50 Years of Fantasy: A Zandra Rhodes Retrospective

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Sarah Carnall, BA Fashion and Dress History, appraises the display successes and shortcomings of a recent Zandra Rhodes exhibition.

The Fashion and Textiles Museum (FTM) in London regularly refreshes their space by changing exhibitions every few months to continuously display a variety of textiles and fashion. From September 2019 to January 2020, they celebrated their founder with an exhibition entitled Zandra Rhodes: 50 Years of Fabulous, featuring a vast selection of Rhodes’ garments. These ranged from her first collection, The Knitted Circle, in 1969, through to her newest Jubilee Collection of Spring 2020. Alongside pieces from these collections, the exhibition also included Rhodes-designed costumes from operas and examples of her printed textiles.

Figure 1: Garments from the Main Gallery. Author’s Own Image.

This exhibition, curated and designed by Dennis Nothdruft and Beth Ojari, is split into two sections. On entry into the main gallery, Rhodes’ vibrant and intricate garments spring out to greet visitors from their tiered circular plinths, assembled together to show Rhodes’ work over the decades (Fig.1). This display style is common to this museum; previous exhibitions like Night and Day: Fashion and Photographs used a similar technique of grouping garments together to create a scene. While this display strategy is effective in showing the evolution of Rhodes’ work, it hinders visitors from being able to fully appreciate everything as some garments can be out of sight, and it makes it difficult to take good quality photographs to cherish after the event, which can be such a key part of contemporary museum visitor experience.

Figure 2: Dress worn by Princess Diana. Author’s Own Image.

One of the displayed garments is a sleeveless chiffon dress, famously worn by Princess Diana for a state banquet in Kyoto (Fig.2). However, without the assistance of the pamphlet provided, it would not be obvious that this is a piece of note; the displays do not have labels giving specific details about each piece, and are instead only accompanied by a date, with full details listed inside the pamphlet.

Writing on the subject of exhibition display, Gillian Rose (2001) has discussed the importance of text labels and their effect in the museum space, arguing, ‘They make some aspects of the objects on display more important than others’. Whilst the pamphlet is helpful and provides detailed information and includes object numbers, these are not clearly displayed in the exhibition so it is not easy for visitors with less knowledge of the museum’s layout to understand. Pamphlets have also been used in previous FTM exhibitions; in their 2019 exhibition Swinging London: A Lifestyle Revolution, featuring the designs of Terence Conran and Mary Quant, they had an exhibition booklet that gave detailed information about the works displayed. However, in that instance, they also included text labels throughout to identify each piece. I feel this should be a consistent feature in FTM exhibitions as it gives some basic information that visitors can follow, especially if they may not have detailed fashion knowledge.

Figure 3: Textiles. Author’s Own Image.

In the first part of the mezzanine area, a selection of Rhodes’ textiles are suspended from the ceiling, with various hand-designed and screen-printed patterns and materials (Fig.3). This was an interesting aspect of the exhibition, making a nice change from seeing just fashion pieces. The design of this section allowed for each textile to have its own display and conveyed the diverse creations that characterise Rhodes’ career.

Textiles were followed by works donated from some of the exhibition’s sponsors, that is, Dallas, San Diego and Seattle Opera Houses. These were costumes designed for performances of The Magic Flute, Pearl Fishers and Aida,  amongst others (Fig.4). The inclusion of these costumes shows how Rhodes has used her talent for theatrical use, an area in the arts that matches her creative textiles and fantasy fashions. Opera costumes were displayed next to some of the most famous stage garments by Rhodes, including an ensemble created for Barbara Streisand for a performance in 2019, as well as a replica blouse for Freddie Mercury that was used for the 2018 film, Bohemian Rhapsody (Fig.5). These were noteworthy garments, however the weak lighting in the mezzanine made them blend into the rest of the display, with visitors only knowing their importance if they read the text labels.

Figure 4: Costume from Aida. Author’s Own Image.

Overall, I feel this exhibition truly celebrates the impressive career of Zandra Rhodes, including stage costumes, fashion collections and fabrics from the past fifty years. It was interesting to see the variety of her designs and how she has taken inspiration from many cultures in an appropriate way. Whilst there were display issues, such as the lack of continuity in using text labels throughout the exhibition, the Rhodes’ retrospective was supported by a comprehensive pamphlet with full details about each item. Rhodes has stuck to her word from 1980, when she claimed, ‘I supply fantasy for people.’

Figure 5: Blouse from Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). Author’s Own Image.

Elizabeth Keckley: Freed Slave, Activist and Dressmaker

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Olivia Terry, BA Fashion and Dress History, reflects on the ways that histories are written and rewritten, using a little-remembered African American dressmaker as her case study. 

Grand, structured, and sophisticated: these three words describe a dress made for America’s sixteenth First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln [1818-1882]. Made from sumptuous royal purple and ultramarine blue velvet, according to the Smithsonian Museum, the dress was quite fashionable for the winter social season of 1861-1862 (see Figure 1).

Fig.1: Elizabeth Keckley. Mary Lincoln’s Dress. c.1861-1862. Purple velvet and satin. 152.4 cm x 121.92 cm. The National Museum of American History.

