Monthly Archives: June 2012

Purveyor of the Great American Dream

If queues are anything to go by, American figurative painter Edward Hopper is currently one of the hottest tickets in town in Spain’s capital. The retrospective exhibition at the Thyssen displays works from the artist’s apprentice beginnings contrasted with later works, and showcases his strengths in his moody intimate interiors and empty landscape paintings.

Drawing crowds similar to London’s rush of ‘Blockbuster’ exhibitions for 2012, this exhibition ‘brings together the largest and most ambitious selection of works by the US artist ever to be shown in Europe’.  Seventy three works are on offer, the majority are Hoppers but the work of other artists is also sparingly used to show artistic conversations from the time.

One of the most impressive sections is contained within a small adjunct near the beginning of the show. Here a series of gorgeously rendered etchings lent from Washington glisten with dark intensity. In each work thick dense black rendering is cast dramatically against areas of stark white. One image, Night Shadows, shows a small dark figure cutting across a spotlighted concourse, lit from above while darkness encroaches inward from the edges of the paper. This could be a scene plucked straight from a film noir storyboard (in fact Hopper is often described as the creator of cinematic style works).

Edward Hopper, Night Shadows (1921), hard ground etching

Elsewhere, visitors are surrounded by figures with heavy moods and scarcely populated urban landscapes. Many painted during the era of American depression, these works are befitting of the current mood in Madrid.  Nobody smiles in Hopper paintings; they almost universally cast their heads downwards, or gaze blankly into futures unknown. All of Hopper’s protagonists seem to be waiting, looking towards the horizon and waiting for something to happen, for unknown futures to burst upon them and break their reverie.

Edward Hopper, New York Corner (1913), oil on canvas

Windows feature heavily and are emphasised through Curatorial decision-making.  In one famous painting a sombre nude woman stares out of a window, and hung directly opposite is a work inviting us to look inside the windows of a large apartment block building. The role of the voyeur is subtly transferred from the nude figure to ourselves: we are drawn into the lives being played out in these atmospheric images.

A strong and well curated exploration of the oeuvre of one of the Great American painters, this show is a must see if you plan to be in the area between now and September. One word of warning, on leaving the museum don’t become confused as to where paintings end and real life begins. When you walk past the stoic protesters stood outside the city’s banks and the shuttered empty shops, I promise you, this is where you’ll come to be immersed in the true spirit of the show.

Madrid Street, June 2012

Curated by Tomàs Llorens and Didier Ottinger.  On display until 16th September 2012.


Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950

Split across two floors, this display of ‘beautiful ballgowns, red carpet evening dresses and catwalk showstoppers’ is a wondrous treasure trove for all wannabe princesses/starlets/socialites and general lovers of glamorous clothes alike.

Regular visitors to the V&A will recognise that the ground floor of this renovated Fashion gallery much resembles the old, with the glass fronted display cases finding a continued use in this exhibition. Here, encased porcelain skinned mannequins are draped with exquisite items from the 1950’s onwards, dresses designed for balls, parties and soirees. These dresses are designed to be admired. Frozen models cavort, coil their backs round to face us, peer down their beautifully sculpted noses at us; every twist and turn they’re fixed in strategically chosen to reveal the best and most surprising aspects of their clothing.

One memorable mannequin gazes at her reflection in a mirror, and from our vantage point outside her case we can see our ordinary-self reflected in profile next to her. The denims and cottons reflected back are no doubt intended to even further highlight the gorgeous delicate loveliness of the lace and taffeta Michael Sherard creation on display. I can’t have been the only person at this point in the exhibition wishing that I was inside the box instead of peering in from beyond the glass.

Upstairs on the mezzanine level is a whole different ballgame. Curiously resembling a designer display at Selfridge’s, this could be a giant advertorial for British designers. I could imagine the whole lot being plucked from the gallery and re-installed in a glossy air conditioned mall in Dubai as evidence of British fashion excellence.

