Tag Archives: art

Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion – Two Temple Place

Sussex Modernism, Two Temple Place

What inspires an artist has long been one of art’s most interesting questions. Two Temple Place think they have the answer – Sussex – at least for some of the leading proponents of modernism in the early part of the twentieth-century. Much of this was a reaction against the exigencies of modern life with numerous well known creatives including Vanessa and Julian Bell, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Duncan Grant, Lee Miller and Salvador Dali decamping to Sussex to escape the industrial crowding of London, seeking a more relaxed, nature-led and sometimes communal form of living.

This new exhibition celebrates the influence of one of England’s southern-most counties with its combination of seascapes, countryside and peaceful living. Two Temple Place is a rarity among London museums, not only limiting its public opening to a two month period each year with a chance to see its new show, but also the beautiful Thames-side building that once served as the Estate’s Office for the Astors. The exhibitions, now in their sixth year, have covered an interesting variety of topics ranging from last year’s Egyptian definitions of beauty to the art and curio collections of leading industrialists, all beautifully curated and uniting fascinating objects. While many London galleries tend to circulate their objects and paintings amongst themselves, Two Temple Place have developed a reputation for bringing high-quality material from Britain’s regional museums, uniting pieces that have never been seen side by side and, chances are, not seen by Londoners in their original homes.

With pieces from Sussex museums including Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, Hasting’s Jerwood Gallery, Pallant House Gallery in Chichester and Eastbourne’s Towner Art Gallery as well as the De La Warr Pavillion and Farleys House and Gallery, this exhibition is an eclectic mix of painting, sculpture, photography, gardening equipment, and arts and crafts. Sussex Modernism argues that London was not the only cultural centre in the first half of the previous century and in fact the villages and coastal towns of Sussex were a hotbed of innovative thinking and the development of radical technique, attracting some of the UK’s most experimental artists whose domestic unconventionality was then reflecting in the work they produced.

Unsurprisingly for a London exhibition, the Bloomsbury Group features front and centre with their time at Charleston near Lewes in Sussex recorded in a series of paintings and crafts by Duncan Grant and close friend Vanessa Bell which link classical mythology with modernist expression. Grant who was famously a conscientious objector in the First World War, evolved as a painter with a fairly traditional early style into something more playful, experimental and with a bolder approach to colour. The exhibition includes his Seurat-inspired ‘Bathers by the Pond’ from c.1920 which uses a pointillist technique and shows several naked or partially dressed young men, an expression of the freedom that the immediate post-war period brought but also a sense of calm.

Equally interesting is ‘Venus and Adonis’ [1919] which depicts a cartoon-like and voluptuous female nude which is fully in this new modernist style. It suggest Venus looking over her shoulder at the distant also nude figure of Adonis, the man she loves, with an ambiguous expression that could be regret, concern, longing or even indifference. Bell’s work exhibited alongside includes a late self-portrait which has a delicate feel, alongside simple cover designs for her sister’s – Virginia Woolf’s – books.

But there’s also plenty to see in room one with a pair of enormous garden rollers dominating the central space, as well as a statue. Work from Ditchling by the now controversial sculptor Eric Gill is included which is sure to reopen debate on whether art should exist on its own terms and whether it can be divorced from its creator, while one of the highlights is David Jones’s 1924 painting ‘The Garden Enclosed’, a vibrant and troubling image of kissing lovers who look less than thrilled with each other as they embrace in front of the stylised trees that lead to their home. As the exhibition argues, it is nature that dominates here with the couple relegated to the bottom corner, but as a First World War veteran, it’s difficult not to see the ongoing effects of the conflict in the emotional ambiguity and sense of challenged domesticity the painting evokes.

Into the beautiful stairwell of Two Temple Place, and a key attraction is Edward James and Salvador Dali’s lip-shaped sofa famously inspired by Mae West in 1938. Its vibrant red colouring and plump aesthetic make it look much newer than it is, with almost a Pop Art aesthetic that was still 30 years way. It looks particularly striking against the buildings high gothic wood panelled interior and is worth making the trip just to see the contrasting styles side-by-side.

