Category Archives: Exhibitions

Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy, 1860-1960

William_Morris_CoverNational Portrait Gallery
16 October 2014 – 11 January 2015

If you are looking for any hint of actual anarchy or anarchism, a better grasp of how Morris’s work and art and design connected to his politics or dedication to Socialist struggle, or the ways in which this connection or a political legacy continued on through the years, this exhibition will make you just a little sad. The very limited exhibit brochure states:

…this major exhibition illustrates Morris’s concept of ‘art for the people’ and highlights the achievements of those he inspired.

And this really was about ‘art for the people’, and much of the later part of it about ‘art for the people to look at from afar’, which perhaps explains why to me it missed the greater point which always was art by the people, of the people, and how this connected to everyday labour and struggle. From his pamphlet on Art and Socialism, as paraphrased by E.P. Thompson:

  1. Art is Man’s expression of his joy in labour

  2. Nothing should be made by man’s labour which is not worth making, or which must be made by labour degrading to the makers

  3. the only healthy art is ‘an art which is to be made by the people, and for the people, as a happiness to the maker and user’

William Morris became political and turned to Socialism because of and through art, because he firmly believed in these things. He wrote ‘…neutrality is impossible in man’s handiwork…a house, a knife, a cup, a steam engine…anything that is made by man and has form, must either be a work of art or destructive to art'(646 – ‘The Socialist Ideal: Art’). I think it’s telling that E.P. Thompson’s massive biography is nowhere referred to, though the earlier biography by Mackail features heavily, and the exhibition is curated by Fiona MacCarthy who has written biographies of Morris, Eric Gill and Edward Bourne-Jones. I have read none of these others so can’t be too critical I suppose, and I am sure there are some things Thompson got wrong (Janey Morris for example) but this exhibit certainly somehow stripped so much of struggle away. The description beside the photograph of George Lansbury, for example, said nothing about his prison sentence for refusing to pay rates as head of the Poplar council. I can’t help but feel that is the principal reason he is remembered and still beloved today. As for anarchy — well, I will come back to that.

morris2All that said, I loved the first half of the exhibit where the focus is William Morris himself, because his huge personality and the different aspects of his work demands the inclusion of it all. Perhaps most of all I loved the discovery of just how many wonderful little drawings of Morris there are by Edward Bourne-Jones, who actually features very little in what I’ve read, but a great deal here. I knew how close Morris was to Edward’s wife Georgiana Bourne-Jones from long excerpts of their wonderful letters used by Thompson (she’s represented here by only a portrait sadly), but Edward was his working partner and friend for just as long, and his caricatures of Morris at work and play are grand and give so much insight to their characters I think. Do a google search and you will see! I like the one above, from 1865, Morris reading to Bourne-Jones. The one shown in the exhibit is this:

Morrisweaving

A picture of William Morris demonstrating weaving, from 1888. His rotund little figure gets up to all sorts of antics, he’s even shown in the bath. The dates give an idea of the longevity and awesomeness of this close personal friendship, and also, I think, how Morris just could not have taken himself too seriously. There’s another, and not so kind, caricature of Morris from Rosetti, The bard and Petty Tradesman from 1868:

morris609
It encapsulates quite clearly what Rosetti thought of Morris’s arts and crafts designing and selling things nonsense. If he couldn’t paint, poetry was the thing.

I loved seeing Morris’s old satchel, and the huge and beautiful Prioress’s Tale Wardrobe, painted as a wedding present by Bourne-Jones. I had no idea Morris kept a ‘Socialist Diary’ for three months — the only period he kept a diary. They had it, there to read the one open page, three month’s worth of ‘a view of the Socialist movement from the inside, Jonah’s view of the whale’. Awesome. I want to read it (and can online here). They had the beautiful Hammersmith Socialist Society Banner, made (or designed and crafted through the business) by May Morris, and I learned a little more about her relationship with her father, both as head of the company’s embroidery division and in politics. They had Morris’s wonderful copy of Marx’s Le Capital, specially bound after his original had fallen apart through his study (I love that fact!), and several of the beautiful books from Kelmscott Press, including the giant Chaucer: KelmscottChaucer

Volysey Kelmscott Chaucerand a lovely cabinet crafted specially to hold it by Charles Voysey. Of course, this beautiful piece of furniture that I love also highlights the fairly elite nature of much of the arts and crafts movement and ‘the people’ who are in engaging in it inspired by Morris’s work. Not quite ‘the people’ Morris referred to, spoke to, worked with and fought for,  which this exhibit does not really reflect on at all.

I found out more, saw more of the Red House. Really, I so love the art and the craft of Morris, I confess this exhibit shows a good sample of those beautifully. To me the house is indeed one of ‘the beautifullest place on earth’, designed by Phillip Webb and William Morris and both inside and out full of lovely handcrafted things. It was also wonderful to look at a full size print of the famous picture by Hollyer (seen on the cover of the book at the top of this post), pictures of him and his family, pictures of the Hammersmith Socialist Society as well as the portrait of him by George Frederic Wattmorriswattss below. How interesting too, to find out that WB Yeats had a copy of this over his mantel.

