On a quick visit to France and this hotel in Tours inspired the Gallery Tart to pick up her pen!
We were just on an overnight stop and our fellow traveller had nosed out this little boutique hotel as a characterful place to stay. We weren’t disappointed, situated in a lovely old house, it was just off the main drag of bars and restaurants that fill Rue Colbert.
It has a lovely welcoming feel, we walked into the tiny reception and were met by a warm smile by one of the owners. There is admittedly no lift and the room was up two flights of the beautiful spiral staircase but our cases were brought up and we were too busy looking at the decor and marvelling at the ironwork on the staircase to notice too much. The rooms were comfortably furnished and had a lovely balcony onto the street below.
But what makes this hotel is the decor. It’s gorgeous, you’re in that eye of the artist that I love. It’s not wildly polished, but that’s the point, it’s real, it’s tactile. The foyer and reception are a delight, an antique gramophone in the corner, gorgeous vintage chandeliers and a use of colour that creates a sense intimacy with echoes of fabulous, naughty pasts.
I loved the bamboo mirrors in the reception which propelled you to to a sense of wider shores. In the dining room at breakfast the style continued. the tables were beautifully set with old crockery and the buffet had old teapots to use. All of which comes together with good quality ingredients for a filling breakfast to set off your day on.
A lovely little nook of a place to rest your weary bones and a hop, skip and a jump away from the delights of Tours!
I’d been meaning to get to this exhibition for some time and finally managed it, I’ve always admired Parker’s work although I was only familiar with her iconic pieces so I was looking forward to seeing a fuller range of her work.
Outside of the exhibition, on the ground floor, Tate have placed The Distance, A Kiss with String attached, 2003 as a tempter of what is to come. This was my first encounter with Parker’s work during my studies and I loved it immediately. The Kiss itself, in any case, is an undeniably beautiful expression of human intimacy, Parker’s simple addition of coiled rope adds so many layers of narrative to that intimacy. Does it show the deep bounds of love and make for a greater, more private image by covering the entwined lovers, oblivious to the world in any case, or does it suggest that those bounds can be suffocating? Or is it symbolic of the complexity and entanglement of human interaction, after all, relationships are rarely smooth sailing.
We headed up to the exhibition already in a Parker frame of mind and made a start, the first exhibit is Thirty Pieces of Silver, 1988, this impactful piece was a great way to start the exhibition. I’ve always liked it for so many reasons! The symmetry appeals to me, the straight rows and perfect circles, the exact suspension above the ground all make for a clean feeling aesthetic. The illusion of levitation though, places the piece in a magical forest of the imagination for me, the desire to walk through the wires plucking them as you go is strong, I didn’t!
Moving away I came to Embryo Firearms, 1995, Parker had visited the Colt gun factory in the US and was interested in these blanks which are the first part of Colt 45 gun production. They were polished up and provided to the artist. The title, as seems to be often in her work, evokes a lot of narrative about the objects. Considering the discussions taking place in the US with regard to gun ownership it’s quite apposite that Parker had already alighted on the issue in 1995. The positioning of the guns almost shows two face profiles facing each other and yet we also see the normalisation of weapons of violence. Juxtaposed with this is Embryo Money, 1996, a similar principle of coin blanks, again, an image redolent of so many issues of conflict.
I wasn’t so taken with the series of Stolen Thunder cloths from 1998. I get the premise of contact with famous people’s silver but it doesn’t quite come across for me in the resulting visuals of framed grimy cloths, they don’t really carry the message impactfully enough so it’s a bit lost.
Carrying on, we came to The Distance (With Concealed Weapon), 2014. This was made from the original string that had been used to wrap The Kiss, it had been cut into pieces by objectors to the artist’s interpretation, The Stuckists. Parker knotted it back together and covered a secret object within. I do wonder a little at the cutting by ‘The Stuckists’ was this all part of an overall performance as well in response to the adverse reaction to Parker’s interpretation at the time? In any case, it is a beautifully perfect sphere with knots poking through here and there. For me, it is Parker’s signature spare style, clean, perfect and aesthetically resonant.
Next is Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, 1991, the iconic artwork I would say. I remember the press when it was created and the general thinking that it was a bit batty, by, of course, a batty woman, but it really has the most amazing resonance. Given a whole room to itself and lit by a simple bulb in the centre, it’s everything, isn’t it, our lives, blown into view, everyday objects, brooms, toys, bikes, old toasters, boxes, old, new. Parker identified our secret stash, the shed, where we bung the things we use but also those we don’t quite know what to do with. And, of course, at this time, the IRA was very much in the background, Parker was asked if this had been an influence to her production to which she agreed, giving freedom to yet another strand that was in the air at the time.
Another room was devoted to Perpetual Cannon, 2004, again, it’s visually arresting and communicative, in the catalogue, Parker talks about the loss of colliery bands and the communities that they came from with the loss of the mining industries, the flattened instruments are representative of the lost music and so much more. I liked the way the instruments throw off shadows which make them look fuller again, shadows of a past life.
Some of Parker’s video installations were also on display, she touches particularly on the issues of conflict and warfare. I really liked Made in Bethlehem, 2012, the irony of a Muslim man and his son making crowns of thorns for Christian pilgrims visiting for Easter was not lost on Parker, the father talks about his hopes for peace and for everyone just to get along while his son is simply is interested in getting on with his work. Rather than focusing on the complex and often intractable political narratives overhead, Parker brings it down to the everyday, the lives people lead and that, in truth, although we may have different cultural rites, at the very basis of it, we’re all trying to do the same thing, live.
