For weeks I had wandered past the posters outside the Fitzwilliam Museum advertising the Quentin Blake exhibition: Drawn By Hand, always meaning to go in but somehow putting it off each time. I suddenly realised I only had a week left until it closed, so popped into the tiny (free) exhibition space in Cambridge’s principal art gallery.
I instantly regretted not coming sooner as I would have returned every week to wander around the room if I’d known how much I would enjoy it! There were seventeen works in total, which varied from Blake’s well known book illustrations, to pieces he had produced for hospitals and for the university itself. A central exhibit displayed the pens, brushes, palettes and etching plates used to produce the works, lent from the artist’s studio.
A number of works depicted mothers and babies swimming underwater, and were designed for maternity units, such as those in the nearby Addenbrokes Hospital.
Blake’s connection to Cambridge was also represented by works he had produced for the university’s 800th Anniversary in 2009, such as the panoramic scene of students set against a backdrop of fireworks, cycling into the sky.
These splashes of colour are archetypal of Blake’s style, and bring even his occasionally morbid drawings to life, such as the book illustration of a bishop being hung.
I did in fact return on the final day of the exhibition as the works were so enjoyable to view, all displaying Blake’s quintessential charm. Never have I left an exhibition feeling happier.
Mexico fever has taken hold of London. In July it celebrated MexFest – a three-day event offering tasters in Mexican film, architecture and music. The modish La Bodega Negra is being chased by its edgier sister, Casa Negra; whilst Wahaca has become the go-to restaurant for anyone looking for a great last-minute evening. One of the world’s largest and fastest-growing economies, Mexico has a culture backdrop to match: its daring and colourful art, architecture, food, film and music may just prove its most successful export yet.
Evidence may be the Royal Academy’s ‘Mexico: A Revolution in Art, 1910-1940’ – an exhibition showing the artistic reaction to a thirty-year period of political and social change, which gave Mexican art a place on the world stage. Revolution in 1910 brought years of instability, and flowered a cultural renaissance that included some of the seminal figures of the 20th century.
Mariano Azuela said ‘How beautiful revolution is, even in its savagery!’ The exhibition shows that euphoria. Unlike the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, there was little state interference in the arts. Yet every inch is political – containing a unique social interpretation. It was a time of mass destruction and death, but exciting and intense reform. The artistic outpouring the revolution inspired is passionate to behold.
Nor was the movement populated solely by Mexican artists. Many foreigners were intoxicated with its lifestyle. Henri Cartier-Bresson said Mexico ‘is not a curiosity to be visited, but a life to be lived’. Josef Albers pronounced it ‘truly the promised land of abstract art.’ D. H. Lawrence and Malcolm Lowry were both attracted there. Englishman Edward Burra painted watercolour and gouache masterpieces. ‘El Paseo’ (c. 1938) has a sense of film noir, and exposes the huge tension between light and dark in Mexico. ‘Mexican Church’ (c. 1938) displays a pained, organic body in ornate surroundings. It is a faintly pagan depiction of a Catholic scene.
Mexico’s Aztec and natural heritage also inspired artists. The movement is streaked with native elements – more exotic and untouched than American art. Tertiary colours are drawn from its landscape, sometimes slyly blending into spiced shots of primaries. For example, Marsden Hartley’s ‘Earth Warming’ (1932), or Dr Atl (Gerardo Murillo)’s ‘Landscape with Iztaccihuatl’ (1932). Block shapes, clear curves and colour exude the fertility and diversity of Mexico. Forms are larger – hair flows in strands and locks; trees blow in ropes, not leaves.
Mexico mixes the macabre and the carnival-esque. Its imagery is at once bright and violent: bombastic, nationalist and brutally realistic. Francisco Goitia’s ‘Zacatecan Landscape with Hanged Men II’ (c. 1914) shows branching trees lowering bodies to the ground. The ferocious image is utterly organic, and the sun-bleached desert has its own deathly beauty. The motif of a grimacing (often dancing, moustached or sombrero-ed) skull is peppered everywhere – even in José Chávez Morado’s lively ‘Carnival in Huejotzingo’ (1939).
