Back in the summer sometime, Mama discovered that there was a newish art gallery in town, GRAD, and that it was devoted to the art, design and culture of Russia. So clearly she had to go, and this, inevitably, meant that we had to too.
The exhibition that was on at the time was called ‘work and play behind the Iron Curtain’, and she sold this to us as a display of toys that Papa would have played with as a boy, and a series of dioramas from his young life. I can’t say we were overly enthused about this, but we went along with it because Mama with the gallery goer’s bit between her teeth is hard to get away from. Plus, she said we could take our cameras along and photograph whatever we liked.
The gallery is tucked up behind Oxford Street and as such a bit of a faff to get to from the part of London that is forever work and play in the former Soviet Union. So Mama was a little taken aback to realise that she has been spoiled by the vast national galleries and museums of the capital into overestimating how big GRAD’s exhibition space is and how extensive the displays actually are.
It’s a one room area, people. Quite a largeish room, but nevertheless not somewhere you will be spending the lengthy morning Mama had envisaged. Plus, no full sized mock ups of Soviet communal apartments. Mama was disappointed. Mama blames the very seductive photography on the website. To be fair, they also have an extensive programme of talks and tech support from informative apps and other publications.
Also, the prediction that we would be looking at items from Papa’s past proved only too true. In fact, Mama has a sneaking suspicion that many of the objects had been sourced from Papa and his extended family. Top marks for authenticity, then. Perhaps a little odd to see them lauded as museum pieces though but then Mama has much the same feeling about the cheap plastic footspa in Stevenage Museum.
Nevertheless, we had a good time taking pictures of every. Single. Thing from every. Conceivable. Angle. Until that got really old and we demanded to leave, which took about 10 minutes.
In the meantime, Mama had discovered the reason she was glad we made the trip.
Called ‘ribs’, they are bootleg recordings made out of old X rays of records which were almost (but obviously not quite) impossible to get hold of in the Soviet Union. The story of underground music in the USSR is something that fascinates Mama even more than the rather better known stories of banned writers and their works, so to see these was genuinely moment which thrilled Mama right down to her little black socks.
Anyway. After this we went for a walk. Away from Oxford Street. Mama was happy wandering around the back streets but it wasn’t long before we tired of taking pictures of random doorways, people, dresses, shoes and so on and demanded actual entertainment. We all got a kick out of this pyrexed over wall painting though, which Mama says is by somebody called Banksy. Well, it’s a rat, innit? Animal interest, especially animal interest which Papa is scared of is always worth seeing.
Luckily, before rebellion really set in we stumbled upon an excellent little playground in the bottom right hand corner of Regents’ Park, and thus the day was saved.
Currently GRAD has an exhibition on Bolt, a 1931 ballet by Dmitri Shostakovitch. Mama is wise to GRAD now and we popped in there when we were in the area and had a bit of time to kill.
Bolt is a fascinating sort of ballet. It tells the story of a young Soviet man who gets sacked from his job at a local factory for skiving off, goes to a bar, gets what Mama describes as ‘rat arsed’ and decides to stick a bolt into the machinery in the factory where he works, thus sabotaging it. As you do.
He actually gets caught at the very beginning of the second act and the dastardly plan is foiled. The rest of the ballet is, in fact, the surreal dream of the young Soviet boy who grassed up our anitihero. It’s all about becoming a lifeguard (what else?) and military parades (of course it is).
Mind you, that sort of plot twist is perfectly normal for ballets, Mama says, she who went to see Giselle last year.* This is not what makes the ballet so interesting.
What makes it interesting is that at first glance it is a straight bit of Soviet propaganda, yes, that’s right folks, a propaganda BALLET, but either because they actually meant to poke fun at the genre or because Shostakovitch, the choreographer, Fedor Lopukhov, and the costume designer, Tatiana Bruni, got a bit carried away with the enjoyment of plotting the scenes of debauched revelry, including wildly entertaining drunken ballet dancing, and putting wiry ballerinas into unflattering gym slips for the morning exercises at the workplaces set pieces, it comes across as more of a bit of a piss take (says Mama).
Which was not well received. The perils of glorifying industrial processes through the medium of interpretive dance.
The ballet was closed after the first performance, Lupukhov was sacked and Shostakovitch plundered his score to use in other ballets. Bolt itself was not put on again until 74 years later, when the Bolshoi re-imagined it for Shostakovitch’s 100th birthday, a performance Mama tells me she actually saw. You haven’t lived until you have seen the Red Army in scarlet PVC uniforms riding around on scooters, she says, especially when one of the dancers falls off.
They were definitely going all out for the ‘satire’ interpretation.
GRAD’s exhibition focuses mainly on the costumes, although they do have Shostakovitch’s music playing quietly in the background. The walls are full of design sketches and they even have some of the original and remade costumes on display.
The drawings are very familiar in style if you are used to seeing images of Soviet posters. Bright, styalised and slightly geometric. And they do come across as very over the top caricatures of a series of Soviet baddies. You can, perhaps, see why sensitive censors at the beginning of the Stalin era’s headlong plunge into Soviet realism were suspicious.
