Courtauld Impressionists

The World Renowned Courtauld Gallery, one of the leading university art museums in the UK, is currently closed for redevelopment, however, there is still an opportunity to view some of the collection. This autumn and winter, the National Gallery in collaboration with The Courtauld Gallery have selected over forty masterpieces from the  Impressionist and Post-Impressionist era to display in their spacious Wohl Galleries (rooms 42-46). Courtauld Impressionists: From Manet to Cézanne includes famous works from many French artists, including Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, Monet, and Seurat.

The Courtauld Institute of Art was established in 1932 with the shared vision of two men, Samuel Courtauld (1876-1947) and Arthur Hamilton Lee, 1st Viscount Lee of Fareham (1868-1947). On its opening, Courtauld granted his impressive collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artwork to the gallery. Since then, numerous gifts, bequests and donations have been provided from all art movements, including the early 14th century, the Renaissance and abstract. Today, the gallery contains around 530 paintings and over 26,000 drawings and prints.

This particular exhibition is focused on the collections of Samuel Courtauld rather than the art institution he formed. Not only is it an impressive collection, combined with paintings from the National Gallery, it tells the story of the development of modern French painting from the 1860s to the turn of the 20th century. Arranged into twelve sections, each one focusing on an individual artist, the exhibition chronologically explores the changing styles and themes over the many decades as well as Courtauld’s taste in art.

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Samuel Courtauld © By courtesy of the Courtauld Institute of Art, London

Samuel Courtauld’s career as an art collector began in 1922 after attending an exhibition of French art at the Burlington Fine Arts Club. He was one of the first collectors to take an interest in French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings and quickly assembled a large collection. Along with his wife Elizabeth, the Courtauld’s private art collection rapidly grew to more than 70 paintings.

With Courtauld providing the majority of the funding from his family’s wealth in the textile business, the Courtauld Institute was able to secure and introduce numerous paintings to the UK public. Samuel Courtauld had a significant role in promoting and encouraging the British love of Impressionism.

The first artist to feature in the Courtauld Impressionists exhibition is Honoré-Victorin Daumier (1808-79) and is the earliest French artist in Samuel Courtauld’s collection. He was chiefly a draughtsman and printmaker, however, Daumier also produced caricatures for satirical journals.

Daumier’s career spanned five decades during which he produced numerous sculptures and paintings that revealed his witty observations and commentary about life. Initially he was known for his humourous Parisian street scenes, however, later in life, he turned to literary scenes, such as Miguel de Cervantes’ (c1547-1616) 17th-century comic tale Don Quixote. Samuel Courtauld was inspired by Daumier’s “tragic humour” in his unfinished painting Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (1868-72). The oil painting is full of fluid brushstrokes that make up an impression of two faceless men riding on horses through a rocky mountain gorge.

After Daumier, the exhibition moves on to Edouard Manet (1832-83), one of the most controversial painters of the Impressionist movement. Samuel Courtauld collected many of Manet’s works, including his final piece A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1881-2). Whilst being inspired by famous artists of the past, such as Velázquez (1599-1660) and Titian (1488-1576), Manet was also a radical influence on many of the painters in his close circle and successors. Mostly, he was admired for his approach to space and colour within his work.

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère was the purchase that established Samuel Courtauld as an ambitious collector. The Folies-Bergère was a fashionable place of entertainment popular in Paris in the 19th century. It was also popular for demi-monde or prostitutes who openly pursued their trade.  Although not entirely certain, it is likely the barmaids were also available to their clients, including Suzon, who Manet places behind a table full with bottles of alcohol. The mirror behind her shows a reflection of the hustle and bustle of the establishment and the presence of a customer at the bar. Unfortunately, this mirror has lead to much confusion and debate throughout the art world.

Critics have noted that the barmaid’s encounter with the customer shown in the mirror, does not match the lonely, isolated figure facing the spectators. Allegedly, x-rays have revealed that Manet initially painted a more accurate reflection but why he altered this remains unknown. These types of distortions and dislocations were common in Manet’s work, however, this is believed to be the most extreme.

Other works of Manet on display include Music in the Tuileries Gardens (1862), Le Déjeurner sur l’herbe (1863-8) and Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil (1874). The latter was painted whilst visiting another Impressionist painter, Monet, in the suburbs of Paris. Unlike Monet, Manet prefered to paint in his studio, however, this painting of his wife, Camille, and his son Jean is likely to have been produced en plein air.

Naturally, the exhibition follows Manet with Claude Monet (1840-1926), perhaps the most famous Impressionist painter. Monet was a master at plein-air painting, spending his lifetime producing paintings of his immediate surroundings. Originally, Monet was a keen painter of the French countryside, particularly where a body of water could be seen. Later in life, he turned his hand to areas in Paris and the suburbs, however, these failed to impress Samuel Courtauld.

In the 1920s and 30s, Courtauld made the purchase of four works by Monet for his private collection. These all came from the height of Monet’s career and Impressionist period. One was produced in the same place Manet had complete his plein-air painting, Argenteuil. In Monet’s landscape, Autumn Effect at Argenteuil (1873), autumnal trees frame the River Seine, drawing attention to the handful of buildings on the opposite bank. Although Argenteuil was developing into an industrial town, Monet’s perspective captures it in a timeless manner.

The first Monet landscape Courtauld purchased was the much brighter Antibes (1888), which reveals a captivating expanse of the Mediterranean sea. Whilst in the north of France, Monet was focused on capturing cool light and colour, the strong sunshine in the south inspired him to intensify his palette. With only a simple tree in the foreground to break up the expanse of sea, Monet relied on a mix of blues and greens with touches of pink and red to suggest the effects of the bright sun on the water.

The Courtauld Impressionist exhibition is not only a showcase of a selection of artists, but it also explores the differences between those who fall under the Impressionism umbrella. Unlike previous and later art movements, Impressionism did not have particularly strong rules or regulations, and the artist opposite Monet in the gallery emphasises the differences in style within the group.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas (1834-1917) was one of the founding members of Impressionism, exhibiting in all but one of their art shows. Unlike Monet who was interested in landscapes, Degas focused upon his love of horseriding, ballet and showed women going about their everyday life. Coming from a wealthy background, Degas was also able to afford to experiment with different techniques, including pastels, sculpture and drawing.

By the time Samuel Courtauld began assembling a serious collection of art, Degas was already famous throughout France and Britain. During the 1920s, Courtauld purchased a total of eight works by Degas, five for his private collection and three for the nation. The most expensive painting by Degas in the Courtauld Gallery is Two Dancers on a Stage (1874), which shows two female figures in standard ballet poses. Degas either painted this while watching a play or a dance rehearsal, however, it is now believed that the ballerinas are dancing the Ballet des Roses, which features in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. This oil painting was already in possession of a British collector, however, in 1927, Courtauld bought it from him for a much higher price.

The first Degas painting to be purchased by the Courtauld fund was one of his earlier works, Young Spartans Exercising (1860). Although Degas is known for his depictions of everyday life, this is an example of his experimentation with history painting. Described by the ancient Greek philosopher Plutarch, the picture shows a group of boys and girls preparing for a wrestling contest, something that was encouraged by the Spartan legislator Lycurgus. This painting is almost unique in comparison to all Degas’ well-known works; in fact, Young Spartans Exercising was never shown to the public during the artist’s lifetime and was discovered after his death.

Another famous Impressionist painter Samuel Courtauld admired was Pierre-August Renoir (1841-1919) who produced more than 5000 paintings during his 60-year career. Primarily a painter of people, Renoir used small brushstrokes to build up the radiance and vibrancy of light and colour. One of Renoir’s most popular artwork, Le Loge (1874) is used on advertisements for the exhibition at the National Gallery.

Renoir painted many scenes of theatregoers, particularly those sitting in theatre boxes, which revealed the lifestyle of many Parisians. Le Loge shows Renoir’s brother Edmond and a model, Nini Lopez, seated in a box. Whilst Edmond looks upwards through a pair of binoculars, Lopez faces forward, opera glasses beside her, which she probably used to peer at members of the audience, rather than the action on stage. Dressed up as she is, Lopez was there to be noticed, suggesting an ambiguous social status.

Another theatre scene, also one of the first works purchased by the Courtauld FundLa Première Sortie (1876-7) reveals a different type of theatregoer. As the title suggests, the young woman leaning expectantly forward in her seat is on her first formal visit to the theatre. Unaware of the eyes of the audience on her from below, Renoir captures her eagerness to see the performance and experience theatre life.

It was not these theatre portraits, however, that initially attracted Samuel Courtauld’s attention. Instead, it was the intimate Woman tying her Shoe (1918), which he and his wife Elizabeth purchased in 1922, the first French work of art they bought.

Samuel Courtauld’s first purchase from the Post-Impressionist period was Jane Avril in the Entrance to Moulin Rouge (1892) by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). The National Gallery quote Courtauld admiring the “fin-de-siècle atmosphere of Toulouse-Lautrec,” implying he believed it to attest to the end of Impressionism.

Jane Avril was a leading performer at the famous Moulin Rouge in Paris. She was also Lautrec’s favourite model and close personal friend and, as a result, appears in many of his works. It is said that Courtauld was so taken with this painting, he was annoyed when its delivery was delayed.

Whereas Lautrec was squeezed into a corner, it is impossible to miss Georges Seurat’s large canvas Bathers at Asniéres (1884) on the wall of the next room. Seurat was obsessed with light and colour but dissatisfied with the way the Impressionists’ had approached the idea. Employing a pointillist technique, Seurat placed dots of different colour paint to make up an entire recognisable scene. Bizarrely, this particular masterpiece of industrial workers resting on the banks of the Seine was rejected by the Paris Salon in 1884. Four decades later, long after Seurat’s untimely death at the age of 31, the Courtauld Fund bought the painting for Britain.

The Courtauld Gallery owns a couple of other works by Seurat, including Young Woman Powdering Herself, which is a portrait of Seurat’s mistress, Madeleine Knobloch. Seurat never explained the meaning behind this painting, however, he used his trademark pointillist technique to execute the rounded and angular forms in the scene.

A fan of Seurat’s pointillism was the French artist Camille Pissarro (1830-1903). Initially a founding member of the Impressionists, Pissarro adopted this new technique later in his career. Of his many paintings, Courtauld only selected town scenes, such as The Boulevard Montmartre at Night (1897) – a contrast to his preference of Monet’s works.

The final room of the exhibition features Samuel Courtauld’s favourite artist, Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), of whom he purchased an incredible eleven works as well as drawings and personal letters. Courtauld’s fascination with the artist is clear with the purchase of Hillside in Provence (1890-2), which he purchased with his own money for the nation because the Courtauld Fund was almost exhausted.