Upstairs, there is a room dedicated to the architectural development of the De La Warr pavilion at Bexhill on Sea which transformed the Edwardian seafront into a controversial modernist paradise and a scale model of its sleek and simple shape is on view. Built in 1935 following an open competition won by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, the pavilion was home to a variety of cultural events and a social space that emphasised the aesthetic and practical purpose of modernist buildings and, as the exhibition argues, showing that the creation of cutting-edge and long-lasting modernist work was taking place outside of London.

The final room is an eclectic mix of painting sculpture and photography with the work of surrealists in particular taking precedence. Roland Penrose and wife Lee Miller – who had her own exhibition at the Imperial War Museum last year dedicated to her war photography – feature as life at Farley Farm welcomed a community of leading artists to the Sussex countryside. Penrose’s vivid coloured portrait of a pregnant woman – presumably Miller – and Edward Burra’s work is also worth the trip with three large paintings including The Churchyard at Rye but particularly Ropes and Lorries which hints at a carousel with a knight in armour in the foreground. There a couple of photos from Paul Nash but most of his stuff is still at Tate Britain, but considered side-by-side the true surrealist work on display here it only reinforces my previous argument that Nash’s experiment with modernism was pretty unsuccessful.

As ever Two Temple Place has delivered an exhibition of interesting objects and a persuasive argument that many radical and influential artists sought inspiration from the peace of the Sussex countryside and coastal towns. While some may be sniffy about the limits on the works included here, it certainly demonstrates the breadth and value of local collections along with the encouragement to visit more of the donor institutions to see the work in situ, which is certainly at the heart of Two Temple Place’s annual outreach activity. Of course, Dulwich Picture Gallery will have snaffled plenty for its upcoming Vanessa Bell show while the Tate has most of the Paul Nash pieces but there’s plenty to see here. And if this exhibition is anything to go by, with innovation, creativity and plenty of domestic experimentation going on, Sussex is certainly worth a visit!

Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion is at Two Temple Place until 23 April and entrance is free. The gallery is closed on Tuesdays. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


An American in Paris – Dominion Theatre

An American in Paris, Dominion Theatre

With the world back in love with the classic musical thanks to La La Land, the arrival of the 2015 Broadway Production of An American in Paris couldn’t be more timely. After a brief stint in Paris and rave reviews on Broadway, this much anticipated revival, based on the 1951 film starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, has its press night at the Dominion Theatre tomorrow. But this isn’t the standard all-singing all-dancing musical you might expect, and while there are a number of memorable songs, this is really a dance and classical music piece, with choreography drawn from ballet rather than modern dance and tap. But more than that, this tale of soldiers and restoration is couched in the consequences of conflict and its effect on the arts – a romantic fantasy very much grounded in the aftermath of World War Two.

Demobilised in 1945, Jerry decides not to return to America with his colleagues and to pursue his career as a modernist painter in Paris, where he unexpectedly meets Lise after rescuing her from a pushy crowd. He falls instantly in love with her but she disappears into the night and instead Jerry becomes involved with fellow American Milo, who offers to help him promote his work to local gallery owners and as a set designer at the ballet. Meanwhile Lise has also caught the attention of pianist Adam who is charmed when she becomes principal ballerina in a work he is composing but Lise is engaged to Henri whose mother is patron of the ballet. When Henri, Adam and Jerry become friends and with the ballet premiere approaching, how soon before they realise they’re all in love with the same girl and who will win her?

Most musicals open with some big all-cast number with another either side of the interval and a rouser to send people home at the end. But An American in Paris has a more muted trajectory, opening with only a piano on a dark stage because this is one man’s memory, the story of Adam reflecting back many years later on what appears to be a lost love affair, a happier time not just for him personally but for the whole of France as it emerged from occupation. That piano becomes a key focal point throughout the show moved skilfully around the stage, identifying times when the audience is privy to Adam’s direct memories. But, as it’s clear from the start that we’re seeing things from his point of view, crucially the piano’s absence implies events between other characters that he has imagined – such as any private encounter between Jerry and Lise – which adds to, and partially explains, the heightened fantasy element of the sections where Adam is not present.

