Saturday, 29 November 2008

Doing the Rounds

I'm not ashamed to admit that I love museum gift shops. There's something about an overwhelming amount of magnets with Monet's waterlilies on them that just warms my heart.  Since Christmas is just around the corner, and shopping is inevitable, I thought I'd offer a quick review of the best museum gift shops in London.

1.  Victoria & Albert Museum Gift Shop.  I think this gift shop has some of the nicest inventory in London. They have a huge range of items, from unique jewelry to scarfs to handbags to books to doo-dahs.  The quality is really much higher than the norm, and they also have lots of relatively unusual items that don't scream "I got this at a gift shop."  The quantity of items you might actually buy far outnumber the quantity of special erasers with "V&A" printed on them.  It's pretty design oriented, so it's a fun place to browse.  Highly recommended.

2.  Gift shop in the Crypt of St. Martin in the Fields.  I discovered this gift shop last year.  They have REALLY cute Christmas decorations this time of year, and they are a bargain.  My parents and I did a little comparison shopping between the merchandise here, at Harrod's, and at Fortnum and Mason.  Often times, they have physically identical items here as at the high end department stores, and literally for half or a quarter of the price.  They have lots of old-fashioned style Christmas ornaments and decorations, which I love.

3. Tate Modern.  After slamming their Rothko exhibit, I figure I should say something nice about the Tate.  We found really cute Christmas cards here a few years back, and they also have a really huge selection of interesting art books.  It's almost like a specialist bookstore inside a gift shop.  Pretty great.

No list of recommendations is complete without a list of duds.  The gift shops at the National Gallery and the British Museum leave a lot to be desired.  They are pretty run-of-the-mill, and occasionally border on boring and tacky.  Large quantities of bendable pencils with the museum's names on them.  The bright side of this is that it leaves you more time with the actual museums themselves.  And everyone knows how I feel about the National Gallery.  

Also, today, while at the V&A, we saw some really atrocious museum behaviour, which I've added to the wall of shame.  Everyone loves a misbehaving tourist!

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Rothko at the Tate Modern

Disappointed would be the word I'd use to describe the way I felt in this exhibit of Rothko's later paintings at the Tate Modern.

I love Rothko, and have since the first time I saw the room full of his paintings at the Tate Modern.  So when I found out they'd have a whole exhibit of his works, I was over the moon.  Yet, I left this exhibition feeling let down and disappointed.  It's just not that great, to be honest.  And for the cost of the ticket, it's not worth it.  Save your money, go see the Rothkos that are in the permanent collection when the exhibit closes, and go have a nice night in the pub with the money you've not spent.

Rothko sets a mood, and I was expecting this exhibit to be overflowing with "mood."  It wasn't.  It was boring.  They had one nice room, the main one, filled with the Seagram murals, that created an "experience," but other than that, the displays fell short.  I don't know what it was, but I just couldn't get out of there fast enough.  The whole exhibit felt poorly constructed and poorly executed.  The paintings never truly engulfed the visitor the way they do in the famous "Rothko Room", and I think that was the biggest disappointment of the day. I never felt truly absorbed by it all.

My disappointment may partially relate to the fact that the exhibit contains none of his more vibrant, earlier paintings, and I can't exactly blame them for that since it specifically focuses on his later work.  But still, I consider myself to be a pretty open-minded art appreciator, and considering I like Rothko enough to have one of his posters up in our flat, you'd think I would find something that resonated with me in an entire exhibit of his work.  But sadly, I didn't.

I hate to be a downer, but in my opinion, there are much better things to see in London right now.  Clearly, I'm at odds with some reviewers who loved it.  Still, I'm not the only one who thought the display of the Seagram murals was less than ideal.  I haven't felt this let down by a special exhibit in a long time.  Go to the Byzantium exhibition instead.  It's honestly 800 times more interesting.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Natural History Museum (London)

Turns out, we went to a lot of exhibits when my parents were in town.  

Their last day in London, we went to the special exhibition on the Wildlife Photographer of the Year, which is held at the Natural History Museum in London each year.  I went with my parents because I knew my dad wanted to go.  I'm not usually a "photography" sort of person, but as it turns out, this may be the best thing we saw in 10 days.

Highlights included:
  • None of the photographs are actually printed.  Instead, they were displayed on screens.  Even if this was a bit gimmicky, I loved it.
  • Each photograph was accompanied by a short quotation from the photographer, explaining their take on the picture.  Then, a brief snippet was included about the species/scene/behaviour that is shown.  This was great if you aren't a naturalist/biologist, and it was the perfect amount of info.  They also included a map with where the photo was taken, and the specs on the equipment used.  I usually gripe on the presentation of information at this exhibits, but I couldn't imagine a better way of doing this.
  • Pictures were grouped according to subject, or occasionally, who took the photo (there were categories for photographs taken by children aged 11-14, and 15-17).  Winners for each category or group were displayed along with runners-up and honorable mentions.
  • The overall winner was a photograph of a snow leopard taken by Steve Winter, a National Geographic photographer.  He spent months in India trying to capture photographs of the snow leopards, and had to set up an apparatus that would take photos automatically when the leopards passed the cameras.  The results are phenomenal.  His efforts are also shown in the BBC TV series "Planet Earth" (also available on DVD now).  
  • Subjects depicted in the photos included: a battle between a snake and a frog; images of glaciers melting; a giraffe being chased by a lion; and an underwater shot of a whale just a few feet away from a diver.  Really impressive stuff.  
This is a fabulous exhibit.  It is well worth an hour of your time, and the £7 entrance fee (£3.50 for students/concessions).  It's there until the 26th of April.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Byzantium 330-1453, The Royal Academy

