Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic – V&A

Winnie-the-Pooh poster

As a lifelong Winnie-the-Pooh fan, I was delighted to be able to visit the V&A‘s new exhibition, Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic. Themed around the world of the books, it welcomed visitors with a greeting and the themed decor made you really feel part of the Hundred Acre Wood. There was a slide and assorted activities for children – but I couldn’t help being glad that during my visit, on a Friday evening, there weren’t many kids around.

Hallo

Pooh-themed toys
Pooh-themed toys

The exhibition began with a display of the various Pooh-themed toys, games and accessories that have been created over the years. I was particularly pleased to see a cuddly toy version of the Soviet Pooh, which I love, but was gutted to spy a gorgeous Cath Kidston dress that I obviously missed when it was in store.

Soviet Pooh
Soviet Pooh
Cath Kidston dress
Cath Kidston dress

The exhibition explored the writer, A. A. Milne, and the illustrator, E. H. Shepard, and the history of the Pooh stories. Particularly fascinating were the sections on how the two worked together to produce stories that seamlessly blended words and pictures, strongly appealing to little ones (as well as grown-ups like me!).

North Pole

I found the exhibition completely fascinating, and it really reignited my love for Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends. (I’ve always felt a particular affinity for Piglet).

Goodbye

Friendly with Bears

Whales: Beneath the Surface – Natural History Museum

Whales exhibition

I’d been meaning to visit the Whales: Beneath the Surface exhibition for a while, and finally made it on its last weekend. As befits an exhibition at the Natural History Museum, it was superb: informative, fascinating and fun.

The exhibition began by looking at where whales began. Now, I’m sure I learned this at school, but I’ve certainly forgotten it in the intervening years, so I was surprised to find that the earliest cetaceans, 50 million years ago, were actually land mammals with legs and hooves. Pakicetus hunted small land animals, as well as fish. Ten million years later, these cetaceans had adapted to life in the water: the Dorudon had flippers instead of front legs, its back legs had all but disappeared, and it gave birth and fed its calves in the sea.

Pakicetus
Pakicetus
Dorudon
Dorudon

Around 34 million years ago some cetaceans evolved new way of eating – baleen plates. These baleen whales became known as mysticetes, while those that continued to use teeth – toothed whales, dolphins and porpoises – became known as odontocetes. Scientists worked out that mysticetes and odontocetes shared a common ancestor from watching growth in the womb – baby mysticetes were growing teeth which disappeared before birth.

Baleen plates
Baleen plates

Today, there are around 90 species of cetacean – 23 of which are found in British waters. 12 million years ago there were many more. Their ancestry is evident in the modern whale skeletons on display: tiny back leg bones, remnants of their land mammal past, and flippers that resemble hands. On display also is the skeleton of the ‘Thames whale’ – a northern bottlenose whale that ended up in the Thames in 2006 and died despite a rescue operation. Modern-day cetaceans have powerful tail muscles to help propel themselves forward. They move their tails up and down, whereas fish move their tails from side to side.

The 'Thames whale'
The ‘Thames whale’

The exhibition explored the differences between species of whale. Blue whales, for instance, have smaller flippers to help them travel long distances, whereas humpback flippers are bigger with grooves and bumps to help them twist and turn in the ocean. Baleen whales live alone, but toothed whales are sociable and live in groups. Toothed cetaceans use echolocation to find their food, whereas baleen whales gulp seawater and filter it out, keeping in the prey. A fantastic game, loved by the children in the exhibition, involved jumping on electronic pads to ‘track’ prey using echolocation.

Later on, the exhibition explored how whales hear and create sound, as well as how these incredibly intelligent creatures interact with one another, caring for each other, playing, and even singing ‘songs’. It also explored a possible future for whales: different killer whale skulls showed how groups of these whales ended up with different kinds of tooth marks from hunting very different prey, and may one day diverge into different species.

Killer Whale skulls
Killer Whale skulls

I loved this exhibition, not least because I was able to match my Erstwilder Wesley Whale brooch to the theme.

