Sunday, 24 May 2009

The Chelsea Flower Show

I'm not sure if this counts as a museum visit, but it's certainly a special exhibition, so I figured it was worth writing up.
We visited the Chelsea Flower Show on Friday, and I was absolutely amazed by all that there was to see.  It is set up on the grounds of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, and it's neat to walk around that area.  Location aside, there are essentially three major components to the show.
  1. The Main Pavilion: This is a huge tent in the centre of the show, that is probably the size of at least two (American) football fields, if not more.  Nurseries, shops and growers have displays in here, and they are phenomenal.  Many growers specialise in a certain flower (daffodils, tulips, dahlias, etc), or some stands were thematic (succulents and cacti, vegetable garden displays, etc).  The sites (and smells) in here were incredible.  In one direction, you'd get a waft from the strawberries that were growing, and then you'd turn around and confront a huge display of roses.  It was all impeccable, and incredibly beautiful.  Of course, the growers are there to make a sale, so you can order basically anything you see, and have it delivered straight to your door.
  2. The show gardens.  Outside, sponsored gardens are built.  These range from the super modern, to the Japanese inspired, to gardens with wildflowers and rivers, to a replica of urban flats with small gardens.  We definitely preferred the more wild gardens to the perfectly manicured ones, but they were a site to see.
  3. Shopping, shopping shopping!  If we actually had a garden, we could have done some serious damage here.  From wellies to garden ornaments to conservatories and greenhouses, it's all on offer.
It was a real treat to experience the legendary Chelsea Flower Show, and I suspect we'll try to get tickets again next year (when hopefully, we'll have a small garden of our very own!).  

Monday, 4 May 2009

Russian Constructivism at the Tate Modern

We had a three-day weekend here in England, so we decided to give our seriously underused Tate membership cards a little exercise and hit up the Russian Constructivism exhibit at the Tate Modern.  I wasn't sure what to expect and honestly, we picked it mostly because it was sort of crappy weather outside, and we were looking for an activity.  From these humble beginnings, the exhibition turned out to be fabulous (and seriously better than the Rothko exhibit we went to last year.)

The exhibition focuses on the art of Rodchenko and the lesser known Popova (primarily active in the 1920s and 1930s).  Other artists influenced by constructivism that may be somewhat more familiar include Hungarian-born contemporary Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.  It comprises 11 rooms, and starts with their paintings (many of which are bright canvases with interesting explorations of depth, planes of space, and flattening of appearance).  I especially liked a few paintings by Rodchenko that experimented with the intersection of several circles and different textures of paint.  

By far, the most interesting rooms focused on the more graphical arts of this time period.  These exhibitions included their art used for posters, book covers, and other "popular" arts.  I think the whole aesthetic of constructivism, which plays with lines, geometry and color blocking, really lends itself to these works on paper.  I was also really interested in the way the Russian alphabet and words in general effect the appearance of the graphics and the art.

I knew almost nothing about Rodchenko, and even less about Popova, before going into this exhibit.  I'm sure that I would have had a deeper appreciation of this exhibit if I knew more about early 20th Century Russian history and politics, but my friend Anne did try her hardest to fill me in and compensate for my abysmal knowledge.  Even for ignoramuses like me, these paintings and works on paper were fascinating, and I highly recommend a visit before the exhibition closes in the middle of May!

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Musee de l'Homme, Paris

The Musee de l'Homme disappointed me as an unremarkable display of early hominin skeletons, crania, and material culture (stone tools and early art).  The display is small, poorly displayed, and generally unmemorable.  However, when we were there last week, they had a temporary display of crania and stone tools from  Atapuerca, in Northern Spain (NB: the link is to an exhibit at a different museum, not the one at Musee de l'Homme).  Atapuerca is a cluster of early hominin sites with dates between 1 million and 400,000 years before present.  An astounding quantity of hominin remains have been found at a cave beneath the Atapuerca hillside (at the Sima de los Huesos- literally "pit of bones").  The species seems to be a regional H. heidelbergensis species currently being called H. antecessor by palaeoanthropologists in the know.  Although the identification of this population as a unique species is controversial and debated, this group of sites is some of the earliest evidence we have of hominin occupation of Europe, so it's an exceptional find.

The exhibition itself was well-displayed and organised, with lots of accompanying information in both English and French.  Remarkably, the actual crania were on display, along with some of the handaxes found at the sites.  I loved it, and my family even tolerated it, so couldn't have been a total bore to non-archaeologists.  If you're in the area and have 45 minutes to kill, it's worth the admission fee (about 5 Euros).  

