Iran’s Generation X, known as Nasl-e Sokhte, encompasses those born between 1963 and 1980. They are known as ‘The Burnt Generation’, born to an epoch bookended with the events of The 1979 Iranian Revolution and the Iran/Iraq war. The human and material spoils of conflict and talismans of everyday life appear scattered through the images in the Terrace Rooms. The spheres constantly encroach on one another in a display that aims to show the inner realities, both public and personal, of modern Iranian society. The featured contemporary photographers, each of whom has lived and worked in Iran, operate through varied means: from documentary and photojournalism, to portraits and more conceptual work. They unite in a bleak neutrality of palette, lining walls in shades of brown, grey and black. It is punctured only by the suspended bulbs of green from Abbas Kowsari’s Lights series, the traditional colour of Islam in glowing neon, which line the neighbourhoods of Tehran in festivity.
Burnt Generation opens with two voyeuristic glances into this interior world. Ali and Raymar’s series We Live in a Paradoxical Society shows scenes from a life glimpsed through the doorframes of Iranian families. Characters enter and leave vignettes of kitchen-sink realism. Pathos is located unexpectedly in the half eaten watermelon on the arm of the chair and the act of a father breaking an egg into a pan whilst cooking with his sons. The series is mirrored by Newsha Tavakolian’s Look, whose solitary unhappy birthday party for one distils the dissolution of the burnt generation itself. The element of social documentary in Look attests to Tavakolian’s vocation as a photojournalist, turning her experience as an eighteen-year-old chronicler of student uprisings to the subject of her neighbours. From the window of her apartment block in Tehran, the interior pictures were captured at precisely 8pm over a period of six months. The newspapers, shirts and handkerchiefs that litter the furniture of the subjects’ homes are as crumpled as their expressions. Looking closely at the cold-toned portraits, you can see the men have been crying too. The domestic thread is culminated in Babak Kazemi’s affecting Khoramshahr Number by Number: a series of double exposures of number plates from a town located on the Iran/Iraq border that experienced eight years of war.
Azadeh Aklaghi’s restages dramatic and mysterious deaths from modern Iranian history in the series By An Eyewitness. The scenes combine the dimensional compositional tricks of a Caravaggio with the dramatic juncture of Goya’s The Third of May 1808. Sadegh Tirafkhan grazes the curves of the male body with calligraphic brush strokes, inspired by body painting practices amongst ancient pre-Achaemenian kings. Letters follow the lines of movement across the masculine form, evoking traces of traditional gymnastic ritual practiced at a Zoorkhaneh. Tirafkhan’s work is perhaps the most traditionally referential and least bleak on display. Overall, Burnt Generation presents a dark but innovative look at the growing pains of the Nasl-e Sokhte.
Natasha Morris is an MA student at the Courtauld.
Burnt Generation is on at the Terrace Rooms at Somerset House until 1st June 2014.Categories: Courtauld Critics | Tags: Photography Contemporary Iran Youth | Comments Off
Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice is the first monographic exhibition of the artist’s work to be held in the UK. The expansive selection of works clearly aims to reposition the master alongside his better known Venetian counterparts Titian and Giorgione; not only to introduce him spectacularly to the British public, but also to emphasise his importance in an art historical context.
The artist’s deft navigation of the colore/disegno (colour/line) debate is immediately striking. The poetic, colour-loving Venetian Renaissance tradition is apparent, but Veronese doesn’t trump line with colour. Instead the exhibition highlights his characteristic depiction of bright, jewel-coloured figural groups against soft-hued background scenes and pale stone architecture. Perhaps Veronese’s early beginnings as a stone cutter can account for his intense interest in these detailed settings. The bold juxtaposition of colours cordons-off the registers of foreground action and background location to imbue the figures with a heightened presence, saturated with life, particularly evident in works such as The Supper at Emmaus (c. 1555) and The Family of Darius before Alexander (c. 1565-7).
