Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector – Barbican

What are artists made of? Where does creative inspiration come from and how does it influence the work that’s produced. This latest exhibition at the Barbican is part of a wider London trend looking at ways in which collections can tell us more about individuals, and comes alongside History is Now at the Hayward and Cotton to Gold at Two Temple place (a forthcoming review) all of which take a broad brush approach.

This exhibition at the Barbican is probably the most successful of the three, drawing a relatively straight line between the stuff artists own and their output, and unlike the Hayward exhibition, clearly displays at least one piece of the artist’s work to ‘prove’ the argument. Whilst I liked the eclectic nature of History is Now, I was less convinced by the overall curation and whether any clear argument was being made by the entire exhibition, whereas here within each section the Barbican’s argument is consistently realised as well as trying to tell an overall story about the diversity of creative inspiration.

It begins with Hiroshi Sugimoto and his collection of medical history ephemera including intriguing images of the muscles and bones of the face and a collection of glass eyes, as well as some natural history pieces including fossilised creatures which you can see influence his own images of landscapes and waxen people. Perhaps the most obvious collection belongs to Damien Hirst – some skulls, a LOT of taxidermy and some anatomical models – no surprises that his work turned out the way it did. It’s an interesting collection though, the centre piece of which is a large glass case containing a stuffed lion which is actually quite impressive as well as a bit disgusting. A large Hirst piece from his Entomology period contains real creatures arranged in patterned rows on a mirrored surface, and nothing in this exhibition is scarier than the giant spiders!

In the next room we are given two overwhelming displays of things from Hanne Darboven’s house that looks much like a jumble sale display. There are paintings, ornaments, models, furniture, books and prints, it’s pretty crazy but you can see the link to her work on the adjacent wall – a large series of photographs of a party in a room crowded with people, furniture and heavily patterned carpets – a really claustrophobic environment which is clearly similar to her own lifestyle. Have to admit at this point I did start to see a drift from artists collecting what you could describe as other ‘artistic’ pieces to some more mass produced, for want of a better word, tat.

And this theme continues upstairs, mixing art and other objects to show the range of influences on creativity. One of the best sections is Howard Hodgkin’s collection of beautiful pictures of Indian scenes between 1570 and 1750 which he has been acquiring since school. Although he claims the collection has no influence on his own style it is clear from his the colours and style that it does in some way. A big draw will be Andy Warhol’s collection of cookie jars and comic books which clearly influenced his love of the domestic and comforting. Of his own work there are the brillo pad boxes and some fish wallpaper to enjoy.

Pae White’s pretty collection of scarves make for a well displayed sub-room as they are dangled from the ceilings on washing lines of various heights, hanging above and around you. With so much of this exhibition devoted to solid objects in display cases and shelves it’s nice to see something a little more fluid. And White’s own wire sculpture sits above the downstairs gallery and you can see the influence of both the colours and the sense of lightness in her work which has come from the fabric. The final section of note is Peter Blake’s vast array of pieces range from Victorian circus performers, puppets and toys to china elephants, wrestling mementoes and taxidermy, all meticulously organised. There are also a lot of other artists to see but I’ve picked out the most memorable.

If I have one negative thought about this otherwise well-constructed exhibition, it is that a lot of the stuff on display isn’t exactly art so the reverence with which it is displayed and treated is at odds with what it is. It’s fascinating to see that artists take inspiration from a variety of sources but in a lot of cases we are looking at their tat, stuff that’s been given as garish wedding presents you hide in the cupboard or awful ornaments that fill your grandma’s house. Whilst I respect the idea that these belong to someone else and should be treated with care, at the same time the pieces themselves, if I’m being blunt, are a load of someone else’s rubbish. And even if that nasty mermaid statue inspired a great work of art, isn’t the original thing still fairly worthless?

That aside, I do think the Barbican have pitched this well and by having a piece of the artist’s work alongside their collection make a neat argument for its influence. Although perhaps creative impulses are individually driven it was interesting to note the similarity across some of these collections, making it possible for you to draw your own conclusions about common factors in the artistic process. So what is an artist made of, well lots of cookie jars, cartoons and especially Disney characters crop up repeatedly, as do African tribal masks and taxidermy. So maybe we should expect to see a Donald Duck cookie jar holding a stuffed animal wearing a mask from someone soon?

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector is at the Barbican until 25 May. Tickets are £12 with separate concession and member rates available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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About Maryam Philpott

This blog is for people looking for more discursive and in-depth reviews of a range of interesting cultural activities in London, covering everything from theatre to exhibitions, films and heritage. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. I am also part of the London theatre review team for The Reviews Hub where I have professionally reviewed over 300 shows. It was set up in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre including Fringe and West End. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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