Tag Archives: Henry VIII

Claustrophobic alleyways or a delightful treasure trove?

22 Mar

The V&A could not really have fitted much more into one gallery for their latest exhibition. Entitled Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars it doesn’t sound the most inspiring but it’s a treasure trove with 150 or so objects including silverware, jewellery (with magnifying glasses sensibly attached to the cases), taxidermy, armour, coats of arms, firearms, paintings, sculptures, clothing, Shakespeare’s first folio and maps. In spite of being an academic exhibition looking at a weighty topic, it clearly highlights an often neglected area of history, using important examples from the history of art.

drawing

Armour design for Sir Henry Lee, c. 1585. Own photograph.

I must say from the outset that I’m really torn – on the one hand, I think the exhibition is a fascinating study of the development of cultural diplomacy and trade between Britain and Russia from its origins in 1555 when the Muscovy Company was founded. But, on the other hand, the way the exhibition is curated is confining and doesn’t do any of these objects justice.

It starts with Henry VIII’s consolidation of the Tudor dynasty, after his accession to the throne in 1509, and then follows the exchange between British sovereigns and ambassadors until the end of Charles II’s reign in 1685 when the British monarchy had resumed contact with Russia.

article-2289386-187A296C000005DC-713_964x647

A selection of fabulous armour on display. Image via www.dailymail.co.uk.

On entry to the exhibition we are greeted with carved wooden sculptures of beasts – a red bull, a black griffin, a white ram and a crowned white dolphin. These particular pieces were created to commemorate Thomas, Lord Dacre, who fought at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Power becomes immediately apparent here and is seen in various guises throughout this exhibition; it’s seen in the majestic armour on display as well as through the culture of possessing beautiful objects and costume. Power was not just dictated by exquisite jewels, it was far more subtle.

article-2289386-187A2101000005DC-249_964x638

Beasts at the entrance. Image via www.dailymail.co.uk.

The audio guide is in Russian and English – a nice touch to welcome Russian visitors, showing that our relations weren’t always frosty. In fact, one of the objects getting a lot of attention is a large white pelican – a gift from Russia that we still hold dear and can usually found at the Natural History Museum. I hasten to add that in 1662, it was alive and with a partner. The pelican is a strong heraldic emblem and, of course, the successors of this pair can still be found in St James’s Park. Gift-giving is a theme explored throughout the exhibition – there’s the lavish chariot presented in 1604 by British ambassador Thomas Smith to the Russian ruler Tsar Boris Gudunov. It’s represented here by a specially commissioned film and beautiful scale model. This film is one example of the successful use of multimedia; informative videos are dotted around to explain interesting points or arguments – there’s one looking at how miniatures were made.

carriage

Model of an English Coach, 1974-1982. Own photograph.

At the very centre of the exhibition is a showcase of British and French silver, not just showing off these pieces but charting their extraordinary survival. The low lighting suits the works excellently. But, we really are led round the show and there isn’t much choice in where to go. These alleyways of art can become quite claustrophobic. The objects are amazing but heaven help you if you want to go back to see something again. The one way system doesn’t allow for any flexibility.

alleys

Alleyways at the exhibition. Own photograph.

The Tudor and Stuart courts are explored in far more depth than the Russian court and it seems a bit unbalanced. Maybe this was different when the exhibition was shown in a slightly different format at the Kremlin last year.

123219856_gloves_390757c

Finery.  Image via www.thetimes.co.uk.

The shop, as ever, really gets it right and knows how to maximise its market potential – there’s English mead created exclusively for the V&A, stained glass transfers, coins and goblets.

Despite all these positives, I can’t forgive that I felt I was frog-marched around this exhibition. If the objects had had more room, I’d have enjoyed it so much more.

shoes

Treasures of the Royal Courts is at the V&A until 14th July 2013, www.vam.ac.uk.

