Why you should study Art History and what you can do with it

July 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

Having just completed my undergraduate degree in the History of Art I am all too familiar with people asking what benefit the subject is going to have on my future. Given that I am about to continue with post-graduate study in September, I am now permanently prepared with a long list of answers on how to respond to those worrying about what I am going to do with my life after acquiring what they deem to be an useless degree.

Before I even started university people turned their nose up at the idea of me studying Art History and would try to dissuade me from adopting it as a career path. After about the one hundredth scornful remark at a dinner party this week, I have decided to share what it is that I have learnt already and what it is possible to do with a degree in the History of Art.

Art History is often seen as an ‘easy’ subject taken by the privileged or elite who will probably never have to work anyway, the most famous History of Art graduate being Kate Middleton. However, as any of my classmates will tell you that is simply not the case, with most of us having spent many long nights hunched over a book or a laptop struggling to churn out an essay on time with a view to working after graduation.

First of all, I would just like to clarify that just by looking at a painting, History of Art students cannot tell instantaneously what an artist was thinking when they created the image. Art historians are not psychics or mind readers. Furthermore, we also do not know everything about every painting or sculpture ever created in history. That would be like a musician having knowledge of every song, symphony or opera throughout time, regardless of style and genre.

The skills learnt through the study of Art History do not purely lead themselves to the knowledge of painting, sculpture and architecture. History of Art also encompasses photography, performance, film, animation and the decorative arts. Furthermore, how would we know what people looked like without images? Written accounts would give us an idea, however it is in paintings that we recognize figures like Henry VIII. Besides visual skills, politics and a less aesthetic sense of history are prevalent throughout, as are social and cultural history, with my own personal study leading me to study the art of China. Like all humanities degrees, students and graduates possess many transferable skills such as the ability to write a decent essay and conduct research.

In terms of future careers, I will point out the most obvious first: museum and gallery work, conservation, antiques and auction houses. These occupations appear to be what many feel are the only future for Art History graduates besides teaching, which is always dropped into the conversation.

While more ‘practical’ degrees like Economics and Business studies may appear desirable for employability purposes in large financial corporations, History of Art can be of great benefit. Many companies invest in art as financial assets. It is worth mentioning here that during the recession the art market continued to thrive while nearly everything else suffered. A corporate art consultant may act as an advisor on where to invest their money or as an actuary, something that would not be so easy with a Maths degree.

Furthermore, a degree in History of Art could lead onto further study in Law, allowing a graduate to specialize in Art Law involving issues concerning reproduction rights, repatriation and inheritance.

As with all humanities degrees, Art History may lead to careers in journalism, PR, the media and marketing. You may just as well ask what can you do with a degree in English or Philosophy.

I hope this has cleared up the question of what Art Historians are supposed to do with themselves besides teaching or working in galleries. Personally I don’t see why we should be any more worried about future career prospects than graduates of any other subject.

Russian Photography @ Calvert 22

July 23, 2014 § 2 Comments

Calvert 22’s incumbent exhibition title seems to have taken inspiration from the 2012 exhibition of contemporary Russian art at the Saatchi. However Saatchi’s display amassed a variety of different media, with Calvert 22’s ‘Close and Far: Russian Photography Now’ showing purely photography and two films.

The use of the word ‘now’ could be misleading. Many of the images on display are almost a century old. They have been ‘modernised’ for the contemporary viewer with what looks like a bright instagram filter laid over the top. These filters run over the image as though the artist wants to make it explicitly obvious that they have altered the images. It could also perhaps be a sign of respect to the history of the scenes to remind that this is not a true depiction of the past. A further thought to consider is that these photographs were probably taken in black and white, and these bright colours may quite literally be the first time they have been seen in colour.

The subjects of many of these images are groups of figures in traditional and historical costume. Also on display are landscapes both new and old, decorated with modern infrastructure. It may be that the photographers and artists taking part in the show chose to use the filters to bring the older images into a similar context so as not to create the stark contrast that one might have expected to see. The new and old are displayed together as though it were normal to place things a century old alongside something that was taken less than five years ago.