In many ways this is an intimate show, concerned with the relationships and developing affections among a small group of artists in post-war Paris, and while this bigger picture is an underlying theme it’s really the smaller human interaction that is the focus. With that in mind, the size of the Dominion Theatre stage is frequently a problem with even the largest dance numbers looking a little swamped amidst the acres of empty space, although surprisingly that’s not always the case with the duets. That aside, the dancing is beautifully choreographed by Director Christopher Wheeldon, perfectly capturing the lyricism and romance of Gershwin’s score mixing fun upbeat numbers such as I’ve Got Rhythm set in a local café during a power cut, with the extraordinary I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck in the department store where Lise works as three sets of display cabinets whirl around the stage allowing Jerry to hop between them as dancers parade and spin in the latest ‘new look’ fashions creating the sense of the old counter-style service in a busy store as well as the disruption Jerry causes by turning up out of the blue. As a set-piece its elaborate glamour is very much in line with things like the Ascot race from My Fair Lady and Beautiful Girl from Singing in the Rain.

But Wheeldon also brings genuine tenderness and emotion to Jerry and Lise’s interactions, demonstrating their growing connection and the somewhat wistful nature of their romance as they meet in secret by the Seine. He christens her ‘Liza’, encouraging her to take more risks and their dance along the riverbank is beautifully staged. It’s a classic 50s musical concept of love presented in an emotionally touching but chaste way.

Yet, the traditional dream-like quality of the romance is constantly buffeted by the realities of post-war France and the intrusion of modernist notions which we see particularly in Jerry’s art and how this is reflected in the design of the extraordinary ballet sequence. While this type of art first emerged as a response to the First World War, rather than the Second, its use here emphasises the idea that the world has been fundamentally changed by the experience of conflict, where new ideas and freedoms, driven by the young, are demanded to challenge the cosy traditionalism of the elder generations. So the way in which Jerry’s painting captures the imagination of Milo Davenport leads quite naturally to the fully modernist ballet that in look and feel entirely eschews more classical approaches, is redolent of this new wave of art and interpretation that pits two halves of Paris against each other in this show.

Like The Red Shoes (wonderfully staged by Matthew Bourne at Sadler’s Wells recently), An American in Paris contains a lengthy ballet within a ballet as the audience gets to see the show composed by Adam, designed by Jerry and danced by Lise. And it makes for a striking contrast with what has gone before as the stage is filled with geometric shapes in bold primary colours – reflecting work of artists like Mondrian – while the dancer’s costumes are similarly unusual if you’re used to traditional ballet. It’s an incredible piece of work and although it doesn’t add anything much to the direct plot, it is one of highlights of a show that emphasises the integrity of the dance and the emotional turbulence of the characters primarily.

If you’ve never seen the film, then there is a genuine uncertainty about who will end up with who, with the three supporting players nicely fleshed out, giving them proper rounded characters and a realistic stake in the eventual outcome. There are benefits and downsides to this however which slightly take away from the eventual resolution.  As our narrator, Adam is already a highly sympathetic character with the audience deliberately on his side from the start and David Seadon-Young really draws on the luckless and lonely composer who writes beautifully but cannot translate his feelings into a real relationship. His unrequited affection for Lise is subtly portrayed and his generosity to his good friend and fellow veteran Jerry make him highly sympathetic.

Likewise the semi-cuckolded Milo becomes Jerry’s rebound love interest which is given considerably poignancy by Zoe Rainey. It’s clear to the audience that she’s just a passing thing but her continued efforts to enhance his career and a growing sense of hopelessness are nicely charted. Joining her is Lise’s fiancé Henri (Haydn Oakley) who is doggedly devoted to his ballerina girlfriend, offering her a less explosive but steady and consistent love. And while the French accents get a bit Allo Allo at times, these characters and their stake in their mutually dependant future are very nicely drawn, which adds considerably to the audience’s dilemma over who to root for.

As a consequence though, and despite beautiful dance performances from Robert Fairchild as Jerry and Leanne Cope as Lise, it becomes increasingly difficult to be entirely on the side of the leads when they deliberately and wilfully string other characters along until they can be together. This did happen in the original film of course but then that was Gene Kelly, and how can you not want smiley charming Gene Kelly to get whoever he wants. Here, Cope and Fairchild are a convincing pairing, but maybe we’re more cynical or we take a more rounded perspective these days, so even if the happy couple dance off into the sunset as the curtain falls you can’t help but think ‘what about all those poor people you hurt.’ And because of the sympathetic portrayal of these other characters, this for me slightly undercuts the “love conquers all” tone of the finale.