Revolution brought a sense of realism in art – propaganda was out, toil and poverty was in. Thus, photography is just as important a medium as paint. A brutal triple execution is laid out stage-by-stage in picture postcard form. Journalism is mixed with art as freedom of speech was a thrilling novelty.
Heavy socialist views permeate the works in this exhibition. Many portraits have faceless subjects – either blurred by paint or hidden by shadow. They are the unidentifiable worker who props up the country. José Clemente Orozco’s ‘Barricade’ (1931) shows hard, physical work in earthy colours, juxtaposed to the silver of a knife and the red of a revolutionary flag. Bullets blend into muscle and flesh, and contorted shapes hint at the artist’s time as a political cartoonist.
A reward at the end of the exhibition is a tiny self-portrait by Frida Kahlo. André Breton, the founder of Surrealism, was the first foreigner to recognize Kahlo’s talent. He labelled her a surrealist, and though she disliked the tag, it brought her prominence. Married to the equally talented Diego Rivera, she had an affair with Trotsky, and her introspective, Mona-Lisa-like portraits became iconic.
But, the artistic epitome of this period are murals in Mexico, particularly those by Rivera. His epic depiction of Mexican history on the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City is a masterpiece. This is what the RA’s exhibition lacks. Murals were the people’s medium. They were a way to communicate with the largely illiterate population – much as biblical works in Renaissance churches. Firstly political, secondly artistic, they culturally embody their time. The mural movement in the US, (especially in Chicago in the 1960s) was inspired by what had happened in Mexico.
Tensions between earth and humanity, nature and industry, concrete and the organic, the religious and the pagan, all expose Mexico’s varied chaos. There is a saying that we should ‘pity Mexico, so close to the USA and so far from God’. This view is not only changing economically, but culturally. The RA’s exhibition shows the power with which Mexico inspired art in the past, and the creative energy it has to offer the world in the future.
With thanks to the Royal Academy and the Guardian for photos.
‘Mexico: A Revolution in Art, 1910-1940’ is on at the Royal Academy until 29 September 2013. Details can be found at http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/mexico/.
Outside the British Museum’s long-awaited “Pompeii Exhibition” I ran into a family beating a hasty exit, their crying five or six-year-old in tow. On the surface there isn’t anything particularly remarkable about this: museums are noisy and bustling, exhibitions often akin to a game of cultural sardines with strangers. For some reason, however, this image struck a chord: there was something poignant about encountering so much distress immediately before exploring the last preserved moments of an entire civilisation.
The opening tableau, set aside from the main exhibition, has already been analysed in detail – Fiorelli’s cast of a guard dog beside a charred table from Herculaneum, two drinking lovers immortalised in fresco between. The scene is set with sensitivity, the visitors invited as audience to an abandoned stage set – ‘all the men and women merely players.’ Heads nodded knowledgeably and one studious visitor correctly announced the fresco’s provenance, avoiding the caption to one side. It struck me that the cast of the guard dog, contorted in obvious agony, was precisely at the eye-level of a child.
The exhibition certainly benefits from the limited space offered by the Reading Room. Crowded it might be, but in these sprawling villas of the first century AD public affairs were inextricably bound up with private life. Domestic space was adapted to accommodate the needs of a wealthy patron and his constant flow of clients. The atrium was the space in which this relationship was most exploited; here, the head of the household would give audience from his sella curulis (bronze folding-stool) surrounded by large chests boasting the family’s wealth.
On a critical note, the (perhaps necessary) decision of the curators not to scatter the most sexually explicit material throughout is rather at odds with their striving for realism. These pieces are set aside (in an alcove to the right of Boscoreale’s spectacular Garden room fresco, for those interested) with a clear warning about the nature of the content.
