It’s safe to say that I am an avid fan of the work of the Northern Renaissance, having written a dissertation on Holbein’s The Ambassadors last year. It excited me greatly to hear then, that the National Gallery was to dedicate its Sainsbury Wing to masterpieces of the German Renaissance under the entrancing title Strange Beauty, offering an alternative cultural exploration that has been marginally overshadowed by the Veronese show opening this time next month.
The premise of the exhibition was captivating – to shed light on the overlooked paintings produced by German painters, often shrugged off in favour of Italian High Renaissance greats, perhaps because of their more eccentric sense of “beauty”. The information in the first rooms gave a fascinating insight into the history behind the National Gallery’s acquisition of German Renaissance works, or perhaps, their lack thereof. It was startling how overlooked this area has been. Indeed, it took 23 years for the National Gallery to acquire its first German painting, the 15th-century ‘Crucifixion’ by the Master of the Aachen Altarpiece. And even after this, the painting wasn’t displayed until the 1880s. This aversion to German paintings extends into the early 20th century, and it wasn’t until the rise of Modernism that the institution and audiences of the time began garnering a larger appreciation of these works. For example, the gallery was offered ‘Virgin and Child’ by Dürer’s workshop in 1872, which was not accepted until 1945!
As interesting as finding out the provenance of the gallery’s acquisition of these works was, I was surprised, however, to find that this theme was a the only prominent driving force of this exhibition. I did not expect half of all the caption details for each painting to be so descriptive of which bequest resulted in the appropriation of the work and must admit that I was a little disappointed as a result. In all honesty, I’m afraid that my aesthetic appreciation of the works was a little diminished by my disappointment, particularly as the exhibition itself had “beauty” in its title. Nevertheless, some interesting comparisons were drawn and I was especially struck by Raphael’s ‘St Catherine of Alexandria’ which was juxtaposed with Grien’s ‘Trinity and Mystic Pieta‘, to enhance the contrast in styles and heighten the disparate notions of beauty between the Italian and Northern Renaissance. The Raphael did look very out of place among all the Northern works but, I suppose, that was the point the curator was trying to make.
Supermodel stardom and being shot by David Bailey are positively correlated. So surprisingly it’s hard to walk away from ‘Bailey’s Stardust’ at the National Portrait Gallery with images of celebrity swirling in your head. Sure, innumerable stars pepper the exhibition, but ‘stardust’ relates more to the unseen and unique that Bailey attempts to catch and project. This exhibition brings forth a hidden side to his work, and teaches the viewer more about people than merely how super a supermodel can look.
Over 250 images have been personally selected and arranged thematically by Bailey, in a process lasting two and a half years. Glossy photos light up the National Portrait Gallery’s walls with star-wattage, to a relaxed white noise of jazz. The retrospective is an organised explosion of 50 years of Bailey’s style – at once witty and refreshing, brutal and perceptive.
Bailey burst into photographic history with his ‘Box of Pin-Ups’ portraits in 1965. Complete with his signature style, they started a trend which has spanned his career – blank white, sharp lighting and no set dressing. These photos are the epitome of pop culture and impetus behind a lifelong relationship with fashion and celebrity. Bailey has produced more than 350 covers for Vogue; but for this exhibition, he chose inimitable personalities – the subjects that were most exciting to capture. His monochrome vision is most striking on ‘Carlos Acosta‘ (2011) – highlighting the passion in his dance rather than the technicalities of ballet’s movements, which static film cannot portray. ‘Alexander McQueen‘ (2002) pops out against a flat white backdrop in an utterly British leap of vibrant eccentricity and wild tradition. Eruptions of ostentatious fashion are rare – Bailey keeps things strong and simple. But ‘Abbey Lee Kershaw’ (2010) offers a refreshing bang of the self-conscious, wide-eyed pretension of fashion – staring out in satisfied confusion.
