London: the V&A’s Aesthetic Movement , Saatchi Gallery; and Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff

The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900, through July 17 at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) is perhaps most interesting for emphasizing that the Pre-Raphaelites set out to make their living space a Gesamptkunstwerk, complete with paintings, furniture, wallpaper, decorative objects and artistically-clad women, who clearly were part of the decoration; hence the exhibition includes all facets of fine and decorative arts, including  photography, printed books and rarely-seen items of jewelry and clothing.  Women’s clothing, that is. While the men established, developed and prosthelytized on behalf the style, it didn’t extend to their own dress. Even the dandy, Oscar Wilde, to whom the exhibition devotes a case and who outraged Americans with his velvet suit and knee-length breeches, never intended to meld into his surroundings.

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James McNeill Whistler ‘Symphony in White, No. 3’ (1865-67) oil on canvas, 20.2 x 30.3 in., Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham

While no museum can match the V&A’s depth in this area, those in the U.S. East Coast, taken together, do a pretty good job. While the exhibition features a large reproduction in the round of Whistler’s Peacock Room, the Freer Art Gallery in Washington has the real thing, and the Delaware Art Museum has a notable collection of pre-Raphaelite paintings and decorative arts which are splendidly exhibited together and to which it devotes a separate website.  Both museums contributed to the exhibition, as did the Baltimore Museum of Art , which lent its extraordinary jardinere (below)  by Christopher Dresser, that stopped me in my tracks when I first saw it (I wrote about it on June 14, 2007), and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (below), which lent a Whistler whose subject is the period’s fascination with Chinese art. The Harvard University Art Museums have a number of huge pre-Raphaelite paintings which were always hung in the corridors of the Fogg’s upper floors, but for some reason they didn’t lend.

The following week I saw another work by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in Cardiff, which I discuss below.

Christopher Dresser, Jardiniere (c. 1870) 11 3/16 x 9 3/4 in dia., The Baltimore Museum of Art


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James McNeill Whistler ‘Purple and Rose’ (1864) oil on canvas, 36 1/4 x 24 1/4 in, Philadelphia Museum of Art


Truth in Advertising? at the Saatchi Gallery

Saatchi Gallery’s new home in Chelsea

A  friend and I went to see the Saatchi Gallery, which opened  in its latest location in Chelsea in 2008  . It’s in the former Duke of York’s Barracks just off Sloane Square, erected in 1804 and sold by the Ministry of Defense in the 1990s. One thing money can buy is real estate, and this spectacular.  The building has been tastefully converted and extended, creating huge galleries suitable for contemporary work.


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Richard Wilson’20:50′ (1987) used sump oil, steel, dimensions variable, Saatchi Gallery

The most impressive piece was Richard Wilson’s 20:50 (1987), permanently installed in the lower ground floor and viewed from a platform. Charles  Saatchi has installed it in each of the three public spaces in which he’s shown his collection. The room is flooded with used sump oil (the work’s name specifies the type) which forms a black reflecting pool, creating something of the tension between surface and reflections that Monet explored in his late paintings of waterlilies.  One couldn’t help but think of  the current energy problems and their political implications, and appreciate the artist’s creative recycling. However, I doubt that was on Wilson’s mind 24 years ago, when an installation like this was an extravagant gesture, unlikely to have a life beyond its initial gallery showing. In fact, since it’s initial showing in 1987, it has been exhibited around the world.

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Matthew Brannon ‘Nevertheless’ (2009) 374 x 558 x 401 cm Saatchi Gallery
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detail of Brannon’s ‘Nevertheless’

The current exhibition, the Shape of Things to Come: New Sculpture is on through Oct. 18, 2011. A couple of works had particular resonance with the V&A’s exhibition on the Aesthetic Movement. Matthew Brannon’s Nevertheless (2009) is also an interior as a total work of art, with color-coordinated furniture and props carefully placed for visual effect;  I don’t pretend to understand what he means by it. In the same gallery, David Thorpe’s Private Lives consciously refers to the Arts and Crafts Movement, taking its decoration from a pattern by William Morris. Thorpe has said he was interested in Morris’s democratizing ideals, but anyone in the 21st Century who creates a sculpture involving a cube also  has at least 50 years of sculptural  history to account for, and I’m not sure Thorpe did.

