Category Archives: Museum

Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One – Tate Britain

Christopher Nevinson - Paths of Glory [1918]

Otto Dix once wrote that “artists should not proselytise or reform… all they have to do is bear witness”, a quotation that accompanies a fascinating selection of prints entitled The War that have much to say about the impact of the First World War both on the physical body and on the creation of art in Britain, Germany and France in the ensuing years. In Tate Britain’s carefully curated new show Aftermath, the physical, political and emotional cost of conflict is writ large in an extraordinary combination of work, predominantly from men who served, arguing that the depiction of loss, devastation and destruction had far reaching effects for artists across Europe.

As the four-year commemoration programme draws to a close, it is timely to reflect on the welcome diversity and creativity that has resulted in an insightful and more inclusive approach to public memorialisation. No longer a hymn to soldier poets alone, we have seen reflections on the role of all three services, with dedicated Great War exhibitions at the National Maritime Museum and RAF Museum, while the Science Museum’s focus on technological innovation delivered the impressive Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care about the medical response to war. A variety of activities and publications also examined the experience of war from the new perspectives and properly brought them into the public realm for the first time, giving voice to colonial recruits, allies, official “enemies”, female service personnel, refugees and those on the Home Front which has permanently enriched our understanding of this crucial period in European history.

Culturally, there have also been substantial and memorable contributions, not least from Paul Cummins and Tom Piper whose glorious display of poppies cascading down the walls of the Tower of London, filling the moat, was an unforgettable start to the programme back in 2014 – the sale and subsequent tracking of those poppies is a piece of social history that is of enormous value to our understanding of the longevity of emotional responses to this conflict. Equally powerful was Rufus Norris and Jeremy Deller’s physical living artwork We Were Here where young actors dressed as soldiers appeared across the country at railway stations and on the tube as a poignant reminder of those who never came back.

This, then is the context in which Aftermath appears and, happily, one which its curation reflects – presenting a picture of a diverse and complex technological war that unnaturally ravaged the individual body with ramifications for the state’s duty of care. As you wander through the eight rooms of this exhibition, many of which are dedicated to images of suffering, neglect and decay, the question in your mind is “was it worth it”? The answer for many artists is surprisingly complicated, and far more nuanced than our embedded image of disillusion and slaughter.

Taking a multinational, multi-service perspective allows us to see that irrespective of victory, Britain, France and Germany were united by the devastating impact of war on their societies, that they shared the tricky post-war problem of how to appropriately design memorials to the fallen, and how to support the huge numbers of disabled veterans released back into society, many of whom were left poor and destitute. Aftermath grapples with the idea of renewal and rebirth at a time when the cost of war was so visible and how art, like poetry, memoir-writing and ex-servicemen associations, became a vital outlet for men to continually relive and revisit the most horrific, but also the most meaningful, experience of their lives.

What strikes you first is the pity of it, the human cost replicated in scene after scene showing the dead, dying or merely absent on the battlefield. The tin hat, Aftermath argues became a potent symbol of death in many art works, shorthand for the loss of life its emptiness implies, with three hats displayed in a central case. But artists were also honest about what they saw, and Room 1 on Battlefields and Ruins shows the carnage of broken bodies in a series of powerful paintings. Luc-Albert Moreau’s 1918 piece Chemin des Dames Assault may be abstract but clearly shows the brutal death of a soldier impaled on a tree. This is far from the quiet heroism that memorials usually suggest, here death is cruel and real and ugly. Nowhere more so than in Paul Nash’s Wire from 1918-19 showing a tree trunk smashed to pieces, a metaphor for the human body, or Christopher Nevinson’s Paths of Glory [1917] whose coppery swirls glisten in the light of the gallery giving a strange ethereal quality to the dead soldiers face down in the mud. Nevinson’s picture is one of the most powerful in the show, not just a fine war image but one of the finest paintings ever created.

