art

Bournemouth, Dorset: The Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum

The Russell-Cotes House is exactly the kind of house I’d like to live in…if it wasn’t a museum, and also wasn’t in Bournemouth (not knocking the town, because it’s the first time I’ve ever been there and I didn’t really go anywhere except Russell-Cotes House, but it looked kind of seedy as we were driving through, like most English seaside towns. The beach did look quite nice though, if it hadn’t been freezing cold. In May).

  

It is a gloriously quirky Victorian mansion (completed in 1901, shortly before Queen Victoria died, it is also technically one of the last Victorian mansions ever built, as the museum kept reminding us) perched on a side of a hill overlooking the sea. Apparently it is built in an “Art Nouveau” style, but the turrets, bold colours, and big wrap-around front porch reminded me of Victorian houses in America, rather than the more boring sedate brick Victorian buildings that are much more common in England (like the one I live in, which has been divided into flats and stripped of any character it might have had, save for the fireplace and high ceilings), which is why I probably loved it so much.

  

Admission to this fabulous building (its official name is East Cliff Hall) is £6 (or £5.45 if you decline the Gift Aid), and the self-guided tour starts with a short film about the history of the house. Built by Merton Russell-Cotes for his wife Annie, it was their dream home and a place for them to display the many, many objects they had collected on their travels through the years. They seem to have been a rather sweet and devoted couple, what with travelling the world together, and dying within a year of each other (don’t worry, they were able to enjoy their house for about twenty years first). They were also clearly extraordinarily wealthy and well-connected, though where their money came from is a mystery, at least to me, because it wasn’t discussed anywhere in the museum (I suspect there’s a dark secret somewhere in their past, albeit with absolutely no evidence to support this theory).

  

The house is meant to be set up pretty much as Merton and Annie would have had it (except for a few of the more museum-y rooms), and you’re free to wander through and pretend you’re visiting them, I guess. So nothing is really roped off (though obviously you’re expected to not touch things) and there aren’t signs on anything, just a a large informational guide on a stand in each room (we came right after they opened, so there were only a handful of visitors, but I suspect this gets annoying at busier times, because those books were seriously like twenty pages each, and based on my experiences in way too many National Trust properties, I can imagine that some people stand there for ages reading every page). We got a taste of their enviable lifestyle right off the bat, when we walked into the dining room and were greeted with an octagonal table and a wine cooler (above right) once owned by Napoleon that they managed to snap up whilst they were visiting St. Helena (as you do…oh wait, you haven’t been to one of the most isolated islands in the world?! Me either). I also immediately learned that Merton really liked birds (as do I, admittedly. Well, some birds. Not those white ibis in Australia. Or emus or cassowaries (also in Australia)), and had chosen to decorate the room with a splendid peacock border.

  

There was a collection of busts in the conservatory, my favourite being good ol’ Wellington (looking rather dashing), though his rival (archnemesis?) Napoleon was there too.  However, the conservatory was locked, so we just had to peer out at them from the dining room.

 

Napoleon’s table wasn’t the only famous person’s furniture that the Russell-Cotes’s owned. They also had a sofa and chairs that were Queen Victoria’s (I don’t think she ever visited this home, since she died shortly after it was completed, but I believe she did visit them in a previous residence, and her daughter, Princess Beatrice, took tea here with Annie), and a cabinet belonging to Empress Eugenie of France, who they knew personally. Actually, the story behind the cabinet is that Eugenie didn’t realise it had been sold, and got a nasty shock when she went to East Cliff Hall for a visit and saw it in pride of place in the drawing room.  The dress in the picture above is a re-creation of Annie’s wedding dress, based off of a photograph taken on her wedding day.

  

The main hall of the house was similarly extravagant, and contained even more busts, paintings by Rossetti et al, and a fountain inspired by the Moorish room at Leighton House (which was one of the only parts of Leighton House that I didn’t complain about).  The ornamentation even carried on into the public restrooms…I strongly recommend that you use the ones in the actual house rather than the ones in the gift shop or cafe, because they are worth seeing, in particular the ladies’ loo (I peeped into the men’s and it was nice, but not as elaborate as the women’s toilet).

  

There was an extension added on to the house for art galleries (done whilst the Russell-Cotes’s were still alive, as they had always planned to donate the building to Bournemouth after they died (they had children, by the way, they probably just reckoned they didn’t need the house), and had some of the house open to the public once a month whilst they were still living in it), though unfortunately only a couple of the galleries were open, because they were in the process of putting together a new exhibit.

  

Merton and Annie definitely seemed to be partial to statues and busts (though apparently Merton collected most of the art; Annie was more into natural history), and my favourite piece here was a bust of George Bernard Shaw (above right) done, oddly enough, by Kathleen Scott, widow of Robert Falcon Scott of polar fame (bust on the left is Nelson, no idea who the sculptor was).

  

Now, I want to talk about the stained glass on the cupola over the main hall, because that is what convinced me that I needed to visit the house in the first place. As you can hopefully tell from the picture above (click to enlarge), it has bats and owls on it, flying through a night sky. If I could only have one element from this house in my imaginary dream home, this is what I’m taking, no doubt about it.

 

Though the upstairs rooms admittedly weren’t as grand as the ones downstairs, they were nonetheless my favourite section of the house, because they were more straightforward museum rooms, with actual labels, and I got to learn more about Merton and Annie’s travels and the things they collected. One room had objects ranging from a decorative band that was on the outside of Queen Victoria’s wedding cake (Merton and Annie were both born in 1835, so I imagine they were too young to have actually attended her wedding), to an instrument made from a crocodile’s head, and, in keeping with the crocodile theme, some child-sized ankle bracelets found in the stomach of a crocodile in India, meaning some unlucky little girl got eaten.

  

There was also a “Mikado Room” built to house Merton’s Asian artefacts, and another room with souvenirs from their trip to Russia and Scandinavia, including a child’s sled embellished with some scary toothed geese. The signage in here included extracts from Annie’s diary entries during the Russia trip, which were pretty interesting. They visited about twenty years before the Revolution, but apparently could already see signs of unrest.

  

Lest you think that the things poor Annie collected had been left out, never fear! There was also a whole room full of natural history stuff, like a case full of stuffed kiwis that she acquired in New Zealand (obviously). The bedroom she was forced to move to shortly before she died was also up here; she had to move because it was near the only room that could accommodate her nurse (I guess because all the other rooms were too nice?).

  

My favourite decorative border in the house was in what I’m going to call the “Crow Room” (unless those are blackbirds? I like birds, but I’m not great at identifying them). I especially love the golden moon that’s been added in. (Many of the rooms also had beautiful gold stars painted up near the ceiling. This was really my kind of house.)

  

The strangest room had to be the Henry Irving Room, which was like a bizarre shrine to the actor Henry Irving. Apparently he was a good friend of Merton and Annie, and they loved his acting, so were devastated when he died, and set a whole room aside for Irving artefacts. I know Irving was a famous actor, but I don’t really know all that much about him, so I couldn’t fully appreciate the Irvingness of this room, though I did admire the weirdness.

  

More stained glass of note (because those damn Victorians really excelled at stained glass); the piece over the centre of the upstairs hallway. It’s a little hard to see, but the corners of each larger square are the signs of the zodiac. I was particularly partial to Taurus, who you might just be able to spot (and I’ve just noticed that Aquarius looks rather like the Mannequin Pis).

  

There were so many more fabulous details in the house that I’d love to show you, but we’d be here all day, so let me move on to the gardens. Apparently, the gardens once stretched for quite a ways around the house, but they’ve all been swallowed up by real estate, so all that’s left now is the grotto area, and a small Japanese garden. Unusually, the Russell-Cotes’s didn’t have any live-in servants, instead relying on staff from the hotel next door to keep their house running, so there was a secret gate in the garden that they could cut through on their way over. (Merton and Annie did own the hotel too at one point, though I’m not sure if it was while they were living in East Cliff House. I do hope that the staff were properly compensated for their work, and not just expected to do two jobs for the same pay, but knowing Victorians, my hopes aren’t high.)

