Lift Off! A review of Gustav Metzger’s current exhibition at Kettle’s Yard, by Frankie Dytor

“So, it’s, um, auto-destructivist art. A creative form of political protest through destruction and disintegration”.

Such were my words in an attempt to convince my family to come to the new exhibition at Kettle’s Yard, ‘Lift Off!’, featuring the work by the activist and artist Gustav Metzger. This rather paltry attempt to enthuse was fairly unsuccessful, and it was a sullen group that shuffled into the extension of Jim Ede’s bequeathed house. I needn’t have worried, however. Twenty minutes later we were all lying on the floor in awed silence, transfixed by a particular piece entitled ‘Liquid Crystal Environment’.

Liquid Crystal Environment

In it, this all absorbing and all encompassing rapture, slides containing heat sensitive liquid crystals are rotated, creating movement that is projected onto the walls. As they are heated and cooled the crystals also change colour, creating a protozoic psychedelia. The wish emblazoned on the wall in the previous room suddenly became manifest; that Metzger wanted art that would “levitate”, art that would “gyrate”. Faced with these endlessly moving shapes, his wish was transparent. Removed from the acts of human and consciously physical creation, a new type of artistic distance is created. But did this distance permit greater comprehension?


In ‘Liquid Crystal Environment’ politics, an element so strong in Metzger’s writings,    did not seem to me to be a primary concern. Or certainly it inspired no political anxiety within me. Rather a state of abstract being. It was like lying back and looking at the stars, whilst the immediate present remained irrelevant. The forms were histological, although it was not they that changed but rather their colour and luminosity. Eventually, their flickering grew stronger, more urgent. Saturation increased with violent luminosity until it was almost painful to look at them. But, as if in a trance, everyone in the room stayed. The light became blinding, and reality became the vision you get when you shut your eyes after too much brightness. And then, popping in and in with less confidence and determination each time, the forms slowly faded to black.


This spectacle required no artistic foreknowledge or understanding. Simply every human’s deep attraction to light. And there was a certain beauty in that, one quite different to many of Metzger’s other works, such as ‘Dancing Tubes’. Without the choice sentences from his fifth manifesto (a nice curatorial choice) the work would have been totally baffling. Every ten minutes, two tubes… well, dance. All very interesting, but what of it? The words of Metzger must be turned to, in particular his notions regarding random activity. Art, he says, is the “drawing of belief”, whilst random activity “escalates an extension of accepted (unproductive) concepts of art, nature and society”. The presentation of activity with the minimal amount of interruption by the artist is “belief at its maximum’. So random activity allows the work to take on a new state, to reach a particular “transcendence…which the artist could not achieve except through random activity”. A perfectly logical explanation to the seeming chaos of the work.

Metzger’s work is exciting and inspiring. His works combined with his words force you to think about the implications of technology, the effect of machines and the social responsibility of the artist. What is interesting is that he uses this problematic technology in his art, and in so doing creates things which are profoundly beautiful. It’s a pity that the exhibition is so small, but it leaves you with that delicious feeling of wanting more.

Gustav Metzger: Lift Off continues at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge until 31 August 2014.

Kaleidoscope Landscapes and Playful Goats: John Craxton, by AHA alum Anna Fothergill

John Craxton. The name many have little significance to the British public, but his recent exhibition at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge (which closed at the end of last month) served to change the fact.  And with just cause. The British-born, Mediterranean-bred artist, produced some of the most vibrant and beautiful work I have encountered in a while. Despite the small scale of the exhibition, it demonstrated the evolution and diversity of Craxton’s work, from delicate line drawings, to geometric landscapes.

Pastoral for P.W, 1948, Oil on canvas

Inspiration from artists like William Blake, Picasso and Samuel Palmer is clear throughout his oeuvre. His friendship and teaching from Graham Sutherland and Lucian Freud also found its way into the young man’s work. He was also appreciated as a good companion as well as an artist and the variety of his art testifies to his colourful character.

Lucian Freud, 1946, Conte pencil
Portrait of Sonia, 1948-57, Oil on Canvas


It was Craxton’s first visit to Greece in 1946 that  inspired him with light, food, landscape and nature. His work shed the slight gloom of his youth and took on the romanticism of the Mediterranean, where he spent the majority of his adult life. He demonstrated a unique ability to capture the easy pace of these sunny regions and the unique characters he encountered there. Many of his larger scale works are of pastoral scenes and the use of block colours, effective layering and intentional compositions work in harmony to  give an impression of an exotic culture – one that any traveller to Greece or Sicily will be familiar with. There is no doubt that his landscapes are seeking to create arcadia with their serene shepherds, chromatic light and whimsical goats.

