Dalí/Duchamp: What is Art?

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Robert Descharnes, Duchamp and Dalí playing chess during filming for A Soft Self-Portrait, directed by Jean-Christophe Averty (detail), 1966.

The first major exhibition of its kind, the Royal Academy is exploring the artistic and personal relationship between two of the world’s greatest 20th-century artists. Although their artwork may appear to be total opposites – one rejecting painting whilst the other excels at it – Salvador Dalí and Marcel Duchamp bonded over their mutual interests, humour and scepticism, which provided the basis for a lifelong friendship. Most importantly, however, were their unconventional views of art; and this is the reason why the RA is honouring the two artists with a joint display of their work.

Although a lot smaller than other exhibitions the RA has curated, the Dalí/Duchamp attraction is structured thematically into four components: Identities; The Body and the Object; Experimenting with Reality; and Playing Games. Despite their obvious contrariety in terms of artistic style, the RA aims to show Dalí and Duchamp in a new perspective and provoke the question: what is art?

Salvador Dalí (1904-89) was a Spanish painter, designer and filmmaker who was initially influenced by various art styles such as Cubism, Futurism and Metaphysical Painting. By 1929, however, Dalí had joined the newly created Surrealism group.

Dalí liked to be in the limelight and his resulting celebrity status rapidly earned him the recognition as the face of Surrealism. Surrealism, however, was a revolution led by the French poet André Breton (1896-1966) who wanted to challenge the conventions of society. Largely influenced by the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the group of writers, poets and (later) artists were interested in expressing the subconscious mind rather than the reality of everyday life.

Adopting many Surrealist ideas in his artwork, Dalí developed them further in an attempt to make them more positive. One method he titled “Critical Paranoia” which involved the combination of imagery based on his dreams and fantasies with the natural appearance of the world. It is this notion that most of Dalí’s iconic paintings stemmed, full of optical illusions that appear dream-like or hallucinatory – what Dalí termed “hand-painted dream photographs”.

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) was a French-born artist and art theorist who spent the majority of his life in the United States. In contrast to Dalí, Duchamp was a more private character, sometimes disappearing from the art scene for lengthy periods at a time. As a result, his artistic output was small in comparison to other creators of the era.

In 1915, along with Man Ray (1890-1976), who also features in this exhibition, Duchamp formed the movement known as Dada. This movement was established shortly after the First World War and was initially politically oriented.

“The beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of art, but of disgust.” – Tristan Tzara, poet, 1896-1963

Dadaists were often referred to as creators of “anti-art”, combining collage, poetry and other visual methods full of satirical nonsense. This was their attack on the beliefs and values imposed upon society, which they emphasised through their use of non-traditional materials.

Duchamp’s main contribution to Dadaism was his collection of “readymades” – objects consisting of mass-produced articles isolated from their intentional function and displayed as a work of art.

Later, although he never created any art for the movement, Duchamp became an advocate for Surrealism. Members welcomed him into the fold in appreciation of his controversial readymades, which resonated with their ideologies. It is from this connection that Duchamp and Dalí met and formed a long-lasting friendship.

“Is it possible to make works, which are not works of art?” – Duchamp, 1913

The first two sections of the exhibition (Identities and The Body and the Object) contain some of the lesser known works of the two artists. It took a while for Dalí to establish his iconic style of dreamlike, surreal scenes, beginning his career by copying old master paintings. He proved himself to be a talented draughtsman but felt that by appropriating styles from other artists, he was not producing original art. Dalí went through an experimental period before settling on the technique for which he became famous.

Duchamp, on the other hand, experimented with identity in a more literal sense. Although Marcel Duchamp (born Henri-Robert-Marcel Duchamp) is the name he is remembered by, he operated under a selection of pseudonyms. The most significant of these is the alter ego he began assuming in the 1920s, Rrose Sélavy [misspelling intentional]. Going as far as cross-dressing, Duchamp switched between his two identities throughout his career, frequently altering his persona to fit with a particular piece of work. “I wanted to change identity … suddenly I had an idea: why not change sex? It’s much simpler!” (Duchamp, 1967)

Although it was Duchamp who become famous for his readymades, both went through periods of creating assemblages rather than paintings. Many of these are displayed in glass cases at the Royal Academy, including Dalí’s Lobster Telephone (1936). Some, if not all, of these examples are contentious, provoking the viewer to question what art is. But, more significantly, these objects create a sense of unease within the gallery.

Both Dalí and Duchamp openly expressed erotic themes in their creations. Whilst these may not be explicit, created by combining everyday objects, they are suggestive enough to make the audience feel uncomfortable. And for those who do not discern the references, the RA has provided captions and information to enlighten you.

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Fountain, 1917 (replica 1964) Duchamp

Amongst the collection of readymades is Duchamp’s most controversial work – perhaps the most controversial artwork of the 20th-century. Apart from the addition of a signature, what people initially see is a basic porcelain urinal positioned horizontally (on its side), however, this is actually the influential Fountain (1917) that sparked the debate about what can be considered art.

In order to remain anonymous (at least at the time), Duchamp signed the urinal with a pseudonym, R. Mutt and submitted it to an exhibition at the Society of Independent Artists in New York. Despite paying the $6 entry fee, the organisers remained unimpressed and were convinced Duchamp was (to pardon the term) “taking the piss”.

In his defence, Duchamp wrote an unsigned letter to The Blind Man magazine titled “The Richard Mutt Case” in which he argued, “Whether or not Mr Mutt made it with his own hands has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an everyday article, placed it so that its usual significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – and created a new thought for that object.”

The Royal Academy provides a copy of the article but says no more on the subject, leaving it up to visitors to form their own opinion. It is possible to argue both sides of the is-it-art-dilemma and, being a subjective topic, there is no right answer.

It is Salvador Dalí who steals the show in the final sections of the exhibition. Perhaps because it is easier to understand and appreciate a painting as art, opposed to a readymade, you are immediately drawn to the large-scale canvases adorning the brightly lit walls of the Weston Galleries. The range of artworks span Dalí’s career and include his first undertaking of the Surrealist style. Les premier jours du printemps or The First Days of Spring (1929) was painted within the first few years of the movement’s inception, however, says more about Dalí’s persona than it does the doctrines set out by André Breton.

The empty landscape is an allusion to the beach-like area in which Dalí grew up in Catalonia, Spain, which he has filled with motifs that would eventually become a key feature of his iconography in future paintings. Amongst these mythical creations are a fish emerging from a tree and a grasshopper attached to a human head.

Centred in the middle of the painting is a photograph of Dalí as a young boy, implying that the painting is about him and not, as the title suggests, the literal beginning of spring. It has been suggested that the figures of man and boy represent the growing distance between Dalí and his father who was displeased with his son’s choice of profession. On the horizon, a man and child can be seen holding hands, but further forward on the left, a man sits with his back to the scene behind him.

Other paintings produced later in Dalí career are more recognisable than his first surrealist endeavour. Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach (1938) conforms to the optical illusion style that Dalí is renowned for, in which the entire composition is made up of components that produce more than one scene. This cleverly constructed painting appears to be both a dish of pears and a phantasmal face floating above a beach (possibly another reference to Dalí’s home country). However, this is not the only illusion; what could be rocks or mountains becomes a dog’s head with a bridge and beach making its collar and nose. There are also a handful of motifs typical in a Dalí painting.

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Christ of Saint John of the Cross by Salvador Dalí, 1951.

One large painting that catches the eyes of visitors as they enter the room is Christ of Saint John of the Cross completed by Dalí in 1951. Still appertaining to the style of Surrealism (despite Dalí having left the group in the 1940s), this artwork is remarkably different from his other works. Although it is not the only Dalí painting to contain religious iconography, it is not a theme usually associated with the artist.

Dalí has based the painting on a drawing by the 16th-century Spanish friar John of the Cross. It depicts the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in a darkened sky, looking over a body of water in which fishermen are working – a reference to his disciples, perhaps.

