Developing Selfies

Since 2013, the word “selfie” has been included in dictionaries as an official word. Statistics claim 93 million selfies are taken every day, usually on smartphones, and uploaded on social media. Access to smartphones with front-facing cameras has allowed everyone to participate in this “selfie culture”, and the ability to filter or edit the photographs has encouraged people to express a different version of themselves.

Some may say selfies are a part of a self-obsessed culture, however, the concept dates back centuries, particularly in the form of self-expression. Google Arts & Culture have produced an online exhibition to explore How the Self-Portrait Evolved into the Selfie. There is evidence of “selfies” throughout all times and cultures, which has helped us learn about how people once looked, or at least how they perceived themselves, what they wore, how they lived and so forth.

It was not until the mid-15th century, the Early Renaissance, that self-portraits became a trend. Portraits were common, however, artists mostly painted other people, usually on commission. The increase in self-portraits coincided with the availability of mirrors. Once expensive, mirrors were becoming cheaper and easier to get hold of, allowing even the poorest of painters to study their appearance.

The Early Renaissance also saw a change in painting technique. Before then, most paintings were done on walls and ceilings of buildings, but in the 15th century, the technique of panel painting began. Artists could now complete the artwork in their studio on wooden boards, which would later be positioned on the client’s walls. This also meant artists had access to surfaces on which they could experiment and produce work that they could later sell without a particular client in mind.

Artists were now freer to produce paintings for themselves as well as for their clients. With mirrors by their easels, many took the opportunity to depict themselves as the main subject. For some, this was a means of practising facial expressions, painting techniques and so forth, whereas, for others, it was a chance to express their personality, reveal who they were inside and demonstrate what they thought of their physical appearance.

Google Arts & Culture searched through several museums and galleries to find the best examples of self-portraits or “selfies” that also pinpoint the changes in style and the development of technology over time.

Rembrandt (1606-69)

When looking at the history of self-portraits, there is no better place to start than with Rembrandt, who produced nearly 100 self-portraits. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was a Dutch painter whose works depict a wide range of subject matter, such as landscapes, allegorical scenes, historical scenes, biblical and mythological themes, portraits and, of course, self-portraits. The latter are amongst his greatest triumphs and form a visual biography of his life, which was marked by youthful success and later financial hardship.

Of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, at least 40 are paintings and the rest etchings or drawings. These made up around 10% of Rembrandt’s artwork and were produced over forty years. As a result, Rembrandt documented his ageing process and he encouraged his students to make copies of the paintings to practice drawing people of different ages.

Rembrandt’s etchings and drawings are usually more playful than his paintings and were probably not intended for public consumption. These sketches often depict the artist pulling a silly face, as though he was practising drawing different facial expressions. Rembrandt also drew himself in fancy dress, often in clothes from previous centuries.

The oil paintings are more formal than Rembrandt’s drawings, although there is one of Rembrandt laughing, which dates to around 1628 when Rembrandt was in his early twenties. Rembrandt’s style of painting remains consistent from the beginning of his career, when he was an ambitious young man, to the rugged face of his final years. Rembrandt’s final self-portraits usually included his signature velvet beret.

At the height of his career, Rembrandt’s self-portraits depicted him as a fashionable man, often wearing a hat. Similar to his etchings and drawings, Rembrandt occasionally painted himself in fancy dress, however, the quality of the oil painting suggests they were serious pieces of work and not experiments for fun. Several times, Rembrandt painted himself as a character from the Bible, for instance, the Apostle Paul and the Prodigal Son. He also depicted himself as Zeuxis, a Greek painter from the 5th century BC who supposedly died from laughter.

Rembrandt sat in front of a mirror when painting his self-portraits, therefore, the paintings are a reverse of his actual features. As a result, his etchings, which print a mirror image of the original sketch, reveal him in the correct orientation. Rembrandt did not usually include his hands in his paintings, for he realised they would be on the “wrong” side, for instance, his paintbrush would appear to be in his less dominant hand.

Frida Kahlo (1907-54)

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo is remembered for her bold coloured self-portraits. Similar to Rembrandt, they document her life, however, her style is very different, often crossing the border into surrealism. Kahlo’s life experiences were the inspiration for the majority of her paintings, 55 of which were self-portraits. Kahlo was keen to depict her indigenous Mexican culture in her paintings but, most importantly, she wanted to demonstrate her physical and mental pain.

As a child, Kahlo had suffered from polio, which she fought to overcome so that she could earn a place at medical school. Unfortunately, at 18 years old, Kahlo was involved in a bus accident that, whilst she was lucky to survive, left her with medical problems that would cause her pain for the rest of her life. Whilst lying in bed for three months after the accident, Kahlo occupied herself by painting. She had no formal art training but her early paintings suggest she drew inspiration from European Renaissance painters before developing her recognisable style.

Kahlo’s surreal self-portrait The Broken Column, reveals the devastation to her body caused by the crash. Kahlo painted herself semi-nude with a large crack from chin to hips through which can be seen her crumbling spine. The bus crash had left Kahlo with several spinal fractures, a broken collarbone and ribs, a dislocated shoulder, a shattered pelvis and a broken foot. Although this painting was produced almost two decades after the accident, Kahlo was still feeling the effects and had a total of 30 operations in her lifetime.

The Broken Column shows Kahlo’s body held together by a corset, which was something she needed to wear for most of her life to protect her damaged spine. Her skin is pierced by dozens of nails, indicating her constant pain. Although her facial expression is devoid of emotion, there are tears on her cheeks to indicate the pain and frustration she felt inside, and yet she stares resolutely ahead, having accepted her situation and determined not to let it stop her from living.

For Kahlo, self-portraits were a method of self-expression, initially helping her deal with the aftermath of the bus crash and later her unhappy marriage to Diego Rivera (1886-1957). They were also a way to connect with her Mexican heritage, which was gradually disappearing as Central America became more westernised. Kahlo usually portrayed herself in traditional Mexican clothing, often with Pre-Columbian ornaments in the background. She also included her pet monkey in a few self-portraits. Monkeys are a symbol of lust in Mexican mythology, and Kahlo and her husband had several affairs during their marriage. Although Kahlo did own a monkey, its appearance in her paintings may have been an allusion to her turbulent relationship with Rivera. Alternatively, the monkey, usually shown with an arm or tail around Kahlo’s shoulders, may represent the monkey’s desire to protect its owner.

Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-41)

Amrita Sher-Gil, like Kahlo, explored her heritage in her artwork. Born in Hungary, Sher-Gil was the daughter of a Hungarian-Jewish opera singer and a Persian Sikh aristocrat. As a child, Sher-Gil liked to paint the servants in her household but did not receive any formal training until the age of eight, by which time the family had moved to India.

At the age of 16, Sher-Gil returned to Europe to train as a painter in Paris. Her early works reveal she was significantly influenced by Western art, particularly Impressionism. She drew inspiration from European artists, such as Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), especially the latter’s depiction of non-western women.

During her time in Paris, Sher-Gil produced several self-portraits, which were later described by the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi as the artist’s way of capturing “her many moods – sombre, pensive, and joyous – while revealing a narcissistic streak in her personality.” Yet, whilst these paintings reflected Western art, her professors remarked that the richness of colours she used was more fitting with the atmosphere in the east. Despite being half-Hungarian, Sher-Gil found herself longing to return to her Indian roots.

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Village Scene, 1938

In 1936, Sher-Gil returned to India where she made a conscious effort to adopt the style of classical Indian art. Her subject matter reflected the traditional colourful clothing and the rhythms of rural life. She also depicted some of the poverty and despair she witnessed, which was a stark contrast to life in Europe. Her painting style became flatter and smoother the further away she went from Western art.

There are very few self-portraits in Sher-Gil’s later style as she prefered to paint the poor, deprived people of India. Unfortunately, her artistic career was cut short at the age of 28 when she fell ill, eventually slipping into a coma. She passed away on 5th December 1941, possibly from peritonitis, just days away from her first major solo show.

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90)

“Rembrandt is with the possible exception of Van Gogh, the only artist who has made the self-portrait a major means of artistic self-expression, and he is absolutely the one who has turned self-portraiture into an autobiography.”
– Kenneth Clark, An Introduction to Rembrandt

Like Sher-Gil, Vincent Van Gogh died before he had the opportunity to earn significant recognition in the art world. Amongst his 2,100 artworks, 860 of which were oil paintings, Van Gogh created more than 43 self-portraits. Struggling financially for most of his life, Van Gogh could not afford to hire models, therefore, with the help of a mirror, he painted himself.

“If I can manage to paint the colouring of my own head, which is not to be done without some difficulty, I shall likewise be able to paint the heads of other good souls, men and women.” Suffering from depression for most of his life, Van Gogh had a very low opinion of himself and this quote from a letter written by the artist suggests he practised his technique by creating self-portraits until he felt he was good enough to paint other people.

Whilst living in Paris in 1887, Van Gogh became aware of impressionist artists, for instance, Claude Monet (1840-1926), and their method of applying dabs of paint to the canvas. It was around this time that Van Gogh began using rhythmic brushstrokes, introducing different pigments to highlight the contours of his facial features.

Unintentionally, Van Gogh’s self-portraits provide an autobiography of his mental and physical condition. In earlier paintings, Van Gogh had a fuller face but, as he approached the end of his life, his face became more skeletal with sunken eyes and cheeks, the latter indicating he may have lost some teeth. His brief “good” periods are determined by his choice of clothing and the neatness of his beard and hair. During his “bad” periods, Van Gogh tended to neglect his appearance.

Self-portraits in which Van Gogh’s head is bandaged were produced soon after he had mutilated his ear in 1888. Those painted after this event show Van Gogh from the right, hiding his damaged left ear from view.

Loïs Mailou Jones (1905-1998)

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Self-Portrait

After looking at Van Gogh, the Google Arts and Culture exhibition returns to the 20th century, during which Kahlo and Sher-Gil were both working. Although she only produced one notable self-portrait, Loïs Mailou Jones has been included because she too explored her heritage in her artwork. Unlike Kahlo and Sher-Gil, Jones did not experience her true ancestry until much later in life, yet this did not stop her looking towards Africa and the Caribbean for inspiration.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1905, Jones was the daughter of the first African-American to earn a law degree. Her mother, a cosmetologist, encouraged Jones to draw and paint during her childhood, which led to a lengthy education at a series of art schools. In 1945, Jones eventually received a BA in art education from Howard University, a historically black university, although she had previously earnt a degree in design.

Jones began teaching art before she had completed her degree but this did not prevent her from producing many artworks. Paintings titled Negro Youth and Ascent of Ethiopia contain African design elements, such as those found on African masks. Her work gradually became associated with the Harlem Renaissance, which was known as the New Negro Movement at the time.

In 1940, after spending some time in Paris during which she continued to represent African life in her art, Jones produced her self-portrait. Whilst she wears typical western clothing, the figures in the background are associated with African ceremonies. Although the French were appreciative of her paintings, Jones was not accepted in national galleries and competitions in America on account of her skin colour.

Jones married a Haitian artist in 1953 and began to spend her time between America, Haiti and France. Elements of Haitian culture crept into her artwork and her paintings became more abstract. Finally, in between 1968 and 1970, Jones was able to visit Africa where she interviewed contemporary African artists in Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, Zaire, Nigeria, Dahomey, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leona, and Senegal.

It is partially Jones’ determination to portray her African heritage in her art that she has paintings in museums all over America. Rather than be deterred by racism, Jones fought to prove that black artists had talent and deserved to be known as American painters with no other labels attached. By her death in 1998, Jones had earned six honorary doctorates, won at least 13 awards and been honoured by President Jimmy Carter (b.1924) at the White House. In 1984, 29th July was declared Loïs Jones Day.

Victor Brecheret (1894-1955)

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Self-Portrait

A self-portrait does not need to be a painting or drawing, as evidenced by the Italian-Brazilian sculptor Victor Brecheret. Like Jones, Brecheret made only one known self-portrait but was keen to reference his native country.

Originally born in Italy, Brecheret spent most of his life in São Paulo, except for a brief period studying in Paris. His European modernist education is evident in his work but his human characteristics and forms were inspired by Brazilian folk art.

Many of Brecheret’s sculptures are of biblical or mythological characters, which appear similar to European sculptures until the face is studied more closely. The nose and eyebrows, as can be seen in his self-portrait, are sharp and precise with clean lines, unlike the soft features of classical sculptures. The nose, in particular, appears flat on top, although remains proportionally correct.

Albert Tucker (1914-99), Cindy Sherman (b.1954), Sarah Lucas (b.1962)

It was during the 20th century that having your portrait done changed meaning from painting to photography. Australian artist Albert Tucker, whilst better known for his paintings, demonstrates an early “selfie” taken in a mirror. Although it captures two people, only Tucker appears to be posing for the camera. The woman in the photograph was his first wife Joy Hester (1920-60) who was also an artist.

Whether Tucker’s photograph was spontaneous or staged is uncertain, however, one woman who goes to great lengths to stage her self-portraits is Cindy Sherman, an artist from New Jersey, America. Sherman’s work is exclusively photographic self-portraits, although you would not always know that it was her in the picture. Exploring the idea of identity, Sherman dresses up as characters from film, magazines, television and art history. Quite often she challenges stereotypes, particularly concerning women, and brings into question how much a self-portrait can be trusted.

Sarah Lucas, who is also concerned about the casual misogyny of everyday life, is more down to earth with her photography. Between 1990 and 1998, Lucas produced 12 photographic self-portraits that challenged the stereotypical representation of gender and sexuality. Perceiving her appearance as more masculine than feminine, Lucas dressed in “manly” clothing whilst staring directly at the camera, and thus the viewer, as though challenging them to question her appearance. She often used food to symbolise sexual body parts, such as fried eggs for breasts in Self Portrait with Fried Eggs, which draws attention to her gender.

