Thursday 24 September 2009

Turner and the Masters

Turner and the Masters is at Tate Britain until Jan 31. It hangs works by Turner among works by the painters he was “influenced” by. Or rather, that he painted “in the manner of” in a deliberate attempt to be considered as one of their rank. But that was how you played the art game in those days.

What, Turner our homegrown genius, play the game? Turner the proto-Impressionist, copy the old masters? Turner who painted in a way we approve of long before it was fashionable, spin his own reputation?

Matthew Collings in Saturday’s Guardian reviewed the show and unpicked the way we see Turner.

The artists Turner wished to be seen with in public were Cuyp, Claude Lorrain, Poussin, Salvator Rosa (immensely popular in the 18th century – time he was reappraised), Rembrandt, Rubens, Ruisdael, Titian, Veronese and Watteau. Says Collings, Turner "was a working-class man who achieved greatness in art, but owned a pub and had no friends … He had two mistresses and never married.”

In Turner’s day you were meant to copy the old masters. Still-life and landscape were at the bottom of the tree, next up was portraiture, but top was history painting “big scenes from real history, or … mythological or biblical dramas”. (Which look ridiculous to us today.) The show is “really social history with art as the focus”.

For the last 50 years Turner “has been widely thought of as a genius of ‘painterly’ painting… from this viewpoint he is valued as a sort of artistic crystal-ball gazer, anticipating Monet’s impressionist scenes… he came back into vogue in the 1960s because of the rise of abstract expressionism. The change in popular opinion occurred with a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1966 called Turner: Imagination and Reality. Because the selection of works was deliberately weighted in favour of his later period, when lines become blurred and there are fewer enclosed shapes, a new image of Turner emerged as a mystic prophet of modernism – an image that has remained intact in the popular imagination ever since.”

It should be a fascinating show, revealing not just the sources of Turner’s inspiration but also our own sheep-like tendencies to follow the latest fashionable opinion. And Turner really was a genius.

Sheep by Poussin

Thursday 17 September 2009

Moctezuma at the British Museum

This show opens on Thursday (24 September). Moctezuma is the guy we used to call Montezuma, leader of the Aztecs in what's now Mexico. Apparently we got that wrong too and they called themselves the Mexica.

The Aztecs were an ancient people and their art is high quality. They carved granite and other stones into the faces of beast-gods and warriors - giant snakes were popular. HQ was a city in the middle of a lake (it's now Mexico City and the lake is no more). They grew crops on artificial islands and liked to paddle about the lake wearing garlands, singing and reciting poetry. How very civilized!

Aztec religion demanded a lot of human sacrifices. Wars with nearby tribes produced enough captives to supply the greedy gods. Skulls and skeletons dance through their art.

Then the Spaniards turned up, looking for gold. They were outnumbered, but great ruler Moctezuma (1466–1520) caved in and apparently accepted his and his people's fate. Did he think this was one war he couldn't win? Stone knives versus firearms isn't a fair fight. And how did he die? At the hands of his subjects, claimed the Spaniards.

Priceless artefacts and manuscripts tell the story. The Spaniards brought another religion which the Aztecs adopted. Perhaps it didn't seem too strange.

British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG, +44 (0)20 7323 8299

Dead can dance...

Wednesday 9 September 2009

Howlers for September

harbinger for Achilles heel? Trojan horse? albatross? poisoned chalice? worm in the bud? early warning system? Her collection of gently provocative essays suggest that our familiarity with crows may be a harbinger. New Scientist 5 Sept. 09 A harbinger was originally someone who went ahead of the travelling party to arrange the night's food and lodging.

trove for hoard (treasure trove is something you’ve found or trouvé)

on a role for on a roll (a role is a part in a play; if you're on a roll you're a log rolling downhill)

Corpus Christie for Corpus Christi (from auction catalogue)

Applying his trade for plying

Hierarchy used to mean élite (they're at the top of the hierarchy)

defiantly for definitely (youtube)

swarve for suave

batwing doors for swing doors in Western saloons Guardian June 10 09

nebbish used as adjective (it’s a noun) “in person he is nebbish and self deprecating” Guardian June 27 09

intercession for reminder? “Rags are still tied to trees as divine intercessions” Dan Snow on the Celts, BBC2 He means a plea for intercession.

greenskin for cleanskin: A new, coherent vision for the commission, drawn up with greenskin commissioners who will pull in the same direction. Guardian 7/29/09 "Within the vernacular of counter-terrorism agents and police officers, a cleanskin is an undercover operative whose identity is not known to the forces he or she is tasked to infiltrate."

androgenous for androgynous Guardian 7/20/09 Androgenous ought to mean "becoming masculine". An androgynous person is a boyish (andro) girl (gyn) or a girlish boy.

More here, here, here, here and here.

