Friday, 26 June 2015

The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archeology

Thursday 25 June 2015

Malet Place
The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archeology, which Linda and I visited today, has a rather unprepossessing entrance, in amongst various bits of University College.  You go up some concrete stairs to reach the galleries, and are confronted by rows of glass cabinets containing -well - bits of Egyptian archeology.  It feels somewhat Pitt-Rivers-y; the cases are crammed and the labels typed with all sorts of catalogue details, but not much explanation.  Linda felt I was being picky when I complained about misspellings, reminding me how annoying it was to correct things in the typewriter ribbon days of old.

Some cases were displayed by digging site, so that the different periods of occupation were together; we would have found a map of the whole Nile Valley with all the sites marked rather useful. There were maps, but they seemed to assume more knowledge that we have. In some of the cases, the story began with paleolithic flint axe heads.Then again, some cases were chronological.  And some were by topic ('tools and weapons' for example).

Flinders Petrie was the grandson of Matthew Flinders, explorer of Australia, hence his unusual forename. He was mostly self taught and, when his work in Egypt began in 1880, set new standards of accuracy and detailed recording.  

His wife Hilda was also an archeologist and worked with him, wearing very appropriate clothing, as you can see. (We were not clear why the picture had been cut in two:  a designer's idea, probably).

We did see lots of interesting things: a large array of bangles made of (don't read on, Sophie!) hippopotamus ivory; a toy hippopotamus; other items made of the same ivory, including shapes thought to be for inlay work

Then there was a 'serpent' game (shake-and-move, we supposed) made out of limestone, and some stone heads, some rather amusing. some in a more familiar "Egyptian' idiom.

We saw many necklaces, made of carnelian, or faience beads.  Some of these were a beautiful colour, looking like jade or soapstone.  We admired several beautiful small glass items, including some remarkable millefiori work.  We think this came from the Roman period, but it was rather hard to be sure.  Similarly there was an astrolabe from the Ottoman period, though no date was supplied

And, of course, we saw lots and lots of pottery, some with designs painted on and some with incised patterns.

Copper items included tiny graduated pots for measuring opium, or gold dust.

The Museum has been in existence for 100 years. After a bomb and the work of the firefighters during the Second World War, it was the 1950s before the collection was resorted. A bead dress, excavated in the 1920s, by successors of Petrie in the field, had to wait till the 1990s to be put together. 

 And finally, I suppose what surprised us most was that some items had been purchased at Cairo Museum:  this is not how we imagine archeologists working!

So, what did we think?  The collection is enormous:  each case had four drawers under it, all full of more shards, shells, beads etc.  Clearly, for an avid Egyptologist, this is a place of pilgrimage (and we did share the space with a very intense French guide and her attentive group).

But for the passing trade, we felt a few more interventions might be helpful:  a map of all the sites referred to; a timeline for those of us who do not instinctively know when the 18th Dynasty began and ended; perhaps fewer items actually displayed, so that they can be seen more clearly; an explanation when a modern 'interpretation' in the form of a clay figure has been added to the already crowded case.  Maybe the problem was our lack of scholarship and knowledge: a quick nip round the Egyptian rooms at the British Museum gives an impression of the grandeur that was Egypt, while Petrie shows the hard work and OCD detail which underlies modern understanding of that world.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Tate Modern

Southwark SE1 9TG
Wednesday June 17th 2015

Same bus, even the same bus stop, as last week for the Globe – the 63 of course to bring Mary and Linda to Tate ModernThere are lots of reasons for visiting Tate Modern even if Modern Art is not your thing….

  • -       Good stopping point between the Tower of London & Westminster along the Thames Path
  • -       Across the pedestrian Millennium Bridge from St Paul’s
  • -       Fabulous views from the upper floors
  • -       Lots of space for children to run around
  • -       Very accessible – good lifts  (with priority for chairs and buggies) as well as exciting escalators
  • -       Several eating places
  • -       Spacious and well stocked shop

  • Now I’ve got that off my chest I can return to the museum which houses London’s collection of ‘Modern Art’ on floors 3 & 5 with special exhibitions on Level 4 and ground and upper floors for library, cafes, members’ rooms, education etc.

