Category Archives: Art

Red – Wyndhams Theatre

Red - Wyndhams Theatre

All art is ultimately tragedy, commodified, misinterpreted and subject to the whims of fashion, the greatest art will always mean the self-destruction of the individual, standing apart from real life but forced to see their work reduced by the people who buy it. Whether it is designed to stave-off fears about the fragility of human existence, or to rage against the artistic conventions handed down by generations of beloved artists before them, the creation of a single piece of art is a lonely moment of self-expression. Then again, it might all be self-indulgent nonsense?

John Logan’s Red returns to the West End for the first time since it premiered in 2009, exploring the complex separation between the fire which which something is created by an individual, and how it is subsequently viewed by the masses beyond the walls of the studio. Red is more than just a play, it is a conversation about driving an artistic vision, about purpose and fame and the weight of cultural context that can shape an artist’s profile allowing them to create something new, while simultaneously suffocating that expression of their world.

Set in the studio of Mark Rothko in late 1950s New York, Red opens with the arrival of new assistant Ken, a young artist, who is there to mix paint, clean-up and admire the senior painter. Told in no uncertain terms on day one that there will never be anything more than employer-employee relationship, Rothko focuses on creating a set of paintings commissioned by the new Four Seasons restaurant which he hopes will transform the room into a temple of art. Over two years, the men share few personal moments, but their discussions on the meaning of creativity come to shape them both irrevocably.

For all its high-minded discussion of artistic principles, Red is ultimately a very practical examination of the life of a working painter, taking in the day-to-day necessities of building and preparing canvasses, buying materials and plenty of thinking time. Michael Grandage’s revival may only be 90 minutes, but there is no sense of rush here, and instead the play – much like Rothko’s creations – is given room to breath, to slowly come into focus as a true picture emerges. What you see at first is not the finished piece, but something that takes shape through the conversations between Rothko and Ken, as they find a value in each other’s perspective.

And the mere existence of this relationship, based on little but a financial transaction of employment, becomes hugely significant in the shaping of Rothko’s character and the serious, methodical approach to his work. The first and last image we see is of the man alone, looking at his creations with nothing else in his life. Ken is almost the only person he speaks to in the play, and certainly the only one permitted to see the vision from the inside. Rothko’s essential loneliness (and preference for it), his devotion to creating the right low-level of lighting and to sealing off his creative space from any external influence, speaks volumes about the singularity of purpose Logan suggests is necessary to create eternal art.

At the same time, Ken represents a period of change in society, in art and in Rothko’s approach to the reception of his work. When he roars against commodification of art and condemns emerging Pop Artists, he is giving voice to his own fears of sudden irrelevance and ultimately his own mortality. The tragedy that Rothko fears, that suffuses his work, is exactly the kind of overthrow that his generation was once responsible for, when Cubism was edged out by Abstract Expressionism. The drama in Red comes from this struggle between historical past and present, and between art history and evolving concepts of creativity, for which the characters of Rothko and Ken are metaphors.

As the action unfolds, it’s fascinating to see Ken emerging in confidence as a person but also as an artist. We never see his own work, but where initially he received Rothko’s opinions in almost silent awe, over time he argues back, staking his claim to relevance in the here and now while stepping out from behind Rothko’s shadow into the light. And it is no coincidence that it is Ken’s own shadow we see reflected on the canvas later in the play, and, in the penultimate scene Ken stands alone on stage contemplating the work as he will soon do for his own.

But there is also a very modern relevance here about the disposable nature of contemporary living, with the sense of times changing, in Rothko’s view, for the worse. Even though Logan wrote Red in 2009, long after social media had begun to take root, Rothko’s criticism of the public focus on “likes” still feels prophetic, while his views on those purchasing his art just to be seen, to be known to have taste, or to keep up with Jones’s similarly speaks to more recent obsessions with Instagram lifestyles. If everything is design to capture a single moment, what are the future foundations of our society, where does history, tradition and experience fit in a world based on endless throwaway consumption?

In our new context, Logan’s argument that art matters because it transcends time and is carved from thought, pain and sacrifice is still quite powerful, that creative things should be loved because they have meaning and should inspire us to see and feel the world differently. Grandage’s direction uses the moments of silence to allow the audience to contemplate these discussions, so, like Rothko’s approach to painting, Logan’s frantic moments of debate are counterbalanced by the opportunity to sit back for a few moments and try to see ourselves more clearly.

Christopher Oram’s set is at once an open space, giving the paintings room to exist and to be considered, while suggesting a sealed vacuum, a dimly-lit chamber in which Rothko both actively separates and cautiously protects himself from the vagaries of the world outside. But it also reflects Ken’s experience to a degree as a white canvas, t-shirts and even a movable cupboard are slashed with red paint that subtly links to an important childhood memory.

Adam Cork’s music selection frequently reflects the emotive tenor of a scene, using carefully selected classical pieces to create a mood of frenzied work accompanied by heavy orchestral sounds or lighter imaginative sequences supported by sprightlier tunes. Ken’s conversion is complete when he breaches the walls, bringing in his radical jazz, intruding into Rothko’s private space and bringing new sensations and purpose with him.