My advice: skip the permanent collections and go straight to the Atapuerca exhibition.  Take the Metro to Trocadero and then follow the signs from there. Don't miss the fantastic view of the Eiffel Tower!

Musee de l'Orangerie, Paris

I'm behind on the blog.  Apologies.

We went to Paris last weekend and spent part of one afternoon at Musee de l'Orangerie.  The Orangerie museum is exceptional for one reason: the two, oval shaped rooms that house a series of Monet's waterlilies (or Les Nympheas), which were commissioned to be painted for those two spaces.  And they are extraordinary. 

The experience of standing in those rooms, surrounded by his waterlilies, is unique and like nothing else in this world.  Despite the over-marketing of Impressionist art, and the almost cliche status that Monet's paintings have acquired in the past 75 years, this display makes you stop and really look at these icons of early modernism.  Monet, and this exhibition of his work, truly manage to create an "Impression," and it's memorable.  I had last been in the museum in 1994, when I was 12 years old, and I still remember the experience.  So many of my memories from that first trip to Europe have turned out to be inaccurate upon revisiting those places in the past 4 years.  But the memory of this museum, and the feeling of being engulfed by Monet's waterlilies, was unpolluted by the 15 years that passed.  

The museum is very worthy of an hour of your time, even if all you do is sit in those two rooms and try to pick your jaw up off the floor. The rest of the collection is less remarkable, but worth a quick spin through it for the sake of being complete.

To get there, take the Metro to Concorde.  Admission is a bit steep (7.50 Euros) but it's well worth it.  It's open every day but Tuesday, from 9am to 6pm.  Also, they have a nice little gift shop where I scored a cute baby book in French for our good friends who have a (hopefully) bilingual 7 month old.  So all in all, a successful visit.  

Monday, 23 February 2009

Iraq's National Museum to Re-open

I thought it was worth noting that Iraq's National Museum re-opened today.  It was the site of horrible looting in 2003, and many of the irreplaceable artefacts were lost, destroyed, or sold on the black market.  It's debatable whether re-opening the museum at this point is a "good" idea, and whether the country is ready for this yet.  I think if the country can use its cultural heritage and history as a positive source of national pride, this would be great.  Iraq is literally a "cradle of civilisation," and there are few places in the world that can rival the history and heritage found in this region.  It seems like the amount of irreplaceable cultural heritage that has been a casualty of this war is often overlooked by the news media.  Still, I wonder if re-opening this museum will simply offer another a tempting target for divisive, and ultimately destructive, struggles.  
This is yet another hurdle that Iraq has to overcome.

Read more from CNN here.

Musees Royaux des Beaux Arts, Brussels

We hopped the Channel to visit one of Scott's cousins in Brussels this weekend.  While we were there, we went to two museums worth reviewing (this was in between the grotesque quantity of mussels I ate and the numerous delicious Belgian beers we consumed).  

The Musees Royaux des Beaux Arts are actually several museums, housed under one roof.  Centrally located near the Gare Centrale, it's easy to incorporate a visit to this museum into any visit to the city.  The art is divided chronologically, with the older art ("Art Ancien") in the main building, and the more modern (19th and 20th Century) art downstairs in what appears to be a more newly renovated "wing."  They are also opening a wing in June specifically for the art of Renee Magritte.  

We didn't see everything, but the museum has a really nice collection of Belgian, Flemish, and other Northern European art.  Highlights from the collection include:
  • Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Marat.  This painting is an absolute 'must-see' and in my opinion, is worth the price of admission on its own.  To see the brush-strokes on this painting up close, after studying it in so many art history classes, was a real treat.  The way David created the look of "death" in Marat's flesh was a remarkable accomplishment.  Bits of golden flecks are mixed with more muddy tones to create the flesh-tone.  I also loved seeing the messy brushstrokes he used to create the blood stains on the fabric and the knife.  For a brief overview of the significance of this painting, read this.  The way David imbues this painting with so much symbolism is really indicative of his overall work.
  • The paintings by Pieter Brueghel are also really exceptional.  I especially like looking at all of the faces of the individuals in his compositions that are so full of people.  It's almost like an early comic book, and he manages to include so much expression and individualism in his scenes.
  • The centrepiece of the 'ancient art' wing has to be the huge room full of Rubens paintings.  I am not often left speechless, but the size of these paintings absolutely shocked me.  They are at least twice as big as I imagined them to be, and the way they are exhibited was actually really well executed.  As much as I enjoyed the finished paintings, I think I enjoyed the oil sketches in the neighbouring room even more.  It's fascinating to see the process Rubens went through to create such massive, animated and emotional paintings.  Loved this.
I suspect that once the Magritte Museum opens, that will be worth a visit in and of itself.  However, many of the Magritte paintings were not on display, so we only got to see a handful of these.  In about two hours, we got a good feel for what the museum had to offer.  The biggest downside to the museum was the confusing layout.  The 19th and 20th Century paintings are separated from the main building by several long staircases and hallways, and there's no clear transition between the spaces.  This was a small annoyance though, and the opportunity to see the Rubens paintings and The Death of Marat more than compensated for it!

