Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

This is a wonderfully fun and uplifting exhibition but be warned: only go if you’re prepared to step carefully among the scores of toddlers larger and small, running squealing and laughing from one interactive treat to the next. For this exhibition is an experiment, an innovation, an attempt to create an interactive exhibition for parents and children, very small children. Very, very small children.

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

What I hadn’t expected is that, in among all the fabulous blow-ups of the characters, the models, the tent, the stairs and the slide, there is also quite a serious and scholarly exhibition of some 95 of E.H. Shepard’s original illustrations, accompanied by some very interesting and illuminating commentary.

Biography of a bear

Alan Alexander Milne was born in 1882 and by 1906 was assistant editor of Punch from which position he produced humorous verse, social satire, fairy tales, comic stories, fairy tales and even a murder mystery novel.

Ernest Howard Shepard was born in 1879 and during the Edwardian decade worked as an illustrator for for Punch, for other magazines and books. He served in the Great War where he produced not only humorous cartoons (cf. William Heath Robinson’s Great War cartoons) but also some powerful pencil drawings of the Western Front (themselves collected in a funny and moving book, Shepard’s War and the subject of an exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, back in 2000).

In 1913 Milne married Dorothy ‘Daphne’ de Sélincourt and in 1920 she had a baby they named Christopher Robin Milne.

Photograph of A. A. Milne and Christopher Robin, ca. 1925-1926 (c) National Portrait Gallery

Photograph of A. A. Milne and Christopher Robin, ca. 1925-1926 (c) National Portrait Gallery

In 1924 Milne published a volume of verses he’d made up for his son, When We Were Very Young which included a poem about his son’s bear, humorously nick-named Winnie the Pooh. The first book of stories was Winnie-the-Pooh in 1926, followed by The House at Pooh Corner (1928) with a second volume of poems, Now We Are Six, in between (1927).

An exhibition for children

Five minutes after it opened the exhibition was packed, and I mean packed, with mums and prams and scores and scores of 2, 3, 4, 5-year-old children, toddling from one treat to the next. The exhibition has been designed to be as toddler-friendly as possible, in numerous ways:

– There are as many large blow-up images of Pooh, Piglet, Eeyor, Owl and the rest as possible to ooh and aah at. I particularly liked the model of Pooh holding on to his blue balloon and sailing up towards the ceiling.

– There is lots going on at floor level, starting with the large-scale words naming each section, festooned with jolly cutouts of all the Pooh characters.

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

– Other treats include a cubby hole inside a big blow-up of the letter O of ‘Owl’, to crawl into and a mock-up of the tent Pooh makes in the woods, to hide in. There’s a slide to slide down and little tables and chairs with scraps of paper and coloured pencils to draw on. I used to take my small children to one o’clock clubs. I remember it well.

– There’s even a mock-up of pooh sticks bridge which, alas, only has a digital stream running underneath it so no actual dropping of sticks is possible. (Given that there’s a fountain and pool in the main courtyard of the V&A I wonder if it crossed the designers’ minds to make this flow from one part to another, erect a bridge and give kids real sticks.)

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

– There’s a model of the door into the tree where Pooh lives, along with an actual bell with a rope hanging from the knocker, so that the sound of a bell being manically rung by a succession of three-year-olds accompanies you around the exhibition.

– There’s a recording of a bit of the story going on in a special darkened room and throughout the exhibition, at toddler head height, is a succession of placards inviting the curious child to do interesting activities or think creative thoughts:

  • Piglet is struggling against the snow and the wind. How would you feel if you were piglet?
  • What do you think a heffalump looks like?

My experience of looking after small children is that they run excitedly from one treat to another and have exhausted themselves in five minutes. To really cater to youngsters, maybe some soft play areas with fluffy Pooh toys would have been an idea – places (and quite a few would be needed) where mums and little ones could really unwind, take coats and shoes off, and soak up the ambience. Don’t know if that will ever be possible in a gallery space… but top marks to the V&A for trying as hard as possible to make the show kiddy-friendly.

Ernest Howard Shepard, illustrator of genius

Milne himself was the first to acknowledge that it was Shepard’s illustrations which brought Pooh and his animal friends to life. From the start of the exhibition Shepard’s original pencil illustrations for the books are sprinkled among the displays of Pooh memorabilia, first edition books, props and toys – but as the exhibition proceeds there are steadily more of them and, particularly in the final three rather narrow corridors, the show turns into a fairly scholarly and fascinating analysis of Shepard’s drawing technique.

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic, showing a mock-up of Christopher Robin’s bedroom (with a toy bed which you’re encouraged to lie on and read). But note the half a dozen prints of Shepard’s original artwork on the wall © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

These last few corridors group Shepard’s marvellously evocative drawings into sets of two or three and uses them to demonstrate aspects of his craft. This is actually quite rare at art exhibitions. Usually you get a lot of biographical information, history, explanation of the subject matter and so on, but rarely very much about how works are actually made.

The curators have done a tremendous job of explaining how Shepard gets his effects. For example, in the drawing of Pooh and Piglet walking through the snow, they explain how Shepard first drew the figures, then used gouache to ‘stop out’ i.e blot over some of the lines, thus creating a realistic sense of the snow falling in your line of vision between you and the characters.

Image result for winnie pooh shepard snow

Next to it is the picture of Hundred Acre Wood in the downpour which causes the flood. The commentary explains how Shepard methodically drew the main subject – the imposing beech tree and the rising water level – and then used a knife to incise the surface of the paper in diagonal lines to create an almost physical sense of rain falling.

There are about twenty wall panels like this, packed with insights, and they bring you right into the pictures and give you a tremendous appreciation of Shepard’s skill and technique. Subjects include:

  • Animation – the way Shepard does multiple versions of a sequence of events e.g. Eeyore chasing his own tail to give a sense of movement and dynamism
  • Character study – two versions of Christopher Robin leaving school, one moony and sentimental, the other showing him kicking through the leaves which his much more forceful and was the version chosen for the book
  • Stance – Sensible phlegmatic Pooh is almost always foursquare with both feet on the ground, Piglet’s arms are often cast backwards as if in dismay or surprise, Eeyore’s head and neck are always bent down nearly to the ground in gloom
  • Slapstick – how Shepard drew sets showing a sequence of (generally comic) events, possibly learning from the movies: the example is the six small illustrations of Pooh struggling to climb aboard the floating honey jar in the flood and continually falling off it
  • Irony – Shepard would often illustrate things which weren’t in the text a) giving the pictures added interest, prompting you to really study them and b) often showing the reader objects or actions in the background suggesting things which the characters themselves don’t know about
  • Interplay with the text – Milne and Shepard between them came up with humorous ideas for integrating text and illustration, a good example being that, when Pooh is being lifted up into the air by the ballooon, the text describing the action is squeezed into a narrow column of single words along the right-hand side of the full-page picture – thus recreating the verticality of the action

Shepard’s trees

I found myself falling in love with Shepard’s depictions of trees.

At one stage there’s a set of drawings Shepard did when Milne took him to Ashdown Forest, the inspiration for the Hundred Acre Wood –  and they are simply very good drawings of a wood, a copse, a clump of trees, or individual beech trees.

The trees. The more illustrations you look at, the more you realise it’s the completely naturalistic rendering of the trees and bushes which gives so many of them their sense of space, depth and verisimilitude, against which the little animals live out their adventures.

Surely the tree is the real star of this illustration. From Winnie-the-Pooh Exploring a Classic at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Surely the tree is the real star of this colour illustration? From Winnie-the-Pooh Exploring a Classic at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A wall label towards the end gives an analysis of the drawing of Pooh and Piglet ‘having a stroll’. It explains the way the spinney of trees is drawn in tremendously realistic detail, using a thin pencil for the outlines and branches, and thicker pencils for the leaves, as also for the detailed gorse bush to the right; whereas the grass or brush which the characters are strolling through is done in a completely different way, with a scatter of almost abstract shapes and flecks. And then the characters themselves are limned with cross-hatching to bring out their volume, noting how Pooh is in a phlegmatic pose, hands held behind his back while, ahead of them, Tigger is off the ground in mid-bounce.

In other words it gives a fantastic insight into how Shepard used different techniques for different elements of the pictures, to create depth and characterisation and animation.

Having a stroll by E.H. Shepard in Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Having a stroll by E.H. Shepard in Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic at the Victoria and Albert Museum

As I mentioned earlier, there are some 95 drawings and illustrations by Shepard in the show, and the wall labels explaining in detail how he created his visual effects, how he and Milne integrated the pictures large and small into the text, creating dramatic and ironic effects by their interplay – provide one of the most genuinely illuminating and insightful commentaries on an artist’s work I think I’ve ever read.

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All Too Human @ Tate Britain

Britain is a collection of rainswept, chilly islands in the North Atlantic, on the same latitude as Moscow (as we may learn to our cost in the decades to come, if global warming really does disrupt the Gulf Stream). For more than half the year the sky is overcast and grey. Whereas the inhabitants of southern countries like Spain or Italy have a tradition of living outside for much of the year, and dressing their finest every night for the evening stroll or passeggiata, ours is a country of fusty pubs for the working class and dinner parties for the posh. Our is an indoors country.

These basic facts about life in Britain come across very strongly in Tate Britain’s new exhibition, All Too Human: Bacon, Freud And A Century Of Painting Life. Put very simply, it is a show of some 93 paintings, one sculpture and half a dozen black and white photographs by some of the most celebrated British artists of the past 100 years who have painted depictions of the human body. In roughly chronological order the artists are:

  • Walter Sickert b.1860
  • David Bomberg b.1890
  • Stanley Spencer b.1891
  • Chaim Soutine b.1893
  • Giacometti b.1901
  • William Coldstream b.1908
  • Francis Bacon b.1909
  • John Deakin b.1912
  • Lucian Freud b.1922
  • Francis Souza b.1924
  • Leon Kossoff b.1926
  • Dorothy Mead b.1928
  • Michael Andrew b.1928
  • Frank Auerbach b.1931
  • Dennis Creffield b.1931
  • Euan Uglow b.1932
  • R.B. Kitaj b.1932
  • Paula Rego b.1935
  • Celia Paul b.1959
  • Cecily Brown b.1969
  • Jenny Saville b.1970
  • Lynette Yiadom-Boakye b.1970

Mud or Mad

A reviewer of Tennyson’s long poem, Maud (1855) sardonically commented that it would have been more accurately named if either of the vowels had been removed. As I walked round this grim, dark and oppressive exhibition, I began to think most of the works on display could similarly be divided into ‘Mud’ or ‘Mad’, with maybe the additional category of ‘Livid Corpse’.

1. Mud

The School of Mud was inaugurated by Walter Sickert, leader of the so-called Camden Town Group. While John Singer Sargent was painting evocative portraits of society ladies or women with parasols in the Mediterranean sunshine, Sickert painted prostitutes in dingy attics or leering crowds in half-lit music halls. The three works by him here are deliberately squalid, dark and dingy, so dark you have to peer up close to see any detail.

Nuit d'Été by Walter Richard Sickert (c.1906) Private Collection, Ivor Braka Ltd

Nuit d’Été by Walter Richard Sickert (c.1906) Private Collection, Ivor Braka Ltd

Rooms five and six of the exhibition explore the work of David Bomberg as artist and teacher at Borough Polytechnic, where his emphasis on the tactile quality of paint influenced his students Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach.

Bomberg is represented by Vigilante, which I quite liked because of its powerful vertical lines which reminded me of the Vorticist work of Wyndham Lewis or Jacob Epstein. But it is the use of thick, thick impasto which characterises the paintings of Kossoff and Auerbach.

Head of Jake by Frank Auerbach (1997) © Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Head of Jake by Frank Auerbach (1997) © Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

These murky, smeary, thick abortions of the darkest browns and blacks possible made me think of an explosion in a sewage farm. Some of them made me feel physically sick. The joke is that many of them are meant to be outdoors scenes. Is this how you see or experience London?

Early Morning Willesden Junction by Leon Kossoff

Early Morning Willesden Junction by Leon Kossoff

Or this?

Mornington Crescent by Frank Auerbach (1965)

Mornington Crescent by Frank Auerbach (1965)

The commentary claims that:

Both Auerbach and Kossoff display great sensitivity to the conditions of light, convey the dynamism of city life and reflect the mood of a specific moment

which I thought might be a joke. Let’s look again at Kossoff’s sensitive depiction of light.

