Painter of Disquiet

Getting off to a positive start with a realistic painting of a polished coffee server, the Royal Academy of Arts introduces the “very singular Vallotton” in the first major UK exhibition of the Swiss painter Félix Vallotton (1865-1925). Barely heard of on this side of the English Channel, Vallotton’s artwork can be compared to the likes of Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) and Édouard Vuillard (1868-1940), however, he is also known for his satirical woodcuts.

Félix Edouard Vallotton was born into a Swiss-Protestant family in Lausanne. His father was a pharmacist who later purchased a chocolate factory and his mother was the daughter of a furniture craftsman. As always, his parents had ambitions for Félix and his three siblings and he attended university, leaving in 1882 with a degree in classical studies. Whilst studying, he also attended drawing classes lead by the artist Jean-Samson Guignard and, due to his success on the course, his parents granted him permission to go to Paris to study art seriously.

At sixteen years old, Vallotton enrolled at the private art school Académie Julian where he studied under Jules Joseph Lefebvre (1836-1911) and Gustave Boulanger (1824-88). Lefebvre believed Vallotton had the potential to earn a living as a painter and in 1883 Vallotton won a place at the most influential art school in France, Ecole des Beaux-Arts, although he turned the offer down and remained at Académie Julian for another year.

The exhibition begins with a few examples of Vallotton’s earliest works. These reveal his talent as a realist painter and the influence of artists he studied at college, for example, Leonardo da Vinci(1452-1519), Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) and Francisco Goya (1746-1828). It is also interesting to note that despite the prevailing Impressionist movement in Paris at the time, Vallotton never engaged with the style.

In fact, in 1892, Vallotton became a member of the semi-covert group The Nabis, which took its name from the Hebrew word for prophet, thus referring to themselves as the “prophets of modern art”. Since he was not a French native, Vallotton was often called “The Foreign Nabi” by his peers who included, Bonnard, Vuillard, Charles Cottet (1863–1925) and Ker-Xavier Roussel (1867-1944) as seen in Vallotton’s painting The Five Painters (1902-3).

Despite short-lived, The Nabis wanted to transform the foundation of art. They believed that art was not a true depiction of nature but a combination of symbols and metaphors. The French painter Maurice Denis (1870-1943) wrote the group’s manifesto The Definition of Neo-traditionalism in which he stated “Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a female nude or some sort of anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order… The profoundness of our emotions comes from the sufficiency of these lines and these colours to explain themselves…everything is contained in the beauty of the work.” The group, however, disbanded in the early 1900s.

Through his association with The Nabis, Vallotton discovered the art of woodcut printmaking. He began making woodcuts in 1891 and was particularly inspired by Japanese artists, such as Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), who were also an influence on many European artists at the time. The artworks are characterised by simple forms, flattened perspectives and decorative aesthetic.

Two of Vallotton’s paintings based on this Japanese style were exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants. In The Waltz (1893), two-dimensional characters skate over the glittering ice in the arms of their partners. Displayed next to this, both at the Salon des Indépendants and the Royal Academy exhibition was Bathing on a Summer Evening (1892-3). This was a more ambitious piece of work and is a complete contrast to Vallotton’s realist manner.

Vallotton combined inspiration from Japanese “ukiyo-e” prints with the themes of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings. Unfortunately, critics were unable to recognise this parody. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), on the other hand, was one of the few who appreciated the painting but worried that the police would take it down due to the negative reaction from the public.

Vallotton also began producing black and white prints based on the style of the Japanese artists he admired. Rather than using woodblocks, however, he opted for a technique called zincography, which requires a zinc plate coated in acid. The result is much more controlled than those produced with wooden blocks and the line work can be much more expressive.

One of Vallotton’s first series of wood prints (zinc prints) is called Paris Intense, which features unusual scenes of Paris life. Vallotton was anti-bourgeois, as many artists were at the time, and focused on people from all walks of life in his prints. In this particular series, he combined caricatures of Parisians from upper, middle and lower classes all experiencing the same event. For example, in a print titled L’Averse (The Shower), smartly dressed men and women fight with their black umbrellas whilst others are pulled along in horse-drawn carriages. A maid wearing a white apron can be seen running in the background with nothing to shelter her from the rain.

Vallotton’s prints found themselves published in the literary and artistic magazine La Revue Blanche, established by the Natason brothers: Alexandre, Alfred and Thadée. Vallotton’s portrait of the latter can be seen in the exhibition. He also painted one of the editors, Félix Fénéon (1861-1944). This portrait resembles the work of The Nabis with an unrealistic approach to painting likenesses.

La Revue Blanche published works by many intellectuals, including Marcel Proust (1871-1922), Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Erik Satie (1866-1925), and Vallotton was the chief illustrator. Vallotton proved to be a gifted graphic artist and numerous prints were featured in the magazine.

One of Vallotton’s greatest woodcut series to feature in La Revue Blanche was called Intimacies (1897-8), which features ten fly-on-the-wall scenes that satirise the sexual desires of the Parisian bourgeoisie. Married couples are seen arguing whilst in another frame an adulterous couple mockingly toast an absent spouse. Others are more ambiguous and could represent either married couples or those in an illicit relationship.

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Five O’Clock, 1898

Vallotton used a few of these prints as bases for paintings. Take, for example, Five O’Clock (Cinq Heures, 1898), which was also the title of one of the prints in the Intimacies series. Replacing black and white with colour, Vallotton produced a distemper version of the scene in which a man and a woman embrace in a red armchair. The title is a phrase that was used ironically in France by businessmen who would leave work at that hour to visit their mistresses before returning home to their wives.

Other print series include Musical Instruments (1896-7), in which Vallotton created portraits of particular musicians, some of which have been identified and others who have not. The darkness of the rooms depicted adds an element of mystery to their identities. The use of black in these prints is strong, using white for only a few line details that frame the musician and instruments, which include a cello, violin, flute, piano, guitar and cornet.

The World’s Fair (1900), was the last series Vallotton created before he stopped working for La Revue Blanche. The World’s Fair was held in Paris during the first year of the 20th century. Vallotton’s prints record scenes of construction, fireworks, picnics and people shopping.

By the end of the 19th century, Vallotton decided to move away from print work, believing painting to be his vocation. This was partly due to his marriage to the widowed daughter of Alexandre Bernheim (1839-1915), the owner of a gallery and one of the most successful art dealers on the continent. Previously, Vallotton had been living in the Latin Quarter of Paris with his mistress Hélène Châtenay, however, he left her in 1899 to marry Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques, whose financial stability allowed Vallotton to concentrate on his paintings, which is generally a low paying, unstable career.

Gabrielle appears frequently in her husband’s paintings and often sat for portraits. Most of the time, however, she is captured in the middle of domestic tasks around the house. Vallotton was also the step-father of three children, who occasionally became the subjects of his paintings. One scene around a dining table reflects one of the children’s negative attitude to the new adult in their life.

Capturing Gabrielle at work around the house was more difficult than painting someone sitting still. As a result, Vallotton began using a Kodak camera to catch the scenes he wished to paint. In his studio, he would either recreate the photograph with paint or remove and add elements to the scene to create the image in his mind’s eye.

Vallotton’s paintings of Gabrielle moving around the house are usually full of clashing colours and patterns, which may or may not have been present in the real family home. When painting from a photograph, the image was black and white, therefore, colours could be left to the artist’s imagination. Vallotton also crowded the rooms with rugs, ornaments, furniture, curtains and patterned wallpaper.

These domestic scenes are not the typical images one might expect and are rather ambiguous in nature. In Interior with Woman in Red (1903), Vallotton shows several rooms of the house through a continuous row of opened doors. Gabrielle stands in the middle with her back to the viewer, clearly heading for the bedroom in the far room. Wearing her dressing gown, it is easy to assume she is going to get dressed; the sunlight from the hidden windows is suggesting it is morning. Other than this, little else can be ascertained from the painting. It is as though it has captured a stolen glimpse of a household that tells you almost nothing about its inhabitants.