The technical design by 59 Projection is stunning helping to create a variety of locations, show big events and reflecting the particularly French style of visual design which add considerably to the atmosphere, bringing a different sense of spectacle and innovation to the West End than we’ve really seen before on this scale. And while the first half is arguably a tad lacklustre, the second draws you into the emotional heart of the story. It may look small on the Dominion stage and while the central romance may not be as transporting as it once was, An American in Paris utilises Gershwin’s beautiful score to offer something quite different to the standard musicals format.

An American in Paris is at The Dominion Theatre until 30 September. Tickets start at £17.50 with reduced prices until 31 March. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


David Hockney – Tate Britain

hawthorn-blossom-near-rudston-2008

With so many exhibitions running in London all the time, it can be difficult to choose between them, especially when everyone is now asking you to pay the best part of £20 for the privilege. But good news for the culturally overwhelmed because there is only one exhibition you need to see this year – David Hockney’s retrospective at Tate Britain. It is 2017’s must-see show and one that will undoubtedly last you all year, allowing you to impress your friends with your knowledge of nearly 60 years of Hockney’s spectacular work.

There are several things that have long made Hockney’s work particularly distinctive, his vibrant use of colour, the way he captures light whether it be the cloudier tones of Yorkshire or the startling clarity of the LA sun, and the deeply personal representation of everything that appears in his work. Of course all artists show us their view of the world, but Hockney at nearly 80, has spent a lifetime painting, drawing and photographing his friends, family and partners, as well as the places he lives or spent time. As you wander through the rooms at Tate Britain – much like the David Bailey show at the Portrait Gallery 2 years ago – it becomes clear that you’re seeing Hockney’s story unfold. This is art as biography.

Most of the exhibition is in chronological order, which is a sensible approach from curators and means you can observe the clear evolution of his style and technique from his days as a student at the Royal College of Art to his most recent work made with iphone and ipads.  And while the early work looks quite different, everything here is distinctively Hockney and this approach means that the consistency of his style can be observed. The early work is quite abstract and may surprise those who have only seen his later creations, but this laid the foundations for the way he would represent reality and the interaction of objects and people. And of course these early works feel like a young man trying to understand himself, particularly in a place where homosexuality was still a criminal offence, and the repeated inclusion of sentences in the pictures feels like you’re in Hockney’s head.

His painting We Two Boys Cling Together from 1961 has the simplicity of a child’s drawing but it evokes quite mixed emotions in the viewer; there’s love clearly, anger too in the frantic brush strokes, but also this sense of incongruity as the heads float away from the bodies suggesting thought and reality are not yet in tune. Turning the corner into the second room and Hockney’s focus on people, which will run through his entire career, shows how that illusion became concrete with depictions of couples in everyday harmony including Domestic Scene [1963] in which one man helps his partner to shower. This may not be the famous work you’ve come to see but its inclusion tells us important things about Hockney’s development as an artist, as well as his personal experiences, so don’t hurry past it too quickly.

When Hockney arrived in LA in 1964 something in his work shifted, and a fascination with linear form, colour and light would dominate his work for years to come. In Room 4 you finally get to see that transition in some of his most famous pieces, including A Bigger Splash from 1967 which contrasts the roller-painted water and endless turquoise sky with the time-consuming construction of the white splash of water created supposedly by a figure we cannot see from a diving board that also isn’t moving. It’s an incredible piece that seems to create stillness and movement effortlessly, but the secret is the way Hockney uses different lines of varying lengths to give his work dynamism, and something that you will notice for the rest of the exhibition.

