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Ways to Remember: Shrouds of the Somme

As the pressing concerns of intern(ation)al politics once more dominate the media, the centenary commemorations of the end of the First World War are now fading from memory. However, a short-lived but compelling installation in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London offered a fitting and moving end to this anniversary.  Shrouds of the Somme, the work of the artist Rob Heard, represented the 72, 396 British and Commonwealth servicemen killed at the Battle of the Somme who have no known grave, and whose names can be seen engraved on the Thiepval Memorial in Northern France. Heard hand sewed tiny articulated figures – reminiscent of Action Man – into little white shrouds which were then placed on the grass in the Olympic Park, in front of Anish Kapoor’s helter-skelter Orbital sculpture.


The fact that the figures bound by Heard were articulated, meant that each one was individualised, and laid down on the grass with the head, legs and arms bent or straight, twisted or not, in whatever position the manipulation of the figure by sewing of the shroud had created. Many of the figures placed at the edge of the field had been given poppies or flowers by visitors and the effect of the rows and rows of tiny white bodies on green grass with dots of red recalled the lines of white crosses in the war cemeteries in Northern France and Belgium.


Those graves, however, mark the bodies of soldiers that had been found: Heard’s figures represent those men whose bodies were never recovered – and in just one battle in 1916 and from just one nation. As visitors walked around the grass, the names of ‘the missing’, their rank and age, were read out loud by a volunteer over a loudspeaker.


In addition to the 72, 396 figures laid out in rows, a second part of the installation included tiny wooden crosses commemorating the number of British and Commonwealth service men killed on each day of the war, accompanied by a shrouded figure. These too were adorned with poppies, little wreaths, and in some cases photos of relations that visitors had placed next to the particular day on which a relative had died. While there has debate in some circles about whether the Armistice should continue to be commemorated, now that we have reached 100 years on, the Shrouds of the Somme made present in a very poignant way the enormous tragedy of that conflict. It is hard to see how such loss cannot continue to be commemorated.


Lying on the autumn grass, the white shrouds of these figures had started to soak up the mud; around some, red and brown autumn leaves had gathered…it was as if the pure white shrouds, perhaps representative of the idealised notions of the war, and the innocence of its ‘doomed youth’, were beginning to change, the stains and the damp evoking in miniscule the horrors that the soldiers underwent in the trenches; the figures themselves were sinking into the earth, like the men they represent who lie unfound in the fields of France and Flanders.  EL’E




Frieze Sculpture 2018: Stumbling across art in Regent’s Park

Hannah Binns (Joint Honours History of Art with English Literature)

I visited London to interview somebody for my dissertation a few weeks ago and spontaneously decided to walk back to Marylebone through Regent’s Park. On my way, I discovered Frieze Sculpture 2018, an installation of sculptures by artists from around the world, curated by Claire Lilley. The first Frieze Sculpture was a resounding success last year and Lilley hoped this year’s exhibition would “give pause for thought as well as great pleasure.”

As someone who was not aware that this exhibition even existed, I was very excited to stumble across the twenty-five artworks. There were a couple of works that really stood out to me: Kathleen Ryan’s il Volatile (2018) and Haroon Gunn-Salie’s Senzenina (2018).

Kathleen Ryan_s il Volatile (2018)

Kathleen Ryan’s il Volatile (2018)

Ryan’s work depicts two bronze birds cast from clay sitting on a stainless-steel security bar and blends solid materials with delicate textures. Her work has been described as “weightless” and I totally agree. The softness with which Ryan has handled the materials gives the impression that one is witnessing a moment that might soon change when the birds fly away. While the public is forbidden from touching these works, nothing is stopping real birds from interacting with them which is particularly interesting with Ryan’s sculpture where the natural and the man-made birds sit side-by-side.

Gunn-Salie’s work shows a group of life-size crouching figures representing the Marikana massacre where police opened fire of a group of striking mineworkers in South Africa. The artist used police footage of the workers shortly before the police opened fire to create this sculpture that is an eerie memorial for the lives lost. Despite the fact that the artist has chosen to create figures without heads or hands, they seem very human which only adds to the ghostly feeling that the work has.

Haroon Gunn-Salie_s Senzenina (2018).

