Category Archives: Art

Boundless Sculpting

Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery on Conway Street

Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery on Conway Street

It’s a pillar-box red and soft grey space, which over the last few weeks has been home to colourful canvases from the Aboriginal artist Jimmy Pike. Now the flowing lines and frenetic dots have been replaced by something entirely different. For our Year of the Horse exhibition, the Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery on Conway Street, Fitzrovia has been turned into a stable of artists, paying homage to all things equine in conjunction with Chinese New Year. The exhibition explores the horse through a diverse portfolio of media. Towering over my desk for the next month as I intern is one particular example of that diversity which is not to be missed: Robert Bradford’s life-sized sculpture made entirely from soft toys, complete with gemstone eyes and leopard print hoofs fixed mid-frolic.

Robert Bradford, Soft Horse, 2014, soft toys, 220 x 320 x 95 cm

Robert Bradford, Soft Horse, 2014, soft toys, 220 x 320 x 95 cm

Bradford is an artist who pays scrupulous attention to form, but loosens the limits of that form. He challenges its building blocks, manipulating how it comes into shape. As he has said himself, the materials with which he brings together each piece take on the value of miniature sculptures in their own right. Just as with his dogs, crafted from plastic ‘My Little Ponies’ in candy shop shades, his horse cleverly plays with our perception. Majestically large from afar and intricate up close, the scale of his work is as small as it is grand, the horse’s body a composite of tie-dye beanie babies and plush nursery teddies. Bradford is a sculptor without bounds.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in his latest objective, ‘Phoenix Rising’. This ephemeral display of pyrotechnical sculpture is the second fire-driven effort by Bradford to be funded by the Arts Council for England. It sees him craft huge wooden works on the beaches of Kent, which he then sets alight and floats out to the sea come nightfall. It will form part of the Herne Bay Festival, Bradford’s display taking place on the 23rd August. As his sculptures begin to burn, ash will spurt up in sudden animation, its undulation evocative of the saltwater waves each piece is soon to embark upon. Solid and static will become lithe and fluid, as destruction is recast as creation. Through this project, Bradford asserts himself once more as a sculptor who challenges the very foundations of sculpting, interrogating frontiers and shapes in the process of making them real. And this is why his work must not be missed.

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Current exhibitions at Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery:

Jimmy Pike: A Desert Cowboy in London- 25 June to 30 August

Year of the Horse- 30 July to 30 August

Coming soon:

Yvonne Mills-Stanley: Grass- 6 to 30 August (Private View 7 August 6.30-8.30 pm)

 

 

 

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Writing on the Wall

The pages of my Lonely Planet guide to Berlin, now creased and frayed at the corners from heavy leafing, are helpfully demarcated by a spectrum of colour. Each district of the city has been allocated its own shade. This colour-coding proved invaluable for my recent trip to the city, as my boyfriend and I attempted to soak up every area (and, of course, multiple beer steins) within the confines of a long weekend.

Yet, however pragmatic Lonely Planet’s layout decisions may have been, presenting the city as a collection of colours, as a fragmented whole, seems to me entirely appropriate for a place that is so kaleidoscopic. As we enjoyed the famous Burgermeister burgers served from a disused toilet block under a railway bridge in Kreuzberg, it was as if we were in an entirely different city to that of humming Potsdamer Platz and KaDeWe’s glitter, which only that morning had put the best of the West on display.

Burgers from a toilet

Burgers from a toilet

Despite the fall of the Wall, Berlin remains a dynamic hodgepodge. Socialism meets neo-classicism, slick steel meets graffiti, sushi meets sausages. The city appears to sit snugly in a state of in-between, all physical barriers between East and West crumbled away, but the essential character of each still remarkably traceable to the flow of dwellers and tourists moving at liberty between the two. Total amalgamation cannot be felt, but this vibrant state of broken togetherness seems to be the desired condition. And nothing epitomises this more than the East Side Gallery.

Stretching 1.3km parallel to the Spree river, the East Side Gallery is the world’s largest open-air mural collection, with over 100 paintings decorating the last standing chunk of the Wall. From psychedelic faces to kissing politicians, dragons to the faces of Germany’s greatest intelligentsia, the Gallery showcases the translation of global optimism into art by a gathering of international artists. In the blinding midday sun, the Wall’s shade provided for us a space of retreat. Once a symbol of oppression, the last remaining bricks have been transmuted into a source of free thinking by a mere brush of paint.

