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‘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, , , .

I’ve been to visit ‘Gathering Light’

The full title of this exhibition appears to be A British Museum Spotlight Loan: Gathering Light: a Bronze Age Golden Sun. The central object of the exhibition is a gold pendant—inexplicably displayed on a stick rather than in a hanging fashion—which dates back to the Bronze Age. It was found in Shropshire in May 2018.

I liked that the exhibition didn’t over-interpret the object. For example, there was text attempting to address why the design differs on each side of the pendant, which came to no firm conclusion.

I didn’t, however, learn much from the exhibition. There were a few local Bronze Age finds displayed alongside, but the exhibition didn’t leave me able to explain the historical importance of the main object.

I also didn’t like the degree to which the space was ‘British Museum’ branded. I’ve whinged about this before, and I should probably change the record, but when an exhibition about a Bronze Age object contains the works ‘British Museum’ more times than the words ‘Bronze Age,’ something is amiss. It feels like walking into an advert rather than an exhibition.

It was disappointing to see that the case containing the Faith and Science objects I’ve previously mentioned was covered with vinyls concealing the contents. It felt as though there was concern that they might detract from the British Museum’s special exhibition, with which they shared a space.

As you might tell, I didn’t take much away from this exhibition.

Gathering Light continues at Sunderland Art Gallery until 3 June.

This post was filed under: Museums, Post-a-day 2023, , , .

I’ve been to visit ‘Alexander the Great’

I didn’t really know anything about Alexander the Great. I could have told you with a low level of certainty that he was an ancient Greek ruler, and that he led his army in a lot of wars to expand his territory, but that’s probably about my limit. Judging by the conversations I overheard, I’m fairly certain I was one of the least informed people walking into the exhibition about him at the British Library. The trouble is, I’m not convinced that I knew that much more when I left.

The first section of the exhibition attempts to pin down Alexander’s life. This is not easy: as is demonstrated through books and artefacts, Alexander was all things to all people, even his lineage varying to suit the country in which the story was being told. He was a man about whom legends flourished even while he was alive. This reminded me of modern shape-shifting politicians. Rather than professing a set of deeply held values, they pretend to be whatever they need to be to impress the audience they are before at any given moment. They use dog whistles to signal certain unpalatable views without putting off the audiences who don’t hear them.

For Alexander, this proved to be a remarkably sound strategy–if indeed it was a strategy. Perhaps he had no part in it, and it was the conquered who wanted to lessen the humiliation of their defeat by welcoming their new ruler as ‘one of them’ after all. The impetus for the creation of the myths wasn’t explored in the exhibition.

It is pointed out that Alexander the Great is featured in the key texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He was also being acknowledged in some places as a son of an Egyptian god, and in others as the destroyer of Zoroastrianism. Quite the reputation. We’re also told that Alexander was polygamous, and in addition to his wives also had relationships with men… which is a lot of putting it about for someone celebrated in so many religions.

It felt as though the bulk of the exhibition focused on the myths that have been cultivated around Alexander since his life: that he dived to the bottom of the sea, that he flew in a cage carried by birds, that he conversed with the gods, and so on. Again, the exhibition seemed to concentrate on repeating these myths and showing me books in which they appeared, rather than exploring how and why they arose.

I know this is a British Library exhibition, but there is something remarkably dull about looking at a load of books in glass cases with a paragraph of printed text about the contents of the books. Admittedly, some books are beautiful objects, like this 13th century Secretum secretorum, a Latin translation of what was considered at the time to be a genuine book of advice given to Alexander by Aristotle:

But some featured books are rather less historically remarkable. I can’t remember the last time I saw a 2015 novel that I could pick up on Amazon for £7.99 in a museum’s glass case:

The exhibition closes with one of the weirdest things I’ve seen in some time. Admittedly, part of my surprise was attributable to the fact that I had no idea that Alexander the Great crossed over into the world of video games. As someone who knows very little about Alexander and very little about video games, I suppose that’s to be expected.