Haroon Gunn-Salie’s Senzenina (2018)

If you happen to be in London next time this show is on, I highly recommend having a look around. Exhibitions like this are such a wonderful way of making art accessible to people who don’t get to interact with it on a regular basis. I am really glad I decided not to take the tube that day or I would have missed out on seeing some fantastic art in a beautiful setting.

More information on Frieze Sculpture 2018 can be found here.

Maman: Vuillard and Madame Vuillard

CAI LYONS (PhD student, History of Art)

The newest exhibition from the Barber Institute of Fine Arts — Maman: Vuillard and Madame Vuillard — launched with a private showing on Thursday 18 October, and presents Vuillard through the context of his extremely close relationship with his mother, Madame Vuillard. While exploring the relationships between Vuillard and his mother — a relationship played out in literally hundreds of the artist’s works — the show also focuses on the portrayal of the domestic interior more generally, and private relationships between women, which made the show especially interesting and significant for me.

Edouard Vuillard, 'Madame Vuillard Arranging Her Hair'

Edouard Vuillard, ‘Madame Vuillard Arranging Her Hair’, 1900

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Professor John Holmes: The Pre-Raphaelites and Science

Talk by Professor John Holmes on Friday 19th October at 2pm in Arts Lecture Room 3.

Holmes PreRaphs and Science.png

Birmingham is home to arguably the finest collection of Pre-Raphaelite art in the world. The city was also one of the engines of science and industry in nineteenth century. These two sides of Victorian culture can seem worlds apart, with the Pre-Raphaelites retreating from the modern age into medieval fantasy. In this talk, John Holmes will show how the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their close associates far from being medieval escapists, set out to create an art that would be scientific in its methods and modern in its outlook.

The talk is based on his recently published book, The Pre-Raphaelites and Science, which explores how the Pre-Raphaelite’s commitment to creating a new kind of art modelled on science – in which precise observation could lead to new discoveries about the natural world and about humanity – affected their practice across painting, sculpture, poetry and architecture through the nineteenth-century.

In the talk, he will consider some of the Pre-Raphaelites early and best-known paintings showing how they represent ‘investigations’ into nature and human psychology, as William Michael Rossetti, one of the original members of the group, put it in The Spectator in 1851. And, he will describe how their contemporaries, including the leading physician, Henry Acland, and, the critic, John Ruskin, took up Pre-Raphaelite art as a visual language to communicate science in a new natural history museum built in Oxford in the 1850s.

What united the Pre-Raphaelites with both scientists and theologians in the first half of the century was a shared commitment; firstly, to the Baconian method, founded on the close and detailed observation of the natural world; and, secondly, to natural theology, which asserted that all of nature is God’s creation and that revealing nature, through art or science, provided a direct insight into God’s purpose. John Holmes’ talk will focus on this period of collaborative working.

In his book, John Holmes considers how all of this changed in 1859 with the publication of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. This pivotal work subverted the idea of a creator God and challenged the Baconian inductive method so dear to the early Pre-Raphaelites. The book describes the fault lines that opened up post-Darwin, dividing scientists and theologians and also affecting the Pre-Raphaelite project. In the second half of the century, some of Pre-Raphaelites sought to adhere to their original principles (notably William Holman Hunt and John Millais) but others moved away from naturalism towards Aestheticism and Symbolism (notably Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones). In the latter case, John Holmes argues that, contrary to accepted thinking, there was still an important dialogue between Darwinian scientific materialism and the arts and that this found expression in diverse and sometimes contradictory ways.

John Holmes is Professor of Victorian Literature and Culture at the University of Birmingham.

Register for this free event now

Carmen 2018

Here is re-blog of the post one of our lecturers has written about her recent trip to the CARMEN medieval network meeting in Finland to present a new research project…

Women and the Book

At the end of August, Women and the Book had its first proper outing, to the 2018 CARMEN 2018 Network Meeting at the University of Tampere in Finland. This was a great place to present this project, and to pick up a special commendation in the new CARMEN Project Prize.