Magna Carter (An Embroidery), 2015is a huge piece, reflective, I suppose, of medieval tapestries such as the Bayeux Tapestry. I liked it’s collaborative nature, not only is the embroidery itself a collaboration but it rests on the collaborative enterprise of Wikipedia. Often mocked for inaccuracies, Wikipedia is still a starting point if you want a source of references on any subject. Parker also went for a cross section of collaborators to work on the embroidery, some well-known publicly. I particularly liked the inclusion of Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia as his inclusion seems to validate the whole enterprise.
One of the film installations was War Machine, 2015, a film about the production of Remembrance Day Poppies, very moving, there are unexpected stops in the filming of the production process that remind the viewer what the poppies are all about. Parker has taken the offcuts of material used to make the make the poppies to create War Room, 2015, a companion piece I suppose.
The idea was inspired by the original designs for TheField of Cloth of Gold, 1520, which was famously set up for a meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I in an attempt to reach peace between England and France. It certainly has the sense of a tent as you enter it with a big hanging canopy and the walls all made of the offcuts, added to that, since the material has the negative spaces left by the poppies it feels like camouflage netting, reflecting war and transience. Irrespective of this, Parker’s immaculate touch is here, the construction of the tent is perfect, the negative spaces all lined up neatly and the offcuts laid in perfect symmetry.
The final piece of the exhibition is Island, 2022, this reflects on Britain, in particular, Brexit, Parker has used chalk from the White Cliffs of Dover, for her, a totem of Britain, painted it onto a greenhouse, another British totem, and laid tiles from the Houses of Parliament inside it. If you wanted an encapsulation of a Britain deluded over Brexit, this is it.
Needless to say, I loved this exhibition, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about Parker’s work as I sometimes find conceptual art elusive but hers is directly communicative, she sets up the possibility of a multitude of narratives but, you, the viewer have a part in making them your own. In the catalogue, Parker references Andre Breton’s ready-mades as a source of inspiration but I think she goes beyond that, for me the paradox of artists who used everyday objects in their art to make it more communicative for the viewer was that, often, it still continued an obscure dialogue that took place mainly between fellow artists. Parker leaves no such ambiguity, it’s a shed, a blown up one, we all like to see an explosion, and look here is the detritus of an ordinary life, something to reflect on. From a curatorial perspective, it’s a well chosen and sited exhibition, there aren’t so many artworks that you become saturated by them and plenty of room to ponder over each one.
Go, support your galleries, you won’t be disappointed!
The plan around visiting this exhibition was based on meeting up with some old uni friends to celebrate a special birthday. We’d studied Art History together at Birkbeck, part of the University of London, so a visit to Senate House Library and a wander around Bloomsbury seemed a perfect way to do that.
A Thousand Words for Weather takes place across three floors of Senate House Library, the library of the University of London, itself celebrating 150 years since it’s foundation this year. As a student at Birkbeck it was possible to access the Senate House Library with its extensive Art History collection so it was fun to go back on a return visit.
It’s always been, how shall I put it, labyrinthine, and this has not changed, with the smell of musty books in the air and intertwined staircases and lifts that don’t go to all levels but then somehow do. We started on the 4th Floor and found the start of the exhibition, books drawn from the library collection that reflect on the weather. This was fascinating, I really liked the way that a selection of books that would, to be quite honest, nowadays be sitting in obscurity, possibly in storage, were brought together around the theme of weather and given new perspectives.
The items are wide and varied, one is James Glen’s Answers to Queries from the Lords Commissioners for Trade and Plantations about the Colony of South Carolina, 1747-48, written in beautiful script, as the labelling advises, this extract shows how climate, enslavement and economy were bound up together in the pursuit of trade. Reading the extract certainly shows that the concerns were not for the workers or the effect on local economy, let alone ecology, but for how much could be made through local exploitation.
In a different vein, Walter Crane’s book for his daughter Beatrice Craneand her book, 1880, is a charming one. He illustrated the book for Beatrice to show seasonal weather changes and their effects on plants. There’s quite a sweet illustration of a woman grappling with the usual rainy English weather in June, nothing new there then!
Continuing with art but in a more reflective mood, is the Sketch Book of Harriet Lewin, 1810-14, on the page opened, Lewin reflects on spaces and memory. She talks about how the area sketched, Lake Trasimene, in Italy, bathed in sunshine, was the site of war and death and how nature and weather can repair and cleanse those memories. It’s a really touching piece.
Other books are full-on weather, Francis Bacon’s Natural and Experimental History of Winds, 1648 was about the early days of scientific meteorology, whereas The Newest, Best and Very much esteemed Book of Knowledge, by Wilde in 1764 relies more on weatherlore.
This was a great scene setter and we continued to the beautiful Periodicals Reading room, where there were listening posts to listen to the sound installation created by the group of poets who collaborated on the sound piece. I don’t know if it was the fact that we were there as group of three and therefore listening to the piece felt awkward as we all found our own headphones and looked at each other in a puzzled way, or, whether it was that for such a long piece there was nowhere comfortable to sit and enjoy the it, but it really didn’t work for any of us.