  

I certainly enjoyed pretty much every aspect of this house’s appearance, inside and out, though I’m still not sure how I feel about Merton and Annie – they were definitely a fascinating couple who had amazing experiences, but I feel like them using the hotel’s staff is probably a bit shady, and I’m still bothered that I don’t know the source of their wealth. But, they are long-dead, and the house as it stands today is magnificent, and worth the relatively modest price of admission (I mean, can you imagine what the National Trust or English Heritage would charge to see something like this? Probably at least 15 quid, if not more!).  I do love labels, so I would have liked to see some in the actual house, but I can understand that it would detract from the experience they’re going for. Perhaps if they put a couple smaller guides in each room in place of the big books, it would be better, because some of the books contained stuff like a list of restoration expenses, or a lengthy history of some of the artistic styles represented in the paintings, and it was way more than I cared to read and came at the expense of information about some of the smaller, but more intriguing looking objects. Because of that, I’ll give it 4/5, but it is a most excellent looking house, and I think Merton would be happy to see all the birds that still frequent the garden.

  

 

London: Grayson Perry’s “The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!” @ the Serpentine + A Few Random Art Exhibitions

Whew, that’s a long title, isn’t it?  I have more Dorset posts, but this post covers a couple exhibitions that are ending in the near future, so I wanted to get to them first while there’s still a chance to visit them if people are interested. I recently went to go see Grayson Perry’s new exhibition at the Serpentine, and used it as an opportunity to do a whole day of arty stuff around London (I might have gotten an ice cream and a bubble tea too. It was a hot day, and I needed the energy!). I’ll talk about Perry’s exhibition first, and get to the rest later.

  

I first encountered Grayson Perry when he was a panellist on Have I Got News for You way back in 2009, when he appeared as his alter-ego “Claire.” Not being up on the modern art scene, I’d never heard of him before, and I didn’t know quite what to make of him. But then I finally saw some of his art: tapestries at the Foundling Museum back in 2014, and I had to admit that they were really pretty cool. I’ve since been to a couple more of his exhibitions, and watched a few of his TV specials, and now I’d definitely consider myself a fan – after watching his recent TV programme about Brexit, where he made vases representing “Leave” and “Remain,” Marcus and I were keen to see the vases in person, so when we learned they’d be at the Serpentine, in Hyde Park, along with some other select pieces, we headed out to see the exhibition about a week after it opened.

  

“The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!” runs until the 10 September, and is free, although there is an opportunity to donate via a piggy bank Perry created with different slots to represent different identities – you could choose the slot you felt best represented you.  Although I’ve of course been to Hyde Park before, I’d never actually been inside the Serpentine Gallery, and I’m glad I managed to visit on a weekday, because I bet this exhibition lives up to its self-consciously grandiose title by being absolutely rammed on the weekends. As it was, it was plenty busy on a weekday, though not to the point where we had to queue or anything.

  

Perry’s chosen media are typically ceramic pots and tapestries, and there were plenty of both in here. What I particularly love about his work is how detailed it is – he often uses collages, and you really have to walk completely around each of his pieces to appreciate every element.  There’s often a fair bit of text incorporated within the pieces as well, which I can appreciate as someone who’s generally drawn more towards books than art.

  

But there were also a few other types of art in this exhibit, my favourites being the custom designed motorcycle with a special box for Perry’s teddy, Alan Measles, in the back (Alan Measles is a recurring motif in Perry’s art), and the “Marriage Shrine” with figures of Perry and his wife. I’d love something like that in my house (or garden, if I had one)!

I also had to laugh at the “Kateboard,” above, which is a skateboard deck with an image of Kate Middleton on it, and there were some excellent woodcuts, including the one pictured at the opening of the post, which features Perry himself.

  

And the Brexit vases (above) were of course excellent, though my favourite vase was actually the first one in this post, showing Trump, Farage, Theresa May, Boris, Corbyn, et al all worshiping Alan Measles.  But I really enjoyed almost every piece in this exhibition, which is a rarity for me and modern art, as you all know. It’s certainly very timely (it actually opened on the day of the general election, which was an exciting one for me as it was the first election since I’ve become a British citizen, so I actually got to vote! Not that it did much good in decidedly Tory Wimbledon, but still), and I highly recommend going to see it if you get the chance. 4.5/5.

  

We went to see two other exhibitions the same day, both of them at art galleries (and as gallery installations are so fleeting, I’m not going to bother to give them a rating). I normally shy away from galleries because I’m slightly intimidated by them; it seems like whenever I walk into one, there’s just some harried person talking on the phone at the back of the gallery who completely ignores my presence, and I feel really unwelcome. But I saw these listed in Time Out London, and I was intrigued enough to take a chance (albeit with Marcus for backup; I’m still too intimidated to do it on my own).

  

The first was Ann Craven’s Animals 1999-2017, at Southard Reid in Soho, which ends on 24 June.  This was a collection of animal paintings inspired by Youtube and memes and things. I can’t really complain about adorable paintings of kittens and deer, so I enjoyed it, even though the woman working there was indeed on the phone when we walked in, and we felt pretty awkward the whole time we were there. The gallery is also hidden down some pretentiously named “Royalty Mews” off of Dean Street that we accidentally walked right past the first time around, which made the experience that much more awkward, because it wasn’t the kind of place you could pop in whilst passing – you had to actively seek it out.

  

The other exhibition was Wayne Thiebaud’s retrospective 1962-2017 at White Cube Mason’s Yard, near Green Park, which ends 2 July and was poshly intimidating enough that I was worried about walking in wearing shorts and a tank top, with all my tattoos exposed. But except for the stern looking security guard in one of the galleries, it was fine. I wanted to see this one because I read that most of his paintings were of desserts, and indeed, food and landscapes were pretty much the themes.

  

I did like some of his paintings (particularly those of ice cream and doughnuts), and the layered paint effect was kind of cool, but I’m still not really enough of a fan of the gallery experience to be won over to doing this sort of thing very frequently in the future.

  

The last “arty” experience I wanted to mention, while I’m on the subject, was something I did a couple of weeks ago. It was part of the Merge Festival in Bankside, which seems to have been held quite early this year for some reason (I think it’s normally in September). I saw (in Time Out, yet again, because I’ve been reading the print edition every week lately on the train) that there was an opportunity to have your portrait drawn by a robot for free, if you booked a slot in advance, and for once I managed to book while there were still openings.

The actual name of the event was “Machine Studies” by Patrick Tresset, and what he’d done was create three robot arms that drew three separate pictures of you while you sat still and posed, as you would for a conventional portrait. This meant sitting perfectly still for over half an hour, which I realised I am incredibly bad at. An eyelash fell into my eye only about ten minutes in, and though I tried my best to blink it out, I eventually just had to rub my eye, which I think is why my one eye is blurry in some of the portraits. You can see the finished drawings above, and I think they’re quite cool, even with the wonky eye. If you’re familiar with (were traumatised by as a child, more like) the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books, Stephen Gammell’s illustrations are what I think the middle portrait looks like. I’m kind of like the girl who had a spider lay eggs in her face without her realising until all the spider babies exploded out. (Link here, but don’t click unless you want to be kind of grossed out. And bear in mind, these books were intended for children, and this is definitely one of the less scary drawings in them. No wonder I was so nightmare-prone.) You had a choice of buying your portraits for something like 150 quid each, or leaving them there to be part of the exhibition, so you can probably guess which I chose. At least I was able to get a few good photos of them first though!  And it was definitely a neat experience, though somewhat marred by the fact that the London Bridge attack occurred the same night, not very far from where the installation was located (though fortunately I’d been home for hours before it happened) – as a result, it was closed on what would have been its final day (and now there’s been the Grenfell Tower fire, and the Finsbury Park attack. London’s having a tough time of it lately).

Anyway, that’s it for the artistic interlude; I’ll carry on with more Dorset museums next week.

 

 

 

Cambridge: The Fitzwilliam Museum

The Fitzwilliam is probably Cambridge University’s most famous museum, and rightly so, because it’s also by far the largest (at least of the ones I visited).  So I knew I wanted to see it, but I also knew that with the busy day we had planned, I wouldn’t have time for a thorough perusal.  Fortunately, the Fitzwilliam is an art museum, and art museums are the easiest sort of museum for me to deal with in a hurry, because there’s usually not much to read, and I’m not really one for contemplating art, so I can breeze through, only stopping to look more closely at things that really catch my eye (especially if the museum is free, like the Fitzwilliam is, so I don’t feel like I have to look at boring things just to get my money’s worth).

  

And the first thing that caught my eye was the museum’s interior, which, as you can probably tell from the photo opening the post, is incredibly ornate, and really rather gorgeous.  The second thing I noticed were the large cabinets meant to house Wunderkammer, which were prominently displayed in the first room. Because I am way more into cabinets of curiosity than old European paintings, I spent a healthy amount of time studying the inlay on these cabinets, as well as the treasures that would have been kept within (which included a wee ceramic frog).

