Tag Archives: Barbican

Basquiat: Boom for Real – Barbican

Basquiat at the Barbican

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basquiat, Barbican

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

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

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

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Obsession – The Barbican

Obsession - The Barbican

We’re in an age of the super-star theatre director, where their name alone will not only sell plenty of tickets – even before you factor in any well-known actors – but is also a hallmark of style. There have always been famous directors of course but with a high turnover of shows in London’s big venues, the existence of dedicated companies with a lead director who work together repeatedly is only now coming back into fashion. Kenneth Branagh’s 10-month residence at the Garrick was a significant success, while Robert Icke at The Almeida and Jamie Lloyd at the Trafalgar Studios work repeatedly with the same cast and crew, forming an unofficial company of sorts.

Perhaps the biggest name in London theatre right now is Ivo van Hove whose Toneelgroep Amsterdam company has regular seasons at the Barbican, while van Hove wetted the appetite of London theatre goers with his extraordinary interpretations of A View From the Bridge and this year’s Hedda Gabler at The National Theatre working primarily with British actors. It was only a matter of time then before his European and British interests would meet, and the result is Obsession which unites Toneelgroep with three British actors including Jude Law.

As a director, van Hove is renowned for the physical sparsity of his staging which allows the emotional life of the characters to emerge uncluttered. For an audience, this approach is often uncomfortable but entirely consuming, watching helplessly as stories hurtle to unstoppable conclusions, while the tragic flaws of the central character are writ large. With nothing to distract you, van Hove turns characters inside out so we can see what drives them, and ultimately what destroys them – it’s a powerful technique that is always emotionally shocking but transforms well-worn plays into something fresh, relevant and timeless.

Obsession has quite vast cultural roots and van Hove’s new production is based on the 1943 film (Ossessione) by Luchino Visconti, which was itself based on James M Cain’s 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, a title you may recognise from two subsequent American films of the same name, one with Lana Turner in 1946 and another with Jack Nicholson in 1981. This version is firmly based on and credits the Italian interpretation but follows the same central story: Former solider and now drifter Gino arrives at the roadside bar owned by Joseph and his much younger wife Hanna. Initially suspicious, Joseph chases Gino away but an instant attraction to Hanna makes him linger. Within days he’s indispensable to them both, but Hanna wants out of her marriage and the adulterous lovers take a murderous path. But will it bring the right kind of freedom to either of them?

The first thing you’ll notice about van Hove’s production is the cavernous space on stage filled with only a few pieces of scenery. Designed by regular collaborator Jan Versweyveld, this modern set has only a bar, bath, back window and door, and a giant engine representing the truck Joseph is trying to fix. The Barbican stage is already sizeable, but the emptiness of it gives it a giant garage-like feel entirely devoid of emotion, and not the warm, loving home Hanna desires. And Jan Peter Gerrits, who has adapted the film, wastes no time in introducing Gino and getting the lovers together within minutes of the play starting. With only 1hr 45 minutes and no interval, the writing is slick and spare, delivering only what we need to understand the plot and what characters feel at any given moment.

For anyone who has waited to see Jude Law play the harmonica then this is the play for you, heralding Gino’s arrival, a symbol of his freedom and wanderer status. His lust for Hanna is instantly clear and the two circle each other briefly before succumbing to their passionate connection. But this is only the start of the story for Gino, and Law creates a complicated figure, drawn to the security and camaraderie of fellow veteran Joseph, but unable to contain his overbearing feelings for Hanna. The power struggle between them becomes hugely significant in the rest of the play, and while their desire is mutual, control is something that Hanna seems to gain as Gino loses.

Most interesting is the second half of the performance in which Law gets to explore the consequences of their actions, and it is here that he unpacks ideas of guilt and regret which take the audience deeper into his mind. His former army service make him dangerous and several violent eruptions are sudden and shocking, adding an edge to his interactions with Hanna, but Law makes it clear this is all part of his sense of containment – caused by his affair with Hanna – that make him unable to flee from his actions or himself.

