Tag Archives: William Morris

Sunday morning at Tate Britain with the Turner Prize and the Pre-Raphs

11 Nov

Early this morning I popped in the car and, managing to skirt around the very impressive Remembrance Sunday crowds and consequent road closures, I headed to Tate Britain.  Comfy clothes and comfy shoes (sorry but even I’m not that committed to my heels) were the order of the day for a weekend gallery outing.

Remembrance Day services.  Image via www.itv.com

I’m not a huge Turner Prize fan but it’s still nice to have it back in London (last year it was in Gateshead marking the start of its biennial staging away from Tate Britain).  The Turner Prize takes over the downstairs space at Tate Britain but is hung differently to usual with the entrance being where we used to find the exit.  This seems to work much better though I can’t quite fathom why.

Unusually, all of the shortlisted exhibitions that led to these nominations have taken place in Britain so many of you may well have seen the works before.

To start, we are greeted by Paul Noble’s drawings.  I blogged his exhibition at Gagosian earlier this year, where we saw his sprawling drawings detailing the minutiae of Nobson Newtown.  I’m a fan!  But, the exhibition at Gagosian was far better and maybe this is a larger problem with the Turner Prize – it fundamentally reproduces shows from the last year but diminishes them so they aren’t normally as good.  For me, the marble sculptures are slightly too crude and provide an unwelcome distraction from the densely fabulous pencil drawings.

Nobson Newtown at Tate Britain.  Image via www.standard.co.uk

Luke Fowler’s film is a full-length documentary but I did not have 93 minutes to spare this morning.  Whether or not I will return to watch in full remains to be seen.  The film is about RD Laing and the anti-psychiatry movement but, unlike a normal film, it does not have a narrative.  Instead, it is a collage of short scenes and snapshots that come together to tell its strange story.  Is this art that is film or a film masquerading as art?

Still from Luke Fowler’s All Divided Selves.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

I wasn’t able to watch Elizabeth’s Price video work as there was a technical fault this morning but, from what I understand, The Woolworths Choir of 1979 is an overpowering piece in three acts, bringing together old photographs, archive footage, rhythms, words and sound.  The piece is an act of commemoration, exploring the horror of the fire in the Manchester branch of Woolworths.

Elizabeth Price, The Woolworths Choir of 1979.  Image via www.telegraph.co.uk.

Finally, we reach Spartacus Chetwynd’s work but I wasn’t around at the correct time to see one of the actual performances.   Chetwynd’s work seems intended to shock; Tate describes her team as an energetic “16th-century wandering troupe”.  What makes her work stand out, despite its silliness, is that Chetwynd’s commitment to her absurdity is entirely sincere – a contradiction in terms perhaps but one with often spectacular results.  I never made it to her 2011 Sadie Coles show but have heard it was far more dramatic, exciting and fun.  These feelings are nowhere to be found at Tate.

Spartacus Chetwynd with co-performers as part of Odd Man Out 2011.  Image via www.telegraph.co.uk.

Tate has gone for non-traditional media this year.  I’d like Noble to win but I imagine one of the video artists will take the prize.

Although I walked around the whole exhibition, I left feeling I had seen very little of the Turner Prize and didn’t really know what to make of this year’s submissions.  The winner of the prize will be announced live by Jude Law(!) at the award ceremony on Monday 3rd December 2012.  I worry that Tate may be going too far to popularise the Turner.  Before long the artists will have to do live tricks on air to cement their win.

Elizabeth Price – not working. Own photograph.

 The main reason for today’s visit though was to see Tate’s Pre-Raphaelite exhibition.  By 10.30am it was already packed out although the guard told me that what I thought was busy was in fact quiet.  As snobby as this will sound, I do find it hard to enjoy exhibitions that are flooded with people.  I began to regret not wearing sharp stilettos that would have helped me to encourage people to move out the way (don’t worry, I’m only joking).  Luckily, I was very familiar with most of the works here so didn’t feel I was missing out when I couldn’t get near to them.  Walking through the seven rooms, was like reliving my Courtauld first year survey course with Holman Hunt’s The Hireling Shepherd, Ford Maddox Brown’s An English Autumn Afternoon, Hampstead – Scenery in 1853, Millais’ Christ in the House of his Parents and many more besides.

