Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

The Ancient Chinese Culture of Sanxingdui…

September 1, 2014 1 comment

624Via the magic that is Google Chrome, I finally got round to watching the recent Andrew Graham Dixon programmes in which he assesses the history of Chinese Art.

As with all of AGD’s art history shows, it was a rather mannered affair, full of confidently expounded theories and ideas, which when his subject is European or Western Art that he’s studied his whole life and in which his expertise lie, is fair enough. I’m generally happy to listen to what he has to say, cringing at some of his tenuous or rather laboured connections perhaps, but enjoying his obvious passion and bowing to his undoubted knowledge.

But I have to admit that I struggled with him on these programmes. The subject is obviously hugely diverse and richly fascinating, but I couldn’t help but get the impression that AGD is very new to the subject and was mostly winging it or relying heavily on more authentic Chinese art historians that were just off screen, diligently writing his script and helping him with pronunciation… Was there not a Chinese expert who could have guided us through their countries rich heritage?

Whatever… One aspect that has stuck with me from the first show however, was that of the amazing Sanxingdui culture…

Since the discovery in 1987, when workman uncovered two pits containing a large number of damaged bronze, jade and gold artifacts in Sichuan Province, Central China, theories around the finds have rapidly developed to the point that many academics contend that they are more important than the Terracotta warriors..

Sanxingdui_1Radio carbon dated to around 4000 years old, the seemingly discarded pieces were painstakingly reassembled over an eight year period to reveal a series of masks and heads that are striking in their appearance. Rumors of a mysterious and ancient tribe known as the Shu (translated as eye) people had abounded in the area for centuries, but it wasn’t until this discovery that any explanation could be given to the stories.

These beautiful masks with their protruding eyes, “enigmatic smiles” and stylised ears are like nothing else in China’s rich cultural history. They offer the first evidence of a Chinese figurative sculptural art (other than straight forward copies of soldiers in terracotta), a style that was thought until this discovery, to have never been part of the Chinese artistic language.

Its always interesting to compare timelines across cultures. 4000 years ago in the British Isles we were making simple stone carvings such as the Westray Wifey, whilst in Egypt the Naqada People were carving simple animal shapes. I think we can agree that the early Chinese cultures were well ahead of the curve in terms of technique.

Nearly 2000 objects were removed from the pits and these truly amazing works are now on display in a purpose built museum near the discovery site. No idea how easy it would be to visit, but it certainly looks like it would be worth it if you ever find yourself in the Sichuan Basin…





One final thought if you’ve got this far. As soon as I saw them, these figures reminded me of the fairly recent additions to Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona… It’s the emphasis on the eyes…



Anna Airy: Official WW1 Artist.

August 11, 2014 5 comments

I visited the newly reopened Imperial War Museum (IWM) last week (post to follow), where I discovered a truly stunning painting and was introduced to a name that I’m disappointed I’ve not come across before now…


Anna Airy was born in Greenwich, London at the end of the 19th Century and after graduating from The Slade School in 1903, became one of Britain’s most highly regarded female war artists. The Daughter of an engineer and granddaughter of an Astronomer Royal, a love of detail and technology were very obviously in her blood from the off.

Anna-AiryThroughout most of  the 20th Century it was not considered proper for women to experience war first hand (a situation that shockingly didn’t change until 1982 when Linda Kitson accompanied Troops to The Falklands). As a result female war artists work generally records activities well away from the front line, in hospitals, factories and farms and often of women themselves working hard for the war effort.

Towards the end of the First World War in 1918, Airy was commissioned by the Munitions Committee of the Imperial War Museum to produce a series of paintings recording day to day life in munitions and manufacturing factories across the country.

The painting that caught my attention at the IWM is the one above. Called Shop for Machining 15-inch Shells: Singer Manufacturing Company, Clydebank, Glasgow, it’s a large canvas painted in a slightly impressionistic style using a muted palette of colours. It depicts a huge timber and glass roofed shed from which hang seemingly endless pulleys and chains. The workers, all of whom appear to be women, occupy the center ground and are dwarfed by the massive shell casings which it is their task to produce in what can only be described as a state of organised chaos…

This wonderful image was one of at least five that Anna produced during 1918, the others being, A Shell Forge at a National Projectile Factory, Hackney Marshes, London (where according to Wikipedia “the ground became so hot that her shoes were burnt off her feet”)


An Aircraft Assembly Shop, Hendon

(c) IWM (Imperial War Museums); Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Women Working in a Gas Retort House: South Metropolitan Gas Company, London”


and The ‘L’ Press: Forging the Jacket of an 18-Inch Gun, Armstrong-Whitworth Works, Openshaw

(c) IWM (Imperial War Museums); Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

All of these powerful and evocative images convey the noise, confusion and determined effort that the war so obviously brought out in people during those difficult times. The attention to detail is particularly impressive and it would appear that Anna particularly enjoyed painting roof structures.

As an aside, it’s fair to say that the role of female war artists has been pretty much overlooked until fairly recently, a combination no doubt of a general sexism and that the more harrowing pictures of human carnage and destruction from the front lines painted by the men, generally grabbed all the headlines. Thankfully this is now being redressed and there is a particularly good piece here by Arifa Akbar for the Independent,  if you care to read further.

After the War, Airy concentrated her abilities more on portraiture and images that, like the munitions series above, still captured the day to day, but with a perhaps understandably more halcyon air. Blackberry Harvest (1937) below, is a typically fine and evocative example.

Anna-Airy_blackberry harvest

Basil Spence’s Expo 67 Pavillion, Montreal

January 5, 2012 1 comment

The 1967 Expo in Montreal, Canada is generally accepted to have been the most successful Expo of the Twentieth Century and must have been an amazing experience.

After the success of the New York Expo of 1964, the event was supposed to have been held in Russia to mark the 50th anniversary of the Revolution, but for reasons both political and financial, this was not to be and Montreal was awarded the prize in 1962.

Spread out over the newly created Isle Notre Dame and the significantly enlarged Isle St Helene, in the St Lawrence River, were 90 cutting edge pavilions representing if not all, then certainly a large number of the nations of the world. So not only could you have visited a proper Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome (USA Pavillion) and a genuine Frei Otto tensile steel structure (West German Pavillion), there was also Moshe Safdie’s iconic Habitat 67 Housing scheme, which attempted to redefine affordable urban living through its use of prefabricated concrete units arranged to provide both internal and external spacial variety and suggest a more suburban living in the heart of the city.

But it’s Basil Spence’s wonderful pavilion for Great Britain that has prompted me to write this post. I came across a selection of amazing images at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Monuments in Scotland (RCAHMS), who are the trustees of the Sir Basil Spence archives and just had to put them up on my blog…

They appear to depict a huge, pure white monster of a building, with a Pop Art Union Jack at the top of a tower. I particularly like the fountain by Steven Sykes (probably because it reminds me of the work of Bill Mitchell) and the black and white interior shots, with their tellingly organic 1960’s corners…

All this Expo business reminds me that when A and I were in China at the end of our world tour, we missed the opening of the 2009 Shanghai Expo by about 2 weeks.. We went to visit the huge site hoping they might take pity on us, but it was well guarded by fences and soldiers and we left pretty quickly. So an annoying bit of organising on our part, as I would dearly have loved to have seen Thomas Heatherwick’s Seed Cathedral…


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