The way that so many figures of the social movements of this time intersected with the arts was also fairly revelatory. I had no idea that Sylvia Pankhurst was such an artist and craftswoman, designing the WPSU’s logo, badges, and beautiful silver brooches given to women who had been incarcerated for the cause. There is a wonderful site — sylviapankhurst.com — full of resources on her life, struggle and art. Many more of Morris’s contemporaries have art and portraits on display here, and that I loved too. It’s as the exhibit moves through time that it becomes more and more about artisanship, the arts and crafts aspect from which all connection to labour and struggle has seemingly been stripped that I didn’t like so much.

There was quite a lot about the garden city movement, again art for the people, and while the original dream of the garden city had political content, the reality as built had very little. A superficial reading of the ideals of Morris may be somewhat reflected in the ‘cultured cottage style’ of so much of the residential building at Letchworth, which is a centre of one of the exhibit sections. Yet I rather wish I could hear the explosion of his famous temper were he to be thanked for the end result of fairly highly priced suburban accommodation that only achieved a shadow of the original ideal for building working class, sustainable communities.

What happens, I think, is that artisanship and hand-crafting is portrayed as inherently radical, that a bunch of wealthy people absconding to the country to live their ideals should somehow be in Morris’s revolutionary tradition. Morris hated more than anything the Victorian architectural tradition of using a superficial mishmash of gothic ‘features’ rather than understanding the relationship of work and art that he felt was truly gothic, he railed against it. I feel that the cultured cottage style, and many other arts and crafts objects, are themselves just such a superficial reference to a very different ideal that combines art and socialism. One of the last objects is an erotic garden roller designed by Eric Gill to maintain grass tennis courts:

Eric Gill's Garden RollerCool enough, but individually owned grass tennis courts make my lip curl a little, not exactly part of a simple life. In News From Nowhere, Morris imagines a society of plenty where everyday objects are things of great beauty. There would be plenty of time to create such a tennis lawn roller for community use. But under capitalism? Morris struggled after converting to Socialism with how best to live simply and according to his ideals, run a workshop and employ workers, create things that a wide number of people could afford while still providing pleasure in labour to the craftsman, whether he should give all of his money away (a sacrifice he seemed willing to make but hesitant for his family though who can really know) or use it to employ workers and fund the movement. The second of which, in the end he did. Honestly, I doubt many things could be further from this interior struggle than such a roller — though it is strangely the primary focus of the short Guardian article on the exhibition by Mark Brown, who clearly cares little and knows less of Morris himself. Gill was a Fabian and then a Socialist, so perhaps I am being too hard on him, but nothing here really connected his work to his politics (or the controversies over his claimed sexual abuse of his children and other revelations, which make me uninterested in anything else about him really).

So how does this all this connect back to anarchy? I still puzzle over the use of that word in the title. Perhaps if I could have afforded or wanted the book, it would have been made more clear. One thing I love about Morris is that he partially bridged the growing split between  Socialism and Anarchism in his life and work. That’s nowhere here. Anarchy here seems to to be referring to a very general and minimal revolt against society, and its limited use emerged most when it was looking at Morris’s connections to women’s and queer liberation — and those are only explicitly through his influence on the arts really, I have no idea if he ever openly pronounced on matters of sexuality. Artistically though, there’s Edward Carpenter, a pioneer of gay rights, and his workshop crafting artisanal sandals (you can see a pair of his sandals here). C.R. Ashbee was another, with the Guild and School of Handicraft and his bisexuality. Yet Morris’s own prizing of women’s liberation both in work and freedom within relationships that might make more sense as part of the tradition of ‘anarchy’ or radicalism is missing for the most part. You can never tell how much men actually practice of their rhetoric around women’s liberation of course, but News From Nowhere is at least an openly expressed preference for fairly open relations between the sexes, as well as a variety of living arrangements with little desire for a nuclear family. I loved that, even if women tended to ‘prefer’ domestic duties. Anyway, in this exhibit there  was a lot of beauty, no real anarchy at all.

So in the end I have mixed feelings, and wonder what people take away from this who don’t know much when they walk in. As I say, though, the materials themselves relating to Morris and the early arts and crafts movement are brilliant to see and read about, so it’s probably worth going.

(All coincidence in terms of timing, but I’ve just been reading all about this, reflections on E.P. Thompson’s biography can be found as Part 1 and Part 2, and thoughts on News From Nowhere are here)

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Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age

Some thoughts on the exhibition at the Barbican.  Constructing Worlds is on the photography of architecture, and it does indeed excel in capturing the relationship between two dimensional pictures and architecture, how photographs can reveal not just a new vision of our built environment, but an aid to experiencing our vision of it differently. As a whole this  inspired me to go out into London and take pictures again, to see my city in terms of shapes and shadows, surfaces and depths. To pay attention to structures and the space that they create. It has been so long since I’ve just taken my camera out, and with a camera in hand you see the city in a very different way. The next day walking in Lambeth, I thought to myself of Lucien Hervé, with his studies of shadow and light. Staring at the estate on my corner it came in and out of phase, from blocks of space to details of material and lived-in-ness to blocks of space. Gave me chills. I like that form of seeing, but only in combination with other forms of seeing. Just as I would have liked this exhibition more if it had combined the western white male gaze with others, incorporating more diversity of not just subject but also of viewer. There were four women featured here, one Indian, one white South African and another born in Nigeria, and one Japanese photographer.