Many artists have painted the crucifixion but Dalí’s version is quite different. Ignoring the placement of the cross and scenery, which is, of course, unusual, the painting lacks any nails, blood or crown of thorns. Dalí claimed to have a dream in which the importance of the lack of these features was revealed to him, as well as the exaggerated angle of the cross.

“In the first place, in 1950, I had a ‘cosmic dream’ in which I saw this image in colour and which in my dream represented the ‘nucleus of the atom.’ This nucleus later took on a metaphysical sense; I considered it ‘the very unity of the universe,’ the Christ!” – Dalí

Apart from its striking tones and realistic imagery, Christ of Saint John of the Cross attracts attention because it is one of the least expected images to see in an exhibition about Dalí and Duchamp. The movements they are associated with – Dada and Surrealism – both rejected systems of belief including religion, therefore to see an image of Christ on such a grand scale is very surprising. This may reflect back to his childhood, being brought up by his devout Catholic mother, and slowly becoming estranged from his atheist father, but this is only speculation.

Visitors may have preconceived ideas about what they will see at the Royal Academy’s Dalí/Duchamp exhibition. They are the type of artist people either like or do not, and there is the added issue of whether their work can be understood. Those expecting to see disturbing, disquieting or surprising “artworks” will be correct in their prediction, however, there is more to see than expected.

By presenting the artworks by theme, the Royal Academy takes the visitors through the different stages of thought the two artists went through during their careers. The beginning conforms to the preconceived ideas of the artists – satire, eroticism, readymades – but by the time visitors leave, after studying Dalí’s paintings, learning more about Duchamp’s Fountain and watching a couple of videos, chances are opinions would have changed. Perhaps on leaving, Dalí and Duchamp will go up in people’s judgement and appreciation, and possibly – although, maybe not – be better understood.

The Royal Academy of Arts will be continuing to display the Dalí/Duchamp exhibition until 3rd January 2018. The exhibition has been organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and The Dalí Museum, St Petersburg, Florida, in collaboration with the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation and the Association Marcel Duchamp. Tickets are £16.50, although Friends of the RA can go free. Please note, this exhibition contains some adult content.

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Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth

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Jasper Johns, Flag, 1958.

“One hopes for something resembling truth, some sense of life, even of grace, to flicker, at least, in the work.” Jasper Johns, 2006.

Jasper Johns (b.1930) is an American painter, sculptor and printmaker recognised for his iconic representations of the US flag. The Royal Academy of Arts in London has produced a thorough exhibition that provides insight into the artist’s life as well as his distinctive art style. Jasper Johns: ‘Something Resembling Truth’ contains over 150 paintings and sculptures that Johns has completed throughout the past 60 years. Beginning with his earliest existing work (he destroyed everything prior to 1954), the exhibition explores the techniques and purposes behind his artwork and documents the gradual changes Johns employed as he developed as an artist.

At the beginning of Jasper Johns’ career, the art world was in the midst of the Abstract Expressionism movement where artists were vibrantly communicating their inner selves to the public through symbolic paintings. Johns, on the other hand, avoided all forms of existing art factions by painting things exactly as they are seen, destroying the idea that art must have a hidden meaning. By producing images of universally familiar objects, Johns wanted to represent things that are often seen but never really looked at in great detail. His idiosyncratic ideas have helped to raise him to the status of one of the most influential artists of the 20th century.

To say Johns was interested in painting the American flag is an understatement. Already this year, one of Johns’ flags has featured in an exhibition at the British Museum and the Royal Academy have collated a handful of different ones. In total, Johns painted the flag 27 times, used it within ten sculptures, drew it 50 times and produced 18 prints. He claims that “One night I dreamed that I painted a large American flag, and the next morning I got up and I went out and bought the materials to begin it.” This suggests that his interest in the flag was originally nothing more than an urge to paint it, however, it later garnered a much stronger purpose and role within his artwork.

Beginning with the flag, Johns began a series of paintings that question things the mind is already aware of. He appropriated objects that the majority of people, at least in America, would have been familiar with since childhood. However, despite the lack of a symbolic meaning, Johns attempted to make the known unfamiliar to its audience. Flag (1958) is a realistic painting of the American flag (the one they had at the time before Alaska and Hawaii joined in 1959) with the stripes and stars exactly proportionate to the real thing. What Johns was interested in was whether other people saw it as a painting or as a flag – perhaps both. What is the expectation of a painting? Being presented on a stretched canvas, Flag cannot be raised on a flagpole and therefore cannot function as a true flag, therefore, one can argue that it is only a painting. On the other hand, if someone were to ask what the American flag looked like, showing them a Jasper Johns version would be just as good as showing them a photograph of the real thing – does that make the painting a flag?

To think too much about the function of Flag causes a lot of confusion and can never truly be resolved – there is no right or wrong answer. One thing that cannot be debated is its material; it truly is a painting. The brushstrokes produced by the artist’s hand are still evident when standing in front of the canvas. Johns uses a technique called encaustic, which he found much more beneficial than more traditional approaches. Encaustic painting involves mixing colour pigments with molten wax, which, although rather laborious to make, is quick drying and resists the effects of ageing and other damaging elements. It is easy to layer paintings using this medium and this can be seen in the majority of Johns’ paintings around the gallery. Today, Johns is one of the only remaining artists to employ this method.

As well as tangible objects, Jasper Johns painted other everyday motifs prompting similar questions about perception. Again, there were no hidden meanings behind these artworks and they could often function in the same way as their original counterpart. The RA displays painted maps and targets by the artist that, although evidently painted, can also function as a map or a target. Another interest of Johns are numbers, familiar figures that are seen all the time but rarely thought of as more than a piece of information.

Johns strips these numbers of their function in his charcoal drawing 0 Through 9 (1961) in which he has positioned each number on top of the other until left with a mess of lines and shape. It is still possible, by studying the artwork, to detect each individual number, but they have effectively been rendered purposeless. They neither inform or function as a number is traditionally meant to do. But, has that stopped them from being numbers?

As Johns continued to consider what a painting was rather than what it represented he began to move away from the traditional usage of the canvas. Often using collage as well as paint, the various layers in his works are obvious to the viewer and reveal how the piece was made. To draw attention to the canvas, Johns cuts, crops or extends it to make its presence more obvious. This is a technique he has employed in creating Painting with Two Balls (1960). By splitting the canvas and wedging in two wooden balls, Johns reveals the wall behind the painting. This emphasises that the viewer is seeing a painting on canvas, attached to a wall; there is nothing more meaningful about it.

Johns’ visual perception of everyday objects extends to his experimentation with sculpture, however, this is where the idea of the function becomes obscured. There’s no doubt that Johns was skilled at what he did, particularly in the case of Painted Bronze (1960) – one of the highlights of the exhibition. In a glass case, almost concealed amongst all the other art in the room, is what appears to be a selection of wooden paintbrushes in an old coffee tin – something that would be typically found in Johns’ studio. However, it is actually a hyper-realistic representation of brushes and a tin sculpted and cast in bronze, and then painted in oils. It is only by looking closely at the tin that the oil paint becomes noticeable. The words “Savarin Coffee”, for example, have demonstrably been painted by hand.

Unlike his flags and maps which could function as both a painting and an object, Painted Bronze has no physical purpose. Despite it looking like a tin full of paintbrushes, it would be impossible to pick one up and use it. This may be why Johns opted for the title Painted Bronze as opposed to Savarin Coffee Can or Tin of Paint Brushes.

Not only did Johns’ coffee can move away from the form and function theme, it was one of the first artworks that revealed something about the artist himself. Whereas his previous works had focused on everyday objects familiar to all, these brushes were more personal to Johns and were something he needed in his life to be able to live an artistic lifestyle. This sculpture marks a turning point in Johns’ career.

