There's something poignant about a woman's make-up ..
A few weeks ago, I went to see this exhibition at the V&A and found it very moving. There is something poignant about a woman's make up, especially after death. In Frida Kahlo's case, I was struck by the femininity of the possessions on show here: how intimate it felt, almost voyeuristic, to be viewing her mascara, her scent, her nail varnish, and even more so, her corsets, her prosthetic leg, the parts of her kept hidden under the gorgeous extravagance of her dresses. The exhibition is sold out, in spite of an extension, and was packed when I was there. It inspired the following thoughts:
Inside the glass cases, a trapped scent: Shalimar, Schiaparelli, Chanel, the perfumes of a bourgeois world, one half of your divided body. The other wears a Tehuanatapec dress, the bolans covering your crafted leg. A softening, a defiance.
She looks in the mirror, applies Everything is Rosy to her full lips, presses them together, applies a little more. Then ebony eye pencil, to enhance the monobrow. Her eyes share a smile with her reflection. So much movement in the vivid lips, the flower in her hair, the decorated, layered dress. Underneath, the prison of her corset, the necessary enclosure, keeping her rigid. Her wasted leg strapped in the heavy boot, all lightness contained. She is held, kept upright, when all she wants to do is dance.
Van Gogh at the National Gallery
‘Yellow is the embodiment of the utmost clarity of Love.’
Late spring, torrential rain, noon and rivulets swept us into the National Gallery, London. Inside it was dark, in a cathartic way, the whole city being rather glorious in muted, damp subduity which flowed effortlessly into each and every room. It was immensely satisfying to be participating in this noir midday with vehement Masters of Art and the palette rarely changed until, ‘Fourteen Sunflowers in a Vase,’ 1888.
‘I am thinking of decorating my studio with half-a-dozen pictures of sunflowers.’
Van Gogh had rented the Yellow House, Arles, in late Spring too, May to be exact. It was to be his studio and he was preparing for the arrival of fellow Impressionist Gauguin, wanting, more than anything else in the world, to impress him. And so, with obsessive zeal he began to paint these studies.
‘the same kind of effect as Gothic church windows.’
Perhaps it was the day, I was drunk on a storm, but I have never felt so intensely drawn to a painting glimpsed out of the corner of my eye. Aureolin, maize, flax, beige, buff, citrine, lemon, cream and gold, gold, gold.
‘I should like to paint in so simple a way that anyone with eyes can see clearly what is meant.’
Van Gogh, you have. Brilliance, sheer brilliance.
Feminist Textiles – Rowena Sommerville
I was a feminist before I knew what the word meant: I always thought that I was entitled to take up just as much space in the world as anyone else, but was soon conscious that a lot of the world actually didn’t agree, specifically, because I was a girl. I have also always loved clothes and fabric and textiles and knitting, and I did realise quite early on that textile skills (weaving, sewing, knitting, embroidering etc) were looked down on in ‘the art world’, and that that was not because of anything intrinsic to the form, but very definitely because they were artforms generally carried out by women (although I don’t know why it is that women incline so strongly to those practices, and I’m not going to attempt to answer that complicated nature/nurture question in this short piece).
"textile skills were looked down on in the art world"
I like a lot of textile arts, particularly what we might call ‘woke textiles’ if we were being trendy. If you google ‘feminist textiles’ you get some great images, ranging from the subtle to the thumping, and a lot of stuff (literally) that lifts the spirit. I note a sampler, made in a heart shape, in soft colours and traditional stitches, which – if you look properly – has a line of pattern that repeats the phrase ‘fuck patriarchy’, and plenty of T shirts and banners with strong messages, including ‘I would call you a cunt but you lack the warmth and the depth’. I wouldn’t wear it, but it made me laugh.