Reprising a role that he played in the premiere production at the Donmar almost a decade ago, as well as his award-winning turn on Broadway, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Alfred Molina playing the famous painter. He captures the full-range of contradictions, complexities and passion Rothko exudes, using every second on stage to suggest the mix of arrogance, artistic certainty and dedicated craftsmanship of a serious artist. Only 10% of the time spent creating great work is actually painting he says at one point, so Molina never just stands on the stage, he shows Rothko always thinking about the work, assessing how the piece is unfolding or actively preparing his materials.

Even in discussion with Ken, you feel his mind working endlessly, engaging with the conversation, absorbing every comment and thinking deeply about what’s to come. Yet, Molina remains almost still during these scenes, suggesting all the certainty of a man at ease with his status as a genius, a certainty that comes with age and success that feels imposing, almost intimidating. Molina commands the room, filling his Rothko with bitter rebuke for the less restrained era he lives in, unhappy with the inexperience of an audience unable to properly appreciate the levels of meaning and value of the work they are privileged to see.

Yet, in the new light reflected from Ken’s presence, Molina also suggests at heart Rothko is afraid, almost hiding away to protect his essential fragility. His use of black and red representing the encroaching darkness and frequent references to a sense of tragedy that seems to beset him. It implies a man fighting for his place in art history, desperate to be remembered and to be understood, using his overbearing personality to fake a certainty he is far from feeling. Molina’s trick is to make you wonder how much Rothko has even admitted this to himself.

Alfred Enoch as Ken charts a course through initial naivety and deference, to becoming more confident in his opinions and airing his frustrations. While references, and eventually a full description, of a childhood tragedy are the only aspect of Logan’s play that feel a tad false, as though the young man has been given a convenient backstory on which Logan can hang some of his themes, nonetheless Enoch creates a character who must be the audience’s way in to the story, he is our view of Rothko which shifts and evolves as Ken displays him to us.

Ken fulfils much of the practical activity necessary to run a studio, moving paintings, covering canvasses, mixing shades of colour which act as a tutorial for the emerging artist, and, as Rothko demands, we begin to see him contemplating his wider role in the creation of art from a philosophical and cultural perspective as the months pass. Enoch’s Ken actively grows in front of us until he can stand his own ground, and while Molina’s performance is exceptional, Enoch more than holds his own on the exposing Wydnhams stage.

Red is a show where the audience really needs to see the art work to understand Rothko’s near torment in creating it, so finding a seat with a decent view is important.* Like the Donmar where it first opened, the Wyndhams is a particularly useful choice with good sightlines from most seats, even in the balcony, allowing you to see the large replica paintings scattered around the stage. This may be one occasion where sitting higher-up in the theatre would be an advantage because it gives the viewer a chance to see the minutiae of studio work that won’t be as visible from the stalls, offering a wider perspective on the backstage creation of a single painting as the play intends.

The struggle for artistic integrity and the personal cost of creating art has been a feature of some of London’s most recent productions, including The Writer and Mood Music, which both examined the consequence of female creativity. In this context, this fascinating revival of Red shows us that to create is to suffer, but the tragedy is in knowing that what’s left behind may not mean as much to its consumers. Art, then, is tragedy to some degree, but for an audience this 90-minutes of engaging debate and conversation is pure joy.

Red is at the Wyndhams Theatre until 28 July. Tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1  

 

* In choosing good seats, the website Seatplan is particularly useful and user-friendly. It contains a comprehensive layout of every London theatre (and many others), with reviews, star ratings and pictures of the view from individual seats, all uploaded by audience members. Much like TripAdvisor, individuals can add their own experience, and it’s a great place to find tips on legroom, comfort and sightlines before you book. While not every seat has been rated yet – most have and are now colour-coded, so you can see at a glance – you can usually get a sense of the view from the next seat, and you can easily see which reviews also include an image which is invaluable, particularly in the older theatres where the curve of the auditorium or circle overhang can obscure large parts of the stage. The front page is now more focused on selling tickets but the search field for theatre layouts is obvious at the top

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Charles I: King and Collector – Royal Academy

Charles I and Henrietta Maria Holding a Laurel Wreath (Frick Collection)

One of the many ways we can shape our history is to see it as a continual battle between democracy and kingship in all its forms, that has played out across the centuries. The Bridge Theatre’s brilliant revival of Julius Caesar is a reminder that these debates have raged for millennia and Nicholas Hytner’s fascinating production shows us the bloody consequences of one of the earliest clashes between state and individual ruler. And while today a low rumbling of republican sentiment remains, it somehow remains exactly that, low – our modern benign monarchy being inoffensive enough to suppress any serious attempts to tear it down.

