museums

London: “Inspiring Walt Disney” @ the Wallace Collection

Let me preface this by stating that I am not a big Disney person. OK, I do still love Disney’s Robin Hood and the songs from The Little Mermaid, and I did go to Disneyland Paris like ten years ago when we got a cheap deal on a day pass in January and I rode Phantom Manor about twenty times in a row because the weather was terrible and there were no queues, but I’m not one of those adults who still watch every Disney movie and take all of their vacations at Disneyworld with special themed outfits for each day and decorate their houses with Disney merchandise. You know the ones (I certainly know the ones, since I’m basically describing someone I went to high school with who seems to always be popping up in my Facebook feed with Disney crap). I liked the films when I was a kid, but most of them just don’t hold up well when you watch them as an adult, in my opinion. My point in saying all this is that I wasn’t inclined to like this exhibition just based on the Disney connection – they were actually going to have to work to impress me!

“Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts” runs until October and costs £14 (£7 with Art Pass). I booked in advance because that seemed to be the thing to do, but when we got there, the exhibition was almost completely empty. (The rest of the Wallace Collection, which is free to enter, was fairly crowded.) The man at the desk handed us each an audio guide, and we were off. I know I’ve set myself up as a Disney cynic in the opening paragraph, but I have to admit that I was tickled right at the start when the audio guide turned out to have a surprise guest narrator who was none other than Angela Lansbury, aka Mrs. Potts. Fortunately, as far as pacing was concerned, most of it was narrated by someone with a faster speaking voice, so we weren’t standing around all day, which I hate. It was still a bit long-winded in places for my tastes, but at least it was easy to skip around.

Apologies that there’s not photos of everything I would have liked to take a picture of, but we were told conflicting things by different staff members regarding photography, so we were only able to photograph some of the exhibition. Anyway, in 1935, Walt Disney travelled to Europe with his brother Roy and their wives, in part to source ideas for future films, and whilst there he fell in love with French castles and 18th century French decorative arts. And because the Wallace Collection’s, er, collection features French decorative arts (amongst many other things), this exhibition contained objects from their collection that may have inspired Disney’s animators, particularly when they were making Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast, which were the main focus here, since they both feature inanimate objects coming to life and are both set in roughly the same historical era (not that Disney is exactly known for its historical accuracy).

Fortunately, apart from the two films I mentioned at the start, Beauty and the Beast is probably the Disney film I’m most familiar with. I was 6 when it came out, which I think is a pretty ideal age for Disney, and I could relate to Belle because she had brown hair and loved reading, just like me, so I watched it a lot, even though the part where they put Belle’s father in the caged madhouse cart thing freaked me out. So I loved the sketches showing how the drawings of each anthropomorphic character evolved. Mrs. Potts was particularly cute – she was originally wearing a tartan tea cosy, but they changed her to be a more elegant fine china. The original Cogsworth was shit scary though. You can see him on the Wallace Collection’s website if you scroll down.

Of the French decorative art pieces on display here, the best were probably the pair of Sevres vases pictured above (which were on loan from American museums, so weren’t even part of the Wallace Collection), which were made to look like adorable castles, and inspired many Disney castles, but there was also furniture (some with animal feet, which may have been what inspired Disney to give life to inanimate objects in the first place), clocks and candlesticks (aka Cogsworth and Lumiere) and paintings.

Apparently, The Swing by Fragonard, which is the painting above left, was a particular favourite of Disney animators, and appeared in a number of different guises, from a flashback scene in Beauty and the Beast showing Belle’s childhood, to a background painting in Frozen. I’ve watched Frozen exactly once and was distinctly underwhelmed, so I hadn’t noticed it (and I haven’t seen Beauty and the Beast since I was 13 and spent a summer babysitting a little girl who was OBSESSED with it, so don’t particularly remember it in that either), but I suppose it is interesting the way they hide these “Easter eggs” in different films.

I feel like my general lack of enthusiasm for Disney is probably making it sound like I didn’t enjoy this very much, but the opposite is actually the case. After dealing with crowds at most London museums, the fact that we were practically the only visitors was a delight, and I really enjoyed looking at some of the original sketches and the objects from the Wallace’s collections. Disney fans would love the “behind the scenes” look, I think, and the decorative art pieces made it appealing to even cranky people like me. 3.5/5.

Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum incl. Iron Men

The Kunsthistorisches Museum is the final location in Vienna I’ll be blogging about. I wanted to visit primarily to see the Kunstkammer, because Kunstkammer and Wunderkammer are music to my ears (Wunderkammer admittedly more so, because wonder!) – I love a cabinet of curiosities. However, when we bought tickets, the ticket man tried to upsell us into seeing their Iron Men exhibition, which runs until 26 June, and because it was only €3 extra (on top of the hefty €21 base admission) and because I love armour, I gave in, so that was where we headed first.

And I’m so glad we did, because this was probably my favourite thing that we saw in the whole of Vienna. It was such an amazing exhibition. Not only were the objects on display excellent and unusual, the interpretation was fantastic as well. They told us the things we really want to know about armour, like how do you move in it, and how does it stay on your body? The only thing missing was how you poop when wearing it, though they actually might have covered that somewhere and I’ve just forgotten.

To illustrate my first two questions (don’t worry, not the third), they had a series of videos showing a modern man doing stuff in armour, my favourite of which featured him climbing up ladders, doing a somersault, and a “bonus move” of doing the little side jump and heel-click that I can’t master even in normal clothes. He also put on the armour to show how it was held together by leather linings and straps, which is what fitted it to the body, but because the leather has deteriorated so much in most surviving armour, all we can usually see is the steel that was left behind. Happily, they did have a few pieces here that still had straps intact so we could get a better idea of how it worked.

I was also delighted to see that (one of) my ancestral homeland(s) of Slovenia was responsible for some of the finest pieces in here, like the eagle helmet above the preceding paragraph. I hadn’t seen much armour from there before, nor did I really know what was going on there in the medieval era, so it was nice to get some idea from the descriptions of armour and tournaments. The most interesting part was probably the section on jousts of peace, which were were done purely for fun, and for which competitors wore amusing masks, like devils, birds, the excellent lion shown above, and creepiest of all, ones painted to look like people, which you can see below.

