Category Archives: Exhibitions

Drawn by Light: The Royal Photographic Society Collection

Go to Drawn by Light, go! It’s in London’s Science Museum (one of my favourite things in London by far) until 1 March, and then in the National Media Museum in Bradford. I wasn’t sure I would ever attend another exhibition again after Mirrorcity in the Hayward, but this has redeemed them all.

I loved each and every photograph chosen to showcase the Royal Photographic Society’s collection, though they came from every style and period — the curation is outstanding not just for this, but because the way they come together creates something more wonderful than the sum of its parts.

It opened with tasteful nudes of beautiful lines and curves (conversation overheard – ‘What a long back, usually I prefer a shorter back’) facing cheeky boys skipping along in front of a policeman, titled ‘Limbs and the Law’:

‘Limbs and the Law’, 1924, James Jarché, The Royal Photographic Society Collection, National Media Museum / SSPL

Which has led me to discover the National Media Museum’s blog (particularly this one on James Jarché), joy and happy days. Back to the first wall for the lurid color of the 60s in art piece of nudes constructed from sofas and household items and more. The photographs move from haunting to sad to beautiful to clever and arresting. Some are shot in natural light capturing things ‘as they are’. Others are from the studio, others carefully constructed and processed. They have Henry Peach Robinson’s set of prints showing the story of Little Red Riding Hood and a girl dying of TB with her fictitious family around her, a gathering for a policeman’s funeral in Lambeth, some of Phillipe Halsman’s pictures, my favourite being Dali Atomicus:

(How did he do this in 1948? Find out here in this awesome post). There is an early fashion portrait of Audrey Hepburn, Winston Churchill whose grumpy expression was caused by the photographer removing the cigar from his mouth, a luminous young boy captured on film by a Nazi supporter and firm believer in eugenics. A selection of portraits from an asylum. So much more that is allowed to speak for itself and the uses that photography has been put to. All without flinching.

There are also three heliographs on display — literally drawings by light — the first steps made by Joseph Niépce in the search to invent photography. They are wonderful.

The second section recreates to some extent the feel of a typical Photographic Society exhibition of the 1850s, a wall full of brilliant old photographs of almost everything. You have to crouch down to see some of them, it changes how you see things.

This section is called ‘A period of optimism and progress’. I am myself a little more critical of these times perhaps, but for photographers it was such a time of excitement and invention. My ancestors were busy starving to death in Ireland, but they would have been inventing if they could I am sure. There is a selection here of cameras from the 1800s, bottles of colloidal silver, beautifully crafted wooden cases, early panoramic lenses that are curved. Marvels and wonders.

They have Talbot’s early cameras, they are tiny and took tiny pictures. The description of the medium is salt print.

They have an old picture album, old family portraits. A wonderful photograph of the steps up to the Chapter House in Wells Cathedral — one of the most beautiful things I have seen and myself tried to photograph. Frederick Evans spent months, and got it right.

They have wonderful pictures of cities — New York, for instance, by Margaret Bourke-White and her unforgettable shot of the Statue of Liberty.

They have a picture of the remarkable contents of an Ostrich’s stomach. For that alone you should go.

I might be getting the room order of some of these confused.

They have pictures showing the magic and mystery of Egypt, but also the orientalism, the collecting and commodifying of the exotic. Fred Holland Day who starved himself to model self-portraits as Jesus Christ on the cross (oh the things bored people do). Again there is no flinching, but I don’t know that everyone has the critical view of such pictures that I do, I don’t know how they find them.

They had this amazing piece, photograph and etching by Frank Eugene:

The final section was ‘Personal vision’. Pairs of works by photographers to show breadth or change or style. They are lovely. Expressive of all of the emotions and visions that this medium can call up, evoke. The very different feelings and ideas it can communicate. The sense of place, the sense of soul, the sense of movement.

I am still not sure how they get things just right, but they do. These pictures still sit with me, the ones I have not listed demanding I list them, like the father and son walking in the face of a dust storm. But lists are boring, this exhibition is not.