Woman Searching Through a Cupboard (1901) is another of Vallotton’s domestic scenes. It is probably a painting of Gabrielle but the subject matter is an obscure choice for an artist. The figure is apparently unaware of the artist’s presence while she searches through the carefully folded linen. The only light source is a lamp, placed on the floor where the figure crouches down to look at something on the bottom shelf. Whatever this is has been hidden from view, leaving the purpose of the search a mystery to everyone. Presumably, Vallotton painted this from a photograph he took as he wandered through the house, therefore, there may not have been much thought about how the painting would be interpreted.

From 1904, Vallotton’s principal subject of painting became the female nude. He had worked a little on this theme before his marriage but had not focused seriously on the theme. Unlike other artists who painted from life, Vallotton produced a quick sketch of his models then completed the painting alone in his studio. This may account for the feeling of detachment these paintings evoke with very little or even no sexual emotion.

Some of the models are partially clothed, for instance, the woman in Nude Seen From Behind in an Interior (1902), whereas others are fully naked. One of Vallotton’s nude paintings is almost a response to Édouard Manet’s (1832-83) Olympia (1863), which depicts a white female lying on a bed being attended by a black maid. In Vallotton’s version La Blanche et la Noire (1913), the white woman lying on the bed is naked and the black woman is elegantly dressed and smokes a cigarette while she observes her dozing companion. It is not clear whether these two women are mistress and servant, friends, or even lovers.

Vallotton believed one of his greatest works to be Models Resting (1905), which he submitted to the Salon d’Automne. Vallotton is believed to have wept in front of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ (1780-1867) Turkish Bath (1862), which was the inspiration for this particular painting. Within the painting, he included two older works in the background: a portrait of his parents and a landscape, thus showing his development over the years.

Alongside his portraits of nudes, the exhibition showed examples of later works that focused on social scenes. Again, he attacked the bourgeoisie with imagery that suggested immoral behaviour, such as secret liaisons in theatre boxes. He also turned to New Testament stories, such as the story of Susanna who is the victim of lecherous old men. In Vallotton’s version titled Chaste Suzanne (1922), Susanna or Suzanne appears to be in control or even a seductress, dressed in a sequined hat and tempting a couple of balding men.

“War! The word is magnificent … The day I saw it appearing in big letters on the walls, I honestly believe I felt the strongest emotion of my life.”
– Vallotton

In 1916, Vallotton briefly returned to printmaking as a response to the First World War. Although he had become a French citizen in 1900 after marrying Gabrielle, he was too old at almost 50 to enlist to fight. Nonetheless, he got to experience some of the action on a government-commissioned tour of the trenches in the Champagne region. This became the inspiration for his final venture in printmaking.

C’est la Guerre (This is War) was a portfolio of six prints showing the brutality of war. Similar to his earlier work, Vallotton included people of all social standings in these illustrations. Horrific scenes of barbed wire strewn with corpses, barricades and explosions lead to scenes of civilians, cowering in fear in their homes.

In the final decade of his career, Vallotton turned to landscape painting and gradually returned to realism. He called his approach to landscapes “paysage composé”, which means “composed landscape”.

“I dream of painting free from any literal respect for nature … I would like to be able to re-create landscapes with only the help of the emotion they have provoked in me …”
– Vallotton

Instead of producing life-like landscapes, Vallotton simplified the compositions into shapes and colours, reminiscent of the flat Japanese-inspired paintings of his earlier years. The result is an almost abstract version of nature.

On the other hand, Vallotton’s still-lifes are extremely realistic. It is almost as though one could reach in and pick up one of the red peppers sitting on a white marble table. Their shiny skins and accurate shadows make them appear tangible. Similarly, his basket of apples is also life-like, although perhaps not as real as the peppers.

Unfortunately, Vallotton’s health deteriorated during his fifties. Due to his persistent health problems, Vallotton and Gabrielle spent each winter in the warmer climates of Cagnes-sur-Mer in Provence, and their summers in Honfleur, Normandy where he produced many of his landscapes. Despite persisting in his painting, Vallotton passed away on the day after his 60th birthday following cancer surgery.

Throughout his life, Vallotton produced over 1700 works of art. A year after his death, a retrospective exhibition was held at Salon des Indépendants and some of his paintings were also displayed at the Grand Palais along with the works of well-known artists, including Van Gogh, Modigliani and Toulouse-Lautrec.

Vallotton’s brother Paul was an art dealer and established the Galerie Paul Vallotton in Lausanne where he displayed a number of Félix’s paintings. Félix Vallotton was not the only artist in the family, his niece Annie Vallotton (1915-2013) went on to produce illustrations for the Good News Bible, thus becoming the best selling artist of all time when over 225 million copies were sold.

The Royal Academy of Arts has done an excellent job at introducing Félix Vallotton to a new audience and generation. Whilst none of the pieces are particularly famous, they are worthy of the attention this exhibition is affording them. Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet is open until 29th September 2019 and costs £16 for an adult ticket. Children can visit for free with a fee-paying adult. As always, Friends of the RA are entitled unlimited free entry.

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Designer of Dreams

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Christian Dior with model Sylvie, circa 1948

Despite being extended until 1st September 2019, tickets for the Victoria and Albert Museum‘s exhibition Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams – the largest Dior show ever staged in the UK – have sold out and those lucky enough to attend are still made to queue while they wait for the crowd to abate. So, what is it about the man that has caused the entirety of London to flock to the museum? Spanning from 1947 until the present day, the exhibition explores the history and impact of one of the leading fashion designers and fashion houses of the 20th century. Most importantly, perhaps, the V&A focuses on Dior’s relationship with Britain.

“I adore the English, dressed not only in the tweeds which suit them so well but also in those flowing dresses, in subtle colours, which they have worn inimitably since the days of Gainsborough.” – Christian Dior, 1957

The exhibition opens with a brief biography of Dior’s life before delving into his extensive wardrobe. Christian Dior was born on 21st January 1905 to a wealthy fertilizer manufacturer and owner of the firm Dior Frères, Maurice Dior (1872-1946) and his wife Madeleine Martin (1879-1931). For the first five years of his life, Christian lived in the seaside town of Granville on the coast of Normandy, France, until the family relocated to Paris. Here, he grew up with his four siblings; an older brother Raymond, and three younger siblings, Jacqueline, Bernard and Ginette, who changed her name to Catherine. Catherine Dior (1917-2008) was Christian’s closest sibling who helped to preserve her brother’s legacy after his death. She was also a member of the Polish intelligence unit based in France during World War II and survived capture, torture and a year in the Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp.

Despite his wish to study art and architecture at the Académie des Beaux-Arts, Dior’s parents insisted he enrolled at the School of Political Science in Paris, in the hopes that he would become a diplomat. Dior withdrew from the school after three years and completed his military conscription. In 1928, his parents relented and provided money for their son to open an art gallery with his friend Jacques Bonjean (1899-1990). Unfortunately, this business venture was short lived as the Great Depression, the loss of the family business and the death of Dior’s mother, meant the gallery had to close.

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This failure did not put Dior off pursuing an art career and he soon found himself working for the Paris-based fashion designer Robert Piguet (1898-1953). From 1937 until he was called up for military service, Dior worked as a modéliste (in-house designer) and was given the opportunity to design for three Piguet collections. Although the Second World War disrupted his career, these few years with Piguet set him up for the future. “Robert Piguet taught me the virtues of simplicity through which true elegance must come.”

After leaving the army in 1942, Dior began working for the fashion house of Lucien Lelong (1889-1958) as one of the primary designers. Although the fashion house aimed to preserve the French fashion industry, Dior spent the remainder of the war designing dresses for the wives of Nazi officers and French collaborators.

When the war was over, Dior received a job offer from Marcel Boussac (1889-1908), the richest man in France, to design for the Paris couture house Philippe et Gaston. Dior, however, had dreams of opening his own fashion house and turned the offer down. On 8th December 1946, with financial help from Boussac, Dior founded his fashion house, presenting his first collection on 12th February the following year at 30 Avenue Montaigne in Paris.