Sunday, 15 February 2009

The Saatchi Gallery: Unveiled

We made it to the Saatchi Gallery yesterday, and were not disappointed.  The current exhibit is called Unveiledand features contemporary art from artists working in or originally from the Middle East.  We were both really impressed by the exhibit, and highlights included:
  • Kader Attia's Ghost, which was a room full of aluminum foil 'casts' of Muslim women in various prayer poses.  This was really striking as the forms were actually hollow/empty, creating a surreal and super-modern feel.  It also made us wonder how the artist executed it (with a single individual as the model, with many individuals?).  We also wondered whether it was made in situ, as an installation, or transported in its complete form from elsewhere.
  • A room full of prints by Halim Al-Karim, which played with the concept of focus and out-of-focus in really interesting ways.
  • Laleh Khorramian's paintings, which reminded us of Hieronymus Bosch, with their other-wordly qualities and details.  
  • Sun Yuan and Peng Yu's "Old Person's Home" is also worth noting.  It's not part of the Unveiled exhibition, but it is definitely like nothing I've ever seen.  Essentially, mannequins of individuals, who look a lot like certain world leaders, are placed in wheelchairs.  The wheelchairs have sensors in them and zoom around the room, allowing the mannequins to play "Dodgems" with each other, and with exhibition visitors.  Controversial? Definitely.  And also really entertaining.
The exhibit isn't huge, and we navigated our way through in about 90 minutes.  It is truly unique, and like nothing else I've ever seen in a gallery.  The artists are mostly in their 20s and 30s, and come from all over the Middle East, including Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Algeria. I'm not sure how I would have felt about the exhibition if I'd paid £16 to get in, but since it was free, I can whole-heartedly jump on board.  I think we'll be back for future exhibits as well.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

A Pre-Visit Post: The Saatchi Gallery

When Scott asked what I wanted to do for Valentine's Day, I didn't even hesitate to answer. What could be more romantic than going to a museum!?  The Saatchi Gallery is one of the few art museums we haven't yet been to in London.  There are a slew of excuses for why we haven't yet visited.  First off, it used to be on the South Bank of the river, which made it more of a shlep when we still lived in Cambridge.  Secondly, it used to cost an arm and a leg to go (now it's free, thanks for corporate sponsorship! Yay!).  And thirdly, it's a little....strange.  It's pretty much all modern, temporary exhibits.  So you never know exactly what's going to be there.

But we really have no more excuses.  It moved this October to a new space in Chelsea, after a rather contentious legal battle over their former home at County Hall.  Chelsea is so close that we really can't avoid it.  It's free now, which is reason to rejoice in and of itself.  And the current exhibition sounds really interesting. 

I can't wait to write about it after we visit!

Thursday, 29 January 2009

We interrupt your regularly scheduled program for this special announcement....

I passed my doctoral thesis defense this morning!

Maybe I should rename this blog "Dr. TheMuseumPass."


Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Google Loves Art

Google has a new feature out that allows you to get up close and personal with masterpieces from the Prado Museum (Madrid).  They took their super-duper high res cameras into the museum and took really detailed pictures of some of the main attractions there (Goya, Velazquez, etc). You can then browse these pictures in incredible detail through Google Earth, and see every brush stroke and weave of the canvas.  It's remarkable.  And a total time-sucker for someone like me.  I also think this sort of technology has the potential to completely change the way art history classes are taught.  I remember going to museums after taking a class and standing in front of a painting, thinking "That's not how I imagined it at all. I never knew X, Y, Z."  This detailed database of art shows you things you can't even see if you stand with your nose against the canvas.  And let's be honest, in most museums, you can't get that close to the pieces you want to see.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

The second day we were in San Francisco, we went to the Asian Art Museum in the afternoon.  We had already walked around the city quite a bit that morning so we focused on the special exhibit of Afghan antiquities saved in the museum in Kabul, thanks to the quick thinking of their curators (read more here).  