CARMEN is a worldwide network of medievalists and its aim is to foster interdisciplinary dialogue on the Middle Ages between scholars, institutions, universities and research groups. The annual meeting is held in a different place every year and is focused around informative workshops and sessions rather than on a specific field or period. Thus this year there was the opportunity to hear about medieval research that is going on in Finland, and in Tampere in particular, and to attend workshops on prospective projects such as Pre-modern Manuscripts and Early Books in Conflict Zones – winner of this year’s Project…

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A blog about (art) blogging

MICHAEL CLEGG (History of Art, PhD)

When I started to think about trying to write on art, blogging seemed an obvious way to begin. My early researches, however, taught me a few unpleasant truths: that there was absolutely no chance of getting paid, that shouty prose was the internet’s default house style, and that you probably wouldn’t have an audience anyway.

By a stroke of good luck, at about the same time I was asked if I’d start a blog for the Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden, where I’d volunteered on and off for a few years. The Gallery has a dedicated – even international – following, so that rather than yelling to no-one I knew I’d have the opportunity to talk in measured tones to an informed audience. With just a copy of ‘WordPress for Dummies’ to fall back on, I agreed.

Clegg 1

At the Fry Art Gallery we like to think of ourselves as quirky but professional; the cottage garden entrance opening out on some serious art. The Gallery building itself was once home to the private collection of a local banking family, from whom it takes its name (they were distant relatives of Roger Fry, and apparently owned one of his oils). Now, however, it houses a collection of work by artists with a national reputation who lived or worked in North West Essex, many around the village of Great Bardfield. Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden are the names which draw in visitors, but there are also pieces by Marianne Straub, Keith Vaughan, Michael Rothenstein, Kenneth Rowntree, John Bellany and many others. A plate by Grayson Perry gets a lot of comment, but the strength of the collection is very much in the mid-twentieth century.

At the Fry Art Gallery we like to think of ourselves as quirky but professional; the cottage garden entrance opening out on some serious art. The Gallery building itself was once home to the private collection of a local banking family, from whom it takes its name (they were distant relatives of Roger Fry, and apparently owned one of his oils). Now, however, it houses a collection of work by artists with a national reputation who lived or worked in North West Essex, many around the village of Great Bardfield. Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden are the names which draw in visitors, but there are also pieces by Marianne Straub, Keith Vaughan, Michael Rothenstein, Kenneth Rowntree, John Bellany and many others. A plate by Grayson Perry gets a lot of comment, but the strength of the collection is very much in the mid-twentieth century.

Two Women in a Garden, Eric Ravilious,

Two Women in a Garden, Eric Ravilious, 1934; Fry Art Gallery

The blog averages about 150 visitors per month, which isn’t massive, but compares well with the audience you would reach through an academic conference. When I launched the site in March 2017 it took a while for numbers to build, but things began to take-off when a feed from the blog was put onto the Gallery’s main website. We now have a pretty slick social media operation too, with new blog posts being advertised by my (volunteer) colleagues who handle the Gallery’s presence on twitter and facebook.

The technical knowledge needed to run a WordPress site is minimal, but whether I get the writing right – its tone and frequency – is another matter. I try to get a new post up at least every six weeks (which is probably not as frequent as would be ideal, but this is in my spare time). I don’t think of the blog primarily as a way of reaching new audiences so much as enhancing the Gallery’s offers to existing visitors and those potential visitors with a definite interest in the art. My imagined reader is someone who already knows that they like the art on show, but will get more out of it with further context, historical information or behind-the-scenes insights from a curator. It’s important to me personally that, whist the tone isn’t academic, the content and any research behind it would stand up to academic scrutiny.

Good images are at the core of any art blog. The Fry has a good library of digitised pictures, but doesn’t have the image rights for all the works it owns, which can make things more complicated than I’d like. Even where the Gallery owns image rights, I tend to use cropped and low resolution photographs on the site, as these are entering the public domain and control is lost.

Despite some initial scepticism, and a lot of effort for only its own reward, I’ve found blogging through a museum site rewarding, and a nice complement to academic writing. It’s helped me make some connections and establish myself at the Gallery: I’ve recently been asked to edit a revised version of the Gallery’s guide Ravilious at the Fry, which will be a whole new set of learning.