The exhibition describes these chromatic juxtapositions in terms of the “theatricality” of stage sets, as if Veronese’s figures have congregated in tableaux against pastel-hued backdrops. There is certainly a sense of contrivance to Veronese’s colour choices, however beyond the “pomp” and “magnificence” which the National Gallery describes the artist’s continual contrasts produce bodies that are suffused with life and fabrics that are illusionistically tangible.
Veronese’s depiction of light is also shown to be crucial to his work. Throughout the exhibition, contrasting light depictions emphasize the different exquisitely rendered textures of luminous silks, plush velvets and the soft, powder-finish of skin. In the final room, Veronese’s late works of the 1580s emphasize the joyous use of light in his earlier works, as somewhat dulled, enigmatic figures, such as Lucretia (c. 1580-5), now emerge from dense and darkened backgrounds. These works seemingly signal a general move towards a fashion for darkened scenes, most famously taken up by Caravaggio in the 1590s.
Overwhelmingly, the exhibited works seem to present Veronese as an important transitional figure, whose life and work spanned the artistic developments of the High Renaissance. The influence of Titian and Raphael are clear; as is Veronese’s impact on the work of Rubens. A wander through the National Gallery’s display of Rubens after visiting the exhibition is certainly recommended; a pity that this isn’t suggested in the exhibition itself.
Besides his Venetian colore influences and the move towards chiaroscuro, a number of “split paintings” are on show, in which extra narrative scenes or symbolic registers are included in the background of paintings; the earlier Dream of Saint Helena (c. 1570) is an intriguing example. Predominantly these signal the close links between Northern Italian art and that of the Low Countries during the early modern period, as this was a popular narrative device in the Netherlands, intended to stimulate contemplation.
Veronese is rewarding viewing, both for its insights into the artistic developments of the 16th century and the artist’s enthralling visual rhetoric of colour and line.
Susannah Smith is an MA student at the Courtauld.
Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice is at the National Gallery until 15th June 2014.Categories: Courtauld Critics | Tags: painting, Renaissance, Venice | Comments Off
Professor Carol Tulloch’s talk The Quintessential Billie Holiday explored the different ‘style narratives’ created by the famous jazz singer Billie Holiday (1915-59) during her career. As defined by Tulloch, a ‘style narrative’ is a form of ‘self-telling’ which uses specific beauty regimes and forms of dress to articulate the self within daily life. Tulloch noted that style choices are significant both when they depart from contemporary fashion, and when they appropriate mainstream elements, a useful concept when studying Billie Holiday.
For Holiday’s style choices were always both hyper feminine and modern. Accessories such as her iconic gardenia corsage were common in 1930s eveningwear. Even more contemporary was the twinset, which Holiday adopted whilst recording Lady in Satin in 1958. Popularized by Hollywood actresses in the 1930s, the two-piece outfit became a staple 1950s dress. Evidently, the singer favored styles which, in Tulloch’s words were ‘completely appropriate to modernity.’ They identified her as a female dandy. Yet contrary to the association of foppishness usually carried by the term ‘dandy,’ Tulloch argued that Holiday used hyper-feminine dress to turn her decorated black body into a site of social contest.
Tulloch’s analysis of Holiday’s style as a site of contest concentrated on Holiday’s performances of Strange Fruit at Café Society in 1939. The song’s lyrics, originally a poem by Abel Meeropol, are a moving protest against lynching:
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
Holiday’s heartrending performances made the song unforgettable. Her performances can be analyzed though Roland Barthes’ concept of ‘grain of the voice,’ a form of sensual communication which circumvents the limits of the linguistic sphere through the intimate connection of body, music and words. Body, in Holiday’s performances, meant face. At the beginning of Strange Fruit all stage lights were dimmed to a pinhole, concentrating the spectators’ gazes on the singer’s lineaments, hair and gardenia corsage.
The legend goes that Holiday first wore the corsage to cover a patch of burnt hair which she had burnt preparing for a show whilst drunk. This story chimes with the popular myth that Holiday could not sing without alcohol or drugs. Arguing against this interpretation, Tulloch presented the corsage as integral to Strange Fruit’s performance. Drawing attention to the singer’s face, the flowers gave visibility to the tears Holiday always shed when performing. Thus, they emphasized the song’s resonance with Billie Holiday’s own life, especially the death of her father. Tulloch further explored the song’s sense of tragedy with reference to Yinka Shonibare’s Addio del Passato film (2012) and Fake Death pictures (2011).