William Holman Hunt, The Hireling Shepherd, 1851-2.  Image via www.artchive.com.

Visitors to the show are heading straight to the work hanging opposite the entrance – Millais’ Isabella that created rather a buzz in the press before the opening.  One of the curators spotted that the foremost figure has a large erection.  He leans forward, with his leg stretched out in front of him and, although his groin is covered, a shadow is cast on the table.  It’s unmissable, yet we have missed it since 1848 when the work was conceived.

John Everett Millais, Isabella, 1848-9.  Image via www.theartsdesk.com

The Pre-Raphaelites’ recognition of women as sensual and sexual people is obvious and one of their defining features.  Desire pours forth and we know that many of these artists were enjoying themselves and their models.

We can feel the curators’ passion as we walk around the show.  With 180 works, they’ve certainly tried to cram in all their favourites (although a few notable works are missing).  Now, the Pre-Raphaelites may not be to everyone’s fancy and I have heard some describe their work in horribly derogatory terms.  But, whatever you may think, all opinions are subjective and however ‘bad’ some of the works are it’s important to remember that everyone has different tastes.  As such, the popularity of this period reigns supreme and there are some fabulous works included here.

Ford Madox Brown, An English Autumn Afternoon, Hampstead – Scenery in 1853,1852-3.  Image via www.telegraph.co.uk

Many of the works do merge into one – partly because the Pre-Raphs often painted with a prescribed artistic formula and relied on this through and through.  The works don’t often take too long to look at, they initially captivate with their bright and bubbly colours but their joy can fade away quickly when we start to note their cramped scenes, sickly colours and lack of perspectival understanding.  Some of the works are moving and many, like Ophelia, are so familiar that they are part of our everyday life.

 

John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-2.  Image via www.tate.org.uk.  

I don’t think the exhibition has managed to prove anything new academically and, in fact, I disagree with the arguments that encourage us to view the movement through the eyes of Modernism but it’s a beautiful exhibition, presenting a well-known story and some well-known paintings alongside a mix of Victorian works.  Although it is a neatly summarised show, this is also its main problem.  Chronology has been abandoned here and themes imposed on the work often lead to confusion rather than distinction, such as Salvation, Beauty, Mythologies and History.  This does make it difficult to follow the progression of individuals as they get lost in the melée.

The exhibition doesn’t end on a bang and the last two rooms lose something for me – perhaps because this is actually no longer Pre-Raphaelitism but Arts and Crafts.  They clearly intend to show the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites on the later movement of Arts and Crafts but Tate fail to separate the two.

William Morris, Peacock and Bird Carpet, 1885-90.  Image via www.tate.org.uk

I certainly don’t loathe this period.  In fact, I rather enjoyed the exhibition and, although there are a lot of works shoved in this space, I do think it’s a very well-curated show with great wall colours and good lighting (something I don’t often say about Tate).

William Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat, 1854-6.  Image via www.wikipedia.org

The curators have taken care to stress the female artists from the circle with Julia Margaret Cameron and Elizabeth Siddal making bold appearances.  This is a very British show and we’ve had a very British year so Tate could not have timed this better.

One thing that still upsets me is the lack of an artist-designed Christmas tree at Tate.  Although the rotunda is no longer visible due to the major building work currently in progress I fail to believe that there is no room anywhere in the gallery to have kept this tradition alive.  The rest of London once again embraces Christmas while Tate stays in the dark.

Turner Prize 2012 is at Tate Britain until 6th January 2013 and Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde is at Tate Britain until 13th January 2013, www.tate.org.uk.

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William Morris back home in Walthamstow

17 Aug

Until yesterday I’d never really thought of Walthamstow as somewhere to go for an afternoon out, unless I’m visiting friends in the area.  But, a quick nip round the North Circular in my little car proved me wrong as the William Morris Gallery is definitely worth a visit.

