House of MinaLima in Soho is a must-see for Harry Potter fans. MinaLima, the company that designed the graphic props for the Harry Potter films as well as the recent Fantastic Beasts movie, have displayed examples of their work. You don’t have to buy anything – it’s still worth a visit just to look at the incredible designs.
The ground floor has a shop full of prints and other souvenirs, but if you want to look at the exhibition, head upstairs. The first two floors have art from the Harry Potter films, including the famous ‘Wanted’ posters from Prisoner of Azkaban and the artwork of the Weasley twins’ shop.
The top floor has artwork from Fantastic Beasts, taking inspiration from 1920s New York. My absolute favourite picture is the poster for the Blind Pig bar in the movie, which to me is more of an Art Nouveau design, but hey, it’s still gorgeous.
Do not miss this exhibition if you’re a Harry Potter fan. It’s not scheduled to close any time soon, so hopefully there should be time to check it out.
My longstanding interest in Russia meant that the Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts was right up my street. The exhibition covered the period between 1917 and 1932, when Russia was settling into life post-revolution and artists were first excited by the opportunities the new world presented, then dismayed at the restrictions imposed by Stalin.
During this first fifteen years, artists enjoyed considerable freedom, and revelled in the new possibilities that the new regime offered. However, in 1932 Stalin decreed that Socialist Realism was the only acceptable style for the Soviet Union, ending this burst of creativity.
The exhibition features work by many acclaimed artists, including Kandinsky, Malevich, Chagall and Rodchenko. Interestingly it also features film clips of life in Russia, from both films and documentaries about the Soviet regime.
One of the most powerful things about the exhibition had nothing at all to do with art. In the last room, there was a video booth showing photographs of people who had been arrested and sent to gulags by Stalin and his cronies. The faces staring out of the screen are still haunting me.
What attracted me to Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tymans was the promotional picture of one of James Ensor’s paintings: a pair of skeletons fighting over a fish, pulling it apart in a kind of grotesque tug of war. Ensor, who lived his whole life in Ostend, Belgium, specialised in this kind of bizarre picture. This exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts has been curated by artist Luc Tymans.
Perhaps surprisingly, the pictures were largely painted in the late nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries, because their macabre imagery seems from a later time. There is a proliferation of skeletons: fighting over fish, huddling by a heater to keep warm, inspecting chinoserie. Ensor painted himself as a skeleton on more than one occasion. If I hadn’t known better I would have thought that the artist was from Mexico, there were so many skeletons.
So many pictures seem to show a fallen barrier between this world and the next, with subjects including angels and masked revellers, and many have a black sense of humour. I especially liked the bad doctors and the dangerous chefs, with horrific but blackly comic imagery.
A self-portrait of the artist shows him wearing a traditionally feminine bonnet and a perfectly calm expression. Ensor was obviously someone who didn’t care what people thought of him and was happy to go his own way, in life as well as art.
At the end of November I attended an afternoon of talks at the Barbican taking Bedwyr Williams’ exhibition in The Curve, The Gulch, as a starting point. Held in the Fountain Room, I thought the talks sounded quite interesting and I’m always up for learning new things.
The first talk, on taxidermy, was delivered by Errol Fuller, whose topic was inspired by the presence of a taxidermied goat in the exhibition. He suggested that taxidermy is one example of the smudging of boundaries between life and death. During the Victorian era, taxidermy was used to strong effect in science – for instance, Darwin’s finches which demonstrated the differences between species – but it was also fashionable to use it as decoration in the home. Creatures were often posed and arranged as though in performance: playing cricket, making music.
Taxidermy has been out of fashion for many years, but recently it has started to increase in popularity, with a growing interest in natural history and the ethical sourcing of dead animals to use. Courses are particularly popular among young women aged 15-30, while taxidermied animals have begun to appear in artworks, such as the suspended horse in the Guggenheim.
The golden age of taxidermy spanned from the nineteenth century up to the outbreak of World War One. Every town had its own taxidermist, and nowadays many are famous according to their name and town, such as Hancock of Newcastle. George Ashmead, who created a case of 300 hummingbirds, had business premises in Grosvenor Square, while Roland Ward, famed for his lion biting a bison, had premises in Piccadilly. Between the 1930s and the 1970s many good examples of taxidermy were destroyed, even by curators, as they were out of fashion and seen as valueless.