I am so tired of the ubiquity of this gaze that rests on the structures of privilege: who gets to become a ‘photographer’, who amongst those are considered an artist, who gets shown in galleries, who can earn their living this way if they need to. I didn’t really bother once going to exhibitions, because what do those people have to do with me? And then I would go because I realised that at their best they make me think and see new things, and I’d shrug off the uniform nature of the artists because that’s how the world is. Now I sometimes go (but sometimes I just don’t) and usually emerge thinking new things, but also a little upset.

Anyway, that critique aside I would still go again. In the Barbican’s own words:

Constructing Worlds brings together eighteen exceptional photographers from the 1930s to the present day who have changed the way we view architecture and perceive the world around us.

From the first skyscrapers in New York and decaying colonial structures in the Congo, to the glamorous suburban homes of post-war California, and the modern towers of Venezuela, we invite you on a global journey through 20th and 21st century architecture.

Featuring over 250 works, this exhibition highlights the power of photography to reveal hidden truths in our society.

And it did that, but again I ask, who gets to change the way ‘we’ view things? Those looking at photography in the Barbican aren’t generally the group I am imagining when the words ‘we’ leave my mouth. For example, the three public school youths clearly just there because a fairly stunning arty girl said she wanted to go. How much are they really challenging our view of society? I wonder.

But the photographs were wonderful. Just some notes about some of my thoughts on the artists in the order you find them in the exhibit, I definitely hope to follow up with more on their work at some point:

Thomas Struth: He set up his tripod in the middle of the street each time, and tried to create a set of pictures that removed the focus from composition, allowed for a ‘more scientific grid’. The best you can see here on his website, they are oddly compelling. Across time and space the pictures here gave you a sense of some of the differences between Chicago, NY, Berlin, Naples, Tokyo. Pyongyang, Rome, Lima, St Petersberg, Beijing, Geneva.

View of Exchange Place from Broadway, New York, 1934

Berenice Abbott: Oh man, these made me fall in love with NY all over again, and like Walker Evans, only exist as part of the New Deal programs to put artists to work. I love the New Deal, wish the US still had those programs in place because they opened up art for a little while. Of course, she’d been already been the proteget of Eugene Atget (considered the grandfather of photographic modernism? For further investigation) in Paris and brought back his archive to the US in 1929 before being hired by the Federal Art Project. This long thin amazing view between skyscrapers with people down below is one of my favourite pictures of the exhibit (so so few of these pictures contained people, as if spaces were pure, to be seen and aesthetically enjoyed as separate from being lived in). There was another of a man reading his paper with a cat which I loved, and a picture of the first model tenement house in NY with rows upon rows of washing. Extraordinary.

Walker Evans: I liked that he was included here because these were pictures of cities and towns of the South, and I liked the Barbican applying the term architecture to them — from steel mill towns to the ‘Negro’ section. There was a wonderful series of wooden frame churches, almost exactly alike and differentiated by only small decorative details and amount of peeling paint.

This was followed by Julius Schulman, a little Southern California modernism as the photographer for mostly L.A. architects of note and merit. The Stahl House for example, is stunning (but oh. my. god. when you go from black and white to orange and white in colour!). I liked this set up, with the case study home program, the set of magazine articles the pictures appeared in in glass cases in the middle. Of course, these pictures would go on to define the ideals of wealth and suburban living, and I wish I had had them for my thesis. Modern architecture. Women in the kitchen. Swimming pools. Refined parties with guests reclining on expensive furniture. Entirely white, as any self-respecting suburb was given the harassment ranging from eggs to bombs keeping non-whites out. But that’s my thesis. I just don’t think that part of ideal should be left unsaid.

Haute Cour à Chandigarh, © 1955, Lucien Hervé
Haute Cour à Chandigarh, © 1955, Lucien Hervé

I think Lucien Hervé impressed me most, at least his mastery of showing mass and space, shadow and light stuck with me. I am also fascinated by his relationship with Le Corbusier, their partnership which brought these two mediums together in a very different way than the other photographers. I’ll be coming back to Le Corbusier, his visions for society and the city, the visions he built in Europe but on such a larger scale in Chandigarh and Ahmedebad. I find them extraordinary. In many of these latter pictures (and I loved the  showing of the annotated contact prints) the human use of the space returns without losing the architectural sense of the space. The re-appropriations (to the extent possible) of these huge brutalist symbolic spaces of government by the poor I found inspiring to some extent, and very curious about the role of government, the functioning of government in this kind of space.

Ruscha’s photographs of LA parking lots were…no, I didn’t much like them. I did like the images of industrialisation by Bernd and Hilla Becher, the idea of industrial archeology. I loved an entire wall of the most amazing water towers. The collection from Stephen Shore was all right, looking at his website I actually feel that his work loses some of its impact just focusing on those that arguably deal with architecture. I love the moments, people, everydayness that he captures and the way that he captures them, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m from Arizona and that’s a lot like Texas. I did laugh with joy to see the wigwam motel though.

