which is more depressing than the thought of my own death). And on a lighter note, given the nature of mushrooms, of course some of the art was amusingly phallic, particularly the 3D pieces.

 

The text contained brief descriptions of how mushrooms had been viewed throughout history, from being treated with suspicion by medieval Europeans, who thought they were used by witches (I have never personally used a mushroom in a spell, though I’m sure they must have some useful medicinal properties) to becoming kind of adorable in the Victorian era, thanks mainly to Lewis Carroll. The little shop had some neat mushroom themed products, and apparently I could have had a free mushroom facial, though I presume the appointment slots were booked up by the time of my visit. Overall, I enjoyed this much more than Two Temple Place, and I’m definitely glad I stopped in to check it out and see my name written in fungi. I still won’t be eating a mushroom any time soon, but I respect their aesthetic! 3.5/5.