Views and Reviews


Conservation practice as a field of ethical, material and historical investigation

Friday, 28 March, 2014 by Katarzyna Falecka

buildingConservation practice has long been kept away from the eyes of the public with museums seeking to draw attention to the aesthetic qualities of objects, which are often presented as seemingly untouched by time. The debate ‘How are Conservation Decisions Reached? The Dialogue between Curator and Conservator’ organised by students of the MA Programme Curating the Art Museum at The Courtauld in collaboration with the Research Forum, formed an attempt to scrutinise the interdisciplinary nature of conservation practices, as well as the collaboration between curator and conservator within an institutional setting. The discussion featured Dean Sully, lecturer in conservation at UCL, Rica Jones, former conservator in Tate’s Conservation Department, and Titika Malkogeorgou, an Associate a thet UCL Centre for Museums, Heritage & Material Studies, who has also been a Visiting Researcher at the V&A. All the speakers attempted to chart the intersections between curatorial and conservation practices, as well as discuss the modes of involving the public in conservation processes.

The event began with each speaker presenting their background and experience within conservation, and was followed by a discussion, first amongst the speakers and then the audience. Dean Sully mapped the traditional assumptions of conservation practice, based on the belief in preserving the physical object’s integrity through scientific enquiry. He also drew attention to the shift that has occurred in conservation practices over the past decade, which positioned the discipline between material and heritage studies. Conservation became therefore divorced from pure material inquiry and its potential to influence collective memory, as well as its ethical charges, have been increasingly scrutinised. This poses a number of challenges to the discipline has to encompass scientific analysis, art history and cultural studies.

While Sully focused on the importance of reaching out towards communities during conservation processes, Rica Jones discussed the relationship between curator and conservator. Speaking from her experience within the conservation department at Tate Britain, Jones noted the shift which occurred in that instituion’s approach towards conservation. While once loans and new acquisitions were given priority or the existing collection, now a more balanced system has been introduced. This system largely relies on the TMS database which lists all works within the museum collection together with a date for the conservation of individual works. This allows curators to plan forthcoming exhibitions and displays more efficiently, while conservators have sufficient time to examine and restore objects. With the rotation of displays every six months, works can be regularly examined. Jones noted that although such innovations as the TMS database have enhanced relationships between curators and conservators, it nevertheless remains essential conservators to inform the curators about changes that have occurred during the conservation process; conversely, it is the responsibility of curators to provide art historical information of importance to the conservation process.

However, it is also important to keep in mind future conservators. Titika Malkogeorgou noted that often conservators working within the same department at a later date will reach different decisions about how to restore objects. Choosing as a case study an eighteenth-century dress which has been in the V&A collections since the 1960s, Malkogeorgou noted that the object has been restored a number of times and each time a different conservation approach was proposed.

In the discussion which followed, the main difference of opinions were in relation to the role of the public in making conservation decisions. While Dean Sully argued for the inclusion of the public in conservation practices so that communities could develop relationships with cultural artefacts, Rica Jones noted that conservation forms a highly specialised field and while the public should be informed about ongoing decisions, transmitting all the specialist information remains difficult. However, the recent display of Joshua Reynolds’s painting The Age of Innocence at the Tate Britain, which was restored by Jones, presented the object alongside a detailed documentation of the conservation processes. The painting, inaccessible to the public for the past decades due to its poor condition, was therefore presented as both an aesthetic and historical object, marking a significant shift in display practices.

The debate focused on a number of issues related to conservation practices which had previously been discussed in public. Without doubt, the event would have benefited from the inclusion of a curator amongst the speakers in order to make the discussion about the relationship between curator and conservator more balanced. However, through bringing together curating students and professional conservators, the debate marked a significant step in the collaboration of both groups within the The Courtauld Institute. A model for such collaboration was the 2010 exhibition Cézanne’s Card Players at The Courtauld Gallery. The catalogue included an essay by conservators from the Courtauld Conservation Department, amply demonstrating how conservation is essential for art historical research and writing and also curatorial practices.

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Exhibit ‘A.’ Russian Art: Collections, Exhibitions and Archives, 21-22 March 20

Friday, 28 March, 2014 by Costanza Beltrami

 

Ilia Repin, Portrait of Pavel Tretyakov, 1901 (detail). Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Ilia Repin, Portrait of Pavel Tretyakov, 1901 (detail). Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

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.

 

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Flip, Linger, Glide: The Movements of Magazine Pictures and Their Publics c. 1915

Tuesday, 25 March, 2014 by Costanza Beltrami

 

Coles Phillips, cover design, Good Housekeeping, February 1915

Coles Phillips, cover design, Good Housekeeping, February 1915

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.