There is also a competition in which you can submit your own photos inspired by light via social media and win some awesome things. I will be looking at my pictures with a critical eye.

On my way out I realised there was another free exhibit – Make Life Worth Living, a collection of photos by Nick Hedges for housing and homeless charity Shelter between 1968 and 1971. I started to go in but just couldn’t take in more. So I will be back before 1 March to see this.

An Irish family living in a single basement room – tenants of a multi-let house. Liverpool Toxteth, November 1969 Credits : © Nick Hedges / National Media Museum, Bradford
An Irish family living in a single basement room – tenants of a multi-let house. Liverpool Toxteth, November 1969
Credits : © Nick Hedges / National Media Museum, Bradford

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Mirrorcity Exhibit, Hayward Gallery

God I hated it. I considered a considered rant about why I got angrier and angrier as I thought about Mirrorcity long after we had left. In summary this felt on the whole like a pretentiously abstracted  slap in the face of any city’s vibrancy, hope, struggle and increasing desperation. A slap we actually paid for and that stuck with me disagreeably through the whole of the afternoon. I would recommend just spending money on Tim Etchells‘ amazing Vacuum Days instead, you can skim through them here. A subset of these pointed and playful and angry thoughts on the daily news had been printed large and stretched up several floors to be read as you climbed the brutalist stairs (whose architect’s utopian dreams were here otherwise utterly smashed into pointless pieces). At the top was another piece by Etchells on the evolving city. Wordy and needing too much time to read for an exhibit really, but there was nothing better to look at. I liked that too and decided I would go see any exhibit of his at any time. I also really liked Emma McNally’s maps. There were one or two other things that were okay, but seriously. Just buy that book. Catch those two elsewhere.

Luckily we had a gig in the evening to remind us what artists can be. Thee Faction and 8 Rounds Rapid replaced all that anger with some awesome sounds, and Grace Petrie‘s every song was like a gift. Made me want to write words that burned, made me want to change the world. They’re all on the same list with Tim Etchells.

Prague’s Kafka Museum, Kafka and Prague

It never occurred to me to think of Kafka spatially or understand spatiality through Kafka, I never thought of him as a chronicler of space or the city. Yet the quite brilliant museum dedicated to him in Prague is entirely about space and Kafka’s relationship to his city, his ‘dear little mother with claws’, and I am fascinated now with thinking some of this through. It’s worth more than one blog post. I think here I shall just capture what I can of the exhibit, and then relate it to Kafka later — because when in Prague read Kafka and I am reading The Castle. Like all of Kafka’s work, I am finding it slow due to its harrowing nature and existential angst. So.

The experience of the museum itself aims at something like a replication of the feelings inspired by reading Kafka, tries to help you enter his world…it succeeds on some level of reaching some different world some how (though if it is K.’s or not that is impossible to say), leaving me fairly awed, and so I can hardly explain what it’s like to experience  it. Darkness, unexplained noise, images shimmering like pools of water, photographs and collections of personal items and writings, short films, a surrounding of file cabinets and ancient phones. Not everything is translated into English or Czech — Kafka wrote in German after all. The different spaces are given context by beautifully written passages as provocations scattered throughout that demanded much more thinking.

I wanted to share these, in the shop, however, you can only buy the guide book that contains them in Italian and Spanish, so I shall be translating back from Spanish to English — who knows what language they were first written in.  The initial ones, however, are on the website. On the existential space:

In this first stage of our immersion into the world of Kafka, we look at how the city affects the writer, how it shapes his life, the mark it leaves on him. Prague acts on Kafka with all of its metamorphosing power, confining him to an existential space which he can only enter by “fixing his gaze on the surface of things”, Prague forces Kafka into a spatial constriction, steadily dosing out its secrets. Prague contributes myth, obscure magic, and provides a magnificent backdrop, but it abhors clarity. And this is precisely what Kafka captures.

This is the city’s action upon the writer, the way it shapes and molds him, the way it confines him in dialectical relation to how he sees and writes it. All writers know that in writing you make things more real, but does Prague abhor clarity? How does a city choose one way or the other?

