If you’re in London in the next week, and you’ve not yet visited the Soul of a Nation exhibition at the Tate Modern, let this be encouragement to see it before it closes on the 22nd. If that’s not you, let this be a way to enjoy some excellent art. Content warning: some of these images are violent. Super important and well done, but potentially disturbing. Copyright note: I believe this falls within the Tate’s photography requirements of “personal use.”
The Soul of a Nation at the Tate Modern is one of the most challenging, upsetting, and thrilling art exhibitions I’ve been to in years. Before you even enter the exhibition space, you can watch snippets of speeches from five leaders of civil rights, Black Power, and liberation movements (Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Stokely Carmichael, and Angela Davis). You see Stokely responding to MLK and Malcolm X, James Baldwin teaching Europeans about American racism, Angela Davis taking a broad and pragmatic view of how the struggle fits in her life and she in it. This introduction to the exhibition is small but important. It situates us firmly within the black community in the United States in the 1960s and ’70s. We’re not hearing what white people thought about the issues or what approach white people thought black people should take; we’re hearing how black people had this discussion amongst themselves, and the myriad approaches they took to dismantling systemic racism and building a better world.
Once you enter the exhibition space, with the voices of cultural and political leaders still ringing in your ears, you immediately meet the artistic leaders. Let no one tell you that art and politics don’t interact: the Spiral artistic group was formed in direct reaction to the March on Washington in 1963, so members could discuss how to represent black folks in their art, and how to fight political battles in their art.
My favorite thing about these two paintings by Norman Lewis is how they talk to one another. “America the Beautiful” on the left is a collection of white figures on a black background, which as you look more closely you see is a KKK rally, taking over the canvas and popping up almost randomly, like you never know where they’re lurking, intending harm. “Processional” on the right is a collection of white figures on a black background, which as you look more closely you see is an energetic crowd of people marching forward. It’s the Selma march, and as the museum placard suggested, the gradually widening scope of the view of figures is like a flashlight leading through the darkness. Two similarly simple approaches, two radically different results.
The next room cleverly combined art of the Black Panther group (mostly from their paper but also from posters they mass-produced to reach more people) and murals painted in black neighborhoods in cities across the United States — this room was “art on the streets,” art that was made to inspire and fire up. Some of the murals have fallen into disrepair, but I know I’ve seen some — or some like them — on the south side of Chicago, although I can’t recall if I’ve seen the Wall of Respect, one of the first murals to go up during this time.
Some of the stories behind the pieces I was familiar with, and others were new to me. I did not know about Fred Hampton — Black Panther activist shot to death in a raid by Cook County cops after being drugged by an FBI informant. I did not know that during his trial for conspiracy and inciting a riot as part of the Chicago Eight, Bobby Seale was ordered bound and gagged in the courtroom by the judge because the judge didn’t like his outbursts. (Also Seale’s later prison sentence was not for the original charges but for contempt charges the judge applied during that trial.) Archibald Motley, who painted “The First One Hundred Years” over a ten-year period, never painted again after he completed this work.
Other groups and collectives formed, including the Weusi collective, the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, AfriCOBRA, Smokehouse Associates, and many others. A few of the rooms in this exhibition feature work from just one or two groups, so you can get a good sense of the general approach and what they focused on.
A room full of collage, sculpture, and found object art had some truly chilling pieces. Betye Saar’s work is deeply affecting — titles that seem carefree like “Sambo’s Banjo” and “I Got Rhythm” are attached to mixed-media punches to the gut. Each tiny item in each piece adds layers of meaning — the little crucifix at the bottom of a lynched man in “I Got Rhythm,” the toy gun nestled in the top of the banjo case so Sambo might have a chance of resisting and surviving in “Sambo’s Banjo.”
Walking into the AfriCOBRA room midway through the exhibition was like walking into an air-conditioned building after walking for miles in summer heat, a relief. The AfriCOBRA manifesto was explicitly hopeful: they wanted an aesthetic of “rhythm,” “shine,” and “color that is free of rules and regulations.” They made works to lift people up, and they reprinted them for wide distribution, so that black people all over the country could be inspired by positive images of black folks. Which is not to say that this isn’t itself a challenge, because it certainly challenges the white supremacist myth that black people are inferior and not worth celebrating. And in fact most of the art was explicitly political as well, like the work by Gerald Williams reminding people “don’t be jivin” or Wadsworth Jarrell’s portrait of Angela Davis, made up of words from her speeches radiating from the center of the painting. Make no mistake, representation on your own terms is a powerful form of resistance.