Advertisements

Seduced and Surprised by the National Gallery

4 Nov

Early on Tuesday morning, I joined the throng of commuters walking across Green Park.  I was freezing and realised that fingerless gloves don’t do very much now it’s winter!  I was off to a bloggers’ breakfast at the Queen’s Gallery – the Palace are embracing new technology – to view their new exhibition, The Northern Renaissance ­­.

The exhibition apparently reunites the enemies and allies of Henry VIII’s court, a place characterised by political intrigue and betrayal.   With around 130 works, it is a great excuse to show off some of the Royal Collection’s Renaissance gems including Lucas Cranach the Elder, Urs Grat and Pieter Bruegel the Elder.  Artists responded to changing ideas and a revival in humanism by producing ingenious works with advancing technical skill.

The Northern Renaissance at The Queen’s Gallery.  Own photograph.

The period saw an increase in the demand for tapestries, moveable furnishings that demonstrated the wealth and power of the owner.  When this exhibition was on display in Scotland, these weren’t shown as the exhibition was in a smaller form.  This show also teaches us that the Renaissance is not only Italian and concentrates on Northern Europe with particular emphasis on Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein the Younger.

One of the tapestries in the exhibition. Own photograph.

Without Holbein we wouldn’t even know what Henry VIII looked like and he also immortalised many of the personalities of Henry’s court.  The exhibition opens with a lovely collection of Holbein drawings.

The Apocalypse was a popular subject for illustration in the Middle Ages.  In 1498, Dürer published the Book of Revelations with 15 illustrations – incredible nightmarish scenes including figures from all sections of society, reminding viewers that no-one would be spared the day of judgement.  Dürer understood how to brand himself and his AD monogram, placed on all his works, made his art instantly identifiable.

Dürer’s The Apocalypse. Own photograph.

The Bruegel work, Massacre of the Innocents, which is normally on view in isolation in Windsor, is here seen in context.  But, this piece presents an interesting conundrum; during its lifetime, when owned by Emperor Rudolph II in Prague, nearly all the slaughtered children and babies were painted over to change the tone of the scene.  Evidence of them can be found using infra-red reflectography.  Do we intervene or accept that this is the history of the work?

Bruegel, Massacre of the Innocents. Own photograph.

In this vein, the gallery has conserved eight paintings for this exhibition, bringing them back to life.  One example of this is Holbein’s Hans of Antwerp – the cleaned portrait reveals new details and clues as to who this sitter may actually be but how much conservation is too much?!

Holbein, Hans of Antwerp. Own photograph.

The Queen’s Gallery do get their brightly coloured walls right and the exhibition is dark but not gloomy.  This is a much more serious exhibition than their usual and the curators haven’t gone for tricks to attract punters.  It’s a bit of a mix but maybe that is the point – to show the truly varied practice of this period.  This is a large and thoughtful exhibition (although sometimes the delicacy of the drawings is lost) and I don’t really know if it is right for their audience.  It’s alright but it’s not mind-blowing.

One exhibition, however, which is mind-blowing is Seduced by Art at the National Gallery.  I didn’t know what to think about the ideas behind this show so my expectations were low but it is sensational.

As soon as I walked into the first room I was grabbed (not literally).  Visitors are greeted by Jeff Wall’s The Destroyed Room, 1978, where he evokes the destructive frenzy of Delacroix’s painting The Death of Sardanapalus.  This is Wall’s earliest attempt to quote the past and he incorporates spectacle into the photograph, showing the aftermath of man-made disaster.  This room looks at how photographers responded to fine art traditions, especially painting; it’s called Setting the Scene which is what it does – it is a room of theatre.