At the time of purchase, the British public was sceptical about Cézanne’s work, often sparking intense debates. It appears Courtauld took a risk by purchasing so many of his paintings, however, it was a risk that paid off. The first Cézanne Courtauld purchased was one of his most daring compositions, Still life with Plaster Cupid (1894), which went against traditional laws of composition and perspective. Nevertheless, it was a painting Courtauld treasured his whole life.

One of the most expensive of Cézanne’s works purchased by Courtauld was The Card Players (1892-6); it is also one of Cézanne’s most iconic works. It is a scene of two men, probably farm labourers, playing a game of cards whilst seated at a small table. True to Cézanne’s style, the perspective is inaccurate, a feature that critics believe was not deliberate. Despite these distortions, Courtauld coveted the painting so much that he considered trading in another of Cézanne’s works in order to pay for it.

With Cézanne’s work taking up half the room, the final three artists in the exhibition are squeezed into the remaining space. This includes Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) who developed an outmoded Impressionist approach to painting in his later years. This can be seen in Blue Balcony (1910), which Samuel Courtauld purchased to fit in with his collection of Impressionist art.

A rather surprising fact appears in the description of Paul Gauguin’s (1848-1903) Te Rerioa or The Dream (1897). Painted while in Tahiti, two women watch over a sleeping child, whilst the Tahitian goddess Hina looks on from a painting on the wall.

“Te Rerioa (The Dream), that is the title. Everything is a dream in this canvas; is it the child? is it the mother? is it the horseman on the path? or even is it the dream of the painter!!! All that is incidental to painting, some will say. Who knows. Maybe it isn’t.”
– Gauguin in a letter to Daniel de Monfreid

The theme of the painting is a stark contrast to all the other paintings in Samuel Courtauld’s collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, however, that is not the most intriguing thing about it. According to the description, Courtauld sold one of his Cézannes in order to afford to buy it. Judging by his infatuation with Cézanne, Courtauld must have truly believed Te Rerioa to be something special to go to such lengths to purchase it.

The last painter to mention is Vincent van Gogh (1853-90). Most of his work belongs to the Vincent van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, however, the Courtauld Fund was able to secure four paintings, including a version of his famous Sunflowers, Chair and A Wheatfield with Cypresses (1889), the only van Gogh to feature in this particular exhibition.

From Daumier to van Gogh, Courtauld Impressionists takes spectators on a journey through the art of the 19th and early 20th century. It is interesting to see the differing style and method of each painter, particularly as they all worked at similar times. It is difficult to put into words the changes that occur over those years; the best way to understand the shifts in style is to see the paintings for yourself.

Courtauld Impressionists: From Manet to Cézanne is open to the public until 20th January 2019. Tickets are a reasonable £7.50 and can be booked online in advance or purchased on the day from the ticket desk. Under twelves may view the exhibition free when accompanied by a paying adult.

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Mantegna versus Bellini

A tale of two artists: family and rivalry is the theme for the National Gallery’s current exhibition organised by the National Gallery and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin in collaboration with the British Museum. Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini are two of the greatest Italian painters of the Renaissance. Whilst it may appear the younger Bellini began his career by copying Mantegna, the already established artist, his work developed into groundbreaking paintings of which no one had seen the like before. With temporary loans of dozens of rarely seen artworks, the exhibition, Mantegna and Bellini, provides the opportunity to study the similarities and differences between two artists who shaped Italian art.

 

 

It started with a book. On entering the exhibition, visitors are faced with a glass display case containing the London Drawing Book of Jacopo Bellini. Although this does not contain the works of the two artists in question, it is a key object that links their stylistic development together.

Jacopo Bellini (c.1400-70) was one of the founders of the Renaissance style of painting in Venice and northern Italy. His sons, Gentile (c.1429-1507) and Giovanni (c.1430-1516) learnt the art of painting and drawing under his tutelage, however, it was not until Andrea Mantegna (c.1431-1506) joined the family, that the younger son, Giovanni, began to make his name known.

Mantegna was born in Padua and adopted by the artist Francesco Squarcione (c.1395 -c.1468) in whose studio he also worked. Unfortunately, the young artist believed Squarcione was exploiting his pupils and took him to court so that he could become an independent painter. As a result, Mantegna was free to go where he wished, marrying into the Bellini family in 1453.

After his marriage to Nicolosia Bellini (d.1460), Mantegna was able to study the drawings of Jacopo Bellini. As can be seen in the illustrations, Jacopo was interested in architecture and perspective, which inevitably rubbed off on his son-in-law and then his son.

Whilst Mantegna had already experienced life as an artist, having to work hard to make a living, Giovanni Bellini had grown up in an extremely wealthy family of Venetian painters and had not endured the same fate, nor yet developed his own style and place amongst Italian artists. Looking to his brother-in-law for inspiration, Bellini appropriated many of the established and highly inventive artist’s ideas, gradually forging a name for himself.

 

 

The first and most obvious example of Mantegna’s influence on Bellini is their similar versions of The Presentation at the Temple. These show the moment Mary and Joseph present their child, Jesus at the Temple, forty days after his birth. Here, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke 2:22–40, they meet prophet Simeon and prophetess Anna. Both paintings show the Virgin Mary tenderly holding the tightly swaddled Christ Child while Simeon comes forward to take him. In the background between these main figures, Joseph watches the proceedings.

In Mantegna’s version, which was painted shortly after his marriage, there are two figures stood either side of the painting. These are thought to be portraits of the artist himself and his wife, Nicolosia. The composition is rather claustrophobic, the framing being just enough room to hold the upper bodies of Mary and Simeon with their halos.

Bellini’s version, however, is observed from further away, allowing room for an extra character on either side. It has not been officially determined who these people represent. To produce this piece, Bellini traced Mantegna’s original, which had been completed over ten years beforehand, keeping the poses, facial expressions and types of clothing almost exactly the same. The changes appear in the colours of the fabrics, the brightness of the scene and the lack of halos upon the Holy Family’s heads.

To some, the paintings are so similar that Bellini’s version appears to be blatant plagiarism. On the other hand, there is enough difference to make it his own. It is as though Bellini is trying to say to Mantegna, “Look what I can do,” or perhaps even, “Anything you can do, I can do better!”

 

The Presentation at the Temple is just one of many examples the National Gallery uses to emphasise Mantegna’s influence on Bellini. Another is The Agony in the Gardenwhich Mantegna first produced at the end of the 1450s, inspiring Bellini to produce his own version at the beginning of the following decade. The paintings refer to chapter 14, verses 32-43 in the Gospel of Mark when Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane while his disciples, Peter, James the Great and John the evangelist sleep.

It is thought that Mantegna was initially inspired by a drawing by Jacopo Bellini. This Bible passage was an unusual choice to represent at this time since many Biblical paintings came in sets, representing the birth, life and resurrection of Christ; The Agony in the Garden was the first stand-alone religious painting in western art.

Mantegna’s rocky terrain and sharp colours give the painting a harsh atmosphere and a portent of the events to come emphasised further by a dead tree and vulture on the right. A host of angels stand above on a cloud clutching Instruments of the Passion, another omen of Christ’s impending death. In the background is the city of Jerusalem from which a troop of soldiers follow Judas’ lead to arrest Jesus.

Although Bellini took inspiration from Mantegna, on this occasion his outcome is not a copy of his brother-in-law’s. The events depicted remain the same, however, Bellini has introduced his own interpretation. Bellini chose to include only one ghostly angel standing aloft on a wispy cloud carrying a cup and plate as symbols of the approaching sacrifice. The colours and the way Bellini portrays light in his composition gives the painting a more tender feel. Unlike Mantegna’s version, it suggests hope, a hint of the resurrection, a sign of prayers being answered.

 

 

Up until the 15th century, Biblical paintings showed the characters, Jesus, the Holy family and so forth as beautiful, angel-like beings. They were figures that personified the love of God and served as examples of the ideal human being. During Mantegna and Bellini’s careers, these notions began to change. Although traditional scenes of the nativity and the Madonna remained popular, artists began to change the way they portrayed the death of Christ. Instead of a peaceful, serene outcome, Mantegna and Bellini focused on painting the torture of Christ, revealing through him the sorrows of man.

 

He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised …
– Isaiah 53:3

The National Gallery provides more examples of Bellini’s depiction of the “despised and rejected” Christ, however, both artists were keen to express the lifeless body and the grief on the faces of his mother and disciples.

 

Whilst Bellini was intensely impacted by Mantegna’s art and style, Bellini’s evocative landscapes and application of colour equally inspired Mantegna. As their careers developed, the landscape became an integral part of their paintings. Rather than spend all their energy painting the foreground and characters, the brothers-in-law paid equal attention to the backgrounds of their compositions.

Mantegna’s Death of the Virgin, for example, could simply have been portrayed in a room with bare walls. Instead, the artist has included a huge open window overlooking the city of Mantua, where he was currently residing. Likewise, Bellini in Madonna of the Meadow did not solely focus on the tenderness of the mother and child. In the background is a landscape complete with the buildings of a distant city. The inclusion of these structures maintains the original teachings of Jacopo Bellini who enjoyed sketching architectural drawings.

One of Bellini’s greatest examples of a landscape is Assassination of St Peter Martyr. This tells the story of Saint Peter, a Dominican friar, who was ambushed by assassins on the road to Milan. Saint Peter received a head wound and was repeatedly stabbed to death. This incident takes place in the lower left of the painting, leaving a huge amount of canvas that Bellini fills with an expressive landscape.

The death of St Peter takes place in a wooded area outside of a city; the buildings can be seen through the trees. Oblivious to the saint’s demise, woodcutters are chopping down branches for firewood, an intended allusion to the way in which the saint was killed.

The most impressive landscape the gallery displays by Mantegna is Triumphs of the Virtues. Unlike the first few rooms in the exhibition which show religions paintings, this is a mythological image that reveals Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare, expelling the vices from the Garden of Virtue. Some of the other characters are identified as Diana, the goddess of chastity, escaping from a centaur who, in this case, is a symbol of lust and desire. In the sky, the three primary moral virtues, Justice, Temperance and Fortitude, watch over the proceedings.

As well as expertly telling the mythological tale, Mantegna painted a magical landscape full of luscious green meadows and mountains. In the foreground, arches are made up of foliage and, in keeping with the whimsical story, the tree nearest Minerva is shown with a human head.

 

Despite the familial connection and the clear influence they had on each other, Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini only worked in close proximity briefly before Mantegna took up the post of court painter to the Gonzaga family in Mantua. Although the artistic style of work is close enough to be mistaken for the other, the direction they went with themes and purposes gave them individuality within the art world.