The centrepiece is the original costume for the US navy. Yes, those are Mickey Mouse hands on a grotesque representation of Uncle Sam.
You can see the Bolt exhibition until, wait for it, February 28th. Better make it quick! Yes, Mama does seem to turn up to shows as they are about to close. It’s because she likes to play chicken with deadlines. Usually she wins, but it isn’t good for blogging reviews.
But then this is no one off review. GRAD clearly has a knack for picking out not particularly obvious, quirky slices of Russia and the Soviet Union’s artistic heritage. Mama, of course, would always be interested in this, but it now also serve as a reminder that Russia may be big, but it has never been monolithic even at its darkest moments. She will certainly be finding excuses to drop in to whatever exhibition they have on next… and the one after that, and she suggests that if you share her tastes and are in the area, you do the same.
*Giselle, the lead character, dies at the end of the first act and the rest of the ballet is about dancing lady ghosts. Mama, Granny and Babushka were taken aback. They had not seen that coming at all.
Buoyed by her success in taking us round the Old one, Mama decided to try out the New Tretyakov Gallery on Krymsky Val.
Good choice. We much prefer modern art, it being similar to the sort of craftings we produce. It does not occur to us to scoff at the fact that the painter has labelled a series of inexplicable squiggles ‘Love’ because we have only that morning presented Mama with seventeen splodges of green we are calling ‘Cats’.
Plus, the permanent galleries of the New Tretyakov Gallery are almost completely empty whenever she goes there. If you are going to take small children round an art gallery, doing it when there are not likely to be art lover patrons who want to study the works in meditative contemplation is always a bonus.
The lack of visitors is odd, in Mama’s opinion. She thinks that foreign tourists from outside of the Former Soviet Union are actually more likely to be excited by the paintings in the New Tretyakov Gallery than the Old, unless they have a special interest in finding out about more Russia than the activities of Tsars, how awful Communism was and lots and lots of ballet. Or circuses. The art, history and culture in the Old Tretyakov Gallery is largely unknown to abroad and Mama is not sure that is what people come to Moscow for.
The art in the New Tretyakov Gallery, on the other hand, contains pieces by internationally famous artists (Kandinsky, Chagall, Malevich, Goncharova to start you off), internationally famous avant-garde movements (Neo-primitivism, suprematism, constructivism and futurism, otherwise known and geometric shapes r us), internationally famous images of glorious workers (Mama’s favourite is the woman posing dramatically with the slide rule) and pictures of internationally famous mass murderers (Stalin and Lenin and so on).
Part of the problem, Mama ruminates, is that really, the paintings all belong to the Old Tretyakov Gallery, which inherited them almost by accident. The core of the New Tretyakov Gallery comes from a private collection of a Greek expat, who, at a time when the authorities just weren’t having the more interesting expressions of artistic temperament, quietly went around snapping up what ought to have been national treasures for an absolute song.
Eventually, Soviet society twigged to the possibilities and the collector started suffering a number of burglaries. It seems that the state then got most of his acquisitions in some kind of deal that allowed him to leave the country with his favourites at a time when leaving the country was, Mama says, tricky. Can’t think why. Mama only needs our birth certificates, her marriage certificate and a letter from Papa in addition to our many passports to break us out.
So Mama always wonders if the lack of popularity has something to to with the Old Tretyakov Gallery being at a bit of a loss as to know what to do with its modern art, suppressed for so long that, by the time they took over, even if it wasn’t outright banned, it was seriously unfashionable.
And, perhaps, a bit unfathomable. The problem with the glorification of forms, migraine inducing swirls of colour and childishly drawn representations of what might (or might not) be a person, well, Mama thinks that to a certain extent, you had to be there. Doubtless it was a gloriuous shock at the time, but now, now it is just a big black square on a white canvas. It’s not even in the icon corner for maximum symbolic impact.
The world has moved on to unmade beds, big unadorned lumps of burnt wood and giant green plastic butt plugs.
Nowadays it is probably also true that for Russians and those from the Former Soviet Union, a good half if it are those sorts of idealised Communist images, or reactions to Communist images, which they must all be heartily sick of, in all senses of the word.
Although someone has certainly given a lot of thought to how to hang it so that philistines like Mama will actually get it.
Kandinsky and Malevitch’s contempories surround their paintings and give you a really good impression of how artists riff off each other in creating something new and exciting.
The room of the joyful and (Mama finds) truly inspirational Soviet images from the earlier days gives onto the contrasting rooms of the official and unofficial artists from later, somewhat less joyful, periods.
The nature of repression and its effect on art is topped with the room dedicated to massive paintings of an avuncular Stalin twinkling his way though various scenes and from there you are plunged straight into the section showcasing what the expat Soviet artists were doing at the same time, with considerably more freedom.
To finish off, there are examples of the sorts of things which artists produced during and after the Fall. Mama thinks that this section is definitely a bit patchy, but then she suspects that is because the New Tretyakov Gallery has only a fraction of the works of that time and, in any case, coherent movements were definitely not really what that era was about.
They do also have exhibitions, and these are actually very well attended and included in the price of your general entrance ticket. But they focus on retrospectives rather than new works, and often of artists who feature more in the Old Gallery.