Until 1961, Jasper Johns had been in an intimate relationship with the artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), another pioneering artist of the time. The end of the seven-year romance resulted in a strong sense of emotional loss, which began to become evident in Johns’ work. Struggling with his personal feelings, he turned to language and words and began to incorporate these into his paintings. As a result, he became particularly interested in the philosophies of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) who put forth the opinion that conceptional confusions surrounding language are at the root of most philosophical problems. Writing about semantics, Wittgenstein suggests that the meanings of words are in how they are used rather than what they are supposed to describe.

A couple of paintings in the exhibition may remind visitors of a particular brain game in which the task is to say the colour a word is written in and not the world itself. For example, if the word “black” is written in the colour red, one must, therefore, say “red”. In Jasper Johns’ False Start (1959) paint has been wildly splattered over the canvas in the primary colours: red, yellow and blue. Layered over the interlocking patches are the words “red”, “yellow” or “blue”, however, never on their respective colours. This explores Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language and the meanings of words. What we see and what we read are two opposing details. Many people have been intrigued by this painting, and in 2006, it became the most expensive painting by a living artist, selling at $80 million.

During the 1980s, Jasper Johns became more personal with his works and his paintings began to include symbolism and meaning. However, this did not revert to the thought processes of Abstract Expressionism; it was still a unique endeavour on Johns’ part.

“In my early work I tried to hide my personality, my psychological state, my emotions. This was partly to do with my feelings about myself and partly to do with my feelings about painting at the time. I sort of stuck to my guns for a while, but eventually it seemed like a losing battle. Finally, one must simply drop the reserve.” Jasper Johns, 1984

The paintings Johns produced in this era are more meaningful for himself than anyone else viewing the painting. Johns was having trouble sleeping because he had too much on his mind. In order to sort through these thoughts, he painted six canvases titled Racing Thoughts in which he places his mental pictures onto a representation of a bathroom wall – implying he is thinking whilst taking a bath – to create a form of mood board.

The personal iconography in these paintings reflects on Johns’ past, his memories and his artistic influences. Occasionally they are metaphorical items, for instance, a skull which may represent death, but many are direct references to specific parts of his life. In one painting, located at the very beginning of the exhibition, Johns has combined a reproduction of the Mona Lisa and photograph of an art dealer, Leo Castelli, with other artistic allusions. This suggests that Johns admired the artist Leonardo Da Vinci, and the inclusion of Castelli is obvious since he was the man who gave Johns his first art show.

Despite the change in Jasper Johns’ artwork, he has not rejected the idea of perception and illusion. Within the six Racing Thoughts, he has experimented with trompe-l’œil with the inclusion of a commemorative vase for Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee. At first, all that may be seen is a white vase, but on further inspection, the negative space reveals the profiles of two faces: the Queen and Prince Philip.

These instances of optical illusion feature in later works, including Spring (1986) (pictured above) which was part of a series of four depicting the seasons. These are also the nearest Johns has got to a self-portrait, using a tracing of his shadow to make his presence known. Each painting contains objects, colours and trompe-l’œil that Johns associates with the four different times of the year.

As suggested by the title of the exhibition, Something Resembling Truth, the relationship between reality and illusion is Jasper Johns primary concern that he tackles in his paintings. Although he did not intend to conjure any subliminal meanings, many have wandered the gallery attempting to interpret what they saw before them. Each spectator may have produced their own subjective opinion based on their own knowledge and experience. However, no opinion is wrong when it comes to art. Johns may have been trying to paint something in reality with no emotions attached, but if it evokes something else in its audience, that is no less of a reality.

The exhibition at the Royal Academy has come to a close, but it has been well received by many visitors and friends of the academy. True to their typical style, the curators provided written information around the gallery to explain some of the artworks and also provide an insight into Johns’ life and thought process. With an audio guide that was included in the price of the ticket, the RA excelled themselves, producing something that was as informative as it was entertaining. This is something that remains consistent throughout the exhibitions hosted by the RA. Some people may not be moved by the artwork, however, the background information and knowledge make it worth a visit.

Many exhibitions take place throughout the year at the Royal Academy, so keep checking the website to see if there is anything that takes your interest.

Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in collaboration with The Broad, Los Angeles.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics

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© Victoria and Albert Museum

After the success of Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains, the Victoria and Albert Museum has moved on to a completely different genre of music. Using the newly opened Sainsbury Gallery, the V&A are taking visitors on a journey through four centuries of European history, demonstrating the evolution of opera music and performances leading up to its contemporary interpretations of the 20th and 21st-centuries. Opera: Passion, Power and Politics focuses on seven particular premieres in seven different European cities whilst it not only celebrates the exceptional style of music but explores its effects on society, politics and the changes in the developing world.

In a darkened display room with dramatic lighting, the exhibition weaves through corridors of temporary walls decorated with relevant images, original artworks and a wealth of information. With striking typography, information is presented in an exciting manner, revealing the history of opera and the countries involved.

Opera first came on the scene in Italy during the 17th century, particularly in the cultural city of Venice. Unfortunately, as a result of a plague which killed off 30% of its population, Venice was struggling to maintain its maritime trade and political status. Despite this, it still remained a popular destination for tourists and pleasure seekers, also attracting artists and revolutionaries. Its international status brought a wealth of different cultures to the realm, offering entertainment such as carnivals and gambling.

Initially, opera was a production of spectacular costumes, dances and music, which were put on to impress visiting public figures and to show off the wealth of the theatre owners. The stories acted out were usually mythological retellings that contained parallels with the present day, thus placing current rulers in a positive light. However, in order to boost the Venetian population, opera was opened up to the public as a means of attracting more tourists and visitors.

The first public opera that was not restricted to courtly audiences was L’incoronazione di Poppea, with music composed by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) and a libretto written by Giovanni Francesco Busenello (1598-1659). Premiering at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice in 1642, the opera describes the ambition of Poppaea, the mistress of Roman emperor Nero, to be crowned Empress. This was the first opera to recall a historical event rather than a fictionalised story and focused on morality and virtue. Full of problematic characters, it glorified lust and ambition.

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View of Venice, print, Frederick de Wit, Netherlands. Museum no. E.1539-1900. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

From Italy, opera quickly caught on in London due to its influx of foreign visitors. The Reformation during the reign of Henry VIII brought thousands of refugees to the city along with international influences. Covent Garden, in the west end of London, was an artistic community full of coffee houses where many would come to be entertained or partake in political debates. It was only natural for opera to find a home here amongst the existing artists and performers.

As indicated in large letters on the painted walls of the gallery, “G. F. Handel – young German composer takes city by storm”. At the young age of 26, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) composed the music for the first Italian language opera written for the London stage. Translated from Aaron Hill’s (1685-1750) English version by Italian poet Giacomo Rossi, Rinaldo is a story about love, war and redemption set at the time of the First Crusades (1095-99) demonstrating the conflict between the Saracens and Christians. For the English audience, this would have felt familiar after the not so distant antagonism between Catholics and Protestants.

Impressively, Handel composed the music within a couple of weeks and Rinaldo was opened to the public on 24th February 1711 at the Queen’s Theatre in Haymarket. At this point in the exhibition, the V&A excels itself with a scenographic wooden installation representing part of the 18th-century theatre. A short puppet-like show performs intermittently whilst visitors listen to Il Vostro Maggio – an aria performed by mermaids during Act II of Rinaldo – on headsets provided by the museum.

As with any innovation, opera received its fair share of criticism from the public and became a topic of debate in the neighbouring coffee houses. The artist William Hogarth (1697-1764) illustrated the fears many had about the foreign genre becoming a threat to traditional British Theatre, particularly Shakespeare. These etchings are displayed as part of the exhibition.

The V&A fast forwards seventy-five years to Vienna where another young musician is making his name known. This was, of course, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91). In the late 1700s, Vienna was the heart of European music and opera, which was encouraged by the “musical king” Emperor Joseph II of Habsburg (1749-90).

