Wednesday, October 12, 2011

London Exhibitions, Fall 2011

Back in May 2010, I had written about Yinka Shonibare's sculptural piece Nelson's Ship in a Bottle outside the National Gallery in London. As it turned out, I didn't get to see it then, but on this recent trip I was pleased to discover it was still resting on the fourth plinth. I took the picture above showing the ship in a bottle just overlooking Nelson's Column at the heart of Trafalgar Square. The sculpture is 3.25 meters high and 5 meters long (10 feet 7 inches by 16 feet 4 inches) and weighs 4 tons. It was great to see it, but since it was so difficult to examine closely, I admit I was a bit disappointed.

Alas, this disappointment continued elsewhere. I had been looking forward to the NG's exhibition on Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, their first Director and a President of the Royal Academy. This exhibition was a one-room show highlighting masterpieces in Renaissance art that on his art-buying trips he brought back to London. There were some archival objects in the show, but all-in-all it was a bit uninspiring. Compounding disappointment was The House of Annie Lennox installation at the Victoria & Albert Museum. CC and I ventured over to see it after doing research in the National Art Library all day. I was looking forward to this exhibition a great deal, and admittedly two highlights were some of her costumes and the array of professional photographs taken of her over the span of her career. But the exhibition itself was actually quite boring. It looked more like someone had invaded her closet and thus apotheosized aspects of her life in a way that borders on the inane...unless of course you're dead. Case in point: a pair of shoes Annie wore sometime in the 1980s while walking in London. Really? And where's the piece of gum she spat out on May 7, 1986? The "house" of Lennox was meant to be a doll's house-like recreation of some of her personal manuscripts and scores, but even this seems rather pathetic in its selection and display. Annie Lennox is a powerhouse of a singer, entertainer, and activist. She deserves more space, more room, and more interpretation that simply a tiny interactive room where you can pull out drawers and listen to her songs.

The British Museum had a lovely surprise for CC and me when we visited. This was an exhibition of German Romantic prints and drawings. Many of these works were from a private collection, and the curators noted that very few people have been active in acquiring the work of German artists, so this was a rare opportunity to showcase some of their important works. These included Philip Otto Runge's Times of the Day series of line engravings, which were delightful to finally see in person. Carl Wilhelm Kolbe's botanical prints probably impressed me the most, as his exaggerated foliage swallows humans in their explorations of the power of nature, such as in this 1801 print, Auch ich war in Arkadien (I too was in Arcadia). The BM also gave CC and I one of the best exhibition experiences: Grayson Perry. It was so damn good, I'm writing a separate review just of that exhibition.

And finally, even though it cost me £10 (student rate) to get in, I did go to Tate Britain to see John Martin: Apocalypse. An artist who made a career out of merging the sublime landscape with moralistic narrative tales of death and destruction, Martin in his paintings and prints make you aware of how much the Romantics and Victorians cherished being thrilled and frightened by melodramatic art and literature. The tour de force of the exhibition, however, was near the end, where the curators recreated a multi-sensory experience that Victorian audiences would have encountered in the 1850s. Called The Last Judgment, audiences were surrounded by his three enormous paintings (including The Great Day of His Wrath, 1851-3, below) as well as loud, dramatic music, intense flashes of light, and actors reciting texts from the Book of Revelations in booming voices. The recreated experience made me chuckle, but you could absolutely understand how in the days long before moving pictures had even been imagined participants would have been terrified and thrilled by the sensation created by these pictures and the importance of their spiritual message. It was worth paying the £10, if even just for the cinematic experience of Martin's paintings.

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