Sunday, 26 November 2017

Some exhibitions I visited in summer

My deep interest in museums and exhibitions is only comparable to my passion for literature. During summer, my husband and I managed to visit a few events together, sometimes with my mum or my daughter as well.

We attended guided tours at the British Museum in the money gallery and in the Roman section.
After the thorough explanation of our guide, what were for me just coins with weird shapes, became incredibly meaningful objects. Payment and exchange were in common use since the bronze age before real coins were created. They were made in beautiful rare materials like jade in China, gold rings in Britain, or copper and tin ingots. This highlights not only their material value but also the power they represented and exerted. In Turkey and in Persia they had real coinage since 650 BC, they are gold or silver coins with a lion or a ram. Greek coins had mythological characters and in China they had spade and knife shapes. Paper money was created in China in 620 AD but it was difficult to keep the production of banknotes under control, as it caused inflation. The same experience was repeated in other countries (e.g., Sweden) but the inflation caused again the withdrawal of paper money till the 19th century. From the 20th century on the methods of payment changed very quickly and today fifty per cent of payments are made electronically.

About the uncontrolled production of paper money, I remember that once my father told me the story of the Am-Lire, a currency put in circulation by the American Army after the landing in Sicily in July 1943. They contributed to the high inflation that spread around Italy after WW II as there was no real value behind it. It is worth mentioning that the four freedoms (the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear) were printed on the back.

I asked our guide who invented coins and money in the first place and who decided and controlled their value. He replied that traders and merchants improved the old methods of exchange and decided that, for example, a kilo of potatoes was worth one coin. This could change at any time according to the market request. Afterwards banks, rulers, and today the government, decided the value of money. It sounds abstract but it dominates our daily life.

Where the Thunderbird Lives was the other engrossing exhibition we visited at the British
Museum. It was about the bravery and resilience of the Indian tribes living in the north west coast of north America. They adapted and transformed their customs to keep their identity and culture in spite of the diseases brought by the Europeans, which killed about ninety per cent of the population, the forced removal of children from communities and the repression of their traditions. Their response was an original and creative art in silver jewellery, stone figures,
basketry and sculptures with mythological beings, visual punning and social commentary. The Thunderbird is their hero who has a human face and a bird mask on the head. According to their rituals and legends, he uses lightening serpents to stun whales and teaches humans how to whale.

We couldn’t miss Hokusai, Beyond the Great Wave, considering my daughter’s great interest in Japanese culture and art, which she is successfully transmitting around the family. Hokusai painted since he was a child and earned his living through printing and painting throughout his life but he thought that only in late life, when he was about seventy, he really produced something worthy of notice. He was ninety when he died, and he used to say that if he had lived till a hundred years old, or even longer, he would have been without equal. His apprenticeship was at the school of art of Edo (present Tokyo) where he learned to paint according to the traditional iconography of the time using beautiful vibrant colours and fine details. His work could be reproduced several times using wood block printing. The Great Wave is one of a series of paintings called Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. According to Japanese tradition, Mount Fuji is a source of long life, of immortality. In previous works, similarly to medieval European paintings, distant objects were placed in the upper part of the composition. Later the perspective rules were applied, as it is clear in the thirty-six views.

The Mount Fuji has  a striking regular shape but at the same time it varies from view to view. In Hokusai’s pictures, it is a constant presence in the background while interesting scenes happen in the foreground. There are fishermen in boats fishing, birds bathing, people walking in the wind, or it shows a particular time of the day or a particular weather. The Mount Fuji is a pretext, or a guardian, while the real focus of the pictures is on showing and commenting on Japanese life and people.

The thirty-six views don’t clash with tradition, though they look simple and elegant both in shapes and in colours compared to Hokusai’s previous work. The dimension of each picture isn’t big, about 25 cm x 37 cm, and the Great Wave (Under the Wave of Kanagawa, painted in 1831) isn’t an exception. It could be  disappointing if you expect something bigger, considering the title. As it is well known, it represents three boats heading bravely into a great storm wave, beautifully curving upwards in glorious hues of blues and white curling foam. It is striking and impressive in its apparent simplicity, and its greatness is not only in the impetus and power of the wave but also in the courage of the men facing it. According to the captions, in Buddhism all the phenomena have a spirit that transforms commonplaces into extraordinary things. And this is exactly what happens viewing the Great Wave.

Hokusai had a daughter, Oi, who assisted him until his death and probably also helped him in his work. She was a good painter but lived in the shadow of her father and when he died, she started to travel around Japan.

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion at the V&A was impressive. I didn’t know that the great fashion
designer had left Spain during the civil war and was part of the artistic and cultural innovative period happening in Paris in the first half of last century. His last collection was in 1968 but his dresses look so modern and avant-garde even today. Some of them look like a sculpture, not ‘natural’ at all, that is his style doesn’t follow the woman’s curves but shapes the silhouette in a different way, according to an artistic ideal, an abstract concept that goes against the rules and creates a new body, a new fashion, a new idea. But this is not ‘new’, of course, it has always happened, and not only in fashion. As with avant-garde movements, he pushed the boundaries both in design and in materials.

