From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia (Dulwich Picture Gallery)

Emily Carr, In the Forest, B.C., c. 1935, oil on paper, mounted on multi-ply paperboard, Overall: 45.8 x 30.2 cm (18 1/16 x 11 7/8 in.), Frame: 63.2 x 48.1 cm (24 7/8 x 18 15/16 in.). ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO, Bequest of Professor Kathleen Coburn, 2004, 2004/128

Emily Carr, In the Forest, B.C., c. 1935, oil on paper, mounted on multi-ply paperboard, ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO, Bequest of Professor Kathleen Coburn, 2004, 2004/128

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.

Emily Carr, Totem and Forest, 1931, oil on canvas, 129.3 x 56.2 cm, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Emily Carr Trust, VAG 42.3.1, Photo: Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art

Emily Carr, Totem and Forest, 1931, oil on canvas, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Emily Carr Trust, VAG 42.3.1, Photo: Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art

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.

Emily Carr, Blunden Harbour, c. 1930, Oil on canvas, 129.8 x 93.6 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Photo © NGC

Emily Carr, Blunden Harbour, c. 1930, Oil on canvas, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Photo © NGC

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.

Pilgrims, Healers, and Wizards: Buddhism and Religious Practices in Burma and Thailand (British Museum)

Figure of a Shan tattooed man of strength. Mong Nai, Shan state, Burma/Myanmar, Late 1800s to early 1900s. Stucco (As1930, 1018.1). © Trustees of the British Museum

Figure of a Shan tattooed man of strength. Mong Nai, Shan state, Burma/Myanmar, Late 1800s to early 1900s. Stucco (As1930, 1018.1). © Trustees of the 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.

Reverse glass painting of the nat spirit U Min Kyaw Zwa about 1990. Burma/Myanmar. Pigment and foils on glass (1996, 0507, 0.6). Donated by Ralph and Ruth Isaacs. © Trustees of the British Museum.

Reverse glass painting of the nat spirit U Min Kyaw Zwa about 1990. Burma/Myanmar. Pigment and foils on glass (1996, 0507, 0.6). Donated by Ralph and Ruth Isaacs. © Trustees of the British Museum.

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.

Magiciens De La Terre

BY LEVI PROMBAUM

In the second installment of the autumn 2014 Frank Davis Memorial Lecture Series, Professor Sarah Wilson considered Centre Pompidou’s re-staging of its seminal exhibition Magiciens De La Terre on the occasion of its 25th anniversary. Wilson began the lecture by proposing that both artworks and exhibitions could change one’s understanding of time. Outside the entrance to the original Magiciens show, Neil Dawson’s steel sculptural installation Globe (1989) depicted an earth with its own pulse and tremendous fragility. It underlined some of the concerns about time and space that energised dialogues between post-structuralist theory and global visual practice in the 1980s and 1990s. Wilson’s lecture situated Magiciens, a show that brazenly sought to challenge Eurocentric values with a survey of contemporary art practice and intercultural exchange on a global scale, within a wider moment that reconceived ideas of virtuality, globalism and memory.

Wilson first placed Magiciens in a series of efforts leading up to 1989 that explored the variety of artistic exchanges in Paris during the first half of the twentieth century, including the Pompidou’s 1981 ‘Paris-Paris’ and Centre de la Vieille Charite’s 1986 exhibition La Planète affolée.  These exhibitions, reflected other efforts to reimagine roles for history and the objects that express it. In this regard, one seminal exhibition was Jean Lyotard’s 1985 Les Immatériaux, a companion to his theoretical articulations of postmodernity that favored interactions between sound and technology, the charged exhibition space and its curatorial documents, rather than experiences of discrete objects.  Wilson reread some of the objects in Magiciens relationally rather than discretely, celebrating lesser known works by artists including Clido Mereles, Huang Yong Ping and Ilya Kabakov. With this remembering in mind she discussed the organization of Jacques Derrida’s lecture ‘The Concept of the Archive: A Freudian Impression’ (later renamed Archive Fever) at the Freud Museum in 1994.

