Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) has a unique international appeal, as both an artist and a personality. Her image in oil paintings and photographs is instantly recognizable.

This is a beautifully curated and designed exhibition which left me with a much deeper understanding of Kahlo’s life, her work, her toughness in the face of terrible adversity, and the Mexican roots of her distinctive and powerful self-image.

Frida Kahlo in blue satin blouse, 1939, photograph by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida Kahlo in blue satin blouse, 1939, photograph by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

The treasure trove

The pretext or premise or prompt for the exhibition was the discovery of a treasure trove. After Frida died at the horribly early age of 47, her mourning husband, the famous Mexican mural painter, Diego Rivera, ordered all her belongings in the famous ‘Blue House’ they shared together, to be locked up and sealed away.

Rather incredibly, it was only in 2004 that this room was re-opened, to reveal a treasure trove of Kahlo-iana – including her jewellery, clothes, prosthetics and corsets, along with self-portraits, diary entries, photos and letters. Together they shed a wealth of new light on her life, personality, illness and endurance, on her art and on her extraordinary achievement in fashioning herself into an iconic image and brand.

And this is what the exhibition is based on.

Self-portrait by Frida Kahlo (1941) © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Vergel Collection

Self-portrait by Frida Kahlo (1941) © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Vergel Collection

Biography

The show is smaller than some recent ones at the V&A. Not so much a blockbuster, as an intimate portrait. It starts with a corridor-like room divided into small recesses, each of which take us briskly through a chapter in her early life, using black and white photos, a few early paintings and some home movies.

The key elements for me were that:

  • Her father was German, emigrated to Mexico in the 1890s and set up a photographic studio. She helped him and learned photographic technique, how to compose and frame a subject. No accident, maybe, that she is best known for her painted and photographic self portraits.
  • Her full name was Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón. She always preferred Frida because it her father’s name for her. I was mulling this over when I came to the section describing her marriage to the, by then, already famous Mexican mural painter, Diego Rivera, in 1928, who was a lot older than her, 43 to her 22. I.e. a big, reassuring father figure. Daddy.
  • When Frida was 6 she contracted polio and was seriously ill. She was left with one leg shorter than the other.
  • When she was 18 she was on a bus which was in a collision with a tram, resulting in her being both crushed against the window and having a piece of metal penetrate her abdomen. This accident and her long recovery put paid to the idea of studying to become a doctor. Confined to bed for months, she began to expand the sketching, drawing and painting she’d already been toying with.

In the late 1920s she developed a kind of naive, symbolic style, drawing inspiration from Mexican folk culture. After marrying Rivera, she accompanied him on a number of trips to the United States, where he had been commissioned to paint murals, socially conscious murals being a big part of 1930s American artistic activity.

Here’s a good example, from 1932. I don’t know if I like it. I understand the fairly simple ideas: on the left are images of Mexico, Aztec ruins and figurines, flowers and agricultural produce, with their roots in the good earth: on the right is Detroit, highly industrialised ‘Motor City’ (the name FORD is spelled out on the smoking chimneys), the American flag, skyscrapers, and growing out of the soil are not beautiful flowers but lamps and fans.

And in between is a self portrait of Frieda in a formal pink dress holding the Mexican flag. Between two worlds, eh? I get it.

Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America by Frida Kahlo (1932) © Modern Art International Foundation

Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America by Frida Kahlo (1932) © Modern Art International Foundation

Her naive symbolism matches the simple-minded ‘political’ attitude of Rivera’s murals. They both thought of themselves as communists and went on marches supporting strikers etc, but, nonetheless, liked visiting the heart of capitalism, America – or ‘Gringolandia’, as Frida called it. The money was good and there were lots of opportunities for Rivera to get commissions. And it was in New York, in 1939, that Frida held her first successful one-woman show. Capitalism is an awful thing – unless you can get money, commissions, promotions and sales out of it: the attitude of many 20th century artists.

One of the most interesting biographical facts is that Lev Davidovich Bronstein, known to the world as Leon Trotsky, having been exiled from the Soviet Union, was offered refuge by the revolutionary government of Mexico and came to stay with the Riveras, not for a few weeks, but for two years.

The exhibition includes a b&w film of Comrade Trotsky explaining, in English, how badly he has been treated by comrade Stalin. He insists he is really a man of honour – as anyone whose family was murdered by the Red Army he set up, would surely have testified.

Mexican roots

These early biographical roots are interesting but they are eclipsed by the power of the later rooms.

These start with the room on Kahlo’s Mexican roots. It explains that during the 1920s and even more so the 1930s, Mexico underwent a cultural renaissance. Part of this was the exploration and promotion of the country’s pre-Colombian culture, but it also included the first real appreciation of the folk customs and costumes of peasants and the poor around the country.

Interest in the country spread abroad, with American artists, photographers and film makers attracted to its sunny, bright and passionate culture. John Huston made films here. Even the young British writer Graham Greene made a tour of the country (he hated it) and then set his most powerful early novel here, The Power and the Glory. I’ve reviewed them both.

Frida and Diego were part of this revival of interest in Mexico’s culture and history. They both sought inspiration in the folk and workers culture of their country. In particular they were attracted to the area called Tehuantepec in the Oaxaca region. People here followed traditional ways, and the exhibition includes a whole wall of traditional icons of the Virgin Mary, establishing a link between these images of saintly femininity and Kahlo’s self portraits and explorations of her identity.

The dress room

The final room in the show is the biggest and I involuntarily exclaimed ‘wow’ as I walked into it.

Centre stage is a huge central glass case displaying some 20 of Frida’s dresses. Full length, made of colourful fabrics and bright designs, each one has been carefully displayed and annotated, giving a powerful sense of Frida’s sense of colour and dress.

Cotton huipil with machine-embroidered chain stitch; printed cotton skirt with embroidery and holaün (ruffle) Museo Frida Kahlo

Cotton huipil with machine-embroidered chain stitch; printed cotton skirt with embroidery and holaün (ruffle) Museo Frida Kahlo

There are only 10 or so paintings in the whole exhibition and six of them are in this room. They’re later works, when she had realised that she was her own best subject and that self portrait was her best medium.

Looking out at the viewer, flat and unemotional, her iconic features by now well established – the monobrow, the faint moustache on her top lip, her strong brown eyes, the sideways pose – she is flatly, unashamedly, blankly herself.

In the painting below even the tears don’t really affect the expressionless face. Or they appear as surreally detached embellishments of the fundamental design. Much weirder is the ‘ruff’ dominating the image. The exhibition explains that this is a huipil de tapar, a traditional Mexican item popular in Tehuantepec, designed to frame the face and extend over the neck and shoulders. There is another larger painting of her wearing the same outfit and a full scale example of a huipil de tapar on a display mannequin for us to compare and contrast reality with painted depiction.

Self-Portrait by Frida Kahlo (1948) © Private Collection

Self-Portrait by Frida Kahlo (1948) © Private Collection

Kahlo is, you realise, a perfect subject for the V&A because she was not only an artist, but someone with a fascination for clothes and costumes – in her case, of her native Mexico. The exhibition is less about the ar per se and more about how she drew heavily on these costume traditions and elaborated them into a highly colourful style of her own.

Hence there are more than twice as many dresses as there are Kahlo artworks. Hence, also, the display cases devoted to the heavy and ornate jewelry she wore, the elaborate ear-rings and thick heavy necklaces, set off against the bright and colourful hair ribbons.

In this respect it is fascinating to watch the 9-minute tourist film from the Tehuantepec region which is on view just next to the dresses and necklaces. Look at the colours and designs of the dresses, the heavy gold jewellery, and the brightly coloured ribbons in the women’s hair. In a flash you understand. Kahlo was a conduit for these traditional dresses, colours, fabrics and jewellery, into the international art world.

She gave it her own style. She combined it in her own way and, above all, gave it the imprimatur of her own face, of her very distinctive features (eyes, monobrow, moustache) and her unsmiling, detached, dream-like appearance.

But a great deal of her ‘look’ quite obviously stems directly from the traditions of the women of Tehuantepec.

Frida Kahlo on a bench, carbon print (1938) Photo by Nickolas Muray © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Verge, Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida Kahlo on a bench (1938) Photo by Nickolas Muray © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Verge, Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

The sick room

The big dress room is the climax of the exhibition, in terms of dresses, design, jewellery, paintings and photos.

But arguably the biographical core of the exhibition is the room before it, entitled ‘Endurance’. In an imaginative but spooky display, the curators have commissioned the creation of six small four-poster beds and made each into a display case which, along with photos and text along the walls, give a quite harrowing account of Kahlo’s many illnesses, ailments, treatments, and lifelong suffering.

The polio left her with a limp. The bus accident left her with serious internal injuries. In the 1930s she began to experience back problems and underwent a series of treatments and operations to fix them. At the end of her life one foot became infected and then gangrenous, requiring the whole leg to be amputated. It’s gruesome stuff.

This room includes examples of the medical equipment she was forced to wear or endure. There are platform shoes for the shorter leg, a prosthetic leg made for her to wear after the amputation but, most evocative of all, a series of corsets, plaster casts and back braces to help support her failing spine.

Kahlo decorated, painted and embellished as many of these as she could. The plaster casts, in particular, are painted with abstract patterns. The most elaborate one carries a painted hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union and, underneath, an image of the foetus she was carrying before she had a miscarriage in 1932.

Frida Kahlo wearing a plaster cast, which she decorated with the hammer and sickle (c.1950) photo by Florence Arquin

Frida Kahlo wearing a plaster cast, which she decorated with the hammer and sickle (c.1950) photo by Florence Arquin

The record of her illnesses and, in her later years, the almost constant pain she endured, make for harrowing reading, but there are also two really powerful insights in this room.

1. Painting in bed

One is that she was, at various periods, confined to her bed, it being too painful for her to walk or even stand. (Imagine!) So she had a mirror rigged up in the canopy above her and an easel on the side of the bed. From here she could paint, but paint what?

The answer is dreams – surreal images based on dreamlike symbolism, repeated images of her or a body in a bed – and her face. Over and over again the face of someone in discomfort or pain, staring, blankly, inscrutably, down from the ceiling.

Photos show the actual set-up, with Frida lying in bed, beneath a big mirror, the easel right next to her, on which she is painting.

This sheds quite a lot of light on her subject matter, and lends a depth and dignity to the pictures. Modern critics, obsessed with feminism and identity, may well write about the paintings ‘transgressing’ this or that convention and ‘subverting’ ‘gender stereotypes’.

But they are also the image of someone in tremendous pain. Knowing this, getting the really deep feel for her physical suffering which the ‘Endurance’ room gives you – lends tremendous depth of character and meaning to the detached, slightly dream-like expression you encounter again and again in her paintings.

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944)

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944)

2. The construction of the self

The other insight is easy to miss. Off to one side is a set of three black and white photos taken of Frida topless. They were taken by Julien Levy, the owner of the New York art gallery where she had her first solo show in 1939 and with whom she had an affair.

The insight comes in the text underneath, where Levy is quoted describing Frida doing and undoing her braids. First she undid the braids, carefully removing all the objects which were in them and held them in place, arranging them all carefully and in order on the dressing table. Later, she remade the braids, carefully and meticulously taking the ribbons and clips and other elements from their place on the dressing table, and putting them back in just the right places to create just the right effect.

In the context of the ‘Endurance’ room, next to so much physical pain and discomfort and demoralising bad luck – this ritual takes on a whole new significance.

You realise it was a way of controlling and ordering her life, a life of illness and pain which might so easily slip into indiscipline, depression or addiction. Instead she maintained control by paying minute attention to every element of her self-presentation. There are several cases showing the lipstick, and makeup, and nail polishes and eye liner and other accoutrements she used to create her image. To make herself up. To control, create and bolster herself.

Might sound stupid, but this knowledge makes the dazzling inventiveness of her self-creation seem genuinely heroic.

3. Long dresses

That’s why she liked to wear long dresses – because they hid her polio limp. This explains why all twenty dresses in the dress room are full length, reaching right down to and covering the feet. It’s a very Victorian effect, in some of the photos every inch of her body is covered save for her hands and face. But a Victorian outfit on acid, blitzed with brilliantly coloured fabrics and designs.

Conclusion

If you like Frida Kahlo this exhibition is a dream come true. There was a long queue to get in and the rooms were quickly packed out.

That said, there is remarkably little about her art, as art. A few mentions of the influence of Rivera’s socialist murals, a bit about Mexican symbolism, mention that the Godfather of Surrealism, André Breton, heavily promoted her, writing at length about the more surreal and dreamlike of her fantasy paintings (none of which are on display here).

But all in all, surprisingly little commentary or analysis of the paintings as paintings, except for comments about the dresses she’s wearing in them, the hair, the jewellery, the way she presents herself in them.

Self Portrait with Braid ( 1941) by Frida Kahlo

Self Portrait with Braid ( 1941) by Frida Kahlo

A moment’s googling shows that Frida Kahlo painted hundreds of paintings. Only ten are on show here. This exhibition is much more about the creation of her image, all the exhibits inhabit concentric circles spreading out from that premise.

I found it hard to get very worked up about 70 or 80 year-old makeup sets (in the outer circle). Her dresses and fabrics are colourful and interesting but, at the end of the day, not really my thing – though I could see plenty of women visitors being riveted by their designs and fabrics. Kahlo’s mural-style, political or symbolic art is sort-of interesting – although murals aren’t a format I warm to – and I found them less compelling than comparable murals by Stanley Spencer or Thomas Hart Benton.

No, it’s only when I came to her paintings of herself that I felt a real power and forcefulness in the image, the way they bring out her stern, unsmiling expression.

But even more central than her self portraits, and – in my opinion – at the absolute heart of the exhibition are the contemporary photos of Frida. It is the photos which bring together all the elements mentioned above, her great taste for colourful fabrics, bright designs, adventurous headgear, stunning jewelry and vivid lipstick to match, her deep sense of Mexican folk art and culture – all this funneled, channeled and focused in a series of stunning and powerful photos.

Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine (1939) by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine (1939) by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Nickolas Muray

Thus it was often the photos which impressed me most in any given room. And looking closely, it quickly became clear that the photos we know, the ones we’re familiar with, and by far the best ones, were taken by Nickolas Muray.

There is almost no information about Muray in the exhibition, which is a shame because his images are iconic. According to Wikipedia, Muray had a ten-year-long affair with Frida, from 1931 to 1941. (During this period she divorced, then remarried Rivera. And sometime in there, she also managed to have the affair with Levy, which led to the nude photos. Those bohemian artists, eh?)

The only flicker of recognition of Muray’s role in helping to crystallise the Kahlo brand is a wall label next to one of the portraits. Here Muray is quoted as saying

colour calls for new ways of looking at things, at people

This struck me as pointing towards something very profound. Most of Kahlo’s paintings are striking in composition (and for their generally ‘naive’ style) but are surprisingly drab, especially the earlier, political ones. the later paintings are marvellously colourful and inventive. But in a way it is these photos alone which do justice to the tremendous colourfulness of her self-presentation.

According to Wikipedia, Muray was:

famous for his creation of many of the conventions of color advertising. He was considered the master of the three-color carbro process. (Nikolas Muray Wikipedia article)

In other words, Muray wasn’t just quite a good colour photographer – he was one of the inventors of colour photography for the modern age.

This knowledge goes a long way to understanding why Muray’s photos of Kahlo stand out from the other contemporary photos of her, done at the same time, by other photographers. The coming together of Muray and Kahlo’s bodies in their long affair is trivial compared to the coming together of their shared understanding of colour and design – with phenomenal results.

The (admittedly black and white) photo of her by Florence Arquin makes her look like a person, an ordinary human being, squinting in the sun. But the three photos I’ve included by Muray give Kahlo a feeling of power, self-control, majesty, an almost goddess-like calm. In Muray’s hands Kahlo becomes an icon to be worshiped.

You can imagine these images of Frida Kahlo carrying on being iconic for a very long time. Iconic of what, exactly? Whatever you want: our current cultural obsessions are with gender, sexuality, race, identity and so on. But I think her image transcends any one set of ‘issues’ and lends itself to infinite reformulation. Which is one of the characteristics of great art.

The movie

A film of her life was released in 2002. According to the trailer, Frida was ‘one of the most seductive, and intriguing women, of ours or any time’, and it features numerous clips of her jumping into bed with men and women, with little of no mention of the physical disabilities and ailments.

The shopping

Kahlo was an ardent communist. Today she is marketed as a fashion icon, feminist saint, and, more to the point, the inspirer of a whole world of merchandise.

In the shop you can buy some 134 items of merchandise including at least 20 books about her, notebooks, greeting cards, pencils, lapel badges, earrings, necklaces, brooches, jewellery, sunglasses, scarves and shawls, t-shirts, handbags, tote bags ( I counted 20 different design of bag), a Mexican cookbook and ingredients, pillows and socks – yes, socks.

Here’s the full list of Kahlo merch:

The promotional video

Curators: Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrosa


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Ocean Liners: Speed and Style @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

This is one of the most spectacular and dramatically staged exhibitions I’ve ever been to.

Normandie in New York (1935-39) Collection French Lines

Normandie in New York (1935-39) Collection French Lines

The golden age of the ocean liner from the turn of the twentieth century to the Second World War coincides with the evolution of key decorative trends of the 20th century – Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Modernism. This exhibition takes a systematic approach to showcasing not only the decorative arts movements but a whole range of elements connected to the rise of the great ocean liners. To name a few:

  • national prestige – European nations competed to have the biggest, most luxurious ocean liners
  • technical competition to, for example, cross the Atlantic in the quickest time and win the Blue Riband
  • engineering – with a room devoted to black and white films of liners being built, models of steam turbines and other technical aspects
  • quite a number of very big models of classic liners, some with cutaway views so you can see into everything from cabins and dining rooms down into engine rooms and cargo holds

But where the exhibition really impresses is in the extraordinary thoroughness with which the entire environment has been conceived, and the scale of some of its key rooms.

For example, the first room has a wall with a big wall label introducing the history and art of ocean liners. It took me a while to realise that the wall itself is painted black with a red line along the bottom and slopes gently outwards like the hull of an actual liner. In front of it is a metal bollard of the kind the liner would tie mooring lines onto, and down at ground level was a concealed light projecting the shimmering as of water onto the lower part of the wall. It is the hull of a ship. Next to it is a wall of posters, and some monitors showing footage of people getting on to old liners – and then, to continue the exhibition, you walk through a doorway cut into this imaginary hull. It’s clever and stylish.

The wall of stylish Art Deco posters at Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition

The wall of stylish Art Deco posters at Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition

The next room wonderfully recreates the dark wood feel of a pre-Great War liner, heavy with wood panelling and Art Nouveau glass, both which featuring motifs derived from Versailles Palace of Louis XIV, the Sun King.

Installation view of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition

Installation view of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition

Another room examines smaller aspects of shipboard design as it developed from the 1920s through to the 1960s. This features a wonderful mural by English artist Edward Bawden (soon to be the subject of an exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery), as well as a monitor with footage showing how the stylish evening dress of the 20s and 30s declined into the relaxed casual wear of the 50s and 60s.

The Art Deco objects are thrilling and sleek – it is a style which never goes out of fashion – whereas the wall lamps and mounts from the 50s and 60s look tacky and dated.

The English Pub Mural for the SS Oronsay by Edward Bawden (1949-51)

The English Pub Mural for the SS Oronsay by Edward Bawden (1949-51)

On a similar scale is the room about Engineering and the War. The engineering element is conveyed by cutaway models of ships highlighting the enormous coal-powered turbines, by highly evocative black and white footage of shipbuilders working in the Clyde or Belfast shipyards.

But the attention to detail, to creating a total sensory and visual experience which I mentioned re the sloping hull-wall, comes out in the way the engineering ‘room’ has a deep thrumming sound in it, the sound engines actually beneath the ship’s decks – and by the way the floor changes from parquet to metal plate decking with chevron mouldings, giving just this room a more industrial feel. In one corner is an enormous model of a ship’s funnel painted black and red which also forms part of the wall of the next room. This room contains one of Stanley Spencer’s inspirational paintings of shipworkers on the Clyde.

Shipbuilding on the Clyde by Sir Stanley Spencer (early 1940s)

Shipbuilding on the Clyde by Sir Stanley Spencer (early 1940s)

It also contains a wall describing ocean liners in war, with a focus on the horrific sinking of the Lusitania by German U-boat on 7 May 1915 with the loss of 1,201 people. This section includes photos of the ship, a film recreation of the event, and the stirring patriotic poster which resulted.

'Enlist' by Fred Spear (1915)

Enlist by Fred Spear (1915)

This feel of a ‘sensaround experience’ – the opening room with its curving ship’s hull wall, the engine room with its humming engines – is reinforced by a wonderful Art Deco room adorned with strong vertical lights and displaying the enormous interior panel from the Smoking Room of the French liner, Normandie, created by leading Art Deco lacquer artist Jean Dunand. Photos show it in situ but none of them can convey the sheer scale of the thing itself.

Interior panel from the Smoking Room of the French liner, Normandie by Jean Dunand

Interior panel from the Smoking Room of the French liner, Normandie by Jean Dunand

But impressive though all these rooms are, they turn out to be mere foreplay for the stunning centrepiece of the show.

The V&A has converted a large room in the North Court into a kind of night-time fantasia of the gracious living to be found on the classic ocean liners. The high ceiling of this huge space has been covered in black felt and dotted with lights to recreate the sparkling stars to be seen at night-time far out in the light-free ocean. Reaching up into this night sky is a tower of huge video screens onto which are projected time lapse footage of a man in evening dress and a woman in an elegant gown stylishly descending imaginary stairs down to our (ground level).

Installation view of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Installation view of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum

This central column is surrounded on three sides with display cases showing all aspects of the luxury of life on a cruise: a whole load of evening gowns and dresses in beautiful Deco fashion, studded with pearls and jewels; earrings, necklaces, jewellery that would have been worn; and an entire wall dedicated to food with footage of the famous chef Auguste Escoffier preparing meals for his lucky passengers alongside luxury sets of plate, the cutlery and tea services you would have found in tip-top VIP accommodation.

But that isn’t all. You enter this enormous space by walking around a mock-up of a typical ocean liner swimming pool made of coloured glass, around which and in which are shop window mannekins wearing stylish swimsuits from the era. Behind them, and the length of one wall, is an enormous wide-screen projection of a liner sailing slowly across a panoramic view of a beautiful calm tropical sea.

Installation view of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Installation view of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Wow! Just wow! I’ve never seen something so ambitious and overwhelming as this one huge display. You go around looking at the tea services and dresses and so on, but keep returning to just gaze in awe up at the tower of stylish evening-wear models or across at the stately liner in the blue sea, and are continually gobsmacked at the size and ambition of the whole space.

There are panels about the importance of class distinctions on the liners, about the difference in conditions, food and facilities for first, second or third-class passengers. There is another room full of the art inspired by ocean liners, including paintings by the likes of Albert Gleizes and Charles Demuth and some great black and white photos by Le Corbusier and Eileen Gray.

There are objets de luxe to coo over, like a precious Cartier tiara recovered from the sinking Lusitania in 1915 or the Duke of Windsor’s sumptuous 1940s Goyard luggage. There’s a little corner devoted to the wonderful Marlene Dietrich, including footage of her posing onboard a liner and a case containing a Christian Dior suit worn by the lady herself.

The show also includes what the museum describes as one of the most important flapper dresses in the V&A’s collection – Jeanne Lanvin’s ‘Salambo’ dress – a version of which was displayed at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925. The dress belonged to Emilie Grigsby, a renowned wealthy American beauty, who regularly travelled between the UK and New York aboard the Aquitania, Olympic and Lusitania throughout the 1910s and 1920s.

The silk georgette and glass-beaded Salambo dress designed by Jeanne Lanvin of Paris (1925)

Silk georgette and glass-beaded Salambo dress designed by Jeanne Lanvin of Paris (1925)

And for anyone (like my Dad) who likes big scale models of ships, this exhibition is nirvana.

But after looking at display cases showing all these items or explaining all the industrial, technological and social history of the ocean liner, from Isambard Kingdom Brunel to the Queen Mary, you keep returning to the Big Room, and the sheer scale of its awesome display of swimming models, night gowns, the moving footage, all unfolding under the mocked-up night sky.

This really is an amazing and dazzling exhibition.

Installation view of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Installation view of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Curator: Ghislaine Wood


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Opera: Passion, Power and Politics @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

The V&A have spent £55 million on a vast new underground exhibition space, named the Exhibition Road Quarter because you enter it from Exhibition Road. It opened in July 2017.

The angled courtyard you walk across is no great shakes, but once inside you go down white steps between sheer, polished black walls to arrive at the huge new, open exhibition space, all 1,100 square metres of it (‘one of the largest exhibition spaces in Europe’), which is currently hosting a wonderfully enjoyable exhibition on the history of opera.

Installation view showing paintings, wall text, books and pamphlets and a large wall illustration relating to Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea

Installation view showing paintings, wall text, books and pamphlets and a large wall illustration relating to Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642)

Opera and me

In my 20s and 30s I developed a passion for opera and, in total, saw about 100 productions, at the Royal Opera House, the Colosseum, at other theatres around the country, at a few experimental venues, and twice at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

In my late 20s I was commissioned to write a libretto, an adaptation of the famous Oscar Wilde novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was set to music by the composer Ron McAllister and performed as part of the Huddersfield classical music festival.

So I have a reasonably good feel for opera, its history and possibilities.

Passion, Power and Politics

400 years of a Europe-wide art form is a big subject to tackle. The curators have taken the neat, practical step of focusing on seven epoch-making or representative works. The huge exhibition space is divided into temporary ‘rooms’ whose walls are plastered with information about the year and city of their premieres, investigating how each one crystallised the history, culture, technology, ideologies and, of course, the music of their times.

Before we get to the specific operas it’s necessary to say something about the layout & content of the show.

The audioguide

First and foremost, all visitors are given a free audioguide which plays wonderful soaring music from each of the featured operas.

As you walk between the ‘rooms’ or sections devoted to each opera, the audioguide automatically senses where you are and changes the music accordingly. It not only plays a popular aria or overture or passage from each opera but also snippets of behind-the-scenes moments from real productions, with orchestras tuning up, the floor manager counting down to curtain up and so on, all of which gives the listener a real sense of being at the theatre.

I think it’s the best use of an audioguide I’ve ever experienced. Not many exhibitions have given me as much pure pleasure as listening to music from Handel’s Rinaldo while looking at paintings showing the London of Handel’s day, or listening to the Venusberg music from Wagner’s Tannhäuser while watching a video installation showing how different directors have staged ‘erotic’ ballets to accompany this deeply sensual music.

Objects, dresses and accessories

Secondly, each section is stuffed with wonderful, rare, precious and evocative objects from each era. Period musical instruments include viols, lutes and cornets from Monteverdi’s time (the 1600s), the very piano Mozart performed on in Prague and a beautifully made pedal harp from the court of Marie Antoinette (both from the 1780s). The Venice section features 400-year-old combs and mirrors used by the city’s courtesans during the annual carnival, and so on.

Each section also features paintings which portray the city or the opera house, the composer, or actual performances. Some of these are really top quality, making it an interesting exhibition of painting in its own right, with works by artists from the late Baroque, some Impressionists (Degas), some of Die Brücke group of German Expressionists and, in the final room, a suite of dynamic Agitprop posters and designs from the early experimental era of the Soviet Union.

The Viola da Gamba Musician by Bernardo Strozzi (1630-40) from the Gemaldegalerie, Dresden, Germany © 2017 Photo Scala, Florence bpk.

The Viola da Gamba Musician by Bernardo Strozzi (1630-40) The Gemaldegalerie, Dresden, Germany © 2017 Photo Scala, Florence

As you might expect from the V&A, there are also sumptuous costumes from each of the key periods, with a luxury hand-sewn coat, waistcoat and breeches from Mozart’s day, a beautiful white dress to be worn by he character of Violetta in La Traviata.