Early Morning Willesden Junction by Leon Kossoff

Early Morning Willesden Junction by Leon Kossoff

Not quite so muddy, but still revelling in gloom, bleakness of mood, greys and blacks splattered with neurotic blotches of colour, is the handful of works late in the show by Celia Paul.

Painter and Model by Celia Paul (2012) © Celia Paul, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London / Venice

Painter and Model by Celia Paul (2012) © Celia Paul, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London / Venice

Cheerful stuff, eh?

More directly related to the Auerbach and Kossoff smear-and-daub tradition which this exhibition reveals to be a major thread in modern British art, are the bang up-to-date works of Cecily Brown.

Boy with a Cat by Cecily Brown (2015) © Cecily Brown. Photo by Richard Ivey

Boy with a Cat by Cecily Brown (2015) © Cecily Brown. Photo by Richard Ivey

2. Mad

Only room one deals with the depiction of the human figure between 1918 and 1945. That’s not much space for nearly thirty years, is it? Murky Sickert, distorted Soutine and blue-veined Stanley Spencer are the only artists included. (We’ll come back to Spencer under the category of ‘livid corpses’.)

Then it’s quickly on to Francis Bacon who dominates rooms two and seven. Screaming popes. Tortured dogs and baboons. Men turning into hunks of meat. All depicted against precise geometric backgrounds as if caught in cages or on stage as specimens. Angst. Existential despair etc.

Portrait by Francis Bacon (1962) © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS, London

Portrait by Francis Bacon (1962) © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS, London

In the hall outside the exhibition there’s a loop of videos playing showing interviews with some of the featured artists, alongside display cases and wall displays showing photographs of the artists’ studios. Bacon’s was a notoriously filthy, dirty, messy cave with only a skylight allowing the grey light of Soho to penetrate down into the torture chamber. It is interesting to see that Lucian Freud’s studio, also in Soho, was nearly as dirty and scrappy.

The room after the early Bacon is devoted to Francis Souza whose striking big paintings are done in an edgy angular primitive style. The room is dominated by an enormous Crucifixion and a full figure painting of a naked black woman. Reproductions can’t convey how enormous, black and menacing they are.

Crucifixion by F.N. Souza (1959)

Crucifixion by F.N. Souza (1959)

Again – dark dark dark, intense or even demented. Room ten of the exhibition is devoted to paintings by Paul Rego. To quote the curators (there are three curators, all women):

Women’s lives and stories have often been overlooked in art as a historically male-dominated activity. Rego places them at the centre of her work. Women are portrayed as undertaking a variety of activities, in a broad range of moods and temperaments, as victims, culprits, carers, passive observers and sexually-charged creatures. As viewers we are drawn into and become complicit in an unruly world shaped by patriarchal power.

Here’s an example for you be drawn into and become complicit in an unruly world shaped by patriarchal power. That said, it is also quite powerfully disturbing, the more you look at it.

The Family by Paula Rego (1988) Marlborough International Fine Art © Paula Rego

The Family by Paula Rego (1988) Marlborough International Fine Art © Paula Rego

Livid corpses

They aren’t actually corpses, it’s just a short hand for a style of painting human skin and bodies which emphasises the whiteness of English complexions, the lack of exposure to sunlight which leaves so many English bodies pale, pallid and covered in blue veins.

There’s a strong tradition in English art of conceiving and depicting the naked human body in the most unflattering way possible, as if it was a corpse just been pulled out of the Thames. This style has a particular cliché or trope, which is to depict a woman wearing clothes but revealing one slack, white, veined breast in the most unappealing unsexy way possible.

We see Stanley Spencer establishing this tradition in room one.

Nude Portrait of Patricia Preece by Stanley Spencer (1935)

Nude Portrait of Patricia Preece by Stanley Spencer (1935)

(There’s a lot more to Spencer than his full frontal nudes, as any visitor to the Gallery in Cookham or even to the 1910 room in Tate Britain will discover, but for some reason it’s always the unrelenting saggy boobed and flaccid-penised Spencers which feature in exhibitions like this, never the scores of paintings he did of fully clothed men and women of his native Cookham.)

Anyway, saggy blue-veined boobs was a motif picked up by young Lucian Freud fifteen years later.

Girl with a White Dog by Lucian Freud (1950-1) © Tate

Girl with a White Dog by Lucian Freud (1950-1) © Tate

Freud makes his first appearance as a pupil of art school teacher William Coldstream in room four, and then has the largest room in the show – room seven ‘Lucian Freud: In the Studio’ – devoted to him, with 13 big paintings.

It is interesting to learn that the mature Freud style was the result of his switching from the small brushes which produced the smooth finish of paintings like the one above, to using bigger, coarser brushes and, instead of being close to the sitter, moving further away and standing.

Those changes by themselves, however, don’t account for the drastic change from the smooth, light palette of the painting above to his fascination with all the hues of brown, orange, grey and white which result in the characteristic blotched skin of his mature work.

David and Eli by Lucian Freud

David and Eli by Lucian Freud

The Freud room is full of paintings which revel in the ungainliness and the sheer ugliness of raw, naked, gawky, livid English bodies. Feet with their corns, legs with varicose veins, the tanned face and chest contrasting with the rest of the pallid body, the livid puce of this man’s flaccid cock and balls. In all of Freud’s ugly nudes I get the feeling the painter is daring you to come out and say how disgusted you are.

Recognisably in the same tradition of ‘English ugly’ are the paintings of Jenny Saville although, unlike Freud, for reasons I can’t quite define, I’ve always loved Saville’s work.

She broke through in the fabulous Sensation exhibition on 1997, with paintings of grotesquely fat people who seemed to be pushing right up against the surface of the canvas, squeeze and compressed into your face. All her works seem to be big. For some reason, although Freud’s blotchy nudes with their hairy pricks and ragged quims make me feel like I’m in a butcher’s shop, I find Saville’s work visually thrilling and exciting. But it’s still from the very English school of ugly.

Reverse by Jenny Saville (2002-3) © Jenny Saville. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

Reverse by Jenny Saville (2002-3) © Jenny Saville. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

A little light

Is there any light in this gallery of murk, madness and tormented flesh? Yes, some.

I’d never heard of Michael Andrews and two of his paintings here are – rather tiresomely – of glooomy sketchy interiors in Soho, namely the notorious Colony Club where Bacon et all hung out, drank and bitched. But there is also this surprisingly touching outdoors scene.

Melanie and Me Swimming by Michael Andrews (1978-9) Tate © The estate of Michael Andrews

Melanie and Me Swimming by Michael Andrews (1978-9) Tate © The estate of Michael Andrews

It was admiring the grace and tenderness in this painting which brought home to me how much the qualities of gentleness or grace are missing from almost all of these paintings – certainly from all the screaming Bacons, blotchy Freuds, oily Kossoffs, murky Auerbachs and mad Regos.

And scenes set outdoors are few and far between: there are none in the Bacon room, none in the Freud room; even when there are supposedly outdoor scenes, as in the Auerbach and Kossoff rooms, you wouldn’t really know it.

No, happy, light, outdoor scenes are conspicuous by their complete absence, as is the depiction of the human body as a thing of beauty. Think of Aubrey Hepburn. Think of a ballerina. Think of Lionel Messi nutmegging a defender. Think of a hundred images of people in outdoors settings, laughing at cafes, walking through woods, gardening, sunbathing.

All of that, almost all of actual human life, is consciously excluded from this parade of horrors and corpses. It’s odd that anyone takes ‘Art’ as being in any way representative of the actual life of its era when it is quite obviously the product of a cloistered, hermetically sealed world which almost makes a virtue of not capturing or depicting the lives of the people around it.

The only room which provided a relief from torture and turpitude was room four, devoted to the teachings of William Coldstream at the Slade School of Fine Art. Coldstream developed a process for marking out the canvas with precise markings to help construct a realistic image.

Seated nude by William Coldstream (1973)

Seated nude by William Coldstream (1973)

I liked the precision of his draughtsmanship and the way you can see original lines of the sketch showing through the oil colours. That sense of outlines and shape. Three or four of Coldstream’s relatively light and airy works are included, alongside some by his pupil Euan Uglow.

Georgia by Euan Uglow (1973) © The Estate of Euan Uglow

Georgia by Euan Uglow (1973) © The Estate of Euan Uglow

In the flesh you can see lines of the grid Uglow created across the canvas and many of the little crosses formed at the edges of the grid remain visible through the paint. I like that sense of the mechanical or mathematical emerging from the picture, or the sense of the work being unfinished, a work in progress.

As to the actual image, it’s another unsmiling person. In an exhibition devoted to the depiction of human beings over the past 100 years of English art not one person is smiling, let alone laughing (apart from the mad mother in the Paul Rego painting). Art is a bloody serious, sombre, tragic business, you know.

Contemporary artists

The eleventh and final room is devoted to works by four younger or contemporary artists, all four women, including Jenny Saville, Cecily Brown and Celia Paul, all mentioned above. The Saville I loved, the Brown and Paul a lot less so. As so often with contemporary artists, their work is – according to the (female) curators – all about sexuality and identity.

In their representations of figures they explore what it is to be human from a contemporary perspective. Throughout their work, they investigate and stretch stereotypical views on femininity, masculinity, race and many other categories that define and constrain identity.

Last word for Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, born in 1970 and so, along with Saville, the youngest artist in the show. According to the wall label she knocks out her paintings in a day of rapid intense work. I liked both her pieces on display here, a lot because I like disegno, the ability to conceive and carry out accurate line drawings. Both her works here display extremely skilled draughtsmanship, a handy way with oil paints and the ability to create mood and expression.

Still, as I’ve pointed out about many of the previous works, very dark. Britain is for much of the year a dark and gloomy place which, at least according to this exhibition, has inspired a lot of dark and gloomy art – and the sombre palette of Yiadom-Boakye’s work fits right into that tradition.

Coterie Of Questions by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (2015) © Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Coterie Of Questions by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (2015) © Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

The promotional video

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Lucinda Rogers: Drawings from Ridley Road Market @ the House of Illustration

The House of Illustration is located just north of King’s Cross station, London, and contains three exhibition spaces.

The Main Gallery (four rooms) is currently hosting a fascinating exhibition of posters and everyday products from North Korea, highlighting the distinctive graphic design and colour palette of that most isolated of countries.

Leading off a side-corridor is a small L-shaped room which is the Quentin Blake Gallery, hosting small shows of selected works by Blake, who was a leading force behind the foundation of the House of Illustration.

And the South Gallery (one room as big as a church hall) is currently displaying a selection of the graphic journalism of Lucinda Rogers.

Fruit mountain at the entrance to Ridley Road by Lucinda Rogers

Fruit mountain at the entrance to Ridley Road by Lucinda Rogers

Lucinda Rogers

The HoI is the only UK gallery which commissions illustrations for public display. For this, its fourth commission, it approached the young graphic illustrator, Lucinda Rogers.

Rogers is interested in realistic depictions of urban environments. As this exhibition more than proves, she has a staggering ability to capture the complex architecture and bustling street life of inner city settings. Rogers’ technique is to immerse herself in the setting of her chosen subject and record straight from eye to paper, without preliminary sketches or the photographs which some other illustrators use. She lives in London but has also drawn in other urban settings from New York to Marrakech.

Lucinda Rogers at work in Ridley Road Market. Photo by Patricia Niven

Lucinda Rogers at work in Ridley Road Market. Photo by Patricia Niven

This exhibition combines Rogers’s ability as a highly gifted graphic artist with her campaigning concern for issues around gentrification and urban development.

On Gentrification: Drawings from Ridley Road Market

The show consists of 35 large-scale drawings which capture the bustling street life of Ridley Road Market in Dalston. Rogers spent over four months on location at the market, which has been held since the 1880s and is one of London’s oldest East End institutions.

Her drawings display a breath-taking way with line, a really gifted ability to capture volume and depth but not of a horse or still life as in the Old Masters, but the extraordinary visual complexity of the hyper-cluttered modern scene.

Just being able to draw a transit van from scratch would impress me, but then to sketch in all the street clutter surrounding it, the stacked crates on their trolley, the detail of the retractable awning, as well as the old geezer at the cafe table with his patterned tie, the pens in his pocket and his watch – is quite stunning.

View from Almond Lane coffee house by Lucinda Rogers

View from Almond Lane coffee house by Lucinda Rogers

Each of the drawings is accompanied by sometimes quite lengthy captions explaining the history and context of the subjects, of the different shops and stalls which throng the market.

