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:

Curators: Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrosa


Related links

Other V&A blog posts

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

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

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

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

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

Biography of a bear

Alan Alexander Milne was born in 1882 and by 1906 was assistant editor of Punch. He was a prolific professional writer, producing humorous verse, social satire, comic stories, fairy tales and even a murder mystery novel.

Ernest Howard Shepard was born in 1879 and during the Edwardian decade worked as an illustrator for Punch as well as numerous other magazines and illustrated a variety of books. He served in the Great War where he produced not only humorous cartoons (cf. William Heath Robinson’s Great War cartoons) but also some powerful pencil drawings of the Western Front. These are collected in a funny and moving book, Shepard’s War, on sale in the V&A shop, and were also included in the excellent overview of Shepard’s career held at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, back in 2000.

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

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

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

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

An exhibition for children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– There’s a recording of a bit of the story going on in a special darkened room where you can lie on the floor and watch the words being projected on the ceiling.

– And throughout the exhibition, at toddler head height, is a succession of placards inviting the curious child to do interesting activities or think creative thoughts:

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

Suggestion

My experience of looking after small children in party places is that they run excitedly from one treat to another and exhaust themselves in five minutes. To really cater to youngsters, maybe some soft play areas with fluffy Pooh toys would have been an idea – places (and quite a few would be needed) where mums and little ones could really unwind, take coats and shoes off, and soak up the ambience.

At the recent exhibition on Tove Jansson at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, they filled the ante-room half way through the show with lots of cushions and lots and lots of books, large and small, picture books, cartoon books, story books, and while I was there these were permanently full with kids reading for themselves, or mums or grandparents reading to toddlers. For all its digital wizardry, what this exhibition missed was some quiet spaces like that.

Still, top marks to the V&A for trying as hard as possible to make the show child-friendly and exciting.

Ernest Howard Shepard, illustrator of genius

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for winnie pooh shepard snow

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

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

  • Animation – the way Shepard does multiple versions of a sequence of events e.g. Eeyore chasing his own tail, to give a sense of movement and dynamism.
  • Character study – two versions of Christopher Robin leaving school, one moony and sentimental, the other showing him kicking through the leaves, which is much more forceful and was the version chosen for the book.
  • Stance – Sensible phlegmatic Pooh is almost always show foursquare with both feet on the ground, Piglet’s arms are often cast backwards as if in dismay or surprise, Eeyore’s head and neck are always bent down nearly to the ground in gloom.
  • Expression – Related to the above, the curators point out the simple fact that none of the animals has an expression, their fixed expressions never change. The powerful sense you have of the characters’ changing moods is created almost entirely by their stances and attitudes.
  • Slapstick – shows how Shepard drew sets of pictures giving a sequence of (generally comic) events, possibly something he learned from the movies. The example given is the six small illustrations of Pooh struggling to climb aboard the floating honey jar in the flood and continually falling off it.
  • Irony – Shepard would often illustrate things which weren’t in the text a) giving the pictures added interest, prompting you to really study them, and b) often showing the reader objects or actions in the background suggesting things which the characters themselves don’t know about.
  • Interplay with the text – Milne and Shepard between them came up with humorous ideas for integrating text and illustration, a good example being the scene when Pooh is being lifted up into the air by the balloon, the way the text describing the action is squeezed into a narrow column of single words along the right-hand side of the full-page picture – thus recreating the verticality of the action.

Shepard’s trees

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

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

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

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

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

A wall label towards the end gives an analysis of the drawing of Pooh and Piglet ‘having a stroll’. It explains the way the spinney of trees was drawn in tremendously realistic detail, Shepard using a thin pencil for the outlines and branches, and thicker pencils for the leaves, as also for the detailed gorse bush to the right. Whereas the grass or brush which the characters are strolling through is done in a completely different way, using a scatter of almost abstract shapes and flecks. And then the characters themselves are limned with cross-hatching to bring out their volume. Note how Pooh is in a characteristically phlegmatic pose, hands held behind his back, Piglet is (as so often) looking up in admiration of some larger animal) while ahead of them Tigger is in characteristically exuberant mood, caught off the ground in mid-bounce (note the little shadow beneath his body).

In other words, this detailed commentary to Shepard’s illustrations gives a fantastic insight into how he used different techniques for different elements of the pictures, to create depth and characterisation and animation.

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

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

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


Related links

Other V&A blog posts

Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

This massive exhibition marks the 50th anniversary of Pink Floyd’s first album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’, and debut single, Arnold Layne, way back in 1967. It follows last year’s big exhibition about the 60s (You Say You Want A Revolution) and 2013’s David Bowie exhibition, which broke attendance records. There’s gold in them thar 60s icons. ‘Dad Rock’, my daughter calls it.

