Constable: The Making of a Master

Through out the V&A’s most recent exhibition on John Constable the artist’s attention to detail is apparent. His progress is charted from initial copied etching to the large projects which required confidence and careful skill. Although he is famed for his paintings of ethereal clouds I was also impressed by overall feeling of movement present through out his paintings.

Constable painted the scenes which surrounded him. His paintings capture both scenes which appear to only exist in that moment and views which will remain eternal. I went to the exhibition with a friend who knows the areas of Suffolk and Essex which Constable lived in well. She could recognise bends in a river of his landscapes and church steeples which poked through trees. This familiarity allowed the views to seem fresh even when they included hay wains and working mills.

There were several instances where multiple versions of a painting were exhibited side by side. This was fascinating as it uncovered the development of Constable’s vision for each creation. The Hay Wain slowly included a playful dog, a boy drinking from the river in a red waistcoat and a rainbow as Constable neatened up the picture and assessed what was still visually needed. The addition of the dash of red balances the picture and draws the viewer to the boy’s playful face. In another picture a white horse which is introduced into a stormy landscape provides a contrast to the dark clouds overhead.

At times the exhibition felt repetitive as it hung such similar paintings side by side. This feeling was particularly strong during the rooms which included comparisons of etchings and Constable’s attempts to copy them. Sadly, the main difference at this point which could be noticed were to Constable’s detriment as he is still learning his strengths and the techniques necessary.
However, my frustration with the repetition of images was softened at the end of the exhibition when three paintings of similar tree trunks were hung side by side. One was an original image by a Dutch master which had inspired Constable’s own work. This painting in turn led Lucien Freud’s study on a tree trunk, entitled ‘After Constable’s Elm’, which was the third painting hanging. This thread drawing together centuries of artists through such a simple theme demonstrated that sometimes imitation can be more than just the height of flattery.

With such variety provided by paintings of ominous dark clouds, cheerful rustic scenes and vibrant city scenes I very much enjoyed this exhibition, although I feel as if I learnt more about the process of training to be an artist in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than about Constable himself. However, I am now planning to see the exhibition on his rival Turner at the Tate!

The exhibition continues until 11 January 2015.


Horst: Photographer of Style

As many reviews have noted the V&A’s current exhibition on Horst P. Horst is a series of master-classes in photography, composition, lighting and style. Horst was a fashion photographer during 1930s to late 1980s whose career spanned across the transition from black and white to colour and saw the rise of professional models. Although his photographs were often used to create Vogue covers many were used for adverts of corsets, nail varnish and holidays. This commercialisation does not mar the beauty of his creativity but instead makes the viewer marvel at his ingenuity.

As Horst became increasingly popular in fashion circles he also became a regular in other sets. A growing interest in Surrealism is evident in his photography, not least in the photograph of Salvador Dalí! There are women covered in lobsters and a whole series of Surrealist still lifes which create a confusion of reference in comparison with the simply lines of his earlier work. They also led Horst to interesting collaboration as Dalí creating the Surrealist ballet costumes, which were never used due to their impracticality, that Horst photographed in such interesting poses.

Horst was heavily influenced by classical aesthetics and often portrayed his models as statuesque whilst also caught in motion. The exhibition also includes examples of the clothes which Horst photographed and these include outfits by Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli and Jeanne Lanvin. This provides a welcome contrast to the early walls of black and white photographs. It also demonstrates how difficult it must have been to create the look of constant movement that Horst projects throughout his photographs as many of the outfits are carefully structured and stiff.

My one complaint with the exhibition is that it feels unevenly paced. The first room has an overwhelming amount of photos lining the walls and a great deal of information to absorb. As soon as this room is left behind however, the following rooms feel much larger and spacious with the photos evenly spread out. I also felt that the section on Horst’s nature photography felt slightly out of place as there was a reasonable amount of repetition which slowed the momentum of the exhibition down. If it had been placed closer to the Surrealism section this focus could have been explored more interestingly. However, this did not dim my enjoyment a great deal as there remained other aspects to enjoy, in particular Horst’s photos from his travels.

The exhibition recently opened and so will be open until 4 January 2015. Such a range of photographic skill and technique is unlikely to be exhibited so careful again in the near future so there’s definitely a reason for not putting off a visit! This website offers an excellent preview of the V&A’s offering.