There was so much here that was absolutely fascinating, from the techniques used to make different colours of armour (peep that gorgeous blue armour at the start of the post), to the clothes they were wearing under the armour, and the way fashions changed over time. Particularly loved the pointy toed boots with the removable tips so the wearer could enter a room in style but take them off for battle, and the suit of armour with removable ruffles on the sleeves. Honestly, they spent so much time on the construction and style trends of armour that this felt almost like a fashion exhibition, and that is certainly not a complaint coming from me!

I think it’s pretty clear that I think this exhibition is a must-see if you’re in Vienna, and I could go on about it a lot longer, but in the interest of time, and as I had to in real life (since we were flying back home that afternoon and had an airport to get to), I’ll cut things short and move on to my original reason for visiting, the Kunstkammer.

 

The Kunstkammer takes up almost an entire floor of the museum and contains the accumulated treasures of a number of Habsburg rulers, mainly those who ruled in the 16th and 17th centuries. We made the mistake of walking in at the wrong end and deciding to walk back to the entrance so we could see everything in order. This was…not a short journey. I think it’s impossible to visit, walk through that endless parade of rooms stuffed with exquisite objects, and not conclude that the Habsburgs were both far too wealthy and in power for far too long. Not saying that most of their collection wasn’t gorgeous and worth preserving, but it was far more stuff than any one family needs.

 

Because our time was so limited and there was so much here, I decided to focus primarily on the things that interested me most, which means automata! The ones here were unbelievably intricate and fabulous and included a ship that moved across a table whilst musicians played on board, with the ship’s cannon firing as a finale; a spectacularly creepy archer that also moved forward whilst his eyes rolled around in his head and he fired a bow with a real miniature arrow; a moving musical carriage with a rearing horse; a few different clocks with moving figures, and more! Though I wished we could have seen them live in action, I suppose it wouldn’t be great conservation-wise if they had them constantly up and running, but they did have the next best thing in the form of videos showing them in motion, available to watch on tablets in each room. They are happily also available on the museum’s website, so you can watch them too.

There were also lots of exceptionally detailed figurines and much less exciting silverware and glassware, save for a glass dragon that shot water in the face of the unsuspecting user if they pressed the wrong button when dispensing their drink (below left). You would need to spend hours here to be able to read all the signage and take everything in properly; as we had less than an hour in the Kunstkammer before we needed to leave, it was only ever going to be a whistle-stop tour. Still, I think I did manage to see all the best bits!

Lest you think this is all there was, let me assure you that the museum did have a number of other galleries. We quickly walked through the Roman and Egyptian collections (the Egyptian galleries, as you can see, had beautifully decorated themed interiors, as did the rest of the museum). There is also a picture gallery, which most famously contains a number of Bruegels, including The Tower of Babel. Although we were trying to hurry, we ended up walking through the whole of the picture gallery as well, because there was only one entrance/exit so we had to circle through all the rooms to leave. Consequently, we had to skip the entire top floor of the museum, which contained the coin collection and possibly another gallery, but I’m not that invested (ha) in coins anyway, so no major loss.

 

Basically, the moral of the story is don’t be like us, and allow yourself a whole day here if you want to see everything properly, because three hours was nowhere near enough time. I would also advise not using the toilets in the basement – there was a massive queue for the ladies’ because there were only two stalls (I thought the British Museum was bad at peak times, but at least they have about twenty stalls, so you’re in with a chance) and some woman jumped the queue just as I got to the front, which I was definitely not happy about (I did express my displeasure in English, which she clearly felt free to ignore). It’s an expensive museum that would almost certainly be free if it were in London, but at least we got our money’s worth out of the Iron Men exhibition, which I could not have loved more. 5/5 for Iron Men, 3.5/5 for the rest of the museum.

Vienna: Central Cemetery & The Funeral Museum

I couldn’t visit Vienna without visiting a cemetery, and Central Cemetery, which is one of the biggest in Europe, caught my eye immediately, not least because they have a funeral museum within the cemetery. Central Cemetery was opened in 1874 as an interdenominational cemetery, which was somewhat controversial at the time (the Catholic church was NOT happy). Despite its name, Central Cemetery is far from central (it’s in Simmering, which is literally the end of the line on the U Bahn and you still have to take a tram from there to reach the cemetery), so to attract burials, the Viennese authorities decided to create a “celebrity section” of composers, which involved digging up Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Salieri, Strauss, and Schoenberg from their respective cemeteries and re-interring them here. Mozart was spared that, presumably because he’s already buried elsewhere in Vienna, but there is a memorial here to him.

Other than the composers’ corner (and the museum of course), the main attraction of the cemetery is the massive chapel pictured at the start of the post, St Charles Borromeo, which was completed in 1911. It’s equally impressive inside, with art nouveau mosaics and stained glass and a beautiful starry ceiling. I had to laugh at the hand sanitizer bottles shoved in to the holy water fonts though.

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about Falco, who seems to be the cemetery’s leading attraction. Of course I know “Rock Me Amadeus” and “Der Kommissar”, but I’m not exactly familiar with his entire oeuvre. However, every single Austrian seems to be, judging by both his impressive grave and memorial benches and the sheer amount of people who apparently make a pilgrimage to his grave. His was the easiest to find in the cemetery – all we had to do was follow the crowds!

Other famous burials include Hedy Lamarr, who has quite an unusual memorial consisting of wires with balls strung on them (perhaps something relating to her scientific work?) and Manfred Deix, who I hadn’t heard of previously, but who had my absolute favourite monument in the cemetery. He was a cartoonist, so I assume the cat was based on one of his drawings. I looked at some of his work on the long U Bahn ride back into town, and I like his style!

Marcus has a couple great-grandparents and various other distant relatives who are buried here, so we spent some time looking around the Jewish section for those, and can I just emphasise again how massive this cemetery is? It is incredibly huge; each section stretched on for what felt like miles, and the ground between the rows was not particularly well tended (though still nowhere near as bad as most British cemeteries), so I found myself stumbling a lot as we searched the sections his ancestors were meant to be in. We never ended up finding most of them, possibly because this section was bombed during WWII, but we did, however, find someone with Marcus’s exact name (except for Marcus was spelled Markus), which was kind of exciting, in a creepy way. (I might have forgotten to use my cemetery voice and yelled out, “Holy shit, it’s you!” when I spotted it.)

