I visited the Edvard Munch: Love and Angst exhibition at the British Museum with a friend on its very last day. I actually knew nothing about Munch except for his painting The Scream, which I do love, so was interested to find out more.
Munch came from a loving family in Norway but over the years his family became a source of deep worry and tragedy to him. His mother died when he was five and his oldest sister, Sophie, died of tuberculosis when he was thirteen. Another sister, Laura, spent time in a psychiatric hospital with schizophrenia and Munch himself had a breakdown later in life. This is reflected in much of his art, including his ‘vampire’ works, his images of illness and death, and the famous ‘Scream’. It’s the black and white lithograph that’s on display here, not the famous painting, but it still makes an impact.
As a theatre fan. I was intrigued by Munch’s stage sets for the works of Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen, and some of his designs are displayed alongside his painting of the great playwright himself. Overwhelmingly, though, this is an exhibition of work that focuses on the dark side of the mind.
The exhibition Edward Burne-Jones: Pre-Raphaelite Visionary at Tate Britain looks at the career of Burne-Jones (1833-1898), taking a partly chronological and partly thematic approach to his life and work. There are sections on Burne-Jones as an apprentice and as a draughtsman, revealing another, humorous side to the artist. One room looks at the pictures Burne-Jones chose for exhibition, including some of his most famous works, such as King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid. Another explores the portraits he painted of family and friends, while one striking room displays his Briar Rose series of panels. Burne-Jones isn’t my favourite Pre-Raphaelite, but I enjoyed the exhibition.
As well as Canada House itself, I’ve always wanted to visit the Canada Gallery, the art gallery attached to the main building that showcases art with a Canadian theme or connection. Unlike the House itself, which is only open on occasion for guided tours, the Gallery is open much more regularly, and you don’t have to book. The Gallery is probably overshadowed by its bigger and more famous neighbour, the National Gallery, but it’s well worth a visit in its own right; it’s small, the perfect size for whiling away a few spare minutes.
Exhibitions change regularly, so repeat visits are worthwhile. On this, my first visit, the exhibition consisted of work by Scottish artist Barbara Rae. Inspired by her namesake and fellow Scot, Dr John Rae, who explored Canada’s Arctic in the 1830s, Barbara set out to traverse the Northwest Passage herself, encountering dramatic icebergs, polar bears, native Inuit and the northern lights. I loved the resulting artwork, which seems infused with the magic of the changing colours of ice. Alongside these works, a selection of Inuit sculpture both complements the main exhibition and carries its own unique authority. This exhibition runs until 16 February, and no doubt more good quality exhibitions will follow in future.
I only really became aware of Frida Kahlo when I bought a brooch from the brand Baccurelli a few years ago. Since then I’ve read a few articles, largely prompted by the new exhibition at the V&A, which I was lucky (and quick) enough to get tickets to.
Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up was made possible by the collection of the artist’s work that was found in her home in 2004, locked since her death fifty years previously. The exhibition focuses on her life and her self-expression, featuring her clothes, makeup, jewellery, accessories and self-portraits. While I would like to explore more of her art, I feel that her life is so fascinating and was so central to her work that I don’t think the exhibition’s focus is misplaced.
Frida was born in 1907 to a Spanish-Indian mother and a German immigrant father. Her mother, Matilde Calderón y González, and her father, Guillermo Kahlo (he changed his name from Wilhelm when he immigrated) was a photographer. Frida often accompanied her father on his assignments and developed a fascination with photography and the way it could be used to explore the self. Many of the photographs in the exhibition, both those taken by Frida and those made by others, show how she played with and shaped her identity, in one picture donning a male suit, in another photographing her and her mirrored reflection (reminiscent of her painting The Two Fridas), with others showing off her love for traditional Mexican dress.
Aged twenty-three, she went to Mexico’s most famous painter, Diego Rivera, to ask him his opinion on her art. The two fell in love and married, beginning a lifelong relationship, despite several affairs on both sides. Though they divorced once, they remarried again the next year. They set up home in La Casa Azul, Frida’s former family home, filling it with Mexican folk art and inviting many distinguished visitors to stay. Among these visitors was Trotsky (with whom Frida had a brief affair). As Communists, much of the couple’s work was related to workers’ rights, but while Diego tended to create large dramatic murals, Frida’s work was usually smaller and more intimate in tone. The pair made many trips to the USA, which Frida loved despite disagreeing profoundly with the US on many issues.