The New Tretyakov Gallery is, in fact, a museum of 20th Century art not an art gallery as such. You should go and see it though and don’t let them fob you off with the Old Gallery. It’s a very interesting museum of art for anyone who hasn’t had to deal with the reality of living under or in the aftermath of the Soviet years. And most of it has extensive English text to explain things, as well as an audio guide option.
But don’t be expecting to buy anything too exciting afterwards. The shop is absolutely minimal, consisting of one small kiosk, rarely, in Mama’s experience, actually open.
And the cafe never has been. Not once in the actually quite large number of time Mama has been there. Luckily, the sculpture park surrounding the New Tretyakov Gallery, Museon, has a number of small coffee and snack vendors dotted around, and the time we were there there were also at least two places selling more substantial meals further along the building. You could also hop over the road to Gorky Park, or head back towards the metro too, all of which have more places to eat.
We enjoyed our time in the gallery, wildly creepy black and white final exhibition notwithstanding.
We expressed our opinion that Kandinsky mainly painted dinosaurs; tried out some of the poses, particularly of the more anatomically challenged figures; found all the naked people in the radical Where’s Wally painting (see above), especially the three breasted ones; descended with glee on the multimedia visual sound poems like the children of the push button Internet age we are; and kept a look out for the docents to distract so Mama could snap a few pictures. The trick is to smile and show them your toy lizard. They loved that.
And Mama had a grand old time using her imagination to explain conceptual art to us. So that’s alright.
Opening: Tuesday to Sunday – 10am to 7.30pm. Monday – CLOSED.
Admission: 450 rubles (about £6.50) for adults, 250 rubles (£3.50) for students, children under 7 are free.
NB: It’s slightly cheaper for Russians. The New Tretyakov Galley is the only place where Mama has ever been offered the cheaper price, unless she is hiding behind Papa and scowling. Doesn’t work when we are with her though. We refuse to speak Russian to Mama.
By Metro: Oktabrskaya (orange and brown lines) – turn right, cross over the massive seven million lane highway and head left down the other massive seven million lane highway. Park Kultury (red line) – turn right, cross over the Moscow river, cross the seven million lane highway. The Gallery is opposite Gorky Park.
By other means: Actually, the trollybus route ‘Б’ stops right outside. This is a circular route, which takes you round the edges of the centre of Moscow and hits a fair number of metro stations on the way. It’s quite a fun way of getting to or from the Gallery.
Mama has been going to the Old Tretyakov Gallery about once a year so for about 15 years now. Last time we let her go on her own she took the (English. Other languages are available) audio guide tour. Five hours later she staggered back out of the building, and that was despite suffering a total failure of will when it came to the icon section. The tour is organised around you deciding which of the paintings to find out more about, and Mama, who really likes the gallery and everything in it, wanted to find out more about nearly all of them.
What you have in the Old Tretyakov Gallery, begun by a wealthy businessman (Tretyakov himself) and added to by the state when they acquired it on his death, is half of nearly all the famous paintings done by painters working in the Former Russian Empire (the other half are in the Russian Museum in St Petersburg).
This makes it a very interesting place to someone who likes a hefty dose of cultural history alongside her aesthetic appreciation (Mama).
Sometimes there are advantages to artists not being particularly famous outside their own country. Or, y’know, enforced nationalisation of aristocratic possessions.
Mind you, regarding the tour, Mama wonders if it might not be a good idea to give more casual visitors an indication of the absolute must sees for a shorter version, or provide an alternative more overview focused guide. But the descriptions are excellent, and you learn a lot about the individual pictures, the artist, and the cultural, political and sociological context surrounding them.
Mama was amused to note that not all of the paintings are described in glowing terms. The experts are not afraid to say when they consider that the painter has made a fist of depicting the lightnshadows, for example, and their critiques take in even some of the images which are, for the people of the Former Soviet Union, as familiar as the Sunflowers, The Hay Wain or the Mona Lisa are to someone like Mama.
My Excellent Big Brother and I are now resigned to viewing art with Mama, but to be fair, Mama has got better at showing us around. She is quite prepared to cover the whole building in less than an hour, makes sure we are well fed and have had a run around before we go in, takes pencils and paper in case we want to do some copying and shamelessly bribes us with a promised trip to MacDonald’s after we have finished.
As it turns out, you are not supposed to sit on the floor and sketch in the Old Tretyakov Gallery.
We discovered this when we tried to draw our favourite painting, the Three Bogatyrs. My Excellent Big Brother likes it because it is of three famous characters from Russian fairy tales, one of which Mama pretends he is named after. I like it because they are sitting on three magnificent horses. Plus, it’s huge, brightly-coloured and not at all depressing, which Mama discovered is not at all true about many of the other paintings she usually likes to linger over.
One in particular made my Excellent Big Brother cry. It’s the one where the soldiers of the Strelki Guard are waiting with their distraught families on Red Square to be executed, overlooked by a vengeful Peter the Great (on a horse!). The Strelki, as a unit, being the ones who brutally murdered his family when Peter was a boy.
Perhaps Mama should not have explained the background to that one.