And on to the museum. The Funeral Museum is housed in the bunker-like basement of an otherwise rather charming building near the cemetery’s entrance (I should say one of the cemetery’s entrances…there’s at least six different tram stops and entrances all outside the perimeter of the cemetery) and costs €7 to enter. Given that the website was all in German, I wasn’t entirely sure if we’d find any English inside the museum, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that everything had an English translation, including a large interactive screen with tonnes of information on the history of the cemetery.

Though this museum wasn’t anywhere near the scale of the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston, and focused primarily on Central Cemetery itself rather than death-related traditions around the world, it was still a pretty cool little museum. We learned a lot about 19th century funerary practices in Austria and enjoyed looking at displays of mourning jewellery, caskets, adorable miniature models of the cemetery, a collection of uniforms worn by funeral attendants, and even a knife for stabbing the heart of a corpse (I guess to prevent vampires?).

The museum clearly also had a sense of humour about itself, because in addition to an excellent collection of death themed cartoons in the last gallery, they also had a quirky little shop selling amusing t-shirts, tote bags, LEGO hearses, and even honey made in the cemetery! I would have loved to buy some of the honey, but because we had hand luggage only, I wouldn’t have been able to take it back, so I settled for a tote bag and some postcards.

 

Other than there being far too much walking, this was a very nice experience. Loved the museum and the cemetery itself. It seems clear that Central Cemetery is meant for the living as well as the dead, as the cemetery also contained a bustling café and another little shop by the entrance full of black humoured merchandise, and was probably one of the busiest cemeteries I’ve been to (which sounds weird to say, but you know what I mean), with most of the visitors seemingly fellow tourists, though there were some people obviously visiting deceased family members as well. It’s just nice to see a cemetery being used as a gathering place in true Victorian style! Even though it’s a little bit of a pain to get here, I highly recommend visiting if you find yourself in Vienna. It’s not the most picturesque cemetery I’ve ever been to, but it’s certainly one of the largest, and the museum is the icing on the (soul) cake.

Vienna: Imperial Carriage Museum

If it wasn’t already clear from my last post, just let me say that if you like the Habsburgs, you are going to love Vienna. To stick with the Imperial theme, after seeing the underwhelming Anker Clock and eating an exceptionally large Kaiserschmarrn with caramelised walnuts that unfortunately left me disgustingly full for the rest of the day (Kaiserschmarrn is also Imperial, having been a favourite of Franz Joseph I, hence the name, so it was in keeping with the theme), we headed out to Schonbrunn Palace. On our last visit to Vienna, although we walked around the grounds and ate that giant pretzel I mentioned in my last post, we didn’t actually pay to go inside the palace, as it was obscenely crowded. This time, we set out with the best of intentions and fully meant to see Schonbrunn, but when we got there and saw the price and the crowds and thought about how much we hated Charlottenburg and the fact that this just looked like more of the same, well, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to do it. Instead, we headed over to the much more appealing sounding Carriage Museum, which is a very short walk away from Schonbrunn, despite what the misleading signage in Schonbrunn’s gardens would have you believe.

Despite being right by Schonbrunn and containing all Habsburg stuff, it is actually run by the Kunsthistoriches Museum, so it’s not included on any Schonbrunn ticket package (not that we bought one anyway). It’s €12, and you can buy tickets at the museum – it certainly wasn’t very busy when we were there, which was extremely refreshing after the crowds at the nearby palace. I said that I would talk more about Sisi in this post, and I wasn’t lying, because even though Sisi has her own dedicated museum (which we did not visit), that is clearly not enough for the Viennese, and the Carriage Museum is also basically the Sisi show. That’s her wedding dress you can see above right.

“Who the hell is Sisi?” you may rightfully be asking if you’re not Austrian, because I certainly didn’t have a clue. Well, the museum was here to tell you, and even went so far as to bill her a 19th century Princess Diana, so apparently beloved is she by the Austrian people. Her proper name was Empress Elisabeth of Austria, wife of the comparatively unremarkable Franz Joseph I (except for his love of Kaiserschmarrn I guess), and after reading the museum’s description of her, I’m still not quite sure why she was so beloved, as she seemed incredibly vain, high maintenance, and frankly, a bit of a nut.

I mean, just look at her extraordinarily creepy mourning dress, or at least what you can see of it in the above picture. 19th century mourning dress typically included a crepe veil for women, so nobody was going to see your face anyway, but Sisi took it upon herself to have a mask made of black feathers that covered her entire face like some kind of scary bird woman, and then still wore a veil on top of it (honestly, I think it’s kind of awesome, but her obsession with mourning is really the only thing I can get behind. Well, that and the horse chapel I talk about later). She spent hours on her beauty regimen and refused to have any photographs or paintings done after the age of 32 so she would be seen as eternally beautiful, which, as a 36 year old, I honestly find kind of insulting. I’m not that decrepit yet! It also sounded like she had an eating disorder – she would go through periods of starvation followed by binge eating, and she was described as too thin by acquaintances. In fairness to her, I don’t think she had the easiest life – Franz Joseph was supposed to marry her older sister, but fell in love with the beautiful Sisi instead, who was unprepared for life at the Austrian court. She had multiple children die in tragic circumstances (including a murder-suicide), had a difficult relationship with her husband, who was cold and businesslike, and was eventually assassinated by an Italian anarchist at the age of 60. Perhaps her violent death has something to do with her exalted posthumous reputation.

But this was still a carriage museum, not exclusively the Sisi Museum, and there were lots of fabulous carriages too, most of which belonged to, you guessed it, Sisi. Or more broadly, the Habsburg family, who managed to amass quite a collection over the years. The frequent tragedies that befell the Habsburg line in the 1800s also meant that they had some fab mourning carriages painted true priest black, rather than just a very very very very very dark blue.

My favourite thing was that absolutely fabulous leopard print sleigh, shown above left, though I was less keen when I realised the leopard print was actual leopard skin. I also learned that the Habsburgs built carriages with springs under their seats for comfort, but none under the coachman’s seat, even though the coachman would be expected to sit outside for hours in all weathers driving these people around. That is just a straight-up dick move, and almost made me glad most of them were assassinated. Seriously, clearly you can afford springs, so why not give everyone springs? Because they were assholes, that’s why.

