The Kahlo Cult: ‘Frida Kahlo – Making Herself Up’ at the V&A

That the V&A’s Frida Kahlo exhibition is fully booked until the end of August says a lot about her iconic status today – and it’s not her paintings that people flock to see but the “iconography” of Frida: her clothes, her painted plaster corsets, her jewellery and her ephemera. Her striking countenance with its distinctive “mono brow” is as recognisable today as the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile.

She was of course a remarkable woman. Strong and courageous, passionate, independent and talented, she refused to allow her physical limitations and disabilities – the result of childhood polio compounded by a horrific road accident when she was a young woman – hold her back. She started painting, from her bed, when she was recuperating from the accident and continued to paint throughout her life. Her art is honest, sometimes painfully so, compelling, vibrant and defiant. She celebrates Mexico’s culture and landscape in her paintings and uses the self-portrait to comment on her personal situation – emotionally and physically. She was married to A Great Artist, Diego Rivera, living in a house which enabled them to work in their own personal creative spaces and yet come together for all the little rituals of daily life and love, and she sought to create her own artistic identity that was separate from Rivera’s. Today she is better known than he is as an artist – and more highly revered.

The V&A’s exhibition seeks to celebrate the life of Frida Kahlo through a remarkable collection of personal artefacts, intimate belongings and clothing. Locked away for 50 years after her death, on her instructions, this collection has never before been exhibited outside Mexico. There is very little art in this show – only a handful of paintings and drawings which are directly related to the artefacts on display. This exhibition is about Frida the woman rather than Frida the artist and her remarkable creativity feels sidelined.

Photographs line the walls of the exhibition, including the beautiful iconic portraits of Frida by Nicholas Murray (with whom she had an affair) and Imogen Cunningham, which now grace tote bags and scarves galore in gallery gift shops and beyond, while the rest of the exhibition space is taken up with glass cabinets of Frida’s possessions. There is a touching display of her make up and perfume bottles, but I could have done without another cabinet full of empty medicine phials and details of the drugs she took for pain relief. In another her prosthetic leg is displayed with all the reverence of a holy relic – and her plaster corsets and body braces, which she had to wear to support her fragile spine, are given equal veneration, almost ghoulishly so. Visitors crowd around these highly intimate items, speaking in hushed tones…

The highlight of the exhibition is the display of her colourful clothes. She favoured the traditional clothing of the indigenous people of Mexico, in particular the long flounced dresses of the Tehuana women. This was not because she was making some kind of deliberate Grayson Perry type statement about her identity (as suggested by the exhibition’s tag line – “Making Herself Up“), but for more practical and prosaic reasons: the long, flounced skirts covered her legs, one of which was thinner than the other due to polio, and could be worn comfortably when she was forced to use a wheelchair; while the square-cut tunic (Huipil) fit loosely over the special orthopaedic corsets and back braces she had to wear.

Throughout her life, Frida Kahlo wanted to be recognised as an artist in her own right, not as the wife of Diego Rivera. She did not seek to create her own personal “brand” or iconography through her clothes, shawls, jewellery and hair decorations; nor did she capitalise on her suffering to draw attention to herself and her art. Yet the V&A exhibition dwells inordinately on her pain, including the use of a strange febrile soundtrack – a claustrophobic, migraine inducing single-note hum – which plays continuously throughout the galleries (must everything be accompanied by a soundtrack these days?). With her art relegated to second place, this exhibition presents Frida Kahlo as fashion icon first and foremost, and as such I found it cultish and subjective.

Needless to say, the exhibition gift shop is stuffed with Frida memorabilia and spin offs, from tasseled earrings to tin votives, and more…. The cult status of Frida shows no sign of diminishing.

FW


Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up continues at the Victoria & Albert Museum until 4 November 2018.