The public of the eighteenth century were incensed that one ancient had boldly displayed the violation of a nanny goat by the god Pan in the centre of his garden. In the twenty-first century the marble has been hushed into a corner. In contemporary Pompeii these ‘indecent’ images were everywhere, penises were painted on walls and carved into roads. Mary Beard offers the explanation that they are timeless emblems of masculine power but outside their historical context they are faintly comical.
In the past few months we have been bombarded with media about Pompeii and its environs. For the interested there have been documentaries from Andrew Wallace-Hadrill and Margaret Mountford, among others. For the conscientious there is also Mary Beard’s 2009 ‘Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town’ (recently available in a snazzy Folio Society edition). The public has been coached and coaxed into searching for the golden artefact – party pieces like the Garden room frescos familiarised as website banners, bags and smartphone covers. What’s more, the layout of the main exhibition is perfect for an ex-AHA student, Classicist, intrepid tourist: designed to transport those familiar with the streets of Pompeii or Herculaneum back to the shells of the houses they will have passed on their travels.
I, on the other hand, am more interested in what it does for the uninitiated – someone who has never been to Pompeii; a mathematician; a child. The Guardian’s review acknowledges just how far the ancient Pompeians ‘are such an intimate mirror of ourselves’. What this exhibition does, and successfully, is to remove that mirror and set the public (sometimes uncomfortably) face-to-face with their ancient counterparts. Essentially, you don’t need to have consumed every gobbit from the experts – perhaps Pompeii is best experienced through a child’s eyes? We have an enormous amount of literature analysing a site which has not been a sealed archaeological deposit for two millennia, and so to walk around and wonder what it is that intrigues and overwhelms the most inquisitive of minds is not another act of scholarship but one of artistic expression.
Go and sit in front of the front door of the reconstructed atrium and listen to the muffled soundtrack of footfall, carriages and commerce, viewing the milling tourists not as a barrier between you and the captions but as Pompeians of the twenty-first century. Don’t simply recognise Herculaneum’s carbonised cradle from a poster in the newspaper but imagine the child it once held, perhaps one immortalised in the plaster effigies of the last labyrinthine hall.
Never has the public had the chance to get so close to these artefacts; Fiorelli’s casts are mere inches away and frescos have been purposefully freed from cases. There is plenty here to excite and disturb every age, but it is the synthesis of these elements which gives the exhibition much of its tremendous impact.
‘The Muleteer’: Recreating the dead in plaster was a technique pioneered by Giuseppe Fiorelli in the 19th Century
Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum runs until 29 September 2013 – book now!
2 Holland Park Road could be called unremarkable if seen from the street, and in its original 1866 form, perhaps it was. However, the Leighton House Museum, as it is now, is astonishing inside and out. It belonged to artist and celebrity of the 1800s Frederic Leighton (1830-1896), whose art is still scattered across not only the walls of the house, but also the globe.
On a leafy residential road, walking into this celebration of beauty, travel and Victorian eccentricity from the sweltering street outside felt, to me, like entering the Pantheon from the midsummer heat of Rome. It makes its visitor feel just as small, just as insignificant because of its grandeur and cultural variety, but provides a distinctly personal experience nonetheless. The serenity of the peacock-coloured entrance hall (with a stuffed peacock to match) pacifies what could have been a chaotic clash of the cultures that are represented through the house. Every object, from the ceramic tiles on the walls to the sign for the ladies’ loos seems like a well-chosen work of art, and as I moved through the museum I found that with every room came a new approach to the formal beauty of the Victorian age.
This is where the magic of Frederic Leighton’s house comes in. The rooms each have huge integrity and variation from one another. The graceful studio with huge windows onto the garden feels like a performance space, whereas the bedroom opposite is superbly private. The classical and Middle Eastern blend with more traditional English and colonial ideas of design, and the mixing of these ingredients leads to a different experience in each room. Frederic Leighton was a great traveller, and although the house was built before he owned it, the way the East had influenced him also influenced the house.