Consistent with the sloped shoulder fashion trend of the 1860s, the neckline is a subtle scoop, and the accompanying jacket is splendidly decorated with seven square mother-of pearl buttons. It also has an interesting asymmetrical attribute to the sleeves where one is of the purple velvet, while the other is ultramarine with a flounce of the opposite colour attached (see Figure 2). Contrasting white satin piping unifies and enforces clean, structured lines throughout.

Fig. 2: Elizabeth Keckley. Mary Lincoln’ s Dress. c.1861-1862. Purple velvet and satin. 152.4 cm x 121.92 cm. The National Museum of American History.

This dress clearly has value. Of course, the luxuriousness of the material, its fashionable nature, and the status of its original wearer are all indicators of its obvious worth; but perhaps the most significant attribute of this dress is its lesser-known creator. Born into slavery in 1818 and with no formal training, Elizabeth Keckley defied social barriers by stitching this gown (see Figure 3).

I discovered Elizabeth Keckley [1818-1907], when I was asked to write and present on a member of the African Diaspora who made a key contribution to art and design for Elli Michaela Young’s L4 module, Fashion, Identity, and the African Diaspora. I struggled for a while, knowing I wanted to gear my research towards America, but eventually I remembered a book my sewing instructor had mentioned in passing, Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini. After I had done some research, I was surprised that I hadn’t heard more about Keckley. Bold and resilient in character, Keckley was able to cultivate excellent skills in dressmaking and networking, leading to her purchasing her and her son’s freedom in 1855. Not long after, she became one of the most dominant dressmakers in Washington D.C.

Fig. 3: Unknown. Elizabeth Keckley, detail from front-piece of Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. 1868. Illustration. Virginia Museum of History and Culture.

As researchers such as Kate J. Armstrong have argued, she shaped American fashion by dressing the times most prominent women, most notably, Mary Todd Lincoln and Confederate First Lady, Varina Davis. In 1862, she used her elevated position with the Lincolns to gain a prominent role among the capital’s free black community by founding and presiding over the Contraband Relief Association. The organization provided housing, clothing, medical care and other necessities to impoverished newly freed slaves in the North. She also wrote an autobiography titled Behind the Scenes in 1868, detailing her early life as a slave, the growth of her business, and her professional life in the White House.

Keckley’s life is obviously significant, yet despite this I found it difficult to find new information about Keckley after I familiarized myself with the basics. Most of the information is only known from her autobiography, and many of the articles I found merely brushed over her difficult early life as a slave, skipping to her famous friendship with Mrs. Lincoln. I was well into my research before I discovered Keckley’s role as an activist and while many sources talked about her career as a modiste, very few academic sources emphasized her contributions to American fashion in the 1860s, or her own personal design style.

What I learned from my research is that while, in the last ten years, scholars, curators and journalists are beginning to pay more attention to Keckley, much of the work still fails to recognise her independent accomplishments. Evidence of this can be seen simply by looking at the title of Jennifer Chiaverini’s novel Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, where Mary Lincoln’s name supersedes Keckley’s own. If it wasn’t for Keckley’s close relationship with Lincoln, Keckley’s story may have been lost to history forever. This is a testament to the prioritization of white history in media and museums, telling the story of Lincoln, who happened to have a freed slave for a friend, rather than focusing the story solely on Keckley, who accomplished much more outside of her relationship with Mary.

Keckley lived a revolutionary life, hardly recognized for its extraordinary nature. Dressing the time’s most prominent women, and her reputation for fit, made her the premier dressmaker of the day. It also gave her the power to influence American fashion of the 1860s. It is her surviving dresses that are perhaps the truest testament to her character; understated but undeniably smart.

Bibliography

Keckley, Elizabeth. Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave and Four in the White House. New York: G. W. Carleton & Co. Publishers.1868. Print.

“Mary Lincoln’s Dress.” The National Museum of American History. The Smithsonian. N.d. Web. 22 Mar. 2019. https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1359703

Williams, J. “A Strong Thread in a Torn Union,” The New York Times, The New York Times Company, 9 Jan. 2013. Web. 4 May 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/10/books/its-elizabeth-keckleys-year-in-civil-war-history.html

“We Shall Overcome: Elizabeth Keckley & Harriet Tubman,” The Exploress. Dir. Kate J. Armstrong. The Exploress Podcast, 9 Nov. 2018. Podcast.

Exhibiting Research: Report from a PhD training workshop

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Harriet Parry reflects on a training event for PhD students on the subject of turning research into exhibitions.

Head-down and up to your eyeballs in a research project, it is easy to lose focus of a key scholarly requirement. As well as furthering knowledge in your chosen field, it is also important to share that knowledge beyond the academic bubble. Therefore, the Techne / Centre for Design History one day workshop in November 2019 – ‘Displaying your Research: Pitching Exhibitions to Cultural Organisations’ – was a timely and enlightening opportunity to think not only about what and who to exhibit with, but also to think in new ways about how to connect with diverse audiences.

Through presentations made by academics and curators, whose experience of exhibition included formal display as well as active co-creation and ongoing evolution of community access, these always collaborative projects highlighted the pragmatics and the politics of displaying research. What happens to research when it moves from the printed page to the votive power of the display cabinet? Who owns the work that is displayed? Who is it for and how do they know it is for them? Can collaboration through exhibition create connections that would not otherwise be made? And what can an exhibition generate that a thesis on a book case can never achieve?