The ‘issue’ behind the exhibition is the way this teeming street life is threatened by the erection of a luxury apartment block next to the market. This is bound to attract richer buyers, who will then fuel a need for ‘smart’ coffee shops, organic grocers, chi-chi bakers and bijou fashion stores. Then the influx of identikit estate agents.

Rogers’ view is that markets like Ridley Road often provide the only way for small businesses to start up. And they serve as a wonderfully colourful reflection of the diverse communities they serve. Both are lost when a neighbourhood becomes ‘gentrified’.

Outside Ka-sh fabric shop by Lucinda Rogers

Outside Ka-sh fabric shop by Lucinda Rogers

Admittedly an abstract concept like ‘gentrification’ is a little hard to capture solely with pictures. Just drawing the foundations of the luxury apartment block doesn’t really convey the complexity of the issues involved – hence the need for the sometimes lengthy captions. These you can read or not, depending on your interest in the issue.

Where Rogers’s drawings unamibguously score is in their astonishingly detailed and precise, yet loose and evocative impressions of all aspects of the street market.

I particularly like the restrained, impressionistic use of colour. Only a minority of the images in any picture are coloured in: generally (as in the example above), she combines casual dabs and washes which overlap the borders of the object, with the very precise capturing of patterns and designs on just some of the images.

I found her selectivity about what to colour and what to leave uncoloured absolutely perfect, displaying a wonderfully sure touch, knowing just how much colour to add to bring the image to life, and how much to leave out in order to leave it rough, sketchy and evocative of movement and street life.

I love the way the guy at the right is semi-transparent, like the fleeting impression of an over-exposed photo. And the way his trousers bunch around his snazzy, pointed shoes. All of the drawings here demonstrate a quite breath-taking talent and, above that, a wonderful sureness and taste.

It is mostly left to the picture captions to explain the issues surrounding the threat to the market. These make a good case, which her drawings powerfully underpin. But it is also possible not to read any of the captions and still come away astonished at Rogers’ fleetness of hand and pen.

Bedding stall and Alex the plant man by Lucinda Rogers

Bedding stall and Alex the plant man by Lucinda Rogers

The House of Illustration

All three shows – North Korean produce, Quentin Blake’s Valentine drawings, and Lucinda Rogers Ridley Street drawings – are included in the one admission price of £7.50. Crack along!

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Neo-Romantic Book Illustration in Britain 1943-55 @ the Heath Robinson Museum

Although the Heath Robinson Museum is a relatively small gallery, this is a major exhibition. It is the first time a substantial collection of work by the Neo-Romantic book illustrators of the 1940s has been gathered together in one place. With nearly 50 prints, oils and lithographs, and over 20 original books from the period, this is a unique opportunity to sample a special and distinctive moment in English publishing and art history.

Neo-Romanticism in England

To paraphrase Wikipedia:

In British art history, the term ‘neo-romanticism’ is applied to a loosely affiliated school of landscape painting that emerged around 1930 and continued until the early 1950s. It was first labeled in March 1942 by the critic Raymond Mortimer in the New Statesman. These painters looked back to 19th-century artists such as William Blake and Samuel Palmer, but were also influenced by French cubist and post-cubist artists. The movement was part a response to the threat of invasion during World War II. Artists associated with the initiation of the movement include Paul Nash, John Piper, Henry Moore, Ivon Hitchens and especially Graham Sutherland. A younger generation followed in the same vein, including John Minton, Michael Ayrton, John Craxton, Keith Vaughan, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde.

This new visual style was most obvious to the general public in the form of book and magazine illustrations, particularly during the Second World War. The spirit of romanticism – a focus on nature, emotion and individual expression – was in part a reaction against the gloom of the blackout and rationing.

Neo-Romantic artists looked back to the tradition of English landscape painting, drawing inspiration partly from the mystical Kent countryside portrayed by Samuel Palmer, and from the heavily stylised illustrations of William Blake.

But they also subtly acknowledged the visual liberations of more recent art movements such as cubism and surrealism.

Book illustration for 'Time Was Away' by John Minton (1947)

Book illustration for Time Was Away by John Minton (1947)

Government sponsorship

The war itself played a key role. It cut English artists off from all contact with European art for six long years. And it forced a reconsideration of what it meant to be English, across all the arts. In 1940 the British government found time to commission artists including John Craxton, Leslie Hurry, David Jones, John Minton, Paul Nash and Ceri Richards, to document lives in towns and villages across the country for a project called ‘Recording Britain.’ It was intended to boost national morale during the Second World War by celebrating the nation’s landscape and architecture.

In other words, a fairly large number of artists in the 1940s became aware, through friendships and official commissions, that they shared certain values and artistic approaches to the idea of English landscape, English culture, English art and English writing.

Neo-Romantic book illustration

Book and magazine publishers weren’t slow to pick up on the new look, seeing an opportunity to commission illustrations from this new wave of exciting illustrators, in order to make both classics and new books appear up-to-date.

The result is a very distinctive style of book illustration which is immediately recognisable, and powerfully evocative of the period (say 1940 to 1955), but hard to put into words.

The style is definitely figurative, not abstract – but the figures, the landscapes and buildings, have been through the wringer of Modernism and have emerged leaner, tauter, more stylised and simplified.

Depth and perspective don’t have to be slavishly depicted, as in Victorian illustration. Hatching and shading, colour and tinting don’t have to be perfect, but can hint and gesture towards the subject.

Cover design for Vicky Lancaster's novel Short Lease, by Eric Fraser (1950)

Cover design for Vicky Lancaster’s novel Short Lease, by Eric Fraser (1950)

The Tate online article about Neo-Romanticism uses the word ‘sombre’, which I think opens up a way of thinking about the style. It is often mysterious, sometimes a bit threatening, often psychologically intense. There is a lot of black in many of the illustrations, often a hint of menace, of threat.

Possibly this derived from the six-year-long threat of Nazi invasion, but it was there in the 1930s work of Graham Sutherland, a darkness, a blotty inkiness,and it spills over as a vague and disturbing presence in many of the illustrations here.

Of course, this ability to convey menace and mystery was perfectly suited to many modern books, of both poetry and fiction, or travelogue – somehow conveying the troubled mood of mid-century life. And not only adult books – the ability to conjure a sense of danger is intrinsic to many children’s books, particularly adventure and mystery books.

The exhibition

The exhibition contains work by about twenty artists, to wit:

  • Keith Vaughan (12 b&w prints)
  • John Minton (8 colour, 4 b&w illustrations for Time Was Away, 3 other prints and book covers)
  • Michael Ayrton (3 illustrations to John Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller)
  • Eric Fraser (4 big colour illustrations)
  • John Piper (one dramatic ink and watercolour of an Oxfordshire tomb)
  • Edward Bawden (5 original artworks for book covers)
  • Barnett Freedman (4 colour lithographs)
  • Robin Jacques (three fine pen and ink illustrations, two for Don Quixote, in a very different style from most of the other artists)

These are the big names. They each get a significant wall label giving their biography, artistic career, describing their style, the books they illustrated or provided cover art for, and so on.

Also featured, but with less commentary, are:

  • Julian Trevelyan (two Gothic illustrations for a work by poet Kathleen Raine)
  • John Elwyn (2 small drawings)
  • John Bantin (1 book cover)
  • Bryion Winter (1 drawing)
  • Rigby Graham (three or four illustrations)
  • Leonard Rosman (two small pen and ink drawings for the Radio Times)
  • Henry Moore (four studies for illustrations to a book by Edward Sackville-West titled The Rescue, as well as a copy of the book open so we can see some of Moore’s characteristically lacerated mannekins in situ)

Several additional illustrators feature in the three display cases, which present vintage books with their original neo-romantic cover art. Among them is an early edition of Mani the travel book by Patrick Leigh Fermor whose jacket was done by his good friend John Craxton.

Display case of Neo-Romantic book covers

Display case of Neo-Romantic book covers

John Minton (1917 – 57)

Minton emerges as the strongest presence and the exhibition features more examples of his work than anyone else. An entire wall is devoted to the colour illustrations he did for the travel book, Time Was Away, produced by him and writer Alan Ross from a tour round Corsica in 1947.

Minton combines a kind of rough but keen descriptive line, which is then touched by colour a) in a very distinctive and limited palette (mustard yellow, dull dark green, sky blue, orange-brown) b) and is then only partially coloured. The way the colour washes deliberately don’t fill the lines creates a sense of spontaneity and openness. ‘Scrappy’ isn’t the right word, but a sense of roughness. This deliberate lack of finish contrasts oddly with the actual lines of the drawing which are quite… stiff. Look closely at the pose of the boy – it isn’t fluent and graceful, it is somehow stiff and hieratic.

Oh, and Minton likes people with Roman noses; I noticed that on a number of his works. The result is an odd sort of classicism, hard to describe but instantly recognisable.

Illustration for 'Time Was Away' by John Minton (1947)

Illustration for Time Was Away by John Minton (1947)

Minton was prolific, which may explain why he is the most numerous artist in the show, and ends up being one of the most memorable. There’s a copy of the edition of Treasure Island which he illustrated, open to the dramatic, full-colour, double-page illustration on the end papers.

And it was Minton who did the jacket covers for Elizabeth David’s epoch-making cookery books, which brought recipes from the Mediterranean into middle-class households across Britain, and are always cited in social histories as defining cultural products of the age, reminding grimly snowed-in Brits of the delights of sunshine and fresh fruit in far-off, exotic locations, such as Greece.

Jacket illustration for Elizabeth David's Book of Mediterranean Food by John Minton (1950)

Dust jacket illustration for Elizabeth David’s Book of Mediterranean Food by John Minton (1950)

Keith Vaughan (1912-77)

The exhibition opens with a set of black and white illustrations by Keith Vaughan for the children’s novel The Spirit of Jem by P.H. Newby. Newby wrote 17 books, apparently, as well as being a full-time senior manager at the BBC, eventually rising to become Managing Director of BBC Radio. (He was also, apparently, the recipient of the first ever Booker Prize, in 1969.)

'I wedged myself into a fork and waited' from The Spirit of Jem, illustration by Keith Vaughan (1947)

‘I wedged myself into a fork and waited’ from The Spirit of Jem, illustration by Keith Vaughan (1947)

The intense design – the wildness of the trees and the semi-abstract treatment of the leaves – remind me of Graham Sutherland’s often demented landscapes, and back past him to Samuel Palmer. You don’t need to know that Vaughan was gay and lived for some time with Minton, but it does shed light on the closeness of the artistic as well as personal relationships of the period.

Michael Ayrton (1921-75)

Speaking of close friendships, Michael Ayrton shared a studio in Paris with Minton in Paris just before the war. Ayrton went on to illustrate over 35 books as well as leading magazines of the day such as the Listener, the Radio Times and Penguin New Writing. He’s represented here by some of the illustrations he made for Thomas Nashe’s Elizabethan picaresque adventure, The Unfortunate Traveller and by some book covers, including the cover art he did for a book called The Problems of Lieutenant Knap by the Czech writer Jiri Mucha, which really caught my eye. That moon appearing in a kind of flame of cloud reminds me of Paul Nash or Sutherland and harks back to Samuel Palmer’s rural visions, but obviously and brutally contrasted with the random piece of military equipment leaning against the doorway. Palmer in the Second World War.

Cover art for 'The problems of Lieutenant Knap' by Michael Ayrton (1945)

Cover art for The problems of Lieutenant Knap by Michael Ayrton (1945)

Barnett Freedman (1901-58)

The son of poor Jewish immigrants, Freedman developed a really distinctive variation on the Neo-Romantic look, a rather formal look which features curled scrolls or decorative borders around his many illustrations. For example in the fabulous poster promoting cheese which he made for the Milk Marketing Board.

Real Farmhouse Cheese poster by Barnett Freedman

Real Farmhouse Cheese poster by Barnett Freedman

The scroll and especially the font where the letters contain shading and decoration made me think of the posters and promotional material for the Ealing Comedies of this period, and the wall label points out that Freedman helped create their look and logo.

Freedman He also created a host of eye-catching book covers during the period, the most distinctive example being the cover for a complete edition of the nonsense verse of Edward Lear.

Cover of the Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear designed by Barnett Freedman

Cover of The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear designed by Barnett Freedman

One piece which stood out for me was a wonderful colour illustration, apparently for a Christmas card. In its precision, its gentleness, its warm vision of the English scene, and for its use of the gentle, understated palette which so many of these pictures used (was it a limitation of the printing technology of the day?) I found myself returning to this particular picture again and again.

