It’s the most wonderful time of the year – no, not Christmas, Halloween. I’ve been distracted by work and my friend’s wedding recently, so I hadn’t planned as much as I would have liked, but I managed to squeeze in a few fun things to mark the occasion.
First up was a trip to the Royal Academy to check out the PsychoBarn, Cornelia Parker’s amazing creation inspired by the house in Psycho. I wore my Odd and the Sparkly brooch to visit, just because.
On Tuesday I attended a screening of a classic silent film Der Golem (it’s German) at Rich Mix in Shoreditch, complete with live musical soundtrack. Considering the film is almost one hundred years old I thought the special effects were pretty impressive. Sadly, they didn’t provide English translations of the text displayed between the scenes, so I had no idea what was going on.
On Halloween itself I went to see a play about a Victorian séance. It was promising but ultimately unsatisfying, and I began to wonder if I would have been better off having a night in with a horror film or a book of ghost stories.
Speaking of which, I spied a book on a friend’s Instagram with the most amazing cover that I immediately decided to track down myself. The book was Lord Halifax’s Ghost Book and was full of apparently true stories of ghostly experiences in houses all around the country. I might take these claims with a pinch of salt, but they were entertaining nevertheless.
As well as Halloween, it was also Dias De Los Muertos – the Mexican Day of the Dead. The V&A held a late to mark the occasion and I went along with a friend. We made a beeline for the crafting area where I made a mask – now displayed on the wall at work – and painted a skull necklace. Despite my known lack of artistic talent, it wasn’t too bad.
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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).
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 V&A‘s latest long-running exhibition is Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear. As the name suggests, it follows the evolution of underwear design from the eighteenth century onwards. It features examples of underwear worn by both men and women, examining how underwear influenced, and was influenced by, ideas of gender, sex and morality, and how it affected outerwear.
I was interested to see the older underwear in particular, such as the examples of nineteenth-century corsets and their earlier counterparts ‘stays’, as well as early bras. The more modern cutting-edge styles were fascinating too. The exhibition runs until 12 March, costing £12, and is well worth seeing.
While I was at the Museum of Childhood to see the exhibition about Bagpuss and The Clangers, I took the opportunity to look around the museum as a whole. Though it is based in Bethnal Green, it is part of west London’s Victoria & Albert Museum: the building was opened as the Bethnal Green Museum in 1872 and in 1922, then-Head Curator Arthur Sabin decided to try and make it more child-friendly. The move was a popular one, and following this the Museum re-opened in 1974 as the Museum of Childhood. A refurbishment occurred in 2005-06 and the Museum continues to thrive.
The Museum is neither just for children nor solely for adults, but manages to successfully cater to both groups. Fun and educational events take place regularly for children, and adults can also get in on the act – for instance, there is a nostalgic children’s’ TV quiz taking place on the 21st of April. The Museum examines the history of childhood, which is interesting for people of all ages: adults can reminisce about their own childhoods, children can learn about how young people of the past occupied their time, and everyone can develop a greater understanding of the history of childhood as a concept.
The section devoted to the history of childhood was particularly interesting to me: it looked at how babies and young children were cared for from the sixteenth century onwards, with examples of clothing, cots and feeding equipment as well as toys. There was also a section on clothes, which showed how children went from wearing miniature versions of adult outfits to their own specially designed fashions.
There were special sections devoted to kinetic and electronic toys, and there were some cases devoted to particular themes, such as magic, with a 1950s magic set being displayed alongside Harry Potter merchandise from recent years. I enjoyed seeing some of the toys I used to play with myself, including Sylvanian Families and the original PlayStation. I have to admit I do feel rather old knowing that toys I played with as a child are now in a museum!
The Museum is currently showing a temporary exhibition called On Their Own: Britain’s Child Migrants. This is definitely aimed at adults rather than children as it explores the sensitive and distressing topic of the children who were sent to various British colonies from 1869-1970. These children were sent away with the promise of a better life, but for many this did not materialise, and several never saw their families again.
The Museum of Childhood is definitely worth a visit. It’s fascinating, and it’s free: though be warned, you may come out with a desire to relive your childhood.
The Julia Margaret Cameron exhibition at the V&A opened yesterday, and since I was meeting up with a friend in the museum café, I suggested that we pay it a visit, as she is also interested in Cameron’s work. The first thing we noticed on approaching the entrance to the free exhibition was the installation outside allowing you to take Victorian-style pictures. I’m not convinced my photo looks particularly authentic – the glittery pink bag strap is a bit of a giveaway – but I think this will be really popular with exhibition-goers. You can share your pictures on social media using the hashtag #VictorianMe.
