Tag Archives: Russia

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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Flesh, Despair and Glistening Oil – Haunch and Saatchi

4 Dec

This is certainly not the first time we have seen Patricia Piccinini at Haunch of Venison and I doubt it will be the last but this is her first solo UK exhibition.  I popped into the opening one night last week but I have to say it lacked the normal buzz of Haunch’s exhibitions.  I don’t know if it was the cold or that this has been done and seen before – it’s impossible not to mention Mueck when looking at her works.

Piccinini’s work blurs the boundaries between the artificial and the natural, encompassing many different media along the way.  She explores our desire to homogenise the human body and considers if we do, or do not, accept those who don’t measure up to a manufactured ideal of perfection.

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Looking at Piccinini’s The Carrier at Haunch. Own photograph.

Her fascination with medical science is obvious and she uses this to attempt to explain our contemporary world.  Piccinini’s figures are far removed from the people we are used to seeing – they are mutated human/animal hybrids that are alarmingly lifelike.  The panels on the walls have been presented in a square format – silicone, fibreglass and human hair resembling a slab of butchered meat.  Her anthropomorphised machines reference both a universal instinct to apply human emotions to all animals and things as well as a consideration that people and technology are increasingly, and unavoidably, intertwined.

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Patricia Piccinini, The Lovers, 2011. Own photograph.

Haunch haven’t overcrowded this exhibition or been over-ambitious.  The space afforded to the works allows us to form a baffling relationship with the pieces as we look at these familiar, yet alien, forms.  Piccinini is fetishising scarred and damaged flesh but the honesty of the material and her process removes some of the repulsion which we may otherwise feel here.

The hyper-realism draws us in closer.  Although I was disgusted by the sculptures, I couldn’t stop looking at them, admiring her technique and ideas.  Haunch state that the works both ‘attract and unsettle the viewer’ and this could not be more accurate.  This contradiction of emotions is Piccinini’s aim and couples perfectly with the juxtaposition of ideas in the works.

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Scarred Flesh. Own photograph.

On Sunday afternoon, I popped to Saatchi who have just opened Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union: Art from Russia.  Saatchi like to do things big and recent exhibitions have looked at art from India, America, Germany, Korea and China.  This time they tackle Russia but this exhibition presents Russia in a grim and unforgiving light, with little optimism.

Before I make any comment, I have to say this is one exhibition that truly teaches the importance of being able to put aside personal taste.  To be honest, I am not a fan of the works in this show but it cannot be ignored that this is a powerful and well put together exhibition that doesn’t cower from conveying its messages.

A mono photo-like print of a bare chested man with tattoos

Sergei Vasiliev, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia Print No.12, 2010.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

The exhibition opens with works by Sergei Vasiliev, possibly the images that, for me, were the most enduring.  Put simply, Vasiliev, a former prison warden, has photographed tattoos.  But there is so much more here.  Tattoos were, in fact, illegal and these images aren’t just about making a mark and an image but an act of defiance created with a scalpel using blood and urine.  This isn’t a subtle veil but a coded message that we see recur again and again on worn flesh.  These men are in prison and many don’t ever expect to be released.

All of the works in this exhibition are intertwined with the unavoidable political history of Russia.  The works are immediate and exposing; Vikenti Nilin’s photographs show people sitting on the windowsills or roofs of towering buildings.  They don’t seem as if they are about to jump or are on the verge of falling, instead they sit calmly on the edge – a fascinating comment about their day-to-day existence.

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Vikenti Nilin, from the Neighbours Series. Image via www.culture24.org.uk

Boris Mikhailov’s works repel and mesmerise us, in the same way that Piccinini does at Haunch, and two galleries here are dedicated to his work.  These photographs are a small portion of 400 images he took in his homeland of Ukraine showing the distressed, desperate, dying, destitute and decaying.  The drama and theatricality of the poses would be comic if the people weren’t baring all to reveal gashes, cuts, bruises, cancerous cysts and far worse.

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Boris Mikhailov photographs.  Image via www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk

The photographs are at the epicentre; not all of the works deliver their messages in such a compelling way and I don’t think some of the pieces translate to a London audience.  It would have been stronger if it wasn’t quite so big and determined to show a survey of Russian contemporary art.  Of the 18 artists on show, many have never been seen outside Russia.

The title Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union comes from a speech by Joseph Stalin but there is no gaiety here and the work comments on the aftermath of the regimes that have gone before.  The irony could not be more poignant.

A dummy of a man hangs in a hand-built row of cells

Gosha Ostretsov, Criminal Government, 2008  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

The highlight of visiting the Saatchi has to be the opportunity to gaze into Richard Wilson’s 20:50, an incredible reservoir of metal, filled with engine oil, that takes the shape of the room.  You’ve probably seen it before; the oil reflects its surroundings, it glows and glistens.  It perfectly harmonises with the architecture around us, confounding our ideas of distance and space.  Sadly, the walkway into the pool of black was closed on Sunday but I had experienced this at County Hall.  It could not be simpler; it could not be more perfect and concrete despite the fluidity.