“I have never seen such a crowd at a dress-show. Both showrooms were crowded and smart women were sitting all the way up the stairs, where they could only get a short glimpse of the manequins as they passed.”
– Betty Kenward, Tatler and Bystander, 1947

Originally named Corelle (which means circlet of flower patterns in English), the line was renamed New Look after the editor of Harper’s Bazaar Carmel Snow (1887-1961) declared, “It’s quite a revolution, dear Christian. Your dresses have such a new look!” This new look was more extravagant than the clothing worn during the war years, which had been restricted by rations on fabric. The skirts were also much longer, which initially received criticism from women who had grown used to showing their legs.

Dior introduced boned, bustier bodices and wasp-waisted corsets, combined with petticoats to make the skirts flare out, giving the women’s bodies more shape. One of the most famous designs from the collection, the Bar suit, was inspired by the bar at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris. It comprised a sculpted jacket and a pleated, full skirt, which quickly became the emblem for the New Look.

“I think of my work as ephemeral architecture, dedicated to the beauty of the female body.”
– Christian Dior, 1957

In his lifetime, Dior designed and launched 22 collections, which comprised more than 150 different looks. Each line had a title that reflected the type of style Dior had been inspired by or invented, for example, Zig-Zag, Verticale, Sinueuse, Tulipe and Flèche (arrow). Each one complemented the curves of the female figure and the movement of the human body. Each season was hotly debated in the fashion media, however, Dior’s designs continued to awe and inspire the public.

Dior’s first fashion show in Britain took place at London’s Savoy Hotel in 1950, which was so popular he began touring the country, showing his collection at various grand locations, including Blenheim Palace. Many of these events were held in aid of charity and attracted huge crowds of guests. The funds raised from his first show went towards creating the Museum of Costume (now the Fashion Museum, Bath). Another show raised money for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).

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Princess Margaret on her 21st birthday

Only four years after opening his own fashion house, Christian Dior received his most prestigious commission. “Does Your Highness feel like a gold person or a silver one?” is what Dior asked Princess Margaret (1930-2002), the younger sister of Queen Elizabeth II (b.1926) when asked to design a dress for Margaret to wear on her 21st birthday. As immortalised in the photograph by Cecil Beaton (1904-80), Princess Margaret opted for gold, which was the colour used for the golden straw embroidery and sequins that embellished the skirt of the dress.

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The dress, which is worn by a pale-faced mannequin at the V&A’s exhibition, was an adaptation of one of Dior’s recent designs Matinée poétique. The asymmetric shoulder line, buttoned bodice and full skirt were made to suit small-waisted women, such as the princess.

If Dior was not already an international sensation, he was known worldwide after designing what would become Princess Margaret’s favourite dress. The following year, he began producing ready-to-wear versions of his haute couture garments to be sold at prestigious department stores, such as Harrods in London and Kendal Milne in Manchester. To do this successfully, Dior established the business C. D. Models, which was renamed Christian Dior London Ltd in 1954. Through this company, Dior established licensing deals with a range of British manufacturers, allowing him to use certain fabrics, such as Ascher and the Cumberland Mills.

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© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Princess Margaret was not the only famous person Dior designed for, although she was probably the most important. When the novelist Emma Tennant (1937-2017) became a debutant, she ordered a red strapless gown. Nancy Mitford (1904-73), the author of Love in a Cold Climate, ordered the Daisy wool ensemble to wear when she had her portrait painted by Mogens Tvede (1897-1977). Prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn (1919-1991) ordered a number of Dior dresses, including her wedding dress, and Dior also designed a muslin embroidered wedding dress for a nineteen-year-old Jane Stoddart.

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© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Dior experimented with a huge range of styles, however, he continually returned to historic periods in his designs, particularly the Belle Époque from the late 1800s. He particularly liked the tight-waisted styles and elegant silks worn by people such as the French Empress Eugénie (1826-1920), the wife of Napoleon III (1808-1873). Dior was also inspired by the neo-classical architecture of buildings such as Marie-Antoinette’s Estate, Petit Trianon, and his own premises on Avenue Montaigne.

The V&A carefully replicated Dior’s favoured architectural style to create an 18th-century scene in which to display these historical dresses. The outfits would not look out of place in the royal court at Versailles despite being made during the twentieth and twenty-first century. Although Dior is no longer alive, his fashion house continues to draw on his original ideas and preferences.

Dior also took inspiration from places he had visited around the world. In the 1920s, as a young man, he travelled to London, Athens, Leningrad, Istanbul and the Balearic Islands. Some of his first designs were based on the architecture and fashion he saw on his trips. As his fame grew, Dior’s fashion house expanded to other countries, spanning from the Americas to Japan, which gave him several more styles to play with. The V&A focuses on five of the countries that inspired Dior: China, Egypt, India, Japan and Mexico.

“After women, flowers are the most divine of creations.”
– Christian Dior, 1954

Growing up in Normandy and Paris, Dior was always fascinated by plants and gardens. His mother was proud of the family garden and the young Christian enjoyed studying all the flowers. It was only natural that flowers would become a stimulus for his designs. The shapes of the dresses in his New Look collection were influenced by the shape of an inverted flower, however, they were not what people would call “flowery”.

Dresses in his later collections had stronger floral themes, often involving embroidery and colour to make the shapes of petals. If the dress was not decorated with flowers, it resembled a flower itself. After Dior’s death, the successive designers at House of Dior continued to return to Dior’s garden theme.

Clothing was not the only thing that Christian Dior focused on. Even before he had set up his fashion business, Dior was determined to launch a perfume. In 1947, he and his childhood friend Serge Heftler-Louiche released their first scent Miss Dior, named after his youngest sister. It is said that while Dior was thinking of potential names for the perfume, Catherine walked into the room and his colleague announced: “Ah, here’s Miss Dior!”

“Perfume is the finishing touch to any dress.”
– Christian Dior, 1954

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Miss Dior flacons

Miss Dior was released in several different formats: travel sets, vaporisers, and a variety of shaped flacons, including one in the shape of a dog. Dior did not stop there, however, and released more perfumes, such as, Diorissimo, which is scented with lily-of-the-valley. In more recent years, The House of Dior has issued Eau Sauvage, Poison and J’adore.

Sadly, Christian Dior died from a heart attack on 24th October 1957 at the age of 52 while on holiday in Montecatini, Italy. His death being totally unexpected has led to a number of rumours about the cause of the heart attack. Some claim the attack was brought on after choking on a fishbone, whereas the Time’s obituary stated he died while playing a game of cards. Another source spreads the rumour that the heart attack was caused by a strenuous sexual encounter. To this day, the true circumstances remain undisclosed.

Despite dying at the height of his career, his fashion house did not suffer. The running of the company fell to Dior’s apprentice Yves Saint Laurent (1936-2008), who would eventually go on to found his own fashion label. Over the years there have been a number of other worthy designers who have kept the House of Dior at the top of the fashion leaderboard.

As part of the exhibition, the V&A explores the works of the six creative directors that have led the House of Dior since 1957. Each designer brought new ideas to the table whilst also retaining the renowned visions of Christian Dior.

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Yves Saint Laurent working for Christian Dior, 1950s

Yves Mathieu Saint Laurent was appointed creative director at the House of Dior when he was only twenty-one years old. Before Dior’s death, he had worked as the designer’s assistant, however, his new role meant he could design his own line of clothes. His first collection in 1958 was a great success, which was followed in 1960 with the Silhouette de demain (Silhouette of tomorrow) line. Saint Laurent introduced the concept of skirts worn over trousers and geometric style cuts. Unlike Dior, who emphasised thin waistlines, Saint Laurent’s waists were elongated and were matched with turtle necks, hats and coats. His time as creative director, however, was short-lived, being called up for national army service in 1960.