As organiser Dr. Claire Wintle outlined, working collaboratively with an institution to create an exhibit can be slow and may cause creative conflict. If, in its essence, it is the right piece of research pitched to the right organisation, it can also provide a constellation of benefits. According to the curatorial and research professionals speaking on the day, identifying how your work relates to the organisation selected is the primary requirement before approaching them with an idea. You might have already built a relationship with the collaborating organisation – as PhD researcher and presenter Joseph Long has with the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea – or it might be a relationship that you will build from scratch. Senior Research Fellow and Design Archives leader, Sue Breakell, advised that what you want to do must fit with the cultural organisation’s objectives and fill a gap.  Think too about what an exhibition could actually be: could it be a collection of events rather than a singular exhibit? All these questions and more must be considered before making any connections.

Intellectual Barbarians: The Kibbo Kift Kindred, exhibition view, Whitechapel Gallery, October 2015. Photograph by Dan Weill.

As an example of the way an organisation prioritises what they exhibit, Dr Nayia Yiakoumaki, curator of the Archive Gallery at the Whitechapel Gallery in East London, explained that their aim is to unearth histories that have not yet registered in the canon of art. One history that did just that was the work Dr Annebella Pollen brought to their attention when accessing their archive as part of her research. Dr Yiakoumaki explained that this collaboration opened up part of their own history that they had been unaware of. Dr Pollen explained that the ensuing exhibition Intellectual Barbarians: The Kibbo Kift Kindred, took several years to organise and was a steep learning curve in many ways. But the results meant that not only were new connections made within the archive but new and different audiences were attracted to the gallery. The exhibition also created new connections in her own work through audience engagement that she couldn’t have anticipated.

A thought-provoking morning of presentations ended with Dr Louise Purbrick sharing her extensive experience of collaborating with communities through museums and exhibitions. Her work advocates a ‘long-slow-collaborative dialogue’ that emphasises work in collaboration rather than as its output. By conducting this research through exhibition spaces, her aim is to legitimise and provide a platform for the work that these collaborations create. Provocatively she asked: could it be that academic impact is no longer the main impact that we are looking for?

PhD students in the afternoon hands-on workshop.

Full of the ideas and possibilities of how we might exhibit our research, in the afternoon session, Dr Nicola Ashmore, who has worked extensively in arts and museum practices, held a workshop to help us pull together our ideas. With such diverse ways of thinking about the value of research and the ways it might be curated, it was unsurprising that our discussions explored tension and contentions on the purpose and ethics behind exhibitions. In particular, we questioned the role exhibition spaces play in society, what should and shouldn’t be included, and who has the right to curate culture and present it as knowledge.

Although it was daunting to balance pragmatics, ethics and concepts of culture in our minds, the day underlined that the way in which our research might be presented is not a one-size-fits-all endeavour. Importantly, we do not own the objects and subjects of our research, but are part of a moment in their social life that can continue; our research can find further meaning that we may never come to know if we do not share it.

Misbehaving Bodies at the Wellcome Collection

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Josie Stewart, BA Fashion and Dress History, reflects on an important exhibition at Wellcome Collection, London.

The Wellcome Collection in London is a space that combines science and art through thought-provoking exhibitions that challenge the discourse on health. A current display, ‘Misbehaving Bodies’, creates a conversation between the artists Jo Spence (1934-1992) and Oreet Ashery (b.1966) concerning the representation and understanding of chronic illness by raising complex questions surrounding how it shapes identity. Through Spence’s photography and Ashery’s films, the artists offer a layered narrative from a patient’s perspective and gives individuals living and dying from illness the reclamation of agency that is so often taken away during periods of ill health.

Fig.1: ‘Misbehaving Bodies’ at the Wellcome Collection. Personal photograph by the author. 16 Oct. 2019.

The exhibition space itself differs from the stark, bleached image of the medical world and it is also a far cry from the more ‘palatable’ public images of illness that tend to not show its full reality, such as scars and bodily functions, particularly when it comes to women’s health.

Spence’s photographs, which cover most of the gallery walls, confront both the physical and mental effects of her breast cancer diagnosis in 1982. Previously a family portrait photographer, Spence observed how her subjects composed façades in front of the camera. She examined these ideas further in ‘Beyond the Family Album’ (1979) (Fig.2) that referenced her mother’s unpaid domestic labour, financial struggles and her parents old age and subsequent failing bodies. Noticing that she had concealed her own unhappy childhood behind a smiling face in early photographs, Spence decided to document her lived experience of cancer treatment in what she termed ‘phototherapy.’

Fig.2: Excerpt from ‘Beyond the Family Album’ (1979.) Personal photograph by the author. 16 Oct. 2019.

Spence’s pre- and post-surgery body feature in a series of self-portraits entitled ‘The Picture of Health?’ (1982-86) (Fig.3). This series addressed her feelings surrounding the trauma of illness and her attempts to reclaim her body, which she felt had been taken over by doctors and western medical intervention. The images are raw, showing Spence at what could be considered her at her most vulnerable. Instead they are powerful and arresting and not without a sense of humour and irony. Spence displays her naked post-op body alongside photos of glamour models, which could also be interpreted as a play between ‘inspiration porn’ and pornography.