Right at the start there is a risqué courtesan outfit from Venice, made of thick red velvet in the shape of a leotard i.e. only just covering the loins. This was designed to be worn under a long red skirt, split in the middle which could be teasingly parted to reveal… the 18-inch-high chopines or stylised shoes which the city’s better class courtesans wore. Almost impossible to walk in, the wearer had to lean heavily on a consort or male escort. There are tiaras and top hats from the premier of Tannhauser in Paris in 1861.

If you like historic costumes, there are plenty hear to savour and enjoy.

Rooms like sets

Because this huge exhibition space has no formal ‘rooms’, the designers have been free to create room-shaped ‘spaces’ for each period, and to design as they wish, with the result that the spaces sometimes incorporate large elements which help make the spaces themselves seem like stage sets.

The most obvious example is the Handel section, where they have recreated a scale version of the actual stage set of the first production of Handel’s Rinaldo. Visitors are invited to sit on a bench in front of it, listening to the glorious music, and watch the stage magic of the early 18th century – namely the way several tiers of wooden waves are made to move across the stage, while a small model ship bobs among them, representing the journey of the hero to exotic foreign lands.

Installation view showing the mocked-up 18th century theatre set for Handel's Rinaldo (1711)

Installation view showing the mocked-up 18th century theatre set for Handel’s Rinaldo (1711)

This is the most splendid example, but later ‘rooms’ feature an Italian flag, bust and props from Verdi’s time, and an enormous red hammer and sickle dominating the Soviet section.

Referring specifically to the operas and their productions, the show includes original autograph scores, along with stage directions, libretti, set models and costume designs for each of them.

Altogether there are over 300 objects to savour, marvel at, learn about, ponder and enjoy, all the time your head filled with some of the greatest music ever written.

Among these is a new recording of the Royal Opera Chorus singing ‘Va pensiero’ (the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) from Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco recorded specially for the exhibition. Just – wow!

The operas

1. Venice L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642) by Claudio Monteverdi. Venice was a Renaissance centre of trade and commerce, famous for its glassware and the colourfulness of its textiles and paintings. Unsurprisingly, it was also a centre for entertainment, gambling and disguise, especially at the time of the annual carnival. The earliest operas were staged in the private houses of the very rich.

Monteverdi mostly wrote church music but he composed a few of the very first ‘operas’, basing them on classical stories. L’incoronazione di Poppea is about the notorious Roman Emperor Nero, his wife and mistress. Poppea premiered in Venice’s Carnival season of 1642-3 and represents opera’s transition from private court entertainment to the public realm.

2. London Rinaldo by George Frideric Handel was premiered in London in 1711, one of the first Italian language operas performed in London, just as Britain was emerging as one of the leading empires in Europe.

It is fascinating to read contemporary criticism by conservatives like the artist William Hogarth and the editors of the Spectator magazine, who heartily condemned this importation of a decadent and foreign art form into good old Blighty.

The paintings of early 18th century London on show here are almost as fascinating as the spectacular stage set, and the Handel music emerged as, I think, my favourite of all that on the audioguide – stately, elegant, refined, other-worldly in its elegance.

George Frideric Handel by Louis Francois Roubiliac (1702-62) © Fitzwilliam Museum Bridgeman Images

George Frideric Handel by Louis Francois Roubiliac (1702-62) © Fitzwilliam Museum Bridgeman Images

3. Vienna Le nozze di Figaro (1786) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was premiered in 1786 in Vienna, which had become one of the centres of the European Enlightenment under its liberal Emperor Joseph II.

After the Handel, the Mozart music seemed infinitely more dramatic, concerning itself with recognisably real people and passions: Le nozze di Figaro being a comic story about mismatched love between the classes.

The excerpt on the audioguide synchs up with a scene projected onto an enormous screen on the wall, an aria sung by the pageboy Cherubino who is just coming into adolescence and finds himself flushing and confused among attractive adult women.

On display are a piano Mozart played in Prague, fashionable dresses that would have been worn by the opera’s aristocratic characters, and displays explaining the relationship between the opera’s source – a play by the French playwright Beaumarchais – and the contemporary beliefs of Enlightenment Europe.

4. Milan Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi was premiered in Milan in 1842. Verdi’s operas developed the importance of the chorus, which is often given his most rousing tunes. Verdi was closely identified with the Risorgimento, the political movement to kick out the foreign powers which occupied various parts of Italy (notably Austria) and create a united country.

Hence the big Italian flag draped over this section, the patriotic bust of Verdi, and the choice of the ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ (‘Va pensiero’) from Nabucco, which became a sort of unofficial national anthem for Italian nationalists.

5. Paris Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner premiered in Paris in 1861. Paris was fast becoming the intellectual and artistic capital of Europe.

Modernists loved the opera with its radical technical innovations: Wagner hated Italian opera which broke the music up into set-piece arias and choruses – by contrast, in a Wagner opera the music flows seamlessly from start to finish in one great engulfing flow. It also shocked because of its daring subject matter, a story about the temptations of sensuality to the high-minded musician of the title. The progressive poet Charles Baudelaire praised it profusely.

The information panels tell us that it was traditional for French composers to arrange a short ballet to start the second or third act. This was because the more aristocratic patrons generally didn’t arrive till after the interval, and mostly came to see pretty girls dancing (many of whom were their mistresses). In a deliberate act of defiance Wagner placed the ballet number right at the start of act one.

6. Dresden The Biblical story of Salome, the sensual step-daughter of King Herod, who dances a strip-tease for him in order to get him to behead St John the Baptist, was a central obsession of the Symbolist movement in all the arts at the end of the 19th century, combining heavy sensuality, perversion, death and the exotic.

Oscar Wilde wrote a play about Salome (in French) for which the wonderful fin-de-siecle artist Aubrey Beardsley created his matchlessly sinuous line illustrations.

Illustration for Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

Illustration for Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

In 1905 Dresden saw the premiere of a heavily sensual and violent opera based on Wilde’s play composed by Richard Strauss. It was the era of Expressionism in the arts, and the exhibition features not only a selection of Beardsley’s illustrations (and Strauss’s copy of Wilde’s play, with Strauss’s own hand-written notes and underlinings) but also a selection of powerful woodcuts and paintings by artists from the German art movement, Die Brücke).

There are two large posters on the same subject by Parisian poster designers, including La Loïe Fuller Dans Sa Création Nouvelle, Salomé by Georges de Feure.

Dominating this ‘room’ is a huge screen displaying an excerpt from a modern production of the opera, showing the climax of the action where Salome, in a slip covered in blood, sings an aria to John the Baptist’s severed head, before gruesomely kissing it.

Nadja Michael as Salome at the Royal Opera House, London, 2008 © Robbie Jack Corbis/Getty Images

Nadja Michael as Salome at the Royal Opera House, London, 2008 © Robbie Jack Corbis/Getty Images

7. St Petersburg The blood-soaked theme is continued in the final choice, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk  by Dmitri Shostakovich, which premiered in Leningrad in 1934.

This final section is dominated by a huge model of a red hammer and sickle. Next to it is a blow-up of a woman’s face from a Soviet agitprop poster (the full poster can be seen at the excellent exhibition of Soviet art and posters currently at Tate Modern).

To one side is a mock-up of Shostakovich’s study with writing table and chair. Behind it is projected a clip from a Soviet publicity film showing the great man knocking out a composition at the piano. The walls are decked with fabulously stylish Soviet posters and art works.

Installation view of the Shostakovitch section of Opera - Passion, Power and Politics

Installation view of the Shostakovich section of Opera – Passion, Power and Politics

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is based on a 19th century novel about a woman who is unfaithful to her husband, has an affair with one of his farm workers, poisons her father-in-law, and much more in the same vein.

Unfortunately, the opera premiered just as Stalin consolidated his grip on the Soviet Union and his cultural commissar Zhdanov promulgated the new doctrine of Socialist realism, i.e. that all art works should be optimistic, readily understandable to the proletariat, and show the new Soviet society in an upbeat, positive way.

Very obviously Shostakovich’s opera did the exact opposite and in 1936 was savagely criticised in a threatening article in Pravda which most contemporaries thought had been written by Stalin himself. The production was hurriedly cancelled and Shostakovich not only suppressed it but also cancelled preparations for his huge dissonant Fourth Symphony. He quickly turned to writing more ‘inspiring’ music – specifically the moving Fifth Symphony which was ostentatiously sub-titled ‘a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism’. The opera wasn’t performed again in the USSR until 1961.

In other words, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk not only represents a nexus of violence, lust, revenge and class conflict in its plotline, but stands at a key cultural moment in the development of the twentieth century’s most important event, the Russian Revolution and the Great Communist Experiment. The threat to Shostakovich was in effect a threat to an entire generation of artists and composers.

Opera around the world

Only here at the end do you realise that the exhibition rooms are arranged in a circle around a big empty central area. This big space contains half a dozen huge screens onto which are projected excerpts from 20th century and contemporary operas such as Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht and George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, all making the point that opera is as alive and kicking as ever.

Summary

This is an enormous, ground-breaking, genuinely innovative exhibition which manages to convincingly cover its enormous subject, shedding light not only on opera and music, but the other arts and the broader history of Europe across an immense sweep of time.

So big, so many beautiful objects, so much inspiring music, that it probably merits being visited more than once to really soak up all the stories, all the passion and all the beauty on display (I’ve been twice and might go again before it closes).


Related links

Other V&A blog posts

Unreasonable Behaviour by Don McCullin (2015)

‘I needed to be at home. I needed the peace of my own country, England. Yet when I go home and sleep in my own bed, I soon become restless. I am not shaped for a house. I grew up in harsh surroundings. I have slept under tables in battles for days on end. There is something about this that unfits you for sleeping in beds for the rest of your life. My wars, the way I’ve lived, is like an uncurable disease. It is like the promise of a tremendous high and the certainty of a bad dream. It is something I both fear and love, but it’s something I can’t do without.’ (p.226)

Don McCullin is one of the most famous war photographers of the 20th century. He first published his autobiography (co-written with Lewis Chester) in 1990. This is the new, updated edition, published in 2015, as McCullin turned 80.

Having just read Dispatches, the stoned, stream-of-consciousness prose poetry of Michael Herr’s classic account of his time covering Vietnam War, the detached, lucid prose of this book initially seemed a bit flat. But it perfectly suits the laconic, understated attitude McCullin brings to the varied and intense subject matter – whether it’s massacres in Africa or meeting the Beatles or the unlikely friendship he once struck up with Earl Montgomery.

Trips to war zones are covered in a few pages, insights dealt with in one or two pithy sentences. The battle of Khe Sanh in Vietnam takes up 60 pages of Herr’s book but gets just two paragraphs here – but it feels enough. There’s little fat, very little to come between you and the many highlights of McCullin’s extraordinarily long and colourful life. Which makes this a hugely enjoyable and absorbing book.

(By his own account McCullin suffers from severe dyslexia – as a result he didn’t passed any exams, has never liked reading and so, presumably, a great deal of credit for shaping this consistently spare, flat but very focused prose must go to the book’s co-author, Lewis Chester.)

Here’s an example, almost at random, of the book’s clipped, spare prose which is, nonetheless, gripping because it focuses so precisely on the relevant information and detail of the extreme events it describes. It’s January 1968 and McCullin is in Vietnam covering the Tet Offensive.

Under a heavy overcast sky, I joined the convoy of the Fifth Marine Commando as it started rolling up to Hue. It ploughed through heavy mud and rain, past houses collapsed and pitted by artillery, and columns of fleeing refugees. It was very cold. (p.116)

The narrative moves fast from one carefully selected high point to the next, focusing in on moments of insight and awareness. Cameos of war. Snapshots in time. Photos in prose.

Beginnings

Born into a working class household in Finsbury Park, North London, McCullin left school at 15 without any qualifications before doing his National Service, which included postings to: Suez, Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising, and Cyprus during the Enosis conflict. It was, as he puts it, ‘an extended Cook’s tour of the end of Empire.’ (p.45) His dad was ill, his mother struggled to manage three small kids, they lived in real squalor and poverty, and he grew up with a rough bunch of post-war lads, lots of fights outside north London dancehalls in the Teddy Boy 1950s.

But, as he explains, it was photographs of the local gang – the Guv’nors – at the time a local murder had hit the deadlines, that first got him noticed, that got him introduced to Fleet Street picture editors and – voom! – his career took off. Within a few pages he has begun to be given photo assignments, and then starts winning photography prizes, which bring better assignments, more pay, more freedom.

Wars

He makes it clear that he did plenty of other jobs – photo reportage at a nudists camp, countryside gigs, snapping the Beatles and so on – but it was the conflict zones which really attracted him.