Amongst the figures and buildings are some more obscure subjects. These include probably the most grotesque looking fish that I have ever seen, with wings splayed out, obviously just taken fresh out of the water. However the bright acidic colours make it somewhat appealing in a way that it probably shouldn’t. In one of the landscapes and the catalogue cover is what looks like a giant pear covered in fur, it is probably a variety of tree native to Russia which has been cut in a certain way but its very differentness causes much interest. My personal favourite image looks like the inside of a teenage girls bedroom with walls covered with tear sheets from fashion magazines from floor to ceiling. However among the western images of Vogue covers and American actresses are religious images of saints which look like orthodox icons taken from an iconostasis screen.

Downstairs below the main gallery are two films. One of which appears to be a performance documented from an aerial perspective. The man in the footage is moving slowly into different positions on top of what appears to be an abandoned building in ruins, perhaps as a response to the loss of the old making way for the new. Whatever the meaning behind it, it is intriguing.

This show is definitely different from anything on display at any of the ‘big’ London galleries. For anyone interested in photography or Eastern art I urge you to make a visit.

Close and Far: Russian Photography Now is on display at Calvert 22 until 17 August

Italian Glamour @ V&A

July 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

Dolce & Gabbana, Ferragamo, Gucci, Missoni, miu miu, Moschino, Prada and Valentino. This is a list of just some of the most prominent brands in Italian fashion. It is fair to say, that while most think of Paris as the sartorial centre of the world, Italy has provided, and continues to provide a spectacular range of fashion. The nation’s clothing history is now on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The title of the exhibition includes ‘glamour’, a word that suggests appeal, attraction and enchantment. Glamour is probably the only word that I can think of to describe what is on display. There are no track suits or leggings here. Instead, the exhibition has been filled with evening wear, fine jewellery and stunning shoes. Unlike the circular space which has recently been used for the V & A’s fashion exhibitions, this show moves across one floor through gallery to gallery. These galleries are larger with more room to walk around the pieces and to take in the pieces without being over-crowded with fellow gallery-goers, and is definitely an improvement.

The exhibition, which moves chronologically from the post-war period to contemporary fashion, moves chronologically throughout time. Craftsmanship and design remains consistent throughout, showing that despite rising competition from new economies and technologies, the craft and dominance of Italian fashion shows no sign of waning.

The opening shows suits made post war with letters from clients, dress-makers, designers and vogue editors. Later there is a gallery shows two lines of mannequins in designs which include a stunning Moschino blazer as well as a dress embellished with a map of Italy. As we move through, Bulgari jewellery given to Elizabeth Taylor from Richard Burton dazzles and shines, almost eclipsing the clothes. Other accessories on display include Ferragamo and Prada shoes. However, there appears no be sign of handbags, scarves or sunglasses, which might have been nice.

The final room appears to be the most impressive. It is set with dramatic lighting and mannequins are clothed in designs from the last few seasons with contemporary print advertisements. The gallery is probably set this way to emphases the continuing dominance of Italian design and influence in the fashion world, illustrating that the modern fashion of Italy is just as beautiful as its history. The show then concludes with a film featuring the likes of Franca Sozzani (Editor of Vogue Italia) and Angela Missoni (the current womenswear designer in the family run line which was founded in 1953), talking about the history and future of Italian fashion and the difficulties it faces, and how it is responding to them.

The exhibition reminds us of the high number of incredible Italian designers. My main critique would be that the show probably would have been more appropriately staged later in the year as most of the clothes seemed geared toward Winter. However, the show is beautiful regardless.

Dries Van Noten @ Musee Des Arts Decoratifs, Paris

July 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris will forever be my favourite museum. Truth be told their exhibitions are so good that sometimes I use them as an excuse to jump on the eurostar. But hey, some people obsess over sport and film, I however, fan-girl over art and fashion. The two are currently combined in a fabulous exhibition at the museum’s display of the inspirations of Belgian fashion designer Dries Van Noten, and as ever, Des Arts Decoratifs confirmed just why I am so enamoured with it.

Van Noten is probably most famous for being part of the Antwerp Six, if you don’t know who they are, I will do my best to forgive you, however for those not as fashion conscious as I am, the Antwerp Six are a group of six designers which include Van Noten along with other notable Belgians such as Ann Demeulemeester who graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Belgium in 1980. Their radical designs introduced Antwerp to the fashion world when they presented their collections in London in 1986.

