Days out

Ai Weiwei and Giacometti are the stand-out stars of current London exhibitions

There are two exhibitions currently on in London which are must-sees if you’re in the capital any time soon.

Giacometti’s Pure Presence exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery has had five star reviews already, and on the second day it was open crowds were literally queuing out of the door to buy timed tickets. Despite this the gallery still didn’t feel over-full.

Giacometti is up there in my top two of sculptors, but this is apparently the first exhibition to focus on his portraiture, with more than 60 paintings, sculptures and drawings from international collections. He was fascinated throughout his career about how to evoke a human presence in his work, and how people fitted into space, and this exhibition seeks to explore that.

There are some amazing works from his youth, including his first sculpture, a bronze work of his brother Bruno made when the artist was just 13. Their father was a post-impressionist painter, and early paintings of his family are in a similar style. In later works he experimented with surrealism and developed his own style. The Artist’s Mother of 1927 showed her with a flat face, the features engraved on it.

A whole room focuses on works in which Giacometti’s mother, who lived into her 90s, was the model, being depicted depending on how he was working at that time; in one painting she was the only focus, then in 1950 she was seen smaller and at the end of he room, fitting into the context of household items, related to his interest in existentialism at that time.

His brother Diego worked with him much of his life, and there are several portraits of Diego seated more casually than the female models, and also Diego in a Sweater, a bronze from 1953 showing the jumper as huge, and his brother’s head tiny but sculpted in detail.

As Giacometti became more successful, there were other models from outside the family, including Jean Genet, painted off centre in an oil work from 1954-5.

A room shows photos of Giacometti with his family, his ramshackle studio and with companions including Samuel Beckett. However his interests in people were not limited to the well-known; his wife Annette posed for him many times, and towards the end of his life a model he called Caroline who moved in borderline criminal circles became important, and a series of paintings show him focussing in on her face and then more so her eyes.

It’s a fascinating exhibition which although successful in itself left me pining for more of his sculptures again.

Over at the Royal Academy, Ai Weiwei’s exhibition gained lots of publicity on opening because of the British government’s initial refusal to grant him a visa to enter the country, an act later reversed.

However the exhibition deserves fame on its own account, demonstrating art as an undoubtedly political act and process. There are quite a few items made from wood from dismantled temples from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), including an unusable table with two legs up the wall, and a table with pillar coming out of it. Kippe is a large structure made from bits of wood fitted together. Outside, you approach the gallery through wooden trees, made up of parts of different trees fitted together, representing the whole of China.

In one room, names and details line both walls, identifying the thousands of school pupils who died in the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, in which lots of inadequately-built schools collapsed. Metal rods meant to reinforce them are lined up on the floor in a large installation, and there is a film of the aftermath of the collapse, and photos. Pieces like this have not surprisingly made Ai Weiwei unpopular with the Chinese authorities.

Shanghai Studio is the title of another room, where we are told about how Ai Weiwei was invited to build a new studio in a Shanghai district, and this was done, then it was declared illegal and torn down; bits of brick, cement and ornate wood make up a huge block in the gallery from the destruction, ironically entitled Souvenir from Shanghai.

In another room, the destruction of Chinese historical building and artefacts and the race to destroy more through efforts to boost the economy is explored partly through Dust to Dust, ground dust from china dating back to 5000-3000BC stored in jars.

Fragments is a huge wooden structure you can walk underneath, made from some of the larger, attractive parts of dismantled ancient temples, and in another room the popular Chinese building material marble is turned into models of security cameras used to keep an eye on the artist.

In 2011, Ai Weiwei was held for 81 days as he tried to leave the country, and kept constantly in a room with two guards. He has created six small models of this room, which can be viewed through a window, or by looking down into it from positioned steps. In these he has modelled himself going through the motions of living, as the two guards watch; sleeping, reading, eating, showering and even using the toilet. You get some small idea of how intolerable this must have been.

The final room contains a chandelier made partly of bicycles; a bright, glittering end to an amazing exhibition of works by an artist of great significance today.

* Giacometti, Pure Presence, is on until January 10, and Ai Weiwei until December 13.