Amalia Ulman (b.1989)

Whilst the “camera never lies” the subjects, filters and editing do. To emphasise this, Argentinian artist Amalia Ulman came up with an idea for a photography project called Excellence and Perfections, which she posted on a fake Instagram account. Ulman initially posed as an aspiring actress, which attracted a lot of attention, causing her follower account to soar. Many people posted messages of encouragement but soon became concerned when the photographs took a drastic turn.

Ulman made people believe she had flown to LA to pursue her dreams, she photographed herself in trendy clothing, taking pole-dancing classes, relaxing in posh hotels and eating expensive meals. Her appearance began to change; she dyed her hair, looked increasingly tired, and to top it off, pretended to have breast augmentation surgery.

When Ulman revealed the Instagram account was a hoax, her followers reacted in two different ways. Many were relieved that Ulman had not drastically changed her appearance and ruined her life, whereas others were so hooked on the story they wanted to continue to believe it was real.

Excellence and Perfections drew attention to how desperate people were to believe their first impressions. Media in the 21st century is inundated with edited images that trick people into believing what they are seeing. Photographs in newspapers are often taken from angles that tell a different story from the truth and other photographs are posed by heavily made-up models and celebrities. The same goes for selfies; how many people use photo filters, wear make-up or pose a certain way to conform to society’s beauty standards?

This brings into question the authenticity of painted portraits. Did Rembrandt really look the way he did in his self-portraits? We know he painted himself as biblical characters, which in some ways is similar to Ulman posing as an aspiring actress. Photographs of Frida Kahlo reveal she looked similar to her self-portraits but her art style, particularly her surrealist paintings, are not realistic. The same can be said for Van Gogh, Loïs Mailou Jones and Amrita Sher-Gil.

Sherman, Lucas and Ulman demonstrate how easy it is to manipulate your appearance in a photograph or selfie and, in this day and age, people can easily edit other people’s photographs. Yet, just because people are more likely to believe a photograph, does not mean people cannot embrace “selfies” as an art medium.

How the Self-Portrait Evolved into the Selfie provides a brief timeline of the selfie, revealing that artists have altered their appearances or included symbols and hidden meanings in their self-portraits for centuries. Is there much difference between Ulman pretending to be an actress and Rembrandt pretending to be the Apostle Paul? To argue against that is to bring into question what is art. But that is a discussion for another time…

Dora Maar

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The Weeping Woman – Picasso

Dora Maar, also known as Picasso’s “Weeping Woman”, is mostly remembered for being the surrealist artist’s muse and lover. This year, Tate Modern has put together the most comprehensive retrospective of Dora Maar ever held, allowing her to be seen as a photographer and artist in her own right. The exhibition explores the breadth of Maar’s career, encompassing commercial photography, documentary projects and painting.

Dora Maar was born Henriette Theodora Markovitch in Paris on 22nd November 1907, although she was mostly known as Dora. Her father Joseph Markovitch (1874–1969) was an architect from Croatia but settled in Paris with his French wife Louise-Julie Voisin (1877–1942) in 1896. From 1910, Maar’s early life was mostly spent in Buenos Aires, Argentina where her father had obtained a commission from the Austria-Hungary Embassy. Although his work did not make him particularly wealthy, his achievements were recognised by Emperor Francis Joseph I (1830-1916).

The Markovitch family returned to Paris in 1926 where Dora enrolled at the Central Union of Decorative Arts. She also attended the newly opened l’Ecole Nationale de la Cinématographie et la Photographie (School of Photography). Following this, she enrolled at the École des Beaux-Artes and the Académie Julian. Whilst she trained in both fine art and photography, she decided photography was the way forward because it provided greater stability than painting in the commercial world.

In 1930, Dora met the Hungarian-French photographer Brassaï (1899-1984) with whom she began sharing a darkroom. Gyula Halász, who went by the pseudonym Brassaï, was an internationally known photographer between the two world wars who also worked as a sculptor, medalist, writer and filmmaker. He photographed many of his friends, who included the artists Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Alberto Giacometti.

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Untitled (Fashion Photograph, Evening Gown by Jacques Heim for Madame Jacques Heim)

Dora also worked with Harry Osip Meerson (1911-91), a Polish-born French fashion photographer and, during 1930, she set up a photography studio with Pierre Kéfer on the Rue Campagne-Première on the outskirts of Paris. Kéfer had been a decorator and set designer for Jean Epstein’s (1897-1953) film The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), however, the studio mainly focused on photography for advertisements and fashion magazines. Dora called working with Kéfer her “worldly period” because it introduced her to many glamorous clientele.

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Mont Saint Michel, Cloister, Southern Gallery

Dora’s first significant commission was for Germain Bazin (1901-90), an art historian, who wanted photographs to illustrate his manuscript about a monastery on Mont Saint Michel island in Normandy. Seventy-two photos were needed in total, of which Dora supplied thirty-seven. Unfortunately, she was only credited for six.

It was around this time that Dora decided to officially change her public name, declaring in a 1932 bulletin that Henriette Markovitch, “artist-painter”, had transformed into Dora Maar, photographer. Many of the studio’s photographs were signed “Kéfer-Dora-Maar”, however, Dora was usually the sole author.

Kéfer-Dora-Maar’s first fashion photography commission was for Jacques Heim (1899-1967) who ran a maison de couture. Maar’s job was to photograph Heim’s latest clothing designs for the fashion house’s magazine. This was Maar’s first taste of haute couture, which led to commissions from other fashion designers, such as Coco Chanel (1883-1971), Jeanne Lanvin (1867-1946) and Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973). Maar continued to work with Heim during the 1950s, producing textile designs and logos rather than photographs.

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The Years Lie in Wait for You

Kéfer-Dora-Maar dissolved in 1935 and Maar established her own studio in central Paris where she took on independent commissions. It was around this time that her style of work also began to change, becoming more experimental, for instance, using scissors and glue to turn her photographs into collages. Maar also produced photomontages, which involved sandwiching two negatives together and printing them as one image. An example of this is The Years Lie in Wait for You, published in 1935 as an advertisement for an anti-ageing cream. The image is made up of a photograph of a spider’s web and a close-up of Maar’s friend Nusch Éluard (1906-45). Eluard, who was born Maria Benz, was a stage performer who regularly modelled for surrealist artists.

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Assia

Another model both Maar and other artists used was Assia Granatouroff (1911-82). Born in Ukraine, Granatouroff moved to France at a young age and trained to be a textile designer. In her early twenties, she decided to become a film actress but needed money to pay for acting classes. By modelling, often for nudes, Granatouroff managed to scrape together the necessary funds. Maar’s photographs of Grantouroff experimented with lighting and angles and re-imagined the classical depiction of the nude. Many of the photographs were circulated in art publications and erotic magazines.

Maar did not spend all her time working in a studio. Following the Wall Street Crash of 1929 in the United States, Europe was subjected to the worst economic depression of modern times. Maar and her peers wished to document the devastating effects of the crisis throughout Europe and, without being commissioned, she travelled to the Costa Brava in Catalonia, followed by Barcelona.

Maar explored the city, documenting both the landscape and the people she saw. None of her photographs were staged, instead, they were captured quickly on her Rolleiflex camera. This camera was portable and could be held at waist height, allowing the photographer to take rapid, spur-of-the-moment photographs.

In Barcelona, Maar saw a mix of scenes that revealed some of the worst-off areas. Photographs include a beggar woman, a blind street pedlar and a group of blind musicians, all of whom were trying to earn money in order to survive. On the other hand, Maar captured shots of children playing and someone doing a handstand on the beach, which suggests that not everything was doom and gloom.

Back in Paris, Maar continued to document the effects of the economic depression, particularly in the area known as “La Zone”. In 1844, a 3-4 kilometre strip of land in the 13th arrondissement of Paris was transformed into a military defence zone. By the 1930s, it was no longer needed and poor communities began to move into the disused buildings. Eventually, around 40,000 people were living there, although they were forcibly moved before the beginning of the Second World War.

Maar captured the life in “La Zone”, showing dilapidated buildings, working men and women, and children. These photographs contrasted with others she took in the city, which revealed well-dressed people going about their everyday lives.

In February 1934, Maar visited London where she documented various locations in the City of London and the East End. The photographs were included in an exhibition at Galeries Van den Berghe in Paris under the name of Kéfer-Dora-Maar, however, Maar was the sole photographer.

The photographs taken in London continued to reveal the state of lives during the economic depression. War veterans begging on the street, Lottery Ticket dealers and ragpickers were competing for customers to earn a wage. A man with a placard stating, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2) suggests that some people believed the social and economic situation in Europe was God-driven.

To try to assist traders who had fallen on hard times, “Coster Kings and Queens” were elected to collect money on the streets. This evolved into the tradition of Pearly Kings and Queens, which continues today. Maar photographed one Pearly King collecting money for Empire Air Day, an annual air show held at Royal Air Force stations across Britain. “The idea of Empire Air Day is that the public should be enabled to see the Royal Air Force at its everyday work.” (Anthony Muirhead MP) Maar’s photograph shows the Pearly King dressed in imitation 20th-century high society fashion, decorated with pearly beads.

Affected by what she had seen in Barcelona, London and Paris, Maar signed her name on the Appel à la lutte (Call to the Struggle) manifesto by the surrealist poet André Breton (1896-1966) and screenwriter Louis Chavance (1907-79). The manifesto had been written as a response to political riots by the extreme far-right and, at the time, Maar considered herself to be on the far-left. Maar was also inspired to join Breton’s anti-fascist movement Contre-Attaque, which he led with the philosopher Georges Bataille (1897-1962). Alongside this, she attended and documented the rehearsals and performances of the leftist theatre troupe Groupe Octobre.

By associating herself with the political side of surrealism, Maar began to adopt the movement in her photography. The Surrealist Movement, which was predominantly led by Breton and Paul Éluard aimed to transform the art world, refusing to conform to constrictions put in place by modern society. Surrealism embraced the power of the unconscious mind, creating impossible, dreamlike imagery that were far from reality.

At first, it was not certain how photography could benefit the Surrealist Movement, therefore, Maar continued to photograph scenes around the city. Her way of thinking, however, had been changed and she began to seek out the stranger areas of historic cities. Whilst in London, Maar photographed a man looking inside a pavement inspection door, which was not a usual sight to see. She also came across a wire sculpture of a kangaroo on the pavement.

During this period, Maar became more experimental with the way she took photographs. Her documentary photography produced quick snapshots of city life, however, by focusing on dramatic angles and cropping the image, Maar was able to construct a more disorienting perspective. Gradually, Maar’s photographs leant more and more towards surrealism.

Alongside Man Ray (1890-1976), Raoul Ubac (1910-85) and Hans Bellmer (1902-75), Maar became one of the few photographers to be included in surrealist exhibitions. She continued to photograph objects from interesting angles, which distorted their appearance. This method resulted in Portrait of Ubu, which was named after Alfred Jarry’s (1873-1907) absurdist play Ubu Roi (King Ubu, 1895). The subject matter has yet to be identified, although the most popular suggestion is an armadillo foetus. Talking about the photo in 1994, Maar said, “It’s a real animal, but I don’t want to say which one, because it would strip it of its mystery.”

To add to the surrealist effects of her photography, Maar returned to the method of photomontage, cutting and pasting together two or more photographs to make a new image. Maar took elements from her own photographs and those of other photographers, as well as images from 20th-century publications. Rather than leaving the result in a collage format, Maar photographed the cutouts to create a seamless image. Hand-shell, for example, was produced by combining a couple of photographs to make it appear as though a hand was protruding from a shell.

Dora Maar reached the height of her career in the winter of 1935-6 when she met Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). Picasso, on the other hand, was at the worst time of his life, having not produced any artwork for several months. Their first meeting took place on the set of Jean Renoir’s film The Crime of Monsieur Lange where Maar was taking promotional photographs. On this occasion, Maar and Picasso may not have spoken, however, they were formally introduced a few days later by their mutual friend Paul Éluard.

Between 1936 and 1938, Maar and Picasso spent the summers in the South of France with various friends, where Maar took photographs of Picasso on the beach. Back in Paris, Maar invited Picasso to her studio to photograph his portrait and, in return, allowed him to paint her, which he did many times throughout their decade long relationship.

Picasso encouraged Maar to paint alongside her photography career. Adopting his style, Maar produced a portrait of Picasso, displacing the facial features and adding elements of cubism. Viewers could be forgiven for mistaking many of Maar’s works as Picasso’s since she often replicated his methods.

The Conversation, painted in 1937, addresses Maar’s feelings about Picasso’s ongoing relationship with Marie-Thérèse Walter (1909-77) with whom he had a daughter Maya. Despite openly being a couple with Maar, Picasso refused to break off his relationship with Walter and made them both fight for his love. It is also known that Picasso physically abused Maar and used her as a living depiction of pain and suffering in his portraits.

In 1937, Picasso was commissioned by the Spanish Republican government to create a mural for the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair. Initially, he spent a few months half-heartedly painting in his studio, however, after the bombing of Guernica on 26th April, he was inspired to make the violence and chaos of that event of the Spanish Civil War the subject of the painting.

From 11th May to 4th June, Maar documented Picasso’ progress through photographs as he tackled the large canvas in his studio. The photographs were commissioned by the art journal Cahiers d’art who wanted to “preserve the metamorphosis of a picture”. It has been suggested Maar’s presence in the studio may have influenced the artwork. Picasso included the silhouette of an electric light, which historians have speculated was inspired by the light Maar used to illuminate the canvas for her photographs.