Tuesday 8 September 2009

Cocoon at the Darwin Centre

The Cocoon at the Natural History Museum's Darwin Centre is now open to the public. It's a concrete pod inside a tall space, curved to look like a silk-worm cocoon with a few loose threads engraved on it. Inside is a low-lit spiral walkway (you take a lift to the top and walk down) with many displays of leaves, branches, spiders, scorpions, beetles, nuts, fruit etc from the museum's collection. All the (17 million) plants and (3 million) insects are now housed in the centre of the Cocoon and you can glimpse filing cabinets through viewing windows. Researchers can make an appointment to examine the collection, but the public has to be content with admiring the selection on show, and looking over the shoulders of some of the museum's 350 scientists – there's a viewing window into one of their offices, and into a display case where real live boffins will demonstrate how to prepare specimens. At several points on the trail volunteers will talk you through what's on show, and answer your questions. There are also talking screens, videos, and recordings which spring to life as you pass. There's text on the walls, too, explaining such concepts as fieldwork and peer review.

The museum is also debuting its science theater, called after the greatest science communicator, David Attenborough. It has clinical white seats and many screens, so everyone has a good view of what the boffs are putting under the "visualiser" (it's like an overhead projector for objects). They enthusiastically show off meteorites from Mars or live, fluorescent scorpions. Another thrill was timelapse photography of a dolphin carcase being eaten by scavengers from an experimental underwater webcam somewhere off Sweden.

The Natural History Museum is at:

Cromwell Rd
London, SW7
020 7942 5000
Nearest tube (underground, metro) stop is South Kensington. Entrance is free, but to book a timed ticket for the Cocoon call 44 (0) 20 7942 5725, turn up in person or log on to

Monday 7 September 2009

14 Hair Gadgets with Silly Names

They're for bumping your hair up, geddit? Or rather, they're "hair volumizing inserts". Or is that "volumnizing"? Read all about it at Flat hair is so last year!

The Whirlastyle guarantees the perfect ballet bun.
It's as aesthetically pleasing as the Bumpit. See They also sell the Poppi and the Klicinz.

"Anything new can be accomplished by believing in your own magic" says the sales material. So you don't need a Hairdini for that perfect updo? It's all at where you can learn about the Clipdini, Beadini, Illusion Beadini, Poofdini, Teeni Hairdini and Pickdini.

Beautiful ponytailers decorated with crystal insects at Ebuni.

And if those aren't enough for you, there's always the Hairagami and Sophist O Twist. Or you can contemplate the many patented (but possibly not manufactured) ponytail and bun devices at And if you want a chignon base, they even have them at:

101 Fashion Crimes from the Past

There are fashions that get more and more extreme until they vanish in a puff of smoke.
Hair gets higher and higher, crinolines get wider and wider - you get the picture. But you wonder how people lived with some of these. A dance dress so long that you had to pick up the skirt and hold it over your arm? Ah well, what fools these mortals be, as Shakespeare pointed out.

1. Leg o’ mutton sleeves 1830s, 1890s, 1930s Sometimes called gigot sleeves - that's French for leg of mutton.
2. Big hair and hats 1910s These huge dos were constructed over pads made of the wearer's own hair. You kept the combings from your (waist-length) hair in a "hair-tidy", and made it into what were called "rats". Lovely! There's a discussion about similar devices here at
2. Big hair 1770s The heroine of the novel Evelina describes having her hair curled and done up over a cushion that sat on the top of her head – and then covered with white powder. I don't know why this hairstyle is blamed on Madame de Pompadour. This is Marie Antoinette.
3. Beehive 1960s Terrible tales were told of women who never took their hair down and ended up playing host to some six-legged friends. The same stories were told of ladies from the 18th century. Early 60s hairstyles were ludicrously labour-intensive - the setting on rollers, drying and then back-combing took hours.
4. Crinolines reached new breadths in the 1860s.

5. Panniers 18th century They're called after the saddlebags you use on your bicycle (or horse or donkey). You end up with a skirt shaped like the back of a sofa.

6. Platform shoes 1970s (and 16th cent Venice). Groovy!

7. Corsets made waists smaller and smaller from the 1830s on.

8. Miniskirts 1960s I know they’ve been back several times, but they've never been so short as in the late 60s. You had to adopt a new way of sitting – knees together, feet apart. If you dropped anything you had to curtsey to pick it up again. And you couldn't bend over at all.

9. Trains Late 19th century You draped them over your arm when you danced. Sometimes they had a loop on the hem that you put your little finger through. You also had to cope with a reticule hanging from your wrist.

10. Stiletto heels and pointy toes 1960s, early 00s, 15th century. Will they never learn?

11. Who wears short shorts? Boys' shorts, or "short trousers" were originally teamed with thick wool stockings, and came right down to the knee. In the 60s/70s, when girls’ shorts became tiny, prep school boys’ shorts did too and the poor things suffered from hypothermia.

12. Opera-length gloves In the late 1800s, shoulder-length kid gloves were worn with evening dress. At dinner, you removed the hand bit and tucked it into the arm bit. Their status was defined by the number of buttons.

Do we know better now? Here are some modern fashion crimes.