One of the debates within the black artistic community at the time was whether abstract art could be considered part of the movement as a whole. Abstract artists argued that because the art was theirs, and they were black, it was therefore part of the political black art movement. It’s like improve in jazz, William T. Williams said, and then he painted Trane, named for John Coltrane, which I think is an excellent way to win an argument.
There was a room on photography and how different ways of developing film brought out different skin tones in the black subjects; there were connections to the wider Black Arts Movement and samples from poets who collaborated with visual artists; there were many reminders that one of the constant themes in black liberation movements of 50 years ago was an end to police brutality — for all those who want to talk about “how far we’ve come”; there was a Spotify playlist you could listen to on your headphones during your walk around the exhibition and which I listened to after, getting pumped up to Gil Scott Heron as I strode along the Thames. There was so much to see, read, and absorb. Much gratitude to the artists who fought the good fight and explored their own creativity during the 1963-1983 period explored here, and beyond.
There are two mausoleums in the Saadian Tombs: one for the sultan who built this complex, Ahmed al-Mansour ed-Dahbi, and one for the most important woman in his life. Who was that? Well, according to this exchange I overheard between a tour guide and one of his group members:
Now this was for the most important woman in his life — who do you think that was?
We don’t have queens. No, this was for his mother.
Should’ve posted this closer to Mother’s Day…
Al-Mansour basically had enough time to make sure the complex was built, before he had need of the mausoleum himself. Wives, chancellors, princes, and other descendants were buried here over the next several decades. But the Saadian dynasty fell, and around 1672 the new sultan, Moulay Ismail, sealed up the tombs.
Aerial photographs taken in 1917 (I’m guessing during WWI though I can’t find confirmation of that) revealed the location of the tombs to the French, who then re-opened them up. They found somewhere between 170 and 200 graves, some in the gardens and some in the Chamber of 12 Pillars (where al-Mansour and his son are buried).
Today, you find the tombs by walking down a narrow alleyway, paying a small fee, and turning a corner into a small, sunny courtyard. The graves are decorated in colorful geometric patterns and Arabic script quoting the Koran. A few orange and palm trees rustle gently in the breeze. A tortoise munches its way across the grass. Apparently, cats guard the mother’s tomb, but I didn’t see them — perhaps it was too warm that day and they were off duty.
Without making too light of the fact that this is the final resting place for the people buried here, I will also say that the gardens in the Saadian Tombs make for a wonderful respite from the bustle of Marrakech.
The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, masterpieces of the form from the late 15th/early 16th centuries on display in the Museum of the Middle Ages (formerly the Cluny Museum), have appeared in novels, poems, songs, and as some sharp viewer noticed, on the walls of the Gryffindor common room in the Harry Potter movies. Ever since George Sand rediscovered them and wrote about them in the mid-19th century, these tapestries haven’t been exactly obscure. And yet, no one knows quite how to interpret them. There are several theories, the most prominent being that they are about the five senses and the soul, since at the time the tapestries were woven, the senses could be seen as doorways to the sacred but also reminders of our base humanity. The final tapestry, which bears the inscription à mon seul désir (“to my one desire/love” or “by my desire/will alone”), is usually seen as the lady putting aside material things for higher ideals. It could also be about the lady preparing to give up her virginity (unicorns are symbols of chastity but that long horn is also a bit suggestive, so unicorns are generally sexually ambiguous). But these interpretations are all wrong. Clearly, The Lady and the Unicorn series shows the lady and her maidservant falling in love.
Okay, here’s our first tapestry, “Touch.” Our lady is bracing herself, holding on with one hand to the flagpole bearing her family’s crest, and with the other to the unicorn’s horn. The unicorn looks up at her calmly, secure in the knowledge that he is what she needs. She knows what’s expected of her, that she will be married off to a man, but she can’t even bear to look at him, to admit what her future will be. The lady is isolated, just her and the lion and unicorn, and one brave little bunny. Notice that many of the animals here are shackled, chained and unhappy.