Fig.3: Excerpt from ‘A Picture of Health’ (1982-86.) Personal photograph by the author. 16 Oct. 2019.

Feelings of disempowerment and infantilization are also expressed in Spence’s photos. There is an anti-elitist theme to Spence’s work, as the idea that socioeconomics contributed to her illness and that illness in turn exacerbates those existing struggles is suggested. The text accompanying the images was enlarged and laminated in order to make them accessible to the people that Spence believed were also affected by these issues.

Ashery’s film, ‘Revisiting Genesis’ (2016), also explores socioeconomic factors of illness in terms of how capitalism benefits from our fear of death, of being forgotten and our fear of losing creative control. The idea of film and video influencing the memory of the dead is also discussed. The fictional artist ‘Genesis’ is not actually seen but encapsulates elements of Dora Goldine, Amy Winehouse and Ashery herself, all London-based, female artists of Jewish descent. The film features people with life-limiting illnesses themselves, including artist Martin O’Brien who themes his own performance art around living with cystic fibrosis. It blurs fact and fiction, with the script being based on real interviews conducted with palliative care nurses and their patients discussing digital wills, cremation jewellery and augmented tombstones, all of which are currently viable options. The absurdity of even death being inescapable from capitalism is highlighted through the characters names and appearances, making the film seem somewhat surreal.

Fig.4: Still of ‘Revisiting Genesis’ featuring Martin O’Brien showing in ‘Misbehaving Bodies.’ Personal photograph by the author. 16 Oct. 2019.

The viewing space is an important part of the exhibition experience, with visitors sitting on giant teddy bears within an area draped with pink fabric (Fig.4.) Crucially, the shade of pink is a far cry from the sugary sweet hue usually associated with women’s health charities. It instead evokes the inside of a body, which causes discomfort yet at the same time the space feels safe and intimate, intended to allow the viewer to be vulnerable to contemplate subjects such as illness and death. It represents the themes covered in the exhibition, the openness of discussing these topics in an uncompromising way that breaks away from the clichés of ‘courageous battles’ and allows us to be more comfortable with the realities of living and dying with ‘misbehaving bodies.’ The exhibition provides a lot to take in but viewing these issues from an artistic female approach feels more important than ever in the current climate.

‘Misbehaving Bodies’ is on at the Wellcome Collection until 26th January 2020. ‘Revisiting Genesis’ can be viewed online at http://revisitinggenesis.net/.

Designer Christmas Trees at Claridge’s Hotel

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BA History of Art and Design student, Sarahlouise Newman, attended the public unveiling of the 2019 Claridge’s Christmas tree, and provides a short history of the festive project.

Since 2009 Claridge’s Hotel based in the wealthy district of Mayfair has been showcasing a designer Christmas tree. The concept was to bring tourists and fashion fans into the well-known hotel which is a favorite of the royal family. It started in 2009 with John Galliano for Dior; Galliano had been in residence at the hotel and came up with the idea of a tree for the Art Deco hallway. His take on the traditional Christmas tree was a magical-realism idea with a nod to the Brothers Grimm. According to Claridge’s, Galliano ‘evoked a frozen twist on tradition with a tropical tree completed with snow leopard, dragonflies and parrots, echoing Claridge’s Art Deco surroundings’.

Claridge’s tree, 2009.

Galliano secured a second year in 2010 with an under-the-sea themed tree, more whimsical in design. The following year Galliano was replaced by Alber Elbaz for Lavin who turned Galliano’s whimsical concept in for something far more playful and childlike, topped with a small figurine of himself.

Claridge’s tree, 2011.

 

In 2012 Kally Ellis (founder of British floristry designers, McQueens) changed the concept of the tree yet again, naming her creation ‘Forest Murmurs’, giving it a more of a naturalistic, contemporary twist. Claridge’s stated, ‘The Christmas tree featured magnolia branches and lichen moss, studded with crystal and emerald jewel eggs in white, gold and silver.’ This has been rumored to be a memorial tree for fashion designer Alexander McQueen who passed away in 2010 and was also a fan of Claridge’s.

In stark contrast to Ellis’s tree, Dolce and Gabbana took the helm next. With signature Italian flair, theirs was a seven metre high tree with a nostalgic nod to tradition. Claridge’s stated that the tree was adorned with more than 450 hand-blown Italian festive glass baubles and a bespoke ‘luminaire’ framework, with the base of the tree featuring 30 hand-crafted Sicilian marionettes known as Pupi.

Claridge’s tree, 2012.

The 2015 concept was a modern piece by Christopher Bailey for Burberry. Claridge’s explained that the tree ‘featured over 100 umbrellas, each finished in bespoke gold and silver metallic fabric, and thousands of motion-sensor lights, programmed to sparkle and glitter as guests walked by the tree.’ The concept exemplified the breadth of the brief, showcasing something both futuristic and surreal with its hint of Duchamp. It was, in fact, not even a tree at all.

Claridge’s tree, 2013.