The exhibition ends with a life-sized diorama in which imagery of Alexander’s ‘tomb chamber’ from the game Assassin’s Creed Origins is projected onto the walls. The space is occupied by a 2022 replica of the sarcophagus of Nectanebo II, once thought to have housed Alexander’s body. The original is less than a mile away in the British Museum.

The replica is of the object as it is now, including the holes drilled in the bottom in Medieval times to support its use as a ritual bath. I don’t comprehend why anyone would go to the trouble of borrowing imagery from a video game set millennia ago to surround a replica of something as it appears today. Why have the object be from a different period to the setting? It’s baffling.

I think this exhibition is probably targeted more at Alexander’s fans than at me, so it possibly isn’t that surprising that I didn’t get much out of it. I suppose I did learn that Alexander has fans. The exhibition was also quite crowded, and I was short on time, so perhaps I’m judging it more harshly than it really deserves… but I wouldn’t go back.

If you want to see it, you’ll have to hurry: Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth continues at the British Library until Sunday.

This post was filed under: Art, Museums, Post-a-day 2023, , .

Seshepenmehyt’s coffin

I have written previously about visiting Heiroglyphs at the British Museum. The exhibition includes the coffin and mummified remains of Bakt en hor, which are normally on display at the Great North Museum. In return for the loan, the British Museum has sent the inner coffin of Seshepenmehyt up to Newcastle.

After my discomfort at the Hieroglyphs exhibition, I was keen to see whether a British Museum artefact displayed elsewhere would feel any better.

As you can see, the coffin is strikingly beautiful. The absence of crowds meant that I could take some time to contemplate the coffin, and to view it closely from all four sides.

The interpretation text concentrated on the imagery of the afterlife carved into the coffin, which is appropriate as it is on display in a part of the museum dedicated to cultural and religious responses to death.

It was slightly strange that the interpretation was given in The British Museum’s house style and colour scheme rather than that of the Great North Museum—the same certainly didn’t apply in reverse for the loan of Bakt en hor.

But the oddest thing of all was that the display was labelled prominently, in large logos on every side, as being from The British Museum. The word ‘British’ appears more frequently and in bigger letters in the exhibit than the word ‘Egyptian’, which is baffling. Why should the country that holds the artefact be more boldly highlighted than the place where the coffin’s occupant lived, and from where the coffin was pilfered?

Even the museum’s webpage mentions the British Museum ten times, and Egypt only seven times—and two of the mentions of Egypt are referring to parts of the museum.

I can’t help but feel that we’re overdue for a proper reckoning with our country’s past, and a reconsideration of how we treat treasures we’ve stolen from other countries.

Seshepenmehyt is at the Great North Museum: Hancock for just a few more days, until 19 February.

This post was filed under: Museums, Post-a-day 2023, .

I’ve been to visit ‘Hieroglyphs’

Visiting the British Museum feels a bit uncomfortable these days. A venue that shows off treasures stolen from other countries, refuses to give them back and exhibits them with interpretation from a primarily British perspective gives me “the ick,” as people younger than me might say.

Visiting an exhibition sponsored by an oil company, with a cloying “have a great time” message from the company beside the entrance, is also discomforting.

The fact that the guard searching my bag in the security theatre had to check with a colleague whether my toothbrush constituted a “potential weapon” did not feel especially welcoming. For clarity, I hadn’t (yet) fashioned it into a shiv.

But it’s often said that no-one does exhibitions quite as well as the British Museum, so I thought I’d dive in any way.

I visited the British Museum’s latest temporary number on Hieroglyphs—not something you’d ordinarily associate with Bloomsbury.

It wasn’t really worth it. My view is probably coloured by the fact that the exhibition was overcrowded. I don’t know how that’s allowed to happen with timed ticketing, but it was a struggle to see much of anything.

I didn’t really know much about hieroglyphs before attending: I knew that their meaning was lost, and then essentially rediscovered when the Rosetta Stone was found. I didn’t feel that I left the exhibition with really any more understanding than I arrived with, though perhaps I had more appreciation of the amount of (weirdly competitive) work that was undertaken to use the stone to decode hieroglyphs.