Exhibition selfie

A Moomin Winter’s Eve / Tove Jansson (1914-2001) – Dulwich Picture Gallery

exhibition poster

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.

pom pom table

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.

My Moomin masterpiece

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.

Moomin collage

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.

Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty – Walker Art Gallery

Walker Art Gallery

I know in London we’re spoilt for choice when it comes to exhibitions but I still get cross when one that I want to see doesn’t make it to the capital. A case in point is Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty, which stopped at Bournemouth, Norwich and Glasgow before finally ending up at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. Mucha is my favourite artist, so there was no question of me missing out. To Liverpool I would have to go.

One coach trip later, and I was at the gallery in time for its opening at ten.

Exhibition entrance

The exhibition explored how “Mucha’s idea of beauty influenced his work. Mucha believed that beauty was the essence of art and was achieved by striking a balance between the internal, spiritual world and the external, material world. This principle informed his entire oeuvre, from his Art Nouveau posters and commercial works to his later works on the history of the Czech and Slavonic people.” [Mucha Foundation]

The exhibition contained posters, sketches and artefacts relating to Mucha and his career, which came to define Art Nouveau and the fin de siècle. It began with some examples of posters he designed for the actress Sarah Bernhardt (their friendship and artistic partnership lasted many years), including the earliest, Gismonda, followed by Hamlet and La Dame Aux Camélias (one of my earliest memories of Mucha’s work is a mirror with this poster on top displayed on the landing in my childhood home).

Examples of Mucha’s advertising posters follow: some of the earliest examples of the use of art in advertising. Most of the posters include familiar Mucha tropes: the stylised women, the long flowing hair, the ‘halo’ and the use of motifs from nature. Later Mucha created designs without a particular advertising focus: the seasons, the muses, the flowers. He also began to work on his Slav Epic, a work dedicated to his homeland which was seeking independence (and gained it in 1918).

It was incredible being able to see some of these original posters on display, especially bearing in mind that they were not designed to last: they were temporary adverts only, but their impact has endured. I was also fascinated by the photographs of Mucha in his studio, surrounded by his work.

This is a fairly small exhibition, and perhaps not worth travelling from London and back in a day unless you’re a really big fan. I absolutely love Mucha, though, and for me it was totally worth it to see these beautiful designs.

Harry Potter: A History Of Magic – British Library

I booked my exhibition ticket for Harry Potter: A History of Magic back in April, and it’s just as well, as many dates for this groundbreaking exhibition are already sold out. It’s the first British Library exhibition to focus on the work of a living author, and I couldn’t imagine a better subject. The exhibition will fascinate any Harry Potter fan, but there’s much here to interest those who have never read a word about the famous boy wizard.

J.K. Rowling took inspiration from myths, legends and history to write about the magic in her books, and the exhibition looks at how magic as it has been seen in our world helped to inspire her. It’s divided up into sections based on the subjects Harry studies at Hogwarts: Potions, Divination, Charms, Care of Magical Creatures, and so on, and there is also a section on alchemy, relating to the Philosopher’s Stone which is so important in the first book.

We see many rare books and historical artefacts: the Ripley Scroll, purporting to explain how to make the philosopher’s stone, alongside Nicholas Flamel’s gravestone (apparently discovered being used as a chopping board in Paris). The Potions section has rare books describing the various potions and their antidotes – there is also a bezoar displayed – and Herbology displays a copy of Culpeper’s Herbal, of which Rowling had her own copy that she used to refer to when writing the books. We see a cauldron and a broomstick from the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, and possibly my favourite exhibit of all: the ‘Invisibility Cloak’.

Throughout the exhibition, illustrations by Jim Kay bring the characters to life, and we also see sketches by Rowling, which are fascinating as they show the characters as she originally imagined them. My favourite parts were the handwritten or typed early drafts of various chapters, showing the Harry Potter stories as they might have existed, and offering insights into how Rowling changed and adapted her stories.

I loved this exhibition – it runs until February, so there’s plenty of time to see it, but I definitely recommend booking in advance.

Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia – British Museum

This exhibition at the British Museum intrigued me: I’d never heard of the Scythians, but I’ve always been interested in Siberia. Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia is a co-exhibition with the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, and many of the artefacts in the exhibition are on loan from that museum.

The Scythians were a nomadic group of tribes who endured for about 600 years, around 600BC, herding cattle and goats on the steppe, and the exhibition sheds light on their lives and culture. There is an abundance of beautiful jewellery, including belt buckles and neck ornaments depicting scenes mixing real animals with mythical ones which, experts have theorised, point to their religion and culture. Their warrior culture is alluded to by the prevalence of helmets and head ornaments, hugely elaborate and detailed. The Scythians spanned southern Siberia from west to east and evidence suggests they had contact with other groups from Africa, Europe and China. For several centuries, the only record of the Scythians came from the writings of Herodotus, who travelled in the area around 440BC. Many of these artefacts were later dug up by archaeologists sponsored by Peter the Great, who ordered them to be sent to St Petersburg for his new museum. As a result, they are well organised and well-catalogued, and some of the original eighteenth-century drawings of the ornaments are on display beside the originals. On the walls of the exhibition are quotations from contemporaries, including Herodotus, about the Scythians: their fearsomeness in battle, their wild drinking. As the Scythians themselves did not have a written culture, these ornaments and other excavated artefacts take on an even greater significance.

What really took my breath away were the wonderfully preserved things that by rights should have disintegrated long ago, saved by their preservation in Siberia’s permafrost. These include fleeces, squirrel fur coats, even a pair of boots, as well as the tattooed skin of a Scythian warrior on which the marks still show up clearly. A giant coffin, constructed of wood, looks as though it was built yesterday, and one bag, containing food to accompany a deceased chief to the afterlife, has yielded lumps of preserved cheese.

Most of the artefacts on display are from wealthier people, which is not surprising since these are more likely to have been preserved. However, there are some objects relating to more ordinary Scythians, including weapons, ornaments and cooking equipment. Several preserved heads have been found, enabling scientists to try and reconstruct the face of a Scythian.

What could have been another run-of-the-mill exhibition about an ancient people is brought to vivid life by the beauty of the incredibly well-preserved objects on display. I was fascinated by it and loved learning more about this ancient society.

What Does It Mean To Be Human? Curating Heads at UCL – Octagon Gallery, University College London

I read about What Does It Mean To Be Human? Curating Heads at UCL online and went to check it out after work; it’s a tiny exhibition, covering the walls in the Octagon space within UCL’s Wilkins Building (entrance via Gower Street).

For several decades, the preserved heads of Jeremy Bentham and Flinders Petrie – two intellectuals related to UCL – have been hidden from view. Following on from a project to extract their DNA, this exhibition asks: what does the scientific interrogation of our dead bodies tell us about how we think about ourselves?

There are four cases: one concerning the archaeologist Flinders Petrie, one on cultural views on death and commemoration, one focusing on Jeremy Bentham, and the last case focused on DNA sequencing.

It’s a rather brief exhibition, but worth glancing at if you’re in the area.

I didn’t take any pictures of the preserved heads, feeling that this would somehow be inappropriate. I did, however, walk down the corridor and take a picture of Jeremy Bentham’s auto-icon. (Yes, that is his actual, preserved body; the head, however, is wax).

Bentham auto-icon

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics – V&A

As soon as I found out about the Opera: Passion, Power and Politics exhibition at the V&A I knew I wanted to go. So did my auntie, who loves opera, so I booked tickets for her visit in October – not long after the exhibition opened in the new Sainsbury Wing.

Rather than covering every single thing to do with the history of opera, the exhibition organisers have selected seven key dates and places in the history of this comparatively modern art form, and used them as pegs on which to hang a broad history of opera.

Venice 1642
Venice is traditionally regarded as the home of opera. During the seventeenth century, the importance of the city in international trade was in decline, but it was still a key centre for culture. With no Royal Court and a relatively lax attitude, the new art form was able to grow. The key work of this section was Claude Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione Di Poppea, the first public opera (I’ve seen his earlier L’Orfeo, but that was privately performed). It was based on historical events.