As soon as you step inside, the scale and breadth of the war becomes startlingly clear, and the diversity of artistic responses is striking. In this first room alone, paintings sit alongside sculpture, photographs and videos, positioned against other commemorative outlets including battlefield guides and souvenirs made from shell casing or bullets. Walking into Room 2, focusing on official memorialisation, you start to notice your emotional response to the pieces, where works by Charles Sergeant Jagger and Stanley Spencer are testament to the ongoing confusion and sense of fracture that remained in the years following the Armistice. Jagger’s use of realistic military clothing and weapons reflecting the technological advances in equipment drew praise from contemporaries, and in a model for his Great Western Railway memorial he dressed a soldier in a greatcoat with eyes downcast to the letters he’s reading from home, speaking volumes about the pain the outcomes of war were unable to reconcile. Spencer reiterates this in his painting Unveiling Cookham War Memorial [1922] as people hang from net-curtained windows, and a sombre-faced crowd surge forward to see this architectural response to war, still grieving, still remembering at the annual recitation of the names of the fallen.

That cost of war is stark too in Frank Owen Salisbury’s 1920 depiction of The Passing of the Unknown Warrior whose large-scale funeral cortege along Whitehall has representatives of all three services escorting the flag-draped coffin of this lasting symbol of war’s futility. Notably, the living are primarily high-ranked, middle-aged men, the leaders of war giving thought to the once young life they are about to inter in Westminster Abbey. Here, in the heart of the British Establishment, the “Traces of War” are vividly captured by Salisbury, making the perfect link to the next part of the exhibition that considers artistic representations of men who survived but were physically damaged by the conflict.

Although produced for scientific study, Henry Tonks’s images of facial injuries drawn in pale colours are remarkably graphic but full of empathy for his patients that make them difficult, but important, viewing. Likewise, Rosine Cahen’s work in Villennis Hospital are a thoughtful record of the injuries sustained by French soldiers. But there is a political purpose at work here too, with curators Emma Chambers and Rachel Smith selecting accompanying work that reflects the widespread failure to support disabled veterans. Not the first-time men had returned with bodily damage inflicted by warfare, the scale of returnees unable to work or resume their former lives was certainly new, and neither French, German or British societies were ready to respond to their needs, despite greater visibility of disabled veterans in France.

Conrad Felixmuller’s 1919 Soldier in the Madhouse I and II reflect the confusion of the psychological effect of war, their powerful lines and geometric shapes suggesting the distortion of the mind and anxiety of the sufferer – something health systems were largely ill prepared to support. More shocking is the way in which disabled veterans are depicted, often ignored or reduced to penury, their physical appearance surprising, and sometimes even frightening. This work by artists like Otto Dix and George Grosz was designed to reflect society’s mistreatment of their veterans, and these simple pen sketches remain a powerful indictment of their failure.

Despite Dix’s claim to “bare witness”, his work is full of political fervour. His 1924 prints, on display in Room 5, are horrifying reflections of men at war; Wounded Man shows a face ravaged with pain and trapped in a kind of hell, while Mealtime in the Trenches at first glance looks like an arctic scene as a huddled and freezing figure eats tentatively in the howling blizzard, his fear emanating from the picture. Dix was even more candid in Skull and Dance of Death drawing on images of mortality as creatures begin to inhabit a now decayed head, while in the latter bodies are strewn across the barbed wire landscape of No Man’s Land. In the same room, Kath Kollowitz’s 1922 woodcuts were an outlet for her own grief at the death of her son, with a series of images of the Home Front as bereaved mothers, parents and pregnant lovers comment on the consequences of death for those left behind – not just emotionally but in the economic effect on entire families left without a breadwinner.

Resentment also continued towards war profiteers and the thoughtless public who enjoyed themselves while men died abroad, and this was reflected in numerous artworks. Max Beckmann captures a lovely geometric energy in his print of dancers called Malepartus [1917], while in Room 7 on Post-war People, William Roberts’s incredible 1923 painting The Jazz Club (The Dance Party) cannot be viewed enough. Fantastically vibrant Roberts’s stylised image reflects the excitement of the new age, of music blaring from an overlarge gramophone which guides the dancing couples in a leaning pack. Meanwhile, Edward Burra and George Grosz focus on the venality of the public, so Burra’s The Snack Bar from 1930 shows a blowsy woman, over-made-up sitting at a counter while a man in the foreground slices a ham. There’s a whiff of death and decay about the scene, something garish and unsettling. Likewise, Grosz’s powerful image of a businessman ignoring the plight of the haggard soldier and working man behind him in Grey Day [1921] is a striking indictment of those who turned their backs on veterans once the war was won.