In addition, there was the sense that we were in the university library and as such couldn’t be discussing our thoughts. The piece was due to play out loud during lunchtime so that may have made for a different experience but it was only 12:00 and too long to wait around for.
We continued on to the 5th floor and quite honestly struggled to follow the green arrows to the installation areas, as I’ve said, the library is quite a maze in itself and the signs were really not clear enough, or perhaps the areas were not marked out as clearly as they could have been. We did finally find one part on a window shelf looking out from the library, I imagine quite a contemplative area to sit and experience the sound installation. However, the space was occupied by a student working, we asked if this was part of the exhibition to which she said yes and continued working on her laptop. We walked off, my friend remarked that she had been a little passive aggressive, to which I replied, actually it was aggressive, aggressive!
Totally lost, up and down staircases, asking students if they knew where further installations were, we headed back to the entrance point of the library. The library assistant there was very helpful and pointed us towards the last area on the 6th floor. This was a public area and I think I heard birds but yet again it was all a bit underwhelming.
We gave up and headed off to lunch!
As you can probably guess, I was disappointed by this exhibition, it’s a pity as I don’t think the issue is the content so much as the delivery. I love site specific art, particularly where artists are allowed access to familiar cultural sites to give voice to other possibilities. In fact, my MA dissertation was based on artists working with museum collections. In a one sentence sum up of my conclusion, artists bring another dimension and way of looking at collections that can show them in a very different light.
The tenets for all those expectations are here in this exhibition, the introduction through the selected books is great, so many different facets of weather and how it has played a part in all areas of society, from man’s attempts to understand weather patterns for the production of crops and travel, to more frivolous thoughts of wanting the rain to stop a bit! But it gets lost on the sound installation, I was looking forward to hearing lots shared about weather, it’s diversity and universality but trying to listen in an uncomfortable position, and on your own, was off putting.
Equally, while I get the connection to the library as a place of words, perhaps the library itself was not the best place for a sound installation. We tried to be respectful of the library space, we have been students ourselves and the last thing you need is people galumphing about the place while you’re trying to get your head around some difficult bit of reading. Perhaps our student’s aggressive-aggressive was a sign of resistance.
Do I sense resistance?
It’s a pity, I do try to always support artists, I’m not interested in trying to do down what I know will be based on a lot of work and creation but I do think that some adjustments need to be made for those experiencing this installation, especially since it’s on until March, right through term times.
In any case, the signage needs to be better, we were familiar with Senate House Library, other visitors won’t be, there needs to a much clear indication of the route and once reached much more demarcation to make it clear and comfortable seating to listen to a long piece. The press for the installation needs to indicate that it is best experienced as a solitary pursuit or to specify more clearly that the sound installation is only on publicly at certain times. Perhaps this could be increased to twice a day, maybe in the evening too?
And as for resistance? Is there a feeling among students that the installation is causing disturbance? If that’s the case perhaps visitors can be advised that they need to be quiet and, I guess, once again, that this needs to be a solitary, even quiet, experience. Finally, could there not be a room given over that visitors can sit in comfortably and listen to the sound installation publicly, on a loop, all day?
Just my thoughts, I don’t want to discourage anyone from trying the installation for themselves but I would advise that you are prepared to listen to the sound installation on your own or attend at the public time. I don’t feel I can fully review the sound installation as I didn’t listen to all of it, so I will return and try again and may well take in the exhibition celebrating 150 years of the library as well, which sounds very interesting.
This exciting new exhibition at the MK Gallery is another notable achievement for this regional gallery that is rapidly establishing a reputation in promoting artists who deserve to be better known . This show has been eagerly anticipated, having been in gestation over four years and delayed by the closure of galleries due to the Covid 19 pandemic. Surprisingly, it is the first major solo showing of the substantial and diverse oeuvre of the Guyanese born British artist and photographer, Ingrid Pollard. It is supported by the Freelands Foundation, which enables arts organisations outside London to present exhibitions by mid career female artists who have not hitherto enjoyed the public recognition merited by their work. In 2020 it was Ingrid Pollard who won this award in recognition of her forty year career as an experimental artist working across diverse techniques, including photography, drawing, installation, print making, video, audio and kinetic sculpture. The MK Gallery has the privilege of hosting this thought provoking and timely retrospective.
The works included in this exhibition defy easy categorisation as it covers nearly half a century of experimentation with different techniques in the context of Ingrid Pollard’s commitment and engagement with complex ideas, particularly within a diasporic historical and political context . Two recurrent genres are landscape and portraiture and these are treated subversively and distinctively, frequently as vehicles for the interrogation of complex and shifting ideas of identities, racial, sexual and, in particular, the vexed notion of Britishness. The use of text in Pollard’s practice is important too. Each room offers multiple and challenging works from the entirety of Pollard’s career, but they all relate to these common themes and link the personal and the political, so relevant to present times.
