Magnificent Obsessions

The Magnificent Obsessions exhibition at the Barbican is a curious selection of objects which superficially appear to have nothing in common. Old Japanese woodcuts are in the same room as a giant novelty horse statue whilst other rooms contain silk scarves, taxidermy and cookie jars. However, one similarity that the exhibition focuses on is their status as collectibles by demonstrating how artists have carefully chosen the objects to be part of a larger grouping. Every object has a certain value to its collector and visitors are challenged to see them in the same light.There is no set path around the exhibits and so the narrative of collecting is interestingly uncertain. Damian Hirst collects to ‘remind himself of the brevity of life’ while others curated objects in their lives to celebrate the everyday. I particularly enjoyed the selection of Russian space dog memorabilia by Martin Parr as they seemed so bizarre but also conventional as all the dogs looked proudly out towards space. Apparently at the height of the Space Race these dogs were treated as national heroes, which included branded merchandise, as their sacrifices were said to help further Russia’s scientific efforts. The memorabilia also felt at odds with his other collection of vintage postcards from towns across Britain but these two very separate halves of his collection clearly both appealed to Parr. The urge to collect as presented in the exhibition defies easy explanation, even from artists who present their collections so deliberately.

One of the main reasons that I particularly wanted to see this exhibition was because a selection of Edmund de Waal’s Japanese netsuke is on show. Several years ago I read his book The Hare with the Amber Eyes and I have often thought about it since. It tells the tale of how his family inheritance of tiny carved curiosities survived when his relatives lost everything else due to the anti-Semitic persecution across Europe during the 1930s and 1940s. The amber eyed hare itself was placed centre stage and I was fascinated at how detailed it was, with one paw hesitantly lifted as if about to turn and scamper off after seeing a human. The other netsuke also had this suggestion of movement and individual characteristics, as they reach and turn continuously, making me feel like I was looking at a miniature and fantastical population in the glass cabinet.

I’ve only mentioned a small selection of the objects which can be seen, as the exhibition is so eclectic it is impossible to summarise! There is something to surprise everyone, such as Andy Warhol’s collection of cookie jars, and it will make you re-examine household objects which you have never previously given a second glance. The exhibition ends on 25th May and if you sign up as a Young Barbican member the tickets are half price!


Richard Diebenkorn

Art is often divided into the supposedly diametrically opposed styles of abstract and figurative, each with a group of supporters who extol the superiorities of each approach. However, the current exhibition at the RA of Richard Diebenkorn’s work demonstrates how arbitrary this opposition is. Although Diebenkorn is less well known in the UK he is revered in America and this success allowed him to experiment and bounce between abstractive and figurative painting throughout his career. Therefore, while the first room in the exhibition contains abstract, colourful paintings from the his work in the 1950s, the next room is full of careful portraits and detailed landscapes which Diebenkorn painted for over a decade. This complete shift shocked the audience which the abstract paintings had initially attracted, especially since figurative painting was particularly unpopular when Diebenkorn made this change. Nevertheless it soon became clear that his new style of painting created pieces just as skilled as those which he had produced before. During the late 1960s Diebenkorn returned again to painting abstraction, although the work he created then was of a much more considered and restrained nature than of those which made him famous.

As the exhibition only consisted of three rooms, it was easy to go round again and I was surprised by how consistent the works suddenly appeared despite the dramatic changes in style. The two styles complimented each other and it was easy to understand how Diebenkorn could switch between them without a feeling of rebellion. He did not commit himself to the ideals of either the abstract of the figurative movement completely which prevented any feeling of contradiction developing when comparing pieces from across his career. Instead he had his own set of ten rules which transcended fashions and contemporary opinion and Diebenkorn followed them aiming to achieve ‘rightness’ in each painting. Diebenkorn’s figurative work would include panels of colour which created an unworldly street scene while his abstract paintings celebrated the variety of colour involved. I also particularly liked his use of less traditional media, such as a ball point pen portrait or cigar box lids as miniature versions of his huge ‘Ocean Park’ series. They suggested the personality of a man who did not take himself too seriously and who was always willing to adapt his surroundings to an artistic purpose.

The exhibition is open at the Royal Academy until 7th of June and is the perfect way to spend an afternoon.

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty

I arrived at the V&A’s current exhibition Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty with the highest possible expectations and left without a single one disappointed. Having looked forward to this exhibition for over a year and reading a huge number of articles in recent weeks I thought I would be prepared for the many wonders that are on show. However, it is only when you see the full variety of McQueen’s output together that you can appreciate the strength and imagination of his vision. There were ensembles that unsettled me, dresses of unworldly beauty and shoes which appeared to defy physics. In addition to this each room attempted to capture the essence of that particular collection and immerse the viewer in this idea, through both visual and audio accompaniment. This makes the exhibition an experience in itself, with even the walls complimenting the exhibits with one room filled with gilt framing and another almost like an ossuary.