The Fry Art Gallery blog can be found here. You can follow it on twitter @FryArtGallery and me @michaeljclegg1

Bruegel in 2018-19: at the Kunsthistorisches, Vienna, and Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels


Bruegel Babel

Bruegel the Elder, “Large Tower of Babel,” 1563; Kunsthistorisches, Vienna

In September 1569, Pieter Bruegel the Elder died — aged, tragically, just forty or so — and was buried in Notre Dame de la Chapelle in Brussels. To mark the 450th anniversary of this event, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, which holds the single largest collection of Bruegel paintings (over a quarter of them), is staging the first ever major monographic exhibition on the artist. Due to open in October this year and running till January 2019, it promises to offer an overview of the artist’s entire painted oeuvre …. More here.

B winter-landscape-with-skaters-and-a-bird-trap-1565

Bruegel, Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap, 1565; Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels

2018 is, it turns out, a good year for Bruegel and the Brueghel dynasty. In September there’s going to be a pretty big three-day international conference at the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels. I’ll be speaking, and the Acts are coming out next year as a book. More info., and the programme here.

In Bruges: A Rewarding Encounter with Frank Brangwyn


In the middle of February, I spent three days in Bruges undertaking preliminary research for my dissertation and taking in many of the artistic pleasures of this enigmatic city. On the second day, I met with Laurence Van Kerkhoven, Assistant Curator at the Groenigemuseum. She gave me details of the fin-de-siècle works in their collection and we discussed some of the ideas behind my dissertation. Then she took me around their permanent display of works by Frank Brangwyn, on the first floor of the Arentshuis, a fine eighteenth-century house that forms an annex to the main museum. I had seen the display before but this time Laurence drew my attention to Brangwyn’s various depictions of Bruges and she reflected on the diversity of his practice.


But who was Frank Brangwyn, I hear some of you say? He was born in Bruges in 1867, the son of William Brangwyn, a British architect and designer, who based himself in the city for some years. In 1874, the family returned to London and, around 1882, Frank was taken on by the studio of William Morris. He only spent two years there and, at the young age of 18, he launched his career as an artist, working from the start in a wide range of disciplines.


Brangwyn’s continuing connections with Bruges

Brangwyn always maintained his connections with Bruges and in 1936, towards the end of his career but when he was still highly regarded as an artist, he gifted a substantial body of work to the city of Bruges on the understanding that a museum would be created to display them. The museum remains popular but, beyond Bruges and even in his home country, Brangwyn is largely forgotten, despite his considerable reputation across Europe in the early twentieth century.

I asked Laurence about this. In her view, there are several reasons for the comparative neglect of Brangwyn. Partly, it may be due to the range of his practice, which is very much on show in Bruges. It may also be because his work cannot be pinned down stylistically; it doesn’t fit neatly into any one school or movement. It was also evident from the work on view that, in the 1920s, the quality of his work began to decline as he became increasingly detached from wider developments in the art world.

In Britain, he remained well thought of; he was knighted in 1941 and in 1952, four years before his death, he received the first retrospective of a living artist at the Royal Academy. But this was at a time when the ‘young-bloods’ of the Pop and Op art movements (Hamilton, Hockney, Riley et al.) were beginning to look outwards and in the process they turned their backs on most pre-1945 British art. Hence, after his death, Brangwyn and his work faded into relative obscurity.

The outstanding English artist of the time?  

Yet at the beginning of his career, Brangwyn was perhaps seen as the outstanding English artist of the period and he had success in many different fields. In 1885, when he was only 18, he first exhibited at the Royal Academy. Two years later, his work was shown at the Paris Salon and, in the same year, he became a corresponding member of the Munich Secession. In 1895, he was commissioned by Siegfried Bing to provide murals for his newly-opened gallery in Paris – L’Art Nouveau – which was at the centre of this new movement. Two years later, he was a founding member of perhaps the most famous of the secessionist movements, the Vienna Secession, and, in 1899, he was commissioned to produce stained-glass designs for Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Thus, by the turn of the century, when he was just over 30, Brangwyn’s work was recognised and celebrated in Britain, across Europe and in the USA. In the following decade and a half, he was extraordinarily productive exhibiting widely and representing Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1905, at the Ghent World Exhibition in 1913 and at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1914.

The display in Bruges provides an excellent overview of his work during this period and later and I thought it might be of interest to highlight some of the pieces that caught my attention as I went round with Laurence.