That’s the top floor, by then I was seriously losing steam, just as I am now. The bottom floor was more modern, more installation based, only a few pieces for each artist. Luisa Lambri’s interior didn’t really work for me, but the smudged iconic shapes of Hiroshi Sugimoto I liked. Luigi Ghirri‘s photographs were tiny and exquisite, I would have liked more. Hélène Binet and more wonderful use of darkness and light and describing architectural photography as a pas de deux between building and camera. The monumental and amazingly detailed photo of collective behaviour enclosed in space of Andreas Gursky. Bas Princen with an extraordinary view of garbage strewn across the complixities of slum rooftops in this place geared to living off of the recycling of waste. Guy Tillim walking through Patrice Lamumba’s dream in the Congo. That hurt my heart, but the pictures are incredible. Simon Norfolk’s pictures of war’s effect on architecture — both in terms of destruction and speculation. You should go just to see the wedding cake building.  Nadav Kandar, who combined people’s everyday lives as lived underneath and around the huge bridge across the Yangtze. And the best way to end? Iwan Baan, because I loved the subject. A huge flagship building in Caracas, never completed and then squatted, and these pictures show the world created there by its inhabitants. Such vibrant re-appropriations of space, they made me so happy, and their own views through glass-free ‘windows’ onto the incredible cityscape sat in my head alongside those of the staid Stahl house looking out over L.A.

Torre de David, Caracas, Venezuela, 2011 by Iwan Baan.
Torre de David, Caracas, Venezuela, 2011 by Iwan Baan.
stahlhouse
Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House No. 22, Julius Shulman

The photographs are wonderful. Go see it, or check them out where you can.

Featured photographers

  • Berenice Abbott
  • Iwan Baan
  • Bernd and Hilla Becher
  • Hélène Binet
  • Walker Evans
  • Luigi Ghirri
  • Andreas Gursky
  • Lucien Hervé
  • Nadav Kander
  • Luisa Lambri
  • Simon Norfolk
  • Bas Princen
  • Ed Ruscha
  • Stephen Shore
  • Julius Shulman
  • Thomas Struth
  • Hiroshi Sugimoto
  • Guy Tillim

Also includes the work of iconic architects

  • Le Corbusier
  • Frank Lloyd Wright
  • Minoru Yamasaki
  • Luis Barragán
  • Aldo Rossi
  • Pierre Koenig
  • Charles and Ray Eames
  • Daniel Libeskind

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Re-imagine: Black Women in Britain

Wednesday evening I visited the Black Cultural Archives for the first time, though I’ve been meaning to stop by since I missed their grand opening on July 24th.  Windrush Square is much better without those big huge sidings that have been up for all the years I’ve lived here, but more so because now we can finally enjoy the gem they hid inside.

BCA

Bim Adewunmi writes in a Guardian article on its opening:

In the turbulent spring of 1981, as the streets of Brixton seethed with rioters and the shops burned, a small group of black artists, activists and teachers met in the midst of the conflict. Their common goal was to create an archive that commemorated and educated people on the forgotten history of black people in Britain and offset the violence with understanding and education.

At the beginning there were just eight of them gathered in a small shopfront on Brixton’s Coldharbour Lane. But last week, after a 33-year long battle, the permanent home of the Black Cultural Archives finally opened its doors to the public to a gathered crowd of thousands.

33 years. Damn. Thanks to their efforts there is now this truly extraordinary thing standing proud in the centre of Brixton, more important now than ever as rents keep going up and the heart of the community is at risk.

I met up with Sean and Helen, Kevin and Niall in the cafe, which has affordable coffee and cake and is such a good space! The building is beautiful, and a display on the wall describes its long and fascinating history from a large home of wealth and privilege to a school for boys to a dancing school to the Liberals Club to London’s first coach station! With some other things I have forgotten in between. A huge touch screen in the corner allows you to explore some of the many documents they have in the collections and we looked briefly through a series of leaflets from the 1970s and 80s with campaigns that ranged from how cuts affected black women the most to stories of deaths in custody and denunciations of police brutality. Inspiring, but also sad to think that we could just photocopy and hand out those same documents today with as much relevance as they had then. You can also see a range of their collection online here.

Adewunmi describes the purpose of the BCA through the eyes of the director:

It is the only institution of its kind in Britain, a place to bring together objects, documents, publications and oral histories of the black people of Britain over centuries, and, as the BCA director Paul Reid says, enable the black community to tell its own stories and its own history in its own voice for the first time.

What a beautiful place this is. And their first exhibit shows how they are going about it, the Re-Imagine: Black Women in Britain exhibit was amazing. Here is the blurb for it:

Long before the Empire Windrush arrived on British shores in 1948 there were women of African descent in Britain. Black women were here to witness the construction of Hadrian’s Wall in Roman Britain and everyday life over the centuries, in the markets and music halls, homes and factories.

Re-imagine gives us a glimpse of some of these women, the traces of their lives lying in vaults of archives, libraries and museums across the United Kingdom and brought together for the first time.