Ooh, our lady and her maidservant meet here in “Taste.” Right away, the lion and unicorn are up on their hind legs, reflecting that feeling you get when you meet someone you’re immediately attracted to–you feel alert, alive, like you have to stand up and take more notice of the world. Notice that the animals are unchained and free now, and several of them have joined the women and lion and unicorn on the little island. Everyone feels like more things are possible now. The maidservant is offering up a bowl of sweets to the lady, literally offering up something sweet for the lady to taste. How does the lady feel about that? Well, she would never be so unrefined as to have her hair blown back, but her veil is waving about behind her. A little bird lands on an outstretched finger, a little symbol of freedom. Check out the look on the unicorn’s face; he knows that serious competition has just arrived.
In “Smell”, our lady and maidservant get to know each other better, as they hitch up their skirts for the work of the day, a gesture of intimacy we haven’t seen yet. Our lady, who before was so overcome with feeling that she had to glance shyly away from her maidservant, is now able to look her right in the eye. Our maidservant holds up a tray of flowers, from which our lady gathers blossoms to make into a garland. Delicate lady-flowers are definitely in play here.
Look, now they are literally making music together. In “Hearing,” our lady plays the notes on the organ while our maidservant works the bellows. This is a two-person job, and dare I say they have to be perfectly in tune with one another to do it properly? The lion is even sort of turned away to give them some privacy, although he can’t help peeking. The unicorn is coming around to the idea of this whole arrangement; the tilt of his head seems to be saying, “Go on, babe, I see what you’ve got going here.” Our wonderful maidservant looks frankly at her lady, as she has done in all the tapestries she’s been in so far. No maidenly shyness here; she knows what she wants and she’s looking right at her. I’m pretty sure we have not one but two goats on the little island as well (goats being well-known symbols of randiness).
In “Sight,” our lady bids farewell to the unicorn. Our maidservant isn’t here–she has tact–so our lady looks almost sorrowfully at the unicorn as she breaks it to him that this is never going to work between them. But look at him, he’s pretty sanguine about the whole thing. He rests his hooves on her legs and gazes at her with affection. He’s not going to get in the way. She holds up a mirror so he can see himself, and what he sees isn’t a reflection of himself now but as he will be in the near future–alone, maybe, but head held high and looking out for what’s next.
Finally, here we are on the final tapestry, which shows a little tent, a bench, and our maidservant holding up a big ol’ chest of jewelry for our lady. Perhaps she’s placing the necklace back in the chest because she doesn’t need material items to be happy, just the love of this woman. Perhaps she’s taking a necklace out of the chest to give to this woman as a token of her affection. Perhaps she’s getting undressed because they’re about to go inside that tent and get busy. But whatever she’s doing with the jewelry, it’s clear what she’s doing with her future: she’s building it with this woman, her maidservant becoming her partner. A little lap dog appears for the first time, a symbol of domesticity. The lion and unicorn hold up a long veil that looks remarkably similar to what women often wear on their wedding day. And now that ambiguous phrase overhead makes sense: à mon seul désir. It both means “to my only desire/love,” as she gives her heart over to her maidservant, and also “by my desire/will alone,” as she lives her life according to her own desires and not by what was expected of her. She still displays her family’s flags proudly, she’s not trying to reject them, and look she’s even still friends with the unicorn (in a he’s-bowing-down-to-her kind of way). But she knows what she wants, and she’s looking right at her.
Once you’ve visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery, you definitely know two things: this was the first art gallery in Britain specifically created for the public, and the building was designed by Sir John Soane. These two facts are brought up in the guided tour, the building map, the website, and probably a few other places. But they’re rather remarkable facts, so I can see why the gallery emphasizes them.
Soane was already Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy when his friend’s will requested he design the gallery, so it was a big deal for him to spend his time on it (not only that, but he did it for no fee when it turned out there weren’t enough funds to cover his fee plus building costs). Soane was very interested in natural light and most of his buildings have some form of the domed canopy that we’re all familiar with from the iconic red telephone boxes (a trustee of the Sir John Soane Museum, Giles Gilbert Scott, designed the telephone boxes). He did something similar here, putting in massive skylights which light the pictures indirectly; this was a new approach and influenced future art gallery designs.