Landscape with derelict Windmill, 1958, Oil on board

Still Life with Three Sailors, 1980-85. Tempera on Canvas

However, the most interesting aspect of Craxton’s work did not occur to me until after I had stood enjoying Landscape with the Elements, a monumental kaleidoscopic work. Craxton was producing works such as these in the aftermath of the Second World War, wanting to project a joyful, energetic picture of life – life in Europe that was continuing despite the years of loss they had suffered. To this end, he painted images of thriving landscapes, flourishing feasts and animated locals. Because he chose to remain in Greece for the remainder of his life, his work was not celebrated by the British art world for many years. Thankfully, it is now possible to view Craxton in the context of history and see him as a joyous contrast to the horrors occurring during his lifetime.


Landscape with the Elements, 1973, Oil on board

His paintings have a personal sensitivity to them and also capture the fullness of a life lived. He will amaze you with his talent, complexity, simplicity and emotional narrative. And his goats really are humorous too.

Study for Four Figures in a Mountain Landscape, 1950,

A Christmas trail around Cambridge: finding England’s religious history, by AHA alum Helena Roy

After considering art’s relationship with religion versus secularism (and with Christmas fast approaching) I decided to take a closer look at Christian art in my surroundings. Perhaps my location was too biased for an average survey – in Cambridge, where 31 colleges each have their own chapel, Christianity’s influence on art and architecture seeps through the city.

Starting with my own college – Pembroke. Pembroke was the first college in Cambridge to have its own chapel. Tucked between two courts, placed next to the church-like library, with its imposing bell tower, the chapel carries its own, having been the first building of Christopher Wren – the impetus behind St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Built after the Civil War, it breathed vitality into the tired late Gothic architecture of seventeenth century England.

Pembroke College Chapel, Cambridge, as designed by Christopher Wren

Pembroke is not alone in being built from pockets of Wren’s vision. The view that greets the visitor in Emmanuel College‘s first court is another Wren chapel framed by classical archways of a long gallery.

The view of Emmanuel College Chapel as you walk into the first court

Perhaps the most famous chapel in Cambridge is King’s College. With a world-famous choir and towering façade abutting Cambridge’s Market Square, the chapel is an inescapable figure on the city’s skyline: it is impossible to take a mediocre photo of it. Its magnificence is undeniable; with a delicate, lace-like beauty which complements its solid, immovable stone foundations. The chapel was built in phases, by a succession of Kings of England, from 1446 to 1525 – a period which spanned the War of the Roses.

King's College Chapel, Cambridge, viewed from the side, and the famous Backs perspective

Stepping out of the sandstone structures that pervade the collegiate system, there are snippets of religious architecture from other periods. St Bene’t’s is one grey example, while the Round Church is a geometric exception.

With origins dating back to 1130 AD, the Round Church is one of the oldest buildings in the city. Plumped up at a busy junction, it is covered with visual idiosyncrasies. In building the church, the architects were influenced by the style of a notable church in Jerusalem built by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century.

The Round Church, Cambridge, in the snow


The Round Church is beaten in age by St Bene’t’s Church – which is also the oldest building in Cambridge. Previously the chapel of Corpus Christi College, St Bene’t’s is now a mélange of Anglo-Saxon starkness and Victorian grey. The tower, built between 1000 AD and 1050 AD gives way to a beautifully monochrome interior, with deep chocolate wood and creamy plaster that belies pockets of light intricacy and stained glass.

The interior of St Bene't's Church, Cambridge

Alain de Botton argues that by focusing so much on the beauty of their buildings, religion was recognising that as humans we inherently ‘suffer from a heightened sensitivity to what is around us, that we will notice and be affected by everything our eyes light upon.’ Religious architecture can be admired by worshippers and atheists alike – that it holds a different meaning for each adds, rather than detracts, from its power.

With thanks to Wikipedia for photos.

Kettle’s Yard- the first steps…by AHA alum Maddie Brown


This coming summer holiday, I am writing a long essay on Kettle’s Yard. For those of you unfamiliar with this Cambridge collection, it is neither a gallery nor a museum… Uniquely, it is described as a ‘way of life’.


Kettle's Yard house
Exterior of Kettle's Yard


In a quiet corner of Cambridge, a two minute walk from Magdalene College, Kettle’s Yard was originally the home of Jim Ede, previously an assistant director at the Tate and was intended to act as a balanced space where modern art would be displayed alongside domestic and natural objects. From the outside, the building looks as if it could be anyone’s house; the brown/yellow brick building is pretty but not all that inspiring. It is from within that inspiration flows; central to the interior space are the ideas of physical and atmospheric harmony as well as cultural dynamism.