Our Project’s rules determine that we should focus on the substantive collection of any museum or gallery that we visit rather than the current special exhibition but we cheated somewhat today, both feeling that we have paid enough visits to the 4 ‘permanent’ galleries. For those of you not familiar with Tate Modern these are thematically arranged (I’m more a chronological person myself but there you go – it gives another perspective) with such titles as:
Poetry and Dream
Structure and Clarity
Transformed Visions
Energy and Process
Setting the Scene

Within each of these rooms there are some gems – the Rothko murals originally destined for the Four Seasons hotel in New York, the Matisse snail with works by other non-British artists.

Arguably other cities have greater collections of Modern Art but the building and space are a huge asset. The heart of the building is the Turbine Hall which has hosted some wonderful single or large multiple exhibitions all of them very memorable, not always for the right reasons ! 
Mary remembered crunching on the ‘Ai-Weiwei ‘ pebbles  before the public were banned from other than looking – Linda fondly recalled the Rachel Whiteread in 2004,  and of course when the whole Gallery opened in May 2000 there was Louise Bourgeois’ Giant Spider. It’s a big space and it needs some-one brave to fill it.
Today as we arrived so early it was almost empty – very unusually – and by the time we left a group of school children were camped obliquely on the ramp (a bit reminiscent, not in a good way, of the access to a roll on roll off ferry) with the sun filtering in which it  always manages to do…

Anyway, Mary & I were there chiefly to be cheered by the special exhibition, the Sonia Delaunay retrospective and cheered we were but also deeply impressed, overwhelmed and delighted in equal measure. Sonia (born Sara Stern to a Russian/Jewish family, renamed Sofia Terk by her rich adoptive aunt, but always known as Sonia) married Robert Delaunay when she arrive in Paris in 1906. When I tell you that she lived until 1979 dying at the age of 94 you will see that she lived through 2 world wars, and outlived her husband by many years, so the exhibition is prolific and extensive as she worked well into her Eighties. Twelve rooms offer you the wonderful range of her work from her early portraits – mainly of women and very arresting, and with an early fascination with colour and colour contrasts – through to her move to abstraction as she starts to work in Paris. This also coincides with the birth of her son Charles, and the asymmetric patchwork quilt she made for his cot is a star display.  Life in pre-war Paris clearly inspired her further – we both loved the tango dancers moving across the Bal Bullier ballroom. There is a tendency in art galleries, especially the more modern collections, to get embroiled in the range of ‘isms’ that permeate any writing about art – whether these are always helpful I am not sure – however  'Simultanism' seems to be the name of the game. Think colour and links with poetry and music.

The Delaunays were in Spain when the First World War broke out and stayed there and in Portugal, leaving us with a legacy of vibrant pictures of Portuguese markets, recognisable but modern.

Back in Paris in 1921 and Sonia had always had an eye for ‘commercial art – there are numerous examples of her designs for magazine covers, and once she ventured into ‘Vogue’ I guess it was inevitable she would design bespoke clothing also.  Even more desirable were her fabric designs: silk for clothes, some embroidered woollens and cotton for furniture textiles – Robert invented a mechanised display case for her work which the Tate recreate here.   It is so true that good design stands the test of time.

With the Paris Exhibition of 1937 the couple got a commission for some of the technology showrooms and these too are reproduced – though at the time it was Picasso’s  'Guernica' which grabbed the headlines.   
Luxury goods, which was what Sonia’s firm ‘Simultane’, was producing were no longer in demand come WWII and being Jewish she kept a low profile down in the South of France thus surviving where many did not.  Post-war and by now a widow Sonia kept Robert’s work alive and in the public eye but continued to work herself into her Eighties  returning to  her first medium of paint, this time round using gouache rather than oils.

This exhibition will lift your spirits and perhaps your glass to a redoubtable woman and artist. 