Criticising Bailey for focusing on the material shallowness of celebrity ignores vast swathes of his work. Bailey shot artists who defined the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in a cycle of creative talent behind and in front of the camera. ‘Man Ray‘ (1968) is captured in a convergence of photographer on photographer – the focus on an empty black eye, the key to his fame. Warhol and Dali are photographed together in decadent glamour and a ‘Midnight in Paris‘ vibe. ‘Salvador Dali and David Bailey’ (1972) is a vintage selfie: as today we imitate the past; then they imitated the future. ‘Damien Hirst‘ (2004) is shot naked surrounded by animal carcasses and foil – uniquely modern and awkward, displaying the discomfort many have with modern art. ‘Bruce Weber‘ (2013) shoots with a lime green phone as the picture convulses with the supernatural colour of modern technology.
Roots in London’s East End gave Bailey a proximity and fondness for the true grit of the criminal underworld; in stark contrast to the bubble of stardust he later encapsulated. A city scarred by war and grimy with poverty is ruthlessly exposed in photographs from the early 1960s. ‘Bernie Davis’ (2002) is a double whammy with Bailey’s portrait of the murderous Kray brothers on a tattooed leg. ‘Look’ is a poignant portrait of discomfort and instinctive rebellion. The ‘Democracy’ (2001-5) series is more celebratory, but still visceral and raw: biological grit remains the only star of the show as photographic method was kept entirely consistent, allowing only for variation in the sitters.
Powerful humanitarian images are plucked from around the world. The Kukukuku tribe in the highlands of Papua New Guinea provide a contrast to peaceful monochrome, with huge headshots bursting with colour (1974). Time with the Kukukuku tribe and aboriginals in Australia inspired rare and neglected sculpture by Bailey – including ‘X-Man’ (2008). Decaying waxworks in Delhi demonstrate a creeping modernisation in India, and increasing disillusion with native traditions. Photographs of Ethiopian refugees in Sudan (1984) reduce the viewer to tears: children with worn eyes and desperate limbs stare blankly down the lens, invoking inescapable guilt.
A recurring obsession with mortality scatters images of skulls around the exhibition. Bailey considers skulls ‘ just portraits without skin and flesh. I like the idea that we all end up as a piece of art. To me, the ultimate sculpture is a skull.’ In ‘Ralph Fiennes (with skull)’ (1995), there is easy movement between the two heads – live and dead – isolated against a rare background of black, illuminating the two structures through chiaroscuro.
Bailey exposes the celebrity to the viewer, giving his famed subject nothing to hide behind. In doing so he extrapolates their idiosyncrasies, making each portrait achingly cool and painfully unique. His portraits are not of chart-topping singers or Oscar-winning actors, but of friends; and he does not set out to flatter. Bailey’s photos – whether of London’s neglected underbelly, the Rolling Stones or Kate Moss – are timeless in their dazzling glamour. This exhibition is a masterpiece in bringing to the fore rolls and rolls of neglected work. It provides an electric retrospective of the past fifty years in world history.
With thanks to the National Portrait Gallery for photographs. ‘Bailey’s Stardust’ is displayed at the National Portrait Gallery until 1 June 2014. For more information visit http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/bailey/exhibition.php.
It sometimes feel like on aggregate we spend half our day doing things in the real world; the other half tweeting, creating statuses and vines, posting photos and clips of it in the virtual world. Mundane objects such as cups of coffee instantly become photo-edited searches for ‘likes’. Miss out on a song everyone’s playing one day, and you’ll be too late for the furore the next.
Take this obsession specifically applied to Instagram. This app allows everyone to become a photographer: the tint, colour, frame, collage of your photographs are all open to change no matter how unconsidered and speedy the snap was. What will this have to bear on photography?
Now that everyone can be a photographer on Instagram, is there any art to be found in being a photographer itself? Obviously yes – some techniques are still beyond the normalising reach of social media. But many are not. Admiration for technique and tradition is being eroded by an efficiency-focused attitude of the tech age, that argues if you can do it on an app in 30 seconds, what is there to praise in learning it traditionally
Above all, photography is now inescapably branded. Snapchat – though seemingly private – retains all the rights to any photographs sent on it. Instagram attempted to do the same before a popular boycott stopped it. Having merged with Facebook, it is now, in a way, the ultimate social media brand. Instantly recognisable, it has gone from being an interesting commercial success to a full-on powerhouse; together with Facebook, the data it collects on citizens across the globe is innumerable.