It doesn’t all work and rooms focusing on surrealism, agricultural scenes and post-war cities feel out of place. They were legitimate reactions to war and are rightly encompassed by Aftermath’s wider examination of artistic change, but in light of the emotional reaction created by the other rooms, they feel bland and distracting – not that it isn’t a treat to see works like The Garden Enclosed by war veteran David Jones [1924], last seen in the Sussex Modernism show at Two Temples Place, but pastoral landscapes by those who didn’t participate in the conflict seem somehow less important with the political power of Otto Dix and Christopher Nevinson fresh in your mind.

As we reach the final months of a four-year commemoration programme, there have been many significant artistic responses that have widened our general understand of the implications of the First World War and the men from all over the world who fought in all services on all sides. Aftermath feels like the summation of all that work, building-up to this thoughtful and important show. Our public memory of disillusioned soldiers unwillingly sacrificed is beginning to shift; from the first day of the war, reactions to it were complex, overwhelming and fluctuating. What Aftermath does is remind us that death was not the only outcome of the war, men came home and had to go on living in a fractured and uncertain society with no idea how to care for them and what it all meant. Their artistic responses captured in this wonderful exhibition shows they spent a lifetime trying to find out.

Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One is at Tate Britain until 23 September. Tickets start ay £16 with concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.

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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


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


Echoes Across the Century – Guildhall Art Gallery

Echoes Across the Century - Guildhall Art Gallery

The memory of the First World War continues to be hotly debated. From the moment it finished to the present day, just who owns the idea of “true experience” has led to considerable discontent as individuals demanded their chance to be heard. In the immediate aftermath, many veterans felt sidelined by a national female grief – given physical monument in the Cenotaph and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – that prioritised the loss experienced by mothers, wives and girlfriends whose menfolk never returned. But the with the proliferation of servicemen memoirs from the late 1920s and its 1960s rediscovery that returned the emotion and sorrow of the First World War to public consciousness, the only truth historians and national ceremonies wanted to tell was that of soldier experience.

Now, a hundred years on, the centenary commemorations have created space for other voices, for the millions of people who were daily affected by a consuming conflict that dominated Europe for four years, and whose impact lasted long after the Armistice. Whether fighting in khaki, in the air, on the sea or enduring the privations of the Home Front, there has been a drive to understand the first total war from a variety of perspectives. Latest among them is Guildhall Art Gallery’s new show, Echoes Across the Century that puts the issue of female grief and loss back at the forefront of exploration.

Jessie Ellman was a nurse whose schoolteacher fiancé, William Hicks, was killed in 1917. Her response was a lifetime of devoted devastation and although she married again, many years later published a death notice in The Times to remember him. Channelling Ellman’s sorrow and lost hopes, artist Jane Churchill had created a number of fantasy artworks that visualise a dream world in which Jesse is reunited with William, and, with no formal grave, Churchill attempts to give him a more fitting and beautiful final engagement with nature. In each 3D box scene, Churchill has cut out various types of landscape using card and plastic, and inserted a small soldier figure – in one she also adds a figurine woman to represent Jessie. These beautiful pieces are both romantic and intensely sad, exploring the personal effect of every single death, and the ways in which women spent a lifetime responding to it.

Jane Churchill - Jessie Ellman's DreamworldWhile each has its own emotional charge, particularly skillful is a three-layered scene of trees cut from single sheets of plastic arranged one in front of the other to give a sense of perspective. In the centre at the back of the box is the figure of William staring up at the moon. It’s wistful and romantic but tries to visualise the nature of grief in the interwar period, the effect of absence in daily life and the ongoing interaction with its collective memory.

