LOVE IN A CREATIVE CLIMATE

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Artistic duos tend not to receive the attention they deserve in art history. We often read about the art movements and the artists who create them. The artist’s partner or lover meanwhile is often overlooked, or simply seen in terms of a muse.

An ambitious exhibition at the Barbican, entitled Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde seeks to explore the subject of couples and to show how spouses and lovers have had a lot more to bring to the creative pot.

I stepped in room 1 of the show where the pairings of Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel and Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp were considered. Both couples had passionate affairs – it seemed a good place to start.

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I was called upon to contemplate Auguste Rodin’s exuberant sculpture, Je Suis Belle. A beautiful naked young woman, bunched up into a ball, is held aloft by a tall, muscle-bound Adonis (In reality Auguste Rodin was small and lame!) The energy of the piece perfectly encapsulates love’s rapture and exemplifies Rodin’s superhuman passion for his eighteen-year old assistant.

Camille Claudel’s letters on display reveal her minx-like hold over him in the early years of their affair. In one she asks Rodin to buy her a two-piece bathing suit in serge from Bon Marché so that she can swim in the lake and avoid the public baths! And to excite him further she states: ‘I go to bed naked every night to make me think you’re here’.

The correspondence in this show is riveting  and should not be overlooked even though it may slow your progress through the rooms!

Though the odds were stacked against Claudel, she was a mere woman after all, Claudel’s talent was recognised by her mature lover. He allowed her to fashion the hands and feet of his statues. In the show we see the clay head Claudel produced of him. I found it disappointing and decided to go to the Rodin museum next time I was in Paris to investigate further.

I turned to another female artist, Maria Martins, occupying the same room. Before meeting Marcel Duchamp in New York in March 1943, she was already a sculptor in her own right. Her bronze cast entitled  Le Couple , produced in the same year, is impressive. Two animalistic male-female forms rear up and spew tendrils. Their bodies arch away from each other (Martins as a married woman clearly had some reservations about the affair!) In contrast, Marcel Duchamp’s artistic offering is less showy. Five mysterious artefacts are displayed in a glass case. One resembles part of a bronze shoe, Feuille de Vigne, 1950. I read the explanation and find that it is in fact an imprint of Martins’s female genitalia! The five pieces together are all imprints of Martins intimate parts. They are strangely elegant, oddly moving.

 

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Sexual desire and the artistic impulse are of course closely linked. I am drawn to the Surrealist section entitled Mad Love where André Breton, founder of the movement, encourages his male followers to go out into the street in search of love. Breton saw women as innately ‘surrealist’. The theme of the female muse resurges. The women associated with Surrealist artists were no shrinking violets however. In the photographs they come across as wild and free. In one they are relaxing at a picnic, sheets draped over their  intimate parts. Their male friends meanwhile are fully clothed! The photograph is no doubt the surrealist take on Manet’s painting,  Dejeuner sur L’Herbe.

One of these women is the American photographer Lee Miller. Early on in her career she teamed up with avant-garde artist Man Ray. In the show they occupy a room of their own. Their homage to the Marquis de Sade seems tongue in cheek. A very young Miller wears a thick iron collar around her neck. In another very strange image Lee Miller and Man Ray have placed a glass dome over their heads! I can’t help but laugh!

Lee Miller’s photographs could also be moving and poignant. In the Dora Maar-Picasso section, we see an older Dora Maar sitting alone in her apartment looking into space. In the centre of the picture hangs a painting Picasso made of her. It is a rare portrait of her facing out at the viewer (rather than in profile), and it is the only portrait she liked of herself. She dismissed the others as ‘lies’. They may be ‘lies’ but Picasso’s Portrait de Femme 1938, of Maar, is still a wonder to behold on an adjacent wall, as is Frida Kahlo’s oil painting entitled The Wounded Deer 1946 located in the same room

 

 

To counterbalance the theme of suffering female artists, Maar’s own photo images of Picasso have been included in the show. A glass plate negative of Picasso caught my eye. Around his face Maar has scratched a halo or crown of thorns of black ink. It gives the painter the air of a saint or more worryingly, the appearance of Jesus Christ bound for crucifixion. It is unusual to see Picasso objectified in this way. So much with Picasso was on his terms.