Our aim is to explore the city, seeing it from Kafka’s point of view. An exclusively biographical or merely chronological approach would not be enough; the challenge lies in condensing the principal conflicts in the life of Kafka in Prague, guided by the writer’s own views. This means joining Kafka on his descent into the depths of his city, adapting ourselves to his sensorial range and cognitive register, becoming involved in a gradual distortion of space-time – in short, agreeing to an experience where everything is allowed except indifference.

But this is no descent of the kind that would be demanded by noir, the first place my mind goes in imagining ‘the depths’ of a city. These are depths imagined differently, experienced differently. Rather than the danger or violence or poverty, there is instead a physic descent. The imagery of a cage, an interrogation that lasts, a prison as much within as without. Yet The first paragraphs of this floor are the ones I loved and remembered most, possibly for the use of the word entelechy, which frankly I struggled with to recall its meaning:

Franz Kafka is born in the interior of a myth named Prague. A city where three human groups act (Czechs, Germans and Jews), reunited through the centuries and, in spite of that, separated by cultural, racial and linguistic differences. The conflict leaves its imprint in the physiology of the city, converts neighbourhoods into airtight compartments, defines invisible frontiers, but it does not ultimately define the nature of the cage. It is also necessary to gain an intuition of it from the perspective of the bird.

Let us imagine an childhood where the I is an enigma and the community, an entelechy. A home besieged by dead brothers, distant sisters, cold governesses and a scathing cook. A world perceived from fear and guilt, in which the figure of the father spreads throughout leaving very little space for the life of a Son.

It begins with the Jewish ghetto, itself a place of confinement, a richness of culture, learning and occult knowledge. In 1895 the ghetto began a ten-year process to ‘clean up’ and reshape it through what many believe to be the ‘the most important urban alteration in the history of Prague’. The quotes given from Conversations with Kafka by Gustav Janoush are marvelous, though who is to say that he said them exactly like this? (Especially translated from one language to Spanish and back to English again)

Inside of us still live the obscure corners the mysterious passages, the blinded windows, the dirty patios, the noisy taverns and inns with their locks. We walk down the wide streets of the new city, but our steps and looks are insecure. On the inside we continue to tremble just like the old alleyways of misery. Our hearts still have not understood the sanitising that has taken place. The old and unhealthy jewish city inside of us is much more real than the new hygienic city that surrounds us. Awake we walk traversing a dream: we are nothing more than the ghost of times past.

Instead the Jewish Quarter now is full of twisting, but grand sweeping roads, though Kafka is still remembered:

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Such quotes led me to more reading of Janoush, some of which can be found here, and in which he writes this of Kafka’s knowledge of his city:

I OFTEN MARVELLED at Kafka’s wide knowledge of all the varied architectural features of the city. He was familiar not only with its palaces and churches but also with the most obscure alleys of the Old Town. He knew the medieval names of the houses even though their ancient signs no longer hung over their entrances but in the city museum in the Poric. Kafka read the city’s history out of the walls of its ancient houses. He conducted me by crooked alleyways into narrow, funnel-shaped interior courtyards in Old Prague, which he called “spittoons of light”; he walked with me, near the old Charles Bridge, through a baroque entrance hall, across a court no bigger than a handkerchief with round Renaissance arches and through a dark tubular tunnel, to a tiny inn enclosed in a small court which bore the name of The Stargazer (Czech: U hvezddru), because here Johannes Kepler had lived for many years, and here, in the year 1609, his famous book, which far outstripped all the scientific knowledge of his day, the Astronomia Nova was born.

Kafka loved the streets, palaces, gardens and churches of the city where he was born. He looked with joyful interest through the pages of all the books on the antiquities of Prague which I brought to him in his office. His eyes and hands literally caressed the pages of such publications, though he had read them all long before I placed them on his desk. His eyes shone with the look of a passionate collector. Yet he was the precise opposite of a collector. The past was for him not some historically dead collector’s piece, but a supple instrument of knowledge, a bridge to today. . . .