The main reason I was drawn to the Carriage Museum in the first place was because they were hosting a temporary exhibition on masks and epidemics, which, even after experiencing a pandemic, is still very much my jam. The exhibition turned out to have been put up during the first lockdown in 2020, so only incorporated artefacts that were already in the museum’s collections, and was fairly small, but still interesting. I wish I could have read the Viennese equivalent of the Bills of Mortality that was on display here, but alas, I do not speak German (all the signage here was in English as well though, so it wasn’t an issue for the bulk of the museum). I also liked Sisi’s collection of horse paintings. She apparently considered horses her only friends, and had a whole chapel decorated with horse paintings, which sounds totally bonkers. I wish it was still around, because I would have loved to have seen it.

The museum took us right up into the modern era, with a Hapsburg automobile and even a custom racing car. I loved the old auto – naturally, the Hapsburgs didn’t have anything so plebian as a license plate number, just an image of their coat of arms on the plate, and the car was decorated in Imperial colours, as were many of the carriages.

I actually enjoyed this museum quite a lot. Although I don’t think I would have liked Sisi much as a person judging by the way she treated her servants (in addition to the coachman thing, she also forced the woman who styled her hair to wear white gloves at all times and save every hair that fell out of Sisi’s head whilst styling it, and then Sisi would yell at her if she thought there were too many hairs), learning about her was interesting, and I loved all the mourning carriages and reading about what was inside each carriage, though it would have been even better if we’d actually been able to see inside them (some of them had beds and reading lamps. Luxury, though not for the poor coachmen of course). 3.5/5.

And because I’m sure you’re dying to know what happened with the giant pretzels at Schonbrunn, well…after a far too long slog around the gardens where we failed to find the pretzels I remembered, we headed over to the Easter Market set up behind the palace. They were selling giant pretzels, but they weren’t the same ones from my earlier visit, not being quite as large nor delicious looking, and unfortunately, the stall was cash only, which meant we had to find a cash machine that charged a fee to use it (I hate that scammy shit. Those machines are illegal in the UK now, so it’s sad they still have them in Europe). I mean, I still ate the pretzel, and it was a good pretzel, but not at all the heavenly item I remembered from my first visit. The market had other delicious looking foods, like Kasespaetzle, but unfortunately, because I was so damn full still from breakfast, I just couldn’t eat any, much as I wanted to, so Schonbrunn Palace was sadly mostly a bust, except for the slightly disappointing pretzel.

 

London: Fashioning Masculinities @ the V&A

The V&A recently starting opening seven days a week again (since Covid, they’d only been open Wednesday-Sunday), and since my preferred day for museuming is Tuesday, I was keen to pay them a visit (I hadn’t been since seeing Faberge in November). The Beatrix Potter exhibition was fully booked on the day I wanted to go, so I ended up booking “Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear” instead. Most fashion exhibitions are geared more towards women’s clothing, and though obviously I love ogling fashions I would actually want to wear, I was intrigued to see an exhibition of men’s fashions for a change, particularly as the theme of the exhibition was exploring concepts of masculinity and gender through fashion.

The exhibition cost £20 (£10 with Art Pass) which seemed a little steep for the smallish gallery they normally have fashion exhibitions in, so I was pleasantly surprised when we arrived and discovered it was actually in the Sainsbury Gallery, their fancy newish underground exhibition space. I was somewhat dismayed when a large group of fashion students arrived at the same time as us (even if they hadn’t been wearing their student badges, I would have been able to tell from the fleekness of their eyebrows. Do kids even still say on fleek?), thinking it would be very crowded, but the spaces are so large and open it was actually not bad at all inside, and we were easily able to navigate the exhibition without having to queue.

The museum warned that there would be nudity in this exhibition, and they weren’t shy about jumping into it right from the start, with various photographs of nude men, clothing featuring penises, and a video of a naked man gyrating around (not that any of this was a problem for me). The first room of the exhibition was focused mainly on contemporary designers and some of their gender bending designs, such as skirts and shapewear for men. It also talked a bit about homosexuality in the mid-late 20th century and the way the gay community played with popular conceptions of masculinity.

After the first room, the exhibition focused more on men’s fashions throughout history, starting with the early modern period and progressing through to the 20th century, along with modern styles influenced by historical fashion. Needless to say, I generally preferred the historical fashions – those giant ridiculous shoes certainly aren’t doing that pink outfit any favours.

This segment of the exhibition was focused primarily on the role of colour in men’s fashions prior to the 19th century, when things took a turn for the drab. This was largely due to the invention of industrial dyes – before that, most dyes were made from natural materials, which could be expensive to make, so wearing brightly coloured clothing signified wealth (by the time the Victorians rolled around, this was no longer the case, so the upper classes could live out all their goth desires and still flaunt their wealth). For example, there was a fad for the colour yellow, which in China was only permitted to be worn by the emperor and his family, but when it became popular in the West, they quickly developed a version for the export market (which was still out of the reach of the lower classes).

Though I loved the colourful clothes, I also loved the 19th century part of the exhibition, which contained a massive wall of drab black suits and explained how the shape of the suit evolved over the course of the Victorian era. I’m not a tailor, so I don’t exactly understand how all this works, but what I got from the interpretation panels was that men’s coats were originally laboriously constructed from many different pieces of fabric, but as they started to become mass produced, tailors developed a way to reduce the number of pieces of fabric used by carrying the weight of the bottom part of the coat in the waistband. This allowed them to develop longer “skirts” on the coats, which invariably became narrower, as that was seen as a more masculine silhouette (and honestly, I love a long slim-fitting coat, and would totally wear some of the ones on display).

I also loved the 20th century part of the exhibition, which featured a display of tuxedos, including one worn by Marlene Dietrich (I’m embarrassed to tell you how much I paid for a pair of woolen Marlene Dietrich inspired suit trousers with matching waistcoat, but I get compliments every time I wear them, so maybe it was worth it); a display of photographs of mods taken in the ’60s, and the Edward VIII inspired trend for fair isle knits. (I know the man was a Nazi sympathizer, but I absolutely love that portrait of him with the dog, and I’m not going to turn down a fair isle jumper either.)

