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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, , , .

‘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, , .


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, , .

I’ve visited ‘Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance’

Wendy and I have been lucky enough to visit the blockbuster Donatello exhibition at the V&A. As the museum puts it, this was an opportunity for us to ‘explore the exceptional talents of the Renaissance master Donatello, arguably the greatest sculptor of all time’.

Except… well… it didn’t feel that way. We were a little pushed for time, but found it a bit of a challenge to work out what we were supposed to take from each item. For example, the ‘God the Father’ from Milan Cathedral, above, has no connection whatsoever with Donatello. The label suggested that the technique used to make it was uncertain, but that it might have been a technique that Donatello might have also sometimes used. Right.

And the exhibition rather continued in this vein. Neither of us knows the first thing about Renaissance art, and so perhaps we’re not really the target audience, but we left with no real appreciation for why Donatello was so especially revered.

We did both comment that the Donatello works seemed to stand out in the exhibition, thought couldn’t quite work out whether that was due to an inherent quality of them or the curation.

I was struck by the incredible detail of Donatello’s rilievo schiacciato, a phrase I’ll never remember a week from now which refers to the low-relief marble carvings like the one above. Weirdly, these felt a bit tucked into a corner in the exhibition, with more space and focus seemingly given over to Donatello’s possible (but uncertain) training as a goldsmith.

I think maybe I’ve been spoiled by Vermeer, but I was left thinking that I’d have preferred there to be less in this exhibition to allow the Donatello to breathe, and to help us understand why he’s so revered.

‘Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance’ continues at the V&A until 11 June.

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

I’ve visited Outernet London

Plenty of people (though not all) seem to be somewhere between angry and disappointed at the existence of Outernet London, a new venue next to Tottenham Court Road tube station that has live performance venues and stuff. Most of the opprobrium at what has been built—rather than what has been knocked down—seems to be a result of the wander-off-the-street area. I happened to be in the area so, well, wandered in off the street.

It’s basically a space with a huge advertising screen on the outside, and a series of hall-like interior spaces in which the walls and ceiling are covered with high-resolution screens. It’s been described as an “immersive experience” and “the world’s foremost bridge between the real world and the digital world”—which is basically marketing guff.

I was reminded most of the 360-degree cinemas at Epcot in the 1990s, except with the addition of images on the ceiling: the experience didn’t feel new or unique to me. There was an advert playing while I was there, but I can’t remember what company was footing the bill: I remember it was an office-space company, and I remember not being able to work out how the imagery connected with that, but I couldn’t tell you the brand. I suppose that also indicates my level of immersion.

But all of this is okay: I’m not the target audience, and their arrows flew right past me. I wouldn’t bother wandering in again, but then I’m not someone who’d go and see a 3D film at my local IMAX either, nor someone who’d pay more than passing attention to the screens at Piccadilly Circus.

I don’t think a room with screens on the walls is the end of good taste, I don’t think it’s an affront to civic decency, but I also don’t think it’s for me. And that’s fine.

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

I’ve been to visit ‘The Horror Show!’

This exhibition at Somerset House aims to demonstrate how artistic rebellion in Britain in the past fifty years has been rooted in horror. It groups a range of works into three stereotypical horror genres: monsters, witches and ghosts.

I wasn’t convinced. It felt a bit forced, and bringing the objects together didn’t really help me to interpret them in any new or different way.

In a way, it reminded me of my recent experience of watching The Menu, a film sometimes classified as ‘horror’ but which contains so much more. Had I seen the horror label, it would have put me off the film, as I would have thought it was an entirely different sort of film.

Anyway, the exhibition had four objects that particularly stood out to me—in addition to the inclusion of wonderful examples from Scarfolk Council, which I’ve seen and enjoyed many times before.

