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A Mad Mini Adventure – East Sussex and Kent

16 Sep

One of my closest friends texted me during my latest trip saying ‘the idea was that on this holiday you rested… Maybe next time you should go to the middle of a desolate field with no cultural sites or activities within a 20 mile radius. I would suggest a spa weekend but somehow I still don’t think you would stop working or finding things to do…’.

It’s not that I can’t relax (I enjoy beach holidays and sunbathing very very much) but I do get the urge to see everything nearby and can’t sit still properly until I feel I’ve ‘done’ an area, particularly in the UK.  And, so it was, that half way down to Sussex for a relaxing break by the sea, that I opened my National Trust handbook, looked at the English Heritage website and made one of those lists that didn’t really allow much time for R&R.

Camber Sands. Own photograph.

So, on a sunny Sunday morning with my Mini hurtling southwards, my mini break began.

The very first stop on this trip was Sissinghurst Castle – somewhat of a misnomer as the house is still a lived-in property and it is the wonderful gardens that people come to visit.  Sissinghurst has a varied history – beginning life as a Saxon pig farm, before becoming a family house.  In the late 16th century, it was transformed into a magnificent courtyard house, a far more upmarket property with a newly constructed tower.  It then became a prison (destroying most of what we know call Sissinghurst Castle), a poor house and, in the 1800s, it returned to being a family home and became what we see today.  Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicholson, moved to Sissinghurst in 1932 and brought the gardens to life, creating ‘rooms’ with planting schemes offering different colours and scents, in particular her famous ‘White Garden’.  The library and tower are all that remain open of the house and, if you’re feeling intrepid, then the 78 steep, spiral stairs are worth the climb, especially as Vita’s study can be viewed half-way up.

Sissinghurst Castle. Own photograph.

As with any garden-based property part of the enjoyment depends upon the time of year you visit.  This wasn’t the best time to appreciate the colours and floral dynamism of Vita’s garden but its craft and design was still evident.

Sissinghurst Castle and the White Garden. Own photograph.

I had studied the map carefully in the car and we headed towards Smallhythe Place.  I love the story of how Ellen Terry (‘Queen of the Theatre’) found Smallhythe Place; apparently, in the late 1890s, Ellen Terry and Henry Irving were driving around Sussex and Kent when they reached a small bridge.  On their right was an old farmhouse with dark timbers and a sloping roof.  The house was full of character and charm and Terry announced that it was here she would like to live and die.  They went inside and found an old shepherd who said he didn’t live there and wasn’t able to offer them much information.  But, not one to be deterred, Terry asked him if he would let her know if it was ever for sale.  Her charisma obviously left its mark and, in 1899, Terry received an unsigned postcard saying ‘House for Sale’ postmarked Tenterden.  That year, she bought Smallhythe Place.  The story still makes me smile – it is very easy to see why she fell in love with the 16th century house.  Smallhythe is a continuous-jetty house, meaning that the upper-storey overhangs the lower.  The original features remain with uneven floors and sloping ceilings.  When Ellen Terry died, her daughter Edy decided to make the house a shrine to her mother’s memory and created a museum where her theatrical treasures and relics could be on permanent display.

Smallhythe Place. Own photograph.

Edy did not have an easy ride in garnering interest for her project but, thanks to her perseverance, the house remains.  In 1938, a representative from the National Trust wrote ‘In Ellen Terry’s little house one feels she might walk past one at any minute, and in her bedroom that she might appear sitting before her dressing-table brushing her hair.’  I could not express it better.  The house captures Ellen Terry, her passion for it and her incredible life on the stage.  Despite its relatively small size, this was one of my favourite properties.  The costume room holds her famous beetle-wing dress, sewn all over with real green beetle wings, that she wore as Lady Macbeth in 1889 and in which she was painted by John Singer Sargent.  Also, the garden now contains the Barn Theatre, which Edy transformed after Terry’s death, that is still in use today.

John Singer Sargent, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth,1889.  Image via www.tate.org.uk

We wanted to make the most of the sun and head to the coast but couldn’t resist stopping in at the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway’s Bus Rally day – an annual event that pulls in the crowds!

Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway’s Bus Rally day

After struggling with the dodgy Camber Sands’ internet connection over breakfast the next day, it was time for me to try something new.   Apparently the best way to see the coastline is by plane.  Now I don’t like to do things by halves so it seemed to make sense to fly a little plane up for a look!  With Ivan from the Lydd Aero Club at my side, I set off in a Cessna 172.  I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t rather terrifying at first but, as I got used to it, I loved being in the air and in control of the plane – it was exhilarating and wonderful.