In an interview recorded in 1990, Maar revealed that she had helped paint small parts of Guernica so that there would be significant progress in her next photograph. She also revealed one of the female figures in the composition was intended to be her.

Not long after Guernica was completed, Picasso painted Maar as the Weeping Woman. He produced over thirty studies of Maar in this guise but Maar believed it was never intended to be a portrait. It was her belief that it was another of Picasso’s metaphors for the suffering during the Spanish War.

In 1942, Maar bought a new studio in Paris where she focused on painting rather than photography. Picasso continued to encourage her to paint in the cubist style, which is evident in some of her still life paintings. Some of her still lifes were exhibited at Galerie Jeanne Bucher, Paris in 1944. As their relationship began to break down, however, Maar’s artwork began to take a new direction. Inspired by the river Seine, which was a stone’s throw from her home, she began to focus on landscapes.

Life during the early 1940s was not kind to Maar. Firstly, she was subjected to an abusive relationship, which coincided with her father returning to Argentina. After Maar left Picasso, she had to face the sudden deaths of her mother and close friend, Nusch Éluard. It is no wonder she spent some time in Saint Mandé, a psychiatric hospital, presumably being treated for depression. Fortunately, she was able to recover and focus on her painting, including a self-portrait that she gave to Doctor Baron, a specialist in neuro-ophthalmology.

“These landscapes, the result of [Maar’s] recent change of style, are marked by a sensitive and very individual talent … vastness, loneliness and, above all, their sense of place.”
– John Russell, The Times

Maar’s change in artistic style was noticed by art critics at the London Leicester Galleries in 1958. Whilst they are landscapes made up of washes of paint, critics remarked on the sense of isolation and overwhelming vastness, which indicated Maar’s feelings of loneliness and unhappiness after the loss of her lover, her parents and her friends.

Nonetheless, Maar was able to work through her negative feelings and continued producing art. During the latter 1940s, Maar spent half her time in Paris and the other half in Ménerbes in the south of France. She developed a friendship with the French poet André du Bouchet (1924-2001) who offered her the opportunity to collaborate on some work. In 1956, Maar supplied a set of engravings for his anthology Mountain Soil, which involved developing a new technique and art style.

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At heart, Maar was always a photographer, however, she lost interest in documenting the outside world. She no longer found exploring the city streets interesting and preferred to stay within the shadows of her darkroom. By the 1980s, Maar was virtually cameraless, having discovered the excitement of producing photograms. This involved laying household objects onto photo-sensitive paper, which when exposed to the light, left the covered sections white. Where the light directly hit the paper, it darkened.

Dora Maar continued working until her death on 16th July 1997 at the age of 89. She spent her final years living in an apartment in Rue de Savoie in Paris. Maar was never famous for her paintings during her lifetime and it has only been since her death that they have been studied in more detail. Whilst she is known better as a photographer, she is still predominantly regarded as the mistress of Picasso. Their relationship only lasted a decade but it has overshadowed her entire career. Hopefully, exhibitions such as this one at Tate Modern will allow her to be appreciated as an artist.

Dora Maar is on display at Tate Modern until 15th March 2020. Tickets cost £13 for adults and £5 for teens. Under 12s may visit for free, although some exhibits contain nudity.

The Real Cindy Sherman

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Until 15th September 2019, the National Portrait Gallery is exploring the photography of Cindy Sherman in a retrospective that explores the development of Sherman’s work from the mid-1970s to the present day. With over 150 photographs on display, the exhibition focuses on the artist’s manipulation of her own appearance and range of cultural sources, and investigates the balance between façade and identity.

Despite investigating four decades worth of work, the NPG fails to tell visitors much about the photographer herself – a little personal digging is necessary for those wishing to know more. Cynthia Morris Sherman was born on 9th January 1954 in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, although shortly moved to Huntington Beach, Long Island. She was the fifth and youngest child of Dorothy and Charles Sherman. Her father was an engineer for Grumman Aircraft and her mother taught handicapped children to read.

From an early age, Sherman loved to dress up, particularly in clothing dating from the 1920s. As she got older, she enjoyed searching for costumes in second-hand shops and experimenting with make-up. She quickly learnt that by combining the right clothing and make-up, one could change one’s appearance entirely. This realisation was the starting point in Sherman’s career. Rather than photographing other people, she uses herself as a model wearing remarkably convincing costumes and inventing numerous personae.

The earliest works in the exhibition date from around 1975 during her university days. From 1972 until 1976, Cindy Sherman studied in the visual arts department at the State University College at Buffalo, New York. Initially, she began working with paint but felt frustrated with the limitations of the medium and soon abandoned it in favour of photography.

“[T]here was nothing more to say [through painting] … I was meticulously copying other art, and then I realized I could just use a camera and put my time into an idea instead.” – Cindy Sherman

It was during her time at university that Sherman’s interest in manipulating her appearance and creating alter egos took flight. Taking a photograph of herself impersonating the American actress Lucille Ball (1911-89) showed her the potential of transforming herself as a work of art. Rather than imitating other people, Sherman began inventing fictitious individuals, both female and male, practising with exaggerated use of make-up. The idea was to draw attention to the deceptive nature of appearance.

One of Sherman’s university works was inspired by murder mystery plays. After writing a plot for an 82-scene play involving thirteen characters, Sherman dressed up and photographed herself as each individual in a number of poses. Each character had a particular style of dress and she used make-up and wigs to create distinct appearances. For one character, she donned an apron and held a tea tray to transform herself into a maid, and for another, a blonde wig and heavy make-up changed her into an overexcited actress. Other characters included a detective, a butler, and a photographer amongst a range of suspects. The photos were originally cut out and stuck together to create a scene, however, the exhibition shows a handful of the original frames.

Sherman produced several series of similar works during her time at university and also experimented with film. Three short, grainy films show her acting the part of different personas. In one, she is an ambiguous young woman mouthing the words “I hate you” and eventually shedding tears. In another, she is dressed as “an unattractive prostitute that nobody finds appealing”. The third is a more successful stop-motion animation that depicts Sherman as a cut-out doll that dresses up and admires herself in a mirror.

After moving to New York in 1977, where she still lives and works, Sherman began working on a series called Untitled Film Stills. Continuing to be fascinated with her ability to change her appearance and create fictional personae, Sherman took 69 black-and-white photographs that resembled shots taken on film sets of stereotypical female roles in 1950’s and 60’s Hollywood, Film Noir and B Movies. Characters include librarians, office girls, housewives, seductresses and so forth in a variety of settings, including Sherman’s apartment and locations around the city.

Cindy Sherman never titled the individual photos, wishing to preserve their ambiguity. The model – Sherman herself – is always looking away from the camera, suggesting an unspecified narrative open for individual interpretation. In a reflection of her work, Sherman discussed her intentions, thoughts and feelings:

I was wrestling with some sort of turmoil of my own about understanding women. The characters weren’t dummies; they weren’t just airhead actresses. They were women struggling with something but I didn’t know what. The clothes make them seem a certain way, but then you look at their expression, however slight it may be, and wonder if maybe “they” are not what the clothes are communicating.”

Shortly after graduating from art school, Sherman created a series of works known as Cover Girls, which were displayed on the inside of the top deck of a bus in November 1976. The series incorporates the front covers of five women’s magazines: Cosmopolitan, Vogue, Family Circle, Redbook and Mademoiselle. Each magazine was represented by three similar covers; the first was the original but in the second, Sherman replaced the model’s face with her own, using cosmetics to make it look as similar as possible. The third cover also featured Sherman, however, this time, she pulled a “goofy face”.

Take, for example, the cover of Vogue. The original shows the heavily made-up model Jerry Hall (b.1956) staring into the camera. On the second cover is Cindy Sherman looking remarkably like Jerry Hall, replicating the same pose. In the third, however, Sherman pulls a face and winks, thus making a mockery of the original photograph. The idea was to emphasise the artificial nature of magazines, which constantly try to convey an impression of beauty, glamour and sophistication.

In the 1980s, Sherman began working with coloured photography. Similar to her Untitled Film Stills from the previous decade, Sherman produced a series of close-up photographs that appear to show an actress in a film against a projected background. The actresses, of course, are all pictures of Cindy Sherman with cosmetically altered features. Her idea was to show how artificial some films can appear, enhanced further by the inclusion of herself as a “fake” actress.

In 1981, Sherman was commissioned by Artforum magazine to produce photographs to spread across the centre pages. Rather than portraying sensual female models as the magazine expected, Sherman photographed herself in the guise of vulnerable-looking women. She tried to make it appear as though the (male) magazine readers were intruding on someone’s personal pain, sadness or reverie. The magazine eventually declined to publish the photographs.

Over time, Cindy Sherman has worked for a number of fashion magazines. This has involved working with various designers, such as Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, and Marc Jacobs. In 1983, Sherman was commissioned by the New York boutique owner Dianne Benson to produce the photographs to be used in advertisements for clothes by Jean Paul Gaultier and Comme des Garçons. Whilst Sherman did provide photos of the clothes worn by her personal model (i.e. herself), she created images that parody fashion photography. Her invented characters wear stylish designer-label clothes, however, they appear upset, unstable and absurd.

“I’m disgusted with how people get themselves to look beautiful … I was trying to make fun of fashion.” – Cindy Sherman

Sherman’s aim was to expose designer labels who claimed through fashion photography that their clothes could make you look elegant. As Sherman proved, this is not the case. Her photographs show that the clothes have not made her look particularly attractive; fashion photography is merely an illusion.

The following year, Sherman took this idea further when she was commissioned by the French fashion company Dorothée Bis to provide photographs for Vogue Paris. Again, she dressed her characters in designer outfits, however, she deliberately made herself look ugly, dishevelled or depressed. Despite her actions and dislike for the illusions of fashion, magazines continue to employ Sherman.

By the end of the 1980s, Cindy Sherman changed direction and looked to the past for inspiration. By this time, she was married to the French photographer Michael Auder (b.1945) and was the step-mother of Alexandra and Gaby Hoffman (b.1982). During the late eighties, Sherman spent two months in Rome where she turned her attention to the visual language and style of Old Master paintings.

Although prosthetics are now a common feature in Sherman’s work, her series of Historical Portraits was the first time she really employed such an extravagant range. By combining false noses, false breasts, wigs, make-up and costumes, Cindy managed to transform herself into over thirty women and men. Characters included aristocrats, ladies of leisure, royalty and the Virgin Mary. Whilst she was inspired by the Old Masters, Cindy tended to create completely made up portraits of fictitious people rather than replicating paintings she saw in Rome. There was, however, one exception.

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Madame Moitessier – Jean-Auguste-Dominique

Cindy particularly admired a painting by the French Neoclassical artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867). Madame Moitessier (1865) is a portrait of Marie-Clotilde-Inès Moitessier (1821-97), the wife of a rich banker and lace merchant. The sitter is dressed in detailed fabric and decorated with jewels. Her pose makes her appear graceful and is typical of the era.

In Cindy Sherman’s version, the sitter adopts a similar pose using a different hand and is dressed in silky material and jewels. Corresponding to the setting of Ingres’ painting, Sherman is sat in front of a mirror, so the back of her head can be seen. It is this same mirror that breaks the illusion of a historical painting because a piece of paper can be seen in the reflection.

Sherman’s deliberate parodies of historical paintings draw attention to the potential illusion of people’s appearances. Looking at Sherman’s photographs, we know she is wearing wigs and prosthetics and does not look that way in real life. The question is, how reliable are paintings from the pre-camera era? To what extent is the appearance of Ingres’ model truthful? How many inventions did Ingres add to the painting? Was Madame Moitessier really wearing that dress; did her cheeks really contain that much rouge; has her appearance been altered slightly to conform with social preferences about beauty? Sadly, we will never know.

As well as historical portraits, Sherman used fairy tales as inspiration for her work. For these, her style became more nightmarish and grotesque. Using prosthetics, Cindy created characters from the more sinister side of children’s stories, for instance, a man with a pig’s snout and a woman with dark eyes and sharp, pointed teeth.

Cindy Sherman and Michel Auder divorced in 1999 but this did not prevent Sherman from continuing with her photography projects. Between 1991 and 2005, she lived in a fifth-floor co-op loft in Manhattan until she bought two apartments overlooking the Hudson River. Today, she lives in one and uses the other for her studio. The National Portrait Gallery has recreated her studio in one of the rooms of the exhibition in order for visitors to understand how Sherman works.

From the mid-90s, perhaps developing on from her Fairy Tale series, Sherman produced numerous photographs that incorporated the use of masks. Some of the characters appear entirely artificial with, perhaps, one feature that reveals it is really Cindy Sherman. Whereas her previous work has dealt with the idea that appearances can be deceptive, the use of masks completely removes the opportunity to establish identity and other personal attributes.

Sherman was also interested in the appearance of clowns whose costumes and make-up create a whole new identity. The application of make-up or facepaint can completely change the demeanour of someone’s face. A natural expression can be transformed into a sinister-looking face or an overtly happy one.

As Cindy Sherman gets older and enters the new millennium, her photos become increasingly engrossed in the issues of age and social status. Whilst Sherman alters her appearance to appear ten or twenty years older, her characters are resorting to cosmetics to maintain an illusion of youthfulness. Despite their make-up, the women look their age, failing to appear any younger. They are also desperate to preserve their social status and appear sophisticated and wealthy.

These portraits are taken against elaborate backdrops to further enhance the impression of affluence and elegance. The attempt of these characters to appear youthful backfires and suggests they are full of insecurities about their age and position in life. Their haughty demeanour seems forced and fake, which is the opposite of their intentions.