One of the major reasons for this is because it all happened once before, the multitudinous consequences of which are still felt today. The execution of Charles I in January 1649 is one of the most momentous events in British history; never before or since had an English reigning monarch been tried and executed by their own people, although plenty had been deposed by court factions and invading claimants to the throne or mysteriously ‘disappeared’. Now, more than 450 years later it’s difficult to understand the wide-ranging effect Charles’s execution had – a monarch who he and most others believed was divinely appointed by, and only answerable to, God. As the Royal Academy’s brilliant new exhibition demonstrates that crucial axe blow had one little-known consequence, it created the modern art market.

Forget elaborate heists and the occasional desecration, arguably the republican fire-sale that followed Charles’s death is one of the greatest art crimes in history. It broke-up probably the finest collection of early-modern and renaissance art of the era, selling much of it cheaply to the highest bidder. It was a brash, barbarous and unforgiving act that stripped the Royal Collection and meant that some of today’s most valuable paintings were quickly snapped-up by the courts of Europe or private collectors. Through painstaking research and lots of diplomacy, the Royal Academy has reunited much of this work for the first time in over four centuries in its big spring show Charles I: King and Collector.

As you enter the first gallery to be stared at by some of the leading artists and creatives of the day, including Charles himself, there is an overwhelming sense of the significance of what you’re about to see. The RA, of course, has produced some of the most remarkable shows of the last 10 years including David Hockney: A Bigger Picture in 2012 and Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse in 2016. But there is an extra magic in this new exhibition which continually presses upon you; it is a rare and probably never to be repeated chance to see a collection of paintings, bronzes, busts, drawings and miniatures that no one has seen together for at least 450 years, or, given the distribution of the artefacts around the various royal palaces in the seventeenth-century, has never been seen in one suite of rooms by anyone before, not even Charles himself.

As you gaze at the stunning three-sided portrait of him by Anthony van Dyck painted in 1635-36, which dominates the first room, you see a man with many aspects to his character; not only a terrible political decision-maker and failed King, but a devoted family man whose wife and children appear repeatedly in the works on show, as well as a second son who was never meant to rule at all, a keenly religious sovereign, and a man with cultivated and judicious artistic sensitivities. All of this complexity is reflected in the rooms that follow, the shear amount of work on display demonstrating not only a quite pronounced taste in the art Charles acquired – or at the very least the sense to listen to advisers on what to buy – but an understanding of both traditional and emerging forms of artistic expression, purchasing classic pieces from the previous century, as well as supporting emerging talent in the newly commissioned artists within his own court.

And this is where it all begins, with the ream of famous names that created work for Charles in one of the greatest periods of artistic patronage. Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck are just two of the famous names to have worked for Charles, ensuring their place in art history by significantly changing the nature of expression and the psychological representation of their subjects as they did it.  As well as self-portraits of both men, the first gallery also sets out the key players including Charles’s friend the Duke of Buckingham captured as a mythological hero on horseback by Rubens in 1625, the year of the young King’s accession, and his Queen Henrietta Maria, depicted by van Dyck in one of his finest works in 1633 (Henrietta Maria with Sir Jeffrey Hudson), who sought exile in France with her children in the midst of the Civil War, but herself amassed a fine collection of work showcased later in the exhibition.

A Witch Riding a Goat Backwards (Adam Elsheimer)As you wander round, as well as the images and stories shown in the painting, their own future life is detailed in the explanatory signs, with every plaque giving a clear indication of where the painting ended up – ranging from gallery collections in Europe such as the Louvre to America’s National Gallery of Art in Washington and Frick Collection in New York. Most fascinating is the price paid for it during the bargain sale of the early 1650s which in essence created the art market today, adding what is essentially arbitrary value to each piece, taking what anyone would pay for it. While one of Titian’s masterpieces went for £800 (c. £60,000), some pieces went for as little as £4 or £5 (c. £300 or c.£380 today) including a fantastic tiny image of A Witch Riding a Goat Backwards from c.1596-98 by Adam Elsheimer which is worth £5 of anyone’s money. And most interesting to note is how many of these objects have ended up back in British collections, repurchased in the ensuing centuries and often the property of the Queen, making this again a rare chance to see objects from the current Royal Collection, while at least three of the paintings were paid to the state in lieu of tax owed by some strapped aristocrat.

Most impressive of these is a room dedicated to the The Triumph of Caesar by Andrea Mantegna created between 1485 and 1506 across 9 separately created panels representing one celebratory event. These huge canvases, paled by the years, each depict one aspect of the event, including the march of the elephants, a collection of musicians and some of the purloined treasures from Caesar’s conquests paraded for the Roman people. As with much art in this period, the people look rather more medieval than classically Roman, but the detail and sense of chaos in Mantegna’s images are astounding. He captures the verve and excitement of the Triumph, building to the final piece showing Caesar himself with winged lackey holding a laurel wreath over his head – but crucially with face turned away to remind him of his mortality.