This assemblage comes from part of Afghanistan formerly known as Bactria, and situated at the confluence of several trade routes between China, India, Central Asia and "the West."  Artefacts in the exhibition dated back to about 2500 BC and spanned rougly 2000 years.  They included antiquities from the famous site of Tillye Tepe and the hoards of more than 20,000 gold ornaments and grave goods from at least six burials of nomadic (and clearly quite important/wealthy) individuals (dated to about the 1st Century BC).  It was fascinating stuff.  Gold jewelry, coins, pottery, you name it.  Culturally, it's a really interesting assemblage that demonstrates how this area was really the crossroads of several major early civilizations.  I don't usually like Bronze Age archaeology, but this stuff was amazing.

The museum also contains a pretty overwhelming permanent collection of art and archaeology from China, Japan, Nepal, India, Bhutan........  My favorite things were the Bronze Age Chinese vessels and jades, which reminded me of one of my favorite classes as an undergraduate.  I think Scott gets really embarrassed as I run from case to case announcing the Chinese words for the shapes of the vessels and the jades: "Oh look, it's a Ding!  It's a Cong!  It's a Bi!  Do you see the taotie on that one?"  I can't help getting excited about them!

Finally, as we were walking out, there was a video playing on loop in the lobby.  As best I could tell, the theme of the video was 'What it's like to be an archaeologist.'  Needless to say, I forced Scott to sit and watch most of it with me.  I think I'm the only person who sat there and said "Oh, it's so-and-so" or "OH MY GOD I LOVE HER!" when various people came on the screen.  I guess I've officially become an archaeo-dork.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

DeYoung Museum, San Francisco

The DeYoung Museum is a strange place.  Aside from our inability to find the building (another story for another day), the collection is truly eclectic.  As best I can tell, it's held together by the common theme that most of the collections are from the New World.  But the collections span pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, colonial paintings, Hudson River School landscapes, and a pretty hefty mass of modern art too (this may not all be American actually, come to think of it, which leads me to wonder if there actually is a theme to the collection).  There's also a collection of Pacific Island arts and crafts, and artefacts from New Guinea.  So who knows.

Things are also jumbled up in places too, so in neighbouring rooms, you can find sculptures made 3 years ago and sculptures made 4000 years ago.  It's strange.

All that said, we really enjoyed it.  We didn't see everything, and we didn't try. We whizzed through the Mesoamerican wing, which included a nice collection of Moche pottery and interesting Olmec stone statuettes.  We moved through the modern sculpture rooms too, on our way to see the American paintings (c. 1700-1900).  For anyone who has taken an American art class, these galleries are like the lectures from that class come to life.  Church, Peale, Sargent, Copley, Eakins...They are all here, largely due to a very large assemblage of paintings from the Rockefeller Collection.
I think my favorite room was devoted to tromp l'oeil art.  Tromp l'oeil literally means "to trick the eye." You may be familiar with this technique from the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo painted columns and architectural features against which his figures could lean, but it had a 
resurgence in America in the mid-1800s.  The central artists in the movement, Harnett and Peto, were masterly at making a flat canvas look like a pinboard with bits of envelop, rubberband, ticket stubs, push pins, etc, sticking out every which way.  

We also enjoyed the building itself, which is hyper-modern, and the large 'Safety Pin' sculpture in the garden by Claus Oldenburg (who, incidentally, has his pieces all over San Francisco...).  All in all, an enjoyable afternoon, but I'd still like to know how all this art is supposed to come together.  Any museum that has Olmec and Oldenburg sculptures in the same space is either seriously misguided....or seriously genius.  :-)

Sunday, 18 January 2009


Sorry for the month's hiatus.  Christmas caught up with me.  During our month in the states, we went to two museums, both in San Francisco.  We spent an afternoon at the DeYoung Museum, and also a few hours at the Asian Art Museum in SF, where we went to an exhibit of antiquities from Afghanistan.  Both deserve posts, but things are a little frantic now that we're back in London.  I'll get around to it, eventually!