Pink Floyd: a brief introduction

You can learn everything you need to know and more from their Wikipedia article or the band’s own website. Nice middle-class boys from Cambridge who met in London art schools in the mid-60s, they formed a four-piece band based round charismatic front man, guitarist and songwriter, Syd Barrett, released a couple of singles and their debut album – dominated by their trademark composition Interstellar Overdrive – and headlined ‘scene’-defining ‘underground’ gigs in the Summer of Love.

But Syd took too much LSD, becoming wildly unreliable, so in 1968 the band gently dropped him and replaced him with their friend and lead guitar supremo, David Gilmour. You can hear the change in the second album – A Saucerful of Secrets. Only one of the songs is by Syd and all the others lack his rackety inspiration. In its way it’s more experimental than their debut, with many more electronic soundscapes – witness the sustained weirdness of the title track, A Saucerful of Secrets. Conversely, other tracks sound much smoother and idyllic, and it’s notable how the lyrics fit smoothly into the songs instead of sticking out at unexpected angles, as they did in Syd’s songs. An example of this smoothness is See-Saw.

Between 1968 and 1973 the Floyd drifted, making a series of experimental albums and soundtracks to films. The film soundtracks are More (1969), Zabriskie Point (1971) and Obscured by Clouds (1972), the last one of which they knocked off in an intense week, apparently.

Ummagumma (1969) was an experimental double album, with one disk carrying a live album and the other featuring four tracks, each written by one of the band, and rarely listened to now.

Atom Heart Mother (1970) was a collection of so-so tracks on one side, including Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast, in which one of their roadies is taped mooching about in his kitchen fixing a fry-up. The other side is devoted to the title track, a 23-minute-long piece in which the group integrate their sound into an experimental orchestral work by composer Ron Geesin. I’ve a soft spot for Summer ’68, written by the group’s keyboardist, Rick Wright.

Meddle (1971) follows the same formula with a side-long piece – Echoes – accompanied on the other side by a very uneven collection of songs.

So in the six or seven years of their existence they had morphed from being the soundtrack to 1967, all paisley shirts, purple scarves and Afghan waistcoats – to being long-haired purveyors of 25-minute-long ‘art’ pieces to the stonedocracy of the 70s.

Dark Side of the Moon and after

Then in 1973 they released Dark Side of the Moon and everything changed, big time.

As usual, at a bit of a loss for inspiration, they had the idea to write songs about the Big Issues of Life – like Death, Money, Madness – and link them using the panoply of tricks they’d picked up on their various experimental forays.

The album begins and ends with a (very slow) heart beat, on which are superimposed the sound effects of cash tills (used on the track Money) and snippets of interviews they conducted with roadies and anyone they could find around the Abbey Road studios, which leads into s suite of beautifully and imaginatively linked ultra-melodic tunes. The result is still astonishing, a smash hit ‘concept album’, combining ‘experimental’ features with Weighty Issues which make stone sixth formers feel intense, all on a bed of sumptuously slow and simple songs. It stayed in the charts for decades and still defines an epoch.

Listen to the opener, Speak to Me/Breathe. Isn’t it carefully crafted, with its multilayers beginning with the calming heartbeat (apparently, anyone with a heartbeat this slow, would be dead), then jingly jangly guitar, soporific bass and, beneath it all, the plodding drums continually on the verge of falling asleep at the wheel. Turn the lights out and pass me that joint, man.

1975’s Wish You Were Here is another combination of songs about Important Issues embedded between great swathes of multi-layered keyboards, swishing and swashing over your aural organs. They’re titled Shine on You Crazy Diamond parts one to 9 and remind me of a sand storm in the desert (probably influenced by the image on the back of the album cover of a mannequin in the desert.

Unhappy music

Something was happening to the boys, which became even clearer on 1977’s Animals – they were getting bitter and twisted. Dark Side of the Moon is full of sixth-form angst about poor people and war (unpleasant, apparently) but if you don’t listen to the words (as I’ve discovered over the years, plenty of rock and pop fans don’t) it is sweet and gorgeous to listen to.

Wish You Were Here had the ultimate symptom of rock star ennui, a song about how awful it is being a rock star – Welcome To the Machine – but still has swathes of beautiful music, not least the simple but affecting title track, Wish You Were Here (everybody at school taught themselves how to play guitar by copying this).

But by Animals three things were clear.

  1. Almost all the writing was now being done by Roger Waters.
  2. He was really pissed off. On Animals he has divided the human race into three types, dogs, sheep and pigs and written a ‘track’ about each. Pigs is a virulent attack on the Christian campaigner, Mary Whitehouse. It was Waters who had had the idea of songs about Big Issues for Dark Side and who wrote the jaded songs about the rock biz on Wish You Were Here, but both albums still contained significant contributions from the rest of the band, not least in the linking sections between the songs. Animals feels like pure Waters, in concept and execution, and it’s miserable.
  3. The paraphernalia, the concepts, the marketing and staging of each album had got more and more elaborate.