Flying. Own photograph.

Lydd is very close to Dungeness and the garden of Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage which, although not open to the public, is lovely to drive past and have a look at.  Dungeness itself is a tad bleak but there are some great fish and chips to be had by the sea.

Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage. Own photograph.

Onwards, and Monday’s main aim was the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, a stunning example of Modernist architecture on the south coast.  It was commissioned as an ambitious cultural centre by the 9th Earl De La Warr and broke new ground in terms of architectural practice.  Welded steel frames had not previously been used in Britain and the interior played with colour in unusual ways and made use of innovative soft furnishings.  The building’s influence was immediately felt across the UK with Peter Jones in Chelsea opening in 1936, only one year later, designed with many of the same architectural techniques.  The architects of the De La Warr Pavilion sought to integrate their design with the site, practically and aesthetically; the horizontal shape and lines responding to the sea horizon.

The view from the De La Warr Pavilion. Own photograph.

The De La Warr Pavilion has, no doubt, suffered over the years particularly from severe bomb damage in World War II.  The 1980s saw a new beginning for the pavilion and, in the years since then, there has been major restoration and redevelopment that has transformed the building into what we see today.  Eighty years after its opening the pavilion is once more being recognised for its architectural beauty and ingenuity.  Much of the building isn’t really open to the public so it is hard to see the scope of available space and what has been done here.  The exhibitions I saw at the De La Warr are not showing it at its best; Everything Flows sees four artists consider the idea of being ‘in the zone’, looking at the state athletes must reach to achieve the heightened sense of performance that prepares them for battle.  These artists have each produced a new moving image artwork that, when seen together, presents a cacophony of noise celebrating sporting achievement.  For me, these were sports films, not far enough removed from watching Sky Sports at the weekend.  Upstairs is Sean Dower’s The Voyeur which has a far more invigorating concept but is still not curated in the most visually exciting presentation.  Each work in the exhibition emits, transmits or reflects sound, visualising the activity of communicating between remote places.

De La Warr Pavilion. Own photograph.

On the roof is Richard Wilson’s Hang On A Minute Lads, I’ve Got A Great Idea which recalls the final scene of The Italian Job where the coach, containing  gold bullion and a gang of robbers, hovers precariously on a cliff.  Here, Wilson’s bus hovers on the edge of the pavilion with clever mechanics that means it moves to enhance the feeling of its teetering.  Wilson feels the work is a metaphor about the absolute limits of everything; the building is part of the work, playing with the idea of ‘what if’.  The spectacle is at its best when viewed from the roof.  On the floor, it loses something but it is still a splendid piece that plays with the architecture of the pavilion in a fun and vibrant way.

Richard Wilson’s Hang On A Minute Lads, I’ve Got A Great Idea at the De La Warr Pavilion. Own photograph.

I adored the architectural genius of De La Warr Pavilion but felt there is some lost potential here and more that could happen.  I wanted the excitement of the design to be felt in the exhibitions mounted inside.  I wanted the opportunity to explore more of the building.  I wanted its genius to have the space to shine a little more than it is currently doing.

Moving back inland, it was time for another National Trust property.  Bateman’s was Rudyard Kipling’s home from 1902-1936 and provided him with the calm and tranquillity that let his imagination run wild and enabled him to write – ‘a real House in which to settle down for keeps’.  The volunteers in every room of his house, enthusiastically quoted Kipling at me, encouraging visitors to head to the shop to stock up on his literature!  Built c. 1634 (the date can be found over the porch), the house is preserved as it would have been during Kipling’s day.  There is no doubt it is a beautiful property but I was more struck when viewing the exterior.  The inside didn’t entrance me in quite the way Smallhythe had the previous day.

Bateman’s. Own photograph.

We were exhausted but I knew that Battle Abbey was just around the corner and that was unmissable.  Regardless of your historical knowledge or interest, everyone knows that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066.  To mark his success, King William I established a Benedictine Abbey on the northern part of the battlefield.  Although it has, of course, changed over the years, a number of the abbey buildings remain while the gorgeous main house is used by Battle School (lucky them).  One of the most remarkable features is the condition of the vaulted ground rooms that give an impression of how magnificent this site would have been in its heyday.  Battle Abbey is a stunning and emotive property.  I love walking round ruins, studying the architecture and imagining what has taken place here before.  The site could not lend itself more perfectly to this.