 

(Header image: Frida Kahlo photographed by Nicholas Murray)

LOST HISTORY RECLAIMED: William Kentridge’s ‘The Head and the Load’

The first shot of World War I was fired in present-day Togo, in Africa. Did you know that? Nor did I. We know the name of the man who fired it – Sergeant-Major Alhaji Grunshi, who was part of the British West Africa Frontier Force, fighting in what was at that time a German colony. Maybe a million Africans served under the British in World War I, and maybe 350,000 under the Germans, but we know hardly any of their names at all. They were carriers and porters for the most part, as un-individualized and to those they worked for, as easily replaceable as the mules and horses they worked alongside.

This is the starting point for William Kentridge’s ‘The Head and the Load,’ a simply astounding piece of work that mixes his art with shadow-play, defunct documentation, African dance, early jazz, Dada-ist insanity and historical fact; plus the bodies and voices of an ensemble team of musicians, singers and dancers. At Tate Modern, the gloomy length of the stage gave it something of the feel of a mystery play as well – one moment, one image, succeeding the last in a manner that suggested the ticking-past of images on some lost newsreel of ghosts. ‘The head and the load are the troubles of the neck’, goes the African proverb that gives this piece its title; you might substitute ‘The white man and his wars are the troubles of the African.’

Kentridge was born in South Africa, white and Jewish, which placed him in the position of outsider, of observer, from the start. His spiky, graphic style takes genres apart. Is what you are looking at print-making, or an image in evolution into something else? Is it a print, at all, or is it an arrested animation? Also, Kentridge hates white paper. His images are made on newsprint, old textbook pages, out-of-date maps. In this show his spiky marking become the bodies of the Africans herded out of Africa and, shipped across Europe to end up in the battlefields of Belgium and France; background to the dancers acting out their suffering, the speeches demanding emancipation from those who returned home, the primitive technology that tried to literally shut them up and mow them down. I can’t imagine anything that would have made being there more hellish than arriving in the mud of Flanders as an African conscript, nameless – the names were deliberately unrecorded, in case one of them should perform some act worthy of a medal – and for the most part, bootless, too.

Tate.org man as speaker head and load

Print-making uses repetition; so does ‘The Head and the Load’, in a way that partly suggests the stalemate of the Western front, but also to drive its message home. You listen to a chorus long enough, are presented with the same statistics frequently enough, watch the pathetic attempt of two exhausted, ragged, wounded men to get back to safety down the length of the stage, and whether you like it or not, you are shamed into an emotional involvement with what you’re seeing. Occasionally the voices onstage – and what voices they are, what power, what richness – morph as you listen. A siren becomes a scream of anguish and of outrage, a screech of Dada-ist poetry the stutter of a machine-gun. To come out of a performance ashamed of the colour of my skin was a novelty, but this is what ‘The Head and the Load’ accomplishes, moving the audience to a standing ovation and in some cases, actual tears. The show moves to New York in December, to the Park Avenue Armory. Hats off to the Tate for having got it first.

armoryonpark.org, December 4th-15th 2018

Images © Stella Oliver

 

JCH

MIXED MESSAGES IN MIXED MEDIA: MICHAEL JACKSON ON THE WALL National Portrait Gallery, London

In which your humble reviewer is left asking questions.

When Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ video launched in 1983 it was a major media moment at a time when media moments were still a rarity. David Dimbleby, no less, introduced it on British TV, and back then in the 80s it blew our little sparkly socks off. Conversations in the office were about nothing else for days. Then came Bad, which made us all smile, because no matter how much the Peter Pan of Pop sexed himself up with codpieces and grabbed his crotch, we knew you weren’t really, Michael. No bad boy, but Lord, you could move, and that voice, which always seemed about to crack out of its register, punctuated with all those babyish little gasps, was unique. Then, somewhere between Bad and HIStory, the slave – you know, the one who sits behind the Emperor, whispering ‘Remember Caesar, you are only mortal’ – got kicked out the chariot, and it all went a bit weird. There were the first rumours, then the first allegations of child abuse. The albums still sold in their millions, but then so did Liberace’s. There was the overblown unwitting self-parody of ‘Earthsong’ at the Brits in 1996, where Jarvis Cocker leaped on stage and did what we were all thinking. (One of the exhibits at the NPG is the ‘Earthsong’ video, scrolled backward, which is about the kindest thing to do with it.) There were more allegations of child abuse, and a court case, where those of us who remembered Thriller and Bad were presented with what Peter Pan turns into in middle-age – anorexically frail, pop-eyed, with wiggy hair and a tiny scared white face ruined by plastic surgery. It was awful. You could have foretold then and there that the end was nigh.