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War Memorials of the Great War: Britain, France, Germany: Jay Winter

Monday, 24 March, 2014 by Hannah Rutherford-Roke

Jay Winter

Jay Winter

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.

 

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Vikings: Life and Legend (British Museum)

Saturday, 15 March, 2014 by Beatrix Callow

vikings_544x544[1]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 June

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Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance (National Gallery)

Thursday, 27 February, 2014 by Kirsten Tambling

StrangeBeautyIn 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.

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Richard Hamilton (Tate Modern)

Thursday, 20 February, 2014 by Harry Laughland

 Richard Hamilton, Just what was it that made yesterday's homes so different, so appealing? (1992) © Richard Hamilton 2005. All rights reserved, DACS


Richard Hamilton, Just what was it that made yesterday’s homes so different, so appealing? (1992)
© Richard Hamilton 2005. All rights reserved, DACS

British Pop Art has recently been showing a resurgence in popularity. As international audiences and auction houses have recognised the relatively untapped wealth of importance and value respectively, the predecessors to the likes of Warhol, Lichtenstein, Johns and Rauschenberg have been granted greater exposure in shows such as ‘When Britain went Pop!’ and ‘Pop Art to Britart’. It seems only fitting then that, the so-called “father of pop art”, Richard Hamilton, has been given a major retrospective at the Tate Modern.

Hamilton was a prolific artist who experimented in various media, constantly revisiting, revising and reworking themes throughout his career. Reading the show’s introductory panel it is clear that these manifold manifestations of Hamilton’s art, from “paintings, prints, and polaroids alongside his exhibition designs and installations”, are all present. Installations are noticeably prominent. You enter through a reconstituted version of Hamilton’s 1951 show at the ICA Growth and Form, and the early highlight is Hamilton’s Fun House from the seminal ‘This is Tomorrow’ exhibition. It is in this space that Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? appears, somewhat shyly, its paltry dimensions dwarfed by the image of Charlton Heston’s Moses, taken from the film ‘The Ten Commandments’. The power of Hamilton’s installations is reconfirmed by Treatment Room, a deeply political work that depicts the late Margaret Thatcher in all her patronising glory, but also somewhat weakened by the discordant room given over to Hamilton’s copy of Duchamp’s The Large Glass. To me, Hamilton is strongest when he is at his most original, and thus the slavish admiration of Duchamp doesn’t appeal.

In comparison his works that appropriate items from the mass media are resonantly powerful. His use of Braun toasters, renamed ‘Brown’, are a good antidote for those sick with the seemingly omnipresent Campbell’s soup tins, and his Richard ash trays and bottles, made in the same font as the French liquor Ricard, are witty antecedents to Gavin Turk’s Turkeyfoil that I found so appealing at ‘Pop Art to Britart’.

To me, as a previous International Relations student, Hamilton’s political works are his strongest. Tony Blair as a gun slinging cowboy in Shock and Awe still remains a withering portrayal of a Prime Minister whose reputation is becoming more and more divisive with time. The slight smirk perfectly captures the character of Blair: self-assured, occasionally blurring into arrogance. Hamilton’s Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland from 1964, a spiky character-assassination of the former Labour leader, who was against unilateral nuclear disarmament, demonstrates his engagement with the political throughout his career.

Posthumous retrospectives are notoriously difficult to pull off. They lack the celebratory note of those given to artists at the end of their career and having them too close to the artist’s passing risks not fully understanding the importance and impact of their work. The Tate team have dealt with both these issues with typical mastery, delivering an exhibition fit for the standing of its subject.

Harry Laughland is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Richard Hamilton is at Tate Modern until the 26th May 2014.

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An ‘Untapped Goldmine for the Dress Historian’: Amateur Film as Visual Heritage and Assessing the Excavation Potential: Heather Norris Nicholson

Thursday, 20 February, 2014 by Katarzyna Falecka

By :

Katarzyna Falęcka

 

Forming the third lecture of the Spring 2014 Friend Lecture Series, Dr Heather Norris Nicholson’s talk entitled An ‘Untapped Goldmine for the Dress Historian’: Amateur Film as Visual Heritage and Assessing the Excavation Potential, examined the ways in which non-professional film footage can serve as a fertile resource for the studying of the history of dress. The lecture series emerged from the MA Documenting Fashion: Modernity, Film and Image in Europe and America, 1920 – 1945, which investigates the common means by which fashion, non-fiction film and documentary images reveal new ways to understand dress, style and visual culture. Dr Nicholson, who is a Andrew W Mellon Foundation / Research Forum Visiting Professor at The Courtauld, proposed therefore to incorporate alternative sources of visual heritage into academic research. Many examples of amateur film are archived within the North West Film Archives, Manchester, and are readily accessible to scholars. The archive includes 36,000 items from the 1890s to contemporary video production, both professional and amateur.