Koans take centre stage in St Ives summer exhibition

An exhibition at the Tate St Ives will have a familiar feel for anyone who’s ever visited the University of Warwick’s Warwick Arts Centre – and another piece in the show may well ring bells for those who’ve visited The Herbert in Coventry.

The Tate’s summer exhibition, Images Moving Out Into Space, takes its name from a series of kinetic sculptures that Bryan Wynter began to make in the 1960s – this is the Cornwall-based artist’s centenary year. The exhibition leaflet says the exhibition uses the series, which Wynter called Imoos, to “consider how abstraction can move us”.

Gallery 1 though features a series of koans by Liliane Lijn – a large one of which has stood outside the Arts Centre for decades, ready to feature in student sci-fi fantasies and be the backdrop to graduation pictures. They are apparently so named because of the similarity to cone, which they look like, and the Japanese word pronounced koan, which means question without an answer. The room full of differently-named, differently sized, but similarly-shaped spinning koans certainly brought on a sense of déjà vu.

The exhibition includes other works linked to the theme, though it’s not always obvious how.

The fascinating Dan Flavin’s work “monument” for V Tatlin from 1969-70 features white fluorescent tubes, and there’s a further room of his work, all in T shapes made up of different coloured fluorescent tubes, and a quote from Flavin: “it’s important to me that I don’t get my hands dirty….it’s a declaration: art is thought.”

John Divola’s Zuma project involves photographs of a derelict house by the sea, each one showing changes in it or developments brought about by him or others, and a number of sculptures including works by big-name artists including Elizabeth Frink, but casually laid out on tables created by Nicholas Deshayes so they are easy to almost disregard.

There are also lots of typical paintings by Bridget Riley, and by Bryan Wynter, including Saja of 1969, and Green Confluence and Red River; lots are concerned with the flow of water, as suited a keen canoeist. There’s also one Imoo, number VI, from 1965, hanging between rooms where you can linger to see yourself reflected, then not, in the slowly moving shapes.

It’s not a perfect exhibition but fun and interesting, and with those déjà vu moments for anyone who’s familiar with the koan at least.


Faye Claridge’s Kern Baby is striking sight at Compton Verney this year

A haunting vision greets visitors to Compton Verney art gallery in South Warwickshire all this year.

Kern Baby is the creation of Warwickshire-based artist Faye Claridge. She stands five metres tall, wears a long white gown – and has just wheat for her hands and head. The lack of a face as you approach and realize there is none there is the most striking thing.

The installation is backed up by an exhibition in the café area at the gallery, which explains where she comes from. Faye has had a residency at Library of Birmingham where she was working on the Sir Benjamin Stone photograph collection. Stone was a former Birmingham MP and Mayor of Sutton Coldfield who also travelled widely in the UK to photograph important historical places, festivals and pageants to record them for future generations in the late 1800s and early 1900s.Thousands of his prints are at the V&A and in Birmingham.

Faye said growing up with her Morris dancer father and folk singer mother she can remember a book of Stone’s photographs in the house as they gained a temporary popularity in the 1970s. She said: “To me they are very much about personal identity. Painting was felt to be in decline and photography was the new way of capturing something that was going to be lost.”

One of Stone’s photographs was of a Kern Baby, or corn dolly, from a festival called The Harvest Home in Northumberland in 1901. The community celebrated the wheat harvest by using the last gathered crop to create a human shape dressed in good clothes, and called it the Kern Baby. It was then kept over winter, then buried the next year: “It was buried in the first ploughing and planting in the new ground so the spirits of harvest went back in so she would grow again. I decided it should be revived.”

The work also chimes with the large British Folk Art collection at Compton Verney, and with the “Britishness” theme of the first two other new exhibitions of the year, Canaletto: Celebrating Britain, and The Non-Conformists, photographs by Martin Parr of Hebden Bridge in the 1970s.

The tall Kern Baby can be seen from the distance as you approach the gallery, and from a distance looks like she’s just escaped the building. She’s striking and unsettling, and worth circling to see from all angles and against different backdrops, some including the house and others just the trees and lake.