2017’s tree turned the concept of a Christmas tree on its head, literally. A personal favourite of mine, the Karl Lagerfeld tree was a sixteen foot inverted tree reminiscent of a silver stalactite, topped with silver gilded roots and a multi-faceted, mirrored star. Underneath, Icelandic sheepskin rugs were positioned to suggest a recent snowfall.

Claridge’s tree, 2017.

This year’s Diane von Furstenberg installation, titled ‘The Tree of Love’ will be in the Art Deco hallway until 1 January 2020.

Sarahlouise would like to thank Orla Hickley, Operations Manager at Claridge’s, for providing information about the tree and permission to use the images.

Criticism of the Bauhaus from Within: The Dornburg Workshop

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MA History of Design and Material Culture student, Maria Paganopoulou, reflects on lesser-known aspects of the Bauhaus in its centenary year.

While writing my undergraduate thesis on the Arts and Crafts movement, one of the things I found most frustrating was encountering academic writing that condemned the whole of the movement, considering it a failure in its social purposes, design reform and even in its attempted improvement of women’s rights. Very often those academics regarded the Bauhaus as the successful offspring of Arts and Crafts’, as the place where its ideas fully developed, although these narratives were often coloured by nostalgia. Those academics tended to celebrate Bauhaus’ embrace of the machine and mass production and consider the rejection of them by the Arts and Crafts movement as the ultimate reason behind its failure. Arts and Crafts has tended to be characterized as merely a bourgeois endeavour for the middle and upper-classes.

As a result of these debates and my study of them, I have been  irresistibly drawn to alternative narratives that challenged the authoritative status of the Bauhaus and consider it historically rather than wishing nostalgically for its resurrection. Needless to say, when I discovered an opposition to the turn that Bauhaus had taken towards the machine and machine aesthetics, especially one coming from within the Bauhaus, I was utterly fascinated.

Fig 1. Marcks in the beginning of his position in Dornburg, circa 1920

I made this discovery during my three-month internship at Gerhard-Marcks-Haus in Bremen, Germany, a museum dedicated to Gerhard Marcks, sculptor and also a member of the Bauhaus teaching staff. Gerhard Marcks was in fact one of the first three artists that Walter Gropius invited to teach in his newly merged/ founded institution, along with the infamous Lyonel Feininger and Johannes Itten. Marcks and Gropius knew each other from 1907 through Marcks’ brother Dietrich who, like Gropius, was an architect. The two young artists shared a vision to align art and craft and, according to Marcks, this was why he accepted the position of Professor (Form-Meister) in Bauhaus.

Fig 2. Thomas Gräfin Grote, Renate Riedel, Max Krehan and unknown in front of the workshop

After the news spread about the establishment of the Bauhaus in Weimar, Max Krehan, a local potter who owned a workshop in Thuringia, approached Gropius for a potential collaboration. Gropius and Marcks visited his workshop in Dornburg and came to the conclusion that this was where the ceramics workshop of the Bauhaus should be established. In 1920 the plan was realized and the Dornburg Workshop came to life, 20 miles away from the central Bauhaus premises in Weimar, with Gerhard Marcks as its Form-Meister and Max Krehan as its Werk-Meister (master of technical aspects).

Fig 3. Cup made of burnt clay with a portrait of Johannes Driesch (student), made by Marcks in 1922

The intertwined life and teaching in the workshop were not ideal; on the contrary they were deliberately challenging. In Marcks’ writings, he emphasised the traditional aspects of the work of the workshop, especially in relation to the absence of advanced machinery and the physically demanding nature of the job that its absence caused. The potters’ wheels were operated by foot power rather than electricity. The ovens were wood-fired. However, the use of traditional equipment was perceived in a positive light. As Marcks wrote: “This was the purest nature”.

The learning procedure was long and for the first two years apprentices were allowed to experiment only with their decoration before they were considered ready to experiment “plastically” with the forms. To compensate for the hard work and the restrictions imposed, there were leisure activities, such as swimming and the collective reading of seminal texts. We can see, then, that this autonomous community, developed in the framework of the Bauhaus, functioned a lot more like C. R. Ashbee’s Guild and School of Handicraft in Chipping Camden in Britain, rather than a school dedicated to industrial design. Nature, traditional equipment, common life and the concept of rural escape employed in the Dornburg workshop therefore reflect previous ways of thinking.

Fig 4. Postcard for an exhibition of the Bauhaus, designed by Marcks in 1922

As far as what was happening in the central Bauhaus, Marcks didn’t hesitate to voice his dissatisfaction. In letters to Gropius, Marcks made clear that Bauhaus should be a workshop not a school. He also stressed the need for contact with materials and the making of objects. This differentiated him from other Form-Meisters in the Bauhaus who were more interested in painting or in the intellectual aspects of creation, leaving the teaching of technical skills to the Werk-Meister. Finally, Marcks stood at a clear distance from the mass production shift advocated by Theo van Doesburg. In his words “I cannot identify anymore with Bauhaus. Sooner or later Formalism is taking place. If I was in Weimar I wouldn’t still be in Bauhaus”. The tale of the end of the Dornburg Workshop is a short one. Bauhaus moved to Dessau and Gerhard Marcks wasn’t invited to continue teaching. Max Krehan also died in 1925, around the time of this decision.