The free exhibition, held in one room on the first floor, marks the bicentenary of Cameron’s birth, and is made up of over 100 photographs from the Museum’s collection. The V&A, then the South Kensington Museum, was the only museum to exhibit Cameron’s work during her lifetime: the founding director, Sir Henry Cole, presented her work in 1865. In 1868, the Museum offered Cameron the use of two rooms as a studio.
The photographs exhibited include portraits of the great and the good – among them Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Charles Darwin – and Cameron’s own servants and family members, many of whom were posed as biblical, historical or allegorical characters.
Julia Margaret Cameron’s style was unique for the time, and wasn’t always appreciated. I personally love the out-of-focus technique she employed, which give her pictures an ethereal, dreamlike quality, which is unique in Victorian photography. Many contemporary critics were less than complimentary. One of the things that surprised me was seeing how confident Cameron grew as her career developed: in her letters she describes her own work as innovative and groundbreaking. On reflection, this lack of modesty probably helped her promote and establish herself in an industry dominated by men.
The most interesting thing about the exhibition, for me, was the inclusion of some “imperfect” works that Cameron herself did not want exhibited or sold. These show the issues that Cameron had in creating her work, including cracks in the images and damage to the negatives. Critics may have seen Cameron’s work as clumsy and flawed, but she had high standards of her own, knew what she wanted and how to achieve it, and was able to turn her mistakes to her advantage.
My auntie and my cousin love shoes even more than I do, so when they came down to London for a few days they were determined to visit the new Shoes: Pleasure and Pain exhibition at the V&A. They invited me along too, and I was happy to accept.
The exhibition contains weird and wonderful shoes from history, fashion and everyday life, spanning the globe and a period of centuries. It displays around 200 pairs of shoes, exhibited largely on boxes with mirrrors behind to showcase the entire shoe. The shoes belonged to both men and women and were worn for all sorts of different occasions, encompassing Seventies platform heels, eighteenth century Indian wedding shoes, Fifties stilettos, tiny shoes for bound or “lotus” feet in China and moccasins from Canada. It was interesting to see how historical styles influenced more modern designers and how shoes reflected wealth and social status: for instance, fragile shoes with high heels were generally worn by the rich who lived idle lifestyles. There was a section on fetish shoes and another one for famous shoes, including David Beckham’s football boots and the ballet shoes worn by Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes.
The second level of the exhibition contained information about how shoes are made, including some very modern 3D-printed sandals. This exhibition is an absolute must-see for anyone who loves shoes.
I visited the long-awaited Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition at the V&A on Sunday, having luckily booked in advance for a late afternoon slot. The exhibition has sold very well, and in fact weekends have been sold out for a while, so I considered myself lucky to be able to get in.
Despite the popularity of the exhibition, I was impressed with how well it had been organised. I only had to queue for a couple of minutes, getting into the exhibition at the appointed time. The space was not too crowded: sometimes there is a tendency to cram as many people as possible into a space, even when an exhibition has limited entry, but that wasn’t the case here.
The exhibition was well set-up with strong design and themed rooms, reflecting the aesthetic of the clothes, which were displayed thematically and showcased to great effect. For instance, there was a darker mirrored room showing off the Gothic-influenced clothing, and a wood-panelled eighteenth century drawing room to display the Scottish-influenced garments.
I thought the exhibition provided a strong overview of McQueen’s work, with items from his significant collections including Widows of Culloden and Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims, as well as his final fully-formed collection before his untimely death, Plato’s Atlantis. It explored how he used a variety of influences, including flowers, animals, other cultures and history, and emphasised the importance of tailoring in his garments. Looking at items such as the “bumster” trousers, the tailored suits and the dresses incorporating lace or tartan it’s possible to appreciate the thought and craftsmanship that went into each piece, even it’s something you wouldn’t necessarily wear yourself. Over time I’ve come to look at high fashion more as a form of art than as a representation of clothes you’d actually go out in, and this has led me to appreciate it much more. Alexander McQueen’s work is a particularly strong example of fashion-as-art as the designer used his clothes and catwalk shows to make political and cultural statements.
If you can still get a ticket, this is one exhibition which is a must see if you appreciate good design, whether or not you are into fashion.