Clausura Explains it All?: Review of Sister Act, Female Monasticism and the Arts across Europe ca. 1250 – 1550
After last year’s Friarsday, there could only be a sequel in the form of a Nunday. Organised by Michaela Zöschg and Laura Llewellyn, two research students at the Courtauld working on art associated with female convents, this conference set out to ask important questions about art historical enquiry within their field. The problem of agency behind the appearance of a work of art is common to all medieval art history, but is a particular problem for female monasticism, as the clausura of the community would seem to displace nuns further away from the act of making than was typical for other groups, such as monks, priests or laypeople. Furthermore, if the art associated with a particular social group shows as much diversity as it does homogeneity, how credible is it to interrogate it from their perspective? The strength of this conference is that it was exceptionally well-curated to explore these problems, and was clearly shared by many, judging by the healthy turn-out.
It is now widely accepted in art history that reception of art can be just as interesting as its creation. The opening session on Friday afternoon explored books and furniture from female convents via the perspective of their cloistered audiences: Jennifer Atwood on a book from Littlemore Priory in Oxfordshire; Giuseppe Capriotti on the choir stalls of the Camerino Clarisse in the Marches; and Daniela Rywiková on a variety of Bohemian manuscripts. All made reference to internal factors rather than simple stereotypes: something that would become important throughout the conference. Gendered space is a more controversial topic: the sort of term you can drop into a research application (a bit like ‘liminal’) because no one is precisely sure what it means. Professor Jonathan Kline’s paper (pre-recorded, and successfully given in-absentia), on the detached frescoes from the upper chamber of Santa Maria Inter Angelos near Spoleto, was well-received for that way it explored the issue. Nuns are intensely holy people, but their connection with the Eucharistic liturgy is severely limited, so these frescoes now largely preserved in American museums asserted the Real Presence of the Host outside of a liturgical context. Susan Sharp’s and Eva Sandgren’s papers took similar approaches to possible female audiences, respectively to the paintings of the hitherto named ‘Chaplain’s Room’ at Lacock Abbey and the fittings of the highly unusual choir at the Birgittine Monastery of Vadstena.
Carola Jäggi’s keynote at the close of the first day compared the well-documented St Katharinental in Switzerland, a limited network of artists and internal patronage, to the much more trans-regional connections of the convent of Konigsfelden. Christian Nikolaus Opitz took a remarkably similar approach for his comparison of winged altarpieces in Clarissan convents in Nuremberg and Bamberg in his paper which opened the second day. He concluded that the former attracted potential donors, the latter potential nuns. This idea that that two similar convents’ artistic solutions could be so markedly different, surfacing as it did at the mid-point of the conference, was well-timed to stimulate much discussion.
The following session on nuns as artists, explored some problems again related to the problem of clausura. Fausta Navarro showed how the Dominican nun Suor Plautilla Nelli’s art was restricted by her conservative use of models derived from Fra Bartolomeo from the same order. Similarly, Ingela Wahlberg looked at the embroidery of female convents, showing how it was wayward and eccentric in its technique compared to ‘professional’ workshops in the external medieval art market. Three papers then looked at female monasteries and royal patrons: James D’Emilio on Cistercians around León; Stefanie Seeberg on the convent of Altenberg under Gertrud of Thüringen; and Diana Lucía Gómez Chacón on the extraordinary tomb monument of Beatrice of Portugal. All approached their topics with the agenda of discovering the agency of the female communities, but all found some grey areas in which their influence was more difficult to attribute amid the stylistic choices by the artists themselves. Angelica Federici showed at Sant’Agnese fuori le mura that an inscription tells of the nuns’ (specifically the sacristan’s) agency; while Veronique Bücken used the images on the remarkable chariot for the shrine of Nivelles’ collegiate church as demonstrating the canonesses affirming their predominancy over the male canons. The closing paper of the day by Saundra Weddle was a fitting finale in that it achieved an interesting synthesis of this problem. It showed how Venetian convent architecture was integral with the city fabric, but modified the local vernacular – obviously unique to Venice – for the demands of clausura and self-identity, such as canal-side doors solely for waste disposal and iron window-grates with wooden shutters.