  

I was pretty much able to dispense with the whole of the first floor in record time, because other than the Wunderkammer, it was all just boring old-ass European art (much of it religious). OK, there was a bit of modern art too, but I’m not any more a fan of that than I am of Italian Renaissance painters, so I didn’t feel the need to linger.

  

The only significant amount of text up here was in the temporary exhibit “Madonnas and Miracles: The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy,” which runs til 4 June, and did not allow photography.  This was a fairly interesting exhibit about how Catholicism crept into every aspect of early modern Italian life, including the home. The most memorable object in here was a creepily realistic Baby Jesus doll that was made for some sort of famous nun hundreds of years ago (I can’t remember the exact details) and resided at the convent until just a couple of years ago, when the convent was destroyed by one of the recent earthquakes. However, the doll survived, and the nuns agreed to lend it to the exhibition, so here it was, staring up at us eerily like a real baby.

 

Moving on…I need to talk about the gallery full of English ceramics on the ground floor, because this was the best part of the museum by far (the Fitzwilliam’s ceramics game was strong in general, as you can probably tell from the Italian-made bust of an old woman a few paragraphs up).  I already had a fondness for antique Staffordshire figurines (I still really want the Red Barn Murder set, but considering one sold for almost £12,000 in 2010, that’s never going to happen), and also royal memorabilia, specifically really old and crudely drawn memorabilia, like the plates shown above, so my expectations were high as soon as we entered this gallery and I got a taste of what was inside, and happily, the Fitzwilliam exceeded them.

  

My favourite royal family plate had to have been the William and Mary one, above left.  I’m hard pressed to even tell you which one is William and which is Mary (OK, I think William is the one with the moustache, but still). There were so many fabulous things here that I could have happily spent my entire visit in just this room. I want to show you everything, but I’ll restrain myself to just a few more pictures (and how sad are those poor chained bears?  I want to free them!).

  

Here’s some of those Staffordshire figurines I was talking about. I have a crude knock-off of the tiger one, but in mine, it looks as though the tiger is merely sniffing the soldier’s head, rather than an active mauling (though I have to say that the tiger in the real one still looks remarkably sweet for being a vicious man-eater). It’s based on a real-life event that took place in India in 1791 where the soldier, Hugh Monro, later died of his injuries, so I guess I shouldn’t be so flippant about it, but that tiger is very cute.

  

And here is Isaac Newton (looking rather foxy), and a piece showing the murder of Jean-Paul Marat by Charlotte Corday, though surely if you know anything about his assassination, it’s that he was stabbed in the bath, so I’m not sure why he is fully clothed and just sitting on the ground. Perhaps a nude Marat would have offended Georgian (early Victorian? not sure when it was made) sensibilities too much, but obviously violence was just fine.

  

There was so much more splendid stuff, including a giant owl jar (I’m not including the photo because I’m in it, and I look terrible), but I’d better move on to the rest of the museum. Or what we saw of it anyway; based on what was in the gift shop, I feel sure we missed some kind of modern print room, and there was also a sign in one of the rooms telling us to check out the exhibit on Victorian life in Gallery 33, which I was more than happy to do, but we found Gallery 33, and it only had random (not delightful, or Victorian) pottery in it, so I’m not sure what they were talking about.

  

There was a hall of armour, and though this would probably normally be my favourite part of the museum, it was completely overshadowed by the excellent English ceramics (except for that modern sculpture of a skull in chain mail…it didn’t photograph well on account of the case, but man, it was cool).

  

We concluded our visit with a brief stroll through the Roman and Egyptian stuff.   I normally love sarcophagi, but they simply paled by comparison to those charming damn ceramics (I’m sorry, I realise like 80% of this post is about stupid ceramics. Maybe I should just re-title it “The Pottery Post”).

  

So, while I would like to return to the Fitzwilliam one day and be able to spend more time there, I honestly don’t feel like I missed out on anything on our fairly quick visit (to be fair, we probably spent twice as much time here as any of the other museums, except maybe the Polar Museum, which was small, but I felt like I needed to read everything in it). I’m obviously completely and totally captivated by their ceramics collection (and not just the English stuff; there was a pretty good German room too), but I think there are probably many things here worth seeing, especially for people who know more about art than I do (which frankly, is not that hard to do.  For a museum person, I am shamefully uninterested in most art). 4/5; it’s clearly a world-class museum, but I was really only interested in maybe 40% of what was inside (which is my problem, not theirs, but I’m the one giving the scores). Oh, and don’t miss the decorative gold pineapples on the railings outside the museum – I thought they were a nice touch!

London: “Sussex Modernism” @ Two Temple Place

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Despite trying to stay relatively well-informed about the London museum scene (or as well-informed as I can be without having to leave my house much or actually socialise with people), I only first discovered Two Temple Place last year, when they were hosting an exhibition about Ancient Egypt (the only time the building is open to the public is when they have an exhibition on, which happens from late January-April each year).  I really enjoyed both the house and the exhibit, giving it a lofty 4/5, so I was eager to visit this year when they re-opened with a new exhibit, even though this year’s exhibit, “Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion,” didn’t sound particularly to my taste.

img_20170222_143451088To reiterate from last year, Two Temple Place was built by super-rich American William Waldorf Astor in 1895, and the building is really rather fabulous (tycoons back then did gaudy right).  Fortunately, we got a few good shots of the interior last year when photography was allowed, as we weren’t permitted to take pictures of the exhibit this year due to copyright issues (most (all?) of the pieces here were on loan from various galleries around Sussex, including Salvador Dali’s Mae West lips sofa, which we saw at the Brighton Museum last year), so I’ll be reusing a few of those old shots in this post (although the metal cow sculpture photo is new; I don’t think the sculpture was even there last time).

DSC00622As always though, Two Temple Place is free, and they let us borrow a guidebook to walk around with again too, which is a much appreciated touch.  They do always seem to have nice, enthusiastic volunteers.  Since I didn’t need to do as much oohing and aahing over the house this year (having gotten that out of my system last year), I was kind of hoping the exhibit would have some impressive art to marvel at instead (but knowing how I feel about most modern art, I didn’t hold out much hope, which was probably a good thing. Saved myself disappointment in the end).

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Going into the exhibit, I knew next to nothing about Sussex modernism, so I was ready to learn! Unfortunately, as you’ll see, I didn’t really end up finding out enough to make sense out of the movement. But one of the things I did learn was that there was an artist called Eric Gill who moved out to Ditchling in the early 1900s, and he attracted a small community of fellow artists/protegees, including David Jones and Ethel Mairet.  However, Eric Gill was not a terribly sympathetic figure; to be blunt, he was straight-up disgusting. He not only had incestuous “relationships” with his daughters and sisters, but apparently had sex with his dog as well.  And that was really all about Eric Gill that I needed to know…clearly I am never going to be a fan.

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But as far as the rest of the Sussex modernists go, there didn’t seem to be that much biographical information provided, or if there was, it wasn’t memorable enough to stick with me (it probably didn’t help that I had never heard of any of the main artists featured here).  There was a bizarre, but amusing story included as an intro to the exhibit, about the poet Ezra Pound, and some of his artistic friends.  Apparently, they decided to throw a dinner party for some elderly artist that they admired (who also lived in Sussex), so they served him a whole roasted peacock, and presented him with a coffer they’d made with a naked woman carved on one of the sides. The elderly artist was evidently quite uncomfortable with this, and always kept the side with the woman on it turned towards the wall when he displayed the coffer (I would have been far more uncomfortable with the roasted peacock than the nude on the coffer, personally).  My issue with this anecdote (and most of the rest of the exhibit) was that it was never adequately explained who the artist was (they provided his name, which I’ve forgotten, but I have no idea what he was famous for), and other than it being a story about what happens when old and new artistic movements clash, and taking place in Sussex, I didn’t really understand what it had to do with the rest of the exhibition, since Ezra Pound wasn’t mentioned again.  Basically, the whole exhibit left me in a state of general confusion, because nothing was explained quite thoroughly enough, and I left feeling that I still didn’t really know what the defining traits of the Sussex modernists were (and not being able to take photos didn’t help, since I couldn’t review the pictures later to see if I’d missed some vital bit of information).