Alma Mahler in another room seems to be made of sterner stuff. The exhibition focuses on her relationship with husband Gustav Mahler and lover Oskar Kokoschka. Long suffering muse, she was not! A photograph of her shows a Valkyrien woman in a corseted dress and dark, expressive eyes.  She was a talented pianist and composer when she met Mahler. It is surprising to read therefore that at the beginning of her marriage to Mahler she gave up her musical career at his request. It was a big mistake of course; outwardly acquiescing, Alma soon grew bitter. When she was on the point of running off with Bauhaus architect Gropius, Mahler agreed to play and help publish his wife’s lieder which are on show.

 The painter Kokoschka, seven years her junior, filled the void after Mahler’s death. ‘He painted me, me, me!’ Alma Mahler exclaims in a quote on the wall. Kokoschka joined up as a soldier in WW1, perhaps to escape her intensity and jealous nature. On his return however he underwent a change of heart. By then Alma had gravitated towards Gropius again. Kokoschka spent the next few years trying to win her back. The painted fans he produced, depicting their life together, are on display on one wall. We read about a doll he had made in her image. ‘I must have you for my wife or my genius will self-destruct’, he says in a letter. Alma’s power over men was astounding!

The Sapphic section entitled Chloe liked Olivia, was not only illuminating but revealed a whole host of new writers for me such as Natalie-Clifford Barney and painter Romaine Brooks. I was already aware of the love affair between blue stocking Virginia Woolf and aristocrat Vita-Sackville West, but it was interesting to learn of the influence each woman had on the other’s work. The desire Sackville-West ignited in Woolf powered Woolf’s Orlando. In this tale a young man transforms into a woman and retains his love for women. Sackville-West’s writing meanwhile became more experimental. Her book Seducers in Ecuador is on display together with Orlando and Woolf’s wonderful extended essay, A Room of One’s Own.

By the time I reached the painter Klimt and designer and fashion muse Emily Flöge (also fascinating if I had had more time) I was replete with information. I had only covered the first floor of the exhibition! (There are two!)

The show warrants a whole afternoon with two tea breaks!

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Modern Couples is an exhilarating show. A real curatorial tour de force. I am now keen to read up about L’Académie des Femmes (the feminine equivalent of the all-male literary Académie Française), and to explore the art of lesbian painter Romaine Brooks whose self-portraits reveal a growing confidence in her new sexuality. From a timid, thin-faced girl in a graceless hat she evolves into a beautiful, bright-eyed woman with wind-swept hair. I felt happy for her.

Hats off to the Barbican for a thought-provoking and rich experience! Worth joining the Barbican Centre membership scheme methinks!

 

KH

 

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde is on at the Barbican (Floor 3) until 27 Jan.

 

 

 

 

 

The Sound of Silence. Cage and Rauschenberg Take On A New Life With MusicArt.

During the summer of 1952, composer John Cage staged a happening that was going to change the world of music and art forever. At Black Mountain College in North Carolina, in the college dining hall, the audience listened to Cage read from an essay he had written on the relationship between music and Zen Buddhism. He punctuated his talk with long silences. It must have read like an extended poem.

Cage’s preoccupation with silence as musical form lead to his publishing of 4’33’’, his silent work, that same year.

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At that same college event, four white paintings had been suspended in the air above the audience. Robert Rauschenberg’s pristine White Paintings incarnated what Cage had expressed in words and in silence, namely painted space onto which the outside world could be projected. These paintings could change according to where they were hung; daylight, nature, harsh light spots could cast various shadows across the work. The canvas was a receptacle. A living tableau even, which changed from minute to minute – if only we were attentive enough. And that was the point – conceptual art as it came to be known, required us to think and to fine-tune our senses. And senses are at their most acute in stillness and space.

Knowing this, Cage in his 4’33” silent composition, drew our attention to ambient sound. For him there was no difference between sounds and music.

To this day, these ideas seem radical!

 

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Inspired by Cage’s and Rauschenberg’s works and ideas, pianist Annie Yim invited an audience to attend the premier of ‘Conceptual Concert in Three Acts’, at the Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery, London the other evening.

The concert room could barely accommodate the fashionable crowd that gathered for the event. Many had to make do with standing at the back, for along the walls, either side of them, precious Rauschenberg paintings had been hung. They formed part of a wonderful exhibition entitled Spreads 1975-83, the Thaddaeus-Ropac Gallery is putting on at the moment.That there wasn’t a white painting in sight was no bad thing and was consistent with the artistic layering that was about to take place in an evening of music, art and poetry.

At the front, a shiny black piano waited to be played. It was positioned between what seemed to be two huge canvases covered in sheets.