Leighton’s work itself is rich and some of it truly beautiful: the museum’s collection has works of the prolific artist himself and some of his contemporaries. However, it is by no means just a gallery, and has been organised so that visitors might enjoy more than the art alone. Pictures are crammed on some of the walls of less significant rooms, but by no means is the art secondary. The paintings propped against the backs of chairs and positioned with seemingly little order add to show that this museum is to be viewed with every room as a great work of design and decoration.
Photos courtesy of the Bridgeman Art Library and rbkc.gov.uk/subsites/museums/leightonhousemuseum1.aspx
Few artists see their work exhibited at the National Gallery during their lifetime. To many, the idea of modern art at the London landmark is disconcerting – a genre that belongs to the imposing, edgier Tate Modern across the Thames.
But Michael Landy’s Saints Alive exhibition is far from traditional. The unpredictable artist is famed for destroying all his possessions in 2001, in his Break Down exhibition – but not before meticulously cataloguing all 7,227 in detail. Landy admits contemporary art is regarded as an eyesore by stereotypical frequenters of the National, before adding: ‘I like eyesores’. Despite this avant-garde background, Landy was chosen as the Rootstein Hopkins Associate Artist in residence at the gallery in 2010.
The only brief Landy was given was that his exhibition had to engage with the National Gallery’s collection. Thus the exhibition is juxtaposed to classical works, highlighting Landy’s intensely modern interpretation. Its violent nature could have been deleterious to understanding the paintings that inspired him, but in fact it brings out the serenity of the originals – making you to appreciate the pain behind the expressive beauty. Landy unites polar opposites – from Carlo Crivelli to the 1970s kinetic sculpture of Jean Tinguely.
Landy had never visited the National Gallery prior to his appointment, and regarded it as ‘stuffy’. By responding to the gallery’s collection as an outsider, he has utterly broken that. Michael Craig-Martin has called Landy a ‘sophisticated innocent’. As a newcomer, he was drawn to the saints and martyrs; as an ‘innocent’ he noticed the physical and emotional details over the theological. He has made the saints kinetic in a way not seen before.
Saints Alive is an experience. Health and safety notices are pointed out before you visit (curators ‘wanted to avoid the torso of Christ hitting the public in the face’). I jumped out of my skin after pushing an innocent-looking pedal which made a gigantic sculpture of Saint Apollonia rock fiercely after bashing her mouth with pliers.
The concentrated exhibition contains seven huge sculptures, climbing up like distorted fairground figures, mimicking horror-movie dolls. A personal favourite was the body of Saint Francis – gigantic and kneeling – with an industrious, rusted crane constantly taking of his body to try and give. It was here that I felt the symbolism of saints the strongest.
Statues are assembled with one of Landy’s artistic hallmarks: refuse. He has scoured car boot sales and flea markets, accumulating old machinery to construct the works. Landy says he feels ‘like Baron Frankenstein, digging around getting various body parts from different parts of the Renaissance.’ In a short film we see torsos sawn apart to make his sculptures – a martyrdom of the saints yet again, this time in the name of art.
Accompanying collages combine elements of Picasso’s distortion with classical painting and greyscale line-drawing. Components are made bold and surreal on blank white canvas – psychedelic cogs tear renaissance torsos apart.
Violence pervades the exhibition. Landy has worked solely with martyrdom: he satirizes the arrow piercing Saint Sebastian’s body by multiplying hundreds of them across one perfectly sculpted torso; fate is arbitrarily decided on a spiked martyr’s fortune wheel, inspired by Saint Catherine; Saint Francis doubles as a donation box, and strikes himself with a cross when coins are received, as if pain is what the giver wants. I was left confused about what the overt brutality meant – modern media may anaesthetise society to violence to an extent, but in Saints Alive it seemed almost unnecessarily explicit.