The NPG’s new show spends very little time on end-stage Michael Jackson, which is understandable, although in a show that is about image, is an obvious and very white elephant in the room. It’s not biographical, and it’s not about memorabilia either, although it does include the ‘Dinner Jacket’, tinkling with miniature cutlery and as small, up close, as historical costume. So it misses that sense of being closer to the star that the V&A achieved in its Kylie and Bowie shows. According to the NPG’s new(ish) director, Nick Cullinan, the inspiration for the show came about almost as an epiphany, when he realized the number of artists who were inspired by Michael Jackson’s staging of himself; in which case it’s odd that quite so many of the exhibits were created in response not to Jackson live and in full and glorious flower, but to Cullinan sending out what sounds to have been almost a call for entries. There was a lot of newspeak at the press view, in that slightly desperate tone resorted to when an exhibition doesn’t quite add up, of how Jackson’s image-making is ‘an interesting phenomenon to think about.’ Really? In what way, and what are the Gallery’s thoughts? Maybe the catalogue explains them – it would be fascinating to read Zadie Smith’s thoughts on Jackson, especially – but at the press view, the shop was still being put together, and the catalogue unobtainable. Note to whoever is in charge of the commercial side of the Gallery: having your shop ready for the press view is Museum Retail 101.

The show also aims to bring in a new and younger audience, which Lord, knows, the NPG could do with – visitor figures have collapsed to the level they were at nearly twenty years ago. There have been redundancies, questions asked. Asked they will be still. All galleries want to attract that new and younger audience – the museum demographic is like a slide rule with the top end fixed while the other constantly seeking to fall lower and lower – and it’s a praiseworthy aim, but is Michael Jackson really the way to do it? The show opens in the year when he would have been 60 – this is not Ed we’re talking about, not Kanye, not Taylor. This is an entertainer as remote from most 18-25 year olds as Vera Lynn was from me. And one that in his deracination of himself is a pretty compromised figure too. What would have become of him in the age of #metoo is best left unguessed.

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Dangerous by Mark Ryden, 1991. Courtesy of the artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery.

On to the exhibits, however, as they’re what it’s all about. There’s a Haring, a Warhol, a Grayson Perry, a Maggie Hambling – most of the other artists will be much less familiar. Precious little here for the core audience of NPG visitors; they will have to wait for the Gainsborough show in the autumn. What there is, is kitsch, which is both colourful and fun, although at times the show does feel a bit thin – video art is large-scale, obviously, but to have quite so many spaces devoted to a single example of it makes the show feels like one of those essays padded out with quotes from other people; and all of the spaces are way too small for the music bouncing around distortedly amongst them; even at the press view you could hardly hear yourself think. There’s a huge green Michael, and a small grey one; heartbreaking reminders of how cute he was as a kid, and how handsome as a young man. The infamous Jeff Koons sculpture, the kind of exhibit the show is crying out for, is there only as the background in a photograph; and Mohammed al Fayed’s irresistibly awful statue of Jackson, which used to stand outside Craven Cottage, is missing too. David McCarthy’s drawings suggest he saw Jackson as Pinocchio, which is thought-provoking, if rather cruel; David La Chappelle’s Beatification (‘We persecuted him, every person who ever bought a tabloid or watched the news…’) equates Jackson with Princess Diana. There is a heck of a lot of religious imagery in the show, but the Gallery’s interpretation lets this go almost unremarked; in fact it’s as if there’s a whole layer of comment simply not attempted here. The visitor is dutifully told what they are looking at, the circumstances in which it was made, what the artist thinks of it, but curatorial explication or interpretation is waveringly uncertain and hesitant, or absent altogether. The High Gothic hubris of Dangerous by Mark Ryden, for example, cover art for the 1991 album, in its astonishing Hapsburg Empire frame, could fill a book on its own. Likewise Kehinde Wiley’s 2010 Equestrian Portrait of Jackson as Philip II of Spain – one of the few works that is contemporary with the singer himself, even if it was finished posthumously. You find yourself pondering stage costume as armour, then image-making as a whole as armour, and struck by the poignancy and subtle truth in the fact that the face atop the body is not that of Jackson as he was in 2010, but that from the height of his career – lightly tan, crisp-featured, alert and wary. When you’re dead your image belongs to everyone, but how could any artist add anything to Michael Jackson’s image-making that he hadn’t in fact already done to himself?