She managed to restrain herself when it came to Ivan the Aptly-Named Terrible desperately cradling his son, after he had bludgeoned him to death in a rage and rushed us past it before we could ask, even though it is a painting she finds particularly powerful.
Mama also decided that some of her other favourite paintings, the bitingly satirical commentaries on contemporary society, might also require a rather sophisticated explanation, although she did point out the somewhat heartbreaking troika of three poor children employed in the freezing cold as water barrel movers. Mama feels we should occasionally appreciate our comfortable lifestyles more than we do, specially when we are pestering her for new toys.
Luckily the painter, Perov, seems to have sold out later and done a cheerful hunting scene. Be sure to press the button for the commentary on this one. It is magnificently scathing.
She also declined to comment on the fate of this young lady. I think she must be Ariel from the Little Mermaid, and we all know that turns out ok in the end. In the Disney version, mutters Mama, darkly. And it’s true that this girl does not have red hair (or much pink about her).
The Russians also seem to have gone to war a lot. Mama resigned herself to the inevitable and we spent time contemplating what the artists’ views about war were, whether they wanted to glorify the victory or highlight something else.
Mama herself seems to be broadly against war. She thinks that these paintings, by a man who was there for one, tell you everything you should know about it, then and now.
My Excellent Big Brother was more struck by the personal tragedy of this one. Or it might have been the vultures that caught his eye.
But it’s not all doom and gloom.
There are a number of famous Russians in the gallery. The first set of rooms is full of paintings of people with very big grey hair and very big fancy clothes. Mama pointed out that at the time, there were no cameras and if you wanted a picture of yourself or your loved ones, you had to pay someone to spend hours bringing you to life on paper. She asked us who we thought got painted.
My Excellent Big Brother decided on kings and queens and so we looked for some of them in each room. And found them! Mama’s favourite painting is the one of Peter III where you can see the considerable difference between the sketch and the finished picture, which goes to show airbrushing is certainly not a new idea. Here is the cleaned up version. I shall leave the probably-more-accurate quick fire one to your imagination.
My Excellent Big Brother prefers the one of the benign elderly lady walking her dog in her dressing gown, which Mama says is almost certainly a through misreading of the piece given that this is an Empress called Catherine the Great, although also an interesting departure from the pomp and circumstance of previous portraits. My Excellent Big Brother doesn’t care. He just likes the dog.
I like the pretty woman with the froth of wispy hair. Mama says she’s not a princess, but I knew that already. Not enough pink.
After this we passed into a room with lots of paintings of ruins, none of which we were very interested in, although it did have a portrait of Pushkin, who is a poet. You can tell he is an important poet because they have a little rope barrier in front of the painting in case you try to throw yourself at it in an excess of artistic sensibility or something. Mama says I will doubtless be finding out more about just how important he is shortly, when I start learning large swathes of his rhymes off by heart, just like my Excellent Big Brother has already. I am looking forward to that, I can tell you!
Mama has recently managed to find a way to shoehorn Pushkin into my Excellent Big Brother’s English school homework. She is so proud.
Mama was a little disappointed to find that the section towards the end with the peasant girls swirling in bright red dresses was closed for refurbishment, but some of the pre-revolution impressionistic stuff was bright and jolly. Mama tried to get us to notice how the portraits here were so very very different in what they chose to highlight about their subjects from the ones that we’d seen at the beginning of the gallery, but my Excellent Big Brother was transfixed by the large pink naked woman lolling around on a sofa and wasn’t paying attention. Mama also wisely decided to give up on attempting to explain how the artists were painting light not things.
People are not the only thing to see at the Old Tretyakov Gallery, however. There are also a lot of religous themes, and surprisingly many of them are without trauma. Mama enjoys this very bright and busy one, which apparently took the artist 20 years to complete. It’s called Christ’s First Appearance to the People. We played hunt the Christ. My Excellent Big Brother, he of the two churches education, had no trouble picking Him out. But Mama thinks the fun of this painting is looking at the some of the many many preliminary drawings the artist did on the surrounding walls.
See how John the Baptist starts life as a woman! Watch as the artist experiments with getting just the right amount of skepticism into Thomas the Doubter’s expression! Thrill at the way the amazing curls of John the Beloved take shape!
Mama, who clearly can’t resist poking a sleeping bear where religion is concerned, also had us look at two less flattering paintings. This one is, as my Excellent Big Brother twigged, is of a controversy within the church. Must have been a hell of an issue. Mama says, yes, something to do with the number of fingers it is appropriate to cross yourselves with. She also says, make sure you listen to the description of this one. Apparently, the artist (Perov again) got the composition ALL WRONG (it’s possible the commentators have something against Perov).
They don’t have anything against Repin. Repin is one of the truly great painters represented in the gallery. Mama and Papa once watched an episode of a programme called the Antiques Roadshow where a Repin painting turned up, fresh from somebody’s attic. Mama and Papa a) spat their tea right across the room when the expert revealed the name and b) marvelled at the coolness of the owner, until they realised he had know idea who Repin was. A mistake. The painting was worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Quite why he is great is easy to see from the Ivan painting above and the one of the religious procession. Not only is every last person in the crowd exquisitely rendered and completely individual, but nobody will be saying the composition is a bit shaky or the satire a bit overdone. At first glance, it looks like an uncomplicated drawing of a cheerfully colourful parade, a happy occasion in the life of the small town. When you start looking more carefully, it’s the beautiful devout cripple you notice first. Only later do you realise that he has been marginalised by the rest of society, and that the mass of faces behind him are marred by expressions of pride, boredom, irritation or other unbecoming emotions.