Of course, these women are fictitious and Sherman is not yet as old as they appear. Nonetheless, as a photographer, Sherman is confronting an issue that will affect everyone in the future.

Cindy Sherman returns to the past in her most recent series of work. Taken between 2016 and 2018, Sherman experiments by dressing up as what she terms “flappers”. This term refers to young women after the First World War whose appearance and attitude went against convention. They cut their hair short, smoked in public, wore copious amounts of make-up and generally went against the norms of feminity.

Being a feminist herself, Sherman was drawn to these women, adopting hairstyles, make-up and fashion worn by women in the 1920s. The key difference is Sherman’s characters are clearly a lot older than the so-called “flappers”. This gives them the illusion of Hollywood grandes dames, desperately trying to hold on to their youth.

These latest photos also show Sherman’s professional development from a grainy, black-and-white camera to a full-colour, digitally-manipulated photograph. One image is made up of four portraits of Sherman in different costumes, grouped together as though posing for only one photograph. Again, the costumes date back to the 1920s and the similarities in appearance suggest the characters are sisters. Family acts were in vogue between the two world wars, although, in this instance, the sisters have aged considerably.

The theme of actresses runs throughout Cindy Sherman’s work, which is an apt metaphor for her own life. Despite there being hundreds of photographs of Sherman, none of them reveals her true identity. Whilst we can build up a visual appearance, we do not learn anything about her life or personality.

Having expressed her contempt for the “so vulgar” social media platforms, there is little to learn about Sherman’s true identity online. Wikipedia tells us she had a relationship with Scottish-American singer-songwriter David Byrne (b. 1952) between the years 2007 and 2011 and she enjoyed regular holidays in the Catskill Mountains.

Cindy Sherman currently serves on the artistic advisory committee of the dance firm Stephen Petronio Company. In 2012, she joined 150 artists, including Yoko Ono (b.1933), in the founding of Artists Against Fracking. This is in opposition to hydraulic fracturing in order to remove gas from underground deposits.

Despite detesting social media, Sherman has an Instagram account that documents her latest works and ideas. Other than this, there is very little insight into her life. Whilst Cindy Sherman appears in every photograph shown at the National Portrait Gallery, visitors ironically come away knowing very little about her.

The Cindy Sherman exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London is open until 15th September 2019. Tickets are priced at £18 for adults. On Fridays, under 25s can visit for £5 but be aware some images are unsuitable for children.

Russia in London

This winter, Russia has come to the UK capital with a double exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. The two exhibitions explore Britain’s relationship with Russia through works of art belonging to Royalty and the Romanovs and Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea. The contrasting displays show two sides of a relationship between two countries: war and peace, positive and negative, dynasty and military. Coinciding with the centenary of the end of the Russian monarchy, the Royal Collection Trust reflects on the past and examines our ties with the world’s largest nation.

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The Family of Queen Victoria in 1887 – Laurits Regner Tuxen

The earliest links between Britain and Russia date back to the mid-sixteenth century through trade relations. In later years, political and military alliances formed, particularly during the Napoleonic War (1803-15), however, it was not until the reign of Queen Victoria (1819-1901) that strong connections began to form. The Queen was the matriarch of a remarkably large family, as can be seen in Laurits Regner Tuxen’s (1853-1927) painting The Family of Queen Victoria in 1887, in which 54 members of her family surround Victoria in the Green Drawing Room at Windsor Castle.

Queen Victoria and Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (1819-61) were the parents of nine children who went on to provide them with 42 grandchildren. Subsequently, this generation went on to provide the Queen with 87 great-grandchildren, many of whom belonged to foreign royal houses through intermarriage. Princess Alice of Battenberg (1885-1969), for example, Victoria’s great-granddaughter, the small child on the far right of the painting, went on to marry Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark (1882-1944) in 1903. Of their five children, their youngest went on the become the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip (b.1921).

At the back of the painting on the far left are two cousins who, unbeknownst to them at the time, would grow up to become monarchs of two warring countries. These are the future George V (1865-1936) and Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) of Germany. The year 2018 also marks the end of their battle, World War One.

Russia: Royalty and the Romanovs

Royalty and the Romanovs begins with a bust of William III (1650-1702) who was on the throne at the time Tsar Peter the Great of Russia (1672-1725) visited England in 1698, the first Russian ruler to do so. Peter later went on to proclaim the establishment of the Russian empire in 1721, thus becoming its first emperor.

The portrait of Peter the Great was painted during his stay in England by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723), the leading portrait painter in the country at the time. It was gifted to William III who hung it in the Drawing Room at Kensington Palace. Peter’s visit was part of his ‘Grand Embassy’ of 1697-8 in which he aimed to discover more advanced information about countries of Western Europe. He was particularly interested in the ship-building of the English and the Dutch, having set up the Russian Navy a few years previously.

This initial contact was the start of a new, dynastic relationship between Britain and Russia and the portrait of Peter I was not the only painting of a Russian ruler to be gifted to a British monarch. Other gifts also found their way into Britain, for example, a box featuring the profile of Peter the Great on a Renaissance style medallion, which Queen Mary (1867-1953) gave to George V on his birthday in 1932.

The exhibition features a large number of portraits of Russian royals that now belong in the Royal Collection. One of the most significant of these is the coronation portrait of Catherine II (1729-96), Empress of Russia painted by the Danish artist Vigilis Eriksen (1722-82). Twice a day, a short talk is given by the gallery staff about the clothes Catherine the Great is wearing, her crown and the objects she is holding. The orb and sceptre are symbols of rulership, just as they are in Britain, thus emphasising her power. Her silver brocade robe also emphasises her leadership with numerous hand-stitched embellishments of the imperial double-headed eagle.

Unlike many other monarchies who pass their royal crowns down from one ruler to the next, the Russian monarchs each had their own personal crown. In the portrait, Catherine II is wearing her imperial crown, which had been made especially for her by the court jeweller, Jérémie Pauzié (1716-79). It was an extremely valuable item, decorated with over 5000 diamonds.

It is uncertain how this portrait found its way into the Royal Collection, however, the most likely explanation is that it was a gift for either George III (1738-1820) or the Prince of Wales, later George IV (1762-1830). Records state that it was eventually relocated to Carlton House in 1813 where it furnished the royal apartments in preparation of Alexander I’s (1777-1825) visit the following year.

Portraits of the Russian monarchs’ families are also in abundance at the exhibition. Positioned opposite Catherine II is Elizabeth Alexeievna (1779-1826), previously known as Princess Louise of Baden until her marriage to Tsar Alexander I. The demeanour and dress of the Russian empress starkly contrasts the opulent outfit of Catherine the Great. This painting was produced by George Dawes during the interim period between Alexander’s death on 1st December 1825 and Elizabeth’s on 16th May 1826. She is dressed in typical black mourning clothes and clutches her heart as if in grief. Standing next to a bust of her late husband, it is not certain whether her facial expression is one of mourning or perhaps something of the opposite since it is believed the couple’s relationship was rather unhappy. Nonetheless, Queen Victoria was inspired to purchase the painting a mere six months after her own husband’s death.

Hanging next to Elizabeth is the Emperor of Russia himself, Alexander I, also painted by Dawes. Dawes spent ten years in the service of the Tsar and this is one of his highest quality paintings. It shows Alexander in the uniform of a Russian field marshal decorated with the star of St Andrew of Russia with the Order of the Garter, badges of St George of Russia and Maria Theresa of Austria, the Iron Cross of Prussia and the 1812 medal. He also has the Sword of Sweden on his hip, adding to his majestic pose and emphasising his height. Queen Victoria was offered this portrait in 1861 and it was eventually hung in the Household Corridor of Buckingham Palace.

Also by George Dawes is a portrait of Charlotte (1798-1860), the wife of Nicholas I (1796-1855), with her two eldest children. The daughter of Frederick William III of Prussia and Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was betrothed to the future Tsar for political reasons, however, the marriage was a happy one and the couple produced seven children. Rather than painting her alone, Dawes had Charlotte pose with her two eldest children, Alexander and Maria. The restless young boy would one day be Emperor Alexander II (1855-81), also the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Finland.

The clothing of the Russian royals, particularly the women, were particularly elegant and adorned. In a portrait of Princess Charlotte (1796-1817), the only daughter of George IV and wife of the future king of Belgium, a particular style of Russian dress can be seen. The gallery not only has this painting on display but also has the very same dress in a display cabinet nearby. Manufactured in England around 1817, this dress, a Sarafan-style ensemble, is made of French silk and comprises of a blue bodice and skirt with gold and red highlights, a gold fringe, and high, drawstring waist.

The royal men, however, were always painted in military clothing, for example, Nicholas I in the red uniform of the Russian Cavalier Guard. He is also shown wearing the badge of the Order of St George, and ribands and stars of the Order of the Garter and St Vladimir. The purpose of this was to emphasise the sitter or poser’s status. Whereas women were respected for their grace and beauty, men were exalted for their military achievements.

The outfit of Nicholas II (1868-1918) is far more familiar to the British public than the uniforms of the previous Tsars. Here, Nicholas wears the uniform of the 2nd Dragoons (Royal Scots Greys, a cavalry regiment of the British Army) to which he had been appointed colonel-in-chief in 1894 by Queen Victoria. This particular painting, however, was not completed until 1908 and, therefore, it was King Edward VII (1841-1910) who received it as a gift from the Tsar.

Of the numerous portraits, many of them help to identify the connections between the families of the Russian and British monarchies. Many of these occurred through marriages, both before and after the reign of Queen Victoria. One example is Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (1781-1860) whose portrait the Queen had copied in 1844. Juliane was Victoria’s aunt who married into the Romanov family in 1796. By marrying Grand Duke Konstantin (1779-1831), she became the sister-in-law of Alexander I and Nicholas I.

The captivating portrait of Grand Duchess Alexandra (1830-1911) has connections to today’s royal family. Alexandra, or Sanny as she was often known, was the fifth daughter of Joseph, Duke of Saxe-Altenburg and Amalie Therese Louise, Duchess of Württemberg. In 1848, she married Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich (1827-92), the second son of Nicholas I, with whom she had six children. One of these, Olga Constantinovna (1855-1926) became the mother of the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, thus completing the connection to the British royal family.

In stark contrast to the bold, vibrant paintings of the 19th century, two watercolour paintings by the Russian painter Savely Abramovich Sorine (1878-1953) show two important members of the British royal family. These are HRH The Duchess of York (1900-2002) and HRH the Duchess of Edinburgh (b.1926), or as they are known today, the Queen Mother Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and Her Majesty the Queen. It is believed that the soon-to-be Queen Mother commissioned these portraits, although over 20 years apart.

It is without a doubt the extensive family of Queen Victoria marrying into foreign families that strengthened the ties between other countries, particularly Russia. Two famous wedding paintings are on display, the most significant, perhaps, being the marriage of the Queen’s second son Alfred to Maria (1853-1920), the only surviving daughter of Alexander II. Initially, Queen Victoria had misgivings about the match, stating in her diary that she:

“Felt quite bewildered. Not knowing Marie & realizing that there may still be many difficulties, my thoughts & feelings are rather mixed, but I said from my heart ‘God bless them’, & I hope and pray it may turn out for Affie’s happiness.”

Queen Victoria’s Journal, 11th July 1873

The wedding took place at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg on 23rd January 1874, directly uniting the British and Russian royal families for the first time. Unable to attend the wedding, Queen Victoria was provided with a series of watercolours of the marriage ceremony that Prince Alfred had commissioned the Russian-born artist Nicholas Chevalier (1828-1902) to produce. From these illustrations, the Queen commissioned an oil painting, which hung in Buckingham Palace from 1901.

Another wedding painting, also commissioned by Queen Victoria, was of her grandaughter’s, Princess Alix of Hesse (1872-1918), marriage to Tsar Nicholas II at the Winter Palace on 26th November 1894. The artist, Tuxen, beautifully highlights the faces of the bride and bridegroom with the soft glow of the candles they are holding. Known as Alexandra Feodorovna throughout Nicholas’ reign, she was assassinated in 1918 along with her husband and immediate family while in Bolshevik captivity. Thus ended the Russian monarchy. Princess Alix has since been canonized as Saint Alexandra the Passion-Bearer.

Not all the items in the exhibition are paintings. Within the Royal Collection are a number of objects that have been collected, bought, or gifted over time by the British royal family. Displayed amongst the paintings are a range of things that originated in Russia, for example, a number of malachite vases, candelabra, and columns.

Russian jewellery is also presented within display cases, the most famous being the Vladimir tiara. Made for Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna (1890-1958), wife of Grand Duke Vladimir (1847-1909), it consists of converging circles studded with diamonds and adorned with green pearls. It eventually made its way into the Royal Collection after being given as a gift to Mary of Teck (1867-1953), the wife of George V, in 1921.

Other jewellery included brooches, such as the Diamond Jubilee Brooch given to Queen Victoria by Nicholas II, Alexandra Feodorovna and her other grandchildren to celebrate the 60th year of her reign. Made of diamonds and sapphires, it features the Slavonic symbol for the number 60 within a heart-shape.

Finally, there were many items made by the most notable Russian jeweller, Peter Carl Fabergé (1846-1920). Famous for the Fabergé egg, he and his company also produced other pieces, including chalcedony figurines, ladies’ fans, and cigarette cases.

Russia: Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea

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Self-portrait dressed as an Algerian Zouave

The second exhibition is far less glamorous than Royalty and the Romanovs, focusing on the aftermath of the Crimean War. Commissioned by the Manchester-based publishers Thomas Agnew & Sons, Roger Fenton (1819-69) went out to the areas affected by the conflicts and captured the scenes and people involved for consumption by the public. Until then, the true effects of war had been concealed from society, often being glamourised in paintings of war heroes.

