London Life by Patricia Levy
Mutilated skeletons, Jane Austen improvisation on the stage, photomonage and worn-out tools. Some of the wackier shows to experience in London.
Remember in school when the teacher couldn’t think of anything better to do than hand out magazines and a pair of blunt-ended scissors and told you to make a collage? The Hannah Höch exhibition, now in its final days shows what you might have made if you had an artist’s eye and a bit of perseverance. In the depths of Whitechapel where minarets and onion domes sit cheek by jowl with towering glass-plate monuments to mammon the Whitechapel Gallery is currently home to an exhibition of the works of one of the original members of the Dada Movement. The exhibition traces Höch’s art from its early days in fashion and simple representative art in the early 1900s through to the subversive weirdness of Dada and her attraction to photomontage and collage as means of social comment. Her early collages focus on perceptions of women, pasting enormous heads on fashionably thin bodies, or on the racial stereotyping emerging in her native Germany. During the war she quietly waited for a better time for artists to be passing social comment, collecting together a scrapbook of images that interested her, mostly Teutonic and often naked young men and women. But it is her later work that truly inspires, transcending her sarky comments about stereotypes to a level of fantastic art where the material that makes up her collages cannot be identified in the way that the cut-up figures of her early work can. Beautiful swirling images, almost suggesting something identifiable, are the apotheosis of her work. Downstairs a film of the artist at work in her later years explaining how she works is fascinating as is her amazing garden, a work of beauty in itself.
Less gorgeous but nonetheless worth the trip along the Embankment is another garden. It is the old churchyard of St Mary’s Church in Southwark, now the home of the little known Garden Museum, right beside Lambeth Palace and just across the river from Big Ben. The church is the burial place of John Tradescant ( 1570-1638) and his son, also John, the men who famously found and introduced to England tradescantia, the febrile- looking dangling plant that graces so many office windowsills, as well as magnolias, phlox and asters, the staples of so many gardens. Their tomb is a wonder, set in the garden and richly carved with all manner of creepy stuff, but the real reason to visit is the exhibition is inside the church itself. It shows the close relationship over the years between garden design and fashion: embroidered gloves and gowns mimic the knot gardens and flowers popular at the time, although the shiny purple raincoat doesn’t quite justify its existence. Upstairs is an exhibition of antique gardening tools many of which can still be found rusting away in haysheds in the west of Ireland. The museum seems to be pretty popular as a lunch-time venue; I saw more people eating than viewing so perhaps a visit should include a sojourn in the café.
From one of London’s more obscure museums to the Big Daddy of them all, the British Museum has just opened its latest set of galleries (The Sainsbury Galleries, £135 million and no prize for guessing who the benefactor was) with an exhibition about the Vikings. OK, I know what you’re saying – we’ve got all the Viking stuff in Kildare St. Indeed, compared to what’s on display in Dublin, going over to London for the comparatively underwhelming Viking exhibition would be daft but the exhibition rooms themselves are pretty amazing and the centrepiece of it all – the largest Viking ship ever discovered — is quite stunning. It mostly consists of some planks of wood and a huge steel reconstruction but the videos that sit alongside it and the other artefacts in the main room are fascinating. For example, did you know that very few Viking actually wore those horned helmets? They just had boring old tin hats. Also, just to burst another bubble, there is no evidence that the Vikings ever sent their dead off to sea in burning boats. The people I feel sorry for though are the poor Viking sods who raided a settlement near modern Weymouth in Devon and suffered the humiliation of a) having their heads chopped off and b) ending up in a glass case in the gorgeous new Sainsbury rooms. A case, if ever I saw one for making sure you are cremated when your time on this mortal coil is over. You never know where you’ll end up otherwise.
On a lighter note, the best bit of fun to be had in the tourist-filled Leicester Square is in the tiny Leicester Square Theatre. Austentatious, both a company and the name of their show, take suggested titles for an imaginary Jane Austen novel from the audience and improvise an hour-long story. It’s just plain silly and the best bits are where the improv messes up but the true genius is in the way the actors take the suggested title and weave a story around it. The show I watched was called Man Feels Part but other titles posted on their website suggest other stories, Strictly Come Darcy for example or Northanger Rabbi must have been good shows. The company will be in London for the next few months, performing at the Leicester Square Theatre or the much smaller Old Queen’s head in Islington.
Whitechapel Gallery www.whitechapelgallery.org the exhibition lasts till 23rd 11am-6pm Tuesday-Sunday £9.95
Garden Museum www.gardenmuseum.org £7.50 Sunday – Friday 10.30am – 5.00pm (cafe closes at 4.30pm); Saturday 10.30am – 4.00pm (cafe closes at 4pm). The Museum is closed on the first Monday of every month, with the exception of the May Bank Holiday Monday..
British Museum www.britishmuseum.org till 22 June £16.50, 10am- 5.30pm daily, (8.30pm Fridays).
Austentatious www.austentatiousimpro.com see website for list of venues, dates and times; £12.50