Yesterday, my parents and I went to the special exhibit at the Royal Academy on Byzantine art and culture.  It was fantastic (and huge).  Highlights included:
  • Micro-mosaics.  An incredible technique that is eye-watering to imagine executing.  Take your hand-held magnifying glass, and imagine doing this by candlelight in 560 AD.  Makes images of the baby Jesus more interesting.
  • Reliquaries.  Everyone loves an object made exclusively to hold the fingernail of a no-name saint.  There were lots of these.
  • Goblet that was purported to be the true Holy Grail.  Clearly, this is empirically testable.
  • Many carved ivory icons, which were another awe-inspiring technical achievement.  They actually carved very small text in relief and sculpted architectural colonnades on a tiny piece of ivory (less than 10 inches tall).  Thinking about the various ways ivory has been used to make objects of art, from the 30,000 year old Palaeolithic sculptures to Byzantine icons and beyond, is staggering.
  • The entry-way is filled with a huge iron chandelier.  This was one of the most impressive objects I've ever seen in a museum, anywhere.
The exhibit is definitely worth going to if you are in London.  The entire exhibition was very evocative of the sacred and truly monumental Byzantine culture.  As a kid in school, we didn't spend much time explicitly talking about the Byzantine Empire, and this exhibit included lots of nice, informative tidbits about how expansive and persistent this culture really was.   Entry is £12 for adults, £10 students/concessions. It's there until 22 March 2009!

Friday, 14 November 2008

And now, for something completely different

Nikolaihof.  Possibly the greatest winery in the world.  Certainly the oldest in Austria.  

Look, there's no way to make this relevant.  But it must be mentioned.  It's freaking old, they are a 100% organic, family run winery in the Wachau, and the man who took us on a tour was quite possibly the friendliest Austrian I've ever encountered.

If you ever find yourself in the area, definitely go, even if wine isn't your thing.  This place gives you warm fuzzies. Not the drunk kind of warm fuzzies.  The kind that you get when you realise there are still a few decent places in the world doing things responsibly and morally because it's the right thing to do.  

Renaissance Faces at the National Gallery (London)

Any guesses about which portrait was painted first?

My parents are in town, so we went to the"Renaissance Faces" exhibit at the NG.  It includes a nice collection of portraits from their permanent collections as well as several on loan from other institutions. 

Highlights from the exhibit were:
  • Arcimboldo's portrait of Emperor Rudolph II as Vertumnus.  Essentially, a still life of fruit, arranged to make a portrait.  Sheer genius, and amazingly entertaining to look at.  Loved this.  I didn't know much about Arcimboldo before seeing this piece, but I did some googling, and it seems like this was his trademark style.  Quite innovative for the 16th Century! (And, to answer my own question, roughly the same age as the Titian portrait also shown above.)
  • Nice collection of Durer prints and sketches in the penultimate room, which I really enjoyed.  There's also a particularly mediocre Durer painting where the sitter's hands are bizarre and unnatural and his entire neck area is out of whack, and it was fun to compare his skill as a draftsman and printmaker with his overall mediocrity as a painter.  
  • Quinten Massys' "The Old Woman (Ugly Duchess)" - an exercise in the grotesque as art.  Really an engaging painting.
  • Highlights from the permanent collections in this exhibit include the Arnolfini Portrait (van Eyck), Raphael's painting of Pope Julius II, and several exceptional Titian portraits.  
The Guardian also ran a nice review of the exhibit.

It will be up until January 18.  Tickets are £10 (or £5 for students) and I highly recommend visiting if you find yourself with a free hour in central London!

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Lots to discuss, but no time

How is it that I find myself too busy to blog while unemployed?

My parents have been in town for a visit, and that has been interspersed with a quick trip I made to Vienna to give a paper at a conference, which happened to be held at the Natural History Museum there.  In the last 10 days, I've actually been to three different museums and two special exhibits.  We went to the Rothko exhibit at the Tate Modern, and also took a quick spin through the "Renaissance Faces" exhibit currently at the NG in London.  Also, my husband and I recently became members of the Tate.  So there's a lot to discuss.  Hopefully I'll pull it together to write posts about the two special exhibits before I forget what I saw, and there's probably also a post in the works about whether museum membership is worth the cost, and possibly about the conference/museum in Vienna (I'll try to make it relevant).  

Also, it wasn't really a museum, but the conference organised a field trip to the oldest wine press/winery in Vienna, Nikolaihof, where we had a crazy tour from this overly enthusiastic, and possibly somewhat drunk, Austrian man, followed by dinner where I sat across the table from possibly the drunkest man I've ever met.  So that may be worthy of a post as well, if I can find a way to claim that the winery is a "museum."  We'll see.