Churchill also uses the cut-out idea to create a series of butterflies or moths that look like an anthropologist case in a dusty Victorian museum. But each individual creature is carefully cut from war-related newspapers, maps, photographs or letters, and labelled to represent individual fatalities or particular regions of fighting. The fragility of death is strongly evoked, particularly in the section where Churchill pins a single model soldier into the wings of the butterfly to form the central body – a scathing commentary on the way in which First World War deaths become pinioned and encased, ripped of their original meaning, like specimens to be studied rather than living breathing men whose deaths had consequences for those around them.

Jane Churchill - Butterfly CollectionEmphasising her idea that our connection to distant events comes through the transference of an emotional memory, Churchill also grapples with ideas about grief in more traditional ways. She uses memory boxes and cabinets of tears to think about what mementos and the everyday objects people kept to remember their loved ones, and some of these are on display. Again, in one she uses the story of Ellman and Hicks to visualise the Ellman’s sorrow by bottling her imagined tears as she thinks back to special moments in their lives together, and labels each accordingly. There’s something ritualistic, almost religious, about the type of memorialisation which Churchill is exploring, and asks questions about the comfort these give in the grieving process.

Arguably, as art it’s certainly sentimental and as history it’s presumptive, particularly in the appropriation and supposed interpretation of Jessie Ellman’s private memories – who are we to really know what Ellman felt and imagined in the years after William’s death – but that aside, Churchill’s intent is particularly interesting, and using art to examine complex ideas of remembrance, especially beyond living memory is a successful outcome of this show. How and who we decide to remember is a question that runs through this exhibition and, as the centenary events have demonstrated, after a 50-year focus on soldiers in the national collective memory, so many other aspects of the war had simply been written out of the story.

To reinforce this idea that art can help to create and embed memories, even other people’s, the second part of Echoes Across the Century hands the baton to over 200 secondary school pupils who have developed their own responses to Churchill’s work and assumed memories of the First World War. This room, designed like a trench, is broken up into various segments that display the art by category, and for the first time takes the viewer into wider and unexpected aspects of warfare. Primarily concerned with the supply chain, there are paintings, models and sculpture that think about the concept of total war and the variety of supporting mechanisms that kept the show on the road.

Above all, war is a system, and while we continue to prioritise the experience of soldiers who by far bore the brunt of fighting and loss, this part of this exhibition gives a much broader picture, even for those who know the subject well. In the first section, pupils have created some memory boxes, like Churchill’s, to commemorate Hospital Ships with pill bottles, tins and stained bandages, each with an explanation of the artist’s intent to understand what inspired their choices.

Most fascinating is a section on spectacles, supplied to some soldiers to keep them fighting, but here take on a sinister aspect. One A-Level pupil from Dunraven School has painted a headshot of a soldier with what from a distance looks like dark round sunglasses. But as you move closer you see that his entire eye-well has been cut out entirely and all that remains are the frames and arms of the glasses. Instead at the back of his eyes, looking through layers of cut out card that link to Churchill’s dream boxes, are a scene of smoke and destruction in his right eye, and one of calm moonlight in the left. It’s a bold and unusually sharp piece about the vast difference between men’s noble expectations of war and the grim mechanised reality.

Horses, the air force, rations tins and saddlery all get the artistic treatment, and while not explored in much depth are a worthy reminder that the provision of basic necessities to every man fighting was a huge industrial process that had to be managed and controlled. It concludes with hundreds of individually created butterflies in cases that echo Churchill’s focus on personal memory and returning to individual impacts of warfare. Echoes Across the Century may not always reflect the bigger-picture history as carefully as the individual stories, but it does remind us that while the First World War may feel remote, its emotional impact continues to be felt. And in a period where we’ve begun to think about the war from multiple perspectives, restoring the expression of female grief to the story helps us to understand why this is a war that, as a society, we will not forget.

Echoes Across the Century is at the Guildhall Art Gallery until 16 July. Entrance is free and the gallery is openly daily. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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