Wednesday, 29 January 2014


Just a note on the set and costume designs for the revived ENO production of Britten’s opera  - yet another predominantly grey presentation, but, especially when viewed from on high, with striking visual allusion to Winifred Knights’ Deluge and L.S.Lowry’s figures wearing trilby hats and long raincoats.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

We sit starving amidst our gold

On the face of it, neither the appearance nor the ideas of William Morris should appeal to the Now generation.  (Very) old, beardy, lefty – the attributes shout BORING.   As for floral wallpaper, ugh, how uncool is that?    Nothing should be less popular with the students of art, music and fashion who form today’s trenders.  So, as I mentioned before, it  surprises me that several leading and emerging artists like Grayson Perry, Jeremy Deller, David Mabb and (new to me) Kehinde Wiley should reference Morris in their recent work.  The first three are Brits, the fourth African-American, and at the Victoriana show at Guildhall I also spotted Brazilian-born, New Mexico resident Ligia Bouton’s delicate diptych The Adventures of William Morris Man in which our hero battles with robotic Owen Jones in comicbook style.

They mostly reference Morris’s political views as anarchic, anticapitalist precursors of Occupy and/or stuff-the-rich attitudes, and the tension between radical political views and the assumed English pastoralism of his designs energises the artworks.  Deller’s new installation at the William Morris Gallery yokes together further elements from stone-age axes to present-day prison art, and includes examples of Morris’s Socialist speeches and agitprop  juxtaposed with allusions to the dire situation for most Russians when the oligarchs carved up all economic assets in a capitalist carnival of exploitation.   In this clip, if still live, Deller succinctly outlines Morris’s impact on his thinking.

Wiley’s recent work is less overtly political, in the agit-prop sense, in its homage or appropriation of Morris’s floral designs.   Paintings based on photos of hip-hop Jamaicans whom the artist met on a visit to the island are set inside vividly manipulated versions of Morris wallpaper.  Given fanciful Anglo-aristocratic names that cast unnamed clubbers in the roles of the nobility, Wiley's montages aim to challenge all-white western portraiture.   According to a press interview:
“I’m in love with the tricks of coaxing paint into form, and making something that’s almost a Trojan horse.  Where it’s striking, it’s vibrant, and you think only later about some of the broader cultural or political implications, some of the power juxtapositions.  All those things are important but I don’t want to bore myself or anyone else for that matter, with making work that’s simply didactic.”

The decision to embed the sitters in multi-coloured Morris designs seems to be aimed at British audiences – the unsettling proximity of ‘traditional’ English design with assertive citizens of a former colony.  I hope Wiley is aware of William Morris’s anti-imperial, anti-colonial views; if not yet, maybe Jeremy Deller can assist………

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Dragons and Daughters

Two other things I did yesterday: 
  • get to see the almost-over exhibition of Chinese Painting at the V&A.  An art I find quite hard to appreciate, being so ignorant, but I was amazed and absorbed by the ten-metre-long scroll decorated with Nine Dragons surfing along on waves and winds, roaring and snarling as dragons do.    On the left in the display case illustrated above.  The artist is Chen Ron and the scroll, which is made up of joined sheets about 25cm wide, was drawn in and has survived from the thirteenth century.   My mind leapt to the dark stormclouds that have been barrelling in across Britain for the past couple of months, with hurricane gales, vasty seas, downpours and thunder rumbles, and I wondered if the meteorological phenomena are in fact driven by invisible dragons up in the sky…
  • get to a performance of Handel’s oratorio Jephtha by Harry Christophers’ The Sixteen at the Barbican.  A horrible biblical story from some ancient BCE era in which a dutiful daughters like Iphigenia is almost killed by her father, here given a more or less happy resolution, and musically a clever balance of orchestra, soloists and choir that gave the whole piece a dramatic dispatch.

Comical however to see the concert announced thus on the illuminated info boards…


I spent yesterday presenting a the first week of a short course on Women Artists at the V&A, starting in the sixteenth century with Sofonisba Anguissola and moving on to Judith Leyster, Artemisia Gentileschi, Mary Beale -  not eras or artists I am closely familiar with, though much of their work is well known and as accomplished as that of many male contemporaries.    

Two pictures are new to me:  this enchanting portrait of an unidentified young woman by Antwerp-born Caterina van Hemmesan, painted around 1550 and now to be found in the Bowes Museum – cue for a return visit.  The chaste palette enhances the sitter’s sober yet alert expression.  She is fingering her wedding ring, so this is presumably a wedding portrait?  It’s notable for the pictorial device of the shadow on the wall behind the sitter, endowing the flat image with an illusion of depth and making her seem very immediate to us.

The other picture is Gentileschi’s supposed self-portrait with a lute, from about 1615.   Artists often used themselves as models, so it may not have been intended as a selfie, though it evidently is.  The depiction is beautifully sensuous, with skin on bosom and hands that seems to glow with warmth and touchability. The lutenist's expression is curiously guarded; one can interpret it is quizzical - what does her audience think of the music? or don't look at my tits, listen to my playing.  As it turns out, the work is being sold by Christies in New York on 29 January.