A Lawn Being Sprinkled, David Hockney [1967]

A Lawn Being Sprinkled [1967]

Next to it, is A Lawn Being Sprinkled comprised of hundreds of individually created blades of grass, where Hockney uses length to show depth and distance in the picture. It’s impossible to see on digital recreations or even that well on postcards, but its effect is remarkable, especially against the white sprinkler sprays dotted evenly across the lawn and the flat smoothness of the house and sky. The diagonal white lines of the window denoting reflected light in Peter Getting Out of the Pool [1966] also sit purposefully alongside the crosshatching of the garden chair, the geometric perfection of the window itself and the pool tiles, while being challenged by the swirling pink and white tangles of the pool. There is a real sense of ease and warmth in these works which accounts for their continued popularity especially on a cold dank February day in very troubled times.

Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures), David Hockney [1972]

Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures) [1972]

But Hockney’s fascination with the relationship between people, displayed so well in Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) from 1972 as his ex-boyfriend appears to jealously observe Hockney’s assistant, leads neatly into his late 1960s and 1970s works on couples. The famous Celia Birtwell and Ossie Clark picture that you can normally see in the Tate for free is here, as is a fascinating image of Hockney’s own parents from 1977 that shows a separate togetherness. In almost every image in this room, one person is clearly the master in the relationship, and while Hockney’s mother looks sweetly at the viewer, his father is hunched over and engrossed in a book as if he has better things to do than pose for paintings. We see the same power dynamic in American Collectors [1968] depicting Marcia Weisman in shocking pink as her thin, brown-suited husband stands limply by, mirrored in Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott [1969] as the Met Museum curator dominates the canvas on a plush pink sofa, while his painter boyfriend looks on as if unsure whether he’s coming or going.

One of the most fascinating elements of this exhibition is the chance to see work you don’t normally associate with Hockney’s exuberant coloured paintings. The delicacy of his drawings is almost astonishing after the scale and hit of the work before and Hockney’s light touch in images of Auden or his own self-portrait is really surprising. As I mentioned above it is Hockney’s use of the line that makes these images so interesting, using only a few skilled representative dashes to create personality and in some places it puts you in mind of the later work of Quentin Blake and Raymond Briggs.

Hockney also experimented with collage photography and a room filled with layered photographs which he uses to instil liveliness in the static image, leads neatly into my favourite part of the exhibition, the images of the Grand Canyon and Yorkshire which were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 2012 and took ideas of scale to a new level. The winding mountains and roads you see in his early student work take form here as pathways and valleys sweep through abundant countryside, often in startling luminous colours. Seeing two contrasting landscapes side by side, the red and orange desert of southern America with the lush greens and bursting pale yellow flowers of Yorkshire, is an almost overwhelming immersive experience. Composed of nine individually painted canvases, Grand Canyon is a collision of purples, reds and oranges that suggest the heat and aridity of Arizona, while a related image takes the colour saturation to almost fluorescent levels which again digital or paper copies just cannot replicate, you have to see it.

may-blossom-on-the-roman-road-2009

May Blossom on the Roman Road [2009]

The Yorkshire work from 2006 onwards, when Hockney came home, is for me some of the best of his career and a culmination of everything this exhibition has shown you. Best of all is the two panel Hawthorn Blossom Near Rudston [2008] which shows a red painted road with lines of blue depth that intersects the picture, framed by luscious grass verges and hedges filled with wild flowers and bursting yellow blossom moving in the breeze. The individual lines of grass and dots of flowers and leaves are romantic and calming in equal measure. Nearby, May Blossom on the Roman Road [2009] shows Hockney continuing to play with technique as a van Gogh inspired blue swirling sky meets abstract-formed hedges and abundant foliage. The scale and effect of this work is just glorious.

Some stunning pencil sketches of Yorkshire follow plotting particular spots through the seasons as well as the immersive video of The Four Seasons which mimics the layering of photograph from earlier with a sensitivity to the opportunities of modern technology. Finishing the show are the ipad and iphone creations that Hockney has more recently embraced and despite being an entirely different way of creating art still have his distinct style and voice.

The Tate’s exhibition was always going to be a hit, but even on this opening weekend, it’s clear that it’s been carefully planned to enhance the viewer experience rather than just packing people in. Despite the panic and two days with no online booking, tickets are still readily available and entry, even for those with timed tickets, is controlled in waves to ensure there’s no overcrowding. And it works because you can get close to every piece with very little jostling, and while most people are rushing through to the major works, taking your time means not only do you get the full story but by room 7 of 12 you have plenty of space.