Mantegna had a great interest in antiquity and attempted to recreate ancient Rome in some of his paintings. Three of nine large canvases covered the walls in the final room of the exhibition of the Triumphs of Caesar, which shows the arrival of Julius Caesar in Rome. These are thought to have been commissioned by Francesco II Gonzaga (1466-1519), the 4th Marquis of Mantua, although, they were later acquired by Charles I in 1629 and now remain in the Royal Collection.

Another example of Mantegna’s interest in antiquity can be seen in The Introduction of the Cult of Cybele at Rome commisioned by Francesco Cornaro (1478-1543), a Venetian nobleman, in 1505. Rather than painting a life-like illustration of the scene, Mantegna painted a sculptural relief. Although the background is coloured a red marble or wood, the stone figures are completely monochrome. This goes to show Mantegna’s skill with the paintbrush; producing a black and white painting is only half the challenge, making figures look like stone is a true success.

 

Unlike Mantegna, Bellini remained in Venice his whole life, often completing commisions in many Venetian and religious buildings. Despite being away from his brother-in-law, they remained in contact and had similar interests. Bellini was also interested in antiquity, finishing commissions Mantegna left incomplete after his death. At this time, however, the term antiquity also referred to events written in the Old Testament, such as the story of Noah.

The Drunkenness of Noah was completed about a year before Bellini’s death and shows the daring and revolutionary ideas of the artist. Traditionally, Biblical paintings reveal positive stories and messages, however, this painting based on Genesis 9:20–23 reveals Noah’s vices rather than his virtuosity. Noah is lying naked on the floor in drunken slumber whilst his sons, Shem and Japheth, attempt to cover him with a red cloth. His third son, Ham, however, laughs at the sight of his father.

Bellini also received commissions for portraits, however, he much prefered to paint portraits of characters rather than real people. The most beautiful of these is Virgin and Child with St. Catherine and Mary Magdalene which, unlike his other paintings with expressive landscapes, has a black background; the characters are lit from a light source outside of the frame.

Although not overly elaborate or detailed, Virgin and Child with St. Catherine and Mary Magdalene attracts attention with its chiaroscuro effect and the glossy finish to the painting – an element that is lost looking at the image online or on paper. Mantegna’s medium of choice was egg tempera, which Bellini initially used before developing a preference for oil paints. Oils allowed for deeper colour and contrast in shading.

There is no doubt that Mantegna and Bellini were two of the greatest painters in Italy during the 15th century, however, for an exhibition expressly about the pair, very little is alluded to about their lives, personalities or whether the brothers-in-law got on well together. This exhibition does not let Mantegna and Bellini’s personalities come through. It eliminates them in preference for detailed comparisons about how they painted and drew the same subjects, such as The Agony in the Garden and The Presentation at the Temple.

Of course, it is interesting to see the similarities and difference between the two artists, but on leaving the exhibition, visitors remain none the wiser about who the two painters really were. Did they have happy lives and happy marriages? Do their paintings reflect their personalities? Did Mantegna mind Bellini copying his work? Were they rivals or is this a label art historians have assumed? So many questions …

Despite these misgivings, it is incredible to see all these paintings in one place, especially as many belong to private collections and are rarely lent out to other organisations. It is interesting to see the famous paintings as well as the lesser known and to be able to witness the growth from early career to pioneers of the Renaissance. Although Mantegna and Bellini’s lives are not much revealed, the history, development and changes in paintings from the 15th century is fascinating.

Mantegna and Bellini is in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery until 27th January 2019. Tickets are between £12-16 and can be booked online or bought on the day. 

 

I Object!

Who better to curate an exhibition about dissent than Private Eye editor Ian Hislop (b1960), the most sued man in Britain? Rummaging through the collection at the British Museum, Hislop has uncovered over 100 controversial items revealing physical evidence of past protest. After three years of careful examination, the museum exhibits his findings to the public in a temporary display, I object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent.

As editor of the leading satirical current affairs magazine, Ian Hislop is constantly asking whether the stories and supposed facts are true. The majority of objects in the British Museum celebrate the lives of past rulers and societies, often admiring their strengths and successes, however, Hislop was determined to uncover objects that challenged these histories. The exhibition investigates the other side of the story, looking at the downtrodden, the protestors and those with a different point of view.

The exhibition begins with Ian Hislop’s favourite items before going on to explore objects of dissent from all over the world and time. Given the nature of his magazine, it is unsurprising that Hislop was drawn to satirical cartoons, particularly Treason!!! drawn by Richard Newton in 1798. Sketches of this nature are mostly harmless and only mock the subjects depicted rather than physically attack. A few examples of cartoon prints, including this one, make a mockery of the British monarchy in the late Georgian Period.

Newton’s caricature shows a stout, middle-aged man breaking wind at a portrait of King George III (1738-1820), the reigning monarch at the time. The man is labelled “Mr Bull”, referring to John Bull, the name of the national personification of the United Kingdom, England in particular, who was often depicted in political cartoons to represent the nation. George III is the “mad king who lost America” who was intermittently “mad” for the last 11 years of his reign. Although this etching was published before he succumbed to his mental illness, George’s quarrels with his American subjects resulted in the loss of the American Colonies in 1776. This may have contributed to the public’s dislike of the king, prompting magazines to publish satirical images of their “unfit ruler”.

Ian Hislop included a handful of other cartoons from this era, for example, a hand-coloured etching by James Gillray (1756–1815) titled A voluptuary under the horrors of digestion (1792). Gluttony, sexual amorality and avarice were frequent topics for caricaturists during the 18th and 19th century. Gillray attacked the Prince of Wales, later George IV, (1762-1830) with a portrait revealing him to be an obese and ungainly man, surrounded by items that expressed his desires for women, money, drink and food. Whilst this may seem a nasty attack on the royal family, it was widely known that Prince George was frequently bailed out by the government.

“A fantastic, very ancient, small act of rebellion.”

Some of Ian Hislop’s findings date back to the ancient world, objects of which the British Museum has in abundance. Most people would assume that graffiti is a modern issue, however, Hislop found evidence of a piece that is at least 3000 years old. With an estimated date of 1300-1100 BC, an ostracon, or stone fragment from the ancient Egyptian village Deir el-Medina, is defaced with a crude drawing of a sex scene. Whilst this may not show dissent as such, Hislop included this “very silly” object as evidence that people of the past are not much different from people of today.

Another stone, this time dating from 650 BC, contains another form of graffiti. This brick formed part of King Nebuchadnezzar II’s (c.634 BC – c.562 BC) Babylonian building and is stamped with his names and title. The brickmaker, however, has cheekily added his own name in Aramaic in the top-right corner. It is not possible to tell what “Zabina’s” intentions were with this small act of rebellion but Hislop likes to think the gesture made the culprit feel good.

42707514_1229925277132806_7316189399589322752_nSticking with the theme of ancient wall graffiti, Hislop included a primitive example of wall art from the Post-Catatonic era amongst his favourite objects. The accompanying description states that the image is thought to depict an early man venturing towards his “out-of-town hunting grounds”. If the shopping trolley in the drawing and the term “Post-Catatonic” has not triggered alarm bells, the name of the primaeval artist “Banksymus Maximus” is a dead giveaway that the item is a fake.

The wall art or Peckham Rock, as it is now known, was created by the anonymous street artist Banksy. Although the style of art may resemble those found in caverns, this hoax cave painting was produced with a marker pen on a piece of concrete. Whilst clearly a fake, it is the story behind its creation that earns it a place in the I Object exhibition. In 2005, the artist secretly installed the stone in one of the British Museum galleries where it remained undiscovered for a number of days. Although amusing, Banksy was, in some way, ridiculing ancient artefacts.

Frequently, religion has caused wars and unrest throughout the ages, a fact that is evidenced many times throughout this exhibition. Whether being forced to worship a god they do not believe in or, alternatively, being banned from worshipping one they do, people have responded in a number of different ways.

After the Reformation and the establishment of the Church of England, Henry VIII (1491-1547) banned the Catholic faith, going as far as to execute those who refused or tried to continue to worship in secret. Many Catholic relics and buildings were destroyed during this period of time, however, some had the foresight to hide or bury their belongings for safety. As a result of this, numerous Catholic artefacts still exist, as evidenced in the display cases of the exhibition.

Ian Hislop’s favourite example of Catholic dissidence is the Stonyhurst Salt. To the untrained eye, it looks like an elaborate, but secular, salt-cellar, however, it was made out of recycled fragments of religious reliquaries. As well as using the silver from the church plate, embellishments were added to emphasise its religious connotation. Silver and crystal may have been used to symbolise Christ’s purity, and the rubies and garnets, Christ’s blood.

By disguising items in this way, Catholics were silently protesting against Henry VIII’s rules. Although at risk of arrest or death, these Catholic dissenters helped to preserve a part of English history, as well as amuse Ian Hislop. “I can imagine the rich (and obviously Catholic) owners of this object saying to their guests, ‘of course, Catholicism has been banned, we wouldn’t dream of having such items of Catholic worship here. By the way, this is a salt-cellar – would you like some?’”

The other religious object Ian Hislop draws attention to is known as the “Wicked Bible”. Published in 1631 under the names of Robert Barker and Martin Lucas, this edition of the King James Bible earned its name due to a printing error that changed the Seventh Commandment (Exodus 20:14) to “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Printing errors are common and this could be the case of an unfortunate slip, however, Hislop remains unconvinced. He thinks it is a rather big coincidence that the printing error just happened to be in that particular verse. Nonetheless, regardless of the circumstances, the publishers were fined £300.

If it is not religion, it is politics that becomes the target of ridicule and objection. There is no politician in existence, past or present, that has been loved and admired by everyone. General elections prove the point with debates and demonstrations that attempt to encourage people to “vote yes”, “vote remain”, “dump Trump” and so forth. These, however, are loud messages to the world but Hislop has uncovered quiet, even subliminal, methods.

Many countries acknowledge the commercial holiday Halloween, where tradition claims spirits of the dead come to visit on the eve of All Saints Day. No country celebrates this idea more than Mexico with their three-day festival Día de Muertos or Day of the Dead. Amongst other things, members of the public decorate cemeteries with bright coloured flowers and calavera or skull shapes. Mexican newspapers often dedicate cartoon skeletons to public figures in the style of the famous calaveras of José Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican political illustrator.

As part of the I Object exhibition, Hislop has included two skeleton papier mâché figures used in celebrations from the 1980s. Day of the Dead has been celebrated for centuries, however, in its modern manifestation, the festival has become an opportunity to mock traditional hierarchies and authority figures. One of the figures represents a corrupt factory owner and the other ridicules Uncle Sam the personification of the American government.