There are plenty of religious and mythological subjects on hand, not least in the paintings Charles owned by Titian, and in sections dedicated to ‘The Northern Renaissance’ and ‘The Italian Renaissance’ suggesting how meaningful these subjects were to the British royal family at the time. And Titian fans will be delighted to see plenty of his work on display, including a characterful portrait of Charles V painted in 1533, the depiction of Jesus convincing two disciples of his resurrection in The Supper at Emmaus from 1534 and the striking The Allocution of Alfonso d’Avalos to His Troops painted in 1540-41, one of the many pictures full of symbols of regality and power that are striking across Charles’s collection.

There are royal family portraits in abundance as well, most notably in a room dedicated largely to van Dyck’s images of Charles, Henrietta Maria and their children, deliberately depicting a stable, loving family with Charles at its head. The Great Peece from 1632 show the family with two of their children in the foreground with Westminster depicted behind. Intended to suggest the King’s dominion over Parliament, it’s sadly foreboding seen from this side of the execution. Equally laden with meaning is the rather charming Charles I and Henrietta Maria Holding a Laurel Wreath painted by van Dyck in 1632 as a celebration of a victory, with the Queen handing her husband a symbol of peace in return. It’s an intimate but still stately image as Henrietta Maria gazes openly at the viewer, while its style predicates the couples-portraiture of the eighteenth-century. There’s also some rarely-seen delicate Holbein drawings from The Royal Collection as well as miniatures of Charles’s antecedents including his elder brother Henry who died before ascending the throne.

Equestrian Portrait of Charles IThese are bolstered by the centrepiece of the exhibition, a central chamber filled with glorious portraits of Charles himself, each laden with regal and heraldic symbolism but filled by the sad-eyed stare of the man never raised to rule. Now in the Louvre, van Dycke’s Charles I in the Hunting Field from 1636 shows the King at the height of his Personal Rule (where he dismissed Parliament for more than a decade) looking imperious and fashionable in a country scene. Opposite this is Charles I with M. de St Antoine painted in 1633 depicting the monarch riding through a triumphal arch on horseback, shown as every inch the chivalric warrior King. Best of all, borrowed from its usual home in the National Gallery, is one of my favourite paintings, the Equestrian Portrait of Charles I from 1636-37 which is laden with heraldic meaning and, despite having a stunted horse’s head to ensure Charles looks more powerful, is one of the most imposing and magnificent depictions of Kingship ever painted.

Taking the best part of two hours to see and containing well over 100 works of art Charles I: King and Collector is an incredible achievement and a once in the whole of history chance to see one of the finest art collections ever created. The Royal Academy’s success is crowned by the astonishing and personal story of a tragic ruler whose disastrous political affairs have dominated modern understanding. Each picture gives us a 450-year story of how Charles’s treasured collection became fragmented and sold in the scorched earth days after the execution. More than this, however, the exhibition only serves to reinforce Charles’s importance in British history and, with statues, churches and images all over modern London, why the circumstances of his life, trial and execution continue to haunt us.

Charles I: King and Collector is at the Royal Academy until 15 April. Tickets are £18 (without donation) and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Harry Potter: A History of Magic – British Library

Harry Potter: A History of Magic, British Library

Love it or hate it, read every word or none at all, there’s no denying that the Harry Potter novels have become a cultural and literary force. Now, 20 years after the publication of The Philosopher’s Stone the books have spawned two separate movie franchises, tie-in stories, a theme park, the careers of a generation of young actors and a two-part stage play that sold out in London and will shortly head to Broadway. There’s no escaping the Potter effect, and the British Library’s new exhibition puts those seven game-changing children’s novels into the wider context of magical writing, charting the history of their influences including witchcraft, divination and herbology.

Mixing sources from the extensive and fascinating British Library collection, artefacts from other museums including the Wellcome Collection and Museum of Witchcraft, and plenty of early handwritten pages and original illustrations from Rowling’s own collection, this exhibition is an intelligent and engaging examination of the world within and beyond the Harry Potter stories, helping to explain their broad appeal. And it’s important to be clear at this point that this exhibition is entirely about the books, so anyone expecting film clips and costumes will be disappointed. Presumably Warner Bros won’t sanction any use of their material while they have their own theme park to promote, but at the same time, without them this becomes a more fitting exhibition for a library to host.

This exhibition coherently and successfully argues that the success of the Harry Potter series lies in the detailed and fully-realised world that J.K. Rowling has created. Far more than a well-plotted drama unveiling its many twists and shocks over seven increasingly weighty novels, every detail of Rowling’s world feels complete, informed and, despite its basis in magic and fantasy, entirely believable. To demonstrate this, the exhibition is divided into ten individual sections based on some of the lessons Hogwarts’ students would experience, calling upon evidence from the British Library’s own collection to show how closely Rowling’s fictitious world is grounded in our real one.