Christmas card by Barnett Newman

Christmas card by Barnett Newman

Edward Bawden (1903-89)

I’ll be writing at length about Edward Bawden when the restrospective devoted to him opens at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in May. What the five book covers by him here bring out is something of the childishness of some of these covers. None of these illustrators were amateurs – the opposite, many of them made very successful careers as commercial artists. But many of the illustrations and covers deliberately accentuate a kind of hand-drawn, childish or naive style. This is one of the things that give them such a strong sense of nostalgic warmth and comfort – they are sub-consciously infantilising – you want to say ‘aaaah’ at so many of them. It connects them with an older tradition of English arts and crafts, which foregrounds the hand-made and the hand-drawn.

And was to contrast  sharply with what came next.

Edward Bawden's cover art for A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

Edward Bawden’s cover art for A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

What came next

In the second half of the 1950s, a new look came in, based on the influence of American Abstract Expressionism, and book covers and magazines began to reflect the influx of new consumer goods and the rise of consumer culture. The world became modern, shiny and urban – the opposite of the Neo-Romantic themes of a remote and generally unpopulatedcountryside – a shininess which went on to be celebrated and/or mocked in the plastic brightness of Pop Art.

The Neo-Romantic look was old hat by 1955 and quickly disappeared.


This exhibition chronicles a relatively brief period of classic book covers and illustrations which, looking back, now seems classic, warm and overdue for a revival.

It has clearly been a labour of love on the part of exhibition curator, Geoffrey Beare, to track down and retrieve many of the prints and paintings, drawings and lithographs from public and private collections around the country, and bring them all together for our enjoyment. And it’s been a very worthwhile effort.

This is a lovely exhibition, which inspires you to explore further, to find out more about Minton, Craxton, Vaughan, Freedman – about this whole generation of wonderful illustrators and their work.

The video

Related links

NOTE ONE: there is currently an excellent exhibition about Craxton and Leigh Fermor which features many examples of Craxton’s art and illustrations from this period, at the British Museum.

NOTE TWO: A major retrospective of Edward Bawden opens at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in May this year.

Heath Robinson-related reviews

Charmed lives in Greece: Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor @ the British Museum

The British Museum is a vast maze and labyrinth full of treasures – that is part of its charm. Part of the embarras de richesses is that, as well as the two big exhibition spaces (at the back of the courtyard and on the first floor of the Rotunda) where you generally have to pay quite a lot to see the blockbuster exhibitions – there are a number of other rooms and spaces devoted to ad hoc displays and exhibitions, most of which are free.

Thus if you turn left immediately on entering and walk through the long narrow cloakroom, packed with schoolkids, towards room 6 (The Assyrians), you’ll come across the entrance to a free and lovely exhibition currently on in room 5, about the lives and work of three influential writer-artists, who lived and worked and loved in post-war Greece and, to some extent, created many British people’s austerity-era image of this beautiful sunlit country.

Study for a poster by Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1948) © Benaki Museum 2018

Study for a poster by Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1948) © Benaki Museum 2018

Charmed lives in Greece: Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor examines the friendship between Greek modernist painter Nikos Ghika, English painter John Craxton, and English travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor.

All three made homes in Greece, writing, drawing, painting, and socialising. Hence the show brings together not only their published writings and plenty of their paintings, but memorabilia from all aspects of their lives, including letters and personal possessions, and lots of wonderfully evocative black and white photos.

Nikos Ghika

Which one first? How about Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1906–1994).

Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika in Hydra, 1960. Benaki Museum – Ghika Gallery, Athens. Photo by Suschitzky. © The Estate of Wolfgang Suschitzky

Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika in Hydra, 1960. Benaki Museum – Ghika Gallery, Athens. Photo by Suschitzky. © The Estate of Wolfgang Suschitzky

To paraphrase Wikipedia:

Nikos Ghikas was a leading Greek painter, sculptor, engraver, writer and academic. He was a founding member of the Association of Greek Art Critics. He studied ancient and Byzantine art as well as folk art. During his youth he was exposed in Paris to the avant-garde European artistic trends and he gained recognition as the leading Greek cubist artist. His inspiration was in the harmony and purity of Greek art, and he aimed to deconstruct the Greek landscape and intense natural light into simple geometric shapes and interlocking planes. Today in Greece he is celebrated as one of the most important modern Greek painters. His house has been converted to a museum and is run by the Benaki Museum.

The combination of French avant-garde influences with the sunlit environment of Greece resulted in the distinctive light and airy feel of his paintings immediately after the war.

Chairs and tables by the sea by Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1948) © Benaki Museum 2018

Chairs and tables by the sea by Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1948) © Benaki Museum 2018

Nikos (as his friends, and we, shall call him) lived in a grand 18th century mansion built by his great-great-great-grandfather overlooking the town of Hydra, a hilly port town, which provided the subjects for hundreds of paintings and sketches. To this grand setting he invited numerous friends, including, among others, Patrick Leigh Fermor and John Craxton who he had met, separately, on visits to London.

Paddy was given a room of his own for an extended stay during which he wrote his successful travel book, Mani. Craxton was given a studio and lots of support by Nikos and was forever indebted to him. For fifteen years after the war it was Nikos’s base and a hospitable home where

Photos show some of the celebrity guests who came to stay, to enjoy the wonderful climate, the great view and the stimulating company, including ballet dancer Margot Fonteyn, choreographer Frederick Ashton, critic Cyril Connolly, the poets Stephen Spender and Seferis, the American writer Henry Miller and many more.

Nikos and Barbara Ghika, John Craxton, Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor on the terrace of the Ghika house, Hydra 1958. Photo: Roloff Beny © Library and Archives Canada

Nikos and Barbara Ghika, John Craxton, Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor on the terrace of the Ghika house, Hydra 1958. Photo: Roloff Beny © Library and Archives Canada

There are lots of examples of Nikos’s work. Broadly speaking, he is a figurative painter, in that his pictures always have a real-world object, but he gives everything a strongly geometric stylisation.

The Black Sun by Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1947) Courtesy of Rosie Alison © Benaki Museum 2018

The Black Sun by Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1947) Courtesy of Rosie Alison © Benaki Museum 2018

He himself said he was interested in ‘austere structures’, which he saw embodied in the higgledy-piggledy flow of white Greek houses down the hillside at Hydra, or in the stone walls zigzagging across the dry landscape. Where Craxton painted lots of people, Nikos tended to do landscapes; he is the more abstract of the two. His early works contain Picasso-like birds, and wibbly lines reminiscent of Miro. Later on his style gets thicker, as in 1973’s Mystras.

Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011)

There’s an excellent 8-minute long video in which the English and Greek curators of the exhibition (it’s a joint effort) explain the relationships between the three men and – since Craxton was gay – between the wives of Nikos and Paddy as well.

Aged just 18 Paddy impressed his friends by setting off to walk to Constantinople. In 1977 he published the account of his trek, A Time of Gifts, sometimes described as the best travel book in English.

Paddy was a dashing figure during the war, spending two years working underground on Crete, helping the Greeks resist the German occupation. The highlight was his capture (with a fellow Brit and partisan help) of a German general, who he smuggled off the island to a waiting British submarine. When his second in command, Stanley Moss, wrote up the story in his book Ill Met by Moonlight in 1950 it made Paddy famous, redoubled when the book was filmed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger starring Dirk Bogarde as the dashing hero, and released in 1957.

Patrick Leigh Fermor at Ghika's house in Hydra in 1955. Benaki Museum – Photographic Archive, Athens © Benaki Museum 2018

Patrick Leigh Fermor at Ghika’s house in Hydra in 1955. Benaki Museum – Photographic Archive, Athens © Benaki Museum 2018

As the video explains, Paddy was at first at rather a loss after the war. He took up a post with the British Institute in Athens, and combined this with extensive tours of Greece, particularly the Peloponnese, which resulted in his travel book Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (1958), followed by Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece (1966). As mentioned, Paddy spent a lot of time at Nikos’s house, becoming close friends with the Greek painter and that’s where most of Mani was written.

Eventually, in the early 60s Paddy and his wife Joan, discovered a crumbling house in an olive grove near Kardamyli in the Mani Peninsula, southern Peloponnese. He commissioned local builders to create a modern dwelling, and there are splendid b&w photos of him supervising and even dancing (!) with them, as well as happy snaps of himself writing, strolling round the garden with his wife, and the dazzling view across pine tress to the rocky bay.

View of the house in Kardamyli. Photo by Joan Leigh Fermor. National Library of Scotland, Joan Leigh Fermor Photographic Collection © Estate of Joan Leigh Fermor

View of the house in Kardamyli. Photo by Joan Leigh Fermor. National Library of Scotland, Joan Leigh Fermor Photographic Collection © Estate of Joan Leigh Fermor

Both Nikos and Craxton visited, painting the house itself and its beautiful view. Craxton shared with Paddy’s wife a love of cats, and in among all the letters and notes and postcards they sent each other, are some lovely sketches and paintings Craxton made of Joan’s cats.

John Craxton (1906–1994)

Craxton first visited Crete in 1947 and was bowled over by the light, the clarity and also by the simple earthiness of the people. In his early years in Greece, he stayed regularly at Hydra with Nikos, meeting and becoming close friends with Paddy and Joan.

John Craxton painting in Ghika’s house in Hydra in 1960. Benaki Museum – Ghika Gallery, Athens. Photo: Suschitzky. © The Estate of Wolfgang Suschitzky

John Craxton painting in Ghika’s house in Hydra in 1960. Benaki Museum – Ghika Gallery, Athens. Photo: Suschitzky. © The Estate of Wolfgang Suschitzky

The exhibition features a lot of paintings by both Craxton and Nikos and it’s natural to compare and contrast them, and also to notice how their styles changed over the long period of their friendship.

Craxton is the more naturalistic of the two. He painted lots of Greek people, cats and goats. Craxton learned peasant Greek and was attracted to young men, sailors, goatherds.

Three dancers, Poros, 1953-1954 by John Craxton. Courtesy of Lincoln College, Oxford © 2018 Craxton Estate/DACS

Three dancers, Poros, 1953-1954 by John Craxton. Courtesy of Lincoln College, Oxford © 2018 Craxton Estate/DACS

Arguably his book illustration work from the 1950s is the most enjoyable, like the fabulous depiction of a fish market or of a carnival horse.

Installation view showing Fish market, Three dancers and Carnival horse by John Craxton

Installation view showing Fish market, Three dancers, and Carnival horse by John Craxton

He went through a phase of doing dark linear works in the 1960s, with a kind of harsh abstract horizon, epitomised by several paintings here, including Landscape Hydra 1963.

In 1960 Craxton discovered a crumbling house and studio on the Venetian harbour of Chania, Crete’s second biggest town. As with the other dwellings, the exhibition shows us photos of the house, the stunning view over the harbour, Craxton at work, and some of the paintings he made there.

The exhibition includes large-scale works from the 1980s which show how far his style changed and evolved in three decades. Compare two men in a taverna with works like Three sailors, Voskos or Reclining figure with asphodels (1983). They are much bigger, and often a bit more garish.

Still Life with Three Sailors by John Craxton (1980-85) Private Collection, UK © 2018 Craxton Estate/DACS

Still Life with Three Sailors by John Craxton (1980-85) Private Collection, UK © 2018 Craxton Estate/DACS

The book covers

The friendship between Craxton and Paddy was crystallised when the writer asked the artist to do the covers for all six of his travel books, starting with Mani. The exhibition includes not only the original art works, but first editions with dedications to Paddy’s wife, to Craxton, to Nikos, to this close circle of friends which made his writing possible. (It even includes Paddy’s typewriter!)

The covers aren’t available to include here, so I’m linking off to the books’ Amazon pages, where you can see the Craxton’s cover art work which they retain to this day.

It’s a smallish exhibition but with quite enough to enjoy and admire. I kept going back round it to look at another atmospheric photo, to look closer at one of Craxton’s wonderful goat paintings, or Nikos’s geometric fields; to reread the snippets from Paddy’s clear evocative prose which are quoted liberally on the walls, to watch the video again, with its snippets of interviews by the three artists.

What wonderful lives they led! And what a privilege to share even at one remove their happiness and creativity.

Related links

Reviews of other British Museum shows

Quentin Blake: Arrows of Love @ the House of Illustration

The House of Illustration just north of King’s Cross station, London, contains three exhibition spaces.

The Main Gallery (four rooms) is currently hosting a fascinating exhibition of posters and other everyday products from North Korea, highlighting the distinctive graphic design and colour palette of that most isolated of countries.