Alexandra Gajewski’s excellent paper on the striking Graefenthal crucifixion came with a magisterially concise overview of the historiography central to this conference. Replacing Georges Duby’s view of medieval women as passive objects, feminism introduced the concept of gender as a societal concept that could be undermined, and eventually moved toward reception theory, that maintains the agency of a passive, enclosed community. Yet her paper and many other showed that there is no such thing as a normal nun, and that analysing the community for its own peculiarities is essential in ‘nun studies’. Without contraries is no progression, but in setting up such binaries as male and female; external patronage and internal agency; liturgical and devotional, enquiry will find that invariably, the most accurate picture will lie somewhere in between these extremes. If ‘nun studies’ conform to the assumption of a single character type, then it risks being no more accurate to real medieval holy women than Whoopi Goldberg’s 1992 musical comedy (which Carola’s keynote reassuringly referenced) was to the modern religious female community.
Sister Act: Female Monasticism and the Arts across Europe ca. 1250 – 1550 was held at the Courtauld Institute on 13 and 14 March 2015Categories: Research Rhythms | Tags: Gendered space, Lots of nuns, More nuns, Nunday, Nuns, Nuntastic, Patronage | Comments Off
Made in China, the conceptual exhibition currently on view at Dulwich Picture Gallery, invites viewers to spot, among the gallery’s collection of Old Master paintings, the one Chinese replica the curator has substituted for an original. The exhibition description attempts, disingenuously, to situate this game of ‘spotting the fake’ within the well-worn paradigm of institutional critique, and purports to challenge conservative notions of authenticity. But as the description itself notes, Dulwich is already filled with non-originals: copies of Old Masters by disciples and copyists, works with forged signatures or no signature at all. It would seem that traditional notions of authenticity are already challenged with the inclusion of these works. What then, is the significance of the Chinese replica?
What in fact lies at the heart of Made in China are not hackneyed issues of institutional perception but rather issues of East and West, of what it means to be Chinese and European. While Constable copied Ruisdael’s Windmills in order to improve his own craft, it is safe to say that the unnamed Chinese copyist was driven by a different set of motivations. Nor is it conceivable that the Chinese replica will ever be seen to have artistic value in its own right, in the same way that Constable’s ‘copy’ is now attributed and displayed alongside Ruisdael’s original in the Dulwich. There is thus an implicit distinction here between the copy and the Chinese copy. The copy, insofar as it emerges out of Western art historical tradition, can still count as authentic culture, while the Chinese copy, produced outside of Western tradition by those wholly unconnected to the lineage of the Old Masters, can only be the ‘fake’ to be ‘spotted.’ What is new here then, is not the copy, but that the copy is Chinese. The title, which refers to China’s role in global capitalism as ‘the world’s factory,’ makes this implication clear: just as it manufactures knock-off goods, so China also manufactures knock-off culture.
In insidiously advancing a dichotomy between the European original and the Chinese fake, Made in China reinforces the orientalist framework which understands Europe as authentic culture itself, and the East, as always only an inferior copy. Are we honestly to believe though, that the Chinese artist who mechanically replicates European paintings all day does so freely, because imitation of the West is quintessentially Chinese? Or is she rather not forced to participate in an extreme division of labor whereby the brain and the hand, creative and physical labor, are separated utterly—not only by geography and class, but also history, language and culture? Made in China perpetuates the voicelessness of the Chinese artist. China here exists only as an ersatz ‘Europe,’ and we are invited to locate it—that dark, silent, foreign specter which has infiltrated the ‘original’ Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian imagery that line Dulwich’s walls. Indeed, it is impossible not to shudder at that seemingly innocuous question: ‘have you found the replica?’ in an exhibition entitled Made in China.