The William Morris Gallery at Lloyd Park in Walthamstow. Own photograph.

Following a 15 month closure, the Gallery has now re-opened thanks to a £5 million regeneration programme mostly funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Waltham Forest Council.  The renovation has been sensitively undertaken by Pringle Richards Sharratt Architects who have retained the original fabric of the building while introducing modern features.

One of the wonderful new galleries. Own photograph.

Now, I never knew this but William Morris was actually born in Walthamstow in 1834 and Water House, a grade II* listed Georgian building, was his family home from 1848-1856.  There was interest in turning the building into a museum in his honour from as early as 1908 but, at that stage, there wasn’t anything to put in it!  Over the years, with the help of Sir Frank Brangwyn RA and others, a collection has been formed and, in 1950, the building became a museum to showcase Morris’s work.  It has remained so ever since.

Blue Plaque. Own photograph.

Morris’s designs are iconic; there can be no doubt that he revolutionised British design and his influence still prevails.  In Victorian times, his graphic style was the height of modernity.  Morris is also known for his strong connections with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and, in 1861, he founded an interior design business called Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Company; the firm’s partners included Ford Maddox Brown, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (who designed most of their stained glass), Edward Burne-Jones and Philip Morris.  ‘The Firm’, as they were known, strove to make use of natural materials, reviving ancient crafts in their quest for pure quality.  Hand-craftsmanship was paramount to Morris throughout his life and he preferred to make use of small-scale workshops where individuals were trained in a specialist skill.  In 1875, the business was renamed Morris & Co and fell solely under his control.

Honeysuckle Wallpaper that was used at Rounton Grange. Own photograph.

The dense display system in use at the Gallery allows for over 600 objects to be on show at once.  The building has an archive system in a specially designed conservation basement and, as all the collection is now stored on site in this archive, the objects in the public space can be rotated regularly.  Visitors to the gallery move from the introductory area into a room looking at Morris’s formative years and his early forays into design.  Each room progresses through his life showcasing his countless designs.  Embroidery was the first of the textile arts that Morris explored and, through this craft, he fell in love with the experimental, non-commercial ideas that came to typify his practice.

Exploring Morris’s life and work at the Gallery. Own photograph.

Trellis was Morris’s first wallpaper design where he took direct inspiration from the rose trellises in his garden.  Initially, Morris attempted to print the design himself but the results were not to the high standards he sought.  He turned to Jeffrey & Co and they continued to print all his wallpaper designs thereafter.  The sometimes cluttered display shows off the quality and splendour of Morris’s designs.  He famously said Have nothing in your houses that youdo notknow to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’ and there can be no doubt that his designs fulfil the latter criteria.

William Morris, Trellis. Own photograph.

The first floor is less dynamic but explores the founding of Kelmscott Presss, another of Morris’s businesses that printed his volumes of poems and historical tales.  It also investigates Morris’s political views and the Arts and Crafts movement as a whole.  There is a room dedicated to Frank Brangwyn, one of Morris’s apprentices responsible for collecting a large number of the pieces that feature in the Museum.   There are some great interactive features where you can design your own patterns, explore maps, ‘be Morris’ and so on; you’re even encouraged to touch and interact with the objects.

Interactive elements. Own photograph.

The gallery now also has space to stage small-scale exhibitions around modern art and design.  Kickstarting this new programme is Grayson Perry’s rarely-displayed The Walthamstow Tapestry – 15m wide it chronicles our journey from birth to death with characteristic touches such as the seven ages of man reinvented as the seven ages of shopping.

Grayson Perry, The Walthamstow Tapestry. Own photograph.

The museum is light and well-formed with clear identifiers for all the rooms.  Even on a random Thursday morning, the place was packed showing the popularity of Morris.  People still draw inspiration from his creativity and genius.  I never visited the gallery before the refurb so I have no point of comparison but the space is great.  And it’s free.  Thanks to the refurbishment the gallery now houses a café and Morris’s patterns have been fully incorporated into the building, used to carpet the stairs, decorate the ceilings and even paper the walls in the toilets – they’re definitely worth a visit too!