Battle Abbey. Own photograph.

The great gatehouse is still in use by both the school and the Abbey and fulfils its original purpose of increasing security – all traffic had to pass through it and be checked by the porter.  The scale of the building and the decorative stonework reflect the power and importance of the Abbey while the crenellations and arrow slits remind of us the gatehouse’s defensive purpose.

Battle Abbey. Own photograph.

It was time to return to the deserted beaches of Camber Sands and enjoy some cocktails as a reward.

Tuesday’sfirst stop was the National Trust’s Bodiam Castle, built in 1385 by Sir Edward Dallingridge.  All of the NT sites in this area are beautifully maintained and Bodiam is no exception.  Again, we were stoic and climbed one of the towers which afforded a stunning bird’s eye view of the castle and of the surrounding weald.  Bodiam is as you expect a medieval castle to be, perched on a point, broadly symmetrical, imposing but comfortable, easily expressing rank and status.  It is not known whether Bodiam was actually built as a fortress or a status symbol but it immediately gives the impression of great strength and power, enhanced by its approach across a moat.  Whereas the exterior is fabulously preserved, the interior is in ruins – the remnants do give us a suggestion of the original layout but little remains.  As with all these properties, I could easily get carried away harping on about their history but…I won’t.

Bodiam Castle. Own photograph.

I managed to buy a guide book at every property so a small stack was building up on the back seat of the car.  Both the NT and EH produce great small books about all their properties.

One thing that I am still confused by is the National Trust entrance scheme.  Most of their properties have two prices available – standard admission and Gift Aid admission.  Gift Aid is a higher price and automatically includes a Gift Aid donation but this seems to be contradicted by the Trust saying that ‘Gift Aid donations must be supported by a valid Gift Aid declaration’.  We were never asked for the extra details that would, in theory, turn this into a declaration.  In the past I have always been offered the opportunity to fill out a form that Gift Aids my standard ticket price thereby allowing the charity to reclaim the taxable amount rather than being told to pay more (which they automatically charge unless you request a standard ticket).  They seem to be losing out with this new arrangement.  I have the utmost respect for the NT’s work and their properties, finding their schemes and work innovative and exciting but I will say this entry arrangement leaves me a tad perplexed.

Bodiam Castle. Own photograph.

Nearby is Great Dixter, the family home of the late Christopher Lloyd (not the one from Back to the Future but the gardener) which is still the most incredible garden.  The 15th century house, which is also open to the public in the afternoons, was restored and enlarged by Sir Edwin Lutyens who was responsible for revealing the splendour and enormity of the Great Hall – the largest surviving timber-framed hall in the country.  The gardens at Great Dixter surround the house and most of their design was also by Lutyens which could explain the fluidity and the seamless progression from house to garden, from garden to house.  I think that no matter what time of year you visit these gardens, they will always be a sight to behold.  The colours at Great Dixter are spell-binding.  Lloyd saw it as a challenge to combine every sort of colour and not allow himself to be constrained by conventional colour schemes.  He planted what he thought would look good and it certainly does!

Great Dixter. Own photograph.

Wednesday heralded the final day of my Mini Adventure and I still had places to tick off my list.  Importantly, one mustn’t visit the English countryside without popping into a vineyard and we were within spitting distance of Chapel Down, one of my favourite English wines.  It would have been rude not to pop in to buy a few bottles.

Nearby is also Fairfield Church.  We didn’t get the keys, which are apparently available from a neighbour, and instead just passed by on one of the surrounding country roads to admire its beauty in the middle of a desolate field.  See – there are things to be found even in the middle of a field.

Fairfield Church. Own photograph.

Scotney was quite an ambitious property to visit on the last morning, especially after a generous wine tasting (not enough to put me over the limit mind you) and with the clock ticking.  This is because Scotney is actually two properties and a rather large garden all rolled into the one estate.  The new house, for which you need a timed entrance ticket, was built in 1837 in Elizabethan style while, at the bottom of the steep valley, are the ruins of the original medieval castle and moat.  With new at the top and old at the bottom, the landscape at Scotney could not be much more picturesque.  It is an amazing combination but best viewed from the outside.  For me, the inside of the house was a hotchpotch of styles that confuse the eye – I notice that the strange pink bathroom doesn’t get a picture in the guidebook.  The library is the most fabulous interior room and book presses H to J conceal a hidden door, decorated with false spines.