The Crimean war began in 1853, pitching the allied nations of Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and the Kingdom of Sardinia against the Russian Empire. Despite the previous exhibition suggesting a positive relationship between British and Russian families, Britain and her allies were determined to prevent Russia from gaining territorial control of various regions in eastern Europe, including on the coast of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

Many people when talking about the Crimean War, think of people like Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) and Mary Seacole (1805-81), who played a vital role in caring for the injured troops. Fenton, however, concentrated on the soldiers and the major battles of 1854, including Alma (20th September), Balaklava (25th October), and Inkerman (5th November).

Photos include landscapes of the war-torn land, such as the Valley of the Shadow of Death, which Fenton titled after the passage in Psalm 23, suggesting that the barren scene full of spent cannon balls shows that humanity is walking a fine line between the realms of life and sudden death. With no sign of civilisation, this photograph evokes a feeling of the loss and destruction experienced in that area.

Fenton also captured shots of soldiers within their camps, revealing a role women played in the Crimean War. In the photo of the Camp of the 4th Dragoons, a woman can be seen serving refreshments to the troops.

A significant photograph Fenton managed to take is a portrait of Captain Alexander Leslie-Melville (1831–57), also known as Lord Balgonie. The Scotsman stands staring away from the camera, his clothes unkempt and his expression rather shaken, as if he had only momentarily stepped away from the battlefield. Today, this image is regarded as the first photographic portrait of shell-shock.

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The Queen inspecting wounded Coldstream Guardsmen in the Hall of Buckingham Palace – John Gilbert

As part of this exhibition, some focus is given to the British royal family’s involvement in the years after the war. This painting by John Gilbert (1817-97) shows a crowd of injured Guardsmen in the presence of Queen Victoria. This meeting took place at Buckingham Palace on 20th February 1855. Shortly after, the Queen awarded the first Victoria Cross, which is currently the highest and most prestigious award of the British honours system, awarded for gallantry “in the presence of the enemy”.

With an audio guide, which is provided free of charge for both exhibitions, visitors can listen to Prince Harry’s (b.1984) thoughts and opinions on the photographs, artwork and items featured in Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea. Having been a Cornet in the Blues and Royals and an Apache co-pilot/gunner in the Army Air Corps during the Afghan War, he is sympathetic towards the soldiers, understanding what they had gone through and the way it would have affected the remainder of their lives.

Critics accused Fenton of staging many of the photographs he took in the Crimea, however, regardless as to the truth of this, they provide information about the war that no written account could ever hope to achieve. Through his photographs, the gallery has created a timeline of the war and helps visualise the scenes that are only ever heard about or even forgotten about, overshadowed by the two World Wars.

Whilst it is a pleasure to view the photographs of Roger Fenton and look at items in the Royal Collection as part of the Royalty and the Romanovs exhibition, both lack a sense of narrative. One feels as though they are going from one image to another thinking, “here’s a painting of a dead Tsar, and here’s another … and that’s so-and-so’s wife.”

The Crimean War almost has a narrative in that there is a clear timeline of events, however, the other exhibition has no sense of continuity. Being the centenary of the assassination of Nicholas II, the opportunity to focus on the lives of the Romanovs, their successes and their inevitable demise, would have been an obvious route to go down, however, the curators failed to rise to this occasion. Whilst this is a great shame, it is fascinating to see how far Queen Victoria’s immediate family stretched across Europe and Russia.

The Royal Collection Trust arguably has some of the finest works of art in the world and it is always a pleasure to view them at the Queen’s Gallery. Despite not quite living up to expectations, these two exhibitions are great for art lovers and historians with an interest in royalty and the Crimean War.

At £12 per adult, one ticket gives you access to both Royalty and the Romanovs and Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea. These exhibitions are open to the public in London until Sunday 28th April 2019. By asking the Gallery to treat your ticket purchase as a donation, you receive free access for the following twelve months.

Michael Jackson: On the Wall

“I’m a great fan of art. I love Michelangelo. If I had a chance to talk to him, I would want to know what inspired him to become who he is, not about who he went out with last night or why he decided to sit out in the sun for so long.”
– Michael Jackson, 1993

Coinciding with what would have been his 60th birthday, the National Portrait Gallery presents their exhibition of the year, Michael Jackson: On the Wall. With number one hits from age 11, Jackson is known not just for his music but his choreography, dancing ability, fashion and humanitarian efforts, too. Despite his death in 2009, Jackson continues to be a major influence on contemporary art.

Before anyone gets excited about a Michael Jackson exhibition, it needs to be noted that this is not a biographical display of the life of the “King of Pop”, nor are there any memorabilia or personal artefacts. On the Wall is about artwork and Jackson’s influence on 48 different artists from different generations and areas of the world.

 

 

On entering the exhibition, a gallant prince on horseback almost jumps off the wall taking the attention away from Keith Haring’s (1958-90) untitled abstract portrait of Michael Jackson hanging on the left of the entrance. On closer inspection, the figure turns out to be Jackson, imitating the Spanish king in Peter Paul Rubens‘ (1577-1640) The Restoration of Philip II on Horseback (c1630). The artist, Kehinde Wiley (b1977), is known for his paintings of African-Americans, which attracted Jackson’s attention in the early 2000s. Becoming his final commissioned portrait, Jackson asked Wiley to paint him in the typical style of European art history in order to challenge the stereotypes surrounding black people in the United States. This was an issue, as the exhibition highlights, which Jackson felt strongly about.

Although it is almost a decade since Michael Jackson’s death on 25th June 2009, artists are still enamoured with his compassion for those treated unfairly and the way [he] makes [them] feel. The year after his death, the diverse artist Lyle Ashton Harris (b1965) produced Black Ebony II (2010), which hangs close by the regal portrait of the “King of Pop”. “I remained intrigued by the vulnerability, the genius that was Michael Jackson and how his global presence still haunts the contemporary phantom scene.”

 

Some of the works have been purposely created by artists for this exhibition, for example, Graham Dolphin’s (b.1972) walls of record sleeves. Dolphin is well-known for his text art in which he hand writes minuscule words on top of pre-existing materials. In this instance, he has collaged together multiple sleeve issues of Michael Jackson’s albums Thriller and Off the Wall – of which the exhibition’s title is a parody. These are part of an ongoing series of work in which the artist explores the themes of fandom and idolatry. Across the sleeves, Dolphin has painstakingly written the complete lyrics of Jackson’s songbook.

After an introduction to a few examples of artwork inspired by Michael Jackson, the exhibition begins to follow Jackson’s timeline from his emergence into the world of fame through to his final years. Although the focus is mostly on the art, details about the singer are included in written descriptions, which help to explain the purpose and intention of each artist.

Michael Jackson was born on 29th August 1958 in Gary, Indiana, the eighth child of a working-class African-American family. His father, Joseph Walter Jackson (1928-2018), formed a band with his eldest sons, Jackie (b1951), Tito (b1953) and Jermaine (b1954), which Michael and another brother, Marlon (b1957) joined in 1964 as backing musicians on congas and tambourines. Michael was only 6 years old when he joined what would become known as the Jackson 5. The next year he was promoted to lead singer, a position he shared with Jermaine. By the tender age of 11, Michael and his brothers were already at the top of the charts with singles such as ABC and I’ll Be There.

 

During the 1970s, Michael Jackson grew from a child performer to a teen idol. Breaking away from his brothers as a solo artist, becoming the first black musician to receive worldwide fame. With studio albums and singles being released at great speed, Jackson was quickly becoming one of the most idolised musicians, winning award after award with barely a break in between, after all, you don’t stop ’til you get enough.

The National Portrait Gallery displays a handful of drawings the British painter Dawn Mellor (b1970) drew during her teenage years. These are what today’s youth call “fanart”, in which they copy pictures of their favourite stars or create imaginary scenarios derived from works in which the celebrity has been involved. Mellor also doodled portraits of the athlete Carl Lewis (b1961) and comedian Richard Pryor (1940-2005) who, like Jackson, were transcending barriers that usually limited African Americans.

Michael Jackson’s face became an iconic image after Andy Warhol (1928-87) created a series of silkscreen prints in 1984 to accompany an article in Time Magazine titled “Why He’s A Thriller”. Warhol was an avid Jackson fan and collected many of his records; commodities, such as look-a-like dolls; and newspaper clippings about the star.

As well as his physical appearance, fashion preferences and song lyrics, Jackson was also known for being a dancing machine. Some of these moves are difficult to replicate, although, many have now conquered the “moonwalk”. A more challenging dance move introduced by Jackson is “the freeze” in which he balanced on the very tip of his toes. Appau Junior Boakye-Yiadom (b1984), who recently graduated from the Royal Acadamy Schools, produced a tribute to the “King of Pop” by replicating the famous “freeze” with latex balloons, ribbons and penny loafer shoes. A version of this sculpture is situated in the centre of one of the rooms in the exhibition, the shoes standing on their toes, held up by the balloons. Not only does this sculpture honour the late singer, it has metaphorical connotations too.

“… the replacement of the balloons as they individually deflate plays on the continuous work and effort in upholding an admired public image.”
– Appau Junior Boakye-Yiadom

 

Living in the limelight has its positive and negative aspects. Being one of the most famous black men in the world, Michael Jackson was in a position to be to heard and listened to by millions of people. He advocated for equal rights, insisting that it did not matter if you were black or whiteJackson visited sick children around the world, giving them gifts and a moment to remember on Michael’s Heal The World Campaign in the 1990s. He turned his 3000-acre estate, Neverland Valley, into an amusement park with two zoos containing animals such as llamas, tigers, giraffes and elephants, and invited disadvantaged children to enjoy themselves.

Faith Ringgold (b1930), known for her narrative quilts, has been an activist in various feminist and anti-racism groups since the 1970s. One of her “story quilts”, which features in this exhibition, contains a figure of Michael Jackson in its centre. Her aim was to denounce racism and discrimination through her artwork.

“Some things in life they just don’t wanna see
But if Martin Luther was livin’
He wouldn’t let this be.”
– They Don’t Care About Us, Michael Jackson

Jackson wrote songs such as They Don’t Care About Us and Earth Song as a means of getting the message across about the inequalities in the world. Some people loved him for this, however, others began to despise him. This, unfortunately, kept Jackson under critical scrutiny, which anyone would find difficult to bear.

Michael Jackson could be recognised everywhere he went, his face was easy to remember. His features were so unique that he could be identified by his eyes only, as emphasised in Mark Ryden’s (1963) cover work for the album Dangerous (1991). Jackson’s eyes can be seen peeking through a mask-like shape at the top of the composition. Ryden was inspired by various pre-existing ideas including The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516), Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), and the photograph Cecil Beaton (1904-80) took of Queen Elizabeth II at her coronation.

Ryden’s purpose for including so many elements in his composition, for instance, a fairground ride and a host of dressed-up animals, was to convey a cluttered mind. From talking to Jackson, Ryden determined that the singer’s mind was a jumble of memories or a fun house, the latter also being an allusion to Neverland Valley. This also suggests Jackson’s frustration and loss of childhood due to becoming famous at such a young age. Instead of running around with other six and seven-year-olds, he was already having to keep up his demeanour for his adoring fans.

As befalls many a celebrity, Michael Jackson began having issues with his physical appearance, particularly his nose. His dissatisfaction also stemmed from his childhood and the way he was treated by his father. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Jackson admitted to “his tendency to remain hyper-compliant” in order to avoid a tirade or abuse. Allegedly, Joseph Jackson would whip his son and tell him that he had a fat nose. This, ultimately, led to several nose jobs that drastically altered Michael Jackson’s appearance. A thinner nose noticeably altered the overall shape of Jackson’s face, as shown in a posthumous painting by a French street artist, alias Mr Brainwash (1966).

 

Unfortunately, the National Portrait Gallery almost glosses over Michael Jackson’s final years, particularly his deteriorating appearance. Whether or not people believe the claim that he had only had a couple of nose jobs, it is clear that Jackson no longer looked like the young African American boy he was back in the day. The Gallery also fails to comment on the skin disease with which Jackson supposedly suffered. Vitiligo is a disease in which the melanocytes or pigment cells of the skin are destroyed in certain areas, thus causing the skin to appear white. This can affect people of all skin colours, however, the darker the skin, the more noticeable it becomes. It is unlikely to cause the entire skin to become white, which is why many people did not accept Jackson’s claims.

Maggi Hambling’s (b1945) portrait of Michael Jackson is one of the very few visual references to his change in skin tone. The pop star was reportedly diagnosed with vitiligo in 1984, however, there were also rumours he had been skin bleaching. Jackson’s biographer, J. Randy Taraborrelli, also states that he suffered from lupus, which made his skin extremely sensitive to light. Despite these statements, many people refused to believe that Jackson was ill, however, vitiligo was diagnosed in his autopsy report.

With all the negative press, it is no wonder Michael Jackson began to hate the sight of the man in the mirror, however, he still had many loyal fans throughout the world. In 2017, Chinese artist Yan Pei-Ming (1960) painted a portrait in memory of Michael Jackson. It is interesting to discover how wide a fanbase Jackson had, reaching as far as Asia where the Western world has less of an impact.

 

Some fans revered Michael Jackson to the point that he became more than human in their eyes. One fan was the American commercial photographer David LaChapelle (b1963) who believed Jackson’s life reached almost Biblical proportions. This is a controversial subject that many may not agree with or even be offended by, however, LaChappelle saw many similarities between Jackson and Jesus Christ.