DSC00604Which is not to say that everything was so crazily modernist that I couldn’t tell what the pieces were meant to be, or anything (the exhibit contained various works of art produced by the modernists; mainly paintings, but some sculpture as well).  I just don’t think I always picked up on the meanings behind them, or what the ethos was of the Sussex modernists.  Some of the artists were atheists, yet they seemed to produce mainly religious art commissioned by several local churches. Eric Gill made a lot of nudes, and used his teenage daughters as models, which is really creepy when you know about his sexual proclivities. Some of the artists focused on their experiences in the First and Second World Wars, and produced sort of dystopian stuff, or art about the invasion of modernisation in the countryside. I understand that artists can produce different styles of art and still be part of a community, but it felt more like the art had been selected simply because all of the artists had spent some time in Sussex, not because they were actually all friends, or even contemporaries, or part of the same artistic movement. As for the art itself, it mostly wasn’t my cup of tea, but I did enjoy some of it, most notably a ceramic cat, a beautiful little bright blue painting (print?) depicting the night sky, and a photograph of Henry Moore hugging his sculpture Mother and Child (well, one of his sculptures with that name anyway, since he appears to have used it about 50 times for different pieces. I mean, if you can take the time to chisel out a damn sculpture, surely you can put in the effort to think of a unique name whilst you’re doing it). There was also a strange surrealist video playing in one of the rooms that intrigued me; the end of the film featured a lobster bursting from the menu of a fancy restaurant.

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Like last year, the exhibit was both in the ground floor gallery, and all the upstairs rooms, but I don’t think it took anywhere near as long to look at, because the descriptions simply weren’t as detailed (or as interesting, to me anyway) as the ones last year.  I have to say, if I hadn’t visited last spring and saw all the neato Egyptian stuff, I don’t know if I’d be particularly impressed with Two Temple Place after this.  I mean, the house is still gorgeous, but the exhibit was nowhere near as good as last year’s.  As it stands though, I know what they can do, so I am still planning on visiting next year’s exhibit, whatever that may be.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this year’s exhibition was terrible or anything, it just wasn’t really my kind of art, and there was also an odd lack of continuity within the exhibit itself (and that disjointedness has carried through to this post, since I think I’ve failed at making it completely coherent). Maybe even the curators weren’t too sure how to tie all these artists together outside of Sussex, or they just assumed that anyone coming to see it would already have some background knowledge on the Sussex modernists that I clearly lack. For a free exhibit though, I think it’s probably alright if you like that style of art (though please, no one ask me any questions about what exactly that style is, because I still can’t tell you!), and worth a visit just to get a look at the interior, if you haven’t seen it before. 2.5/5.

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Akron, OH: Akron Art Museum

img_20161229_191212528The Cleveland Museum of Art, which you may recall me blogging about a fortnight ago, is not the only art museum in Northeast Ohio.  There’s also the Akron Art Museum, located about 45 miles south of its Cleveland counterpart (actually, I wouldn’t say they’re strictly counterparts, because they focus on different things, but it is all art), which sounds far when I put it that way, but I grew up halfway between Cleveland and Akron, so they were about equidistant for me (I usually hung out in Cleveland, but I went to the University of Akron, so I have ties to both places.  However, my grandparents grew up in Cleveland, and I say “tree lawn” rather than “devil strip” so I feel much more like a Clevelander than an Akronite).  Anyway, the CMA is a large, venerable institution with an extensive collection that includes examples of many genres of art from ancient times to the present, whereas the Akron Art Museum has a newer, more modern feel (even though it was founded in 1922, only 9 years after the CMA), and focuses almost exclusively on modern art, with the exception of a small gallery of mid 19th-20th century art (which probably helps with the modern feel, as does the rather, um, interesting looking building it’s housed in, which was completed in 2007).

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Also unlike the CMA, the Akron Art Museum charges a rather hefty $10 admission fee, which is probably why I never bothered to visit it when I was attending university (also, it was still in the old building back then, which I think was fairly lacklustre).  I mean, when I could visit the excellent CMA for free, it was hard to justify paying $10 for modern art, which I tend to have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about anyway.  Fortunately, the Akron Art Museum now offers “Free Thursdays” when (you guessed it) admission is free to all, so my mother and I paid it a visit while I was in town.  (I’ll try to include all the artists’ names, in case anyone’s interested, so from left to right above, there is Viola Frey’s The World and the Woman, James Gobel’s I’ll Be Your Friend, I’ll Be Your Love, I’ll Be Everything You Need, and Vernon Fisher’s Man Cutting Globe.)

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I actually had been there once before on a Free Thursday, a couple of years before I started blogging, and remember being distinctly unimpressed. Happily, because many of the exhibits on the 2nd floor are temporary, most of the art I didn’t particularly care for was gone, and there was some exciting new stuff in its place!  (Left to right, above is George Segal’s Girl Sitting Against a Wall II (no idea what happened to the first one, if it even exists), Miles Carpenter’s Untitled (Pink Octopus) and Peter Dean’s Circus Family (which I like because it reminds me of James Ensor, but with layered paint).)

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The first few rooms mainly held paintings and sculptures that I think are there all the time, but except for the huge Chuck Close piece (not pictured), I didn’t remember most of them from my previous visit.  There are a few big-name pieces there, like Lichtenstein and of course the inevitable Warhols, but most of them were by artists I’d never heard of (which isn’t really saying much, since I’m not exactly well-versed in modern art).  I’ve included pictures of some of my favourites, like Man Eating Trees by John Sokol, above left, and Rita by Malcah Zeldis, above right, which is a rather hilarious interpretation of Rita Hayworth’s sensual dance in Gilda.

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Mickalene Thomas’s Girlfriends and Lovers, above right, didn’t photograph particularly well (well, nothing did, but that had more to do with the skills of the photographer (me) than the artists), but I can assure you that it is fabulous in person, because the whole painting is absolutely covered in sequins.  Also shown is Yinka Shonibare’s Gentleman Walking a Tightrope.

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The museum was hosting a temporary exhibit called “Our Land” that commemorated the centenary of the National Park Service through photographs of some of its parks (which were lovely), but I haven’t included pictures of them because it’s hard to photograph a photograph that’s covered in glass without getting hideous reflections (you can view some of the pieces on their website though!). (Above, Richard Deacon’s Cover and Jackie Winsor’s #2 Copper.)

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But I’ve got loads of pictures from “Intersections: Artists Master Line and Space,” (which has now ended) because surprisingly, I really loved some of the pieces.  The three sculptures above (as well as the one that opens the post) are all by Nathalie Miebach, who was my favourite artist featured here. Her work is all science-inspired, and these particular pieces were all based on hurricanes.  Basically, she takes meteorological data and somehow converts it into woven sculptures.  Some of these incorporate elements of rides that were destroyed during Hurricane Sandy, which is probably why I liked them so much (I love old-fashioned amusement park rides).

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The first picture, above, is of a piece that was not really the kind of thing you could capture successfully in a photograph (even if you’re more talented than me), but it was really cool to stand under.  It was called inside green by Anne Lindberg, and was simply made of cotton thread stapled to the walls, but it was like standing underneath a prism, and it hurt my eyes to look at it after a while.  The piece to the right of it was by Ursula von Rydingsvard, and was part of a whole room full of giant things made of cedar (including one that kind of looked like a big turd.  More so than that other turdy wooden thing a couple paragraphs up) and the final piece shown above took up an entire room (that apparently required its own security guard to make sure no one touched it), and is called Turtle, by Judy Pfaff.  It had a lot of what I think was blown glass, but didn’t really do anything.

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I’m not sure if these pieces were part of “Intersections” or not (well, the last squiggly one is, it’s by Mark Fox), because I couldn’t find them on the museum’s website (believe it or not, googling butt spoons got me nowhere), but I’m including the pictures anyway, because butt spoons (only one of them is a butt though, I think)!

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I did recall seeing the downstairs gallery before, but I looked around again anyway, for the sake of the blog.  The first painting is worth noting because it’s by William Somer, who lived in Northfield (where I’m from!).  Also it contains cows and chickens, and you know how I like that sort of thing.  The middle painting is Raphael Gleitsmann’s Winter Evening, and shows neato 1930s Akron. When I was there, I joked that Young Mother by Zoltan Sepeshy (on the right) looked like me if I stopped plucking my eyebrows, but now it kind of reminds me of the McPoyle chick from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Which made me realise that I’m only a pair of tweezers away from becoming a McPoyle.