Scotney Castle. Own photograph.

The new house was built for Edward Hussey III – there is probably no connection but my MA thesis was about Giles Hussey (1710-88), a little-known, eighteenth-century, English artist whose hundreds of intricately annotated drawings remain at the British Museum, demonstrating his theories of harmonic proportion.  The Hussey family tree will have to wait for another day though.

Scotney Castle. Own photograph.

The final stop was Bayham Old Abbey, a 13th century Abbey that was mostly destroyed at the Reformation.  Bayham has a fairly standard monastic arrangement; the cloister and its accompanying areas are at the south of the church, the refectory ran parallel to the nave, the dormitory was on the east.  The layout has been somewhat obscured by a completely new east end that mutilated the old transepts.  The guide book has a lovely glossary at the back allowing me to test myself and see how much church architecture I remember.  Bliss – what a perfect site to finish on.

Bayham Old Abbey. Own photograph.

Somehow, we made it back to London in time for me to change and dash onto the tube to go to the opening of Scream’s new gallery on Eastcastle Street, one of the new and exciting hubs of the London art scene.  Having been checked off the guest list, I walked through a small section of rather unattractive corridor which seemed out of kilter with the highly polished perfection of this gallery.  Inside, it’s a lovely space with great frontage onto the street (my estate agent’s description here is unintended, I just can’t help it).  The inaugural exhibition is work by Beijing-based artist Ye Hongxing – using collaged mass-produced kitsch and kaleidoscopic material, his works aim to address the anthropological, technological and economical developments that are happening in China.  It was hard to have a proper look at the works but the exhibition does raise some interesting comments about society and modern life: the title recalls H.G. Wells’ 1905 novel, The Modern Utopia.

Scream on Eastcastle Street. Own photograph.

And, because I hadn’t quite squeezed enough into the day, I headed off to play Urban Golf (amazing!) but that is another story!

Ye Hongxing: The Modern Utopia is at Scream until 20 October 2012, www.screamlondon.com.

Spiked on the way to Vegas

8 Sep

Wednesday was one of those amazing late summer days and I managed to arrange my meetings at Aqua for most of the afternoon – the sunniest spot in town – which meant I was perfectly placed for cocktail hour.

Aqua on Argyll Street.  Image via www.cntraveller.com

When the sun started to set and there was no more basking to be done, I headed up the road to Dering Street for the Ronchini Gallery’s latest exhibition.  TIME, after TIME explores similarities between generations of artists, featuring a range of contemporary Americans alongside Italian artists from the 1950s, 60s and 70s including Michelangelo Pistoletto, Alighiero Boetti and Alberto Burri.  Many young American artists have been influenced by Italian movements and consciously, or subconsciously, reference Arte Povera in their works.

TIME, after TIME at Ronchini Gallery. Own photograph.

Individually some of the works are fantastic.  Some, however, are not.  The concept of the exhibition is clever and it may well be more effective when the gallery is empty.  The curation does draw intriguing parallels between seemingly contrasting pieces and the juxtapositions are provocative.

But when the gallery was busy during the private view, the exhibition became somewhat lost and messy.

TIME, after TIME at Ronchini Gallery. Own photograph.

Continuing with this Arte Povera theme, next on our list was Haunch of Venison’s latest Giuseppe Penone exhibition.  Haunch had a Penone exhibition at their old Burlington Gardens gallery last summer.  This one presents a range of new drawings – works on paper have always been central to Penone’s work and, whether as independent works or preliminary pieces, his drawings are all connected by ideas of touch, surface and growth.  Penone compares the act of drawing to the growth of a tree and he uses his fingerprints to represent the tree and to create a symbol of touch.  By pressing a single thumbprint onto the paper he creates marks that recall the age rings of a tree.

Giuseppe Penone at Haunch of Venison on Eastcastle Street. Own photograph.

The exhibition also includes one sculpture Un anno di cera ricopre lo spazio di luce (One year of wax covers the space of light) which shows a hollow tree trunk.  The work relates to Penone’s new commission which is currently on show at the Whitechapel Gallery (I’ve yet to visit) – a hollow inverted tree lined with gold, its surface covered with a layer of the artists fingerprints.

