under a red umbrella

I have to admit that there are some times when London feels like awfully hard work. Getting on and off endless buses and tubes and trains. Fighting your way through rush hour crowds. Negotiating the pedestrian crossings at Oxford Circus. Battling your way round Sainsbury’s in Angel on a Saturday afternoon. Encountering numerous random people who seem to be unaccountably angry about absolutely everything, for example, the man at Highbury and Islington station who has been known to stand on the platform and shout “You’re a LIAR” at the TFL guy with the megaphone when he’s just announced that a Good Service Is Currently Operating on the Victoria Line.

But then there are those other moments when London feels like everything you want it to be. Just recently, I was walking down Regent Street on one of those dark, wet evenings when everyone is hurrying to get home. All around me, everyone was elbowing their way onto buses and down into Oxford Circus underground station, but safe in the shelter of my red umbrella, there was something strangely pleasing about dawdling along the street, taking in all the shop windows, and admiring the kitsch Christmas lights down Carnaby Street. Shimmering with the rain, the street seemed transformed into somewhere unexpectedly magical. Perhaps for no other reason that everyone else was hurrying away into the dark at such a pace, for a moment or two, I felt as if the city belonged to me alone.

The crowning touch was stepping into Liberty’s to check out Luella’s Christmas grotto, and of course, to admire the magical Christmas windows – a riot of charmingly festive nostalgia:

For more pictures of the lovely Luella windows, check out Wee Birdy and Wish Wish Wish.

P.S. Whilst we're on the subject of Christmas windows, I must briefly mention the fabulous windows at Harrods, which this year have a special Wizard of Oz theme to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the film! You can even buy your very own pair of ruby slippers, though sadly by the time I had made it to Knightsbridge they had all sold out...

[Liberty's window image via Dazed Digital]

the museum of everything

The Museum of Everything: Art Comments

Take just a few steps away from the chi-chi cafes and boutiques of Primrose Hill; follow the hand-lettered red signs tied to the trees; turn left by Chalk Farm Library and you find yourself standing before a crooked doorway fit for a fairy-tale or funfair. The sign above the door, reads simply, in mismatched letters: EVERYTHING.

This is The Museum of Everything – a boldly-titled pop up gallery housed in a former dairy and recording studio, bringing together works by 90 artists from Europe, America and Asia. Yet what separates The Museum of Everything from London’s wealth of temporary art spaces and pop-up exhibitions is its subject matter: this gallery is devoted entirely to showcasing the very best in outsider art. The works on display here are created outside the mainstream art world, with its markets and its institutions: here, self-taught artists and makers represent a variety of extreme mental states, presenting a wealth of unique fantasy worlds and unconventional perspectives. As The Museum of Everything puts it: “For these artists there are no studies, no press junkets, no art fairs, no magazine spreads. Instead there are treasure troves of untrained work, discovered under rocks in basements and attics, its creators often unaware their art will ever see the light of day."
Henry Darger

Far from the conventional white cube gallery, the works in this exhibition are presented in a deliberately haphazard fashion, jumbled together in exuberant, and almost overwhelming chaos. You encounter these works in a series of dimly-lit rooms, twinkling with strings of fairy-lights; ducking down rough-floored corridors under swaying bead-fringed lampshades; tripping down tottering staircases and along a labyrinth of creaking passages; peeping through windows and vitrines into miniature theatres of the obscure and eccentric.

Rev BF Perkins: King Tut Treasure

Every turn offers something unexpected to discover, from Charles August Albert Dellschau’s intricate sketchbook pages to Emery Blagdon’s complex wire ‘Healing Machines’ to Morton Bartlett’s disturbing mannequins. This mixed-up assemblage of works certainly reveals the vitality and diversity of outsider art, ranging from the meticulous, systematic order of drawings by Hioyuki Dori and Heinrich Reisenbauer to the imaginative flamboyance of Russian military enthusiast Aleksander Lobanov. Each artist offer us a glimpse of their own particular imaginary space, be it the ghostly world of medium Madge Gill’s intricate black and white drawings, in which wistful female faces appear and disappear against an elaborate backdrop of Alice-in-Wonderland kaleidoscope patterns; Aloise Corbas’s portraits of fantasy princesses with flamboyant jewels and magnificent swirling hair; or Henry Darger’s ‘Vivian Girls’ – a complex, illustrated narrative about the heroic escapades of a group of beautiful young girls, which on closer inspection is disturbed by the inclusion of sinister and subversive elements in surrealist fashion. Peeping into these inner worlds, the viewer is occasionally invited to take a closer look through magnifying glasses or binoculars, in a clever play on the distance between gazer and object, artist and spectator, insider and outsider.