The other point–that this was the first public gallery in Britain–is also remarkable. The gallery was opened in 1817, at a time when common people were only just starting to be seen as worth educating, let alone exposing to the finer things in life like art. I think the gallery’s openness must be because its founders, Noel Desenfans and Francis Bourgeois, were themselves not aristocrats. They hustled hard as art dealers (getting their start with the money Margaret Morris brought in when she married Desenfans), and they lived in comfortable nouveau riche style, inviting well-heeled friends to their home in Charlotte Street to view their personal collection. (Let’s just take a moment to appreciate how perfect that a middle-class man who worked as an art dealer was named Bourgeois–is there anything more bougie than that?) They clearly didn’t forget their roots, though, and I think it’s great that Bourgeois used his powerful connections (he was personal friends with Soane, he was wooed by Dulwich College to bequeath his collection to them) to create something for people with no connections to enjoy.
Although perhaps this collection was destined for public viewing regardless. It was originally commissioned by Stanislaus Augustus, King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, to form a national gallery of the old masters as part of his plans to encourage fine art in his country. Perhaps the public would have been invited to view that gallery? But his country kept getting partitioned by greedy nearby states, and five years after the commission, Stanislaus wasn’t ruler of anything anymore, which left Desenfans and Bourgeois with over 300 paintings to house.
The collection now numbers more than 600 paintings, and although the gallery doesn’t make any purchases, people try to make gifts pretty frequently. Because of limited storage space, the gallery has to be quite selective, only accepting pictures that fill a specific gap in the collection.
The rooms are split up into different schools of painting, which more or less followed along national lines: British, Dutch, Flemish, French, Italian. Or as was explained to Queen Elizabeth II when she stood in the center of the gallery to re-open it after a major renovation in 2000: “To the left are the beer drinkers, ma’am, and to the right, the wine drinkers.” Meaning, of course, that the northern Europeans were to the left and the southern Europeans to the right. (Thanks to guide Hillary for this delightful anecdote.)
After the tour was over and we started to disperse, I looked around at who was visiting on a Saturday. A lot of gray-haired folks, yes, but a few other people my age, a teenaged couple who held hands in front of a Rubens, and a couple young kids scampering about while their parents made their way around the Dutch room. Dulwich Picture Gallery might contain expensive works of art centuries years old, but it’s still filling its intended purpose of making that art available to the masses. Its founders would be proud.
Idealized or not, I want to try that hairstyle.
I like how one of the tempters in this temptation scene is cockblocking the lady in blue, who is so desperately trying to get her temptation through to the temptee lad in red that she is squirting breast milk at him. Which, to be fair, it looks like he wants some of that.
Oh hey, it’s my new bae. So hot, so stylish, with a particularly suggestive broach (it’s Leda and the Swan). Yeah, okay, so he’s bringing me a carnation as a symbol of his love, but that’s just the flower of choice from his time, okay? He doesn’t know how unfashionable they are now.
I just like that Mary and Elizabeth get a panel to themselves. They get to have a breath here and exclaim over the news they’ve just received before it’s all about angels and holy sons again.
THIS dickweed. Here we have a self-portrait of the artist painting a middle-aged, ‘ugly’ lady so that she appears younger and more conventionally attractive. The smirk on his face says it all: ‘Delusional bitches, huh? But ya gotta pay the rent.’
I really admire the way she’s working hard to keep blood splatter off their dresses.
Architecture and Music in the background all, ‘No it’s fine, we like it back here in the dark, we prefer it actually, we’re pretty sensitive to light, we know you didn’t mean to imply that we’re unimportant or anything, yeah we understand, it’s just for the layout of the painting, sure, sure.’
Poor woman, she’s clinging to the crucifix and mourning the death of Jesus, and then along comes this horse that clearly wants a piece of her.
Wardrobe & makeup doing some fix-up work on Jesus between takes on set.
Ordered ale. Got lager.
‘We’re definitely in the wrong triptych.’
‘I told you we went to the wrong one.’
‘I know, I’m sorry! I just got nervous and jumped in. What are we going to do now?’
‘Smile. Look like you’re praying. Maybe they won’t notice.’
The Staedel Museum in Frankfurt, Germany is a wonderful place. I spent three hours on the Old Masters’ floor alone. Many beautiful pieces to discover–if you’re ever in Frankfurt, be sure to visit!