The chronological approach allows you to see Hockney’s life story develop, while observing his experiments with technology and the development of his technique. Not just light, colour and personality but his skilled use of lines throughout his career. So take you time – you can easily spend 90 minutes or more in here – and enjoy it all because this is a spectacular experience that people will be talking about for a long time to come.

David Hockney is at Tate Britain until 29th May, before transferring to Paris and then New York later this year. Entrance is £19.50 or £17.70 without donation and concessions are available.


Making Nature: How We See Animals – Wellcome Collection

making-nature

Beatrix Potter stories, a trio of stuffed foxes frolicking in a faux wood, London Zoo and vial of mouse DNA all have one thing in common, they are projections of the way we see, interact and categorise animals. The Wellcome Collections latest exhibition considers how humans have imposed constructed categorisation on the natural world and, more recently, storified the role of other creatures in our lives. Making Nature: How We See Animals is the first part of a year-long programme on how humans interact with nature. And on the basis of this exhibition the Wellcome is opening up some fascinating debates.

Being top of the food chain and having the ability to consciously reason and control our behaviour is something humans have long seen as separating themselves from and assuring their superiority over other creatures. And despite growing research on the more varied communicative responses and learned behaviours in the animal kingdom, we have long categorised, defined and controlled the world around us. All of this began in earnest, this exhibition argues, in the eighteenth-century when scientists began to classify and rank creatures as international exploration considerably expanded our knowledge of the natural world.

The first section, then, looks at ‘Ordering’, centred around Carl Linneaus’s Systema Naturea published in 1735 which gave the two part Latin descriptions to all creatures that is still in use, and it is his idea of self-realisation that is the focus for this room. As ever with the Wellcome, the exhibition cleverly unites scientific and medical artefacts with art and culture pieces relevant to the period. Pictures borrowed from the V&A include a coloured photograph of the flower Linnaea Borealis from 1864 named after the scientist, and a poster for a ‘bearded-lady’ described as ‘half-human, half-animal’ who became famous for straddling the boundaries of classification.

In terms of scientific pieces, the Wellcome has Linneaus’s 1758 pressed fish specimen which he used in his species description that has been remarkably well preserved for its 250 years. Interestingly, the Wellcome explains that original pieces like this became known as the ‘type’ specimen against which future discoveries are compared and differentiated, so it’s quite interesting to see such a defining piece. And to add further to the idea of classification, Linneaus’s system is put into the context of other forms of ordering the animal kingdom including Charles Bonnet’s 1783 hierarchy that considered the idea of creatures moving up the system as they evolve and become more intelligent.

One curious aspect is how simply these apparently scientific systems sit alongside religious imagery and ideas, so while in the nineteenth-century evolution largely pushed aside the notion of one overall creator, somehow 100 years before the two sat easily side-by-side. So while Linneaus believed in natural theology, in Bonnet’s system, he sees humans progressing into angels, while Gérard Jean Baptiste Scotin II’s etching from Genesis shows Adam naming the animals in the Garden of Eden.

All of this is nicely mixed in with ideas of assumed ‘fake’ creatures like the duckbilled platypus which leads neatly into the second room on how ‘Displaying’ animals adds to the kinds of fiction we have created around the idea of their homes and habitats. This will certainly be an important room for taxidermy fans and as the idea of the diorama took off in the nineteenth-century museums of natural history sought to offer more ‘realistic’ presentations of their specimens in the wild.

As well as a curled-up badger on the floor which you should try not to step on, there is a family of playful foxes in a woodland scene in one of the cases, again mixing the notion of scientific depiction with the artistic and cultural transmission of knowledge to the public which the Wellcome does so well. But while such displays acted as a substitute for seeing the real thing, the exhibition argues that these images have created ‘stereotypes’ based on the ‘qualities and behaviours’ imposed on these animals by their creation which have affected and partially fictionalised our idea of these creatures.

From plans for the original Natural History Museum layout prepared by its first director Richard Owen to its cathedral-like architecture captured by watercolourist Alfred Waterhouse, the Wellcome forces the viewer to think about how the presentation and display of animals has been “designed”. The NHM building itself plays up associations with an overall creator, while Owen specifically rated the creatures by importance and ‘complexity’ from the centre of the museum, and later the dioramas on display in this room attempted to “teach by the eye” whether visitors were looking at a giant dinosaur park at Crystal Palace in the 1860s or humorous presentations of squirrels playing cards.

