Contemporary Arab Art @ Whitechapel

November 19, 2015 § Leave a comment

The incumbent exhibition of modern and contemporary Arab art at the Whitechapel Gallery is not in any way how I expected it to be. I am so used to seeing modern art displayed against white walls that when a slightly coloured background is introduced I am thrown a little off balance. That said, the unexpected is normally a sign of a good exhibition.

The show titled Imperfect Chronology – Debating Modernism I, is the first of a series of four exhibitions of some of the Barjeel Art Foundation’s collection of Modern and Contemporary Arab art. The foundation that is based in the United Arab Emirates was founded by Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi and contains artwork from all over the Middle East.

My mother was born in Beirut so it should come as no surprise that I have always been interested in art from the Arab world, however large exhibitions of this genre, particularly of the contemporary, are few and far between in London. This first exhibition at Whitechapel begins with a display of artwork, predominantly paintings against yellow walls, dating from the twentieth century to 1967. Whilst the display is not particularly big (it is shown in just one room), the fact that the show will continue in three consecutive exhibitions until 2017 ensures that a ‘Middle Eastern presence’ will be visible in what is usually a predominantly European and American gallery for some time.

This exhibition is important as it enforces the notion that the Middle East is an important cultural world centre for the production of art. None of the images on display would be out of place in a bigger museum. It is also interesting to learn that movements like surrealism not only happened in the west but the Arab world too in the form of the Art and Freedom Group. The starting point for this exhibition is also important as it marks the end of European rule and the formation of independent states in the Middle East. As I mentioned earlier, where one would expect a display of paintings against white walls across a single line at Whitechapel, here they are grouped together in a display not too dissimilar to the salons that took place in the Middle East during this period.

This exhibition was particularly interesting to me as two Armenian works were on display (I am half Armenian). One of these, a painting titled Nubian Girl by Ervand Demirdjian has frequently been the subject of a lot of praise in online articles, whilst I wrote about the other artist’s work (Paul Guiragossian) in my MA dissertation. However the artist’s on display here have been picked from Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and other locations across the Middle East. My personal favourite image on display was Fatigued Ten Horses Converse with Nothing (The Martyrs Epic), 1965 by Iraqi artist Kadhim Hayder. The painting shows ten white horses that appear to be howling during a dark knight that is haunted by a red hot moon. I am probably completely wrong in my interpretation of the work, however it has a ghostly quality to it that would probably either enchant or disturb you.

This display is significant as it presents the Middle East and Middle Eastern art in both an academic and cultural context, affirming its place as one of the global centres of history, culture and art. I would urge you to not just visit Whitechapel for this exhibition but for the three shows that will follow it.

A Century of Art from the Arab World: Debating Modernism I is on display at Whitechapel Gallery until 6 December

Losing the Compass @ White Cube

November 5, 2015 § 1 Comment

To us westerners, carpets are soft floor furnishings that don’t tend to conjure up much thought. Whilst they make for a more comfortable foundation than tiles or wooden floorboards, most of us wouldn’t even think to stop and admire the ground beneath our feet. Historically, carpets have carried a more artistic status when they have been produced in the Middle East. The White Cube gallery at Mason’s Yard is currently boasting a display of carpets from all over the world, which challenge our preconceptions about the often-unassuming carpet.

The exhibition, which has been titled ‘Losing the Compass’ and has been co-curated by Scott Cameron Weaver and Mathieu Paris, consists of a group of artists of American, Austrian, British, Danish, Italian, Palestinian and Vietnamese origins. Cameron Weaver and Paris question the aesthetic, political and social symbolism of carpets by draping and displaying them throughout the gallery in an un-obvious display. Inside the ground floor gallery, a series of carpets have been collaged on top of one another over a set of purpose built stairs. Opposite them hang three large carpets in the same way that one might hang up a coat or a bathroom towel, not in any way like the display of an oriental carpet in a historical museum. Despite being displayed in a contemporary gallery space, these textiles, vibrant in colour and pattern were made by both the Amish and the African-American Gee’s Bend communities in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is almost as if the curators have tricked their audience into believing that these carpets were intended to be valued as works of art, where in fact, they were created out of necessity to keep warm. While the carpets by the Gee’s Bend group are bright and vibrant, the Amish quilts adhere to more strict restrictions set by their community, resulting in muted colour palettes and patterns.