I like Penone’s work but I wasn’t blown away by this exhibition.  This has been a common problem of late, not just at Haunch and not just for me.  There are far too many exhibitions that don’t quite go far enough to make their mark and, although they include some great works, aren’t memorable for the right reasons.  The Giuseppe Penone exhibition can seem a little bland on first viewing but it did grow on me the more time I spent in the gallery.  I find his drawings are more engaging when seen alongside his sculpture but the limited space makes this impossible.

The gallery has been turned into one main space with a very narrow section at the end for this exhibition, a layout that is particularly effective for this show and really increases the feeling of movement around the gallery.

Giuseppe Penone at Haunch of Venison on Eastcastle Street. Own photograph.

Although the sun had gone, it was still hot and my shoes weren’t the best choice for such weather.  Now, you’ve all heard of people having injuries from wearing silly shoes –blisters, twisted ankles and the like but I can beat all of them.  These shoes can only be described as weapons.  I have always walked with my ankles close together – it’s elegant, especially when wearing a dress and because I’m a tango dancer it’s second nature; it has been drilled into me that your ankles should brush past each other at every step.  So, as I sashayed down the street, I forgot about my footwear and as my ankles gracefully brushed past each other, the spikes from my heels hit skin and I managed to spike myself.  I don’t think many people can say they have gashed open their ankles due to the killer bits sticking out of their shoes.

So after wiping the blood from my feet, we wandered (slowly!) to the last gallery on my list which was the Josh Lilley Gallery.  I’m sad to say I’ve missed a couple of their recent exhibitions but I’m glad I made it to this one as it was easily the highlight of my night.

Hang Up at Josh Lilley Gallery.  Image via www.joshlilleygallery.com

Hang Up is a group exhibition where the works blend so seamlessly together, discussing the potential of materiality, that you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a solo show – OK, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration but it gives you an idea of the purity of the hang.  That is the curatorial talent that Lilley has in bringing together artists; there are no uncomfortable pairings here but this is another beautifully curated show, exploring how the use of fabric, pattern and traditional designs allow for an engagement with each artist’s cultural, political, economic and conceptual process.

Hang Up at Josh Lilley Gallery.  Image via www.joshlilleygallery.com

Hang Up¸ the exhibition’s title, comes from a seminal work by Eva Hesse where by attaching a long metal rod to a canvas she transformed a painting into a sculpture.  This is recalled in the works upstairs where Liam Everett makes use of non-traditional processes with such materials as salt, alcohol, lemon and sunlight in order to force changes onto his surfaces.  The works are supported in non-traditional ways using leaning poplar beams and other such devices.

Liam Everett’s works at Josh Lilley Gallery.  Image via www.joshlilleygallery.com

Ellen Lesperance uses gouache and graphite on tea-stained paper to depict motifs that highlight power struggles and women’s rights.  Her works become odes to those who use fabric and design as a means of self-expression and liberation.  The two paintings here, shown alongside a knitted work, depict sweater patterns that function as memorials to individuals committed to fighting for causes greater than themselves.  Not only are the works perfectly executed but they are very moving and emotive.

Work by Ellen Lesperance. Own photograph.

The textures of Ruairiadh O’Connell’s works draw us in closer, using images of carpet designs from the biggest casinos in Vegas, laying them as silkscreen images onto wax-filled steel panels.  He kneads and manipulates the wax before it sets, recalling the techniques used by masseurs in casino complexes to relax visitors in order that they spend more money.

Ruairiadh O’Connell’s wax works downstairs at Josh Lilley Gallery. Own photograph.

Josh Lilley never disappoints and this is one of his most striking exhibitions to date.  It was time for dinner and as our reservation at Brasserie Zédel wasn’t for another hour or so we headed to their Bar Américain.  It was like stepping into another world, into Vegas – or maybe that was the influence of O’Connell!

TIME, after TIME is at Ronchini Gallery until 4th October 2012, www.ronchinigallery.comGiuseppe Penone is at Haunch of Venison on Eastcastle Street until 6th October 2012, www.haunchofvenison.comHang Up is at Josh Lilley Gallery until 5th October 2012, www.joshlilleygallery.com.

Simple but Beautiful: Buren and Allora & Calzadilla at Lisson Gallery

22 Dec

I have lived in London all my life and although I’ve used the Edgware Road tube stations on many occasions they will always remain a mystery.  Try as I may, I never seem to come out of the right one.  Thank heavens for google maps – which decided to work for this visit.  After a quick reorientation, I set off for Bell Street.