I was immediately struck by the delicate beauty of the exhibit entitled Flotilla of Fragility, 2008, comprising fifty ceramic renderings of paper boats at the start of the exhibition. This poetic creation conjures up journeys and migrations, a signifier of perilous crossings of the Atlantic. It has a particular poignancy now as it also invokes images of desperate refugees and asylum seekers currently being transported to the U.K. in flimsy, easily capsized boats. The movement suggested by these boats is paralleled by images of movement in a juxtaposed video, Rhythms at Hand, 2022, exploring in a two screen blend collaborative gesture and coordination in tango and rowing. The viewer needs to actively engage to rise to the challenge of discovering the multiple connections between seemingly different exhibits.
I would draw attention to the clever curation of items, helping to draw parallels between exhibits and tellingly concluding the exhibition with two further recent exemplars of movement and gesture. Bow Down and Very Low-123 (2021) uses images from a propaganda film made by the Colonial Film Unit in 1944 , showing a young girl voted as May Queen in a repeated action of bowing and rising. It also explores gesture and movement through three new collaborative kinetic sculptures , devised to human scale and incorporating diverse objects, with industrial overtones, accompanied in their random movements by eerie , unsettling sounds. These sculptures feel threatening, robotic, signifiers perhaps of a dystopian future. These two new works seem indicative of an interesting new direction in her work, methodologically and thematically.
In terms of Pollard’s earlier work, I was particularly struck by her radical approach to the genre of Landscape. In traditional British Landscape painting the subject matter often gives expression to ideas of class, white Britishness and land ownership. For example, Gainsborough in his depiction of Mr and Mrs Andrews, depicted proudly surveying their vast rural property. Pollard draws attention to the stereotypical representation and association of black people with urban environments. Pollard situates herself and black people in this pastoral, idyllic environment, for example in the Lake District , in her beautiful series of hand tinted photographs, entitled Pastoral Interlude, 1987. This series illustrates the importance of accompanying and overlaid text in Pollard’s work. Signs of Keep Out, No Trespass accompany some of the images and even more powerfully Wordsworth’s poetry is subverted to express the feeling experienced by black people of feeling uneasily out of place in this rural idyll, ‘ Where I wandered lonely as a Black figure in a sea of white’.
Another powerful exemplar of Pollard’s subversion of the idyllic landowner dominating rural depiction is her reimagining of the traditional Toile de Jouy fabric and wall paper design, 2015. She replaces the idealised vignettes of the leisure pursuits of landowners with images of toil and Labour, incorporating an image of a textile printer in Ghana, in addition to her references derived from overlapping residencies in Northern France and an artists’ project at the site of a former cotton mill in Lancashire.
There are, in addition, examples of striking, highly stylised portraiture within iconic landscapes, such as a bluebell wood, and the adults portrayed hold various items , signifiers from the days of the Empire and reflecting cultural stereotypes. These include tropical flowers, the Financial Times and fried chicken. These adult , in plein air portraits, entitled Self Evident, 1995 and comprise nine colour light boxes are all the more striking as across the gallery is a series of large black and white indoor studio portraits of children in sharp contrast. I was reminded of the work of another ground breaking black artist who has subverted and reinvented the Romantic European Landscape tradition. Kehinde Wiley in his current exhibition at the National Gallery reimagines well known works, such as Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer in the Landscape replacing the original white aristocratic figure with a young Senegalese man.
Many of Pollard’s landscape subversions are small or medium in scale and often are characterised by a delicacy of execution and have the feel of chamber pieces. In contrast, the monumental images entitled Landscape Trauma , 2001, have an almost apocalyptic quality to them, produced during a residency in the Farne Islands , Northumberland, and lend themselves to many possible interpretations and personal emotional responses. I was reminded of some landscapes by Tacita Dean and indeed her scene designs for the recent Royal Ballet production of the Dante Project. It will be interesting to see Pollard and Dean in the forthcoming exhibition Radical Landscapes at the Tate Liverpool, where more revealing comparisons may be possible. These works have an abstract and surreal quality to them and an awe inspiring beauty and grandeur. They inspire meditation and I felt ideally they deserved to be in a space on their own as they possess the same compelling qualities that we find in the monumental series by Mark Rothko, rightly allocated their own chapel like space in the Tate Modern. Clearly, in the compact space a available at the MK Gallery in the six exhibition rooms, this luxury was not possible.
I have picked out just some of the themes and exhibits to express some of my impressions and reactions to Pollard’s work. I would hope to revisit the exhibition and focus on different aspects that I have neglected in this review as there really is a wealth of material and many issues that challenge. I should just mention that there are works on display that interrogate notions of sexuality, masculinity and homophobia. These are extremely powerful and disturbing too. There are also seascape images that pose similar questions to Pollard’s landscape depictions. Important too is a section devoted to portraiture, including black female artists activists and performers. I haven’t even had space to do justice to an entire room devoted to the thirty year research period Pollard spent identifying and cataloguing images of pub signs, objects and relevant texts with stereotyped and caricatured depiction of the figure of the African, The Black Boy. This work is prescient in the light of recent debates and concerns about abhorrent traces of colonial legacy in urban contexts, as, for example, in the debate about statues celebrating the so called achievements of slave owners. It strikes me that each of these subject areas is deserving of a separate in depth review and I cannot do it justice within my more limited framework of a generalist exhibition review.