The philosophical movement, known as the Enlightenment (or the “Age of Reason”), was changing the way Europeans thought, particularly in regard to individual rights. This, along with the Vienesse love of music, made Vienna the perfect location to perform Mozart’s society-questioning opera Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro).

Le Nozze di Figaro is a comic opera in four acts with an Italian libretto. It contains a range of characters from all classes of society and radically gives servants a central role. Previously, domestic workers were absurd figures to be laughed at, whereas this opera tells the story of Figaro and Susanna, two servants who succeed in getting married despite the corrupt efforts of their philandering employer.

“O, my homeland, so beautiful and lost! O memories, so dear and yet so deadly!”

Hebrew Chorus, Nabucco

The exhibition moves on to Milan, which in the 1840s was still under Austrian rule. Throughout the 19th century, the political and social movement Risorgimento or Italian Unification was gradually reunifying Italian states to consolidate the Kingdom of Italy. The famous opera house La Scala was often used as a venue for political discussion about independence and, therefore, was an ideal location for the first performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s (1813-1901) Nabucco.

Based on the biblical books of Jeremiah and Daniel, Nabucco follows the plight of the Jews facing abuse from the Babylonian King Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar II). Despite the historical context, the audience would have been able to relate to the passion about national identity and fight for freedom, thus strengthening their own resolve.

With the rise of Nationalism affecting many European countries, new operatic styles began to develop. Two examples appeared in France in the mid-19th century, “Opéra Comique” and “Grand Opéra”. The former was an amalgamation of spoken word with sung arias and became popular with the public. The latter combined expressive scenery, singing and ballet. Richard Wagner’s (1813-83) Tannhäuser followed the form of Grand Opéra, however, he began to challenge tradition by blending orchestra and voice instead of having several different aria performances.

Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg, to use its full title, was first performed at the Parisian Théâtre le Peletier on 13th March 1861 much to the delight of radical thinkers. It was not only Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk (all-embracing art form) that upset the traditional audience, it was the choice of themes. Sexuality, spirituality and personal struggle were concepts that disagreed with bourgeois tastes. Tannhäuser combines two legends and focuses on the struggle between sacred and sacrilegious love, naturally causing much discomfort amongst spectators.

It is the 20th century that really radicalised the opera genre, as graphically demonstrated in this exhibition. New ideas in psychology and feminism brought new themes for composers to experiment with, much to the audience’s dismay. In Dresden, the Fin de siècle culture was changing the perceptions of women, an attribute that Richard Strauss (1864-1949) took hold of and ran with it his psycho-sexual opera, Salome. The Semperoper opened the revolutionary opera in 1905 with an orchestra of over one hundred instruments. Salome only lasts for one act, but the snippet the V&A shows on a digital screen suggests this is more than enough – particularly for those with a more sensitive stomach.

“Salomania” had affected artists and poets for a number of years before Strauss brought it to the opera house. Salome is the biblical character best known for her desire for the decapitated head of John the Baptist. The “Dance of the Seven Veils” at the end of the story – a term first used by Oscar Wilde – contains erotic dancing and copious amounts of (fake) blood. Strauss’s version of Salome emphasises the passion and hysteria in the women contesting their suppressed status at the beginning of the 1900s.

The final destination on the V&A’s opera tour is Leningrad at the commencement of Stalin’s dictatorship. With avant-garde experiments being all the rage, the young Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) composed his Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District sharing the writing of the libretto with Alexander Preys (1905-42). Based on a novella by Nikolai Leskov (1831-95), the opera covers themes of rural life, adultery and murder (obviously, since it is derived from the original Shakespearean character).

A common theme between the seven operas explored by the V&A is the discomfort and unrest they caused for some of the spectators. This was no different for Lady Macbeth, however, the person it upset the most was the infamous Stalin who only wanted Socialist Realism depicted in any art form. The heroine did not match Stalin’s ideal Soviet woman, therefore Shostakovich’s opera was condemned to political censorship.

Comparing the first public opera, L’incoronazione di Poppea, with this 20th-century composition goes to show the major metamorphosis the genre has undergone in a period of 400 years. The V&A have presented this exhibition in an outstanding way, combining visual and audio to creates a seamless journey from 1642 to 1934.

Paintings from well-known artists provide glimpses into the way opera goers dressed and behaved in the past centuries, which gradually transform to photographic examples as the exhibition nears its end. Objects from original manuscripts and Mozart’s piano, to modern stage props, are located around the exhibition, adding to the historical aspect and providing more to look at than screens and walls.

Before the exit, although accessible from other areas of the gallery, is a large space full of enormous screens showing clips from a range of operas. With the audio headset, visitors can pick up the music and sit and listen to the various compositions. This video-audio experience uses a selection of 20th and 21st-century operas to quickly take viewers from its origins in Renaissance Europe to the global phenomenon it is today.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is an extraordinary feat on behalf of the V&A. The amount of time, effort and research that has gone into its construction is evident in the amazing outcome. Educational from both a historical and political perspective, this exhibition will excite opera fans and interest those that are new to the genre – although not suitable for younger visitors.

After attending this exhibition, opera will no longer merely be a form of entertainment. Who knew how political and socially challenging a seemingly harmless production could be? Opera: Passion, Power and Politics certainly challenges opinions and reveals that it is not only about music and singing.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is on now until Sunday, 25 February 2018. Tickets are £19.00 and advance booking is recommended. 

Brands, Packaging and Advertising

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Registered charity no: 1093538

How much has Britain transformed during the past couple of centuries? Everyone has heard stories from their grandparents or had conversations that begin “In my day … ” but without living through the changes, it is difficult to appreciate the various progress that has been achieved. History books can provide the (mostly) factual accounts of significant events such as the world wars and political matters, but what about the general lives of the British population? How can day-to-day life be preserved so that it does not get consigned to oblivion? The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising near Notting Hill, London, has the answer.

“They’re all here … the brands and packs, posters and ads, fads and fashions, toys and games. Evocative and inspiring, it’s a kaleidoscope of images and graphic design.”

Located in the old London Lighthouse – a residential establishment for people living with HIV or AIDS – the Museum of Brands has filled the building with over 12,000 original items owned by Britons throughout the past couple of centuries, from the Victorian-era to the present day.

The owner of the collection, Robert Opie, had the vision of unravelling the history of consumer products and preserving the design of packaging from bygone days. Opie states, “I was struck by the idea that I should save the packaging which would otherwise surely disappear forever. The collection offers evidence of a dynamic commercial system that delivers thousands of desirable items from all corners of the world, a feat arguably more complex than sending man to the Moon, but one still taken for granted.” Since 1984, this precious collection has been on display and continues to grow, marking the history and refashioning of consumer culture.

The main attraction of the museum is an extensive Time Tunnel that takes visitors on a long journey from the Victorian-era until the present day, passing through the Edwardian-era; the world wars; art nouveau and art deco movements; the space age; psychedelia; decimalisation; and the development of digital technology. From fashion to food packaging and toys and games, the exhibition includes examples of every commodity available in Britain throughout the time periods, revealing what has changed, what has disappeared and what has remained relatively the same.

One of the first items on show is a jigsaw puzzle dating back to the 1800s. Unlike today where it is possible to get any image desired on carefully cut out tessellating pieces of paperboard, these originals, the first thought to have been produced in the 1760s by John Spilsbury (1739-69), were only maps mounted onto pieces of hardwood. Instead of the oddly shaped segments, the cuttings were made along national boundaries to create a puzzle that served as a visual teaching aid for geography. Since the saws which gave jigsaw puzzles their name had not yet come into use, the puzzles were aptly called “dissected puzzles”.

As the exhibition proves, jigsaws have remained popular since their conception, providing entertainment for families of all classes, particularly during the early 1900s. Although sales fell after the Second World War, jigsaws are an existing product that will continue to connect the present with the past.