Following Saint Laurent was Marc Bohan (b.1926) who was the House of Dior’s longest serving creative director from 1960 until 1989. Bohan had worked for a number of other fashion houses, such as Piguet where Dior had worked earlier in his career, before joining the House of Dior in 1958. As creative director, one of his most successful collections was the Slim Look, which was considered to be “a complete triumph” according to the New York Times. The Hollywood star Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011) was so taken with the design, she ordered twelve dresses.

Bohan’s aim was to design dresses that women loved to wear. He famously remarked, “N’oubliez pas la femme,” which means, “Don’t forget the woman.” He stuck to this ethos throughout his time at the House of Dior, believing that it was important to make a woman feel good and comfortable in what she wore as well as be aesthetically pleasing. Bohan eventually left the company to become the director of the London house of Norman Hartnell.

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Dior by Gianfranco Ferré

Despite being a leading fashion designer in Milan with his own fashion line, the next creative director Gianfranco Ferré (1944-2007) joined the House of Dior in 1989. Ferré was very proud to be chosen to work for Dior and helped to breathe new life into Parisian haute couture. Although he experimented with fine fabrics and embellishments, he tried to retain some of the original features of Christian Dior’s designs, such as the tight waits and full skirts. His first collection at Dior, Ascot-Cecil Beaton, won him the Dé d’Or (Gold Thimble) award.

Gibraltar-born John Galliano (b.1960) was the next person to take the reins as creative director. During his 15-year stint, Galliano pushed the boundaries of haute couture, creating eclectic designs based on extensive research throughout the world. Rather than merely creating clothes for women to wear, Galliano designed imaginative sets for fashion shows, which transported the audience to other worlds complete with imaginary characters that complimented his extraordinary designs.

Galliano brought the House of Dior into the twenty-first century, mixing in elements of subversive social themes with fashion. Simultaneously, John Galliano was the head of his own eponymous fashion company, which he left in 2011 at the same time he left Dior. He is currently the creative director of Paris-based fashion house Maison Margiela.

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Christian Dior by Raf Simons (b.1968), wool coat, Haute Couture, Autumn/Winter 2012

Raf Simons (b.1968), a graduate of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, joined the House of Dior as the next creative director in 2012. In stark contrast to his predecessor Galliano, Simons was a minimalist, focusing on the cut and line of his garments. His aim was to produce modern, practical clothes for contemporary women. He was obsessed with detail and gave ateliers precise instructions about tailoring. His clothes attracted a younger, newer generation to the works of Dior and the House received many more clients.

After Simons left to work on his own brand in 2016, the House of Dior employed its first female creative director: Maria Grazia Chiuri (b.1964). Her first ready-to-wear collection of t-shirts featuring slogans, such as “We Should All Be Feminists,” caused debates amongst the fashion world. Chiuri believes the role of a designer has changed in the past decade; rather than only creating pretty dresses, the designer is responsible for allowing the public to have a voice.

“I strive to be attentive and open to the world, and to create fashion that resembles the women of today.”
– Maria Grazia Chiuri

Although Chiuri draws on the designs from across the history of the House of Dior, she aims to put the needs of contemporary women first, focusing on both feminity and feminism. She has been inspired by many women of the past, such as the author Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), who are the faces of early feminism.

“The ballgown is your dream, and it must make you a dream.”
– Christian Dior, 1954

The exhibition ends with The Dior Ball, which shows off dozens of evening dresses and ballgowns produced by the House of Dior over the years. Christian Dior loved designing clothes for balls and parties because he could be as imaginative as he wished without the restraint of the practicalities of everyday-wear. The gowns took finery and excess to the extreme, which has been replicated by the successive creative directors.

Set out on revolving platforms in a room with changing lights and enchanting music, walking into the final room of the exhibition is like stepping into a fairytale. Many of these stunning dresses have graced the red carpets at film events over the past seventy years and it looks like stars will be continuing to chose Christian Dior for numerous years to come.

The V&A has provided a once in a lifetime opportunity to see 200-or-so of Dior dresses up close, which, unless you can afford to buy one, is as close as you are ever likely to get – that is if you have managed to secure a ticket. Extra tickets for Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams will be released monthly, for the month ahead. Very limited tickets are available to purchase daily at 10am from the Grand Entrance on a first-come-first-served basis.

Love and Angst

“We want to create, or at least lay the foundations of, an art that gives something to humanity. An art that arrests and engages. An art created by one’s innermost heart.”
– Edvard Munch, 1889

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Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm, 1895

When Edvard Munch (1863-1944) produced The Scream in 1893, little did he know it would retain the international appeal it garnered, encapsulating a mood to which nearly everyone can relate. Dying a recluse at his estate in the suburbs of Oslo, Munch bequeathed the works in his studio to the city, which included 18,000 prints. The British Museum in London managed to acquire a mere 21 of Munch’s prints, however, the opportunity recently arose to borrow works from abroad to hold their first-ever exhibition about the Norwegian artist – the first exhibition solely about Munch since 1974.

Although Munch was also a painter, the British Museum’s exhibition Edvard Munch: Love and Angst focused almost entirely on his print work, including lithographs and woodcuts. Having been born to a close-knit family on 12th December 1863 in Kristiania (renamed Oslo in 1925), Munch’s childhood was shattered after the death of his mother Laura Catherine Bjølstad from tuberculosis when he was only five years old. This left Munch, his older sister Johanne Sophie, and younger siblings Peter Andreas, Laura Catherine, and Inger Marie to be brought up by their father Doctor Christian Munch, the son of a priest.

The first print displayed in the exhibition is Munch’s Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm (1895), which he produced as a memento mori of his own mortality. Not only did Munch suffer through the death of his mother, but his sister (Johanne) Sophie also died from tuberculosis when he was thirteen years old. It is primarily due to these two tragic instances that Munch began to produce artwork with the intention of expressing his deep, painful emotions.

Whilst Munch’s father was a loving, kind man, he was deeply pious and the conservative teachings of the Lutheran church dominated much of his life. “My father was temperamentally nervous and obsessively religious—to the point of psychoneurosis. From him, I inherited the seeds of madness.” As a result, Munch wanted to escape from this type of lifestyle. Firstly, in 1879, Munch enrolled in a technical college to study engineering. Whilst he excelled at maths, chemistry and physics, Munch left the college after a year with the determination to become a painter. In 1881, Munch enrolled at the Royal School of Art and Design of Kristiania, one of whose founders was his distant relative Jacob Munch; nonetheless, his father disapproved.

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Hans Jaeger, 1896

One thing that particularly upset Munch’s father was his relationship with the local nihilist Hans Jaeger (1854-1910). As a writer, philosopher and political activist, Jaeger was the central figure of the Kristiania bohemians with whom Munch became affiliated. Despite being jailed for blasphemy in 1885, Jaeger wrote the book From the Kristiania Bohemians, which greatly influenced the young Munch, helping him to develop a highly subjective expressionistic art style.

Munch briefly studied in Paris in 1885 and again in 1889, where he was influenced by several contemporary French artists. These included Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). Unfortunately, Munch’s father died in December 1889 and Munch, destitute, was forced to temporarily move back home.

The British Museum used Munch’s prints of Kristiania Bohemians II (1895) as examples of the etching and drypoint technique Munch used during the 1880s. The image reveals the smoky interior of the Grand Café in Kristiania where Munch used to meet various writers and artists, including Hans Jaeger, who can be seen at the far end of the table. Etchings are usually created by drawing on a metal plate covered in acid-resistant wax with a needlepoint. The plate is then immersed in acid, which “bites” into the metal along the exposed scratched lines. Alternatively, Munch scratched directly onto the metal plate, a technique that is known as “drypoint”. Either way, the plate can then be inked, covered with dampened paper and passed through a printing press to produce a print of the design etched onto the metal. This can be used again and again to create several copies of the same image.