It will be evident from my observations of and reactions to the contents of this exhibition that I am really excited at discovering an artist that I knew very little about previously, having only seen a few of her works in the first exhibition at the MK Gallery, The Lie of the Land, and more recently works in the current exhibition at the Tate Britain, Between Islands. Staging the work of such a seminal and relevant contemporary female artist is another triumph for the gallery. I am also delighted that the gallery made the decision to waive entrance fees, which are normally de rigeur for special retrospective shows. This is important as it will hopefully encourage a more and diverse visitor profile and enable the visiting public to revisit such a thought provoking and challenging exhibition.
After a day of renovations, I dragged an unwilling hubby to a church I’d been to before but wanted to visit again in order to write about it. He first suggested that he remained in the car while I went in but I promised he would find it interesting so he grudgingly joined me in the drizzle to have a look.
The church and town look like many in the region, old and quiet, so when you walk in, the wild colours of the frescos are the last thing you expect. Painted in vivid primary colours, the deep blues, yellows and reds hit you like a brick. It quite overwhelming and you find yourself looking at each other in slight bemusement, we are in a Catholic church aren’t we, you smile, in which case, what is going on?
What is going on?
It’s all the work of Jorge Carrasco, a Bolivian artist who landed in tiny town of Le Menoux, in the Indre, with his wife Simone and their six children in 1968. Carrasco, a well-recognised artist, offered to paint frescos in the church which, at the time were bare walled. He received permission to paint them and started work in 1968 completing in 1976.
They’re pretty amazing, simply walking into the church and looking at them it’s quite hard to gain coherence of them as they are quite abstract so it’s difficult to know immediately what the narrative is. However, there is, helpfully, a small explanation of what Carrasco was conveying through his paintings. It’s a much more spiritual narrative than one would normally find in a Catholic church, rather than images that focus on the life of Jesus, Carrasco’s paintings convey philosophical themes on the meaning of life and God within that.
To follow the narrative it helps if you start at the altar end of the church, here the frescos are about the origins of life, I bought the book, so the visions are of the emergence of life from the cosmos. The saturation of the colour is really mesmerising, I was really taken by the right hand wall, it shows two comets, one blue, one red which merge with a kaleidoscope flume, but it’s what’s behind that’s intriguing as myriad faces emerge and yet combine with the gloom, very arresting as it comes into view.
As you move back towards the door, the next scene, in mostly reds, oranges and greens seems to be about hell and damnation, man falling at the feet of god’s power. It’s quite powerful and in sharp contrast in tone to the brighter more joyous colours further down the aisle. In the next two scenes the luminosity of bright colour returns and seems to be much more a celebration of life. In particular the side walls are brimming with positivity to the point that there’s a sense of music and the vitality of life in them.
It helps to understand Carrasco’s interpretation more when seeing the whole of his decoration from the altar, I get the sense of creation, god’s power, the birth of man and finally the joy of life and eventual death.
I think this is a great opportunity for a glimpse into the working life of a major artist and what can be achieved if an artist is given the trust to achieve his vision. I did, however, also wonder what the reception of such a different interpretation of the church’s message had been in the town at the time. Certainly the Mayor seems to have been pleased as Carrasco was awarded a gold medal from the town for his work and at least one street in Le Menoux is named after him, but I do wonder how some of the more conservative Catholics may have found it.
When we left the church we followed the signs to Carrasco’s studio. This was a greater insight of the artist, here we found the studio and the remainder of his collection, including his works in sculpture. These alone are a revelation, beautifully rendered in marble and precious stones they are tactile, voluptuous and sensual. We clambered up to the attic to see a multitude of paintings which reveal his various styles and, presumably, influences. The face motif recurs in many paintings, as does his interest in the futility of war.
It was a real pleasure to be allowed to walk around the artist’s studio, particularly to see his paints and brushes, that felt so personal. The museum sells some literature on Carrasco, there is a book about the frescos, in French, which, with the aid of Google translate, really helped to understand his vision. Oh, and the uninterested bystander? He loved it!
When in the summer of 2020 Dave the builder and his wife Louise excitedly showed me round the old butcher’s shop they’d just bought with plans to turn it into a bar, restaurant and brocante, I smiled politely while inwardly wondering if it was a vision too far. I’m fully prepared to eat my reservations now in 2022 having finally returned to France and gotten an opportunity to see just how far they’d come with their ambitions.
We booked a table for Sunday lunch and headed off in the beautiful Spring sunshine to Thiat, a small town near La Dorat in the Limousin. The bar consists of three small rooms, the main bar, the restaurant and cinema room and the brocante room, there’s also a small outside area which I’m sure is great in the summer. It’s impossible to escape the word ‘eclectic’ ringing in your head from the moment you step into the bar.
The main bar, cute and cosy, with just a few tables and armchairs and the bar, which I know is in the old cold room of the butchers, feels like sitting in someone’s front room. Full of brocante that creates an ever changing diorama as every piece is on sale, you like that vase, buy it, take it home! It’s nicely done though, such an eclectic mix of items that sit well and attract your attention, is that a sporran over there?
Overall though, it’s Louise’s bouncy nature that makes you feel at home, chatting on while she goes around taking orders and making everyone feel comfortable. So, we had a drink and then it was to order, a smallish menu but an interesting one, a mix of English and French food. I went for the smoked trout starter, chicken tarragon main and red fruits crumble while hubby had faggots to start, roast pork main and cheesecake for pudding.