Another consumer product that makes a continuous appearance from beginning to end is the magazine. When the British retailer, W. H. Smith, began opening newsstands at railway stations in 1846, the newspaper and magazine became easily obtainable by the majority of the public. Although printing presses had been in use for some time, illustrations were only beginning to make appearances on these popular publications.

The Illustrated London News was the world’s first illustrated weekly magazine and was founded by Herbert Ingram (1811-60) in 1842. Initially, draughtsmen and engravers were commissioned to produce the illustrations for the magazine, eventually assigning other artists to take part as printing methods improved. In due course, photographers were invited to contribute their snapshots for publications.

The public was introduced to writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Hardy, J. M. Barrie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle through the issues of The Illustrated London News. The latter, famous for his Sherlock Holmes stories, was also affiliated with another British magazine, The Strand (1891-1950). Between its beginning and 1930, The Strand published 121 short stories and 9 novels by the famous author and sold approximately 500,000 copies each month.

As social interests changed, so did magazines. New topics and ideas were introduced and discussed through this public medium, bringing news of the world and gossip about people in the limelight – not much different from magazines today. A monthly periodical was established for middle-class women focusing on themes such as fashion, needlework and craft. The Young Ladies Journal ran from 1864 until the beginning of World War One, which was, incidentally, a time for the reorganisation of social stereotypes as a result of the protests led by the Suffragettes.

Magazine contents and formats were continuously updated as the world adapted to events and developments over the following years. In wartime, the publications focused on relevant articles, helping readers to come to terms with and survive the dreadful years. Soon, digital technology would revolutionise printing methods, allowing for thousands of different genres of magazines to be produced. Topics have been covered from sport to motor cars, from pop music to children’s television, and beauty to celebrity gossip.

As visitors make their way around the museum, the products on show help to illustrate British history. Events, such as the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park brought many new products to Britain with over seventeen thousand exhibitors supplying “art and industry of all nations”. Other public fairs, for instance, the Franco-British Exhibition (1908) near Shepherds Bush and the British Empire Exhibition (1924) in Wembley Park, also helped to strengthen bonds and trading with other countries. As these were significant events on the British calendar, memorabilia were sold to immortalise the experience.

Other occasions whose memories have been saved are the coronation of the kings succeeding Queen Victoria leading up to the present queen. With tea sets, postcards and special coins, the various accessions to the throne are documented – including Edward VIII who abdicated resulting in many inaccurate products – as well as jubilees and numerous royal weddings.

Despite there being so many in the collection, magazines, jigsaws and royal memorabilia only amount to a small portion of the exhibition. The majority is in the form of old packaging from food, sweets, toiletries, cigarettes and other expendable items. On the other hand, there are larger, more permanent objects such as radios and televisions.

The influences on leisure and entertainment are interesting to perceive, particularly the effects of war and technical modernisation. Pre-digital lifestyles involved different forms of amusement including innovative toys for children, family board games and other activities, some which may question today’s moral standards and health and safety guidelines.

Producers of boardgames took advantage of the World Wars to create unique games to keep children entertained. As young boys dreamed of being soldiers, boardgame publishers such as Lowe and Carr invented controversial games such as War Tactics or Can Great Britain be Invaded? in which players were intent on capturing the enemy. The war-themed recreational fun continued during WW2 with more boardgames including Chad Valley’s All Clear Shooting Game.

It is highly likely parents today would protest if such games were to be brought back onto the market, preferring their children to play with mindboggling, unrealistic toys based on the latest television craze. From the 1950s onwards, space and aliens have been predominant in children’s merchandise particularly due to television shows and films such as Doctor Who and Star Wars.

Amongst these forms of entertainment and mementoes are the typical products and packages that would be found in general homes throughout Britain. The Time Tunnel shows the gradual changes in size, design and type of comestibles that made up the contents of kitchen cupboards. However, the museum has further exhibitions – some temporary – that take a closer look at individual brand histories, marketing methods and advertising, including television as well as print.

In glass cases, examples of packaging produced by particular brands, placed in chronological order, show the changes in design, material, size and so forth. Unlike the Time Tunnel, which displays products in relation to time period, these brand-focused exhibitions concentrate on one company or product at a time, thus providing a fascinating insight into the evolution of consumer brands.

One memorable brand on display is the famous PG Tips, a brand of tea produced in the UK since 1930. It first appeared on the market under the name Pre-Gest-Tee, implying it was suitable for drinking before meals as a digestion aid. By 1950, the brand name was officially shortened to PG Tips, although grocers and salesmen had been referring to the tea as PG for a good number of years before then.

The packaging of the first batches of tea sold under the name of PG Tips was different to current designs for obvious reasons. The tea bag was not introduced until the 1960s, therefore all tea prior to that decade was loose and needed to be boxed up differently.

Oxo and Heinz are another two famous names to join the other brands in the collection. Not only has the design of their boxes and tins changed, the types of product have as well. Oxo is known particularly for its original beef stock cube, however, it now produces other flavours, including chicken, Chinese, Indian and ham. As a result, the packaging design needed to be altered accordingly. Similarly, Heinz has been adding products to its range since it started up in 1896. Heinz Tomato Ketchup remains the most sold product, but Heinz also manufactures soup, baked beans, sauces, condiments, and syrups. These all need their unique packaging and branding to fit their range of shapes and sizes.

The branding aspect of the museum will greatly appeal to graphic designers and those involved in the marketing sector. It provides a visual timeline of graphic style, consumer preference and evolution of material. As new ways of storing food became available, i.e. refrigerators, packaging adjusted in order to remain as practical as possible. In more recent years, companies have researched ways to limit waste and be as environmentally friendly as possible. Throwaway items of the past are gradually disappearing in favour of the more easily recyclable.

Towards the final section of the museum is the opportunity to watch early television adverts that many may remember seeing on their screens in the 60s, 70s and 80s. It is a great insight into the promotion techniques of advertisers of the past as well as a historical documentation of society and consumerism. Putting lack of colour and access to digital technology to one side, these advertisements would not work in the twenty-first century. Fashion, fads, ideas and culture have altered almost beyond recognition, leaving these broadcasts seeming remarkably ancient, despite only being a few decades old.

The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising helpfully provides brief explanations about the different British time periods and certain items in the collection. However, the contents mostly speak for themselves. From Queen Victoria’s reign until Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, the evolution of British commodities is evident through the enormous hoard of packaging, toys, newspapers and household items. Not only is it a treasure trove for designers to explore, it is a trip down memory lane for the majority of visitors.

For £9, visitors have access to the entire exhibition and can spend as long as they wish to study the objects of their personal history. The museum provides a selection of drinks and light refreshments in their café and encourages their guests to investigate their herbaceous perennials and sub-tropical plants in their courtyard garden. To finish off, their gift shop contains something for every generation, including books, toys, jigsaws, posters, postcards and a number of other fun souvenirs.

The Museum is just a two-minute walk from the world famous Portobello Road and is located in Ladbroke Grove, not far from Notting Hill. Opened Tues-Sat 10am-6pm, and Sundays 11am-5pm. 

Drawn in Colour

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A rare opportunity to see stunning paintings, pastels, and drawings by leading French Impressionist Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas

Coinciding with the centenary of Degas’ death, the National Gallery has organised an exhibition of the artist’s pastel works in collaboration with the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. Rarely ever put on public display, twenty fragile artworks are arranged in a darkened room to protect them from light damage, and will remain for public consumption until 7th May 2018. As well as celebrating his life’s works, Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell provides an insight into how Degas worked and the impact his personal circumstances had on his outcomes.

Edgar Degas (1834-1917; born Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas) was the firstborn of a family of five children. Growing up in Paris, Degas was encouraged by his father, a wealthy art-loving banker, to train for law work, however, Degas quickly made his own decision to change career direction. At the age of 20, Degas began studying with Louis Lamothe (1822-69), an academic artist who taught him all he knew about draughtsmanship.