Downstairs is another world in itself. Mason’s Yard is my favourite White Cube gallery because when you enter you are not immediately provided with the impression that you will be overly impressed. This is because the ground level’s gallery is rather small and the existence of the downstairs gallery appears to be concealed at a first glance. However, once underground at Mason’s Yard, White Cube has never failed to blow me away with its display, and the incumbent exhibition is no exception. Here not only have the curators provided us with startling carpets but also wallpaper to subvert and compare the two forms of home furnishing. On one wall is a vibrant carpet by Alighiero e Boetti that depicts the world map, with each of the globe’s nations decorated with its national flag. The artist has also left his mark on the gallery walls with carpet posters with the phrases ‘silence is golden’, ‘arms folded’ and ‘losing the compass’ scrawled across them in the artist’s native Italian. This is where the title for the exhibition has come from. Perhaps this could be because Boetti’s carpets have been embroidered by communities from across the world, or maybe it is because the display of carpets is across walls and not floors where one would typically expect to see them.

One of the most memorable pieces for me was by Mona Hatoum who has displayed four rugs made in Cairo which each depict the image of a skeleton. Perhaps I remembered this because I saw the exhibition on Halloween. However, the skeletons illustrated on the carpets that were made in 1998 actually relate to the bodies of the massacre of 62 tourists in Egypt the previous year, with the brown coloured carpets almost acting as the soil around the bodies in their burial site. Another important work is the one specially created for the exhibition by Danish-Vietnamese artist Danh Vo. Vo’s offering to the show is an installation consisting of a red woollen carpet made in Oaxaca that has had a gold coloured box with the word ‘Victoria’ scrawled across it. The cochineal coloured rug has been created to highlight the history of Christian colonialism and Vo’s work has often been concerned with power relations and issues of cultural identity.

Also on display at White Cube, are carpets as a ground for paintings. This can be seen in the work of Mike Kelley, Rudolf Stingel and Sterling Ruby. Kelley has recreated and enlarged damask wallpapers in golds and rich colours, giving the carpets an overtly luxurious feel. This display of wallpaper is carried through to the lift lobby where the alcove has been covered floor to ceiling in William Morris wallpaper and fitted out with a seat upholstered by Franz West. I found a gallery invigilator lying here reading a book, however, I am almost certain that the chair is intended to be a part of the exhibition. Here West seems to echo a sentiment that Morris is famous for, that objects of use can also have an aesthetic value. Like at the start of the exhibition with the 19th and 20th century pieces from the Amish and Gee’s Bend communities, the curators have been clever in including Morris, to highlight that the political and social comment that the carpets and wallpapers can have is not just a contemporary message. This particular part of the exhibition is also particularly memorable because of its striking difference in appearance to the rest of the show, with its garish appearance being in striking contrast to the majority of the display.

This exhibition, which at first seems to just be a display of carpets has many different layers for the viewer to discover. Not only is it visually powerful, but also politically and socially.

Losing the Compass is on display at White Cube Mason’s Yard until 9 January 2016

Chanel @ Saatchi

October 21, 2015 § Leave a comment

Coco Chanel’s spirit has been brought to and taken over the Saatchi Gallery. Her essence has found a home in every crevice of the building taking over the whole of the three-story establishment and has even spilled outside of the gallery, in the form of specially built garden.

The Chanel experience begins before the visitor even walks through the door. The path leading to the gallery entrance has been adorned with vegetation designed by the Rich Brothers, who were awarded gold medals at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Not only did they create the exterior ‘English Garden’, but the ‘jardin a la francaise’ that has been placed inside the gallery. The interior garden is the one with the most impact, with criss-cross patches of greenery climbing over the walls. Due to the unlikely nature of having outdoor plants inside, the plant smell wafts around the gallery, giving the feeling of being outside, without having to deal with the chill of autumn in London.