Fig. 5. The interior of the workshop

Last year, the Dornburg Workshop opened its gates as a museum as part of the Bauhaus centenary commemorations. Despite this, its story is relatively unknown, even in Germany. The history of the Bauhaus comprises many lesser-known stories that run in parallel with the evolutionary narrative of the heroic modernist school which, it is claimed, came to succeed where previous movements had miserably failed. The dominance of this modernist narrative, it seems to me, is partly informed by the stylistic preferences of those doing the telling. As the case of the Dornburg Workshop shows, however, Bauhaus shared common roots with some earlier Arts and Crafts endeavours instead of overthrowing them entirely.

Fig 6. The interior of the workshop

Kind thanks to Gerhard-Marcks-Haus for providing me with access to their resources and archives.

 

 

Contested colonial histories at the National Maritime Museum

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BA Visual Culture student, Annie Jones, reflects on the challenges to ethical representation at play in the National Maritime Museum.

In October 2019, undergraduate students on the second year module, Museums, Material Culture and Representation, alongside MA Curating Collections and Heritage students, led by Dr Claire Wintle, journeyed to Greenwich to explore the National Maritime Museum.

We started the day by venturing through the gallery, Traders: The East India Company and Asia. Its focus was how the East India Company brought exciting new spices to Britain, how the textiles it imported shaped fashions and fuelled demand, and how tea was transformed from an expensive luxury to a national pastime. Grand portraits
of British traders such as James Lancaster, who commanded the first East India Company voyage in 1601, dominated the front half of the gallery.

The museum communicated a noticeable sense of British colonial pride with period quotes on the wall declaring “profit and power must go together”, describing the company as “the greatest corporation in the world” and observing, “whosever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world”. A box of the spicesnacquired during the period, including pepper, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon,  were available for us visitors of the gallery to smell and to appreciate.

Towards the back of the gallery the museum’s tone shifted from pride to shame, noting the exploitation, conflict and drug wars that occurred due to British trade and the company’s subsequent fall in the 1850s. Instead of magnificent conquerors, here the British were described by contemporary voices as “evil foreigners” who tempted “fools to destroy themselves [with opium] merely in order to reap a profit.” Despite the museum’s critique of the company, I found the gallery had an overpowering British imperialist voice as a whole, with the objects on display used as tools to frame history in favour of the British. The emphasis was on boasting about what the company had contributed to British society, outweighing their acknowledgement of the terrible consequences for people of China and India.

Students listening to Dr Claire Warrior at the National Maritime Museum.

Next we had a tour of the new Pacific Encounters gallery lead by Dr. Claire Warrior, Senior Exhibitions Interpretation Officer. As we walked into the gallery we were introduced to Adi Yeta, a Fijian drua (sailing boat) built in 2014-15 by a team of Fijian men and women, along with taonga (treasures) displayed in a bookcase created by Ngati Rangiiwaho, a hapu (sub-tribe) of Ngai Tamanuhiri (a tribe) in Aotearoa (New Zealand).

Dr Warrior was incredibly passionate about the museums’ continuing effort to collaborate with the pacific people in telling theirs and their ancestor’s stories in this traditionally exclusive setting, which is a shift I was delighted to see after viewing the Traders gallery. Words such such as ‘colonisation’ and ‘exploitation’ were not shied away from on these walls. It was acknowledged on a text panel that “some people question whether they [Pacific objects in European museums] belong there or if they should be returned.”

Efforts to show the dark, destructive side of Captain Cook’s voyages were made, noting that for many people of the Pacific, he represents the negative legacy of encounter. Many Pacific artists used his portrait to highlight the injustices that came in his wake, presenting him as an invader an murderer, such as one piece by Reg Mombassa titled Jim Cook Mugshot. To see the work of Pacific artists and tribe peoples’ interpretation of the colonisation of their ancestors on these walls was enlightening and a notable positive change in the Maritime Museum’s ethics.

Our final stop of the day was at the Polar Worlds gallery. This was my first time viewing the Arctic in a museum setting and I learned a lot as a result, most notably that over 40 different groups of people live there, sharing close connection to their environment and living off its resources. A video at the beginning, with Sammy Kogvik from Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, provided a great insight into what daily life is like in the Arctic. Contemporary Inuit art was on show along with music by Tanya Tagaq, an avant-garde composer from Canada’s Arctic which was produced especially for the gallery and was available to listen to. The gallery was incredibly interactive and accessible to children, with many touchscreen games to help one’s understanding of the Arctic, its environment and people.

Altogether, it was an extremely enjoyable, educational and insightful trip. Dr. Claire Warrior’s inside knowledge of the exhibits and her transparency about the way the museum is handling contentious colonial objects and their histories today made me hopeful for the ongoing reframing of imperial histories at The National Maritime Museum.

Art in Exile at the Imperial War Museum

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BA History of Art and Design student, Sarahlouise Newman, evaluates a new exhibition showing art under fire.

The Imperial War Museum (IWM) is one of the most prominent museums in London. It focuses on the wars and battles which have affected the United Kingdom. Currently the IWM is holding a Culture under Attack season. This focuses on how art is affected in the time of war and how some people try exploit and destroy it while others try to defend and protect it. The season includes talks, performances and musical events including Rebel Sounds and What Remains. The Art in Exile exhibition focuses mainly on the Second World War and how Britain fought to protect its artefacts, while the Nazis burnt and destroyed art abroad.