Like van Hove’s recent Hedda Gabler, Gino longs for the freedom of the life he knew before, but is equally unable to walk away despite several attempts. His chance meeting with fellow drifter Johnny offers companionship and chance to join the navy, while a need to confess his actions much later in the play to dancer Anita give him a freedom from the burden of carrying his remorse which Law uses skilfully to show us that the extent of Gino’s suffocation is both physical and emotional. There is a slightly heightened style to the production which takes some getting used to, but Law fits seamlessly into the existing Toneelgroep Amsterdam company, holding his own but never allowing his movie star status to pull focus, which is no easy task and admirably achieved.

His counterpart Halina Reijn as Hanna is the stronger part of the couple and more easily able to accept her actions, seemingly without remorse. Driven entirely by her passion for Gino, something she fights hard for and fervently clings to, Hanna is as enthusiastic an adulteress as she is cold and calculating in the manipulation of the men around her. What saves her from being a classic femme fatale is the lack of self-awareness that Reijn gives her, and while she does terrible things, they are almost guileless and driven solely by love rather than money or power.

Yet Hanna has a touch of Lady Macbeth about her, able to better control her public face than Gino who finds it harder to reconcile their actions. Reijn’s Hanna sees a clear line from wanting something and taking it to enjoying the spoils. To her the plan was devised so she and Gino could be happy, and cannot comprehend his moodiness and distance after the fact. She seems more the villainess than Gino perhaps but she feels liberated by their actions while he is imprisoned by them.

As the cuckolded husband Joseph, Gijs Scholten van Aschat is nicely ambiguous, neither entirely likeable or objectionable, leaving just enough room for the audience to pity him, casting doubt on Hanna’s motives. Fine support is given by Chukwudi Iwuji in the dual role of priest and inspector adding the moral and legal perspective on the central relationship, while Robert de Hoog and Aysha Kala have brief roles as drifter Johnny and dancer Anita.

van Hove’s production is almost a continuous stream of consciousness as scenes slide into one another with nothing more than an intake of breath to indicate a change of time, day or even venue. Key decisions or moments are underscored by Tal Yarden’s video projected across the walls, showing the intimacy between Gino and Hanna which helps to counteract the size of the stage, but also reflects the play’s origins in Visconti’s film. Frequently characters try fruitlessly to run away from the bar on a treadmill (which looks a bit ridiculous) but their scared and desperate faces are projected around the stage ensuring in that second the whole room is filled with the characters’ inner life.

Obsession’s slightly heightened reality, reflected in the acting style, may not suit all tastes and there’s something in the central characters that keeps the audience slightly distanced from them – you’re drawn in enough to feel the intensity of their relationship but kept back sufficiently to judge their behaviour as that passion curdles into something more destructive. So, while this is gripping and innovative it doesn’t quite have the power of A View From the Bridge or Hedda Gabler, you leave Obsession with lots to think about but not shaken to the core and needing a lie down.

Similarly, the influence of film and simpler theatre styles is still difficult for those used to the more traditional productions that still dominate the West End, so it will be interesting to see what will certainly be a range of differing reactions to Obsession after tomorrow’s press night. Nonetheless, with official and unofficial theatre companies becoming more prevalent, Ivo van Hove’s attempts to create closer collaboration and integration between British and European theatre approaches is to be welcomed, and his integration of stylised techniques, along with a very decent turn from Law, make Obsession’s tale of a destructive love affair compelling viewing.

Obsession is at the Barbican until 20 May and tickets start at £16 and an NT Live cinema screening is scheduled for 11 May. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Cymbeline – RSC at the Barbican

cymbeline-royal-shakespeare-company

Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s most derided plays, coming quite late in his career (1609) and offering a top-heavy mish-mash of subplots that are never satisfactorily resolved. In some ways it’s like a greatest hits album of his most recognisable plots and techniques cherry-picked from his earlier successes, but thrown together in a bag and shaken about to form another story entirely, one that unfortunately is far less than the sum of its parts.