This lecture clearly demonstrated, in line with the overarching theme of the Documenting Modernity lecture series, that non-fiction films (such as music videos) and documentary images can provide new ways to understand dress, style and visual culture. Yet as the audience’s questions underlined, a wider contextualization of Billie Holiday’s dandyism would have made her conscious style choices easier to register and unpack.Categories: Research Rhythms | Tags: Billie Holiday, Carol Tulloch, dress | Comments Off
The ‘Threads of Protest’ lecture provided a summary of Professor Julia Bryan-Wilson’s current book project entitled Craft Crisis: Handmade Art and Activism since 1970. Examining the issues of labour, hand making and process within late twentieth-century craft practices in the Americas and England, the project relates to Professor Bryan-Wilson’s earlier book Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era, published in 2009. Art Workers discussed the redefinition of artistic labour in minimalism, process, feminist and conceptual art, structured around four case studies including the artistic practice of Carl Andre, Robert Morris, Hans Haacke and Lucy Lippard. The book discussed how these artists constructed their identities as ‘art workers’ through participating in the Art Workers’ Coalition, a short-lived organisation which agitated against the Vietnam War and for artists’ rights, as well as in the New York Art Strike. In Craft Crisis, Professor Bryan-Wilson once again examines the intersections between art and protest through discussing thread and yarn-based works. The talk was structured into two parts: the first mapped the intellectual and conceptual framework for the project, while the second focused on the artistic practice of Chilean born artist Cecilia Vicuña and her relationship to native craft work.
The narrative of Craft Crisis begins in the 1970s and once again applies the case study approach in order to systematise the massive subject of hand making practices. The time frame for this project differs therefore from other recent publications on crafts such as Handmade Nation: The Rise of DIY, Art, Craft and Design (2008), where the highly abbreviated narrative of hand-making processes begins as late as in 1994. This leads to the omitting of many pivotal projects related to the crafts such as Faith Wilding’s Crocheted Environment (1972) created as part of ‘Womanhouse’, a collaborative performance and installation project initiated in 1972 by the founders of the First Feminist Program at the California Institute of Art, Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro. Craft Crisis grows out of the tradition set by Rozsika Parker’s seminal publication entitled The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and The Making of the Feminine (1989) which examined the public and often political connotations of stitchery and fostered the emergence of subsequent craft movements. Framed by this intellectual tradition, Craft Crisis is mainly an archival project which examines moments in history when textiles become pressed into political service.
Exploring the relationships between hand making and world making, the book focuses on case studies such as the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt began in 1987, which forms a highly powerful reminder of the AIDS pandemic. Composed of individual memorial panels, each commemorating a person who died of AIDS, the quilt is the largest community folk art work created to date. Made by both professional artists and amateurs, the quilt epitomises one of the biggest challenges of Professor Bryan-Wilson’s project: to compose a narrative which would look beyond the traditional binary division between the amateur and the professional. Testing this challenge, Professor Bryan-Wilson juxtaposes various artistic and non-artistic practices within each chapter, examining how these can coexist within one narrative.
However, in some cases the binary division is not between the amateur and the professional since much of craft work requires specialised skills, but between the intentionally artistic and the non-artistic. One chapter is dedicated to Chilean arpilleras, colourful patchwork representing daily life which, like the AIDS Quilt, relates fibre to collective memory. Not perceived as art works by their makers, the arpilleras played a vital role during the oppressive Pinochet regime as they were produced for foreign export in order to raise awareness of the political situation in Chile. Craft Crisis discusses them in strict dialogue with the artistic practice of Cecilia Vicuña whose banners made in collaboration with American artist John Dugger supported the Rally for Democracy in Chile in 1974 and largely drew on the tradition of the arpilleras. Since the skills applied by Vicuña and Dugger are similar to these of the traditional arpilleras producers, such a juxtaposition requires a clarification of the relationship between the intentionally artistic and objects created outside of the art context.