Daniel Buren at Lisson Gallery with 7 Lines of Electric Light: white & orange, 2011, seen through the window. Own photograph.

The last Daniel Buren piece I saw was at Turner Contemporary earlier this year and I was eager to see his new work at the Lisson Gallery.  Buren is known for creating, often large-scale, site-specific works that play on architectural, spatial and social elements and this is exactly what he has done here.  Walking into A Perimeter for a Room, situated in the main gallery space, is like walking into another world.

Daniel Buren, A Perimeter for a Room, 2011. Own photograph. 

Horizontal Plexiglas panels, coloured with self-adhesive vinyl, are used to alter our perception of space by creating an internal division, introducing a new height within the room. The walls are washed with coloured shadows, warming the visitor with this glowing light.  The work is designed to change our outlook and heighten our sensitivity as our vision is altered by a new, dynamic colour palette.

Daniel Buren, A Perimeter for a Room, 2011. Own photograph.

The front of the gallery shows Buren experimenting with a new material made of woven fibre optic. The pieces have a powerful visual effect, illuminating their surroundings while the strong geometric patterns relate to the architectural structure of the room and, of course, Buren’s stripes form the basis of the works.

Buren is constantly re-asserting himself and pushing the boundaries of his well-established visual language.  His works no longer surprise but they do delight and ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ – his formula succeeds.

Daniel Buren, detail of A Square of Electric Light # 2, 2011 and detail of A Square of Electric Light # 1, 2011. Own photograph.

Finally, there is a piece outside, a variation on a pergola designed to play with outdoor light and the movement of the sun.  I loved the exhibition so I have no doubt that this work is equally mesmerising when seen in the right weather conditions but, it was rather grey and gloomy so the impact was lost.

Daniel Buren, 4 colours at 3 metres high, 2011. Own photograph. 

Buren’s visual vocabulary is simple but beautiful – his experimentation with light and colour is hypnotic, transforming the visitor’s vision.

Across the road are three video pieces by Allora & Calzadilla that each studies the complicated history of Vieques, an island of Puerto Rico, that was used by the US Navy as a bomb-testing range from 1941 to 2003.  All of these works present issues about Vieques’ state of flux – a place caught between disaster and progress, oblivion and memory, grief and hope.

I found myself drawn to one work in particular – Half Mast\Full Mast focuses on the unfinished political, economic and ecological reconstruction of the island and stands apart from the other videos with its slower, more meditative approach.  Split into two sections, it consists of landscape views of various sites in Vieques.  The horizontal divide is broken (or crossed) by two poles, aligned to form one object, that evoke an unofficial flagpole.  Various young males hoist themselves up the pole, using their amazing strength to go from a standing position to horizontal.  They must have been doing their core work in yoga!  Their bodies momentarily form an unofficial flag – sometimes at half-mast, as if in mourning, and sometimes, jubilantly, at full-mast.  Although the work presents an overall feeling of calm, the unpredictable appearance of the ‘flag’ both celebrates a place while conjuring up a sense of discontent.

Allora & Calzadilla, Half Mast\Full Mast, 2010. Own photograph. 

Allora & Calzadilla successfully discuss weighty issues with a light-hearted, sometimes absurd overtone.  Both exhibitions work very well in parallel – although visually there can be no comparison; they both tackle their subject in a simple but beautiful and thought-provoking way.

Next it was time for tea at Drink, Shop & Do – a haven in Kings Cross, nestled in an old Victorian bathhouse and the perfect place for tea, cake and cocktails.

Drink, Shop & Do. Image via www.alicebytemperley.com

Daniel Buren: One Thing To Another, Situated Works and Allora & Calzadilla: Vieques Videos, 2003-2011 are both at the Lisson Gallery until 14th January 2011, www.lissongallery.com.

Languishing in the Languedoc: Musée Fabre and Pavillon Populaire

13 Sep

Arriving in Montpellier after only two hours’ sleep, le petit train was the perfect way to relax and see the city – full of gorgeous architecture and intoxicating French culture.  Suitably resuscitated, I headed off to the Musée Fabre.   Mad I know, but my conscience wouldn’t allow me to miss such a well-known gallery.

Musée Fabre, Montpellier. Own photograph.

The Museé Fabre is housed within a 17th century Jesuit college and an 18th century Hotel de Ville brought together in a maze by a series of 19th century extensions.  It is as big as it sounds.   The current exhibition, touring from the Grand Palais in Paris, presents the works of Odilon Redon, a forerunner of the Impressionists, known for his fascination with the imaginary.