McQueen’s talent for tailoring is evident throughout the exhibition, as his clothes manipulate the potential in the human form to create a variety of shapes. He learnt his skills through working on Savile Row and this confident knowledge allowed him to ignore the carefully honed rules to suggest new ways of viewing the body. He elongated the back to focus on the end of the spine by changing the cut of trousers, a principle which became sensuously clear as models walked down the runway in his “bumster” trousers and immediately entered the fashion consciousness. I was also fascinated by McQueen’s choice in fabrics, as he often married classic silhouettes with unconventional material. Feathers feature throughout his collections, sometimes flamboyantly but also discreetly, as in the dress above. Although feathers are often used to create lightness in clothes or suggest a carefree lifestyle McQueen’s dresses frequently reject this as the feathers are coated in paint or modified to reveal a harshness which is not immediately apparent in natural feathers. This unnerving technique was also used with other textiles such as flowers, shells, hair and metal but throughout this the careful tailoring continues to link his creations with their fashion predecessors.

The variety of works involved in the exhibition becomes overwhelmingly apparent in ‘The Cabinet of Curiosities’ room, which is filled, floor to ceiling, with hats, dresses, shoes and so many other objects that I had no idea where to look first. There was a skirt which relied on the shadow it created, a butterflied hat, silver jaws and chain mail to name but a few, with all the walls playing videos from many of the fashion shows these objects originally featured in. The inclusion of these catwalks allowed me to appreciate the objects as part of a larger setting and also reminded me of their original purpose, even when the practical seemed implausible. The shape of the armadillo heels is unusual but when looking at lines of models walking in them I was struck by how much more alien they appeared when worn as part of the human body. They altered the walk and posture of each model and therefore changed the ensemble completely. This effect was only enhanced by the numbers of models involved and it became clear that McQueen viewed his fashion shows as an essential aspect of each collection, therefore making them as theatrical as his clothing. Each piece cannot be truly appreciated in isolation.

The exhibition is open until 2nd of August and I cannot recommend it enough. It is a kaleidoscopic opening into the mind of a man whose imagination could finesse sublime creations but also reveal nightmarish visions.  Alexander McQueen always presented women as powerful, almost frightful, beings and as the exhibition title suggests he did not believe in commonplace, soft beauty. This combination of harshness, strength and aesthics exposes the accepted standards in fashion from within and forces the viewer to question their own visual ideals. Nevertheless, if you still need convincing about what you might see the V&A have provided further information about some of the intriguing objects on display. It’s also an excellent way to see the careful detailing present in all of McQueen’s work and appreciate the variety of skills involved. However, there has been unprecedented demand for tickets so make sure you plan a visit well in advance.

Staying Power: Photography of Black British Experience 1950s – 1990s

The V&A has recently opened a new exhibition in collaboration with Black Cultural Archives to document the experiences of black Britons over the last 50 years as well as to showcase some of the talented photographers involved. Half of the photographs are displayed at the V&A while the rest are in Brixton, where the Black Cultural Archives, are based and the exhibition is strengthened by this split as there is less pressure to rush past each photograph in order to see everything. I returned to my favourites several times, one of which (right) was by J.D. ’Okhai Ojeikere and was part of a selection of traditional Nigerian headties accompanied by different braided hairstyles. The headties were each so carefully structured and almost architectural when photographed in black and white and it was clear that a great deal of thought was involved, as with the intricate hairstyles as well.

Other images focused on the daily lives of black Britons and ranged from impromptu snapshots of beauty pageants to styled scenes. However, I was touched by the series of portraits of people formally posing in their home – these were sent back to relatives abroad to demonstrate how well settled and prosperous the sitter was. One man carefully leans on a TV in his best suit whilst another has a child playing with a telephone. Throughout the exhibition the people looking out of the photographs are ambitious and proud of who they are, despite any hostile or deprived surroundings, and I look forward to learning more about this heritage when I get a chance to visit the exhibition in Brixton.

The V&A exhibition is only short (and free!) and there is plenty of time to visit it as it is open until May 24th. The exhibition in Brixton is open for longer and can be seen until June 30th and I will hopefully write about this soon!