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I was struck by the variety of images that we met. Some artists were able to correlate their artwork to what the original Wall had stood for, with murals offering clear political commentary or aphorisms hoping for a better mankind. One read ‘Es gilt viele Mauern abzubauen’, and through painted representatives of diverse nations, stressed the importance of dismantling barriers. Others were less straightforward to interpret: a grinning chimp, a herd of crawling babies. At first, these cryptic illustrations tempt the viewer to try to disentangle some hidden political aspect from beneath their colourful surfaces. But the further down the Wall I wandered, the more they seemed to reflect upon the problems of representation itself.

Germany's big thinkers

Germany’s big thinkers

 

The unprecedented politics of the Wall and its brutal, blank facade makes aesthetic responses to it particularly knotty. How is one to place it within a value system that can communicate to those beyond its confines what it really stood for, when there is nothing to which it can really be compared? The arbitrary cartoons scattered along the stretch demonstrate that using political structures to respond to Berlin’s past is not always satisfactory or appropriate. Indeed, perhaps interacting with the Wall through such language and insignia perpetuates its dark, historic identity, reminding us of division and tyranny. Arguably, however, the very existence of the East Side Gallery in the first place keeps that stony divide alive.

On closer view, the surfaces of the murals are etched with graffiti from passers-by. Restoration efforts in 2009 indicate that for some, these autographs and scribbles were regarded as acts of vandalism. And yet, as viewers and residents continue to leave their marks, the Wall is clearly still undergoing an important global interpretative process and is yet to be relegated to the pages of library books. As Philosopher Paul Ricoeur has argued, the self is produced by its own history. The moment we try to do without the past, we deny an important element of our identity. Berlin’s history is still very much a part of its present. As the dark bricks of the Wall were torn down in 1989, man’s relationship with it became one of freedom. It is the aestheticisation of the final remaining stretch by the Spree which indicates that this freedom continues. To interact with the Wall in this artistic way is to truly tear it down. Bulldozers and sledgehammers are obsolete now.

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Lost and Found

Not indigenous to London, I am one of those visitors who scrutinise the map pillars dotted along the capital’s street corners. I spend my time desperately looking ahead for that red and blue underground halo, so that I can escape to a subterranean network of smooth rail tracks that mechanically deliver me to my desired location.

Last time I visited London was no different. Except on this occasion, I was not looking for the obvious. I was not meandering in the perplexing hiatus between the Piccadilly underground station and Trafalgar Square to immerse myself in our national painting collection, nor pottering steadily along the Southbank, a path punctuated with its many artsy venues. This time, I was searching for somewhere a little bit more specialised. In a leafy corner of Brunswick Square, I finally found my spot. What I had been looking for all this time was The Foundling Museum, a place that celebrates the work of the Foundling Hospital, the UK’s first children’s charity established in 1739. Built on the hospital’s original site, I was met with the view of a pleasant red-brick regency facade. Relieved that I was no longer lost, its appeal was all the greater.

The Foundling Museum

The Foundling Museum

What had drawn me to this special place was not simply an interest in learning more about the establishment as a humanitarian venture. Philanthropist Thomas Coram founded the charity as ‘a hospital for the maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children’, children who were struggling in London’s urban squalor.

Hogarth's Gin Lane, depicting London's ills

Hogarth’s Gin Lane, depicting London’s ills

Of course, this in itself is enough to captivate anyone, but what was particularly intriguing to me was the fundamental role of art in securing the success of Coram’s work. Instrumental to the start-up of the hospital was Coram’s collaboration with Hogarth and Handel. Hogarth donated his own work and persuaded his artist contemporaries to assist in gifts to the hospital in order to support it, and they were rewarded with governorships. Not only was this Britain’s first home for abandoned and destitute children, a hospital in the traditional sense of being a place of care, but it was also the first public art gallery in the UK. And Coram took things further. His alliance with Handel led to the donation of an organ to the chapel and beneficiary performances of his famous Messiah. For a blogger like myself who loves to explore the ways that the arts can better us and who believes that the arts should open doors for everyone, there is no better place than The Foundling Museum, triumphing what it terms the hospital’s ‘creative philanthropy’.