And it’s this third element which is the basis for this exhibition – the paraphernalia of performance.

Right from the start the Floyd were interested in using lightshows to amplify the trippy experience of their underground gigs. Apparently they pioneered the use of large lighting rigs and special visual effects. As early as 1969 the cover of Ummagumma featured a photo of the kit their roadies had to unload, set up and then dismantle before and after gigs.

By the mid-1970s stadium rock had become well-established, with other groups like Led Zeppelin or Wings crating round huge amounts of equipment, lights, mixing desks and special amplifiers, but the Floyd were always seen as technical pioneers, for example in the use of quadraphonic sound.

But with Dark Side, music, concept, images, design and presentation was brought together. Previous Floyd album covers (MeddleAtom Heart) had been jokily ‘conceptual’. But the art work on Dark Side, specifically the idea of the beam of white light going into a triangular prism, designed by Hipgnosis and George Hardie, formed the basis for the stage show and merchandising.

The art work for Wish You Were Here was also of a new order, something distinctive and unseen before. The original album cover was covered in black plastic which you had to tear off to reveal the image of two men shaking hands in a Hollywood studio vacant lot, one of them bursting into flames – presumably a reflection of Water’s bitter disillusion with the record business.

It was Animals which took this to a new level when the central image used for the photo shoot, a huge pink inflatable pig suspended by a cable from Battersea Power Station, broke loose and caused enough havoc among planes landing at Heathrow Airport to become an item on the news. This pig, along with sheep, dogs and other characters from the songs now made their appearance at the Floyd’s enormous sell-out stadium tours.

The Wall

Waters’ bitterness reached unparalleled heights in 1979’s The Wall, a concept double album (always a bad sign) featuring the adventures of ‘Pink’, an idealised version of Waters’ own life, a baby in the Blitz whose dad is killed in the War, growing up in austerity England, bullied at school and pushed around by an uncaring society.

Just as Genesis’s concept double album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) represented the end of their most creative period, The Wall is a dire, apocalyptic vision of Waters’ unhappiness and alienation. The album spawned the wretched single Another Brick in the Wall, which, God forgive us, made it to number one in the charts. ‘We don’t need no education’, yes, easy to say when you’re a multi-millionaire from Cambridge.

In 1982 they made a full-length feature film out of the album, featuring young punk singer Bob Geldof as the wretched ‘Pink’, thus immediately and forever losing any credibility he ever had.

It was with The Wall that the band’s use of props and imagery in their live shows went off the scale. The band commissioned well-known English satirical cartoonist Gerald Scarfe to devise illustrations for the album’s artwork, for its promotion and marketing, for short videos accompanying tracks, and illustrate the characters which infest the storyline. Hence the screaming head, the cartoon schoolteacher, and the menacing hammers which feature albums went off the scale.

The stage show featured enormous blow-up versions of these figures at the relevant parts of the narrative. Early on an inflatable fighter plane screamed along a wire from the back of the auditorium to crash on stage. At the end of the show an enormous wall is built between the audience and the band, which is eventually blown up and knocked down.

What pretentious twaddle. A friend has all the Pink Floyd albums, has been to gigs launching each of the albums, and his wife hates them. ‘They’re just so depressing,’ she moaned. It’s really that simple. If you listen to their albums in order you find yourself being sucked, step by step, into this nightmarish, paranoid, solipsistic soundworld.

Yet the irony is that as the music grew grimmer and grimmer, the scale and ambition of the artwork and the stage shows escalated to gargantuan proportions.

By this stage the band themselves were falling out, Roger Waters’ attitude (which some called megalomania) alienating the others. Symptomatically, Waters wrote all the songs, lyrics and music for the next album, 1983’s The Final Cut. Keyboardist Rick Wright had been sacked from the band. Singer and guitarist David Gilmour performed but had no songs ready. So was it a Pink Floyd album at all, or – as many have commented – essentially a Roger Waters solo album. In fact, it was solo album time for all. Gilmour made a solo album, About Face. Waters, for his part, made and toured a solo album, The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking.

The band then spent 1984 and 1985 briefing lawyers and issuing writs against each other as to who owned the name ‘Pink Floyd’ and trying to untangle contractual obligations, royalty payments and so on. By 1986 Waters had legally left the band, though retaining rights to perform The Wall (which he has gone on to do extensively, around the world, in sell-out shows).

Now the band consisted of singer-guitarist Gilmour, drummer Mason and keyboardist Wright. The trio released A Momentary Lapse of Reason in 1987. By this stage most normal people had long ceased caring. In 1994 the trio released The Division Bell and the tour to promote it was the last Pink Floyd tour.