William Blake: Apprentice and Master

I had assumed I knew the basic facts about William Blake’s life – that he was an experimental poet who also hand published his own work during the eighteenth century – but once I was through the doors of the Ashmolean’s most recent exhibition I quickly realised how little I actually knew. The exhibition focuses on Blake’s career as an engraver and how these skills allowed him to create such unusually presented poems. Blake was apprenticed to an engraver because the profession was thought to be more profitable than painting and also ensure a steadier income as there was always such a high demand for engravings from a range of sources. However, Blake did not remain rich as he could not always submit to the requests of his clients. He would rather terminate a commission than change something against his will. Since he was taught at home and then apprenticed to an engraver in his teens he was rarely constrained by the strictures of accepted thought or beliefs. He was often thought to be blunt and charmless as he refused to bend to social niceties or manners, instead holding the truth to be the most important goal. Nevertheless, despite these apparent difficulties in character, Blake could inspire deep devotion – his marriage to Catherine Boucher lasted for 45 years and was by all accounts a happy one and as Blake grew older his followers treated him with great reverence.

Engraving was intricate work and pieces could take months, or even years, to complete. An image would first be planned through several sketches, which would perhaps be shown to a patron, before a final design was decided. Then a sheet of metal would be prepared and the difficulty of this stage would depend on the size of the intended engraving. While Blake was still an apprentice he helped with an engraving of the Field of Gold that was the largest ever. The sheet of metal had to be specially made as it was over a metre long and is on show at the exhibition. It was amazing how gleaming the metal was and I could hardly imagine it was just a tool to create the engraving that was framed above it as it felt like a finished piece of art itself. Blake later took two years to complete the engraving of a scene from The Beggar’s Opera (above) and could buy himself a house with the fee. The scene is incredibly detailed and it is hard to imagine that this is all done through careful cross-hatching and shading. Throughout the work Blake would make prints of the work to check how certain aspects were progressing. The exhibition has one of these on show and it was fascinating to observe how the tableau developed – over half the work is near completion but the two women are merely blank outlines.

Throughout his early career as an engraver Blake had always written poetry and painted but it was only following the death of his brother, Robert, that he really began to experiment with how he could present his work to the world. Following a vision of his dead brother Blake discovered that he could adapt the tools he already had to produce colourful editions of his poems. At first the technique had unreliable results but this spurred Blake on to continue experimenting until each print would be as he envisioned it. The first prints were created by directly applying colour to an engraving and resulted in an ethereal washed out effect as the ink quickly ran out. The exhibition documents how Blake gradually learnt mirror writing as his poems became unique in both subject and presentation since he could now incorporate words and images into one print, something which had not been done before. In particular, I found his print of the myth of Laocoön (right) unbelievably modern as it created an almost scrapbook effect with the central image surrounded by a mixture of phrases in different languages. It did not fit with the style that I have always associated with Blake, of dramatic angels and blazing fires, but it epitomized his efforts to mix images and words in an unexpected manner to frustrate an easy viewing.

The exhibition ends with an exploration of how Blake’s followers adapted his methods and themes to continue his legacy but I felt that none appears as innovative or daring as their inspiration. The exhibition continues until March 1st so there is still just enough time to visit.

Women Fashion Power: Not a Multiple Choice

The title of the Design Museum’s current exhibition, Women Fashion Power: Not a Multiple Choice, immediately caught my eye and I was interested to see how they might explore the concepts when I started noticing their posters around London. An exhibition which promises to show the wardrobes of both Margaret Thatcher and Lady Gaga is bound to intrigue. The Design Museum itself is worth a visit as it is a striking white building set on the edge of the Thames near Tower Bridge. However, there are plans for the museum to move from it’s current home to another in South Kensington to enable a permanent, free collection to be showcased. Inside the Shad Thames building everything is carefully chosen and stylishly Spartan. My favourite part of the building was a swirl of handing lights which descended in the middle of the stair case to be reflected by a mirror at the base. This emphasised the unusual light bulbs which featured and were also part of an installation elsewhere.

Unfortunately while I enjoyed visiting the museum itself I was less impressed with the exhibition I had come to see. I had expected an examination of how particular women had either used fashion to demonstrate their power or how fashion had bolstered claims to strength and power. Instead the exhibition started with brief allusions to tired examples of powerful women across history, such as Boadicea, Elizabeth I and Hillary Clinton before chronologically presenting the development of female fashion with basic explanations. Corsets were followed by flappers, the New Look and shoulder pads and I struggled to see how this illustrated women empowered by fashion. The lives of women continued to appear to be restricted by their clothes as stays, tights and heels all dictated the limits of how they could act. I was also frustrated by the layout of the exhibition as the panels were close together, channelling people and quickly creating bottlenecks of necks craning to see an item or some information. Therefore it was easier to go round the exhibition out of order, choosing to dart between decades as empty spaces appeared.