Brangwyn as an interior designer

The two years Brangwyn spent in the William Morris studio gave him an idea of the importance of the decorative arts and he worked as an interior designer for all of his career. In the gallery, is one of his earliest commissions, a carpet design called ‘The Vine’, which he produced in 1896 for Bing’s, L’Art Nouveau. This was an impressive achievement for a young British artist; at a time when the decorative arts were seen across Europe as being on a par with the fine arts.

Brangwyn carpet

Brangwyn (design), The Vine (carpet);Museum Artenshuis (author’s photograph)

Another example of his work on show is a chair he designed for the British pavilion for the 1905 Venice Biennale. The simple lines of the chair, which formed part of a total scheme of decoration, show how his work was progressing away from Art Nouveau towards Art Deco at the very beginning of this movement.

Brangwyn chair

Chair designed by Brangwyn; Museum Artenshuis (author’s photograph)

Brangwyn as a colourist

In the meantime, Brangwyn was exhibiting his paintings widely. His practice as a painter was greatly influenced by his travels with fellow artists to Turkey, South African and Morocco. Perhaps his most significant companion was Arthur Melville, who he travelled to Spain with in 1892. Melville, who was 12 years older than Frank Brangwyn, was a member of the Glasgow Boys and an inspiration to the later Scottish Colourists. (Co-incidentally, one of Melville’s early works, The Lawn Tennis Party at Marcus, is currently on show upstairs in the Barber in the exhibition The Rhythm of Light: Scottish Colourists from the Fleming Collection).


Melville, The Lawn Tennis Party at Marcus, 1889; Private Collection. (Image: Bridgeman Education.)

By the 1890s, Melville had developed a free style of painting that clearly influenced Brangwyn’s early paintings, which – like Melville’s – are saturated with light and colour and full of human activity and movement. In Bruges, they have several examples of Brangwyn’s work from this period; notably Fishermen at Sea in a Squall of 1908, which exemplifies his fluid and exuberant style.

Brangwyn 'Fishermen at Sea in a Squall' .jpg

Brangwyn, Fishermen at Sea in a Squall, 1908; Museum Artenshuis (author’s photograph)

Brangwyn as a printmaker

Frank Brangwyn was a significant graphic artist and printmaker. His early work was much in Morris’s mould (as for example in a series of bookplates on display in Bruges) but his work, later, became darker and more expressionistic; as in his series of prints of railway stations. La Gare of 1910 shows his effective depiction of atmospheric effects and his expressive use of flowing, tangled lines.

Brangwyn, La Gare

Brangwyn, La Gare, 1910; Museum Artenshuis, Bruges

Brangwyn, like many artists of the time, was influenced by Japanese prints and he took this interest further when, in 1910, he formed a highly successful partnership with a Japanese woodblock artist, Yoshijuro Urushibara. Brangwyn collaborated with Urishibara for the next 30 years; perhaps their most celebrated work is a series of coloured wood block prints for a book of poems on Bruges by the English poet and art historian, Laurence Binyon. The Beguinage, Bruges is a highly evocative image which channels earlier Symbolist views of Bruges (some of which are on view in the main gallery of the Groenigemuseum) and which reinterprets them in a pattern of delicate lines and misty tones with a tell-tale lit window (a typical Symbolist trope).

Brangwyn 'The Beguinage, Bruges' .jpg

Brangwyn, The Beguinage, Bruges; Museum Artenshuis (author’s photograph)

Brangwyn as a social commentator

Brangwyn’s work does not, on the whole, address social issues and concerns. However, the outbreak of the Great War, caused him to consider the impact of the conflict and his position as a British-based artist with connections in Belgium. Brangwyn did not become an official war artist but during the war he produced a large number of prints and images. Some of these tended to be jingoistic (as in his recruitment posters) but others were more reflective. Like many other artists and writers, he became aware of the human cost of the conflict and it should be noted that his colleague, Laurence Binyon, was a celebrated war poet.

Throughout the war and after, Brangwyn produced a series of powerful images highlighting the plight of refugees, starting with the mass displacement of people caused by the surprise and brutal German invasion of Belgium at the beginning of the war. His later Refugees of 1927 seeks to universalise the refugee experience at a time when many artists were seeking to consign the war to the past.