In the South Gallery (one room, as big as a church hall) is a generous selection of the graphic journalism of Lucinda Rogers.

And off the corridor between the two is a small L-shaped room which will, apparently, be devoted in perpetuity to a succession of displays by the moving force behind the House of Illustration, the famous children’s illustrator, Sir Quentin Blake. Hence its title – the Quentin Blake Gallery.

Arrows of Love

To coincide with Valentine’s Day this year, Blake selected 18 pencil drawings from a series he’s been developing off and on, depicting women avoiding or embracing Cupid’s arrow.

Arrows of Love 7 by Quentin Blake

Arrows of Love 7 by Quentin Blake

In the charming wall label, Blake explains that, alongside commissioned work and projects, he always has numerous side works on the go – the results of moments of inspiration, or recurring ideas, which he sketches out and then puts to one side to get on with the paid work.

For example, he mentions a series he’s working on which features women on tightropes, sometimes with birds.

And another has been this series of women reacting in different ways to Cupid’s arrow(s).

Arrows of Love 6 by Quentin Blake

Arrows of Love 6 by Quentin Blake

These kind of offshoots and occasional works had nowhere to be shown – until now, with the arrival of the House of Illustration, and the advent of a small gallery devoted just to his work – the perfect venue for stylish little sets and jeu d’esprits!

Blake himself describes the drawings:

Each of them is an outline, an economical way to depict the shapes and gestures that tell us what they are feeling… And of course the arrows are not real arrows, but little flying graphic equivalents, there are only one or two moments when they even slightly real…

All of the women are nude except for one who is wearing a breastplate which the arrows are bouncing off. She might be the start of a sequence on the theme of ‘incongruous things to wear’…

Installation view of 'Arrows of Love' by Quentin Blake at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

Installation view of ‘Arrows of Love’ by Quentin Blake at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

Apart from the obvious charm and whimsy of his light, gawky, one-line style – and the beguiling inventiveness of the drawings, the way they surprise you with new and comic variations on the theme – I’m afraid the thing that struck me most was – the pubic hair!

Blake is of course overwhelmingly known as an illustrator of children’s books, pre-pubescent very innocent children’s books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I have two children who both read their way through all the Roald Dahl books with their Blake illustrations, as well as some of the books he both wrote and illustrated, for example one of our family favourites, the wonderful Cockatoos.

Which is why in my mind I think of Blake as a kind of quintessence of innocence, associating him with the utter sexlessness of The BFG or The Twits or Fantastic Mr Fox.

So I could see the fun and whimsy in the working out of all the variations of the theme, and found almost all the pictures delightful and charming – but was just brought up a little short by, well, the unexpected pubes!

Arrows of Love 5 by Quentin Blake

Arrows of Love 5 by Quentin Blake

Obviously it’s not worth crossing London just to see 18 or so amusing pencil drawings – but it very much IS worth going out of your way to visit the exhibition of North Korean produce, AND the Lucinda Rogers exhibition, and to top them both off with these Blake frivolities – like the cherry on the top of a knickerbocker glory: all three shows are included in the same admission price of £7.50.

Related links

Post-Soviet Visions @ Calvert 22 Foundation

Calvert 22 Foundation

Calvert 22 Foundation was set up about ten years ago to celebrate the culture and creativity of the formerly communist nations of the former U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe. The term they use to cover all these countries is ‘the New East’, meaning the countries of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Russia and the former Soviet states of Central Asia.

Calvert 22 is a not-for profit organisation which aims not only to promote art, film, photography, fashion and other cultural activities from the region, but also to stimulate debate and discussion. Hence the busy schedule of screenings, talks and debates (details on their website).

As well as the London headquarters and exhibition space – Calvert 22 Space – they publish the Calvert Journal – an online magazine of New East contemporary culture – and organise the Calvert Forum – a think tank for the New East, focused on research and policy for the creative industries.

Oh, and the name? it comes from the address. It’s located at 22 Calvert Avenue, London E2 7JP.

Post-Soviet Visions: Image and identity in the new Eastern Europe

This is a group show of photography by a young generation of artists from the former USSR and communist countries, namely Russia, Georgia, Germany, Latvia, Poland, Russia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

Most of them were either born or came to maturity after the collapse of the USSR in 1990, and grew up amid the ruins of their grandparents’ utopian dreams. They were teenagers and young people just like anywhere else except poorer, living amid the crumbling infrastructure of impoverished states, and above all completely disillusioned. Kids in America or Britain or France, for all their complaints, have a history of democracy and high ideals which can be mocked but do have some basis in fact. What did the USSR achieve to be proud of? Where did it leave its children? Those not fortunate to be born into the nomenklatura or mafia families, have been chucked on the scrapheap.

The result is that these photos of young people convey an overpowering sense of aimless futility. It’s all high rise alienation – teenage vodka parties, tattoos, bad attitude, and cheap rip-offs of American music and clothes.

The photographers

Jędrzej Franek (Poland) is the executive editor of Stacja Poznan, a cultural, architectural and design web platform. He is project manager of the Poznan Design Festival. He’s represented by three big colour photos of buildings, the best of which (below) gives the high rise a kind of romantic lustre, not unlike a mountain in the mist. That said, these high rises could be anywhere – New York, Moscow or down the road in Hackney. It represents an international style in inhuman alienation.

Jędrzej Franek

Jędrzej Franek

Dima Komarov (21) Born in 1997, in Yoshkar-Ola, Mari El Republic, Russia. Dima is a self-taught photographer and Post-Soviet Visions is his first major exhibition. He’s represented by eleven colour pics about A4 size of his mates, a gallery of pissed-off poor teenagers. What struck me is how 70s and 80s their clothes were. If the New East is meant to be at the forefront of fashion it’s going to have to try harder than this. I think I had a tartan-lined windcheater like the one below back in the 70s, and there’s a great shot of a surly skinhead wearing a Ben Sherman shirt from the 1980s.

Dima Komarov

Dima Komarov

David Meshki (39) was born in 1979 in Tbilisi, Georgia. After gaining an academic degree in photography, he worked as a photographer for major Georgian cultural magazines. His first solo show consisted of photographs of skaters and athletes taken in his native country and he went on to co-direct the award-winning documentary When Earth Seems to Be Light, based on his photographs. He’s represented by five photos (2 b&w, three colour) of skater dudes with their trademark long hair and this shot – possibly the best in the exhibition – which has been blown up to fill an entire wall. Way to go, Georgia dude.

David Meskhi

David Meskhi

Apart from being spectacular photo, it’s also an obvious symbol of unstoppable youth, all energy and fearlessness, transcending the crumbling concrete infrastructure of the junk countries they’ve inherited.

Patrick Bienert and Max von Gumppenberg have been working together since 2007. Travelling between Germany and New York, they explore concepts of culture and identity grounded in the heritage of street and documentary photography. The nine black-and-white and five colour photos here, of sullen youths and crappy townscapes, are described as ‘a love letter to the rave scene in Kiev’.

Patrick Beinart and Max von Gumppenburg

Patrick Beinart and Max von Gumppenburg

Genia Volkov (37) was born in the Crimea, then in the Ukraine, back in 1981, and educated at the Institute of Journalism in Kiev. He became a self-taught multimedia artist. He’s represented by three big colour photos, highly stylised, two of them taken at night of hands reaching out or a scattering of star-like fireworks. He enjoys the effect of unnatural lighting, which sets him apart from the overwhelmingly naturalistic, photorealism of the other snappers.

Genia Volkov

Genia Volkov

Armen Parsadanov (36) Born in Baku in 1982 and Armn has lived and worked in Kiev from 2013. He’s represented by thirteen black and white prints, unframed and taped to the wall, looking like results of a photo shoot with fashionably wasted youths and blonde models, taped up to be selected by a magazine editor.

Armen Parsadanov

Armen Parsadanov

Masha Demianova studied journalism and creative writing before turning to photography. She’s represented by two neat rows of three A4-sized black and white photos. Apparently, she is ‘a pioneer of the female gaze photography movement in Russia’, ‘challenging prevailing notions of female sexuality and desire’. So the shots are of naked women in non-sexy poses, standing on a jetty or squatting on a tree. The most striking one for me was unrelated to female desire, a shot of multiple car headlights on a motorway in a thick fog.

Masha Demianova

Masha Demianova

Grigor Devejiev  is a photographer with over a decade of experience working in fashion, whose atmospheric, gritty pics have been included in international fashion magazines including i-D and Metal. He’s represented by three big A3-sized colour photos of shabby looking people in threatening poses in really run-down horrible buildings. The full crappiness is brought out by the use of flash which projects cheap shadows behind the dodgy looking characters.

Grigor Derevjiev

Grigor Derevjiev

Hassan Kurbanbaev (36) Born in 1982 in Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan, Hassan was educated at the Tashkent State University of Arts. He began his career as a cinematographer, producing short films focusing on social and youth issues. He’s represented here by a series of colour photos of pissed-off Tashkent teens, part of his Tashkent Youth project. Apparently, Tashkent is one of the youngest cities in the world, with 60% of the population under 25. This young lady doesn’t look too thrilled about it.

Hassan Kurbanbaev

Hassan Kurbanbaev

Ieva Raudsepa Born in Latvia, Raudsepa is now based in Los Angeles. Her photographic work has been exhibited and featured internationally, including in i-D, YET, Latvian Photography Yearbook, FK Magazine. She’s represented here by 13 colour and two black-and-white photos, all of different sizes and arranged higgledy-piggledy so that some are overlapping.

She’s the only photographer who takes landscapes. Most of the photos are of more gangly, alienated youths but even these are photographed on mossy banks or in lakes. I’ve chosen a misty morning landscape for the sake of variety.

Ieva Raudsepa

Ieva Raudsepa

Michal Korta was born in Poland and studied German philology and photography. He has been working in photography for more than 15 years, working with press, advertising agencies and international cultural institutions, and is a lecturer on photography in Poland and Switzerland. He’s represented by four lovely black and white photos of the weird brutalist concrete architecture of Skopje in Macedonia, from his Beautiful Monsters series. All four are marvellous.

Michael Korta

Michael Korta

Paulina Korobkiewicz (25) was born in 1993 in Suwalki, Poland and is now based in London. She gained a first class honours degree in Fine Art Photography from Camberwell College of Arts and has also attended the Warsaw School of Photography. In 2016 Paulina was the winner of Camberwell Book Prize. She’s represented by five big colour photos of buildings, the balconies of apartment buildings, the locked door of a nightclub in the grim morning light, fog half hiding some local shops.

Paulina Korobkiewicz

Paulina Korobkiewicz

Pavel Milyakov (30) Born in 1988 in Moscow, Pavel attended Moscow State Academy of Art and Industry, working with graphic design and then Moscow Film School. Post-Soviet Visions is his first exhibition. As far as I could see he was represented by one work, an enormous blow-up of a comedy photoshop he’s done of The Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, but with modern apartment blocks added in.

Orehovo by Pavel Milyakov

Orehovo by Pavel Milyakov

The videos

I nearly missed the fact that there’s a downstairs space, containing a few more photographers, a display case of photography magazines – and a projection room in which 11 videos from film-makers of the New East were playing on a loop.

Many of them feature more shots and stories about alienated youths – in one, kids get drunk in a park, smoke fags and share vodka, before going along to a shabby disco where they throw up or snog and fondle each other. In another video, two skater boys skate through the wreckage of their crappy town, lie around in a cemetery, then end up having a fight in a graffiti-covered underpass.

One is a sort of mock documentary with a voiceover in Russian explaining the contemporary rave scene, how and why alienated youths go to big warehouses, deliberately don’t eat much, but smoke and drink in order to encourage the sense of delirium, dancing all night to electronic music.

The standout film for me was Lake, directed by Vita Gareskina, in which several Iranian-looking women (actually from Georgia), dressed in dark robes and then glittering masks, carry out some kind of ritual by a lake which involves torches and – as far as we can tell – the ritual drowning of one of them. This stood out by dint of being one of the few with any aspiration beyond recording skater board, vodka-drinking, trying-on-trainers, teenage times.

That said, my favourite was this video – Jungle With Fiction by KayaKata. On reflection, maybe because – as a professional music video – it simply had higher production values than all the others and so was more watchable.

But also because – although I think they’re taking themselves seriously – I found it hilarious the way these dudes in some crappy post-Soviet town copy the style, movements and attitude of black rappers from South-Central LA.

