Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Modern Sculpture and Aesthetic Beauty

I’m writing this post some 36,966 feet in the air over the Atlantic Ocean, although obviously it is getting posted back on terra firma (Boston Airport, to be precise). SVH and I took a trip to England and Belgium, in part to celebrate my 41st (and next month her 50th) birthdays. We also went to see a few exhibitions that readers will recall were on my "to see" list not too long ago. Upon arriving in London last Tuesday, we dropped our bags off at the Arran House Hotel, where I was given a ground-floor room about the size of Harry Potter’s closet under the staircase. I did have a magical door, however, that opened into a beautiful garden, which helped make the room more appealing.

Despite our jet lag, we headed to the Royal Academy that afternoon to see the Modern British Sculpture exhibition, catching it in its last few days before it closed on April 7th. Even though I’m not a big fan of modern sculpture, I knew there would be works on display dating from the late 1800s and I had heard that the show was more about installations than objects, i.e. how works from the past and present interact with and juxtapose against one another. The first room dealt with the theme of life and death and had at its center a large-scale model after Edwin Lutyens’s ziggurat-like Cenotaph and Jacob Epstein’s Cycle of Life, presented here as reproductions on banners since the actual works are architectural figures. This opening set the stage for the exhibition’s intersection of figurative and abstract works in British sculpture. The second room, "Theft by Finding," had a fantastic installation. Here numerous figurative works were arranged in two rows, with display cases on the walls following the same model, all of which showed sculptures from different cultures positioned near modern works. For instance, a Hindu red sandstone sculpture was positioned beside a female figure by Eric Gill, suggesting how modern sculpture has borrowed on the past, but also implying the irony of British imperialism, how the appropriating of world cultures has influenced its own art. The works themselves were all beautiful, with many ancient figures borrowed from the British Museum, and the ability to move around the statues and view them from many angles near one another was an extraordinarily delightful experience. The number of rooms that followed, alas, did not have this same level of punch and enjoyment, as they focused more on large-scale works and that of specific artists. Victorians Frederic Leighton and Alfred Gilbert had important works shown, and Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore were given a room to themselves, which makes sense, as they represent mid-20th-century British sculpture. Americans such as Carl Andre and Jeff Koons had works in the exhibition, which confused me at times and seemed to change the course of the exhibition’s intent, but other famous names like Anthony Caro were given their due. Damien Hirst’s Let’s Eat Outdoors Today was simply repulsive, with an installation of the detritus of a barbecue invaded by living flies who feed off the remains of meat and other food products. Hirst once again managed to repulse viewers by drawing attention to our quotidian existence and forcing us to encounter the side of our lives that we want to ignore, notably garbage and disease. I still contend (and this is for my friend PR) that Hirst clearly has established himself as an important figure in the history of sculpture, but I still find his work distressing and unappealing.

Fortunately, beauty was on the horizon. The next day, CC joined us and we went to the Victoria and Albert Museum (first for a spot of tea, then) to see The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900. This movement began when painters in London experimented with new ideas that removed any sense of morality from the subject, reflecting instead on sensuality and perceiving the work of art as an object of beauty first, potentially removing subject itself from the work as a result. Some scholars have named the American painter James McNeill Whistler as the first Aesthetic painter, but as Elizabeth Prettejohn’s excellent book Art for Art’s Sake: Aestheticism in Victorian Painting has shown, it was a shared creative sensibility among artists such as Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Simeon Solomon, Frederic Leighton, Albert Moore, Edward Burne-Jones, and others, all of whom brought their own unique take on beauty to this artistic movement. By the 1870s Aestheticism had entered the arena of the decorative arts as well, and one sees aspects of it in all areas of Victorian cultural living. Considering the V&A is largely a decorative arts and design museum, I was expecting this show to focus on the crafts component of the Aesthetic Movement. However, I was pleased to see an incredible number of paintings, drawings, and prints hanging alongside displays of architectural plans, furniture, textiles, ceramics, and even costumes, demonstrating how the Aesthetic Movement was truly a multidisciplinary cultural trend that impacted all avenues of life. All of the painters mentioned above are on display, although CC and I agree that Solomon isn’t visible enough. Moore, however, is all over this exhibition, and I must say that these pictures are stunning. In most instances, this was the first time I had seen them in person, and doing so makes you reappreciate his work, with classically draped women lounging on sofas while Japanese-inspired fans and flowers surround them. They are truly beautiful works. The installation of Whistler’s three Symphony in White paintings from 1862, 1864, and 1867 (this last one is the one you see above), all hanging beside one another perhaps for the first time, was an absolute delight considering they are all owned by different museums. Sculptures by Leighton, Gilbert, and others make appearances throughout the show as well, which was refreshing. There is an attempt at recreating Rossetti’s bedroom from his house in Chelsea, but this actually was a bizarre installation, for they created peep-hole windows in which to see the bedroom, with no explanation as to why they had done that. Why not just show the bedroom as an installation? The peep-holes simply made it difficult to appreciate what they had done. There are other general concerns about the show. The lighting on some of the paintings made it challenging to see up close, and many of the themed vignettes, such as that on classicism and Japonisme, seemed haphazard in their arrangement. Projections of peacock feathers abound everywhere, which is a lovely touch but seriously distracting after a while. The digital recreation of Whistler’s Peacock Room (permanently installed at the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C.) was a valiant attempt to experience an Aesthetic interior space, but the projections themselves were pixellated and not of the highest quality. All in all, the show is wonderful and has many appropriately beautiful things to see. The borderline excessiveness of gilded beauty makes one understand then how by World War I modernism soon stripped out all of this ornamentation and resort to geometric box-like structures and designs, simply out of rebellion for what probably was seen as ostentatious, bourgeois materialism.

The next day the 3 of us took a lovely stroll through Regent’s Park (we had fantastic warm weather the whole trip) and then DE joined us for a visit to Leighton House, which gives you a true sense of how an Aesthetic interior all came together, particularly for a wealthy bachelor artist. The house recently went through a makeover, and it’s exquisite. A token peacock is in the stairwell, but the Arab Hall, with its array of tilework from all over the Middle East, simply shimmers and makes you want to dip your feet in the pool and smoke a hookah. SVH and I left for Brussels the next morning, so stay tuned for more on that part of the trip.

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