Using Derrida’s idea that archives are both violent and tender, Wilson turned to the problems and successes of reconstruction of Archive Fever, Les Immateriaux and Magiciens. While the symposium ’20 Years of Archive Fever’ brought back many original participants with new webs of recollections as well as homages to Derrida and his legacies, the Les Immatériaux reconstruction at Kunstverein Düsseldorf offered clarity at the expense of the original show’s energy. To describe Magicien’s restaging, Wilson used painting metaphors. Towards anamorphosis, the show featured disorientations in scale as well as different emphases and juxtapositions. Towards vanitas, Magiciens offered poignant reminiscences of the art world of 1989 as well as an opportunity to affirm its values to a new set of viewers.

While leaving the lecture, audience members were given a poem by Miklós Erdély called ‘Time Mobius’, that spoke about processes of construction and reconstruction at the heart of learning. The last lines declare, ‘Beware of yourself/ That Readying is Ready Already’. By returning to the original circumstances of these exhibitions, and treating exhibitions and artworks as memory devices that activate multiple histories, Wilson’s lecture showed how these self-critical endeavors have been ‘ready already’ for future generations of viewers and readers.

Germany – Memories of a Nation: a 600-year history in objects (British Museum)

Georg Baselitz Eagle, 1977. Paper Print © Georg Baselitz 2014

Georg Baselitz Eagle, 1977. Paper Print © Georg Baselitz 2014

Entering the dimly lit exhibition space for “Germany – Memories of a Nation” feels exciting, as does being greeted by a video installation of the fall of the Berlin Wall, people on the street celebrating, driving in old trabants and waving blissfully at the camera. Germany is united again! Yet, celebrations are accompanied by a somewhat gloomy quote from Georg Baselitz, whose Eagle unpretentiously finds its space in the corner: “What I could never escape was Germany, and being German.” What is one to expect?

Albrecht Dürer Melancholia, 1514. Engraving © British Museum

Albrecht Dürer Melancholia, 1514. Engraving © British Museum

 

The somewhat confusing messages at the entrance are soon replaced by a celebratory mood with the following displays. Muted green and blue walls accentuating the old nation’s wealth with paintings by Hans Holbein the Younger and softly lit vitrines inhabited by ancient maps, precious coins, beakers and tankards all allude to the great history of the Holy Roman Empire and the many cities it contained. They used to be German – but are no longer. It is only through the objects themselves that the complexity of “German” identity is implied, one that does not necessarily correspond with either historical or contemporary national boundaries.

The objects on display are often rather splendid choices, and really do show the best of German culture: a Gutenberg Bible, Dürer’s magnificent prints, Bauhaus designs and post-war works by Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter. It is obvious from the display and its presentation that this is a celebration of a culture looking to reinvent itself, perfectly executed after Erich Hobsbawm’s “Invention of Tradition.” Encapsulated in this aim seems to be a need to emphasise that Germany is more than what happened between 1938 and 1945, or even between 1914 and 1989. The miniscule part of the exhibition that deals with the First and Second World War and the country’s East-West division seems unnecessarily cut short, although the replica of the entrance gate to Buchenau is well placed in a harshly lit corner, evoking the bleak horrors of the concentration camps.

Exhibition Poster “Germany – memories of a nation” at Entrance of British Museum © Julia Secklehner

Exhibition Poster “Germany – memories of a nation” at Entrance of British Museum © Julia Secklehner

In light of the fact that more recent history tends to be at the forefront of people’s minds, the exhibition tackles the last 70 years of Germany’s history like it was just a little glimpse in its greatness. And while this may have been done purposefully so to show “what else there is,” it seems ignorant at the worst, or as a diminishment of what happened at the best. In reference to the exhibition title, we are shown quite clearly what “Germany” wants to remember and, more strikingly, what it doesn’t. In a sense, this marks the exhibition as authentic- why remember all the horror if there is also a more glorious history to commemorate? But it also raises questions of historical responsibility, which remain unanswered here.

An exhibition spanning over 600 years inevitably requires abbreviation. But where to abbreviate in this context is crucial, and I am unsure whether the resulting overview of objects does “the German powerhouse” justice.

Julia Secklehner is a PhD student at the Courtauld Institute working on national identities in caricature in interwar Central Europe.

“Germany – Memories of a Nation” is at the British Museum until 25 January 2015.