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More ‘Fragile Beauty’

One of the greatest pleasures of attending an art exhibition with Wendy is her reaction to the more pretentious object labels.

There was a moment in Madrid’s Reina Sofia when, after reading a particularly florid text, she just said ‘I don’t have the bandwidth for that’ and turned on her heel. It’s usually hard to disagree.

Wendy wasn’t able to attend ‘Fragile Beauty’ at the V&A with me, but when I read the label accompanying Richard Caldicott’s untitled triptych, I did wonder what she’d have made of it:

Richard Caldicott’s red, yellow and blue triptych playfully transforms everyday objects – in this case Tupperware food-storage containers – into a sea of colour. The artist’s choice of primary hues references classic colour theory, underpinning hundreds of years of optical experiment. To stand in front of Caldicott’s photographs is to be confronted by a field of light refracted by luminous kitchenware.

I think she may well have furrowed her brow and exclaimed: ‘But why would you want to be confronted by luminous kitchenware?!’

Fragile Beauty continues at the V&A until 5 January next year.

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

‘Fragile Beauty’

I went to see this overcrowded exhibition of photographs at the V&A. It’s an oddly curated selection of photographs from the Elton John and David Furnish collection.

The blurb claims that the exhibition ‘tells the story of modern and contemporary photography’—I don’t really think it did.

There were a lot of brilliant and arresting images in the collection, but there didn’t seem to be a thread, story or argument to the curation. Perhaps there wasn’t supposed to be—perhaps the point is just to appreciate the photographs. I found it a bit unsatisfying.

But here’s something I took away: four images of the American flag from different time periods. I think this is an interesting series to contemplate: I’d have displayed them together, but the curators had other ideas.

So take the following series of images as some guerrilla curation—and perhaps the series will play on your mind as it has on mine.

Untitled by Larry Clark, 1971.

American Flag by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1977.

Flag by Mitch Epstein, 2000.

Untitled (confetti #8) by Roe Ethridge, 2012.

Fragile Beauty continues at the V&A until 5 January next year.

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

‘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, , , .


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, , , .

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