Another technique Munch utilised was woodcut. An example of this style is Munch’s Head by Head (1905), which he initially printed in black and white. To produce a woodcut, the artist has to cut into a block of wood with a chisel so that the raised surfaces can be inked to create a print – similar to how a rubber stamp works today. As shown at the British Museum, Munch often used different coloured inks on his woodcuts. This can be done by carefully applying various shades of ink to particular sections of the block. Munch also took a more unconventional approach and sawed up the woodblock so that the various sections could be inked separately before being reassembled like a jigsaw to create the final print.

In 1892, Munch was invited to put on an exhibition of his paintings in Berlin. His work, however, horrified the traditional art world and the exhibition was closed after a week. Fortunately, the younger, avant-garde artists were impressed with his style and the scandal, instead of ruining him, helped to launch Munch’s international career. As a result, Munch opted to stay in Berlin where he made use of their many traditional printing establishments.

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August Strindberg, 1896

Whilst in Berlin, Munch met intellectuals from all over Europe, the majority of whom met in the Black Piglet bar to debate about art, love, science and philosophy. They also discussed the concept of the death of God, an idea that was radical and shocking at the time. Amongst these thinkers was August Strindberg, a Swedish playwright (1849-1912) who Munch painted in 1892. Unfortunately, their friendship began to drift after Strindberg wrote a satirical review of an exhibition of Munch’s work in Paris. To get his own back, when Munch produced a print of his painting in 1896, he added the deliberately misspelt name “A. Stindberg”, which is a play on words meaning “mountain of hot air.” The naked woman in the border of the print alludes to Strindberg’s growing paranoia and bouts of hallucinations.

The works that unsettled the mainstream art world belonged to a cycle Munch titled Frieze of Life. These artworks were produced over several years and encompassed themes such as love, jealousy, anxiety and death.

“The Frieze is intended as a poem about life, about love and about death.”
– Edvard Munch, 1918

Some of Munch’s Frieze of Life recalls his first love affair with a married woman, Milly Thaulow. The affair took place during summer visits to the Norwegian coastal town of Åsgårdstrand. As a result, many of Munch’s romantic or angst-ridden artworks feature the shoreline in the background. “I get so inspired to paint when I am here”.

When talking about his print Separation II (1896), Munch stated that he “symbolised the connection between the separated couple with the help of long wavy hair.” This represents a “kind of telephone wire.” Perhaps this metaphor relates to Munch and Thaulow who could only meet in the summer and were, therefore, separated throughout the rest of the year.

During his career, Munch was obsessed with and afraid of female power, resulting in numerous affairs but no marriage. In 1898, Munch entered a relationship with Tulla Larsen, an upper-class woman, who was eager for marriage, however, Munch deliberately dodged the proposals. At the same time, Munch was struggling with alcoholism and poor health, which enhanced his fears about commitment. In 1900, he fled from Tulla to Berlin, however, the couple briefly reconciled a little later. The end of their relationship came about after Munch’s self-destructive and unpredictable behaviour involved him in a violent quarrel with another artist, followed by an accidental shooting in the presence of Tulla, which damaged two of Munch’s fingers.

In Man’s Head in Woman’s Hair (1896), Munch used the woman’s hair to represent his fears of female entrapment. The woman’s hair, which in this print is coloured red, surrounds the head of the man, symbolising that he has been ensnared in his love with the woman. Perhaps his thoughts have been clouded due to emotion, thus preventing him from avoiding a relationship or marriage.

“Ever since he was a child he had hated marriage. His sick and nervous home had given him the feeling that he had no right to get married.”
– Edvard Munch, speaking about himself

Two Human Beings, the Lonely Ones (1899) is a woodcut that Munch produced using his jigsaw technique so that he could ink each section separately. As a result, each element of the print – the woman, the man and the sea – has a white border, highlighting Munch’s solitary mood. Although he may be with a woman, Munch deliberately distances himself from commitment and a steady relationship.

For Munch, his constant state of separation and isolation led to an increasing feeling of anguish. It was this strong emotion that led Munch to produce his legendary painting The Scream in 1893. The artwork first appeared in an exhibition in Berlin titled Life Anxiety. Two years later, Munch produced a print of the painting, adding the title “Geschrei” (Scream) followed by the German words “Ich fühlte das grosse Geschrei durch die Natur” (I felt the large scream pass through nature).

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The Scream became the centre of Munch’s Frieze of Life series and quickly became his most well-known work. Munch produced two paintings of the artwork, two pastel versions and several prints, all of which have been widely coveted. In 2012, one of the pastels became one of the most expensive pieces of art ever sold when it went for £74 million during an auction at Sotheby’s.

To make the prints, Munch used a technique called lithography, which relies on the fact that grease and water do not mix. The image is drawn on a flat stone with a wax crayon, which is then dampened by water. The waxy area repels the water and when ink is applied, it adheres to the drawn image and avoids the damp areas. A piece of paper is then placed upon the stone and passed through a press to transfer the image.

Much to Munch’s annoyance, The Scream has been misinterpreted by the majority of viewers who automatically assume the open-mouthed figure is screaming. Munch originally intended to title the painting The Scream of Nature before settling for the shorter name. Munch claims the titular scream comes from the surroundings and not the person. The person is attempting to block out the shriek they can hear (the Norwegian title is Shrik).

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Although generally believed to be a man, the figure in The Scream is featureless and genderless, thus de-individualised, which has helped it to become a universal symbol of anxiety in the 21st century. The Scream has recently been turned into an emoji for use on social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp and so forth. It has also found itself in Pop Art and popular culture, for instance, works by Andy Warhol (1928-87) and Peter Brooks (b. 1943) and has recently been replicated on new Pokémon trading cards.

“The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.”
– Edvard Munch

One of the strongest themes in Munch’s work is sickness and death. Munch’s life began with the death of his mother but it was the death of his sister Sophie when he was only 13 that haunted him for the rest of his life. He directed the emotions tied up with this experience into his large painting The Sick Child, which was on loan to the British Museum from the Tate Modern. Tuberculosis was a common illness during Munch’s life, however, the rapidly industrialised cities had no means to tackle it. Munch witnessed people like his father resorting to prayer in an effort to save lives, which in the case of Sophie was futile.

Munch also suffered from ill health as a child and grew up to believe that tuberculosis and mental illness was a fact of life. His sister Laura was institutionalised in 1894 with schizophrenia and, later, Munch suffered a number of mental breakdowns. Nonetheless, Munch wrote that he would not wish himself free of mental illness “because there’s so much in my art that I owe to it.”

“In The Sick Child I paved new roads for myself – it was a breakthrough in my art. – Most of what I have done since had its genesis in this picture. No painting in Norway has elicited such a scandal.”
– Edvard Munch, Origins of the Frieze of Life, 1928

It took Munch a year to complete the oil painting The Sick Child, which recalls the death of his sister Sophie. The woman seated beside Sophie’s bed is Munch’s aunt, Karen Bjølstad who had looked after the Munch siblings since the death of their mother in 1868. Unfortunately, when the painting was displayed at the Berlin Artists’ Association in November 1892, it was criticised for its rough appearance, however, once again the negative press gave Munch the much-needed publicity.

Munch believed that he had experienced more than his fair share of grief and produced several works on the same subject. In fact, his oil painting of The Sick Child was the fourth of six images in a series of the same name. Munch created a dry point of The Sick Child from which he produced ten signed prints. Despite being black and white, the child’s face still appears drained of colour as the life ebbs away.

The Sick Child I is a lithograph based upon the head and shoulders of the child in the previous print. Munch produced several stones of the same image and had them printed in different colours, for instance, yellow, pink and red.

“All art, like music, must be created with one’s lifeblood – Art is one’s lifeblood.”
– Edvard Munch

At the beginning of the 20th century, Paris was beginning to assert itself with modernity, hosting The World Fairs of 1889 and 1900 and inaugurating the newly built Eiffel Tower. It was a time when Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was changing the way mental disorders were treated, Marie Curie (1867-1934) was discovering radioactivity and new experiments were occurring in film, art, dance and theatre. Munch was swept up by the hype of Parisian artists who were embracing coloured printmaking and working alongside the groundbreaking experimental theatre.