Clearly there are some benefits. In amongst all the “selfies” and artfully-tinted pictures of stir-fry dinners, there are quick and insightful snippets into artists’ creative processes; giving a view not only to their final product, but the journey along the way. Notable users include Russian photographer Murad Osmann, who went viral last year with the photographs he takes of his girlfriend as she leads him around the globe. Pop art Manhattan-based artist Ryan McGinness posts images daily. An army of models, photographers (such as Terry Richardson), socialites and designers from the fashion world are also dedicated users.
Admittedly, Instagram can be a great tool for self-promotion for up-and-coming artists. Jack Bannister, a 21-year-old from the Yorkshire Dales uses Facebook to build up awareness. Museums let off a stream of promotion to disseminate knowledge of exhibitions.
Because artists are taking it upon themselves to use Instagram, surely it is a supportive tool? Not necessarily. Promotion has the danger of becoming the form of art itself; and in an area as fast-moving as social media, this poses the danger of making an artist recognisable in an instant, and instantaneously forgettable the next.
With thanks to Murad Osmann, Wikipedia and Jack Bannister for photographs.
The English are internationally famed for talking about the weather. Personally, I think this is the effect of English politeness: one isn’t supposed to talk about religion, politics or money, the weather is all that is left to us. But the weather in the British Isles is remarkably varied, and, as has become all too obvious, can be appalling. But however much water has fallen from the sky in the past month or so, it has been remarkably mild. The same cannot be said of the winter of 1962-63, famed for its heavy snows (and a corresponding boom in the birth rate in the following autumn). But if we thought it was bad in England, it was worse on the continent: around Lake Constance in South West Germany (the Bodensee to the locals) the temperature was below zero from November to March, and in February it settled around -22°C. So cold, in fact, and for so long, that the lake froze over.
It wasn’t the first time that this had happened: the earliest recorded occurrence was in 875, by which time Benedictines had settled on what was (usually) the relatively inaccessible island of Reichenau, further west, on another part of the lake. Seegefrörni – the local dialect word (plural) for the freezing of the lake – gradually increased in frequency, peaking in the 15th and 16th centuries: the lake froze over seven times in each of these centuries. At some point – and nobody is entirely sure when – a curious tradition developed: a relic of St John the Evangelist was taken over the ice from one side of the lake to the other.
In the early 16th century a reliquary bust was carved and painted to contain a bone of Jesus’s favourite disciple. It is attributed to Jakob Russ, a sculptor active in Ravensburg, less than 30km from Hagnau on the Bodensee, one of the relic’s homes. Like the work of other Northern European painters and sculptors – think of Rogier van der Weyden or Tilman Riemenschneider (and if you don’t know his work, look him up!) – Russ is not happy to settle with the generic idealised faces so favoured by the Italians, who portrayed their holy subjects with an almost geometric perfection. He modulates every surface, giving the sense that the face was modelled in clay rather than carved in wood. He’s not a pretty boy, and would never be confused – as Dan Brown notoriously did – for Mary Magdalene. His intense presence, with a repressed sorrow in the eyes, suggests that Russ was imagining a detail from the crucifixion, and John’s suffering vigil at Christ’s left hand.
The first recorded example of the procession took place exactly 441 years ago, on 17 February 1573, although the tradition may well have begun earlier. The reliquary bust was carried in procession from Münsterlingen, on the Swiss side of the lake, to Hagnau, on the German side, accompanied by 100 people. The event is recorded on the base of the reliquary bust, although the inscription is far more recent, including, as it does, a reference to another ‘translation’ of the relic during the French War of 1796 (think Napoleon), when it was restored by F.X. Faivre. On the back (not illustrated!) it also mentions the procession of 1830. Although there was a seegefrörne in 1880 the ice was not hard enough – or thick enough – to warrant a procession.
The last procession took place just over 51 years ago, on 12 February 1963, and news even reached the British press. A report was published in The Sphere (an illustrated weekly newspaper published between 1900 and 1964) on 2 March. There was no Twitter then, and news could take two whole weeks. Rather than the 100 faithful who followed the procession back in 1573, this time there were over 3000: a contemporary photograph shows them winding away into the distance, leaving the German shore of the lake to walk a 9km route across the ice. Borne aloft on the shoulders of two of the faithful, the relic has remained in Switzerland ever since: with climate change who knows when the lake will ever freeze again?