Bookending the exhibition are sections on the evolution of the first Potter story and its current impact, so as you first enter this mini-world you’re offered some preparatory material including an original synopsis of The Philosopher’s Stone, as well as artworks of characters, scenes and sketches by Jim Kay. Then it’s time for the first lesson of the day, Potions. After you’ve tried to mix one of your own prompted by an interactive display, you can see a real bezoar, some interestingly decorated potion jars, a 1200-year old cauldron and several books that discuss the identification of, and activities associated with, witchcraft, including the earliest image of them from the 15th Century, all guarded by Kay’s symbol-laden portrait of Professor Snape on loan from Bloomsbury Publishing.

The second lesson is Alchemy, focusing on the search for the Philosopher’s Stone that turns base metals into gold and can offer eternal life, that dominated Harry Potter’s first adventure. Its centrepiece are the large and fully illustrated Ripley scrolls that outline how to create the stone using various resources carefully brought together, with several detailed notes from the curators explaining the 16th century symbols and processes depicted as you move down the large display case. There’s also a section devoted to Nicholas Flamel, who is referenced in Rowling’s first story, as the man claiming to have found the Philosopher’s Stone in 14th century France. Alongside some detail about his real life as a bookseller, the exhibition also displays his tombstone which suggests his search for immortality somewhat eluded him.

Some of the British Library’s most beautiful books are on display in the Herbology section as well as Rowling’s own sketches (which feature throughout the exhibition), including a charming original depiction of Professor Sprout with her plants and a spider on her hat. The Library has contributed some stunning large scale early illustrations of key plants used for magical concoction and particularly notable are images of the mandrake plant which sit alongside Jim Kay’s more person-like interpretations used in The Chamber of Secrets. Kay’s work is also the centre piece for the Charms lesson as a multi-page, incredibly detailed pencil sketch of the shopfronts of Diagon Alley dominates one wall. There are also examples of enchanted objects like Olga Hunt’s witch’s broomstick which she claimed to have ridden around Dartmoor and, in a wry touch, an invisibility cloak in a glass case – nice to see the British Library having some fun with the concept.

Moving on, the next two sections focus on Astronomy and Divination, outlining the ways in which Rowling used both for meaningful character names and plot devices. There are star charts showing Sirius and Draco which ended up as key characters, while an interactive display allows you to look more closely at the 1693 Celestial Globe which dominates the centre of the room. There’s more interactivity in Divination, and after you’ve examined the ancient arts of palmistry, reading tea leaves and Chinese Oracle Bones from 1192 BC, you can also have your fortune told by a placing your hands on the table where a computer will select three cards interpreting your past, present and future.

One of the most engaging elements of the Potter novels has been the difficulty of retaining Defence Against the Dark Arts teachers and the sense of forbidden activity that the teenage heroes found irresistible. Here, the British Library has compiled a fascinating collection of artefacts designed to protect the wearer from evil, as well as information on dangerous creatures such as basilisks and werewolves, watched-over by Kay’s symbol-laden pencil portrait of Professor Lupin, as well as a magic staff, a statue of the Sphinx and an omitted section of text from one of Rowling’s early drafts.

Cunningly, our final lesson is also the one that leads us into the future for Rowling’s fantastical world, with Care of Magical Creatures now starting its own multi-film franchise as Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. But first, there’s plenty to learn about unicorns, phoenix and mermaids, including the fabricated half-fish-half-monkey loaned from the British Museum, which Japan claimed to have captured and displayed as a genuine creature from the sea in the 18th century. There’s also an illuminated manuscript depicting the lifecycle of the phoenix from the 13th century that sits close to one of the cutest exhibits, Jim Kay’s original depiction of Fluffy, Hagrid’s three-headed dog that guards the entrance to the Philosopher’s Stone, which is considerably more adorable then its eventual film version.

Before you leave, if you were in any doubt that the Harry Potter series has become a considerable cultural force, there’s the chance to see book covers from around the world with their different approaches to cover art and title, while for theatre lovers there’s a copy of the stage model from the two-part Harry Potter and the Cursed Child currently showing in London and soon heading to Broadway and Australia, which has mini-versions of stars Jamie Parker and Noma Dumezweni who created the original roles. One final treat for fans is Rowling’s original chapter plan for The Order of the Phoenix arranged by school year, and Rowling’s notes on the first Fantastic Beast’s script, assurance that this magical world will live on for some time to come.

The whole exhibition is beautifully designed to look like Hogwarts with library motifs, display cases with Norman-arched windows, flying books, teacups and broomsticks that add to the atmosphere as you wander around. With sources drawn from Rowling’s publisher Bloomsbury alongside The British Museum, Museum of Witchcraft and countless valuable books from the British Library’s own archive, this is a diverse and fascinating collection of material that full reinforces the central argument that Rowling’s influences had wide foundation in a range of established studies and practices. There’s no denying that a novel first scribbled on trains and in cafes has become one of the biggest -ever influences on all kinds of literature. 20 years, 7 books, 9 films, a two-part play and numerous spin-off books later, this British Library exhibition is a perfect tribute to the depth of knowledge and research that created a phenomenon.