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Eva Mudocci/The Brooch, 1903

“Fraulein Mudocci is wonderfully beautiful and I almost fear I am falling in love …” Eva Mudocci was both a friend, muse and short term lover of Munch. She was a famous violinist at the time Munch was in Paris and he produced a print titled The Brooch based on her appearance.

Mudocci was not the only well-known name with whom Munch associated. Munch had already befriended and unfriended Strindberg but was also in contact with other contemporary playwrights. Scandinavian dramatists were beginning to take precedence in the experimental theatre world and they relied upon avant-garde artists to design stage sets, posters and programme covers. Artists included Toulouse-Lautrec, Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940) and, of course, Munch himself.

Munch felt an affinity with the Norweigan playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) whose plays, like his own work, shocked bourgeois society. They challenged social and moral conventions with themes of adultery, hypocrisy, mental illness and diseases, such as syphilis. Munch said of the audiences’ reaction, “Ibsen threw a huge log into the anthill.”

Munch initially met Ibsen whilst back home in Kristiania where the elderly playwright lived in a self-imposed exile. Whilst Munch admired the older gentleman, Ibsen saw a bit of himself in the artist. He warned Munch, “Believe you me – you will have the same fate as I – the more enemies, the more friends.”

Munch designed programme covers for at least two of Ibsen’s plays, John Gabriel Borkman and Peer Gynt. He also designed the set for Ibsen’s Ghosts in 1906. Ibsen had passed away earlier that year and in his honour, Munch was asked to design the sets for a performance at the Kammerspiele, which had recently opened in Berlin. In some ways, Munch associated Ghosts with events of his only family life, particularly the deaths of his mother and sister, and he used these personal memories as visual aids when creating the stage set.

Despite living to the age of 80, Munch remained emotionally attached to his family and homeland all his life. Although he had tried to escape from his life as a young adult, he was constantly drawn back to Kristiania, especially the village of Åsgårdstrand, which, as already mentioned, features as a backdrop in many of his works. “To walk around here is like walking among my pictures.”

In 1908, Munch was admitted to a clinic in Copenhagen due to acute alcoholism and an anxiety-driven nervous breakdown. He eventually returned to Norway in 1909 but his style of art had undergone a radical change. Rather than concentrating on past events, love and angst, Munch focused more on Norwegian landscapes and daily life. In 1916, Munch settled in Ekely on the outskirts of the capital where he remained until his death in 1944.

Although the exhibition only focused on prints, Edvard Munch: Love and Angst managed to explore the artistic development and powerful intensity of Munch’s work. Throughout his career, Munch received mixed reactions. Whilst the traditional art world rejected him, there were plenty of bohemian artists to encourage and support his more outspoken work.

“We want more than a mere photograph of nature. We do not want pretty pictures to be hung on drawing-room walls. We want to create, or at least lay the foundations of, an art that gives something to humanity. An art that arrests and engages. An art of one’s innermost heart.”
– Edvard Munch

Until the end of the 19th century, Munch had little financial success. Ironically, it was the outraged reaction of art critics that gave Munch the recognition he needed to become successful in the contemporary art world. A report in the Frankfurter Zeitung about his 1892 exhibition in Berlin exclaimed, “Art is endangered! All true believers raise a great lament! … An Impressionist, and a mad one at that, has broken into the herd of our fine solidly bourgeois artists. An absolutely furious character.”

It is difficult to judge the quality of Munch’s work, particularly as it is impossible to determine what is good and what is not in modern art. Most of the time it is a matter of personal taste. The fact that prints can be replicated several times makes each one feel less personal in comparison to a unique painting, however, Munch’s life story reveals the underlying emotion in each artwork. Just because it was possible to make several copies does not make the image any less meaningful. Seeing a print of The Scream is just as emotionally intense as seeing one of the painted versions.

The British Museum’s exhibition was scheduled to finish at the end of June but has been extended until 21st July. It has hopefully awakened a new interest in the work and life of Edvard Munch. Most people are familiar with The Scream but knowing the artist’s history makes it all the more powerful.

Edvard Munch: Love and Angst has been developed in collaboration with the Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway. Ticket prices are £17 but under-16s can visit for free.

Monet’s Architectural Visions

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The Water-Lily Pond

Claude Monet (1840-1926) is perhaps best known for his en plein air paintings of gardens and countryside, particularly, for example, The Water-Lily Pond (1899). Whilst it is true that Monet produced many paintings of nature, for the majority of his artistic career, Monet concentrated on landscapes and cityscapes, focusing on the man-made buildings rather than the natural environment.

In a recent exhibition at the National Gallery, sponsored by the Credit Suisse, Monet & Architecture explored the overlooked aspects of Monet’s works with over 75 paintings spanning from the early 1860s until 1912. Split into three themes, the gallery focused on The Village and the Picturesque, which included paintings of cottages by rocky paths or sea fronts; The City and the Modern, featuring a mix of new and old buildings; and, finally, The Monument and the Mysterious, with examples of Monet’s experiments with atmosphere and light.

Born in Paris and brought up in Normandy, Monet had access to an area of France steeped in medieval history and buildings. With these scenes at his mercy, he produced many picturesque landscapes, not too dissimilar in style to his nature-based paintings.

As Monet’s reputation as a painter increased, he began visiting other areas of France and travelling to various countries on the continent. As a result, his broad collection of artwork almost reads like a photo album, documenting the places he lived or holidayed.

 

Many of Monet’s landscapes involve a body of water, be it sea, river or pond. Despite his Impressionist style – a name coined in 1874 to describe the works of the Sociéte anonyme des artistes peintres, of which he was a founding member – Monet was exceptionally good at portraying the movement of the water, both stormy and calm, and expertly reveals the reflection of the sky and buildings amongst the waves and ripples.

Whilst staying at Zaandam in the Netherlands, Monet had plenty of opportunities to combine water and architecture by studying the many commercial waterways, particularly those he saw during a trip to Amsterdam.

Often, Monet repainted scenes several times over a long period. He was always interested in the ways different lights and weather (effets) affected the landscapes he painted. An early example of this method of working took place on the coast of Normandy during 1882. Here, Monet became fascinated with a little cottage hidden between the jutting rocks of the cliffs.

 

The National Gallery displayed three paintings containing the hidden cottage, which was purportedly used during Napoleon’s reign as a customs office to keep a lookout for smugglers. The first painting, The Customs Officer’s Cottage, Varengeville, was most likely produced at the end of the winter months. The sea is choppy and the sky fairly dark, possibly a sign of an approaching storm. Monet stood behind and to the left of the building but near enough that the cottage became the main focus on the canvas.

The Cliff at Varengeville, on the other hand, was painted further away from the cliff edge. At first glance, it is easy to miss the roof of the cottage hidden by the uneven clifftop. This painting was produced during the summer months; the sky is clear and the sea much calmer. Although it is not shown in the landscape, the sun is bright, its rays lighting up the vegetation and reflecting off the surface of the water.

The final painting of the customs office was produced below rather than atop the cliff. The Path Through the Cliff at Varengeville is set in one of the ravines leading down to the sea. The cottage can be seen in the top left-hand corner, however, the eye is instinctively drawn to the v-shaped view of the sea in the distance. The blue water contrasts with the autumnal colours of the growth along the cliffs and the darkening sky, suggesting that this was one of the final paintings Monet produced before he left Varengeville in early October.

During the 1860s and 70s, Monet developed an interest of painting in cities, studying the more modern buildings that had begun to crop up – a contrast to the stone cottages as seen in the villages. The Exposition Universelle of 1867, the second world’s fair to be held in Paris, drew Monet to the capital. Here he sat on a balcony overlooking the Seine, painting the buildings on the opposite bank as well as portraying the crowds on the street below him. Including members of the public was an unusual feature for Monet, who prefered to concentrate on the scenery rather than the day-to-day goings on in the surroundings. This could be due to the manner of en plein air painting, in which most of the work is completed in situ; it is far easier to paint the stationary buildings than the moving bodies, carriages and animals.