It’s cliched but true: living in a city means you always have dozens of cool things to do on any given day. In the last few weeks alone, I’ve gone to an art/design exhibit, a couple comedy shows, and a city-wide art show consisting of light installation pieces. Lumiere London was a free event around the West End and Kings Cross over four chilly days in mid-January. Fortified by a few beers at the pub, I walked around with friends and saw probably two-thirds of the entire show. There were some less-than-inspired pieces (including a few illuminated birdhouses in a sterile garden, so dull I didn’t even take photos of them), but many more lovely and weird ones. No surprise that I especially enjoyed the pieces that incorporated sound into the light show. I would’ve liked to see the whole thing, but time and cold both got in the way.
I made a short video, a pretty choppy affair due to multiple fights with Movie Maker–sorry about that. Still, it gives a pretty good sense of what I saw last week. Keep your eyes peeled for the elephant butt and the larger-than-life lily-of-the-valley.
In a misunderstanding straight out of a sitcom about traveling in foreign lands, I almost didn’t visit Guayasamín’s Capilla del Hombre when my language school offered an excursion there. The school sign simply read “Capilla del Hombre,” which my friends and I correctly translated as “Chapel of Man.” I didn’t connect this to the much-lauded museum mentioned in my guidebook, and I dithered about whether we wanted to go to yet another church; it seemed like I’d been to a lot of churches lately. Happily, I did decide to go, and once our taxi shuddered to a stop at the top of the steep hill the building’s located atop, I made the connection. Oh, this is the museum and house of the famous Ecuadorian artist, Oswaldo Guayasamín.
The Chapel of Man, designed by Guayasamín himself, is pitched as a tribute to the oppressed peoples of the world, especially the indigenous of South America, and in fact is a museum for many of Guayasamín’s works. There’s nothing wrong with that, and his commitment to social justice is apparent, but I do take some issue with using exclusively your own art in a building dedicated to all of humanity.
Still, his art is amazing. He was a Cubist and Expressionist, and he painted huge canvases of elongated figures, huge eyes, bold colors. He had three major periods, which have been dubbed tears, suffering, and tenderness. Darker colors in the first, brighter in the second, warmer in the third. One painting was called “The Mutilated,” and it showed pieces of bodies torn apart by war. He painted them on six panels, and those panels can be moved around in different configurations, to show the random cruelty of war, the way we’re all reduced to body parts when violence takes us. The panels themselves are fixed in place by the museum, but there’s a computer nearby that lets you move them around on the screen, in a sort of gruesome game.
One of my favorites was a reworking of a 14th century Pieta, which removed the halos, stigmata, priest, and Christ’s clothes of the original and put in a blood-red background and Mary’s hands held up to heaven in grief rather than pressed together in prayer. It stripped away the religiosity and presented a mother’s grief, a man’s death. It was striking and beautiful.
Many pieces were dedicated to the enslaved indigenous peoples (Mayans, Quechuans, Incas, Aztecs—not much seemed to be made of the fact that many of these were conquerors themselves, that was not his focus), and enslaved Africans. The walls boasted several quotes about helping each other, being the light in the world. One said “I cried because I did not have shoes until I saw a child that did not have feet.” The center of the museum contains a giant bowl with an eternal flame inside, because when he was dying, Guayasamín said, “Keep the light on, I will be back.”
Unfortunately, the museum guide knew about as much English as I know Spanish, and our school guide had much more interesting asides, so I wish our group had just gone around alone with the school guide. Also, the museum guide would ask for interpretations of the paintings and then tell us we were wrong! As in, “What do you see here?” “I see despair.” “No, not despair. Anyone else?” A different approach to appreciating art, for sure!
The ticket price includes admission to Guayasamín’s house and studio, which are on the same grounds. We caught up with a tour midway through, but I zoned out for most of it and just stared at the amazing number of beautiful things Guayasamín amassed during his life. A handmade guitar inlaid with mother-of-pearl, erotic statues from various parts of the world, Catholic icons, traditional paintings, etc., etc. It would be a privilege to wake up in this house every day, never mind then going to work in your own cavernous studio next door.
I’m glad I didn’t let my own ignorance get in the way, and I decided to go to the Capilla del Hombre. It was my first introduction to Guayasamín, and an impressive one at that. I saw his art in all sorts of places after that, seeing his style and influence through Ecuador (including in the governmental palace in the center of Quito).
Guayasamín died before construction was quite complete, but he got to see the beginning of the realization of his vision. He’s buried under a tree in the corner of the yard. Flowers dot the ground and wind chimes sing in the breeze over his final resting place, with his chapel just behind and his city in the distance.