Harry Potter: A History of a Magic is at the British Library until 28th February. Tickets are £16 with concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturcalcap1


Basquiat: Boom for Real – Barbican

Basquiat at the Barbican

Artist Jean-Michael Basquiat became a member of the infamous 27 Club in 1988 when he died from a drug overdose, joining stars like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison before him, and Kurt Kobain and Amy Winehouse after. Together with numerous others, the much-lamented lost talent of the 27 Club represents a group reaching the height of their power and abruptly cut short. Basquiat’s work as a painter, graffiti artist and musician is celebrated in a new exhibition at the Barbican which, now thirty years on, demonstrates Basquiat’s role in using art to communicate the politicised anger of America’s poorest communities and their recognition of the now-empty American Dream.

One of the most revealing aspects of the Barbican’s excellent new show is how carefully it builds the case for Basquiat’s influence on modern art, and how the simplicity of the surface appearance of his art belies a considerable depth, understanding and passion for a wider-range of subjects. Starting on the upper level of the Gallery, Curators Dieter Buchhart and Eleanor Nairne walk the viewer through Basquiat’s life, represented through his pictures, from his early days as an anonymous graffiti artists leaving pithy statements across New York, to his emergence onto the 80s club scene, mingling with Madonna and other recognisable faces at the The Mudd Club, an important meeting place for a particular wave of young, disenfranchised creatives, and becoming friends with his hero Andy Warhol.

But this is more than a chronologized life-story, and in the lower galleries, the Curators skilfully unpick the huge range of influences and knowledge that infuse Basquiat’s work in several themed areas intended to explain the deep research, use of symbolism and cultural markers that are referenced again and again in his work. Taken together, they result in a strong sense of the context in which his work was created, as well as its development over time, and the complex relationship between his own self-image and the layers of meaning beneath the surface. The result is one of the most intelligently considered and genuinely insightful exhibitions you will see this year.

For Britain and America, the late 1970s / early 1980s was a period of economic uncertainty, deprivation and political instability. Long before the financial boom of the 80s, people suffered as large-scale industries started to close due to overseas competition, strikes and protest became more frequent, and there was a sense that traditional structures were breaking-down across society, and not for the better. It was a time when the gap between rich and poor felt wider than it ever had, and the process of social decay, initiated by the debt-ridden aftermath of the Second World War was in its death throes.

Into this space came of wave of young musicians and artists whose work, even now, still feels full of the anger, fear and disillusion of those days. Rebellious bands like The Jam (who were the subject of an excellent exhibition at Somerset House in 2015) and The Clash, and artists like Basquiat provided a social record of the failure of their parent’s generation to resolve the outcome of war, and the desire to speak-up for those without an artistic outlet for their impotence. The punk aesthetic that feeds in to Basquiat’s work became a way to envision those feelings of powerlessness, using a deceptively simple style or creating a “tag” for his graffiti creations that generalise the social comments he’s making. These are the work of one or two men, but the voice of many.

And you see this again and again in the photographs of his graffiti statements, scrawled across garage doors, walls, door frames and windows crying out for an end to the facile, drudgery of 9-5 work or the externally imposed expectations of society to behave in a particular way. In the second room entitled ‘Samo©’, the Barbican have collated an insightful series of images of these slogans and declarations created by Basquiat and his friend Al Diaz under the character of Samo©, that peppered parts of New York in 1978. Like waiting for a new Banksy to appear, the Samo© pieces touched on the pointlessness of life, ‘for those of us who merely tolerate civilization’ and the sense that each day is just ‘another way 2 kill some time’. Taken together in this room, they are a remarkable outpouring of fury but offer unique access to the ideas that drove the rest of Basquiat’s work.

A sense of community was also important, bringing together others who felt the same and helped to enhance Basquiat’s work which the Barbican demonstrates in the next two rooms on the Canal Zone loft party where he met several like-minded people who he went on to work with, and on display are the colour-photocopied postcards he made with Jennifer Stein that use 3-D objects, layering and collage to create a series of striking pieces that mock the obsession with brand and image that dominated America at the time. Likewise, his frequent appearance at The Mudd Club put Basquiat right at the centre of the underground scene, where he performed as a musician and there are various images from this period which give the viewer a strong impression of Basquiat’s lifestyle.

Passing through a documentary he made which shows the desperate poverty of New York and a trip to LA that resulted in the acidic yellow ‘Hollywood Africans’ [1983] which satirises the empty wealth of an area built on slavery and references the enduring racism of film, the section on Basquiat’s time with Warhol is one of the best in the show. Most fascinating is the double portrait ‘Dos Cabezas’ [1982] in which Basquiat has inserted a highly simplified self-portrait with wild hair next to a much more flattering and considered Piccaso-esque image of Warhol. It shows the beginning of Basquiat’s desire to reduce his own image to a symbol, increasingly simplifying his appearance in pictures until he is reduced to a silhouetted figure or just a crown of dreadlocks. This picture tells us something about the way Basquiat saw himself and, despite his simplistic style, that the image of Warhol proves he had a talent for anatomical drawing, more of which we discover downstairs in the exhibition.