Frida experienced health problems throughout her life. Aged six, she suffered from polio, leaving her with a damaged right leg which many years later had to be amputated. At eighteen, an accident left her with further life-changing injuries, putting a stop to her studies and dreams of being a doctor. Disability and illness shaped her life, and Frida was often in great pain, but she worked to overcome it and not to be defined by it. Bedridden for many months after her accident, she painted lying down, using a special contraption created by her mother. Frida spent large portions of her life in bed, recovering from illness or operations, and transformed these experiences into art: in one picture, she has painted herself lying curled up on a hospital bed, while next to her another version of herself stands triumphant, bearing a Mexican flag.
One room particularly demonstrates the various ways in which Frida moulded her image in both compliance with and defiance of her circumstances. She frequently wore stiff fabric or plaster corsets to help support her spine, and often decorated these with symbols and drawings. She also wore flowers in her hair, weaving ribbons into her plaits in a traditional Mexican style, and used cosmetics, particularly pink and red lipstick and nail varnish from the US brand Revlon. The brightly-coloured shawls, tunics and long skirts she wore served the double purpose of allowing her to embrace her Mexican heritage and hide her corsets and damaged limbs. Many of these are displayed in the final room, some dotted with paint splashes reflecting how they were an integral part of Frida’s identity, not worn as a costume. Even when she was bed-bound, and not expecting any visitors, Frida still wore her bright clothes and put on her makeup. Her jewellery, too, was important to her: she wore large, striking necklaces, earrings and rings made of precious metals in traditional Mexican designs, as well as jade beads taken from Mayan tombs.
The video clips in this exhibition show Frida’s beauty and charisma. She is smiling and laughing, showing no signs of pain or suffering, although as she makes clear in her art and her personal journal, what is on the surface is not necessarily a reflection of what is inside. Her art is important, but after seeing this exhibition I feel like her life was also a kind of art, which she shaped with integrity and courage.
The exhibition looks at the history and significance of the Summer Exhibition, displaying a mix of artwork which made an impact at the time, and pictures showing visitors actually at the exhibition. Satirical cartoons suggest the crush created by this popular venue, while William Powell Frith’s work shows the great and the good attending the Summer Exhibition during its Victorian heyday.
The show displays significant works by Reynolds and Gainsborough, as well as Turner. There is a small room dedicated to architecture, while sculpture is interwoven with painting and other more traditional forms of art. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of artworks by women on display, although the number of women elected to the Academy was in the past embarrassingly small. The exhibition does not shy away from controversy, covering the former perceptions of the RA as stuffy and old-fashioned, while Sargent’s painting of Henry James, attacked by suffragette Mary Wood, is displayed.
After the overwhelming busyness of the Summer Exhibition, The Great Spectacle is much calmer, displaying fewer works of art that, nevertheless, are of great significance. I found it to be well worth a visit.
I’ve been to the Courtauld Gallery a number of times while I’ve been living in London, sometimes to attend special exhibitions, sometimes just to view the permanent collection. It is small compared to the likes of Tate Britain and the National Gallery, but that just makes it more manageable.
The Gallery, located in the North Wing of Somerset House, was founded by Samuel Courtauld, and initially included mainly Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works. It now has a wide range of art including religious Renaissance paintings, Old Masters and twentieth-century art. There are around 7,000 drawings as well as prints, decorative arts and a sculpture collection.
Although the gallery is best known for its 19th- and early 20th-century works, the Courtauld’s galleries extend back to the early Renaissance, featuring some 7,000 drawings as well as prints, decorative arts and a fine collection of sculpture.
I’d never been to the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, and decided that this year would be the first that I would go. This year it’s special for two reasons: one, it is the 250th Summer Exhibition, and two, it marks the opening of the newly redesigned Royal Academy of Arts.
I went with a friend who has been to many Summer Exhibitions in the past and really enjoys them. This year’s has been curated by artist Grayson Perry, and as usual is made up of works by well known professional artists, enthusiastic amateurs, and everything in between.
Lacking any skill or knowledge of art myself, I’m in no position to judge the quality of the works, but I was able to pick out many that I liked. My tastes tend towards the traditional, but there was something for everyone: classic painting, abstract art, sculpture, models, mixed media and more in every conceivable style. I’ve added a few of my favourites below.
I went to an exhibition of Victorian photography at the National Portrait Gallery, Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography. The exhibition featured four photographers: Oscar Rejlander, Julia Margaret Cameron, Clementina Hawarden and Lewis Carroll. These four were pioneers in the world of photography in the 1960s, sharing ideas and inspiration and creating a body of work that still looks radical decades on.
I have some familiarity with the work of Cameron and Carroll, but I was previously unaware of Hawarden and Rejlander. I particularly liked Hawarden’s portrait of a woman by a mirror, in which we see both the woman and her reflection. I also enjoyed Rejlander’s composite photograph of decadent nudes, which resembled a dramatic painting.