Between Light and Screen: Turkish Shadow Puppets

The British Museum is currently showing a small exhibition drawn from its collection of Turkish shadow puppets. They are made out very thin leather which is carefully cut into the necessary shapes before being coloured and jointed together. They are then placed against a screen which has a light source in front of the puppeteer to project a story. This is part of a strong tradition going back over 500 years.

Many of the stories are well known and often told. They contain stock characters who wear specific clothing to make them easily identifiable. These two men, Karagöz and Hacivat, are neighbours who are often fighting but also try to help each other while their different temperaments lead them in opposite directions. They remain popular characters and have even appeared on Turkish postal stamps.


Every character clearly had their own personality which was immediately clear from their clothes, face and hair. As someone new to these stories I still smiled when I saw the pompous character, sympathised with the young female character and recognised the miser. These shadow puppets dated from throughout the twentieth century but they remain current and relevant. Now I just need to watch a real shadow puppetry show so I can see the puppets as they are meant to be used!

The exhibition continues until 28th September so if you’re in the area or visiting the British Museum in the next couple of weeks it would make an amusing detour.

The Museum of Broken Relationships

Having spent a reasonable amount of time on the South Bank this summer I very much enjoyed their Festival of Love. It focused on the range of love that can be experienced, from love of family and friends to erotic and finally selfless love. There was something for everyone to enjoy with exhibitions, events and, of course, slides.

I visited the Museum of Broken Relationships, which I will admit does not sound overly enjoyable. However, the curiosity of myself and a friend drew us in. The exhibition is based on a collection amassed by Croatian artists Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić. They have asked people from across the globe to send in objects which have been left behind after a relationship ends. Each item is accompanied by a story, some funny while others are sad or even cryptic.

Fascination led me from one display case to the next as each story or item brought surprises. One woman had presented a multicoloured painting of her vagina which was in place of sending the STDs her previous partner had left her with. You could sense that sending this in might not give her the closure Vištica and Grubišić are hoping to give. Other items are more poignant, as their owners interpret their significance with hindsight. A soft toy now demonstrates irreconcilable differences while an unworn wedding dress is viewed as inevitable.

Sadly the exhibition is now finished but it will continue to tour so look out for its appearance in a city near you! They are continuing to accept donations of exhibits so if you have a particular item you wish to let go send it in here.

Disobedient Objects

The recently opened Disobedient Objects exhibition at the V&A is based around the idea of design being used to convert every day objects into items of protest. This ranged from hastily made gas masks, banners and placards to an intricately decorated car, subversive dwarf hats and tapestries. They incorporated protests from across the world and illustrated the necessity of invention.

The exhibition also included a series of videos, featuring protests past and present, which I felt brought many of the objects to life. They demonstrated the practical demands which the carefully curated artefacts were subjected to when used as intended. In fact, the exhibition ended by stating that many of the objects would return to use after their time at the V&A.

Badges against Apartheid rub shoulders with faked newspapers and revolutionary appliqué. The outfits of the Guerrilla Girls stand beneath a glittery unicorn banner fighting transphobia. The scope of the exhibition demonstrates that while there are many issues that have been solved through protest, many remain to be fought.

The one complaint I have against the exhibition is that it tries to show too much in such a small space. There is not a clear route around the exhibits so it was often crowded without need. These crowds build up further when people attempt to watch the main video being streamed as there is not much space to watch it without blocking other exhibits. Nevertheless, the exhibition is free and I appreciate the limitations of the gallery available.

These clever book shields turn the violence of those being fought against them. Originally from student protests in Rome against funding cuts they created a tableau of police beating down literature and knowledge when pictures were published in newspapers. The idea has quickly spread across the world.

My personal favourite of the exhibition was the video they featured on the Barbie Liberation Organisation. In 1991 speaking Barbies and G.I. Joes had their voice boxes swapped before being replaced in their boxes at the stores. When customers bought these revamped toys they were surprised to find Barbie’s sentiments changed.
The simplicity of the idea and the unusual approach really demonstrates the arbitrariness of boundaries which have slowly been created and accepted.

The exhibition is completely free and will continue until 1st February 2015 so there’s plenty of time to visit as often as you like!