We went to the British Museum to see the Grayson Perry exhibiton yesterday afternoon, but were surprised and disappointed to find that there were no more tickets available for the day…
Which resulted in a rather aimless hour or so wandering around some of the other rooms… although it did mean that I came across these rather wonderful sculptural palettes…
These little carved mudstone animals are such beautiful objects in themselves, they have a freshness and simplicity that gives them an almost contemporary feel.
But then I read that they were made by the Naqada people, in a Pre-dynastic (i.e. before the Pharaoh’s) Egypt and dated from about 4000 BC… making them over 6000 years old… Truly an amazing thing, especially when you think that here in Britain during this period (the Neolithic) we were just about getting the hang of knapping flint to make axe heads, forming very basic clay pots and simple representations of the human figure such as The Westray Wifey.
Not a great deal is known about The Naqada, a culture spanning a period of roughly 1500 years (from 4400 to 3000BC) and named after the city where the majority of archeological finds have been unearthed. But they obvioulsy had a keen sense of style and an eye for beauty that it would be easy to think of as the seed for the wonders of Ancient Egpyt that were to follow over the next few thousand years.
I’ll start this post by stating for the record, that I’m a bit of a fan of Grayson Perry.
Not so much his penchant for women’s clothing or his strange Teddy Bear/ deity thing and not all of his art, although those things obviously go to make up who he is. No, what I really admire about Grayson Perry is his eloquence, his self deprecating sense of humour, but above all else his belief that craft has a large part to play in good art.
Grayson was on TV the other night talking to Alan Yentob and driving around Germany on a pink and blue motorbike, looking something of a prannet with his idiosyncratic take on bike leathers and his teddy Alan Measles. He was also shown choosing artefacts from the British Museum for his recently opened exhibition, and all in all generally not taking himself too seriously.
The new exhibition is entitled The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman and in it Grayson pays homage to the unacknowledged and unsung craftsmen of the olden days through a selection of objects that Grayson argues are intrinsically beautiful regardless of who they were made by. We’ve not managed to get there yet, but my friend Wong has been, and he says it’s really excellent, so we will get there as soon as we can.
I’m very much in agreement with Grayson Perry’s argument that in contemporary art, the value and significance given to a piece of work appears to be directly related to who made it, even if it isn’t very good. Think of just about every scrap of rubbish Tracy Emin has ever signed as her own and still managed to sell for millions.
For me (and I guess for Mr Perry too) good art, sculpture, photography, graphic design whatever, usually has two distinct characteristics… you wouldn’t or couldn’t have thought of it yourself, and if you could, you wouldn’t have been able to make it, or can’t quite work out how it was made…
So many contemporary artists today have virtually no involvement in the production of their work: Hirst, Quinn, Koons etc. none of them appear to do more than take photos and/or sketch ideas that are then given to somebody else and get magically turned into “art”. And I know the arguments about artists as business men and limited editions rather than single objects, and meeting demand etc.. but that’s all do with money and so much of their stuff is so thin, nothing but one liners, tossed off and forgotten as quickly as a student project or a bad idea after a heavy session in the pub.
So by choosing work from the British Museum, the name of whose creator has been lost to history, Perry argues (quite rightly) that other values come into play: culture, history, craftsmanship, society… Unsurprisingly the irony of him being the exact opposite of unknown isn’t lost on him, but he can’t really do anything about that, can he. And before anyone starts, I’m aware that Grayson gets some of his stuff made by others (the tapestries especially, and the cast iron version of the actual Tomb to the Unknown Craftsmen) but to my eyes the fact that he has spent time making the whole thing in one form, before it’s then scaled up and transformed into the final chosen medium offsets this completely.
I also like Perry’s argument that the art world has become disengaged from the real world and that the largely self appointed arbiters of good taste appear to be out of step. He cites Beryl Cook and Jack Vettriano as two hugely popular and gifted artists whose work is largely overlooked by the “serious” art world and will almost certainly never be hung in the Tate. I would also like to add Charlie Harper, the amazing stained glass artist Brian Clarke and of course that unsung genius William Mitchell to this list.
Grayson Perry to my mind is everything that so many contemporary artists are not: A talented person with a strong wilful character, considered viewpoints and an ability to express himself without sounding like an elitist arsehole…
Talking of which, I’ll finish with his rather wonderful Map of Nowhere from 2008. An image inspired by the now lost 13th Century Ebstorft Mappa Mundi and in which he replaces the Christ figure with himself (oh! the irony) and depicts the sun shining brightly on the world from his very own rusty sheriff’s badge……
I recently went to the British Library to see the Out of This World exhibition. Its pretty good, very book/ paper based (as you might expect) but with lots of beautiful book jackets, magazine covers and illustrations spanning several hundred years. In my opinion however, all the really lovely ones are from the roughly 50 years between 1920 and 1970.
One aspect that shone out, and a name I had not come across before (although I, like most fans of Sci Fi, am familiar with his style) was the work of Frank R Paul.
Paul (1884-1963) was a Viennese émigré and an architect by training. He was a gifted technical artist, and had spent most of his early professional life producing science and building based illustrations mostly for magazines.
When Hugo Gernsback, the man responsible in 1926, for publishing “Amazing Stories”, the worlds first Science Fiction magazine, asked him to stretch his imagination for the cover art of his new publication, Paul rose to the challenge and over the next 30 years or so created some truly memorable Science Fiction images, in the process, almost single handedly setting the tone of the whole genre for many decades to follow, influencing many young readers who would later become masters of the genre, Arthur C Clark, Ray Bradbury and Philip K Dick to name but 3…
Frank R Paul is also credited as being the first person to illustrate in colour, both a flying saucer (November 1929) and an orbiting Space Station (August 1929) and whilst his style can’t really be seen as being anything but dated through todays eyes, his brightly coloured flights of fancy still amaze and enthrall…
There is an amazingly concise collection of Paul’s cover art here if you fancy some more.
As an aside, it’s the third time I’ve been to the British Library since Christmas, and do you know what, I really like it. Designed by Colin St. John Wilson in the mid 1970′s, the enormous structure took more than 25 years to build. To say that it generated mixed feelings when it finally opened in 1997 would be something of an understatement (the Idiot Prince’s description of it “looking like the assembly hall of a secret police academy” being the most often quoted).
It was however nominated for the 1998 Stirling Prize (sadly losing out to Fosters RAF Duxford Museum) and I would suggest that the building has mellowed and improved with age. The courtyard to the front offers a generous and sheltered place for a coffee, and the building itself is alive with light and people, working perfectly as one London’s finest contemporary Public Buildings.