Victoriana: The Art of Revival

From the macabre to the quaint, this major exhibition explores the work of artists over the last twenty years who have been inspired by the nineteenth Century. Victoriana is a multi-media, multi-sensory show, featuring graphic design, film, photography, ceramics, taxidermy, furniture, textiles and fine art, taking a curious overview of our enduring fascination with the past.”

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I don’t think I can describe Victoriana’s richness better than this. I love art revivals, they’re the best way to remind us of the past, both its beauty and its mistakes from which we have to learn. I didn’t even know that Victoriana is the first exhibition in the UK to “offer a major examination of Victorian revivalism in all its forms”. From the moment I read about it on the website, I wanted to rush to the gallery and spend hours there. I don’t think I’d ever been so excited about an art exhibition before. Except when I visited the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, to see Botticelli’s Primavera and The Birth of Venus.

So I finally went to see Victoriana on a rather cloudy Saturday, when I decided to wander through London and see as many things as I could fit in a day. I had never heard of the Guildhall Art Gallery before and many Londoners I talked didn’t seem to be familiar with it either. All the more reason to visit it, I thought.

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The Guildhall Buildings weren’t actually hard to find, even if they’re one of London’s hidden gems in a quiet little corner. It was rather strange wandering through the City area which sleeps at weekends but it wasn’t too bad to enjoy a little peace and quiet.

Once I arrived there, I was stunned by the beautiful buildings and the light bathing the Guildhall Yard.

Guildhall Yard (black circle shows the original extent of the entire Amphitheatre wall)

Do you see the black circle in the middle of the yard? It actually shows the original extent of the entire Amphitheatre wall. I didn’t know that before finding out that London’s Roman Amphitheatre was 20 feet below the gallery. Speaking of revivals, I wrote about the revived atmosphere of the gladiatorial games here.

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As soon as I bought my ticket (even the ticket is classy, you would think it’s a theatre ticket in the nineteenth century), I armed myself with my camera and tried not to look like a hysterical art aficionada.

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We’re welcomed by this stunning artwork by Chantall Powell, called Encounter. I was very excited to find out that she’s got a blog, where she also talks about this piece.

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According to the description, the feathers are a symbol of the Aesthetic Movement (in the late nineteenth century), which follows the idea of “Art for Art’s Sake”. The feathers also reflect the Victorian decadence. I’d say this is a nice way to introduce us to the exhibition.

Then, we get to meet this gentleman, General Gordon.

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The artwork is called Goggles by Amanda Scrivener and Thomas Willeford. I had heard about the Steampunk movement before but never really read about it. Apparently, goggles are a key accessory of the Steampunk aesthetic. In a few words, steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction, which reflects the image of a post-apocalyptic future dominated by steam-powered machines. I can’t help but also think of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times.

Before going downstairs to the main exhibition hall, this banner caught my eye: “I want a better world, I want a better me” by Mark Titchner.

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Inspiring isn’t it?

Piers Jamson represents himself as a dandy in Self Portrait but he also recalls the miniature format of the silhouette, which was very popular in the nineteenth century.

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Mother by Dan Hillier reflects the Victorian Era’s obsession with mermaids. Hillier decided to replace the fish tail with octopus tentacles.

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Before reading the description, I imagined it to be a woman dreaming to transform herself into something allowing her to be free. Ok, I don’t usually associate freedom with an octopus but it’s what this drawing inspired me. Women in the Victorian Era were anything but emancipated, the corsets being a first good example to show this. An octopus can reach more with its tentacles and I imagine this could reflect freedom and infinite possibilities, something many women were aspiring to in that era.

In Two Minds by Simon Venus is a miniature mechanical theatre reflecting the conflict of science versus nature.

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Something that made me chuckle a lot was the Victoriana Alphabet by Otto von Beach. Each letter stands for something related to the Victorian Era and is beautifully illustrated. I really enjoyed the witty sense of humour behind these. Here are some of my favourites:

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is for Voluptuous automation

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I is for Incurable romantic

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Absolute favourite: R is for the Restless pursuit of aesthetic excellence and to hell with the consequences

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A is for Article indefinite (Hmmm, perhaps we should try the Comic Sans again?)

On a last funny note, a sign indicating the exit and inviting us to disappear!🙂

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Obviously, I couldn’t post all the artworks, it would take more than one post to do this and it would ruin a few surprises! ;) As you can see, Victoriana is a very rich exhibition: it doesn’t only focus on one type of artworks. It explores and revives Victorian themes through photography, literature, fashion… It definitely reflects the richness of this era while encouraging us to consider its themes which are still worth reflecting upon. I personally wouldn’t enjoy living in a world alienated by machines! Perhaps, there is still hope?😉

On my way out, I just had to buy the book Victoriana, A Miscellany edited by the curator, Sonia Solicari. Aside from my own pictures, I wanted to have another souvenir of this marvel. This captivating book includes many useful facts and pictures. And I always fall for beautifully crafted books, so that was a bonus!