Vicuña’s practice also enters in dialogue with the traditional quipu, which were produced from ca 3000 BC across Andean South America. Made of coloured thread from llama or alpaca hair, they assisted in collecting data and keeping records. Further, they served as a representational model to the Incas who perceived the totality of their culture as a structure similar to that of the quipu. In 2006, Vicuña directly referred to the tradition of the quipu through installing twenty-eight streams of blood coloured fleece to the ceiling of the Centro Cultural Palacio de La Moneda in Santiago, Chile. The installation formed a silent protest directed at the Chilean President to preserve the glaciers which form the southern tip of the country. The quipu served here to both draw on ancestral values but also to create a reflection of the current social and economic system which allows for environmental degradation. Criticised by the curators for its large size, Vicuña decided to decrease the installation, displaying what she called a weak version of the work. Through this it referenced the doubling of violence, directed at both nature and art. Furthermore, Vicuña used the remaining red fleece and placed it in the public space in front of the Centro Cultural, rendering the political implications of fibre apparent.
Craft Crisis will examine how identities and political stances are formed through craft work and how these are both constructed within the art context and beyond. Led by a strong collaborative ethos, the materials for this research project include both archival documentation, as well as the testimonies of featured artists and highly skilled craft producers. A highly inclusive approach defines the ethical framework for this project, which even at this early stage provides an inspiring insight and analysis into an alternative mode of world making.Categories: Research Rhythms | Tags: art and politics, craft | Comments Off
Organised by the Cambridge Courtauld Russian Art Centre (CCRAC) in collaboration with the Moscow Lomonosov State University, the two-day conference Exhibit ‘A’. Russian Art: Collection, Exhibitions and Archives was remarkable for its inclusiveness. Papers ranged in scope from the very first collections of icons in the sixteenth century to contemporary exhibitions like Lissitzky-Kabakov: Utopia and Reality, on view at Kunsthaus Gratz until mid-May. Such historical variety was matched by geographical comprehensiveness, as papers focused on art collections from the Central Asian Republics and the ‘Soviet East,’ as well as on artistic centres such as Moscow and St Petersburg. Among the speakers were academics, curators and art collectors, each contributing a different professional viewpoint.
Reflecting this inclusiveness, the conference was organised around themes rather than historical periods. Thus, the first session opened with Dr. Engelina S. Smirnova’s paper on the sixteenth-century displacement of sacred icons from regional centres to Moscow, and finished with Dr. Valery S. Turchin’s analysis of avant-garde artists’ fascination with folk prints, or lubki. Given in Russian, this paper was accompanied by a very clear English translation and by fascinating images, including a photograph of Kandinsky’s Munich apartment with framed lubki on the walls. All the papers in the first session questioned patrons’ motivations in creating a collection. For example, Dr. Alexandr S. Preobrazhenskii analysed how nineteenth-century members of the ‘Old Believers’ religious group used painted marks of ownership to express both their piety and their connoisseurship of valuable icons.
Similar questions informed the second session’s first paper, dedicated to eighteenth-century collections of Russian portrait engravings. Zalina V. Tetermarzova explained that such collections were created to illustrate the country’s history through the personality of its key historical players. One such player was Count Kirill Razumovsky, famously portrayed by Pompeo Batoni in a painting of striking grandeur. A recently rediscovered inventory enabled Vera S. Naumova to reconstruct his extensive art collection. The session was concluded by Dr. Rosalind P. Blakesley’s paper ‘Exhibiting Russian Success?,’ which used the methodology of performance studies to reveal tensions between nationalism and patriotism at the 1770 exhibition of St Petersburg Academy.