There is a real focus on the layout of objects and art in each room; there has to be enough space so that the visitor does not feel enclosed and is able to appreciate the art and artefacts around them. Shapes and colours of art or objects are meant to compliment one another so as to ensure they are pleasing to the eye. Ede’s intention was to create somewhere that students and young people could enjoy modern art and feel at home in a tranquil space. He wanted to create a contrast to more austere museums or public art galleries.


I first came across Kettle’s Yard in circumstances that I think Ede would be satisfied with. It was the beginning of my second week at Cambridge. I had just begun as a bright-eyed fresher although was feeling overwhelmed thanks to the combination of late nights and a sudden swamping workload… plus the fact that I was essentially living off alcohol, coffee and cold baked beans. I felt like I hadn’t had a chance to sit down and relax since I had arrived. My trip to Kettle’s Yard was an hour of the week when I decided to take some time out and see what else Cambridge had to offer beyond the clubs, Sainsbury’s and the college library. I entered the house and immediately felt myself relax. My essay worries were put to one side and I sat in the ‘sitting room’ able to focus my mind on something completely different to the Norman Conquest (first essay at Cambridge=disaster). It was at this point, now nearly a year ago, that I was first inspired to look into Kettle’s Yard and I continue to appreciate the serenity that it helps to create.


Jim Ede


But for this long essay, a part of the paper named: the history of collecting’ I need to go beyond my personal feelings and the origins of Kettle’s Yard, to contextualise both the collection and the man behind it…but where to begin?

These blogs are going to be a little record of my progress, interesting things I am reading and hopefully those who read will learn something too.

Next blog: Reading the ‘Rise of the Modern Art Market in London 1850-1939’ by Fletcher and Helmreich. An insight into the changing presentation of exhibitions in the twentieth century and links with Kettle’s Yard.





Quentin Blake, Drawn by Hand

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.

All photographs courtesy of Quentin Blake’s website:

‘Play Me, I’m Yours’: Music on the streets of Cambridge, by AHA alum Catriona Grant


Cycling home one night earlier this term, I heard the sound of a piano being played on the bridge of Silver Street. The next night when walking to meet a friend for dinner I heard an accomplished pianist serenading an enraptured companion, against the backdrop of the 17th century facade of Gibb’s Senate House, and the iconic silhouette of King’s Chapel.


A piano on King's Parade


As part of a traveling art installation, 15 pianos were dotted around the city of Cambridge for two weeks. The project is an international one by the artist Luke Jerram. ‘Street Pianos’ has seen painted pianos broadcasting art and music through cities across the world. The instruments were destined for the scrapheap before being painted by local artists and groups, for the purpose of public enjoyment and bringing communities together.


It coincided with the inevitable Cambridge ‘Week 5 Blues’. It is a phrase understood across the student body to summarise the ‘meh’ feeling that accompanies tiredness, overdue essays, endless reading lists, cold weather, coughs and runny noses, dark evenings, and the looming laundry crisis that hits most students at this point in term. If you’re extra lucky like me you may even find yourself ill for a few weeks in the lead up to this particular low point. Don’t get me wrong – I love it here, but there are always times when you feel a need to break free of the routine in ‘the bubble’. Seeing the pianos dotted around the city inspired me to stop off by one in the playground on my way home, and I tentatively tried to play a few bars of whatever I could remember from my days of piano lessons. I soon remembered why I’d never taken any grades, but although I am certainly not a natural musician I still thoroughly enjoyed having a go. Playing music took my mind off my problems, and was a refreshing change from the everyday. What’s more, by sitting down on a piano stool in the park I was able to revel in the warm sunshine and turning leaves that can make autumn in Britain so beautiful. It was the kind of day I will look upon nostalgically in six months time, yet is so often overlooked in the midst of a busy schedule.


Newnham Road Park piano


I wasn’t the only one enjoying this project. As I left, a family arrived and the children were soon playing away happily. The artwork appeals to all ages, as does the opportunity to relive former musical talents. Each one is individually decorated, yet the motto remains the same; ‘play me, I’m yours’. And the people of Cambridge have loved doing just that. Some truly talented amateur pianists have taken to the streets, providing genuine enjoyment for those who hear them, whilst others just play around on the piano keys.


The collaboration between art and music that has touched so many unsuspecting individuals. It may be, that what makes the pianos so special, is how ordinary music can be, but when taking you by surprise and heard when going about our day to day lives, it exemplifies how often its the little things in life put a smile on your face.


Silver Street Piano

(With thanks to Memento Vivere and Street Pianos contributors for the use of images).