A tape recorder was switched on. ‘Nature is better than Art,’ said a gentle voice from the past belonging to the inimitable John Cage.

Annie Yim, founder of MusicArt which brings different art forms together, walked on stage to perform The Seasons composed by Cage in 1947. Sitting down at the piano she launched into winter: stark chords; spring: frolicking and skittering notes across the keyboard and summer: lyrical melodies, interspersed with mischievous interludes. Nuanced, precise playing of what is still considered to be experimental material is often hard to pull off and Annie Yim did so with gusto! The composition ended abruptly.

Act 11 was given over to new music by distinguished composer, Raymond Yiu which contained jazz elements and a beautiful duet played by Yim and the composer himself.

Meanwhile, Kayo Chingonyi, award-winning poet, read his own compositions. His poem entitled Matrix – Who’s to say, a tribute to Cage’s reverence for everyday (musical) sounds was particularly memorable and pertinent.

The latter part of the Act was devoted to Cage’s wonderful musings on the creative process: ‘I am trying to change my habits of seeing. I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I’m doing’ (what dedication to permanent invention!) and poem To Whom which he read out at opening show of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings at the Stable Gallery in 1953. For me, one of the highlights of the evening was to listen to him speak.

And finally Act 111 unfolded. The sheets were removed to reveal two large mirrors. Pianist Yim sat down at the piano and as instructed by Cage in the 4’33” score, didn’t play a note.

Silence prevailed for 4’33’’. It was an entrancing experience. At first, time really did seem to stand still. As the performers froze, so did the audience. Very soon bemused expressions started to reflect in the mirror, bobbing heads looked this way and that.  Others, worn out by the lead up towards Christmas no doubt, simply closed their eyes and napped. Tiny sounds started to emerge from the stillness: nails clinking a wine glass, creaking chairs, stifled coughs. As if on cue, a rasping motorbike broke into the space. A tiny part of me felt it had been orchestrated but it didn’t matter for the mirrors revealed a room of smiling faces.

Cage had woven his magic as had MusicArt. It had been a bold enterprise by Yim and her team. She risked putting too many eggs into one basket. But overall, the project was cohesive, expertly performed by all and thought provoking, shedding further light on two iconic figures.

 

KH

 

Catch Rauschenberg Spreads and John Cage Ryoanji exhibitions at the Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery, 37 Dover Street, London. On until 26 January 2019.

How To Get Out of the Cage. Engaging documentary featuring John Cage by award-winning film-maker Frank Scheffer on Youtube.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edward Burne-Jones at Tate Britain

It feels like the right moment to reacquaint oneself with the work of Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones. In our uncertain times, escapism provides relief and comfort, and when you enter EBJ’s dreamscape world of myth and fantasy, you move beyond the petty preoccupations and ugly politics of our world now.

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Edward Burne-Jones ‘Desiderium’
(1873), Tate, London

This is the first large show of EBJ’s work in a generation and Tate Britain’s new autumn exhibition offers a major retrospective, plus some unexpected delights. Even if you don’t know EBJ’s work, you’ll be familiar with the style and imagery – his pale, elfin, androgynous figures populate the worlds of Lord of The Rings and Game of Thrones and his angels regularly grace Christmas cards. This exhibition is a chance to get to know him better.

As an artist, he was an enigmatic figure. A theology scholar at Oxford (where he met his long-time collaborator and friend William Morris), he was largely a self-taught artist (mentored by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood); yet looking at his drawings, redolent of Michelangelo and Raphael in their exquisite craftsmanship and elegance, one can only marvel at the mastery and idiosyncratic technical prowess of this auto-didact. He worked slowly and meticulously with an immense level of detail and care. EBJ did not do spontaneity: continually refining and finessing, his work evolved over many years. Regardless of the medium – oil, pastel, watercolour or chalk – his works are sumptuous, with jewel-like colours, gilding and rich textures.

EBJ was not a realist painter: he preferred the world of Bible stories, classical mythology, Renaissance culture, Arthurian legend and the Medieval romances of Chaucer and Malory (which I studied as an undergraduate, often recalling EBJ’s imagery as I deciphered these Middle English texts), but the rendering of detail in his work – clothing, armour, architecture, decorative details, plants – creates a “hyper-realism” which is immersive and mesmeric, and also curiously soporific. One can almost smell the drowsy scent of roses drifting from his great series Legend of the Briar Rose (c.1890, based on Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty fairytale). Somnolent figures are draped over beautifully-executed furniture, the air heavy with deep sleep and a general sense of inertia – we sense their arousal will be slow, a gentle groping into wakefulness. I last saw these paintings as a child, at their home at Buscot Park, a National Trust house in Oxfordshire: I loved them then, and still do. The other great EBJ series, the legend of Perseus (begun 1875), is also here, revealing the artist’s skill in rendering complex imagery and textures within a limited colour palette. These two great narrative cycles are united for the first time in this exhibition.

