By Emily Watkins
Victoriana: The Art of Revival
Guildhall Art Gallery
September 7– December 8 2013
‘Victoriana: The Art of Revival’ at the Guildhall places artists and designers who have been inspired by Victorian art within a Victorian setting.
The Guildhall Art Gallery already has a large collection of Victorian paintings but has brought in 28 major contemporary artists which include Yinka Shonibare, Grayson Perry, Paula Rego, Dan Hillier, Paul St. George, Rob Ryan, Kitty Valentine and Jake and Dinos Chapman for the show. Billed as the first-ever exhibition in the UK to offer a major retrospective of Victorian revivalism in all its guises, it features sculpture, video, painting, photography and design.
Stepping into the show, it became apparent that the works were presented in a way that allowed them to interact with the space. This yielded varying degrees of success.
One of the more successful examples of this conversation between object and gallery were pieces by the taxidermy artist, Tessa Farmer where preserved insects swarm around an existing Victorian sculpture. The collaborative effect adds a new life and energy to the original.
The same can be said of Patrick St Paul’s ‘Whisper in the heart of silence’– where a collector’s cabinet is filled with convincing, yet fantastical items. It fits very well with the space, such a cabinet could belong within the halls of a museum or a Victorian gentleman’s home.
Amongst the less successful interactions between design and gallery was the steampunk goggles adorning a Victorian bust. It was perhaps a little too contrived an arrangement for my taste and it also makes little sense when both objects were beautiful and well-designed, in their own right.
The choice to include both fine art and design within the show was a challenging one. Laudably it allowed the inclusion of artists whose work sits between art and design but does not fall into either camp a place in the show– taxidermist Miss Pokeno was one of them.
Pokeno’s chair with a taxidermy back, provided a surprising contrast between traditional crafts which would not normally be combined, creating an object which was both functional and challenging.
Despite best efforts I couldn’t help but feel that the show’s attempt to include both design and fine art was a challenging curatorial decision which yielded mixed results. Perhaps as a matter of personal preference, rather than fact, I feel that a viewer looks for different things when experiencing art, as opposed to design, which can be detrimental to both disciplines.
I am also not convinced that the show did justice to the work of designers such as Otto Von Beech and Rebecca March. The display of their work seemed less thought-out than some of the fine art installations.
In a larger space perhaps it would have been possible to separate the art and design, thus preventing the possibility of unfavourable comparisons between equally strong work, created with a very different purpose.
Another difficulty I had with the show as a viewer, was how closely the work was packed together. This made it difficult to fully appreciate individual works.
An example could be towards the end of the show where two video monitors, both showing excellent films one of which was a piece of fine art and one of which was for illustrative purposes, were positioned next to each other. This made it difficult to watch one video all of the way through because your eye kept wandering from one to the other. This was a great shame as both films were excellent examples of narrative video art.
A highlight of the show for me was the opportunity to see Paula Rego’s illustrations for Jane Eyre. I was previously unaware of these illustrations and was impressed by how well they captured the darkness and drama of the story.
Rego’s pieces were juxtaposed very cleverly with Yinka Shonibare’s photographic illustrations of Dorian Grey, which expertly captured the atmosphere of the Wilde’s text whilst challenging the viewer’s expectations.
In summary the show is an ambitious, interesting and thorough exploration of Victorian revivalism, let down by a lack of space (or perhaps a need to pack in too much). The show is not without its gems, but a larger space or perhaps even a clearer distinction between the design work and fine art would have allowed more space for contemplation of the individual and standout pieces.