Monday, 15 June 2015

Shakespeare’s Globe Exhibition

21 Globe Walk
Southwark SE1 9DT
Thursday June 11th 2015

Linda chose the Bus route 63 on a bad day and was thus late for this early morning (by Museum standards) meeting Bankside, as the locals have it. Fortunately it was a lovely summer’s day with our spirits rising almost as high as the tides lapping the riverside walk; you can easily get splashed in places.
We have been to several different performances at the seasonal theatre (April 23 to mid October) but this was the first time either of us had joined a tour. The entrance price  includes an exhibition as well as a tour of the auditorium. Today there was something of a rehearsal taking place which meant no talking and no photos inside, which was a shame as the day was sunny and the ceiling, depicting of course the Heavens from whence Jupiter might descend (a la Cymbeline), would have looked good in a close up (having only sat on the highest level when attending performances we were impressed at how wondrously colourful it is).  I had a fancy to step onstage too…

We actually started the exhibition but then joined our 10.00 am tour returning to the displays at the end but I would l say you need to give yourself plenty of time for the downstairs information boards as they give an excellent introduction to the theatre, the playwright and  London at the time – perhaps less so for an overall historical context.

If you have ever ‘done’ i.e. studied (and thanks to Mr Gove they are now compulsory) or acted in a Shakespeare play you will be familiar with the sort of information that appears in most introductions. London proper – commerce, government, justice and nobility were all on the north side of the river while Southwark and Bankside were full of entertainments ranging from brothels to inns to animal fights of all kinds. Plays were performed indoors in hostelries and sometimes the courtyards of the wealthy or inns of court but there were also four purpose built theatres – the Rose,  the Swan, the Globe and the Curtain  though the last was just outside in a less riverside setting. Each theatre had its own actors’ company and its own playwright and probably William S. acted as well. (Let’s face it the film 'Shakespeare in Love'  does this bit better than most talks, or our blog.)

The Globe we see today is the third incarnation – the original, for which Will Shakespeare as part of the Lord Chamberlayne’s Men would have written, stood from 1599-1613, when it famously burnt down after a rogue spark from a cannon fired during a performance of Henry VIII ignited the thatch. The replacement Globe was closed/pulled down under Oliver Cromwell’s more puritanical regime in 1642. The site was not here, Thames side ( the Thames was wider in those days) but along near a brewery in Bermondsey.  In 1949 the young actor  Sam Wanamaker arrived in the UK and decided there needed to be a replica theatre. Between the fund-raising and the health & safety concerns – thatch rooves were outlawed In London following the Great Fire of 1666 – it was 1997 when the current building opened for performances, too late for Sam himself who had died in 1993. The downstairs exhibition shows quite clearly the composition of the thatch, which you will be relieved to hear, is well salted with sprinklers. It is a testament to the success of the theatre and the continued fund-raising that the additional theatre – the Sam Wanamaker, and a horseshoe shaped Jacobean replica took comparatively fewer years to come to fruition – these performances fill in the winter months when the Globe is closed. While there were clear drawings of the Jacobean models in Worcester College, Oxford, the guides describe this Globe as a ‘best guess’ based mainly on the remains of the nearby Rose Theatre. The Sam Wanamaker holds only 340 seats as compared to the 1000+ able to watch drama in the Globe. Many of those will pay just £5 as ‘groundlings’. In Shakespeare’s day the cost to stand and heckle, eat and probably all the other bodily functions was 1d, 2d for seat and 3d for a seat +cushion. Nobility sat in boxes by the stage as much to be seen as spectate themselves. One penny would have been equivalent to half a worker’s weekly wage…

The two central pillars, painted to look like marble are in fact ‘green’, or young oak now splitting slightly it has to be said. The ‘roof ’over the stage (the rest of the auditorium is more or less exposed to the elements) is painted to look like the celestial heavens complete with trapdoor. The square stage represents earth and the further trapdoor below leading to ‘hell’ and other dark places. (Witches please enter from below…)

The exhibition, though containing few actual artefacts, covers the origins of Elizabethan theatre in London, what Bankside would have been like and a very sweet model of the ‘Frost Fair’ – the Thames frozen enough to support all manner of winter fun and games.  There are a few shards of what would have been beer bottles (beer being more drinkable than dodgy water) and no shortage of hazelnut shells indicating that the audience liked to nibble while it watched – more exotic nuts had been found and of course the theatre was not far from the docks.