If that’s a bit much, admire the painting of his daughter, the dragonfly. Looks a bit like me, huh?
We didn’t do the icons though. Mama likes icons, as they are all significance and very little artistic flourish, but they are right at the end of the show, and by that time we were showing signs of restiveness. You could probably come just for the icons if that is your bag, Mama thinks. There are a lot of them, they are very old, and some of them work miracles. Mama, unfortunately, has never yet had the energy to appreciate them properly after hauling herself round the rest of the gallery.
We did appreciate the animal interest available at the Old Tretyakov Gallery though! This is Shishkin, who is famous for painting trees, bears and bears hugging trees, although if Mama’s audio guide is correct, he contracted out the bears in his most famous picture.
Mama knew she’d spent too long hanging with the Russians when she started to feel fondly for the tourist tat knock offs on the Arbat rather than wondering who the hell the vendors think would by such insipid twaddle.
Of course, there’s a whole shop devoted to Thomas Kincaid in London.
Mama also realised she has developed alarmingly sentimental feelings for some of the great landscape paintings.
We, however, were not in the slightest bit interested, even in the ones with what Mama insists is a virtuoso performance in how to capture light without resorting to reducing everything to pixels. She says you should google Kuindzhi, or, better, visit Russia and the Old Tretyakov Gallery, because computer screens really don’t do him justice.
We preferred the Rooks Returning. Mama says it is a deeply meaningful meditation on the impact of their climate on the Russians and their though processes. We just admired the birds. My Excellent Big Brother even managed to copy it because we found this room empty of attendants before we got told off for sitting on the floor in front of our knights.
And then there was the picture of the fly (with some fruit). Mama wanted to discuss whey the artist has painted the fly, although I suspect my Excellent Big Brother thought the real question was why bother with the vegetation? We decided the fly might lend realism, or be a joke, or show how beautiful things can have their dark side, or just represent a moment when a fly landed on a pear an artist was painting. What do you think?
But of course the highlight was the big black horse prancing towards the viewer with a young lady elegantly sidesaddle on its back. I like her little sister too. Cute! Like me!
And in the shop in jigsaw form! Mama feels that the shop, like others at the tourist attractions of Moscow, misses too many opportunities to fleece the tourists. She thinks it focuses a little too much on large glossy art books. But she has found the odd one or two things she she likes here in the past, notably the mugs covered in signatures by famous artists and collections of postcards, and she certainly appreciated the puzzle on the plane back to London.
The gallery also sports a cafe, which we had a brief look into. It is neither wildly cheap nor ruinously expensive, and serves a decent selection of hot Russian classics and cake in comfortable attractive surroundings. She wished she could have been sure it was open before we went, because in the end we held Mama to our promised trip to the golden arches back near the Metro. Mama was unsuccessful once again to place her order for two happy meals and a fillet of fish without incident. It’s a basic tourist fail is not managing to order successfully in MacDonald’s and we are all thoroughly ashamed. I predict Mama is going to insist on us eating local next time.
If you do not have a date with fast food planned, Mama recommends turning left as you exit and walking down the pedestrianised street to the canal, where you will find many iron trees covered with heart shaped padlocks. This is one of the places where wedding parties come to celebrate their day, and you can kick back and watch a stream of beautifully dressed people take photos of each other, should you so wish.
Anyway. We found a lot to look at in the Old Tretyakov Gallery, and despite the ban on crayoning, the staff were welcoming and friendly to us small people. It’s a great place to go if you want to find out more about the Russia that existed before the revolution, and to delve a bit deeper into its history and culture.
Just don’t save the icon room until the end, if that’s what you are interested in. You’ll never make it.
And finally, here is another random painting Mama really likes, because there aren’t enough of them in this post already:
It is Mama’s understanding that all of these images are in the public domain by virtue of the originals being old. If she is wrong, she is very willing to amend this post.
Address: 10 Lavrushinsky Lane, Moscow, Russia 119017
Opening: Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday: 10am to 6pm. Thursday and Friday: 10am to 9pm. Monday: CLOSED.
Admission: Adults – 450 rubles, children – 250 rubles, children under 7 – free. It is slightly cheaper if you can pass yourselves off as Russian. Good luck with that.
By Metro: Tretyakovskaya metro station (orange and yellow lines). Once you are out, you’ll be turning left and following the signs (in English and Russian). The very distinctive Old Tretyakov Gallery building is across a road and right round a corner. Try not to end up leaving by the connected green line station exit of Novuskusnetskaya as it’ll be a bit of a trek back. But on the upside, you’ll get to enjoy the newly nearly pedestrianised Pyatnitskaya Ulitsa.