JCH

Equestrian Portrait of King Philip II (Michael Jackson) by Kehinde Wiley, 2010. Olbricht Collection, Berlin. Photo by Jeurg Iseler. Courtesy of Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Sean Kelly, New York © Kehinde Wiley.

Michael Jackson: On The Wall is at the National Portrait Gallery from 28 June until 21 October.

EAST MEETS EAST END: A NEW DIVAN AT WILTON’S MUSIC HALL

Wilton’s Music Hall in London’s Whitechapel, where Jack the Ripper lurked and where on Cable St Mosley’s Blackshirts were given many bloody noses by what you might now call the Antifa, but which in 1936 probably looked more like a good old-fashioned East End mob, is one of those astonishing East End survivors of Blitz and redevelopment; an entrancing and wonderfully looked-after love-letter to the days of Dan Leno and Marie Lloyd. It has been a background artiste in so many movies that it has literally added them to its fabric: its downstairs bar is built out of leftover props from Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows. On the 20th June this year it was the setting for Toward A New Divan, A Celebration of East and West through Music and Poetry.

The original, old, ‘Divan’ was the brainchild of Goethe, no less, and is a collection of his poems inspired by the works of the 14th-century Persian poet Hafiz. The 200th anniversary of its completion is approaching in 2019: to mark this, the Gingko Library, who are one of the most innovative putters-out of content in this area of East inspiring West and vice-versa, have created a New Divan: works from 24 of our planet’s leading international poets to continue the dialogue Goethe began. With the support of Amal – A Said Foundation project, Wilton’s is where it was launched.

Now the combination of music and poetry can be blissful, or it can be exhausting. On Thursday it was exhilarating, high-spirited, unexpected and delightful. There were just enough poems, including one by Hafiz himself – exquisite in the original Persian, memorable in its English translation – to whet the appetite and make one long for publication of the book; the real stars of the show were the musicians of ’Tafahum’.

Tafahum may be unique: Western strings, woodwind and keyboards matched with Eastern percussion, an oud (the Eastern precursor to the guitar), a qanun (like a harpsichord without the keys, laid across the lap and played by plucking the more than 70 strings), and a ney (that breathy, almost hoarse-sounding, Middle Eastern flute, that is to music from this part of the world what ras-el-hanout is to its cuisine). Their inspiration comes from everywhere – one especially charming piece, ‘Three Fishes Laughing’ was inspired by the perfect E natural note a tube-train makes coming into Highgate Station. Honours were shared between Tafahum’s two composers, Benjamin Ellin (‘a Northern lad’, as he described himself) and Syrian-born Loual Ahlenawi, virtuoso of the ney. Professor Mena Mark Hanna had already described – and illustrated, with a bit of impromptu and very tuneful plainsong – what Western music lost when on first contact it began westernizing and then making archeology of Easter music. Tafahum is part of the antidote to all of that, and part too, of a dialogue between the arts of East and West that has never been so vitally necessary. Goethe would have been captivated – the Blackshirts, spinning in their graves.

The New Divan, edited by Barbara Schwepcke and Bill Swainson, will be published in 2019, with events at the Hay and Edinburgh festivals, among others.