What was nineteenth-century taxidermy about? Two aspects were particularly popular. One was anthropomorphic taxidermy, primarily for amusement, such as tableaux of fencing mice. Another was the use of animals now extinct, such as the passenger pigeon, native to North America and once the commonest bird on earth. Another example is the Great Auk, of which around 65 examples remain stuffed in museums. Hooiers from New Zealand are the only birds in which the males and females have different beaks, but they became extinct in 1907. The heath hen was common when stuffed in 1880 but has since become extinct: it was stuffed to look dead, and Fuller ends his talk by suggesting that it has now become conceptual art deeper and more profound than actual conceptual art.
The second talk, on magic, was given by Jon Armstrong. He started off with a card trick involving members of the audience, and pointed out that a deck of cards has multiple meanings, with cards relating to the days of the year, the seasons, and more. He discussed the practice of magic as performance art, citing the Davenports, late nineteenth century magicians who had a black box theatre, and the magician Kirby who wrote as far back as 1972 on the relationship between magic and theatre. He discussed The Conjurer by Hieronymus Bosch, a work which portrayed magic as an ancient art, and the theatrical tricks that could be seen as magic, such as flying machinery and the ancient mystery plays that had a “hellmouth” on the stage.
At this point there was a break in proceedings, and I took the chance to go and check out the exhibition, The Gulch. This immersive exhibition in The Curve started with a moonlit beach, on which a sole shoe rested beside a camp fire. It then moved into a small gallery space with a couple of displays, including a chair with a winding road drawn on the back. Next I entered a “backstage area” of boxes, drums and beanbags, that could be before or after a performance.
A boardroom, with a long table and a large screen, followed, with a video of a self-confessed depressed hypnotist followed by a taxidermied goat in a bare room with a microphone. The exhibition ended with a curved stretch of race track on which another shoe could be seen.
I have no idea what any of it meant, but I liked it – I got the sense of someone having just left, an empty space that had been in use until a few seconds ago. I felt as though I was stepping into a story each time I moved into a new space.
The third talk was delivered by Dr. Georgina Guy, who compared aspects of the exhibition to other art exhibitions and installations, relating theatre, exhibition and curation to one another as they are displayed and performed. Unfortunately a lot of her talk went right over my head – as an academic I don’t think I was the right audience for what she was trying to say.
The final talk was possibly my favourite: Christopher Green spoke about the science and showbiz of hypnosis. He read about Victorian hypnotists in the British Library and investigated the relationship between hypnosis, theatre and healing, and how many “serious” hypnotists who want to help people end up using the tricks of “stage” hypnotists. I was particularly interested to learn about the famous female hypnotist, Anne de Montford, the daughter of a millworker, though there were plenty of other fascinating characters, including Henry Blythe the stage hypnotist, who hypnotised his daughter to pass her driving test – and she failed. Green was an incredibly engaging speaker and really sparked my interest in a topic I’d never paid any prior attention to. Overall, a fascinating afternoon.
I had lots of Art Nouveau posters on my wall in my student days, and my love of this art form has persisted for several years. Since childhood, even, as my parents had a mirror featuring the Alphonse Mucha design La Dame aux Camélias on their wall. Mucha is one of the most significant proponents of this art form, so I was interested to go along to this day-long event at the V&A discussing the relationship between Mucha and the actress Sarah Bernhardt.
‘I predict fame for you’: meetings and inventions – Dr Justine Hopkins
The first talk, delivered by Dr Justine Hopkins, explored the relationship between these two figures. Sarah Bernhardt was born Rosina Bernard, but took the name Sarah to celebrate her Jewish heritage and added letters to her surname. She was brought up in a convent, but pursued an acting career.
In the mid-1870s Bernhardt was told that she had been overdoing it and must not act for six months. With time on her hands, she decided to take up art, creating sculptures including ‘After the Tempest’ (1876), ‘The Fool & Death’ (1877) and ‘Fantastic Inkwell’, a self portrait as a sphinx (1880). She also wrote at least one novel, and penned an account of a trip over Paris in a balloon.
Mucha, who was sixteen years younger than Bernhardt, grew up in a tiny village in what is now the Czech Republic. He had a choir scholarship, so spent much time in the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, Brno, built in 1738-48. Determined to become an artist, when he was turned away by art school in Prague he moved to Vienna and worked as a theatre designer. He began to paint portraits and moved to Paris in 1887, when he was 27.