Thomas Coram

Thomas Coram

George Frideric Handel

George Frideric Handel

William Hogarth

William Hogarth

As I was led up the original staircase from the boy’s wing, I enjoyed a fresco-like display of original pieces from Hogarth and friends and was shown the rococo Court Room with the original marble over-mantle by John Michael Rysbrack and William Wilton plasterwork. Small children ran past in white curly 18th century wigs, full of half-term glee at their trip back in time. As they frolicked, visually and aurally evocative of those young people for whom the hospital had originally been built, I was reminded of the museum’s first room, which comprised of real-life photographs, letters and stories of foundling children who had benefitted from the hospital’s kindness up to its closure in the 1950s. As well as the paintings, sculptures, clocks and furniture by the likes of Reynolds, Gainsborough and Hudson, the museum also displays cabinets full of foundling children’s tokens, trinkets passed from parent to child to mark their farewell and promise the chance for reunion in a better future.

A touching reminder of familial ties

A touching reminder of familial ties

This works powerfully in tandem with grander spectacle elsewhere. A stunning Hogarth painting, Moses Brought Before Pharaoh’s Daughter (1746), adorns the Court Room, unveiled at a public dinner on 1 April 1747. Its messages are clear; Moses as a foundling child is given a new life, his pining mother a sorrowful presence in the background as a touching reminder of the sacrifices parents made to better their offspring.

Hogarth's Moses Brought Before Pharaoh's Daughter

Hogarth’s Moses Brought Before Pharaoh’s Daughter

Having received criticism at the time for its anti-Christian encouragement of promiscuity, by offering sanctuary for illegitimate children, Coram and his associates were keen to stress the Christian legitimacy and benevolence of their mission through Biblical allegory with dazzling aesthetic effect. And that effect remains as we view the picture today. The founders of the original hospital and the curators of the museum collaborate in their efforts across time. They celebrate, then and now, the way that art heightens our sense of our own humanity and acts as a powerful social tool of beneficence.

As I walked through the rooms, the art and artefacts showcased around me of all shapes and sizes were not just a way for me to open a door on the past, but had once been a way for foundling children to open a door onto their own futures too. Although a glimpse of an opulent world that these children never would experience, the artwork that supported their hospital gave them an escape from the festering gutters of London, the chance for shelter, the chance to develop skills for a new start. The museum’s art collection acts, therefore, as an imaginative portal to another world for us in the present, and an actual portal to a new life for children in the past, and that is where its power lies.

On the top floor is the Handel room, where visitors can sit back in the so-called ‘Handel chairs’ against a backdrop of the composer’s greatest works. Close your eyes and you are in the audience of one of his beneficiary concerts; open them and you see the original copy of his will across the room leaving his assets to the hopsital. The past and present are perfectly bridged. Indeed, the Foundling Hospital lives on today in the children’s charity, Coram, named after the original figurehead himself. By visiting The Foundling Museum and engaging with its displays, we continue the imaginative and emotive connection with the plight of the foundling children that Coram, Handel and Hogarth put in place over 270 years ago in 1739. What moves me is not that it is art for art’s sake, but art for humanity’s sake.

Rococo splendour in the Court Room

Rococo splendour in the Court Room

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A Night at the Opera

With her deep upturned pout, ragged blouse and tangled locks, intertwined in the French flag as black and white bleed into red and blue, the face of Cosette is instantly recognisable. Les Misérables’ ceaseless popularity is testament to a particular musical taste that has been fostered since it first opened in the West End in 1985. Victor Hugo could never have imagined that his novel would be seeing in the new year of 2013 with the release of Tom Hooper’s much anticipated film of the stage musical. What is it about this French revolutionary drama that has so captivated the minds and hearts of the world? The catchphrase of Hooper’s film catalogues basic human passions: ‘Fight. Dream. Hope. Love’. For me, this very aptly encapsulates the essence of the musical. There is little more harrowing than Fantine’s impassioned and desperate reminiscence of a life that could have been in ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, a performance  delivered with much raw sincerity by Hathaway in the teaser trailer of Hooper’s film.

cosette

Yet personally, these four words of ‘Fight. Dream. Hope. Love’ are equally relevant to a form of theatrical music that glows much more dimly in the vivid forum of world entertainment. And that is opera. Whose voice can be more dreaming than Madame Butterfly’s in ‘Un Bel Di’? More full of love than Isolde’s in her ‘Liebestod’? More hopeful than ‘Nessun Dorma’, an anthem so inspiring it was used as the theme for the 1990 FIFA World cup?