Like almost all the other kids, youths, skaters, rappers, party goers, drivers and fashion victims captured in this exhibition, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that – far from innovating or creating any kind of ‘new’ fashion, music or scene – all these young people trapped in dead-end towns in the former communist countries of the East are hopelessly copying every aspect of the wealthy Western lifestyle they can get their hands on, and pathetically failing.

The meaning of ‘post-Soviet’

According the blurb the term post-Soviet ‘has become a byword for bold, innovative creativity in cultural fields from high fashion to film’.

To those of us outside the bubble of fashion and film, ‘post Soviet’ is also a byword for economic collapse, falling life expectancy, epidemic alcoholism, a tsunami of organised crime, the rise of billionaire oligarchs, and the triumph of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian rule.

All fourteen photographers are interesting in different ways, but they are all tend to gravitate towards the same central issues, of urban decay and youth alienation.

What is post-Soviet culture? It’s a big subject and one – with Vladimir Putin increasingly goading and provoking the West – which requires investigation and understanding.

If the photos and videos focus overwhelmingly on youths with no apparent jobs and little apparent involvement in the social structures around them, if they offer no political or economic insights into the world of ‘the New East’ – they do at least put faces, voices and sounds to the younger part of the populations of this huge region, populations which are coming, in our time, under the control of a new generation of authoritarian and intolerant politicians.

Related links

The exhibition is FREE – but note that Calvert 22 is CLOSED on Mondays and Tuesdays, and open Wednesday to Sunday only from 12 noon (until 6pm).

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

Made in North Korea @ the House of Illustration

The House of Illustration

The House of Illustration is the UK’s only public gallery dedicated solely to illustration and graphic art. It’s a charity, and was set up by a group of illustrators led by Quentin Blake, in 2002.

In July 2014 they opened their permanent home in a converted warehouse just north of King’s Cross train station, an area which has been comprehensively regenerated and filled with shops, boutiques and the new campus of Central St Martin’s Art school – all bisected by the cleaned-up Regent’s Canal.

The House of Illustration’s aim is to explore historic and contemporary illustration and to promote the work of emerging illustrators. It hosts frequent talks and events, and runs a learning programme for children, young people, adults and families, delivered by professional illustrators.

North Korea

As anyone who reads the papers or listens to the news should know by now, North Korea is probably the most secretive and closed society on earth, dominated by the Cult of the Great Leader, tubby Kim Jong-un.

Kim Jong-un, supreme leader of North Korea since 17 December 2011

Kim Jong-un, supreme leader of North Korea since 17 December 2011

A hundred years of Korean history

The exhibition offers a free A3 handout packed with information – among other things explaining the iconography used on North Korean products, miniature reproductions of all the posters and comic book covers featured in the exhibition, And it also includes a handy timeline of the troubled history of North Korea:

1910-45 – The Korean peninsula is occupied by Japan. Various resistance movements.

1945 – Japan, defeated by America, withdraws its troops from Korea leaving a potential power vacuum. Russia and the U.S.A. (still wartime allies) agree to administer the northern half and southern half of the peninsula, respectively. They set the border at the 38th parallel i.e. 38 degrees north of the equator. This decision is the basis for the division of Korea which lasts to this day.

1948 – Separate governments are formed in each half of partitioned Korea – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north, the Republic of Korea in the south. The Workers’ Party becomes the ruling party of North Korea, led by Kim il Sung.

1949 Communists finally seize control of China at the end of a prolonged civil war with nationalists. Naturally, they form supportive relations with communist Korea on their border.

1950 North Korea launches a surprise attack on South Korea and succeeds in pushing the South Korean Army and American troops deep into the south. At which point General MacArthur launches a surprise amphibious invasion at Incheon, half way up the peninsula, threatening to cut North Korean supply lines. The North Koreans are pushed right back up to the border with China, at which point China intervenes, sending 200,000 troops to support the North Koreans. They push the allies, by now fighting under the flag of the United Nations, back towards the original border, and fighting then continues around the 38th parallel for a further grisly two years, until an armistice is signed in 1953. Technically, the war has never ended.

1953 to 1994 Kim Il Sung rules North Korea as a communist dictator.

1994 Kim Il Sung dies and his son, Kim Jong Il takes leadership of the DPRK.

2011 Kim Jong Il dies and his son Kim Jong-un takes leadership of the DPRK.

Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK

This is the UK’s first ever exhibition of graphic design from North Korea. It brings together a fascinating cross-section of commercial products and ephemera from this most secretive of societies – over 100 common objects including food packaging, ticket stubs and stamps together with stunning hand-painted posters and comics.

This wealth of objects is all part of the collection of Nicholas Bonner, who has been visiting North Korea and leading tours of the country for over 20 years. Bonner has also been involved in three documentaries and a feature film about the country.

The Main Gallery of the House of Illustration is made up of three rooms of the size you might expect to find in an average house, and a fourth much smaller one, a sort of annex.

Room 1 – Posters

Room one is covered with about 30 wonderfully bright, clear propaganda posters showing happy, healthy, smiling North Korean men and women promoting their country’s fabulously successful economy and wealth of goods and products. Look! Look how rich we are!

Hand-painted poster saying 'More consumer goods for the people' - collection of Nicholas Bonner. Photograph by Justin Piperger

Hand-painted poster saying ‘More consumer goods for the people’ – collection of Nicholas Bonner. Photograph by Justin Piperger

Since there is no private enterprise in this communist country, all posters – indeed all objects whatsoever – are state-designed and state-approved. These posters are made in state-run collective studios. The largest is the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang, which employs over 1,000 artists.

It’s surprising to learn that almost all of these posters are hand painted. Difficult to believe, but the proof is there – if you look close enough, you can see brushstrokes and flaking paint.

I learned one big thing: In the West we make posters to promote consumption; in communist countries public art is designed to promote production. Hence almost all the posters in this room show a smiling Korean worker gesturing towards huge piles of cotton, medicines, fish, food, straw, coal, milk, meat – you name it, North Korea is overflowing with it!

Hand-painted poster saying 'Everything for the full achievement of the 1979 People's economic plan'. Collection of Nicholas Bonner. Photograph by Justin Piperger

Hand-painted poster saying ‘Everything for the full achievement of the 1979 People’s economic plan’. Collection of Nicholas Bonner. Photograph by Justin Piperger

Key features of the posters include:

– Outstretched arms and open hands are a vital part of the image’s dynamic impact. Reaching, stretching, showing, betokening optimism and energy.

– So is the Korean script. This is itself pretty geometric and so lends itself to being incorporated into images which are basically naturalistic, but stylised, hyped-up, super-realistic, and which often feature straight lines and idealised shapes. In the poster, above, the converging lines of the coal conveyor, the rails, the quayside and the ship have an almost Art Deco quality.

– And, of course, there is the actual contents of the messages – these are mostly abstract design elements to us, but to Koreans they blare encouragements and exhortations. Here are some of the texts from the 30 or so posters on display:

  • Let’s do more sheltered-water aqua cultivation!
  • Let’s build more factories to produce more consumer goods!
  • Let’s innovate the fish industry!
  • Let’s fully carry out the Party’s foreign trade policy!

and my favourite:

  • Let’s all rear more goats!

– And, my goodness, all these happy people have perfect teeth, as stylised as blocks of dazzling white marble! There’s a chair in this first room which I needed to sit in to soak up all the bright colours, the wealth of consumer products – and the dazzling dental perfection!

Installation view of the poster room at Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK at the House of Illustration

Installation view of the poster room at Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK at the House of Illustration

Room 2 – consumer goods and movie

This is a fairly small space, which contains a display case holding 22 small consumer products and a screen showing a short time-lapse movie about Pyongyang.

Kind of makes you want to go, doesn’t it? After all the scare stories you hear, the people look remarkably like us and their underground, roads and buildings pretty similar. Only much, much cleaner.

The products in the display case are things like fizzy drinks cans, water bottles, packets of boiled sweets or noodles, packs of chewing gum, a biscuit tin. The commentary says that all these common or garden products feature the ‘flat block colour and smooth vector graphics’ seen in other Asian countries, and it’s true that I associate these violent acidic colours with products in India, which I’ve visited a few times.

Box of biscuits from North Korea. Collection of Nicholas Bonner. Photograph courtesy of Phaidon

Box of biscuits from North Korea. Collection of Nicholas Bonner. Photograph courtesy of Phaidon

To really understand  the uniqueness of the coloration and design of the objects on display, I imagine you’d have to be a graphic designer. Clearly the posters in particular are a combination of:

  • Russian Socialist Realism as filtered through Chinese Socialist Realism
  • with added Korean motifs
  • and a distinctive Korean colour palette

Room 3 – Public performances

Colour is explored a bit more in the next room where there’s a all label explaining the existence of a distinctive Korean colour palette. Apparently the main colours are white, black, yellow and red, with secondary colours green, turquoise, light pink, sulphur yellow and violet.

I think it’s these secondary colours which make all these products look so distinctive. Not blue, turquoise. Not just green, but a bright acid green. And pink, lots of pink.

The main subject of this room is public entertainments, namely the state-run cinema, theatre, circus and gymnastic – lots of gymnastics. Large-scale, state-sponsored gymnastics. Apparently the 2007 ‘Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance’ was the biggest gymnastic display every held anywhere in the world.

There’s also a display case explaining North Korean opera. Apparently there are five major revolutionary operas, which were written during the Japanese invasion and then the Korean War. Korean opera incorporates traditional folk dance and an entire wall of the room has been covered with a blown-up image of a chorus of women folk dancers.

Installation view of Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK at the House of Illustration

Installation view of ‘Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK’ at the House of Illustration

Next to it (visible in the photo above, on the left) is a display case showing no fewer than 82 lenticular postcards. New word to me, ‘lenticular’ is the term to describe that kind of postcard which looks oddly pixilated and when you turn it, you get a slight three dimensional effect, as bits of background emerge from behind foreground objects, as some of the objects appear to ‘move’.

A little tacky to our taste, these are apparently very popular in the Democratic People’s Republic. Subjects included dancers, both folk and ballet, horses realistic or leaping into the sky, landscapes and notable buildings in Pyongyang, flowers and birds – all done with the bright-to-garish coloration which the note on palette had made me appreciate more. Only one was remotely warlike, a poster-like cartoon figure of a wounded Korean soldier heroically attacking an American tank armed only with a grenade.

Room 4 – Comic books and ephemera

Room four makes a bigger impact than all the others because all four walls are covered in wallpaper made up of repeated iterations of some of the ephemera on display, namely the gaudy wrappers of canned food, bottles of water, packets of all sorts of consumer products.

'Installation view of room four of 'Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK' at the House of Illustration

Installation view of room four of ‘Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK’ at the House of Illustration

This room is really a car boot sale of all kinds of bric-a-brac from North Korean everyday life, a veritable ‘cabinet of Korean curiosities’. There are display cases devoted to:

  • tourist maps, tickets and souvenirs
  • labels of food products
  • New Year cards
  • pin badges
  • stationery and stamps
  • cigarette packs
  • sweet boxes
  • beer, water and fizzy pop bottles and cans

In among lots of North Korean trivia I learned that Juche is the Korean word for ‘Self Reliance’, which has been official state policy since the communist party came to power, i.e. having little or no contact or trade with the outside world. Official propaganda at every level drums home the idea that they don’t need it because North Korea is, quite simply, the most perfect, happiest society on earth. Hence all the dazzling smiles!

The New Year’s cards are a traditional Korean tradition, but given a communist twist ever since the state introduced the notion of redating the entire calendar from the birth of the first Great Leader, Kim Il Sung in 1912 – or Juche 1.

I liked the lapel badges or pins, with a variety of logos symbolising North Korea’s sporting prowess in – well, you name it, they’re the best at it – football, gymnastics, even cricket. All adults wear two lapel pins showing the two Kims (as you can see Kim Jong-Un doing, in the photo at the top of this review).

I particularly liked the way the food labels of meat products show not just the finished food product, but the animal it came from. Just to be clear.

Tinned food label for pork from North Korea. Collection of Nicholas Bonner. Photograph courtesy of Phaidon

Tinned food label for pork from North Korea. Collection of Nicholas Bonner. Photograph courtesy of Phaidon

And note the use of English in this, as in many, labels. Apparently, this implies class and quality.

Being a boy, I also enjoyed the massive display of pocket comic books, mostly war and spy stories, the North Korean equivalent of the Commando war comics which I grew up with 40 years ago.