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The downstairs gallery had a few other cool things (from left: Robert Henri’s Spanish Shepherd, William Merritt Chase’s Girl in White, and Elmer Novotny’s The Artist and His Wife), but it seriously is only three small rooms, so we went through it pretty fast. Which meant it was time to explore the final temporary installment, Jimmy Kuehnle’s Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle. I couldn’t really photograph it from inside, but you can see it in the picture of the front of the building below.  It was basically a giant inflatable red squishy thing with a bunch of arms, and you squished and squeaked your way through it like you were in a maze, while lights flashed on and off.  The whole light thing made it kind of disorientating, and I’m not sure if I actually giggled out loud (frankly, I don’t know if I’m really the giggling type), but it was pretty damn fun nonetheless.

img_20161229_194158186Overall, I appreciated the Akron Art Museum much more this time around, and thoroughly enjoyed my visit.  I would highly advise visiting on a Free Thursday (there’s also free parking in the garage across the street if you show up after 6, which is very doable because they’re open til 9 on Thursdays) because it only takes like an hour to see, which is not really worth $10, but it’s really the only large(ish) modern art museum I can think of in NE Ohio (there’s one in Canton, but that’s even smaller), so merits a visit if you’re looking for that sort of thing.  3.5/5 for this visit, but obviously that score will vary based on what they’ve got in it, because of the high proportion of temporary installations.

 

Cleveland, OH: Cleveland Museum of Art Redux

dsc09619Because I went back to Ohio for a few weeks over Christmas (and now I’ll have that stupid Back to Ohio (actually called “My City is Gone” apparently) Pretenders song stuck in my head all day), I wrote and scheduled a whole bunch of posts in advance because I knew I’d be too busy eating doughnuts, ice cream, and pancakes, and hanging out with my brother to want to do much writing while I was there.  As a result, I haven’t really written anything in about a month, and I’m finding it really hard to get back into the swing of things (and this damn jet lag (which I should probably just call insomnia at this point) isn’t helping).  So I thought I’d start by revisiting what used to be my favourite Cleveland museum: the Cleveland Museum of Art.

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I first wrote about the CMA in my first month of blogging, nearly four years ago now, shortly after they had finished their extensive remodelling project, and unfortunately at that point I was so attached to the old museum that I didn’t really give the new museum a fair chance. I also think that many of the galleries had yet to re-open then, so I wasn’t experiencing the museum at its fullest potential.  Well, this was my first trip to the CMA since that last ill-fated one, and I’m happy to report that it feels like a museum I can love again!  It doesn’t hurt that the CMA is still one of only a few free museums in Cleveland, though they do get you with the $10 minimum parking fee in their garage (yikes! Try to find a metered spot on the street if you can, because I think those are only a couple bucks), and they charge for major special exhibitions, but there were none on at the time of my visit.

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The main reason I was inspired to go back was that the museum was hosting a small exhibit on early portrait photography that sounded interesting (I confess I was hoping they’d have some of those creepy Victorian death photographs, but no such luck), but the exhibit was hidden away in the  middle of the second floor galleries, which meant I got to do a lot of exploring before I found my way there.  And look, I found one of my favourite paintings on the way (that I bitched about not being able to find last time): Cupid and Psyche, by Jacques-Louis David (above left).  And that excellent saucy portrait of George Washington by Charles Wilson Peale that I also know well and love (above previous paragraph).  And the three Van Gogh paintings the museum owns (my favourite is the tree one shown above right).  It was glorious, like finding long-lost friends.

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I am also very glad that the museum seems to be ordered in a manner that makes sense again.  I think when I visited four years ago, only about half the galleries were actually open, so they only had some of the collection’s highlights on display, and they weren’t really arranged in any particular order.  Happily, the paintings are now sorted chronologically, by country of origin, and by genre again, which makes it easy to find paintings that I know are there and want to see, like the handsome fellow on the left, above (Jean Terford David, painted by Thomas Sully.  I believe his wife’s portrait is also there, but the poor woman is kind of unremarkable next to Jean’s strong jawline and dreamy tousled hair). The only exception to this was Henri Rousseau’s Fight between a Tiger and a Buffalo, which I love, but wasn’t in any of the places I expected to find it.  However, thanks to the free wifi the museum now offers, I was able to search for it on my phone, and discover that it wasn’t currently on display.  Annoying, because I really wanted to see it, but still better than me aimlessly wandering in search of it (or I guess I could have gone old-school and just asked someone working there, but if I can avoid human contact, all the better).  You will also notice that unlike at the hideous (except the armoury) Wallace Collection that I wrote about a couple weeks ago, the paintings are attractively displayed against plain walls painted in soothing solid colours, which makes them a pleasure to look at.  (The painting on the above right in Mary Spain’s Girl with Birds, but I was so busy looking at the cat that I scarcely noticed the birds.)

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And the CMA genuinely does have a first-rate collection.  You’ll notice the Picasso and the Velazquez above, but they’ve also got Monets, Manets, Gauguins, Toulouse-Lautrecs…basically all the big names, as well as an extensive collection of top-notch American paintings, like Ryder’s The Racetrack (Death on a Pale Horse) shown below left, and the portrait of Nathaniel Olds by Jeptha Wade that I included in the last CMA post, but had to include again because I love it so much (below right).

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I did eventually find my way to the portrait photography display that I had come to see in the first place, though ironically, it was pretty much the only place in the museum that photography wasn’t allowed.  It was only one room, but it was pretty interesting, mainly because I enjoy photographs of Victorians that prove that they weren’t always as stuffy as we sometimes imagine them to be, especially all the posed “joke” photographs that were apparently popular at the time, including one of a couple guys pretending to rob their friend, and another of men pretending to fight.

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There was also a small temporary display on Catholic vestments (more copes and chasubles, woot?), which I suppose was fine, but after seeing the incredible pieces of medieval English embroidery at the V&A, boring floral embroidery really paled by comparison.

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The final temporary display I saw was in the aptly named “Focus Gallery” and revolved around the 14th century Gothic table fountain (above left).  Apparently, table fountains (basically automata that spouted water at the dining table in various clever ways) were very common amongst the wealthy in medieval Europe, but eventually almost all of them disappeared, and the one now in Cleveland is believed to be the most complete surviving example.  And splendid it is too, full of dragons, and little grotesque figures that play instruments and spout water.  I presume it’s too fragile to actually see it in action, but they made a video of what it should look like when it runs, and the fact that it wasn’t in motion allowed me to study all the charming little paintings around its sides in detail.  Delightful.  I also liked the less elaborate castle themed fountain (above right).

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Because Cleveland is only a medium sized city, they don’t really have the resources to have separate museums for archeology and antiquities and all that kind of stuff, so it all gets lumped together at the CMA.  Although my description probably makes it sound like some poky local museum, which it is definitely not.  It’s a big museum, and everything is beautifully and professionally presented.  My whole point is that this is also the place to come in the CLE if you also want to see armour, or Ancient Egyptian stuff and other ancient artefacts.  There’s lots of very old Asian and Islamic art too!

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And the Christian religious art might not be in the creepy old gallery I used to love anymore, but it it still full of disturbing pieces (and some funny ones, like ol’ St. George above, who appears to be sprouting some sort of potato from his head).  That throne puts me in mind of Mr. Burns’s “chair” at Springfield University (which I would totally have in my flat, by the way).

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At some point Marcus decided he was going to photograph all the lions, only a couple of which I’ve included here (they have a surprising amount of lion-themed art), but I liked his thinking – I think picking one theme and focusing on objects relating to it is a good way to gain a new perspective on museums you’ve been to before, or just keep them interesting (I know the head on the left is not a lion, but it is a splendidly derpy face, so I couldn’t not include it, and it was in the same gallery as the lion on the right).

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The museum also had a few new technological/interactive things that I don’t recall seeing before, like a giant wall where you could select objects from the museum’s collections, and learn more about them, and some kind of motion wall thing that I noticed children jumping up and down in front of.  There were also quite a few touchscreens in “Gallery One,” which highlights some of the museum’s best pieces, and gives you a chance to discover more about the meanings behind them, and the historical periods in which they were created.  I think it’s a neat idea, even though the execution wasn’t quite as attention-grabbing as I would have liked.