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Edward Burne-Jones, Portrait of Amy Gaskell. 1893.
Private Collection

Sensuous beauty oozes from every canvas, from the delicate, pale figures in their classical-style draperies to the furniture upon which they recline, or the foliage from which they emerge, insinuating themselves into view. But it was the drawings that were the real revelation of this exhibition, not just the ancillary or preparatory sketches for the large paintings, but  dashed off humorous vignettes, of his friend William Morris, or fat tattooed ladies (a subject of fascination to EBJ). These are charming, witty and personal and offer a glimpse beyond the fantasies and Medievalism. There are also a number of portraits (displayed together for the first time), more traditional in their presentation (EBJ was a reluctant portraitist), though unmistakably EBJ in their palette. Gone are the draperies and foliage, the gilding and the decorative art, allowing us to get closer to the subject – and perhaps their artist.

EBJ’s long friendship and collaboration with William Morris is also celebrated in this exhibition with examples of decorative art produced by the Morris & Co workshop. Like Morris, EBJ valued the applied arts (and craft) and the fine arts equally, and this respect is evident in his work with Morris & Co, most notably the two stunning Holy Grail tapestries. EBJ described the medium of tapestry as “half way between painting and ornament”, and like his paintings, the detail is incredible (Grayson Perry’s contemporary tapestries echo EBJ’s glorious multi-coloured narratives in their painterly style). Their Medieval imagery, setting and composition immediately reminds one of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries at Cluny in Paris, which I saw as a student. There’s stained glass too, again all glowing colours and delicate grisaille (a grey painting technique). And in the middle of this room is a Broadwood grand piano, its boxy design suggestive of a harpsichord, covered in illustrations by EBJ, as much a fine piece of decorative art as a musical instrument. Other exquisite decorative items are on display – gifts created for loved ones, including a spectacular painted casket given to Frances Graham, with whom EBJ had a long-lasting and intense relationship.

EBJ shared his friend William Morris’s view that art should be for the people, and his work was, and still is, loved by the people. So ignore the sneering review by one critic of this new exhibition and go and lose yourself in EBJ’s sensuous dreamy world for a few hours.

Edward Burne-Jones at Tate Britain

24 October 2018 – 24 February 2019


FW

Header image: Laus Veneris (In Praise of Venus) by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Bt ARA. 1873-75. Oil on canvas. The Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Oceania at the Royal Academy of Arts

Oceania, the Royal Academy’s new survey of Pacific Art,  opens with a 35 ft. cascade of polyethylene sheeting, which sweeps through the central octagonal hall like an azure wave. It’s been sewn using traditional techniques by the contemporary Māori women’s collective Mata Aho. An adjoining roomful of seagoing paraphernalia continues the watery theme; here you can marvel at the achievement of the ‘voyagers’ who set out in their double-hull outrigger canoes to colonise 20 million square miles of ocean. Objects range from the utilitarian – elaborate prows, paddles, fishing tackle – to bizarre jeux d’esprit like the extraordinary vessel crewed by carved fish and turtles, all bending to the oar. Navigation charts formed of twisted twigs and shells, beautiful in themselves (move over, Andy Goldsworthy), helped perform feats of seamanship that boggled Captain Cook in 1774.

The RA has divided the show up thematically, and after the initial scene-setting you get sections covering the role of ceremony and ritual, the importance of ‘gifting’, the first encounters with Europeans and so on. There’s a surprising congruence among the exhibits, despite the vast distances involved, so that a decorated beam from Palau, say, or a patchwork quilt from the Cook Islands, might bear remarkable similarities to examples from far-off New Zealand or Papua New Guinea. The aesthetic co-exists with the functional: battle armour may be stitched from coir, with a helmet of fish-skin that is as comical as it is conical, but things don’t get much more badass than a trident studded with shark teeth.