That free A3 handout I mentioned earlier, includes thumbnails of all 97 of these comic book covers. Some have generic titles which could come from any culture, such as ‘The Star of Glory’ or ‘No Turning Back’. Others are more comically communist like ‘Taking up the torch of our comrade’s will’ and ‘The heart of a member of the young communist league’ and, my favourite: ‘He was very intelligent and courageous in every battle’.

I was struck by the number of covers which featured snow, and heroes wearing winter uniforms, reminding me that Korea has bitter winters, something which features in many memoirs of the Korean War.

Installation view of North Korean comic books in room four of 'Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK' at the house of Illustration

Installation view of North Korean comic books in room four of ‘Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK’ at the House of Illustration

Images and society

One of the wall labels in this room makes the simple but profound point that all of these artefacts, objects, products and ephemera, superficially bright and varied though they seem, in fact use a relatively limited set of images and icons.

This iconography of agricultural and industrial plenty, accompanied by stylised bodily gestures (the outstretched arm and hand demonstrating the bounty of communism) and smiling faces, is obvious in the big posters.

Less obvious, until it’s pointed out to you, is the use of a standardised set of official icons. That A3 handout I keep mentioning also includes a guide to 32 of these icons, which range from symbols of the party (red star, red flag, hammer and sickle) to images of Pyongyang’s enormous, iconic buildings (the May Stadium, Arc de Triomphe, Koryo Hotel, Juche Tower and so on) to sanitised versions of Korean national icons (the pine tree representing longevity, the white tiger a symbol of Korean history, the crane representing good fortune, and so on).

The point is the sheer repetition of this finite set of symbols on everything. Seeing images of the Grand People’s Study House or the Worker’s Party emblem on fag packets, tin cans, fizzy drinks, water bottles, stamps and postcards, is designed to ram home the fact that North Korea is the whole world – its buildings and food and technology and athletes and sports, its national symbols and, above all, the communist party which rules over it, is the best in the world, is all the country needs; reinforcing the fundamental idea of North Korea’s glorious self-sufficiency or Juche.

Living in Western societies which are super-saturated with a bewildering array of constantly changing imagery, it is difficult to imagine what it must be like to live in a society where there is a very limited amount of visual imagery, and what there is, is tightly controlled by the state.

Who knows what the North Korean graphic designers who made all these posters and designed all the other objects in the show think about their own society or the wider world. But the exhibition makes you come to admire the inventiveness and sheer skill of artists forced to work within an extremely tight set of parameters, who still manage to infuse their work with colour and life.


If we want to stop killing each other we have to realise the other side are people just like us. Shame we can’t make Donald Trump visit this exhibition. We mustn’t underestimate our differences and think the population of Syria or Burma can be changed into Hampstead liberals overnight by a free election or a handful of tweets – but you have to start somewhere.

This exhibition provides the immense public service of taking us out of our Western comfort zones, away from Western media and art – and introducing us to a completely different visual, political and cultural world. It’s also great fun. Go see it.

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David Milne: Modern Painting @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

While other London galleries present yet another exhibition about Picasso or Francis Bacon, Dulwich Picture Gallery maintains its reputation for staging beautifully presented exhibitions of peripheral or little-known artists, who turn out to be deeply rewarding and beautiful.

Latest to receive the treatment is Canadian artist David Milne (1882 to 1953), famous in his own country, all but unknown over here.

New York

Milne was born in a small Ontario farming community in 1882 (the same year as Braque, Stravinsky, Joyce and Woolf). Aged 21 Milne went to New York (in 1903) and began training as a commercial artist but quickly became aware of the new styles and ideas coming from France. He learned about the achievements of Cézanne, Matisse and other modern French masters via exhibitions at Alfred Stieglitz’s famous ‘291 gallery’.

Milne gained a reputation as an interesting modernist and was invited to take part in the famous Armory Show of 1913, which first brought a comprehensive range of modern French art to an American audience.

The first room of the exhibition showcases Milne’s work from the years just before the outbreak of the Great War, showing him experimenting with a Frenchified way of treating New York’s bustling streets, emblazoned with advertising hoardings, but emphasising the presence of light, in broad expressive brushstrokes.

Billboards by David Milne (c. 1912) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Billboards by David Milne (c. 1912) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

I really liked these brightly coloured images.

What’s most noticeable about seeing them in the flesh is the impasto, the extent to which you can see the swirls and splodges of oil paint sticking up from the surface.

Maybe the central insight or axiom of ‘modern’ art is the simple realisation that the painting is not, as had been believed for 400 years, a ‘window on the world’ – but an object in its own right.

His brushstrokes aren’t meant to be invisible as per the Northern Renaissance painters or the Pre-Raphaelites who copied them (as so brilliantly shown at the current Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites exhibition at the National Gallery). The highly visible strokes are themselves part of the aesthetic statement, as much a part as the supposed subject.

These first paintings display the mannerisms which will stick with Milne to the end of his career, namely a disinterest in realistic detail, a tendency to lay on paint in thick impasto swirls and blodges, and the habit of building the picture up through the accumulation of blocks or triangles of colour – like roughly sketched Lego pieces.

The tension is there which lasts the rest of his life between a basically figurative approach – painting the actually visible object – combined with a restless experimentation with form and media which saw him work with oils, pastels, watercolour, sketches and even photos.

Back to the country

Always a country boy at heart, Milne was uncomfortable in New York and from 1913 started taking vacations in the small town of West Saugerties, in upstate New York. In 1916 he moved permanently, along with his wife, Patsy Hegarty, to Boston Corners, a village in New York State, and lived a simple remote life.

The second room displays a series of works in which he is visibly experimenting with painting trees, woods and – an enduring subject – reflections in pools, rivers, lakes.

Bishop's Pond (Reflections) by David Milne (1916) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Bishop’s Pond (Reflections) by David Milne (1916) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

A number of things are going on in this picture. For a start he was experimenting with the effect of leaving parts of the composition untouched, just the plain white paper. This turns out to be just right for conveying the purity of fallen snow. But it led Milne to develop the notion of what he called the ‘dazzle spot’, a blank area, devoid of colour, to which the viewer’s eye is naturally attracted. Having caught the attention, the viewer’s eye then goes on a voyage of discovery around the rest of the picture plane, exploring the subtle interplay of shapes and colours.

Speaking of colours, they’re very subdued, derived from a limited palette, but nonetheless stylised: they don’t blend or wash as in nature but appear in clusters – of umber, a kind of turquoise, a yellow-green, and a sort of purple. There is no sense of the colours shading or blending, or of the effect of light and shade which you would have in a realistic work. The line drawing of pond and trees may be entirely figurative but the colouring is completely stylised; not in the wild way of the Frenchmen he had seen, this isn’t a brash Fauvist work. He is using the discoveries of modern painting to create something gently understated and muted.

Lastly, this work shows the result of his experiments with different techniques to try and capture the effect of reflections in water. If you scroll down the exhibition web-page you can hear the commentary on this painting (given as a sample of the overall audioguide) which gives Milne’s own account of how he experimented to create this effect.

The result, the blurred greying effect of the wash in the reflected shapes, is much more striking and absorbing, much more noticeable in the flesh, than in this reproduction. It creates a shimmering, rather supernatural effect. I kept coming back to this particular painting, to look at it again and again, becoming more entranced each time.


On the opposite wall in the same room is a selection of rather more experimental works depicting his wife, Patsy, simply sitting – but done with more intense use of blots or blobs of colour.

Sometimes the motif is almost hidden by the intensity of the blotching and blobbing – you have to stand at just the right distance to make out the actual subject – in the case of the most attractive of the set, a simple portrait of his wife reading a book with a cat on her lap. Note the use of – what shall I call them? blobs? dots? patches? – of colour, unshaded, set down pure, a kind of large-scale use of pointillism. And the very limited palette: a very particular tint of green and brown, dirty grey, with highlights of white and black.

Reader with cat by David Milne (1916)

Reader with cat by David Milne (1916)

A nearby work reflects the development of camouflage during the war. Milne was fascinated by the idea of abstract patterns of muted colours which blend in with natural scenery and, once the notion has been mentioned, it’s possible to see the idea of ‘camouflage’, of the concealment of pattern in natural forms, as an underlying motif of many of his landscapes.

War artist

Milne enlisted in the Army in 1918 but, what with training and delays, missed the actual fighting. Nonetheless, he lobbied hard and wangled his way across the Atlantic soon after the Armistice in the capacity of War Artist. He painted Canadian troops in their camps in Britain, and then went on to paint a series of haunting watercolours and sketches of the devastated landscape of North-East France for the Canadian War Records, only months after the fighting had finished.

In complete contrast to the paint-covered landscapes of the previous room, in all these war zone works Milne reverts to a) leaving extensive parts of the surface pure untouched white and b) using much more flighty, impressionistic flurries of pen or brushstrokes to convey shape and colour.

In terms of style it is clearly related to the use of blocks of colour in the New York works or blots of colour in the upstate landscapes, but here the blocks are disintegrated into feathery flurries as if the painter’s technique has been as splintered and dismantled as the villages, the buildings and the minds of the people who fought and suffered.

The result is, as ever, entirely figurative but at the same time somehow abstract and spare. I actively didn’t like the effect when he used it on buildings such as Amiens cathedral, but could see the appeal in a work like Montreal Crater, Vimy Ridge (1919), one of Milne’s most famous war paintings. It shows the enormous hole created when the Allies detonated 24 tonnes of explosives underground, deep behind German enemy lines. Note the tiny figures on the horizon.

Montreal Crater, Vimy Ridge by David Milne (1919) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Montreal Crater, Vimy Ridge by David Milne (1919) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

It is interesting to learn that picture postcards of the ruined towns and buildings of the war zone were swiftly produced and sold to the first ‘war tourists’, who were quick to arrive and be taken on tours of the still smouldering battlefields. Milne made a collection of these postcards ,which he kept for the rest of his life, and a selection of them is on display here.

David Milne, Self - portrait in military uniform, Black Lake, Quebec (1918)

David Milne pioneering the art of the selfie at Black Lake, Quebec (1918)

Rural retreat

Back in North America, Milne withdrew to the deep countryside and spent the winter of 1920-1 alone on the side of Alander Mountain, behind Boston Corners, partly inspired by the writings of Henry David Thoreau, the great exponent of living simply and communing with nature.

He lived in a cabin he built himself and devoted himself to formal experiments in how to depict nature. The paintings in this room are among the best, showing an intense observation of unspoilt landscape combined with the contrary urge, a highly sophisticated quest to seek out the form buried beneath the subject.

You begin to see how, in a very understated way, Milne never ceased experimenting.

White, the Waterfall by David Milne (1921) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

White, the Waterfall by David Milne (1921) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

There are some really atmospheric paintings here. The commentary goes heavy on one called White, the Waterfall (1921), apparently one of Milne’s personal favourites, and a much treasured centrepiece in the National Canadian collection.

Personally, I liked the story around two other paintings, versions he painted of the big tree stump which stood just outside the front door of the cabin and which he paints covered in snow and then in thaw. I wonder if he gave it a name.

The audioguide

The audioguides to exhibitions can be variable, but I thought the one for this show was excellent. My friend didn’t bother with one and so walked through gaining only a generalised impression of the work, but I did buy one (for £3) and it forced me to stop and really focus on the 22 specific works it comments on. This pays real dividends with Milne’s art.

His use of dense and often dark ‘blocks’ of paint and colour can get a bit much if taken en masse. However, being forced to stop in front of specific works and study them closely made me, in almost every instance, come to appreciate and like them more.

So White, the Waterfall may be famous but I found myself warming more to a nearby painting of the forest, Trees in spring, done in lime green and – as the commentary explained – riffing off the abstract design of palm leaves to be found in Egyptian friezes in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A good example of the way abstract interests lurk behind almost every one of Milne’s apparently figurative works. But not aggressively or stridently. Subtly. Quietly.

Trees in spring by David Milne (1917) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Trees in spring by David Milne (1917) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Still lifes

Subtlety and quietness are the hallmarks of the still lifes Milne painted in the later 1930s.

In this period he made himself another cabin to live in, this time at the remote Six Mile Lake. Half the paintings from this period are of the lake, displaying his lifelong interest in the shimmering of reflections in water.

But there is also a selection of wonderful, understated still lifes he did inside the cabin; specifically, a series showing water lilies in simple jugs or vases. If you compare them to the same subject as done by the French painters he venerated, such as Monet or Matisse, you immediately realise how he has pared his palette right down to basic browns and greys with only occasional highlights of green or violet or orange. It is as if the colour has been bleached out of the painting to reveal the secrets of shapes and lines. More visually dominant is the lacework of drawn lines repeatedly sketching the outlines and shapes; the colours merely highlight and define the objects.