The exhibition really came alive towards the end when it featured the clothes of modern successful and professional women. They ranged from Zaha Hadid to Camila Batmanghelidjh and also Lady Gaga. I was immediately engaged by how each woman uses fashion in her professional life, reflecting both her personality but also the practicalities of the job. While some featured Zara dresses or their everyday suits others chose the Chanel handbags they bought to celebrate achievements or custom made jackets. Hadid’s jacket appeared as structurally sound and fascinating as any of her buildings while Batmanghelidjh’s dress sewed together fabric she received from the children she helps and works with and she often rearranges the selection as time passes. The variety of this display proved that fashion can branch out in a myriad of directions and a single narrative cannot hope to capture this.

Without a doubt my favourite dress in the exhibition was Lady Gaga’s dress made out of bin bags. The material was so carefully cut, shaped and styled that it was difficult to believe that it is also commonly disposed of throughout households in the land. The dress cascaded and fluttered, even as it was worn by a motionless mannequin so I can only imagine the effect it would have when worn by a living, breathing Lady Gaga. I have to admit that while I loved the dress I am unlikely to attempt to recreate it myself as I can imagine that it can become rather too warm to wear. Nevertheless, this reassessment of what can constitute fashion was a wonderful way to end the exhibition.

The exhibition continues until the 26th of April.

Giovanni Battista Moroni

The great painters of the Italian Renaissance; Botticelli, Da Vinci and Michelangelo, have cast a long and large shadow over what we expect from Renaissance art and the paintings which we associate with it. We often fail to appreciate the skill involved with each piece due to the endless reproductions that make an image seem familiar even without reference to the original. The current exhibition at the RA on Giovanni Battista Moroni was therefore a new experience as it presents works of the highest quality which are free from the weight of several centuries’ opinions and associations. Moroni painted portraits for the great and good of Bergamo as well as providing them with images for religious devotion and meditation. However, due to his decision to stay in a provincial town in Bergamo rather than move to a more influential city Moroni remained on the edges of the Italian cultural consciousness until he was rediscovered and reassessed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The exhibition opens with a display of some of Moroni’s earlier work alongside those of his teachers to demonstrate how his career began. However, it is only once you reach the room containing his first large portraits that the exhibition really begins to reveal the technical skills that Moroni had in abundance. The walls are crowded with proud Italians in flamboyant clothing staring down at their audience and demanding to be admired. Moroni records everything from the curl of a lip to the toss of a head in the elite which employed him. It is tempting to believe that he had greater opportunity to record the exact likenesses of those he painted, rather than resorting to flattery, because he remained in a smaller city whose inhabitants did not demand such obeisance.

The vitality of each portrait is definitely reinforced by the fashions of the time. Men were not afraid to wear bright colours and the women wear intricately patterned dresses that cascade around them. They stand against backgrounds of classical pillars and luxurious plants. This dramatically changed within Moroni’s career as his later portraits are a much more sober affair, with all the men dressed in black against simple background. Nevertheless, in all the portraits there is a sense of natural movement, slashed breeches appear to rustle in a light breeze, a tailor’s scissors are half lifted towards a bolt of material and pages fall down a desk. Moroni also favoured a three quarters profile for his sitters, which often suggests that he has caught them accidentally as they turn around or look up from reading. This increased the sense of intimacy for the viewer as I felt as if I had chanced upon them rather than solely being impressed with their finery. The exhibition also included information about the lives of those they had been able to identify, some were married to each other while others were caught up in bloodthirsty family feuds. It was strange to imagine that one of the arrogant young men depicted would later to go on to die by falling down a well while drunk as he seems caught forever in the moment that Moroni painted him in.

I noticed throughout the exhibition that although Moroni was able to portray faces with such realism that I felt I recognised Italian aristocrats as mutual acquaintances this precision only extended to those who he could clearly examine from life. In comparison, his religious paintings of the Apostles and a nursing Mary felt flat with each Biblical character appeared slightly too smooth and unnatural. This became particularly apparent in paintings which included both a religious scene and portraits of the patron. In the corner of a Crucifixion tableau a man prays, his hands almost reaching out of the painting, while a stony Jesus hangs upon on the cross, difficult to distinguish if he is a marble statue or a dying man.

A portrait which particular amused me was this female face, frozen in a slightly annoyed and suspicious expression. Despite the fact that she has clearly prepared for the portrait since she is immaculately dressed in her best finery there is still a suggestion that she would rather the painting was not taking place, just as people now grimace for the camera. It seems strange that such a facial expression can still be understood and experienced today even though the medium and the subject’s experience is vastly different to those of ours today. I like to think that if I’d ever had the chance to sit for a portrait by Moroni I would have treated him with less disdain, although I would not mind wearing the same jewellery.

I can remember each face clearly that Moroni depicted and it was impossible to pick a complete favourite, I continued to be amazed with how moods appeared to shift across the faces silently watching from the wall. This is the last week you can see the exhibition and I’d recommend making a diversion to go as it not only provides an insight into the lives of provincial Renaissance Italy but also is a breathtaking display of portraiture.