Jeremy Aynsley, CDH director, reflects on some current online exhibitions and virtual resources that enable continuing engagement with design history themes under quarantine conditions.
If, like me, at the moment you miss going to see exhibitions to see the ‘real thing’ in space and time, to be able to appreciate the methods, materials and scale of what is on display beyond the screen, then initially you may be feeling disappointed and a sense of loss. In response, you might then also have been watching how galleries and museums, all too aware of this disappointment for those involved in preparing these exhibitions over past months and years, as well as for their visiting publics, are offering alternative experiences online.
An exhibition that realistically I would most likely not have managed to visit in person opened shortly before lockdown hit the city of New York. The Bard Graduate Center, known to many of us as offering programmes in the History of Design, also has a reputation for deeply-researched, relatively small-scale exhibitions with significant accompanying publications. The current Eileen Gray exhibition exactly fits this mould.
Hot on the heels of Charlotte Perriand: inventing a new world an exhibition at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris earlier in the year the subject is another remarkable woman architect and designer who came to prominence in the 1920s. A distinctive female figure, still all too rare in the history of modernism, Gray’s reputation has grown increasingly over the past twenty years or so. Of course, to view the Bard exhibition by website could be considered as second place to going to the exhibit. But it also offers the chance to dwell on Gray’s long life (born in 1878, she lived until her 98th year) that went from her native Ireland, to London, via Paris to the south of France, in different ways from ‘doing the exhibition’. It becomes a rich experience of uncovering Gray’s career, its complexities, frustrations and contradictions.
As well as beautifully-shot gallery installations and highlighted objects, some newly-found, conserved and displayed, the website offers a generous range of sources, documents and contexts to understand Gray’s life and work. They include a sequence of photographs of her self-fashioning, always stylish and of the moment. You can visit the site to see arrangements of her individual furniture and interior designs, projects, plans and drawings, her skills in the art of Japanese lacquer, and also accounts of her two most famous houses, E1027 and Tempe à Pailla, both overlooking the Mediterranean.
A symposium on the exhibition took place just before lockdown began and a selection of talks also appears on the website. As well as the guest curators recounting their engagements with researching Gray, her life and her work, the highlight for me is the recording of Irma Boom, the designer of the book to accompany the exhibition. She thumbs through the publications she has designed and expands on her approach to layout, sequence and how she works to find the key to embodying her design subjects in book form. Do watch this if you are interested in the process of book design, not often made public in such a frank, matter-of-fact and engaging way by a great and modest designer.
I am really disappointed that another exhibition I had been really looking forward to, closer to home at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester and definitely within reach in normal circumstances, has been interrupted by Covid-19 and is now closed. Guest curator Emma Mason, who runs an interesting gallery specialising in 20th-century British printmakers in Eastbourne, is the guest curator of Barnett Freedman: Designs for Modern Britain and author of the accompanying publication.
Freedman has not previously received the attention of a solo show, despite being one of the foremost graphic artists of mid-century Britain. Exhibitions dedicated to such designers, possibly with the exception of Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious, are still quite unusual. Freedman’s hallmark drawings were transferred by his distinctive lithograph technique to popular settings: book covers, advertisements, stamp designs, as well as artists’ prints, commissioned as part of the Official War Artists scheme during WWII. You will notice works that are a central part of the visual history of modern Britain. These are complemented in the accompanying display at Pallant House, An Outbreak of Talent: Bawden, Marx, Ravilious, and their Contemporaries.
Image: Barnett Freedman, Silver Jubilee postage stamp, 1935 Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections © Barnett Freedman Estate
Finally, if you are as keen on graphic artists, don’t miss Tate Britain’s Aubrey Beardsley. A virtual tour by curator Caroline Corbeau-Parsons is currently available. I suspect that Tate had hoped that this exhibition would gather a great deal of attention and connect with a new audience for Beardsley’s prolific book illustrations, posters, drawings and other graphic works. The last major exhibition in 1966 did so, striking a chord with a young generation interested in Pop Art, Japonisme, the broader Art Nouveau revival, and his exploration of sexual identity. The result was that Beardsley posters proliferated on many bedroom walls.
Image: Aubrey Beardsley, first art editor and illustrator for The Yellow Book Volume I 1894 Collection Stephen Calloway
Better still, in terms of a viewing experience on the subject of Beardsley, you can still catch actor Mark Gatiss presenting a profile of the Brighton-born artist in Scandal and Beauty on BBC television. His nuanced interviews with suitably aesthetically-dressed curator and author Stephen Calloway as well as Stephen Fry, show Gatiss to connect with his subject in a perceptive and endearing way. This is how I spend some of my time as a diversionary tactic.
–– Jeremy Aynsley
Professor of Design History and Director of the Centre for Design History,
University of Brighton