Jeff Wall, The Destroyed Room.  Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada and via www.ng-london.org.uk

This is an exhibition that constantly surprised me.  If I had any doubts, they were gone by room two (portraits) where I was greeted by Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews (one of my all-time favourite paintings, loved all the more for its inclusion in Freya North’s Chloë) alongside Martin Parr’s Signs of the Times from 1991.  Parr recognised the satiric potential of a protracted pose.  His discomfort contradicts the couple in Gainsborough’s work but this is a clever and fascinating juxtaposition that is still making me smile that nearly a week on.  Parr’s work has a real edge but he also takes a well-considered look at social portraiture through pose and stance, among other things.  It encapsulates something very different to the usual snapshot, showing a young couple at the beginning of their married life in their first home – in this way, the work is very sympathetic to Gainsborough.

Parr and Gainsborough.  Own photograph.

Moving on, the Learoyd photo of Man with Octopus Tattoo II,which has been used for all the publicity, is here compared with the Laocoön group.  The National Gallery argues that they have a similarly sensuous and disturbing impact.   The resemblances don’t go very far aesthetically but the ideas are shocking in both.

Learoyd and surrounding works at the National Gallery. Own photograph.

The National Gallery is once again giving their large middle room a church-like atmosphere and here the exhibition presents provocative religious imagery.  Included is Thomas Struth’s photograph of visitors to the National Gallery viewing one of their altarpieces.  Is this photo real?  What are we looking at, a snapshot or a carefully contrived and created moment?  We will never really know and this helps to teach us to question what is presented to us.  The exhibition also shows the incredible advances that have taken place within the medium.

Religious imagery.  Own photograph.

Three photographs have also been incorporated into the permanent collections offering a sensational effect.  Each comparison is a revelation making a statement using the most incredible works to support its arguments.  It’s hard to keep superlatives from my writing as the exhibition really was so good!

Seduced by Art is not trying to be a survey, nor is it a history of photography.  It’s making an argument.  Whether or not you agree, the exhibition is a dialogue that looks at significant moments.  A survey of photographs can be found anywhere but this exhibition is different.  People who know and understand painting are led into photographs, people who love early photographs can see their relevance to contemporary work and so on.  It presents historical painting, alongside historical photography, alongside contemporary photographs.  It is a tripartite exhibition with various points of access that all knit together perfectly.  The rooms work into each other, offering wonderful vistas.  They bring connections between old, new and subject matter through a series of amazing loans.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Kate Keown, c. 1866.  Image courtesy of the Wilson Centre for Photography and via www.ng-london.org.uk

This is a very darkly lit, theatrical and beautiful exhibition.  It is an enthralling show and, rare as this is for me to say, I genuinely cannot get over how great it is.  It took me by surprise.  The curators have surpassed themselves.  The press release describes the exhibition as ground-breaking and I find myself agreeing.  I will certainly be back for another visit as it deserves a lot of time, attention and awe.

 

The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein is at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace until 14th April 2013.  Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present is at the National Gallery until 20th January 2013.

Five Exhibitions, Two Buses and Three Taxis and a lot of Walking

27 Jan

Yesterday, after finishing my meetings with ample time, I decided to take a leisurely bus ride to the East End.  I now realise that there’s an oxymoron in that sentence.  Without a bus guru to hand, there is nothing relaxing about bus travel.  Luckily, I spotted one nearly straight away (not just any old bus but one that was marked Old Street) and, without any thought, ran (difficult enough in heels) to the closing doors.  Phew!  As it crossed Waterloo Bridge, heading south, I knew something was wrong.  I may have got the right bus route but it was heading in the wrong direction.  By the time I changed buses, time was tight and I had to take a taxi from Old Street station in order to get to Flowers before they closed.  Somewhat ironic that a taxi came to the rescue after all.

David Hepher at Flowers. Own photograph.

Flowers are currently showing a series of new work by David Hepher which explores the infamous Aylesbury Estate in Walworth, South East London.  Crime, poverty and violence – the Aylesbury Estate is often used to exemplify all these things and frequently crops up in discussions about urban decay.  Commenced in 1963 (and demolished in 2010), it was a vast mass of concrete, originally intended to regenerate the lives of the working classes of South London – another irony.  Spread over a site of 285,000 square metres, Ayelsbury was the largest estate in Europe, intended to house approximately 10,000 people.   Aylesbury remained stuck in time, the perfect showpiece of suffocating post-war planning.