We traveled their path, so different today, yet once you leave Karlova Street with its hordes of tourists there is some of this magic:

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There is a tiny museum now where Kepler lived.

IMG_9520And this, bringing Kafka into the 21st century:

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The exhibit looks at this figure of Hermann Kafka, the father filling up the world. The Hilsner case, a jew accused of the ritual murder of a little girl. The obsession of Kafka with Ravachol the anarchist, named for him, tarred with his stigma by the servants. It looks at his intellectual and artistic circles, the figure of four (Kafka, Max Brod, Felix Weltsch and Oskar Baum), the larger circle who would meet up at the Cafe Arco and the salon held by Berta Fanta under the sign of the Unicorn Pharmacy. His contacts with Jewish theatre, undergoing a renaissance through Jicchak Löwy. His four fiancees. His death from TB. And I believe this is where the uncertain line between existential space and Imaginary Topography begins. Of course it is uncertain:

Imaginary topography – The way Kafka creates the layers of his city is one of the most enigmatic operations of modern literature. With only occasional exceptions, Kafka does not name the places he describes in his novels and short stories. The city steps back, is no longer recognizable by its buildings, bridges and monuments. And even if they are recognized by an inhabitant of Prague or by a student of Kafka, they have since become something else.

…Kafka carries out a more difficult operation: he turns Prague into an imaginary topography which transcends the fallacy of realism. Kafka’s phantasmal architecture has other ends. Rather than a particular house, school, office, church, prison or castle being important, it is what these constructions reveal when they act as topological metaphors or allegorical places. What surprises does this transfigured Prague hold in store? Just how far can the metamorphosis of a city take us?

Into a passageway lined with filing cabinets and his drawings brought to life (Conversations with Kafka is full of them). I love this one, but who has not felt like this?

Kafka

There is a wonderful short film of The Castle, almost entirely white, confusing, letters and figures melting into and out of sight, lonely figures never reaching where they are going. The last room is a harrowing one based on ‘In the Penal Colony’, a model of the torture, a film of skin being cut and scarred visible only through narrow windows.

I’d been unsuccessfully fighting off a cold, but confess to a feeling of unsettledness, almost nausea by the time we descended the stairs, it affected me physically and that in a way is my greatest testimony. Kafka’s books affect me the same way, I cannot read them all at once, cannot read them before bed. They fill me with fear and angst and confusion and I admire them immensely. But now I am almost eager to search for the outlines of domestic space, of work space, of the city as described here in this post, The Castle is perhaps the easiest, and the one I am reading now. Climbing up to Prague’s own castle — less a castle than a complex of Baroque magnificence engulfing the old gothic buildings — it seems easy to me to see how this is at once a physical and an existential space, something rooted in both history and in the terrors of the mind. But more of that when I finish the book.

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Museum of Communism (I’m in the Czech Republic!)

Prague’s Museum of Communism was a lesson in how ideology works, but ironically not the ideology of communism. In fact it was a lesson in irony and ideology all mixed up together. On our first attempt to find it I only knew the corner it was on, and thought that would be enough. But it’s obscure not just in its absence from most must-see lists, and we missed it, only seeing amazing posters for it later near the Charles Bridge that convinced us to try again.

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Above the McDonalds, they said, beside the Casino. You turn into what is almost an alley almost an entrance, turn right again into big double doors and walk along red carpet into an extraordinarily ornate Baroque entrance hall. As you walk up the stairs you are offered an existential choice, museum or casino?

IMG_8956Though the casino is at every turn. The inside is quite extraordinary, because it turns out this is after all, the Savarin Palace. For one of the few places with any interesting things to say about what the Palace is or once was, I found only the new developers:

Savarin occupies a remarkable site in Prague’s Old Town, bounded on one side by the historic Wenceslas Square and incorporating a collection of small streets and ‘passages’ (pedestrian precincts) giving access to many offices, shops and amenities. … now restored to life by Ballymore as Prague’s ne plus ultra.