Mama has always rather fancied going to the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition. Preferably at the beginning of the 19th century sometime. But in the face of not knowing where to find a time machine, having to stump up actual cash for it and the absence of any real reason to go, she hasn’t, hitherto, gotten around to it.
Then Babushka’s birthday loomed. Babushka quite likes going to art galleries; there’s not much of a language barrier in art. But we’ve exhausted all the free ones. So Mama stifled her misgivings regarding Babushka’s reaction to the Tate Modern, seized the day and bought us all tickets to the RA’s 2014 Summer Blow Out.
The tickets are sold in half hour slots. We got there early for ours. Not a problem. The Royal Academy has a courtyard which at any time is a great place to let off a bit of steam safe from cars, wall to wall tourists and inconvenient flowerbeds. Now they have a little pop up cafe out there too, so I got to gambol about the cobblestones and Mama and Babushka got to sip coffee and admire the statue of a man waving a paintbrush in the air, decked out in a flower garland for the occasion. Mama says it’s Sir Joshua Reynolds, which is nice.
Once inside, I remembered the Royal Academy. It’s the place where you are allowed to touch, jump on, roll around in and add to all the things. Fabulous. As a result I was straight in there, rushing towards the brightly patterned man carrying cakes on his back, ready to have a go at trying to twist his head off. But Mama extracted herself from the business of getting the tickets checked, dodged smartly around a gaggle of slow moving, less encumbered patrons and scooped me up under her arm. You aren’t allowed to play with the pieces in this exhibition, which was a bit of a let down at first. I sulked my way through the first gallery.
The Twitter tag for the RA Summer Exhibition is #RANewAndNow, which we all agreed was an excellent title for it. It’s very obvious that this is contemporary art, and Mama assumes if you know what you are looking at you can probably sweep through the rooms and come out with a decent overview of what themes and techniques are current or up and coming in the art world. But anyone can enjoy it. It’s eclectic, vibrantly colourful and ever so slightly bonkers in places.
Of course, Babushka does not really appreciate bonkers in art the way Mama does. Mama gets a kick out of microphone stands set up with a hairbrush in place of actual amplification equipment. Babushka, by and large, does not. She also wonders why anyone would want to make a portrait of a grubby bathroom, let alone give it a prize. But there is a decent sprinkling of perfectly well-drawn representations of actual things of inherent beauty about the exhibition and also flowers, so she was perfectly well catered for overall.
One of my favourite rooms was the one with all the small paintings. Mama gathers that this is a traditional way to hang this space, but the artist in charge had also clearly gone out of their way to refute any charges of conventionality. My Super Big Brother would have approved of all the animal portraits, especially the collage-like owls. I really enjoyed the large red robot rampaging through Margate. The washed out Mini Mouse worried me though. I don’t really approve of messing with the Mouse cannon. Big fan here. Not enough bows there.
The room with all the dolls houses was pretty cool too, especially the building with all the smiley, frowny, crying stick people. And the lights. I was looking for some buttons to turn them on and off. There didn’t seem to be any though. Next year, perhaps. I was also pleased to see that there were quite a few horses dotted about the galleries. The video near the end was probably the best for fans of all things equine. Like me! Can’t beat a bit of hooves thundering through the surf action. But I was delighted by the 3D effect picture of the unicorns in the woods. Mama thinks I have not realised the significance of their being surrounded by ravening dogs. Nonsense! I am confident they will reach a peaceful solution in the end.
At some point we found out that you can buy most of what is on display. Mama is not sure how she feels about this. For her, it means that she immediately starts to see every painting through the eye of an interior designer rather than as a piece to be savoured as, y’know, Art. Will that, she worries, go with the cushions in the living room? Then she starts to judge all the pieces by how much they cost, which is irritating as one of the nice things about the exhibition is not really knowing at first glance which canvases are done by the established artists and which by the unknowns. As it turns out, she has expensive tastes. Her favourite paintings were on for not less that £4,500. Two children with their faces obscured by the ornaments of birds they were looking at. Mama feels this is, more or less, how my Super Big Brother should be immortalised, albeit it would work better as a window on his inner soul if it was done with actual wildlife.
The one I want, however, is £100,000, which is much more reasonable. Ones and naughts can’t be that much. A bicycle with wheels made out of metal flowers. We watched the video of somebody taking it for a spin around London three times before Mama dragged me away. It’s called the Two Nuns, although why, Mama could not explain to me. Shame it’s so long until my next birthday, but on the other hand I can’t ride a bike yet, so perhaps it is better to wait.
I also liked the climbing frame in the room with the big bit of burnt tree. The climbing frame you can’t actually climb on. Clearly some kind of artistic comment on the futility of something or other. Very clever. Mama was relieved to find the charcoal lump. She’d been wondering whether she was imagining the aroma of charred wood since she walked in to the gallery, or if she had missed the massive news story of the first version of the Summer Exhibition burning down. It was great to find out that it was all just part of the plan. She does wonder who would pay £54, 000 for that very intrusive smell though. Perhaps a hermetically sealed room? She has given some thought to this. There go holidays for the next few years then.
The exhibition took us just under an hour, Mama would have gone back for another go round, there’s just so much to see, but Babushka and I overruled her.