Side by side. Face to face. Courageous women who, throughout generations have been brave. We invite you to ‘re-imagine’ their lives, to create a tapestry of stories that paint a picture of the many and eclectic roles of Black women over time.

I love that you stand there face to face with them, honour and know them in this way. The exhibition room is a small place really, but they make brilliant use of the space, and it was with some awe that I read how much historians have been able to uncover. The inspiration maybe goes without saying, but I need to say it anyway. You walk out of there happier than when you walked in. So many women graced those walls who have transformed our world for the better, from Mary Seacole to Marian Anderson to Olive Morris and Claudia Jones. The folks working there loved those exhibits, too. Not like most museums where there’s someone standing there to keep an eye on things, tell you not to get too close. Here they were excited to share this history with you, make sure you took away with you as much as you possibly could.

The exhibit is open until 30th November, go if you can.

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Where Three Dreams Cross

Where Three Dreams Cross — 150 Years of Photography From India, Pakistan and Bangledesh…you can see it now at the Whitechapel Gallery.  I loved the website without reservation (and apparently, I am far from alone).

I just got home from the exhibition itself, had to make myself some tea. The photographs were stunning, and I am not quite sure why I find myself unsettled, perhaps this feeling would be better known to me if I went to more such exhibitions. As it is, I just love to take photos. I put them up on flickr, I share them with friends. And I’ve always thought I loved to look at photographs. I don’t think that’s changed, but this has definitely made me think.

I suppose  what is bothering me is the existence of two fine lines I’ve often felt but never really put into words.

Every life has beauty in it. Those moments of deep feeling (not even necessarily happiness) found by everyone, even those living the most anguished back-breaking poverty. Here is another picture (cropped like the first!) from the website…best I can do!

Photos like this seem to be able to capture pure moment, motion, joy. But photography also carries what might be an almost unique ability to make poverty itself beautiful. And I found a kind of creeping horror in suffering itself made picturesque, striking, aesthetic. Of an outsider turning a daily and commonplace struggle for survival into their own art. I wondered how many of these human beings turned subjects ever saw these pictures of themselves? I could not even pinpoint which photographs made me feel so, it came upon me slowly and I am certain it was a minority. I wondered if it could be the exhalation of the photographer’s own feeling towards those within the view finder.

The other fine line is similar, every life has its privacy…what I love about photographs are their ability to capture moments in time, spontaneity, the brilliance of chance. And yet I feel there are some moments that should not be captured, displayed. There were a couple of pieces where it felt an intensely private space, where consent could not have been granted (though I could be wrong, I tell myself).

I suppose crossing either line is my definition of exploitation, I think it is something remarkably easy to do with photography as art, photography for display to strangers. And myself, as a stranger, complicit in it by staring at it on a gallery wall.

And yet, I am glad I went. There were many photographs with stories to tell, lives too often hidden and demanding visibility, beauty and struggle and an incredible hand-colored gelatin-printed history in abundance. And in spite of the above. I think the curators did a very good job of pulling it together. I particularly appreciated that there is an explicit stance on colonialism, and that all of the photographers are Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi. So as levels of exploitation in photography exhibitions go, this one has made the effort to consciously reduce them…

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The Tudor Gallery

I have been deliriously in love with London lately, and everything and everyone in it. And the best thing about being a student again is probably the opportunity it opens up for being a flaneur, for wandering, for falling in love over and over again. The Tudor Gallery is a good place to do this.

I had wandered to the National Portrait Gallery, portraits being some of my very favourite things. Particularly very old ones. I headed straight for the Tudors. Everyone sitting for their portrait in those two rooms hides tales of intrigue behind their dark eyes, locked within bodies forced into strange geometries of clothes, every inch of them woven, punched, stuffed with jewels and finery.

Sir Walter Raleigh is still entirely dashing, and though he wrote very little poetry that you could call especially good, I particularly love this one

EVEN such is time, that takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust;
Who, in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days:
But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
My God shall raise me up, I trust.

And the young John Donne is here as well, the amorous poet of his early years rather than the deeply poetic minister of his later ones.


License my roving hands, and let them go,
Behind, before, above, between, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man man’d,
My mine of precious stones: my emperie,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.
Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee,
As souls unbodied, bodies uncloth’d must be,
To taste whole joyes.

I was sat in the gallery with a horde of young school children…initially something I was quite unhappy about. But they were sat entranced by the expert leading their class, and I became entranced as well…

Here is a portrait of Elizabeth the 1st, and I learned all kinds of things about this amazing painting. My absolute favourite image of the day, however? One of the boys proposed that if you pulled the red string, Elizabeth’s dress would come right off…

Elizabeth I

She wore so much makeup and powder, that she then had to go back in and draw things, using beetlejuice for her lips, and even drawing in the veins of her forehead and the backs of her hands. And the story of this picture? One of her favourites, Sir Henry Lee, retired from the palace. But when he left the palace he stole something…(no, it wasn’t her crown. No it wasn’t her dress, and no, it wasn’t her jewels…). He stole a handmaiden named Maria Vavasour. For a while friends at the palace were able to cover up for them, hoping Elizabeth would just forget all about Maria…but finally they were forced to realize that she wouldn’t forget and so Sir Henry Lee had to do something quite incredible to save his own life…