Inside the first room shows how the IWM had to choose 280 pieces of art from the wide and varied collection, and how they evacuated it to safer locations, in order to preserve it for future generations. One fascinating exhibit is a document entitled ‘Procedure in the event of war’. This was issued to the staff of the IWM in 1939 as the Second World War began.  A selection of photographic evidence shows how the staff decided what to protect and what to keep on display at this time; the exhibition gives an insight into how they hid the work. It also shows how other national collections, including the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Gallery, had to deal with the preservation and protection of art and how they all worked alongside one another.

One of the main parts of the exhibition shows sixty small photographs lined up on shelves.  These represent what was known as the Priority List, as each photograph of a piece of art that was sent to wealthy museum Trustees’ country homes across England in order to be protected. The homes were situated in the areas least likely to be affected by the German bombers. The exhibition also show how works such as Renaissance paintings were hidden in quarries across England and how museum staff would check on them at certain intervals.

In the last room of the exhibition, there is a computer and a projection screen on the wall. When the button on the computer is pressed, the projection on the wall provides a thought-provoking question for the visitor.  The visitor is then asked to choose Yes or No. Once they have has chosen their answer, the screen shows the percentage of those who agree and disagree with the statement.  This interactive part of the exhibition allows the visitor to understand the complex quandaries that museums had to deal with when Britain was at war.

The Imperial War Museum is based on Lambeth Road and is accessible via Lambeth North and Elephant and Castle underground stations. It is suitable for all ages and allows photography throughout the museum. Art in Exile is a free exhibition which runs until 5 January 2020.

From Brighton to Oslo: Being an Erasmus exchange student in Norway

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Charmaine Coombs, second year BA History of Art and Design student, reflects on her current exchange experience and offers advice for others thinking of doing the same.

Charmaine Coombs outside University of Oslo library, 2019.

The opportunity to study at the University of Oslo for a semester as a History of Art and Design programme student really interested me as soon as I heard about the opportunity. To live in a different country and to learn something new from a different culture has been something I had been hoping to do for some time. Hearing many good things about Norwegian culture from many good friends of mine made me jump at the chance to take part.

Now I am in the middle of the Erasmus exchange trip, I’m pleased to report that I have not met many challenges that have caused much stress, except for the fact I had a very short summer compared to my peers as the Norwegian term starts in mid-August. This was offset by my huge excitement at the prospect of moving to a new country, which is an experience much better than a holiday.

Oslo fjord in the summer. Photograph by Charmaine Coombs.

Being exposed to a new country and culture on your own – I am the only exchange student in Oslo from the University of Brighton this year – could be challenging.  Upon arrival, however, I found that there were many exchange students from a wide range of different countries, such as Germany, France, Belgium and many more. Knowing that a wide range of students from a wide range of cultures would be arriving together, the University of Oslo put in place a student buddy system. This is a great first step in making new friends fast! The system randomly groups different nationalities altogether with a few from their own country. On top of this, at the beginning of term, there were frequent city tours and a number of freebies we received helped us international students settle into the area very fast. On arrival I found everyone to be warm and very understanding of our position.

Academic studies at the University of Oslo have been more or less similar to the educational structure at the University of Brighton. Like Brighton, it has been fairly relaxed with very independent learning. There is a high expectation that students are responsible for themselves. One the information is given, it’s all up to you! As an exchange student, I was given a choice of the subjects I wished to take (as long as they were in English, and related broadly to history, art and culture). You are assessed on three modules but you can take as many as you wish providing that they don’t clash on your timetable. Upon arrival, in fact, I had to change my courses due to a clash. This meant I am now taking World Antiquity, International History and Theory of Architecture in the 19th and 20th Centuries, and Introduction to Conservation and Collection Care. This is a prime example of how it is up to the students to keep a record of their calendar and to find their own way. There are, however, many contact points where you can ask for help if needed. The departments best known for this are based in the main library of the university or you can just email a tutor for further guidance.

University of Oslo (Law Department). Photograph by Charmaine Coombs.

I’ve found students in Oslo to be very academically focused. With a large amount of learning and preparation entrusted to the student to do, such as buying your own books, attending class (where you have to attend at least 75%), and taking part in student activities that encourage participation. Although these activities differ from class to class, Norwegians can initially seem a little closed-off to newcomers. As a result, with student-run activities, sometimes you might need to ask first instead of them coming to you. Norwegians are notoriously very shy! As I have been told, making small talk isn’t part of who they are, therefore making friends with Norwegians can take time and patience. They have to get to know and trust you before they call you a friend. After speaking to a few locals about this I discovered that the solution is to go out for a beer, which warms up conversation. Furthermore, they Norwegians are not always confident when talking in English. As one of my Norwegian friends puts it, “we are perfectionists; we like to say what we mean how we mean it”.

In conclusion, as a result of the exchange opportunity, I have learned a great many new and different skills such as effective budgeting, making friends and adapting to a new culture.  Oslo is a great city and I’ve been really enjoying the amazing scenery Norway has to offer. This exchange has been extraordinary so far. I’ve met fantastic new friends that I am hugely grateful for and have had a life-changing experience that I will never forget.