This uncased freeze frame of a catwalk or red carpet parade showcases designs by ‘artists’ such as Jenny Peckham and Alexander McQueen. Each dress is completed by an information card which handily reveals which famous women have deigned to be seen out in the item. An unusual combination of art, commerce and celebrity this level of the exhibition seems to have lost its way somewhat. Not that this seemed to cross the mind of the exited visitors who were readily poised to pose in front of their favourite dresses, women everywhere were enthusiastcially snapping images on their smartphones.

I left this display feeling as though I’d spent half an hour walking through the pages of Vogue or Harpers Bazaar. The biggest realisation Ballgowns created was that the total worth of the fabric in these rooms represented more than most people would ever earn in their lifetime. A glittering exhibition full of sublime creations, its biggest power is its ability to create a greedy wanting desire for someone else’s wardrobe and someone else’s life.

Part of the mezzanine level of the Ballgowns exhibition.

Curated by Oriole Cullen and Sonnet Stanfill. On display until 6th January 2013.

Heatherwick Studio: Designing the Extraordinary

Created with the typical easily distracted museum goer in mind, on first glance this exhibition resembles a cleverly lit, enticing store full of glossy wares. Showcased in one darkened room is the most successful output from the London based Heatherwick Studio, an architectural design company.

The studio, brainchild of Thomas Heatherwick, has designed innovative structures, vehicles, bridges, furniture, and even handbags. On display here, alongside some of the smaller finished products, are a selection of prototypes, sketches, notes on design briefs and video presentations. It’s a delight for the curious, as what you’re actually privy to in this room are these wondrous items being drawn into being.  In a world where people don’t make anymore, where craft has gone underground, visitors can gaze rapturously at fragments of an archaic realm.

The art of the Heatherwick creators materialises (light a lightbulb moment) as you walk around the space: they make you realise how ineffectively designed many ordinary things are. The notion of a retracting bridge or a perfectly conceptualised London bus had never existed in my mind before, and the simplicity and elegance of the designs was breathtaking. Craft resonates heavily, the studio have commissioned expert makers for bespoke components which they can’t produce themselves, as does playing with form and materiality. A favourite experiment of mine was the hairy building project which culminated in a fantastic structure resembling a cube shaped dandelion head (a must see).

This show is representative of what the V&A showcases best: intriguing, well designed, attractive, luminous things. It’s a crashing together of worlds, where high end art product, urban regeneration project and crafted prototype resembling a Michael Brennand-Wood piece can all sit side by side extremely comfortably.

Glossy and reverential, this exhibition is designed to make us fall in lust with good design. In my case, it most certainly did.

Hairy building project by Heatherwick Studio

Curated by Abraham Thomas. On display until 30th September 2012

One of the more memorable scenes from the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada, sees Miranda Priestly lambast Anne Hathaway’s character for failing to recognise that her lumpy blue sweater stemmed from the dilution of a high fashion product, a product that employed many months and many minds in the making. Whilst not quite comparable to a misshapen jumper, short term museum exhibitions share something of this metamorphasis.

The largest cultural institutions will be currently working on an exhibition programme up to five years in advance, and nearly all museums are constantly looking two to three years into the future of their displays. It struck me today as I was assisting in the de-install of one exhibition in particular, that for each of the 118 days it was open for general viewing there had been around six days of planning of both the theoretical and nuts and bolts kind.

By the time the anticipated hordes of general public get to feast their eyes on the displayed works the underlying creative minds have long since moved on to further projects, leaving behind the husk of their endeavours. But before this abandoning of ship (at around the time of the press preview) there have been hundreds if not thousands of decisions which have shaped the content of the exhibition. What people must rarely think about as they walk the pathways of a temporary display is what isn’t there.

Perhaps an interesting thing to document for public viewing would be how an exhibition gets off the ground, from the seed of the initial idea right through until the gallery hang. Key themes and overarching strategy could be explored, works which were requested but not lent could be cited, discarded design plans and mock-ups of the hang could be catalogued. In reality this would be just an extention of the blog posts and time-lapse videos which explore the inner workings of the museum on many institutional websites ( A lively and bold accompaniment to the finished, polished exhibition product, this type of display could perhaps even prove to be more interesting than the real thing.