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Richard Wilson, 20:50.  Image via www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk

As strange as this may sound, 20:50 provides the perfect counter-balance to the grim despair of the Russian exhibition.  For me, this work is timeless and whatever Saatchi may be showing make sure you get lost in Wilson’s black depths.

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Patricia Piccinini: Those who dream by night is at Haunch of Venison, New Bond Street, until 12th January 2013, www.haunchofvenison.comGaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union: Art from Russia is at the Saatchi Gallery until 5th May 2013, www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk.

Titian’s Treasure at The National: The Flight into Egypt

22 Apr

As I have previously mentioned, I love the National Gallery – nothing really beats wandering through their rooms filled with artistic gems that tell the story of art history under one roof.  Whether you’re popping in for a ten minute peek when sheltering from the rain or to see a full-blown exhibition, it’s a wonderful place to visit.  Often their free exhibition programme is truly outstanding and it was to see one of these that I was there on a rainy afternoon earlier this week.

Now there’s no denying that Titian is an incredible artist and probably the greatest painter of 16th century Venice but this still isn’t my preferred period and consequently I wouldn’t pick him as one of my favourites.

Titian, Noli me Tangere, c. 1511-12. Courtesy of The National Gallery and via www.nationalgallery.org.uk

Currently on display is Titian’s first major commission (described by Vasari as his first masterpiece hence the exhibition’s title); The Flight into Egypt, on loan from the Hermitage Museum, is being shown for its first time out of Russia since 1768.  Due to this lack of visibility, it’s been pretty much ignored by scholars but has now been restored, cleaned and given due consideration.  This exhibition seeks to explore Titian’s journey in creating his first large-scale landscape (it’s over 10 feet wide), making comparisons with other contemporaneous artists both in subject and composition and showing the influences that shaped him.  The painting is shown alongside 28 other relevant works including those by Albrecht Dürer and Titian’s tutor, Giovanni Bellini.  The wall panels explain the decision of the various inclusions, looking at his inspirations for different sections of the painting.

Albrecht Dürer, The Vision of St Eustace, c. 1500-02. Courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum and via www.nationalgallery.org.uk

The holy family’s escape was a popular subject although a work of this scale is unprecedented in Venice at this time.  Painted in 1507, when Titian was only 18, The Flight into Egypt is believed to be one of Titian’s earliest compositions, showing off his skill at landscape painting and his unprecedented sensitivity to colour and detail – elements that would later define his career and become known as his part of his signature style.

Titian, The Flight into Egypt, c. 1506-07. Courtesy of The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersberg and via www.nationalgallery.org.uk.   

The exhibition also gives an introductory look at Titian’s Venetian patrons, many of whom are unidentified but appreciated him before he became famous.   The Flight was almost definitely commissioned by Andrea Loredan for his new palazzo on the Grand Canal where it hung until the mid-18th century – we know this from frequent descriptions that record its location.

The Flight’s background shows off Titian’s highly accomplished skill as an artist.  His gift for landscape stems from his tuition under Bellini and the looser approach of Giorgione, another Bellini pupil.  For Titian, landscape was as important as figures and both are afforded equal detail even if his skill set wasn’t quite balanced at this stage.  The figures in the foreground are rather stiff and generic; they appear to be superimposed on the scene, frieze-like in their inflexibility.  Titian’s Virgin and Child here seem to recall a figure group from a Bellini painting with a comparable pyramidal structure and tilt of heads.  A few years later Titian changed direction and broke away from Bellini’s influence but, here, it is evidently visible.

Giovanni Bellini, The Madonna of the Meadow, c. 1495-1500. Courtesy of The National Gallery and via www.nationalgallery.org.uk

Titian hadn’t yet mastered portraits and The Flight doesn’t really enlighten us as to what a great artist he was to become; other works in the exhibition show how quickly he developed.

Although not visibly overloaded, The Flight is filled with everything Titian knew how to do; it’s a smorgasbord of his talent and an advertisement of his capabilities.  Notwithstanding its shortcomings, Titian was able to bring all these elements together into a great work.

Titian, detail of The Flight into Egypt, c. 1506-07. Courtesy of The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersberg and via www.nationalgallery.org.uk.   

Later this year, the work will be shown in Venice before returning to the Hermitage from where it will never travel again in our lifetimes.  Unless you book your tickets and visa to Russia this really is a once-in-a-lifetime viewing opportunity.  The fact that the National Gallery has been honoured with the exhibition of this work shows not just what a great gallery it is but also complements the strength of its own collection.

Titian, Portrait of Gerolamo (?) Barbarigo, c. 1509. Courtesy of The National Gallery and via www.nationalgallery.org.uk

The catalogue is an enlightening publication that looks at Titian and landscape, studying the painting to which so much time is being devoted.  Although small, the exhibition was actually more substantial than I expected and in a room and a half there is a lot to get your teeth into.  This is a rare opportunity to see this early work (masterpiece or not), with a small exhibition of superb quality to accompany it.  Don’t waste any time, go to have a closer look.

Titian’s First Masterpiece: The Flight into Egypt is at The National Gallery until 19th August 2012, www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

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