There was lots to enjoy in the exhibition, from candid photographs of children (I loved the grumpy child photographed by Carroll) to portraits of important figures of the age and unknown sitters dressed up as mythological figures.
The Royal Academy and the Queen’s Gallery are both playing host to seventeenth-century royalty-related exhibitions this year. I don’t know if they planned it this way or not, but they certainly made the most of it, offering a joint weekend ticket including tea and cake. I’ll admit the cake swung it for me.
The Royal Academy exhibition, Charles I: King and Collector, was actually due to end on the day I visited, so it was very busy. This didn’t stop me from getting a good look at the works on display, however. Works are categorised by theme, with the Italian Renaissance, the Northern Renaissance and Van Dyck and Reubens in England grouped in separate rooms, or else their former location: pictures that were hung in the Queen’s House can be found in one room, and those from the Whitehall Cabinet in another. The Mortlake Tapestries adorn one room, while images of Charles I in the hunting field hang in the Central Hall.
The exhibition consists of works that were accumulated by Charles I before and after he became king. He loved art and was a keen collector, but after his execution his collection was broken up and sold off (some of the catalogues can be seen here). This exhibition reunites these works after several centuries. Some didn’t have far to come, having got back into the Royal family’s hands after the Restoration, or else having been sold to wealthy collectors in the UK. Others, however, ended up in Europe or the US, and have been loaned for the purposes of this exhibition.
I must admit that in themselves, I didn’t fall in love with many of the works on display here (though I did enjoy seeing the full-length portrait of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, an image I recognised from A level History). However, I was impressed by the collection as a whole, and the way in which it reflects Charles’ impact on the art world.
After my restoring cup of tea and piece of cake I walked through Green Park to the Queen’s Gallery, where Charles II: Art and Power is currently being hosted until 15 May. This exhibition follows on from and complements the Charles I exhibition, focusing on Charles II and how he made use of art to convey his power. It began with a small display of items relating to the Civil War, the execution of Charles I, and the Protectorate, and went on to focus on the art that he collected and that was produced during his reign. Some of this was originally part of his father’s collection and had been brought back; others were new acquisitions.
In terms of the historical interest, I think I preferred this exhibition, partly as it was much quieter and much easier to see the artworks. There were surprises too: for instance, I had no idea that the famous painting of Erasmus was once part of a pair, and the two paintings were attached together.
The most dramatic work in this exhibition is the huge portrait of Charles II (the one that adorns all the publicity material) that dominates the last room. In its display of power and authority it is reminiscent of the painting of Charles I on horseback displayed at the Royal Academy; knowing what happened to the first Charles, I wonder if the second Charles drew this comparison and wondered; or if he just didn’t care.
Regardless, these are a fascinating pair of exhibitions, well put together and worthwhile for their historical context as much as their artistic context.
This year I read the Moomin books for the first time, and I also visited the Adventures in Moominland exhibition at the Southbank Centre. Continuing the theme, Dulwich Picture Gallery announced a Tove Jansson exhibition for 2017-2018, covering her artwork and illustrations from self-portraits to the Moomins and beyond.
Some friends and I booked to attend the special December event, A Moomin Winter’s Eve. This was an after-hours event that offered activities as well as a chance to look around the exhibition. When we arrived – after spending a while waiting for a bus at Brixton – we headed straight into the exhibition before it got too busy.
Tove Jansson (1914-2001) begins with the artist’s early work, striking self-portraits sitting alongside magazine illustration and magical landscapes. Her later work incorporates more traditional painting, before she turned to illustration in a bigger way. I had no idea Jansson was responsible for illustrating Swedish versions of The Lord of The Rings and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – her work is distinctively her own but also clearly captures the atmosphere of the stories.
Then comes her Moomin work, which forms around half of the exhibition. I love her wonderfully expressive drawings of these fantastical creatures, and it was fascinating to see them close up. As the daughter of two painters, Jansson saw herself primarily as a painter even while the world revered her for her work as a writer and illustrator, but while this exhibition helps to paint a wider picture of the artist, she is likely to remain best known for the Moomins. And why not? Her illustrations are certainly classifiable as art, and her books are children’s classics.
After the exhibition, we decided to check out some of the activities. First we went to make flower garlands in a Pom Pom Blossom workshop, run by Pom Pom Factory. We ended up wearing them for the rest of the evening.
We then went to join the table drawing Moomin self-portraits. I am certainly no artist, but having a framework of a Moomin silhouette to work on, I managed to produce something passable.
Finally we went down to the Moominvalley Photobooth, the idea here being to create a collage inspired by Moominvalley and have your photo taken, then superimposed onto your background. Sadly the camera battery ran out while we were making our collage, but it was still great fun.
The exhibition and the evening were lovely and a nice relaxing way to spend a Friday night.