The conference’s second day opened with ‘East-west in dialogue in Imperial Russia.’ This session was very heterogeneous, encompassing topics as diverse as Alexandr Ivanov’s painting The Appearance of Christ before the People (1837-1857), the interior decoration of Moscow Museum of Fine Arts, and the legacy of Natalia Goncharova. Most interesting was Louise Hardiman’s discussion of the fascination for Russian decorative arts in late nineteenth-century London. As noted in the paper, this interest was greatly stimulated by the Great Exhibition of 1851, when Russian decorative arts were first displayed in England. Although foreign collectors prized Russian art for its alleged ‘national character,’ the exhibition began a period of real communication and exchange between the South Kensington Museum and the Stroganov School of Technical Drawing in Moscow.
The following section, ‘New State, New Art,’ discussed the importance of artistic tradition in the first decade after the revolution. Dr. Natalia Murray described the reorganisation of St Petersburg’s Winter Palace into both a ‘Palace of Arts’ open to all and a ‘Palace of the Poor’ for orphans. Chronicling the post-revolutionary exhibitions of ‘Silver Age’ groups such as Knave of Diamonds and Fire-Colour, Dr. Alexandra P. Salienko revealed the rich diversity of the 1920s art world, by no means limited to the Constructivist avant-garde.
The next session ‘Centre and Periphery: representing the Soviet nationalities in Moscow’ explored the reception and display of artworks from the USSR’s many cultures during the 1920s and 1930s. Galina E. Abbasova described the popular festivals ‘Decades of National Art,’ which showcased art and theatre from the central Asian republics. Similar in scope was the Museum of Oriental Cultures, whose history was reconstructed by Jenn Brewin. Founded as ‘Art Asiatica’ in 1918, the museum only found lasting state support in 1926, when it became an instrument of Stalinist russification. Concentrating on the Agricultural and Domestic Crafts Exhibition held in Moscow in 1923, Dr. Alina S. Platonova described the less coercive encounter of different cultures and architectural styles in the experimental context of a vast temporary exhibition.
The conference’s last session, ‘Russian Art Abroad,’ was among my favourites. Nicholas Bueno de Mesquita’s paper was particularly interesting as it described an exhibition held at the Hayward Gallery in 1971. Titled Art in Revolution, the show opposed a purely formalistic interpretation of avant-garde art. Thus, it both facilitated the rediscovery of politicised avant-garde architecture and tangibly revealed Cold-War tensions, witness a closed-down reconstruction of El Lissitzky’s Proun room.
All together, the conference was a fantastic opportunity to discover many different facets of Russian art. Focusing on collections and exhibitions, it revealed the importance of art in personal and national self-representation. Encompassing both the production and the reception of artworks, it also offered insights on changing interpretations of Russian art in England and Western Europe.
Categories: Research Rhythms | Tags: CCRAC, Russian art | Comments Off
Jennifer Greenhill’s talk focused on the illustrations of early 20th -century female periodicals, especially the work of American illustrator Coles Phillips (1880-1927). As owner of an advertising agency and illustrator of mass-consumption magazines, Phillips is a fitting character to challenge the prevailing historiographical interpretations of magazine illustration. On one hand, Greenberg and other modernists scorned magazine illustrations as mere kitsch. On the other, many museums display illustrations and magazine covers framed on the walls, like ‘high-art’ paintings. Greenhill certainly considers illustrations art. However, she also focused on their role within magazines, where they can be flipped over, lingered on, or glided through.
Greenhill placed particular importance on the interface between the reader’s body and the printed image. She argued that certain illustrations respond to typical patterns in reading, inviting and expecting specific forms of engagement from their beholders. Although illustrations in early 20th-century magazines generally conformed to the ‘pretty girl’ type and invite a gender analysis, Greenhill’s main focus was on the formal properties of magazine cover-images, which visually compelled the reader to directly interact with the magazine’s materiality.
Reflecting this approach, Greenhill’s lecture featured a number of detailed visual analyses, the most sustained of which focused on Coles Phillips’ 1915 cover design for Good Housekeeping. Showing a young woman immersed in a book, the cover promoted a positive image of the female readership as contemplative and engaged, a representation that was relatively rare at the time. At the same time, the cover also functions as advertisement for the magazine, which was more book-like in its format and more literary in content than its competitors. Uncluttered by text, the cover easily became a collectible, a practice which publishers explicitly encouraged.