All fabulous, gargantuan portions and clearly cooked with interest and passion. I really loved the smoked trout, much gentler than smoked salmon and a hugely generous portion, the chicken tarragon was flavourful and the red fruits crumble was a great finish, served in old dishes it is was almost a shame to tuck in. Hubby really enjoyed the salad that accompanied the faggots, loved the roast pork dinner and enjoyed the cheesecake immensely.
A poke around the brocante next door revealed gorgeous chandeliers sitting above a collection of tables with various bits of brocante all for sale.
Dave and Louise have done brilliantly, they’ve certainly created their vision, a great, cosy and welcoming bar, lovely food and a friendly atmosphere. The last mention must go to the one piece of brocante that isn’t on sale, the forbidding bull’s head that dominates the space in the main bar. This was from the original butcher’s shop and gives the bar it’s name, La Tete du Taureau.
The gallery tart is going to be spending some time in France for the next few months, picking up on a renovation project that was rudely interrupted by Covid in 2020. We’ve had a small cottage in the French countryside for many years now, bought almost on a mad impulse. Although, as with other posts, when I sit and think about motivations for taking certain steps in life I realise that although I was doing a very English thing in wanting a hideaway in the country, I was also reaching for a European identity by finding it in France.
I’d fallen in love with the food, the beautiful environment, the stone cottages, the streams, the sense of being touch with the quality of life, all in a week in the Charente. The currency was still in Francs, honestly, and we laugh and look back at leafing through fixed menus for 45, 55, 65 Francs and a waiter eyeing us dubiously when we selected a 100 Franc one for a last blow out.
So, now we’re doing up our rustic hideout with an eye to letting it out for holiday lets as we near retirement and a squeeze on resources but hopefully an expansion in time. As part of that I intend to review lots of art spaces, castles and musems to link to the website as well as some favourite restaurants. So, stand by for a few electic reviews as the Gallery Tart samples the French Life.
I was eagerly anticipating my visit to the MK gallery in Milton Keynes for another solo female artist exhibition, having been thoroughly impressed by their retrospective show a few years ago on Paula Rego. It is pleasing to see a regional gallery championing the work of twentieth and, in Rego’s case, twenty first century female artists, who are, arguably, under exhibited. My knowledge of Knight’s work was not extensive, but I was aware of her arresting and unusual Self Portrait with Female Nude, painted in 1913, which can be seen in the National Portrait Gallery , London, and unfortunately was not included in this current exhibition.
Once a popular artist, at least in the U.K., having achieved establishment recognition in her solo exhibition , the first by a woman, at the RA in 1965, Laura Knight and her work fell out of fashion. This major retrospective of her work , spanning her entire career, can be viewed as an attempt to rehabilitate her as an artist of contemporary resonance. Does this exhibition make a convincing case?
Her lack of popularity over the last half century can be, at least in part, attributed to her realist, figurative style, sharply contrasting with some of her contemporaneous artists , who broke away from naturalism and explored more experimental approaches, through Conceptual Art, Abstract Art, Surrealism or Dada, for example. This new exhibition attempts to make a case for her as an important modern artist because of her engagement with a diverse range of subjects that can be broadly categorised as modern life. On show here include her depictions of every day working life in the north of England, plein air scenes in Cornwall, works expressing her fascination with the performing arts, particularly the ballet and circus , but also theatre, engagement with marginal communities, for example the Romany Gypsy, as well as the African American in segregated Baltimore. Portraiture spans her career and, to a lesser extent, landscapes. Also represented in the exhibition is her work produced when she was an official war artist during the Second World War. In addition to the paintings, a number of her works covering graphic design, interior design , ceramics and jewellery are displayed. Many of these subjects recur throughout her career, a few are period specific and the exhibition is displayed chronologically overall with themes explored within this framework.
Initial impressions of her very early work convey an easy and precocious facility in drawing and painting. She enrolled at the Nottingham School of Art at the age of thirteen and her raw talent is displayed in early charcoal drawings, A Girl Reading, astonishingly produced when she was merely fifteen years old. Other early works on show come from her period in Staithes, North Yorkshire and depict working life there. A painting of the fishing communities shows both French and Dutch influences. The former demonstrated in an almost pointillist style, derivative of Seurat, and the latter in the somber Dutch palette and the focus also on genre scenes.
French influences pervade her Cornish residency in Newlyn in the luminosity of her outdoor scenes. Striking too from this period is her focus on the depiction of female nudes. It has to be remembered that when Knight trained it was not permitted for female artists to study and depict the human form from life, that was the sole prerogative of male artists. Clearly this structural inequality irked her as she remedied this deficiency in her artistic training by paying for her own female models. It is a pity that her more well known work, earlier mentioned, Self Portrait with Female Nude , was not in this show as the paintings of female nudes on display are not as striking nor as interesting as the 1913 work, which challenges the norm of the male gaze and the implied voyeurism . The juxtaposition of the female artist, Laura Knight in her formal Edwardian clothing and the female nude model depicted from behind, so the viewer cannot see the face, is an iconic work, showing how Knight overcame the barriers facing her as a woman in a male dominated profession.