This year, with the anniversary of female emancipation, the “votes for women” penny coin has become highly recognisable throughout the country. With the advent of social media, it is now easy to spread a message or opinion, however, in the early 1900s, people had other methods of expressing their thoughts across the nation. By stamping this slogan on one penny coins, suffragettes ensured hundreds of people would carry their messages in their own purses.

The suffragettes were not the first group of protestors to use defaced coins in their campaigns; the exhibition displays a few coins from other eras. The earliest example comes from 1797, which shows an engraving of a hanging man and the words “The Pope” on one side of a one penny coin. Although not certain, this could be interpreted as support for Napoleon Bonapart (1769-1821) who had imprisoned two popes during the French Revolution.

Nowadays, coins are no longer used to spread messages throughout the country, however, a few people have resorted to writing on paper notes. Examples from the USA and Britain, including a £20 note sporting the words “Stay in the EU”, reveal the strong opinions of an individual. Unlike the coins, which were cheaper and less costly to produce, there are unlikely to be many duplicates of these defaced notes, therefore, this method of protest is less effective.

Whilst defacing a paper note may not draw much attention, a rogue engraver managed to place permanent messages in the 10 and 50 rupee notes in Seychelles. Although not easy to see unless you are looking, the artist has hidden the words “scum” and “sex” within the design. It is not clear what the anonymous engraver aimed to achieve but, as Ian Hislop says, “This is so childish that it made me laugh.”

Many of the objects in the exhibition, such as these rupees, have hidden messages, which were less easily discovered, thus protecting the culprits from punishment. These concealed acts of resistance allow people to register their own protest and opinions in the safety of their own homes. In some ways, it is a method of coping for those who feel oppressed by those in power. On the other hand, some choose to be extremely vocal and expressive about their opinions.

Throughout time, people have taken to the streets in protest for all sorts of reasons. Within the past century, hundreds of marches have taken place in cities around the world demanding equality, peace, retribution and so forth. Many of these protests develop their own slogan and branding, which are displayed on banners and placards, however, some people go as far as to express their opinion with their clothing.

Hislop has included old and modern examples of clothing that expressed the views of the wearer. One of the oldest of these is a ring containing the portrait of Charles I (1600-49), worn by supporters of the king during the war against parliament. A silk garter, from 1745, also expressed an opinion about royalty. The wearer of the garter expressed his support for Charles Edward Stuart (1720-88), known as “Bonny Prince Charlie”, with an embroidered statement: “God bless PC and down with rump.” Prince Charlie attempted to reclaim the English throne for the House of Stuart during the Jacobite rebellion. “Rump” referred to parliament, the same parliament who had beheaded Charles I, also a Stuart.

When going to an exhibition at the British Museum, it is the expectation that the items on display will be fairly old, however, a few contemporary examples of dissent have found their way into the exhibition. Although not an item of clothing, a bright yellow umbrella featuring lyrics from John Lennon’s Imagine, hangs from the wall of the gallery. This belongs to the 2014 Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong where students and other members of the public demonstrated outside government headquarters for genuine universal suffrage. In order to control the crowds, police used tactics such as tear gas, however, this did not deter the outraged protestors.

Protestors were quick to invent ways of protecting themselves from police tear gas raids by equipping themselves with umbrellas to shelter their faces. Whilst this began as a means of protection, the idea quickly caught on, and the umbrella became a symbol of the protest. Soon, branded yellow umbrellas were available and by merely holding one, people visually associated themselves with the movement.

“I’m quite pro-dissent. I think it leads to a healthier world.”
– Ian Hislop, 2018

Throughout the exhibition, Ian Hislop provides his observations and opinions about the objects he uncovered in written speech bubbles alongside general information about the items. This helps visitors make sense of the various forms of dissent and understand why Hislop felt it necessary to share with the public. Hislop greatly admires many of the people behind the ideas shown, stating, “I have spent my life risking no more than the odd libel writ or fine. I’m always impressed by people in other societies and in the past who have done this for real, risking their lives, livelihoods, places and families in order just to say ‘No’.”

It is easy to see why Hislop was so interested in these 100 or so objects, however, seeing them all at once with very little time to process information, becomes rather overwhelming for visitors. The exhibition is not set out in a clear order, leaving people confused about which sections to view first, often leading to clashes of people coming from opposite directions. From the entrance, perplexed visitors pass five objects and find themselves at the exit wondering where to go next. Incidentally, these five objects are Ian Hislop’s favourite items in the entire exhibition and, therefore, the best bits.

Ian Hislop set out to discover truths and opposing opinions, in which he has ultimately succeeded. His enthusiasm for his findings is clear throughout his commentary and it is, admittedly, interesting to discover the various methods of dissent employed throughout history. Many of the items look “normal” without explanation, however, their creators have been very clever and inventive. The exhibition raises questions about the history taught in schools and the true version of events.

I object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent remains open to the public until 20th January 2019.  Tickets are £12 per adult and photographs may be taken throughout the visit. Under 16s may visit for free, however, some of the content is unsuitable for young children. 

Splendours of the Subcontinent

For over 400 years, Britain has had connections with the Indian subcontinent, beginning with the East India Company in 1600. After the trading company was dissolved in 1858, two-thirds of the subcontinent became part of the British Raj, a union of the London India Office, the British Indian Government and Queen Victoria (1819-1901). Through this connection, Britain became the owners of many Indian works of art, paintings and manuscripts, which are still part of the Royal Collection today.

Some of the manuscripts and artworks were given as diplomatic gifts to the British Sovereign, whereas, others were given to individual British officers visiting the subcontinent. Queen Victoria was the recipient of many of these offerings, as was King George V (1865-1936) in the 20th century.

Recently, the Royal Collection showed off the brilliance of its Indian collection of art in an exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. Splendours of the Subcontinent introduced the public to past relations with the Indian subcontinent and the style of art unique to Asia. Split into two halves, the exhibition examines Four Centuries of South Asian Paintings and Manuscripts and explores A Prince’s Tour of India. The latter reveals the diplomatic tour Queen Victoria’s eldest son took around the subcontinent, covering 21 regions and culminating in hundreds of artworks.

 

A PRINCE’S TOUR OF INDIA 1875-6

On 8th November 1875, Albert Edward (1841-1910), the Prince of Wales – later Edward VII – arrived in Bombay, starting off his four-month tour of the subcontinent. Travelling by boat, rail, or even elephant, the Prince visited over 90 Indian rulers or maharajas, presenting them with British jewellery, books and gifts and receiving local gifts of art in return.

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Peacock barge inkstand 1870-76

The first object in the exhibition is an impressive peacock barge inkstand made of gold and decorated with rubies, sapphires, diamonds and pearls. This was given to Prince Albert as a memento of his trip down the River Ganges on one of the state barges that it replicates. Complete with oars, an anchor, flagpole and mast, the stand separates into nineteen pieces, revealing two inkwells, a pair of scissors, a penknife and two pen nibs.

The prow of the barge represents the state bird of India, the Indian peafowl or peacock, with its tail spread and inlaid with sapphires and diamonds.  On the opposite side, the stern takes the form of the head of a Makara, a dragon-like mythological creature associated with Hinduism. Birds and flowers decorate the deck and the mast is engraved with a dedication to the Prince of Wales, making it a personalised gift from Ishwari Prasad Narayan Singh (1855-1931), the Maharaja of Benares.

Most of the gifts that Prince Albert received had been carefully thought out by the Indian rulers to ensure that they showed off the range of techniques and skills of their craftsmen as well as reflect the regions he visited. They expressed the culture and customs of the Indian population, which was becoming popular amongst Europeans at the time, since the 1851 Great Exhibition in London where Indian artwork was greatly admired.

A typical gift for royalty at the time was weaponry, particularly ceremonial swords and daggers. Presented by Ali Murad Khan I Talpur, Amir of Khairpur, Prince Albert received a foot-long sword made of fine watered crucible steel. This material gives the blade a unique rippled water-like pattern typical of bladesmiths in Iran, where it was most likely produced. The hilt, however, is more European in style and may even have been welded by a European metalworker. The hilt was engraved with a leaf-like pattern, decorated with diamonds, rubies and pearls, and finished off with a silk tassel that remarkably still remains attached to the pommel after 150 years. The scabbard is wooden, covered in deep-blue velvet with golden mounts and jewels arranged to look like flowers.

Royal CollectionThe Prince received a large number of swords, daggers and knives from all over the Indian subcontinent. This was probably of no surprise to him since he would also have been presenting gifts of this nature to the rulers he met. There were, however, a few more unusual presents.

Whilst in Jaipur, Prince Albert was presented with a silver astrolabe inscribed with the coordinates for Greenwich, the British centre of time-keeping. An astrolabe is a scientific instrument that can identify stars and planets as well as be used to navigate.

The significance of this gift was its connection to the city of Jaipur. Although astrolabes had been introduced to South Asia as early as the 14th century, it was during the reign of Maharaja Jai Singh II of Jaipur (1688–1743) that the instrument became highly valued. The Maharaja was a keen astronomer, which led to the development of five observatories, one situated in Jaipur itself.

An intriguing gift, one that must have appealed to any children visiting the exhibition, was a set of eleven brass military figures. The Prince is thought to have received them whilst visiting Madras during the second month of his tour. They were originally part of a much larger set commissioned by the Raja of Peddapuram, Timma Razu (d.1796) but, after his death, the figures were separated, with many ending up in personal collections in both India and Britain. The figures reveal the many people and animals that made up the Indian military.

The majority of gifts the Prince received contained a remarkable amount of jewels and gemstones. In order to magnify their beauty, Indian craftsmen backed the stones with reflective foil, which enhanced their colour. The framework of the items was generally gold, either 22 or 24 carats. This showed the wealth and opulence of the rulers at the time.

Prince Albert received a lot of jewellery on his trip, however, the item the Royal Collection focused on was a piece he bought himself. Purchased from a peddler or boxwallah in Trichinopoly, the Prince of Wales presented his mother, Queen Victoria with a gold bangle on 24th May 1876 for her 57th birthday. “I received a number of lovely things. Arthur gave me a charming old Spanish fan from Seville & Bertie 2 beautiful Indian bracelets from Trinchinopoli & Jeypore.” [sic] (Queen Victoria’s journal)

The bangle looks rather large and heavy, made from gold and fashioned to look like the heads of several Makara (dragons). The two largest heads have been given rubies for eyes and a ruby-topped screw holds the hinged bracelet together. It is similar in style to that of Rococo, which had been introduced to Europe during the 18th century.

Many of the gifts, including jewellery, were purpose-made presents to welcome the Prince of Wales to India. One example is a red glass scallop-edged brooch decorated with a gold portrait of the Prince and Princess of Wales. This was presented to the future king by Ranjit Singh, Raja of Ratlam, along with a matching necklace.