Having established his style and the world as he experienced it, the second part of the exhibition delves deeper into Basquiat’s continued self-education and the ways in which he incorporated broad interests into his work. From previous shows, including the excellent Constable exhibition at the V&A, we know that artists have always looked to their predecessors to learn the fundaments of perspective, shape and colour, and a whole section is dedicated here to Basquiat’s attention to art history.

Alongside original copies of his books, Basquiat’s detailed anatomical images draw on the work of another hero in ‘Leonardo Da Vinci’s Greatest Hits’ [1982], classical elements are picked up from Titian, and Manet, while the semi-abstract style comes from Picasso and Matisse. As well as ‘Untitled (Pablo Picasso)’ [1984], an eponymously titled portrait of the young Picasso with strong jawline wearing the striped red jersey of his later years, artists’ names appear like graffiti in several other pictures displayed here.

Basquiat, Barbican

This is a technique Basquiat uses repeatedly, whether he’s hailing the heroes of early Jazz like Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong, figures from Greek tragedy or Old Testament Christianity, or Voodoo symbols, his work in the second half of the exhibition is detailed and intriguing, displaying an astonishing range of influences. Pieces such as the triptych ‘Ishtar’ [1983] or ‘Glen’ [1985] are like maps covered in little notes, drawings and images as all of the information in his head spilled onto the canvas. It’s the kind of detail that Grayson Perry has become known for more recently, as both artists attempted to capture a particular theme or period.

It ends with more of Basquiat’s notebooks and an examination of his engagement with classic film, both in its ongoing influence and its rather stilted portrayal of black lives which still feels particularly pertinent. Aspects of Basquiat’s work may utilise the childlike doodles of the untrained artist, but as you wander through this exhibition, something much deeper than that emerges. The curators have done well to convey not just what life was like in a particularly downtrodden area of New York, filled with creative people living an underground existence, but how these things shaped the work of an artist who continually strove to read and understand more to give his pieces political backbone. Even if you’ve never heard of him, Basquiat: Boom for Real is worth a chance, and by the end you’ll understand why his death at the age of just 27 feels like an abrupt conclusion for an artist with plenty more to say.

Basquiat: Boom for Real is at the Barbican until 28 January. Tickets are £16 with concessions available. Please note the Barbican now has a no bags policy (not even small handbags) in the Art Gallery so leave extra time to queue for the cloakroom. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion – V&A

Balenciaga -Shaping Fashion, V&A

Making the case for fashion as a recognised and skilled art form has never been easy, and until recently exhibitions in museums and galleries haven’t helped, offering a series of pretty outfits on mannequins with very little focus on the intricacy of construction and the inventiveness of design studios. Showing the finished product isn’t enough on its own, and many a show has fallen foul of the clothes-horse approach that just show a series of lovely frocks with no real explanation of why they’re important and influential, reinforcing the idea that fashion is all about surface frippery. The Alexander McQueen show changed all that with its combination of design, story-telling and careful curation, and it’s clear from the V&A’s new exhibition focusing on another fashion icon that they’ve learnt some important lessons.

The V&A’s impressive Balenciaga exhibition is a slightly different beast from the touring Alexander McQueen show from 2015, and where there is less show-stopping glamour in the room as well as in the arrangement of the garments, the Balenciaga show has deeper academic and historical depth of content that should please the fashion-lovers as well as the expert seamstresses or designers. Emerging on the other side, the visitor can genuinely say they’ve seen beautiful outfits but, crucially, that they have also learnt about the detailed construction and engineering process that sits behind the creation of every garment, helping you to understand why designer clothing is so special.

Fed through the exhibition is Balenciaga’s experience as a tailor – an important contributory factor in his success. What the V&A does so cleverly is clearly demonstrate this at every point in their argument about his influence on contemporary and modern designers. It is a tell and show exhibition in which the detailed signs explain the skill in each themed section – be it a type of cut or particular means of construction – and then shows you two types of evidence.

Balenciaga Tulip Dress, V&AFirst, the finished garment often with x-ray images demonstrating the hidden engineering or weighting within to main shape, but also – and this is the clever bit – a recreation of that technique made by the V&A now to demonstrate its current applicability. In many cases, this is accompanied by a video of the creation process so you can see how these styles were made. It’s such a smart idea, giving the visitor a proper insight into the importance of the techniques Balenciaga pioneered, which also showcases the talent of the fashion gallery staff at the V&A who are undoubtedly experts in their field.

Famously aloof, the V&A attempt to break open Balenciaga’s process with a series of early cases looking at design beginning with fabrics which, unlike most approaches in female fashion, came before the sketch as Balenciaga, with his tailor training, found that the choice of material would determine how it could be cut and shaped. These decisions early on would then affect every subsequent aspect of the creative process, moving, as the exhibition then does, from cutting to sewing and construction.