Well represented in this exhibition are images from the ballet world, inevitably drawing comparisons with the more well known ballet depictions of Degas. Like him, Knight is interested in showing the hard work and professionalism of the dancers and the liminal spaces of the wings and dressing rooms. I particularly appreciated some of her ballet sketches, which impressively conveyed the sense of movement, although I did find her paintings lacked the interesting angles, cropping and ethereal pastel palette of Degas’s ballet world, that make his perspective so enthralling. There is a certain heaviness about some of her ballet paintings that seems antithetical to the lightness of the Terpsichorean art form.
The circus works also feature majorly in this exhibition. Again, as with the ballet images, some of the most arresting and memorable ones are of the performers off stage, where we glimpse them still in costume but in normal conversation and interaction with each other and there is a certain poignancy and empathy to these images. Her engagement with the Traveller communities displays a similar empathetic connection and the most compelling of these works show something of the personality of the sitters, rather than portraying them as types. I imagine she may well have had some barriers to overcome in winning over their trust, arriving as she did in a hired Rolls Royce, on which she perched her easel.
Knight also had to face issues of trust in engaging with other marginal communities. On her visit to Baltimore she wished to paint portraits of individuals from the African American communities in segregated America. Understandably, she was met with mistrust and suspicion, but nevertheless produced a series of empathetic portraits, which seem to belie the racist attitudes, expressed in her autobiography and common at the time, defining racial types. There is a real and uncomfortable disjunction between her words and her art works.
Her appointment as an official war artist, one of the few women selected for this important project, marked another aspect of her engagement with contemporary society and politics. Her almost Socialist Realist portrait of a female munitions worker received widespread recognition as it was used as an official poster. Other works, such as women flying barrage balloons, while clearly primarily reportage, have a gorgeous tactile painterly quality in their depiction of the material. Perhaps, her most notable reportage was of the Nuremberg trials, where she was present in court. There is a sketch of this in the exhibition.
There are a number of sensitive and striking portraits in the exhibition. The style is naturalistic and they do convey a sense of the sitter. For example, I was particularly struck by the poise, elegance and beauty of the sitter, Ethel Bartlett, her arm lightly resting on her sheet music, the signifier of her status as a professional pianist. Some of the later landscapes are also worth mentioning, for example , the dramatic El Greco esque Malvern scene, depicting thunder and lightening and with a marvellous sense of movement of cyclists battling the elements and umbrellas flailing in the wind. Her figurative style does convey drama and atmosphere.
Finally, before I assess my overall reactions to this exhibition, some mention should be made of the small, but interesting section offering a selection of a few of her design contributions. I was especially attracted to her designs for a ceramic dinner service, produced by the acclaimed ceramicist, Clarice Cliff. Coincidentally, two days before my visit to this Laura Knight exhibition, I had been to the cinema to see the recently released film on the life and career of Clarice Cliff, The Colour Room. I was struck by how remarkable these two contemporaneous women were, both operating in a strongly patriarchal framework and against the backdrop of the suffragette movement, in the formative years of their careers.
In covering this exhibition, I found myself frequently thinking about the historical and societal context within which the works were produced. I marvelled at the diversity of the subject matter and was impressed by the engagement with marginal communities and subject matter. I admire Laura Knight’s transcendence of all the many obstacles that undoubtedly stood in her way in coming from a modest background and reaching artistic recognition as a fully accepted Royal Academician. Sometimes, I felt her very traditional figurative style did not sit entirely easily with the modernity of her subject matter. I was not often involved emotionally when looking at her work and this absence of total engagement made it a less than satisfactory experience. She is an artist I can admire but not love. I do, however, consider this retrospective exhibition to be well worth visiting as a thought provoking experience in examining our criteria for privileging artists within the accepted canon.
I applaud the MK gallery for engaging with these issues and putting on such a wide ranging exhibition, together with useful background information, that enables each visitor to make their own judgements on Laura Knight’s position in the history of twentieth century British art.
Visit to the Great Tapestry of Scotland at Galashiels on Monday 27th September 2021
We arrived in The Scottish Borders in glorious sunshine the previous day, eagerly anticipating our long planned walking break. When we initially planned this we had no idea that the magnificent Scottish Tapestry had just been installed in its new and permanent home, in a purpose built gallery in Galashiels. Our itinerary on this holiday would, of necessity, always be determined by the vagaries of the weather and so we embraced the drizzly, grey weather on the 27th, jumped in the car, and drove a few miles down the road to Galashiels, looking forward to seeing the Tapestry, but not anticipating fully the treat we had in store.
Galashiels was formerly a major textile town and it is fair to say that it has seen better days and initial impressions of the town were coloured by the sight of closed and boarded up shops and buildings. The new gallery immediately stood out, a dramatically angled geometrical roof, tall windows and a boldness of design making a statement. The ambition of the building design is matched by the contents of the building. The scale and realisation of this project, a close collaboration between the author, Alexander McCall, the historian, Alistair Moffat, and artist, Andrew Crummy, and over one thousand volunteer stitchers, working in local area groups, has resulted in 160 panels, using over 300 miles of wool and a tapestry longer than the famous Bayeux Tapestry. The Scottish Tapestry was first shown to huge acclaim at the Scottish Parliament in 2013, but until August 2021 existed as a travelling exhibition.