We went home via Green Park and Buckingham Palace. Mama had to carry me most of the way as we had left the scooter at home. The Royal Academy has a very small cloakroom, and although they let her take the pushchair in last time, Mama didn’t think trying to cope with that while trying to protect the artwork from me was a good idea. There were ice creams all round, and we all got to watch people spreading gravel with a determined display of righteous hard work in front of the Queen’s house for ages. It’s hard to knock off for a cigarette when you know you’ll get photographed by 500 tourists as soon as you do. Mama says.
Anyway. While there were some serious points being made by some of the artists, the overwhelming impression of the Royal Academy’s 2014 Summer Exhibition when you are pushing through it at the speed of the whimsy of a three year old and a seventy *cough* year old is one of cheerful colour, good humour and celebration. Almost irresistible. Mama is quietly determined to go again next year. And I can’t say as how I’d protest that much.
Our thanks to the Royal Academy of Arts for letting us use some of their photos, taken by Benedict Johnson. If you watch the video, you should be able to spot some of our favourites.
The success of the recent(ish) Sensing Spaces exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts can probably be summed up by my reaction to the first installation we came across.
I stopped short and breathed WOW! in an awed voice.
Well, you would wouldn’t you? A huge square wooden War of the Worlds alien, dominating what in the normal run of things is a very classically proportioned room, complete with gold angel trimmings? It was impressive stuff, especially when it turned out you could scramble up and down twisty steps in the legs or run up and down a series of shallow ramps to get into the box on top and squint though slits at the punters below or the ceiling mouldings above.
We did that a lot. I do like a good staircase. My Wonderful Big Brother liked the ramps. Mama liked the spy holes. Something for everyone.
We also approved of the room with the tunnel of straws. Of course, manual dexterity is not really my Wonderful Big Brother’s thing, so he didn’t really get involved in the suggested activity of adding our own creations made from long coloured plastic tubes. And I would have preferred removing the fruit of the other visitors’ labour. But it was nice to be able to touch something so visually attractive and tactile, and nice to see the many many adults’ little faces all lit up as they all threw themselves enthusiastically into the crafting opportunity.
Next up was dashing around a stick-walled maze, interspersed with lots of little wooden wendyhouse type rooms for us to explore. At its heart was a pebble room, which made truly satisfying crunchy noises as we stomped around it. We spent quite a bit of time in there building cairns. Just like being at the beach! Without all the inconvenience of being boiled by the relentless sun, covered in eye-stinging sunscreen, getting sticky from ice cream, or having to deal with all that salty wet stuff. Mama definitely approved, and wonders why more playgrounds don’t replace the unpleasantly gritty sandpit with a nice pebble box instead.
Not everything was to our taste. There was an exhibit which mostly involved standing still and looking up rather than whizzing around and touching stuff which we were less impressed by although the big people seemed entranced. And while Mama LOVED the dark rooms with the mysteriously lit thin sticks we all thought looked like fire, I found it positively frightening refusing to let her into the second part altogether, and my Wonderful Big Brother lost interest when he realised he wasn’t allowed to fling himself into the middle of the flames.
But overall it was by far the most interesting high art experience Mama has dragged us off to, and it’s a shame she can’t recommend it because it has now closed, and the various exhibits sold off.
There is a wider point Mama wants to make here though.
The reason we went to this exhibition in the first place was because the RA had made an effort to market it at parents and their children, going so far as to host a get together of Brit Mums bloggers in their cafe (with the opportunity to go round Sensing Spaces for free afterwards). The reason why we went back with my Wonderful Big Brother in tow and paid actual money to get in was because Mama was impressed on this visit by the staffs’ genuine commitment and enthusiasm for getting the kids in and letting them have at it, and damn the noise and sticky fingers. Even the doorman was jolly.
Admittedly, this sort of attitude did encourage all the many many kids who were subsequently taken along to Sensing Spaces to think of the exhibition as a playground, and so the whole experience was a tad confusing as we were all were alternately encouraged to get stuck in and then sharply pulled up when we did, nearly bowling over an elderly art patron or shattering a large mirror in the process. As a result, the air did rather ring with desperate cries of ‘Not quite THAT fast/ loud/ energetically, honeypie!’ as the exhibition did rather too good a job of stimulating us. Mama also wondered if the non-children-encumbered patrons were enjoying the chaos as much. But the atmosphere seemed pretty good humoured, and our enthusiasm certainly got a lot of amused glances. She is forced to conclude that perhaps everybody was secretly delighted by the opportunity to wreak a bit of havoc in an art gallery.
Anyway. Mama thinks the Royal Academy might be worth keeping an eye on. It’s a wrench, of course, to part with a full £14 in a city where there is so much free stuff to enjoy, but certainly the next time they say their latest offering is child-friendly, then we should probably believe them. And if they say it often enough, there are membership options to consider. Just leave the pushchairs at home. There isn’t room in the cloakroom.
The Tate Modern art gallery is housed in an abandoned power station on London’s South Bank. Appropriately for a modern art gallery, says Mama rudely, it is a rather ugly abandoned power station.
Not everybody agrees with her about this though.