JCH

 

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

 

Tate Britain’s survey of the impact of the First World War on art in Britain, France and Germany opens with a series of iconic images of the conflict. Jacob Epstein’s Terminator-like torso in bronze from his ‘The Rock Drill’ of 1913-14 is as arresting as ever. There are photographs of shattered cathedrals, helmets dented by shrapnel and post-war Illustrated Michelin Guides to the Battlefields of France. There are Henry Tonks’s unforgettable pastel drawings showing facial injury cases before treatment. Less familiar will be German works such as Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s sculpture ‘Fallen Man’, made for the cemetery of his hometown of Duisburg – humanity crawling away on all fours to die.

The first two or three rooms of ‘Aftermath’ admirably convey art’s role in the public memorialization of 1914-18, although in truth there’s not much here that you won’t see on a visit to the permanent collections of the Imperial War Museum.

 

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Otto Dix (1891-1969), War: Skull 1924, etching on paper 257 x 195 mm The George Economou Collection. © Estate of Otto Dix 2018

 

What I didn’t come away with was much sense of the personal response of artists to the war. Take the case of Paul Nash, one of several artists who were left with psychological scars as a result of their experiences. Nash spent the early 1920s recovering from ‘war strain’ at Dymchurch on the edge of Romney Marsh, where he painted a series of bleak, despairing landscapes; there are stories of him looking fixedly out to sea for hours on end, often at night, as if staring into an abyss. On the whole, I’d rather have seen one of those Dymchurch seascapes than another vitrine filled with trench paraphernalia.

And what about the artists who were actually killed in the war? The best-known cases are the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, the German painters Franz Marc and August Macke, and the British painter-poet Isaac Rosenberg. Marc in particular, who like Macke was a co-founder of Der Blaue Reiter and who was only 36 when he died at Verdun in 1916, was a huge loss to art. Yet none of these names are even mentioned in the Tate show.

In Room 4 (of eight) there’s an abrupt change of gears and the rest of the show is a whistle-stop tour of the main movements in post-war art, from the angry counterblasts of Dada & Surrealism to the considerably more lyrical mood of the so-called ‘Return to Order’. In the last two rooms there’s a breathless attempt to chronicle the war’s impact on society by looking at Neue Sachlichkeit (‘New Objectivity’), Bauhaus and life in ‘the New City’.

 

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Christian Schad 1894 – 1982, Self-Portrait 1927 Oil on wood 760 x 620 mm, lent from a private collection 1994 © Christian Schad Stiftung Aschaffenburg/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

 

‘Aftermath’ feels like two exhibitions sandwiched together, one that can’t make up its mind if it’s trying to show us that ‘war is hell’ or simply trying to unravel the complexities of post-war art. Worse, all the blood and gore in the early rooms makes the classicizing trend of the 1920s seem frivolous, which it certainly was not (as the Tate itself demonstrated in a landmark exhibition in 1990, ‘On Classic Ground: Picasso, Léger, de Chirico and the New Classicism 1910-1930’).

The Germans are the ones who come out on top in all this, whether it’s the existential Angst of Beckmann and Kollwitz, the mordant satire of Grosz and Dix, the sinister decadence of Christian Schad’s portraits or the weird geometric automata of Oskar Schlemmer. Perhaps the post-war upheavals in German society, far more thoroughgoing than in Britain or France, provided better take-off points for art. Or maybe they were better artists. Germany may have been defeated on the battlefields but in a cultural sense it was the undoubted victor. Until the Nazis showed up, of course.