Grayson Perry: The Walthamstow Tapestry is at The William Morris Gallery until 23rd September 2012, www.wmgallery.org.uk.

Little and Large – Street Protests at FLASH and Aesthetic Beauty at the V&A

28 Apr

Yesterday evening saw the opening of Street Fighting Man – 50 Years of Youth Protest at Flash Projects on Savile Row. 

Own photograph

A small but striking photographic exhibition, this charts rising violence in the years from 1968 and includes a riot at a Rolling Stones’ concert (the title of the exhibition comes from the Stones’ most political song), Caroline Coon’s celebrated photographs of Punks and photographs set in a wider sociological context including CND matches, civil unrest in Ireland, inner city riots and Poll Tax riots.  The abusive clashes are portrayed in some powerful monochrome images.

Own photograph

From little to large.  Having heard so many 5* reviews, I decided to avoid the Royal Wedding madness that has well and truly taken over London and, this afternoon, I headed to the tranquillity of the V&A to see The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement, 1860-1900.

In a desire to escape the ugliness, materialism and, often vulgar, wealth of 19th century Britain (a country experiencing rapid urbanisation and industrialisation) the Aesthetic Movement sought a new beauty.  Art was created not to serve a purpose but for its own sake (‘art for art’s sake’ becoming the slogan of the movement), to be beautiful and provide pleasure.  The works in this exhibition do just that and, may I say, wow!  The V&A has gathered a truly extraordinary and diverse collection both of paintings (including old favourites such as Whistler’s Symphonies in White) and objects, offering true aesthetic delight.  With their radical ideas, there is no denying that this group of artists changed the face of art and design in late Victorian Britain.  The Aesthetic Movement approached beauty in its own right and aimed to express this perfect ideal, not only through art but through an entire lifestyle change.

James Abbott McNeil Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1, 1862.  Image via www.nga.gov

For example, furniture was no longer merely functional but something to be admired for its sensual curves and graceful structures.  The panoply includes costume, ceramics, furniture, architectural drawings, Liberty catalogues, wallpaper pattern books, poems, textiles, paintings, sculpture, jewellery, Punch, metalwork…  Could they have fitted any more in?  All these objects centre on beauty, showing the diversity of the movement and the potential for beauty, and for art, to be found in everything and in the way we choose to live our lives.  What a positive ideal!  The Aesthetic Movement really did encompass all art forms and all walks of life. 

Carlo Giuliano, Brooch and hair ornaments, 1875-95, 1912-14. Image via www.vam.ac.uk

As a William Morris fan, I was able to indulge.  Morris revolutionised the art of designing flat natural repeating patterns with richly harmonious colour.  He believed that wallpaper was integral to any interior decoration and it became one of the essential features of the Aesthetic interior.  Morris was synonymous with the style, his decorative skill in hiding the repeat marking him out as a genius.  We still use his designs today.

William Morris wallpaper, 1885.  Image via www.vam.ac.uk

A similar form of interior decoration is seen a notable work early in the show by Edward Burne-Jones in stained glass, The Merchant’s Daughter.  Although he produced many large- scale church window designs, this smaller panel for a domestic interior is surprisingly moving.

Edward Burne-Jones, Merchant’s Daughter, c. 1860.  Image via www.vam.ac.uk

The cult of beauty, of course, extended to the aesthetic woman.  In literature, the aesthetic woman was meant to represent a budding flower, rather than one in full bloom.  The woman as a girl – filled with promise, optimism and hope.  For most male painters of the period, the aesthetic woman was one who embodied eroticism, a vision of beauty and sex which the spectator is invited to look at and fantasise about. 