Once you have walked through the outside garden, the visitor enters the exhibition via a recreation of Chanel’s salon. This consists of a large mirrored room containing a staircase where the designer would sit and watch the reactions of her audiences at her fashion shows without being seen. The viewer then proceeds to move into the designer’s Deauville hat shop and through dimly lit rooms that showcase aspects of design that are synonymous with the Chanel brand. These include buckets filled with leather and metal bag straps and breton stripes. Before entering the exhibition, you are encouraged to download an interactive app, which is said to help ‘bring the exhibition to life.’ While I did not do this, as I prefer to view these shows with my eyes and not through my iPhone screen, on this occasion, it seems like it may have added to this experience.

When walking through the passages that link the different sections of the show together, the viewer cannot help but notice that the white walls have been edged with a black trim that mirror the iconic Chanel No. 5 perfume bottle. In fact, there is a part of the show that has been dedicated to the much-loved scent in the form of gold vessels containing the individual ingredients, providing an extra-sensory level to the exhibition, which has become quite fashionable in art shows as of late.

The most talked about part of the show however is the room filled with diamonds designed by Chanel in 1932 that are on display at Saatchi for the first time. These are presented in a dimly lit room to allow the jewels to sparkle in their entire splendor. This jewelry is accompanied taken portraits by Karl Lagerfeld of 17 celebrities that include Lily-Rose Depp and Julianne Moore. Not only are these images significant in the way they are photographed by Chanel’s incumbent creative director of Chanel, but also because they were taken in Gabrielle Chanel’s Paris apartment.

My personal favourite part of the exhibition however was the display of a series of fruit machines that had been given the ‘Chanel treatment’; this comes in the form of ‘Little Black Jack’ and ‘Chanel Camellias.’ One also cannot write about a Chanel exhibition without writing about the clothes. Most articles that I have read have focused on the jewelry however there is a stunning display of black couture pieces on show, which have been exhibited in a dark room through poles of light.

This exhibition is beautifully displayed and provides the viewer with the full Chanel experience. I must advise however, that it is extremely popular and you may be expected to wait before being allowed in. I thought going at 2pm on a Thursday afternoon would allow me to avoid this problem, however I wasn’t so lucky. Nevertheless, the splendor of the show more than made up for my fifteen minutes in the cold and every visitor is also treated to a poster and a bag upon leaving: perfect!

Mademoiselle Prive is on display at Saatchi Gallery until 1 November

Twombly @ Gagosian Grosvenor Hill & Davies Street

October 13, 2015 § Leave a comment

I love Cy Twombly. I cannot tell you why exactly. I just do. The very first time I was faced with his work I felt compelled to write about it and this blog was born. My love affair continues, and to my delight, the Gagosian Gallery’s third London gallery on Grosvenor Hill has opened with a spectacular display of some of his unseen paintings. To spoil us even further, an accompanying exhibition of photographs is concurrently on display at their Davies Street gallery.

Grosvenor Hill has been completely taken over by the new gallery. For some reason I envisioned it to be a small, quaint space, much like the Gagosian Gallery on Davies Street. However the gallery is luxuriously large and spacious, with magnificent walls, perfect for displaying expensive works of art. Inside the gallery is sculpture, drawings, paintings and mixed media images made by the late Twombly, who died in 2011. Amongst the work on show here are two previously unseen paintings titled after the Greek god Bacchus. These paintings come in the form of two large off-white canvases covered in large red spiral marks that loop after each other in a never-ending sequence. While Bacchus might seem an unlikely subject from an American artist whose career began in the twentieth-century, Greek mythology is a constant in the artist’s oeuvre. In fact, Twombly spent most of his life living in Rome, Italy, a land absolutely overcome by history.