The structure is Faye’s biggest work to date, and involves more than 30 metres of theatre-grade polyester in the dress, which she sewed herself “on my ancient sewing machine”, and later added an underskirt as the structure underneath could be seen too easily. There is a yellow sash to reference the oilseed rape so prevalent these days.

The metal and water tank ballast which holds her in place was made with the help of a structural engineer and theatre design company, and she took four people six hours to put in place. It is hoped she will withstand the weather between now and December, though she will weather a bit and some wheat might be replaced.

Ironically, the Kern Doll was not conceived as the main part of the exhibition.

In the exhibition, Benjamin Stone’s photo The Harvest Home, Kern Baby, from 1901 is shown, a three foot white-clad figure in a plant bed, and Faye’s is a much bigger version of it. There is also an image of children holding hands around a huge pile of wood, entitled Northumberland Baal Fires: St John’s Eve, the prepared faggots, in what looks like a very strange scene from 1903.

Faye said: “I decided it would be fun to make a great prop to produce a new photo and to create a sculpture, but it was incredibly naïve but it got commissioned. I’ve done nothing on this scale before.”

She has though involved local schoolchildren from Welcombe Hills School and Hampton Lucy C of E primary to make her own version of the photo, with the uniform-clad youngsters solemnly surrounding the Kern Baby on a cold February day at Compton Verney. The photo was taken after working with them so they weren’t spooked by it.

She said: “My children (aged three and five) saw it when it was going dark and it was a full moon and she did look pretty ethereal.”

They gripped her hands tight, asked why she didn’t have a face and turned down an offer to touch!

Other photographs of Faye’s in the exhibition come under the title of A Child for Sacrifice, again inspired by Stone and photographs he took of youngsters in the Warwick pageant, and of the Wroth Silver ceremony. These depict youngsters from Marton, in Warwickshire, posing for her camera. Faye received a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to work with Marton’s Museum of Country Bygones to use some off their items to recreate pictures by Benjamin Stone.

These are the ones, when I’m trying to find the right word, Faye suggests are “edgy”, though parents were always on hand, and the children photographed picked their costumes. It is their confidence in strange garb and poses which is quite unsettling.

In one, a girl sits on a throne in a cornfield, corn sceptre and orb in hand, and in some she has lace obscuring her face. A boy becomes a scarecrow with a blacked-up face, and another boy in Plough’s Demon has some anonymous arms reaching round him. Another very young boy in a field is Faye’s own son.

The Kern Baby is immediately impressive and striking in the landscape but the Stone photos, the stories behind them and Faye’s own photographs inside are also intriguing and throw out questions about traditions from the past and how we relate to them.

* Next year Kern Baby will get a new dress and go on show at Birmingham Library – changing her setting from rural to urban, and where visitors will be able to glide past her on escalators. Three showcases about Faye’s residency in the library are on show at the moment.

Designer of Coventry post-war icons is featured in exhibition – discovered by chance in Leeds

So, my first ever visit to Leeds, for a job, but of course I had to get there early so I could visit the city art gallery.

And just as predictably for me when trying to explore new places, the upper galleries were closed for work, but a wander into the attached Henry Moore Institute produced a surprising and enjoyable find. An exhibition about the work of Dorothy Annan and Trevor Tennant whose work I had seen repeatedly over the last twenty-plus years without ever knowing it.

Everyone who’s ever stopped to look at the Godiva Clock in Broadgate will have seen Tennant’s work in the Godiva figure which rides out every hour, and the Peeping Tom which watches her. There is a lovely photo of a long-lost Broadgate with the Godiva statue facing the clock and people sitting on grass to watch it being unveiled.

If you turn the corner to Broadgate House, those are also his carved figures displayed on it. Entitled People of Coventry they are supposed to represent people in a timeless feeling of continuity, an important aspect to the post-war rebuilding of the city. Broadgate House was a key part of Donald Gibson’s plan for the rebuilding of the city centre, and included in the exhibition is some correspondence between architect and sculptor. There’s also a great picture of Tennant working on the relief figures on a blitzed site in London’s Regent Park.