Whilst in Paris, Monet painted a combination of old and new buildings, revealing the diverse styles of architecture. In The Quai du Louvre (1867), Monet contrasted the medieval clock tower of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont with the 18th-century Panthéon. Within the same landscape is the Pont Neuf, which was completed in yet another century, 1606 to be precise.

Three years later, Monet married Camille Doncieux (1847-79), who had already born him one son, Jean, in August 1867. The couple would later have another son, Michel, in 1878, a year before Camille sadly succumbed to pelvic cancer. For their honeymoon, M. and Mme Monet travelled to Trouville, a commune on the coast in the Calvados department in Normandy. Although this was not a city, it was a fashionable place for tourists with picturesque buildings. On the Boardwalk at Trouville (1870), Monet provides a glimpse of the holiday resort from his position near the edge of the beach, looking over at the tall seaside buildings.

The following year, 1871, Monet and his family fled to London to escape the Franco-Prussian War. It was whilst he was here that he met artists, such as Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), with whom he developed the Sociéte anonyme des artistes peintres or Impressionism movement. During this time, Monet took pleasure in painting the recently built Houses of Parliament whilst also experimenting with different effets. After it was safe to return to Paris, Monet continued to paint important buildings, including the Pont Neuf and those along the Boulevard des Capucines.

At the end of 1871, the Monets moved to Argenteuil, a commune in the northwestern suburbs of Paris, approximately 15 kilometres from the city centre. This was useful for Monet who was often exhibiting with the Impressionists and needed to be within reach of the capital. Argenteuil was continuously being repaired and updated after the damage caused by the Franco-Prussian War, and its population was rapidly increasing. As a result, Monet was able to record the developments as they occurred, painting the modern houses, bridges and factories.

Of course, Monet also continued with his more natural landscapes, as seen in The Ball-shaped Tree, Argenteuil (1876), which was lent to the National Gallery from a private collection specifically for the Monet & Architecture exhibition. This tidily balanced composition was actually one of Monet’s final artworks in Argenteuil before the family relocated to the village of Vétheuil. It reveals two large houses in the distance set within walled gardens. The main feature of the painting, however, as the title suggests, is the ball-shaped tree that stands in front of them and is carefully reflected in Monet’s signature water aspect.

Travelling to and from the city, Monet was a frequent passenger at the Gare St-Lazare which was fairly modern, having only been built in 1837, although it was enlarged and extended at the end of the 1860s. Monet was given special permission to paint the station, which he did several times, exhibiting at least seven canvases in the third Impressionist exhibition. The Gare St-Lazare (1877) is unlike anything Monet had chosen to focus on before. Instead of a broad landscape or a picturesque location, the painting reveal a dirty, smoke-filled modern construction. The steam trains are also an unusual subject for the artist.

Another painting that went against convention, was Monet’s The Rue Montorgueil, Paris (1878), which was produced on a portrait canvas. The French government had declared 30th June 1878 a national holiday and the streets of Paris were full of people taking advantage of the day to hold drunken celebrations. From a balcony, Monet painted the long street overflowing with excited crowds, the buildings covered with bright tricolour flags. The blue, white and red dominate the composition, making it appear busy and untidy.  Yet, when viewed from a distance, the outlines lose their blurriness, resulting in a fascinatingly elaborate composition.

During the final three decades of Monet’s career, he visited and painted in three particular cities. After the untimely death of his wife Camille, Monet and his sons moved to a large house in Giverny, a village in Normandy, with another woman, Alice Hoschedé (1844-1911) and her six children in 1883. It was here that Monet’s famous water lily paintings were made. Almost a decade later, Alice and Monet married shortly after returning from the city of Rouen on the River Seine.

Whilst in Rouen, Monet was enamoured with its 12th-century gothic cathedral of which he produced at least thirty paintings. Rather than present landscapes as he had done in other cities and villages, Monet chose to concentrate on the cathedral facade, working on different effets caused by the position of the sun during different points of the day. One canvas, although brighter in colour, was probably produced mid-morning rather than when the sun was at its peak on account of the shadows, which bring out the features of the architecture.

In contrast, the painting of Rouen Cathedral at sunset appears to be a blurry copy of the previous painting. Seen from a distance, the muted colours have an impressive effect, however, up close, the painting feels incomplete and rushed. Nonetheless, Monet was not attempting to produce a precise study of the cathedral, he was examining the play of fading light upon the building.

In 1899, Monet took the opportunity to return to London, a city he had enjoyed so much on his last visit. On this occasion, Monet travelled alone, staying on the sixth floor of the Savoy Hotel, which at this point was fitted with balconies, providing the perfect position for Monet to paint the iconic buildings he could see from his suite. Depending on which way he positioned his chair, Monet had an excellent view of Waterloo Bridge and the Houses of Parliament.

Again, Monet’s focus was on effets rather than the buildings in question, painting in different lights at different hours. At the time, the many London factories often caused the city to be shrouded in smoke and fog, which along with the sun, created a hazy atmosphere. The vast changes in the British climate can be seen by comparing a painting of Waterloo Bridge on a clear day with one produced on a foggy day, the orange sun struggling to pierce through the smog.

Likewise, Monet’s paintings of the Houses of Parliament varied enormously due to the fog, sunrises and sunsets. In some versions, the neo-Gothic architecture is shown as a pronounced silhouette, whereas, in the foggier version, the tower blends into the clouded background.

The final city Monet visited was Venice in 1908, where he stayed for two months with his wife Alice. Whilst Alice wished to go out and enjoy the magical city, Monet wanted to paint the important buildings and their reflections in the water of the canals. Just like the Rouen and London pictures, Monet disregarded the numerous tourists, painting only the architecture and water, his focus, as always, on the intensity of effet. These paintings, as well as those from the previous cities, have an other-worldly quality due to the unique use of light.

Two buildings Monet was particularly interested in were the 17th-century church Santa Maria Della Salute, which he could see from the opposite side of the Grand Canal, and the Venetian Gothic Doge’s Palace. Both these buildings are instantly recognisable from their unique structure, however, once again, Monet was not interested in this. The various lights altered the sharpness of the buildings depicted; some appear blurred, whereas, others are much clearer.

The unfortunate thing about all of these paintings today is they are rarely shown together, as Monet intended. One gallery may own a version that was painted on a clear, sunny day, whereas, another may only have access to a foggy scene, thus not showing Monet’s skills as a painter of buildings. In order to appreciate the paintings fully, they need to be displayed together so that the different effets can be compared and contrasted. Luckily, the National Gallery was able to provide a couple of different copies of each building for the Monet & Architecture exhibition.

Venice was the last city Monet painted; his eyesight was deteriorating and he was reluctant to undergo a cataract operation. As a result, he was often unable to work. After Alice died in 1911, Monet tended to stay at home, painting in his garden. In 1914, at the start of the First World War, Monet remained in safety at Giverny, painting large canvases of Nymphéas (waterlilies). He continued as best as he could, wearing corrective glasses to aid his vision, until his death in December 1926 at the age of 86.

The National Gallery’s Monet & Architecture provided a new way of looking at Monet’s work. Instead of perceiving him as an en plein air French Impressionist with a penchant for waterlilies and poppies, the Gallery provided a different insight, introducing the non-artistic to the term effets and the result of focusing on atmosphere instead intricate details. This was the first exhibition of its kind and the National Gallery did an excellent job.

Monet & Architecture closed on 29th July 2018, however, there are many exciting exhibitions to look forward to in the near future. Visit the National Gallery’s website for details. 