Other presents the Prince brought home with him included a number of ornate address cases – boxes or pouches to keep the written welcome address he received at each location. Another box he was presented with was a small opium box, a traditional item in central India where the drug was harvested. The golden design was produced in a similar manner to the brooch received in Ratlam, however, this time it depicted Krishna, one of the Hindu gods.

Prince Albert departed from India on 13th March 1876, loaded down with the hundreds of gifts he had received. Knowing they were of extraordinary quality and design, he felt it right that the objects should be admired by the British public. Shortly after his return, the gifts went on display at the Indian Museum in South Kensington (now part of the Victoria and Albert Museum) where they were viewed by 30,000 in the first week. It is estimated that a total of 2.5 million people saw the gifts in Britain, with thousands more seeing them on tour in Copenhagen and Paris. The funds raised from the exhibitions were used to aid the construction of Aberdeen Art Gallery in Scotland.

FOUR CENTURIES OF SOUTH ASIAN PAINTINGS AND MANUSCRIPTS

Whereas the former half of the exhibition focused on objects accumulated in a four-month period, the second section spanned 400 years. Through the works of art collected by the British and Royal Family, a story about the relations with the subcontinent can be pieced together. The subcontinent, or South Asia, encompasses the area of five modern-day countries: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, however, at the time, it was usually referred to as India.

Many of the South Asian paintings and manuscripts in the Royal Collection date from the seventeenth century when the Mughals, a Muslim, Persian-speaking dynasty, were an Empire richer and stronger than any in Europe and ruled over the majority of the Indian subcontinent. Throughout their reign, they had contact with British monarchs, including Elizabeth I and Charles I but their Golden Age would not last forever.

Royal Collection Trust

The Public Reception of John Low (1788-1880) by Nasir-ud-Din Haidar, King of Oudh, 4 March 1834

The last Mughal emperor, Alamgir II died in 1707, sparking wars of succession and foreign invasion. At the same time, Britain’s East India Company was gaining fortune and strength, and, in 1765, the Empire surrendered the region of Bengal to the company. From here on, it was not long before the trading company’s power spread throughout South Asia.

One of the first artworks in this half of the exhibition was an oil painting by A Dufay de Casanova (active 1829-37) of the King of Awah on an elephant near the banks of the Gumti River on his way to meet East India Company Resident, Colonel John Low (1788–1880). Although this was not an artwork produced by natives of South Asia, it helps to put into context the events that tied Britain with India.

The manuscripts acquired from the Mughal Empire were all written by hand and many were also illuminated with delicate paintings. The majority were written in Persian, therefore, read from right to left as opposed to European books. The Royal Collection displayed manuscripts that contained lyrical poetry, many by the poet Hafiz of Shiraz (1325-90). These were written with the intention of being sung and were often performed in Mughal courts.

Illuminations or illustrations were produced with brush and ink on discoloured paper, for example, the miniature of a chameleon on a branch by Ustad Mansur (active c. 1600-20), the leading animal painter in one of the Mughal courts. The image is scientifically precise and, although small, is full of intricate detail, such as the minute scales along the body.

Interestingly, on display were artworks that resembled typical religious paintings from Europe. At times, the Quran and the Bible merge together, featuring the same characters but with slightly varying stories. Take, for example, the quote, “And also We made the son of Mary and his mother a sign to mankind, and gave them a shelter on a peaceful hillside watered by a fresh spring.” (Quran 23:50) Mary and Jesus are important in the Christian world as well as in Islam, therefore, it is unsurprising to see them in Islamic art. What is unexpected, however, is the artists’ decisions to copy western artworks, for instance, the reinterpretation by a Mughal artist of Albrecht Dürer’s (1471-1528) engraving of the Virgin and Child (Madonna by the Tree, 1513). Unfortunately, the gallery did little to shed light on the artists’ intentions.

During the Georgian era, the British royal family received many letters and manuscripts from the Indian subcontinent. One of these was the impressive chronicle Padshahnama or Book of Emperors, which had been produced around 1656. Commissioned by the fifth Mughal emperor Shah-Jahan (1591-1666), the book is a propagandist celebration of his dynasty, with the objective of emphasising his politics and ideologies.

As those who were lucky enough to be at the gallery at the appointed time for the talk about the Padshahnama will know, the manuscript was once bound together as a book, only taken apart 25 years ago for conservation purposes. This made displaying individual sheets much easier in this exhibition because they could be framed and placed at eye level around the room.

Containing 44 illustrations in total, the Book of Emperors was completed by fourteen different court painters, however, the South Asian style of painting is consistent throughout. Each painting reveals a significant event during the reign of Emperor Shah-Jahan, for example, his coronation and his involvement with a lion hunt conducted on elephant-back.

It is almost impossible to remember everything that was displayed at the Queen’s Gallery exhibition due to the sheer size of the collection of work from the Indian subcontinent. Some objects and artworks stick in the mind more than others, for instance, the Miniature Holy Quran scroll that unravels to reveal all 114 chapters on the thin, narrow surface. This is thought to have been a gift to George IV in 1828 from Nawab of the Carnatic.

Other artworks include books, photographs, paintings and more manuscripts, particularly ones that focus on the Hindu religion that was and is so predominant in India. These tell various stories involving the many gods worshipped in Hinduism, for example, the avatars of Vishnu in the epic text Bhagavata Purana.

It is easy to forget the relations with Southern Asia that the British had in the past. When imagining works in the Royal Collection, people think of paintings of Kings and Queens or famous artworks purchased throughout Europe. The amount of art from South Asia is absolutely phenomenal and opens up a whole new world with foreign customs and beliefs.

Splendours of the Subcontinent allowed visitors to see into the lives of other people whose traditions seem exotic and fascinating in comparison to our daily experiences. This groundbreaking exhibition revealed a different part of British history as well as the history of India and their style and method of craftsmanship.

Although the exhibition has come to an end, Splendours of the Subcontinent revealed how vast the Royal Collection is and it entices us to discover what else it has hidden behind closed doors. Future exhibitions can be eagerly awaited and are unlikely to disappoint the British public and tourists in London.

A Serious Museum with a Smile on its Face

On the edge of Pinner Memorial Park, Harrow is a museum devoted to the painter, illustrator and cartoonist William Heath Robinson (1872-1944). With over 1000 artworks, the Heath Robinson Museum explores the life and artistic progress of the celebrated “Gadget King”. Regardless of age or prior knowledge, the museum is a place for everyone to enjoy, as the website states:

“The Heath Robinson Museum is for students of illustration, lovers of landscape paintings, advertising enthusiasts and academics, dads building contraptions in sheds, believers in fairies, children with time to dream, couples stuck in tiny flats, people who put holes in cheese, artificial teeth testers and anyone who’s ever held something together with a bit of string.”

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William Heath Robinson

The term “a bit Heath Robinson” may be familiar to some but its origin has almost fallen into obscurity. Entering the English language in 1912, the term is used to describe any sort of ad hoc contraption or complicated gadget that has been assembled from everyday objects. As the museum reveals through a visual timeline of Heath Robinson’s life, the artist was most famous for his humorous drawings that often involved mindboggling, bizarre ideas.

William Heath Robinson was born on 13th May 1872 in Finsbury Park, North London. Being the third son of Thomas Robinson (1838–1902), a wood-engraver and illustrator who drew for The Penny Illustrated Paper, William was encouraged to develop his artistic skills.  William “didn’t want to be anything else than an artist,” and enrolled in the Royal Academy Schools where he excelled as a landscape painter. Unfortunately, landscapes were unlikely to earn Heath Robinson enough money to live comfortably, therefore, he began his career working alongside his illustrator brothers, Charles (1870–1937) and Tom (1869–1954).

 

Heath Robinson’s first published illustrations featured in The Sunday Magazine in 1896 and, soon, he was receiving commissions for book illustrations. One of the first books to include his drawings was a reprint of Don Quixote (1615) by Miguel de Cervantes, which was followed by The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe in 1900. Two years later, Heath Robinson wrote and illustrated his own story, The Adventures of Uncle Lubin (1902), which provided him with enough money to finally marry his fiancée Josephine Latey.

The Adventures of Uncle Lubin was the first instance of humour Heath Robinson expressed in his work. Aimed at children, Uncle Lubin was a comically dressed man in baggy leggings and an oversized floppy hat. The gentle, serious uncle is left to look after his nephew Peter, however, whilst he is napping, an evil “bag-bird” swoops down and kidnaps the child. Desperate to save his nephew, Uncle Lubin sets out on a series of adventures, involving remarkable inventions and contraptions, for instance, an air-ship and an underwater boat. Despite the highs and lows of the story, Uncle Lubin and Peter are eventually reunited in an enchanting conclusion.

Having succeeded with child humour, Heath Robinson continued to draw comical illustrations, this time for adults. In 1906, The Sketch ran a series of his cartoons titled The Gentle Art of Catching Things in which he began to reveal his imagination and crackpot inventions. The Sketch, having profited from Heath Robinson’s contributions, commissioned another series of cartoons in 1908, Great British Industries – Duly Protected.

 

By 1908, Heath Robinson could afford to buy a house in Pinner, the same town in which the museum is located. This coincided with the development of colour printing, which allowed multiple copies of coloured illustrations to be produced in books. The same year, Heath Robinson was commissioned to draw 40 large coloured pictures for Shakespeare‘s Twelfth Night. Although he was progressing with his humorous illustrations, this project proved he could also compose serious outcomes.

In 1912, Heath Robinson produced coloured illustrations for his own story Bill the Minder. Turned into a television series for Channel 5 in 1986, the book tells of the adventures of fifteen-year-old Bill and his cousins Boadicea and Chad. In a Heath Robinson-like manner, the characters solve their unique problems with the use of exotic, handmade machines, for example, fitting balloons and pedals to a broken aeroplane to make it fly again.

The following year, Heath Robinson produced a series of coloured illustrations for Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales. Although he had to return to a more serious style of drawing, Heath Robinson was able to use his imagination to develop the magical characters that fill Andersen’s stories.

 

Once again, Heath Robinson was asked to illustrate a Shakespeare play, this time A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This included a number of coloured illustrations as well as the traditional black and white. Given the nature of the play, Heath Robinson was able to use his experience of fantasy drawing and combine it with his love of comedy.

By now, the First World War was afoot and book illustrations were not the main priority of book publishers. In 1915, for instance, Heath Robinson was commissioned to illustrate Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies, however, the publishers only wanted eight coloured pictures. This was a massive drop from the 40 illustrations produced for Twelfth Night seven years earlier. Soon, book illustrating jobs had temporarily dried up altogether.