Also on show at Grosvenor Hill are a few sculptures as well as a series of untitled works on paper. These were made in Italy in 1969 and are covered in scribbles, arithmetic and red and pink coloured paint, in fact, amongst most of the artist’s work, reds seem to be the colour of choice, as well as fleshy peach tones and flowery pinks. These images suggest a look inside the artist’s mind, as if they might be a plan for his bigger paintings. This sentiment is carried through in the display of three of his sketchbooks, two of which are splattered with one of the most stunning shades of purple that I have ever seen.

Within the sketchbooks, one can make out flowers amongst the energetic marks. This floral imagery is carried through into the photographs on display on Davies Street. Amongst many prints are a series of soft pink flowers that mimic the colours in Twombly’s painting. Also in the artist’s photographs and a series of strawberries that are set against a dark backdrop. They look like they might be from lying somewhere on the moon and the stems are so green that the fruit cease to look like they are safe to eat, yet they draw the viewer in anyway. I would say that Twombly’s strawberries appear like some kind of forbidden space fruit; you know that you shouldn’t eat them, but you want to all the same.

The most interesting photographs in the Davies Street exhibition give us a glimpse into Twombly’s studio. Here we not only see paintbrushes, but also tapestries and an atmosphere of Renaissance splendour.

The two exhibitions are stunning and an absolute delight for a Twombly fan like me. They simply cannot be missed.

Cy Twombly and Cy Twombly: Photographs are on display at the Gagosian Galleries on Grosvenor Hill and Davies Street until 12 December

Louis Vuitton @ The Strand

October 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

I wish I could say that I was impressed by Louis Vuitton’s Series 3 exhibition currently open to the public on The Strand. Unfortunately, I was left feeling a little indifferent. Yes it was well presented and full to the brim with glitz and glamour. However, it is a carbon copy of all the other shows that luxury brands have been putting on in London over the last few years in a bid to drive up sales.

If you had never visited any of the ridiculous number of Hermes exhibitions over the last few years, or been to either the Dior or Prada shows at Harrods then you would probably been dazzled by the Vuitton display. The show on The Strand has holographic image projections and more designer bags than any girl would even dream of. One can see videos of the runway shows in Paris as well as demonstrations of how the handbags are made. There is even an in house worker on hand to emphasise the hand-made nature of the items – most likely in a bid to awe the viewer into justifying spending money they do not have on an overpriced bag that they do not need.

I may be giving the Louis Vuitton show a harsh judgment. However, if like me, you have gone to the other fashion related exhibitions dotted around London over the years, you would probably be left with the same opinion. Perhaps this is not helped by the fact that I do not really like Louis Vuitton at all. That said, I was blown away by the 2012 retrospective display at Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. The problem in London however, is that whoever was in charge of curating the display, merely swapped out the items of an old Hermes exhibition for Louis Vuitton products.

If unlike me you are a fan of Louis Vuitton, or you have not been religiously attending London’s fashion exhibitions over the past five years, then you are sure to love the show. However, if you have been to any recent displays, I personally wouldn’t bother to make the trip.

Louis Vuitton: Series 3 is on display at 180 The Strand until 18 October

Watts @ Compton

October 5, 2015 § Leave a comment

The danger of living on the outskirts of London is that when looking to explore art and culture, anything outside of the capital is overlooked. Having attended school in Surrey, most of my art-based trips were to the same central London galleries and museums that people know nationwide as household names. Thus, it came as a surprise when I first heard the Watts Gallery mentioned in my second year of university, especially as it is located less than half an hour away from the school that I attended for nine years! Having recently taken the time to visit it, I can tell you that this is a real shame.

The Watts Gallery is located in the Compton countryside and is a vast juxtaposition to any gallery you would expect to come across in London. The Watts Gallery was opened in 1905 to display the artwork of George Frederick Watts, a Victorian artist who enjoyed much fame. Having previously lived in London, Watts came to Compton late in life, which has been described as a ‘haven’ for both him and his second wife, potter Mary Seton Fraser-Tytler, whom he married at the age of 69. When driving up to the gallery that still lies among farms and fields, one can easily see how it might have served as a place of retreat in comparison to busy London.