Xueli Wang is an MA student a the Courtauld.
Made in China is on at Dulwich Picture gallery until 26 April, and the fake will be reveal 28 April 2015.Categories: Courtauld Critics | Tags: Dulwich, fake, Performance, Public involvement | Comments Off
Since 2012, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale has turned Fort Kochi, a vibrant town overlooking the Arabian Sea, into a pivotal location for India’s contemporary art scene. The 2014 Whorled Explorations Biennale, curated by artist Jitish Kallat, showcases the work of 94 artists from 30 countries. The eight venues include public spaces; warehouses facing the sea; and colonial heritage properties. Kochi, believed to coincide with the location of Muziris, an ancient port on the Silk Route, was occupied over the centuries as strategic trading site by the Portuguese, British, Dutch and Arab.
The curator aimed to use the town as a debate and observation platform to investigate the “mysterious expedition of planet Earth”. Between the 14th and 17th centuries Kerala’s School of Astronomy and Mathematics’ advanced practices investigated human existence within the infinite universe. In the “Age of Discovery” explorers and merchants, early agents of globalisation, stretched the then-known World’s boundaries, conquering and colonising. The exhibition interweaves “the bygone with the immanent, the terrestrial with the celestial”, combining these fascinating, current themes, starting from their history. The Biennale’s heterogeneous international and local audience is particularly striking: Fort Kochi’s history as a cultural meeting point revived as the town welcomes the contemporary art world.
Kallat’s ambitious conceptual framework is strengthened by the architecture and history of the buildings within which the exhibition unfolds; its themes are interlaced across venues, but also relate specifically to each heritage property’s history. Aspinwall House, a 19th-century warehouse established by an English trading company, hosts the majority of the artworks. The fascinating video work Power of Ten (1977) by Charles and Ray Eames opens the exhibition, addressing the limits of human perception and the vastness of the cosmos. Marie Velardi’s Future Perfect (2006) draws a map in time across the 21st Century, offering viewers a “memory of the future”. These pieces set binary oppositions which will be keys to interpret the whole festival.
The presence of elements recalling the conceptual framework’s celestial and journey-themed references is, at times, redundant. However, Aspinwall House’s display is engaging and permeated by evocative pieces. Effective example of the recurring theme of the whorl, Anish Kapoor’s water-vortex Descension (2014), destabilises viewers, recalling the fear of the unknown. The ship is interestingly used as a metaphor in Kahlil Rabah’s photo rendering Bioproduct (2010), depicting a Gaza Strip-shaped aircraft carrier, and in Dinh Q. Lê’s installation Erasure (2011), which narrates the forced displacement of Vietnamese people. Chen Chieh-jen’s Realm of Reverberations (2014) powerfully documents the lives and memories of former patients of a Taiwanese asylum, an attempt to resist collective amnesia. David Hall, former military accommodation and battlefield, houses conflict-themed impressive works; Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Pan-anthem (2014), an interactive installation, relates national identities and patriotism with military spending’s statistics.
The Biennale succeeds in tying together a diverse selection of thoughtful works. The exhibition encourages reflection on the topical theme of globalisation and its history, with an emphasis on Kochi’s local reality, confirming this Biennale as a spot-to-watch for the global contemporary art scene.
Giulia Sartori Conte is an MA student at the Courtauld.
The Kochi Biennial is open until March, 29th 2015.Categories: Courtauld Critics | Tags: Biennale, contemporary, India, Nature | Comments Off
The title of Piano Nobile’s current exhibition of John Golding’s 1960s abstract paintings is a nod to the artist’s seminal work in the field of art history, Paths to the Absolute, which brought together his A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts series, given at Princeton in 1997. This rich yet accessible account analyses the deep spiritual quest taken by seven giants of twentieth-century abstract painting. Tracing the distinct journeys of each artist as they move from figuration to abstraction, Golding reveals that despite the differing methods and beliefs, these painters shared a common goal to attain an ‘absolute’ pictorial truth. For each of them, subliminal exploration and artistic experimentation were inextricable. Similarly, Golding’s painting also began in the world of figuration before moving gradually and thoughtfully through several abstract idioms. The works in ‘Finding the Absolute’ are significant in that they represent Golding’s earliest forays into the language of abstraction, a pursuit he would continue to develop and refine over the next three decades.