Since then Van Noten has been churning out stunning designs season after season and now he has put together a retrospective of his most spectacular pieces along with his inspirations at Des Arts Decoratifs. The result is extravagant. We are greater with the luxurious partnering of one of Damien Hirst’s butterfly canvases playing as a backdrop to an Elsa Schiaperelli dress, which is also covered in the beautiful creatures. It is clear that Van Noten is keen to not only show the history of his own work but also to celebrate and pay respect to his influences, with an equal number of his own work and the work of others.

The exhibition, which is the first retrospective of Van Noten’s oeuvre and also the first dedicated to his work moves chronologically in one sense, in the way that his collections have been displayed on the runway, however, the influences which accompany them move back and forwards in time constantly. Menswear and womenswear are presented alongside album covers, film clips, sculpture and paintings from Francis Bacon, to Yves Klein with detours via Bronzino and Elizabeth Peyton. In theory, the display should be a mess, however, out of the chaos, a beautiful cohesion emerges.

Cultural influences are also shown from India to Spain – two countries you wouldn’t automatically think to put together into one sentence. Many of the garments and garments have come from the Museum’s own collection which has allowed Van Noten along with curator Pamela Goblin to include historical costumes alongside more contemporary fare.

You could easily spend hours inside the show, which is spread across two floors of the Museum. I only wish I lived in Paris so that I could visit again and again as I am almost certain with over 400 pieces, that there is so much hidden detail that on each visit I would spot something new – or rather something old, to inspire.

Dries Van Noten: Inspirations is on display at Musee des Arts Decoratifs until 31 August

The Chair & Furniture for the People @ Design Museum, Copenhagen

July 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

I can’t say that the Design Museum in London is one of my favourite establishments. I don’t dislike it. I actually think they hold some very good exhibitions, however it is too awkward to get to for me to consider visiting on a regular basis. I recently went on a three-day trip to Denmark and visited there Design Museum which REALLY impressed me, leaving the London museum look a little inferior.

The Danes, and all of Scandinavia have some pretty impressive designs. Skandium will forever be one of my favourite home-ware stores while Denmark produced such designers as Hans Wegner and Arne Jacobsen. When I arrived at the Danish Design Museum, they were hosting two exhibitions entitled WEGNER – just one good chair and Furniture for the people! Borge Mogensen 100 years, both of which, were mesmerising.

The chair focused exhibition is the one I first came across, with two giant chairs greeting me in the foyer of the museum. The show is a homage to Hans J. Wegner who dedicated his career to designing ‘the perfect chair’ and who was born a century ago. Wegner not only made one beautiful chair, but hundreds, 150 of which are on display along with designs and sketches from his contemporaries. The museum also shows chairs which have never been seen before previously, including a lounge chair which was only ever used by the designers wife. I honestly never believed I could be so enthralled by an exhibition consisting solely of chairs, but Wegner and the Danish museum succeeded in me wanting to go on a good chair hunt when I returned home.

The Borge Mogensen display also celebrated the centenary of the designers birth, who designed furniture for the home, hence the titled ‘furniture for the PEOPLE.’ Morgensen preoccupied himself with designing furniture to enhance everyday life which he certainly succeeded in doing. The exhibition presents 30 of Borgenson’s pieces along with work from their own collection made up on tables, beds and yet even more fabulous chairs.

To anyone who happens to be travelling to Copenhagen this summer, I strongly urge you to visit this fabulous museum, you certainly won’t be disappointed by what’s on offer!

WEGNER – just one good chair is on display until 2 November 2014
Furniture for the people! Borge Mogensen is on display until 11 January 2015

Summer Exhibition @ Royal Academy

June 24, 2014 § 2 Comments

Summer: Royal Ascot, Wimbledon, Henley, the return of the Polo season and this year, the Football World Cup. We are spoilt for choice when it comes to sport. However, there are artistic traditions too. Earlier this month the annual summer exhibition opened at the Royal Academy, a must-see for the cultural elite.

