Ocean liners have earned a place in history. During the era of ocean liner travel, these ships transported millions of immigrants from Europe to North America and Australia, they provided a transportation link between the nations of the world, carried troops, acted as hospitals during times of war and were at the forefront of technology. Thus, one might well expect to find an exhibition about ocean liners at a history museum.
But what do ocean liners have to do with art? “Ocean Liners: Speed and Style” at London's Victoria and Albert Museum explores this question with 250 objects, including paintings, sculpture, and ship models, alongside objects from shipyards, wall panels, furniture, fashion, textiles, photographs, posters and film. Beginning with Brunel’s steamship, the Great Eastern of 1859, the exhibition traces the design stories behind some of the world’s most luxurious liners including the Beaux-Arts interiors of Kronprinz Wilhelm, Titanic and its sister ship, Olympic; the floating Art Deco palaces of Queen Mary and Normandie; and the streamlined Modernism of SS United States and QE2. The answer to the above-stated question is that ocean liners intersected with art in quite a few ways.
First, ocean liners intersected with art as architecture. Beginning in the early 20th century, ocean liners grew from being mere vehicles for transportation into environments in which thousands of people lived. Streamlined, they took on lines which influenced architecture both at sea and on land. Similarly, they also influenced the engineering design of the day. Just as a great building is art, so is a great ship.
Second, there is interior design. In order to attract passengers, particularly, well-to-do passengers, the ocean liners developed luxurious interiors. At first, the shipping lines sought to imitate the grand hotels ashore but over time they created their own styles. Furthermore, as ocean liners became symbols of national pride, they were filled with artistic treasures. Art Deco works from the 1930s French liner Normandie can now be found in major museums such as the Metropolitan Museum. Similarly, the interiors of Cunard Line's Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth showcased works from around the British Empire. The examples of ocean liner furniture and paneling included in the exhibition demonstrate the quality of this decoration.
Along the same lines, the shipping lines did not just rely on word-of-mouth to attract customers. In order to lure passengers aboard, they created posters and brochures advertising the ships. Whereas today's advertising relies primarily on glossy photographs, these advertisements often involved drawings and other artistic depictions of the ships and life at sea. In addition, the graphic layouts were often artistic.
The ocean liners also influenced fashion. During the Golden Age of Ocean Liner travel, people dressed while at sea. Elegant gowns, dinner suits, blazers and day wear were necessities for a first class voyage. Passengers displayed the latest designs and designers were inspired to create new designs. Examples of fashions worn aboard ship are included in the exhibition such as a Christian Dior suit worn by Marlene Dietrich as she arrived in New York aboard the Queen Mary in 1950 and a striking Lucien Lelong couture gown worn for the maiden voyage of Normandie in 1935.
At the same time, artists were inspired to create works featuring ocean liners. These included not just traditional maritime paintings of ships but also abstract works. Several Cubist-style works are included in the exhibition.
Filmmakers were also inspired by the ocean liner image. The exhibition presents clips from a number of major motion pictures that were either about or set on ocean liners.
Overall, the exhibition provides a good introduction to ocean liners and their artistic significance. Along the way, it introduces the major ships and it tells their story. The lighting and use of technology also enhance the exhibition.
“Charles II: Art & Power” at the Queen's Gallery (London) looks at the role of art in the reign of King Charles II (1660 to 1685).
Charles II's reign was shaped by the English Civil War. Charles's father, King Charles I, sought to be an absolute monarch. However, he came to the throne as the power of Parliament and democracy was growing in England. Eventually, this led to civil war. Charles I lost and was beheaded in London in 1649.
Parliament declared the monarchy abolished and established England as a Commonwealth with Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the parliamentary army, as Lord Protector. Both to raise money and to do away with the trappings of monarchy, the royal regalia, furnishings and art collection were sold or melted down.
The Commonwealth quickly fell apart following Cromwell's death. Unable to find a leader to replace Cromwell, Parliament reinstated the monarchy and invited Charles II to return from exile.
Although he was welcomed back to England with great fanfare and popular sentiment, Charles realized that his position was precarious. He had seen the consequences of his father's absolutist attitude. In addition, while he was in exile, he had had to journey from country to country as various rulers' attitudes shifted from being Charles' allies to wanting to curry favor with Cromwell. As a result, Charles realized that he needed to create a public image that would help secure his position as king.
One of the tools that Charles used to build this public image was art. Upon his return, Charles had an elaborate coronation. Since the royal regalia had been destroyed by the Commonwealth, he commissioned new regalia. The sumptuous pageantry connected him to the monarchs of the past and helped legitimize his reign. In addition, the Commonwealth had been heavily influenced by Puritan thinking and the people appreciated the colorful and lively ceremony.
Charles and his court also commissioned works of art. Portraits showing the king, his family and his various mistresses in silks and elaborate finery hung in the various royal palaces. These were not done just for vanity but also to show that Charles and his court belonged in these palaces.
At this time, collecting prints was becoming popular in England. It was the social media of the day. People purchased prints of Charles and displayed them in their homes. They were also entertained by tales of the various intrigues that were going on at court and enjoyed seeing prints of the portraits of the participants.