Most of the works in the exhibition at Kings Place are on show for the first time in over forty years, yet they exude a freshness of spirit and maintain a thoughtful dialogue with the current revival of interest in abstract art. The paintings stand out as strong, lively statements in bold colour, yet they are characterised by a combination of complexity and multi-layered simplicity, as well as an attention to detail that demands closer looking—a practice that Golding also advocated in his formalist approach to art history. At first, the colours seem solid and opaque, but then the subtleties of their dappled surfaces begin to appear, offering a sense of atmospheric depth. The exhibition space is unique in that it allows the individual works to interact with each other across the large atrium and its adjoining hallways. Likewise, the hanging of the works animates a rhythmic energy of rebounding shapes and colours that goes hand in hand with the coinciding music programme of ‘Minimalism Unwrapped’ at Kings Place.
Professor Paul Greenhalgh — current director of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art and former student of Golding — introduced the exhibition on Friday night, taking the opportunity to celebrate the Kings Place show, as well as to announce another exhibition centred on Golding opening at the SCVA this weekend. ‘Abstraction and the Art of John Golding’ draws from their impressive collection to present a diverse survey of the origins and development of abstract art at the beginning of the twentieth century alongside a selection of canvasses by Golding.
Although his overwhelming success in the field of art history often overshadows his work as a painter, it was on the latter that Golding based his career and for which he wished to be remembered. With these two shows, Golding’s painterly responses to the materials, methods, and monumentality of his objects of academic study take their places among the giants of the abstract painting that he described so eloquently.
Jenna Lundin is a PhD student at the Courtauld.
John Golding: Finding the Absolute is at Piano Nobile, Kings Place until 4 April, 2015Categories: Courtauld Critics | Tags: Abstract, art history, British art, contemporary, Kings Place, Piano Nobile | Comments Off
The Whitechapel Gallery has turned what might have been the Sisyphean curatorial endeavour (and tortuous viewing experience) of revisiting a century of geometric abstraction into a thoughtful, engaging exhibition. Adventures of the Black Square‘s greatest strength lies in its presentation of early-20th-century avant-garde art. This is because it avoids hagiography from the very beginning: greeting the visitor with a work smaller than an A4 sheet of paper, Malevich’s Black Quadilateral of 1915. The exhibition by no means denies the heroism of the Constructivists or Suprematists, but it is resolutely uninterested in re-telling a familiar story and instead chooses to let the pieces tell their own in an appropriately iconoclastic way.
This is an exhibition that is interested not in grandstanding, but in education, as evidenced by the content-driven wall texts that accompany the pieces on display in the first part of the exhibition. These are informative and avoid making blanket ideological statements. Viewers are told, for example, that the Latvian artist Gustav Klutsis, whose striking 1922 designs for loudspeakers are included in the hang, participated in the October Revolution but was shot on Stalin’s orders in 1938. They are not, however, expected to acquiesce to platitudes, or make flash judgments of their own.
The international focus of the exhibition is also noteworthy. While on one hand, the curators’ decision to include not only lesser-known Europeans (ever heard of André Cadere, an itinerant Romanian artist who was best known in the 1970s European art community for leaving cylindrical wooden batons behind in the corners of other people’s exhibitions?), but also contemporaneous artists from present-day India, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Pakistan. While this is admirable and long-overdue, here the exhibition could have used some more context. It opts for a generic tale of ‘alternate modernities’ where it could have told a compelling story about geopolitics. This story deserves a closer look, especially given the globalized scope of the second half of the exhibition.