I had been wanting to see this relic of an ancient tradition ever since I first visited the Bodensee three years ago, and finally made a pilgrimage to Münsterlingen last month. It wasn’t there. It seems that, with climate change, the locals have given up on the possibility of another seegefrörne, and to mark the 50th anniversary of its last translation, the relic had been taken around the lake by road. Or maybe it crossed on one of the two regular ferries that transport modern traffic 24/7 (even they had to stop in 1963). So last week, I went to Hagnau, where I finally found it, boldly eyeballing the visitors to its own exhibition.
I can’t help thinking the locals are being a little impatient – I mean, fifty years? It’s not that long. It was 113 years between the last two seegefrörni, so there’s a while to go yet. And ‘climate change’ does not have the same implication as ‘global warming’. One impact is likely to be an increase of more extreme weather events, and that could include more winter snow and extremely low temperatures. I’d start stocking up on jumpers now if I were you.
Today, the hype surrounding all things pink, floral and heart-shaped is often thought to have been created by cynical businessmen selling cards and rose-clutching teddy bears. The sickly (rather than sweet) imagery thrown indiscriminately from billboards and social media the world over, is the impetus for waves of sarcastic disinterest or humorous indignation in the weeks running up to the love-it-or-hate-it day.
For me, this gets a little more tiresome each year – hearts and roses can only entertain the eye so much. Auguste Rodin said ‘The main thing is to be moved, to love, to hope, to tremble, to live’… an idea that doesn’t necessarily equate with Hallmark cards. In light of this, I hope that an overview of images of love in art, and the complex myriad of perspectives they convey, might act as some sort of antidote.
Theatrical and ostentatious body language imparts intimacy: faces seemingly indivisibly connected and arms wrapped around each other. There’s an uncomfortable feeling of intrusion in ‘In Bed the Kiss’ (1892) by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. ‘Cupid and Psyche’ (1794) by Antonio Canova relates a desperation to the embrace, and a sense of panicked revival. ‘The Kiss’ (1889) by Auguste Rodin is just as intense but at once far more peaceful.
Art separates lust and love. ‘Rise and Monty Kissing, New York City’ (1980) by Nan Goldin is full to the brim of the former. Compare this to ‘Anna and Joachim at the Golden Gates’ (1305) by Giotto – here embrace is affectionate and restrained, a sign of friendship above all else.
The kiss is recurrently shown as a bubble of escape. Klimt’s iconic ‘The Kiss’ (1907-8) has a natural innocence and mythical light to its embrace; the figures are isolated and hidden amongst swirls of flowery colour and dusty gold. In Francesco Hayez‘s ‘The Kiss’ (1859) a couple have escaped and are surrounded by stone. ‘Paolo and Francesca da Rimini’ (1867) by Dante Rossetti has a similar comfortable isolation, with the couple at the centre, cushioned by folds of darker fabric. In ‘Les Amants’ (1927-8) by Rene Magritte, fabric, escape and isolation are taken to new visual extremes; the kiss lets the couple mask and forget all other emotions and fears in a blanket of opaque white.
Sometimes other emotions are hard to hide, and the kiss is marred by desperate, overriding feelings. In ‘The Kiss on V-J Day’ (1945) Alfred Eisenstaedt, love is not the focus, but instead relief from war and tired victory. ‘The Kiss’ (1962) by Roy Lichtenstein is grieving and fearful; Edvard Munch‘s ‘The Kiss II’ (1897) is harrowing in its creeping surroundings and dark torment.
‘The Kiss’ (1962) by Roy Lichtenstein
Edward Hopper said ‘If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.’
When ‘I love you’ is being beamed all over the globe in pink bubble writing, this can seem achingly accurate. Art is the ultimate way to express love or obsession; when artists turn to the kiss, the possibilities for expression are infinite.
With thanks to Wikipedia, MoMA and the Louvre for photographs.
With the Sochi Olympics underway, Meet the Russians hitting our screens, Londongrad on shelves, and borscht becoming a staple in trendy restaurants, Russia is making its cultural mark on London. In -10 degrees and a coat not at all thick enough, I found myself in Moscow, eager to see whether our capital had rubbed off on theirs in turn.
