Art13 – a new international addition to London’s art scene?

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Last weekend saw the launch of Art13 London, a new annual modern and contemporary art fair at Kensington’s Olympia. Bringing together over 120 galleries from across the world, the promoters hoped to create a fair with a truly global perspective. Galleries from 29 countries participated, from cities as diverse as São Paulo, Budapest, Tel Aviv and Seoul.

Within this East Asian artists and galleries seemed to dominate – perhaps reflecting the previous achievements of founders Tim Etchells and Sandy Angus, who helped initiate ART HK, Hong Kong’s leading contemporary art fair. There were six galleries from South Korea alone, with representatives from Hong Kong, Singapore, Beijing and Shanghai also present. Even the European galleries seemed to be following the trend, with many offering works by Asian artists.

Somewhat inevitably, many at the fair were drawing comparisons with other events, and in particular that behemoth of London’s contemporary art scene, Frieze. Many of the biggest Frieze names were notably absent from Art13’s line-up, with galleries like White Cube, Gagosian and Victoria Miro perhaps reluctant to take a chance on this relative newcomer. Whilst Art13 may not yet have quite the prestige of its Regent’s Park rival, it perhaps had more to offer in terms of commercially viable art. There were few of the headline-grabbing, sensationalist works which seem to dominate coverage of Frieze. In their place were pieces that managed to tread that fine line between thought-provoking and pleasing to look at – photography and paintings abounded, and there were plenty of works that would fit comfortably into the domestic space.

Even without the shock tactics of Frieze, the fair certainly seemed to pull in the crowds, attracting large numbers for the opening night reception and over Saturday and Sunday. There was plenty for visitors to see and do, with a curated schedule of performance pieces and instillations running alongside the pieces offered by the individual galleries. Families were well catered for, with free tickets for children and a Family Trail designed by artist Nina Magalanayagam in conjunction with the Zabludowicz Collection.

For the galleries involved the important factor was not visitor numbers but sales, and in this area results were pretty mixed. Some gallerists that I spoke to reported great returns, whilst others had struggled, failing even to make connections with any serious new clients. Perhaps this disparity was a reflection of the variety within the galleries themselves – in a fair where commercial, hangable works dominated, finding collectors for unwieldy instillation pieces was always going to be difficult.

Despite this, the reaction was largely positive, with many of the foreign galleries in particular describing the fair as a great introduction to London’s art scene. With the promoters going all out to attract these international clients, it seems that they are on their way to building a successful annual fair and even a global brand. With Art14 already confirmed and on the horizon, the real test will be in the years to come.

‘Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things’ – the New Permanent Collection Gallery at the Design Museum

Here is my review of the new permanent collection gallery at the Design Museum. The collection obviously includes some interesting pieces, but the overall structure of the exhibition is weak at best. There are also some bizarre curatorial decisions – in particular championing luxurious and rarified objects in an exhibition that claims to represent ‘ordinary things.’ To be honest, I would postpone a visit until 2014, when the collection will be available to view free of charge at the Design Museum’s new home on Kensington High Street. Certainly, the ticket price of £11.80 doesn’t represent good value in a city where the majority of museums (including the design powerhouse that is the V&A) are free.

Death: A Self Portrait at the Wellcome Collection

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This quirky exhibition is at once a testament to one man’s obsession and an exploration of that most universal of human themes: death. It displays some 300 pieces from the private collection of Richard Harris, all linked through their treatment of the iconography of death, a concept most commonly expressed here through skulls, skeletons and decomposing bodies. These repeated motifs certainly lend an overarching coherence to the collection, lending a commonality to works from disparate periods and places, and creating the sense of death as a universal theme.

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Despite this, certain historical milieu dominate, and death ultimately appears as a concept that has held more importance for some cultural groups than others, for example appearing more regularly in the art of the Northern Renaissance than in it’s Italian counterpart. Perhaps for this reason, many of the more artistically important items in the collection are Germanic or Netherlandish, with an elaborate vanitas still life by Adriaen van Utrecht and a portrait by Barthel Bruyn the Elder, painted on the reverse with a skull and a mometo mori, among the more sophisticated pieces. Albrecht Dürer’s work is also well represented, alluding both to a particular preoccupation with death in the tumultuous world of reformation Germany, and to Harris’ own past as a dealer of antique prints.

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Another period in which Harris shows particular interest is the Weimar era, when artists so recently exposed to the horrors of the First World War struggled to reconcile their newly intimate knowledge of death and the human body with their return to civilian life. Their responses vary from George Grosz’s ‘Faces of Death’ collage (above), which wittily intersperses skulls into scenes of every day life, to the gory horror of Otto Dix’s ‘War’ series, which depicts the trauma of trench warfare with an unflinching brutality (below).

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Despite this more in depth analysis of certain periods’ attitudes towards death, ultimately the exhibition’s treatment of this subject feels a little superficial. It is impossible to stand before the war inspired art of Dix and Goya and feel unmoved by humanity’s fragility, but other pieces on display lack the same impact. Whilst a skull might have evoked profound feelings of dread to a devout sixteenth century German, used to high infant mortality and mass epidemics and concerned about the ever-lasting welfare of his soul, to a modern audience the skull has become little more than an empty symbol. In our own society we all too often brush death and dying aside, and as such it is hard to empathise with a culture like the German Renaissance, where death was an accepted and expected side of life.