Bloody Haemorrhaging Narcissus by Fim Nobel and Sue Webster is a 2009 sculpture which appears under direct view to be an amorphous blob of bloodied penises and fingers. It casts a shadow which appears to be of two male statuesque faces. It seemed to me to be a critique of the societal values that result in the sort of statues captured by the shadow, and to foreground the toxic masculinity and patriarchal violence that often essentially put them there.

I could have stared at Post Viral Fatigue, Noel Fielding’s recent painting, all day long and still had more to see in it. The mood of the piece captures that feeling of, well, post viral fatigue. I’m not convinced that there’s much horror here; it’s felt more like commentary on the human condition.

This was displayed next to Bloody Haemorrhaging Narcissus, and I’m not certain that the juxtaposition added anything at all.

Kerry Stewart’s deceptively simple 1993 piece, The Boy From The Chemist Is Here To See You, is a life-sized charity collection box in the shape of a young boy (I realised I never see these in ’real life’ any more) placed behind a door with pebbled glass.

This is horror: every day and yet strange and threatening, like something out of a film. I loved the ingenuity of it.

I like most of David Shrigley’s work, but I’d never seen his 2007 piece I’m Dead before: a taxidermy kitten holding a sign. I like the combination of whimsy and provocation. It made me think about the obvious nature of death, and the fine line between life and death.

This was displayed next to Stewart’s piece, and—again—I’m really not sure that the two have a meaningful connection, or that the juxtaposition adds anything.

The Horror Show!’ continues at Somerset House until 19 February.

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

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 Battersea Power Station

I am the sort of heretic who, if asked, would have supported the recent transformation of (part of) Battersea Power Station into a shopping centre. The same part of me that has been whinging recently about the stasis of cathedrals would have praised it as an interesting bit of repurposing, celebrating heritage by making something new of it.

I’ve been down to the Power Station a couple of times in recent years, before the main building opened, so the surrounding ‘distinctive’ (ugly) flats and mildly preposterous ‘community’ shops weren’t a surprise. But this time, I was able to venture inside, and I was surprised at what I found.

It is utterly soulless. It has the feeling of a shopping centre in a second-rate European railway station, the sort that behooves one to grip one’s backpack straps a little more tightly and quicken one’s pace.

This isn’t helped by the lighting scheme. It seems to have been designed to with ‘traditional’ warm white lighting set against mostly matte black fixtures and fittings throughout. I suspect this was designed to be sympathetic to the building, but instead it clashes at every turn with bright white retail lighting and flashy screens—while leaving corridors feeling threateningly dark. There are more narrow, dark, low-ceilinged corridors than one would imagine in a newly opened premise, which I guess is a side-effect of the conversion. This atmosphere might improve as the centre’s occupancy rate rises and injects some life into the place, but many of the warm-white LED fixtures have already acquired a flicker that suggests the LED controller is faulty. Low-level flickering lighting in a dark space gives an oddly rundown feeling to a venue that isn’t even yet fully open.

The grey-ish terrazzo flooring—somehow already looking dirty—only adds to the rundown railway vibe. Incongruous touches of brass and wood here and there, as though someone felt that the scheme needed warming up a bit, look more like non-matching “patched” bits than a design scheme.

For reasons surpassing understanding, the architecture is left to fade into the background. Look at the picture at the top: beautiful columns virtually unlit, while shop names, flashy screens and two incongruous food trucks are brighter than the sun. Why would anyone do that?

Maybe I’m judging it too soon. Perhaps it will seem better when more units are occupied, and the whole thing feels a little more lived in. I don’t think I’ll hurry back, but potentially in a couple of years this will seem like another “he clearly didn’t know what he was talking about” post.

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

I’ve been to visit ‘Objects of Desire’

Surrealist art tends to be the sort of thing I like, the sort of art that I wish I could take home. There’s something about its playfulness and inventiveness always makes me think a little differently, provoking reflection and contemplation in a way that other art sometimes doesn’t.