Paired with religion, the violence engenders uneasy tension. Landy expected religious controversy. He fell in love with the saints’ stories as an artist – not a Christian – affectionately calling them ‘barmy’. Martyrdom is inherently paradoxical: the saints seem to destroy themselves in the name of furthering faith in God, but by doing so in such brutal fashions often diminish belief.
As mirrored in his sculptures, Landy thinks the saints have been discarded. He argues ‘we’ve forgotten about them and they’ve been junked, really.’ Saints Alive tries to regenerate them for another audience. The saints of Saints Alive seem desperate: the sculptures begin to destroy themselves with the force of pedals and buttons visitors push, worn out trying to prove their faith.
Landy said of Saints Alive that ‘you can’t dictate how people interpret artwork’. He was unsure of what people’s reaction would be, and yet I am unsure of my own. The vitality Landy has brought to the National is exhilarating and fascinating, but the saints don’t necessarily seem more ‘alive’ to me. Landy has transformed fragments from altarpieces into destructive modern art: to me, this made the saints seem deader than ever.
‘Saints Alive’ by Michael Landy is exhibited at the National Gallery until 24 November 2013.
To discover the paintings in the National Gallery that inspired Landy’s work, visit www.nationalgallery.org.uk/visiting/printed-trails/michael-landy-trail.
With thanks to the National Gallery, the Guardian and the Telegraph for photos.
Ibrahim El-Salahi laments that ‘for decades African artists have been working in a vacuum.’ Worse than being criticised, they have been ignored. Hopefully, though, things are changing. El-Salahi is the first African artist to get a retrospective at the Tate Modern. His work is a heady mix of paintings, illustrations, drawings and critical writing, drawing upon African, Arab and Western traditions. With his evocative, but identifiable, African surrealism, El-Salahi’s work makes for a fresh and challenging encounter.
Sudanese El-Salahi learnt Islamic calligraphy at a young age, which formed a major technique in later work. He studied at the Slade in London, where he discovered Western modernism. His style betrays a mix of academic training and traditional Sudanese practices; and the exhibit traces his artistic journey through Sudan, his international arts education, political imprisonment and consequent self-imposed exile.
El-Salahi deconstructed calligraphy to shape his work, mixing it with Islamic symbolism: ‘Animal forms, human forms and plant forms began to emerge from these once-abstract symbols.’ He wanted to bring out a recognisable element for an Arab and African audience – calligraphy can be found everywhere on the continent. Inspired by the technique, he applies it to different mediums – creating a perpetually free-flowing stroke. He doesnt differentiate between drawing and painting: ‘It’s all art, works of art.’
The context El-Salahi is placed in is immediately reflected in his work. With such a diverse background, the retrospective shows his style is a fusion of cultures. A recent trip to Alhambra in Granada, Spain, resulted in huge canvases of sinuous flamenco dancers captured in Moorish lines. His signature tones of burnt sienna, ochre, yellow ochres, whites and blacks, he attributes to ‘the colour of the earth in Sudan’.
Between 1957 and 1972, he travelled around Sudan, looking to reinvigorate himself with cultural inspiration. The result is a mélange of mammoth ink drawings and earthy shading. The colours of the Sudanese landscape are heightened to primaries in some areas. Funeral and the Crescent (1963), hints a crescent moon in the corner – an Islamic motif that recurs throughout El-Salahi’s work. The painting is a tribute to the Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, whose assassination in 1961 was a pivotal event in the African struggle for decolonisation. Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I (1961-5) compromises huge contours – lending shape to the confusion of El-Salahi’s earlier works – and shades that mesh with greater calm. Suggestions of calligraphy and dripping paint echo earlier angst, but El-Salahi’s distorted faces are blended and hidden – masked and mask-like in their form.
El-Salahi’s paintings are organic. He extracts natural forms out of the man-made medium of calligraphy, to give his portraits a cell-like nature. Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams II (1983) encompasses embryonic sinews to create the winding sense of scientific diagrams. This piece is more controlled and sparse than his first. Female Tree (1994) fuses the natural with the human through biology offering a vibrant but simple synthesis.