  • Berlin 1961 as the Wall was going up – East German soldiers looking back, West Berlin, Germany, August 1961
  • Cyprus 1964 – photographs of a Turkish village where Greek terrorists had murdered inhabitants. He makes the interesting point that Mediterranean people want a public display of grief and so encouraged him to take photos.
  • Congo 1964 – a Boy’s Own account of how he smuggled himself into a team of mercenaries who flew into the chaos after the assassination of Patrick Lumumba, encountering CIA agents and then accompanying the mercenaries on a ‘mission’ to rescue 50 or so nuns and missionaries who had been kidnapped by brutal black militias, known as the Simbas, who raped and dismembered some of the nuns. He sees a lot of young black men being lined up alongside the river to be beaten, tortured and executed by the local warlord.
  • Vietnam 1965 – There was something specially glamorous about Vietnam and it attracted a huge number of correspondents and photographers: he namechecks Larry Burrows and Sean Flynn, the latter a big presence in Michael Herr’s classic account Dispatches, both of whom were eventually reported missing presumed dead. Vietnam was ‘black humour and farce’ and ‘waste on a mega scale’ (p.95)
  • Bihar, India during the famine of 1965 – he contrasts the monstrous amount of food and all other resources being wasted by the Yanks in Vietnam, with the absolute poverty and starvation in India.
  • Israel in the Six Day War – where he accompanied the first platoon into Arab Jerusalem, soldiers being potted by snipers to the right and left, before the city was captured and he snapped singing soldiers kissing the Wailing Wall.
  • Vietnam – the Battle for Hue, 1968. He was there for eleven days and it comes over as one of the most intense experiences from a life full of intense experiences. He is appalled at the waste. Hue, produced two of his most famous images –
  • Biafra – McCullin went back three years in a row and was initially supportive of the Biafrans, who had seceded from Nigeria because they were scared of their increasing bad treatment by the Nigerian state. But the Nigerian government (secretly supported by the British government) fought to defeat the Biafran army and reincorporate the province into the country. (It’s interesting to compare McCullin’s account with the long chapter about the same war in Frederick Forsyth’s autobiography, The Outsider.)
  • Cambodia 1970, where McCullin was wounded by mortar shrapnel from the Khmer Rouge.
  • Jordan 1970 where fighting broke out in the capital Amman between Jordanian troops and Palestinians.
  • With legendary travel writer Norman Lewis in Brazil, McCullin absorbed Lewis’s dislike of American Christian missionaries who appeared to use highly coercive tactics to round up native tribes and force them into their re-education compounds.
  • East Pakistan 1971 for the immense suffering caused by the breakaway of East Pakistan, eventually to be reborn as Bangladesh.
  • Belfast 1971 where he is blinded by CS gas and finds it uncomfortable being caught between the three sides, Catholic, Protestant and Army, and how he missed Bloody Sunday (30 January 1972).
  • Uganda – where he is imprisoned along with other journos in Idi Amin’s notorious Makindye prison and really thinks, for a bad few hours, that he’s going to be tortured and executed.
  • Vietnam summer 1972 – By this time, with its government negotiating for American withdrawal, the wider public had lost a lot of interest in the war. The number of Americans in country had hugely decreased since 1968, and the peace negotiations were well under way and yet – McCullin discovered that he fighting was more intense and destructive than ever.
  • Cambodia summer 1972 – fear of falling into the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
  • Israel 1973 the Yom Kippur War in which Sunday Times reporter and friend Nick Tomalin is killed.
  • The new editor of the Sunday Times magazine, Hunter Davies, is more interested in domestic stories. Among 18 months of domestic features, Don does one on Hadrian’s Wall. And a piece about racist hoodlums in Marseilles with Bruce Chatwin.
  • He hooks up again with the older travel writer Norman Lewis, who is a kind of father figure to him, to report on the plight of native tribes in South America being rounded and up and forcibly converted by American missionaries.
  • Spring 1975 – back to Cambodia for the final weeks before the Khmer Rouge take Phnom Penh. It is in transit in Saigon that McCullin learns his name is on a government blacklist and he is prevented from entering Vietnam and locked up by police in the airport until he can blag a seat on the flight organised by Daily Mail editor David English taking Vietnamese war orphans to England.
  • Beirut 1975 – McCullin had visited Beirut in the 1960s when it was a safe playground for the international rich, but in 1975 long-simmering resentments burst into a complex, violent and bitter civil war. At great risk McCullin photographs a massacre carried out by the right-wing Christian Falange militia.
  • 1975 – among the Palestinian Liberation organisation, McCullin meets Yasser Arafat and other leaders, and gives his take on the Arab-Israeli struggle, bringing out the terrorist tactics of the Jewish side – the well-known Irgun and Stern gang – and Jewish massacres of Palestinians back in the founding year of 1948.
  • 1977 – West Germany, to report on old Nazis, Hitler’s bodyguard, unrepentant SS killers.
  • Iran autumn 1978 to cover a huge earthquake.
  • Iran 1979 after the Islamic Revolution.
  • Spring 1980 with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan.
  • Spring 1982 – El Salvador. Covering a firefight in a remote town between soldiers and left-wing guerrillas he falls off a roof, breaking his arm in five places. He makes it to a hospital, is looked after by colleagues and flown back to England, but the long-term injury interferes with his ability to hold a camera. Worse, it crystallises the strains in his marriage. In a few dispassionate pages he describes leaving his wife of twenty years and children, and moving in with the new love of his life, Laraine Ashton, founder of the model agency IMG.
  • 1982 the Lebanon – to cover the Israeli invasion.
  • 1983 Equatorial Guinea ‘the nastiest place on earth’.
  • 1980s A lengthy trip to see Indonesia’s most primitive tribes, in places like Irian Jiwa and the Mentawai Islands, with photographer Mark Shand (who wrote it up in a book titled Skulduggery).

Personal life

At this point in the early 1980s a lot of things went wrong for McCullin. His marriage broke down. His injuries took nearly two years to properly heal. The British authorities prevented him going with the Task Force to the Falklands War, which could have been the climax of his war career and obviously still rankles 35 years later.

And then Andrew Neil, the new editor of the Sunday Times, itself recently bought by the brash media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, turned its back on the gritty reportage of the 1960s and 70s to concentrate more on style and celebrity. As a friend summed it up to McCullin – ‘No more starving Third World babies; more successful businessmen around their weekend barbecues.’ (p.275) The book describes the meeting with Neil in which he was manoeuvred into resigning.

He was still not recovered from his injuries and now he had no job and no future.

And then came the bombshell that his first wife, the woman he left for Laraine, was dying of a brain tumour. Like everything else, this is described pithily and swiftly, but there’s no mistaking the pain it caused. The year or more it took his first wife to die of a brain tumour was traumatic and the emotional reaction and the tortured guilt he felt at having abandoned her, put a tremendous strain on his new relationship with Laraine. In the end he broke up with Laraine: she returned to her London base.

Thus, distraught at the death of Christine, McCullin found himself alone in the big house in Somerset which he’d been doing up with Laraine, with no regular job and isolated from his journo buddies. It’s out of this intense period of unhappiness and introspection that come his numerous bleak and beautiful photographs of the Somerset countryside. These were eventually gathered into a book and John Fowles, in the introduction, notes how ominously they reflect the scars of war. Maybe, McCullin muses but – now he has shared this autobiographical background – we readers are now able to see all kinds of emotions in them. Certainly he preferred winter when the trees are skeletons and the ruts and lanes are full of icy water – all under threatening black clouds.

As he turned fifty McCullin’s life concentrated more and more on mooching about in the countryside. He takes up with a model, Loretta Scott and describes their mild adventures for precisely one page (p.298). Then has a fling with Marilyn Bridges, a Bunny Girl turned impressive nature photographer. McCullin is awarded the CBE in 1993. He married Marilyn and they travel to Botswana, Bali, India and Cambodia but could never agree whether to base themselves in Somerset or in her home town of New York. There were fierce arguments and a lot of plate smashing. By 2000 he was divorced and single again.

India is his favourite country to photograph. He assembled his shots of it into a book titled India.

He had been supporting himself since he was kicked off the Sunday Times with jobs from other newspapers but mainly by doing adverts, commercial work. Lucrative but soulless. On the one hand he prided himself on being a completely reformed war junkie, on the other his soul secretly, deep down, hankered for conflict and disaster.

  • 2001 So it was a boon when he was invited to travel to Zambia, Botswana and South Africa to chronicle the devastating blight of AIDS on already impoverished people.
  • 2003 back to the same countries to check progress.
  • 2004 Ethiopia with his new wife, Catherine Fairweather (married 7 December 2002).

The Africa trips resulted in another book, Don McCullin in Africa. He tells us that in total he has authored 26 books of photography – quite an output.

  • In 2003 his old friend Charles Glass invited McCullin to accompany him back to Iraq, via their familiar contacts among the Kurds. In fact they accompany the party of Ahmad Chalabi, the smooth-talking exile who had persuaded the Americans that Saddam was running programmes to make Weapons of Mass Destruction. But both journalist and photographer are kept completely isolated among the Chalabi entourage, flown to an isolated airport miles away from any action. McCullin reflects sadly that the American military had learned the lessons of Vietnam and now kept the Press completely under control and authorised. No room for cowboys winging it and roaming the battlefields at will as per Tim Page or Michael Herr in their heyday.

Another book, In England, brought together work from assignments around the country between 1958 and 2007, generally reflecting McCullin’s sympathy with the underdog, the poor, the derelict, and he is happy that it – along with the books on Africa, India and the Somerset landscape, have come to outsell the war books. He wants to be remembered as a photographer not a ‘war photographer’. In fact the final pages describe the assignment which gave him more pleasure than anything in his life, a three-year-labour of love to visit ancient Roman sites around the Mediterranean, titled Southern Frontiers: A Journey Across The Roman Empire.

He has a stroke, from which he recovers with the help of a quadruple heart bypass – but then – aged 77 – he is persuaded to go off for one last war adventure, travelling with his friend Richard Beeston, Foreign Editor for The Times, and under the guidance of Anthony Lloyd, the paper’s Chief Foreign Correspondent,  to Aleppo, in Syria, to cover the collapse of the so-called Arab Spring into a very unpleasant civil war, to experience for one last time ‘that amazing sustained burst of adrenalin at the beginning, followed later by the tremendous whoosh of relief that comes with the completion of any dangerous undertaking’ (p.334).


Photography

Equipment is fun to play with but it’s the eye that counts. (p.340)

There’s some mention of his early cameras at the start, and a vivid description of the difficulties of getting a light reading, let alone changing film, under fire in Vietnam – but on the whole very little about the art of framing and composing a photo. The book is much more about people, stories and anecdotes. And considering the photos are the rationale for his fame and achievement, there are comparatively few examples in the book – I counted 47. And they’re printed on the same matt paper as the text i.e. not gloss reproductions on special paper.

All suggesting it’s probably best to buy the photos separately in large format, coffee-table editions.

Learnings

War is exciting and glamorous. Compelling. McCullin candidly states that many people found the Vietnam war ‘addictive’ (p.92), echoing the fairly obvious analyses of Michael Herr and Tim Page.

And he briefly remarks the need to find out whether he ‘measures up’ – like so many men, he obviously sees it as a test of his manhood: how will he react when the shooting starts? Although he reports himself as feeling panic and fear quite regularly, the evidence suggests that he was phenomenally brave to go the places he went, and to stay there through tremendous danger.

The point or purpose

The psychological cost of being a war photographer But the clear-eyed and clipped accounts of each conflict refer fairly often to the psychological cost of seeing so much trauma so close up. He reflects on the damage it must do but, that said, the text doesn’t really reflect any lasting damage. From his appallingly deprived childhood onwards, there’s always been the understated implication of his strength and bullishness. Quite regularly he refers to troubles with police, scuffles with passport officers, answering back to armed militias, standing up to bullies and generally not backing away from a fight. He’s tough and doesn’t really open up about his feelings. He is most overt about being upset to the point of despair, not about anything he witnessed but about the cruel death of his first wife to cancer, which leaves him utterly bereft for a long period.

The morality of war photography Apart from the personal cost, though, there’s also the nagging doubt that he is profiting, quite literally, from other people’s unspeakable suffering and pain. Is he a parasite, exploiting their misery? He and other war photographers justified their activities as bringing the ‘reality’ of war to the attention of a) a complacent public ignorantly preparing to tuck into their Sunday lunch b) those in authority who had the power to change it, to end it, to stop the killing.

In this vein he writes of the famine victims in Bihar:

No heroics are possible when you are photographing people who are starving. All I could do was to try and give the people caught up in this terrible disaster as much dignity as possible. There is a problem inside yourself, a sense of your own powerlessness, but it doesn’t do to let it take hold, when your job is to stir the conscience of others who can help. (p.95)

And he also gets very fired up about the plight of AIDS victims in Africa.

But well before the end of the book, he also expresses doubts whether any photo he took made any difference to any of the conflicts he covered. Re. the AIDS in Africa work, he comments:

I had a notion that this was an area in which my photographs might have a positively beneficial effect, by raising consciousness and awareness. This was not something that could be said about my war pictures, which demonstrably had not impaired the popularity of warfare. (p.304)

The latter clause reminding me of the poet W.H. Auden, who wrote a lot of socially conscious poetry throughout the 1930s, but ended up in the 1950s candidly admitting that, as he put it, no poem or play or essay he wrote ever saved a single Jew. There are limits to what even the most powerful art can achieve.

When he went to Africa in the early 2000s to chronicle the impact of AIDS McCullin really wanted these horrific pictures to have an impact, ‘to be an assault on people’s consciences’ (p.308). But I’ve been seeing photos and reports of starving Africans all my adult life. I’m afraid that, in a roundabout way, McCullin, by contributing to the tidal wave of imagery we are all now permanently surrounded with, may have contributed to creating precisely the indifference and apathy he claims to be trying to puncture.

Is war photography art? McCullin was given a retrospective exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the 1980s (he has subsequently had numerous exhibitions, at Tate, the Imperial War Museum, all the top galleries). He describes his pride at the time in being chosen by the V&A, and it is an accolade indeed – but does rather confirm the sense that, precisely insofar as the photos are changed and transmuted into ‘works of art’, hung on walls and discussed by slick connoisseurs, so they lose their power to upset and disturb, the purpose he ostensibly created them for, and enter the strangely frozen world of art discourse.

I had drafted this thought before I came upon McCullin’s own reflection on photography-as-art on the penultimate page of this long and fascinating book.

One of the things that does disturb me is that some documentary photography is now being presented as art. Although I am hugely honoured to have been one of the first photographers to have their work bought and exhibited by the Tate Gallery, I feel ambiguous about my photographs being treated as art. I really can’t talk of the people in my war photographs as art. They are real. They are not arranging themselves for the purposes of display. They are people whose suffering I have inhaled and that I’ve felt bound to record. But it’s the record of the witness that’s important, not the artistic impression. I have been greatly influenced by art, it’s true, but I don’t see this kind of photograph itself as being art. (p.341)

From the horse’s mouth, a definitive statement of the problem and his (very authoritative) opinion about it.

Photography in the age of digital cameras and the internet Then again, maybe the photographer doesn’t have any say over how his or her art is, ultimately, consumed and defined.

Superficially, yes, the first few McCullin photos you see are shocking, vivid and raw depictions of terror, grief and shock – but the cumulative effect of looking at hundreds of them is rather to dull the senses – exactly as thousands of newspaper, radio, TV and internet reports, photos and videos have worked to dull and numb all of us from the atrocity which is always taking place somewhere in the world (war in Syria, famine in Somalia). It’s hard not to end up putting aside the ’emotional’ content and evaluating them purely in formal terms of composition and lighting, colour and shade, the ‘drama’ or emotional content of the pose.