For nearly 250 years the Royal Academy has invited anyone to submit work to put on display, which is then on sale. Unlike most contemporary exhibitions, the hang does not run in a straight line along the gallery walls, instead paintings, watercolours, drawings and prints cover their surfaces from floor to ceiling. Some may call this a feast for the eyes, however, others are completely overwhelmed.

This year I went along to the opening weekend. Where, on just the second day, a vast number of work had already been sold, proving that the art market is obviously still thriving. The gallery, as is every year, was packed. I have been to the exhibition on previous years, however, despite knowing what to expect, I found it a little too much to take in all at once.

While there is lots to see, this has meant that it is very difficult to remember much of what is on show. What is still in my mind however, is the opening work, a sculpture by Yinka Shonibare RA entitled Cake Man, which shoes a man in African clothing bending half over, struggling to carry a pile of cakes on his back. The image is colourful and comical, yet the message behind it is not, a remark towards bankers having their cake and eating it. Also on show by well-known artists both British and International, include canvases by George Baselitz and one of my favourites from the show by Anselm Kiefer.

Each year I have always found the print room the most impressive and this year was no exception. Last year I was mildly impressed with the photographic entries, however these seemed to be missing this year. Although where the show is lacking in photography, it certainly makes up for this in architectural images.

With so much on display, the Summer Exhibition undoubtedly has something for everyone. However this show is one that you really need to visit on more than one occasion!

The Summer Exhibition is on display at Royal Academy until 17 August

Marina Abramovic @ Serpentine

June 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

Marina Abramovic is without a doubt the most famous performance artist on the earth, a fact the artist acknowledges by referring to herself as the ‘grandmother of performance art.’ This summer she has created a six week exhibition at the Serpentine entitled 512 hours where she claims to be present for eight hours each day, tuesday to sunday for the duration. Of course, I had to go for myself.

When I arrived at the Serpentine I was asked to put all my belongings including bags, coats, cameras and mobile phones into a locker. I was also informed that I was about to participate in a silent exhibition and that I could stay for as long or as little as I wanted, however I may have to queue if I wanted to be re-admitted straight away.

After locking my things away I entered a completely blank room. In the centre was a shallow platform with two adjacent rooms attached on either side. People were moving round the room, slowly and quietly as though in a trance. It appeared as though they were sleep walking with their eyes open. On top of the platform people were standing with their eyes closed. It all felt very strange. I walked around for a while and encountered chairs in the other rooms, on which people were sitting, also with their eyes closed. In another room there were people holding hands and walking forwards impossibly slowly. There were also other participants who were walking backwards. They were carrying mirrors in their hands as they were doing so, probably so as not to bump into anyone.

After a while a woman came up to the friend I was with and took her hand. She then led her onto the platform where she seemed to say something to her softly. She left her there and she stood there for about twenty minutes or so with her eyes closed. After my friend told me that the woman told her to stand there with her eyes closed and concentrate on her breathing.

It was apparent that there were a certain handful of people within the audience, working on behalf of Abramovic to direct the participants, who in turn became part of the performance. It was these individuals who were leading people off by the hand to stand quietly or walk backwards. It felt to me almost like you had to be invited by one of these participants to be a part of it. To be honest when my friend was led off I did feel a little left out. However I was later taken by the hand by a woman who then also took the hand of my friend and walked with us slowly into one of the smaller rooms. She told us to stand there and concentrate on our breathing and said that she would be back in a minute. When she came back she had put two wooden chairs behind us and told us to sit down. We were close to the windows which had been covered with a white blind with our backs to the rest of the audience. She then again told us to concentrate on our breathing and to sit their as long as we could, even when it got too much. While this may seem strange to many people. It was very similar to my own meditation practice where I begin with concentrating on my breathing. I found it to be a very intense experience which is beyond explanation.

While people are either going to love, hate or be completely confused by this show, it is worth noting that we were inside for over an hour, and many of the people who were in before us, were still there when we left, meaning that people clearly enjoyed it enough to stay for very long periods of time. The only negative point that I perhaps should mention, was that Marina herself didn’t appear to be their during our visit. This actually didn’t really bother me, but it was important to my friend, as I guess it would be to many others.

Marina Abramovic: 512 hours is on at the Serpentine until 25 August.


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