The denouement of the exhibition was a room containing a few dresses that were all famously worn by men, including Harry Styles. This seemed a fitting end – through showing us examples of fashion throughout history that don’t fit into the narrow constructs of modern masculinity (as defined by the more conservative elements of society), the whole exhibition seemed to be leading us to the conclusion that masculinity can be defined however you want it to be, and anyone can wear any clothing they like, though in the real world, obviously some people are still going to have prejudices, and this is probably easier said than done if you don’t happen to live in a big city or liberal area (based on the reactions I used to get to my unusual hairstyles in my youth, including one man who told me I should be dragged into the street and shot for having a blue mohawk). All this being said, I ended up enjoying this exhibition much more than I thought I would, given the focus on menswear. There were some great outfits here accompanied by good interpretation, the latter of which seems increasingly rare these days. It runs until November, so you’ve got plenty of time to go and see it if you find yourself in London. 4/5.

 

London: Surrealism Beyond Borders & Australia 1992 @ Tate Modern

This was the first outing I’d been on since getting Covid (other than work, but that doesn’t count as an outing), and I didn’t want anything too taxing, so the Tate Modern, which is relatively easy for me to get to, seemed like a safe bet. I often think I don’t like surrealism, but really what I don’t like is abstract art – surreal art that still looks like something, even if that something is weird, is ok by me, and Surrealism Beyond Borders, which runs until 29 August, looked particularly interesting because it included lesser-known artists from around the world, instead of focusing solely on the most famous surrealists. Admission was £18, or £9 with Art Pass, and we were able to book tickets the morning of our visit (this was a snap decision on the last nice day in March before the weather turned horrible again).

 

Unlike the Lubaina Himid exhibition, with its disappointingly patchy signage, this exhibition actually did go into quite a lot of detail about the history of surrealism and the way the movement spread around the world. It was started in Paris by a group of artists in 1924 as a way to “subvert the everyday”, challenge tradition, and explore dreams and the unconscious mind. Surrealism was often collective, as seen by the “exquisite corpse” drawings on display here where one artist would start a drawing, fold over the paper so only the bottom of the drawing could be seen, and pass it along to the next artist who would draw their own image, etc. etc. (I remember doing this as a kid, but we definitely didn’t call them exquisite corpse drawings). Because surrealism had a revolutionary aspect, it also caught on in former colonial countries agitating for political change. Although surrealists were anti-colonialism, because we’re talking about the ’20s and ’30s, they did have a gross tendency to interpret the traditional art of many indigenous peoples as surrealist without understanding the meaning behind it, which this exhibition also discussed.

 I’m glad that all this signage was there, because I love a bit of context, but of course I was mainly there for the art, and there was some good stuff. Although there were of course pieces by famous Western artists here, including Dali and Magritte, there was also a decent amount of art from around the world, including a whole room of Caribbean art, and the two pieces above, which I loved. The one on the left was by Japanese artist Koga Harue, and the one on the right was by a Mexican artist (whose name I sadly don’t remember – the label was on a different wall and I didn’t get a photo of it) and shows traditional objects associated with Dia De Los Muertos, including calabacitas, pan de muertos, and a prayer candle. There’s quite a few more pieces here I’d like to show you, but I don’t have all that much commentary (and I’ll be on holiday the week before this goes out, so I’m rushing a bit to get it finished before I leave, to be completely honest), so I’ll switch into photo/caption mode for a bit to save you having to slog through a load of unnecessary text.

Papa Lauco and Ogou Feray by Hector Hyppolite

Exquisite corpse drawings by Frida Kahlo and Lucienne Bloch

Time Transfixed by Rene Magritte

Enrico Baj’s Ultracorpo in Svizzera, loosely inspired by Invasion of the Body Snatchers, though that bridge monster looks quite chill.

Scylla by Ithell Colquhoun

Naissance by Laurent Marcel Salinas

This was part of a triptych by Remedios Varo. All three were there, but this was my favourite, I suppose because the man on the bike looks like the prince in the Lonely Goatherd puppet show in The Sound of Music.

Nus by Samir Rafi shows women fleeing a creepy post-apocalyptic landscape

I’m including Francoise Sullivan’s performance piece Dance in the Snow mainly for the shallow reason that I love her snow dancing outfit.

And finally, Victor Brauner’s slightly creepy Nous sommes trahis

I could honestly show you way more, but I think I’ve made you scroll down enough. Suffice it to say that I really enjoyed this exhibition, and recommend seeing it in person if you can, not least to see all the black and white photos that didn’t photograph particularly well on my phone. 4/5.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention A Year in Art: Australia 1992, a free exhibition located on the same floor as Surrealism Beyond Borders. The exhibition is inspired by the 1992 High Court Ruling in favour of Edward Koiki Mabo, who was of Torres Strait Islander ancestry and was trying to reclaim his hereditary land (sadly, this came five months after Mabo died from cancer, but it does mean he was able to be buried on what is once again his own land). Prior to this, all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lands in Australia were dubbed terra nullius, meaning land belonging to no one (because apparently indigenous people aren’t people), thus making them up for grabs to white Australian settlers. It is appalling to think that this practice went on until the 1990s.

 

Because it was free, I wasn’t expecting this exhibition to be as large as it was, but it filled one huge gallery space and a few smaller rooms, and included art made using ancient Aboroginal techniques as well as more modern pieces. I particularly loved the works by Gordon Bennett, including Possession Island (above right) based on a painting glorifying Captain Cook’s arrival in Australia, and How to Cross the Void, a series of often darkly humorous etchings criticising Australian culture, one of which can be seen above left.

 

Other works here included Up in the Sky, a photographic series by Tracey Moffatt that references the trauma experienced by the “stolen generations”, i.e. Aboriginal babies who were forcibly taken from their families and raised in white Christian missions; Judy Watson’s a preponderance of aboriginal blood, which is a series of reproductions of government documents showing the discrimination against people of Aboriginal descent that was enshrined in the Australian legal system through the 1960s, including denying indigenous peoples the right to vote; and Helen Johnson’s Bad Debt, pictured above left, which references the construction of Canberra on Aboriginal lands and the non-indigenous animal species introduced by Europeans that have had a devastating effect on native species (there’s obviously an analogy being made there). I’m glad we stumbled on this exhibition, because it was absolutely fascinating. It’s there until the end of September, so go see it if you can!