The photographer believes “we persecuted him”, listening to malicious gossip and rumours. Whilst Jackson was trying to do good, helping disadvantaged children and improving opportunities for African Americans, the world painted him as bad or even a smooth criminal, accusing him of child abuse, vanity and so forth.

LaChappelle created a series of manipulated photographs in homage to Michael Jackson, positioning him in in front of different backgrounds, adding wings and other figures to make him look like an angel that had defeated the devil or a man who had been crucified.

Although these ideas are rather extreme, they emphasise the serious allegations inflicted upon Jackson compared with the way LaChappelle wishes the musician could be remembered. As Jackson once said, “Don’t judge a man until you have walked two moons in his moccasins.” LaChappelle is trying to preserve Michael Jackson’s dignity for his fans and his family.

At Michael Jackson’s memorial service, the Reverend Al Sharpton (b1954) also tried to preserve Jackson’s memory. He wanted Jackson’s children, Michael Joseph Jr (b1997), Paris-Michael (b1998), and Prince Michael II “Blanket” (b2002), to know that “there was nothing strange about your daddy, it was strange what your daddy had to deal with.”

 

Other artworks in Michael Jackson: On the Wall included videos, music clips, sculpture and painting. A particularly amusing exhibit was Michael Lee Bush’s “dinner jacket”, which was purposely made to look similar to clothing Jackson often wore. Bush was Jackson’s costume designer for 26 years, but when he was asked to replicate Jackson’s dinner jacket, he played with the word “dinner” by adding lots of cutlery over the chest and back.

The exhibition culminated in Candice Breitz’s (b1978) video installation of a number of German-speaking Michael Jackson fans singing Thriller a capella. The purpose of this project is not entirely clear and is quite frankly a disappointing end to the overall exhibition. Michael Jackson: On the Wall started off promising but lost strength towards the end. It almost felt as though the curator was struggling to fill the final rooms.

Nonetheless, On the Wall is primarily an art exhibition and, therefore, achieves what it set out to do: reveal how Michael Jackson influenced art. Jackson fans, however, may be disappointed with the lack of information about his life as his career grew and the disregard for his final struggles.

 

Viewing a life through works of art is an interesting idea but a more appropriate approach for a singer would be to hear their life through music. Since 2009, fans have had the opportunity to learn a little about Michael Jackson by listening to his music at the Lyric Theatre on Shafestbury Avenue in a 2-hour plus production of Thriller Live. Named after Jackson’s best selling album of all time, the show is currently the 15th longest running show in the West End as well as the longest running at the Lyric Theatre, which opened in 1888.

The non-stop hit songs include titles by the Jackson 5, such as Rockin’ Robin and Blame it on the Boogie, as well as all of the Michael Jackson favourites from all decades of his career. Dancers and singers perform the songs dressed to look like Michael Jackson and his backing group whilst the audience cheers and joins in, encouraged to stand up by the lead vocalist.

Although too loud for some people, Thriller Live is perfect for Michael Jackson fans, especially those who never got a chance to see him live in concert. The vocals and dance moves mimic the “King of Pop”, providing a perfect example of what Jackson usually provided for his audience.

Whilst Thriller Live is targetted at Michael Jackson fans, the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition is supposed to attract anyone interested in art, however, it has a greater appeal for those who loved his music. To fully appreciate both the exhibition and the stage production, the audience needs to be familiar with the “King of Pop”, his music history, and the causes he felt strongly about.

The National Portrait Gallery will be hosting Michael Jackson: On the Wall until 21st October 2018. Tickets range from £15.50 to £22 and advanced booking is advised for those who are not members of the gallery. Tickets for Thriller Live start at £32 and can be purchased online.

Note: phrases in bold allude to song titles 

The Great British Seaside

“August Bank Holiday – a tune on an ice-cream cornet. A slap of sea and a tickle of sand. A fanfare of sunshades opening. A wince and whinny of bathers dancing into deceptive water. A tuck of dresses. A rolling of trousers. A compromise of paddlers. A sunburn of girls and a lark of boys. A silent hullabaloo of balloons.
I remember the sea telling lies in a shell held to my ear for a whole harmonious, hollow minute by a small, wet girl in an enormous bathing suit marked Corporation Property.”

– Dylan Thomas, 1946

35162279_10214130844536549_6415130055734722560_nWith over 11,000 miles of coastline, Great Britain is famed for its beaches. Only 72 miles separate the furthest person from the beach, resulting in the majority of the population having experienced the sand between their toes and the crashing on the waves. Nearly everyone has memories of paddling in the sea, donkey rides, buckets and spades, picnics on the beach, fish and chips by the pier, searching for crabs in rock pools, and running wild and free. With this in mind, the National Maritime Museum‘s summer exhibition is The Great British Seaside: Photography from the 1960s to the present, a display of over 100 images by four British photographers taken in 42 different seaside locations.

Beaches differ throughout the world, for instance, the Mediterranean photos seen in Travel Brochures, with perfect white beaches and no sandcastle in sight. The Great British seaside experience is a totally different, unique affair. Nowhere else will families be seen putting up multicoloured windbreaks, stubbornly sitting in deckchairs determined to enjoy the so-called summer despite the nippy wind.

Children run around wearing only a pair of shorts, whilst young women sunbathe in their swimsuits and elderly gentlemen daringly roll up their trouser legs as they settle into their seats with a newspaper, sweating in their shirts and ties.  Regardless of what people are doing or wearing, everyone is fully occupied by their own activities to notice or judge one another.

As the photographs in this exhibition reveal, everyone behaves differently at the seaside. Away from the offices, schools and everyday life, families and individuals can be themselves and enjoy some uninhibited fun. Children reveal their innocence and adults become nostalgic, remembering their childhood holidays.

Seaside holidays have always been popular in Britain; not only are they easy to get to, they are relatively cheap. In some ways, British beaches are stuck in a time warp where, except for the changes in fashion, photographs from different eras all look the same. Buildings are not modernised as they are in the city, walls are painted bright colours, and the decay caused by the salt in the water and air only adds to the character of the seaside town.

The four photographers featured in this exhibition: Tony Ray-Jones (1941-72), David Hurn (b1934), Martin Parr (b1952) and Simon Roberts (b1974); aim to reveal the idiosyncrasies of the population that define a day at the seaside. From 1960 until the present day, the photographs reveal the timelessness of the beach experience, the humour and joy it brings, as well as the more uneasy emotions of humankind. Displayed on the walls of fake beach huts, with deckchairs or seaside-type benches to rest on when needed, photographs in The Great British Seaside perfectly sum up beach culture around the isles and evoke happy memories of past holidays and day trips.

“My aim is to communicate something of the spirit and the mentality of the English, their habits and their way of life, the ironies that exist in the way they do things, partly through their traditions and partly through the nature of their environment and their mentality. For me there is something very special about the English ‘way of life’ and I wish to record it from my particular point of view before it becomes Americanised and disappears.”
– Tony Ray-Jones

The exhibition is set out in an almost chronological order, beginning with the two oldest photographers and ending with the youngest. Although Tony Ray-Jones (1941-72) was not the eldest of the four, the first twenty photographs displayed were taken by him. Born Holroyd Anthony Ray-Jones in Wells, Somerset, Ray-Jones developed a passion for art, later studying graphic design at the London School of Painting. At 19, he won a scholarship to study at the Yale University of Art, where his talent for photography was discovered. From here on, Ray-Jones was never without a commision from one magazine or another.

Ray-Jones prefered the non-commercial side of photography, capturing the emotions of the world, the unseen and the underappreciated. When he returned to Britain in 1966, he embarked on a two-year journey around the country in a campervan taking photographs of “the sadness and the humour in a gentle madness that prevails in a people.” His beach scenes reveal the “gentle madness” that people reveal when away from the constraints of everyday life.

Although the fashion and hairstyles have changed since the 1960s, many of Ray-Jones’ photographs reveal similar scenes that could be observed at the seaside today. People are relaxing in deckchairs, lying on beach mats or listening to music, although with a portable record player rather than an iPod. No matter what scene Ray-Jones captured, everyone is completely focused on their own activities, making the photographs seem casual and unplanned.

One particularly spontaneous photograph was taken in Broadstairs, Kent in 1968, showing a few children walking alongside a man playing a pipe. The man was Peter Butchard (1909-2009), famed for his Punch-and-Judy performances during the 60s and 70s. On this occasion, he began playing a tune as he walked along the beach. Children nearby stopped what they were doing and followed him, skipping, dancing and running –  reminiscent of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

Tony Ray-Jones’ career was cut short by leukaemia, for which he lost the battle on 13th March 1972. Despite this, Ray-Jones continues to influence many photographers, including the remaining three in the exhibition. In 2013, The Guardian wrote that “in his short life he helped create a way of seeing that has shaped several generations of British photography.”

“Life as it unfolds in front of the camera is full of so much complexity, wonder and surprise that I find it unnecessary to create new realities. There is more pleasure, for me, in things as-they-are.”
– David Hurn

David Hurn (b1934), a British documentary photographer and member of Magnum Photos had the opportunity to meet with Tony Ray-Jones. He admired Ray-Jones’ photography skills, which inspired his own work. Hurn has also been spurred on by images by later photographers, including Martin Parr.

Born in Surrey in 1934, Hurn’s family soon moved to Wales where he spent his entire childhood. Suffering from dyslexia, the young Hurn took to photography, teaching himself to use a camera. Hurn gained his reputation working in photojournalism in London, however, in the late 1960s, he returned to his beloved Wales and spent a year living in a van photographing the country in a similar vein to Ray-Jones.

Wales may be relatively small in comparison to the rest of the island, however, it has 746 miles of coastline, providing Hurn with plenty of opportunities to take photographs on the beach.

“The seaside is a place for uninhibited fun. It is cheap and very democratic, full of laughter, tenderness, ridiculousness but basically a way of having a good time.”
– David Hurn

Curious as to how people enjoy themselves, Hurn spent a lot of time on the beaches taking photographs of different activities. Since everyone is fully occupied in their own activity, Hurn was able to take photographs of people unawares, thus revealing natural holiday scenes, unlike the posed versions in many family albums.

The exhibition displays some of the negatives from Hurn’s camera films, revealing that he often took several photographs of the same scene. In each one, someone had moved, creating a slightly different picture and atmosphere. From these, Hurn chose the ones that worked best compositionally to develop and blow up to larger proportions.

“In New York, you have the street; in the UK, we have the beach. I end up being like a migrating bird, being attracted to it.”
-Martin Parr

Martin Parr (b1952) is one of Britain’s most popular photographers. After studying the subject of photography at Manchester Polytechnic in the early 1970s, Parr began recording life in the north of England. Later, in 1982, he turned to colour photography, which he continues to use to the present day.

Like Ray-Jones and Hurn, Parr considers the seaside somewhere people can be themselves. Through his photographs, he studies the varied reactions people have to the beaches. He captures the “craziness of the British beach” through close-ups and landscapes, providing different perspectives of the seaside experience.

“The British beach experience is unique: it is slightly wet or humid, down-at-heel and past its best – literally fraying at the edges – and of course full of ironies and contradictions.”
-Martin Parr

Unlike his predecessors, Parr is able to reveal slightly more about the seaside through the colour in his photographs. The typical bright colours expose a timeless world; people’s lives may be moving forward with the many contemporary inventions, but return to the beach and it is as though nothing has changed. The wear and tear of the buildings and landscape only add to the uniqueness of the Great British seaside.

“I see the British seaside as a series of landscapes through which we can trace part of our national history.”
– Simon Roberts

Although Simon Roberts (b1974) has had the chance to meet Hurn and Parr as well as study the works of Ray-Jones, he takes a different approach to photographing the British seaside. Roberts also travelled the country in a motorhome but his focus was more on the landscape of the coastal areas rather than the people who frequent them.

Printed in large-scale, Roberts’ photographs attempt to explore the collective relationship between people and landscape, preferring to stand at a distance rather than producing close-up shots. Roberts believes the British landscape is central to British identity and the changing times. Landscape photography reveals the changes in architecture, the habits of different races and cultures compared with the nostalgia the seaside represents in people’s memories.

“There are several things I believe the photographs convey, from the psychological – how the British seaside is closely linked to our changing habits as a nation – to the physical – whereby they record vanishing forms of vernacular architecture. The photographs contain elements of faded romance and nostalgia for the quirkiness, and they project some of the innocence that the seaside inhabits in our sense of place.”
– Simon Roberts

Whilst Ray-Jones, Hurn and Roberts have roughly 20 photographs each in the exhibition, Martin Parr has an additional 20, which were commissioned by the National Maritime Museum for The Great British Seaside. Subtitled The Essex Seaside, 2017, Parr visited two coastal areas of Essex: Leigh-on-Sea to Shoeburyness; and Clacton-on-Sea to Walton-on-the-Naze. These photographs aimed to observe the behaviours and activities of beachgoers today, comparing the outcomes with those of the past.

Looking at the other photographs in the exhibition, it appears little has changed between Ray-Jones’ earliest snap and Roberts’ latest images. Yet, the cultural diversity of Great Britain has changed significantly in recent years, which can be seen in Parr’s latest project.

In Leigh-on-Sea, Parr photographed the typical beach scene that all four photographers managed to capture over the past five decades, however, further down the road in Shoeburyness, an elderly Sikh man was observed taking gentle exercise on the promenade. In Southend, languages from all over the world could be heard, including, Arabic, Polish, Mandarin and Italian, which goes to show how diverse the seaside town has become.