Since then, for the last 23 years, Gilmour and Waters – respectively the singer-guitarist, and the conceptualiser-songwriter-lyricist – have been fending off rumours of a reunion. They were offered a reputed £150 million to tour the USA, but turned it down. The general idea is that Gilmour can’t bear to be in the same room as Waters. In an interview with Mojo magazine, Mason said Waters leaving left the others feeling like members of the Soviet Politburo after Stalin died. Wow.

In 2005 the band members were persuaded to reform to play the Live 8 Charity concert, performing Speak to Me/Breathe and Money from Dark Side, Wish You Were Here from the album of the same name, and Comfortably Numb from The Wall. In 2008 the gentle, often overlooked keyboardist Rick Wright passed away. So no complete reunion is now possible.


The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains

And it is this long colourful journey, from rackety underground psychedelic pioneers, through uneven experimentalism, to producing one of the great rock albums of all time which catapulted them into a series of overblown stage sets and middle-aged rock star angst, which this huge, imposing exhibition chronicles in impressive detail.

It is mainly a collection of hundreds of artefacts, from the venue posters and newspaper photos of the early days through to rooms full of enormous props from the final albums, interspersed with TV screens showing clips of the band performing at various stages of their career, and interviews with the growing group of collaborators, producers, designers, illustrators, cartoonists and so on who worked with them – including illustrator Gerald Scarfe, architect Mark Fisher, engineer Jonathan Park, animator
Ian Emes and lighting artist Marc Brickman.

You’re given headphones at the start so you can listen to the hour-long mix of tracks and interviewees’ words. It is a little like walking through a BBC Four documentary on Rock Greats.

Installation view: left, a case about A Saucerful of Secrets; a TV monitor showing Syd Barrett; centre the clever-clever artwork for Ummagumma

Installation view: from left to right – a case about A Saucerful of Secrets; a TV monitor showing Syd Barrett; centre the clever-clever artwork for Ummagumma

Having staggered to the end, I turned round and walked through the show backwards, following the story of a group of squabbling middle-aged men who worked with a wide range of similarly-aged male figures in art, design and illustration to produce vast, overblown slabs of narcoleptic music, but who pared away the amount of equipment, the unnecessary props and the middle of the road rock sound to produce some interesting and experimental work in their mid-period, before shedding all the unnecessary clutter to write lovely songs about lazing around in English fields, and then put all their differences aside to come to late fruition as the hyperactive, guitar-driven soundtrack of a small group of underground hipsters in swinging London.

If only.

Props and shops

It is an exhibition of things, some of staggering size. Big props include:

  • a massive representation of ‘The Wall’ stage with the giant inflatable schoolteacher looming over
  • a house-sized recreation of Battersea Power complete with towering chimneys
  • a room devoted to a pitch-black space containing a holographic image of The Dark Side Of The Moon’s famous prism
  • the inflatable TV and refrigerator used on the 1977 In The Flesh tour
  • band face masks from ‘The Wall Live’, 1979
  • the 6-metre-high metallic heads created for the cover of 1994’s The Division Bell
  • a flower petal mirrorball stage prop, 1973 – 5
  • the ‘lightbulb suit’ pictured on the sleeve of 1988’s Delicate Sound of Thunder live album
Props from The Wall

Props from The Wall

More discrete pop trivia includes:

  • The punishment book and cane from the Cambridge And County High School for Boys, original guitarist and vocalist Syd Barrett and bass guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Roger Waters were pupils in the late 1950s.
  • Waters’ and Mason’s technical drawings and sketches from the Regent Street Polytechnic where they both studied architecture.
  • Nick Mason’s annotated gig diary from the early years, playing London’s underground music club UFO and touring Britain’s circuit of Top Rank ballrooms and college halls.
  • Roger Waters’ handwritten lyrics for the songs Wish You Were Here and Have A Cigar.

Famously, the band worked with the Hipgnosis design partnership of Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell and the late Storm Thorgerson. There are sketches and early drafts of what became the iconic covers of Dark Side and Wish You Were Here.

Since the band are also a little tiny bit about music, there are also some of their actual instruments, including several of David Gilmour’s guitars, including his famous Black Stratocaster, alongside Richard Wright’s early-‘70s era Mini Moog synthesiser.

Not one but two rooms are completely filled with amplifiers, speakers and shelves full of all the effects pedals and mixing desks in between. It feels like walking into the basement of a guitar shop. Oooh treasure! Visitors are encouraged to twiddle and play with in order to mix your own customised version of Money. There’s a lot here for sound technicians and hi-fi nerds. The final room is ‘the Performance Zone’, where visitors

“enter an immersive audiovisual space which includes the recreation of the last performance of all four members of the band at Live 8 with Comfortably Numb. The track was specially mixed using Sennheiser’s ground-breaking AMBEO 3D audio technology.”

Interviews with technicians who’ve worked with the Floyd over the years bring out the fact that they pioneered a lot of technology which went on to become standard – the trajectory from shaky psychedelic floorshows to flawless stadium theatre, was mirrored by pioneering of musical sounds to be extracted from synthesisers, innovations in recording techniques, new ways of designing and lighting live performances and a minute attention to the quality of the live sound.

Display case of guitars and technical equipment

Display case of guitars and technical equipment

There’s less sex and drugs in it, but there is a fascinating history of the technology of rock music to be written and the Floyd would play a central role as catalysts and visionaries.

Iconic Entertainment Studios

Interestingly, the exhibition is only part-curated by the V&A (to be precise by by Victoria Broackes, Senior Curator, whose previous exhibitions include David Bowie and You Say You Want a Revolution?). The exhibition is presented in partnership with Michael Cohl’s Iconic Entertainment Studios, led by Pink Floyd’s creative director Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell (of the design partnership Hipgnosis) and Paula Webb Stainton, who worked closely with members of Pink Floyd including Nick Mason (Consultant For
Pink Floyd). Also contributing are “designers Stufish, the leading entertainment architects and the band’s long-serving stage designers, and interpretive exhibition designers Real Studios”.

In other words, the show is a natural extension of its previous product design, marketing and display. This aspect of it, the way it can be staged without any of the musicians due to their extensive music recordings and interview material, suggests the possibility that bands from this era (and maybe later, but these 1960s bands are the classic ones) will potentially have an endless afterlife, even after all the band members are long dead which is, well… eerie. What was once so full of life and warmth and energy becomes… mummified.

Early and late

An exciting three minutes from 1967 – I love Syd’s rackety, scratchy guitar sound:

A very boring ten minutes from 1994, featuring David Gilmour’s trademark, flawlessly soaring sound, sending centrist Dads everywhere into ecstacies of air guitar.

Pink Floyd in photos

Pink Floyd 1967 – left to right keyboardist Rick Wright, drummer Nick Mason, bassist Roger Waters and visionary acid casualty Syd Barrett.

Pink Floyd 1973 – l to r: Rick Wright, David Gilmour, Nick Mason, Roger Waters. Far out, man. This is how everyone wanted to look in 1973.

Pink Floyd 1985 – l to r: Wright, Gilmour, Mason. Snappy 80s threads.

Pink Floyd 1994 – Dad Rock epitomised by Mason, Gilmour and Wright.

Pink Floyd 2005 at Live 8 – still crazy after all these years: Gilmour, Waters, Mason, Wright.


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

Opus Anglicanum @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

From the 12th to the 15th centuries England had an international reputation for the quality of its luxury embroideries, often referred to as ‘Opus Anglicanum’ (English work).

The Syon Cope (1310-1320) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Syon Cope (1310-1320) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

These luxury embroideries, featuring silk, velvet, gold and silver thread, were designed and woven by craftsmen and women in London, in a neighbourhood close to old St Paul’s cathedral – hanging from the roof in the second room is a sort of enormous rectangular lightshade which bears the names of the men and women embroiderers whose names have come down to us. Early on a display case shows the tools used in the craft and a video shows modern embroiderers at work to explain the process of creation.

Opus Anglicanum was bought by monarchs and churchmen across Europe and in the first room is a map of Europe showing locations where Opus Anglicanum have survived, scattered right across the continent. Hardly any of the secular embroideries – the ones commissioned and worn by kings, aristocrats, knights and so on – have survived, so almost all the examples in the exhibition are religious, vestments i.e. items of clerical clothing, worn by bishops and priests.

 The Syon Cope (detail) (1310-1320 ) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


The Syon Cope (detail) (1310-1320) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

However the exhibition addresses this lack by including paintings, stained glass, illuminated manuscripts and a number of striking full-length brass rubbings of dead knights, to show what contemporary secular embroidery would have looked like, and also to highlight the overlap in design and motifs between the different media of the times.

 The De Lisle Psalter (detail) (ca. 1320) © The British Library Board


The De Lisle Psalter (detail) (ca. 1320) © The British Library Board

The whole tradition came to an abrupt end with the comprehensive abolition of Catholic ritual, images, relics, statues, church furniture and apparel in Henry VIII’s Reformation in the 1530s. Many of the richest vestments were hidden or chopped up and used as more modest clothing and some of the items on display have been recreated from strips of embroidery which survived the centuries and, in our time, have been re-assembled. A fascinating video shows how this was done for a classic example, the Steeple Aston cope.

The V&A holds the largest collection of these works in the world and the show features works borrowed from across Europe (e.g. the Vatican, Toledo cathedral) – so this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see such a rich collection of medieval embroidered work in one place. It is a sumptuous and rich exhibition, modest in scale, in just six rooms, but full of beautiful works you’d love to be able to touch and run your fingers over (and wear!)

Installation view

Installation view

The exhibition introduced me to terms for ecclesiastical garments I’d never heard of before:

  • armice
  • burse – a flat, square, fabric-covered case in which a folded corporal cloth is carried to and from an altar in church
  • chasuble – an ornate sleeveless outer vestment worn by a Catholic or High Anglican priest when celebrating Mass
  • cope – a large semi-circular garment to be worn in church services.
  • dalmatic – a wide-sleeved long, loose vestment open at the sides, worn by deacons and bishops, and by monarchs at their coronation
  • orphrey – decorative strip that ran along the straight edge of the cope)
  • stole – a priest’s silk vestment worn over the shoulders and hanging down to the knee or below
  • maniple – a vestment formerly worn by a priest celebrating the Eucharist, consisting of a strip hanging from the left arm
  • vestment – a chasuble or other robe worn by the clergy or choristers during services.

All of them repay close investigation; the more you look, the more you marvel at the fineness of the needlework and detail. For no special reason I ended up loitering by the The Butler-Bowdon Chasuble (1398 – 1420). On reflection I think it’s because there are no people in it. In the central vertical band the coats of arms are supported by swans holding each shield with their beaks. In the blue sections to either side, there are diagonal bands filled with what look like peacocks (?) alternating with floral bands decorated with what look like little white roses and a purple thistle (?).

The Butler-Bowdon Chasuble, 1398 – 1420

The Butler-Bowdon Chasuble, 1398 – 1420

It would have been good to confirm my guesses about these details; the wall labels aren’t as full as they could be, although there are a few large-print booklets available which give a bit more information. Presumably there is more in the book, but what you want is really a detailed explanation of the imagery and iconography of each item. For example, up either side of The Chichester-Constable Chasuble (below) there seems to be pairs of intertwining trunks sprouting leaves – are they vines? And they are punctuated at top and bottom with faces – What of? Demons? Lions? And why?

The Chichester-Constable Chasuble (ca. 1335-45) © 2016 The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence

The Chichester-Constable Chasuble (ca. 1335-45) © 2016 The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence

All the human figures have that sweet medieval look. They are elongated. The top of the body is often swaying backwards with the neck and head bending forwards in a kind of counter-balance. The heads are simple/naive with strongly outlined eyes. Also, as in the example, above, the figures are often holding out their arms and hands in highly stylised positions, clearly pointing towards important incidents or making obviously significant gestures. Someone somewhere must have made a lexicon of these gestures which are clearly important but remain, to the uninstructed viewer, for the most part obscure.

 The Steeple Aston Cope (detail) (1310-40) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


The Steeple Aston Cope (detail) (1310-40) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This installation view of the exhibition shows a faded brown cope to the left, below it a reliquary containing a relic of St Thomas a Becket (looking a bit like a 1930s radio), at the back in the centre a scarlet cope with two stained glass figures above and to the right, with several brown orphreys hanging to the right of them, and in the foreground a case showing three medieval illuminated books demonstrating how similar patterns were used in medieval embroidery and illumination.

Installation view

Installation view

The cases showing how similar decorative motifs were used for secular clothes introduced me to a few new terms for items of clothing worn by knights and their horses:

  • horse trapper – a cloth covering laid over a horse or other animal for protection and decoration also known as a caparison
  • surcoat – a loose robe worn over armour
  • tabard – a sleeveless jerkin consisting only of front and back pieces with a hole for the head
Part of a horse trapper probably made for Edward III’s Court (detail) (1330-40) Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée de Cluny – Musée National du Moyen Âge) / Franck Raux

Part of a horse trapper probably made for Edward III’s Court (detail) (1330-40) Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée de Cluny – Musée National du Moyen Âge) / Franck Raux

This is a rich and wonderful exhibition, full of detail and beauty and, above all, inspiring awe at the thousands of hours of humble patient hand work which went into creating each of these marvellous objects.

Advice

The beauty of the works is partly in the initial impact they make of sumptuousness and size (a cope is a big item of clothing). But mostly in the details and there are three problems here.

1. In something like the Syon Cope (top image in the blog post) I am not really clear what I’m looking for. I know how to read a painting. I don’t know how to read a medieval piece of embroidery. Some kind of guide to what to look for and enjoy in every piece would be extremely helpful.

In this respect the V&A has produced an excellent interactive page explaining details of The Butler-Bowdon Cope. I suppose it’s financially impractical, but in an ideal world every single one of the objects here would have just such a detailed guide to each of the figures, their histories, gestures, postures and meanings.

2. Understandably, the light is quite dim throughout to preserve these old fabrics. Also a lot of the detail is quite small. Not minute, just not very big. Ironically, I have enjoyed examining the detail of the dragons (above) and the angel on horseback playing a lute (three images above) more from these high-resolution photos on the V&A website, than when I was actually looking at them in real life.