As Dr Nicholson noted that both amateur film and dress history allow for an independent construction of self-hood and form a mode of communication, also expressing a sense of individual agency. This becomes clear in a black and white amateur film depicting adolescents dancing at a social club in 1957, in a small town close to Manchester. The continuous focus of the camera on the youth allows for the dress historian to analyse the local fashion, the means through which young people communicated their identities to a wider public and the relationship between local dress codes and the urban fashion standards in nearby Manchester. However, every representation requires an analysis of the conditions of its production. The film was made by a local paint manufacturer, who engaged with amateur film making as a hobby. This was not an isolated case; after the introduction of lightweight cameras in the early 1920s film making quickly became a popular recreational pass time in Britain. An increase in amateur film clubs followed in the 1950s and 1960s.

Heather Norris Nicholson

Heather Norris Nicholson

Amateur films were produced for a variety of reasons: documenting family life, travels, festivities, as well as capturing the steadily disappearing communal life styles. As a source, amateur film raises multiple questions. How do they relate to official imagery? What reasons motivated their production? And how were they used? The film footage by Michael Goodger, a teacher of liberal and general studies in Salford who sought to document the disappearing street life of a working class neighbourhood in Manchester, presents a private and intimate mediation of the changing urban landscape. Seeking to capture the fast changing face of Salford’s housing, he engaged with amateur film making in order to offer teaching examples which were familiar and relevant to his students, many of whom came from the Salford area. Goodger’s films were therefore motivated by the shifting urban ecology and had a pedagogical purpose. As an outsider to the communities he had filmed, Goodger adopted working class dress, at times even carrying a ladder with him.

Theorised by the magazine Amateur Cine World, amateur film steadily became professionalised. The shift from a private use of the camera to one that carried pedagogical and political implications, demonstrates a plurality of motivations for the production of alternative imagery. These films allow us to examine the aesthetics of the everyday, keeping in mind, however, that the camera often alters the scene represented. Nevertheless, amateur footage reflects a mode for storytelling and expresses an idea of self and society, which is crucial for the studying of dress history.

 

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Jeremy Deller – English Magic (William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow)

Tuesday, 18 February, 2014 by Aindrea Emelife

We sit starving amidst our gold, painted by Stuart Sam Hughes, 2013

We sit starving amidst our gold, painted by Stuart Sam Hughes, 2013

Jeremy Deller is a modern day alchemist. This rings especially true in light of his latest exhibition at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow – ‘Jeremy Deller: English Magic’ – last experienced in the British Pavillion at last year’s Venice Biennale. Deller has never followed the rules, has none of the traits of an artist and yet his works speak more truths than many. With a sharp and meticulous sense of observation and a willingness to shake things up (but not too much), the Turner prize winning artist proves that he has come a long way from his early works as his left-wing leanings and ideas of equality and social justice take the form of curiously uplifting works that reference the much labored over topic of politics and the Iraq war, but also tax evasion and Ziggy Stardust.

Deller, who studied Baroque art at the Courtauld Institute, has all the majesty of his 17th century counterparts as he weaves magic in the social world of 21st century Britain, summons forth the politics of today and interprets them with a self-conscious critique and celebration – he is as much a history painter as Beuys or Rembrandt. He is not a conceptual artist in the same was as Kosuth, but a sociologist, anthropologist and historian.

The landmark piece of the show takes the form of a large mural where Deller, ever-loyal defender of Venetian legacy, depicts the Victorian designer at loggerheads with billionaire money-magnate Roman Abramovich as he launches his yacht, Luna, into the lagoon. ‘We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold’ was supposedly sparked by Deller’s fury at the ship’s appearance in the quay during the 2011 Venice Biennale. The Giardini, one of the historic city’s treasures, bastardized by contemporary wealth serves as a harrowing symbol of a recurrent theme in Deller’s oeuvre. It draws on Morris’ call for a socialist reform, the collapse of communism and the capitalist growth in the former Soviet Union.