Over in Clacton, the standard beach photographs were taken alongside those that would never have been witnessed in the 1960s and 70s. At the end of August, Parr came across a large group of Hindu women commemorating the last day of the Holy month of Shravan, making offerings to Lord Shiva, wetting their feet in the sea and laying out candles. In the same week, Parr saw a group of Sikhs relaxing on the beach as well as day trippers from St Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic Church in Stratford, East London.

“The seaside has to be one of the most fascinating places for people watching. It is a place where we relax and lose our inhibitions, and that’s when true personalities come on display.”
– Martin Parr

As Parr’s photographs go to prove, the seaside is a place for everyone. Free from discrimination, multiples of different cultures can enjoy the same beach, whether relaxing and enjoying themselves or taking part in something more special.

Looking at all the photographs in the exhibition as a whole, the seaside comes across as a safe, happy place where people can leave their troubles behind in the city and relax and unwind. The seaside allows people to just be; no one knows nor cares whether someone is CEO of a major company, a bank clerk, a cleaner, a bus driver or unemployed, everyone is equal.

In a world where discrimination causes so many problems, where people are caught up in their careers, where people lose their human-ness, it is gratifying to know there are areas of Great Britain where people can go to be themselves.

The Great British seaside is a unique concept that no other country can replicate, and for that reason alone it ought to be celebrated. Through the photographs of these four photographers, the happy experiences are captured forever, proving that we, as a nation, have something special, which should not be taken for granted.

From the abandoned piers to the dazzling arcades, celebrate the British seaside through the lenses of Britain’s most popular photographers, featuring Tony Ray-Jones, David Hurn and Simon Roberts and new work by Martin Parr at the National Maritime Museum. Open until 30th September 2018, tickets cost £11.50 for adults and £5 for children. Various concessions are available.

Don’t forget to photograph your friends and family on the pretend beach outside the entrance to the exhibition! #GBseaside

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Victorian Giants

The Birth of Art Photography

The National Portrait Gallery’s latest major exhibition offers something different to the usual portraits visitors expect to see. The concept of “art” is difficult to define and everyone has their own opinion as to what falls into that category. Victorian Giants introduces the idea of art photography by looking back at the four most celebrated figures who changed attitudes and artistic approaches in relation to photography, art and portraiture, which has influenced artists ever since.

Endorsed by HRH the Duchess of Cambridge, a patron of the gallery and an aspiring amateur photographer, this exhibition contains a hundred or so images taken during the latter half of the 19th century when a new developing technique was underway. Gone were the days of unwieldy Daguerreotype processes, replaced by wet-plate collodion, allowing photographers to take faster, sharper and more versatile shots.

hb_41-21-15

Moutain Nymph, Sweet Liberty (Mrs Keene) by Cameron (1866)

A single photograph stands alone at the entrance to the exhibition, enticing visitors in with a suggestion of the portraits to come. Although not much is known about the sitter, Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty (1866) reveals the emotional and powerful charge of Julia Margaret Cameron’s (one of the four photographers) style of portraiture.

As the exhibition reveals, the four photographers were often inspired by various literature and attempted to capture fictional scenes or characters in their work. In this instance, the title of the photograph was taken directly from a John Milton poem, L’Allegro (1645). “Come, and trip it as ye go / On the light fantastick toe, / And in thy right hand lead with thee, / The Mountain Nymph, sweet Liberty.”

 

Of the four photographers, only one was a professional. Oscar Gustaf Rejlander (1813-75) was a Swedish émigré who came to England and set up a photographic studio in Wolverhampton in 1856. He later moved to London in 1863 where he learnt the new process of developing photographs, wet-plate collodion. This involved pouring collodion onto a glass plate and exposing it to light, via a camera, to capture the desired image.

Rejlander was known for his expressive portraits, often experimenting in order to perfect his photographs. He became an expert at photomontage in which two or more negatives were combined together to create a completely new image. By this method, people could be added into or removed from photographs as necessary or two very different scenes merged to form an impossible landscape.

The National Portrait Gallery has recently acquired a photo-album of previously unseen portraits, many of which are included in this exhibition. The head of photographs, Dr Phillip Prodger told Art Fund, “The Rejlander album becomes one of the jewels in the crown of our already impressive collection of 19th-century photographs.” It changed the way Victorian photography was perceived, particularly in relation to the extent of experimentation with a comparatively new medium.

Unlike the stiff, wooden portraits associated with the Victorian era, Rejlander’s photographs were life-like and natural. He captured sitters in natural, sensitive poses, such as staring into space deep in thought – a fleeting, almost private moment. It was this evanescent style that inspired the remaining three photographers that make up the Victorian Giants: Julia Margaret Cameron, Clementina Hawarden, and Lewis Carroll.

 

Lewis Carroll is by far the most famous of the group due to his popular children’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Although often working under his pseudonym, the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-98) was a lecturer in mathematics at Christ Church, Oxford University and picked up photography as a hobby in approximately 1856. Preferring to work outdoors, many of his portraits are situated in gardens where natural elements frame the model or sitters.

Carroll specialised in pictures of children, which make up half of all his known photographs. Understanding the complexities of working with youngsters, Carroll ensured a parent or governess was always present at the photoshoot. To entertain the children, he often initiated a game of dress up in which they would pretend to be heroes from works of fiction. An example is Captive Princess where one of his favourite models Alexandra “Xie” Kitchin (1864-1925), a daughter of a work colleague, poses as the princess, complete with crown, from the Golden Legend, awaiting rescue from the heroic St George.

Being a mathematician, Carroll was interested in the preciseness of angles and lighting, lining up additional light sources to achieve a particular size and direction of the shadow. It is clear from the photographs in this exhibition that Carroll put a lot of thought into his portraits in order to produce the best possible outcome.

 

Refreshingly, particularly for the era, the other two photographers are female. Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79), originally from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) took up photography during her 40s on the Isle of Wight after receiving a camera from her daughter in 1863. As seen in the first photograph of the exhibition, Cameron was particularly interested in Arthurian, legendary or heroic themes and other allegorical subjects.

Cameron usually used family members, friends and the local villagers as her models, however, she also took photographs of well-known people. Her portraits have been described as Rembrandt-like due to the dark, natural backgrounds and the depthless focus on the sitter’s face. Examples of this technique are the portraits of Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), a distinguished historian, and the astronomer J.F.W. Herschel (1792-1871). Both men have an ethereal appearance, their hair and facial features emerging from the darkness.

 

Last but not least, the fourth photographer is Clementina Maude, Viscountess Hawarden (1822-65) who had a short but prolific stint as a photographer. Picking up the camera just under a decade before she died at 42 from pneumonia, Hawarden produced around 800 photographs, the majority involving her eight children.

Unlike the others, Hawarden photographed full-length figures more often than head and shoulder portraits, creating emotional scenes. Rather than focusing on the faces of her models, Hawarden thought carefully about the overall composition, draping fabrics to create a background, or employing props such as furniture.

A theme that initially tied the photographers together is childhood innocence. Victorians viewed children as pure souls who had not yet been affected by the corrupt realities of life. Their presence in artworks portrays the raw, unsullied youth that eventually gets lost as they approach adulthood, which makes the viewer want to care for and protect them from the rest of the world.

Photographing children was not an easy feat, therefore, these images display the skill and patience each of the four photographers possessed. Although children are still not easy models to work with today due to their inclination to fidget, capturing a child’s portrait in the late 1800s was much more difficult. Early cameras had long exposure times, requiring the sitter to remain completely still for at least 30 seconds. The slightest movement could ruin the picture.

Lewis Carroll had plenty of opportunities to photograph children due to his close friendship with the Liddell family. Henry Liddell (1811-98) was the dean of Christ Church, Oxford, where Carroll was employed and was a great supporter of his photographic experimentation. The Liddell family consisted of four children, the fourth being Alice (1852-1934) who inspired Carroll to write Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass (1871).

Although Alice Liddell was a favourite of Carroll, only twelve solo photographs exist, which is a mere handful compared with Xie Kitchin of whom he produced 45 portraits. Carroll also produced several photographs of Alice’s sister Ina and several with more than one Liddell child present. It is unknown why Carroll eventually stopped spending time with the family and only one photograph of Alice is thought to exist from the period after the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Carroll was not the only photographer to use Alice as a model, Julia Margaret Cameron made several portraits a few years later. The example displayed at the National Portrait Gallery is a profile shot of the 21-year-old Alice, which shows the physical changes from a cropped-haired little girl to a young adult with long, flowing locks. This photograph was titled Aletheia (1872), which is Greek for true or faithful.

Although the four photographers never collaborated as a group, they often photographed the same sitters, including a few famous faces. Rejlander, Cameron and Carroll produced photographs of the Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92) and his sons Hallam and Lionel. The Tennyson family lived near Cameron on the Isle of Wight allowing for plenty of photographic opportunities. Rejlander, when tutoring Cameron, took the opportunity to visit the family, and Carroll came across them whilst on holiday in the Lake District.

Cameron produced the greater amount of photographs of Tennyson and experimented with style, pose and light. The poet was impressed with her skills and used one profile shot, titled The Dirty Monk (1865) as the frontispiece for a publication of his poems, Idylls of the King (1885).

Rejlander and Cameron were also responsible for taking photographs of Charles Darwin. Once again, the connection between Cameron and Darwin was made whilst on the Isle of Wight, however, Darwin preferred the style of Rejlander. Darwin often used photographs for research purposes when writing his books, particularly after discovering the way the camera could capture emotions and expressions. These were a great visual aid for his writing, and Darwin also hired Rejlander to contribute images to illustrate The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872).

“I am now rich in photographs, for I have found in London Rejlander, who for years has had a passion for photographing all sorts of chance expressions, exhibited on various occassions … instantaneously.” – Darwin, 1871

Portraits of family, friends and famous people allowed the photographers to experiment with the camera, location, light and so forth, however, they took things a step further by controlling the scene they were photographing. It is at this moment the argument that photography is art becomes strongest. In a similar way to painters, photographers have to think about composition, tones and shades and the message behind the overall image.

Occasionally, the four artists dressed their sitters as characters from literature or mythology, for example, Xie Kitchin as the Captive Princess and Tennyson as The Dirty Monk. In other photographs, models were positioned carefully to depict a particular scene, often replicating a well-known painting. A small number of the images displayed as part of Victorian Giants have been based on existing artworks. Some are loosely inspired by them, whereas, others closely resemble the exact portrait.

An example of a photograph based on a painting is Non Angeli sed Angli (1857) taken by Rejlander. It is a pastiche of Raphael’s cherubs in the Sistine Madonna. The two children pose in the exact same position, head on their hands, looking both innocent and mischievous at the same time.

The reason for making pastiches or reinterpretations of historic paintings was to prove to those who considered photography a tool rather than a visual art that photographs could do anything painting could do. Although they could not recreate brushstrokes, the composition, emotion and tone of the image could be produced equally as well with a camera as with a paint brush.

Carroll’s pastiche of Rembrandt’s Andromeda (1630) shows the actress Elizabeth “Kate” Terry chained to the rocks awaiting rescue from the sea monster by her future husband and hero Perseus. In this instance, the photograph is only loosely based on the painting, the position of the model, clothing and backdrop being completely different. Rejlander’s The Virgin in Prayer (1857), however, is a much closer representation of Sassoferrato’s painting of the same name. Rejlander has restaged the painting as closely as possible and, although the camera could not yet capture colour, the photograph is a very close approximation.

Rejlander’s most impressive reinterpretation of an artwork is his partial pastiche of  Guido Reni’s Salome with the Head of St John the Baptist (1638-9). Focusing only on the head on a charger, Rejlander produced a powerful likeness of the Baroque painting. As recorded in the new testament, Salome requested and received the head of St John on a platter. Missing from the photograph is Salome holding her prize, however, Rejlander’s biographer believed he intended to use this image as the centrepiece of a larger picture made up of a variety of photographic elements. Unfortunately, Rejlander never got the opportunity to complete this but there are a couple of examples at the National Portrait Gallery of Rejlander’s combination photographs, including one made up of at least 32 separate negatives.

Victorian Giants is both a demonstration of photography as a visual art and a celebration of the development of the camera. Included in the exhibition is a four-minute film demonstrating the nineteenth-century technique of printing photographs using wet-collodion glass-plate negatives and albumen paper.

Although it is still a matter of opinion, the National Portrait Gallery strongly expresses the view that photography belongs under the category of visual art. None of the photographs exhibited is simply a resource for other outcomes and can exist and be displayed in their own right. Some, particularly the innocent photographs of children, are extremely beautiful and full of emotion. They look equally as good framed on a wall as a hand-painted version would.

Some pictures visitors may not care for as much, but it is interesting to see the innovative methods these four photographers experimented with during a time when new technology was only just developing. Compared with what the camera can do today, these photographs feel much more precious than any modern photographer’s work.

Closing on 20th May 2018, Victorian Giants is open daily from 10 am until 6 pm. Tickets cost £10 or £8.50 for visitors over the age of 60. Members and patrons may visit the exhibition for free and National Art Pass Holders receive a 50% discount.

The Art of the Natural World

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© The Trustees of The Natural History Museum, London

When visiting the Natural History Museum in London South Kensington, visitors already have some idea of what to expect. For starters, the recently erected skeleton of a blue whale hanging from the ceiling of Hintze Hall has been the talk of the public for some time. Whilst many tourists have flocked to view this giant, they are also expecting dinosaurs, fossils, extinct animals, creepy crawlies and volcanoes. People have not come with the hopes of looking at artworks.

To the casual observer, the exhibitions at the museum are exactly what they expected: bones, stuffed animals, more bones, ancient rocks, bones, fossils, dead things, and a wealth of information. On the other hand, looking past the scientific and factual details is a plethora of art waiting patiently to be acknowledged.

Before entering the museum, the original building screams out for attention, demonstrating Romanesque-style features, making it one of the finest Victorian buildings in Britain. Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905) was an English architect who became greatly associated with the Victorian Gothic Revival Style. The Liverpudlian designer was only 36, thus still in the beginning stages of his career, when he inherited the task of designing the building for the Natural History Museum.

Influenced by German Cathedrals, Waterhouse developed the first building to be decorated both inside and out with intricate designs. Using honey and pale blue terracotta, beautiful decorations were modelled from Waterhouse’s drawings, representing fossils, birds, animals and fish – many of the items in the museum’s collection. After its completion in 1881, critics from The Times exclaimed, “The walls and ceiling are decorated as befits a Palace of Nature.”

Although it has been extended in recent years, the original building looks much the same as when it was first constructed. Many visitors wonder whether it was formerly a cathedral or monastery due to its phenomenal beauty, however, it was built especially for the museum.

The Natural History Museum would not have existed at all if it were not for the proficient naturalist and collector, Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753). Although his initial claim to fame was introducing drinking chocolate to England, his collecting skills, which narrowly bordered on hoarding, provided scientists with the opportunity to learn the secrets of the natural world. By his death at the age of 92, Sloane had stockpiled over 80,000 objects and books from all over the world. The collection was crammed into his own home, however, his will stipulated that he wished to leave it to the nation. As a result, the British Museum in Bloomsbury was born.

The collection was rapidly added to over the following century and a decision was made to split the artefacts into sections. Thus, a new building was commissioned and by 1881, the natural history section was gradually relocated to its new home. As scientists learn more about the world, the collection continues to grow. It is estimated that the museum currently houses over 22 million items preserved in methylated spirits alone.

Looking at ancient dead things may seem like a long way from looking at art, however, there is a specific section of the museum that begs to differ. Within the blue section on the map supplied by the museum (actually, just ask someone to direct you; the map is not all that helpful) is an exhibition titled Images of Nature. Unlike the majority of the museum where reconstructed skeletons and educational models are in abundance, this long room works more like an art gallery with most items hung up on the bare walls.

Nowadays, a simple click of a button can eternally save evidence of nature, but, before the development of the camera, artists were relied upon to produce highly detailed illustrations. Although some of these artworks were produced to be enjoyed, scientists found them extremely valuable. Specimens were often collected by explorers, but after a while, colours would fade and plants would dry and shrivel up, making it impossible to demonstrate what it originally looked like. A watercolour study produced by an adept artist recorded an accurate image that visually explained the appearance of the foreign objects.

The museum has 500,000 natural history artworks within its collection, but only a handful of them are on display. Due to the fragility of many of the older drawings and paintings, the collection is rotated as curators periodically change the exhibit in order to limit any light damage.

Presently (July/August 2017), examples of illustrations can be seen by several different artists. Edward Wilson (1872-1912), for example, was a polar explorer who also enjoyed painting and drawing. In a glass cabinet alongside stuffed versions, his illustrations of the British hedgehog are on view. This is just one of the many iconic mammals he drew in the early 1900s. In cabinets nearby are more illustrations such as British birds by Phyllida Lumsden (c.1940), Nautilus by George Brettingham Sowerby (1788-1854) and Eggs of British birds by the Dutch artist Henrik Grönvold (1858-1940).

 

Slightly more graphic images are included in this gallery. Scientists are not only interested in what a specimen looks like on the outside, they are also intrigued by the inner workings of the plant or animal they are studying. One example is of the innards of a loggerhead turtle produced by Cesare Ferreri (1802-1859). Interestingly, developments have been made since 1833 when this image was produced. Originally it was labelled a spur-thigh tortoise, but today’s scientists, with their extensive knowledge, have identified it as the loggerhead.

Although cameras are available to most people, some scientists still prefer to capture their findings on paper. Bryan Kneale (1930-) provides a great example of modern illustration with a blue chalk drawing of a giant tortoise, which stands out amongst the other artworks surrounding it.

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Giant Tortoise, Bryan Kneale, 1986

The most interesting aspect of Images of Nature is the analysis of a 17th-century oil painting by the Flemish artist Roelandt Savery (1576-1639). The painting of a dodo may be recognisable by many and is the go to image when looking for representations of the extinct bird. Hung next to the initial painting is a modern version painted by the talented scientist, Dr Julian Pender Hume. Apart from the choice of artistic medium (oil/acrylic), there are a number of alterations to the plump, flightless bird.

When Savery painted the comical looking bird, dodos had mostly succumbed to extinction. The artist relied on limited fragments of a dodo skeleton to come up with this representation. Pender Hume, with his knowledge of avifaunal anatomy, explains in an accompanying video that, due to its inability to fly, the dodo would not have had such a bulky body; it would not have needed as much muscle as the Flemish artist gave it.

 

Images of Nature is one of the more quiet sections of the museum and may not appeal to younger children. However, there is an interactive game of sorts that allows the player to learn about the basic process of drawing a beetle specimen. The game goes through the stages an artist may look at, beginning with the initial shape of the insect and ending with a close look at adding appropriate colour. There is also the opportunity for visitors to draw their own picture based on any of the specimens seen around the museum. These can be posted in a box in the gallery for the chance of it being displayed for all to see.

 

Despite the fact that the purpose of the Natural History Museum is to store and display the collected specimens of past and present explorers and scientists, it does host an exhibition devoted to the art form photography. The Wildlife Photographer of the Year is the museum’s most popular exhibition that takes place once a year. Currently, the finalists and winners of the 2016 entries to the annual competition are being showcased in the East Pavillion.

The Wildlife Photographer of the Year is the most highly regarded as well as the largest photography competition in the world, often attracting over 42,000 professional and amateur artists each year. This figure also includes an exceptional number of teenagers who submit their nature photographs to the junior section.

The competition is now in its 52nd year and has expanded significantly. When it first ran in 1965, only three categories were provided. Today there are more than five times the amount of categories including animal portraits, underwater photographs, plants and fungi, and black and white images.

Set in a dimly lit display room, the finalists and winners from each category are arranged on the walls on digital screens. This enables the museum to display all the photographs without needing to print them out on sizeable photo paper or worry about light damage. On each screen are details about the photographer and the image itself.

Unlike the rest of the museum, which is full of over excited children and their parents, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition is a peaceful environment. Its silence and subdued lighting allow visitors to contemplate each photograph in their own time and appreciate the splendour and variety of nature.

As well as being displayed at the museum, the exhibition goes on tour around all six continents, therefore it is only viewable in London for a limited time. The current exhibition is open until 17th September and costs £10.50 (£6.50 for under 17s) to enter. Of course, the photographs can be found online, but there is something special about being able to see them all in one place.

For whatever reasons you decide to visit the Natural History Museum, be it the blue whale or a fascination with dinosaurs, be on the look out for examples of art. The fact that a science-oriented museum can display such artistry is proof that art can be found in the most unexpected of places. If you do not believe me, go to the museum yourself and witness the beauty and ornamentation of nature.

2017: Wolfgang Tillmans

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La Palma, 2014

Photographer Wolfgang Tillmans’ debut exhibition 2017 at the Tate Modern is a week away from closing but is still attracting the attention of many visitors. Although born in Remscheid, Germany in 1968, Tillmans has spent many years in the UK and became both the first photographer and the first non-British artist to win the Turner Prize in the year 2000. Most of the works displayed at the Tate today, however, are from 2003 onwards.

Although the exhibited photographs span the past 14 years, 2017 is not a compilation of Tillmans developing style and skill, but rather a focus on the present day. Most people would define a photographer essentially as someone who takes photographs, but Tillmans takes the name to new levels. Each room has been specifically arranged by the artist to help visitors engage with themes of community, politics and society.

Rather than simply hanging photographs on walls, Tillmans has experiemented with whole-room installations, publications, videos and music. As visitors walk around the gallery, they can see snapshots laid out on tables where individual pieces can be studied in detail. The majority of the works that are on the walls are printed on papers of a considerable size, often meaning they are better viewed from a distance. With these mix of approaches, Tillmans is trying to represent how culture and technology shape the way people understand the current world.

Initially, the opening rooms may not enliven onlookers, and, without the provided guide leaflet, may not make sense or mean anything. However, with thanks to the Tate’s written explanations, it becomes clearer that method is just as important for Tillmans as the final outcomes. For instance, Tillmans likes to experiment with technology to show how advanced it has become, comparing digital methods with the outdated manual. For example, Tillmans reveals how much easier it is to photograph an urban night scene from a moving vehicle without the photograph being ruined by blurring. This is a result of the faster shutter speeds the latest cameras possess.

Each room of the exhibition contains a new theme, idea or approach, often displaying photographs from a particular project. One such undertaking is a series of photographs titled Neue Welt in which Tillmans visited the different continents taking snapshots of communal spaces, food, people and still-life, recording the differences and changes that time has had on the different cultures. Some of these are quite beautiful and are a contrast to some of his more abstract works.

Another project is titled Truth Study Center, which is focused less on a photography and more on research. It is in the room that Tillmans has made the most of the scattered tables in order to present his findings. Photographs, newspaper clippings, advertisements and so forth are laid out to express contridictory opinions and statements that have been issued by the government and politicians over the past couple of decades. This study questions what truth is and whether it is possible to trust what individuals, groups or organisations profess.

 

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Shanghai Night, 2009

It is clear from a great number of photographs that Tillmans primary topic of interest is
social life. He believes that everyone is vulnerable and is determined to prove his belief through unstaged imagery. He is particularly concerned with freedom and the interweaving spheres of personal and public life. Tillmans photographs people on the street and contrasts them with pictures of a more private nature, occassionally consisting of nudity.

 

Like many photographers, Tillmans has played around with portraiture, however his commercial outputs, and presumably his method of earning money, are a mix of posters, catalogues, magazine spreads, leaflets and books – principally items that can be mass produced. Examples of these can be found on tables in one of the exhibitions rooms. There are too many to be able to study them in detail, but the underlying theme is prominent. These lucrative formats are a means to express political opinion and contemporary interest. Although these compositions may not make his name known, Tillmans can still impress his views and beliefs over a widespread audience.

Interestingly, since he was born, lives and works in Berlin, Tellmans is passionate about the effects of Brexit, and in 2016, produced a series of posters encouraging British citizens to vote “remain”. Not many of these advertisements are amongst the selection of commercial items, however the photographs used on the designs are displayed in the final room of the exhibition. These images may look like tranquil sea-scapes, but they have an ulterior purpose. Tellmans is intrigued with the tangible lines and borders on the horizon caused by what looks like the meeting of the sea and sky, whereas, in reality, these are fluid. These photographs of the Atlantic Ocean are metaphors for opposing time zones and national frontiers, which may not be causing waves right now, but have the potential to in the future. This is why this series was suitable to illustrate the Brexit posters, because leaving the EU is a journey into the unknown. No one knows how it may affect the “tides”.

These posters were found in an article in the magazine Dezeen.

2017 is an interesting exhibition and not necessarily what you may be expecting. Seeing the processes and research that Wolfgang Tillmans undertakes makes the final outcomes far more meaningful than if viewed solely as artworks with no substantial background information. Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, the exhibition is finishing soon, the final day being Sunday 11th June. However, there are over 200 photographs on the Tate website for those who wish to receive a basic impression of Tillmans photography, and one series of work (Concorde Grid, 1997) is on show at the Tate Britain as part of the  Walk Through British Art display. There are, of course, books such as Books for Architects, available for purchase.

Fairy-Truths

A recent exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood displayed a range of photographs recreating some of the world’s most famous fairytales. Sonya Hurtado, a Spanish freelance photographer, uses child models as the focal points of her surreal art work, thus her simply-titled series of work, Tales, is rather in-keeping with the rest of the museum’s collection.

Tales is made up of twelve images in which Hurtado explores the imaginary world of childhood. Despite the happy, carefree demeanour society likes to believe children have, they are often victims of isolation, fear and despair. This display is not for children, but about children. It tries to reveal to the average adult the complexity of a child’s mind and their confusing emotions.

Using fairytales as the subject matter conveys a sense of innocence with an underlying darkness. These tales were not always the “happily-ever-after” stories children are told today; many originate from disturbing, violent backgrounds that would never get approval from publishers of juvenile fiction today.

However, it is not these ancient versions that Hurtado is depicting in her photographic compositions. Instead, she argues that the contemporary narratives are just as disconcerting. From the outside, they may appear fun, happy and enjoyable, but after deeper thought and consideration, worrying issues come to light.

Take, for example, Rapunzel: locking a girl in a tower is not something society would find acceptable. It would be labelled child abuse, and the villain arrested. No doubt a man using said child’s hair to climb up the wall would also be frowned upon. Similar concerns crop up in most fairytales. Hansel and Gretel: abandoning children in a forrest. Cinderella: child/slave labour. Little Red Riding Hood: is it acceptable to send a child out on a journey alone through the woods? Snow White: the queen tries to kill her, for goodness sake!

By manipulating and contrasting shadow and colour, Hurtado lets the atmosphere speak for itself, and reveal the more sinister side to fairy-tales. Her photographic works almost look like paintings due to the many components and vibrant tones. Many of the outcomes are inspired by imaginary stories as well as real life scenarios, thus making the viewer more conscious of the darker interpretations.

Tales is not an exhibition curated solely for aesthetic purposes, it creates awareness of the vulnerability of children of the present day, as well as educating its audience on the origin of fairytales. As a result, the Museum of Childhood was the perfect location for such a display. In a place where visitors are already geared to learn and discover, I expect the artwork was greatly admired and studied, and perhaps left a lasting impression on newly opened minds.