The Whitechapel Gallery has devoted its whole second floor to a post-1969 continuation of the story of geometric abstraction. There is a certain amount of welcome leveling that happens on the second floor where, for example, an Israeli artist and a Palestinian counterpart are included on equal footing, and internationally-recognized art stars hang next to those only emerging or under-recognized. Some of this seems a bit facile, however, as when Social Practice artists and makers of high-priced baubles, sometimes on a social theme, Liam Gillick and Andrea Zittel are allowed to speak for the ‘reclamation’ of Constructivist ethos, or simply hasty. Perhaps it is because the way in which historiographers are still writing the late-20th century is too fraught with political tension that Adventures of the Black Square sidesteps specific references to international relations, contemporary economic practices, or even the entrenchment of the contemporary art world within the globalized economy. Here, however, the black square escapes its handlers.
Patricia Manos is an MA student at the Courtauld
Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915–2015 is at the Whitechapel Gallery until 6 April 2015.Categories: Courtauld Critics | Tags: Abstract, Constructivism, contemporary, Global art, Malevich, Modern, Whitechapel | Comments Off
The (re-) appropriation of Pop Art as an international movement is experiencing a resurgent moment. Until 3rd March, the Saatchi Gallery is presenting a major exhibition: ‘Post Pop: East Meets West’, exploring Pop art since the 1960s. This show gathers artists from around the globe whose artistic vision has been formed partly in response to the Pop aesthetic. The 256 works on display have been arranged thematically rather than by nation or chronologically. The first of these themes, ‘Habitat’, deals with domestic spaces and their associated content: for instance Ai Weiwei’s marble sculpture of an armchair. Notions of comfort are undermined by Ai’s unconventional choice of material, which introduces a sense of grandeur and an edge of humour. This contrasts with one of Rachel Whiteread’s signature negative-space plaster casts: here of a mattress; alluding to traces of human activity and evoking a sense of contemplation and loss.
The subsequent theme, ‘Advertising and Consumerism’, focuses on the rise of consumerism witnessed in America and Britain following years of wartime and post-war austerity, as artists readily appropriated identifiable imagery from mass media, commercial advertising and popular culture. For Chinese and Russian artists, the embrace of a market-led economy raises significant tensions between the binary poles of communist idealism and western materialism. In Wang Guangyi’s Great Criticism: Benetton (1992), the tension between the potent legacy of socialist propaganda and the powerful allure of advertising is easily felt. He combines the Benetton logo with a group of heroic-looking proletarians, drawing on imagery associated with the Cultural Revolution. Other works include a row of Mao-Zedong themed arcade consoles by Feng Mengbo and a vitrine filled with floating basketballs by Jeff Koons.
From there, the exhibition progresses through such themes as ‘Celebrity and Mass Media’, ‘Art History’, ‘Religion and Ideology’ and ‘Sex and the Body’. Certain iconic figures recur throughout including Mao, Marilyn, Elvis, Lenin and Stalin. One of the most haunting pieces is an installation by Sergey Shutov of 12 shrouded figures ‘worshipping’ before large slices of bread, created in wood by a fellow Russian artist, Anatoly Osmolovsky. A further room is filled with Gu Wenda’s vast installation, ‘United Nations – Man and Space’, representing national flags made from human hair. Also worth noting is Andres Serrano’s infamous Piss Christ (1987), a photograph of a crucifix in what is purported to be the artist’s own urine.
Often deliberately shocking, ‘kitsch’ and utterly bizarre, ‘Post Pop’ left me wondering what Clement Greenberg would have to say about it all – personally, I’m very glad that I didn’t have to take any of it home with me! Bringing together art from around the world, this exhibition offers viewers a rare chance to make comparisons between the work of artists from fundamentally different cultures and ideological backgrounds. It will be interesting to compare this approach by the Saatchi Gallery to the upcoming take on the movement by the Tate: ‘The World Goes Pop’, coming to Bankside in autumn 2016 .