Nineteenth and twentieth century Amish quilts often seem to prefigure Rothko, Hodgson, Johns and so on, but they don’t feature in history of art chains of development. Of course, I know that they ‘weren’t done as art’, they weren’t in ‘dialogue with what other artists had done’ and all of that – but my god, the colours sing, the patterns dazzle and the creators were bold and inventive, even if they were just women, using up scraps of fabric to keep their families warm and their homes pretty. I like to think of Tracey Emin’s unmade bed as belonging in this tradition, just as her embroideries ‘subvert the genre’ as they say…
"Kahlo's style is transcendent.."
Like everyone these days, I love Frida Kahlo: her paintings, her appearance and her beautiful colourful clothes which are so much part of everything she was, enlivening the world through style and fabric and panache. Her painted artificial leg, from 1953, is an extraordinary defiant and brave object, and is to be included in the V and A exhibition‘Making Herself Up’ this summer. I have versions of Frida’s image/imagery on cushions and fridge magnets. Her style is transcendent (and now very saleable).
In my freelance life I have been working as the North of England Co-ordinator for ‘Processions’, which is devised and managed by Artichoke to celebrate 100 years of women’s suffrage. On June 10ththere will be Processions in the four UK national capitals (Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London), of women and girls and those who identify as women or non-binary, all walking in stripes of colour created by wearing cotton wraps in purple, white or green, the suffragette colours. Many of the groups will also be carrying fabric banners which may proclaim who they are, or what they believe in, or what they hope for. I think it will be brilliant to see the textile banner tradition living on in this way. Our very own Thorntree Roses will be there with a banner.
There’s something wonderful about using traditional feminine materials and traditional feminine skills to say new and powerful things, not least to say that art doesn’t have to be made of paint, steel or digital screens to be strong or meaningful, whatever the critics may say. Pick up those needles with pride, stitch up the patriarchy!
A good friend first introduced me to Nash’s work. We were writing in response to art at his dining room table. With copious cups of strong coffee, served with shortbread and mid-afternoon melancholy, he showed me an image of Paul Nash’s painting, ‘Totes Meer.’
Here I am, years later, at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and this painting is hanging directly in front of me. It’s twilight, “a private viewing,” the gallery officials smile and share my luck at being the only person here, half an hour before closing. There’s a real sense of ending in this artwork, possibly half an hour before doom, a visceral finality and I love the metallurgy of it. Combining seascape and landscape, this is a Second World War graveyard.
"Battlefield, disorientation, carnage, devastation
and utter desolation are all here.."
Death and mortality feature heavily in Nash’s work, of course he was official war artist, but more than that even, in his earlier work, there are clinical drawings and angular designs, although some do catch an element of fluidity in their composure, with humility alongside this. ‘The Ypres Salient at Night,’ has pyramids of light, very close to Blake, whom he was a reverent admirer of, and an honest veracity which I much admire in Nash. Battlefield, disorientation, carnage, devastation and utter desolation are all here, including the biblical flash of shells. War is depicted with necessary provocation for the viewer, Nash leaves the final verdict of the atrocity of war for us to visualize.
The mood in the gallery is sombre, dark and silent. I am imagining Paul Nash as an isolated character, living and fighting through two world wars, an essentially solitary person, until I’m drawn to an unexpected piece of information. Nash was the founder of Unit One, a group of Nash and his artist contemporaries who shared the same timely movement from abstract to realism in the 1930’s, and included Hepworth, Moore and Ben Nicholson, amongst others. They held an important exhibition. They shared intellectual and artistic ideals whilst not conforming to each others styles. They publicly announced their place in contemporary art of the time. I am leaving the gallery with faith in the power of collective, fine humanity, and hope.
The Paul Nash exhibition closes on January 14th. Image: Landscape from a Dream by Paul Nash @Tate London 2015
Scottish National Gallery
Chiaroscuro: I have always wanted to use this word, an Italian term meaning light-dark, in any writing and finally, here it in this review with thanks to Michelangolo Merisi da Caravaggio, remarkable renaissance painter of reportedly difficult temperament, although fervently respected by his patrons, and desirable fantasy dinner party guest of mine.