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Ahu ula (feather cloak) belonging to Liholoho, Kamehameha II., Early 19th century Feathers, fibre, painted barkcloth (on reverse). 207 cm Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge

Wandering through the exhibition and admiring the idols, deities and ancestor figures with their stylised, geometric features feels a bit like snooping around a Modernist’s studio. I gave up bothering to tick off the endless borrowings by the likes of Picasso, Modigliani and Giacometti. At this juncture, though, you might be tempted to get a bit worked up, as I did, about the questionable blessings of Western civilisation: Captain Bligh, Paul Gauguin and his STDs, Margaret Mead, mushroom clouds at Bikini Atoll, to say nothing of Rogers & Hammerstein or Elvis crooning Aloha ‘Oe. Before railing against cultural appropriation, however, it’s worth remembering that a sizeable proportion of the objects on show here – which are predominantly drawn from European collections – were, in essence, the first tourist souvenirs. Made to order by wily Islanders to satisfy the vogue for ‘artificial curiosities’, nowadays they occupy half-forgotten cabinets in regional museums in places like Maidstone or Exeter.

‘Oceania’ ends on a melancholy note, evoking memory and loss. In a short film clip, Marshallese poet and activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijine urges her fellow Islanders to ‘tell them/we don’t want to leave/we’ve never wanted to leave/and that we/are nothing without our islands’. But as a nearly caption tersely points out: ‘rising sea levels threaten to make further voyages of relocation inevitable’.

NM

Oceania at the Royal Academy 29 September-10 December 2018

Header image: Female tattooed figure, eighteenth or early nineteenth century, Aitutaki, Cook Islands, Wood, pigment, height 58 cm. (c) Five Continents Museum, Munich; photo: Marianne Franke

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Canoe prow figure nguzunguzu; wood, pigments, resin, shell; 16,5 x 9 x 15,5 cm; Marovo Lagoon, New Georgia Archipelago, Solomon Islands; collection Eugen Paravicini 1929; (c) Vb 7525; Museum der Kulturen Basel; photo: Derek Li Wan Po; 2013; all rights reserved

 

Last chance to see ‘Augustus John: Drawn from Life’ at Poole Museum

Venture out of the metropolis for the day (or longer) to the small seaside town of Poole, next to Bournemouth, for a small but perfectly formed exhibition of paintings, drawings and sculpture by Augustus John, at one time considered one of the most famous British artists of the twentieth century, though his sister Gwen is now considered the greater talent.

John had a connection with Dorset from his time as a student at the Slade School of Art in London and in 1911, he set up home at Alderney Manor, in Poole, before moving in 1927 to Fryern Court, near Fordingbridge, on the Hampshire-Wiltshire-Dorset borders. This remained his main residence for the rest of his life.

The exhibition at Poole Museum is the first major exhibition focusing on John’s work since ‘Gwen John and Augustus John’ at Tate Britain in 2005. It’s curated by David Boyd Haycock, who has also curated a companion exhibition in Salisbury on John’s contemporary Henry Lamb, and which opens in Poole in 2019.

Already famous by the time he moved to Dorset, John sought solace and inspiration in the countryside around Alderney Manor. The pinewoods and beaches found their way into his paintings, rendered with a vibrantly-hued palette redolent of the south of France and the work of the Fauves. The portrait ‘Dorelia Among the Pines’ could easily be set in Provence.

Other works in the exhibition feature John’s children, rendered with tender affection. The drawings reveal John’s greatest artistic skill – as a draughtsman – and his famous sketch of T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) is here along with a rapid pencil drawing of Lawrence made in Paris*, strikingly spare and personal. John’s oil portrait of Lawrence in his Arab robes is also included.  (Visitors may be inspired to follow the “Lawrence Trail” – as we did – a short drive from Poole to Lawrence’s house Clouds Hill near Wareham, and thence to his grave in the pretty little village of Moreton; take in the Laurence Whistler engraved glass windows in the church as well.)

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T.E. Lawrence
by Augustus John
pencil, 1919 (National Portait Gallery)

This is a very fine exhibition, at least equal to a similar presentation at the Courtauld Gallery in London, revealing a more personal, intimate facet of John’s work at the mid-point of his career, while also confirming his status, at the time, as a leading artist.

We will be returning to Poole Museum in 2019 to see the Henry Lamb exhibition.