I don’t know very much about art or the history of art. I never studied it, and it’s not something that has cropped up in much of my reading. Nor is it something I’ve really sought to read about. But I do enjoy a good exhibition. And to my mind, this collection of surrealist art at London’s Design Museum constituted an excellent exhibition.

There were five objects that especially stood out to me: none of the pictures of these are my own, they are all outrageously stolen from various museum websites.

This is Salvador Dalí’s Lobster Telephone, the archetypical surrealist object and the hero image used in most of the advertising for this exhibition. In the exhibition, it is presented alongside examples of Dalí’s Mae West Lips Sofa and Champagne Standard Lamp in a mock living room.

The telephone stood out to me as an object I’d previously seen and which raised a smile, but whose meaning I hadn’t grasped (or really considered) until it was presented in this exhibition. I hadn’t appreciated that Dalí considered both the lobster and the telephone to be inherently sexual, nor that he positioned the sexual organs of the lobster directly over the mouthpiece.

The absurdity, intrigue, and humour of those details made me appreciate the object anew.

I’ve been to see some of Gaudí’s work before, most notably La Sagrada Família, and while I’ve been awed by the way his work reflects the natural word, I’ve not always been wild about the aesthetic of the end result.

An example of Gaudí’s Calvert Chair is featured in the exhibition as part of a commentary on how his work influenced surrealist art. This is a connection I would never have made without it being pointed out to me. This was a bit of art education encapsulated in a single object, which gave me new understanding. Isn’t that the real power of exhibitions?

They make a bigger deal in the exhibition guide about the connection between Dadaism and surrealism, and feature some work by DuChamp, but to me, the Gaudí connection was less obvious and more interesting.

Conquest by Nina Saunders was, of all the objects I’d love to pilfer, the most obviously impractical option.

This is a 2017 piece with so much to say about the forces which impact the illusion of domestic norms and, depending on how you look at it, either destroy the perception, or force the perception to warp around them. This would certainly make an impact in my living room, and I think you could probably work out some comfortable unorthodox positions to sit on it too (though I’m not certain how Saunders would feel about that).

Wolfgang Paalen’s Le Génie de l’espèce felt like an object of the moment, inseparably representing both guns and death. It actually dates from 1939, very shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War.

This made me think a lot about how humanity never seems to learn the lessons of the past.

I enjoyed the fact that the Campana Brothers’ chair made of plush Disney toys provoked a sense of immediate repulsion, despite being made of soft, friendly characters. If Wendy had been with me, I know she’d have said: “too much.”

Objects of Desire’ continues at the Design Museum until 19 February.

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

I’ve been to see James Graham’s ‘Best of Enemies’

A stage play inspired by a documentary film about some political television debates from 1960s America doesn’t feel intuitively like it would have much to offer. One could reasonably assume that the effect would have been dulled and flattened by the distance in time and multiple re-interpretations from the source material.

Yet, this was exhilarating. Graham’s script dramatises the US debates between Gore Vidal and William F Buckley Jr on the ABC network, programmed around the Republican and Democratic national conventions. It explores the behind-the-scenes drive within ABC to stage these debates—it’s about ratings, as ever it is—as well as the personalities and motivations of Vidal and Buckley.

Zachary Quinto and David Harewood were excellent in this production at London’s Noël Coward theatre: both are famous for other roles, but fairly unknown to me. The staging was inspired, using live projections to make relevant scenes at once theatrical and televisual.

Graham presents this series of debates as the source of all personality and opinion-led discussion of politics on television. Clever scripting—much of it seemingly based on well-chosen verbatim quotes—draws parallels with current politics. The whole play felt immediately relevant to modern politics and media… though the time-jump at the end felt a bit like it rammed that message home harder than was necessary.

Yet, the script as a whole was definitely the biggest star here, cleverly combining direct quotations and zingy, catty one-liners with urgent questions about society’s approach to politics.

I really enjoyed this.

Best of Enemies’ continues at the Noël Coward theatre until 18 February.

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

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