His earlier work shows a confusion of ideas. His pieces, in process and outcome, are puzzles – unsolvable to the viewer, or even the artist himself. El-Salahi reveals: ‘To tell you the truth, when I am working, I’m not at all aware of what it is going to look like.’ The final piece ‘shows me things possibly in my subconscious mind.’ His paintings have spontaneity about them, but also an inadvertent complexity. He creates gigantic ink drawings, alongside Freud-esque portraits. His work reveals a backdrop of inspiration from Pissarro, Cézanne and Seurat, to Islamic manuscripts and Renaissance paintings. An early work, Self Portrait of Suffering (1961), shows a tribal mask-like face pained and confused with a mass of infinite, dizzy spirals. The earthy tones of the distorted visage are etched physically with sgraffito, and emotionally with suffering.
In 1972, El-Salahi returned to Sudan to take up a job as Director General for Culture at the Ministry of Information, despite Sudan being under a military dictatorship. In 1975 he was accused of anti-government activities and held without trial at the infamous Cooper Prison for six months. El-Salahi consequently entered a self-imposed exile from the country, commenting: ‘terrible as it was, I learned a great deal.’ The experience replaced his murky, philosophical tones with bold, introspective black and white. His drawings embody his view that ‘in the end all images can be reduced to lines.’ This powerful shift resulted in The Inevitable (1984-5), which greets the visitor to the exhibition with an imposing and intense collection of lines: modernist and lithe, displaying an angular emotion.
El-Salahi’s diversity of experience has calmed to a more reflective spirituality in his most recent work. He now lives in Oxford, and has turned to British countryside for inspiration (resulting in the series The Tree). His work is clearer and more ordered. Lines are sparser, and less curvaceous – perpendicular replacing the swirls. The Day of Judgement (2008-9) uses the blank white of the paper as much as ink – contrasting stark white to black filigree. The bold two-tone forces you to focus on emotion and shape, as colour is not there to overwhelm them. Here, shapes reign supreme, conveying emotion in contorted faces and mismatched bodies, as much as Giotto does through colour and storybook vibrancy in The Last Judgement in the Scrovegni Chapel. One Day I Happened to See a Ruler (2008), is the final piece in the exhibition. The triptych depicts an authoritarian ruler, commemorating the day he took the throne. But El-Salahi undermines his unjustified rule by portraying him naked before his subjects – human as much as they are. Elaborate constructions of shapes parody crowns, displaying false pomp and materialism, and airy, ethereal colours highlight the tenacious nature of his power.
El-Salahi is well aware of the lack of direction he experiences when starting a piece. But this need not make his work void of a message. He addresses the visitor thus: ‘What the work means to you is, for me, far more important.’ The pressure on this exhibition to engender interest in African Modernist art is high. To me, this exhibition was an organic offering of another culture – one of vitality, complexity and beauty – and I can rest assured that El-Salahi would be happy with my conclusion.
With thanks to The Guardian, The Independent, theupcoming.co.uk and Cornell University for photos.
Following an impromptu decision, I decided to head to Morocco in late June. The trip was to be just as spontaneous as its impetus – travelling haphazardly through Marrakesh, onto the edge of the Sahara, and finally Fes.
Marrakesh assaults the senses. It remains one of those fantastic cities that is itself an exhibition. Snaking through the medina on foot exposes you to a strangely harmonious multitude of tensions and fusions. Life remains steeped in history but constantly developing – donkeys pull carts of a myriad of spices (supporting ancient culinary culture) past bright red Coca-Cola parasols in cafes full of people jabbering on mobiles.