Deller focuses on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in another work, where he enlisted former soldiers to draw scenes from their experiences. Painted from prison, where many of our troops end up, it is a shining example of his role as an authentic social documenter of modern day Britain. Deller does not shy away from the real.

Indeed, the exhibition captures the essence of Morris’ thinking – “I do not want art for a few; any more than education for a few; or freedom for a few” – and Deller’s collaborative work ethic references the Arts and Crafts ethos. This is an exhibition that encourages visitors to get involved.

Deller’s work may shout where Morris whispers, but the material works brilliantly with the gallery’s permanent collection, as we walk into  the 19th century and back into the more familiar world of Deller’s as he puts a contemporary frame on his idiosyncratic vision of Britain and its securities. He is an alchemist, but he is also a catalyst; he makes connections between things and leaves them open. It is up to us to react as we wish, but always with a slice of humour.

Aindrea Emelife is a second-year BA at the Courtauld.

Jeremy Deller: English Magic is at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow until 30 March, before moving to the Bristol Museum and Art gallery then the Turner Contemporary in Margate later this year.

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Vladimir Baranov-Rossiné (1888-1944): From Cubism to Surrealism (St Petersburg Gallery, London)

Thursday, 13 February, 2014 by Costanza Beltrami

SAINT PETERSBURG SPHINX

The Sphinx of St Petersburg(1909) © St Petersburg Gallery

If every ground-floor window on Cork Street is alive with the lure of artworks, St Petersburg Gallery’s is ablaze with a kaleidoscope of colours and styles. Dazzling variety is indeed one’s first impression of Vladimir Baranov-Rossiné’s work, an impression strengthened by the exhibition’s title, From Cubism to Surrealism.

Indeed, from the realistic style of Mansions (1907), to the Cézannist landscape Red Roof (1910) via the impressionistic touches of Barges on the Dnieper (1907) and the green shadows of Nude (1909), Baranov-Rossiné’s early paintings seem to chronicle the discovery of the French avant-garde in Russia. Influenced by the artistic discoveries of the group ‘World of Art,’ these works seemingly reflect the international climate of turn-of-the-century St Petersburg, where Baranov-Rossiné studied. Yet despite their formative importance, these works are relegated to the gallery’s lower ground floor.

Baranov_Politech Sculpture2

Polytechnical Sculpture (1915) © St Petersburg Gallery

Greater prominence is given to works displayed on the gallery’s ground floor. With one exception, these are all from the period between 1910 and 1915, when, under the alias Daniel Rossiné, the artist was living in Paris among the well-known émigrés of the creative colony La Ruche.

Placed on each side of the entrance, Still Life with a Shell (1910) and Maternity (1910) reveal the impact of post-Impressionism and synthetic Cubism on Branov-Rossiné’s work. Unfortunately, excessive emphasis on these works prevents the viewer from seeing Baranov-Rossiné’s career as a unitary development, eventually presenting him as an eclectic creator without a personal style. On the contrary, sculptures such as Polytechnical Sculpture (1915), Rhythm (1913) and Dance (1914) are original experiments with three-dimensional form and unconventional sculptural materials such as polychrome metal, cardboard and even crushed eggshell.

COUNTER-RELIEF

Counter Relief (1917) © St Petersburg Gallery

The later Counter Relief (1917) manifests the same interest with three-dimensionality, yet employs a very different style. Marking the artist’s return to Russia after the Revolution of 1917 and directly borrowing its title from Tatlin, this work reveals Baranov-Rossiné’s willingness to embrace a new art for a new order. In fact, Baranov-Rossiné gained immediate recognition upon his return to Russia and obtained important official positions such as Head of Painting at the Petrograd Free Studios.

Despite Baranov-Rossiné success in Bolshevik Russia, no other work of this period is included in the show. Lack of information on this period is all the more regrettable for it is in Russia that the artist perfected his Octophonic Piano (1920-1923), a silent instrument which, when played, projected ever-changing coloured patterns through a magic lantern. Yet for all its whimsical appeal, little importance is given in the exhibition to Disk for Colour Music (1921-1922), now but a cracked and inert memorabilia of the artist’s life.

Around the disk, the artist’s earlier and later works are juxtaposed in a synthesis that is often hard to follow. Certainly, the resulting exhibition has striking visual dazzle; but fascination can all too easily turn into disorientation, as the viewer is offered no contextual information to decode this catalogue of heterogeneous styles.

Constanza Beltrami is a third-year BA student at the Courtauld.

Vladimir Baranov-Rossiné (1888-1944): From Cubism to Surrealism is at the St Petersburg Gallery, London until 29 March 2014.

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