Tuesday, April 17, 2012

At the Tate Britain with Petra

The Dome in the Tate Britain
This weekend, Petra and I took a trip to the Tate Britain: 9 months in London, and I had still not been there!   Yet another beautiful building to explore!

We had an hour before the "Highlights Tour" was to begin, so we decided to swing around to take a look at the "Focus" areas. It was a bit of a surprise... each 'focus' was just one room. Each room was exactly what it said: a "focus".... a collection of perhaps a dozen or two dozen paintings, with a theme linking them.

First, we checked out a room of Don McCullin photographs. He was a war photographer, working in mostly black and white.   I wasn't familiar with the guy, but can say that some of his photos (particularly the ones in the book on him that was in the museum shop) were just painfully haunting to look at.  For this room, they chose NOT to display the war photographs, but produced groupings from different parts of his work: berlin after the war, fields, miners, streetpeople. The photos were really striking.  nbsp;  Here is a review of the exhibit.

From there, it was off to "Atlantic Britain", for a series of paintings that looked 'simple', but which all had some relationship to tales of Empire and Colonialism. So, for example, who would have thought that the painting of a woman plucking a turkey was a commentary on the US/Britain revolutionary war?! (you can click here to see the 14 paintings that were in the room).

And then, another step backwards in time to spend some time with Reubens and Britain - 14 works related to the Banqueting House ceiling at Whitehall.  I didn't know anything about the Banqueting House ceiling, but now feel like I want to spend time with it!

We finally wandered back to the meeting point for the "highlights tour".  For the first time ever, Petra and I grabbed one of those folding chairs to carry around with us.  HEAVEN!!!!   Given the fact that I am very tall, i am generally torn between my desire to see the paintings up close, and my awareness of the fact that people can't see over me... with the chair, i could scramble right close, and people could still see over me (and my feet and back were happier!)

We had a fabulous guide, and fell in love with the paintings she showed us.  We saw Queen Elizabeth by Nicholard Hilliard, getting a lesson on sumptuary laws (who was allowed to where what kinds of jewels and colours) as well as on how to read the codes in the painting, including the many leves of meaning in the rose she is holding and the phoenix she is wearing. 

It was fun comparing the queen with the painting just two to the right, Gheeraerts "Portrait of an Unknown Lady".  We learned that the unknown woman was pregnant and covered in pearls, that pearls were the sign of St Margaret of Antioch, patron saint of pregnant women, and that people generally were painted WITHOUT smiling.  That the unknown woman is smiling marks this as belonging to a genre of pregancy painting: images captured before nobel women gave birth, so that the family could remember the woman if she died giving birth (thus the smile...yikes).

We then hung out with William Powell Frith's painting, Derby Day.  The painting is a riot... full of hundreds of people wandering around at the Derby. Of course, you can see almost not a single horse: it is a study in people, and people organized by physiognomy (the science of studying people by their skulls). The people are grouped into 'criminal life', 'entertainers and the impoverished' and 'artistocrats'.

Check out the link to get a close up look at parts of this painting (which was a sensation when it was first displayed).

In particular, look at the foreheads!   I learned that 'high brow' and 'low brow' indeed were linked to the notion that artistocratic folks actually did have higher brows, and criminal had the reverse.  I feel so validated!   I also suspected that our monstrously high family foerheads were the sign of our greatness!!!!
Ophelia... drifting past the willows

We then headed off to the pre-Raphaelites, to check out Mallais's "Ophelia".  It was fun listening to the story of the model (Lizzie Siddlell) posing for the painting by laying fully clothed in a tub of water.  I can imagine better ways to earn my living. The guide told us that this was the first Ophelia shown in the process of drowning... the previous practice had been to show Hamlet's girlfriend walking towards the water.  The challenge was that a drowned woman was code for fallen woman (the option left to you if you were pregnant or disowned by your family).  Mallais was, the guide told us, perhaps making some additional commentary in this painting.
Echo Lake (as opposed to Echo Beach?)
 I am not sure what the commentary was in Peter Doig's "Echo Lake", but I am sure there is one in there!   The painting is based on a still shot from the movie "Friday the 13th"....and given a childhood steeped in the genre of the B-grade Horror Flick, this only made it more compelling for me!  :-)

We spent a few moments with Michael Craig-Martin's "An Oak Tree" (which looks not at all like an oak tree, but rather like a clear glass of water sitting on a clear glass shelf of water attached to a wall way above your head).  The text that accompanies the water is actually pretty funny to read.  ... and maybe it also raises questions about faith and belief.  Certainly, the piece is a pretty clear instance of 'conceptual art'.  :-) 
Hanging out with "No Woman, No Cry" (Chris Ofili)

 But Petra and I agree that our favourite piece was "No Woman, No Cry" by Chris Ofili. It is a tribute to murdered London teenager Stephen Lawerence, whose picture can be seen in the tear drops.

The title is a reference to a Bob Marley song of the same name (click here if you want to hear Marley live in 1979). 

It is a mixed media piece, and the closer you get, the more layered (and beautiful it is:  drawing, ink, paint, glitter, photos, etc).
us caught in an 'artful' moment of contemplation

After the tour was over, we spent some time contemplating a piece of contemporary art in the corner, making good use of the stools we had carried with us.  After all, if a glass of water on a shelf can be art worthy of contemplation, then why not a concave mirror that flips the image of gazer back upside down? 

From there, we spent some time browsing the bookshelves in the gallery store.  We were in no hurry to leave, as we could hear the rain absolutely pounding down on the glass roof above us.  It was a good excuse to linger, but I had to keep reminding myself that I arrived in London with only 2 suitcases full to sustain me for a year, and that I would be going home with the same 2 suitcases.... so touch the books, and look at them, but don't buy!!!! (that was a hard one). 
 And so, we headed back out of the museum, and onto the streets of London, where the storm had finally broken, leaving us with the promise of a dry (and maybe even warmer?) evening in London.

the sky after the rainfall


  1. Hello,
    To tell you the truth, it is hard to believe you did all of that in just one day at the Tate. I haven't been there for a long time -- perhaps I will do some of the same pictures there on my May/June visit.

    I read your post so carefully that I heard myself say out loud, non-breaking space, when I saw "nbsp". Then I laughed, realizing it was just a code in the back of your post that had broken-forth --

  2. oh yes.... i forgot to mention that the necklace on the woman in "No Woman, No Cry" is made out of elephant dung... as are the two 'lumps' on which the painting rests. :-) interesting.... transforming the stuff of the earth into something beautiful and useful.


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