This bleeds seamlessly in to the next section on zoos and the fame accorded to individual creatures. In ‘Observing’ animals, zoos during the period the exhibition covers have veered between creating pseudo-natural habitats for their creatures to roam around in, and responding to the changing architectural interests of the day. London Zoo’s famous elephant house designed by Hugh Casson in 1964 was created to showcase the animals to the public rather than replicate their “normal” environment. And Casson’s now listed enclosure was in keeping with the brutalist designs of now equally famous culture centres like The National Theatre and the Barbican.

As a extension of this, the exhibition shows how humans project stories onto the existence of particular creatures developing ‘celebrities’ in the animal kingdom and ascribing a meaning and agency to their lives that animals do not experience. There are music sheets for a London Zoo elephant called Jumbo who eventually joined the circus and toys and merchandise celebrating the 1950s chimps tea parties which are the antecedents of ZSL’s popular animal adoption programmes and late night visiting opportunities, encouraging visitors to engage with its inhabitants more closely.

Part of this storification is usefully employed to aid conservation. There are images of bison taken by William Temple Hornaday in the late 1800s who hunted them in order to preserve these endangered creatures in the Smithsonian Institute – clearly not entirely understanding that by killing them, he was adding to their scarcity – while in the final room this idea of preservation has led to scientific experimentation with animal DNA to improve breeds or to solve human problems.

More than anything, this last section forces you to think about the varied and unconstrained power we have over the animal kingdom. From selective dog breeding to overriding natural birdsong by teaching them human tunes, to genetic engineering, redesigning, repurposing and adapting other creatures for human requirements is a fascinating and scary business. Focusing on the collection of the Pittsburg Center for Postnatural History, dedicated to organisms deliberately altered by humans, there are vials containing a ribless mouse embryo, photosensitive E.coli and a frog that can tell if you’re pregnant, sitting alongside selectively bred examples of King Charles spaniels, budgies and pigeons. The Wellcome makes no judgement on whether you think this is right or not, but while we all know it happens, seeing it so starkly gives you a lot to think about on the way home.

Arguable then, we don’t see animals clearly and in their own right, but as part of a socially constructed system of classification that for at least 300 years has influenced our mastery and dominance of nature. Seeing them as something less than us means we have cutesified their lives adding rationality and purpose they do not experience, and our continual dominance on the planet rests in modifying and adapting their genetic make-up to improve our own lifespan. The Wellcome’s new exhibition is a fascinating insight into our relationship with nature, beginning what promises to be an important year of complex debates.

Making Nature: How We See Animals is at the Wellcome Collection until 21 May 2017 and entrance is free. Galleries are closed on Mondays. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Art – Old Vic

art-old-vic

Modern art can still be incredibly controversial and more often than not the annual Turner prize nominees raise more than a few eyebrows. In some ways little has changed since Yasmin Reza’s play Art was first premiered in the West End over 20 years ago with debates still raging between those who prefer classical to contemporary art. Can a giant sculpture of a bottom be art; what about a brick, an unmade bed or, in the case of Serge in this play, a white painting crossed with thin white lines? And would you really be prepared to lose friends over your taste in art?

The Old Vic’s revival of Art should feel very timely then – a discussion that never goes out of fashion – but there’s something about this 90 minute play, though interesting and well performed, that never seems to get beyond its own surface engagement with the issues it tries to debate. There are two key themes that it considers; the questions about art and taste that divide the three friends in this story, and a second strand on the nature of (particularly) male friendships and whether longevity alone is a good enough reason for sustaining them.

At the start of the play, Serge has purchased a large entirely white canvas for a considerable sum which he shows to his friend Marc, an intellectual with a preference for the Dutch Masters who baulks at the stupidity of Serge’s decision. With their friendship now under strain, they both appeal to mutual friend Yvan, a people pleaser in the midst of stressful wedding plans, who is caught between them. Over the course of several meetings, the discussions about the painting reveal deep rifts in their friendship which may end their association for good.