History If the photos didn’t really change the course of any of the wars he reported on, and nowadays are covered in the reassuring patina of ‘art’, to be savoured via expensive coffee table books and in classy art galleries – there is one claim which remains solid. His work will remain tremendously important as history.

Taken together, McCullin’s photographs amount to a documentary history of most of the significant conflicts of the last 40 years of the twentieth century. And this autobiography plays an important role in creating a continuous narrative and context to underpin them, providing short but very useful, focused background explanations to most of the conflicts which the photographs depict.

Early on in his story, McCullin remarks that his National Service was a kind of Cook’s Tour of the end of the British Empire. In a way the rest of his career has been a continuation of that initial itinerary, as he ended up visiting some 120 countries to record for posterity how peoples all around the world lived, fought and died during his and our troubled times.

‘I was, what I always hoped to be, an independent witness.’ (p.116)


Credit

Unreasonable Behaviour (revised edition) by Don McCullin was published by Jonathan Cape in 2015. All references and quotes are to the 2015 hardback edition.

Related links

Reviews of photography exhibitions

You Say You Want A Revolution @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

Surround sound

This is the only exhibition I’ve ever been to where the audioguide is compulsory and starts playing while you’re still in the corridor outside the show. Also you don’t have to stop in front of an exhibit and punch in the corresponding number on the device – instead you wander at will through the exhibition and the player senses where you are and automatically plays the relevant soundtrack.

That soundtrack consists of a non-stop montage of 1960s rock, speeches, TV broadcasts, film clips etc, so that you are hearing tracks by The Beatles, The Beach Boys, speeches by President Kennedy or Martin Luther King, Neil Armstrong jumping onto the moon or John Lennon at his bed-in at the Montreal Hotel, clips from movies about Swinging London or Antonioni’s classic 60s film Blow Up, and so on and so on.

Not having to stop and select a track but letting it all wash over you makes for a much more relaxed, surround-sound experience than at most exhibitions – in fact makes it much like walking around with your own headphones on playing a groovy 1960s playlist.

The content

There is absolutely nothing new or unexpected in the show, which amounts to a Greatest Hits of popular culture from the second half of the 1960s. If you had never heard of The Beatles or Beatlemania or their album Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, if you didn’t know that The Rolling Stones had a bad boy image and got arrested, if you didn’t know that Bob Dylan ditched his folk sound at the 1965 Newport Festival, if you didn’t know that London was declared ‘Swinging London’, that Twiggy became an emblem of the new waif-look, that mini skirts were popular – if you hadn’t heard of the Oz trial, of Black Power, or know that Germaine Greer wrote The Female Eunuch, that Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, that lots of people didn’t like the Vietnam War or Richard Nixon, if you hadn’t heard of hippies or Flower Power or of a big outdoor festival called ‘Woodstock’, then this exhibition will come as a surprise and an education to you.

If, on the other hand, you do know all this, have read umpteen books and watched numberless documentaries about the period, as well as having a passing familiarity with the music of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, The Who, Pink Floyd and so on – then it is a little difficult to figure out what this exhibition is meant to be telling you.

At various points it says that the show is trying to trace back to their origins a number of ‘issues’ which are still with us. Well, OK, Women’s Liberation/feminism is still with us, as are problems with race, especially in the USA, whose activists can trace their lineage back to Martin Luther King or the Black Panthers; and environmentalism is still with us, as an ongoing concern for the natural world.

In a more indefinable way ‘deference’ to authority in the form of the police, the courts and politicians was permanently weakened and we are generally as suspicious of authority figures as most hippies.

Again, the way people dress underwent a decisive move away from the formal suits and dresses which had dominated the West for a century or more, towards the casual jeans and T-shirts look which is now ubiquitous.

All of these issues are referenced and described a bit, but not in any great detail.

Art and design

So it’s all sort of interesting, and lots of fun to saunter around ogling the very chair that Christine Keeler sat on for that photoshoot or looking at the very outfit that John Lennon wore on the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band, along with alternative photos from that photo shoot and hand-written lyrics for The Fool on the Hill or Strawberry Fields Forever.

But a lot of this is just pop trivia. In the big room dominated by vast screens showing clips from the Woodstock festival and playing rock music very loud, there are cases displaying a Stratocaster guitar which Jimi Hendrix smashed up at a performance at some London club, along with the battered Les Paul guitar played by the rhythm guitarist in his scratch band at Woodstock. There are some notes scribbled by dazed festival goers and pinned to the noticeboard asking for the phone number of the pretty girl they chatted up by the burger stall. Really? In a major exhibition?

The Victorian and Albert Museum on its website says it is the world’s leading museum of art and design. A major aspect of this is fashion and clothes design so I totally accept that the mannekins displaying outfits worn by Twiggy, Jimi Hendrix, Mama Cass, John Lennon and so on fit into its remit.

But a display explaining the historical roots of the Vietnam War along with a random montage of newspaper cuttings about it, including for some reason a letter about his draft papers written by the student Bill Clinton? This is just social history, and very social history at that.

One of the most consistent threads of the show is the hundreds of LP covers pinned to the wall in almost every room, giving a tremendous sense of the outpouring of fantastic rock, pop, jazz, soul and other forms of music from the era. Apparently, they are all from the personal collection of legendary BBC Radio 1 disc jockey John Peel.

What I would have found fascinating and, arguably, more relevant to the V&A’s remit would have been an analysis of the evolution of the LP cover, giving lots of space to pioneering designs and designers, explaining the movements and trends in what amounts to a well-defined art form.

Similarly, there is some text around posters as a form of cheap, mass producible communication which weren’t adverts, newspapers or billboards – and therefore could be used by all kinds of groups from underground music clubs to radical communist or Black Power groups. In sections like this I felt the V&A was fulfilling its emit and I could have done with a more coherent explanation of the theory and practice, the origin, development and evolution of ‘the poster’ during this turbulent time.

Fun

But this is carping. No cliché is left untapped, no obvious reference point goes unmentioned, no iconic track goes unsampled, in this hugely enjoyable big warm bath of nostalgia for a period which most of us didn’t actually experience but which all of us, because of the power of its music, films and iconic imagery, feel like we know intimately.

Images

Just as the music is a collection of ‘Sounds of the 60s’, so are the images a familiar collection of great ‘shots of the 60s’, bringing together many of the most iconic, shocking and memorable images of the decade.

ARLINGTON, VA - OCTOBER 26 1967: Antiwar demonstrators tried flower power on MPs blocking the Pentagon Building in Arlington, VA on October 26, 1967. (Photo by Bernie Boston/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

ARLINGTON, Virginia, October 26 1967: Antiwar demonstrators tried flower power on MPs blocking the Pentagon Building in Arlington (Photo by Bernie Boston/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Woodstock.

15 Aug 1969 --- John Sebastian performs at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair in Bethel, New York (Max Yasgur's 600-acre farm) on Friday, August 15, 1969. --- Image by © Henry Diltz/Corbis

John Sebastian performs at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair in Bethel, New York (Max Yasgur’s 600-acre farm) on Friday, August 15, 1969. Image by © Henry Diltz/Corbis

Posters.

E.1704-1991 Poster UFO coming; Psychedelic poster entitled 'UFO coming' by Hapshash and the Coloured Coat (Michael English and Nigel Waymouth), published by Osiris Agency Ltd. London, 1967. Michael English (1941-2009); Nigel Weymouth Hapshash and the Coloured Coat; Osiris London 1967 Silkscreen

Psychedelic poster entitled ‘UFO coming’ by Hapshash and the Coloured Coat (Michael English and Nigel Waymouth), published by Osiris Agency Ltd. London, 1967. Silkscreen

Christine Keeler photoshoot.

Photos of Christine Keeler by Lewis Morley © Lewis Morley National Media Museum Science & Society Picture Library

Photos of Christine Keeler by Lewis Morley © Lewis Morley National Media Museum Science & Society Picture Library

Installations

Swinging London (note the phonr box and bus stop). the cat suit on the right was designed specially for Mick Jagger.

Swinging London installation. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Swinging London installation. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band display case.

Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band display case. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band display case. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Woodstock room with massive multiscreens dwarfing Keith Moon’s drum kits and a selection of costumes worn by performers on the raised platform. Note the display case at bottom left which contains the hand-written notes and messages by festival attendees.

The Woodstock room. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Woodstock room. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Related links


Reviews of other V&A shows

Every room in the Victoria and Albert Museum (part one)

Cousin Carlos was over from Spain and asked if we could have a go at visiting every room in the (vast) Victoria and Albert Museum. In one full day, from opening time at 10am to chucking out time at 5.30pm, we managed to visit the first 50 rooms, i.e the whole of the ground floor.

The highest-numbered room in the V&A, up on the sixth floor, is 146 – but it quickly becomes obvious that not all the rooms exist, or are accessible, and that entire sets of rooms seem to have gone missing. So maybe there are more like 120 accessible rooms.

The advantage of the ‘every room in XXX’ approach is it makes you visit parts of museums you’ve never visited before, didn’t even know existed, or usually walk past in a hurry to get to the latest exhibition.

Cosimo III de' Medici by Giovanni Battista Foggini (1718)

Cosimo III de’ Medici by Giovanni Battista Foggini (1718)

Rooms 1 to 7 Europe 1600 – 1815

These are next to the tunnel entrance and are relatively new. They show objects from Europe – mainly France – between 1600 and 1815. A gallery attendant was keen to show us the latest digital innovation, which is you can look up some of the objects on a smartphone app and listen to commentary about them.

But the most striking thing about these seven big rooms is the question – Why are they in reverse chronological order? Why don’t the rooms start in 1600 and proceed through to 1815, showing you the development of various styles of furniture, metalwork, silverware and cutlery etc?

Instead, you begin with busts of Napoleon and Josephine and some striking ‘First Empire’ furniture from 1805 or so, and then move slowly back in time through the neo-classicism of the late 18th century with elaborate clothes and enormous dinner services (1770), past attractive rococo paintings (1750) and on into the heavy, elaborate and melodramatic statuary, painting and metalwork of the Baroque (1600-1700).

Of the wealth of impressive objects on display I most liked the rococo paintings. I liked their delicacy and humour, especially so close to the heavy, grinding Baroque mirrors and furniture and the architect’s plans and paintings of the vast palaces designed to squash the viewer with their power and wealth.

The Alarm (La Gouvernante Fidèle) by Jean Francois de Troy (1679 - 1752)

The Alarm (La Gouvernante Fidèle) by Jean Francois de Troy (1679 – 1752)

The galleries include several spaces entirely recreating the inside of a rococo or Baroque room of the time. There’s also a fancy interactive video built around the characters of the commedia dell’arte, popular across Europe in the 18th century.

Towards the end was a space devoted to 17th century guns with an informative video showing how they were loaded and fired. Beautifully made with plenty of fancy scrollwork and decorative metal work, these are, nonetheless, instruments designed to blind, eviscerate and kill people. As I get older I find it harder to ‘enjoy’ the sight of such things.

Case of 17th century muskets

Case of 17th century muskets

Rooms 8 – 10 Medieval and Renaissance 300 – 1500

I’ve reviewed these rooms elsewhere.

Not enough late antique/Dark Age/early medieval stuff, for my taste. More Vikings, please! In line with the confusing room number policy, although the numbers indicate three rooms there are in fact six, numbers 8, 9, 10, 10a, 10b and 10c. I like the pagan motifs, the Dark Age animals, the hieratic postures of these pre-Conquest figures, and the strange forest animals and foliage woven into the capitals of the wooden columns on display.

11th century carved wooden columns and capitals

11th century carved wooden columns and capitals

I liked this 12th century Madonna and child because it is so modern. It looks like an Eric Gill.

12th century Madonna and child

12th century Madonna and child

I love the enormously solid but beautifully carved wellhead from 900. Although a Christian artefact it is decorated with classic ‘Celtic’ interwoven knots and is redolent of a strange dark time, full of pagan secrets and mysteries.

Carved stone wellhead from Murano, north Italy

Carved stone wellhead from Murano, north Italy (c.900)

Room 10c is dominated by an enormous work – the Devonshire Hunting Tapestry: Boar and Bear Hunt (1425-1430). The tapestry is impressive in itself but benefits enormously from a stylish touch-screen guide. This lets you select particular themes or parts of the image and then zooms in to give extra information about them, giving you time to really absorb the details and let the impression of this huge work really sink in.

On the whole, I prefer medieval art because I find it full of touching and humorous details, to Renaissance art which I find too austere and coldly perfect. Hence I liked the three wooden statues in this room, depicting a knight and squire and man at arms, quirkily thin and cartoon-like, missing bits of their arms and equipment.

Three standing English wooden figures (1450)

Three standing English wooden figures (around 1450)

Rooms 11 to 15

Missing, as far as I can tell.

Room 16a

A corner room between 27 and the café which contains one statue, probably by Tilman Riemenschneider of Wurzburg, Germany, made around 1510.

Carved limewood statue by Tilman Riemenschneider from Wurzburg, Germany (1510)

Carved limewood statue by Tilman Riemenschneider from Wurzburg, Germany (1510)

Along with the north European statuary in rooms 26 and 27, this makes me wonder if there is a distinctive northern Renaissance ‘look’ i.e. the faces seem longer and narrower, the figures slightly gaunter, than the smooth perfections of the Italy Renaissance. I find them more characterful, in their strange remote medieval way.

Rooms 17 to 19

Don’t appear to exist.

Rooms 20 to 24 The sculpture gallery

Room 20 appears to be closed off. You could be mistaken for not realising numbers 21 to 24 were rooms at all since they in fact constitute the long narrow corridor you cross when you step down from the shop and walk across a narrow space to get to the swing doors into the John Madejski garden in the centre of the museum.