The pair met when Mucha turned to illustration and designed the poster for Gismonda, in which Bernhardt was starring. This was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship, in which Mucha designed many more posters for Bernhardt and also designed jewellery for her.
Sarah Bernhardt and Alphonse Mucha were seen as “kindred spirits”: photos and paintings exist of both working in their respective studios. Both understood that art nouveau challenged what fine art could be; both believed that art had the ability and duty to communicate; and both knew what would sell, but raised art above the merely commercial.
Posters for Posterity: Alphonse Mucha and the V&A Collections – Margaret Timmers
Mucha helped to establish the reputation of French poster artists. He initially took up posters for financial reasons, but became glad of this later on as the art form began to be appreciated. He designed for many clients after Sarah Bernhardt, and created several designs for drinks manufacturers.
The Victoria & Albert Museum has been collecting posters since the late nineteenth century, with the collection formed to represent style, method and design. An 1894 exhibition of posters was held at the Royal Aquarium, while the museum received one of the Gismonda posters in March 1895, very soon after publication.
In 1963, a Mucha poster exhibition helped to renew the popularity of the art nouveau style in the public consciousness. The style was huge in the fashion and art of the time and helped to create the pop art style.
Bernhardt in Performance
After a break for lunch, we came back to something very exciting: video and audio clips of Sarah Bernhardt. A 1900 clip of the star as Hamlet, showing the duet with Laertes, was fascinating. Bernhardt was the first major stage actress to appear in a motion picture: in Daniel, in 1921, when she was nearly eighty.
‘My two hands in yours my dear friend’: continuations and developments – Dr Justine Hopkins
The second talk by Dr Justine Hopkins focused on the later years of Bernhardt and Mucha. Bernhardt visited America in 1880 and made several visits in later years, including several “farewell tours” of America. Mucha also became involved with the US: in the New York Daily News in 1904 he was described as “the greatest decorative artist alive in the world”. He produced a poster for the St Louis World’s Fair that same year. A good teacher, he wanted to encourage US students to find their own American art.
Closer to home, he became more involved in patriotic projects from 1910, and wanted to produce an epic relating to the Moravian people. He produced a poster in 1912 for a gymnastics festival which was really a political rally where the people plotted revolution. He also produced a poster for the Lottery of National Unity, which donated fees to teach children Czech, as well as a bank note in 1923. From 1912 onwards he mostly worked on his ‘Slav Epic’.
Sarah Bernhardt died in March 1923. Alphonse Mucha died in 1939, 16 years later: called in by the Gestapo in Prague, he was released after two days but caught pneumonia.
I thoroughly enjoyed my day at the V&A, and I learned a great deal.
The most recent exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery was Georgiana Houghton: Spirit Drawings. Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884) was a Spiritualist medium who, in the 1860s and 70s, produced a series of abstract watercolours. She claimed that her hand had been guided by various spirits and angelic beings, including some Renaissance artists such as Titian. The abstract works are highly unusual, but have not been shown in the UK for nearly 50 years. Many are held by Monash University Museum of Art in Melbourne, Australia, with whom the exhibition is organised in collaboration.
Houghton’s works are watercolours, bold and complex, technically accomplished and surely unlike anything else produced in the Victorian art world. Perhaps a nineteenth century audience just wasn’t ready, for the 1871 exhibition she held in Bond Street was a commercial failure and nearly bankrupted her.
I’m no art expert, but I loved these works: whether Houghton’s hand was guided or they were produced by her own consciousness, they are extraordinary.
I visited the Cartoon Museum one lunchtime to check out their temporary exhibition, The Great British Graphic Novel. Running from 20 April to 24 July, the exhibition examined the development of the graphic novel in the UK over the last few decades, while also looking back to the beginning of graphic storytelling, which dates from the eighteenth century. For instance, Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress, a series of illustrations demonstrating the downfall of a young woman in sinful London, was created in 1732.
In the nineteenth century, magazines such as Punch and Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday became the forerunners of graphic novels, telling stories via panels. In the twentieth century, many graphic tales appeared in newspapers and several were serialised before being combined in book form. Some of the graphic novels examined in the exhibition included Watchmen, Gemma Bovery and From Hell.
