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Social Fabric: African Textiles Today

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Follow the link for my review of Social Fabric: African Textiles Today at the British Museum. It’s only a small, free exhibition (in the galleries by the 4th floor print room) but it’s a fascinating topic, and one that deserves more attention in academic circles. On display are a number of kanga, capulana and shweshwe – all types of textiles that have a central part in Africa’s rich and varied material culture. Particularly fascinating is the breadth of topics that have inspired textile designs, from freedom fighters and major political events to the life and times of Michael Jackson.

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‘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.

New Furniture Gallery at the V&A

Here’s my five-star review of the new Dr Susan Weber Gallery at the V&A. It’s an innovative and informative exploration of European furniture, with an emphasis on production and manufacturing techniques. As well as including examples of the highest quality, the new gallery makes great use of new technology, using multimedia touch screen consoles to bring the pieces to life.

Now & Then, curated by Adrian Dannatt

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.

Chinoiserie tiles with Africa figures

Chinoiserie tiles with Africa figures

I’ve got a confession to make: I’m a bit obsessed with these tiles.

Made in Delft at the end of the seventeenth or start of the eighteenth century, they speak of many different threads of the story of international trade and European expansion. Most of the motifs are authentically Chinese, derived from Kangxi era (1661-1722) porcelain, although the deities, warriors and young maidens have been cut from their original context and rearranged in a manner that makes little sense within Chinese decorative tradition. This was of no importance to European craftsmen, who believed that Chinese art was inherently illogical. Such an idea is articulated by Jean Pillement in ‘The Ladies Amusement, or, Whole Art of Japanning Made Easy,’ an English treatise aimed at amateur japanners, which argued that ‘with Indian and Chinese Subjects, greater Liberties may be taken, because Luxuriance of Fancy recommends their Productions more than Propriety, for in them is often seen a Butterfly supporting an Elephant, or Things equally ab- surd.’ This can be seen in the tiles with the oversized and out of proportion birds and flowers that inhabit the landscape, creating a sense of prodigality and wondrousness.

However, most bizarre of all (and totally unique to these tiles) are the black figures, who are inspired by Albert Eckhout’s paintings of African slaves in Dutch Brazil. In this way they allude to many aspects of globalisation, from the European fashion for Chinese porcelain, to the new taste for sugar, fuelled by the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade. The tiles even hint at this tragic waste of human life, as the African figure towards the bottom is pursued by warriors, her fleshy, near-naked body seemingly in danger of being very literally consumed.

Click through for more information about the tiles (and Albert Eckhout’s pictures) on the Rijksmuseum website.

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.