Why is it then that comparative to musicals, we seem to be less roused by opera? Perhaps it is because we associate it with the velveteen hues, cut glass chandeliers and gilt of an expensive night out at the theatre. Zachary Woolfe’s article (@zwoolfe) in ‘The New York Times’, ‘How Hollywood Films are Killing Opera’, notes that it is only the use of famous divas in America that guarantees audiences. This prompts us to ponder whether the quality of operatic music in itself is no longer enough to secure profits. Woolfe also points out that the Hollywood glamorisation of opera has done little to help its credibility as an artform. Citing Vivienne’s trip in ‘Pretty Woman’ to see La Traviata as an example, his point becomes crystal clear. She is taken on a glitzy date escorted by helicopter, peering out of the box with her opera glasses, a bold vision of diamonds, white gloves and a full, sweeping red gown. Much as she is moved by her experience, it seems superficial and frivolous: all she can say is  ‘It was so good I almost peed my pants!’ Julia Roberts’ fame, beauty and cinematic presence inevitably leaves the impression that a night at the opera is an elite evening of entertainment enjoyed only by the glittering and the fabulous.

Vivienne indulging in the opera

Vivienne indulging in the opera

The use of opera in the advertising world is similarly problematic. Two recent adverts for Jean Paul Gaultier’s Le Male aftershave shows a changing room of half clad athletic men pouting, perfuming and preening as they change into sharp tailored suits, no doubt preparing to attend a decadent party. In the second, a man and a woman in a similar state of undress awake in a sumptuous boudoir. The male, playing the quintessential ‘man in uniform’ as a sailor,  mysteriously disappears, leaving only his scent to linger in the love nest. By coupling opera with such scenes of modellesque beauty, rose tinted light, silk and indulgence, we cannot help but feel it exists in a world of perfection, a world of high fashion. It is not something that we can immediately relate to.

The mystique surrounding opera frustratingly veils it from stirring emotions within us just as powerful, if not more so, as any resounding chorus of an Andrew Lloyd Webber classic. Certain companies and productions are working hard to unclothe opera of its supposed pretensions, stripping it down to accentuate best its movingly human qualities. Opera North’s 2011 ‘Carmen’, for example, set the saga in the mellow grounds of a Spanish wine bar complete with fairy lights and rickety tables. To the audience, it was a scene not too distant from a favourite Mediterranean summer holiday. As a classically trained singer myself, I was a member of the chorus of Leeds Youth Opera for four years. In my time there, I was a Germanic huntress in Weber’s ‘Der Freischütz’, a medieval crusader and harem girl in Verdi’s ‘I Lombardi’ and a Greek wench in Mozart’s ‘Idomeneo’. As a company, we always aimed for diversity and to challenge our audience’s expectation. With this in mind, Hades in our production of Offenbach’s ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’ was transformed  into a seedy underground nightclub and the sopranos, myself included, played burlesque dancers in fishnets and platform heels. Finishing off the party in the final act was a drunken performance of the famous Can-Can dance to disco lights, as energetic and frolicsome as a girly hen do.

Leeds Youth Opera's chorus for 'Idomeneo'

Leeds Youth Opera’s chorus for ‘Idomeneo’

It is staging and costume that prove vital tools to ground opera in a way that all audiences can access and enjoy. Indeed, as part of Cambridge’s Festival of Ideas, a newly composed opera ‘Lost’ was performed in the Fitzwilliam Museum. It involved both audiences and performers moving through the galleries parallel to the narrative’s progression, becoming themselves lost and immersed in the art work. It is this sort of intelligent innovation of operatic performance and reception that inspires and fosters emotional and intellectual connections between the listener and the music. The passions of ‘Fight. Dream. Hope. Love’ are allowed liberation from the cobwebbed traditions of more conventional theatrical performances and simultaneously escape the romanticised associations of the media and film industry, invigorating a diverse multitude of people. Opera is supposed to be a dramatic work set to music. And so we must keep experimenting with where that drama can take us.