Brangwyn 'Refugees' .jpg

Brangwyn, Refugees, 1927; Museum Artenshuis

Brangwyn and the avant-garde

Laurence added that Frank Brangwyn and his work are in currently being re-evaluated. Her work at the Groeningemuseum has undoubtedly been important in keeping his reputation alive and, recently, several smaller British galleries have had exhibitions of work focusing on specific aspects of his overall practice (as in the William Morris Gallery’s Frank Brangwyn and the Art of Japan, held on the 150th anniversary of his birth in 2017, when I saw more of Brangwyn’s and Urishibara’s collaborative work). And back in 2006, Leeds Museums and Galleries held a broader retrospective of his life and work. This had an excellent accompanying publication with a series of essays on different aspects of his practice, which is in the Barber Fine Art library. Although the exhibition and the publication tends to underplay his Bruges works, which is curious considering it travelled to the Groeningemuseum.

Interest in Frank Brangwyn and in many of his English and Scottish contemporaries is growing (as per the Barber’s Scottish Colourists exhibition). Part of this reflects a wider understanding of the development of the pan-European avant-garde, when Brangwyn’s work came to the fore. The period between 1880 and 1914 was a time of unparalleled cultural dialogue and exchange and artists like Frank Brangwyn are now being re-assessed as significant participants in the avant-garde. Brangwn may not be a major figure but his early work and practice is in many ways emblematic and deserving of greater attention.

Why I like this Module: Victorian Art and the British Empire

LOUISE GREENHILL (second year student)

As part of the second year module ‘Victorian Art and the British Empire,’ taught by Dr Kate Nichols, we all visited the Ikon Gallery in Brindley Place to see their exhibition on Thomas Bock (ran from 6 December 2017 – 11 March 2018) as in Week 9 of the term we would present our research on this subject to small groups of visitors from the Ikon’s Legacy Group for adult learners. From the start the project promised to be interesting and of particular interest to me was the fact that Bock himself was a fellow Brummie!

Thomas Bock was an engraver who was deported to Tasmania, then Van Diemen’s Land, in 1823 where he became a convict artist. The focus of our study was on the detailed watercolour portraits of Tasmanian Aboriginal people that he produced, which are striking in their sympathetic and personal depictions of each individual.

One of the main themes of this module is the idea that studying imperial art should give a voice to the colonial subjects depicted and recognise the two-way exchange between both cultures, and this is what we tried to do in our research of Youth Sitting. There is some evidence, mainly facial features and the records of the group, to suggest that the subject of this portrait was actually a Hawaiian called John/Joseph/Mclain/Mclean who worked as a sailor and travelled from Hawaii to New York to Liverpool where he was arrested and sentenced to deportation to Tasmania, so he turned out to be a very interesting man to research.


Youth Sitting

Perhaps the most interesting part of this portrait is the fact that the subject is portrayed completely naked, unlike the portraits of the Aboriginal people who are often wearing intricate, detailed outfits. The oddly flat proportions of the torso and the way in which the head seems superimposed to the body led to the theory that “John” was originally sketched with clothes which were, in a sense, removed in the final version. Further evidence to point to this is a preliminary sketch made by Bock which shows “John” again but he is wearing trousers and in the top right-hand corner of the sketch two figures that are sitting in the same cross-legged pose as our subject, are clearly wearing European style shirts and trousers. His nakedness is intriguing because as someone who had travelled around the world and was technically an English convict he surely would have worn English clothes as shown in the sketch. So why did Bock make this artistic decision? Perhaps he wanted to depict the group as similar, he also put a traditional Aboriginal spear into the portrait. Perhaps Bock himself, as a white European man, did not differentiate between different ethnicities. We even wondered if “John” himself wanted to be shown as similar to the Aboriginal people so that he could make a fresh start in Tasmania after his arrest. These are all just theories and there is no conclusive proof either way but the project raised many important questions about the importance of dress in imperial portraiture, the accuracy of portraits and the conflicting intentions of both artist and sitter. Thinking through all these issues and more besides made ‘Victorian Art and the British Empire’ a very interesting module indeed!!