I’ve heard graphic novels labelled as “inferior” to standard novels, but this has always struck me as ridiculous. For one thing, I don’t think they can be directly compared to written novels: they are a different medium. For another, I love reading but I actually find reading graphic novels much more difficult than reading written novels: my instinct is to just read the words, but graphic novels need to be read taking into account the illustrations and the text. I can’t imagine the skill needed to be able to create a good graphic novel.
Previously, I’ve only read a very few graphic novels: Alice in Sunderland by Bryan Talbot, Maus by Art Spiegelman, and I’ve got Neil Gaiman’s Sandman at home although I haven’t begun it yet. The exhibition gave me lots of ideas about what I might like to read next.
The Cartoon Museum itself was formed in 1988 when a group of cartoonists, collectors and lovers of the art form came together as The Cartoon Art Trust with the aim of founding a museum dedicated to collecting, exhibiting, promoting and preserving the best of British cartoon art. The current central London home was opened in 2006.
In 1988 a group of cartoonists, collectors and lovers of the art form came together as The Cartoon Art Trust with the aim of founding a museum dedicated to collecting, exhibiting, promoting and preserving the best of British cartoon art. After a decade of exhibiting in smaller venues, in February 2006 the Cartoon Museum opened to the public at its current home in central London, very near the British Museum. As well as regular temporary exhibitions, the museum has a range of permanent displays encompassing the history of British cartoons and comics. There is work by James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson, who are supposed to have founded the British cartoon tradition, and art by Victorian cartoonists including George Cruikshank, George Du Maurier and John Tenniel. Twentieth-century cartoonists such as William Heath Robinson and H.M. Bateman are also present in the permanent collection, while the upstairs gallery has cartoons by artists such as David Law (Dennis the Menace, Beryl the Peril), Leo Baxendale (Bash St. Kids, Minnie the Minx), Posy Simmonds and Sarah MacIntyre.
The Cartoon Museum is well worth a visit: it’s very close to the British Museum, so you could pop in after visiting the more famous attraction.
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I visited the exhibition Fox Talbot: Dawn of the Photograph, held at the Science Museum. Often called the “father of the photograph”, William Henry Fox Talbot pioneered the negative-positive process, a technique that formed the basis of photography around the world for over 150 years. The exhibition contains many photographs taken by him, as well as by those whom he inspired. Many of Talbot’s photos feature his home, Lacock Abbey, in Wiltshire. Though the subjects are often mundane: a door, a tree, a broom leaning against the wall – they are exciting because they are among the first photographic representations of such things.
The exhibition did take a fairly scientific slant (unsurprisingly, it’s the Science Museum after all), which went over my head at times. However, there were snippets of fascinating information, too. In France, another photographic pioneer, Hippolyte Bayard, was so annoyed that his contemporary Louis Daguerre seemed to be getting all the credit that he created a photograph of himself as a drowned man with a suicide note on the back. Pretty dramatic. Ultimately, it was the pictures that were the fascinating things for me.
The exhibition runs until 11 September, so there’s still time to catch it.
I’m hugely interested in Russian culture, and so the National Portrait Gallery‘s exhibition Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky was an absolute must-see for me. The exhibition features pictures loaned from the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, paintings of some of the greatest cultural figures Russia has produced, including writers, artists, actors, composers and patrons. It’s also possible to trace the development of Russian art through the exhibition, as it covers the period 1867 to 1914, and features Realism, Impressionism and Cubism.
This relatively small exhibition had several highlights for me. Ilya Repin’s portrait of composer Modest Mussorgsky, painted in 1881 just a few days before Mussorgsky died of alcoholism, is powerfully unnerving. The picture Tolstoy shows the great writer relaxing at his home, while the portrait of Turgenev is urbane and smart. The 1872 portrait of Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov is familiar to me from the cover of the author’s works, and portrays the author as pensive and gaunt. I think my favourite, however, was the 1898 portrait of Anton Chekhov by Iosif Braz. Intellectual and intelligent, the writer stares out of the painting as if challenging the viewer. I kept returning to this picture as I was going round the exhibition. The show was small in size, but contained more cultural giants than any other I’ve seen.
The usual stereotypes – queueing, drinking tea, sitting on the beach – were present, but there were many quirky and unusual shots. Most people photographed were ordinary people going about their day-to-day lives: even the pictures taken during the Coronation of George VI concentrated on the crowds rather than the royals. The exhibition is going to Manchester later this year, and it’s worth catching it if you can.