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I think there were a few small galleries we didn’t have the chance to see, but I feel like I got to experience most of the museum, and have a much better appreciation of what the big remodel has done for the CMA.  Although the historic 1916 exterior is still hidden within the atrium, you do get excellent views of it from inside the atrium (you frequently have to go out on the balconies to move between galleries, so you get lots of chances to admire it) and it is a gorgeous space.  I can imagine that with Cleveland’s long and crappy winters that it is also nice to have a place to walk around and get some sunlight without trekking through ice and slush.  I have indeed completely revised my previous opinion, and can say that the remodelling process, though very irritating in the last few years I was actually living in Cleveland and wasn’t able to visit the Art Museum, was a good thing in the long run, and the museum has eventually emerged all the better for it.  4.5/5, and unquestionably the most spectacular museum Cleveland has to offer.

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London: Opus Anglicanum @ the V&A

Sorry, I seem to be blogging about a lot of temporary exhibits lately where photography isn’t allowed, and this is yet another one.  I always think not including pictures is especially obnoxious when the exhibition is based around a type of art (rather than objects, though I suppose all museum displays are primarily visual in nature), but my hands are tied by the V&A’s policy and the guard in constant rotation around the exhibit to enforce it.  Anyway “Opus Anglicanum” (literally “English Work”) is an exhibition the Victoria and Albert Museum has on until 5 February 2017, and is all about medieval English embroidery.  Which probably doesn’t sound terribly thrilling (especially without any visuals, but bear with me).

First, the practicalities. Opus Anglicanum costs £12; I only went because they offer half-price admission to National Art Pass holders, so I got in for £6.  It also may be advisable to book online, as the V&A tends to always be busy, and it seems like they don’t release very many tickets per time slot (though there were still enough people in there to make it unpleasantly crowded at times); fortunately, unlike most other museums, they don’t charge a booking fee, you can book on the day of your visit, and they include all the discounts and concessions available as options when booking, so it’s quite easy to do so, and it means you don’t have to queue in the ticket line when you get to the museum.

Although the V&A is one of those vast institutions where if you take a wrong turn you’ll probably find yourself in a room you’ve never seen before, even if you’ve been there like 20 times, there are large signs pointing the way to Opus Anglicanum, so it is easy to find your way there, but the only indication that you’ve arrived is the ticket booth outside, because the Opus Anglicanum sign is hidden inside the doors to the exhibit.  The exhibition space was (probably by necessity, we are talking old, old fabrics here) quite dark, with the embroidered pieces (mostly copes, chasubles, and panels) inside glass cases lining the walls. By the way, in case you’re wondering (I know I was!) copes and chasubles are both types of religious vestment, sort of cloaky/poncho-y things.  You can see some examples on the exhibition page that I linked to in the first paragraph (and please do look at them since I have no photos to show you!).

As I said, it was fairly crowded; not crazy Museum of London crowded, where you actually have to queue to look at anything, but crowded enough that I sometimes had to crane my neck to look over the shoulders of people to read captions.  This wasn’t helped by how annoying some of my fellow visitors were, especially a group of what appeared to be university students who were jotting down notes as some woman lectured in front of a case, all of them completely oblivious to the fact that they were blocking the case for everyone else, and weren’t even looking at the objects within the case themselves!  Why they couldn’t have listened to a lecture on the benches provided or in the open centre space away from the exhibits, I do not know.  Fortunately, most of the people were congregated in the first and last rooms, so I was able to move along the middle section with ease.

Now, about the embroideries themselves: as the V&A say on their exhibition website, “from the 12th to the 15th centuries, England enjoyed an international reputation for the quality of its luxury embroideries.”  This was an attempt to showcase some surviving examples, there not being many of them, because as you can imagine, cloth doesn’t hold up particularly well centuries on.  Also, many of the ones that were located in England were destroyed during the Reformation.  Bearing that in mind, it’s rather incredible that they had as many examples as they did (I can’t even keep clothes hole-free from one year to the next unless I double-bag them in plastic, thanks to my impossible-to-get-rid-of moth infestation).  And most of the pieces they did have, despite being largely religious in nature, were very enjoyable indeed.

In addition to having a fondness for the way medieval artists rendered faces, I also like the way they depicted animals (and the unicorn just chillin’ out in a depiction of the Garden of Eden was another bonus), and there was lots of those embroidered on these objects.  I was also unexpectedly partial to the many, many depictions of the martyrdom of various saints.  Perhaps surprisingly, given how many years I was forced to attend Sunday School, I know very little about how saints were martyred.  For some reason they didn’t teach us that there, which is a shame, because that is the one part of religious education I could have actually derived some enjoyment from, given my fondness for both the macabre and memorising useless facts.  There was one panel in particular that showed the martyrdom of nine different saints that I was completely fascinated by.  One of them (Bartholomew, I looked it up after I got home) was being flayed alive, another (Hippolytus) was being pulled apart by horses, and another (Stephen I think) was being stoned to death, yet the saints had calm expressions, with only slightly sad down-turned mouths to hint at any kind of distress, which I found hilarious in a grim way.  Also, there was another scene that was apparently depicting the conversion of St. Paul, but it looked like someone was sticking something up his butt, more like a martyrdom a la Edward II (not that he’s a saint, but you know what I mean) than anything.  I’ve tried looking it up, but can’t make sense of it, so if anyone else knows the story behind (ha!) this please do let me know!

The “Jesse Tree” also seems to have bee a popular motif, as there were about ten depictions of it here (still not entirely sure what a Jesse Tree is, but my friend who attended Catholic school used to call me that as a child, which pissed me off because I hate being called Jessie), and lots of Holy Family scenes. There was also a shirt belonging to Edward the Black Prince, some splendid brass rubbings of knights that were drawn in almost an Edward Gorey-esque style (or more likely, Edward Gorey copied that style), loads of items sewn with gold and silver thread, which is why they had survived so long, and a few pieces of stained glass with amusing angel designs.  In addition, I loved the illuminated manuscript depicting the Garden of Eden (with the aforementioned unicorn), and I thought it was awesome that they had a surviving embroidery needle in one of the cases! But unsurprisingly, my favourite piece there was entirely secular in nature: The Fishmongers’ Pall, commissioned in the 16th century by the Fishmongers’ Guild and used to cover guild member’s coffins (I think up to the present day!), was a magnificent piece of embroidery from the last years of English dominance of the art, and was covered in delightful merpeople.  The end of English embroidery came about shortly after the mid-16th century, largely because of Henry VIII (the man has a lot to answer for), as elaborate gold-and-silver embroidery wasn’t much in demand in Protestant churches, and in the secular world had somewhat gone out of fashion amongst the nobility as well.

I think the exhibit did an adequate job of explaining the rise and fall of English embroidery, although I would have appreciated more context on some of the saint martyrdom pieces, since they looked so interesting (read: gory) and I really had no idea what was going on in most of them!  Same goes for some of the other less well-known religious images as well; for example, all the Jesse Tree pieces had captions saying that Jesse was asleep at the bottom, but who was Jesse, why was he asleep, and most importantly, why the hell was there a tree growing out of his head?! Also, although it was large enough to justify £6, there ain’t no way this was a £12 exhibition, but the V&A’s exhibition prices tend to be rather high, so it wasn’t unexpected (it is in Kensington after all, must pay the bills somehow!).  The embroideries themselves are very enjoyable, and well worth seeing just for the animals (lions with eyebrows!  I was glad to see that I’m not the only person that draws eyebrows on animals (eyebrows add personality, I think)) and the facial expressions on some of the embroidered people, but don’t expect to spend a lot of time here, because the captions are fairly short and there’s nothing interactive. 3.5/5.

London: The Wallace Collection

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I feel almost certain that the Wallace Collection doesn’t spend enough time advertising the fact that they have an armoury, otherwise I definitely would have visited before this.  Here I was, labouring under the impression that it was just a bunch of boring old Dutch art, when they had this fabulous armoury hidden away in there the whole time!  But then again, to be honest, I’d never really given that much thought to the Wallace Collection one way or another (Dutch art or otherwise) until I realised just how dire my blogging situation is becoming (London’s a big city with loads of museums, but after almost four years of blogging, I’ve been to nearly every one of them.  I’m seriously worried I’m going to run out of blogging material!) and was desperately searching for any museum in London I hadn’t visited, regardless of how boring and unappealing it sounded.