I don’t think I’ve seen the Rosetta Stone before (though maybe I did as a child): it’s a remarkable object, but it’s hard not to look at it and wonder why on Earth it is in a glass case in London, shorn of all natural context. It’s an Egyptian artefact with Greek text pilfered by the French—and Egypt has wanted back it for decades. It seems cruel and absurd for it to be held in a British museum, a relic of the attitudes of an age which we might hope to have consigned to the past.

It also felt to me like many of the cultural interpretations of objects were over-reaching, or at least did not explain how the conclusions did not overreach. I spent some time looking at an object described as a calendar of “lucky days”, and wondering how on Earth that conclusion could be drawn. It made me think that millennia from now, someone will dig up a calendar of lottery draws and talk about how there were European-wide “lucky days” when the population would collectively place money on the drawing of random balls. It’s a valid interpretation, but unrecognisable as a description of the motivations and experiences of most people.

But this exhibition has been praised by people who know what they’re talking about, so don’t let the fact that I found it more depressing than enlightening put you off: you still have a couple of weeks left to go and see it.

Hieroglyphs’ continues at the British Museum until 19 February.

This post was filed under: Museums, Post-a-day 2023, Travel, , .

I’ve been to visit ‘Pyrex100’

Pyrex, the thermally resistant glass, used to be made in Sunderland. In fact, between 1922 and 2007, all Pyrex sold across the commonwealth—excepting Canada—was made in Sunderland. You’ve probably got a bit of Sunderland in your home right now.

The city is proud of this heritage, and so Sunderland Museum has created Pyrex100—an exhibition to celebrate a century since the start of manufacture in the city.

When I think of Pyrex, I think of glass measuring jugs. I was therefore unsurprised to see that the earliest Pyrex manufactured in Sunderland was a range of clear glassware. I had no idea, though, that glass teapots were a thing in the 1920s and 1930s.

Around this time, Pyrex was also a pioneer in marketing products directly to householders—mostly housewives at that time—rather than to their household staff. It’s sometimes startling to be reminded of the pace of societal change over the last century.

Though the designs of these pieces look suspiciously familiar, I was also unaware of Opalware. These were products made of Pyrex, and therefore strong and heat-resistant, but designed to look like china. They don’t look like they’d fool anyone, but I’m not convinced that I’d immediately pick them out as glass.

The crockery we use in our house is made of reclaimed offcuts of glass products: I thought this was a really novel idea when we bought them, but clearly I’m 70 years behind the times.

Commemorative Pyrex was a thing, too: here’s a 1966 World Cup commemorative glass. I would perhaps have expected to see this sort of thing in crystal, but seeing it in Pyrex maybe illustrates that Pyrex was once desirable in a similar way.

And this is the last bit of Pyrex ever made in the UK, which rolled off the production line as the factory closed in 2007. As this was the last commercial glassware factory in Sunderland, this also brought to an end something like 1,500 years of glassmaking history in the city.

You might, like me, have assumed that the word Pyrex shares the Greek root pyr (fire) with pyrexia and, indeed, funeral pyre, given that its main property is heat resistance, and it is glass forged in a fire. But this exhibition made me wonder about the ‘ex’, and so I came home and looked it up.

And prepare to clutch your pearls because—amazingly—the brand has nothing to do with pyr and everything to do with pies.

The Oxford English Dictionary quotes the original company’s assistant secretary as saying:

The word ‘pyrex’ is a purely arbitrary word which was devised in 1915 as a trade-mark for products manufactured and sold by Corning Glass Works… We had a number of prior trade-marks ending in the letters ‘ex’. One of the first commercial products to be sold under the new mark was a pie plate and in the interests of euphonism the letter ‘r’ was inserted between ‘pie’ and ‘ex’ and the whole thing condensed to ‘pyrex’.

It just goes to show that you can never rely on etymological assumptions.

Pyrex100 continues at Sunderland Museum… but it ends on Saturday, so you need to get there quick if you want to see it.

This post was filed under: Art, Museums, Post-a-day 2023, Travel, , , .

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