Most noticeable in this Good Housekeeping cover is Phillips’ signature fade-out technique. Whilst some forms are described in detail, others lack any outline and merge into the background. Thus, the fade-out technique emphasised two-dimensionality. Yet some parts of the image, like the folds in the woman’s dress, are accurately described and tactile in their three-dimensionality. At the boundary of flatness and illusion, the cover evokes art historian Alois Riegl’s concept of ‘haptic vision.’ Showing Phillips’ sketches along with the printed copy of his designs, Greenhill demonstrated how tactility and openness were already major bconcerns at the pre-production stage.
Titled ‘A Brown Study,’ as in the contemporary phrase denoting a state of deep thought, the 1915 cover puts a commercial spin on the contemporary fascination with psyche and self-discovery, staple themes of the Good Housekeeping. Indeed, Phillips illustrations often challenge the rising popularity of photography, demoting its high-art ambition by emphasising its commercial associations.
Greenhill’s lecture was a work-in-progress for a chapter in a forthcoming book. Yet by tightly basing her arguments on visual evidence, she delivered an inspiring and eye-opening talk.Categories: Research Rhythms | Tags: 20th century, British art, Periodicals, Research Forum, visual arts | Comments Off
People have died in thirty-one separate armed conflicts so far in 2014, the centary year of the outbreak of the Great War, thought at the time to be the war to end all wars. The fact so military conflict continues to claim lives and the approaching anniversary of the start of the Great War, meant that Jay Winter’s seminar ‘War Memorials of the Great War: Britain, France, Germany’ certainly hit home. The very name of the Great War of 1914- permanence and remembrance: to be great, whether for better or for worse, is to be remembered. Yet how does one memorialise war that remains not so great? Conflict memorialisation is riddled with blame and atrocity, therefore how do we remember these events effectively without lessening the horror of the event? And how does it remain current, a message to be passed on to future generations?
The implications of glory and greatness formed one dimension within Winter’s seminar, whilst the other culminated in an exploration of the cult of names that developed as a result of the Great War, as names became substitutes for the deceased; developments in artillery in the early 20th century reshaped modern warfare, rendering the bodies of the deceased unrecognisable. The other half of Winter’s seminar focused on a perhaps unanswerable question: how does one memorialise the lives of five million men who have vanished? To my mind he seemed to highlight the issue of how the memorials that have attempted to do so have in-corporeally vanished in front of our eyes today, receding into landscape of our surroundings.
The questions that formed the core of Winter’s seminar are, in my opinion, unanswerable – and although Winters brought them to light, his attempts to answer them were rooted in his perception of the Great War. The use of names, tangible materiality and the abstraction of monuments seemed to be his answer, derived from the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. The development of warfare has of course progressed even further, if we consider for example the invention of nuclear weapons – more damage can be done, more lives can be lost and this seems to indicate that memorialisation needs to develop to keep pace with these horrific changes in the very nature of warfare.
Categories: Research Rhythms | Tags: Great War, Research Forum, War Memorials, World War I, WWI | Comments Off
For many of us, mention of the Vikings brings up images of ferocious, sword-wielding barbarians who made an everyday habit of killing monks and building very big boats in order to forcefully conquer new lands. The British Museum however promises a reassessment of the popular image in their blockbuster show Vikings: Life and Legend, which is the first on this theme for over 30 years. Capitalising on recent archaeological discoveries and new scholarship, it has set itself up to be a novel and fresh show.
Keen to bust any Viking myths that the visitor might have from the off, the exhibition opens by stating its scope. It covers the period 800-1050 AD and documents the rapid expansion of the Vikings from their Scandinavian homelands to places as far-flung as Spain and Istanbul. In the first two rooms, I was fearful that the British Museum had let ambition forsake focus however, as I was confronted with displays containing Byzantine stone inscriptions next to toy longboats, leading to a disjointed feel. One fellow visitor commented that “it’s like being a Scottish gift shop” whilst we were both looking at a case of Celtic-looking brooches and indeed, the unsuccessful contextualisation did make the artefacts feel distant and void of much meaning.