This colossal country straddles continents and its politics have been at the centre of worldwide controversy for centuries.
Nevertheless, having visited St Petersburg, I anticipated that Moscow would be as Westernised as other cities on the edge of Europe. I was surprised then to find that it revealed itself indifferent and even hostile to Western culture, even on first impression. So I found that although in both cities most people live in apartments, the large, monotonous Soviet blocks I saw around me in Moscow were a far cry from the cool, classical, shimmering palaces of St Petersburg.
Determined to see Moscow through the medium of its art, I was taken on the Metro to the Tretyakov Gallery. Everyone talks about the Metro – it is the pride of the city. Chandeliers hang from the painted ceilings and marble lines the walls. These walls are in turn edged with metal friezes of cannon and scythes and as I walked through the impressive underground halls I found myself thinking that modernity in Moscow was overshadowed by brutality. Remembering again the European glitz of St Petersburg, Muscovite beauty is a different breed.
When we reached the gallery I couldn’t help feeling the same slight unease. The rooms here are neither well cared for, nor made beautiful for the sake of the art on the walls. The Tretyakov houses a significant collection of Orthodox icons, whose medieval aura pervades many of the churches around the city. However, it was through the secular paintings of the early twentieth century that I began to see a European Russia.Western motifs pervaded the paintings on every wall, and once again I found myself comparing Moscow to St Petersburg, built in many ways as a celebration of the European aesthetic.
Between the two cities the nature of being Russian and the shadow that political turmoil casts upon each is distinct. The pastel surface in St Petersburg cannot cover what Moscow’s architecture reveals: its mathematical brutality would create a cold impression even if one were wrapped in mink.
I found it hard to understand my host’s explanation of Russian hostility towards LBGTQ+ rights: “Western” values are not Russian values. According to him it is a case of integrity, not a lack of progressiveness. One only has to watch Alan Bennett’s An Englishman Abroadto understand how proudly, icily separate Russia is from Western Europe, and, indeed, from the sugary shine of St Petersburg. There is a depth to Moscow underneath the gilt glamour of oligarchy that will take more than a long weekend to uncover.
Stretched along the Thames, Cookham is a town better known for boating and riverside walks than iconic British art. Visitors are more likely to be heading to a local pub, than a gallery for renowned artist Stanley Spencer. But this little-known gem is a poignant and fascinating tribute to the artist.
What makes the gallery so personal is its sole dedication to Spencer and proximity to his life. The gallery opened in 1962, three years after Spencer’s death. He was born in Cookham, and died in Cliveden – the neighbouring village.
Spencer drew heavily on his surroundings. Much of his work depicts biblical scenes happening not in the Holy Land, but this small Thames-side village. From Christ’s miracles to the Crucifixion, all is relocated to leafy Berkshire. He referred to Cookham as ‘a village in heaven’: his choice of setting gives the visitor an eerie immediacy to Christianity’s stories. The gallery even offers a walk through the areas which inspired the paintings: you can visit the church depicted in Spencer’s work ‘The Resurrection’.
From 1908 to 1912, Spencer studied at the Slade in London. He was so attached to his birthplace that he would often take the train back home in time for tea – his fellow student C.R.W. Nevinson nicknamed him Cookham.
With the arrival of the First World War, Spencer volunteered to serve with the Royal Army Medical Corps. His survival affected Spencer’s attitude to mortality irrevocably. Upon his return to Cookham, he had lost that ‘early morning feeling’ which had so awakened his spirit. But the war provided fresh, if bloody, inspiration. He was commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committee to paint from his experiences and his works in this genre included ‘Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916’ (now at the Imperial War Museum), and murals for the Sandham Memorial Chapel. The altarpiece here depicts ‘Resurrection of the Soldiers’. On the eve of the centenary, Somerset House began an exhibition of his work, aptly titled ‘Heaven in the Hell of War’.
Spencer’s work has a soothing storybook nature. Its form is clear – lines firmly separating shapes into recognisable bodies. His style has a calmness about it, and incorporates mainly soft, natural colours. This lends it a sense of finality and completeness; the events he depicts are untouchable. His biblical imagery thus seems more spiritual and legendary than physically realistic. The paintings are detached from the viewer’s reality – comfortingly similar but still a mythical portrayal of religious or military events.