London 1711
By this time London was important on the world stage, having recently been rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666. In 1689, Henry Purcell composed Dido and Aeneas, while Handel later wrote Rinaldo. A theatre opened in the Haymarket, specifically showing opera, though this blatant display of Italian influences on the English stage did not impress many critics. The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden opened in 1732.

Vienna 1786
Like the other cities, Vienna was enjoying a golden era of creativity during this period, when Mozart penned Le Nozze di Figaro. His opera was revolutionary in the sense that it brought servants to the fore.

Milan 1842
The opera house La Scala opened in Milan around this time, when Verdi composed Nabucco. Based on a biblical story, it nevertheless struck a chord with many Italians who sought to see their country united (which happened in 1861). ‘Va, pensiero’ became an unofficial Italian anthem and is still sung as such today.

Paris 1861
It seems to be a pattern that the upsurgence of opera in a particular city leads to the building of a new opera house: this did happen in Paris. This section focused on Wagner and his revolutionary opera Tannhauser. Wagner believed in the idea of opera as total work of art, and wrote all his libretti himself. He believed that the music should form one continuous melody, rather than being made up of separate arias and works.

Dresden 1905
This period is exemplified by Richard Strauss’ Salome, a one-act opera inspired by Oscar Wilde’s play. It tapped into contemporary ideas around the changing role of women.

Leningrad 1934
Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk shocked contemporary audiences with its depiction of female sexuality. At first acclaimed as a composer for ordinary people, Shostakovich was later accused of anti-Soviet behaviour, and Lady Macbeth was banned. 1934 was an important year in Russia because it marked the end of artistic freedom and the imposition of Socialist Realism.

The exhibition ends with a ‘world’ section in which you can see video clips from all over the world.

The exhibition has some fascinating artefacts on display: tableware used by Venetian nobility, busts of notable composers, original drawings by Aubrey Beardsley, Soviet posters advertising Shostakovich’s work. I would have liked to see more costumes, but the ones they had were impressive, including a dress covered in stars. There was a beautiful selection of items that would have been worn by fashionable Parisian opera goers, including a lace mantilla, opera glasses, and a collapsible top hat for the gentleman opera goer.

The exhibition does miss quite a bit out: I was sorry not to see more about my own favourite, Puccini. However, with such a big subject to cover, it does do a good job of exploring the history in an accessible way without overwhelming with information.

House of MinaLima

House of MinaLima

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.

House of MinaLima

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.

House of MinaLima

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.

House of MinaLima

House of MinaLima

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.

House of MinaLima

House of MinaLima

FACTS

Address: 26 Greek Street, Soho, London, W1D 5DE

Website: minalima.com/house-of-minalima

Opening Hours: 12pm-7pm daily

Prices: Free

Imagine Moscow – Design Museum

Design Museum

I’ve always had an interest in Russia, so when I visited the Design Museum recently I made sure to check out their exhibition Imagine Moscow. The exhibition, like so many this year, marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution, and explores Moscow as it was imagined by a new generation of architects and designers in the 1920s and early 1930s. The projects envisaged by them never materialised, but they remain testaments to the ambition and vision of the new regime.

Imagine Moscow exhibition

The projects explored include aviation, communication and industrialisation, using artwork, propaganda and architectural drawings. I was particularly struck by the vision of communal living, with its strict timetables laid out for each worker of the Soviet state. I was torn between admiration for the desire to ensure every person had ample time for recreation and exercise, and horror at the tightly regulated nature of every minute of the day.

One of the most fascinating projects, for me, is the Palace of the Soviets. This, the proposed centre of Soviet administration in Moscow, was imagined as a colossal edifice in the centre of the city, with a gigantic statue of Lenin on top. The nineteenth-century Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on the proposed site was demolished in preparation for work to begin, but the building never got off the ground (literally). Eventually the site became a public swimming pool before a replacement cathedral in the original design was built.

I found the exhibition to be an interesting exploration of what might have been, and a positive introduction to the Design Museum’s new site.