London: Port City @ Museum of London Docklands

I will take any excuse to go to Museum of London Docklands because it is only a short DLR ride away from Greenwich Market, home of my beloved Brazilian churros, so when I saw that they had a new exhibition called Port City, I thought, “Churros plus maritime history?! Sign me up!” I normally work on the days the churro stand is there, so I don’t get to visit often, but I had a day of TOIL to use in early March, so I took full advantage and planned to head out east. However, my luck being what it is, there was a Tube strike that day. Fortunately, the DLR was still running so we did manage to get there via a more convoluted route, but because we had to leave for the museum earlier than we were planning due to the longer journey time, I didn’t have time to attire myself in a vintage-inspired nautical outfit, as I otherwise definitely would have. I know, no major loss to the world, but I do like to theme my clothes if possible!

 

Port City is a free exhibition located in Museum of Docklands’ relatively small temporary exhibition space, the same one where I saw the Havering Hoard, Secret Rivers, and many others. It runs until 8 May 2022 (and apparently opened back in October – where have I been?). The exhibition “traces more than 200 years of extraordinary experiences and intense activity on a river that has always been essential to the city’s survival”, though seemed to focus mostly on the 20th century.

 

Obviously, the Thames is a hugely important part of London and probably dear to every Londoner’s heart (certainly my own), but we often don’t think of London still being a major port, not least because we’re inland, but also because most shipping operations these days happen at a “mega port” about thirty miles outside the city, so it was interesting to explore that side of London.

 

My absolute favourite thing in the exhibition, though excessively imperialist by today’s standards, was a map of the world from the perspective of Britain as the centre of the still fairly flourishing empire of the 1920s. I spent about ten minutes examining it on account of the little animals with talk bubbles drawn all over the map, particularly the polar bears. I had just remarked on their being incorrectly located in the South Pole when I noticed one of them had a talk bubble saying, “It’s a long way to Tipperary” and another saying, “This is all wrong! We belong at the North Pole!” Nice.

 

There were some interactive elements to this exhibition, though sadly the ambergris pictured above was not one of them. I excitedly reached my hand in the hole to touch it, only to be blocked by plexiglass that was invisible from the side. However, there were a few boxes filled with authentic smells of the docks, some of them surprisingly pleasant. We were the only people in the exhibition, so I was able to pull my mask down for a bit to give them a good old whiff.

I also loved the wall of nautical inspired phrases and London place names. You could pull out different bricks to read how these terms came to be, and I spent a good long while pulling out all of them. By the way, the horrible sounding Mudchute, a stop on the DLR that I’ve mentioned before, was named after muddy engineering overspill, so it was just as unpleasant as the name implies (I don’t think the overspill is there these days, but I suspect it’s still not particularly nice).

 

Before we went into the museum, Marcus commented that the statue that used to stand out front was no longer there, and neither of us could remember who it was depicting. Turns out it was of the slaver Robert Milligan who helped to create West India Docks, the area the museum is in, which was initially built to house sugar processed by enslaved people in the West Indies, and his statue was understandably removed in 2020. So it was helpful that the exhibition mentioned it and saved us the trouble of looking it up!

Apart from the odd snippet of pertinent facts like that, the exhibition was largely object and image driven, with only small amounts of information on the signage, so although it was quite visually engaging and interactive, I would have liked to see more text. I think it would have been interesting if it focused a bit more on the early history of Docklands, as that was a relatively short section before jumping into more recent history, and I tend to prefer Georgian and Victorian history to the 20th century. Also, though it’s a depressing subject, it might have been nice if they’d included more information on how areas like Canary Wharf have turfed out the poor and been turned into the hideous high-rise monstrosities they are today (I absolutely loathe Canary Wharf and Canada Water, in case you couldn’t tell). However, as it was a free exhibition, I really can’t criticise too much, and being the only people inside was an added and delightful bonus, though for the sake of the museum and the very friendly and enthusiastic staff member who greeted us, I do hope their visitor numbers pick up. 3/5 (the churros, as always, were a solid 5/5).

London: The World of Stonehenge @ the British Museum

“Stonehenge! Where the demons dwell. Where the banshees live and they do live well.” OK, now that I’ve gotten that Spinal Tap song out of my system, which is what pops into my head as soon as anyone mentions Stonehenge, I can talk about my personal experience with Stonehenge. I have been there only once, for summer solstice in 2009. Even though I dabble in witchery, I am not at all the sort of person who is into the Druids or stone circles or any of that crap, nor do I do drugs, so this was an unlikely place for me to be, but it was something Marcus had always wanted to do (even though he is REALLY not into any of the above), and at the time, he was about a month out from having heart surgery and doing some things from his bucket list in case he didn’t make it (but don’t worry, he is totally fine now!) so we drove down with a friend of ours. Now, this was the first summer I had spent in the UK, so in my head I was thinking, “summer solstice, longest day of the year, must be warm, right?” WRONG!

After queuing in traffic for about three hours and walking from the event carpark, which was an insane distance, probably a good two miles, away from the stones, we reached the site and sat down on the grass to watch the sunset, me wearing only jeans, ballet flats, and a light three quarter sleeve jumper. As soon as the sun went down, I was absolutely bloody freezing, and getting increasingly annoyed by the behavior of everyone around me, basically a bunch of hippie/festival types getting drunk and drugged out of their minds and climbing and hanging off the stones in a really inappropriate manner, so Marcus and I walked the two miles back to the car so we could try to get some sleep. Said car was equally freezing and for whatever reason, Marcus didn’t want to turn the heater on, so I spent a completely miserable night shivering to death whilst our much more outgoing friend was by the stones having the time of his life. We finally left the next morning, stopping in a Little Chef so I could use their toilet because the port-a-loos at the ‘Henge were even grosser than a Little Chef toilet (also the only time I’ve ever been to a Little Chef) and I already had a horrendous sore throat, which would develop into the worst cold I’ve ever had in my life. I was sick for about a month, and lost a stone (as in fourteen pounds, not a Stonehenge stone). And that is why I have never been back to Stonehenge.

 

But that terrible experience wasn’t enough to stop me going to see “The world of Stonehenge” at the British Museum, since I wouldn’t even have to leave London for that (also the toilets at the British Museum, whilst not always the cleanest, are still a hell of a lot better than port-a-loos). The exhibition, which runs until 17 July and costs £20, or £10 with Art Pass, is all about the culture of the Neolithic people who created the monument, although since it is prehistory we’re talking about, much of the content is speculation based on the archaeological finds from the area.