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David Thorpe ‘Private Lives’ (2010) 107.3 x 106 x 106 cm on stand 70.5 x 93.3 x 93.3 cm, Saatchi Gallery

The biggest novelty I found in the Saatchi Gallery were the labels. I spend a lot of time in museums and galleries, but I’ve never seen anything like these and I’m not sure who gets the credit: the artists, the curator, registrar or collector. In the sort of full disclosure demanded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the materials are listed in excruciating detail.  Here are a few examples:  for Matthew Brannon’s installation (above): wood, steel, aluminum, string, glass, sintra, bulsa foam, acrylic paint, enamel paint, canvas, soap, mouse trap [note: I didn’t see the mousetrap], sound canceling device, water from a melted ice sculpture.  A light installation by Anselm Reyle: 119 neon tubes, chains, cable and 13 transformers.  A gallery-sized light installation by Björn Dahlem: wood, neon lamps, bottle of milk; I never found the milk, despite lots of effort. Was the artist pulling my leg?. A sculpture by Joanna Malinowska: wood, plaster, clay, scraps of ‘Spinoza’s Ethics,’ sweater of Evo Morales, 1 liter of water from the Bering Strait. Perhaps Richard Wilson wanted his audience to know that he was re-using  engine oil for reasons of frugality or environmentalism; or he may have been referencing its original use (although Wilson’s comments on the piece suggest that his only interest was the optical qualities of the oil). Water from a melted ice sculpture certainly adds a conceptual dimension of time to Brannon’s installation, and I suspect that knowledge that her sculpture putatively  recycles a major work of philosophy and the garment of an indigenous Latin American leader  is an  integral part of  Malinowska’s intent,.  But why would Reyle list the number of neon tubes and transformers he used? Numerology, or some Kabbalistic reference? I appreciated the reticence of  Matthew Monahan, whose work was simply labeled mixed media.

Before leaving the Saatchi Gallery I should mention that its shop has the largest number of monographs on contemporary artists I can think of, as well as a thoughtful selection of books on recent art history and criticism. That alone is a wonderful resource.


Cardiff: Yet another possibility for a church that was bombed

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Jacob Epstein’s ‘Christ in Majesty’  (1957) Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff

Llandaff Cathedral sits on land that has had holy significance since time immemorial and has been a Christian site since the Sixth Century. The oldest part of the current structure dates to 1107. That building was extended in a Gothic style, with work beginning around 1220. This fell to ruin. There were plans (never executed)  for a  neo-Classical building to be sited within the ruins, then in 1869 it was  restored (or reconstructed) in the nineteenth-century’s interpretation of the original Gothic structure. This, too, was reduced to rubble during World War II, like the churches in Dresden and Berlin which I discussed on June 7, 2011.  The church was rebuilt once again, under the direction of George Pace;  to mark the occasion, a sculpture of Christ in Majesty was commissioned from Jacob Epstein. Visitors to the church thus see a reconstructed church through a clearly twentieth century addition: a reinforced concrete arch (designed by Pace)  which supports Epstein’s work along with some of the organ pipes. Not surprisingly, the new addition was controversial. I happen to think that Paces’ arch, which mirrors those dividing the nave from the side aisles, is so poorly tied in to the rest of the structure that anything it supports is beyond the point.  I have rarely seen a commissioned work fit so uncomfortably into its alloted space.  But the idea of indicating the multiple dates of the building and rebuilding through a conscious contrast of style is an interesting alternative to the exact rebuilding of Dresden’s Frauenkirche, or to  maintaining the ruins of the Gedächtniskirche, in Berlin. Besides, the addition of contemporary artworks within earlier architecture is a long tradition in Church history.


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Dante Gabriel Rossetti ‘The Seed of David’ (1858) oil on panel, 9′ 98″ x 7′ 6″ Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff

By the way, as part of the Victorian reconstruction of Llandaff Cathedral, Dante Gabriel Rossetti was commissioned to paint the altarpiece (above). It was his only commission, and very rare for Rossetti because of its religious subject.  This seems surprising for an artist who looked for inspiration to painting pre-dating Raphael,  since most surviving medieval paintings are religious. While removed from the high altar, Rossetti’s triptych can still be seen, in a side chapel of the cathedral.