Also in abundance are the wealth of quotes – interestingly not just the ‘old chestnuts’ from the famous speeches but the everyday expressions we continue to use still on a daily basis. The exhibition is dotted with different ‘talking heads’. It really comes alive in the ‘attiring house’ – ‘wardrobe’ in modern parlance – section with film of dressing Mark Rylance as Cleopatra in an ‘original practice’ (what we would  call ‘all male’ production as women were not permitted  to perform in the theatre until the re-instatement of the monarchy and Charles II). Wardrobe essentials are nicely recreated with herbs etc for dyes.  Costumes were given far more prominence than sets or even lighting (most productions relying on daylight after all).

Similarly space is devoted to explaining and demonstrating the composition of plaster (the wall kind) and thatch, and to contemporary special effects.  Shakespeare’s audience were fairly inured to blood and gore, after all the alternative entertainments involved quite a lot of animal cruelty,  and so several plays (Titus Andronicus for example)  necessitated copious amounts of fake blood and limb loss, which the then stage management  was well able to convey realistically.
A rather good interactive programme allows you to identify and then hear played the contemporary instruments as music is very integral to many of Shakespeare’s plays .    

In summary the exhibition is well worth a visit – however if you have time and inclination going to a production would seem the best way to see the theatre itself rather than the somewhat tokenistic tour that we experienced in a shuffling crowd. The whole complex is much larger than would appear from the river and it can get quite confusing once inside.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

The Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art

The Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art

39a Canonbury Square N1 2AN 

The Estorick Collection is a fine example of something which does exactly what it says on the tin.  It is very easy to get to, being a brief step away from Highbury and Islington Station.  So Linda and I met via different bits of the Overground, and paused to hope that Mary was having good weather in North Wales.

The Estorick is housed in a Georgian terrace house, of which the top floor is a library rather than a gallery space.  The ground floor has a modern extension, which is where the current special exhibition is displayed, and that's where we went first. There were two rooms of works by Amedeo Modigliani, mostly drawings and mostly from the collection of Richard Nathanson.  Many of them had been owned by Paul Alexandre, a close friend and early patron of Modi (as he sometimes signed himself)

The drawings were quite early works, and  only a few of them had the elongated forms that we, like many people, associate with the artist.  Several were the merest sketches, such as one might expect an art student to produce.  We were also amused to see that he used both sides of the pages of his sketch books, obviously thinking about his drawing and not the potential saleability of product. The information on the walls said that, although Modigliani lived in Paris, he was not excited by the work of Braque and Picasso, preferring to look for a way to show timeless beauty, as exemplified by the Egyptian works he studied in the Louvre.  This meant that the drawing on display were often the merest outline of naked women, occasionally with more detail around the face.

He was also clearly interested in the caryatid form, and there were several sketches of women with their arms raised as if load-bearing.

Some of the works, including a couple of interesting oil portraits, were from the collection amassed by Eric and Salome Estorick, who travelled Europe looking for art works in the years after the Second World War.

The rest of the Collection is the result of their single minded interest in Italian Futurist Art, and is displayed upstairs.  Many of the artists represented here were followers of Marinetti's Manifesto of 1909, which you can read here, and felt that Art Galleries and Museums were like cemeteries of the spirit, and artists should concentrate on crowds, machinery and so on.  Many of these artists were also Fascists, which of course made living and working in Mussolini's Italy more straightforward for them.

 We saw works by Soffici, Balla and Rosso.  We were rather taken with Massimo Campigli's shop windows and canvases divided into boxes, almost like early blueprints for Joseph Cornell.

Upstairs again, we came to several works by Zoran Music.  He came from what is now Slovenia, but spent some time in the concentration camp at Dachau, which may help to explain the dark feel of some of his pictures, including a strange depiction of horses turning into houses

A self portrait by Corrado Govoni gave us a chance to practise our Italian, as it is a schematic drawing of a face with commentary added about each of the different features.

Most of the artists represented at the Estorick Collection have works in other, better known and more visited galleries, but the singlemindedness of the couple means that is a remarkably rich collection.