He also created the Levelling Stone of the Phoenix which now resides in Coventry, and a brick carving of a falcon which is described as being on the side of a Coventry junior school – though it didn’t say which one.

A fascinating series of photos also show Tennant giving a sculpture demonstration at Coventry Training College in 1947, creating a model of a woman sitter’s head in front of a live audience, seemingly all male, who are also shown peering closely at the finished work.

Trevor Tennant and Dorothy Annan were members of Artists International Association (AIA), a left-wing group established in 1932 whose aim was “Unity of Artists for Peace, Democracy and Cultural Development’. They were based in Leamington during the Second World War where they were also members of the Artists and Designers Group and worked on public commissions, influenced by their membership of AIA.

Dorothy Annan’s post-war work included a mosaic entitled The Good Earth for the Rugby Road Junior School in Leamington, an oil on brick mural design produced by the Artists and Designers Group, and showing a combination of industrial and pastoral scenes.

There are also images of her designs for the Neptune Tea Bar and another room at the Finham Park Hostel in Coventry in 1942.

This exhibition also covers the pair’s commissions in London and other parts of the country. Their Dorothy Annan and Trevor Tennant archive joined the Henry Moore Institute Archive of Sculptors’ Papers in 2012, donated by their family. This exhibition brings together photographs, sketchbooks and exhibition catalogues to give a chronological account of their practices and show the role of art in British society post-war. It’s on until March 1 in the Upper Sculpture Study Gallery, and I was glad to have found it.

* I also visited Yorkshire Sculpture Park, though with a bit of a mist about it possibly wasn’t the best day for it. And luckily I had the wellies in the car as it was pretty muddy and slippy and I was mindful of a friend who fell and ended up with a broken arm after a visit! The whole site was too big for me to do it justice in the time I had, but I’d like to return another time. Enjoyed seeing several large Henry Moore sculptures in the landscape, plus Anthony Caro’s large Promenade row of sculptures, Ai Weiwei’s Iron Tree, which was outside the Chapel and Julian Opie’s Galloping Horse lightbox work racing through the gloom.

Inside the chapel was also Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson’s Song for Coal, an “immersive audio visual work” created to mark the 30 year anniversary of the miners’ strike. It’s pretty impressive as music and visuals combine to form a stained glass window appearance of miners and their lives on the chapel wall.

An island on the lake also caught my eye – loads of herons perched on nests and flying around, closer than I’ve ever seen them, and near enough to hear their flapping wings. It seems a great place to combine the man-made and the natural in a day out.

Exhibition in stables gallery launches artist in residence at Ragley Hall

Dawn Harris (left) and Kitty Kovacevic arts tour guide at Ragley in the gallery
It has to be the most impressive Private View I’ve ever sipped a glass of wine at. But then I’ve never been to an art exhibition opening at a stately home before.
I drove through the large Capability Brown-designed parklands to park right in front of the very impressive portico of Ragley Hall. Inside, along with the other guests I enjoyed lovely nibbles, a glass of wine and a wander around some of the rooms of the Hall, which dates from 1680. The massive Great Hall, with baroque plasterwork by James Gibbs dating from 1750, has several other State Rooms leading off it, including one set for dinner for 24, a bedroom used by visiting royalty in the past and sitting rooms with old masters on the walls. From some of the windows the vistas stretch for miles across parkland, woods and a lake.


Winter wonder exhibitions on show at London galleries

If you’re heading down to London any time soon there are a few exhibitions that are worth seeing and are varied enough for there to be something to suit anyone’s tastes.
I wasn’t excited at the thought of Bronze at the Royal Academy but it turned out to be a real winner. Featuring items made out of bronze dating back BC until the present day it delights with its scope, its variety of subject matter, its world-wide range of exhibits and the many uses they were put to.
From the decorative to the useful, the ceremonial, the religious and sculptural representations, they’re all here. My favourites include Buddhas, such as a late sixth century Buddha Shakyamuni ubn Abhaya-Mudra from India, to much more recent works by Brancusi and Giacometti.