George Widener: Friday Disasters (Photo: Museum of Everything)

This quirky showcase of secret artworks is accompanied by a series of texts by well-known artistic and cultural figures, including Hans Ulrich Obrist, Peter Blake, Ed Ruscha, Grayson Perry, Mark Titchener, Eva Rothschild, Jeremy Deller, Jarvis Cocker and Nick Cave; yet thankfully, on the whole they resist the temptation to over-intellectualise, or obscure these works with contemporary art jargon. Instead, in general these texts appear to focus primarily on what inspires and excites about these works, setting the tone for an exhibition which skilfully side-steps value judgements. For in the end, it doesn’t really seem to matter who has made these works, or what their ‘outsider’ status might be: far from grappling with questions of what makes these works are ‘art’, instead The Museum of Everything is primarily focused on offering the viewer an idiosyncratic gallery experience. Though this quirkiness sometimes may feel a little too contrived, this higgledy-piggledy assemblage of artworks certainly conveys a vivid sense of intensity and frenetic energy often missing from a more conventional presentation of work.

Alfred Jensen

At the end of the journey you emerge, stepping through a ribbon curtain into a café that could be straight from a village fete – complete with tea, jam, and things to buy that have a pleasingly handmade aesthetic. Self-consciously kooky though it may well be, The Museum of Everything is certainly a memorable experience: a colourful treasure-trove of the surprising, thought-provoking and bizarre.

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new home

I've been absent for a while: work and dissertation have been occupying much of my time. I've also just moved into my new flat in Islington, the lovely land of red telephone boxes, falling leaves and Narnia street lamps. There really is no place like home!

Back soon, but in the meantime, I have an interview with author Sadie Jones on the Bookmunch website here, and a brand new review of Manchester Art Gallery's Angels of Anarchy exhibition on the Manchester Art Gallery site here.

[Image by Jenuine via My Love for You]

Angels of Anarchy at Manchester Art Gallery

This post was originally written for Manchester Art Gallery's Angels of Anarchy microsite.

Stepping down the dark red tunnel and entering Angels of Anarchy is like emerging into a hushed treasure trove of elaborate, otherworldly curiosities. There is so much to discover here, from Méret Oppenheim’s theatrical surrealist objects to the disturbed domestic spaces of Dorothea Tanning’s eerie gothic paintings; Frida Kahlo’s exuberant still-lifes to the elaborate, unquiet fantasy landscapes of Leonora Carrington. What is more, this selection of artworks from three generations of female surrealists is accompanied by a fascinating miscellany of ephemera – from the limited edition books and little magazines so essential to the development of the avant-garde movement, to personal letters, drawings, and even a tarot pack designed by Ithell Colquhoun.

But for me, the real treasure amongst this rich and diverse assembly is the selection of portraits. Much of the work in this section is less overtly surreal: instead, Eileen Agar’s illustrative pen and ink drawing, and Leonor Fini’s line and wash work are delicately graceful and understated; whilst Lee Miller’s warm and evocative portraits of her fellow artists are elegant, though often subtly uncanny. Yet interestingly it is also Miller who offers us one of the most troubling and indeed profoundly surreal self-portraits in this exhibition – a photograph of an amputated breast laid out on a plate, complete with knife, fork and napkin, as if ready for consumption. Meanwhile, looking at Claude Cahun’s miniature self-portraits is like peeping through a series of tiny windows at the disorientated artist-subject as she performs a whole series of different identities before the viewer. It is in this section that the complexities of female subjectivity, the tension between woman as muse and woman as creator, really begin to unravel themselves in full.

Like so many of the other twentieth century avant-garde art movements, surrealism has always seemed the enclave of iconic male artists: Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, André Breton and the rest. Yet the strikingly feminist artworks that make up this exhibition are easily as original and subversive as the better-known works of their male contemporaries, mounting a powerful, but often distinctively mischievous challenge to the conventions of art, as well as to the orthodox gender politics of their contemporaries. Especially intriguing is an array of drawings from the surrealist game Exquisite Corpse, where art becomes the product of a communal creative activity, no longer the preserve of the individual (male) artistic genius, working in isolation, but something altogether more exuberant.

In the end, it was this sense of exuberance and energy that for me was most striking – and indeed, most enjoyable – about my delve into this haunting assemblage of artworks: Angels of Anarchy is above all an encounter with the dynamism and vitality of this secret history of twentieth-century avant-garde art.

[Image: On Being An Angel (1977) by Francesca Woodman, courtesy of George and Betty Woodman and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, via Manchester Art Gallery]