Joshua Ward by Carlini, Agostino (1764)

Joshua Ward by Carlini, Agostino (1764)

The corridor is lined with, and has a long central row of, a great array of statues of all shapes and sizes. This is the first time I’ve ever stopped and read the wall panels here and so I realised for the first time that this is the V&A’s European statue collection. As I’ve sauntered through it towards the exhibition rooms, I never suspected that it was divided into categories – funerary statuary, portrait statuary, garden statuary. Nor that it is arranged chronologically.

In the usual V&A manner, the rooms are in reverse chronological order i.e. the oldest statues – Jacobean funeral images and wall monuments from churches – are in ‘room’ 24, while ‘room 21’ contains a surprising array of 20th century sculpture. So, as so often, if you start at the lowest number and go through them in order, you are travelling back in time.

I had no idea that the far left of the corridor, room 21, contained such brilliant highlights of 20th century Modernist sculpture.

Mankind by Eric Gill (1928)

Mankind by Eric Gill (1928)

By taking the time to stop and read the many wall panels, I learned that most of the statuary belongs to the neo-classical i.e. hyper-real style which dominated from 1700 to around the 1850s. Master of this style appears to be have been Antonio Canova, who was one of several European sculptors who immigrated here and made a living supplying tasteful classical statuary for the homes and gardens of members of the aristocracy who had learned about this sort of thing on their Grand Tours of the Continent.

The cut-off date of 1850 coincides with the rise of ‘Romantic’ sculpture, which for practical purposes is dominated by the French artist Auguste Rodin. Apparently, eighteen or so of his works were being shown in a London exhibition of modern art in the summer of 1914 just as the Great War broke out. As the British found themselves fighting the Hun alongside the French, Rodin made the magnanimous gesture of donating all the works to the British nation. And so here they are, the Rodin Bequest, on permanent display in room 21a.

Rooms 26 to 27

These form the corridor running between the exhibition shop with windows to the left onto the Garden, which you walk down to get to the café. They are statues, so sort of related to the earlier preceding rooms, but statues of the north European (German, Dutch) Renaissance, almost all figures of Christ, the Crucifixion, Mary, saints, from around 1500, so in fact more closely related to the medieval and Renaissance galleries. And mostly in wood, often cracked perished wood, compared with the impossibly smooth white marble of Canova’s 18th century creations.

Rooms 28, 29, 30, 31

Missing.

Rooms 32 and 33

These are the numbers of the corridor outside the main exhibition rooms. They have half a dozen huge mosaics commissioned by an early director of the museum from contemporary artists. The one that stood out for me was the figure of Pisano as created by Frederick Lord Leighton.

Rooms 34, 35, 36, 37

Missing.

Rooms 38a, 38b, 38c

The main exhibition rooms. 38b and 38c are closed while the curators take down the big Botticelli exhibition and prepare the 1960s Revolution show, which is due to open in September.

38a is hosting a temporary exhibition of photographs from the past century, which take the camera itself as their subject. Oooh, the self-referentiality! From kids in New York slums taking pics of themselves holding Kodak brownies to paparazzi shots of glamour models or Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor being hounded by press photographers, none of these really interested me.

Earlier this year it was announced that ‘The world’s largest and finest collection on the art of photography is to be created in London when more than 400,000 objects transfer from the National Media Museum (NMM) in Bradford to the Victoria and Albert Museum.’

Just from a few hours’ exploration I’d realised that the V&A is really pressed for space. Its collection is vast and the rooms and corridors and galleries which currently exist can only show a fraction of its artefacts.

So where on earth is it going to display an additional 400,000 photographs? A purpose-built photography museum would be a much better idea.

Room 40

This is a big stand-alone room in the west wing, just up the stairs from room 21 of the statue gallery. In the centre of the room is a big circular construction which you need a ticket to enter and which hosts clothes-related exhibitions. This is where they had the stimulating show of fashion shoes earlier in the year. Now it’s hosting the exhibition of underwear through the ages, which I whistled through a few weeks ago and found surprisingly boring.

Lining the walls of the room which surrounds it are big cases displaying historic European clothes.

Rooms 41 to 45 – The Asian galleries

These four rooms are each a world unto themselves, focusing on, respectively the art and culture of:

Room 43 is the central main V&A shop

  • China (44)
  • Japan (45) ‘The V&A has been collecting Japanese art and design since it was founded in 1852 and now holds one of the world’s most comprehensive collections, including ceramics, lacquer, arms and armour, woodwork, metalwork, textiles and dress, prints, paintings, sculpture and modern & contemporary studio crafts.’

These rooms are so large and so packed with stuff that they have their own diagrams showing how the displays are organised into themes and subjects. Whole worlds, thousands of years of tradition, can be sampled and enjoyed in each one and they are related to specialist rooms tucked away elsewhere in the Museum. From these rooms I liked the geometric woodwork of the Islamic galleries, like this 19th century window panel.

Islamic wooden carved screen

Islamic wooden carved screen

  • the numerous small 18th century watercolours from India, such as this depiction of Nawab Sikander Jah (1810) artist unknown
  • almost any of the lovely Japanese prints:
19th century Japanese print

19th century Japanese print

Rooms 47a to 47g – The Asian corridor

As with the sculpture galleries, I’d always thought of this as a corridor – architecturally it is the long corridor which runs to either side of the main entrance (47d). I’d never really realised that each division of the corridor counts as a ‘room’ and that these are arranged to showcase artefacts from South-East Asian countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and so on. There were no end of golden Buddhas from all these countries and a space dedicated solely to Buddhas. Among all these the delicate puppet figures from Indonesia stood out, for me.

Rooms 46a and 46b – The cast courts

At the east end of this long corridor is an entrance into the famous Cast Courts. There are usually two of these but room 46a is closed for refurbishment.

46b is an enormous room, well-lit by a glass roof, which contains monstrously enormous plaster casts of some of the great classics of the Italian Renaissance. The casts were created for the 1851 Great Exhibition and were an education for the great majority of the population, and the many artists, who couldn’t afford to go on the Grand Tour to Italy themselves. Obvious highlights include:

although many of the best things are the tiny details to be found among the vast friezes and reliefs copied from towns and cities across Renaissance Italy.

Room 48a The Raphael Cartoons

This is entered from the South-East Asia corridor – from room 47a to be precise – and is a vast darkened room containing half a dozen enormous ‘cartoons’ by the famous Italian Renaissance painter Raphael. These are ‘full-scale designs for tapestries that were made to cover the lower walls of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. The tapestries depict the Acts of St Peter and St Paul, the founders of the early Christian Church.’

Subsequently, they were bought by King Charles I and transported to Britain, to the royal tapestry manufactory at Mortlake, where they were used as templates to make tapestries, before eventually passing onto the V&A.

In this shrouded room we are intended to reverence the genius of the Renaissance in hushed tones. You can see the characteristic soft-focus outline of the angelic faces, and the bold physical gestures of the figures in a totally achieved three-dimensional space. All of this must have seemed like magic to its earliest viewers.

Room 49 Exhibition space

I’m guessing room 49 is the exhibition room to the left of the main entrance hall. This is currently displaying an exhibition of the life and work of Ove Arup, the engineering company.

Rooms 50a to 50d

50a and 50b are enormous rooms, big wide and very tall, containing original Renaissance statuary and entire stone pulpits and the entire facade of an enormous Italian church.

Room 50a: The Renaissance City 1350–1600

I disliked most of the things in room 50a, the bigger of the two spaces – the flawless pastiches of classical statues, the vast looming choir screen from the Cathedral of St John at Hertogenbosch which covers one wall, the numerous heavy, threatening church features such as pulpits, fonts and screens, all done with a leaden, heartless perfection. It is a spectacular space, no doubt about it, and individual items are beautifully carved and created – but I recoiled from its overbearing scale.

Vast Renaissance sculpture in the renaissance Gallery

Vast Renaissance sculpture in the Renaissance City Gallery

What I love in Dark Age and Medieval art is the sense of delicacy and mystery, not vague sentimental hints, but the real, solid, dark impenetrable mystery of the northern forests. What I dislike about a lot of Renaissance, especially public Renaissance art, is its oppressive projection of power and control, typified by the equestrian statue above.

50b: The Northern Renaissance

The smaller of the two rooms is still enormous. Its artefacts appear to come more from the Northern Renaissance and feature more painted altars and crucifixes than 50a. Overall, I prefer statuary from the Medieval or Northern Renaissance, as being less superhumanly perfect. It tends to portray the imperfections of the human form, and therefore be more capable of humour. Very roughly speaking, repeat visits to the V&A make it clear to me that I prefer ‘Gothic’ to ‘Classical’.

Gothic North European altar

Gothic North European altar

But also, strolling through these rooms, the 50s, the goal of our challenge to see all the rooms on the ground floor of the V&A – another reservation emerges. Compared to the timeless simplicity of much of the Japanese art, the heavenly serenity of Chinese jade sculptures, the geometric mazes of Islamic design – all these bloody crucified Christs and saints and martyrs being beheaded, crucified, burned, drowned and eviscerated seemed like the quintessence of barbarism. Compare:

with any of the hundreds of serene, unviolent Buddhas from China, India, Thailand and across Asia:

with the dainty paintings of graceful Japanese women, with characterful Chinese jade statues of horses, with the geometric beauty of Islamic design, with the watercolour depictions of life at the Mughal court in India.

It’s difficult not to be appalled at the bloodthirsty images which lie at the core of the Western Christian tradition. But maybe this guy should have the last word…

English carved sandstone corbel (12th century)

English carved sandstone corbel (12th century)


Related links

Other museums

Paul Strand: Photography and Film for the 20th Century @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

Paul Strand (1890 – 1976) is credited with being one of the century’s greatest photographers. This exhibition brings together 200 prints, shows three of the films he made, as well as some of the actual cameras he used, and several cases full of his published photobooks. It is probably as panoramic an overview of his career as you could achieve.

Strand started out in New York as a protégé of the great photographic pioneer Alfred Stieglitz and the first room shows him adopting Stieglitz’s ‘Pictorialism’, ie a consciously ‘artistic’ approach and ‘painterly’ use of composition. These include deliciously atmospheric portraits of old New York types from 1916 or so…

Blind Woman, New York by Paul Strand (1916) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Blind Woman, New York by Paul Strand (1916) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

… along with self-consciously arty still lifes and abstracts, turning modern life into geometry, fascinated by hard lines, diagonals, the sort of abstract shapes being explored in European painting.

Wall Street, New York by Paul Strand (1915) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Wall Street, New York by Paul Strand (1915) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

The show has a room set aside to watch his 1921 black and white silent movie, Manhatta, which has inter-titles from Walt Whitman’s poetry. A vivid if, after a while, slightly boring impression of a day in the life of old New York.

In the 1920s he bought a large-format camera which enabled him to create a whole new style of highly detailed nature studies. These very detailed close-up shots of natural forms – flowers, fungi, rocks, sand – were to remain a theme of his work to the end of his life. Highlights of this early phase include:

Another room is devoted to portraits of friends and artists in his circle. This started with his wife, Rebecca Salsbury – I was struck by her complete lack of make-up and stern demeanour. Compare and contrast with the super-glamorous magazine photos of the era or the work of Man Ray.

Rebecca by Paul Strand (1921) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Rebecca by Paul Strand (1921) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

The room has studies of his mentor Stieglitz as well as several of the very antiquated cameras that Strand actually used, standing on their heavy wooden tripods. In fact, his relationship with both Stieglitz and Rebecca eventually broke down, he left New York, and never returned to portraits of friends and family, for the rest of his career photographing strangers abroad.

The rest of the exhibition is divided into rooms each of which focus on one of the many foreign destinations he travelled to. He had an enviable range and soon settled into a pattern of travelling to a foreign country and generating a photobook from it, often with text commissioned from a contemporary writer.

The American South Like many writers and artists he was attracted to New Mexico and especially the desert settlement of Taos. Dark shadows cut like knives across white pablo buildings in the desert sun.

Canada He photographed fishing communities on the Newfoundland Coast.

Mexico In 1932 Strand moved to Mexico where he was commissioned by the government to help rebuild Mexican culture after the disruption of the revolution, by photographing Mexican life and people. It was during this period that he fully embraced Socialist politics, as so many other artists in the decade when the threat of Fascism darkened the skies.

Rock, Loch Eynort, South Uist, Hebrides by Paul Strand (1954) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Rock, Loch Eynort, South Uist, Hebrides by Paul Strand (1954) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Personally I didn’t like any of his Mexican photos. I always find it deeply patronising and hypocritical of white, wealthy, well-educated North American writers and artists to hop over the border and enjoy the poverty, violence, bleeding Jesus Catholicism and colourful fiestas of Mexican culture and then, when they’ve had enough, go back to their Californian swimming pools.

There are no end of sweet, big-eyed Mexican children or ‘authentic’ Mexican peasant women and tough unemployed loungers on the street, precisely the kind of subjects which make anyone who can point a camera feel like they’re getting in touch with ‘reality’ or ‘the human spirit’ or a ‘more authentic way of life’ etc.

There’s another dark room where visitors can watch a clip from The Wave, a Mexican-made movie he helped produce about a strike of poor fishermen, made in 1936, the year the Spanish Civil War broke out. What a terrifying period to live through, as shadows deepened all round the world.

The exhibition then jumps to a series of images shot in New England late in the Second World War, with no word of what Strand got up to during the war, and why he returned from Mexico to the States.

New England Tidy white interiors and church doors. This sequence included my favourite image from the show. I can’t find a larger image and this size doesn’t do justice to the tremendous granularity of this image of a farm door, and the simple but classical framing.

Vermont In 1943 he was in Vermont, taking the usual range of images of people, churches and classical buildings, and plants and flowers.

  • Jack-in-the-pulpit, Vermont

France In 1950 he went to see France which was still struggling to rebuild itself after the war. Photos of cafes, a drug store, the countryside, moustachioed peasants, and one of the two most striking, classic portraits from his entire oeuvre.

Young Boy, Gondeville, Charente, France by Paul Strand (1951) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Young Boy, Gondeville, Charente, France by Paul Strand (1951) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

The Hebrides 1954 found Strand visiting the Hebrides, specifically the island of South Uist. His attention had been caught by a BBC documentary which featured the beautiful singing of a sea shanty in Gaelic by Mrs Archie MacDonald who he tracked down and photographed. This set of photos is also featured in the exhibition of Britain as Revealed by International Photographers at the Barbican. Though the images here were good, I remember the selection at the Barbican as being distinctively better, more powerful and unique feeling.