There’s some star-crossed lovers right out of Romeo and Juliet (1594-5), a maligned female reputation which questions her virtue like Much Ado About Nothing (1598-9), a warrior King who struggles to trust his children (King Lear, 1605-6), some lost siblings and a chance for some female-to-male disguise like Twelfth Night (1599-1600) and people escaping into the magical woods where they meet some common folk as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595-6). By the time he wrote Cymbeline, Shakespeare clearly knew what his audience enjoyed but the jumbling-up of stories with very little poetry is one of his more lacklustre and dense efforts.

Although rarely performed, London has welcomed two major productions in a matter of months; The Globe’s modern reinterpretation which has set the seal on Emma Rice’s tenure as Artistic Director, and the RSC dystopian production which arrived in London at the end of October for a two month run and recasts the titular King as a Queen. Cymbeline is the not-so-straightforward story of an ancient British princess called Innogen who has married her lover Posthumus against the wishes of her mother Cymbeline who then banishes Posthumus to Rome. Here, he enters into a bet with Roman, Iachimo ,who tricks him into believing Innogen has betrayed him.

Meanwhile, Cymbeline is guarding the throne from internal plotters while facing a possible Roman invasion. Meanwhile out in the woods, her two lost children are being raised by a woodsman unaware of their royal status. As Innogen is accused by her husband, she decides to dress as a man and sets off in search him, leaving the three sets of characters to mix at a volatile time for Britain.

The RSC’s production is a pretty mixed affair and in many ways it makes a fairly decent job of envisaging what is a poorly constructed play with relatively little character depth. It starts off really well and the first half rattles along quite efficiently and with a decent amount of tension as the drama of Iachimo’s attempts to upset Innogen’s marriage creates plenty of intrigue and villainy. If you’ve seen enough of the Shakespeare plays listed above then you’ll pretty much know where all of this is going but its credit to Melly Still’s direction that you remain engaged and entertained nonetheless.

Much of this is due to Oliver Johnstone’s performance as Iachimo who manages to avoid becoming a finger-drumming panto villain as he develops and executes his plan to smear Innogen’s reputation. When he meets Posthumus in Rome he is every bit the swarve Italian, impeccably dressed and coiffured, and casually bantering with his attendants. Confident he can seduce Innogen before he meets her, he is pleasantly surprised to find her beautiful but also intellectually his equal, and you sense in Johnstone’s performance that Iachimo begins to fall for her, eager to fulfil the bet and keep her for himself. It adds unusual depth to the scenes between them and like Kinnear’s Iago at the National a few years back you might will him to succeed.

One reason for this is the less successful relationship between Innogen and Posthumus upon which much of the play hinges, and here the company fail to really sell this at the start so the audience never quite believes in their passion for one another. Hiran Abeysekera’s Posthumus is an underwhelming presence, never seemingly a physical or intellectual match for Bethan Cullinane’s Innogen, and so easily led during his exile that it’s difficult for an audience to generate any sympathy for the lovers which fatally undermines the dynamic and drive of the play.

By contrast Cullinane makes for a modern and intriguing heroine, determinedly knowing her own mind and, despite being heir, she is happy to go against her parent’s wishes. The teasing relationship Cullinane’s Innogen develops with Johnstone has considerably more depth than the flatter romance with her husband which adds considerably to the tension in the attempted seduction scene giving it a ‘will they, won’t they’ momentum. But throughout Cullinane balances the emotional introspection as Innogen contemplates life without her lover, with the anger and frustration created by being wrongly accused.

Among the rest of the cast there is a mixture of ability, ranging from those who speak the verse very naturally to those who struggle to find its rhythm, and none of this is helped by the characterisation which often lacks depth – although this is Shakespeare’s own fault. And there are some problems with projection which make it difficult to hear even at the back of the stalls so it’s probably considerably worse in the balcony.