Degas also briefly enrolled in classes at the École des Beaux-Arts, however, he preferred to educate himself by carefully studying paintings in the Louvre. Incidentally, it was whilst making a copy of a painting in the gallery that he was spotted by the modern painter Édouard Manet (1832-83). Manet introduced Degas to the newly formed circle of Impressionist artists. The group focused on expressing their personality through their artwork in response to the world around them. Joining the Impressionists set Degas on a path that influenced him to focus on contemporary scenes rather than the historical type witnessed in the Louvre. Degas was to become known for ballet and theatre scenes, cafés and women bathing.

Like most Impressionist art, Degas’ scenes look fresh and informal as though they were spontaneous and unplanned. However, Degas confessed that this was only how they appeared and were a far shout from reality. Degas was a very meticulous artist and carefully planned all his compositions.

Initially, Degas preferred to use oil paints, however, by the age of fifty, his eyesight was becoming significantly impaired. As a result, he began to use pastel as an alternative (as seen in this exhibition) because it meant he could get physically closer to the work surface in order to see it better. Degas experimented wildly with pastel, inventing ways to manipulate the colours and produce effects that had never been seen before. The worse his eyesight became, the more garish the colours and tones of the artwork.

 

The exhibition is divided into sections which include Modern Life, Dancers, Private World, and Horses. This shows the range of themes Degas explored as an Impressionist artist. One thing that is striking about Degas’ outcomes is that the people depicted appear unaware that they are being watched. Pastel drawings of ballerinas appear to have been made whilst viewing a dance rehearsal, the jockeys as though viewing a race, and the bathing women do not seem to realise anyone else is in the room.

“Until now, the nude has always been represented in poses that presuppose an audience, but these women of mine are honest, simple folk … It is as if you looked through a key hole.”

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Nude Grand Arabesque, First Time. 1860s

Amongst the twenty pastel drawings in the exhibition is a nude sculpture of a dancer. Originally molded out of wax, Degas produced these himself in order to aid his artwork. Degas often relied on these tactile forms to help him draw the dancers who he could no longer see clearly.

It is obvious which artworks in the exhibition occurred after sight loss due to the change in tone and execution. Older works feel much smoother and the scene is easier to make out, whereas those produced in the latter stages of Degas’ career have a more rushed appearance; the lines are more chaotic and the figures blurred. It is as though viewing a scene with poor eyesight – the way Degas probably saw it.

 

The two drawings above are a clear example Degas’ eyesight had upon his outcomes. In The Rehearsal (1874), the figures are clear with detailed shadows and clothing. The architecture of the room is precise, particularly the spiral staircase which reflects the contortion abilities of the dancers. In contrast, Dancers on a Bench (1898) is less defined, the colours unnatural and the pastel strokes obvious.

A strange fellow, this Degas — sickly, a bundle of nerves, with such weak eyes that he is afraid of going blind, yet for these very reasons extremely sensitive to the character of things. He is more skillful in capturing the essence of modern life than anyone I know.

-Edmond de Goncourt (1874)

Today’s exhibition would not have been able to take place, or at least be significantly harder to curate, without the extensive collection of one Scottish man. Sir William Burrell (1861-1958) was an art collector who, from 1916 onwards, devoted his life to collecting. Whilst his interests were diverse, his collection soon became strong in medieval art and 19th-century French painting. His passion for the latter resulted in a number of Degas’ pastel drawings, which are currently on loan to the National Gallery.

Burrell eventually had 8000 objects in his collection, which he presented to the city of Glasgow in 1944 along with a considerable sum of money to pay for a museum to be constructed in which to display the artworks. Now currently under refurbishment, the Burrell Collection is closed until 2020, thus providing the perfect opportunity to temporarily rehouse Degas’ drawings at the National Gallery rather than putting them into storage.

Despite it being easy to obtain permission to borrow the artwork, it was not easy to transport and display the fragile drawings. Pastels can quickly be damaged by handling and light, but Degas’ pastels are even more delicate because of the type of paper he preferred. The majority of his work was produced on tracing paper which is very flimsy and easily torn. Their age only increases the risk of breakage making this exhibition one of the more challenging the Gallery has assembled.

The artworks are displayed on dark grey walls in rooms with subdued lighting. Although this is to limit the possibility of damage, it changes the way visitors perceive the images. The darkness makes Degas’ work feel precious, rare and special – almost sacred. Unlike the rest of the National Gallery, which can get very noisy, no one raises their voice above a whisper as they tour the Drawn in Colour exhibition.

One of the great things about seeing an exhibition devoted to one artist, rather than viewing randomly positioned paintings, is the insight into the artist’s life, thoughts, and techniques. Seeing one painting alone, whether in person or online, almost removes any meaning or history, whereas in a collection the processes and developments can be seen. Along with explanatory captions and walls of information, the National Gallery’s tailor-made displays and exhibition are as educational as reading a textbook.

As already mentioned, Drawn in Colour is open until 7th May 2018, so there is plenty of time to arrange a visit to the Gallery. There are also a few other works by Degas in other rooms that may also be worth viewing in order to compare his pastel works with those completed in oil on canvas.

A list of works by Degas that the National Gallery has in their possession can be found on their website.

The Other St Paul’s

 

 

 

We are unafraid to reason, laugh and explore.

Ask anyone in London the way to St Paul’s and they will inevitably point you towards the magnificent cathedral by the river. Yet, so many Christian churches have been dedicated to Paul the Apostle that it can be guaranteed that Sir Christopher Wren’s famous architecture is not the only building in London with that name. In fact, there are over a dozen “St Paul” churches in the capital alone, one of which is probably walked past by thousands of tourists every day.

Located on Bedford Street overlooking Covent Garden, is C of E’s St Paul’s Church. With a heritage designation Grade 1, the church, whose architecture reflects that of an early Roman temple, was built at the same time as the famous piazza during the 17th century. Still in use today, St Paul’s offers services throughout the week, its main one being at 11am every Sunday. However, visitors are welcome to visit during the week for a look around the historic building or to sit quietly and pray.

St Paul’s Church was designed by the famous architect Inigo Jones (1573-1652) whose other notable buildings include the Queen’s House in Greenwich and Whitehall’s Banqueting House. Jones was employed by Francis Russell, the 4th Earl of Bedford, to build a square (Covent Garden) surrounded by mansions and a church. Purportedly, Lord Bedford requested a very basic church “not much better than a barn”, which Jones countered with: “Then you shall have the most handsome barn in England!”

Building began in 1631 and was quickly completed within two years, becoming the first church to be built in London since the Reformation – hence its Church of England denomination. Constructed from stone, the eastern end of the church looking over Covent Garden is fitted with a portico supported by four columns. It is this feature that most resembles the Etruscan-style temple that Inigo Jones so favoured. The main entrance, however, is at the rear of the church, through a less impressive facade.

Inigo Jones’ original plan was to have the main entrance at the east end so that the congregation could enter the small 50x100ft building from the main square. However, Christian tradition dictated that the altar must be at the east side and not the west where it had initially been placed. With the altar preventing anyone from entering through the portico, the entrance was bricked up, and a fake door erected in its place.

The church has undergone a few changes since its completion in 1633, however, it still largely corresponds to Inigo Jones’ original plan. A decade after it opened, St Paul’s Church was extended to add a gallery along the south wall, then, twelves years following that, another gallery was added on the north wall. Finally, in 1647, one more gallery was added, this time on the west wall.

In 1788, Thomas Hardwick (1752-1829), the English architect and founder of the Architects’ Club (1791), began restoration of the building which had already seen its first centenary. Unfortunately, a fire in the Bell Tower consumed the rest of the building, destroying the majority of the structure. Mercifully, the original pulpit was saved and the church was reerected to Inigo Jones’ archetype. The final major change was conducted by William Butterfield (1814-1900), a local Gothic Revival architect, in 1872, who raised the altar and was responsible for the positioning of the fake door on the east wall.