NM

 

‘Aftermath’ at Tate Britain (to 23 September 2018)

 

Header image: Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), Torso in Metal from “The Rock Drill” 1913-14 bronze 705 x 584 x 445 mm, Tate © The Estate of Jacob Epstein

 

A Great Spectacle: a revved up RA Summer Exhibition & opening of new gallery spaces

Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London W1

The RA Summer Exhibition, 250 years old this year, is as English as strawberries and cream, Wimbledon tennis, and wasps at a summer picnic. It’s a key part of the summer season and is the world’s most democratic art show: any one can submit work, from professional artists to Sunday painters. Twenty years ago, my mother achieved a long-held dream and had three prints accepted for the Summer Show (this coincided with the birth of my son, her grandson, so it was a particularly special summer for her!). I’ve been going to the Summer Exhibition, initially with my artist mother, and latterly with friends and my co-reviewer NM for years now. It’s a curious beast – the format is essentially unchanged, but in recent years the exhibition has been coordinated by a leading artist, who, along with the hanging committee, brings a personal vision to the show. In fact, the unchanging format of the exhibition always leads NM and I to ponder “what will this year’s show be like?” as we make our way to Burlington House.

On the occasion of the exhibition’s quarter-millennium birthday, this year’s coordinator is Academician, Turner Prize winner and lovable National Treasure Grayson Perry, and his love of colour and keen, but largely benign, eye on the paradoxes of modern society and its social mores, has resulted in a significantly zhuzhed up show. It’s vibrant, witty and joyful, with much to amuse and delight, and also give pause for more serious reflection on where we are today: there are two works concerning Grenfell Tower and a Brexit piece by Bansky in the same room (its walls painted sunshine yellow) as a rather pompous picture of Nigel Farage (beneath – perhaps significantly, depending on how you wish to read it – a picture of a dog vomiting). These on point juxtapositions combined with a show pulsating with vivid colours, textures and vibrant imagination make this the best Summer Exhibition I have seen in years.

 

 

 

Added to that the 250th anniversary marks the opening of expanded galleries, and the Summer Exhibition takes the visitor on an intriguing meander through some of the new spaces. The RA acquired the building on Burlington Gardens which used to house the Museum of Mankind, an elegant Victorian pile, and it’s been transformed thanks to architect David Chipperfield into a pale and interesting gallery space, and increasing the RA’s footprint by 70%.

An elegant bridge joins Burlington House with the Burlington Gardens building. Visitors descend via the original garden steps, uncovered and set alongside cool shiny terrazzo. In this exhibition space, there are paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures (including two fascinating anatomical sculptures) from the RA collection, works not previously displayed, to remind the visitor that this is also an art school – an academy. A large, uber modern picture window offers a glimpse into what was once an unseen yard, now attratively laid out by landscape architects Wirtz: when finished, it’s going to be really wonderful. From here, you can also appreciate the rear of Burlington House and the scale of the building, before proceeding into the expanded gallery space. Visitors can appreciate not only the well-proportioned public rooms, but also the “below stairs” details such as the 18th-century brick vaults, which have been beautifully restored. The loos are pretty stunning too – sleek steel cubicles set in a room to delight any bricklayer worth his salt (I know my builder, Hugh, would appreciate the craftsmanship and skill of his 18th-century counterparts).

Back to the Summer Exhibition, and not content to be confined to the main gallery, the show spills out into the courtyard of Burlington House, with a giant sculpture by Anish Kapoor, and beyond – onto Piccadilly and the surrounding streets. Look up and you’ll see colourful flags designed by leading Academicians fluttering in the summer breeze (read more here). It’s clear that as coordinator of this year’s show, Perry has done wonders for it – no longer a rather worthy trudge through contemporary art, it’s now a vibrant celebration of creativity and imagination and I hope this sets a positive precedent for future years.

Recommended

FW

 

Poor David Griffiths, he only wanted to see his respectful portrait of Nigel Farage hanging in the 250th Summer Exhibition. According to his website, Griffiths is ‘one of Wales’ most well-known portrait painters…trained at The Slade School of Art… under the direction of Sir William Coldstream, Sir Ernst Gombrich and Sir Anthony Blunt’. Impressive credentials indeed. Still, it doesn’t hurt to get some national coverage. So why did they have to go and stick ‘Farage’ underneath a picture of a dog throwing up and next to a giant fibreglass sculpture of the Pink Panther?