To me, Spencer’s conjoining of Christian miracles with local areas showed a belief in people’s inherent morality. It insinuates people – not the divine – are the foundation of religion. He depicts soldiers being resurrected, and painted a military hospital scene inside a chapel. Just as Christ and Christianity have been preserved through art, so Spencer made immortal the sacrifice of the First World War through his paintings.
Spencer’s work is easily accessible elsewhere: from the Tate Britain to Royal Academy, Cambridge Fitzwilliam and Imperial War Museum. But there is something significantly different about experiencing his art so close to where he lived for most of his life. The meaning of his work is pervaded by the context in which he created it: spiritually, physically and mentally. Both the Stanley Spencer Gallery and the village of Cookham provide a profound sense of the artist and his heritage.
I’ve been lucky enough to spend the past five months of my Art History and French degree in Paris, a city where every walk offers inspiration, and every street a new perspective. Aside from the inherent aesthetic wealth, the collection of art galleries in the city is internationally recognised. One of its lesser-known is the Musée Jacquemart-André, a sumptuous town house – or more accurately town-palace – tucked away behind an unassuming façade on the Boulevard Haussmann. Miles from the hordes of the Musée d’Orsay and the Louvre, this gem recently hosted a Pérez Simón collection of Victorian paintings in an exhibition titled Désirs et Volupté.
At the very same time, the Musée d’Orsay was hosting an enormously popular blockbuster exhibition, Masculin/Masculin. The Orsay show dubbed itself a revolutionary exhibition exploring the use of the male nude in art, whilst the former explored Victorian painting with an unspoken emphasis on female sexuality. The Masculin/Masculin exhibition garnered attention purely because of the male subject matter. The Désirs et Volupté, however, was of interest because of the artists. By attempting to subvert stereotypes of gender in art, the Orsay merely reinforced them.
I went to both exhibitions within the same week, and was struck by the contrasts between the two. In Désirs et Volupté the obsession with the female pervaded the work of every (male) artist, and was justified because of their belief in ‘the cult of beauty’. But in Masculin/Masculin, the artists were almost exclusively males who were portraying different aspects of the male nude; creating a selective and collaborative self-portrait of all things masculine.
This prompted me to take a deeper look at the Désirs et Volupté show, and to consider what was being explored here. Interestingly, despite all the artists being men, there was a real emphasis on women, and even a section focussing on the femme fatale. Was this about the objectification of women, or was it a recognition of their innate power? Was proto-feminist view being presented in the work of Laurence Alma-Tadema, Edwin Long and their contemporaries?
I picked out two works that seemed particularly interesting to answer this. The first, Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema’s Roses of Heligobalus. Here, the idea of woman as entertainment and play-thing is immediately presented. Heligobalus is differentiated by his clothes: enrobed in a golden gown, he stands out immediately from the submerged women. It is not clear whether his fascination as he peers down at the women in the foreground is dominant or admiring; perhaps it is both. The women accompanying him share this gaze. The artist, maybe deliberately, creates an enigmatic scenario. As viewer, we are not immediately struck by the stately importance of Heligobalus, but by the frolicking women in the foreground. The subject of the painting is the women – they are in control here, even though they may not realise it. Subtly, the artist is representing the power of feminine of sensuality.
The second work that stood out to me was Edwin Long’s Queen Esther. The exhausted expression of Esther is a clear focus of the painting, but her imposing grandeur and the freedom depicted in the work reflect other messages. She is not a ‘prisoner’ in her situation, there is an open door with flowing curtains through which she could freely exit. The woman dressing her is not scantily-clad for the pleasure of a man, but for her own ease in the heat. These are women making choices for themselves. Why, also, did Long paint Esther in her own chamber and not in an official situation? Surely it was to emphasise her own personality and strength; to allow her to be the central figure, and not to sit alongside (and therefore under) her husband, Ahasuerus. Whilst she might appear miserable, the focus on expressing her sadness makes the painting remarkable as a royal portrait. This painting portrays a queen as a thinking individual, and not just as wife to a powerful ruler.
Suggesting these works are feminist portraits is perhaps anachronistic. Here the women are not equal to men in stature or power, but equal in their expressions, their physical position, as subjects worthy of deeper observation. What we see here is perhaps a small beginning to a movement which struggles on, even today.