Being Modern: MoMA in Paris exhibition

SAM ROBINSON (second year student)

Situated on the western arc of Paris’s Boulevard Périphérique, perhaps better known as the Périph, the Louis Vuitton Foundation presents something of a welcome respite from the bustle of inner-city Paris. Having spent the best part of the week-long study trip rattling around the Metro in short bursts from Musee D’Orsay to Centre Pompidou, the semi-rural feel of the LVF building felt a bit alien.

Fondation LV

Unbeknownst to me at the time, the route I had opted for would take me on a scenic tour of the Parisian periphery – a mostly wintery scene, that is, made up of desolate woodland and dual-carriageways. Once the leafless canopy began to clear, however, the destination presented itself in the most striking sense. Several glass panels of a grand scale, arced and deflected, are held together by a semi-visible industrial skeleton to resemble the grandest, gleaning origami construction on the Paris skyline.

Home to the recent Being Modern: MoMA in Paris exhibition, the building is the product of architect Frank Gehry’s trademark obsession with warping and visually stimulating curvature (see Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum) and is something quite remarkable to behold. There is a strong sense of statement to Gehry’s architecture, a bold design that stands out both aesthetically and geographically.

The fact that the roof terrace might ordinarily offer exquisite views of the Eiffel Tower, if it weren’t for the quite deliberate placement of a web of hefty iron pillars, suggests that this building aims to stand apart from the traditional tourist image of Paris. This is the Eiffel Tower of the Périph.

An impressive sight, the LVF building nonetheless echoes the corporate excess of those that occupy it. For me, the uneasy cleanliness and air of expense sat at visible odds with the pretty bleak landscape of the Bois de Bologne in winter. Such feeling was probably best represented by the dozens of queueing visitors anxiously scraping the mud off their feet so as to not dirty the pristine white walkway, for fear of reprisal …. It certainly felt the shiny new product of Paris’ highest-end fashion corporation, a showpiece of expensive designer taste – a world distinctly apart from the functionality and industry of the Pompidou or Eiffel Tower.

That said, once inside, it becomes apparent that such an exhibition would most probably not have become a reality without the sheer cost of it all being able to be met. The volume of work on show on loan from the MoMA — over 100 objects — reportedly required no fewer than seventeen trans-Atlantic shipments to get it all to Paris, which, I’m guessing isn’t exactly cheap.

The first floor of the exhibition, which spanned four floors in total, offers a chronological examination of the MoMA’s history. Initially House by the Railroad by Edward Hopper, 1925, cuts a lonely figure – but only momentarily, as attention is immediately wrenched away by the plethora of instantly recognisable icons of twentieth-century modern art that lay beyond it. Should the eye veer too far left while viewing Hopper’s work, for example, the flitting projection of Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie (1928) proves far too intriguing a distraction.

Whether this was merely a personal failing, my own attention deficit, or whether bigger questions are to be asked about the design of this show, there certainly was some sense of chaos to the display. Perhaps this was an inevitable result of trying to present so many objects — many of them very famous — of all different kinds in one space …. Whatever it was, certainly the show was a feast for the eyes, so much so that it often seemed difficult to concentrate on any one object.

Opus 217 by Paul Signac caught the eye, as a work returning from whence it came. It alludes to the great influence that Parisian and European art once held in shaping the future for American modern art, although after the first floor and the founding years of the MoMA, the art becomes noticeably more American in its identity.

The previously overwhelming collection also begins to thin, in that each individual work is allowed more room to breathe and not diminish into the overwhelmed whole. Andy Warhol’s infamous Campbell’s Soup Cans are allowed a vast amount of wall space, as are other iconic works such as Roy Lichtenstein’s Drowning Girl. It makes sense, too, of course, that the most iconic works and their makers are afforded the most space and so attention. Working in chronological order, floor by floor, presents a kind of ascent to a climax. Between each floor, there was an increasing, though indiscernible, buzz of anticipation as visitors escalated past the webbed glass sails of the exterior (somewhat in awe) to the very top.

In this sense I think America was very much the point of ‘Being Modern: MoMA in Paris’. There is some sense of an overzealous presentation of a pure American spectacle, as a show of national pride and brute strength via the medium of loaned artworks. Even so, the exhibition would essentially have been doing what it said on the tin – presenting the ‘MoMA in Paris’: the pinnacle institution of American modern art, showing off a tour de force roll call of world-renowned art to the rest of the world.


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