 

I’m never going to be the biggest fan of stones, which made up a large percentage of the artefacts here, but I am a fan of sea monsters, like the ones above right, and of the moon and stars, and skeletons, and weird little figurines with removable phalluses, all of which featured here. Unfortunately, photography wasn’t permitted of one of the best objects in the exhibition (though it didn’t stop pretty much everyone in there from taking a photo), the Nebra Sky Disc, which shows the Pleiades and is the oldest surviving star map, but it is the background image in the BM’s exhibition page, so please do click the link in the above paragraph if you’d like to see it.

 

Just as I was surprised by the intricacy of many of the ancient objects on display at the BM’s excellent Peru exhibition, so was I surprised by the craftsmanship of many of the artefacts here, craftsmanship not necessarily (perhaps wrongly) being the first thing you think of when you think of Neolithic people. I mean, an arrowhead is usually just an arrowhead, but the signage described the ones pictured above as “exquisite” and damned if they weren’t. I was also fascinated by the story of Seahenge, which was uncovered on a beach in Norfolk in 1998 after a shrimper found a Bronze Age axe head and a tree stump. Crazy that there was an elaborate prehistoric monument just hiding under the sea for all those centuries.

 

It is incredible to think that people actively used Stonehenge as a revered site for over 1500 years, and that the arrangement of the stones underwent major changes over time, and I’m always up for reading about burial practices, as the site originally served as a cemetery. Although I’m not one to feel the “power” of the stones, anything that old and mysterious is still kind of impressive, and I did love seeing all the objects associated with sun worship. I think I’d pass on actually wearing the ear discs though, which were the size of a chocolate digestive! I used to have stretched ears, although I only went to a 2 gauge, and even that was an incredibly unpleasant process that my ears have never fully snapped back from, so ain’t no way I’m getting those holes biscuit-sized.

I think it’s clear that I was actually fairly impressed by this exhibition, but if I had a complaint (and it’s me, so of course I have to have a complaint), it would be the usual one I’ve had since social distancing stopped being a thing – way too many people. I saw a sign saying that the exhibition was sold out for the day as we went in, which I knew meant trouble, and indeed, it was extremely crowded. I’m not overly concerned about Covid these days, being fully vaccinated and boosted, though I do still wear a mask inside public spaces, it was more the fact that I hate queuing and having to shove my way in to get at look at things, and there was definitely some of that, though the exhibition was fortunately large and spread out enough that I was able to move to less crowded bits for most of it to avoid queuing for long. I still would have enjoyed it much more with fewer people around though! As it is, I’ll give it 3.5/5. Definitely a better experience than visiting Stonehenge itself!

London: Waste Age @ the Design Museum

I’m afraid that this exhibition will have ended by the time this post goes live, but what can I say? Sometimes I’m lazy and don’t get around to visiting things until near the end of their run, especially if they’re things I wasn’t that bothered about seeing in the first place and only went to so I had an excuse to stop at the big Whole Foods and Arancina, which was definitely not the case here…

 

Anyway, Waste Age: What can design do? at the Design Museum was all about consumption, the waste it generates, and what design can do about it, so by its very nature, it was always going to be a little bit depressing. Nobody really wants to hear about how we’re destroying the planet, even if it’s something we need to hear. To really drive home the point, the exhibition opened with a series of photographs taken at dumps and other waste sites around the world, as well as graphs showing how much waste different countries and groups of people generate. Unsurprisingly, it is the middle and upper classes who are responsible for the most waste.

For me, one of the most interesting parts was a timeline illustrating the growth of consumer culture. I hadn’t realised that plastic bags weren’t invented until 1960! I knew a bit about the concept of planned obsolescence (being a weird anarcho-punk as a teenager will do that to you), but also didn’t realise that the Phoebus Cartel, which controlled the lifespan of light bulbs, was set up so early as 1925. The cartel artificially limited the lifespan of light bulbs to 1000 hours, even though early lightbulbs were designed to last for 2500 hours, and many could go for even longer than that. The exhibition had a photo of the oldest continually operating lightbulb, which has been burning in a fire station in California since 1901 and has provided over a million hours of light. Really goes to show how corporations have been screwing the world over for a very long time indeed.

The next section was a bit more positive, as it showcased ways designers are recycling materials that would otherwise be wasted. I was excited to spot the chairs we have in our café at work, which are made from waste from plastic factories and lumber yards. Although I think our chairs are reasonably attractive (they’re the ones stacked at the back of the photo above left), the design of some of the objects here left a lot to be desired. It’s all very well creating sustainable furniture, but if it looks like melted candle wax mixed with poo, like one of the chairs here did, who is going to buy it? Same goes for the rope made of human hair, which is an interesting concept, but I think I would barf if I had to touch it, unless it was my own hair.

 

Also intriguing, if a bit unsettling, was the display about a manky old cottage that some designers had preserved instead of knocking it down and building something new. Whilst I love old houses, and I’m all for preservation, their method was definitely strange, in that they decided to preserve the dust and dead bats inside the house. I love bats, but having dead ones laying around frankly feels like a health hazard, and as someone with dust allergies, I’m pretty sure walking into that place would kill me. Shame, as the fireplace with creepy faces in it is awesome!

Throughout the exhibition, there were examples of these concepts at work, with walls of the different exhibition spaces made of various recycled materials, which again, is all fine and dandy, but one of those walls absolutely stunk; I think it was the one I’m standing in front of in the photo above. It was made of sugar, and I find that sometimes sugar stinks when you open the bag, so I guess it was that smell concentrated, but damn! I could smell it through my mask, and I made Marcus smell it to confirm it wasn’t just me. It was kind of like that episode of One Foot in the Grave where there’s a bad smell by their sideboard.

After walking through a couple other rooms of conceptual products of varying degrees of attractiveness (yes to the dress, no to that stool with all the holes, which is triggering my trypophobia, and I really don’t think that “Bin Burger”, where all the burgers are made from food waste, is likely to take off), we finally reached a cool interactive nature wall that lit up as you walked past it. Not really sure what it had to do with the exhibition, except maybe to show what the world could be if we stop destroying it with waste.