A lot of people really love this play and during its extended eight year run in the early 2000s it attracted a large number of comedians in its frequently rotating cast, including The League of Gentlemen, Jack Dee and Frank Skinner, as well as established actors. Mixing the two, as the Old Vic does here, actually accentuates the slightly shallow story while not quite resolving the serious introspection vs slapstick tone, which draws quite a distinct line between the times experienced thespians Paul Ritter and Rufus Sewell are on stage alone, and the scenes that utilise Tim Key’s comic talents.

And while it skirts a number of intellectual questions it doesn’t really delve beneath the surface of its characters and their traits in any meaningful way. Characterisation on the page is rather thin; who these people are, the nature of their relationship to each other and any sense that they genuinely exist outside the rooms of this play, despite repeated references to partners, seems brittle and unlikely. It feels in many ways like it starts a conversation that it doesn’t finish which can be a bit frustrating to watch and this production focuses on getting the laugh – which it frequently does – rather than on anything more meaningful.

Yet, in this case, as in many previous versions, it is the strength of the performances that carries you along. Rufus Sewell rarely disappoints, here adding much needed gravitas to the tricky role of Serge – a man who has purchased a controversial painting at great expense and initially at least is surprised by his friends’ lack of acceptance. Sewell is very good at keeping the audience mostly on his side, and while Serge is an arrogant bachelor living a pretty comfortable existence, able to make elaborate purchases on a whim, Sewell makes him seem reasonable, calm and appealing – although this will depend on your views on modern art I suppose.

Likewise Paul Ritter’s Marc has an entrenched academic flavour, a man who has spent years committed to his way of thinking and enraged by the idiocy of his friend. Marc expresses his rage more visibly that Serge, and while occasionally petty, feels genuinely affected by the cracks in their friendship which reveal he is not the person he thought he was. Much of Marc’s self-worth is invested in the role of “intellectual” he feels he has played amongst his friends, particularly with Serge, and seeing him make a rash choice so far from a purchase Marc would have made is demoralising and eye-opening for him.  Again this is hinted at in the text but Ritter gives a much fuller life to it than the character suggests.

Tim Key, as the only professional comedian in the group, takes a slightly different approach, naturally playing up the humour of the luckless middle-man whose chaotic personal life takes precedence over his friend’s minor wrangles about a painting. Yvan is easily swayed however and initially is talked into his opinion, agreeing with whoever he is with and it is only when the three come together for the only time in the play that his people-pleasing is put under pressure. Given his background, Key’s approach is more sitcom-like so the balance with the straighter approach of the other two actors isn’t always quite right and although he understandably has less stagecraft – with one previous play to his credit –  there are a lot of fans in the audience who enjoy every minute.

Looking back on previous versions of this play some commenters have noted that what you get out of Art will depend considerably on the cast and while that’s probably true of most theatre, that feels particularly relevant here. The Old Vic’s version is pitched somewhere between serious drama and sitcom which somewhat blunts any deeper points the production is trying to make. More than ever it really felt like a product of its time – that late 90s period of Damien Hirst conceptual art, shamelessly wealthy individuals and conspicuous consumption – that just doesn’t seem real in quite the same way anymore. London has changed so much since this play was first premiered with international investment being more prominent, so while art is still being brought and sold the shamefacedness of it is less obvious. Perhaps the slight feeling of disassociation this production creates comes from the fact the play just doesn’t resonate in our more austere and ecological times?

Matthew Warchus – who directed the original London run – keeps things moving swiftly in the mere 90 minute uninterrupted runtime and Christopher Hampton’s translation has lots of funny moment, while Mark Thompson’s set flexibly creates two, rather fancy, apartments with only a lighting change and a swivelling wall revealing that we’re in Marc’s home rather than Serge’s although it’s not clear that we’re in Paris particularly. Like art itself your response to this play may be very different to mine – there are people who love it and tomorrow’s press night will be particularly interesting. While it could say much more about the approach to modern art and the competitive nature of male friendships, the chance to see Ritter and particularly the ever-excellent Sewell keeps you watching.

Art is at the Old Vic until 18 February and has an age appropriate rating of 12 years+. Tickets start from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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