Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Art Review: Victoriania: The Art of a Revival, Guildhall Art Gallery, London

Flies and bees hang around a marble statue. Look closer and you see the ant-sized fairies (incredibly crafted by Tessa Farmer) perching on their backs, spears in hand. An elegantly dressed woman poses in a pencil sketch – but her head is a horse’s. A magic lantern turns in a darkened room so the moths inside it seem to dance around the flame – it turns faster, on go the strobe lights and the whirring of the machine, the beating of the moths’ wings take on a terrifying intensity. Welcome to ‘Victoriana: the art of a revival’ – the first UK exhibition devoted solely to neo-Victorianism.

'Mother', Dan Hillier
This exhibition, at Guidlhall Art Gallery, displays a wide range of contemporary artists’ responses to the Victorian period – a range which is exciting for its breadth and modern relevance. Many of the artists featured revel in applying nineteenth-century techniques to very un-Victorian ideas. Carole Windham’s ceramic piece ‘Dearly Beloved’ dresses Nick Clegg as Queen Victoria, with David Cameron as his consort, in celebration of gay marriage. Yinka Shonibare’s photographic storyboard gives us a black Dorian Gray, questioning earlier ideals of beauty.

'Trophy Chair', Miss Pokeno
But much of what I enjoyed most was the engagement with Victorian aesthetic and technical ideas and obsessions  – a preoccupation with levers and mechanism (e.g. Simon Venus’s theatre), the exploration of the appeal and repulsion of taxidermy (see Miss Pokeno’s ‘Trophy Chair’) and the birth of advertising and its correspondingly ‘loud’ typography  (Otto Von Beach’s ‘Victoriana Alphabet’ is an intelligent treatment).

My favourite pieces were Mat Coliman’s magic lantern (mentioned above) for its use of technology unavailable to nineteenth-century inventers to enlarge on a Victorian invention, Kitty Valentine’s semi-bestial society portraits for their wonderful blend of the delicate and the macabre (including the pony girl, mentioned above) and Dan Hillier’s wonderful post-Freudian ‘Mother’ portrait (woman from the waist up, octopus below). I, perhaps predictably, had some reservations about the works which engaged directly with the literature of the period – I couldn’t help but feel the richness of Gilman Perkins’s The Yellow Wallpaper wasn’t really conveyed by a laser-cut lace dress and the Jane Eyre and Dorian Gray illustrations left me a little cold. But when it came to responding to visual trends in the Victorian period (including the mania for collection and the richness of interiors), these artists were intelligent and thought-provoking.

'Hare Princess', Kitty Valentine
The Victoriana exhibition runs at the Guildhall Art Gallery until 8th December and costs £7(5).

Let me know what you made of the exhibition below, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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