The Royal Academy, it would be fair to say, has evolved since the days when a former president, Sir Alfred Munnings, offered to horsewhip Picasso in the name of art; you couldn’t argue that the RA, one of our most prestigious cultural institutions, had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. All the same, Grayson Perry was an inspired choice to chair this year’s selection committee, because if you need someone to blow away the residual cobwebs, Perry’s the man. Only don’t expect him to take things too seriously.

Perry, with characteristic pizzazz, has used the raw material of the ‘send ins’ (including, it must be admitted, some right old tat) to deliver a droll commentary on the world of art, and indeed the world generally, in 2018. There’s sterling support for this project from Perry’s co-curators, including Phyllida Barlow, Conrad Shawcross and Cornelia Parker, and an impressive line-up of guest artists, among them Anthony Gormley, Anish Kapoor, Ed Ruscha, Bruce Nauman and Anselm Kiefer.

Don’t miss the Sackler Gallery, on the second floor, which this year has been made over to printmaking, and where among other things you’ll will see an intaglio print by Queen Sonja of Norway no less. This I find deeply symbolic. Thirty years ago, the best we could hope for from royalty would have been a fussy little Prince Charles watercolour accompanied by much bowing and scraping from Sir Hugh Casson. But – guess what? – Queen Sonja actually has talent. She’s also, for good measure, a member of Europe’s funkiest dynasty: last year she and King Harald celebrated their 80th birthdays with a surfing holiday in South Africa.

NM

Chris Orr MBE RA /The Fauves Picnic/Silkscreen 55 x 75cm John Bodkin / Dawkinscolour

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, 12 June – 19 August

Full details

 

Header image: Michael Landy RA, Closing Down Sale, Mixed media and audio (Image courtesy the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery, © Michael Landy)

My Favourite Things: A Word in Your Shell-like

Aporrhais Pespelecani is a marine snail, the thing that lives inside a seashell, a little mollusk that can be found from the Norwegian coast to the shores of the Mediterranean. It has a very pleasing shape, which seems designed to fit into the human hand – a deep bowl, and 3 or 4 spiny ‘fingers’, radiating out like the struts in the webbed foot of – well, a pelican, which is how the snail gained its name.

 

It can also be found in Gallery 156 of the Metropolitan Museum.

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About 500 years BCE, a workshop somewhere in Greece or in its islands began sculpting these shells in marble. We have no idea how many were made, but only a very few have survived (the British Museum has one; so has the Getty), and given how complex and delicate the shape would have been to sculpt, maybe all of them were the work of one single workshop, maybe of one single mind that saw the natural original, washed up on a beach somewhere, and was inspired, and worked at the design, and then worked at it some more, until they had perfected it. They made it bigger than the shell is in life, so this one, if you were to hold it, would project either end of your palm, with the tips of your fingers fitting between the spines.

 

This is far and away the finest of the survivors. The marble it is carved from is snow-white, and has tiny sparkles of quartz in it, like snow again. As you crane your head to see all the way around it, held upright in its  display case, you begin to realize how magically put-together is the shape – the soft round of the bowl, the delicate spines, the tiny whorl at one end (a separate piece, like the stopper to a bottle), the flat lip at the other. The way all these shapes fit together is half the enchantment of the piece. The other half is what it tells us of us, that human impulse to take something from nature, and recreate it, give it new form, give it rebirth as art, and how that defines us and has propelled us forward from all those centuries ago to what we are today.

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Its surface tells of a final chapter in its history. The marble has been eroded by the action of water and sand. This shell that is not a shell was returned to the ocean at some point, which took the bright paint that would once have covered it (there’s a tiny trace left, on the whorl), and gave it its foamy whiteness, and wore at its spines, just as it would have done a real Aporrhais. In other words, it is so beautiful, it fooled even the sea.

Real Pelican’s Foot shells, with that suggestive, hand-friendly shape, were used as libation vessels, and then maybe cast back into the sea. Their carved marble cousins were probably made for the same purpose. Perfected, painted, used – and cast back into the element that inspired it. Everything about this is as perfect and organic a whole as it is possible for a work of art to be.

JCH