Aylesbury Estate before demolition.  Image via www.skyscrapercity.com

Hepher’s interest in images of homes stems from the fact that a house is the first image a child will paint as a symbol of refuge and of safety.  Now, he looks at how people are forced to live in different environments, raising questions about society and living conditions.  He relishes the dirty personality of these council flats with their stained and eroded walls and their constantly changing appearance as people move in and out.  Hepher is able to take something ugly and imbue it with a sense of carefully considered beauty.  The façades may have once been uniform but by focusing on such detail, he refreshes these buildings, concentrating on individual sections.  Using a close-up grid structure, Hepher exploits the angular architecture of the flats, creating a moving portrait of Brutalist architecture with idealistic scenes of escapism used to contrast the grittier surfaces of the buildings.

In an attempt to capture the very essence of the buildings, Hepher mixes building sand with his oil paint to incorporate the fabric of the architecture in the works.  This simple technique helps to bring the paintings to life.

David Hepher, Aylesbury (Homage to Robert Gober), 2008-10.  Own photograph.

These works are an interesting combination of portrait and landscape; they show the immense scale of the Aylesbury tower blocks – one of the works, consisting of five canvases, is ten metres long.  Hepher doesn’t paint Aylesbury because of the political or social connotations nor because the buildings have been branded ‘ugly’ but because he believes they were an impressive part of our landscape.

Detail of a David Hepher work. Own photograph.

Somewhat amazingly (considering my earlier slip up) I know parts of the East End well enough to go on foot and I headed round the corner to the Hoxton Art Gallery whose new exhibition Utopia plays with ideas from the seminal text by Sir Thomas More.  Written in 1516, during the turbulent reign of Henry VIII, More’s narrator Raphael Hythloday describes the island of Utopia, that he believes to be the ideal human society.  It appears that More himself didn’t actually believe Utopia to be the perfect society and its complex meanings are intentional.  The book analyses More’s desire to create a perfect world juxtaposed with his realistic knowledge that perfection in mankind is impossible.  This is not the place for an analysis of More’s humanist philosophy and ultimate religious martyrdom but the exhibition presents an interesting concept which is, here, explored by four artists.  Their work couldn’t be more varied, although all are united by the theme of Utopia with a twist – Utopia filled with ideas of disruption and turmoil.  Because, as More showed, Utopia cannot really exist.

Stephen Dickie, The Mundaneum Debate, 2012. Own photograph.

Stephen Dickie’s work looks at the ideas of intellectual utopia, exploring the different ways in which we pursue knowledge.  His works appropriate structures and systems built to foster and preserve knowledge although the pieces of equipment he uses are adapted so as to become dysfunctional; broken cassettes sit atop a vinyl record emitting phonetic sounds which will, no doubt, drive the gallery staff mad by the end of the show.

Wieland Payer’s drawings also stood out, representing distant and ethereal landscapes with peculiar misplaced figures.  Payer seeks to portray nostalgia for a period of European Romanticism.

Wieland Payer drawings series, 2011. Own photograph.

This is a focused show with a very successful concept.  I cannot say all the artists’ works appealed to me but the ideas behind them are certainly thought-provoking.

And, off I went again, past Shoreditch Magistrates Court (only last week occupied by the Occupy Movement who curated a brilliant sound installation in the dank cells) and Lounge Lover – it seemed as if I was doing a walking tour of the East End…in heels!

Occupy at Shoreditch Magistrate’s Court. Own photograph.

By now I was exhausted and my next stop, Annexe (part of the Brick Lane Gallery but, confusingly, not on Brick Lane) did not reward me for my crazily long walk.  For me, Christopher Oldfield’s paintings were crude and lacked visual immediacy.  They didn’t capture me and I didn’t need to stay.

Christopher Oldfield, Paintings. Own photograph.