Modigliani

Amedeo Clemente Modigliani (1884-1920) was an Italian painter, sculptor and draughtsman who spent the majority of his working career in Paris. Almost a century after his death, the Tate Modern in London is holding the biggest display of Modigliani’s work in the UK to date, looking back at the artist’s productive, albeit brief, life. With over 100 artworks produced in Modigliani’s distinctive style, this exhibition contains some of the professed most memorable artworks of the 20th century.

“The life of Modigliani, wandering artist, so often resembles a legend, it is difficult to determine fact from fiction.”

-Arthur Pfannstiel, 1929

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Photo: Modigliani

Modigliani died at the age of 35 after a fourteen-year career as an artist. Due to his early demise and his rumoured lifestyle, there has been a lot of incorrect speculation about his character. He was deemed as socially unconventional and earned a reputation as the archetypal romantic painter, starving in a cramped living space, whilst falling victim to alcohol and drugs. Within this exhibition, the Tate Modern attempts to biographically outline his life alongside his intense and controversial artwork.

Born into a Sephardic Jewish family in Livorno, Italy, Modigliani was a rather sickly child, suffering from a handful of illnesses, including Tuberculosis. His mother, at risk of spoiling her son, encouraged his passion for art, which led to him receiving a years education at Micheli’s Art School in 1898, run by the local artist Guglielmo Micheli (1866-1926). This was Modigliani’s first form of artistic instruction, which, naturally given the school’s location, focused on the study of techniques and themes of Italian Renaissance art. Although Modigliani would quickly develop his own style, evidence of his former training can be seen in his paintings, for example, the linear grace of his work resembles that of Botticelli (1445-1510), whereas, his focus on reclining nudes may have stemmed from Titian (1488-1576), who was one of the first artists to produce paintings of this nature.

Modigliani’s personal style began developing almost simultaneously with his move to Paris in 1906. Penniless, Modigliani settled in a commune in Montmartre, where he absorbed ideas from other artists in the area. He was particularly influenced by works he saw by the late Cézanne, adopting the simplicity of loose brushstrokes and method of colour handling. Modigliani is a significant example of the way exposure to new people and places affect artists.

Evidence of Modigliani’s impoverished lifestyle can be seen at the beginning of the exhibition. On more than one occasion, he used both sides of the canvas for different paintings, implying that he did not have enough money to afford new canvases. An example is The Cellist (1909), which contains Portrait of Constantin Brancusi (1909) on its reverse. In other works, ghostly faces can be seen through the bright paint as a result of Modigliani reusing old canvases.

 

Between 1911 and 1913, Modigliani put painting aside in favour of sculpture. At least two dozen were produced within this time period, several of  whichthe Tate Modern has on display. At this time in France, European artists were drawn to museums containing a wide range of historic art and antiquities, particularly from ancient civilisations in Africa. The Egyptian style was a particular favourite of Modigliani, which he replicated in his own carved heads by mimicking the clean lines and elongated facial features.

 

It is thought that Modigliani stole blocks of limestone from building sites to use for his sculptures. It was a far more expensive pursuit than painting, which may be one reason why he abandoned the project. Another reason may have been the outbreak of World War One, which would have restricted his access to materials, but, the most likely explanation for returning to painting was the effect the dust from the carved limestone was having on his weakened lungs. However, these few years spent sculpting brought a new dimension to his artwork.

The distinctive style of portraiture that Modigliani has become recognised for encompasses many of the elements that featured in his sculptures. Rather than painting the sitter as he saw him or her, Modigliani altered their appearances with swan-like necks and almond-shaped eyes. He often left the eyes blank with no discernible iris or pupil. Although not intentional, this makes the portraits look unnerving, like creatures out of a Doctor Who episode.

 

In 1916, Modigliani became friends with the art dealer Léopold Zborowski (1889-1932) and his wife Anna (1885-1978) – both of their portraits are part of this exhibition. Zborowski encouraged Modigliani to go down a new route: painting the female nude. Painting the naked body was nothing new in the art world, however, the way in which Modigliani approached it caused some controversy amongst art patrons.

The models who posed for these paintings dominated the canvas, often making direct eye-contact with the viewer. This indicates the changes occurring in the lives of women at the beginning of the 20th century. Women were more independent and had more say about their bodies. To further emphasise the point, Modigliani went against tradition and included pubic hair in his compositions, showing the true female form and not the idealised male preference. Unfortunately, these paintings were censored by a police commissioner on the grounds of indecency. Twelve of these nudes have been located and loaned to the Tate Modern.

As the exhibition nears its end, visitors see some of the works produced within Modigliani’s final years. As well as this, the exhibition narrative takes a more personal tone, revealing the more private life of the painter. Modigliani travelled to Nice in 1918 to avoid the end of the war and to alleviate his worsening health problems. With him came his pregnant partner, Jeanne Hébuterne (1898-1920) who bore him a daughter of the same name (1918-84). Jeanne became the principal subject of his artwork, however, whilst in the French Riviera, he painted local children and friends, opting for warm Mediterranean colours. Arguably, these are some of his strongest works.

 

The quality of Modigliani’s paintings, however, are a stark contrast to the direction his life was taking. He never made much money from painting, and anything he did earn fueled his growing addiction to drugs and alcohol. Although he continued to paint, his health was deteriorating rapidly and frequently suffered alcohol-induced blackouts. None of this is evident in Modigliani’s final self-portrait. Instead, he looks like a professional, confident painter, well-dressed with paint palette in hand. His dapper appearance initially made him seem reserved and asocial at the beginning of his career, however, his reputation changed rapidly, resulting in the rakish vagabond he ended his life as.

Destroyed by his own self-indulgence, Amedeo Modigliani died on 24th January 1920 in the Hôpital de la Charité where he spent his final days suffering from tubercular meningitis. His fiancee, who was expecting his second child, took her own life the day after his funeral, jumping out of a fifth-story window.

Art historians suggest that if Modigliani had not neglected his health, he could have lived to produce great masterpieces. Modigliani kept his illness secret claiming the symptoms were a result of his drunkenness. At that time in Paris, drunkards were tolerated but disease carriers were not.

 

When Modigliani died, he was well-known amidst the artist communities of Montmartre and Montparnasse, however, he was still unheard of throughout the rest of the world. His posthumous fame began two years later after his work featured in an exhibition at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris. This was shortly followed by the publication of a biography by André Salmon (1881-1969) titled Modigliani, sa vie et son œuvre, which introduced Modigliani to people further afield.

Modigliani has been labelled an original artist of his time who modernised figurative painting, however, it is difficult to say how good a painter he was. In comparison to the traditional form of painting, Modigliani’s work is rather poor. On the other hand, modern artists and critics were beginning to develop a taste for unconventional ideas.

Some may say Modigliani’s loose brush strokes are expressive, whereas other people may declare they look rushed. One of his sitters noted that “the portrait was finished after a few hours without him stopping for even a minute.” Others recall that he was always drawing, sometimes ten sketches in one evening. It was almost as if he was addicted to painting in the same way he was addicted to alcohol.

The Tate Modern removes the focus from each individual painting, preferring to reflect on the styles and techniques used during various periods of Modigliani’s life. Regardless of visitors’ artistic preferences, there is something interesting in learning about the artist, his influences, and what led him to paint in this manner.

To delve deeper into the artist’s past, the Tate Modern offers a virtual reality experience, for those willing to queue for half an hour, which takes individuals on a tour of Modigliani’s final studio in Paris. Another option is an audio guide which provides detailed information about specific artworks around the exhibition. The latter, however, is not included in the price of the entry fee.

At £17.70, the exhibition is rather pricey and therefore may not be worth visiting if Modigliani’s artwork is not a favourite style. For members, however, entry is free therefore nothing is lost by viewing the exhibition, and, who knows, it may be more interesting than expected. It is certainly intriguing to find out about an artist’s background, and Modigliani’s life is a heartbreaking story.

Modigliani will remain open until 2nd April 2018. Tickets can be purchased online or on arrival at the gallery. Under twelves go free with a paying adult.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics

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© Victoria and Albert Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hebrew Chorus, Nabucco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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