The excellent thing about the Tate Modern is that it is a bit of a walk to get there from Waterloo Station, which is where Mama starts out. Like the preschooler version of my Amazing Big Brother before me, I need to burn off a lot of energy before I can be expected to behave with any kind of decorum. So Mama considers the twenty minute ramble along the South Bank the perfect prelude to solemn attention to cultural artifacts. She rarely managed to reach the appropriate point of exhaustion with my Amazing Big Brother, but it doesn’t stop her trying the same tactic with me.
The paintings and such make about as much sense to me as the exhibits in all the other museums and art galleries which Mama takes me to, which is to say, not much, but in the Tate Modern I am not alone in my lack of understanding. I can, nevertheless, get quite excited about some of the larger, brighter, splashier pictures, and if they are having a performance art session, as they were in the Turbine Gallery when I was there first, I will join in with enthusiasm. People wandering about almost indistinguishable from the little knots of punters in amongst them? Who occasionally start to do things in concert like walk, jog and finally run up and down the hall? Or chant? Bring it on. I will get underfeet chasing my (very small) football and Mama will assume that is perfectly ok. It is, in fact, what the artist intended to happen. She hopes.
Mama also enjoys the exhibits in a cheerful sort of what the heck spirit. She was particularly thrilled to once take part in a survey conducted on behalf of the Centre for Physic Research conducted by your actual mediums, telepaths and other psychic experts. She has no idea what this had to do with art, except that she half expects that the whole thing was some kind of pre-installation and she will be in a gallery one day and see herself on film, her delighted smile as she is questioned minutely on her philosophy and honesty expressing a profound something or other about something else in the exhibition notes. She suspects they may have edited out my disinterested but determined attempts to escape the pushchair half way though.
My Amazing Big Brother also has something of a mixed reaction to the exhibits. When we were last there, he very much enjoyed a film in which a woman flung paper letters randomly around in a variety of very scenic locations. Mama thinks this is because a) it was TV, and TV is definitely my Amazing Big Brother’s preferred medium, b) because it perfectly expressed his baffled feelings about trying to learn to read and write, and c) it resembled some of the more obscure Soviet cartoons my Amazing Big Brother and I are being brought up on.
On the other hand, he HATED the room filled with architectural prints. I know this because he said THIS IS VERY BORING at the top of his voice after a couple of minutes. Caught unawares, the attendant nodded heartily before being recalled to where he was. It’s nice to know one’s artistic sensibilities are shared.
Mama eventually went on the attack with questions. How did the artist feel when they made these wild splodges of red on a wall-covering canvas? (My Amazing Big Brother: happy. Mama: very very angry. They agreed to differ. Suspiciously). What is that made of? (A particular obsession at the time, and which resulted in long discussions about the precise manufacturing process of plastic vs wood. Mama is easily distracted and my Amazing Big Brother is not above exploiting this). Why did this artist get someone to take a series of photos of him throwing his clothes off a roof? (Not one clue between the two of them). What shape is that? (Much tilting of heads sideways and doubtful expressions all round). Which sculpture do you like best? (The one that looks indistinguishable from a tree. Mama wonders why she bothers).
Still, Mama reckons that one floor per visit is probably plenty of culture for everybody for one day. In good weather you can then let off steam by running around outside, where there is plenty of room and a van selling coffee, but there is a play area inside the Tate Modern itself too for those less clement days. We spent what Mama considered to be a surprising amount of time in it considering that it consists of a rather tame slide, which, Mama, for your information also makes noises, a small wendy house, with KNOBBLY BITS on the outside and MIRRORS inside Mama, and a large artificial… apple, but then she wasn’t the one who had had to exercise extreme restraint in the face of massive tactile temptation for the last hour or so. Mama also recommends the huge Turbine Gallery in damp weather. You can sit and eat your sandwiches on the giant sized steps there and if there isn’t anything else going on, my Amazing Big Brother and I recommend rolling down the gentle incline from the main entrance to the main floor. You may find, like us, that a gaggle of art students mistake it for an exhibition and join in. It’s astonishing that no-one has offered us $10 million to come back.
Even in the holidays the Tate Modern’s sheer size means that with the exception of the indoor cafes and the lifts it doesn’t get too busy. Never ever refuse to get on a lift at the Tate Modern just because it is going down when you want to go up is Mama’s advice. For some reason, despite the fact that there are six cubicles, you will stand there for 20 minutes waiting for the next one to stop at your floor.
Anyway. The Tate Modern isn’t a bad place to while away a damp few hours for adults and has a better than average chance of offering some art that kids might actually enjoy looking at. But not touching. No hands. NO HANDS. No, don’t lie down there. Eeek! Don’t step on that! Don’t… oh, ok, that’s a fire extinguisher. Says Mama.
By tube/ train: Waterloo station is a fifteen to twenty minute walk down the river Thames. Southwark (Jubilee line), Blackfriers (District and Circle lines), St Paul’s (Central line) and London Bridge (Overland) are nearer.
By bus: Routes 45, 63, 100, RV1, 381 and 344 stop nearby.
By boat: You can get a boat between the Tate Modern and the Tate Britain and vice versa should you so wish.
By car: Even the gallery website says this would be an unwise transportation choice.