Not unexpectedly, his dresses were extremely expensive, only the wealthiest women in the world could afford them. He also founded a sister label (Eise) in Spain, where his extended family worked; Eise garments cost half the price of what they cost in Paris, but, I expect, they were still out of reach for ordinary people. He is considered a master, the father of modern fashion. Experts say he worked like an architect or a sculptor, creating shapes, a working art to last, to exhibit, rather than just wear.

Together with my mum, I saw Opera: Passion, Power and Politics, a passion we share. I know by heart all the most famous songs of Italian opera as my father often listened to them or sang them himself. He used to take the whole family at the Opera House in Rome since my sister and I were very young. Before the performance, he would tell us the story and explained the music and the role of the different characters. For him it was not just entertainment; opera reflected his beliefs and personality, his identity. Not quite so for me, but I enjoy it very much and I liked the exhibition at the V&A. Above all the idea of having music playing in your ears throughout the exhibition’s rooms
thanks to headphones created a fantastic atmosphere. All the information and ideas about the history of opera were written in white chalk on the black walls. It was a striking effect, very straightforward both in the style and in the essence of the quotations, bullet points and slogans chosen. Even the first public opera, L’incoronazione di Poppea (The coronation of Poppea) by Monteverdi looked exciting.

Mixing voice, music, story and special effects was new and extremely successful in opera performances, similarly to what happens in musicals today. It was not only entertainment but also a way to show and reinforce the power of the ruling class of the time, the aristocracy. It arrived in London, of course, where new edifices were built for the purpose. The national spirit back lashed when The Spectator described the audience ‘like...foreigners in their own country to hear plays acted in a tongue which they did not understand.’ Opera also reflected the change in society, like in The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart, and was a political critique.

My favourite part was the Italian one, which was about Giuseppe Verdi and La Scala in Milan. Listening to the touching choir of Nabucco (Va pensiero), the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, was such an emotional moment, so involving and enchanting that I didn’t wish to move on. The choir sings the Jews’ nostalgia and memories of their lost country and inspired the Italian patriots of the time in their rebellion against the Austrian rule. Once again, opera was not just beautiful singing but a political subversive act. Today it is considered a traditional, old fashioned kind of music, and it seems strange it had such a revolutionary force in the past. Unfortunately I didn’t succeed in transmitting my passion for opera to my children. Once I brought them to see Traviata by Verdi in Rome but they found it so boring and meaningless that they managed to fall asleep in the uncomfortable hard seats of the upper circle. Never mind, they may reconsider in the future.

At Kensington Palace, my daughter and I saw Diana, her fashion story, an exhibition of her dresses from the 80s till her death. The dresses reflected her personality not only the fashion of the time. It was a way to communicate and shape her image, which was not only how she wished to appear but also how she felt. She contributed personally in the preparation of her dresses by suggesting changes and adding her personal style. She was very popular and charismatic, so whatever she wore had an effect, it would increase the sales of course, and it would also give a message. In time, her dresses became more and more sophisticated and their meaning stronger and more intentional. For example she preferred a direct contact when shaking hands, so didn’t wear gloves; she never wore a hat in a hospital as this wouldn’t allow her to cuddle a child properly. In the fabric printing or in the embroidery of a gown she would include the national emblem of the country she was visiting. Her dresses were not just outfits of a beautiful rich lady, but, like other aspects of her life, were meant to help others. Her charisma and caring qualities were prominent in fashion as well. In the auction sale of her dresses at Christie’s in 1997, she raised over £ 3.4 million for AIDS and cancer charities. A remarkable woman we all miss.

The Figurative Sculpture of Sean Henry was a surprising exhibition, at The Lightbox and around Woking centre. Henry’s ceramic hyper realistic sculptures were everywhere around the town centre from the shopping mall to the railway station. They mixed in the crowd (except for the seven feet tall woman at the entrance of the Peacock shopping centre and the huge Catafalque in the main square) like real people. They represent ordinary people, their faces marked by age or sadness or the weather, their clothes wrinkled and untidy. They stand, or sit, or are just stepping on. The expression is unusual, conveys a sense of frustration, tiredness, incompleteness. They are not monuments to important people, rather to ordinary, replaceable people. People who are part of the multitude, anonymous but still there, carrying on with their life, unconvincingly, mesmerizing the viewer who mirrors in them.

Last but not least, I had a quick visit at Tate Britain on a day I happened to be in London. My tour concentrated on Turner, Moore and Blake, three artists I consider paramount and unique not only in British art. Turner is my favourite, especially his later works, so modern, solar, dispersing and transparent. Whatever he learned and understood in his career is scattered in his last pictures in a free, though controlled, profoundly intimate way. It is a revelation.

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