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Vitalarty

If you’re looking for a city pervaded by art, the search ends at Venice. On a recent trip with my boyfriend we were amazed by what the more hidden areas of the city had to offer. As well as the famous sites such as the gold mosaics of the Basilica and the pastel pink Palazzo Ducale, complete with endless state rooms and its famous golden staircase, we found art in the most unexpected places.  On our way back home to the airport we took the water bus from St Mark’s to Piazzale Roma and enjoyed views on both sides of the river of unnamed marble palaces, gothic balconies and a building adorned with golden mosaics in a style not too distant from the great Basilica itself.

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St Mark’s Basilica

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An unnamed building on the canal with similar mosaic work

For the locals, this is what they see on the way to work. But for tourists, the views of these buildings randomly dotted around the city are inevitably accompanied by a flurry of camera shutters and remarks of awe. It is what we stumbled upon by accident that proved the most breathtaking, and we have much to thank @GuardianTravel for, with John Brunton’s article ‘The Venice that most tourists miss’ in prompting us to look beyond the crowds and mask stalls. For example, a meander through the most shambling and dusty backstreets took us to the beautiful Miracoli church, made entirely of pink and green marble both inside and out, perched haphazardly on the water’s edge. What is to the locals a functional building became for us a work of art in the grand gallery that is the city of Venice itself.

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The Miracoli church’s marble facade

This made me think back to my last blog post ‘Home is where the art is’ as it seems that Venice has satisfied my wish to have art all around me as a piece of everyday life . Yet we found the most innovative art in terms of style and location not in Venice’s tiny backstreets, but in its most famous landmark, St Mark’s Square. To celebrate the Biennale of the city’s architecture, a duo of artists (Swiss Julian Charrière and German Julius von Bismarck) built a ‘bird trap’ on a Copenhagen roof to capture the iconic ‘rats with wings’ that clutter the city’s square. Yet they were trapping these birds not to rid the tourist centre of vermin, but rather, surprisingly, due to the artistic potential that these birds displayed. The pigeons were painted along a conveyor belt and released into the square, adding sparkling jewel hues to the monochrome mass of feathers.

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Aside from the ethical issues surrounding the painting of animals, I was left pondering whether these birds that we typically regard as pests can ever be elevated to something artistic? As an art form, the pigeons are dynamic and nomadic. Decorating the living body with paint infuses the colour with a new dimension of vitality and brightness. Yet arguably, these painted pigeons are rather like an inked up human. Bright colours and intricate designs can be beautiful on paper, but when transferred to skin most spectators cringe a little at these oh so permanent embellishments that are very often the product of youthful impulse later to be regretted. Perhaps then there is something a little tasteless about these dazzling pigeons?

Yet, what the artists have done so well is to keep the pigeons few in number, so that in the throngs of visitors and birds, they remain elusive. The eager tourist can then feel a sense of triumph and exclusivity when they manage to snap one of these living canvasses amongst the grey mass that undulates across the square. Indeed, body art used in a special or symbolic way has a beauty far above the ink patterns of the average street-side tattoo parlour. Maori body art Ta Moko is centred on a method of carving the skin with albatross bone tools and was historically inspired by the tectonic landscape of New Zealand. By imitating the scarification of the volatile topography on their own faces, the Maoris’ Ta Moko typifies living art.

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The traditional chiselling method and design of Ta Moko body art

Through this, the practice of inking the skin increased in artistic value by acting as an interpretation of the beautiful and rugged landscape. This form of body art is so important to the Maori people that they seek to keep it unique and authentic to their culture, and the group Te Uhi a Mataora has been formed in New Zealand to help protect this cultural hallmark. The exclusivity of the body art preserves its appeal, and in a similar way, the joy of finding one fuchsia pink bird in an ashen crowd elevates its artistic status, surprising us and encouraging us to reconsider our notions of where we find art. It seems vital to look for art in every corner. Otherwise we might miss out on a beautiful moment, just as a sudden flutter of wings as St Mark’s clears may leave us disappointed with just a single turquoise feather.

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A green flash in a grey crowd

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Home is where the art is

Gallery, n. An apartment or building dedicated to the exhibition of works of art.