So he bought Elizabeth this dress. Apparently worth a quarter of a million pounds in today’s money. You can see it has wings? This is the dress of the fairy queen, invited to a fancy dress party at Lee’s estate of Ditchley in Oxfordshire. And there Henry Lee lay, spread out on a bier in his garden, in a deathlike coma of enchantment until he was awakened by the forgiving kiss of the fairy queen…

And Queen Elizabeth I grandly kissed him on the cheek, and that was how Sir Henry Lee saved his own life. In the portrait, Queen Elizabeth is standing squarely on Ditchley, in commemoration…

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Odilon Redon, Honore Daumier and assorted monsters

Odilon Redon…I saw him for the first time (that I remember) today at the Chicago Institute of Art, and found him extraordinary. Born in France in 1840, he created these beautiful works in black and white, charcoal and lithograph, strange combinations of human and plant, animal, and insect. This is the one I found

chimera

This was called Chimera…and more, but I didn’t write it down and the light was terrible, the images blurry. Redon kept to himself, remaining almost unrecognized until the end of his life although he heavily influenced surrealism. He only became generally known after being mentioned in a cult novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against Nature. Which sounded intriguing, but I believe I have read enough novels of decadence for the moment, it might have inspired Oscar Wilde but was influenced by Schopenhauer and he certainly isn’t one of my favourite philosophers.  So. Another image from google because I love these…

367px-Redon_spirit-forest

Tree man. Additional information is slim, he’s one of those artists to learn more of…as is Honore Daumier. There are a couple of brilliant little satirical sketches and this truly amazing collection of  miniature sculptures

They capture the spirit of the individual with a delightful intensity and quickness, it must have been even more impressive in his own day knowing the politicians and public figures so captured. My favourite:

As far as big names go, there are plenty of my favourites here, and a whole room of Toulouse-Lautrec! But today I most enjoyed the hidden, the weird, and the wonderful…no flash allowed so my apologies for quality

Who knew Delacroix had ever drawn anything like this? It’s called Marguerite’s Ghost

margueritesghost

They had one print by Durer, who fills religious paintings with the most fantastic creatures

And this sculpture by Jean-Joseph Carrie

Frog Man. I have never seen anything like it. And this shield from an assorted saint facing the devil

And time with my family, a great day.

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Neverland in Beverly Hills

Michael Jackson’s home has been transplanted into the old Robinsons-May building in Beverly Hills, they’ve even brought the gates. The garden furniture and planters. His awards, his socks, his personal drawings. It’s one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen, and one of the creepiest. And here is the splendour and the sadness.

The public information on the whole deal is pretty sketchy. Jackson was acquitted of the criminal pedophile charges of course, but owes a ton of money, I imagine for civil cases? So it seems that essentially all of his most personal things sitting in this vast space are the result of the repo man visiting his estate. Rather then just humiliating him in front of his neighbors, they have humiliated him in front of the world, stripped everything they thought they could possibly sell, and brought it on down to L.A. to sell to the highest bidder. The auction is now off, the money was raised and the stuff is going back to Michael, though it might remain in the public domain. You can read more on that here.

But essentially, you are looking at things most people were never meant to see. It is there by force. And it just adds an edge to the voyeuristic element, a frisson of violence and transgression. It only adds to the immense creepiness and unsettling nature of the things.

The creepiest thing by far, these figures that were so lifelike and who were everywhere. They were all white.

Neverland Mannequins

The woman in the background with the curlers is holding a copy of Women are From Venus, Men are From Mars. Butlers were everywhere, there were more than 5 of them, I didn’t think to count but now I am really curious. They were ubiquitous the way a good butler should be. Below you can get a sense of the scale of the exhibit, and the personal taste of the man himself.

Neverland Mannequin

Mannequin

There are also four or five life size wax figures of Michael Jackson himself. But somehow, that to me is a sign simply of colossal ego which I can understand, the rest of them I just cannot. An attempt to never be alone? Imagine sharing a huge mansion with them, it gives me chills. So to move smoothly from the mannequins to the paintings…

Neverland Mannequin

Creepy woman who looks like one of my older family members, with a Michael Jackson Triptych in the background. Michael Jackson’s poems are everywhere…written on the paintings that were commissioned, on Neverland’s kids menus, on slabs of marble out in front, on story book sculptures. This one reads:

I am the thinker, the thinking,
the thought.
I am the seeker, the seeking,
the sought.
I am the dewdrop, the sunshine,
the storm.
I am the phenomenon, the field,
the form.
I am the descent, the ocean,
the sky.
I am the Primeval Self
In you and I.
I am Michael Jackson

There are paintings of him everywhere as royalty, with crown and scepter. He has the crowns and sceptres as well, the ermined cloaks. And there are the paintings of him leading long lines of little children to the promised land and happiness

Neverland

There are paintings of him surrounded by cartoon characters, the Marx Brothers, Peter Pan. And this, which essentially leaves me pretty speechless.