Angus Peter MacIntyre, South Uist, Hebrides by Paul Strand (1954) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Angus Peter MacIntyre, South Uist, Hebrides by Paul Strand (1954) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

There were further sets of images from trips to Italy, Egypt and Morocco (1959), communist Romania (1960) and post-independence Ghana (1963), but a seed of doubt had been planted by the Hebrides images which was confirmed by the big display case showing 10 or a dozen of the large-format hardback photobooks which resulted from each of these trips.

The photobooks were open and in almost every instance, the pair of photos on the facing pages of each photobook was better than the prints hanging on the walls. For example the two shots in the book on Ghana were really striking, a portrait of a young black man and of some kind of oil refinery, both clear and bold, both better than the so-so images on the walls.

Why? The ones on the walls are good, but the ones in the books are consistently really good. Why?

Orgeval, France Strand finally left an America which was becoming increasingly paranoid in the Cold War and falling prey to the McCarthyite persecution of leftists and intellectuals. He settled in France, in a village called Orgeval, north-west of Paris, where he spent the last 27 years of his life. Here his third wife, fellow photographer Hazel Kingsbury Strand, created a wonderful garden and the final room is devoted to a selection of beautiful photos he took of its plants and flowers.

Summary

The exhibition presents a good case for Strand’s importance, for his longevity and the consistency of his achievement. But I was surprised that there are a lot of so-so images in the show, and not really that many that stand out, that leap out. Many have a very flat affect; there’s surprisingly little use of light and shade. Strand won’t be replacing Cartier-Bresson or Man Ray or Beaton in my list of top photographers.

And I am deeply puzzled why so many of his best photos aren’t on display, but remain concealed in rare and hard-to-get photobooks. You could see more in the enormous and impressive exhibition catalogue, but why aren’t they hung on the walls of this big exhibition for us to see?

The Family, Luzzara (The Lusettis) by Paul Strand (1953) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

The Family, Luzzara (The Lusettis) by Paul Strand (1953) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

Related links

Reviews of other V&A shows

Botticelli Reimagined @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) is widely recognised as one of the masters of the Italian Renaissance and a handful of his images – Spring, The Birth of Venus – have become almost universal due to their reproduction on posters etc.

This exhibition brings together the largest number of works by Botticelli, his pupils and followers, seen in Britain since 1930, but there is a twist. For Botticelli’s reputation underwent a strange decline after his death and for 300 years he was eclipsed by his more famous contemporaries Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael. Only in the mid-Victorian period did his fortunes revive and then flourished as he was copied and emulated by, in this country especially, the pre-Raphaelites.

This era of new appreciation was followed, in the 20th century, by a mixture of homage and parody as some of his most famous imagery became ripe for re-appropriation, satire and comedy.

The Virgin and Child with Two Angels by Sandro Botticelli (c.1490) Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der Bildenden Künste Vienna . Image courtesy Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der Bildenden Künste Vienna .

The Virgin and Child with Two Angels by Sandro Botticelli (c.1490) Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der Bildenden Künste Vienna. Image courtesy Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der Bildenden Künste Vienna.

And so this exhibition is in three parts: 20th century homage; the 19th century rediscovery; the original Botticelli, pupils and followers. The exhibition is laid out in reverse chronological order, starting with the 20th century, and the first thing you see is a video screen showing the clip from the movie Dr No where Sean Connery wakes up on the island of Dr No to see Ursula Andress emerge from the sea in a bikini. This is taken as homage to Botticelli’s most famous image, The Birth of Venus, as is the other clip in the sequence, from Terry Gilliam’s movie Baron Munchausen, the scene where the picture comes alive and the statuesque Uma Thurman emerges naked from a huge sea shell.

Having grasped this layout I preferred to start in the opposite order from the exhibition, and spend my Saturday morning energy soaking up the real thing, before progressing to the Victorians, and only then returning the shiny plastic modern spoofs and homages.

Sandro Botticelli

Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi (c. 1445-1510) belonged to the Florentine School under the patronage of Lorenzo de’ Medici. By 1470 he had his own workshop in which numerous pupils and craftsmen worked. One of the problems of Botticelli scholarship is that of attribution: only two paintings have his signature on them; all the rest are scholarly guesses, many causing controversy to this day.

In this respect the exhibition fascinatingly hangs sequences of paintings of the same subject in the same style next to each other: six Madonna and Childs, one (?) by the man himself, several (?) from his workshop, the rest (?) by contemporaries working in the same style, allow you to fine tune your understanding of his style and, incidentally, to understand a little the challenging world of art attribution.

The distinctive thing about Botticelli’s style is the way it is flat and diagrammatic, with no attempt at light and shade, of chiaroscuro, of blurring or shadowing. 1) The outlines of faces, noses, chins, arms and especially tresses of hair are all conveyed with a cartoon clarity 2) In particular the women’s faces all look the same or similar, oval with a strongly defined chin and jawbone which continues in a graceful curve round to the earlobe 3) The hair is stylised into into a kind of schematic diagram of hair 4) The women are  tall and slender with high small boobs, the body generally covered in a light diaphanous-feeling, many-folded robe.

 Venus by Sandro Botticelli (1490s) Gemäldegalerie Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Preußischer Kulturbesitz . Photo: Volker-H. Schneider.

Venus by Sandro Botticelli (1490s) Gemäldegalerie Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Preußischer Kulturbesitz . Photo: Volker-H. Schneider.

My favourite work in these rooms was Portrait of a young woman, possibly Simonetta Vespucci (1484) the hair in particular more like a flat book illustration than a painting, each pearl painted with the same amount of detail, no attempt at modelling light and shade, further and nearer, blurring some area to create a sense of depth or shadow: everything in the same hyper-clarity, but all against an impenetrable black background, itself a change and a rest from the stereotypical broken columns or distant lakes with a boat on it which populate so many Renaissance paintings. Just her, in super-clarity.

In these two rooms are gather some 40 paintings by Sandro or his workshop as well as 11 pen and ink drawings and half a dozen early books from the period. A Renaissance junky could probably spend the whole morning poring over these marvellous works. The really classic works, the Spring and Birth of Venus are held in the Uffizi in Florence and are never leaving. I was surprised that the National Gallery’s Venus and Mars hadn’t made the 3 mile trip to be included (note Venus’s strong jawline and statuesque white neck). The nearest thing to them was the large and beautiful Pallas and the Centaur, with the slender grace of the goddess and the vines twining over her arms and breast.

Pallas and the Centaur by Sandro Botticelli (c.1482) © Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, 2015 . Photo: Scala, Florence - courtesy of the Ministero Beni e Att. Cultura

Pallas and the Centaur by Sandro Botticelli (c.1482) © Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, 2015. Photo: Scala, Florence – courtesy of the Ministero Beni e Att. Cultura

The main thing I learned was about his later style. In his last years Botticelli fell under the influence of the fundamentalist preacher Savonarola, a period shrouded in rumour. Some say he abandoned painting, others that he burned all his paintings (the ones which weren’t hanging in the villas of his rich patrons the Medicis). What the show illustrates is that is later style was heavier. Two paintings represent it, notably the Flight from Egypt. In this the figures fill the frame, looming and heavy, the composition no longer feels light and dainty but heavy and threatening and the cartoon element is even more to the fore. Look at the donkey. Joseph’s head looks as if it was done by a completely different artist.

Off to one side in a separate room were the prints and drawings. These included five illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy (there is currently a fabulous exhibition of thirty of these drawings at London’s Courtauld Gallery). The best of them was the Allegory of Abundance – or by ‘best’, do we just mean the one that looks most like the figures in Prinmavera and Venus? The paintings include a lot of Biblical subjects, a lot of Madonnas in tondi (round paintings). None of these are canonical i.e. none of these are what we expect our Botticelli to be: we expect slender graceful women, and so…

Allegory of Abundance or Autumn by Sandro Botticelli (c.1470-5) The British Museum (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

Allegory of Abundance or Autumn by Sandro Botticelli (c.1470-5) The British Museum (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

The Victorian rediscovery

The exhibition suggests that it was the heaviness of these later works which caused Botticelli’s eclipse. For three hundred years or so (1510 to 1810) he was largely overlooked in history books and art teaching.

The exhibition claims that the first step in his revival was the way that, during the Napoleonic Wars, lots of Catholic religious houses were closed down and the art works they contained came onto the market. That began to revive interest in his name.

But the story then fast-forwards to the 1860s and to an essay written by English critic Walter Pater praising Botticelli, and especially to the patronage of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the pre-Raphaelite painters. Their joint enthusiasm created a revival of Botticelli’s reputation.

There is a smallish room with Victorian books and magazines and posters explaining the Victorian resurgence in his reputation; and then there is a stunning long room full of beautiful sumptuous pre-Raphalite masterpieces. If you like Victorian painting it is worth visiting for these alone, with lovely big sensual works by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris and many more.

La Ghirlandata by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1873) © Guildhall Art Gallery 2015. Photo: Scala, Florence/Heritage Images .

La Ghirlandata by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1873) © Guildhall Art Gallery 2015. Photo: Scala, Florence/Heritage Images.

Rossetti has taken the shape of the female head – all strong jawline and statuesque neck – and overlaid a whole world of Victorian sensuality and green velvet. Next to these images of sensuality Botticelli’s women look blankly emotionless. It is fascinating – and an amazing experience and opportunity – to wander back and forth between the Botticelli originals and what artists three hundred years later made of them.

The end wall of the room is covered by a fabulous William Morris tapestry, The Orchard, dominated by four female figures, loosely based on the Botticelli lightness and grace, but note the changing fruits of the trees which make up the background pattern of foliage. A reproduction doesn’t do justice to the scale and impact of this beautiful tapestry. Obviously Morris felt at home with, or was inspired by, the foliage themes of the Primavera.

The Orchard by William Morris (1890) V&A. John Henry Dearle, Morris & Co (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The Orchard by William Morris (1890) V&A. John Henry Dearle, Morris & Co (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

There were also lovely works by Aubrey Beardsley and artists I’m less familiar with such as Arnold Böcklin, Simeon Solomon, Sartorio, and a couple of works by woman artist Evelyn de Morgan, including her Flora from 1895.

The twentieth century response

The thing about the twentieth century is how big and messy it was. From between the wars were traditional (sort of) paintings by the likes of:

But the lion’s share of the 20th century room is dominated by post-war art which, from one point of view, becomes progressively bigger and more facile. There is:

  • Orlan – Occasional strip-tease (1974) Like many of the women photographers featured in Performing for the camera at Tate Modern, Orlan thinks taking her clothes off is an artistic or subversive act, here done in homage, at last in the penultimate shot, to Sandro’s Venus.
  • Cindy Sherman – #225 (1990) homage to one of Sandro’s Madonnas
  • Vik Munix – VantagePoint X This is a huge work. Only when you go close do you realise every element in it is junk, rubbish collected from the streets and garbage bins, arranged to reproduice the famous image.
  • Tomoko Nagao – The Birth of Venus Apparently a homage to the instantly recognisable Japanese style of ‘Superflat’

Here is an image chosen to publicise the show, David Lachapelle’s kitchy, campy studio re-enactment of the Birth of Venus with some fit young men from the YMCA in attendance.

Rebirth of Venus by David LaChapelle (2009) Creative Exchange Agency, New York, Steven Pranica / Studio LaChapelle (c) David LaChapelle.

Rebirth of Venus by David LaChapelle (2009) Creative Exchange Agency, New York, Steven Pranica / Studio LaChapelle (c) David LaChapelle.

The ‘best’ of the 20th century homages had to be the Andy Warhol silk screens of Venus’s face from 1984. God knows how many exist in what combinations of colours, but this exhibition featured two with strikingly different colour schemes. The most attractive one, with a pink face, is used as the exhibition poster.

Warhol had a great eye for classic design, from Campbell’s soup tins to Elvis pulling a gun from his holster. These silks are an appropriate homage from one master of clarity of design and strength of line to another, Sandro’s cartoon-like tresses and features highlighted and retouched for the age of plastic and imacs.

Related links

Reviews of other V&A exhibitions

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain @ Victoria & Albert Museum

A wonderful exhibition of the fantastical designs, shapes, engineering, ingenuity and expertise the human imagination has brought to the humble shoe, a basic item of equipment invented to protect feet from the environment which, throughout human history and around the globe, has mutated into thousands of patterns and purposes and continues, in our time, to inspire designers and craftsmen to ever giddier flights of fancy.

The show brings together over 200 pairs of shoes, ranging from a sandal decorated in pure gold leaf from ancient Egypt to the most elaborate concoctions of contemporary makers.

One sandal, gilded and incised leather and papyrus, Egypt (c.30 BCE-300 CE ) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

One sandal, gilded and incised leather and papyrus, Egypt
(c.30 BCE-300 CE) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The exhibition is divided into two parts:

  • Downstairs the carpet, walls and curtains are all a dark purple, creating a womb-like ambience as soothing new age music pipes through hidden speakers and visitors process past glass panels each showing 10 or 15 or 20 shoes of amazing variety, antiquity and geographical spread.
  • Upstairs is light and white, the stands are on a big circular podium open to the enormous atrium room, with huge video screens suspended from the ceiling showing craftsmen at work creating shoes, a series of cases showing how shoes are designed and constructed, as well as several cases dedicated to the collections of some epic shoeaholics, and a 12-minute video featuring interviews with such shoe gods as Manolo Blahnik, Sandra Choi and Christian Louboutin.

Killer Heels at the Brooklyn Museum

It just so happens that I went to the ‘Killer Heels’ exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum this time last year. It focused more on the glitz and glamour of contemporary designers whereas the V&A show features more examples from around the world and from past eras – as befits the world’s leading historical museum of design. The V&A show definitely brought together a much wider range of footwear but, I think, was less penetrating in its analysis.