*Recently acquired by Poole Museum

Augustus John: Drawn from Life is at Poole Museum until 30th September


FW & NM

 

Header image: Augustus John, An Hour at Ower, 1914 © The estate of Augustus John / Bridgeman Images

 

Fortune’s Favours: ‘Sir Richard Wallace the Collector’ at the Wallace Collection, London

Two people I would very much like to have been born as – either one of those majestic 19th-century American wives, the type who married multi-millionaires and set about shoe-horning culture and art into their husband’s lives, whether the husband liked it or no; or, Sir Richard Wallace. If neither of those is possible, I’d like to be reincarnated as the director of the Wallace, one fine day. I once had the delight of listening to Rosalind Savill talk about her years in charge there, and no talk by any ex-director could have been more unexpected or inspiring. The affection with which Dame Rosalind regarded her ‘charges’ in the collection, as she spoke of making them ‘happy’, is something Sir Richard, the collection’s founder, would have understood perfectly.

How to typify the Wallace? Can you, indeed? In spirit it’s maybe close to the passion of a collector such as Sir John Soane, who also founded his own public museum (there is something very English about this kind of obsession – think of the Ashmolean in Oxford, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge). It’s something like the Frick in New York, only bigger, better, wider-ranging. There’s not an item in it that doesn’t have some claim to be exceptional – rare beyond belief if not unique, superlatively made, exquisitely beautiful. Just a few snapshots: the paintings include Hals’ Laughing Cavalier and Rembrandt’s portrait of his one surviving son, Titus, which is literally so lovely and painted with such love as to bring tears to the ears; the furniture includes masterpieces of the cabinetmaker’s art that would have had George IV weeping too, with envy. There are exquisite objets d’art from almost every country on earth, including in the current exhibition celebrating the bicentenary of Wallace’s birth, a gold mask from the Asante kingdom of Africa, which must have survived God knows what rude passage to find a resting place here, seconds from Oxford St. There is porcelain, armour, weaponry, maiolica, glass, bronzes and jewels. If you took the top 10% say, from the V&A, the Metropolitan in New York, the Frick itself and the Louvre, you might make a rival to the Wallace, but not otherwise. It takes more than money to be a collector at this level; it takes knowledge, taste; the passion that, now so few make or inherit money on that insane 19th-century scale, has transmogrified itself into the sensibility of the best museum curators or directors. And they still want the things in their charge to be happy.

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I think anything collected by Richard Wallace must have been very happy. Wallace had something of a charmed life of his own, to begin with. Born in 1818, and educated by the 4thMarquess of Hertford at his own expense, Wallace was then employed by the Marquess as his private secretary, and on the Marquess’s death in 1870 inherited a sizable chunk of the Hertford fortune, and all the Marquess’s own art collection, thus confirming every single suspicion that had ever been entertained concerning Wallace’s own likely parentage. Not that he and the 4thMarquess were that similar – the Marquess was the kind of skinflint-ish collector who one imagines rubbing his hands together as he locked his collection away and pocketed the key, hissing ‘Mine, mine, all mine!’ while Wallace himself was open-hearted and open-handed too. During the Siege of Paris in 1870, this globally minded soul contributed 2.5 million francs to relieve the suffering of the wounded and of those Brits the siege had trapped.

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The bicentenary exhibition is down on the Wallace’s sunken ground floor, past what may be one of the pleasantest places to sip coffee in London (yes, this really is a rather nice museum with an ace caff attached). It’s not large, it’s not boastful, but it is endlessly intriguing. It’s set up as a sort of catwalk of the pieces Wallace himself most loved and prized, including a diddy little French gold and enamel cutlery-set, too pretty to be used for eating anything beyond the odd macaroon, which Wallace bought as a very young man, then had to sell after he had over-reached himself as collector and before he came into the Hertford fortune, and hunted down anew and bought back, twenty years later. One of the joys of a collection such as this is the chance to play detective, linking together the separate treasures within it and providing your own psychological infill. The exhibition concludes with the last piece Wallace every bought, in 1888: a 17th-century bronze of an acrobat, 40 cm high, walking on his hands, muscles in his back tensed and ridged as he tries to bring his waving legs under control. He might be falling headlong; he might have conquered and suspended time. As the embodiment of the collector’s mentality, it’s all that needs be said.

JCH

‘Sir Richard Wallace the Collector’ is at the Wallace Collection until 6 January 2019.

Rembrandt: Titus, the artist’s son, c.1657

Asante trophy head, 18th or 19th century

Barthélemy Prieur, An acrobat, c.1600

All images © The Wallace Collection

https://www.wallacecollection.org

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)