Up, Up, and Away: The TWA Hotel

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MA History of Design and Material Culture student Gabriela Schunn introduces a striking new hotel, which she recently appraised for Vintage Women Magazine.

Considered a marvel of neo-futuristic architecture, the TWA Flight Center opened in May of 1962 and was the brainchild of Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, who is best known for designing the St. Louis Gateway Arch. It was commissioned by the Trans World Airlines (TWA) in 1955 to be built as a separate terminal at the John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), which was still known at the time as Idlewild Airport. Idlewild was looking to court TWA, as they were known as a luxury airline in a time when air travel was already considered a luxury, so the expansion seemed eminently profitable. Renowned architect Robert A.M. Stern once referred to the terminal as the “Grand Central of the Jet Age,” as for decades following, passengers traveling out of JFK would lounge in the headhouse.

An outside glimpse of Saarinen’s building.

Unfortunately, after filing for bankruptcy twice in the mid-1990s, TWA sold its assets to American Airlines and officially closed the terminal in October of 2001, unable to sustain maintenance of the structure. The building had a brief life as host to an art exhibition in 2005, but was shut down again after guests began vandalizing the building. After this, the Flight Center was nominated as one of the 11 Most Endangered Places in America (with regards to historic architecture) and was shortly thereafter listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

However, when the JetBlue Terminal was opened behind the old Flight Center in 2008 to reutilize the lost space, restoring Saarinen’s building began to be re-considered. In 2015, it was announced that the TWA Flight Center would be turned into a hotel for airport guests, paying tribute to the era in which it was originally built. In its heyday, the airline was known for being the first choice of celebrities, servicing the likes of the Beatles, but sometimes found itself not reaching the average consumer because of its many indulgent impracticalities. The hotel has attempted to combat aspects of that legacy by working with company MCR Development to bring all hotel guests an accessible experience.

A display crafted by the New York Historical Society.

If you compare photos of the original terminal to photos of the structure at present, it is clear that they are very closely matched in their layouts. MCR kept all of the iconic features of Saarinen’s original structure, a few of which includes the following: the stark white wing-shaped thin-shell roof, the tube-shaped entrance hallways, the massive wall of glass windows facing the runways, the bright red carpeting, the spiral-staircases and thin arched bridge, and, of course, the iconic departures board that still functions, albeit purely for novelty purposes now. Saarinen said that he “wanted the architecture to reveal the terminal not as a static, enclosed place, but as a place of movement and transition,” which is reflected in the intricate winding pathways.

While Saarinen’s building itself contains the hotel lobby, shops, museum, and restaurants, his original tube-like departure corridors grant hotel guests access to the 512 rooms that are split across two attached buildings called the Saarinen Wing and the Hughes Wing, named after the architect and the famous business magnate that once controlled much of the airline’s assets respectively. All of the woodworking was completed by Amish family-run contractors, a testament to the hotel’s dedication to ethical locally-sourced production. The hotel also features a glass-walled pool and is host to the world’s largest hotel gym.

“Connie”.

Perhaps one of the most striking features of the TWA Hotel, however, isn’t located within the building itself. It is the airplane nicknamed “Connie,” known more formally as the Lockheed Constellation L-1649 Starliner airplane, which was transformed into a functioning cocktail bar. This particularly contributes to the sense of nostalgia, as many of the original features within the airplane were kept, like the signature airplane seats and Mario Zamparelli’s murals featured on the inside walls of the plane. The precise attention to details with regard to the TWA brand is notable.

For those more interested in the history of the space, one can visit the in-house museum. Crafted with assistance from the New York Historical Society, the displays scattered across the whole of Saarinen’s building highlight the history of the airline’s branding over the years. Free and open daily to the public, it showcases uniforms designed by a host of recognizable designers: Howard Greer between 1944 and 1955, Oleg Cassini between 1955 and 1960, Pierre Balmain between 1965 and 1968, Valentino between 1971 and 1975, and lastly, Ralph Lauren between 1978 and 2001.

A display of liveries designed by Howard Greer, Oleg Cassini, and Balmain.

MCR acquired over 2,000 artefacts of TWA history, including uniforms and paraphernalia from former TWA staff and their families to create these exhibits, and hope to continue such displays in the future. Some of the current wall texts feature anecdotes about TWA, like the fact that TWA hostesses in 1944 were required to wear victory rolls à la Veronica Lake because of the popularity of the film The Hour Before Dawn, that TWA hostesses were the first to show an in-flight movie in 1961, and that one of the original liveries designers Stan Herman designed the uniforms worn by current hotel staff, drawing upon all of the designs of his predecessors.

Atop Saarinen’s arched bridge in the hotel lobby.

 

In its few short months of tenure, the hotel has already been host to many midcentury-inspired photoshoots by amateurs and professionals alike, several weddings and engagements, a Michael Kors pop-up, the Louis Vuitton Resort 2020 runway fashion show, and is featured in the third season of the Amazon Prime series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. While not every element of the hotel is of the period, it is itself a living landmark to the history of travel. The entirety of the endeavour is testament to the power of nostalgia and the renewed interest within popular culture in the mid-century aesthetic.

All photographs supplied with kind permission of Ming Chen Photography

Instagram: @mingchenphotography