On entering the gallery, we were bowled over by the extent of the project as it unfolded in the interlinked spaces in the gallery, beautifully lit and connected to the outdoor space too, as the tall windows reveal the distinctive Borders hills, in the ever changing weather. The ambition of the project is to tell the story of Scottish history from the Ice Age to present times, capturing the singularity of Scotland, not just through the iconic battles and historical moments of significance, but also looking at the lives of ordinary people. Colours predominantly used evoke the Scottish landscape, the particular shades of blues, greens, reds, greys and browns. The motif of the sea recurs and bookends the Tapestry. The beauty and intricately captured detail of the work are stunning and the use of the helpfully provided magnifying glasses is to be recommended.
I particularly appreciated the collaborative nature of the enterprise, where the stitchers worked in groups from all over Scotland and the narrative covered the whole geographical area. Where possible, the stitchers worked on subjects and themes pertaining to the areas where they lived. It is also worth pointing out that the stitchers are predominantly female and depiction of the role of women in Scottish history was a pleasing feature, ranging from the great historical figures, such as Mary Queen of Scots, Panel 44, to more unsung heroines , such as the Hebridean herring girls, Panel 112. The whole enterprise felt like a welcome corrective to the usually male dominated art world and historical narratives, where women are frequently eclipsed and uncelebrated. It also provides a striking example of a stunning work that challenges the still often expressed view that privileges painting and sculpture over genres using other media, such as the embroidery on display so magnificently in this tapestry. An illuminating addition to the Tapestry is the taped recording of some of the female stitchers , elaborating on their involvement in the project and explaining just how creative and collaborative the whole experience had been for them. It also seems fitting that the architect responsible for the building housing such a project is a woman, Suzy O’Leary.
The first panel of the Tapestry gives the viewer an enticing flavour of the achievement. The first impression is of colours and a certain rhythm, as the eye dances across the canvas, taking in the detail. The focal point is a central female profile with two smaller female profiles to the right. More careful inspection reveals that these women are stitchers and we are introduced to some of the recurring motives and themes of the panels to follow, the landscapes, the industries, buildings, books and musical instruments and more, signifiers of Scotland’s economic and cultural achievements . My eye was drawn to the quirky woollen hat, worn by the central woman, depicting images of the sea, in dramatic blues and purples, the greens of the landscape , little buildings and a church , sheep, fish and a bird, wonderfully executed detail and contrasting colour palette to the depiction of the knitted bobble in bright reds at the base of the hat. So much to see in one panel!
It seems invidious to pick out individual panels as the project derives its strength from the overall effect of each within the greater whole. However, inevitably I was drawn to certain panels that perhaps evoked a particular moment of Scottish history with a resonance for me or a panel that stood out stylistically in terms of striking compositional design or an arresting colour palette and, as mentioned earlier, I was particularly captivated by some of the vignettes of Scottish women.
The best way to share my enthusiasm is to include a few pictures of either whole or partial panels that attracted me. I loved the elongated, beautiful, dignified depiction of Mary Queen of Scots, her personage in a dramatic royal purple robe dominates the centre of the panel. The following panel, 45, is a real contrast in both subject matter and colour palette. It is the Reivers and the Rescue of Kinmount Willie, depicting the final Borders’ raid in the final days of Queen Elizabeth of England before James of Scotland acceded to the throne. Compositionally , there is a pleasing symmetry and harmony, the two facing soldier profiles at the top of the picture and below them the heads of two horses looking away from each other , all depicted in a somber muted browns and greys colour palette.
I choose another panel , 92, as the subject matter, The Scots in India, represents a particular interest of mine and I loved the colourful representation of the turbaned Sikh, with references to Indian products important in Scottish economy, such as tea, jute and cotton and depictions of Indian flora and fauna . Best of all, I loved the recurring Paisley motif in vibrant colours; it is an aesthetic link between India and Scotland that has long fascinated me.
Other aesthetic interests of mine are reflected in panels 81 and 116. The first is a delightfully playful , Henry Raeburn, with the stitchers depicting their take on the famous painting of the Reverend Robert Walker skating. The second , Charles Rennie Mackintosh , depicting in a beautifully lyrical way, Mackintosh and his artist wife, Margaret Macdonald in the distinctive Scottish Art Nouveau style that they pioneered.
The dignity of ordinary women in their work situations is a recurrent theme and I include details from the following panels, Panel 139, showing a washerwoman, Panel 73, depicting weaving and spinning and Panel 112, celebrating the Hebridean Herring Girls, (above). Leisure activities for women also have their place and I particularly liked the depiction of a woman participating in the sport of Curling in Panel 103.
I could wax lyrical about many more of the panels. We spent a long morning totally absorbed in this exhibition and I would recommend it without reservation, giving it five stars. If revisiting the area I would certainly take the opportunity to enjoy the Tapestry again and focus more on some of the later Panels as we did spend more of our time on individual works at the start of the exhibition not fully comprehending the extent of the exhibition and how long we would need to do it justice. The gallery provides a calm, meditative space that encourages an unrushed contemplation of the panels. It should also be mentioned that the gallery is staffed by extremely pleasant enthusiasts that were genuinely delighted at our clear surprise at the scale and accomplishment of the Tapestry and our enjoyment of the detail and beauty of it. There is also a little café in a pleasant, light and airy space and an interesting shop too. So all needs are catered to for a highly enjoyable day out. I hope this gallery does for Galashiels what the Guggenheim did for Bilbao and regenerates the town, putting it firmly on the itinerary of anyone with an interest in art and Scottish history.