The colours are vibrant to the point of chaos. Fruit, market stalls, adverts – bright primaries are mixed with metallic tones, making a mosaic out of the city that mirrors the intricate tiling of its ancient Islamic architecture. A highlight of Marrakesh is the Jardin Majorelle – home of Yves Saint Laurent. A serene oasis just outside of the medina, it chooses the brightest of Marrakesh colours and emphasises them in horticulture and architecture. Visiting the garden provides material evidence of the torrent of inspiration Marrakesh imparts.
The contrast between Moroccan cities and the desert could not be starker. Travelling through Morocco, the landscape offers itself as a gallery. Canyons, mountains and dunes offer colours, contours and contrasts as inspiring as the greatest painted masterpiece.
After arriving at Fes around 3am, taxi drivers promptly explained that no car can go in the medina. The maze of street feels, at night, like Venice without the water: ancient alleys, constant turns and signs pointing in opposite directions. In the morning, the ancient city – grittier than Marrakesh – is bathed with sunlight, and the compressed medina rooftops hint at the confusion below. The tanneries in Fes offer a glimpse of ancient, hard life – tubs of dyes are filled with people colouring leather, whilst canary yellow hides dry in the sun.
I didn’t visit galleries or intensely study art in Morocco, but it is a place that offers inspiration. It gives a greater understanding of landscape and colour, and adds a new dimension to admiring paintings and architecture. Take Yves Saint Laurent as an example – I did not analyse his prints or fashion, but viewing the source of his inspiration has made it infinitely easier to appreciate and relate to his work. Experiencing the raw source of inspiration for artists can open up a whole new world of understanding relating to their material work.
Four days does not do Morocco justice, but it is indubitably an experience. Nor does this post adequately describe all there is to see and do. Never having visited North Africa, I was hoping for a quick and intense shot of the culture. If there is one place to go for such a varied and concentrated experience, it is Morocco. My only sufficient advice can be: visit it. I can assure you, it will always leave you wanting more.
European art is so often the focus of our attentions. In museums, dominating university courses… it is fascinating but so much non-European art goes unnoticed. I certainly had my eyes opened a few weeks ago when a bunch of us at uni were lucky enough to have a private tour of the Arch and Anth museum in Cambridge by one of the current researchers.
Art and objects, objects and art… one thing that is clear when looking at the huge collection of anthropological artefacts in the museum is that there is a real blur between the two. There is an aesthetic as well as ethnographical value to these pieces.
Something that stands out most clearly in my mind are the Maori paddles that are a part of the founding collection in the museum. These artefacts were handed over by indigenous Maoris to Captain Cook on 12th October 1789. This was the first time that the Maori people had encountered Europeans and as recorded by the ship’s surgeon, William Monkhouse, the Maoris’ “very soon enter’d into a traffick with our people for [Tahitian] cloth… giving in exchange their paddles (having little else to dispose of) and hardly left themselves sufficient number to paddle a shore.”
The artefacts have an aesthetic value that is clear to see. The intricacy of the patterns on the wood are incredible as is the smooth carving of the wood itself. But they can tell us so much more…. They tell us what materials these people had available to them and the origin of the patterns can give a great deal of information about customs and beliefs. Furthermore, the manner of acquisition of items such as these by European tribes is crucial. That these men were willing to exchange the beautiful paddles says something about the value they placed on them… and also their penchant for Tahitian cloth! In addition, it can say something about this indigenous community and their attitude to other human beings. This was their first encounter with men very different to themselves. Suddenly, there were large ships, men of a different racial background and dressed in totally different attire. Yet this Maori community did not attack… they took the opportunity to negotiate. Perhaps an example of early consumerism!
Most enlightening in all this is how these objects can be used as evidence of collaboration between European and non-European, ‘coloniser’ and ‘colonised’ (I use speech marks here are these are contentious terms with their own loaded meanings). This gives a rather different portrayal of encounter- it was not necessary one of domination and destruction by European explorers and ‘colonisers’.
Going beyond written sources and delving into the study of material culture gives a more multi-dimensional view of the past and human relationships. It takes me back to the piece I wrote on the value of material culture in studying the medieval past (see John Baret- redeem me?) and once again underlines how valuable the material and visual sources are to our understanding of the past.