If you’re looking for art, this is where most of us would head to find it. A trip to a purpose created enclosure certainly showcases the art, but leaves the spectator, well, myself at least, with a case of aching feet and depleted blood sugar. Surely, for the artwork to come to life its recipient needs to feel alive too?

Thankfully, the relationship between art and its viewer is constantly evolving. Our interest is nourished by the diverse ways we can enjoy it. Street art. Marketplace caricatures. Palatial national galleries scented like dust and velvet and warm wood. Websites that allow you to zoom in forensically on a painting’s colour and texture without the watchful eye of the curator. Prehistoric caves with their charcoal frescos. Pop up exhibitions. The Antiques Roadshow. A private house. These more unusual exhibitions should be celebrated and encouraged as a means to propel art into the deepest, darkest corners of the world of the Playstation generation.

Living in Cambridge places me at the heart of the divide between old and new ways of looking at art. The Fitzwilliam Museum showcases a traditional British art gallery at its finest. The building itself is a masterpiece of gilt, mosaic and marble and the range of pieces, from a Han dynasty jade burial suit to works of the Venetian Renaissance, makes this gallery an excellent way in to the world of art. However, has the static gallery experience become stale in our age of flux?

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The entrance to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

In contrast, Kettle’s Yard, whilst technically being a gallery, offers the spectator an innovative and definitely more natural means of enjoying art. Formerly owned by Jim Ede, curator of the Tate Gallery in London in the 20s and 30s, Kettle’s Yard is a private house holding a distinctive collection of 20th century artwork dispersed throughout a comfortable living space, complete with squishy sofas, ramshackle bookshelves, trailing houseplants, bars of soap and intimate bedrooms. Everything in the house has been positioned precisely to create the single and complete vision of a particular collector in his living environment. As my guide showed me, a butter yellow disc in the corner of a Miro piece was mirrored across the room by a lone lemon embellishing the window sill, whose slightly greenish hue reflected diagonally across to an impressionistic picture of apples. From then on, I noticed connections between works throughout the house; the pieces in one room had similar lines and shapes that metamorphosed into new forms as I passed into the next space. Once given the opportunity simply to sit, spectate, and discover, the merits of the experience began to extend beyond beating the aching feet and escaping the clutter of the audio guides and handbooks.

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A typical, quiet corner in Kettle’s Yard

I couldn’t help but reflect upon the fact that decoration and artwork around the home and hearth is a practice that stretches back to the earliest humans. Family visits to Pech Merle and Font du Gaume caves let me glimpse some of the earliest forms of art. Pech Merle’s horse gallery, around 25 000 years old, acts today as a breathtaking mural. But the cave is undeniably and almost eerily a very human space- in the midst of the paintings the lone footprint of an adolescent male can be seen calcified in the mud as the cave was sealed off during the thawing of the last ice age. The artists who sheltered in the mouths of the caves and the surrounding environs used these spaces as a canvas to express themselves. We cannot help embellishing our surroundings as some form of primal instinct.

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The Pech Merle horses

It is unsurprising, therefore, that Ede curated Kettle’s Yard to encapsulate a sense of continuity. Rather than curating a static catalogue Ede’s vision was to represent “a continuing way of life… in which stray objects, stones, glass, pictures, sculpture, in light and in space, have been used to make manifest the underlying stability.” But given the acceleration of change in our society during the years since Ede’s death is this stability being disrupted?

Perhaps. And this is why spaces like Kettle’s Yard need to be seen by everyone, if not just to explore different ways of enjoying art, but to reflect on our basic human nature. In parallel, we should commend, publicise, and develop projects such as Own Art, who make collecting art more accessible with the provision of interest free loans from £100-£2000. Art should not limit itself to a contrived, agoraphobic and sterile row of squares on a whitewashed purpose-built wall, but work with and transform everyday spaces, just as the caves did for early humans and as Kettle’s Yard is doing for its visitors. Why do I feel that it is so important to celebrate and promote this more homely way of viewing art? It is because I would like to see more art dispersed and displayed within our day-to-day life.  It is the art that my parents have collected that help to transform the cold bricks of my house into the warm walls of my home. That way, home is where the art is.

Websites

http://www.kettlesyard.co.uk/

http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/

http://ownart.org.uk/

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