 

The war period, however, gave Heath Robinson plenty of opportunities to produce humorous, satirical illustrations. Collected together and published in books such as Some Frightful War Pictures and Hunlikely! (1916), Heath Robinson used satire and absurdity to counter the German propaganda that was leaving Britain afraid and disheartened.

Aiming to lighten the mood, Heath Robinson depicted the enemy in farcical situations and British troops using imaginative contraptions to win the war. An example shown at the museum depicted the Huns (Germans) using laughing gas instead of mustard gas in an attempt to defeat the British.

 

Heath Robinson continued to make people laugh after the end of World War One with a weekly cartoon in The Bystander Magazine. From here on, Heath Robinson was regarded as the “Gadget King”, designing new, increasingly eccentric contraptions, usually combining everyday objects. These over-the-top machines were preposterous ideas but the characters in the illustrations were taking the situation so seriously that people began to question whether they were silly schemes or not.

In 1935, Heath Robinson returned to book illustration, however, this time it was in collaboration with the writer K. R. G. Browne (1895-1940). Based around Heath Robinson’s many gadgets, the pair published four “how to” books, beginning with How To Live In A Flat. This was shortly followed by How to Be A Perfect Husband, How to Make a Garden Grow and How To Be a Motorist, which are now, unfortunately, slightly outdated.

Unlike the other three books in the series, How To Live In A Flat is still relatable today as it applies to any building with limited space. At the time it was published, the thought of living in a flat was a new idea that many, particularly Heath Robinson, were struggling to come to terms with. The illustrator was averse to modern architecture and design, which shows in his satirical drawings that mock the tiny rooms in a flat. Browne and Heath Robinson thought up all the potential difficulties the limited room would throw up, inventing space-economising inventions to produce a little more comfort.

 

Heath Robinson thinks of every aspect of flat-living, planning beds that fold down from wardrobes, communal rubbish shoots, central heating and multi-purpose furniture. In some ways, he was ahead of his time, developing ideas that, whilst absurd at the time, would eventually become a common commodity. Take, for example, the coffee machine. Heath Robinson would be amazed at the technology available today, especially because coffee can be made by merely touching a button, rather than using candles and a range of obscure objects.

 

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Architecture Model (2016)

In the centre of the exhibition space at the Heath Robinson Museum sits a model of the flat described by Browne and Heath Robinson in How To Live in A Flat. Produced as part of a Btec Architecture, Interior and Product Design course at Harrow College, Estera Badelita constructed many scenes from the illustration and combined them together to make one model. On the roof, roof-top hikers are walking around in a continuous circle, a couple of people are diving off a balcony into a swimming pool on the balcony below, and another person is sitting on an outdoor chair attached to the wall of the building.

 

If it had not been for Browne’s death in 1940, the artist and writer partnership may have produced more books in the series. Nonetheless, Heath Robinson worked with the journalist Cecil Hunt (1902-54) during the Second World War on a new series of “how to” books aimed at boosting the morale of the public. Titles included How To Make The Best Of Things, How To Build A New World and How To Run A Communal Home, the latter produced just in case people needed to take in lodgers due to shortages of houses after the Blitz.

As well as developing his reputation as the “Gadget King”, Heath Robinson spent the period between 1915 and his death in 1944 producing advertisement illustrations for a number of clients. Companies that benefitted from Heath Robinson’s combination of serious and comical drawings include Chairman Tobacco, Johnny Walker Whisky and Connolly Brothers Ltd.

“… humour may be merely refreshing and light-hearted jollity, without which the world would be a sadder place to live in.”
– Heath Robinson

Heath Robinson was saddened by the start of another World War in 1939, however, similarly to the previous war, he attempted to lighten the mood with his illustrations. Rather than satirise the enemy, Heath Robinson focused on the Home Front in his weekly drawings for The Sketch. The museum displays a couple of examples from this period; one shows a group of large men using their weight to activate a machine that dislodges the position of an enemy gun post and another demonstrates an idea to hold up the enemy’s progress.

 

For children (or adults, why not?), the museum provides a couple of jigsaw puzzles of Heath Robinson’s wartime illustrations, including the above drawings. Alternatively, sheets of paper are provided to copy or draw new inventions. Other activities, such as spot the difference and worksheets related to the exhibition are available to keep younger visitors entertained.

 

Peter Pan and Other Lost Children

The Heath Robinson Museum consists of two exhibition rooms. One contains the permanent display of Heath Robinson illustrations and timeline, whereas, the other houses temporary exhibitions throughout the year. Since 25th August, an exhibition to commemorate the centenary of women’s suffrage showcases the work of two exceptional Edwardian female illustrators.

As the exhibition title Peter Pan and Other Lost Children suggests, the illustrations come from books such as Peter Pan and others involving children. The two artists, Alice Bolingbroke Woodward (1862-1951) and Edith Farmiloe (1870-1921), despite being women, were successful in the book illustration industry. This exhibition celebrates the lives of two people who made a name and career for themselves despite the inequalities in Edwardian society.

Alice Bolingbroke Woodward was born in West London in 1862, a daughter of the British Museum geologist, Dr Henry Woodward. Like the rest of her sisters, Alice wanted to be an artist and her father encouraged this by asking them to draw scientific drawings for his lectures. After studying at various schools, including the Westminster School of Art, she took her first steps to become a commercial artist with a commission to illustrate an article in the Daily Chronicle (1895).

Alice’s big break occurred in 1907 when she received a contract from the publisher George Bell & Sons to illustrate The Peter Pan Picture Book based on the original play by J. M. Barrie. Alice was the first person to ever illustrate the famous story of Peter Pan; many of these drawings are currently framed on the walls of the Heath Robinson museum. The initial print run of 5750 copies quickly sold out and 10,000 more were printed. Soon, Alice’s illustrations were familiar to children all over Britain.

A few years later (1914), the publishers contacted Alice with a request for eight coloured full-page illustrations, cover design, title-page and endpapers for a new edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. After a brief dispute about the commission fee, Alice readily accepted. Keeping to the physical characteristics imagined by the original illustrator of the story, John Tenniel (1820-1914), Alice used her well-loved method of pen ink and watercolour to produce a handful of beautiful drawings.

Edith Farmiloe is, perhaps, the lesser known of the two women, at least with the younger generations, although, she had a distinct style of illustration. Born in Chatham, Kent in 1870, Edith did not receive the art education and support that Alice Bolingbroke Woodward received as a child. It was not until 1891, when she married Reverend Thomas Farmiloe, that she began experimenting with story writing and illustration. She admitted that she could not draw from nature, however, her characters took on a unique, simple but appealing appearance.

Between 1895 and 1909, Edith wrote stories about poor children, which were printed in magazines alongside her illustrations. Eventually, the publisher Grant Richards asked her to illustrate a large picture book for children, the result being All the World Over, which demonstrates children’s fashion and activities in a range of different countries.

A follow-up book to All the World Over was requested in 1898 that focused on children seen on the streets in Soho, London. On this occasion, the story, or verses, were written by Edith’s sister Winifred, and together they produced the book Rag, Tag, and Bobtail.

Edith was also interested in the increasing Italian immigrant community in London, which inspired her children’s story Piccallili, published in 1900. The illustrations complement the story about life in Italy and its comparison with the streets of London.

Edith wrote a few more books for children on similar themes up until her death in 1921. The Heath Robinson Museum gift shop has postcards for sale featuring Edith Farmiloe’s illustrations but, unfortunately, lacks any memorabilia of Alice Bolingbroke Woodward’s drawings.

The Heath Robinson Museum has curated an outstanding little exhibition that introduces visitors to illustrators who have been largely forgotten about. It is refreshing to learn about female artists, especially those working in a male-oriented world. The Heath Robinson exhibition is also exceptional and visitors come away feeling as though they knew the “Gadget King”.

The Heath Robinson Museum is open from 11am until 4pm on Thursday to Sunday and charges £6 (£5 for over 65s, £4 for children) to view both exhibitions. Peter Pan and Other Lost Children will close on 18th November 2018 to make way for an exhibition about Heath Robinson’s home life.

Hope to Nope

Graphics and Politics 2008-18

The past ten years have been a turbulent decade with a strong increase in the public’s engagement with politics. The Design Museum aimed to explore how graphic design and technology has influenced the major political movements in the 21st century with their recent exhibition Hope to Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008-18Incorporating a whole range of artwork from posters and placards to protest badges and memes, the museum delved deep into the public’s reaction to the 2008 financial crisis, global protests and the election campaigns of divisive leaders to produce a diverse and provocative exhibition. Hope to Nope was split into three sections, which focused on power, protest and personality.

DISCLAIMER: The views displayed in the exhibition are those of the individuals and organisations that created them – some of which may cause offence. The Design Museum does not necessarily agree with such views, nor does it consider them to be necessarily justified, truthful or accurate.

 

Unfortunately, the final two weeks of the exhibition were disrupted after a selection of exhibits were removed by the lender in protest of a private event held at the museum by an aerospace and defence company. Nevertheless, there were enough exhibits remaining to make the trip to the museum worthwhile. Purportedly, the first artwork in the exhibition was the street artist and graphic designer Shepard Fairey’s (b1970) Hope poster for Barrack Obama’s (b1961) presidential campaign in 2008, which went on to win the Design Museum’s Design of the Year in 2009. This distinctive style has been imitated by hundreds of amateur designers to produce satirical, anti-politician posters, for instance, an image of Donald Trump (b1946) with the word “nope”.

The red, white and blue colour combination that Fairey used, distracted people from Obama’s race, which is what many American’s fixated on, and portrayed him as a patriotic citizen instead. Being simple and easy to reproduce, the artwork spread rapidly throughout the states and online, quickly becoming recognised and adopted by Obama supporters. Fairey is happy to see his work being parodied for various means of activism, especially because the Hope poster has no political power, yet is used by people to make a powerful statement.

“Design is always political.”
– Mike Monteiro

Other political campaigns shown included Hillary Clinton’s (b1947) election posters, North Korean posters, North Korean stamps, which mock the United States, and various responses to “Brexit”.

 

Graphic design targetted at “Brexit” began as soon as David Cameron (b1966) announced a British Referendum on 23rd June 2016.  Two years later, campaigners are still producing new posters or digital graphics. Examples shown at the Design Museum included the Britain Stronger in Europe Campaign which produced many materials to persuade voters to opt to remain part of the EU. Playing on the word “in” with visual reference to the flag of the United Kingdom, posters and flags stating “Vote Remain” were prominent throughout the months leading up to the referendum. The designers also produced t-shirts for protestors to wear with the short phrase “I’M IN” boldly written across the chest.

