The Phoenix of America

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Miguel Cabrera

All she wanted was to read, learn and write in peace without being dictated to by the misogynistic Mexican society. Juana Inés de la Cruz lived during Mexico’s colonial period when women were not allowed to attend university. Despite this, Juana educated herself through books and began writing her thoughts about love, feminism and religion. Yet, Juana could not avoid the advances of men who believed she should settle down and marry. She sought the safety of a nunnery, which allowed her to continue writing until her opinions upset (male) members of the clergy. This is the story of the first feminist in the Americas, the “Phoenix of America”, who rose from the ashes of “religious authoritarianism”.

Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana was born on 12th November 1648 in the village of San Miguel Nepantla near Mexico City. Although she had older sisters, Juana was an illegitimate child because her parents never married. Her father, a Spanish captain called Pedro Manuel de Asbaje, abandoned the family shortly after Juana’s birth. Her mother was a Criolla woman called Isabel Ramírez. The Corillo people were Latin Americans with Spanish ancestors, which gave them more authority in Colonial Mexico, which belonged to the Spanish Empire. Juana’s father was Spanish, and her maternal grandparents were Spanish, thus making her a Criolla.

Hacienda Panoaya in Amecameca, Mexico is where Sor Juana lived between 1651 and 1656

Despite the lack of care from her biological father, Juana grew up in relative comfort on her maternal grandfather’s Hacienda, the Spanish equivalent of an estate. Her favourite place was the Hacienda chapel, where Juana hid with books stolen from her grandfather’s library. Girls were forbidden to read for leisure, but this did not prevent Juana from learning to read and write. At the age of three, Juana followed her sister to school and quickly learned how to read Latin. Allegedly, by the age of 5, Juana understood enough mathematics to write accounts, and at 8, wrote her first poem.

By her teens, Juana knew enough to teach other children Latin and could also understand Nahuatl, an Aztec language spoken in central Mexico since the seventh century. It was unusual for those of Spanish descent to speak the native languages. The Spanish aimed to replace the Mexicano tongue with their Latin alphabet, so it was almost with defiance that Juana went out of her way to not only learn Nahuatl but compose poems in the language too.

Juana finished school at 16 but wished to continue her studies at university. Unfortunately, only men could receive higher education. Juana spoke to her mother about her aspirations, suggesting she could disguise herself as a man to attend the university in Mexico City. Despite her pleading, Juana’s mother refused to allow her daughter to attempt such a risky plan. Instead, Isabel sent Juana to the colonial viceroy’s court to work as a lady-in-waiting.

Antonio Sebastián Álvarez de Toledo

Under the guardianship of the viceroy’s wife, Leonor de Carreto (1616-73), Juana continued her studies in private. Yet, she could not keep her ambitions secret from her mistress, who informed the viceroy of Juana’s intelligence. Rather than reprimanding her, the viceroy Antonio Sebastián Álvarez de Toledo (1622-1715) took an interest in Juana’s education. Wishing to test Juana’s intellect, the viceroy arranged a meeting of several theologians, philosophers, and poets and invited them to question the young girl. The men quizzed Juana on many topics, including science and literature, and she managed to impress them with her answers. They also admired how Juana conducted herself, and she remained unphased by the difficult questions they threw at her.

News of the meeting spread throughout the viceregal court. No longer needing to hide her writing skills, Juana produced many poems and other writings that impressed all those who read them. Her literary accomplishments spread across the Kingdom of New Spain, which covered much of North America, northern parts of South America and several islands in the Pacific Ocean. Yet, female scholars and writers were an anomaly at the time, and rather than attract praise, Juana drew the attention of many suitors. After refusing many proposals of marriage, Juana felt desperate to escape from the domineering men. She wanted “to have no fixed occupation which might curtail [her] freedom to study.” The only safe place she could find where she could continue her work was the Monastery of St. Joseph, so she became a nun.

Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana

Juana spent over a year with the Discalced Carmelite nuns as a postulant, then moved to the monastery of the Hieronymite nuns in 1669, preferring their more relaxed rules. The San Jerónimo Convent, which became Juana’s home for the rest of her life, was established in 1585 by Isabel de Barrios. Only four nuns lived in the building at first, but they soon grew in number, becoming one of the first convents of nuns of the Saint Jerome order. They based their role in life on the biblical scholar Saint Jerome (342-420), who translated most of the Bible into Latin. Known for his religious teachings, Jerome favoured women and identified how a woman devoted to Jesus should live her life. During his lifetime, Jerome knew many women who had taken a vow of virginity. He advised them on the clothing they should wear, how to conduct themselves in public, and what and how they should eat and drink.

Sor Juana, by Juan de Miranda (circa 1680)

Despite taking on the title “Sor”, the Spanish equivalent of sister, Sor Juana’s main aim was to focus on her literary pursuits. Whilst she followed the ways of the Hieronymite nuns, she spent all her spare time writing. Juana’s previous employers, the Viceroy and Vicereine of New Spain became her patrons, helping her publish her work in colonial Mexico and Spain. Sor Juana also received support from the intellectual Don Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora (1645-1700), who shared her religious beliefs as well as her passion for literature. Sigüenza, who claimed, “There is no pen that can rise to the eminence … of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz,” also encouraged Juana to explore scientific topics.

Sor Juana dedicated some of her works, particularly her poems, to her patrons. Those written for Vicereine Leonor de Carreto often featured the name Laura, a codename assigned by Juana. Another patron, Marchioness Maria Luisa Manrique de Lara y Gonzaga (1649-1721) was “Lysi”. Juana also wrote a comic play called Los empeños de una casa (House of Desires) for Doña Maria Luisa and her husband in celebration of the birthday of their first child, José.

The first performance of Los empeños de una casa took place on 4th October 1683 and contains three songs in praise of Doña María Luisa Manrique: “Divine Lysi, Let Pass“, “Beautiful María” and “Tender Beautiful Flower Bud”. The protagonist, Doña Ana of Arellano, resembles the marchioness, who Sor Juana held in high regard. The play features two couples who are in love but cannot be together. Mistaken identities cause the characters much distress and the audience much hilarity. By the end of the final scene, everyone pairs up with the right partner, except one man who remains single as a punishment for causing the initial deception. In terms of theme and drama, Los empeños de una casa is a prime example of Mexican baroque theatre.

Another play by Sor Juana premiered on 11th February 1689 to mark the inauguration of the viceroyalty Gaspar de la Cerda y Mendoza (1653-97). Sor Juana based Love is but a Labyrinth on the Greek mythological story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Theseus, the king and founder of Athens, fights against the half-bull, half-human Minotaur to save the Cretan princess Ariadne. Although Theseus resembled the archetypal baroque hero, Sor Juana portrayed him as a humble man rather than proud.

Sor Juana also demonstrated Baroque literature in her poetry. Often full of philosophical ideas, Juana explored themes of the deceptiveness of appearances and female intelligence. In Hombres necios (Foolish Men), for example, the nun reveals the illogical behaviour of men towards women, treating them as objects of passion rather than human beings. In other poems, Juana wrote about the disillusionment of love and the pain it caused.

The first part of Sor Juana’s complete works, Madrid, 1689

Arguably, Sor Juana’s best poem is Primero sueño (First Dream), 975-lines about the torturous quest of the soul for knowledge. As night falls and the body sleeps, the soul separates from the body and dreams. The soul contemplates the world and the existence of everything from flowers to human life, taking into account all the details and mysteries of each object. Yet, it fails to grasp the overwhelming abundance of the universe, and the sun rises once more, forcing the soul back into the body.

Critics interpreted Primero sueño as Sor Juana’s dreams or thoughts, which were highly philosophical compared to the average person. She explored themes of Neoplatonism, the idea that the world is divided into hierarchies, and Scholasticism, which combined Christian theology with classical philosophy, particularly that of Aristotle (384-322 BC). The latter believed every living organism had more than one purpose or cause, which Aristotle split into ten categories: substance; quantity; quality; relatives; somewhere; sometime; being in a position; having; acting; and being acted upon. It is likely Sor Juana came across Aristotle’s Categories during her studies, either in her grandfather’s library or the San Jerónimo Convent.