It is here in the ‘Workrooms’ section that we learn about the creation of the famous 1965 tulip dress that sought to flatter the figure while actively offering a new shape – contrary to the popular fitted jacket and full skirts of Dior’s New Look. But while this high-neck peach silk evening gown looks loose and comfortable, constructed from an entire sheet of fabric at the front, and with a fitted bow at the back, Nick Veasey’s accompanying X-ray shows an inbuilt corset structure around the torso which is entirely invisible from any angle.

And these revelatory images appear again and again throughout this exhibition, unveiling the hidden expertise within the dresses in which Balenciaga determined how the finished item should fit and look even when it appeared on a live woman. Equally fascinating is the 1954 reddy-pink gown with ties under the full skirt that fit around the knees to keep the lower half of the dress in place as you walk. It’s one of the more stunning pieces in this collection both for its striking colour and, using the X-rays, you see a combination of corsetry, hoops and padding that created what feels like a modern gown but with nods to a more glamorous age of bustles and Embassy Balls.

Balenciaga Green Dress, V&AThis taps into one of the V&A’s core arguments, that Balenciaga’s approach has left a lasting fashion legacy, and in these carefully chosen pieces, you can see how his designs combined a sense of past, present and future that give them a timeless appeal. Even now a semi-voluminous green dress near the start of the exhibition that uses ballooning to create three layered sections down the body, with a puff sleeved cape in the same hue, looks slightly futuristic, and could be something one of the more Avant Garde starlets might wear on the red carpet. But at the same time, it all feels like the 1960s and, further back, references the empire-line fashions of Regency England.

Balenciaga’s interest in architecture also becomes increasingly clear, whether it manifests in the ruched sleeve of a tan coat with one single piece of ribbon holding the sculpted layers of material in place so they drape the arm, or in the lasting design of the babydoll dress introduced in 1958 that subverted the idea of designing specifically for the female-shape. By adding volume all over the body and not just in the full skirts of contemporaries, Balenciaga actively moved away from ideas of traditional feminine allure to demonstrate different ways to look good, which had little to do with uncomfortable figure-hugging styles, giving the body more freedom and, importantly, better comfort.

But Balenciaga also offered glamour, so the next step was to add embellishments to the clothes themselves and there are several examples of dresses cut in quite a simple style with jewels, feathers or embroidered patterns to make them special. Highlights include a cream hour-glass shaped shift dress sewn with a classic floral pattern, mixing garden flowers connected by green vines. Nearby is a silver and pink evening coat made of dyed feathers, while behind it is a red coat combining encrusted 3-D ‘jewels’ and embroidery. It’s clear Balenciaga was a designer who knew his customers and created items for all the occasions she might attend.

Balenciaga Embroidered Dress, V&AOne of the other things you may notice here, unlike most designer exhibitions, is that Balenciaga’s outfits look as though they could fit a modern-sized woman, with a realistic sense of the female figure rather than the impossibly-tiny items you usually see in these shows. Many of these designs are deceptively simple and the minimalistic ethic is one that has been much imitated.

The second section of the exhibition looks at the showroom and the Balenciaga salons in which customers were given an opportunity to see the clothes on live models employed by the fashion house to sell direct to customs – quite different to a runway fashion show. There are videos as well as examples of the outfits showing the sale process in which customers sat with pads noting the number of the item they wished to order.

In the middle cases that form the inner circle of the show, there are examples of clothes that made it into everyday wear, all with simple and practical approaches to design that challenge the traditional silhouette. Whether it’s the long-sleeved loose-fitting shift dresses that now look so elegant, but at the time were practically scandalous, to the classic floral day dress and tailored suit, practicality, comfort and style typify Balenciaga’s design that simultaneously reflect the changing role of women in the post-war era.

Once the garment is sold, and it becomes the property of the customer, it might be interesting to note that alterations were made that actively subverted the designer’s original intentions. Among the star pieces here are contributions from Ava Gardner’s collection, herself a lover of the Spanish style that infuses Balenciaga’s work, including a pink dress discovered to have a separate corset inside and a 1964 lace evening coat that she added feathers to after she bought it.

The final part of the exhibition upstairs in the lovely mezzanine gallery considers the Balenciaga legacy in other designers’ work, so expect lots of red carpet-esque dresses and crazy pieces that espouse the values or style principles of Balenciaga. Although this is in some ways the core of the argument about how Balenciaga ‘shaped fashion’, for me, this was the least interesting part of the show, moving away from the main work and showcasing a series of less interesting and tenuously connected items -several of which have done the rounds at numerous fashion exhibitions, including the red and white puff dress that looks like a ball of feathers.

Nonetheless, this exhibition helps the V&A to establish its position as the leading curator of fashion history, that doesn’t just rely on the pretty clothes but takes a more rounded approach to presenting material. With a strong central argument and the careful presentation of evidence including video and recreated gowns, the V&A easily prove the case that Balenciaga shaped fashion, and that they are shaping the fashion exhibition.

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion is at the V&A until 18 February and tickets are £12 with concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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