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The popular image of death as a skull or skeleton continues to hold sway today, and could even be said to be going through something of a resurgence, with blogs like morbid anatomy feeding a desire for the macabre, and hipsters emulating a Mexican, day of the dead aesthetic each Halloween. However, this fashionable adoption of the iconography of death often feels false, as we struggle to believe that a fashionista’s skull print Alexander McQueen scarf truly betrays a morbid disposition. Ultimately this is the undoing of the exhibition, as without our own way of connecting to the reality of death, this exploration of morbid iconography becomes little more than a collection of painted skulls.

Rijksmuseum launches new website and uploads 125,000 Artworks

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.

 

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde

The Pre-Raphaelites were a rebellious bunch, valiantly and self-consciously breaking away from the staid artistic traditions of the mid-nineteenth century to form the first modern British art movement. At least, that’s what this exhibition promises to illustrate, establishing the PRB as an early example of the avant-garde. Victorian avant-garde? The phrase sounds like an oxymoron to a contemporary audience, acclimatised to the shock of the new, and more used to thinking of the Victorians as grey faced and sexually repressed.

Certainly, there is nothing grey or repressed about these paintings. The bright, jewel-like colours at times border on the psychedelic, particularly in the works of William Holman Hunt. In The Triumph of the Innocents, 1876-87, gaudy, glowing putti, bedecked in garlands like flower children at a music festival, lead the Holy Family through the desert. Even more bizarre is The Scapegoat, 1854-56, an image of a dying goat faltering beneath a yellow sky, in an eerie, empty landscape, surrounded with animal bones and framed by violet hills. Despite the intensely religious nature of the work (the scapegoat was a prefigurement of Christ, sent in to the desert to atone for the sins of the ancient Israelites) it is easy to see, in the symbolism and sense of foreboding, a precursor to the Surrealist landscapes of Salvador Dalí and Yves Tanguy.

The Pre-Raphaelites were likewise precocious in their treatment of (female) sexuality, a theme that went on to have great resonance in twentieth century art. In a room entitled ‘Beauty,’ the viewer is confronted by a veritable bevy of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s muses, from elegant Alexa Wilding, shown here as the haughty Monna Vanna, 1866, to the voluptuous Fanny Cornforth, unleashing her luxuriant tresses as Lady Lilith, 1866-68. Perhaps most powerful are the paintings of Rosetti’s wife Elizabeth Siddal, who as a bride in The Beloved, 1865-66, returns the viewer’s gaze with a startling directness, suggesting a certain sexual independence. The sway that she held over Rossetti is also poignantly referred to in Beata Beatrix, a posthumous portrait of Siddal as Dante’s great love. She is absent and ethereal, seeming to melt into the haze of Rossetti’s brushstrokes, although, unlike Dante’s Beatrice, she is not passive but an agent of her own destruction, here alluded to by the white poppy, symbolic of the laudanum overdose that lead to her death.

The Pre-Raphaelites were also innovative in their production techniques, executing paintings en plein air from 1851 onwards, a full decade before the Impressionist movement got underway in Paris. This allowed them to study nature in the most minute detail, replicating every crumpled leaf or blade of grass. At times this is used to great effect, as in John Everett Millais’ great masterpiece Ophelia, 1851, where the densely textured background envelops the drama, making it at once historical and timeless, like a medieval tapestry that has sprung to life. Elsewhere, it is less successful, as in Millais’ The Huguenot, 1852, where the close replication of a mossy wall detracts from the beauty and power of the couple in the foreground, illustrating exactly why artists had been neglecting background detail for hundreds of years.

Such detail may be innovative, but is it really modern? This, perhaps, is where the exhibition begins to unravel a little. It is certainly true that the Pre-Raphaelites were pushing the boundaries of Victorian art and society, moving away from the academic aesthetic and exploring sexuality and socialism. However, in many ways their work still seems retrogressive rather than modern – they may be looking further back, to the Italian primitives, but the conscious weight of Western art history still looms over their work, making a clean break impossible. In this way it is hard to see them as precursors to modernity in the same way as the Impressionists, for example. Despite all this, the idea of the Pre-Raphaelites as avant-garde is an interesting one, if only because it challenges the traditional, linear view of twentieth century art history, a narrative that all too often focuses on Paris at the expense of other artistic centres.

Altogether, the exhibition is thought provoking and well put together, offering insight into this often maligned group of artists. If nothing else, it captures the essence of the works, showing the viewer at once what the Pre-Raphaelites wanted to achieve, but also why this didn’t always lead to the most attractive paintings. As the unveiling of a modern art movement it is questionable, but as a celebration of a weird and wonderful, totally idiosyncratic slice of Victorian culture it works. Say goodbye to good taste, prepare yourself for some seriously ‘out there’ paintings, and you’ll have a great time.