Follow the link for my review of the free exhibition ‘Ritual and Revelry,’ currently on view at the British Museum. The exhibition examines the roles of different liquids in the social and spiritual life of Asia, and includes some beautiful pieces not normally on display. The highlight is the section exploring alcohol and bhang, a drink made from marijuana, which includes unusual drinking paraphernalia, and some entertaining images of revellers who have gone too far.
The Rijksmuseum have just relaunched their website ahead of their reopening next year, and it is well worth visiting. They’ve added 125,000 artworks to the 30,000 that were previously available to view online, although I notice the search function is still only available in Dutch. (Perhaps the proudest moment of my ‘Dutch Golden Age’ MA was when I realised I knew enough decorative arts vocabulary to use their search engine!)
Personally, I am extremely excited about the full opening next spring. The Rijksmuseum has been closed for over a decade, so like many art historians of my generation I have never had access to the full collection. Although there are some incredible pieces on display in their highlights exhibition, it only really scratches the surface, particularly of the decorative arts collection. I can’t wait to explore their new galleries, and see some of the pieces that I’ve worked on from online images in the flesh.
I came across the companion to this print, a similar image but with figures acting out the silhouettes of two different teapots, at the British Museum’s ‘Ritual and Revelry: the art of drinking in Asia.’ (I am writing a review of this mini exhibition – expect a link soon.)
It is such a bizarre image I’ve been thinking about it ever since. The teapot print (unfortunately not available on the BM’s website) had figures that were far more distorted, as if they just happened to have the same silhouette as a teapot. Here, it looks more like the people are playing a game, deliberately acting out a shape in silhouette.
I’ve had a quick look but I can’t see anything online about the game. Has anyone come across it anywhere else? Is it still played in Japan? It looks like fun, though also pretty difficult!
This incredible mini guillotine was carved out of bone by a French prisoner of war, living in the UK during the Napoleonic wars. These men had a lot of spare time, and would fashion objects out of whatever materials they could find, in this case bone. This is a particularly fine example, and was probably made by a man named Cruchet, who after the war went on to design enormous automata for the Paris Opera House.
The morbid subject matter was a favourite with British buyers, who were still fascinated by the bloodiness of the French Revolution. The tiny soldiers, with their menacing swords, surround a decapitated figure on the chopping block – originally his head would have sat in a tiny basket. There’s something particularly macabre about seeing such a gruesome scene acted out by these toy-like figures.
Yesterday I went to have a look at the items on offer in Christie’s forthcoming antiquities sale (Thursday 25 October). I was lucky enough to be shown around by the lovely Ruth Allen, administrator to the sale who showed me some of her personal highlights, including this stunning statue of Isis, valued at £400,000 to £600,000. Isis was the universal mother figure of the Egyptian gods, who resurrected Osiris, her husband and brother, after he was dismembered and scattered along the Nile by the jealous Seth. A Marian figure, she is often depicted breast feeding her son Horus, and here she has a certain monumental serenity redolent of the enthroned Virgin. Indeed, her name signifies ‘throne,’ and as the embodiment of regal power she was a popular deity among the ruling elite; this statue once stood in the tomb of the Royal Acquaintance Ptahirdis.
They also had some exquisite antique jewellery, much of which could still be worn today. However, my favourite piece was perhaps a little too chunky to wear – an enormous carnelian cameo ring, carved with a bust of Zeus. No matter, the carving is of such fabulous quality that I’d be happy simply to sit and contemplate it.
With major contemporary artists like Grayson Perry championing the history of craft, and fairs like Masterpiece and Frieze Masters displaying contemporary art alongside major decorative pieces, it seems that the avant-garde is finally embracing traditional decorative arts. About time too, as collectors have long been mixing cutting edge contemporary art with their antiques, picking and choosing pieces not with a slavish dedication to one era or style, but with a general interest in art and its many histories.
This idea is explored by Adrian Dannatt in his exhibition Now & Then, on until 26th October at Harris Lindsay, Jermyn Street. Combining works by contemporary artists with the more traditional stock of his hosts, Dannatt plays with the tropes of art old and new, creating temporal layers across the exhibition. Orpheus Gathered, an assemblage of elk bones, bound together by crocheted wool, and accompanied by a recording of the last castrato, (Alannah Robins, 2012 ) hangs suspended over a micromosaic table top, depicting the ruins of the Roman Forum. Such a contrast adds depth to Robin’s work, recalling the full cultural history of humanity, as the elk bones seem at once both ancient and modern, as much a part of obscure pagan ritual as contemporary art practise. The table top acts as a bridge between these worlds, filling the art historical gaps by evoking classical civilisation and its many revivals. Through all of this runs the theme of collecting and reforming, from the assembled elk bones, to the rebuilt forum, and finally their context together in an antiques sale room, surrounded by objects from a multitude of periods and places.
Downstairs this interplay between contemporary and classical continues, with Steven C. Harvey’s pencilled designs of futuristic vehicles sitting alongside an elaborate eighteenth century architectural engraving of a gate. United by their medium of monochromatic marks, they show at once how contemporary design remains grounded in tradition, but also how new technologies have expanded man’s imagination, allowing us to think up innovative products beyond the comprehension of our forefathers. Elsewhere the impact of technology on the arts is succinctly illustrated through the contrast of Julie Cockburn’s The Quandry, 2012, and an eighteenth century crewelwork panel, laboriously embroidered with a design of the Tree of Life. Cockburn has hand embroidered brightly coloured circles of thread over a found photograph, reinvigorating a neglected object with the fleeting touch of the artist. By comparison, the hundreds of hours of embroidery in the crewelwork panel seem like a herculean task, showing the extraordinary shifts in our expectation of art undergone in the twentieth century.
The triumph of this exhibition is allowing us to reconsider the boundaries of art and craft, by placing works by contemporary artists and traditional decorative pieces on a level playing field. The artisanal craftsmen of previous centuries may not have been considered in the same terms as today’s largely concept driven artists, but it seems sad to confine them to a lower rung of the artistic hierarchy, particularly when the idea of ‘fine art’ has been so effectively challenged, with many artists now dabbling in areas traditionally labelled ‘craft.’ This exhibition highlights this shift, even occasionally leading the viewer astray, as suddenly a pair of nineteenth century South American condors start to look like Brancusi sculptures, whilst an instillation using a Georgian tea caddy and some stuffed birds seems like a macabre mistake. Ultimately, these more traditional pieces stand up to the comparison, showing that the decorative arts are not devoid of meaning, and suggesting that they have fed into contemporary art practise in much the same way as the finer arts of sculpture and painting. With contemporary art finally embracing craft, perhaps it’s time to rethink the canon.