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Although the Wallace Collection is free, which always wins a museum points in my book, it wasn’t doing anything to change my mind about the whole “boring and unappealing” theory at first glance. It was one of those places with a very hushed atmosphere, where you’re afraid to make any noise, and unfortunately, I happened to be wearing some unintentionally jangly boots (they have a little buckle on the back which jingled every time I took a step, which I definitely don’t remember them doing to that extent last year.  Must remember to try to remedy that before wearing them again), so I had to do a very weird walk where I stepped very slowly whilst barely raising my feet off the ground.  (Side note, I went to see Half a Sixpence after going to the Wallace Collection, and it has a song with the repeated lyric, “clanga janga ringa janga,” (it’s not quite as stupid as it sounds, I swear!) so it might have been appropriate that I wore those boots after all.  Side note within a side note: I actually really loved Half a Sixpence!  It was cheesy, but that’s kind of what I want from a musical, and the songs were catchy as hell. Like this one.)

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It was also the sort of place where there was a guard in every room who would follow you around the room with their beady eyes (or maybe just me on account of my annoyingly loud boots), which makes me really super uncomfortable.  I always feel like they’re going to kick me out if I don’t look up to scratch (for the record, I’ve never been kicked out of a museum, but I did get kicked out of malls several times as a teenager on account of looking like a weirdo who was unsettling the normies, and I think it’s given me a complex), and my boots definitely weren’t helping.

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In addition, as you may have noticed, the whole place was done up in an opulent-but-ugly Louis “Various Roman Numerals” style (I’m assuming either XIV, XV, or XVI, but I don’t know enough about faux-French interiors to tell the difference), which made me feel really out of place.  I was basically just walking through the rooms as quickly as I could (bearing in mind I was trying not to make any noise) so I could say I’d visited it and could blog about it, until I saw a delightful sign hanging over some steps reading, “To the Armouries.”

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So I descended into the gloom, feeling glad to be free from the horrors of Louis whatever, only to be met with this magnificent sight at the bottom of the staircase.  They really weren’t exaggerating, this was a proper armoury!  I’m pretty sure my fondness for armour has been well-documented, but yeah, for a pacifist who isn’t particularly interested in modern instruments of war, I really like armour.  I almost did my Master’s in Medieval History instead of Early Modern History based solely on how much I like the bubonic plague and armour, but ended up going Early Modern instead because the programme convenor sounded nicer on the phone than the medieval lady (probably a wise choice in the end, as the Georgians are much more my speed than medieval people. I’m also a big fan of the Victorians…if there was a Master’s programme that combined the Georgians and Victorians, that would have been ideal).  Needless to say, I don’t know how an armoury of this calibre in London could have escaped my attention for all these years.

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The halls of armour were fabulous, and appeared to be arranged around a “secret” restaurant (I don’t think it’s actually secret, because they mention it on the website, but I didn’t see how you would enter it.  Not that I really cared, because museum restaurants aren’t really my scene and we were planning on going to the hole-in-the-wall producing delicious food that is the Roti King later that evening anyway. Roti canai is the best), so they basically took up almost an entire floor of the not-insubstantial building.  I also really liked that many of the pieces of armour (not all) had captions; even though I didn’t have time to read them all, it was nice to see after places like the armoury in Graz that had no signage whatsoever, in either German or English.

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It wasn’t only armour down here though; there was also an assortment of medieval jewels, religious carvings, and neat things made out of silver, like this ostrich eating horseshoes, which I think may have been a symbol featured on the Wallace coat of arms.  I assume this had something to do with the old myth that ostriches could digest metal (I don’t know where the idea came from, but they had an ostrich at the Tower of London back when it housed a menagerie (we’re talking 18th century here), and visitors would feed it nails, presumably until it died, but come to think of it, I’m not entirely sure what ended up happening to that poor ostrich).  I guess I haven’t really mentioned the Wallace of the collection until now, but yeah, Sir Richard Wallace was a late 19th century Marquess of Hertford who expanded on the collection started by four of his ancestors, and after he died, his widow bequeathed it to the nation.  Which explains both why it is both eclectic, and free.

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It also wasn’t just medieval or early modern European armour here; there was a whole room of Eastern armour, which was pretty cool too, although I guess it doesn’t get as much attention as the European stuff because it doesn’t tend to have helmets and face plates made with ridiculous moustaches attached.

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After the glorious respite that the armoury provided, I reluctantly headed back upstairs to what I had come to think of as the “stuffy bit” to see the rest of the art.  We had reached the long gallery, ubiquitous in stately homes, which was indeed quite long and full of more art.

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However, this art was better than most of the crap in the other rooms, because they had the Laughing Cavalier, which I’m pretty sure is famous, and also that rather splendid portrait of George IV (I assume from his Prince of Wales or Regent years, because he was way more enormous by the time he became king).

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Aside from that though, the art here was fairly unmemorable, which is why I haven’t talked about it much.  Oh sure, there were a surprising number of paintings of chickens (which I love) and also a rather good cow picture downstairs, but most of it was just portraits of various low-level aristocrats, or still lifes of dead animals, and other similarly horrible and uninspiring stuff.  Basically, if I hadn’t seen the armouries, I wouldn’t be recommending this place to anyone.  But I did, and so I will!

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Though in my (very inexpert) opinion, there are only a few pieces of art here worth seeing (let’s be honest, the main attraction of the upstairs rooms is marvelling in how they managed to find curtains hideous enough to match the wallpaper), the armouries are splendid, and clearly a bit of a hidden gem.  For that reason alone, the Wallace Collection is definitely worth a look if you’re passing through the Marylebone/Bond Street area, and I felt that it was possibly even worth braving Oxford Street in December (the things I do for this blog)!  3/5 as a whole, but I’d rate the armouries higher.

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London: Maps and the 20th Century @ the British Library, and “Intrigue” @ the Royal Academy

dsc09077_stitchLast week, when some certain election news meant I needed something to distract myself/cheer myself up, I decided to spend the afternoon visiting two new-ish temporary exhibits in London I’d been wanting to see. (Unfortunately, neither museum allows photography in the exhibition spaces, so I can’t really show you anything, which is a shame.) The first was “Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line,” at the British Library, which opened on 4 November and runs til 1 March 2017.  I hadn’t attended anything at the British Library since “Terror and Wonder,” the Gothic Imagination exhibit two years ago, which I really enjoyed, so I was hoping this would be as impressive.

Admission is £12, and they offer half price admission for National Art Pass holders, so I managed to get in for £6.  “Maps” was located in the same exhibition space as “Terror and Wonder” was, which I was pleased with because it’s such a nice large area, so visitors can spread out a bit.  Actually, seeing something else there made me appreciate how they must have gone out of their way to create a wonderfully creepy atmosphere there for the goth thing, because it’s a fairly characterless space without all the gloomy lighting and fabric hanging down.  Anyway, as you can probably guess from the name, this exhibit was all about maps of the 20th century, and how maps reflect the social and political changes that occurred over the course of the century.

The start of the exhibit was pretty cool, in that it was mapping us, the visitors, as we moved around the exhibit, with a “live” map that used different coloured dots to represent each person (the dots moved with us, which of course I had to test by running back and forth like an idiot whilst staring at the map).  Other than that, the exhibit was divided up into five main sections: Mapping a New World, which was about mapmakers and how map making technology changed over time (this section included a few pre-20th century maps to demonstrate this); Mapping War, which was mainly about WWI and WWII, Mapping Peace, which showed what happened during the negotiations following the World Wars; Mapping the Market, which was about world economies; and finally Mapping Movement, which showed how both populations and individuals moved over the century.

Because it was a Wednesday afternoon, there weren’t very many people in the exhibit, which delighted me because maps are the kind of thing that you really have to get close to and study for a while to appreciate, so it can be annoying if there’s too many people in there, because they’re likely to block a map for some minutes whilst looking at it.  Without having photographs of the maps to remind myself what was there, it’s hard to do a detailed recap, so I’ll just tell you some of the memorable highlights.  There was a beautiful, post-WWI map of a fairy tale world, hilarious maps depicting the ways Reagan and Thatcher allegedly viewed the world (though it was a bit sobering to think that Trump probably thinks in much the same way, if not even worse), and of course, early versions of some iconic maps, such as Harry Beck’s tube map.  There were also some funny cartoony anti-Nazi WWII maps (the “Adolfin Sea” made me laugh more than it should have), and an impressive map of the trenches in WWI that was handmade, with thin sheets of paper carefully layered up to depict the terrain.  This being the BL, they also had some famous maps from books, like AA Milne’s original map of Hundred-Acre Wood (I would definitely be relegated to Eeyore Land, which is all boggy and gloomy), and Tolkien’s map of the Shire, though I’m not the right kind of nerd to have properly appreciated that (I’m a nerd alright, but not a Lord of the Rings type one).