Sparkle of Glass by David Milne (1926 or 1927) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Sparkle of Glass by David Milne (1926 or 1927) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Last works

The final room showcases a final selection of still lifes and landscapes from the 1930s. The still lifes are recognisable as vases and flowers, but many of the landscapes have moved strongly in the direction of abstraction. There are the merest horizontal lines indicating the meeting of lake and land, or land and sky, and there are variations on the interplay of stars or moon reflected in the water which tremble on the brink of becoming pure abstract shapes.

It was only in the 1930s, as he hit 50, that Milne began to receive any recognition in his native country, through contacts with curators and artists in Ottawa and Toronto, foe example it was only in 1934 that he finally began showing his work commercially in Toronto.

The exhibition finishes with one of my favourite works, Summer Colours (1936), a final landscape which walks the line between figurative and abstraction.

It’s unlike most of the previous work in not featuring the blocky, faceted approach to building up an image. It’s much plainer, with wedges of colour representing sea, land and sky, but it is recognisably the same mind and eye that produced the New York boulevard paintings. He is unafraid of showing – in fact he deliberately highlights – big brushstrokes, crudely deployed in swathes across the surface, bringing out the textured surface of the canvas. And yet, through the strange alchemy of art and despite the fact that you can see that this object simply consists of oil paint rather bluntly smeared over a rough flat canvas surface – somehow it is also a haunting image of a faraway landscape, at once a place of your dreams, and an abstract interplay of elementary colour and design.


Summer Colours by David Milne (1936) © The Estate of David Milne

Summer Colours by David Milne (1936) © The Estate of David Milne


This is another triumph for Dulwich Picture Gallery. The only thing I’d comment on is their choice of image for the posters promoting the show. They’ve chosen one of the darker, more clotted works – Reflected Forms – which initially a little put me off the exhibition. It’s a shame, because many of the other works here are lighter, more airy and poetic – and all of them reward close attention by revealing their beguiling experiments with technique, and their quiet depths…

David Milne: Modern Painting is an unexpectedly lovely, life-enhancing exhibition.


One-minute introduction by co-curator Ian Dejardin.

4’37” report on the show by Belle Donati.

Related links

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

Living with gods @ the British Museum

There are two major exhibition spaces in the British Museum, the big Sainsbury Gallery at the back of the main court where they hold blockbuster shows like The Vikings or the Celts; and the more intimate semi-circular space up the stairs on the first floor of the central rotunda.

The setting

This latter location is where Living with gods: peoples, places and worlds beyond is currently showing.

The space is divided into ‘rooms’ or sections by translucent white linen curtains, on which the shadows of exhibits and visitors are cast. At ground level are hidden lights which project shimmering patterns onto the wall. Low-key ambient noises – strange rustlings, breathings, the rattling of unknown instruments – fill the air.

All this sets the scene and creates a mood, because this is an exhibition not of religious beliefs, but of religious objects, designed to tell the story of the relationship between human beings and their gods, or – more abstractly – their sense of the supernatural, through rare and precious religious artefacts from around the world.

Terror mask Pende, Republic of Congo, 20th century This mask is worn to frighten away women and nosy pople from initiation ceremonies for yound men. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Terror mask Pende, Republic of Congo (20th century) This mask is worn to frighten away women and nosy pople from initiation ceremonies for yound men © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany


The objects are grouped by ‘theme’, namely:

  • Light, water, fire
  • Sensing other worlds
  • Sacred places and spaces
  • Prayer
  • Festivals
  • The cycle of life
  • Sacrifice
  • Coexistence

There are brief wall labels introducing each theme. Personally, I found these rather weak and obvious but then it’s a tricky task to summarise all humanity’s entire history and relationship with, say, religious festivals, in four sentences.

One text tells us that ‘Water is essential to life, but also brings chaos and death’. OK. Another that ‘Religions shape the way people perceive the world by engaging all their senses.’ Alright. Fine as far as they go, but not really that illuminating.

Wonder toad China © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Wonder toad from China © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Individual information

The labels of individual exhibits are more specific and so more interesting. But here again, because artefacts from different cultures, geographical locations, religions and periods are placed next to each other, it is difficult, if not impossible, to get any real sense of context.

It may well be that:

Seeing out the old year in Tibet requires a purifying dance or cham. These lively masked and costumed dances are performed by Buddhist monks to rid the world of evil and bring in compassion.

Or that:

On 31 October every year, Mexicans remember the dead by staying at the graves of loved ones through the night. Theatrical processions symbolise fears and fantasies of the world of the dead. Judas, who denounced Christ to the Roman authorities, is displayed as a devil. Judas figures are also paraded and exploded on Easter Saturday.

But by the time you’re reading the tenth or fifteenth such snippet of information, it’s gotten quite hard to contain or process all this information.

Judas-devil figure, Mexico City © The Trustees of the British Museum

Judas-devil figure, Mexico City © The Trustees of the British Museum

So the weaknesses of the exhibition are its lack of intellectual depth, and of conceptual coherence. Just giving each section a ‘theme’and a few explanatory sentences isn’t, in the end, enough.

Best objects

On the plus side, Living with gods is a rich collection of fascinating, evocative and sometimes very beautiful objects from all round the world. Because they’re so varied, from prayer mats to medieval reliquaries, from the tunics which Muslim pilgrims to Mecca wear to Inuit figures made of fur, from a statue of Buddha to a wooden model of a Hindu chariot, there’s something for every taste.

My two favourite moments were 1. the display case of African masks. I love African tribal art, it has a finish, a completeness, and a tremendous pagan primitive power, combined with high skill at metal working, which I find thrilling.

Installation view of Living with gods showing African masks (left) and the Mexican Judas figure (right)

Installation view of Living with gods showing African masks (left) and the Mexican Judas figure (right) In the background is a painted model of a Hindu temple vehicle.

The other work was a modern piece by Syrian-born artist Issam Kourbaj, called Dark Water, Burning World, a set of model boats made out of refashioned bicycle mudguards, filled with burnt-out matches, representing the refugee crisis.

Dark Water, Burning World by Issam Kourbaj

Dark Water, Burning World by Issam Kourbaj

This latter is not, to be honest, representative of the show as a whole, probably more a work of art than a religious object.

The show as a whole goes heavy on artefacts from the obvious world religions – Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Daoism, Shintoism – as well as the ancient beliefs of the Persians, Assyrians and so on, plus sacred objects produced by tribal peoples such as the Yupik of Alaska or Siberian tribes.

Shiva Nataraja Chennai, India (1800-1900) As Nataraja, Hindu deity Shiva performs a perpetual dance of creation and destruction. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Shiva Nataraja Chennai, India (1800-1900) As Nataraja, Hindu deity Shiva performs a perpetual dance of creation and destruction. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany


Although the exhibition claims to ‘explore the practice and expression of religious beliefs in the lives of individuals and communities around the world and through time’, it doesn’t.

Most religions are expressed by actions and rituals, dances, prayers, blessings, festivals, processions. A moment’s reflection would suggest that the best way to convey this – in fact the only way to really convey these events and activities would be through a series of films or videos.

Downstairs in the African galleries of the British Museum there are, for example, videos of tribal masks being worn by witch doctors and shamen performing dances, exorcisms and so on, which give a vivid (and terrifying) sense of how they’re meant to be used in religious rituals, how they’re stil being used to this day..

None of that here. Nothing moves. No words are spoken, in blessing or benediction. It is a gallimaufrey of static artefacts – all interesting, some very beautiful – but all hermetically sealed in their display cases.

Model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Bethlehem, Palestine, 1600–1700 The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the holiest places of Christianity and attracts many pilgrims. Souvenir models of the church are bought and taken all over the world. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Bethlehem, Palestine (1600–1700) The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the holiest places of Christianity and attracts many pilgrims. Souvenir models of the church are bought and taken all over the world. © The Trustees of the British Museum

BBC radio series

The exhibition was planned to coincide with a series of 30 15-minute radio programmes for BBC Radio 4, presented by the former Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor.

MacGregor scored a massive hit with his wonderful radio series, A History of the World in 100 Objects, broadcast in 2010. The 30 programmes in this series were broadcast in the autumn of 2017. Quite probably the best thing to do would have been to listen to the series and then come to look at the objects he mentioned. Or to have downloaded the programmes to a phone or ipod and listened to them as you studied each object.

You can still listen to them free on the BBC website.

MacGregor is a star because he is so intelligent. Without any tricks or gimmicks he gets straight down to business, describing and explaining each of the objects and confidently placing them in the context of their times and places, within their systems of belief, and in the wider context of the development of the human mind and imagination. Just listening to him you feel yourself getting smarter.

Having just listened to them all, I recommend episode 4, Here comes the sun as one of the most awe-inspiring.

And the radio programmes score over the actual exhibition because, at fifteen minutes per theme, there are many more words in which to contextualise, explain and ponder meanings and implications, than the two or three sentences which is all the exhibition labels can afford to give them.

The individual fire-related items are interesting to look at in the exhibition. But MacGregor can weave an entire narrative together which links the perpetual fire in the Temple of Vesta in Rome, the worship of Ahura-Mazda in Sassanian Persia, the great Parsi fire temple in Udvada, India, and the Flame of the Nation which burns beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Much more rewarding.

Religious wars

I bridled a little at the touchy-feely, high mindedness of the show, with its tone of hushed reverence and for its equation of all religious into the same category of cute Antiques Roadshow curiosities.

The commentary goes long on human beings’ capacity for ‘symbolising our thoughts in stories and images’, on our capacity for ‘love and sorrow’, on how ‘powerful, mystical ideas govern personal lives as well as defining cultural identities and social bonds.’

The commentary wistfully wonders whether human beings, rather than being labelled Homo sapiens shouldn’t be recategorised as Homo religiosus. Sensitive sigh.

It all felt a bit like a creative writing workshop where everyone is respecting everyone else’s sensibilities.

None of this is untrue but it overlooks the way that, insofar as religious beliefs have been intrinsic to specific cultures and societies over the millennia, they have also been inextricably linked with power and conquest. To put it simply, there have been a) countless religious wars and crusades and b) religious belief and practice in most places have reinforced hierarchies of control and power.

Rather than Homo religiosus, an unillusioned knowledge of human history suggests that, if man is anything, he is Homo interfector.

Religion isn’t only a way to control our fears and emotions – it provides a way to channel internal emotions into externalised aggression. You can’t have a history of Christianity without the internecine violence between sects and heretics which climaxed in 150 years of religious war following the Reformation, without taking into account its violent conquests of pagan Europe, without acknowledging the crusades to the Holy Land or the anti-Semitism which is built deep into its DNA. The history of Islam  may well be a history of religious sages and philosophers, but it is also a history of military conquest. The Aztecs and the Incas practiced human sacrifice. The Celts as well. Humans were sacrificed in some Indian cults. And so on.

As the great English poet, Geoffrey Hill, wrote back in 1953:

By blood we live, the hot, the cold
To ravage and redeem the world:
There is no bloodless myth will hold.

(Genesis by Geoffrey Hill)

‘There is no bloodless myth will hold’. Christianity is represented here by processional crosses and rosary beads and a beautiful golden prayer book. But it is based on the story of a man who was tortured to death to please an angry God. Blood drips from his pierced hands and feet. The early theologian Tertullian wrote, ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.’ Shiah Muslims flagellate themselves every Muḥarram (I watched them doing it in the mountains of Pakistan. The hotel owner told me to stay indoors in case one of the inflamed believers attacked me.) As I write some 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have been forced from their homes by supposedly peace-loving Buddhists.

Human sacrifice has been a very widespread aspect of religious practice in all times and places.

My point is that religion isn’t all uplifting sentiments and beautiful works of art. It does not show us what we all share in common: that is a pious liberal wish. Religion is just as much about conquest and massacre. And I’m not particularly knocking religion; I’m saying that human beings are as much about massacre and murder as they are about poetry and painting. And that poetry, painting and exhibitions like this which lose sight of the intrinsic violence, the state sponsored violence and the religious violence which is part of us, a core part of being human, give a misleading – a deceptively gentle and reassuring – view of the world.

And that without honestly facing up to who we are and what we do, we cannot hope to cure ourselves.

Tibetan New Year dance mask Tibet © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Tibetan New Year dance mask © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Some videos

Promotional video

Exhibition tour

Related links

Reviews of other British Museum shows

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