Earlier this year, with the fate of “Brexit” not yet fully realised, The Sun created a spoof timeline of events based on the Bayeux Tapestry. Humorously titled Bye-EU Tapestry, this was the newspaper’s response to the president of France’s decision to lend the original 950-year-old tapestry to the UK. Using the similar style of figures that were embroidered to show the victory of the Normans in 1066, this version shows the “historic Brexit victory” over the EU. The captions mock medieval spellings with words such as “announceth” and “emergeth”, whilst the Queen is shown to be declaring the UK is “better orf out.”

“You have the technology to affect history.”

 

In the past century or two, more inventions than the rest of history combined have been invented, culminating in the current digital age. With the opening of the internet for public use in 1991, online graphics and social media have rapidly grown to a point where almost everyone is influenced by it in some way or form. Within the exhibition was a detailed, wall-length infographic showing the timeline of social media and its crucial role in politics.

A decade after the internet became available, the leading information website Wikipedia was born. This allowed people to search for answers to absolutely anything they desired. With pages about well-known celebrities to the most obscure form of fungi, Wikipedia quickly became a popular website by internet users, particularly school students who no longer needed to read books to complete their coursework. Regrettably, the accuracy of the information on Wikipedia is far from one-hundred per cent; anyone with an account can log in and change information, purposely misleading readers – not so good for homework after all!

The first major social media platform arrived in 2003, allowing individuals to connect with friends and strangers all over the world. On Myspace, people could personalise their pages, upload photographs, share their favourite music and even list their top ten friends. in 2008, Myspace became the stage for Obama’s presidential candidate campaign.

In 2006, Myspace was usurped by Mark Zuckerberg’s (b1984) Facebook, which currently has approximately 2.23 billion monthly active users, and Jack Dorsey’s (b1976) Twitter, a popular news and social networking service with 335 million active users. The latter was President Trump’s preferred means of spreading his policies and encouraging people to vote for him.

In 2007, the way people could access the internet changed completely with the invention of the most popular brand of smartphone, the iPhone. As well as being able to make phone calls, the iPhone functioned as a pocket-sized computer with easy internet access even when away from home. Soon, applications were developed to perform in this new format, including the free secure messaging platform Whatsapp in 2009 and the photo and video-sharing social network Instagram in 2010.

No matter the brand, all forms of social media allow individuals to explore beyond their friendship circles, discovering people and ideas from across the planet in only a matter of seconds. This allows people of power to voice their opinions and influence billions of people all over the globe. Whilst this may have huge benefits, particularly in awareness campaigns, it can also have a tremendous negative effect.

Digital technology has allowed for the invention of GIFs and memes that are “liked”, “posted” and “retweeted” by thousands of people every day. GIF stands for Graphics Interchange Format which is essentially a moving image. The majority of these are split-second clips of videos, which, when posted on social media, are removed from their original context and often gain new meaning. A GIF of someone laughing, for instance, may be tagged onto a “post” that someone finds funny.

meme can be defined as “an image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations.” The word was coined by Richard Dawkins (b1941) in an attempt to explain the way information spreads. A particular meme that the Hope to Nope exhibition focused on was Pepe the Frog.

200px-feels_good_manPepe the Frog was a cartoon amphibian with a humanoid-like body created by Matt Furie (b1979) in 2005 for a comic called Boy’s Club. It quickly became an internet sensation with people sharing Pepe with various facial expressions as a way of displaying opinions about certain ideas. Variants include “sad frog”, “smug frog” and “feels frog”.

Whilst the Pepe meme was initially harmless, Furie was dismayed when the innocent green frog became a “hate symbol” used by white-supremacists. In 2016, Pepe became associated with Donald Trump who “tweeted” a version of the frog drawn to look like himself with the tagline “you can’t stump the trump.” Later, Pepe was used as a means of attacking Hillary Clinton’s election campaign in a supposedly humorous manner.

Social media has provided plenty of opportunities for anyone to create memes and parodies of well-known ideas. This has been particularly beneficial for campaign groups, such as Greenpeace. In 2017, Greenpeace launched their Don’t Let Coke Choke Our Oceans campaign in order to raise awareness of plastic pollution, the greatest threat to marine life. Appropriating Coke’s branding, the environmental organisation launched an attack on one of the biggest sellers of plastic bottled beverages. As well as spreading their message online, Greenpeace campaigners went into shops, placing cleverly crafted labels over Coke bottles to make the product look like an empty, ocean-weathered piece of plastic.

More often than not, memes and parodies are deliberately comical, spreading ideas through light-heartedness rather than going for the shock factor. The clothing company Diesel, parodied the 1960’s anti-war slogan “make love not war” to advertise what they believe in, not just as a merchandiser, but as a global brand as well. By altering the phrase to “make love not walls”, Diesel is making a stand against hate, stating that their products are for everyone and they wish all could live in harmony.

The advertisements for “make love, not walls” uses symbolic imagery such as a rainbow coloured tank and happy people dressed in a “hippy” style holding flowers to represent freedom and love.

“At Diesel, we have a strong position against hate and more than ever we want the world to know that, to use our voice for good, love and togetherness is crucial in creating a society we all want to live in, and the future we all deserve.”
Nicola Formichetti – Diesel Artistic Director

Although the company declares their motives were to emphasise their position against hate, it is so soon after President Trump’s notion of building a wall between the USA and Mexico that many may wonder if there is a subliminal political agenda hidden within their advertisements.

Whilst social media has been used for spreading radical ideas and campaigns, for instance, in 2015 the hashtag “#JeSuisCharlie” was tweeted 6500 times a minute the day after the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, physical protests and demonstrations have been the go-to method for campaigners for hundreds of years. Graphic design plays a vital role offline as much as it does online. Posters, badges and placards need to be carefully designed to attract attention and provoke debate. Even the suffragettes developed their own branding at the beginning of the 20th century.

38419793_10214474022035772_7029360020294729728_nThe Hope to Nope exhibition focused on a handful of demonstrations from the past decade, including video footage of marches and loud protests. A great deal of effort was focused on the Grenfell Tower tragedy, which occurred on 14th June 2017 and is still close to many Londoners’ hearts. A year on from the worst residential fire since the Second World War, hundreds of green-clad activists took part in a Justice for Grenfell Solidarity March demanding justice for the victims who lost their homes and loved ones. Investigations revealed that the incident was an accident waiting to happen and people are still angry about the way the situation was handled.

Designers with links to the Grenfell Tower designed badges for protesters to wear. The Green for Grenfell and the Unity Heart pins are a symbol of hope, unity and love to be worn in memory of the 72 lives lost. British politicians, including the current Prime Minister, were seen to support the appeal.

The Grenfell disaster also inspired an art project titled 24Hearts which was begun by a local artist, Sophie Lodge. The initial plan was to produce 24 handmade hearts to represent each floor of the tower, however, with help from school children and residents in the area, over 100 hearts have been made. Many of these were used as placards during silent protest marches.

Hanging from the ceiling at the exhibition was an enormous blowup rubber duck sporting the Spanish phrase “Chega de Pagar o Pato”, which translates into English as “I Will Not Pay the Duck”. In Brazil, the phrase “pay the duck” refers to taking the blame for something that is not your fault and was adopted by the São Paulo State Federation of Industries in protest against rising taxes. Although a rubber duck may look childish or make people laugh, it definitely catches people’s attention.

Another protest the Design Museum focused on was the ongoing Women’s March, which began on the first day of Donald Trump’s presidency. Since then, around 914 women-led marches have occurred all over the globe with over 4.5 million voices protesting against Trump’s attitude towards women and people of minority. Rather than branding their campaign with a specific design, the majority of placards have been handmade with angry or witty slogans that reflect Trump’s behaviour.

President Trump got more than his fair share of attention during the Hope to Nope exhibition. The final section focused on personality and identity, which is something Trump has been strongly aware of throughout his career as a politician. In the lead up to the presidential election, Trump and his supporters were recognised by their red caps with the slogan “Make America Great Again.” Powerful leaders are often obsessed with their image and this was only the beginning of Trump’s attempt to create a memorable identity for himself. Unfortunately, it has also lead to numerous satirical cartoons in magazines and newspapers.

The opinions about Donald Trump are divided into love and hate, nearly all of the museum’s examples stemming from the latter. The most controversial exhibit, by a long shot, was the All-Seeing Trump machine which was launched in 2016, a month before the presidential election. Resembling a fortune teller machine that could usually be found in early 20th-century penny arcades, the Trump-dummy gives users a greeting followed by a promise for the future. These promises are based on what anti-Trump campaigners believed would happen with him in power, for instance, “a terrific nuclear war” and changing Obamacare to “I don’t care”.

Many other politicians have been the target of ridicule in recent years, particularly members of the current British parliament. The final pieces in the exhibition drew attention to a few opinions about Prime Minister Theresa May (b1956) and other Tory MPs. In 2017, illustrator Chris Riddell (b1962) produced a series of political cartoons of May wearing her trademark leopard-print kitten heels in savagely humorous situations. The artist has been portraying the PM in this manner since 2002 when she was the Home Secretary, as well as other important figures.

Theresa May has also been depicted many times on the cover of Private Eye, a current affairs magazine currently edited by Ian Hislop (b1960). Although the magazine aims to tell the truth about world affairs, it illustrates articles with high-brow humour and cartoons. Usually, the cover page includes a photograph of prominent individuals overlayed with comical speech bubbles and topical captions. Despite its satirical nature, Private Eye does not try to influence people’s opinions or political preferences.

The aim of Hope to Nope was to express the importance of graphic design in politics. Whilst there were many opinions, some which may have caused insult, the focus was on the way graphic design was used to get these views across. Often, graphic designers are forgotten about, their hard work unappreciated, whereas, in reality, their contributions are frequently the key to success. This exhibition helped to open people’s minds to the presence of the people who help to make a political campaign or protest visible and memorable.

The Design Museum’s exhibition Hope to Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008-18 closed on 12th August 2018, however, leftover merchandise from the gift shop may still be available online or from the museum.

DISCLAIMER: Similarly to the Design Museum, I do not necessarily agree with everything I have discussed in this blog, nor do I consider them to be necessarily justified, truthful or accurate. 

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up

For the first time ever, the possessions of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo have left Mexico and arrived at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum to help tell her powerful, yet tragic story, Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up. Beginning with an introduction to her family and ending with an impressive collection of clothing, Kahlo’s personal belongings, which were not discovered until 2004, reveal how she assembled her personal identity and coped with her many hardships.

Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón was born on 6th July 1907 and would grow up to become a painter of surrealism and folk art based on her strong opinions about identity, postcolonialism, gender, class, and race in Mexican society. Unfortunately, life was not going to be easy for Kahlo, particularly where her health was concerned.