Sor Juana’s writings, poems and plays covered many of her interests, such as religion, philosophy, mathematics and science. She also enjoyed music and studied the theory of instrumental tuning, on which she wrote a treatise. Sadly, this work is lost, but evidence suggests she wrote some of her poems, intending to set them to music.

The first part of Sor Juana’s complete works, Madrid, 1689

Not all of Sor Juana’s writings were intended for public consumption. In 1690, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz (1637-99), the Bishop of Puebla, published Sor Juana’s critique of a sermon by the Jesuit priest Father António Vieira (1608-97). Titled Carta Atenagórica (Athenagorical Letter or a letter “worthy of Athena’s wisdom”), Juana expressed her dislike of the colonial system and her belief that religious doctrines are the product of human interpretation. She criticised Father António Vieira for his dramatic and philosophical representation of theological topics. Most importantly, Juana called the priest out for his anti-feminist attitude.

Alongside Sor Juana’s critique, the Bishop of Puebla published a letter under the pseudonym Sor Filotea de la Cruz, in which he admonished the nun for her opinions. Ironically, the bishop agreed with many of Sor Juana’s thoughts, but he ended the letter by saying Sor Juana should concentrate on religious rather than secular studies. Whilst the critique focused on a religious sermon, Sor Juana included colonialism and politics in her argument, which the bishop felt were inappropriate topics for a woman, let alone a nun.

Carta Atenagórica

“Sor Filotea expresses the admiration she feels for Sor Juana, but at the same time reproaches her for exercising her talent in profane subjects instead of devotional literature. Although Sister Filotea does not declare herself against the education of women, she does express her dissatisfaction with the lack of obedience that some already educated women might demonstrate. Finally, she recommends Sor Juana to follow the example of other mystical writers who dedicated themselves to theological literature, such as Santa Teresa de Ávila or San Gregorio Nacianceno.”

Sor Juana responded to Sor Filotea, the Bishop of Puebla, in which she defended women’s rights to education and further study. Whilst she agreed that women should not neglect their duties, in her case her obedience to the Church and God, Juana pointed out that “One can perfectly well philosophise while cooking supper.” By this, she meant women could balance their education and everyday tasks. She jokingly followed this with the quip, “If Aristotle had cooked, much more would have been written.”

In her response, Sor Juana quoted the Spanish nun St Teresa of Ávila (1515-82) as well as St Jerome and St Paul to back up her argument that “human arts and sciences” are necessary to understand sacred theology. She suggested if women were elected to positions of authority, they could educate other women, thus alleviating a male tutor’s fears of being in intimate settings with female students.

The nun’s controversial response caused a lot of concern amongst high-ranking (male) officials who criticised her “waywardness”. They were angry with Sor Juana for challenging the patriarchal structure of the Catholic Church, and for claiming her writing was as good as historical and biblical texts. As a result, the San Jerónimo Convent forbade Juana from reading and sold her collection of over 4,000 books and scientific instruments for charity. With no one on her side, Sor Juana relented and agreed to renew her vows. The convent also required Juana to undergo penance, but rather than signing the penitential documents with her name, she wrote: “Yo, la Peor de Todas” (I, the worst of all women).

From 1693 onwards, Sor Juana focused solely on her religious orders. Never again did she pick up a pen to write or a book to read. Instead, Juana spent her time either in prayer or tending the sick, which led to fatal consequences. After nursing other nuns stricken during a plague, Sor Juana fell ill and passed away on 17th April 1695.

Before she was silenced, Sor Juana penned over 100 works, the majority of which went unpublished. Unfortunately, many were lost, and only a handful remain. Those that survived were compiled into an anthology. Several writers, including the Mexican poet and diplomat Octavio Paz (1914-98), have studied Juana’s life and writings, focusing on the difficulties women faced while trying to thrive in academic fields. Several scholars argue that Juana’s advocacy of intellectual authority is one of the first recorded instances of feminism. Some liken her to the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-54), although Juana was ahead of her time – a protofeminist.