Charles was also eager to re-build the royal art collection. His father had been a renowned collector. But beyond family sentiment, Charles wanted a first rate collection because such a collection would place him along side the established monarchs of the day. Therefore, a law was enacted calling for the return of works that had been sold by the Commonwealth. In addition, Charles purchased old master paintings and drawings. His collection grew further as a result of gifts from from other nations and courtiers seeking to ingratiate themselves with the king.
Using works from the Royal Collection, this exhibition does not merely display works from the time of Charles II but presents them so that their use as a tool of the king is clear. The signage and the audio guide (included in the price of admission) also help to support the presentation of the thesis of the exhibition.
Unlike his father who had had the services of Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Charles did not have an artist of genius to do his portraits. Sir Peter Lely and his contemporaries were good draftsmen but their portraits are chiefly of interest because of the people depicted rather than as independent works of art.
The difference between the work of good artists and artists of genius is brought home by the examples of old master paintings and drawings collected by Charles II. These works, including works by Titian and Holbein, have an indefinable quality that the Restoration works do not.
“Birds of a Feather: Joseph Cornell's Homage to Juan Gris” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a small exhibition that brings together a dozen of Cornell's shadow boxes along with the painting by Juan Gris that inspired Cornell.
Joseph Cornell was born in 1903 outside of New York City. He was the eldest of four children. When his father died in 1916, the family was left in bad financial circumstances and had to move into the city. Joseph dedicated most of his life to supporting the family including a younger brother who had cerebal palsy. Painfully shy, Cornell never married and had few relationships and friendships.
Cornell had little formal education. However, he was well-read and interested in cultural activities. Accordingly, he spent much of his free time exploring museums and art galleries. As a result, he began to develop his own art.
The primary medium used by Cornell was the shadow box. He would take various objects that he discovered on his trips around New York and assemble them together. These juxtapositions of found objects had a surrealistic flavor and he was embraced by the Surrealists and New York's artistic community.
On one of his visits to an art gallery, he saw a painting by Juan Gris that he found striking. Gris was born in Spain in 1887 but moved to Paris in 1906 where he became part of the avant garde scene. Although not the inventor of Cubism, he brought that style forward and developed it.
The work that inspired Cornell was “The Man at the Cafe.” In it, Gris depicted the criminal mastermind in a popular series of novels. This shady character is almost entirely obscured by the newspaper he is reading. The shadow from his fedora blocks out his face. Wood grained paneling mixes the background and the figure. Done in the Cubist style, it is divided into geometric planes.
Cornell made 18 shadowboxes, two collages and a sand tray in the series inspired by Gris' painting. Like Gris' painting, he incorporated printed pages and trompe l'oeil wood grain in these works. There is also a central figure but instead of a criminal mastermind, the figure is a cockatoo.
The shadow boxes are much smaller than Gris' painting. Consequently, they are much more intimate visually. Thus, while they may be rooted in the painting, they are a much different visual experience.
“Leon Golub Raw Nerve” at the Met Breuer in New York City is a selective survey of the work of the 20th century American artist Leon Golub.
Born in Chicago in 1922, Golub studied art history at the University of Chicago, graduating in 1942. After the Second World War, he studied painting at the Art Institute of Chicago. There he met his wife, the artist Nancy Spero, to whom he was married for nearly 50 years.
The two arists lived in Europe for periods during the 1950s and 1960s. While there, Golub developed his interest in 19th century historical painting and artists such as Jacques Louis David and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. He was also interested in ancient Greek and Roman art. As a result, at a time when the art establishment was only interested in abstraction, Golub was creating art in which recognizable human figures were central.
Golub, however, was not a conventional artist. While the influences of ancient and traditional art can be seen in his works, he also incorporated much of the force of the abstract expressionist painters. His images were often done with free broad strokes. He added layers of paint and then scraped them away. He left sections of the canvas in its raw state. This technique did not make for pretty pictures but it did make them emotionally powerful.
When Golub and Spero returned to the United States in the 1960s, opposition to the Vietnam War was growing as that conflict escalated. Golub became involved in the anti-war movement and violence and cruelty became themes in his art. Other social and political issues such as racial inequality, torture, oppression and political corruption would also draw Golub's attention throughout the rest of his career.
An artist seeking to convey a political or social message with a work of art has to be careful to avoid making the work dependent upon the viewer's knowledge of the underlying political or social issue. A scene or a symbol that everyone today would recognize as having a certain meaning may not mean anything to a viewer 20 years from now. Thus, a work that is too heavily dependent upon today's headlines may have no meaning in the future.
Golub's works transcend the headlines. For example, “Gigantomachy II' is a monumental painting of a group of muscular male figures fighting, which was done during the Vietnam War. The title refers to a battle between the Olympian gods and a race of giants and the painting recalls an ancient Greek frieze. However, it is not a glorious depiction of battle but rather conveys a sense of cruelty and pain. Thus, it is not just about ending the Vietnam War but is a condemnation of war that continues to have meaning.
Along the same lines, in “Two Black Women and a White Man,” Golub presents two black women sitting on a bench with a white man leaning against a wall behind them. Perhaps, it is a group waiting for a bus. However, the positioning of the figures and the way they are avoiding any interaction, underscores the separation and isolation of the races. The scene could be in the United States during the Civil Rights Movement or in South Africa during Apartheid, it could be now. The message of the picture still comes through.
Rich Wagner is a writer, photographer and artist.