To say it’s difficult to care is an understatement, and even a fair amount of gender-switching which works perfectly well, isn’t used to any particularly effect. Gillian Bevan makes a good fist as warrior queen Cymbeline but spends most of the production stomping around in Ugg boots and a dressing gown, while her second husband, the evil Duke, is given a nice platform by James Clyde but somehow the machinations to overthrow the monarch are never clearly articulated in this production, especially in the first half where the romance takes precedence.

Even Anna Fleischle’s visuals are a little inconsistent which adds to the confusion; The British court seems somewhere between a post-revolution dystopia and a steampunk fantasy world. The walls are covered in graffiti and the place looks quite beaten up, and the costumes suggest a court fallen from its previous glory, including a ragged denim outfit worn by Innogen whose ruffles and puffs are tattered and torn, while the Queen struts around in her nightie. Simultaneous scenes in the woods borrow from the Lost Boys while Rome is firmly set in the 1980s with a Miami Vice look that celebrates slicked back hair and blazers.

It’s actually all a bit confused which makes it much harder to place, raising considerably more questions than it answers – why is Britain in a post-holocaust state and not Rome, what possible major even could have decimated one country without affecting a reasonably near neighbour? It would be perfectly sensible if Britain was pre-civilisation and Rome was on its way as a conqueror but it’s clearly meant to be after some kind of war-like disaster so the reason for this difference is a little vague.

And towards the end as much of the action decamps to the forest the whole things gets a bit Peter Pan with vine trails and hideaways that undermine the danger of a fragile community fending off attempted regicide and succession issues, and starts to feel more like a cheery frolic as families are reunited and political issues resolved. Towards the end, after nearly 3½ hours the whole thing starts to feel very laboured as all the threats dry up and the tension created by Iachimo’s villainous plans splutters to a weak conclusion.

Again much of this is Shakespeare’s fault because Cymbeline is a hotchpotch of half realised plots and poorly delineated characters. Initially the RSC’s production manages to paper over some of the cracks with a show that starts strong, with some very good performances that add layers to the characters, as well as an intriguing vision of a society in decline. Yet, this production feels sluggish and unconvincing in the second half as the plot becomes rather flabby and the tone shifts from political intrigue to fantasy adventure romp which all feels rather thinly conceived. A decent effort by the RSC but it’s not going to salvage Cymbeline’s reputation as a play or have you hurrying to see the play again in the future.

Cymbeline is at the Barbican until 17th December. Tickets start at £10 with concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1  


The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined – The Barbican

vulgar

Taste is a very personal thing, something we use to assess our attitudes to the outside world, to determine whether something is decent, appropriate or aesthetically pleasing. But, our tastes can also be used against us, to define what we kind of person we are and the effectiveness of our judgement. To have good taste is not just about individual satisfaction but it sends an outward signal to the world about who we are – one key element of taste is a sense of collective agreement, having others to reinforce your ideas. With this in mind the Barbican has opened an exhibition it claims celebrates the antithesis of taste, vulgarity.

Having now seen the exhibition, I have to admit to being to being rather perplexed by the use of the word “vulgar” in association with the exhibits and arguments on display here. It opens with a determination to reclaim the word and return it to its earlier associations where it meant commonplace or vernacular, and a determination to show how fashion ‘revels in, exploits and ultimately overturns the prevailing limits of taste.’ There is very little here that, to my mind, fits our notion of the word vulgar which, aside from its original meaning, now has a prevailing association with the coarse, crass and crude.

While I see what the Barbican is trying to do, it seems the word vulgar was chosen more for its intriguing appeal on a poster than for its actual and clearly defined application to the exhibits and themes of this exhibition. It may get people through the door but the concept feels over-intellectualised which for all its reasoning and the explanatory text by psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, just doesn’t make sense in the context of what you see. Instead, what this show is about are the perhaps less attention grabbing concepts of populism and fashionability, exploring the line between societal changes and clothing, and whether fashion creates or reflects new modes of living, particularly when dealing with the outrageous or unconventional.