For example, where the V&A points out that shoes can be sexy and seductive, the Brooklyn show goes the extra mile to show exactly why, explaining that high heels:

  • push the chest out
  • lift the bottom
  • make the legs appear longer and therefore thinner
  • make the calves more taut and rounded
  • make the feet appear smaller

In other words, high heels make the wearer’s body seem less stumpy and clumpy (less like the body most of us actually possess) and taller, leaner, more agile and athletic, while emphasising bust and buttocks. In biological terms, they highlight a woman’s fertility, youth and fitness as a mate. On a cultural plane, they dramatise a woman’s sexuality and have done for centuries.

 'Parakeet’ shoes Artist: Caroline Groves, England (2014 ) Photography by Dan Lowe .


‘Parakeet’ shoes by Caroline Groves, England (2014) Photography by Dan Lowe.

Folklore, fairy tales and myths

The show starts with the Cinderella fairy story which dates in one form or another back to the first centuries AD. It makes the central point of the show: Cinderella is the virtuous girl whose shoes elevate her literally and socially. Cinderella’s life is transformed because wearing high-heeled shoes gets her noticed by the heir to the throne, the handsome prince. This is the focus of the exhibition – the way that across space and time, the wearing of fancy shoes signals privilege, rank and status.

The same display case goes on to mention other examples of powerful and transformative footwear: the Seven League Boots worn by Hop o’ my Thumb. Reference is also made to Puss In Boots, surely the smartest cat to wear shoes, but not to the Old Lady Who Lived In A Shoe, nor to Hermes, the messenger god with little wings attached to his ankle boots. I would have liked more about the importance of footwear in myth and legend. I bet Marina Warner could write an entire book on the subject – I’d have liked a thoughtful paragraph or two.

Film footwear

Too quickly for my taste the eye was drawn away from the depths of myth and legend to the shallows of shoe-ey film clips: There’s a short bit of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz tapping her ruby slippers, as well as clips of Gene Kelly dancing in the rain and Marilyn Monroe tottering along on high heels which emphasise her waggling bottom. On actual display are the red shoes worn by dancer and actress Moira Shearer in the classic Powell & Pressburger film The Red Shoes, which give their wearer her semi-magical power of dance, but also propel her to her death. Yes, and, and…?

Again I bet there are umpteen studies of footwear in films and it would have been interesting to have had even a few sentences analysing how, for example, close-ups of footwear are a useful shorthand to quickly identify character types, or any other suggestions or thoughts…

Red ballet shoes made for Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) in The Red Shoes (1948), silk satin, braid and leather, England Artist: Freed of London (founded in 1929), Date: 1948 . Photograph reproduced with the kind permission of Northampton Museums and Art Gallery.

Red ballet shoes made for Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) in The Red Shoes (1948), silk satin, braid and leather, England. Freed of London (founded in 1929). Photograph reproduced with the kind permission of Northampton Museums and Art Gallery.

Status and display

Instead the exhibition is rarely distracted from its core mission which is to show how footwear is overwhelmingly about status and display. It is about how rich you are, how your footwear asserts your membership of an elite group or class or circle. Many of the shoes are celebrated for their impracticality: they display and assert that the wearer is quite incapable of physical labour or looking after themselves or managing even the slightest physical obstacle, they are so pampered.

One wall label rather casually pairs Queen Henrietta Maria and Sex and the City‘s Sarah Jessica Parker as ‘style leaders’ whose shoes (and overall look) other people copied. Well, Henrietta’s main achievement was contributing, via her Catholicism, her luxury and her inflexible snobbery, to the unpopularity of her husband King Charles I who plunged his country into civil war and was eventually beheaded.

The exhibition treats ‘status’, being a member of an ‘elite’, of ‘an exclusive circle’, as cost-free activities, as if this appetite for inclusion doesn’t imply a mass exclusion, keeping out the vast majority of people who aren’t in the charmed circle.

The displays range impressively far and wide in its examples: there are shoes from the Ottoman Empire, Ming Dynasty China, Meiji Japan, from Caroline England, from a rajah in pre-Independence India – all regimes which were overthrown in violent revolutions. What role did (and do) ostentatious shoes play in alienating the 99% of the population not allowed or too poor to wear them? Maybe there is no meaningful answer, but the question goes unasked…

Chopines, Punched kid leather over carved pine, Venice, Italy, c. 1600. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Chopines, Punched kid leather over carved pine, Venice, Italy, c. 1600

Sex

In the (surprisingly) small panel about fetish boots and sex, the commentary makes some rather sweeping generalisations:

  • The modern high heel is associated with sexual availability rather than just desirability.‘ Really? As I wrote in my review of the Brooklyn show, I’d have thought it’s more that expensive shoes, especially heels, are about adopting a role, assuming a pose, feeling more glamorous and attractive. Not at all the same thing as making yourself sexually available. For most people most of the time, I’d have thought the sexual suggestiveness of high heels and glamour shoes is implicit, repressed, unacknowledged, beneath the socially (and personally) acceptable activity of making yourself look ‘glamorous’, ‘gorgeous’, ‘classy’, ‘enchanting’, ‘smart’.
  • Further, the commentary asserts that ‘sexy shoes affect the movements of the body, titillating the watcher and creating a sensual experience for the wearer…  Shoes equal sex.’ Well, quite obviously most shoes do not equal sex. And, as and when they do, it’s surely in a number of ways: the Brooklyn exhibition put into words precisely how heels cantilever the female form to emphasise its sexual characteristics. But thigh length boots, stilletoes, studded shoes? I could have done with more explanation, from psychologists or sexologists, about just why shoes can be so erotic.

Scores of the shoes and boots scattered randomly throughout the exhibition are doubtless ‘sexy’, designed to emphasise a woman’s sexuality, designed to cater to (changing) sexual tastes through the ages – but restricting this big theme to one small display case, for me raised but then didn’t sufficiently explore the idea.

‘Invisible Naked Version' by Andreia Chaves (2011) Photo by Andrew Bradley .

‘Invisible Naked Version’ by Andreia Chaves (2011) Photo by Andrew Bradley.

Shoes and control

In fact, one of the themes that emerges from the show is that many shoes through history were designed not to flaunt their wearer’s sexuality, but to cripple the wearer, to severely restrict their ability to walk. The Japanese prostitute heels linked to above, are one example. Another well-known extreme is the terrifying traditional shoes worn by Chinese women, whose feet had been broken and bound in order to look petite and exquisite.

Clearly some cultures developed traditions designed to hamper walking in all sorts of ingenious ways. For some cultures the motive was to highlight the wearer’s wealth and status, emphasising that they didn’t need to move very much because everything was done for them, brought to them. For another large group, mainly women, their ability to walk was limited by their masters, who thereby demonstrated their power and control.

Again, I’d have welcomed some thoughtful commentary about the importance of shoes as implements of power and control through the ages. Maybe sustained investigation of these themes is in the exhibition book…

Below are silver platform shoes, named padukas, traditionally given to brides in India to create height, and to emphasise (as usual) their wealth and status. I imagine the most the wearer could manage would be a shuffle. Maybe a cautious totter…

Wedding toe-knob paduka, silver and gold over wood, India (1800s)

Wedding toe-knob paduka, silver and gold over wood, India (1800s)

Work and gender

The curators know their audience, white, middle-class, older, female. The world of work, and especially the vast world of male physical labour, was largely invisible. All forms of working boot, steel-capped boots, footwear worn on building sites and in factories, by sailors and truck drivers, was not here. I particularly missed Doc Martens, that symbol of skinheads and the violent 1970s (which have, in fact, largely reinvented themselves as style accessories).

For as well as physical labour, the equally male world of violence is largely invisible, the bloody civil war which the extravagance of Henrietta Marie helped to spark and the elaborately beshoed Charles II managed to escape, nowhere mentioned.

The Duke of Wellington is here because of his well-known boots but nothing else about Army or Navy or Air Force footwear, riding wear, driving wear, flying wear, climbing wear. Tucked away in a corner of one display were some fantastic glam rock platform boots from 1973, which the original owner is quoted as saying were good for ‘kicking the shit’ out of other men. But for the most part, marching, tramping, working, kicking, fighting, all these male foot-related activities are invisible.

NOVA by Zaha Hadid for United Nude (c) Image Courtesty of United Nude.

NOVA by Zaha Hadid for United Nude (c) Image Courtesty of United Nude.

Makers and collectors

Upstairs the focus shifted to the making and collecting of shoes. There were several stands devoted to explaining just how shoes are designed, how patterns are generated from the prototype and then the necessary shapes cut from leather. There was an array of heels, the same shape, but painted different colours and with various diamante applications, which I found fascinating. I was also interested to learn that the metal spike heel was invented in the 1950s, which allowed designers to play with a whole new type of look.

Around the corner is a brilliant semi-circular 7-foot-high wall made of everyday cardboard shoeboxes. I really liked this as a piece of sculpture, but it’s also practical for it creates an auditorium effect, there are benches placed in front of it and in the middle is suspended a big video screen on which plays the 12-minute video I mentioned earlier, featuring interviews with shoe gods Manolo Blahnik, Sandra Choi, Christian Louboutin and others.

The final section of the exhibition contains a number of cases which display the collections of several notable collectors of shoes. Lionel Ernest Bussey collected shoes from about 1914 until his death in 1969, all ladies shoes bought from fairly ordinary shoe shops. By the time of his death he’d collected about 600 pairs, all new and unworn, many not even taken out of their boxes. He left his collection to the V&A. Robert Brooks (age 42) collects just adidas trainers and travels the world to acquire rare items for a collection which now numbers over 800 pairs. Also featured is Katie Porter from west London who has more than 230 shoes in her collection.

Why? We are invited to marvel at these impressive collections, but I’d have welcomed a sentence or two exploring and explaining the psychology of collecting, and of collecting shoes in particular.

Installation view of Shoes: Pleasure and Pain , Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Installation view of Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Note the wall of shoe boxes in the background and the display of Robert Brooks’s adidas trainers in the foreground.

Lighten up

But maybe I was expecting too much. Maybe I’m missing the point: maybe it is simply that all these shoes – removed from their historical contexts, from too much depth or meaning – are all transformed by this exhibition into objects of fantasy and escape. The exhibition invites us to gawp and marvel and not dig too deep.

We ordinary folk who can never afford Henrietta Maria chopines or Sarah Jessica Parker’s Blahniks, can enjoy them, and hundreds of other weird and exotic specimens, here in the V&A and, by extension, on the internet, in magazines, in videos. Via all these channels we can enter, without too much thought, into magical worlds where we are all thinner, taller and richer, where we all live for a moment more interesting, colourful lives, in remote historical eras and exotic countries, inhabiting the countless fantasies these amazing and endlessly inventive objects offer us. Maybe marvelling and admiring is enough.

On YouTube

A good overview of the show by Euromaxx TV.


Related links

Constable: The Making of a Master @ Victoria & Albert Museum

This major exhibition aims to explain Constable’s training and influences, especially Dutch landscape painters, but also Old Masters like Rubens and Claude. So it includes rooms dedicated to the work of his predecessors and contemporaries, which he copied or owned, as well as lots of his sketches and the large scale draft paintings he did of the classic ‘exhibition’ works.

So there are full-scale ‘rough cuts’ of The Hay Wain, The Horse Leaping etc next to the famous final versions. These made me realise how very artful & calculating this painter of so-called Nature is; to put it another way, Constable is generally credited with being the founder of a whole school of Nature painting, but these sketches show just how carefully he arranged and composed ‘Nature’ to bring it in line with compositional models derived from much older artists. Lots of the compositions are borrowed from earlier painters – or are very skillfully contrived rearrangements of elements first set down in his various sketchbooks.

1. The exhibition has his tiny 5″ x 3″ pencil sketches for Boat-building near Flatford Mill next to the finished painting: the nine humans working in and around the real dock, scattered randomly around the scene as they go about their work – in the sketch – have been reduced to a carefully placed four in the final painting. The dominant figure, a rather forlorn-looking man sitting in the foreground, isn’t found in the pencil sketch at all, nor is the little girl over by a tree on the right, nor the wistful dog, bottom right.  The sketch is a miniature marvel of accuracy, and the painting follows it in outline and many details – but the final composition, particularly of the figures, is an artifice, a carefully created illusion.

2. Similarly, the draft painting of the Hay Wain has someone on a horse smack bang in the middle foreground, but this is removed in the final version, a change which highlights the distance between, and the poignant effect of, the dog staring wistfully at its master in the cart. In both paintings the disorder of Work or the ‘real world’ is carefully edited out to create an emotionally charged image.

Invisible War and Revolution

As I walked round I reflected that all these paintings were made – Constable was active – during the period of the Napoleonic Wars leading up to Waterloo in 1815, and on into during the turbulent years after 1815 – an era of unemployment and industrial distress, workers uprisings and political radicalism which was clamped down on hard by the repressive government of Lord Liverpool with its widely-hated Home Secretary Castlereagh. This is the period when both Byron and Shelley left England, revolted by its repressiveness and hypocrisy. None of that is reflected in these idylls. The only sign is the absence of signs – the editing out of Work and the reinvention of agricultural labour as timeless idyll.

3. The first oil draft of The Cornfield is an enjoyable impressionist study of a field seen at the end of a track between trees – the final version introduces a twee narrative: the boy in red taking a break from driving his docile sheep to lie on the grass sipping water from the pond – and another wistful collie dog turning its head to look at its master. (I began to think of Constable’s habit of inserting a wistful dog, its head generally turned against the direction of its body in order to look at its (presumed) master, as ‘the Lassie Effect’).

In every instance the move from draft to final version deliberately sentimentalises the composition.

Conclusion

This show transformed my opinion of Constable:

  • made me realise he was a far more savvy and sophisticated painter than I previously thought, extremely well-informed about art history
  • that Constable was highly contrived and calculating in the composition of his big ‘exhibition’ paintings, especially when it came to the human figures
  • made me realise he could be seen as the Father of Victorian sentimentality, the inventor of chocolate box tweeness
  • and understand why, for the last generation or more, most people with a feel for art have preferred the rough Nature sketches, the cloud studies and Brighton beach-scapes, to the sentimental chocolate box family favourites

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