Neverland

So there’s too much really, to convey. The kids. The kids are everywhere and are frankly terrifying. Dolls and furniture for children that…well, it’s hard to tell where the creepiness comes from, it doesn’t even lie in the pedophile charges though I’m sure that adds a dimension. It’s like Louise Bourgeois’ red rooms.

Neverland - Kid's bedroom?

And the statues

Neverland

There’s original art on the wall by Michael Jackson and Macaulay Culkin. There are drawings of children. An incredibly terrifying clown. Bikes and trikes and little cars. Collectible stautuettes in china and pewter and whatever else. And then the playroom stuff, filled with video games, pinball machines, his disney collection.

Neverland Monroe

And some really cool stuff. The prop of Hans Solo after he’s been cryogenically frozen, an R2D2 and C3po, a lego Darth Vader and lots of Star Wars stuff. Arcade games you’ve been dying to play again like Super Mario and Digg Dugg and Pole Position. Edward Scissorhands’ actual hands.

Neverland - Edward Scissorhands' hands

He has a painting of Marlene Dietrich that she has signed and dedicated to him. His books are all there, almost all Hollywood with a smattering of Children’s classics and Black History. He has a letter from Ronald Reagen:

“I was pleased to learn that you were not seriously hurt in your recent accident…

All over America, millions of people look up to you as an example. Your deep faith in God and adherence to traditional values are an inspiration to all of us, especially young people searching for something real to believe in. I know from experience that these things can happen on the set…

You’ve gained quite a number of fans along the road since “I Want You Back,” and Nancy and I are among them.”

He has another Inter-Office memo to Tom Jones from Walt Disney…don’t ask me how. But it is HILARIOUS.

“Dear Tom –

This is just to let you know how much I appreciate your efforts in trying to keep all the English people happy … I know many of their requests were unreasonable, but your stepping in and handling these things were a help to me and the others concerned with the making of the picture.”

So perhaps in some kind of context this wouldn’t be so funny, but possibly even then. I have no idea what the context is, but the idea of Tom Jones trying to keep “all the English people” happy is pretty amusing, I wonder what film that was? It’s from 1963.

At any rate, there are also a huge number of awards, plaques, pictures, and his clothes, gloriously reflective and shiny clothes. Thriller was the first album I ever bought, my brothers and I pooled our Christmas money to get it. And I love Michael Jackson, as Celine said while we were watching youtube videos, he has the moves that Justin Timberlake and all the rest of today’s performers only dream of. And he invented them. And the clothes look a bit ridiculous on display now, but he carried them off, he was that good. So that part of the thing I could enjoy without remorse or nausea. Though the body suits were a little disturbing.

Neverland - Pure Fashion

Neverland music awards

I don’t even know how to wrap up what going was like. It made me incredibly sad mostly, thinking of the little boy singing ABC with the Jackson Five, and wondering how he has grown into … what? There are no words for Michael Jackson really. Or a million of them. A lost childhood, the ability to buy himself anything, indulge himself anything. The desire to create … what? I don’t know what. You could possibly boil it all down to sex but I hate boiling everything down to that, refuse to really, life is complex. But there is a wrongness to it all that lingers in your mind. And, well, sadness.

A few more images:

Pure Class

Michael Jackson Mannequin

Michael Jackson Mannequin

Michael Jackson's Throne

Original Art by Macaulay Culkin and Michael Jackson

Batman Mannequin

Tapestry

Mannequins & me

Statue Garden from Neverland

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Louise Bourgeois retrospective at MOCA

Go see it, it’s brilliant.

And I know great art when I see it (though I also know that’s a bit time-worn as phrases go). But she truly is great. Generally speaking I don’t go much for the art of the so desperately personal, but her work is incredibly moving and provocative and it hits you in your stomach where you carry your most visceral of emotions…for decades it has circled and circled around themes of the body, love, family, sex, a traumatic childhood of male patronage and infidelity…it repeats shapes in different forms that skate a continuous line between masculine and feminine, beauty and horror, being and becoming…it comprises an astonishing number of mediums that are all exquisitely carried out: sculpture in wood and plaster and latex and stone, collages with fabric and bits and pieces of everything including orange peels, sewn figures with gaping holes, installations, paintings and drawings, the written word.

They are a strange mix of the tender and the repulsive, sometimes beautiful, always provoking, and so many with a strange edge of terror and violence that trickles down your spine. We both love spirals, and she says of them that they are attempts to control chaos and also freedom, and asks whether you find yourself in the vortex or on the periphery? She says she hates men obsessing over their penis…that it is not the appendage she dislikes, but what it is attached to. I love wit, and her art has both wit and raw emotion in an uneasy balance that gives it power.

No pictures can do the pieces justice at all, for her more than most people I think. But my favourites were the personages and the installations, particularly the red rooms. The personages look like this (This picture from the New York Times)

There were others that were blocks stacked one upon the other…I found them eerie and beautiful and they made me think.

The red rooms, on the other, scared the hell out of me. Here is what the parent’s room looks like, hard to know where the terror comes from I know, even when you’re standing in front of it. Perhaps that is why I like it so much

They are surrounded by a sort of a spiral made by doors, I won’t even begin on the symbolism of that! You can only peek into it, and the parent’s room you can really only see through the mirror, and it is red…and it should be peaceful with a couple of toys on the chest at the foot of the bed, but there is a looming shadow over the pillows and I don’t know, but it was terrifying. The way The Shining was terrifying. The children’s room was overtly terrifying with entwined sculptures of limbs cut off at the elbow, you stare at it through a window in one of the doors, children have no privacy.