These were images of temptation personified by the sensual red-headed beauties displayed here.  Lizzie Siddal (immortalised in Millais’ Ophelia) was Rossetti’s lover and his model exclusively but that did not prevent him having a string of affairs and Bocca Baciato from 1859, whose title means ‘the kissed mouth’, refers to the sexual encounter between him and its model, his lover – Fanny Cornforth.  Although devoid of conventional narrative, the painting is deeply symbolic with apples for temptation, rose for love and marigolds for grief, suggesting the illicit nature of their couplings.  Rossetti married Lizzie Siddal the following year before her untimely death in 1862 from a laudanum overdose.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Bocca Baciata, 1859.  Image via www.vam.ac.uk

The beautiful feminine vision is seen in different ways.  Millais’ Kate Perugini of 1880 is gorgeous and teasing while his Louise Jopling of 1879 shows the sitter’s spirit and confidence. 

John Everett Millais, Louise Jopling, 1879.  Image via www.tate.org.uk

In 1877, having gained recognition among the wider public, the Grosvenor Gallery was opened specifically to show these new works.  The Grosvenor was consciously opulent in design so as to show off and further elaborate the works with lavish red silk walls which famously changed to ‘greenery-yallery’ for the second year, gilded pilasters and marble- topped tables adorned with flowers.  The intimate setting was meant to resemble an aristocratic house rather than a ‘conventional’ gallery – an idea that is mirrored by the V&A.  The gallery’s immediate success cemented the emergence of a new artistic group, presenting a challenge to other more traditional artists of the day.

Entrance to the Grosvenor Gallery, 1877.  Image via www.cqout.com

Oscar Wilde has come to be known as the Aesthetic impresario.  Max Beerbohm (1894) said “In fact, Beauty had existed long before 1880.  It was Mr Oscar Wilde who managed her debut.”  This was a moment in which all of art was entangled with ideas of liberation, sexuality and dubious morality – ideas which Wilde perfectly illustrates.

Napoleon Sarony, Oscar Wilde, 1882.  Image via www.vam.ac.uk

This is another one of those exhibitions where every work is stunning!  However, there is a but…  At times I felt the confusing and crowded layout was messy and quite claustrophobic.  The walkways force us so close to some of the larger canvases that they are nearly impossible to view in a satisfactory way. The V&A have gone to great lengths to re-create Rossetti’s bedroom but instead of having the room open or behind glass, visitors have to view the space through peep holes.  It’s such a shame they chose to block the room off in this way.  My stilettos gave me a better vantage point but there’s no way that a child, for example, has any chance of seeing this part of the exhibition.  Finally, the bright light projections (although pretty at first) often distracted from the works and the sound recordings were lost to the galleries, becoming nothing more than an annoying background mumble unless you were directly under the speaker. 

Projections at the V&A.  Image via www.vam.ac.uk

The Cult of Beauty united such ‘romantics’ as Dante Gabriel Rossetti (look out for his highly influential book illustrations infused with intense poetic feeling), James McNeil Whistler (spot his sumptuous etchings of the Thames), Frederic Leighton (his detailed drapery studies), William Morris, Aubrey Beardsley (with his decadent extraordinary black and white drawings) and Oscar Wilde. 

Aubrey Beardsley, Siegfried, 1892-3.  Image via www.vam.ac.uk

The V&A have beautifully brought together this incredible array of fabulous personas.  The dimly lit, almost secretive, rooms are very evocative of the era.  As you venture from space to space, it is as if you are exploring a private aristocratic house – an atmosphere that was also created in the Grosvenor Gallery.

This isn’t my specialist period but I was left wanting to know more.  I lugged the hefty 300-page catalogue home on the crowded tube, changing arms regularly to avoid elongation.  I’ve already made a start – it is a beautifully written, academic but not ‘weighty’ overview of how beauty was applied to the many different aspects of life and art. 

Visit, read and fall for the beauty of this ‘cult’. 

Street Fighting Man – until 4th June at Flash Projects, www.flash-projects.co.uk

The Cult of Beauty – until 17th July at The Victoria & Albert Museum, www.vam.ac.uk.

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