Monument of Sor Juana in Chapultepec.

Although Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is almost an unknown entity in the non-Spanish speaking world, her work and reputation live on in Mexico, where she remains a national icon. Her former cloister is now the University of the Cloister of Sor Juana, which the Mexican government founded in 1979. During the renovations, builders discovered bones believed to belong to the nun. Due to a lack of ancestors, tests cannot be carried out on the bones to confirm the identity, but a medallion similar to the one depicted in portraits of Juana found in the same place is enough evidence for some.

Feminist movements of the past and present have adopted Sor Juana as a symbol, along with Frida Kahlo. Some also link both women to LGBT movements, although Sor Juana never disclosed her sexuality. Evidence suggests Sor Juana became a nun to avoid marriage, but others argue she was an “Indigenous lesbian”. As part of her penance, Juana cut her hair, which some interpret as an attempt to masculinise her appearance, likening it to Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940).

Statue of Sor Juana Inés in Madrid, Spain.

Sor Juana is also a religious symbol of Mexican identity, both in relation to Catholicism and Aztec beliefs. The latter is due to Juana’s choice to write some of her poems in the indigenous Nahuatl language. She also wrote a play, El Divino Narciso (Loa to Divine Narcissus), which features two Indigenous people named Occident and America, discussing their religious beliefs with two Spaniards, Religion and Zeal. Yet, her devotion to the Virgin Mary is evident in other work by Sor Juana, as is her decision to take her vows at the San Jerónimo Convent.

Juana Ines de la Cruz in art by Mexican artist Mauricio García Vega.

Sor Juana continued to inspire and influence people in Mexico and Spain in the 20th century. She appears as characters in literature, such as Yo-Yo Boing! by Puerto Rican author Giannina Braschi (b.1953), which debates the greatest women poets, including Sor Juana and Emily Dickinson (1830-86). In 1962, Telesistema Mexicano broadcast a mini-series based on Sor Juana’s life; and in 1990, the film Yo, la peor de todas (I, the Worst of All) premiered, based on Octavio Paz’s book about the Mexican nun.

In the 21st century, Sor Juana’s fame finally made its way into English speaking countries. In 2004, Canadian author Paul Anderson published a novel based on Sor Juana’s life called Hunger’s Brides, which won the Alberta Book Award the following year. In 2007, Margaret Atwood (b.1939) published a book of poems, including Sor Juana Works in the Garden. In the music world, American composer John Adams (b.1947) used two of Sor Juana’s poems in the libretto for the oratorio-opera El Niño (2000). In 2015, the Royal Shakespeare Company performed Helen Edmundson’s (b.1964) play The Heresy of Love as part of the Spanish Golden Age season. Finally, in 2017, Google honoured Sor Juana with a Google Doodle to mark her 366th birthday.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz has yet to earn her place among the greatest women in the world outside of Spanish speaking countries, but her ideas are gradually making their way into contemporary works. Sometimes referred to as the “The Tenth Muse” and “The Phoenix of America”, Sor Juana is an inspiration to everyone who faces adversity, particularly in terms of human rights and education. Fortunately, life for women has drastically improved since Sor Juana’s time, but the necessary changes only began 100 years ago. Sor Juana was not afraid to point out the inequalities in her society. Yet, with no one to back her up, there was nothing she could do to change things during her lifetime. If Sor Juana could see the world today, she would be pleased with our progress.


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Tiddely-Pom: Exploring a classic

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© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Bump, bump, bump … Is that the sound of a teddy bear being dragged down the stairs? No! It is the sound of a famous bear of very little Brain making his way into the Victoria and Albert Museum. In a unique exhibition, the Best Bear in All the World is celebrated in Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic along with all of his friends. Now in his 90s, Pooh has become a timeless character with universal appeal, however, without the creative partnership between author A. A. Milne and illustrator E. H. Shepard, Pooh’s legacy would not have come to anything at all.

Pooh knew that an Adventure was going to happen …

Stepping through the tall double doors, visitors are instantly transported to the fictional setting of Winnie-the-Pooh (1926). From above, Winnie-the-Pooh dangles at the end of a string amongst a barrage of large, pretend, blue balloons – an allusion to the narrative in which Pooh attempts to steal honey from the bees at the top of a tree. Wall illustrations and huge three-dimensional letters warmly welcome everyone Hallo, and thus, the spellbinding adventure begins.

Winnie-the-Pooh first appeared in a book titled When We Were Very Young in 1924. It contains a selection of poems aimed at young children by the author Alan Alexander Milne (1882-1956). It was also the first instance that Milne and E.H. Shepard collaborated together. The pair had met through the British satirical magazine Punch, which Milne was the assistant editor.

Previous to his child-oriented books, Milne had successfully written humorous verse, social satires, fairytales and plays, however, Pooh was destined to quickly overshadow these works. Likewise, Ernest Howard Shepard (1879-1976) had also achieved a lot before the advent of Pooh. The Punch contributor was already well-known for his pen and ink drawings, including the anthropomorphic illustrations of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows (1908).

The Trinity College, Cambridge graduate, Milne, first experimented with juvenile stories after the birth of his only child Christopher Robin Milne in 1920. The name Christopher Robin has become synonymous with Winnie-the-Pooh and other characters, such as Eeyore and Piglet, but what some people may not realise is that the character was based on the author’s son. By observing Christopher playing in Ashdown Forest, Sussex, near the family’s weekend retreat, Milne concocted ideas for the adventures the fictionalised boy would go on with his favourite zoomorphic toys.

In order to produce the illustrations that would soon be greatly adored throughout the world, Shepard was invited to spend time studying and drawing Christopher’s toys. Sketch after sketch was produced – some of which are on display – until the perfect versions of the characters had been attained; thus, Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger, Owl, Rabbit, Kanga, and Roo were born.

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A map of the Hundred-Acre Wood

Shepard also spent time in Ashdown Forest drawing the trees and landscape and inventing homes for the funny creatures. The illustrator put in a considerable amount of effort to produce a clever and detailed map of Pooh’s home, The Hundred Akre Wood [sic], which helped to create a consistency throughout the illustrations in Winnie-the-Pooh and its sequel The House at Pooh Corner (1928).

What made Winnie-the-Pooh successful and cause A. A. Milne, to be regarded as the “laureate of the nursery”? Milne’s writing follows the first, although unofficial, rule of children’s fiction: get rid of the parents, then we can begin. Being the only human character, it is likely that children mostly relate to Christopher Robin, an adventurous boy who is usually much cleverer than his silly old bear. However, Milne has given human traits to all the toys/animals.

By using a mixture of thick and thin pen nibs, Shepard subtly conveyed the facial expressions and personalities of each character. Pooh is often striking a pose of mild bewilderment for he is a “Bear of Very Little Brain, and Long Words Bother Me.” Likewise, Piglet often sports a look of surprise at all he encounters.

Milne also gives his characters minor vices, proving that even fictional beings are not completely perfect. The rotund Pooh is a strong example of gluttony with his penchant for honey. As the cupboards in Pooh’s house midway through the exhibition reveal, he can get through ten jars of honey in four days. Bother!

Eeyore is full of self-pity and has since been diagnosed with depression by older readers, whereas, Tigger, the hyperactive tiger, is the vainest of the bunch, falsely believing that there is nothing that Tiggers cannot do – a claim that is disproven time and again. The names of these characters have become adjectives used in everyday life. Melancholy folk are often regarded as Eeyorish, and the sanguine, Tiggerish.

Other vices that appear are idleness (“What I like doing best is Nothing“), evasiveness, self-preservation, and suspiciousness. Being small and defenceless, Piglet is prone to the latter. He has many fears that he bravely faces in quite a few of the stories.

Rabbit, Owl, Kanga, and Roo are secondary characters but each has their own flaws, although, of course, they have virtues, too. Rabbit’s personality is not dissimilar to the stereotypical old man. He is usually portrayed as irritable and has little time for the other toys.

“Hallo, Rabbit,” he said, “is that you?”
“Let’s pretend it isn’t,” said Rabbit, “and see what happens.”

Owl is considered by the others to be wise and is often sought out for advice. Readers will instantly pick up on the inaccuracies of Owl’s intelligence and chuckle as Pooh and friends innocently believe his every word. “Owl hasn’t exactly got a Brain, but he knows Things.”

Kanga is the “mum-friend” of the group and always looks after everyone, including her excitable child, Roo. Whilst Rabbit is making plans and Tigger is causing hullabaloo, Kanga tries to keep everyone in check, although some may accuse her of spoiling all the fun.

Yet, it is not only a good set of characters that make a book an international sensation; the storyline has to attract the minds of its target audience, too. The overall theme is childhood innocence, which would both resonate with youngsters and amuse the adults doing the reading. Each story has its own issue from mishap and misunderstanding, and friendship and falling out, to problem-solving, and learning to read, count or write. In their own special way, each adventure in Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner is as educative as it is entertaining.

As for the written storyline, Milne simplifies the language for the benefit of children, even going as far as to invent words that youngsters may use instead of correct terms and phrases. Many of these are words Pooh has misheard Christopher Robin pronounce and some are spelt phonetically rather than accurately, for example, Hallo, and Hunny.

The animals’ ability to spell is atrocious, as emphasised in both the text and the illustrations. Wol and Eor replace Owl and Eeyore, and letters are often switched around in the simplest of words. Fortunately, the intelligent reader can determine what these words are meant to say. Milne spices up the text even more by including random capitalisation of nouns. This adds to the child-like narrative and alludes to the characters learning the correct way to read and write.

Poetry is a common feature in the Pooh stories, which adds further hilarity to the story. On his walks around the Hundred Acre Wood, Pooh hums to himself “umty-tiddly, umty-too,” and makes up songs about nature, friendship, and the world around him. The majority of these are nonsense rhymes due to the fact that Pooh thinks Good Thoughts to himself about Nothing … However, the poems rhyme and have since been added to music by Harold Fraser-Simson (1872-1944), a neighbour of the Milne family in Chelsea. Now everyone can sing Tiddle-um-tum and tra-la-la. 

Unfortunately, Milne’s style of prose did not sit well with everyone in the 1920s and 30s. Despite its growing success, Constant Reader, a.k.a Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) claimed in The New Yorker that the word hummy “marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up.”

The books’ harshest critic, however, was the real Christopher Robin, who purportedly hated the stories. Despite this, his restoration and renaming of Posingford Bridge, now Pooh Sticks Bridge, suggest he may not have been as averse as the media claims. A cardboard replica of the bridge is included in the exhibition for visitors to cross over, whilst pretending to play Pooh Sticks over an animated, digital river.

It is clear from the family photographs displayed in a nursery setting that Milne loved his son very much, and it is unlikely that he would have wished to upset Christopher by borrowing his name and toys for his literature. Pictured sitting on his father’s knee, and in another, with his mother Daphne, Christopher Robin poses for black and white photographs. He is also pictured in the woods with his toy bear who was about to become famous throughout the world.

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Teddy bear, manufactured by Margarete Steiff, 1906 – 10. Museum no. MISC.10-1970. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Examples of bears that were similar to Christopher Robin’s are on display, including ones made specifically for the recent film Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017). Another bear, similar to the one belonging to E. H. Shepard’s son, sits beside Christopher’s. The reason for this is Shepard used both bears as visual references when developing the iconic illustrations.

Throughout the writing and publishing process, Milne and Shepard were in close contact, with letters being sent back and forth containing new ideas and suggestions. A few of these have been acquired by the V&A, and visitors are invited to read them if they are able to decipher the tiny, almost illegible, writing.

By working together on Winnie-the-Pooh, the original book became one of the first of its kind in which text and illustration worked together. Traditionally, an illustrator was given a completed manuscript to draw scenes for, which would then be placed in strategically positioned sections of the page. What Milne and Shepard achieved were instances where text and illustration combined to make a complete image. In some instances, Milne refers to the pictures or refrains from mentioning the character’s name because the reader can already see to whom is being referred.

The entirety of the exhibition is made up of temporary walls containing enlarged versions of E. H. Shepard’s illustrations. By making them life-size, the museum has created a playground for children where they can walk through tiny doors, ring bells, open cupboards, climb into Piglet’s house and slide back out, sit at a table in a pretend forest and draw their own trees, and so on.

Whilst the children are having a fun, enjoyable experience, the adults are able to study some of the original manuscripts and illustrations. Over 270 drawings, letters, proofs, and photographs make up this extensive collection. The museum has gone even further to explain the techniques Shepard used to create atmospheric scenes, suspended animation, and the all-important human traits. Artists and illustrators may benefit from taking note of the use of lines and shading, and the clever trick of adding white gouache to create a snowy effect.

Before the exhibition really gets underway, a corridor fitted with a lengthy glass case reveals the many faces of Winnie-the-Pooh from the 1920s up until the present day. Winnie-the-Pooh had only been on bookshelves for four years when the father of the licensing industry Stephen Slesinger (1901-1953) began designing products featuring the increasingly popular illustrations.  The ‘Teddy Toycompany founded by B.C. Hope and Abe Simmonds made some of the earliest Pooh merchandise, including a golden teddy bear.

The commodification of Pooh escalated further in 1966 when Disney produced its first animated film based on Milne’s stories. For this, art workers simplified the black and white drawings to fit their house style and gave Pooh the red t-shirt he is often seen wearing today. Alongside the film came a whole host of paraphernalia with new ideas being developed every year.

The books themselves have been translated into over 30 languages, including Latin. Not only that, new books have been published with simplified stories containing updated illustrations. Pooh has also been the face of cookery books, political satire, and a whole host of other things. Examples of these are situated in the primary section of the exhibition.

The final section of the exhibition reveals how E. H. Shepard’s black and white illustrations became the coloured versions that many children are familiar with today. Disney had already brought the stories into the colour world and determined the shades of each character, specifically Pooh and his redshirt. When the publisher Frank Herrmann (b1945) decided in 1970 to add colour to the originals, Shepard was already in his 90s and rapidly losing his sight. Nevertheless, with the aid of enlarged copies of his drawings, he developed coloured versions, however, due to the popularity of the Disney Winnie-the-Pooh, had to conform to the colours the public had grown to expect.

25463903_10212824881688294_1466548422_nThe coloured versions are bold and bright like many illustrations in the 1960s and 70s. Unfortunately, this removed the delicacy of the original hand-drawn lines, making them less detailed and gentle. This may have been the norm for illustrations of that era, however, in hindsight, the originals were already perfect.

Here, the exhibition comes to an end. After a superb adventure through the minds of both the author and illustrator, visitors are much more informed about the silly old bear and his origins. Winnie-the-Pooh is much more than a story for children, he has found a permanent home in the world and it is difficult to imagine a life without him.

The Victoria and Albert Museum has excelled in its curation of Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic. Not only is it a grand display of illustration, it is like entering a different world. It is hard to believe that the same gallery hosted the Pink Floyd exhibition mere months ago.

Suitable for anyone between the ages of two and 102, Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic is worth the visit. It brings fresh insight into children’s literature and will hopefully ignite a passion for reading within the younger generation.

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So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on top of the hill, a little boy and his bear will always be playing.

This multi-sensory and playful exhibition, Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classicwill be open at the V&A until Sunday 8th April 2018. Tickets are £8 but children under the age of 11 are free when accompanied by a paying adult. 

Art in the Park

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

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

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

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

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ArcelorMittal Orbit

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

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

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

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

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

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The Fun Palace by Caroline Bird.

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

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

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

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

Sylvia Pankhurst

I dreamed you came again

through the smog of time,

match-girls and broom-makers,

cycling from street to street

with The Women’s Dreadnought;

the houses lit for miles,

like beacons

and a true friend

– Extract from Bicycling For Ladies

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

 

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Freeze Frame by Neville Gabie

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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