A centrepiece on the Ground Floor is a large collection of dresses from or inspired by the eighteenth-century fashion for large hooped skirts, ruffles and shaped bodices that transformed the female form by extending the hips, flattening the bosom and slimming the waist to almost unnatural proportions. The argument here is that etiquette books offered young women a modest and genteel guide to dressing appropriately suggesting that extravagance in size and adornment of dress was the antithesis of good breeding and elegance. Yet, these are quotes from the late nineteenth-century guides while the pieces on display are clearly eighteenth-century, more than 100 years before when the way taste and fortune were displayed was quite different.

Those considered to be leaders of ‘polite society’ such as the famous Duchess of Devonshire and the Whig crowd, certainly took fashionable interpretation to excess with enormous expensive dresses and unmanageably tall wigs that often represented their political allegiances, and what this exhibition doesn’t tell you is the fame and recognition that excess created was used to promote interests in politics, science and patronise the arts. By the definitions of this exhibition and guides from a century later, these people were ‘vulgar’. But the historical record doesn’t really back this up. In fact while the extravagance of “The Ton” – the nickname for the Duchess and her cronies – was gently mocked in the press, their influence on fashion, concepts of taste and modes of living among those considered ‘well-bred’ was more celebrated than derided. And the purpose of such styles was to display their wealth and influence.

It created a trickle-down effect through society that only suggests vulgarity in the old-fashioned sense – the popularisation of something that was once the preserve of an elite. And as this room goes on to show, the effect of that influence continues to resonate in fashion today with stunning modern pieces by John Galliano, Gucci and Vivienne Westwood who have frequently drawn on the eighteenth-century shapes and fabrics for inspiration. Sitting alongside some beautifully embellished wide-hipped ‘Mantua’ originals, Westwood created a spectacular jade green full-skirted Watteau dress with black trim inspired by the era. You can’t wear it to Tesco but it’s hardly vulgar in either sense, haute couture is certainly not populist nor can the artistry, detail and beauty of it be considered coarse or crude.

Rather than shoe-horning these clothes into a pre-set definition of vulgarity and taste – labels which of themselves change over time – adding more historical context can explain a great deal about why particular fashions and preferences for excess or simplicity emerged, based on the social, political, economic and cultural experience of the era as well as how they were used by individuals to create personal influence. And that is something clearly missing from this show.

One of the issues here is that most of the clothes on display are specifically avant-garde or haute couture where there is an argument that they are created as pieces of art, not intended to be widely worn, self-selected for this exhibition by virtue of their outrageousness, and thus not representative of “fashion” in the sense of a ready-to-wear designer collection or a high-street off-the-peg offering. And while some exhibits represent those categories, the distinction (ie. the purpose of creating that specific item), is not made clear enough, never mind whether it can be classed as vulgar or not (in whatever sense).

If you take away the entire structure of this exhibition, you’re left with a collection of interesting and eclectic items which are actually nice to see. Borrowing from Pop Art influences there is a Moschino evening gown that looks like it’s made from sweet wrappers, while sitting next to it a short yellow number is also printed with packaging images, while a paper dress from the 60s has a pattern of Campbell’s soup adverts (which you can also see in the V&A’s Records and Rebels show). These, as I suggest above, showcase the intersection of design and populist influences from the fun movements of the times, but are arguably not created to be widely worn.

Similarly the show opens with some beautiful Grecian inspired dresses which the blurb rather pretentiously interprets as ‘the imitation of classical culture… reimagined in a vernacular tongue’, as well as later displaying some puritan lace collars and seventeenth-century stomachers that defy the label of vulgarity. Like the eighteenth century clothes this suggest an ongoing interest in the way in which draping, cut and shape can create a fluidity around the body that again reflects the political attitudes to femininity in the era they were created rather than a mere vulgarisation of ancient styles.