Clare Lamport is a third-year BA student at the Courtauld.
Post Pop: East Meets West is at the Saatchi Gallery until 3 March 2015. Entry is free.
Categories: Courtauld Critics | Tags: Ai Weiwei, contemporary art, East and west, pop art, popular culture, Rachel Whiteread, Saatchi Gallery, Toast, World art | Comments Off
The Courtauld’s visiting scholars programme this term brought us the current curator of Early Netherlandish and German paintings at the Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Stephan Kemperdick. His three-day takeover of the Research Forum proved immensely popular, especially the opening lecture in the Kenneth Clark lecture theatre: packed-out with people eager to know “What Happened Around 1430?” The answer to this intriguingly question-marked lecture title was quite simple: Jan van Eyck. Stephan showed how van Eyck’s painting of what he saw rather than simply what he knew rippled throughout Europe: albeit less “intellectual” painters who copied his motifs, such as cast shadows, rather than observing Nature for themselves.
The following day we visited the Victoria and Albert Museum Cast Courts with Stephan for a look at Early Gothic Sculpture. Essentially, we looked at fold style for about two hours: an indulgently obscure way for a group of art historians spend a morning. The stiff, decorative V-folds of the effigies of Henry II and Richard the Lionheart from Fontevraud Abbey we contrasted with a smaller, unknown queen who is often thought to be of the same series. Usually identified as Isabella, consort of King John, who died in 1246, she posed a problem. The much deeper, naturalistic folds that suggest the body underneath clearly separated her from the late-twelfth-century English kings, but also not advanced enough for the more monumental style of the mid-thirteenth-century. A look at Romanesque sculpture, such as the façade of Santiago de Compostella, revealed supposedly ‘Gothic’ ideas of folds in contrast to the alleged firmly “Gothic” Fontevraud monuments. We also had a good long look at the extraordinary Ecclesia and Synagogue from the south transept of Strasbourg Cathedral: both in their technical skill and their surprising sultriness.
For his final talk, Stephan filled the Research Forum room to give an afternoon seminar of the history of the reception of the Ghent Altarpiece after its completion. What emerged from his study of the early accounts of the altarpiece – including Albrecht Dürer’s visit in 1521 – is that all of the viewers saw the altarpiece in its open state. Many of them seem to have visited on weekdays (it’s always special to realise an art-historical event happened on a Tuesday), outside of major feasts, when the altarpiece would be firmly shut. This meant that these viewers were considering the altarpiece entirely from an artistic perspective: never including the outsides of the shutters, which were presumably returned to its normal closed state after the tourists’ departures. However, the copy by Michel Coxcie, made for Phillip II of Spain and now split between Brussels and Berlin, Stephan showed was keen to replicate the work as a liturgical object. Not only were the folding wings included, but the original donors were replaced with the Evangelists: showing that function was valued over the precise subjects. After a good question session, Stephan’s visit concluded – as most things do at the Courtauld – with wine, and reflections on what had been a very stimulating few days.Categories: Research Rhythms | Tags: Ghent Altarpiece, Gothic Art, Jan van Eyck, Medieval, Netherlandish Art, Sculpture, Visiting curator, Visiting scholar | Comments Off
The Mission of a Contemporary Parsifal?: How Christoph Schlingensief opened up the wounds of a traumatised Germany’
BY WILL ATKIN
Christoph Schlingensief’s 1982 film Für Elise sets a bleak scene. A lone man stands in the middle of a provincial street on top of a thick blanket of snow. As the man lifts a trumpet to his mouth and begins to play, the camera pans out to reveal the full extent of the scene: where black, skeletal trees line the street on either side; and dark, hunched figures shuffle and trudge through the frozen crust on the pavement. In fits and starts, the man crudely plays Das Deutschlandlied, the longstanding German national anthem composed by Joseph Haydn. But this public display of nationalistic pomp is strangled by its vacuous setting. The warm and wholesome sound of the trumpet is strained in the thin, chilled air. The optimistic tone of the tune is absurd in this god-forsaken winter scene (complete with a hobbling street cleaner). And the implied message of the song – “Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles…” – seems totally incomprehensible and misplaced; both in its stunted recital and in relation to its disinterested audience. The man’s playing is simultaneously inept, insignificant, inappropriate and invisible. His feeble ode to Germany fails to strike a chord with the people in the street. The old national identity conjured up by Das Deutschlandlied is dead and gone, and the scene is saturated with an icy air of melancholy.