As you might expect from somewhere called the Design Museum, this was very design orientated, and some of it was just too high concept for me, but other products did seem to have a practical use, particularly the ones that were for sale in the gift shop. However, I think a good place to begin, before we start eating garbage burgers and using hair rope, would be to do away with planned obsolescence and increase the lifespan of the normal objects we all use, like computers and small appliances (and to be fair, there were prototypes of laptops and phones in here that could easily be disassembled to install newer hardware as it comes out and thus prolong the life of the device). It gave me some food for thought about the ways we’re destroying the world (though according to the green checklist they had in there, I’m already doing pretty well by not owning a car, recycling, and not eating meat), but as someone who prefers history to futuristic design, this type of exhibition was never going to be my favourite, though obviously I knew that going in, so I don’t really know what I’m complaining about. 3/5.

London: Lubaina Himid @ Tate Modern

I became familiar with Lubaina Himid’s work thanks to the Online Art Exchange, which I take part in every week at work. Basically, museums pick an artwork from another museum off the Art UK website based on a theme that changes weekly and tweet about it, and one week I stumbled upon a painting from Himid’s Le Rodeur series, inspired by the grim story of Le Rodeur, a French slave ship. Nearly everyone went blind in the middle of the voyage (possibly due to severe conjunctivitis), and 36 (or 39, accounts vary) enslaved people were thrown overboard, allegedly to preserve water. Most disturbingly, the captain was subsequently given a second commission to transport slaves, because of the “great job” he did on the first trip. Himid’s paintings show Black people in strange “out of time” nautical settings, to portray the confusion the enslaved people on the voyage would have felt as they were chained in terrible conditions and went blind one after another. Needless to say, her painting became my selection for the week, and I have kept an eye out for her work ever since, so I was definitely intrigued by this exhibition at the Tate Modern.

Intrigued, but not exactly excited, because the description sounded rather pretentious. The term “theatrical exhibition” is ordinarily enough to send me running for the hills, but since Himid genuinely started her career as a theatre designer, that description wasn’t just mere pretentiousness on the part of the Tate. And I did like the Himid paintings I was familiar with, so I thought I’d give it a go, especially because it was the last week for Anicka Yi’s creepy squid robot things in the Turbine Hall, which I also wanted to see. Tickets for Lubaina Himid are £16 or £8 with Art Pass, and it runs until July.

The entire exhibition is inspired by the experience of Black people throughout history, particularly during the years of the British slave trade, and it got off to a good start with Metal Handkerchiefs, nine paintings showing Himid’s version of health and safety guidelines, and Jelly Mould Pavilions for Liverpool, which were a series of ceramic jelly moulds about the relationship between sugar production, slavery, and the development of British cities, which is a really interesting topic, and definitely something on which I would have appreciated more signage. However, if I was looking for decent interpretation, things would only go downhill from here.

The next gallery simply contained a sound piece where people (maybe Himid herself?) said the word “blue” over and over again in different languages, and these art pieces(?) on the wall that looked to be made out of long pieces of cardboard. You can see me looking through the exhibition guide trying to make sense of it all, but it frankly wasn’t much help.

 

The gallery after this was a bit better. It was a series of paintings Himid did in the 1990s about women planning strategies for survival. This was also influenced by the experiences of the people forced aboard slave ships, and was the result of Himid speculating how someone would have survived had they made it to the other side of the Atlantic, in an entirely new environment, with everything they’d ever known ripped away from them.

Next to come was what was definitely my favourite piece of the exhibition, Himid’s reimagining of Hogarth’s Marriage-A-la-ModeThe Toilette. These often hilarious wooden cutouts were a parody of the art world, showing the pretentious art dealers to one side, a Black female artist in the middle, the politics of the 1980s (appropriately) to the right, including Thatcher and the National Front, and a young Black girl observing everything and encouraging the artist to stand up for herself and stop compromising in her work.

To return to the ship theme, the other side of the room had sound effects meant to recall the creaking in the hold of a ship (this was a more successful installation than the “blue” thing), some pieces of wood arranged in a wave formation, and a cart painted with various fish. There was a lot of unused space here, but I guess that was all part of the “theatre”.

The final large room of the exhibition contained a few pieces from the aforementioned Le Rodeur series, some of her Men in Drawers series (literally just paintings of Black men in drawers, as in, drawers from a dresser, not drawers as in underwear), and more carts painted with fairly disgusting looking sea creatures and bugs (I mean, her paintings were good, but the creatures themselves were disgusting).

 

To close the exhibition, the corridor leading to the exit had a final sound piece (this sounded OK too – it was meant to be Himid telling the life stories of 100 African servants, but we did not stick around long enough to hear much of it) and some structure that contained benches under a weird closed off grid. I genuinely wouldn’t have known whether it was an installation or a construction zone had there not been a label next to it, and the label simply had the name of the work, so no real help there (I’ve chosen to show you lemon man instead of the weird bench-thing, because I like it a lot better). There were also some flags inspired by East African Kanga fabrics hanging up, which were quite cool.

I really liked many of the pieces in this exhibition, and I think all of Himid’s concepts had the potential to be fascinating, but unfortunately, the execution didn’t always live up to the premise. The soundscape room with the cardboard on the walls was particularly bad. Most of the rest of the exhibition was better than this, but there was still a lot of under-utilised space, and the price was very high for something we walked through in under twenty minutes. I think this was all due to the lack of interpretation. Big, important topics like this require the viewer to have both a sense of history and an understanding of how these issues are still relevant to the present day, and this just wasn’t here to any significant extent, save for a handful of quotes from Himid in the tiny exhibition guide. Interpretation would have made all the difference here, and bumped up the score quite substantially. 2.5/5 as it is.

Before leaving, we went down to see Anicka Yi’s squid robot things, which were neat, but very freaky. I’m not keen on anything tentacle-y, and the robots got disconcertingly low over our heads. I was convinced one had locked on to me and he was going to swoop down and latch on to my brain if I didn’t keep moving. The Turbine Hall was allegedly scented with various scentscapes, like spices to make us think of the Black Death (don’t ask me what that has to do with squid) but I couldn’t really smell anything through my mask, even though my sense of smell is usually really good regardless. I enjoyed the creepiness in the confines of the Tate Modern, but if I ever see one of those robots squidding down the street at me, I’m running for my life.