The gallery today displays more than 100 paintings that cross a variety of genres. These are displayed against rich walls of reds and greens. The images are mostly uncaptioned, giving the viewer the chance to look at the work without being distracted by wall text, with added information being provided on boards that viewers can pick up and take round the galleries with them. There is also a sculpture gallery, which really impressed me. Having studied Watts and Victorian art at university, sculpture was never mentioned. Perhaps this is because the artist only tried his hand at it in his fifties. On display at Watts are various objects however the most impressive was an equestrian structure of a horse titled Physical Energy, which takes up most of the gallery space and diverts the eyes (not in a bad way) from the rest of the work on display.

Also on display at Watts are a rotating series of temporary exhibitions that centre on Victorian art. Currently there is a display of Richard Dadd’s artwork titled The Art of Bedlam. Dadd’s Shakespeare’s illustrations are stunning however, his potential of achieving popular recognition was hindered by his mental health, which saw him institutionalised at Bethlem and Broadmoor hospitals. On display at Watts are images constructed before and during Dadd’s time inside hospitals and is a wonderful exhibition.

Before I finish this piece on Watts, I must mention the Chapel that lies a few minutes down the road. From the outside, a red brick building stands proudly on top of a grassy hilled cemetery. It has been decorated with angels, which are also found in its stunning interior. Inside is an overwhelming display of terracotta tiles adorned with angels in luxurious greens and reds. These tiles were made in collaboration with Mary Watts and the villagers she taught to make them. In fact, the Chapel was not directed by Mr Watts but was predominantly developed by Mrs Watts. This remarkable Chapel still runs today as a working village parish church.

Hopefully this piece has inspired you to take a trip out of London. The Watts Gallery is stunning and really ought to be revered by more people.

The Art of Bedlam: Richard Dadd is on display at Watts Gallery until 1 November

Musee Fesch @ Corsica

September 25, 2015 § Leave a comment

I have just returned from a post-masters degree break to Ajaccio, Corsica. Before heading off on my trip of relaxation I knew next to nothing about the town apart from the fact that it was significantly warmer than London and that Napoleon Bonaparte was born there. All of my research skills had been spent on my masters dissertation and with quite literally no idea what to expect, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the Musee Fesch, a museum of French and Italian art, situated amongst the Corsican palm trees.

The museum was founded by the maternal uncle of Napoleon Bonaparte I, cardinal Joseph Fesch in 1806, a sculpture of whom, stands proudly in the courtyard entrance to the museum. Fesch was only six years older than his nephew, who made him a commissary in France as well as the French ambassador to the Holy See in Rome. Through his state business, Napoleon’s uncle, a lover of luxury, amassed for himself a large number of paintings. Fesch’s time in Italy worked in his favour, as he amassed a collection of approximately 16,000 canvases, most of which were of Italian provenance, as well as work from the Dutch and Flemish schools.

Much of this collection is on display at his museum in the Palais Fesch in Ajaccio. The museum spans four stories, each addressing a different theme. The highest level displays the cardinal’s Italian collection, which includes religious works as well as narrative images from such artists as Botticelli, Titian and Veronese. On the next floor the artwork moves chronologically from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries imagery above, to works from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Here we see the inclusion of the first French artwork in the form of paintings by Poussin. The ground and basement levels then focus on the history of the Fesch and Bonaparte families as well as on Ajaccio and Corsica. Among the artwork here are artifacts from the cardinal’s life including his religious garments and portraits of the Bonaparte family. Also on display are large canvases of Corsican landscapes painted by artists from Ajaccio.

Fesch’s collection exudes luxury and decadence. It is the kind of museum that one would expect to see in Paris or Rome and the fact that I found it within ten minutes walking distance from the beach seems almost comical. Not only would I recommend Ajaccio for the weather, the beach and the mountains, but I would also urge you to visit for the sake of its culture. The only thing that I might say negatively about the display at the Musee Fesch is that not much is provided in terms of art historical information about the paintings besides its title and date of production. However, this does mean that the viewer spends more time looking at the paintings than staring at wall text.

If you are looking for somewhere a little less obvious for your next holiday, then I urge you to consider Ajaccio.


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