Kahlo’s parents were the German photographer Guillermo Kahlo (1871–1941) and Matilde Calderón y González (1876–1932) of indigenous descent. Although she had three sisters and two step-sisters, it appears that Frida was the favourite. Whilst her siblings went to a convent school, her father insisted she was enrolled into a German school. The reason for her father’s favouritism was on account of her disabilities as a result of Polio, which she contracted when she was six years old. As a result, her right leg was much shorter and thinner than the left.

Unfortunately, children were no better than they are today and bullied Frida about her defects. Isolated from her peers, her father took it upon himself to teach her about literature, nature, and philosophy, which set her in good stead for her political future with the Communist party. Guillermo also taught his daughter about photography, thus introducing Frida into the world of art and composition.

Frida Kahlo’s childhood took place during a time when women were not given equal opportunities and were regarded as weaker and lesser than men. Therefore, Kahlo’s determination to go to school to train to be a doctor shows her strength of character. Unfortunately, this dream of hers was never to be fulfilled. On 17th September 1925, whilst on her way home from school, Kahlo suffered near-fatal injuries after the bus she was travelling on collided with a street car. Lucky to survive, unlike many of the other passengers, Kahlo suffered fractured ribs, leg and collarbone and an iron handrail impaled through her pelvis.

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Plaster corset painted and decorated by Frida Kahlo

Kahlo suffered from pain and illness for the rest of her life as a result of the crash, however, it opened up an entirely new career path for her. During her recovery, Kahlo spent the majority of time in bed, her back held up by uncomfortable plaster corsets, some of which can be seen in the exhibition. Lying on her back with a specially crafted table over her legs, Kahlo stared at herself in a mirror positioned above her bed and began to paint her self-portrait.

Self-portraits make up the majority of Kahlo’s paintings, using them as a means of exploring her identity and existence. Although she never painted the terrible traffic collision, Kahlo expressed her feelings and pain through her artwork. Many of these are made up of several surreal elements, commenting on different aspects of her life.

The V&A does not display many of her paintings, however, except for a still life at the beginning of the exhibition, the few that are shown are self-portraits. These are spread throughout the gallery in order to expand upon the personal objects and periods of her life.

Frida Kahlo can be recognised by her black hair and a striking monobrow, as well as the fine black hairs between her nose and lips – an element many female artists would choose to omit when painting their self-portrait. Although she utilised make-up and carefully styled her hair, Kahlo was not one to be oppressed by female stereotypes. Her strong facial hair was a part of her and she wore it with pride and never let it bother her, even when some young American boys heckled her in the street, asking where the circus was.

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Selection of cosmetics owned by Frida Kahlo

A few of the cosmetics and medications Kahlo frequently used are in display cases along with her sewing box, hairbrush and jewellery. Visitors can also see remnants of paint tubes and brushes personally used by Kahlo shortly before her death in 1954.

These belongings open a window into Kahlo’s life, which the symbolism in her paintings does not quite achieve. Whilst her self-portraits are a visual description of her appearance and cultural identity, the personal items reveal the true woman behind the paintbrush.

Kahlo typically included Mexican components in her paintings as well as the occasional post-colonialism reference. The colours, style of clothing and atmosphere are the type she experienced growing up in Mexico, which she endeavoured to hold onto despite the rise in Americanisation. Kahlo often painted exotic plants native to the country in the backgrounds and foregrounds of her portraits and sometimes included likenesses of her pets, which were also endemic to Mexico, for instance, spider monkeys.

Whenever Kahlo was unwell, her paintings reflected the pain and frustration she was feeling. Kahlo represented herself as wounded and broken, or like a child, depending on how the circumstances affected her mentality. Toward the end of her life, expressing the pain she was in became a common theme for Kahlo.

In The Broken Column (1944), Kahlo paints herself in the nude, her stomach and torso split apart to reveal a broken column that could topple at any moment. Her arms and face are attacked by nails, which, although draw no blood, express the pain and distress she was under at the time. The metaphor of the broken column alludes to the state her spine was in by the 1940s. Her back had worsened to the point that she could no longer sit or stand for any length of time due to the pain and lack of strength in the bones. Despite undergoing several operations throughout her life, nothing had cured her spinal problems and she was soon due to undergo an operation to fuse a bone graft and a steel support to her spine in order to straighten it. Regrettably, this procedure was also unsuccessful.

Despite this, Frida remained mentally strong, as emphasised by her stoic facial expression in the painting and upright posture. The tears on her face represent how she is feeling inside, but the vacuous facial features do not give any of that away. Her eyes look straight ahead at the audience as though she is conveying her spiritual triumph through a glance, challenging herself and others to accept the situation as it is and learn to endure and live with it.

Whilst Kahlo was recovering from the bus crash, other people her age were finishing school and attending university. Although she had missed out on her chance to attend herself, once she was released from bed rest in 1927, she regained contact with her friends and joined them in their involvement with student politics. This quickly led to joining the Mexican Communist Party where Kahlo was introduced to many notable people, including the most successful Mexican painter at the time, Diego Rivera (1886-1957). As well as her politics, Rivera was interested in her artwork stating, “it was obvious to me that this girl was an authentic artist.”

Despite the age gap, Rivera and Kahlo became a couple and were later married in 1929. Kahlo’s parents regarded the match as a “marriage between an elephant and a dove,” however, Kahlo’s father was pleased she had married a rich man who could support her expensive medical treatment. The pair moved to the state of Morelos where Rivera, as a mural painter, had been given a commission. Unfortunately, this meant Kahlo was exposed to the fighting of the Mexican civil war. It is believed this sparked her preference of traditional peasant clothing and Mexican style art, now that she was more aware of the importance of Mexican identity and history.

Rivera had to move around a lot depending on who commisioned him for a mural. In 1930, Kahlo went with him to San Francisco in the United States where she was introduced to a number of American painters. Whilst the trip was by no means horrible, Kahlo was unimpressed by American life, which she regarded as boring, and made her even more determined to express her own heritage in her artwork.

One of the paintings she produced at this time emphasises her longing for her home country. Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America (1932) shows the artist standing on an imaginary boundary stone between her country and the country in which she was currently residing. She paints herself in traditional clothing, holding a Mexican flag, indicating her loyalty to her country.

Facing towards Mexico, a handful of crops grow in the foreground, symbolising Mexico’s agricultural history, however, the background is the type of scene Kahlo saw whilst in America. Tall buildings obscure the sky and chimney stacks pollute the air with smoke. On the left, a pre-Columbian building lies partially ruined and being struck by lightning, suggesting that America has destroyed the indigenous origins of the country.

Kahlo’s marriage was not much of a happy one. A number of times, Kahlo fell pregnant but feeling unable to carry and care for a baby, had the pregnancies terminated. Later, she decided she would like to try to carry a baby to full term, however, in her weakened state, her body was unable to cope and resulted in miscarriages. Whilst the loss of an unborn baby can be hard upon a couple, it was Rivera’s womanising ways that caused the most strain. After he had an affair with Kahlo’s younger sister, she moved out and began affairs of her own, with both men and with women. This included Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) who was living in Kahlo’s house after seeking asylum in Mexico. Eventually, Kahlo and Rivera were granted a divorce in 1939, however, they remained on friendly terms.

The Two Fridas (1939) was painted shortly after the couple’s divorce. In this self-portrait, Kahlo has painted herself twice; on the right is Frida wearing traditional costume and on the left, she wears modern clothing. Both Frida’s are holding hands and their hearts, which are visible on top of their chests, are joined together by a single artery.

Kahlo admitted that the painting represents her broken heart and loneliness after her separation from her husband. Torn between her traditional Mexican values and the modern developments occurring throughout the country, she felt lost and unable to determine her own identity. Without Rivera, Kahlo had lost a little bit of herself.

Sadly, for Kahlo, divorce was soon to be the least of her worries. As previously mentioned, Kahlo’s spine was rapidly deteriorating during the 1940s, however, to make matters worse, in 1953 her right leg, already disfigured from Polio, developed gangrene and had to be amputated below the knee. She had a prosthetic leg made so that she could still move about, albeit slowly and in pain. The V&A displays her prosthetic wearing one of her bright red leather boots. Co-curator Circe Henestrosa declared, “this is my favourite object in the exhibition. It is really modern, and it symbolises her whole attitude. Far from letting herself be defined as an invalid, she intervened as a rebel act. She was comfortable uncovering her disabilities.”

On the night of 12th July 1954, Kahlo was in bed suffering from severe pain and a high fever. Having anticipated her death days before, Kahlo had produced a sketch of the Angel of Death annotated with the words, “I joyfully await the exit — and I hope never to return — Frida.” When Kahlo’s nurse came to check on her at 6am the next morning, she was dead.

According to Wikipedia, the Tate Modern has listed Kahlo as “one of the most significant artists of the twentieth century”, and art historian Elizabeth Bakewell concurs that Kahlo was “one of Mexico’s most important twentieth-century figures”. Kahlo’s fame has increased posthumously both as an artist and an unconventional personality. She is admired by feminists and people of the LGBT community on account of her bisexuality.

The V&A exhibition culminates with an extraordinary selection of Kahlo’s clothing, which was discovered in 2004 locked away in her personal bathroom of her house-cum-museum. All the outfits are full of bright colours and displayed on shop dummies created to look like Frida Kahlo, complete with her traditional braided hairstyle.

The style of dress is called Tehuana and comprises of several pieces. The blouses, or Huipile, were typical in Mexico and Central American countries and were usually made by hand. The embroidery is intricately beautiful and must have taken days or even weeks to produce; no doubt these items are one of a kind.

The skirts are floor length and equally delicately decorated. The material would have been perfect for Kahlo to cover up her disfigured leg and, later, the prosthetic leg. The skirt and Huipile were combined with various shawls or rezbos, which were wrapped around the shoulders. Although this was the traditional garb of Mexican peasants, the colours were fit for the elite.

“I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.”
-Frida Kahlo

The V&A has done a wonderful job, as always, with Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up. Rather than concentrating on her artwork, the museum looks at her entire life from birth to death. With only a limited selection of paintings available, visitors learn more about Kahlo as a person rather than a painter. They discover her passionate determination, her background, the future she paved for herself and, most importantly, the way she wished to be seen by the world.

Most people who visit the exhibition will likely have already heard of and know a little about Frida Kahlo. This is a great benefit because the museum does not elaborate much on certain events of her life. Another downside, as overheard whilst walking around the exhibition, is some of the information about certain paintings or photographs is far too low and small to read for many people, resulting in crowds bending over to get a closer look. Whilst there are booklets with large print available, there are not enough for everyone, especially as the tickets are usually sold out by mid-morning.

The V&A will be showing Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up until Sunday 4th November 2018. Tickets cost £15 and can be booked online, which is strongly advisable to limit disappointment.