Although I was shattered, I knew the rest of my list wouldn’t disappoint.  The cabbie (yes, I did take another cab) didn’t really know where Hewett Street was but between us we worked it out and I was relieved to have a sit down at all those red lights.

For the last 18 months, Daniel Rapley has been writing the King James Bible by hand, on standard notepaper, using a ballpoint pen.  That’s 783,137 words.  Sic is a labour of love.  This exhibition alone made the disappointment of my trip to Brick Lane fade away.  Rapley’s work is amazing – there is nothing else like this around.

Daniel Rapley, Sic. Own photograph.

While the rest of the exhibition is subtly lit, Rapley’s bible glows (a design conceived by curator, Michael Hall).  The work is displayed in a case where only the top page is visible; you see one tiny fraction of this mammoth concept, this huge artistic undertaking.  You have to have the belief that all the words are on all the pages – the same religious belief upheld by those who study the Bible every day is needed to view the work.  This is an idea also played on in Forty where you only see the first of 40 identical drawings stacked against the wall.  Much to the horror of those around him, one gallery-goer decided to flick through – it did allow for the non-believers to have a good look though.  The work is about faith and its integrity is unprecedented.

Daniel Rapley, Forty. Own photograph.

You don’t have to be religious to understand this work.  You certainly don’t have to have read, or know, the Bible.  Sic is the visual manifestation of a private performance that requires the belief of the viewer.  It is a covenant that questions conventions of artistic labour and productivity, of authorship and creativity.

Daniel Rapley, Sic. Image via www.danielrapley.co.uk

Alongside Sic, Rapley is showing seven large text drawings which he created during this labour-intensive project.  These hand-drawn manuscripts describe the minutiae of Rapley’s life, brief bursts of inspiration as he painstakingly embarked on Sic.

Daniel Rapley, Exigencies 1-7. Own photograph.

Rapley is impressive and his work is refreshing; he has broken down the whole concept of religion into an intellectually sincere, thought-provoking piece.  The spin-off works about his life are comical yet serious, equally clever and stimulating.  The images don’t do any of these works justice and the pieces must be seen to be believed.  Rapley’s dedication and focus must not be underestimated and this show is a must-see.

Finally, we hailed a cab (yes, another one) and headed to the other end of Old Street to Cabinet (or Curtain as I keep calling it – I guess tiredness has a lot to answer for this week).  Having seen Cabinet at Frieze this year, I wanted to check out their permanent space on the ground floor of a block of flats – so discreet you wouldn’t have any idea that it even existed.  Homo Economicus explores the relationship between art and labour through a study of the political economy.  The term homo economicus posits humans as self-interested actors who have the ability to have make decisions to maximise situations for their own well-being.

Cabinet. Own photograph.

The works present an interesting discussion and breakdown of capitalist philosophies, visualising the role of economics in relation to art.  The exhibition is in two parts, the second of which can be seen at Mehringdamm 72 in Berlin.  Together they explore the political consequences and resistances that this economic model can encounter and endure.

Homo Economicus at Cabinet. Own photograph.

After an evening of such varied and heavy concepts my brain was starting to spin.  We walked and walked and walked, tripping and falling over cobbles along the way and finally collapsed at the wonderful Le Café du Marché to relax and warm up.

David Hepher: Lace, Concrete and Glass – An Elegy for the Aylesbury Estate is at Flowers, 82 Kingsland Road until 25th February 2012, www.flowersgalleries.comUtopia is at the Hoxton Art Gallery until 1st March 2012, www.hoxtonartgallery.co.ukPaintings: An Exhibition by Christopher Oldfield is at Annexe until 20th January 2012, www.christopheroldfield.co.uk.  Daniel Rapley: Covenant is at PayneShurvell until 3rd March 2012, www.payneshurvell.comHomo Economicus is at Cabinet until 3rd March 2012, www.cabinet.uk.com.

%d bloggers like this: