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The Royal Northern Sinfonia and Isata Kanneh-Mason

On Friday night, Wendy and I returned to the Glasshouse International Centre for Music to hear the Royal Northern Sinfonia play works by Beethoven and Schumann, plus a Clara Schumann piano concerto featuring Isata Kanneh-Mason. We saw Isata’s cellist brother several times last year, including in this very hall. The talent in the Kanneh-Mason family is astonishing.

The RNS now stream most of their home performances on YouTube, as they did with this one. It’s both fascinating and discombobulating to see the same concert I’ve witnessed in person streamed online, with all of the televisual close-ups and changes of angles that medium provides. I guess it’s a uniquely twenty-first-century experience.

I almost booked the seats behind the stage, and given how prominent they are in the streamed production, I’m glad I didn’t!

This post was filed under: Art, Music, , , , .

‘Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto’

This is another V&A exhibition for which you can chalk my attendance up to having complimentary access. I’ve no particular interest in Chanel, and certainly wouldn’t have paid twenty-odd quid to wander round it. Could it pull off the trick of Diva and reel in even this sceptical visitor? In a word: no.

If you covet Chanel clothing, this is the exhibition for you: hundreds of dresses, suits and more are assembled for you to gawp at. And gawp people did: it’s clear that this is why the vast majority of the crowd had come. The gender balance in the crowd was, shall we say, uneven.

However, if you’re more interested in Coco Chanel as a person, the influences behind her designs, or her creative and professional journey through significant social changes, you’ll likely be disappointed.

I might have felt differently if this were an art gallery exhibition, and I was being invited to contemplate the pieces and draw my own interpretations and conclusions. I’m not that into fashion, so I still doubt it would have moved me, but the lack of analysis would have ranked less than it did in a museum exhibition promising a named designer’s manifesto.

There’s a room in this exhibition with a gracefully curved, back-lit, two-storey display case filled with dozens of Chanel suits. I witnessed people enter this space and gasp, their eyes dazzling. If you’d gasp, you’d probably enjoy this show. If, like me, you’re vaguely baffled that the interpretation panels for so many suits amount to perhaps 100 words in total, leaving you to wonder what the hell you’re supposed to take away from this bit of curation, you probably won’t like it.

I learned that from early in her career, Chanel preferred simple garments that were comfortable to wear, generally featuring white, cream and black—the latter formerly shunned as appropriate only for mourning. And, it seemed to me, she stayed that course for the remainder. She was a visionary genius, we’re constantly told, but we never quite explore why, or where anything besides her core ideas propagated outside her fashion house.

Chanel experimented with different materials now and again, but I didn’t get a sense of progression. She leant her brand to a perfume line, but as this was hived off into its own space in the exhibition, I didn’t really get an appreciation of whether (or how) the progression of that line influenced her fashion, and vice versa. There was a nice hand-written letter from the late Queen in the perfume section, displayed much more prominently than any description of Chanel’s unsuccessful attempt to seize control of the perfume business from its Jewish owner during the mid-century rise in antisemitism. This is surprising, as one might imagine that the latter gives greater insight into Chanel’s character and ‘manifesto’ than the latter.

During the war, Chanel temporarily closed her fashion house, and possibly became a spy, possibly for one side, possibly for the other, possibly for both. ‘We can’t be sure,’ says the exhibition, ‘as she never finished her autobiography.’

It’s hard not to see that sort of thing as a cop-out. Surely, we couldn’t be sure even if she had written an autobiography? Interrogation of secondary sources would be essential, but here we just brush over the whole episode, but ooh, here are some more dresses.

It feels like the exhibition promotes Chanel, the brand. It tells us repeatedly how wonderful Chanel is, inviting us to stand and stare, while minimising the bits of the story that might seem, at best, a bit awkward to modern eyes. It seems to lack critical analysis, offering little dissection of the brand’s projected image versus the reality.

Walking past a large ‘exhibition supported by Chanel’ logo on exiting gave me a sinking feeling. Was the support contingent on the lack of criticism? Is this actually just an advert, rather than merely feeling like one?

And mostly: does something which lacks criticism, lacks analysis, and lacks proper context really belong in a museum?

I’m not sure it does.


Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto continues at the V&A until 10 March, but it’s sold out, so you’re too late if you haven’t already got tickets.

This post was filed under: Art, Museums, Travel, , , .

‘Orchids: the beauty of Madagascar’

When I think of orchids, I think of my grandparents, who used to take great pride—and occasionally some frustration—in cultivating them on their windowsill.

Yet, they took on a slightly different meaning when I worked at the Department of Health in London. Much as fevered talk of Glyndebourne took over later in the year, February was dedicated to chatting about whether people ‘had seen the orchids yet’. The reference was to the annual orchid festival at Kew Gardens.

Until the other day, I’d never visited the orchid festival before. As a visit to London happened to coincide with the festival, and since I’m a member of a scheme which gives me free access to Kew Gardens, I thought I’d pop in.

I expected a sort of exhibition: some plants, perhaps with little interpretation boards explaining what was so remarkable about them. I expected to come away with at least a vague appreciation of what makes an orchid an orchid, perhaps having learned a thing or two.

The first thing I learned is that one does not simply ‘pop in’ to the orchid festival. This is a ‘book a time slot’, ‘stand in queue’, ‘bags searched on entry’ experience. If you’re not up for crowds, this isn’t for you: it’s a slow-moving snake of people, mostly looking at flowers through their phone cameras. Don’t expect to stand and admire or stop and contemplate: unless, of course, you temporarily detour off the route into a designated ‘quiet space’, the existence of which is a clue to the atmosphere in the main conservatories: expect piped-in music from Madagascar and plenty of crowd noise.

The second thing I learned is that this isn’t primarily an educational experience: it’s a gawp-at-that, take-a-photo-for-instagram experience. Don’t expect interpretation boards explaining the life cycle of the orchid; do expect orchids arranged to look like giant chameleons, birds, lemurs and the occasional turtle. Kew’s preferred description is ‘horticultural spectacle’, which is a bit like describing the Blackpool illuminations as a ‘photometric panorama’.

As I wandered around, I kept thinking that it felt a little like parading around a ‘plant zoo’: this was an environment created for the visitors’ entertainment, not to demonstrate the plants in their natural habitat nor really to educate to any meaningful degree. The concentration on Madagascar specifically felt a bit culturally off, too: I kept wondering what would be in the ‘UK’ greenhouses in the Botanical Gardens of Antananarivo.

But none of this takes away from the astonishing achievement of putting on some impressive orchid-based dioramas: it just isn’t at all what I expected it to be, and nor is it up my street. I won’t be rushing back next year, but don’t let that put you off visiting this year.


The orchid festival continues at Kew Gardens until 3 March.

This post was filed under: Art, Travel, , .

‘Diva’

If someone was describing an exhibition which would be of minimal interest to me, this one at the V&A would superficially come close to the result. It’s mostly a fashion exhibition—not something that would usually appeal—heavily promoted as featuring outfits worn by pop music heroines, many of whom I wouldn’t recognise on the street. My sole reason for popping by was that I have complimentary access and happened to be in the area.

I was unexpectedly engrossed and impressed.

In terms of the actual exhibits, this was primarily a fashion exhibition. Its success came from using the exhibits to explore a wider story. In this case, the running theme was feminism and its relationship to the shifting meaning of the word ‘diva’.

We start with ‘diva’ in the 16th-century sense of ‘goddess’, as applied to opera singers—primarily sopranos—whose voices were so spectacular as to be considered virtually supernatural. This is also where we first encounter the subversive power of the ‘diva’: as those voices become the driver of ticket sales, works begin to be written around them, and the ‘divas’ attain power and independence far beyond that offered to a woman in virtually any other walk of life. Indeed, they attain more than the men: these ‘divas’ were not just singers, but captains of industry in their own rights, using their platform to promote ‘female’ issues. Yet, often, these ‘divas’ failed to find happiness in their own lives, the persona—the costume—becoming a kind of gilded cage.

And so the pattern repeated, from opera, to jazz, to theatre, to movies, to pop music. The same tropes crop up again and again, each time bringing forth viewpoints from the latest wave of feminism. Since the 1960s, but even more so in the fourth wave of feminism, one needn’t be a woman to be a diva: and so we see Elton John’s startling Louis XIV fiftieth birthday outfit.

It’s interesting to contemplate the layers of meaning in ‘diva’—given our collective history, it’s no surprise that there’s an element of disparagement in a term describing a woman who wields her own influence.

It’s an exhibition that provides plenty of facts, and plenty of provocations for reflection. If you’re interested in fashion, there’s a whole other layer of interest here that mostly passed me by. I also enjoyed the clever use of audio headsets, which responded to each exhibit: I might not have known all the featured artists by name, but I recognised more for their music. The audio also helped to illustrate the connection between fashion and music, and cleverly synced with film clips in the exhibition.

For all that: the thing that has stayed most with me from this exhibition is a huge looping timeline of feminism from the 1800s onwards, titled ‘Redefining the Diva’. The final point on the timeline, coming after fourth-wave feminism and dated 2022, is the US Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe vs Wade. If ever there was a reminder that we still need feminism—and divas who push the boundaries—then that has to be it.


Diva continues at the V&A until 10 April.

This post was filed under: Art, Travel, , .

Essalamus

I can’t believe that I’ve never featured this sign on the blog before, yet I can’t find a previous mention.

This post was filed under: Art, , .

‘Yevonde: Life and Colour’

This exhibition has recently transferred from the National Portrait Gallery to The Laing. Before visiting, I knew nothing about Yevonde, but I came away with a real appreciation for her life and work. She was a photographer who developed her practice in the period between the two World Wars, and who was a pioneer of the use of colour photography. There were several strands running through the exhibition that stood out to me.

The exhibition did a good job of helping me to understand how colour photography initially developed. It was a simple process involving taking multiple simultaneous images effectively through multiple cameras, with coloured filters in front of each one. These could then be developed using coloured inks and composited to create a colour image. It’s a simple and logical process, but one that was entirely new to me.

Yevonde developed a distinctive style for her colour photography:

If we are going to have colour photography, for heaven’s sake, let’s have a riot of colour.

My colour perception is pretty poor, but even so, the Vivex photography combined with Yevonde’s compositions seemed stunning vivid on the gallery walls, almost hyperreal. This is perhaps most celebrated in her work photographing women dressed as goddesses.

The exhibition included a small goddess-inspired dressing up corner, and during my visit, this was occupied by a woman who seemed to be having the time of her life, alone in front of the mirror. More power to her.

I was interested in Yevonde’s feminism, which was well represented in the exhibition. Most of the human subjects featured in her work were female, and it was suggested that much of her early interested in photography was driven by a desire to be independent.

The duties of a wife with a separate career have yet to be defined, and although complete unselfishness, has always been considered a sure foundation for domestic happiness, I am not convinced.

The curators placed one of the largest of Yevonde’s self-portraits alongside this quotation:

This is not the story of a woman’s life, but the story of a photographer that happens to be a woman.

Almost exactly a year ago, I enjoyed the Design Museum’s exhibition on Surrealism. I was therefore interested to see in this exhibition the interaction between Yevonde’s photography, and colour photography more generally, and surrealism. It is surely no accident that the often bright colour of surrealist work came about just as colour photography was beginning to make a splash.

All things considered, I thought this was a great exhibition. I learned things from it and gained new insights and perspectives on the art featured. It was well worth a visit.


Yevonde: Life and Colour continues at The Laing until 20 April.

This post was filed under: Art, , , .

‘Stepping Softly on the Earth’

This exhibition brings together work by twenty artists from around the world, intending to prompt reflection on how humans interact with the natural world.

Two installations particularly stood out to me.

This is Kaal (Time), a 2023 work by Kamruzzaman Shadhin and the Gidree Bawlee Foundation of Arts, which Shadhin founded. It’s a striking collection of seven hand-woven jute sculptures on aluminium frames. They are captured performing Bishahari Pala, a folk theatre work.

The work effectively combines a representation of the land and the people it sustains. There is something quite endearing about the characters; they look like they must have taken many hours to weave.

This is part of a dynamic water installation called Templo del agua, río Tyne by Leonel Vásquez of Colombia. Drops of purified water from the River Tyne fell through the complicated apparatus and created musical notes, which were both audible and physically sensed through the vibration of the benches.

Rocks from the Tyne hung around the space, which Vásquez describes as a ‘temple’.

Despite being in the middle of a crowded gallery of works, the combination of water and acoustics made this space feel quasi-religious or meditative. It was a quite captivating piece.


Stepping Softly on the Earth continues at Baltic until 14 April.

This post was filed under: Art, , , , .

‘The Waiting Gardens of the North’

Having recently seen Connecting Histories, This botanical art installation by Michael Rakowitz ought to have held particular resonance. Like Connecting Histories, there’s a plant-based exploration of colonialism. However, The Waiting Gardens of the North intends to reflect current, rather than historical, experiences.

By planting a ‘garden’ in which different plants are at different stages of the life cycle, Rakowitz intends to explore the strange ‘pause’ in life caused by waiting for asylum applications to be processed: a time when people are caught between the past and an uncertain future.

The central feature of the installation is a collage made of food packaging from local West Asian, South Asian and African grocery stores.

But honestly, I’m telling you most of that from reading the interpretation panels. I don’t think I’d have derived it for myself in a month of Sundays. Wendy commented that it felt like wandering around a particularly good garden department in a branch of B&Q, and I find it hard to disagree.

The nature of art means that, sometimes, the artist’s vision for an installation won’t meaningfully connect with some viewers. This was the case for me with this one. I don’t think I would ever have appreciated that Rakowitz was aiming for ‘a metaphorical space where the potential for growth, transformation, and resistance can take root.’

But that’s okay because I’m sure some viewers will love it.


The Waiting Gardens of the North continues at Baltic until 26 May.

This post was filed under: Art, , , .

‘Making space’

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery isn’t an immediately obvious place to host an exhibition of photographs of architecture, but there is an exciting resonance here. While the rest of the building is dedicated to representations of people, this exhibition comments on how physical space impacts people’s lives.

You don’t need a medical degree, nor even a Victoria Wood sketch of a medical school interview, to know that architecture can have a lasting impact on the life changes of individuals: poor housing exacerbates health inequalities, for example. Perhaps because of my profession, it was Chris Leslie’s photographs of Glasgow which particularly caught my eye.

We all know how the city’s 1960s towerblocks of ‘urban renewal’ turned out not to be a lasting solution, with many of the blocks being demolished after as little as forty years. It’s the backstory to any number of novels I’ve read in recent years if nothing else! Yet Leslie’s work brings home the human aspect of transforming the city’s landscape in a way that other representations haven’t. There is something about documentary photography that brings home the folly of the timescale and the impact of the displacement. It also made me wonder about the appalling ecological footprint of the schemes.

Leslie’s photograph Bird Man of Red Road drew out the social exclusion of the last residents of many of the flats, asylum seekers. I didn’t know of that particular temporary afterlife of the blocks, and it adds another strand to their story.

There was much more to contemplate in the exhibition, including a dizzying large-print photograph of a San Francisco lobby by Andreas Gursky, but I know that Leslie’s work will stay with me.


Making Space continues at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery until 3 March.

This post was filed under: Art, , , , , .

‘Connecting histories’

It’s a reflection of my own cultural biases that when reflecting on the impact of colonialism and the British Empire on botany, of all things, my mind leaps to the introduction of species to the UK. Plants such as fuchsias, geraniums and petunias arrived on our shores through a complex and uncomfortable web of international relations.

This exhibition made me think for the first time about how the movement of species is more complicated than things reaching British gardens. Empire introduced coffee and tobacco to India, for example, which I would ignorantly have assumed were native to India.

But this exhibition is really about reckoning with part of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh’s colonial history. Its collection includes a significant number of botanical drawings by Indian artists commissioned by Scottish doctors employed by the East India Company. Doctors, of course, because the Garden’s primary function was medical. Very little is known about any of the artists: in many cases, not even their names.

This exhibition of their drawings, therefore, becomes not only an appreciation of their inherent beauty and accuracy but also a sad reflection. It reminds the visitor with marvellous clarity of the way that the Empire often failed to recognise the personhood of those on whose remarkable skills and talents it relied.


Connecting histories continues at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh until 14 April.

This post was filed under: Art, , , .




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