On a mild Autumn day in Milan, I wandered into the Pinacoteca di Brera, not the gallery as planned, but the Brera Academy, by mistake. Surrounded by students of painting and sculpture, the atmosphere throughout the palazzo was charged and electric, flooded with creativity. Perhaps this modern day vibrancy and furore reflected that surrounding artists at the turn of the seventeenth century, I mused. Finally locating the gallery, Caravaggio’s, ‘Supper at Emmaus,’ seemed subdued in comparison, a strained Christ and serious but compassionate expressions, the painting appeared to me to be darkly keening. Latterly, I became aware that Caravaggio had a murder charge pending against him at the time of this work.
Deeply intrigued to see more, I visited, ‘Beyond Caravaggio,’ at the National Gallery in Edinburgh this Summer. I knew that there would be an earlier painting of the Supper at Emmaus, by the artist himself, in the exhibition. Five years earlier, in 1601, exhilarating and extravagant storytelling infused this piece. Although edged with darkness, I was captivated by the light on the faces of each figure, particularly Christ’s, the fruit which almost tipped off the table and onto the parquet floor in the gallery, the space at the table where I would have loved to sit, the sheer arresting drama of it all. Once able to take my eyes off the painting, I turned to see, ‘The Taking of Christ,’ beautifully hung on the opposite wall, the distance from each work only serving to further illuminate the expressions of betrayal, anguish and inevitability. Chiaroscuro: I have always wanted to experience this word and I had.
There was only one other piece by Caravaggio in this exhibition, the exquisitely impish, ‘Boy Bitten by a Lizard.’ There were works by other renaissance artists from the school of this master at that time but, for me, their paintings merely served to highlight his brilliance.
Shortly afterwards, in the Gemaldergalerie in Berlin, I met with Caravaggio’s, ‘Victorious Cupid,’ and, well, that’s another story.
My family on my mum’s side all come from Hull, and as a child I visited it frequently. I loved the way everyone talked and the slightly grim sense of humour. My favourite place then was the joke shop in the Hepworth Arcade, but I also liked visiting my Uncle’s woodwork shop and my Auntie Cath, who worked in Ladieswear in Hammonds Department Store. Gran also took us to William Wilberforce House, where I found out about slavery for the first time, an injustice and outrage I found very hard to understand at the age of 7, when I still believed grown ups knew what they were doing.
This year, Hull has been awarded the much coveted City of Culture stamp, and is celebrating in grand style. I have been there twice so far and seen all kinds of music and some excellent exhibitions. Here's a selection:
Raft of the Medusa at Humber Street Gallery by Lucy and Jorge Orta – part of the Somewhere Becoming Sea exhibition. The exhibition looks at “the ever-changing boundaries between land and sea” as imagined and realised by a range of artists, including the Ortas, Simon Faithfull, Lavinia Greenlaw, Alec Finlay and many more.
Skin: Freud, Mueck and Tunick at the Ferens Art Gallery.
Cairns: a sculpture trail by Icelandic artist Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir dotted around the grounds of Hull University. Fascinating and moving.
Flaming Lips, Public Broadcasting Corporation and the Dutch Unkles in Zebedee’s Yard
The city is genuinely buzzing, and there are all kinds of events happening for the rest of the year. Just walking along the boardwalk where the Humber joins the sea is wonderful, and Humber Street Gallery is also a great place to hang out. There are loads of volunteer guides who are knowledgeable and friendly.
As the organisers tell us: The arts and cultural programme for the year celebrates the unique character of the city, its people, history and geography. In 2017, the programme runs from 1 Jan to 31 Dec and is split into four seasons, each with something distinctive and intriguing to say, and each created to challenge and thrill.
To find out more and plan your visit: https://www.hull2017.co.uk
Sometimes, you go to an art gallery, pay nearly twenty quid for a ticket, and tramp around inside a massive crowd, barely being able to see the work. You might hear people talking, sounding well-informed and confident, and feel like an alien or an idiot or both. Art can seem a million miles away from ordinary life.
The Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, which has been a key feature of the town for seven years now, has a different agenda. It's more than just a gallery: it’s a resource which gallery director Alistair Hudson believes should be integrated into the lives of the people of Teesside. Art is not a set of objects, paintings or sculptures, viewed passively by those well-heeled enough to buy a ticket: it’s a set of practices which should be accessible to all.
The museum should not just be for a special occasion or a destination day out, but a guide in how to live more creatively, humanely; a resource that people can use regularly – like a church, the gym, a social club – to replenish and enrich their daily lives. (from the mima vision statement for 2015-2018)
Not that you won’t find paintings and other artefacts at mima: there are several great exhibitions on currently, one showing work by Winifred Nicholson (Winifred Nicholson: Liberation of Colour), and another the film, video and photography work of Jane and Louise Wilson (Undead Sun: We Put The World Before You). A standing collection is also being assembled, but this is where things start to look different: the collection will be partly selected by people who live in the town, and have been invited to browse through the art works in the gallery’s store to decide what should be on view.
Now in its seventh year, this attempt to include the people who should be benefitting from the building is part of the vision for mima 3.0. The vision states that the users of mima should:
develop an understanding of art as a tool for living and doing things better; of use value in life, not merely as an object of contemplation for the few.
The new café, The Smeltery, which I have watched evolve over recent months, is a spectacular part of the inclusivity and reward that any encounter with the gallery offers. The food is fantastic: created by Luke Harding (from The Waiting Room in Eaglescliffe) and team, it’s a celebration of the slow food movement. Following contributions from the public in making sessions and events, in a This Café is Art campaign, the Smeltery is now open. A look at their mouth-watering Instagram account (#thiscafeisart) should convince you to get down their sharpish.
mima's vision is a bold and exciting one, which the resilient and long-suffering population of the Boro deserve.
A retrospective exhibition now showing at The Whitworth Gallery in Manchester, celebrates the centenary of Tibor Reich, a post-war textile designer, whose pioneering approach brought modernity, colour and innovative textures into British textiles.
Born in Budapest, Hungary in 1916, Reich studied architecture and textiles in Vienna before moving to Britain in 1937. In 1946 he set up Tibor Ltd, introducing bright new colours and textures into the drab interiors of post-war Britain.
His textile company gained an international reputation working on commissions for the Festival of Britain, Expo ‘58 and Concorde.
The exhibition explores the ideas behind his innovative textiles, photography, ceramics and drawings.
Tibor Reich Exhibition: Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester
Exhibition from: 29 January - August 2016
For more information about the influence of Tibor Reich: http://bit.ly/1PMqFqx
Also - definitely worth catching the Paul Strand Photography & Film Exhibition at the V & A Museum if you happening to be visiting London.
'Paul Strand was one of the greatest and most influential photographers of the 20th century whose images have defined the way fine art and documentary photography is understood and practiced today."
"These prints are not just images, but carefully nurtured objects."
Ben Luke, Evening Standard
28 November - 10 April 2016
The 'Quiltscapes & Quiltline' Exhibition now showing at The Bowes Museum features a wonderful collection of new work by textile artist, Pauline Burbidge, inspired by the the rural landscape around her home in the Scottish Borders.
Having seen the exhibition twice, I recommend catching it before it goes on tour to Wales, as it is a beautifully presented show of textile landscape wall quilts, together with other pieces which showcase her skill in producing usable, functional quilts with beautiful stitching and colour.
The artist has experimented with new printing and stitching techniques for this body of work and called on her experience of making quilts for the last 40 years, following her studies at St Martins Art College in London. She made seven new quilts especially for the exhibition and has created textile landscapes and details based on the growing plants and landscapes around her Scottish home. Techniques such as Cyanotype printing, Mono printing, rubbings and drawings on fabric with crayon together with hand and machine quilting stitches enhance the quilts, adding layers of detail and embellishment.
For anyone interested in textiles and quilting, the show is very inspiring and includes textile sketchbooks that can be explored and handled, film of the artist working on quilting and printing processes and specially composed music to enhance the experience of examining the intricate stitching and detailed work on both the wall quilts and framed landscape studies.
Another wonderful show from The Bowes Museum - Highly Recommended