Sarah Hegenbart’s paper in the Courtauld’s Research Forum explored how Christoph Schlingensief’s early works in film wrestled with Germany’s post-war identity and its burden of collective guilt. Via Sigmund Freud’s ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1917) and Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich’s The Inability to Mourn (1967), the seminar traced how Schlingensief’s films immersed themselves in this state melancholy in order to enact the ‘necessary’ depression advised in the psychoanalytical literature: facing the past in order to break through it. After observing this melancholy in early works like Für Elise and Menu Total (1986), Sarah’s paper identified this melancholic period’s conclusion as manifest in the compassionate breakthrough in Schlingensief’s later projects, such as his staging of Parsifal in Bayreuth, 2004-2007, and his on-going Opera Village project in Burkina Faso.
The theoretical perspective of the paper generated some fascinating discussion around questions of how psychoanalytical frames can be applied to collective identities and nations. Overall, however, the paper’s sensitive engagement with the moralistic value of Schlingensief’s work and the message of his career was less open to debate: whereby, after his tormented grappling with the dark days of Germany’s Nazi past, his later work amounted to a plea for love, love at all costs.Categories: Research Rhythms | Comments Off
From the Forest to the Sea brilliantly turns the disadvantages of Dulwich Picture Gallery’s small exhibition space into an opportunity: the gallery’s long vista — a corridor rather than an enfilade of rooms — and its changing wall colours firmly encourage visitors’ progress from green to blue, from dark to light, from the forest to the sea. To Canadian artist Emily Carr, movement was life. As she wrote in her diary: ‘I think trees love to toss and sway; they make such happy noises.’ Such organic, undulating movement animates both her paintings and this exhibition, which eschews chronology to weave a looping narrative.
The exhibition opens with paintings of trees dated to the 1930s, near the end of Carr’s life. Dynamic but earnest, the forest is used to present the landscape of British Columbia, rather than to introduce the artist herself. Yet if the paintings are clearly spontaneous, they are not artless: echoes of Kandinsky, Orphism and Cubism reveal Carr’s European training. Next to the forest paintings, a display case with North-western aboriginal artefacts sets the scene further; documenting the artistic legacy of Canada’s natives became Carr’s avowed mission in 1907 when she discovered their totem-poles and sculpture during an holiday in Alaska.
The illustrated diary she kept on this trip has recently uncovered in a collector’s basement and is exhibited for the first time. It is open to the pages of the artist’s first encounter with a totem pole: behatted but overwhelmed, Emily and her sister gape at the reliefs helpfully described by their chaperone. The focus in on aboriginal art, yet the scene is one of refined European gentility. Here, as in most of Carr’s works, aboriginal people are absent. Artworks alone are memorialised and pre-emptively ‘musealised’, if with deep-felt longing for what she described as a ‘broader,’ ‘piercing’ art.
The disappearance of people is a problem for the exhibition itself: comparing the painting Blunden Harbour with the ethnographic photograph on which it is based, a wall-panel concludes: ‘…she transformed it [the photograph] in curious ways…’. If cautious in revealing Carr’s blind spots, the exhibition’s texts are nuanced in their presentation of aboriginal objects: as the exhibition’s curators were advised by the Haida chief and master carver James Hart, the inferences of Western anthropology are sometimes contradicted by native interpretations.