Odilon Redon, Crying Spider, 1881. Image via www.odilonredon.net

Redon is not an artist with whom I was familiar and I wasn’t sure what to expect but the exhibition is striking.  The opening curved rooms are painted dark blue, encouraging visitors to move around the space.  Although the rooms themselves are quite dark, all the works are well lit.  Peepholes allow previews of what is to come and, importantly, all the wall labels are in both English and French (this did deny me the chance to show that a summer course at L’institut was not a waste but I’m sure there will be other opportunities).

Redon exhibition, Musée Fabre. Own photograph.

Redon’s work presents dreamlike visions.  He had an affinity with the ideas of Edgar Allan Poe and many of his early works were inspired by Poe’s writing.  But he did not intend to recreate the scenes and, instead, his works were independent and freely created.

His most well-known work is Homage to Goya.  Although this series does not actually have any formal borrowings from Goya, the title revealed Redon’s desire to draw attention to his work by following the path acclaimed by critics.  This prompted much attention from the literary circle of the time, not least acting as the trigger for his friendship with Stéphane Mallarmé.  Redon began to display works from the series individually and provoked interest from collectors and exhibition organisers.

Odilon Redon, Homage to Goya, 1885. Image via www.moma.org

The dark tonal qualities of his early works radiate originality and character through his highly individual vision and near abrasive use of his medium.  Continuing in a similar vein, one of his slightly later series was inspired by Flaubert.  Again, these were categorically not illustrations but, instead, an aesthetic encounter expressed in literature and art.  From the 1890s, colour was
introduced as a more dominant element in his work and this swiftly became a permanent transition as he began to experiment with new forms.  For me, here, his works lose some of their mystique.

Mid-way through the exhibition the walls change to a deep rust orange colour; this denotes a shocking change in style as Redon took a renewed interest in the decorative arts, prompted by commissions from his growing circle of patrons.  Although his love of flora now becomes evident, he still extolled fantasy and undertook the decorative path simply with no excess or fuss.  This is far too drastic a change from his earlier work for me and from this point on the exhibition (or rather his oeuvre) becomes disjointed and a little confusing.  That said, there are some gorgeous works including one very unusual portrait that shows a delicate sympathy to his sitter.

Odilon Redon, Portrait of Marie Botkine, 1906-07. Image via http://picasaweb.google.com

The exhibition is beautifully curated and the changing colours of the walls serve well to show the developments of Redon’s career.  Upstairs, displayed on mustard yellow, Redon’s later works focus more on his interest in spirituality while continuing an evocation of the dream-like imagination and an interest in Classical mythology.  Gustave Fayet, one of Redon’s best patrons, bought Fontfroide Abbey (a gorgeous site and definitely worth a visit – I went last summer) and undertook its restoration.  He commissioned the library décor from Redon who created the large panels Day and Night as a synthesis of all his ideas.  The interior rooms of the Abbey have been specially opened for the course of this exhibition.

Fontfroide Abbey. Own photograph.

As I said, Musée Fabre is extensive and the permanent collections include works by all the French greats – there’s Géricault, Delacroix, David, Ingres, to name but a few.  The Soulages’ rooms present a more shocking contrast to the traditional space of the gallery; lit by a wall of translucent glass, many of the works are suspended in space, their startling black highlighted by the white walls.

Soulages at the Musée Fabre. Own photograph.

With the sun shining and beckoning me outside, it was hard to give these galleries the time they deserved but Musée Fabre is definitely worth a visit if you’re ever in, or near, Montpellier.

After wonderful crêpes in the Place de la Comédie, I headed to the Pavillon Populaire, just across the Esplanade from the Favre, for their Brassaï exhibition.  I have written about Brassaï fairly recently as he is one of the ‘greats’ included in the RA’s Hungarian photography exhibition and so I shall not go into too much detail about his work again.

Place de la Comédie, Montpellier. Own photograph.

This exhibition focuses on the artist in America in 1957.  As known from his famous Paris photography, Brassaï enjoyed looking at a city’s undercurrents and photographing prostitutes, drug addicts and seedy music halls as well as the better-known attractions.  In this way, he set himself apart from other artists of the time.  Perfectly displayed here in groups, his short exposures capture an amazing spontaneity – many of the shots have been captured in quick succession showing movement or the progression of time, often in comic ways that reveal remarkable insight into the mind of the artist.