Savarin was the site of an aristocratic palace complete with riding-stables…

A warren of small streets it is, it is such a strange thing to me to see a castle as a warren of small streets, but much more on castles (and The Castle) later.

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At least one tourist gambled on the museum by mistake. In this space it is hard to conceive of life under communism, you can be forgiven for believing the irony intentional. The museum shop is brilliant, full of what seems to be an intellectual and aware humour that can appeal to Marxists and free-marketers alike. Postcards of Marx and Lenin with clever captions, a museum postcard that makes fun of the museum’s own location;

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the T-shirts and posters with the brilliant artwork as below (and yes I happily bought one of those)

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You can find collections of reprints of original Soviet posters, notepads, pencils and various other fairly awesome consumer goods. Irony. The map of the museum shows the sections: the origins, the dream, the reality, the nightmare. That too seems smart, thoughtful enough, interesting. You walk in and see statues of Marx and Lenin, this wonderful picture.

IMG_8971IMG_8972And then you read:

The practice of revolutionary terror and dictatorship of the proletariat was justified by the communists by an alleged irrefutability of the ‘scientific’ theories of Karel Marx, the bohemian and intellectual adventurer. who started his life career as a romantic poet with an inclination towards apocalyptic titanism….The attempts at the implementation of Marxist theories demanded, according to contemporary and lower estimates, around 100 million human victims.

This is the even-handed treatment of the dream of Marxists? I laughed out loud as did Mark, and continued laughing through the exhibit I’m afraid. While also enjoying the collection of real communist artifacts, propaganda, and shit from the 50s.

IMG_8980Radio Tesla is just cool, and I love her shoes.

IMG_8981I don’t have too much confidence in their ‘recreation’ of a factory, it’s really just a great collection of old machinery, which I loved of course. Again I laughed at this:

Using the obsolete economic theories of Karel Marx, Stalin created an ideological doctrine according to which the life of the whole society should revolve around industrial production. The hero of the time became the laborer, who, in the name of occasional slogans and to honor the communists feasts and anniversaries, worked more than his supervisors told him to…The pressure on increased employment for women and their introduction into traditional men’s professions was justified by the party through an ideal of ‘woman’s emancipation’.

There’s the bust/statue collection:

IMG_8982And this living room setup with brilliant old furniture, but I didn’t feel the chairs were socialist enough:

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While walking through there was a strange cold war feel, so the pro-U.S. stuff was as crazy as the anti-communist. There was this:

The blackest pictures of capitalism drawn by the communist press depicted America whose democratic regime was already admired by the Czechs in the period of Hapsburg emperors. American played a decisve role in the defeat of Hitler…America was also attractive, thanks to the romantic ‘Country and Western’ music and style, as introduced in Bohemia before World War I. County and Western style was cultivated by tramps in the many recreation settlements usually named after American localities…

There was another blurb mentioning the anti-American propaganda spread by the communists like their referrals to the mass lynching of Blacks. It certainly read as though the communists had made this up when of course they didn’t.

So really, this is like walking through a cold war propaganda effort from the US side, brilliantly illustrated by the cool old things from the Czech Republic under Stalinism. The why of this is made clear from the brochure and its reproduction of an International Newsweek article discussing the museum’s origins:

Spicker, 36, spent several months and $28,000 scouring markets and junk shops for close to 1,000 items of memorabilia, including Russian textbooks, anti-American posters, chemical-warfare protection suits and statues of Lenin and Marx. A former student of politics, Spicker was passing through central Europe in the late 1980s when the Velvet Revolution toppled Czechoslovakia’s communist regime. He decided to stay on and capitalize on all the new business opportunities, opening up a jazz club and a string of bars and restaurants in Prague. Then he hit on the idea for the museum. “As a student I found communism fascinating because of the influence it had on all aspects of people’s lives,” he says. “But now its fascination for me is just how outdated it is.”

I’m glad he collected the memorabilia, but damn. Capitlising on the business opportunities offered by presenting the least balanced review of a historical time period I have ever read…

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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:

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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:

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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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