Carr is best known for her depictions of aboriginal art, but this was not the only focus of her long career. Indeed, the exhibition opens and closes with images of nature, often sketched close to the painter’s home. As the room ‘Knowledge and Experimentation’ reveals, Carr continuously re-interpreted this familiar nature in the light of her changing personal and stylistic interests. Nothing expresses this more clearly than the exhibition’s final juxtaposition of Beacon Hill Park (1909) with Broom Beacon Hill (1937). The artist said it herself: ‘Everything is green. Everything is waiting and still. Slowly things begin to move, to slip into their places…. Colours that you had not noticed come out, timidly or boldly.’
Costanza Beltrami is an MA student at the Courtauld.
From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 8 March 2015.Categories: Courtauld Critics | Tags: Aboriginal art, Canada, Monograph, painting | Comments Off
Pilgrims, Healers, and Wizards: Buddhism and Religious Practices in Burma and Thailand (British Museum)
It is easy to forget that curatorial control is not absolute. During the preparations for any show project curators must contend with numerous obstacles. These might include time constraints, lack of high quality objects or works of lasting significance, as well as gaps in the collection, from material illustrations to knowledge about the provenance or exact utility of enigmatic objects. Moreover, many of these obstacles arise well before considerations of public duty, both to those who view the displays, and to those who may be represented in them. Arguably such difficulties become more pronounced when an exhibition strives to provide audiences with insights into the wealth of recent and contemporary histories of unfamiliar cultures.
Pilgrims, Healers, and Wizards appears plagued by many of these issues. Alexandra Green, the recently appointed Henry Ginsburg Curator for Southeast Asia, has clearly fought an uphill battle against the British Museum’s neglect for expansion and upkeep of its collections from the regions of Thailand and Burma. To be sure, the display contains some noteworthy objects. These include a large and intricately carved Buddha’s footprint, a late nineteenth-century Burmese cosmology manuscript, and an early 1900s stucco figure of a Shan strong man, whose confident demeanor is reinforced by the highly stylized tattoos that cover his body, revealing him as a man of spiritual and physical fortitude.
However, the low aesthetic value of many works in the show draws attention away from these higher quality pieces. Contemporary popular posters, though of religious significance for modern day Thai and Burmese Buddhists, mostly appear cartoonish and overly standardized. These features distract from the underlying sentiment portrayed, for instance, in a reverse glass painting showing the nat spirit U Min Kyaw Zwa. Infamously regarded today as an alcoholic cock-fighter, but also a horseman of considerable skill, he is almost nobly depicted while surrounded by his favorite amusements.
The true strength of Ms. Green’s curatorial skill reveals itself in her reimagining of the purposes of Buddhist exhibitions. Her focus on ‘how the principal religious systems in the region are revealed in lively daily practices’ can be transformative. Flanking the entrance to the exhibit, a display case features modern-day shrine offerings; whether a ‘money tree’, or dish soap, snacks and juice boxes, the items may elicit laughter, but also help us to focus on the sincerity of common religious practices. They serve as reminders that Buddhism is a living religion adaptable to the demands of present times.
Indeed, the show comes at a politically strained moment for politics in the region, just on the heels of a military coup in Thailand. These sorts of social disturbances risk the continuity and development of lived practices, while also affecting the way those cultures are represented abroad (witness the original title for the show, Power and Protection, a phrase found peppered around the exhibit, was deemed inappropriate by the British Museum in light of current events). That the two circumstances are intertwined makes for an exhibit that is more powerful than the sum of its arts.
Ethan A. Perets is a MA student at the Courtauld Institute where he studies the history and conservation of Buddhist art.
Pilgrims, Healers, and Wizards: Buddhism and Religious Practices in Burma and Thailand is at the British Museum until 11th January 2015.Categories: Courtauld Critics | Tags: art and politics, British Museum, Buddhist art, contemporary | Comments Off