 

 

 

Madonna of the Magnificat (Madonna del Magnificat) 1480-81

Madonna of the Magnificat (Madonna del Magnificat) 1480-81

The interior of St Paul’s Church has been updated within the past century, including a restoration between the years 1981 and 1990. Changes such as the installment of electric lighting, sound systems, and heating were inevitable as technologies became readily available and affordable, however, other aspects of the church have been updated too. In 1945, the main altar was redecorated to include a copy of Botticelli’s Madonna of the Magnificat (1480-1).

During the Second World War, St Paul’s Church was fortunate to avoid a direct hit from falling bombs, nevertheless, nearby explosions shattered the original windows. In 1969, the Reverend Clarence May paid for, as a parting gift, brand new stained glass windows, which are still in place today.

To the side of the main altar is a much smaller altar for the purpose of prayer to St Genesius, the Patron Saint of actors, clowns, comedians, dancers, and musicians. This is due to the church’s long association with the theatre community for which it received the sobriquet “The Actor’s Church”.

Covent Garden in the West End is London’s main theatre and entertainment area. Therefore, St Paul’s Church was predestined to have some connection with the acting industry. The first relationship developed as early as 1662 when the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane was created. The same year saw the first ever production of the puppet show Punch and Judy – something of great significance in the area, emphasised by the pub of the same name on the west side of Covent Garden. Another significant link was established in 1723 when the Covent Garden Theatre was built (now named the Royal Opera House).

Many famous names have passed through the doors of St Paul’s Church. As early as 1710, baptisms were taking place for soon-to-be-famous people, such as Thomas Arne (1710-78) and J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). Of course, at the time, these babies were unknown to the world and were only baptised at the church due to their parents living in the parish. No one knew that the boys would grow up to compose the patriotic song Rule Britannia or produce over 2000 paintings. Similarly, there have been a few well-known burials, but, most interestingly, the first victim of the Great Plague of London. On 12th April 1665, Margaret Ponteous was laid to rest in the churchyard.

Burials were stopped in the 1850s resulting in headstones in the graveyard being removed and a garden laid in its place. However, this did not stop the people of St Paul’s Church commemorating the lives of well-known people associated with the church.

 

 

 

Adorning the plainly decorated walls inside the church are simple plaques stating the name, birth, and death of many actors, playwrights, singers and so forth who became part of The Actor’s Church during their lifetime. Theatrical personalities such as Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward, Terrence Rattigan, Vivien Leigh and Ivor Novello are just a handful of names located around the building. Although burials had stopped, the ashes of Ellen Terry and Dame Edith Evans can also be found.

21616375_10212172990511422_1047123178265667066_nThe theatre memorials began after the Second World War, however, plaques have been raised for people who lived many years before then. This includes Thomas Arne, who was buried as well as baptised in the church and Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721), a Dutch-British woodcarver who worshipped at St Paul’s. Gibbons is responsible for the limewood wreath near the entrance to the church and may have been the producer of the original pulpit saved from the fire in 1795.

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Macklin’s memorial plaque in St Paul’s in Covent Garden

Most of the memorials are very basic with no embellishments, however, there are a few that have a more decorative appearance. One of these belongs to the memory of Charles Macklin (1690-1797), an Irish actor and dramatist who spent most of his career at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. His memorial features a carving of a theatrical mask with a dagger positioned through the eye socket. This may seem a peculiar choice of imagery, however, it is significant to the actor’s downfall. In 1735, Macklin was sentenced for manslaughter after an argument over a wig with fellow actor, Thomas Hallam, spiralled out of control. In a fit of temper, Macklin thrust his cane into Hallam’s eye. Although he did not intend to kill him, the cane pierced through the eyeball and into the brain. Considering the circumstances, Macklin got off fairly lightly and was still honoured with a plaque inside St Paul’s Church.

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21616287_10212172991951458_8208480877705092628_nSince the graveyard was removed and garden laid in its place, St Paul’s Church owns one of the quietest grounds in the busiest city in England. Whilst the portico faces the bustling shopping piazza, the reverse opens up onto a small, peaceful area with two lawns and plenty of benches. Visitors are encouraged to spend time in quiet reflection away from the hustle and bustle of the city around them. Just as the church often gets overlooked by tourists, the gardens almost feel like a secret with only a lucky few stumbling over its existence. St Paul’s Churchyard is a lovely place for a picnic, place to sit and enjoy the atmosphere, read a book or recuperate after braving the hoards of tourists in Covent Garden. St Paul’s welcomes everyone, although, in order to keep the idyllic enclosure the much-loved peaceful environment, visitors are asked to respect the wildlife, avoid playing music, abstain from drinking alcohol, and not to feed the pesky pigeons!

St Paul’s Church has been extremely supportive of the theatrical world and, after almost 400 years, continues to be a pillar of support in the community. In 2007, the Iris Theatre was established in order to aid and encourage the next generation of professional theatre practitioners. The charity puts on regular shows at St Paul’s Church, relying on audiences and supporters for funding. St Paul’s hosts over 300 events a year, many as a result of the Iris Theatre. The company has a stimulating repertoire with different shows tailored to a variety of tastes. From opera and classical theatre to circus-style performances, there is something to entertain everyone. The next performance is a musical titled Fidel which explores the life of the longest standing political leader, Fidel Castro, and the Cuban revolution. With tickets at £15, the show will be performed twice on 16th November 2017. The final show of the year will be Xmas Factor on 1st December.

Another charity that began at St Paul’s Church is the Theatre Chaplaincy UK (established 1899). The charity offers pastoral and practical support to anyone engaged in the performing arts regardless of their faith and background. Although a Christian charity, the chaplains are not there to convert non-believers; their only goal is to provide support and guidance for those aspiring to develop their acting career.

Of course, St Paul’s Church is first and foremost a religious establishment with regular Christian services and festivals throughout the year. It is important to keep this in mind whilst exploring the historical structure, relaxing in the garden, or enjoying a theatre production. It may not be as impressive as the famous St Paul’s Cathedral, however, it does play a significant role in the community and has an interesting background. The theatre memorials are an invaluable feature, attracting tourists of all faiths and none.

We welcome people of faith, all who seek faith and friendship, and all who doubt.

Services are held every Sunday (at 11am) and most weekdays. The Eucharist is celebrated at 11am each Sunday. Weekday Eucharists: Tuesday & Wednesday 1:10pm. All are welcome.  

Art in the Park

It has already been five years since London held the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games. Years of preparation took place beforehand, building new venues and creating a sporting complex for an event that would only last a few weeks. However, unlike the situation in Rio after the last Olympic games, London has not abandoned this expensive project and is continuing to use and develop the Olympic Park today.  Christened the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in commemoration of the Queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012, the area was developed into the largest urban park in Western Europe by restoring wetland habitats and cultivating native plants.

Of course, the original Olympic arenas are still in use and sit within the park in all their quirky architectural glory. The London Aquatics Centre has been open to the public since 2014 as has the Lee Valley VeloPark at the opposite end of the park. The Olympic Stadium, now known as the London Stadium, is home to West Ham United Football Club and British Athletics, both making use of its multi-purpose arena.

During the construction of the Olympic Park, designers and landscapers were fully aware of the impact the project would have on the local area. In order for Londoners to benefit from the park, they chose to incorporate creative features so that the final outcome would not be completely sports oriented. In 2011, The Legacy List charity was set up to support the games but also to create connections with the general public by commissioning art installations and educational enterprises.

The art installations are still displayed in the park, reflecting on the landscape, history and local memories. Artists from far and wide were invited to participate, resulting in some unconventional outcomes. Some may not be much to look at whilst others may be easily overlooked, however, they all have interesting stories behind them.