And then there’s the outfits that are truly avant-garde, created as part of a wider collection and never seriously intended to be worn. In a section on royalty entitled ‘impossible ambition’ there are Dior outfits inspired by the short-like pantaloons and ermine trimmed jacket worn by Henry VIII in his famous Holbein portrait, as well as a Viktor and Rolf flared red dress with accompanying wheat and flowers headpiece inspired by Van Gogh in a section on ‘Too Big’, while a Walter van Beirendonck elephant skirt is reminiscent of those emu costumes with fake legs that 70s comedians used to wear at the Royal Variety Performance. Yet, none of this is vulgar; silly yes, playful certainly, but vulgar not really.

For the most part, the Barbican delivers excellent value with its art and photography exhibitions which are usually smart and informative without being pompous, and I think that is the problem here – the intellectualising in the written descriptions is just a bit too pleased with itself, a tad smug. This attempt to unpack the concepts of taste and vulgarity could have been achieved more simply and in a way that matched the outfits chosen with the historical, social and cultural context of their creation. So go for the clothes, enjoy the chance to see detailed craftsmanship, artistry and glamour of designer work, but don’t worry about the concept – it doesn’t make any sense anyway.

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined is at the Barbican until 5 February 2017. Tickets cost £14.50 and there are concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1   


Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers – Barbican

Bruce Davidson - Hastings

Who are we and what have we been? This is the key question that photographer Martin Parr examines in the Barbican’s astonishing new exhibition which Parr has curated, of international photographer’s perspectives on Britain since the 1930s. What it means to be British and how the challenges of the twentieth-century shaped who we are has troubled historians for a long time, with cultural outlets recently beginning to catch-up presenting insightful exhibitions such as the Tate’s Artist and Empire show and Parr’s own exhibition at the Science Museum last year. But is how we see ourselves the same as how others see us? The answer is yes and no, and while the images displayed here are unarguably British, they show far more reality than our own nostalgic view of the last seven decades.

Our perspective of these years is a blur of pop culture images, heavyweight political stories and romanticised projections, a ‘Downton Abbey’ view of a history that never was. From the smiley victory rolled women of the 1940s to the mini-skirted dollies of the 60s and on to the power-suited greed of the 80s, our view is highly focused on metropolitan areas, especially London, and coloured by fashions, celebrity and periods of supposed societal ‘change’. But this is far from the Britain that the vast majority of people actually lived in and one of the most fascinating aspects of this exhibition is just how domestically unchanging Britain appears to be.

Through the eyes of over 20 external observers, we are a land of work and predominately working class people, of decaying buildings, unresolved industrial decline and poverty, but never of hopelessness judging by the number of happy looking scamps playing in the streets or people having a lovely night in the pub. There are the obligatory shots of bowler-hatted financiers and 60s youth enjoying rock concerts, but most overwhelmingly Britain is a place of Sunday football in the local field, of coal miners enjoying their tea, of seaside holidays and, unfortunately for all the republicans out there, of enthusiasm for the Royal Family, as flag-waving patriots hold street parties in honour of coronations, jubilees and royal weddings or happily sit among the detritus of London streets to catch the action first hand. Interestingly the middle and upper classes barely get a look in, this is a Britain of ordinary people living ordinary lives, battling in that charmingly stoical British way.

The abiding image of the exhibition is by American Bruce Davidson of two old people, sitting in their Sunday best in deckchairs on the beach at Hastings, drinking tea from a cup and saucer. Like Parr’s own work there is wry humour to this scene but also a clear human story of the obviously long-married couple at its heart braving the weather. It is so familiar an image yet seems long ago – who now would take an actual cup and saucer to the beach – but somehow this picture seems to epitomise everything we think about ourselves and interesting to see that it accords with how others also see us.  As a long-term London resident it’s also hard not to be drawn to the shots of the capital including Chilean Sergio Larrain’s beautiful tube escalator at Baker Street station shining up to the sky as well behaved commuters stand on the right and the man in the centre close to the camera gives it an inviting perspective (1958-59), or the wonderfully humorous image of a quirky old lady sitting on the shoulders of two upright gentlemen in Trafalgar Square as she tries to catch the Coronation of George VI in 1937 pictured by Frenchman Henri Cartier-Bresson.