I was happy to see that this exhibit was just as big and thoughtfully put-together as the Gothic Imagination, despite not being quite as atmospheric. There was also a free exhibit about Victorian entertainment when I was there, located at the back of the main hall, which contained some excellent old posters for magic shows and clairvoyants, as well as an early film of the “egg-laying man” magic trick, which was pretty amusing.  Definitely worth walking to the back of the hall for!  I have to admit, I was definitely happier about paying £6 than £12, because I am cheap, but I think this exhibit was actually worth the money either way, because there was so much to see, and it was very well done.  Definitely 4/5 (not quite as high as “Terror and Wonder” because I just like monsters and stuff better, but still very good and interesting).

dsc09074The second exhibition I visited that day was “Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans” at the Royal Academy of Arts (it runs til 29 January 2017).  I’m still not real sure who Luc Tuymans is, but I don’t really care because I am a huge James Ensor fan, and he was the focus of this exhibition.  I’d never been to the Royal Academy before, mostly because I balk at spending £9 and up for art, but I had to make an exception for James Ensor (I think it was actually £10, but I got a whole pound off for being a National Art Pass holder.  Dunno why they couldn’t offer half-price or free admission like almost every other museum in London, but whatever).

Anyway, I included links to a few James Ensor paintings when I went to his house last year, and there’s more on the exhibition page if you click the Intrigue link in the previous paragraph, but I get the impression that his work is of a type where you either love it or hate it.  I am definitely in the former camp…anyone who painted as many skeletons and fart clouds as he did is going to be pretty damn high on my list.  Having really only been familiar with his paintings previously, I was delighted to discover some of his etchings at this exhibit, because I think I might like them even better than his paintings, particularly the Seven Deadly Sins series (LOTS of skeletons!).  However, although Ensor’s art was all delightful, and I was very happy to see so much of it in one place, I was less pleased with the picture captions, which only provided the name of the piece and the year it was created, without any additional information whatsoever.  The free booklet they gave me was pretty informative, but it didn’t talk about every single painting, and it also didn’t discuss them in the order in which they were displayed, so I really would have preferred that the information been next to each painting, as it would be in a normal art museum.  There were audio guides available, but they cost an extra £3.50, which I thought was a bit excessive after already having to part with a tenner just to see the (fairly small) exhibition.  So although Ensor’s art did make the experience worthwhile for me (many of his pictures made me actually laugh out loud, which was what I needed that day), I’m really not thrilled about how much I paid to see it, and how little time it took to see, because there was literally nothing to do besides look at the pictures.  So although Ensor himself is for sure a 5/5 for me, this exhibit only gets 3/5 as a whole, because of the Royal Academy’s lacklustre effort.

 

London: House of Illustration

house of illustrationI wanted to blog about Open House London this week while it was still a relatively recent occurrence, but that post needs more editing than I’m in the mood to do today (I’ve been getting a lot of eye strain lately, might be time to get my eyes checked!) so it’ll have to wait for another week or two.  Instead, here’s one on the House of Illustration that I wrote a while ago (as you can probably tell, given that all the exhibits I talk about ended weeks ago). The House of Illustration is a fairly new museum (opened in 2014), and as far as I can tell, not terribly well publicised (the first I’d heard of it was when I was looking through the National Art Fund pass holders book for stuff to do around London).  It’s part of the whole King’s Cross regeneration deal (I don’t think I’d ever been in Granary Square before the regeneration, probably due to the reason why it needed to be “regenerated” in the first place, but it does seem pretty nice now), and was founded in part by Quentin Blake (illustrator extraordinaire, most memorably for many of Roald Dahl’s books).

Admission is normally £7; we only went because the National Art Pass got us half-price entry (and we hadn’t used the membership in a while, what with going to New Zealand and all). The House of Illustration did sort of seem like a work still-in-progress, as the Quentin Blake gallery had only just opened a few months ago, so they might be planning to add more to it, but as it stands now, there are two main galleries, with an extra little exhibition room off one of the galleries (the admission fee includes both galleries, which is not how it looks on their rather confusing website).  Oh, and they don’t allow photographs, so you’ll just have to use your imagination, which is frankly a bit crap when we’re talking about a “house of illustration” (that’s why I’ve inserted links to the illustrations I could find online. I know it’s a bit of a pain to click them, but I wasn’t sure of their copyright statuses, so I didn’t want to just copy them into the post).

I got the impression that all the exhibits here are temporary exhibits, but the main (largest) one on at the time of our visit (some months ago now, sorry, I was trying to finish up with Australia first) was “A New Childhood: Picture Books from Soviet Russia” which was on until September 11.  I was intrigued by this, because as you all know, I quite like Soviet art.  Basically, when Russia first became the Soviet Union, there was a brief flourishing of creativity in the world of children’s books.  Fairy tales were out, but animals were still acceptable, as were stories about everyday Soviet life, and some wonderful things were produced, including, for the first time in Russia, many Jewish children’s books, some illustrated by big name modernist artists like Marc Chagall, and a Soviet version of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories.  However, this period only lasted from the 1920s to the early 1930s, when Stalin cracked down on creativity; from then on, books could only be about boring state-approved topics, like methods of production, Soviet workers, and the might of the Soviet empire.  Snooze central.

However, I really loved some of the books from the heyday of Soviet art; there were lots of farm animals (I really like chickens, I don’t know why.  Actually, scratch that: I think it’s because of the Feather Town books I owned as a child.  I loved Fran and Emma!) and for some reason, elephants, and even a story about a family of fleas, including a grandma flea clad in a babushka, which was kind of adorable.  They had a few English translation copies of picture books set out at the end of the exhibit that you could look through, and I especially took to Samuil Marshak and Vladimir Lebedev’s Ice Cream, which appeared to use a “fat man” eating ice cream as a stand-in for capitalist pigs; he ate all the ice cream that an ice cream cart was selling, so no one else could have any, but at the end, he began turning blue from eating so much ice cream, and eventually exploded, a la Mr. Creosote, only instead of spewing out partially masticated food over disgusted restaurant patrons, he magically turned into snow that covered the streets, much to the delight of children (personally, I would think they’d be pissed, as not only would they not get any ice cream, they now had to have snow during Russia’s brief summer, but it was still a great, and charmingly illustrated story).

The other main gallery is the Quentin Blake wing, which, true to its name, is all about Quentin Blake.  When we visited, it housed both “7 Kinds of Magic,” which included drawings from 7 children’s books about magic that Blake has illustrated (including The Witches, delightful!), and, in the larger room, “The BFG in Pictures,” which included some never-before-seen BFG art (I assume this is in response to that absolutely dreadful looking new movie.  Please stop ruining my favourite children’s books by making horrible movies out of them!).  I absolutely love Quentin Blake’s drawings, and in particular the BFG, who reminds me very much of my grandpa (must be the big ears…I tear up every time I read The BFG), though I suppose that wouldn’t have been the case if they’d gone with the original cruder illustrations, where the BFG wasn’t quite as gaunt and wrinkly.  But yes, I loved seeing new and different illustrations that didn’t make it into the books, and it was also a delight to look at the colour version of pictures that did (the scene where the BFG dines at Buckingham Palace is one of my favourites!).  I mean, I can’t complain about a bunch of Quentin Blake art.

But that’s not going to stop me from complaining about the museum as a whole!  I think £7 is extremely steep for the size of this museum, and was very glad we only paid half price.  Just thinking of all the museums you can see for free in London, it seems ridiculous to have to pay that much for something this small and rather out of the way of the rest of London’s tourist destinations, so I’d be interested to see how many visitors this museum gets.  I also wasn’t super keen about the no photography rule (maybe for copyright reasons, because otherwise it didn’t make sense?), and the fact that you had to keep your ticket handy (which was just a receipt) because the set-up of the museum means that galleries are through separate doors, both off the gift shop, and someone checks your ticket inside each of them (there must be a better way of doing things that doesn’t require every visitor to frantically dig round their pockets when entering).  That said, the gift shop had a rather excellent little collection of postcards and greeting cards that I probably spent too long looking at, and I did really enjoy the exhibits that the museum had, I just think there wasn’t quite enough of them to justify the admission fee.  So I’ll give it 3/5; most enjoyable content, particularly for Quentin Blake fans, but downgraded for price, size of museum, and rather odd layout.