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I stepped out of the gallery, smiling like a five-year old on Christmas Day. The staff are absolutely lovely people, who were always ready to answer my questions!

One thing is for sure: you won’t get bored. Even if you’re not interested in the Victorian Era, I’m sure there is at least one artwork that would make you stop to observe it and even make you smile. The Victorian art in itself is quite intriguing but when you combine it with a twenty-first century imagination, it becomes stunning! The atmosphere is lively (but not noisy) and the interaction with the visitors is something I really appreciated.

While admiring the artworks, I remembered something from Jules Verne’s novels and this idea continuously ran through my mind. Science was, of course, a huge deal in the nineteenth century. New discoveries encouraged people to learn more and more but at the same time science terrified them. Some had faith in science but others were seeing it as a threat, as something more powerful than Man and even God. The idea of science being more reliable than religion when it came to answering life’s big questions was inconceivable for many.

Don’t go just yet! I’ve got one last surprise for you: an interview with Katherine Pearce, one of the curators of Victoriana. I contacted her by email and she kindly answered to my questions! Here goes:

1. What is the first thing that draws you into this exhibition? In your view, what makes it special?

The intriguing offer of a show of contemporary works which is inspired by ideas from 150 years ago! The whole culture clash inherent in ‘revival’ of 19th century culture is such fertile ground for modern artists and designers, and it produces some truly strange and glorious objects. Who would have thought taxidermy was going to make ‘a comeback’, for example? The Victorians loom so large in our collective consciousness, it’s just fascinating to really examine what they mean to us and how we respond to them in the 21st century. What have we kept and what have we rejected, and why? Why do things make ‘comebacks’ in the first place? I just find the whole idea of ‘bringing things back’ whilst moving forward a really pleasant head-scratching exercise. The phrase retro-future can set you off on hours of pondering…

2. What is your favourite artwork / artist from this exhibition? And why? Did you also have the opportunity to meet the mentioned artist in person?

I think the pieces that stand out for me are Paula Rego’s Jane Eyre lithographs. They are so striking, dark and thought-provoking. My ‘Victoriana’ interests are primarily literary, and I love how the artist weaves images and themes from her own life into the depiction of Jane Eyre, whilst at the same time taking inspiration from Jean Rhys’s 1966 novel Wild Sargasso Sea – itself a kind of revival of Bronte’s original novel. So it’s a revival of a revival, with an artistically personal context. Bizarre and beautiful.

3. Can you relate Victoriana to any other exhibition / artist (in either Guildhall Art Gallery or in other museum/gallery)?

Um… Not really, other than it obviously parallels/connects to our permanent collection (Pre-Raphaelites and beyond) and throws it into relief. There’s a nice interplay between the exhibition and the Gallery itself (we’re a Victorian construct with a fantastic 19th century collection). There have been plenty of Victorian-themed art exhibitions which have really examined the amazing work being produced at various points during the era, i.e. the ‘Cult of Beauty’ at the V&A, ‘Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant Garde’ at Tate. There was also a big Steampunk exhibition at Oxford a few years ago. But no major show specifically of Neo-Victorian artworks which represents the last 30 years of endeavour.

4. What is the first word that popped into your mind when you first saw Victoriana?

‘Spectacular!’ In all its senses!

Indeed, spectacular is the right word for it! Thank you again for your time and patience, Katherine!🙂

So, everyone, I hope you enjoyed reading about Victoriana as much as I’ve enjoyed visiting it! If you’re out of inspiring things to do on a cloudy Saturday, why not pop by the Gallery and be intrigued? Victoriana is open until Sunday 8 December 2013 and you can read more about it here.

Have a great Sunday!

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10 thoughts on “Victoriana: The Art of Revival

  1. Thank you! So many things in just one blog article, well done! It was an excellent discovery for myself and thank you for sharing it as I was unable to visit it when hanging around in London last summer. I will try to make it up with the book you bought there.

    Atât de multe lucruri frumoase concentrate într-un articol de blog, felicitări! A fost o excelentă revelație și pentru mine, mulțumesc, cum nu am putut-o vizita pe când eram în Londra vara trecută. Voi încerca să recuperez citind cartea pe care ai cumpărat-o acolo.

  2. Reblogged this on In search of Right Words and commented:
    So many things in just one blog article, well done! It was an excellent discovery for myself and thank you for sharing it as I was unable to visit it when hanging around in London last summer. I will try to make it up with the book you bought there.

    Atât de multe lucruri frumoase concentrate într-un articol de blog, felicitări! A fost o excelentă revelație și pentru mine, mulțumesc, cum nu am putut-o vizita pe când eram în Londra vara trecută. Voi încerca să recuperez citind cartea pe care ai cumpărat-o acolo.

  3. Pingback: Women artists from the 16th till the 20th century, exhibition in Milan, Italy | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  4. Pingback: Victorian books, their articles and artwork….what to do? | Victorian tales from Weymouth and Portland

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