When you hear the word ‘architecture’, your mind probably conjures images of the shapes of buildings, their facades, interiors, materials and ornament. But hopefully it will also lead you to consider feelings, to think about light, scent, texture, comfort, space, and everything else that is architecture in addition to its aesthetic. This is the principle of the Royal Academy’s recently opened exhibition Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined, and is one that everyone should be urged to consider.
The RA has devoted the grand spaces of its main galleries to architectural installations created by 7 architects. Those chosen to exhibit stretched to every corner of the globe, from Burkina Faso, Chile, China, Japan, Ireland and Portugal. It is refreshing to visit n exhibition turning away from the ‘big dogs’ that tend to dominate the British architecture scene. In a setting in which the art lover is so accustomed to just looking, you are now invited to touch, smell, spin, sit, wander, at any pace you choose, and absorb your surroundings.
This time, there is no designated route by which to visit each room. As I entered, however, it was hard to miss the enormous wooden structure designed by the Chilean couple Mauricio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen. Its bold geometry contrasts starkly with the classical interior of the gallery itself in an exciting and arresting way. A little investigation will lead you to the foot of four spiral staircases – choose any one and it will take you to a raised platform. Looking out from the top of this edifice offers a novel and interesting perspective on the space, highlighting the design and ornamentation of the gallery ceiling that you may have never noticed, or certainly will have never seen this close. The installation is enjoyable to explore, and for me its success lies not in creating a space for you to sense but a platform upon which to sense the exhibition space itself.
Next I found myself transported by the all-surrounding work of Chinese architect Li Xiaodong who creates walls of hazel twigs assembled in a fun but sometimes disorienting maze. The two installations designed by the Grafton Architects from Ireland also totally dominate and transform the spaces they are in, creating fantastic effects by playing with straight lined designs and the interception and transportation of light.
Scent constitutes an important part of place, experience and memory and this is addressed by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. He has devised two dark rooms in which stand floor-lit lattices of thin bamboo sticks omitting scents that vividly recall his childhood. The final installation is enjoyable and the smell is certainly pleasant, however I found the exploration of scent and memory perhaps a little too obvious in this instance and found myself craving another layer of meaning. In these rooms the viewer must also walk around the sticks which are placed in the centre in an arrangement which confuses the idea of the exhibition a little – the construction operates less as a creation of architectural space and more as a sculpture or piece of installation art. Perhaps this was a deliberate intention to explore the line between architecture and sculpture.
The Architect Diébédo Francis Kéré has created a bright and fun tunnel made of honeycomb lattices, very enjoyable to wander through and with the addition of reclining chairs that allow you to stop and consider the space from a different perspective. Kéré, coming originally from a remote village in Burkina Faso, is interested in community and creating architecture that everyone can contribute to and feel part of. He emphasises this in the exhibition by leaving a box of bright coloured plastic straws and inviting visitors to interact with the installation by adding one or two to the lattice. The experience reminded me of contributing a twig or two to a forest stick house (to which any child of the countryside might be able to relate). Kéré’s ideas are engaging and thought-provoking but perhaps more could have been done to add to the visitor experience in this instance.
The exhibition concludes with a video that introduces the figures of the exhibition and runs through a series of their meditations on architecture with a backdrop of film of their work outside of Sensing Spaces (it is a great feature of the exhibition that the installations are accompanied by very basic labels and fantastically little supplementary information that could get in the way of your physical and personal exploration of the spaces) . The video provokes some interesting thoughts on the subject of our environment, as well as demonstrating that the architects featured are indeed exceptional, and have created some of the greatest and most interesting buildings of today.
Sensing Spaces is n innovative and exciting exhibition, though I have to say I was a little disappointed. I think I visited in the hope of being swept away into other dimensions but I was always conscious of being in the gallery. Perhaps this was in part the point of the show – to explore architecture within architecture. The most fantastic element for me was that each visitor is able to respond differently to the spaces; you can wander them alone and reflect on how your environment makes you feel, or use them as a platform for discussion with others. This exhibition explores something I have not encountered in a gallery before, and if it is encouraging people to think more broadly about architecture and experience then it is a great success.