My advice would be to read as much as you can about the exhibition on the V&A website and any reviews before you go, so that you’ve got a good idea what you’re going to see and which bits of it you are particularly interested in (the embroidery techniques and fabrics; the religious iconography; the floral and decorative designs; the histories of the noble families who often commissioned the works and whose coats of arms or heraldic symbols are woven into them, etc etc).

And consider taking a magnifying glass or pair of strong glasses so you can really enjoy the delightful details which the size and complexity (and the sheer number) of the designs sometimes obscure.


Related links

Other V&A blog posts

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

‘Your generation thinks it’s just bloody immortal… you just want to go on perpetuating your horrible 1960s culture into the next century…’ (teenager Belinda Weber moaning to her environmentally friendly, socialist ex-hippy parents in Bumping Along the Bottom from the Posy Simmonds collection of cartoon strips, Mustn’t Grumble, 1993

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 for wherever you’re standing. Groovy, man!

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 (he had a dream, apparently), 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 1960s 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 for drugs, if you didn’t know that Bob Dylan caused a scandal by ditching his folk sound at the 1965 Newport Festival to go electric, if you didn’t know that London was declared ‘Swinging London’ by American magazines or 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 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 a revelation 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 the guide 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, which we really do seem to be destroying.

In a more indefinable way ‘deference’ to authority in the form of the police, the courts and politicians was permanently weakened and we are nowadays generally as suspicious of authority figures as most hippies were in 1969.

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 pretty much universal.

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 also 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. All very chilled, man but… in a major exhibition?

The Victoria 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 pop, superficial 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 LP cover art, giving lots of space to pioneering designs and designers, explaining the movements and trends in what came, during this period, a well-defined art form in its own right.

There was some explanation of the way non-commercial posters – as a form of cheap, mass producible communication which weren’t adverts, newspapers or billboards – 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 beginning to fulfil its emit but 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. Thus: Anti-war.

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

The 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 at the back). 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

The 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

Medieval and Renaissance art at the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s Medieval and Renaissance collection is scattered over different floors and different parts of the building. (See the V&A floor plan to understand what follows.)

If you enter the main entrance on Cromwell Road, turn immediately right, then left down the narrow steps (past the men’s loo) into rooms 8, 9, 10, 10a, 10b and 10c, to begin at the chronologically earliest part of the display, covering the years 300 – 1500.

Stairs at the end take you up to level 2, where rooms 62 to 64 continue ‘Medieval & Renaissance 300-1600’. From this balcony level you can descend back to ground level and to the huge east hall (probably the first thing you see when you’re buying tickets or asking for information in the entrance lobby) this hall comprising rooms 50a, 50b, 50c and 50d, which house monumental sculptures and a vast stone church screen.

Also on the ground floor, though in the opposite wing, is another huge room 48a, which houses some Raphael cartoons and, in the corridor beside the main bookshop, rooms 16a, 26 and 27, which house a series of sculptures from 1300 to 1600. Close to this are the two large rooms 46a and 46b, which contain casts of Renaissance sculptures, the so-called ‘Cast Courts’.

Early medieval

A visit to all of these rooms confirmed me in my sense that I prefer art from what used to be called the Dark Ages and the early Medieval period, and my interest falls away during the religious revival of the 14th century – although I still like its humanistic medieval approach – and then falls off a cliff as the technically perfect artists of the Renaissance put their gifts to the service of hundreds of horrible Italian princes and the manufacture of countless pastiche classical statues, or gold-larded altars adorned with simpering Madonnas and halo-happy saints.

Why visit galleries or museums?

You visit museums or galleries not only to learn about the ostensible subject matter of what you’re seeing, but also:

1. Visiting helps you find out what you like and don’t like and so helps you define your tastes and preferences – helps inform and improve those tastes and preferences. In this day and age you don’t have to conform to pre-set canons of taste, but how do you know what you like till you try it?

2. It is also a form of therapy. By clarifying what you like and don’t like you find out who you are, the kind of person you are – an art lover, a science lover, a weapons lover, a photograph lover: there are museums and galleries for every taste. And finding out what you like is part of understanding who you are.

3. Exhibits are not only data for value judgements they are witnesses to the past and since all art is produced in some part of the past, it is difficult to avoid engaging with history, in one or other sense of the word. And understanding fragments of the past may help you better understand the troubled present.

Personal prejudices

If I ask myself why I like the pieces I warmed to, it is for one of two reasons:

1. Real Dark Age art is original, weird and different from the Classical or Renaissance periods which bookend it. It speaks of pagan mysteries, the Teutonic forests, a northern ecosystem, a barbarian bestiary of ravens, foxes, gargoyles, green men and grotesques, not laid out in expensive open perspectives, but crammed together into constricted spaces which make them adopt strange stylised postures.

In its avoidance of the the perfection of classical statuary, in its interest in energy compacted into a stylised space, it has obvious similarities with the Modernist art, especially from the period of the Great War, which I also love.

2. When the art of painting revives from the 1200s onwards, I dislike almost all religious ie Catholic, subject matter, and warm to the depiction of people in their own right, for their humanity, for the love of suffering humanity which they evoke. Linked to that view, I warm to animals, flowers, trees and all the indications of a lush, fertile northern environment, and am almost physically repelled by the harsh, barren, rocky landscapes under a pitilessly blue sky, which characterise so much Italian Renaissance painting.

Personal highlights

So this isn’t an attempt to be definitive or authoritative; it is a very personal list of highlights.

Rooms 8 to 10

  • Ivory Last Judgement and Transfiguration (800, recarved 860) I liked the very literal way the coffin lids were coming off in the middle of the image and how, at the bottom right, a big devil’s head is swallowing naughty sinners.
  • Elephant ivory comb (875) Ceremonial combs were used to comb the hair of a priest before he conducted the Mass. Combing was a symbolic process, which established bodily order. It also stopped unruly hair falling in the communion wine.
  • Tabernacle with deposition (1150) I liked the polished crystal in the base, the cartoon bendiness of the human figures and the way they blend into the crucifix which, unusually, has the form of an actual, organically growing tress, rather than the usual straight planks.
  • non-classical animals, bestiaries
  • Relief of the Virgin and Child in orange-red Verona marble (1160-80). The flat smooth expressionless faces remind me of Modernist sculpture, maybe of the Eric Gill reliefs on display at Tate Britain.
  • Grotesque corbel, made from carved sandstone between 1125 and 1150. Corbels stick out from walls to support other features. Why were grotesques and gargoyles so common on medieval buildings?
  • The Becket Casket (1180-90) I liked the stylised hieratic figures, especially the dancing knights beheading the saint, and the prominent polished rock crystals.
  • Virgin and child with goldfinch (1280-1300) made from elephant ivory. What caught my attention was the way Jesus is holding a bird like a toy. It is a goldfinch, symbolic of the crucifixion because it (supposedly) eats seeds of thistles, prickles, thorns.
  • Morse ivory fragment with the Deposition (c. 1190-1200) The humanity of the effort, the closeness, the physical intimacy of the task.
  • Relief of Saints Philip, Jude, and Bartholomew (1150) from limestone. I like the flat stylised effect. Again, like modern art.

There were two touchscreen information panels (complete with a quiz to take after you’ve read the content) about the Romanesque and Gothic.

Romanesque 1000-1200 (so named in the 1820s to refer to a ‘debased Roman style’.) Round arches lined by chevron or dogtooth patterns, scrolling plants, the human form more decorative than realistic, imaginary creatures. Characteristic buildings: Durham Cathedral. People: Henry of Blois, brother of King Stephen of England.

Gothic 1200-1500 (used by the 16th century Italian Renaissance critic Vasari to refer to the ‘barbarous German style’ which defeated and repressed good classical taste until the revival of classical style in the 15th century.) Pointed arches, flying buttresses, curving human figures, naturalism of detail eg leaves, expressive emotion. Key buildings: Notre Dame Paris, York Minster (still the largest building in York, it took 250 years to build).

  • The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries; Boar and Bear Hunt (1425-30) This fills one big wall and has an audioguide of its own with a touchscreen which allows you to pick out particular details and hear them interpreted. Ever since I read the wall labels for the wall painting of Nebamun at the British Museum, I’ve realised the symbolic importance of hunting scenes: they may have value as naturalistic depictions, but their primary purpose is to assert the hierarchies of authority in a society, to show the ruling classes enacting, imposing and creating order in the natural world and, by extension, in their culture.

Rooms 50a, 50b, 50c, 50d

Nothing. I disliked everything in this huge space, the flawless pastiches of classical statues, the vast oppressive ‘s-Hertogenbosch Choir Screen which covers one wall, the numerous heavy, threatening church features such as pulpits, fonts and screens, all done with a leaden, heartless perfection.

Rooms 62 to 64

  • The huge timber staircase from Morlaix in Brittany (1530) redolent of Henry IV and Falstaff’s tavern scenes.
  • Room 1 at the British Museum has an extended explanation of the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ as created by collectors in northern Europe. One room here contains a small but striking collection of luxury items from the Cabinet of Curiosities or Kunstkammer of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I (1503-1564).
  • Towel holder (1520-25) The missing arms would have held a pole over which a towel would have been draped. Apparently, the fool towel holder was a common feature.
  • Virgin and very ugly Child by Carlo Crivelli (1480) Note the fly on the parapet. And the carnation and two violets.

In the eight rooms on this level, by far the best, the most stunning, original, powerful and sophisticated exhibit was a Benin bronze on loan from the British Museum, demonstrating the sophistication of other cultures as the Europeans began faring forth to discover and then colonise the world.


Related links

Other museums

%d bloggers like this: