Friday, 30 August 2013

A Twerk of Art

If you live somewhere polite and classy, not bothering to take much notice of the rum goings-on by starlets, you may well have missed this performance which occurred at the MTV Awards last weekend...

No, sorry, I'm at a loss to explain this...
Right then, the 'gentleman' on the left (apparently wearing Beetlejuice's suit) is Robin Thicke and the young lady entreating him to play leapfrog is Miley Cyrus.  The focus of the moral outrage the morning after was the erstwhile Miss Cyrus, who managed to break the fabric of civilisation with a routine involving teddy bears, cultural appropriation, a lot of tongue poking and something called 'twerking'.  I naturally thought of Rossetti.

Miley and her Bears.  Before she pulled her swimsuit off.  And twerked Mr Thicke.
I'm not kidding when I said I thought of Rossetti (not least because we all know he would have loved a good twerk).  When it came down to it, within the hubbub that surrounded Miley's performance there seemed to be two main charges against her.  Firstly, she was guilty of super-sexualising her presentation and secondly, that she greedily misappropriated aspects of another culture.

Oh, before I go on, 'Twerking' is a sort of dancing where you bend about.  The word is possibly a portmanteau of 'twist' and 'jerk'.  It has cultural significance which are lost by the time it reaches the masses, I must admit, because really in this context, it seems to merely signify extrovert libidinal urges.  You heard me.  Anyway, talking of urges...

Bocca Baciata (1859) D G Rossetti
During the 1850s, Rossetti produced watercoloured maidens, chaste kisses and honour.  His Medieval ladies tied pennants onto spears and everyone attempted to keep themselves under control.  Then he found oil and Fanny Cornforth and look what happened.  Suddenly, it's a cavalcade of snogging and more and the woman comes out fresh as the moon.  It's a very convenient mantra for Rossetti to chant, but this is revolutionary, even by today's standards.  Apparently the phrase used for the disapproval of a woman who displays her sexuality a little more freely than we're comfortable is 'slut-shaming'. One thing I read over and over after Miley's performance was the mourning wail for Miley's lost youth.  Miss Cyrus rose to stardom as the pop-starlet Hannah Montana in a Disney series.  She was fresh-faced, virginal and wholesome. Yes, she may have gotten into some scrapes, but she emerged with a song in her heart and her clothing on.  What her reinvention has done is to completely reverse that.  Her video for 'We Can't Stop' shows an orgy of partying and free sexuality in which Miley participates and emerges defiant.  She wants to show that she is grown up, and what do grown ups do?  They don't obey rules and they take their pants off. A lot.

Miley twerks a lady, because that's what grown-ups do.
Just out of shot is Mrs Walker having a sit down with a book,
which is also what grown-ups do.
Maybe there is a cross-over between publicly shedding a youthful persona and using sex as a method of expression.  As a child, sexuality is the most baffling part of adulthood, something readily seen but not understood.  As soon as we are old enough we rush to embrace that part of life, maybe as a public statement that we have indeed grown up.  With all that allure to be adult and autonomous, comes the chance for others to make money.  Hence the monotonous regularity that child stars get sexy.  Miley isn't the first, she won't be the last and to be honest, she wasn't doing anything that we haven't seen before.  While people may all be horrified, outraged and disgusted by a 20 year old woman pretending to fondle herself with a giant foam finger, she certainly got publicity and probably sold a lot of records.  Sex sells.  Queue Rossetti in 1860s...

Venus Verticordia (1865) D G Rossetti
Ruskin found this picture as vulgar and disturbing as many critics found Miss Cyrus.  One commentator described it as the lust of the flesh that never perishes.  Not love, not beauty, but raw, naked sexy-sex and as Miley say, we can't stop.  It's compelling, it's all too human, and it sells.  Look at it this way, you don't have to buy it.  Vote with your money, that would stop it.  It's done for your amusement, so if you aren't amused, don't buy it.  Enough painters in the past had to cover up nudey bits in order to make their money.  If we really find Miley dancing around in a fur swimsuit to be too much then switch over and don't buy her record.  She probably wouldn't do it then.

To be honest, the sexy-sex bit of the performance was not as shocking as a few people seemed to declare it.  No-one was struck dead by God, really, let's not forget it was a lady pretending to do stuff whilst wearing a gianty foam finger.  Rather more disturbing was the fact that Miley 'borrowed' rather heavily from another culture, or rather paraded a lot of nasty cultural stereotypes about to declare something 'cool' about her.

Miley and a friend.  Oh dear.
 Part of the song refers to her 'home girl with the big butt'. In her performance, Miley pretended to lick, bite and smack one of the dancers on the behind.  I think that was the point when people wished she would stop.  Part of Miley's 'growing up' has been to become what is euphemistically referred to as Urban, as displayed on this charming garment...

Miley does a 'selfie' in the mirror
By Urban we mean stereotypical Black American, let's not pretend.  That entails, according to Miley's tshirt, sex, drugs and rap.  She smacked the ladies arse because that lady is all about sex.  She refers to waiting in line for the toilet in order to do 'a line'.  She struts and apes the stance of Rappers.  She is all about the sex and who is more about the sex than Black Americans?  Apparently.  (This was news to me as I grew up with the Cosby Show and therefore my tshirt would say 'Jumpers, Nice Parents, & Trying Hard at School.') Is she alone in her assumption that other cultures are all about sex?  Rossetti, anything to say?

The Blue Bower (1865) D G Rossetti
How tame it all looks, but if you think about it by appropriating Japonism and placing a woman in the context you are playing with notions of Geisha.  Although the role of a Geisha is far more complex than sex (as is 'twerking'), that is what it gets boiled down to.  The excitement of a woman who is sexual ready, willing and able is a powerful thing because it goes against the other extreme, that women are none of those things.  Both are nonsense and women have written copious amounts on our frustration of being told we are one and should be the other.

The Beloved D G Rossetti
The addition of other cultures implies that as Caucasians we are devoid of sexuality, which is insulting, and so we have to drag in some people of a darker hue because they are all about sex, also really insulting.  It also speaks of an insecurity, a boredom with the culture you have been born into.  When Rossetti painted the black boy at the front of the picture, in addition to the black and the gypsy bridesmaids, he was short-handing the eroticism of the passage from Song of Solomon that the painting is based on.  He shared the racial stereotyping of his contemporaries but supported the North in the American Civil War, for which he was mocked by his friends.  His use of the figures is to do with a cultural currency which translates into actual currency without looking any deeper.

Gwen Stefani and Love, Angel, Music and Baby, her Harajuku Girls
It's hard to talk about cultural appropriation as a vaguely middle-class, white, first-world woman because I'm guessing I do it.  It's culturally ingrained for us to borrow from others and it comes from a good and bad place.  On one hand, we are genuinely interested in other cultures.  Other people are fascinating.  It emanates from the same place as our love of the past and is just part of being human.  We are interested in other humans because we are all the same, even when we seem completely different.  When Gwen Stefani based her 2004 album Love, Angel, Music, Baby on her fascination with Harajuku (street fashion and culture in Tokyo), she no doubt made a lot of money (no pun intended).  She received a lot of criticism for cultural theft but I was left with the feeling that she truly did love the culture.  Her appropriation, although fiscally rewarding, came from a place of interest, not just cynical money-picking.  Also, she reflected  Japanese street fashion that evolved from borrowing fashion from the West and changing it to reflect their own tastes.  Maybe that feels different because it comes from a place of sharing.

On the other hand, Culture-picking is used for amusement, to say how funny others are, belittling and patronising and using cultural objects and attitudes deeply inappropriately.  We also misuse things to reaffirm our prejudice.  Some of us use other cultures for monetary gain.  Then it gets really offensive.  A tshirt that sums up even a tiny aspect of another culture as 'Sex, Drugs and Rap' is disturbing because it glamorizes something that harms whilst book-ending it with two big stereotypes.

But then how about this...?

Yes, you know this one.
As a woman with a history of mental health issues, how do I feel about Millais' Ophelia?  It could be argued that it utterly glamorizes something that is not pretty and makes it look cool.  This is a picture of a woman killing herself because she has a mental illness.  Isn't it beautiful?

Sorry for the rambling, but the more I think about cultural appropriation, the bigger the problem is.  I have been told that my style of dress and behaviour is deeply offensive.  Whilst I do not waggle my bottom against random men while playing at being 'Gangsta', I do wear a circle skirt, net petticoats and am known for my enthusiasm for baking.  I was informed I was playing at being oppressed, and could not possibly appreciate how much I would hate actually being a 1950s housewife.  Now that may be true but I did not for a moment consider how borrowing from the past could be the same as borrowing from a modern culture (albeit a stereotype of one).  When the Pre-Raphaelites reached back to embrace Medievalism did they really know what they were doing, or was it because it suited an aesthetic?  William Morris wished to recreate the handcrafting of belongings, just like the good old days, but for our ancestors work tended to be hard and cut short by limb-loss and death.

I have no answers for all of this.  I would be interested to hear what you have to say and if you would like to see some of the modern things I refer to, here are some links:

If you want to see Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke's performance at the VMA Awards, here it is.  Have a sit down and a stiff drink, you'll be fine.

If you want to see Miley's We Can't Stop video, here it is. Again, a stiff drink will sort it out.

For Gwen Stefani's Alice in Wonderland inspired, Harajuku anthem What You Waiting For? look here.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Happy Birthday Ned, All is Forgiven!

Happy Birthday, Edward Burne-Jones!  He's 180 today, and due to my preference for older gentlemen, I think he's rather swoony.

As some of you may know, I went up to the exhibition on Burne-Jones' drawings at the Lady Lever Art Gallery at the weekend.

It was very beautiful, unsurprisingly so, the highlight of which was the enormous watercolour of Sponsa di Libano (The Bride of Lebanon)...

Gosh, it's enormous and beautiful!  Mr Walker was especially keen to see it as the Russell-Cotes has a pencil sketch of it.  The rest of the exhibition is splendid, the drawings and the chalks were outstanding as you would expect.  It wasn't as big as Birmingham's recent Pre-Raphaelite Drawing show, but then it was free to go in and so I wasn't disappointed at all.

However, I have to make a bit of a confession.

I'd already fallen utterly in love with a painting before I got into the exhibit.  In fact, it was all I could think of all the way round.  Sorry Ned, I was distracted.  But then, this is what distracted me...

*Not heard: the sound of Mrs Walker whimpering with pleasure
I suppose it's not so bad if my head is turned by another of Ned's pictures, and what a picture!  Almost two metres high and over a metre wide, it dominated a wall of Burne-Jones' beauties.  I had seen this picture lots of times in books but I couldn't remember the last time I saw it in person and it hit me like a smack when I turned the corner and found it.  The above image is my photograph (the Lady Lever, unusually, allow photography in the gallery.  I would love to have seen my expression when I found that out.  I think my eyes grew large and heart-shaped and I thanked them profusely before skipping back in to the hall with my camera in my hand).  Here is a better image of the painting:

Tree of Forgiveness (1882) Edward Burne-Jones
This is one of the better reproductions you can get and even this cannot do justice to the burnished copper of the woman's hair, the fact her skin looks like ice-cream, and the sheer, muscled gorgeousness of the chap.  All is vibrant, scented heaven, pressed against you like the sigh of a lover.  Swoon!  Sorry, I'll pull myself together.

Anyway, I came home and immediately wanted to know more about the picture.  My tired brain knew that it was Phyllis and Demophoön, but that was it (I had just driven for six hours, even I have an off-day), although Phyllis was obviously that saucy minx, Maria Zambaco.

Avert your eyes Gentlemen, she will ruin you!  Apparently.
You will already know that The Tree of Forgiveness is a 'copy' of an earlier work by Ned, painted over a decade earlier...

Phyllis and Demophoön (1870)
The faces for this version were both based on Maria Zambaco, Ned's lover until 1869.  They had broken from each other and Maria's attempted suicide had caused a great scandal.  Ned had tried to stop his erstwhile mistress from drowning herself and by the time the police arrived, the couple were wrestling on the ground.  Maria had furnished herself enough laudanum to kill herself that way as well. It is likely that Ned's panic was not only to stop her hurling herself into the Thames, but also to stop her harming herself in any other manner.  The police were nearby, which was lucky (or unlucky, depending on your viewpoint), due to the number of suicides on that stretch of water, and collared Ned.  The whole scene was both sensational and extremely distressing for all involved, but it is interesting that Ned broke the relationship off when Maria asked him to leave his wife.  I get the impression he was attracted to her beauty, her 'otherness', but when it came to it, he wasn't about to be told what to do by anyone.

The painting he produced in 1870 was Phyllis and Demophoön.  Demophoön was a king of Athens who fell in love with the beautiful Phyllis on his way back from the Trojan War (he was in the actual horse and everything).  He married her, but had to return to Attica for six months, promising to come back to his wife.  Every day Phyllis went to the shore, awaiting the sight of sails but her feckless hunk of a husband had ended up in Cyprus and had forgotten all about her.  When six months came and went, Phyllis was filled with despair and hung herself from a tree.  The Gods took pity on her and transformed her into an almond tree.

Demophoön (far too high maintenance in my opinion) suddenly remembered he had a wife (I've met a few men like that) and hot-footed it back to Thrace, to his wife.  There he was informed that his uselessness had turned his wife into a tree.  Consumed by guilt (Today on Jeremy Kyle: 'All very well to feel guilty now, but I'm a tree because of you!') Demophoön embraced the tree which began to bloom.  Suddenly, awakened by her husband's remorse, Phyllis burst forth from the tree to forgive him.

Isn't that lovely?  In the original tales, Phyllis remained a tree and Demophoön fell on his sword and the suchlike, but Ned gave them a happy ending.  Or did he?

The 1870 original was very controversial.  For starters, Demophoön is a bit starkers.  I read a very interesting bit recently about male nudity.  Apparently it's fine as long as ladies can't see it (spoil sports) and Phyllis is quite up-close and personal with nude-y Demophoön.  Not even the fact that her feet are still a bit wooden defuses the fact that she is within groping distance of a chap's naughty bits.  Good Lord!

Also, Maria Zambaco was all over the picture; she was Phyllis, lunging towards her lover.  She was Demophoön, filled with guilt, asking for forgiveness.  She was the situation, the lovers, the neglect and the passion.  Her soft features shine from the couple, so close, so intimate.  When Ned painted the picture, their affair was over, but obviously his imagination still held her, still regretted, still wanted to make the whole sorry mess right.  The picture is often read to be about regret, but look at Demophoön's face.  I think it is also about fear.

When he returned to the subject a decade later, the resultant image was The Tree of Forgiveness.

Although the focus of the image, the title, is about forgiveness, the fear remained.  Demophoön doesn't look happy to see his beloved, or relieved that his lost love has returned.  He doesn't even look surprised that she has appeared.  He looks terrified.  This is especially strong in the 1882 version, as the figure of Demophoön has been 'beefed up', a greater contrast to the slight, creamy form of Phyllis.  He looks like he is trying to get away from her, but why?

Look at it this way - Demophoön had forgotten her, had neglected her and through his thoughtlessness caused her to kill herself.  Phyllis is a woman of action, she makes things happen.  Demophoön makes things happen through his inaction.  He returns to his wife and finds he has lost her, but then through her strength of love, she not only comes back to life, but transforms back from a tree.  He awakens a superhuman passion in her that makes the impossible happen.  He inspires but she achieves.  The strength is hers, he is simply the focus.

In 1879, Maria Zambaco returned to London.  For a decade, Ned had not seen her.  He had slowly pieced his life together after his affair that had almost cost him his wife, family and reputation.  In 1869, he had tried to end the relationship, but she had tried to kill herself, a rather more dynamic action towards ending things.  Ned had stopped her from ending her life, but as they had roughly embraced on the pavement outside Browning's house, the police thundering to their aid, he must have known the power in the relationship was not his.  By 1879, Burne-Jones had grown in reputation, but none of that mattered because the woman who had ruled him could have destroyed him again as quickly.

Heaven knows what Georgie Burne-Jones thought when she saw Maria's face, large as life, on the intense canvas.  I expect she had long since turned a weary blind eye to Ned's fancies, but the timing of the revisit makes me wonder if she drew the same conclusion: Ned was frightened of Maria.  To be the focus of another's love when you love them back is beautiful, but when you don't return their love, it's terrifying.  It is suggested that Ned changed the story to give it a happy ending, the couple reunited, but what if Demophoön had been too weak to say no to Phyllis face to face?  If by going and staying away, he was getting rid of a wife he didn't want.  To his credit, he was sad when he found she had killed herself but then, all of a sudden, she comes back to life.  You can run, you can hide, you can even kill her, but she will just keep coming for you.

You know you're in trouble
 when you smell almond blossom in your hair....

Phyllis' hands are clasped around him and she presses to him like she wants to become one with him. Their bodies echo each other and despite his muscles, he is definitely looking in the weaker position, not least because his hands seem to scrabble away, unaware that the almond blossom has surrounded him.  There is no escape.

It is said that Burne-Jones learnt his lesson from the original work and draped Demophoön to preserve his modesty.

Ah, yes, that is far less inflammatory...
Another way of looking at it is that the pale drape comes from Phyllis, curling around his vitals.  Arguably, what Burne-Jones had sought and received from Maria was not essentially love, but head-turning, heart-racing lust.  He didn't love her enough (or Georgiana too little) to run away to Greece with Maria, so his heart wasn't hers.  An entirely different part of his anatomy had ruled him, Maria had grasped him by it, and possibly that is what he is saying with the mystic swirl.  Also, it could be a reference again to the power difference between them.  She had unmanned him, literally, left him without the signs of his masculine strength.  All of a sudden he is physically as featureless as her, but he's not the one exploding out of a tree.

I have to admit, my past reticence to embrace Burne-Jones to my bosom has been due to his affairs, his wandering eye and the utterly rubbish way in which he handled it all.  The Tree of Forgiveness says that maybe Burne-Jones was as horrified by his actions as I am.  We all make mistakes, some of them disastrous both for us and others, but often the wreckage we make is unintentional (if not in action, then in outcome).  I think that this painting is Burne-Jones' admission that he got it horrible wrong.  I get the impression that he had entered the relationship completely blind to the needs of his lover, but that he had been punished by foolishly underestimating her power.  The repetition of the image on Maria's return to London shows that maybe that lesson had not been forgotten and was still greatly feared.

I now feel comfortable to sit next to Ned and nod sympathetically at admissions of human folly.  Ever the master of understatement, the original work in 1870 was exhibited with a quote from Ovid: 'Tell me what I have done?  I have loved unwisely.'  You have to wonder, out of the two figures, who exactly is speaking the words.

Happy birthday, Ned.  We love you.  Wisely, I hope.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Viva Pre-Raphaelite!

I don't only obsess about Pre-Raphaelitism you know, although admittedly it takes up obscene amounts of my time.  Currently I am revisiting a very long-held love due to a bit of party planning.  In November, Mr Walker and I will have been married 10 years (I was a child bride, honest) and we are having a party, the theme of which is los Dias de los Muertos (the Days of the Dead), a Mexican celebration which falls on our wedding anniversary.  Put simply it's a bit like Halloween but far jollier and full of fun and a time to remember ancestors who, it is believed, return from the grave once a year to be fed.  It's a long story as to how this became a thing for the Walker family, but some of it is to do with lady...

I am a huge fan of Frida Kahlo, have been since I did a year of modern art as part of one of my degrees.  While planning the Walker Wedding shin-dig I have been drawing on her imagery and life for inspiration.  An artist, confined by illness, married to a fellow artist who led her a bit of a merry dance, the issues over children... hang on, I thought, this is all a bit familiar... Did my love of Frida come from my love of Elizabeth Siddal?  How far is Frida Kahlo a secret Pre-Raphaelite?

Self Portrait (1926) Frida Kahlo
When you think of the art of Frida Kahlo, the chances are that you are thinking of the same qualities as the art of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: a half or three-quarter length portraits of unconventionally beautiful women.  I would like to ask Ms Kahlo if she had ever seen any of Rossetti's portraits of Jane Morris as it strikes me how much her work draws on the same vision.

Pandora D G Rossetti
In many ways, Kahlo is as easy to homage as Jane Morris and Elizabeth Siddal.  If you want to portray Frida in a photo shoot, all you need are some heavy eyebrows and a plait, held up with flowers. Look...

Anyway, it's not just the passing iconic resemblance to Jane Morris that got me thinking, it was more the spiritual sisterhood she seemed to hold with Elizabeth Siddal.  More specifically, it was that both women seem to have built a self-image from their confinement due to illness.  Kahlo's illness was from a horrific accident, which compounded damage done to her by polio (and possible spina bifida).  This meant that great parts of her life were not only spent housebound, but flat-out in a bed with nothing to do but paint.  Through these extraordinary portraits you get a vision of 'separateness' which goes beyond loneliness.

Self Portrait Frida Kahlo

Self Portrait Elizabeth Siddal
Both women were harsh with their self-projection, Kahlo emphasising her brows and facial hair, Siddal pinching her face and hooding her eyes.  Both women also drew painful inspiration from the betrayal of their lovers.  Think of Siddal's poems Worn Out or A Silent Wood, and the destruction that has been done to her by her inconstant man.  In Worn Out her love seems to physically turn on her, hurting her 'I cannot give to thee the love / I gave so long ago, / The love that turned and struck me down / Amid the blinding snow.'  Likewise, in Self Portrait with Cropped Hair, Kahlo's loss of her love is expressed through her rage and cropped hair (the verse speaks of how she believed he loved her for her long hair and now her hair is short he does not love her).

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
It is easy to see similarity in the relationship of Siddal and Rossetti and Kahlo and Rivera.  Possibly it's tempting to generalise about artists and their temperaments, living together disastrously.  Arguably, Kahlo gave Rivera as much hell as he gave her, but that is possibly reflective of the times in which they lived.  There are artistic couples who fought and couples who were happy, but still couples where both are artists are still relatively rare, which may be an indication to things like ego and vision.

Henry Ford Hospital (1932) 
I think one aspect of life they both tragically shared was their devastation over childbirth.  Kahlo's accident and Siddal's illness and laudanum-use rendered both their bodies unable to carry children which caused both of them horrific distress.  Kahlo's found vent in some of her most visceral works (the one above is relatively tame), but Siddal's internalising contributed to her early death.  It is symptomatic of her time that Siddal could not express the loss of her child fully, although there may be shadows of it in her poetry.  Kahlo found some recognition, if not comfort, of her loss through her work and moved beyond these moments, as if by trapping them on canvas they could not damage her further.

Ophelia J E Millais
The Dream Frida Kahlo
What is certainly true is that for many people both Kahlo and Siddal mean one thing: death.  Both are seen as women engaged in a drawn-out suicide, the architypal feminine implosion associated with artistic genius.  Just as Siddal never fully escapes her Ophelia roots, then Kahlo is very often reduced to a Day of the Dead Catrina, sometimes literally.

I have to admit this is a bit of an object of desire for me, and I really think Frida would have approved as she was a big fan of the Day of the Dead.  It strikes me that both Siddal and Kahlo are used by their audiences to express their own fears over mortality.  'Ophelia' Siddal is the doomed muse, drowning for the art of the men, a common summary of Siddal herself but one that in no way expresses the complexity and strength of her life.  Similarly, the Kahlo who embraced death in art managed to live on into her 40s, young but considering her many health issues, testament to her strength of spirit.

Lady of Shalott Elizabeth Siddal
Self Portrait (1940) Frida Kahlo
I think it is more accurate to consider the individuality of both women, the 'separateness' that they portrayed and inhabited.  Just as Siddal drew upon The Lady of Shalott, imprisoned alone, Kahlo endlessly presented herself alone in a landscape of her own fears.  Both women found expression for their own centre and within themselves they found beauty in a nightmare they had to be strong enough to paint and write.

Kahlo at her easel
Siddal at her easel

Possibly this is why they both inspire me so much.  As Frida would say Viva la Vida because it is short and art is forever.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Uncovering a Mural Surprise at the Red House

By now, most of you will be aware that a mural has been unveiled at the lovely Red House in Bexleyheath.  You might remember I mentioned the mural in my review of the Wombat Friday activities there a couple of weeks ago (read about wombat excitement here!)  Now the full story can be told of the remarkable find behind a cupboard and a whole lot of paint...

Figures are (l-r) Adam and Eve, Noah, Rachel and Jacob
When they were found beneath paper and paint, there were only two figures, and they were believed to be work of just one artist.  Now a major conservation project has uncovered a row of figures by William Morris and his friends and guests.  Between 1860 and 1865, Morris played host to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal, Edward Burne-Jones and Ford Madox Brown.  All through the house are hints that the friends collaborated to make the home an Art Palace.  This was in line with ideas that the friends would live together in an artists commune.  Their collaborations, which cover the walls, ceilings and furniture show their shared love of the medieval past, for example the recently uncovered patterned border on the mighty mural downstairs...

Check out the border on the 'Wombat Wedding Feast' mural
Morris left the Red House after the dream of this Medieval Eden had been wrecked by life; the death of Siddal and the Burne-Jones' baby, and Georgiana's near fatal illness.  William Morris found that working in London and travelling back out to his countryside home was exhausting and expensive and so moved the family into London, closer to work.  Of course, by 1865, Rossetti and Jane had begun their relationship and so the dream of cooperation had well and truly gone.

Conservator Bianca Madden from specialist conservators Tobit Curteis 

The house remained in private ownership until the National Trust acquired it in 2003.  Much of the original decoration seems to have been hidden by panelling, wallpaper and paint, just waiting to be discovered. The beautiful new mural was hidden behind a fitted wardrobe under a layer of wallpaper.  When first uncovered only two of the figures were faintly visible.  After substantial conservation, the full mural, six feet by eight feet in size, has been uncovered.  The room was Morris and Jane's bedroom and the figures are Adam and Eve (with a snake), Noah (holding a tiny ark) and Rachel and Jacob (with a ladder).  An added dimension (almost literally) is that the design is meant to be a tapestry, painted to resemble actual folds of fabric.

The lovely Rachel
Although it is not certain which artist painted which figure, I'll hand you over to Jan Marsh for an expert opinion (My motto is In Jan We Trust):
 The concept of the overall design was almost certainly by Morris. Our initial thoughts are that the figure of Jacob was by Morris, Rachel possibly by Elizabeth Siddal, Noah by Madox Brown. But who painted Adam and Eve? Maybe Rossetti or Burne-Jones?” 

There are lines of faded text under the bottom of the painting and with the help of folk on Twitter the text has been identified as Genesis 30:6, and I quote 'And Rachel said, God hath judged me, and hath also heard my voice, and hath given me a son: therefore called she called his name Dan (which means Judging)'  

The figure of Eve
The work, which is astonishing, was undertaken by specialist Tobit Curteis who have slowly uncovered this beautiful discovery.  For me, the mural has a tinge of bittersweetness as it was obviously painted in the spirit of optimism and camaraderie.  The text under the painting speaks of a belief that you will get rewarded for your efforts.  I hope, after all, the group of friends felt that had their rewards, although in some cases it's hard to believe.

The Red House is open to the public and the National Trust page is here and it is very much worth a visit as they continue to reveal aspects of this home of an brilliant man and his extraordinary friends.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Art Everywhere!

If you are not in these fair isles, you may be forgiven for thinking we've all gone bonkers again, but there is flippin' art everywhere!  Literally.  Art.  Everywhere.  All thanks to, well, Art Everywhere.  I know, I know, the clue is in the title....

Hurrah! (and shame on us all! See below...)
The idea was that over this summer, the streets of Britain would become a giant art gallery, displaying the nations favourite images from national collections.  After a fund-raising period, the marvellous folk at Art Everywhere gave the nation a week (24-30 June) to select their favourites and the top 57 of these were made into billboard-sized posters.  Now, between 12-26 August, enough advertising hoarding space has been purchased to put on a show to a projected 90% of the UK population!  Wowzer...

Gassed by John Singer Sargent
Thousands of people donated money and a final list was selected after the voting (which can be seen here).  You will be unsurprised to learn that the top two images were The Lady of Shalott and Ophelia, a fact that seemed to puzzle and disgust Journalists (much to the amusement of people like me).  This poor soul, writing in the Independent thinks we should all be ashamed of ourselves (unless any of you are 14 year old girls) for liking Pre-Raphaelites.  Yes, shame on us all.

Now comes your bit.  If you look on the Art Everywhere site you will see they have a map, but I think it would be jolly if you post here if you see one, especially one of the Victorian ones, telling us where it is so we can rush and have a good look if we're near by.  I'll start....

I saw Ophelia!  Opposite Lidl and the second-hand car dealer in Portsmouth!  I did a lot of excited squealing.  She's just down from Fratton station, if you are in the vacinity.  I have heard rumours that The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke is on the King's Road, also in Portsmouth.  So that's two.  What have you seen?

If you want to get all fancy and interactive you can download a gizmo from the Art Everywhere site that tells you more about the pictures you see.  You can also comment on Twitter using #arteverywhere.

I promise I won't be out with a kettle and a fish-slice on 26th August attempting to steal Ophelia...

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Meanwhile, in Hoylandswaine...

You will no doubt remember last October I told you all about the wonderful work of the good people of Hoylandswaine, in this post.  The lovely church of St John, found in the village that is in South Yorkshire, had a mural by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope on its east wall, like so...

Mmmm, Mural-y
Oooh, lovely.  That was until some naughty types in the 1960s gave it a coat of magnolia and it was never seen again.  Well, the splendid folk of Hoylandswaine got some Heritage Lottery money and started the mammoth task of unearthing this gem last year, and here is a little update...

Uncovered Angels! (©2013 Francis Downing)
The angels on the north side of the arch seemed to have suffered the most from the damp (which was why the magnolia was applied in the first place) but the angels on the south side are quite well preserved, in all their angelic-y loveliness. Plus, Mr Jesus is making a good showing, so the work continues apace for completion in Summer next year.  Good work chaps!

There is also a beautiful trail brochure available free of charge to download here.  This follows JRSS's work through some Yorkshire churches and one London church and is a joy to read and makes me want a bit of a road trip.

A pulpit at Flockton Church, with panels by Stanhope
Based on the research of Simon Poë (hello Simon) the booklet helps you to seek out this fascinating art heritage for yourselves, as well as learning more about the artist, all of which are jolly fine things in my book.

Finally, the Village that Embraced Pre-Raphaelitism (Thank you Simon Brock for that phrase - I enthusiastically embrace Pre-Raphaelitism quite a bit, amongst other things) has got funding to do a community mural, which will be on a series of canvases set in a large frame.  Each canvas will be completed by a different group (Mother's Union, Brownies, Schools, the local Art group) and when put together will show a diverse and reflective celebration of the mural that the village has worked so hard to uncover and restore.

Goodness me, I salute the good folk of Hoylandswaine, and am very much looking forward to making the trip up north next year to see the work completed.  If you want to know more in the meantime, have a look at the Hoylandswaine Arts page (here) and the blog by Simon Brock, leather wizard and purveyor of gorgeous goods (here).

Go Hoylandswaine go!

Sunday, 11 August 2013

A Love/Tate Relationship

As part of 'Super Saturday', Lily and I took the opportunity to see how Tate Britain have redisplayed their permanent galleries.  As those of you who have been to exhibitions at the Tate recently, the much beloved galleries (where I, and no doubt others, discovered love of the Pre-Raphaelites at a tender age) have been closed whilst a radical rehang took place.

The 1840 room
In the past, pictures were displayed not only in a chronological order but also grouped within 'movements/schools' so there was an actual Pre-Raphaelite room where I often loitered having made a bit of a beeline through everything else to get there.  This has all been replaced by the 'BP Walk through British Art' which works as circuit around the outer perimeter of the upper floor of the gallery.  Rooms flow from 1545 to the present, each room having a starting date cast into the floor as you cross the threshold.  As my choices were 1810, 1840 or 1890 I picked 1840 in my quest to find my old painted friends...

Because there is no longer an emphasis on movements, all art between 1840 and 1890 is eligible for inclusion in the room and there seemed no particular thought in the hanging other than date, or at least I hope there wasn't as some juxtapositions were a little worrying.  For example, in the 1890 room there was a pretty pyramid of the following paintings...

Self Portrait Gwen John

Seated Nude Philip Wilson Steer
The Mirror William Orpen

The positioning of the paintings worked well as they tonally complemented each other and were all pictures of young, attractive women but as your eye traveled across the base of the pyramid to the top, the last woman you saw was Gwen John, not only the model but also the maker of her image.  Hers is not a passive, male-gaze-centric image of womanhood, but a self-portrait and that bump made the viewing experience awkward.  It felt disrespectful to John to have her atop a pile of ladyflesh, female vanity and weakness.

1840 room wall detail
My favourite weird juxtaposition in the 1840 room has to be placing Leighton's snake wrestler in front of the Golden Stairs.  I did some muffled sniggering because in a way the winding form of the snake reflects the stairs, but let's not pretend that was the case.  It did feel like the girls on the stairs were having a giggle at Snake Chap's arse.  Look at the size of his snake!  I'd be sniggering behind my tambourine too.

My main problem with the rehang is this: The reasoning from the Tate site for the rehang is 'you can see a range of art made at any one moment in an open conversational manner.' I think this underestimates the power of movement in art, that your art may have absolutely nothing to do with what your neighbouring artist is doing that day.  By hanging The Girlhood of Mary Virgin next to a painting about the South Sea Bubble by Edward Ward I learn nothing about that year (or couple of years) only that one person was thinking about religious icons and one person was thinking about the South Sea Bubble.  I ended up feeling a bit cheated by the Tate, that they had hung art Tetris-style in a form that would fit together neatly.  There is little or no interpretation offered on the labels, only name, medium, date and artist. 

 I felt there were two especial victims of this hang...
Lament for Icarus Herbert James Draper
Draper's massive work of beauty had the misfortune to be completed in 1898 so was resigned to 1890 onwards room, clashing with the rather more modernist works in both technique and subject.  While it is worth knowing that some artists continued working in the Pre-Raphaelite manner far beyond the lifetime of the original Brothers, no explanation was given as to what on earth Draper was thinking, so in the end it looked like it was a mistake that it had been hung there.

Come on, I'm not labelling this for you
This paled into insignificance if you consider the fate of the poor old Lady of Shalott.  You could hear a whisper across the gallery when people saw her, and even Lily chirped up 'Lady in the Boat!' so we went nearer only to be dazzled by the gallery lights bouncing off the glass.  She's hung up high (the hang is two large pictures high in traditional style) and so you can see her from a distance but as soon as you draw near the light reflects off the glazing.  Que lots of people backing up across the gallery in order to see her.  Lily couldn't see it at all because we couldn't get close enough or at any angle when she wasn't dazzled.  Possibly this was a cunning ruse to stop Waterhouse from being so popular?  I suspect an Ophelia fan was behind it...

Okay, so what did I like?  I loved the art.  Tate Britain has an astonishing collection that is endlessly fascinating.  Even their most familiar works are so fresh when you see them in real life.  They have always championed the Pre-Raphaelites, housing the room full of their works in a period where the reputation of the movement was dodgy and bringing us the astonishing exhibition last year.  This is why I have such a problem with what they have done.  I always get the sneaking suspicion that the Tate are embarrassed by the Pre-Raphaelites or at least have the luxury not to exploit the popular resource that they have nurtured all these years.  As someone who works in heritage I find this incredible, and as someone who studies the Pre-Raphaelites, I find it frustrating.  We have entered a golden period of Pre-Raphaelite appreciation, why dismantle one of the most brilliant focuses of our adoration?

It's free to get into the Tate's permanent exhibition and you can read more about it here.