This can be applied to any object, regardless of its aesthetic value (although a bit of beauty is always good for the art historians among us). If you have a chance in Cambridge, take 30 minutes out of your day and have a look in the Arch and Anth museum and consider the artefacts in front of you in a way that looks beyond the surface. The number of anthropological artefacts in the museum are vast but the current exhibition taking place, ‘Chiefs and Governors: Art and Power in Fiji’ is a great place to start. Like those explorers on Captain Cook’s ship in the 18th century, you never know what you may discover!
On a week-long trip to NYC, my travelling partner and I decided that we had no interest in culture this time around, and would spend the entire trip indulging in fabulousness (think daily mani-pedis, cocktails galore and endless lobster). After 4 days our bank balances were stripped bare, our nails still looked immaculate from the first mani-pedi, and our livers were starting to ache somewhat. So, I decided that the only solution was for me to head to MoMA. Remembering that Random International’s Rain Room (2012) had relocated to town, I was adamant that my day would include not being rained on in the name of art, and promptly slotted this into our elaborate plans.
Entering solo (my travelling companion preferred to hit Saks Beauty and Accessories over mechanically induced rain), I paid my fee (a mere $14 for a student), and found my way to the line for Rain Room. It looked pretty short, and I felt fairly smug. But only for a short period of time. The attendant came over and informed us that the wait was 3 hours. The gallery closed in 3 hours and so we weren’t even guaranteed entry should we wait 180 minutes in blazing heat. I made a run for it.
Making a run for it clutching a day pass to the greatest modern art gallery on earth is not a bad way to go. Unfortunately, I’d made plans to meet my friend an hour from our departure, which gave me around 35 minutes. I choicely picked Painting & Sculpture (my favourite floor includes Warhol, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Yayoi Kusama, Jackson Pollock and Rosenquist) and spent my time dreamily wandering through the huge white rooms.
In a world saturated by images, Warhol’s work loses some of its power whilst gaining more credibility for foreseeing the phenomenon. His “Gold Marilyn Monroe” (1962) is so bold, and so easy to appreciate amongst the more abstract minimalist works of the same floor. And yet there is so much more beneath the surface. She’s a brand, but an idol. She’s Art, but she’s questioning Art too. She’s gold and appealing, but she’s also just committed sinister suicide. She’s the American Dream: shattered.
It’s a beautifully simple composition, and made all the better for the absence of the three hour wait. Duly satisfied by a short period of time with my favourite works, I trotted off to Saks to dissuade my friend from buying a hideous (and very expensive) handbag. On the walk over, I couldn’t help but wonder why we bother with these blockbuster exhibitions. The long queues, the jam-packed rooms and the absence of any guarantee that we will enjoy the work don’t make for a particularly outing. In London, we even pay out of our eyeballs for such exhibitions (think of the recent Tate Modern Damien Hirst bonanza if you’re short of inspiration). It’s the same phenomenon which is credited with the ‘rotting of society’, the cult of celebrity. The art world holds itself above such frivolity, or at least appears to, and yet charges exorbitant amounts of money to see an exhibition which can only be credited with fame, not necessarily with greater merit than the permanent exhibitions.
Does the phenomenon of blockbuster exhibitions discourage museum visitors from engaging with the permanent collections? Does it start to disregard the rich and varied heritage from which the new exhibitions were born? Does it encourage people to engage with a ‘Oh, I’ve seen that and so I know that’ attitude; the one which makes everyone an expert on whatever painting they’ve glanced at one time in their life. We are far from encouraged to repeatedly visit our favourite room of a gallery, or to fawn over our favourite sculpture.
Despite my initial disappointment at having missed Rain Room both in London and in New York, I was swiftly consoled by memories of my very favourite works in the world. Big exhibitions might encourage people to visit galleries, but it’s for the wrong reasons.