Brassaï en Amérique, 1957. Image via www.paris-art.com

Again, different sections of the exhibition have different wall colours, a stylish presentation that the French pull off with aplomb.  Brassaï was a very talented photographer with an incredible eye.  His photographs of people from behind show a remarkable intimacy and offer a new perspective on city life.

It was time to head into Marseillan and have a siesta before cocktail hour!

Marseillan sunset.  Own photograph.

Odilon Redon, Prince du rêve, 1840-1916 is at the Musée Fabre until 16 October 2011, http://museefabre-en.montpellier-agglo.comBrassaï en Amérique 1957 is at the Pavillon Populaire until 13 October 2011, http://www.montpellier.fr/506-les-expos-du-pavillon-populaire.htm.

Tramshed Transformed: Catlin Art Prize 2011

19 May

Walking down Rivington Street last September, I passed the huge open doors of The Tramshed and was brought to a standstill.  What an amazing space!  Originally an electricity generating station for the Shoreditch tram station, – by 1903 there were over 300 electric trams in London – this beautiful building dates back to 1905. 

The Tramshed. Image via www.londondesignguide.com

Last night this exciting hub with its high ceilings, original tiles and tram tracks was packed to the rafters with visitors celebrating the announcement of the 5th Catlin Art Prize.  Luckily the tram tracks are now filled in so no opportunity for getting my heels stuck down a hole. 

 The Catlin organisers know how to party.  Cut down from a long-list of 40 artists, there were five finalists in the running this year: Leah Capaldi (Royal College of Art), Darren Harvey-Regan (RCA), Russell Hill (Wimbledon), Noemie Goudal (RCA) and Juliette Losq (Royal Academy Schools). 

Juliette Losq.  Image via www.twitter.com/artcasual

 The long-list can be seen in The Catlin Guide, a beautifully designed book profiling all the graduates.  Housed in a slipcase, this guide to new artists in the UK is produced in limited numbers – 2,011 were printed this year.

Own photograph.

Organised and curated by Justin Hammond, The Catlin Art Prize isn’t just an exhibition but a support network for a small group of specially selected artists just out of art school.  The Catlin aims to celebrate all that they have achieved and all that they can go on to master.  Artists are selected for their potential to make a mark on the art world and, by presenting a new body of work for the prize, this is their first step in that direction.  Established in 2007, the prize is now a major fixture on the London art scene.  This year the prize money has increased to £5,000 and there is also a new prize of £3,000 based on a written proposal for a new piece of work for the Catlin collection.

Own photograph.

The exhibition is staged over two floors with downstairs showing the work of past winners including Brigitte Williams, Alex Ball and Sarah Lederman and keys artists from previous prizes such as Jasmina Cibic, Adam Dix and Will Martyr.  Careful on the stairs going down – I don’t know if it was the height of my heels or the number of Strawberry Woo Woos we’d enjoyed but watch where you walk.  Thanks heavens I made it down in one piece but luckily the friend I was with is quite accustomed to picking me up when I fall (as those of you who skated with me at Somerset House this year may remember)!

Own photograph.

The winner was selected by a panel of judges consisting of collector Richard Greer, curator Julia Royse and gallerist Simon Oldfield.  Last night, a delighted and overwhelmed Russell Hill was announced as the recipient of this prestigious prize.  Such a deserving winner!  Justin discovered Hill at his degree show and was struck by the clinical nature of his work which involves the re-appropriation of everyday objects.  He found the perfection and precision in these unusual sculptures to be very appealing.  The only finalist who hadn’t completed an MA, Hill is certainly one to watch and considering his age and immense skill, I expect big things from this artist. 

Russell Hill.  Image via www.spoonfed.co.uk

My other favourite was Noemie Goudal who focuses on the construction of spaces that enable new perspectives.  She looks at the invasion of man-made elements into organic landscapes creating simple, yet powerfully effective, imagery.  For the Catlin, Goudal travelled to Dominica to use the caves and rainforests on the island.  The photographs are mesmerising.

Les Amants (Cascade), Colour photograph, 111 x 140cm, 2009. Image via www.noemiegoudal.com

 The exhibition is only on show for a few days but it’s definitely worth making some time to see who Justin has picked out and what the artists have managed to achieve only a year after their degree shows.  Make a note of their names and see where they go next!

 The Catlin Art Prize 2011 is at the Tramshed from today until 22nd May, www.artcatlin.com.

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