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ArcelorMittal Orbit

Due to its 560 acres, it is not possible to see all the artworks in the park on one visit, but there are a few that are unmissable from the moment of entry. In fact, one can be seen from a distance and has attracted many visitors since its re-opening to the public in 2016. The ArcelorMittal Orbit stands at 114.5-metres and is the tallest sculpture in the United Kingdom. Originally commissioned by the Mayor of London in 2012. Sir Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond’s intricate continuous loop of recycled steel has been converted into a 178-metre tunnel slide that takes daring visitors spinning around the structure twelve times at the same speed it takes World Record Holder Wayde van Niekerk to run 400-metres.

The Mayor, Boris Johnson, originally commissioned the construction because he thought the park needed “something extra”. Designers were given the task of blueprinting ideas for an Olympic Tower from which Kapoor and Balmond’s concept was chosen as the winner. This brings about the question as to what the other designs looked like and why this contemporary eye-sore was selected above them all. At least the views from the top promise to be impressive.

The other fairly noticeable artistic feature in the park is Keith Wilson’s Steles. Thirty-five coloured poles ranging in height between 3 and 5-metres are found along the side of the Waterworks River which flows through the park before joining up with the River Lea. Although 8-kilometres of waterways flow through the park, Wilson’s Steles are only situated in a small section. Painted in the colours of the Olympic rings, these Steles look like giant crayons, however, are meant to resemble nautical waymarkers. These were the first art installation to be completed in the park and have a physical function as well as an aesthetic one. Due to their position in the water, they can easily be used as mooring posts for barges and small boats that float along the river. Alternatively, they make good roosting posts for the local black herons.

Other art installations are less noticeable until you stumble across them whilst exploring the park. Some may not even be noticed unless you are aware of them, to begin with. Hidden behind the Aquatics Centre is a utility building that has been used as a canvas by the artist DJ Simpson. Commissioned by the Olympic Delivering Authority, Simpson’s peculiar artwork, Open Folds, was installed in March 2012 to represent the contours of the neighbouring landscape. Constructed of dark anodised aluminium, Open Folds hugs the outside walls of the building. Simpson has punched out holes and formed patterned lines to emphasise the varying shape of the surrounding terrain.

In the main section of the park, another building has been used to display an installation of 2000 wooden cubes. One wall of the Podium Café is the location of Pixel Wall by the London-based design collective known as Tomato. The interactive wall allows visitors to turn the cubes, which have a mix of light and dark surfaces, in order to create different pixellated images or words. This is something that appeals to most visitors who cannot resist touching and playing with the cubes and discovering their creative potential. Despite clear instructions not to, vandals have unfortunately written on the cubes, ruining the overall aesthetic of the artwork.

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The Fun Palace by Caroline Bird.

All forms of art were involved with the development of the Olympic Park and, although they all resulted in something tangible, they did not necessarily begin that way. As well as artists and designers, poets were invited to contribute their thoughts and words. On a wooden shed by the South Lawn is an engraved verse from a poem written by Caroline Bird.

Titled The Fun Palace, Bird’s poem narrates the life of Joan Littlewood (1914-2002), a theatre director who was heavily involved with the Theatre Royal in Stratford. During her career, she dreamt up the idea of a “Fun Palace” – an arts and education centre. She envisioned this building on the site of the park, however, her ambition never came to fruition. In honour of what would have been her 100th birthday in 2014, Caroline Bird penned this poem in celebration of everything she did for the artistic community in Stratford.

Other poets have also produced verses to be displayed around the park that reflect on the local area and its history. Lemn Sissay, a local author, was the first to be commissioned to write for the London Olympics. He provided three poems – Living Is In; Spark Catchers; and Spark – which are all exhibited in a similar manner to Bird’s poem. Carol Ann Duffy, who was appointed the Poet Laureate in 2009, also contributed with a poem about Eton Manor, a former leisure centre in the area.

John Burnside, a Scottish poet, was inspired by the suffragette, Sylvia Pankhurst, who was known to cycle around the area whilst campaigning for women’s equality. With this significant piece of history in mind, Burnside wrote Bicycling for Ladies, which has also been etched into wood, along with visual imagery.

Sylvia Pankhurst

I dreamed you came again

through the smog of time,

match-girls and broom-makers,

cycling from street to street

with The Women’s Dreadnought;

the houses lit for miles,

like beacons

and a true friend

– Extract from Bicycling For Ladies

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Made of glass and steel, and standing 9-metres high, Monica Bonvicini‘s artwork is hard to miss from the road passing the Copper Box Arena. Functioning as a mirror by day and sporting neon lights by night, the Italian artist’s contribution has an ambiguous meaning. Is it referring to the athletes at the Olympic Games, or is it instructing people to run for their lives?

 

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Freeze Frame by Neville Gabie

 

Not all the artwork that has featured in the Olympic Park remains on public display. In 2012, Neville Gabie was appointed artist in residence for a period of 16 months. During this time, he created a series of work using film and photography. In one film, he recorded his attempt to sit on every seat in the stadium. His most imaginative outcome, however, is the recreation of George Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières (1884). By carefully placing people in high visibility jackets, Gabie reimagined the famous painting in the modern setting of the Olympic Park.

Although not commissioned as an art installation, there are two famous structures that attract many visitors and make great photograph opportunities. These are, of course, the Olympic Rings and the Paralympic Agitos. Located either side of the River Lea, these relics from the Games will remain as a reminder that the park was where the majority of the events took place. For whatever reason that you have gone to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, seeing the Rings and the Agitos is a must.

Despite being transformed into a recreational public parkland, it is impossible to erase the success London had in being the host city of the Olympic Games. Along with the Rings, Agitos, and arenas, facts and memories of the Games have been dotted around the park. The entrance near the Aquatics Centre has a series of facts spread over the pathway, reminding people what London and its athletes achieved, as well as informing the future generations. There is also an opportunity to try and beat Greg Rutherford’s long jump world record of 8.31-metres.

The park has been made child-friendly with the addition of playgrounds containing several different climbing frames, swings and slides to enjoy. These have been designed as abstractly as the buildings and structures surrounding them, in keeping with the contemporary appeal of the area. During the summer, Children can enjoy racing through the water fountains as they turn on and off at great speed.

The park, architecture, and artworks have not appealed to everyone, resulting in a lot of criticism, including in the national papers. The architecture critic for The Guardian expressed the opinion that “There is a frenzy of wacky light fittings, of playground installations, of seats, tree species, sculptural lumps of granite, kiosks, railings and coloured surfaces…It suffers from an Olympic syndrome, where everyone wants to be a Mo or a Jessica and make their mark … Great care was taken to make the Athletes’ Village aesthetically orderly, to the point where it began to resemble Ceausescu’s Bucharest: this eruption makes such efforts futile.”

It appears that the developers have tried too hard to make everything look modern and have ultimately created something that looks obscure and slightly alien. Unlike the natural parks around Britain, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park feels false and overcultivated. Attempts have been made to produce gardens of foreign plants, including those from Asia and the Southern Hemisphere, however, this increases the unnatural feel of the park. Granted, the park is clean, neat and well looked after, but it looks too perfect to be considered parklands. It does not help matters that between the arenas and different “green” sections is an abundance of concrete pathways. The roads crisscrossing the park are a nuisance too; it is impossible to forget you are in London.

The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is still being developed as new installations and areas are added to improve visitors’ experience. No doubt more artwork and perplexing architecture will be added to the area over the coming years. With different events happening throughout the year, there is always something new to attract tourists to the area, making the park a worthy project.

Whether or not contemporary art appeals, it is still worth taking a trip to the Olympic Park. We are fortunate to have free access to a place where British history was made and, hopefully, always be remembered.

The park is a short walk from both Stratford Station and Stratford International Station. There are also many buses in the area, making the park easily accessible. Facilities are available for children, adults and disabled to ensure that everybody gets the most out of their visits. Numerous cafés and restaurants are on site and there are plenty of staff to help if you need directions or would like a tour of the park.

Download the Art in the Park field guide for more information about the art installations and where to find them.