As the exhibition progresses however, the curating becomes clearer. Thematic sections on court culture, political systems, religion and domestic life paint a picture of the Vikings as a people who approached art in an incredibly sensitive and self-conscious manner. The breadth of mediums they used for image-making was astounding and the exhibition boasts works in stone, metal, wood, glass and ivory. One of the aspects I found most surprising were the insights given by the objects into the personal lives of the Vikings; a particular highlight is a delicately engraved earwax scoop which would have been worn around the owner’s neck as a pendent. On display are also some of the more symbolic objects of the Viking race, such as weapons and the centrepiece of the exhibition, the surviving timbers of a 37-meter-long warship. Feeling simultaneously intimate with the lives of the Vikings and awed by their martial and technological power is arguably the strongest aspect of the exhibition.
Despite a questionable start, Vikings: Life and Legend, definitely achieves what it sets out to do. The thematic curation sets up a dialogue of peaceful trader versus violent raider, but without forcing either perception upon the visitor. This open-ended curating allows you make up your own mind and I left feeling that I’d been given a fresh understanding of this relatively niche and often stereotyped period.
Beatrix Callow is a BA2 student at the Courtauld.
Vikings: Life and Legend is at the British Museum until the 22nd JuneCategories: Courtauld Critics | Tags: Archaeology, Vikings | Comments Off
In the nineteenth century, the National Gallery’s Keeper, Charles Eastlake, refused a Cranach for the nation, stating that ‘it does not please me’. Indeed, for much of this period, as Strange Beauty shows, insofar as German art was studied in England it was used as a kind of art historical phrenology for the German national character. Only three major collectors had anything approaching serious German collections: Carl Krüger, George Salting and Prince Albert. These would, as we learn, go on to form the nucleus of the National Gallery’s German holdings.
Strange Beauty therefore partially explores the strange story of the National Gallery’s acquisitions policy. It’s one of their annual collections-based exhibitions and, in this context, the critical re-evaluation of its own history is a much-needed reminder that each item in the collection has a provenance, and a story, all of its own.
Rooms 2 and 3 are densely and beautifully hung, conveying something of the treasure trove quality of the original private collections of German art. Displayed alongside the oil paintings familiar to the National Gallery are miniatures, medallions and works on paper, a visual treat that evokes an exciting sense of discovery in the visitor and importantly, introduces media otherwise not seen in the permanent collections.
But, when you get to Rooms 4 and 5, and the display of Holbein’s The Ambassadors and Christina of Denmark and Cranach’s Venus and Cupid, this all falls away. Rather than pursuing apparently fruitful comparisons with nineteenth-century artists such as Ford Madox Brown, who (its label tells us) considered Hans Baldung Grien’s Portrait of a Man (bought 1854) to be so detailed it was ‘mapped, rather than painted’, it asks largely pointless questions such as ‘Should art be beautiful?’ Two German visitors next to me seemed quite confused by this. ‘It’s only the English who don’t like Cranach,’ one said to the other.
Though, as works of art, these paintings can stand on their own, the failure of the framing narrative at Room 4, coupled with the shortage of major loans makes it look a lot like the (free) permanent collection’s own Room 4, currently being decanted for the upcoming Veronese show.
A short introduction explaining the concept behind collections-based exhibitions, detailed study and re-evaluation of the permanent collection, might have been all that was needed. The whole final room is given over to inviting audience participation, a gimmick which is not quite successful enough to hide our suspicions that they simply ran out of paintings. When I saw the show there was a merry little visitor game beginning, with the hashtag #connedoutof7quid. Cynical, perhaps, and, I thought, broadly unjustified, but the exhibition certainly did seem to peter out. That’s something a show that ends with The Ambassadors should never do.
Kirsten Tambling is an MA student at the Courtauld
Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance is at the National Gallery until 11th May 2014.Categories: Courtauld Critics | Tags: art collecting, Cranach, German Art, Holbein, National Gallery, National style, Northern Renaissance, public collections, Taste | Comments Off