And it is these ordinary folk that make this exhibition so enriching and combining so many images from across the UK it is clear we have never adequately resolved the problem of industrialisation. Edith Tudor-Hart’s dramatic 1930s portrait of the tiny backyard of a slum dwelling in which a mother and her six children are crammed into one half, divided by a small washing line, while surrounded by broken chairs and rubble on the high walls. Similarly she recorded a dramatic picture of a group of children having ultra-violet light treatment, presumably for skin conditions, that this collection implies are the result of living conditions. Bruce Davidson picks up this theme in the 1960s in Wales as factory towers emit smoke into the greyed countryside as a white-dressed bride picks her way across the field to be married, or a small bespectacled boy pushes his teddy and doll in a pram as the entire background is swallowed up in industrial smog. These images remind us that not only were so many places reliant on the industries like mining that have left social decay behind them, but were themselves a double-edged sword that brought tough urban living conditions for many that have barely improved since.

One of the most pleasing aspects of this show is how multiracial Britain appears through the eyes of these photographers. Cas Oorthuys from The Netherlands took a series of pictures of Oxford in the 1960s including one of a two black students in their gowns and what is presumably their friend on his bike. Frank Habicht’s picture of Vanessa Redgrave carrying a peace protest banner in 1968 and fellow German Candida Hofer’s shots of turbaned schoolboys in Liverpool also help to reinforce this sense of Britain as a more multicultural society than is often depicted and it’s worth looking at the crowds in many pictures to see this long-existent diversity.

Some of the more recent work on the ground floor of the exhibition adds to the regional, and at times highly politicised, feel of the exhibition including Japanese photographer Akihiko Okamura’s shots of Northern Ireland which give a sense of the effect of war in the1970s on the people living there including two dressed-up children at a street shrine with a backdrop of destruction in a terraced street, and various victory celebrations in Londonderry. Axel Hütte’s images of decaying tower blocks have a similar effect actually making you think about the lives they contain, and the unfulfilled hope of elaborate names like ‘Hamlet Court’.

But it’s not all doom laden stuff and American Jim Dow’s shop-window images benefit from improvements in photography that tap into our nostalgia for the corner shop, including the bountiful Scarborough sweet shop, a takeaway in Leicester and a wallpaper shop in Leytonstone all of which leap out at you. The move to digital images is captured brilliantly by Bruce Gilden’s stark and brutal portraits that end the show, of faces he captured around the country. Five intimidating faces glare down at you with very little background and instead you see every line and vein. These are not flattering shots by any means, almost grotesques in fact, as you see the bursting redness of alcoholism on ‘Peter’s’ nose, and the re-growing hairs on the eyebrows, upper lip and chin of the painted Essex women. But they’re not images to laugh at and somehow you can see the despair and hardship in their eyes which tells you that maybe nothing much has changed since the time of Tudor-Hart’s slum children. The fashions come and go, but the problems remain the same.

Strange and Familiar is an extraordinary exhibition that forces us to really think about who we are. As you walk through the decades and see Britain through the eyes of other people it certainly makes you think about how much has really changed. Each ages had its own concept of modernity but what is so clear in this exhibition is that only applied to a select few. There is a timelessness to it; outside of London, daily life hasn’t altered all that much, Britain is still decaying but life goes on. Most importantly, Britons still try to have a good time – we get dressed up, have a drink at the pub with our friends or a cup of tea and just get on with it. Unflattering it may be at times, but the perspective of these twenty-odd international photographers, under Martin Parr’s skilled curation, shows us that whatever happened to Britain in the last 70 years, life goes on.

Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers is at the Barbican until 19 June. Tickets are £12 with concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


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