I liked the spider as well…nothing represents horror better than a giant spider with long spindly legs ending in rather dangerous looking points, and yet they are oddly protective, maternal…

Go see it if you’re in LA.

There has been a police helicopter circling near my house for two hours now. I hate them. If I were an artist I’d be obsessed with helicopters…such brilliant technology that we use primarily to hunt and to kill.

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The Dinosaurs of Toronto

The wind bites like fall, the buses throw up whirls and swirls of dead leaves reaching above me as they pass in the street, my black wool coat is warm and my scarf snug about my neck. I forgot how much I love fall. How I love the chill of it, the change and trembling in the air, the tingle in my cheeks, and the feel of snuggling under the warm cloud of a down comforter. I got into Toronto last night and met up with Dawn after her writing class, we went to eat and then walked the long way back to the streetcar, through Kensington market which was lovely…empty but lovely. And great graffiti, which is always enough to warm my heart if narrow streets, cool pubs, tiny little neighborhood stores, coffee houses and such were not enough.

I spent the night feeling like a small woodland creature curled up in a little nest between the radiator and some shelves, an old mattress bundled with extra blankets and a sleeping bag on top for softness, with a sheet on top of it all, and then me, and then…I said it already I think, a warm cloud of downy warmth. And I slept deliciously, glad that I am too long for the couch.

Woke up late…for Toronto. Early for L.A. Spent the morning chatting over coffee and omelet with Dawn into early afternoon, and then headed out into the fall…I had a bit of work to do, a bit of wandering to do, so I mixed both and enjoyed myself thoroughly. I still have to take some good city photographs, but here is one from outside the Royal Ontario Museum which is where I ended up.

I used another friend’s card to sneak in…the woman asked me for id and I said I didn’t have any (!), she looked at me funny, I thought I’d probably have to cut and run, but then she said she could look me up. I was imagining my friend’s picture coming up and seriously thought of cutting and running. Then she asked my address and I confidently gave it to her, I suppose the right street allayed her fears? She said oh dear we have the address wrong, upon which I pulled the little card where I had it written down out of my back pocket and confirmed that no, I was the one who had it wrong. Upon which she handed me an entrance ticket. She was beautiful. Because I don’t think I really pulled it off, but i am staring incipient poverty in the face and that ticket was golden.

And I didn’t even know it, but they have the most marvelous collection of dinosaur skeletons I’ve seen in ages, bits of originals, some casts, but all around extraordinary. They had a 90 foot Barosaurus, one of only two in the world, it has a hugely long razor thin tail that some believe they cracked like a whip. I believe it, I think that makes them much more interesting:

They had an original triceratops skull, a stegasauros, a tiny little compsognathus in a glass case…my dad used to tell us stories about compsognathi when I was little, one day you’ll be reading about them too in the adventures of Osa and Aggie (and me, Michael, Daniel and Tristram. And some of it is even true). They had this enormous fish thing with sharp pointy teeth

and this amazing knobble headed dinosaur that I tragically did not record the sumptuous latin name of:

It’s perhaps my favourite photo of the day. And possibly my favourite dinosaur. And I don’t even know his name. But they also had a rare type of hadrosaur…this one is crested and looks like it pranced about rather joyously and is called a parasuarolophus walkeri. The name rolls of the tongue. and looked very cool

And finally the stuff of nightmares…highly recognizable and always strikes fear into the very heart of me, the one, the only, Tyrannasaurus Rex

But pictures can’t do him justice really. He towers over you, his teeth are huge, even the bare bones of him are big and ravenously hulking. I’ve actually had family discussions about whether T-Rex or Allosaurus was scarier…some say allosaurus was smarter. As if we know. Still, this is the one that scares me.

Other things that scare me are lifesize painted representations of people and animals…like the mechanical cartoon figures at Chuck E Cheese and Disneyland’s Splash Mountain, and apparently Chinese wooden temple statues beginning from the 13th century. Fear is too strong a word perhaps, I’d prefer to think of it simply as a deep unease. But one of them had real human hair as his long beard. Painted statues are really popular in Catholic Churches as well, and the blood is never skimped on, and in fact I remember the crypt of a church in Bahia with mummified bishops still wearing their sacramental robes sat upright and staring down at you. Fear is not to strong a word for that experience, I suppose this “deep unease” has been building for some time. There was also a large section of stuffed birds…creepy, definitely creepy. I really wonder who first thought it was a good idea to kill something alive and beautiful and stuff it.

Anyway, that’s enough proof of my nerdiness for one evening. After the museum I had dinner with dawn and then we went out and did some more work and had some quiet drinking with a tasty piece of Canadian apple crumble which apparently includes dates and raisins and is a wee bit chocolatey…I wasn’t complaining, it was deliciously unexpected. And now I am headed back for the nest after kicking Ozzie the giant half husky sort of dog out of my room. She snores.

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