Monday, 15 December 2014

The Brunei Gallery

University of London
Thornhaugh St, Russell Square
Bloomsbury WC1H 0XG

Thursday December 11 2014

We wanted something fairly simple to fit around the pre-Christmas preparations, and also fairly central, so looking at our alphabetical list I hesitated between n the Brunel Museum (fairly self-evident) and the Brunei Gallery, not previously known to either of us.  As it forms part of London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (S.O.A.S.) – a nearly 100 year old academic institution located in the heart of London’s University area in Bloomsbury – we were expecting an ethnographic and artistic display rather as one might find at the British Museum or the Horniman.

Both of us were slightly damp so it was very pleasant to sit in the spacious but cosy foyer watching the students coming and going. There’s no cloakroom so we took our bags etc with us and photography is not allowed.  The gallery occupies two floors – basement and ground floor with a roof-top Japanese garden; unfortunately because of the weather the garden was closed off and we could only peer through the windows. It has to be said that without much foliage it looked similar   to some other London Japanese gardens with its crane ('not ostrich, Linda') and turtle stones; however it must offer a peaceful retreat for the students of SOAS.

Most of the gallery’s two floors were taken up with the current special exhibition, Serendipity Revealed, which was looking at modern art from Sri Lanka showcasing over 100 works by 15+ artists. The (free) catalogue is very impressive in being illustrated and including short biographies of the contributing artists, and the not very good photographs in this posting are taken from that. We certainly noticed some strong threads through many works, namely that these young people had grown up during times of war and this was very much reflected in the art – thus bullets in books, ‘objets trouvĂ©s’ (found materials) in the shape of severed limbs, barbed wire lights and so on. More attractive, though perhaps less thought provoking,  were those works using what we might be seen as traditional art forms – close patchwork embroideries of salvaged sari materials, batiks large and small.  The photo art seemed particularly evocative and we enjoyed the panoramas of city life and the chap doing outdoor ironing in front of Colombo’s key monuments. In many ways the exhibition felt like an extended tourist promotion.

Only a small section, as far as we could tell, was devoted to what you might call the permanent collection. With an introductory panel explaining all the various languages, some disappearing, there were examples of beautiful scripts, works of art in their own right. This was followed by displays if different devotional  or other written material – books not being the only way to present the written word but scrolls and some rather intriguing fans, or what the French might call ‘pliants’, as finely decorated as any medieval manuscript you might have seen. These were the Pitaka or ‘rules’; for Buddhist monks.  We were not sure from where these items had come but guessed maybe they were the gifts or collections of previous and current academics.

I suppose we need to return to see other ‘special exhibitions’ as today’s trip really only celebrated the oriental as opposed to the African artists. The gallery is an excellent adjunct for anyone wishing to explore and get to know current themes and pre-occupations for these countries and certainly gets away from the overwhelmingly euro-centric exhibitions we have been to so far. 

1. Cora de Long 'Circus, Flught Bag 2011
2.  Kingsley  Gunatilleke 'Bulletbook 1, 2014
3. Koralegedara Pushpakumara 'Wall Plug 16' 2013
4. Bandu Manamperi 'Iron Man in front of Town Hall, Colombo, Sri Lanka 2014

Sunday, 7 December 2014

The British Library. Terror and Wonder: the Gothic Imagination

Friday 5 December 2014

Euston Road, NW1 2DB

Everyone knows the British Library, but Mary had not visited it before, so she and I went, while Linda was busy with domestic tasks.  We went to the current exhibition, which is about the long history of Gothic literature, and I do warmly commend it to everyone.  You have till 20 January, so get down there!

I did not take any photos, because it is dimly lit and flash photography is not allowed, but I still wanted to write about it, because it is one of the best curated exhibitions I have ever visited, in that it provides a clear and cogent narrative and is also great fun. The few illustrations here are from the BL website. It starts, as British Gothic did, with Hugh Walpole and the Castle of Otranto.  There is a section about other so-called ancient documents (as Walpole claimed his novel was) including Ossian and Chatterton.  We were amazed by a souvenir handkerchief after the death of Chatterton, which suggested that it was Walpole's contempt which made him take his own life.  And then it's on for a brisk outline of the spate of Gothic novels that filled the 18th and early 19th century, starting with the prolific Mrs Radcliffe. There is a lovely case displaying
all the 'Northanger Horrids': the novels which, as Isabella Thorpe assured Catherine Morland, were 'really horrid!

It seemed to Mary and me that these unfortunate middle class girls, kept indoors and only meeting suitable men (if any!) would find horrible tales of dangerous hero/villains particularly alluring.  And while Jane Austen parodied them, the Bronte sisters (there is a bleak picture of Haworth Parsonage in the exhibition) were happy to invent Heathcliff and Rochester, ghosts tapping on windows and demented first wives in the attic.  

It wasn't just novels:  buildings in the 'Gothic' style, and amazing artworks are also recorded here.  'That' picture by Henry Fuselli, which the serial killer Paul Spector has on his laptop in The Fall, is reproduced in the exhibition, together with several other of his works.

The story of the rainy days at the Villa Diodata (where Mary Shelley invented Frankenstein and his monster) is here (with a letter from Byron to his publisher denying that there is anything indelicate about Don Juan) This is one of several places you can don headphones and have the illegible scrawl of some great mind read to you!)

The story then moves, as so much of the population did, into the cities, and Gothic becomes urban, with Jekyll and Hyde, and Jack the Ripper linked firmly to the genre. There were play bills and newspaper articles, including extracts from the Police Gazette, which was a tabloid before tabloids really existed.  Next comes the cinema.  There are brief film loops of 'Bride of Frankenstein' and other Hammer Horrors (the sound of the woman screaming every few seconds can be heard all over the exhibition, which helps the atmosphere) as well as clips from the TV Bleak House and more modern films like The Wicker Man. Mary and I were a bit concerned that school party children were able to watch these X rated clips, but then agreed that they were probably less spooked than we were.

A nod in the direction of Goth fashion, and some discussion of the gothic nature of some superheroes, Batman, Spiderman and so on brought us up to date.

I could go on and on, but I won't.  The only thing I would add is that virtually all of what is in the Exhibition comes from the British Library itself, rather than being borrowed in.  Yes, all these amazing things belong to us!