Head down to Pimlico en route to get to Tate Britain but decide to make an unscheduled stop off at the Chelsea Space gallery. It’s only a relatively small display space here but the exhibitions, which tend to be centered around archives and ephemera rather than straightforward arrangements of paintings and sculptures, can usually be relied upon to be intellectually interesting, visually stimulating and with the curation just a bit more thoughtfully handled than is perhaps the norm. I suppose the other main characteristic of the place is that the choice of exhibitions is hugely eclectic. Most recently there was an investigation into aspects of Concrete Poetry but I can also remember shows focusing on Oz Magazines, Black art from the 80s, Punk photography and a review of the history of the Nigel Greenwood Gallery – all of which were definitely worth taking a look at. Now when I arrive it turns out that I’m just in time to catch the last day of The Democratic Dish, a presentation of pots, plates, drawings, designs and other bits and bobs all relating to the Secessionist Ware produced by the Minton pottery and now assembled for display as part of the private collection of Alessandra and Simon Wilson.
I confess I’ve little more than a limited layman’s knowledge when it comes to matters ceramical but, according to the little gallery leaflet, it seems that around the start of the last century the designers at Minton’s, having been inspired by the aesthetics of the various European Art Nouveau movements – and in particular those of the Viennese Secessionists – determined to produce a specifically British version of the style for the tables and dressers of the more adventurous members of their bourgeois establishment clientele. Having said that, none of the Minton designs contain any of the actual graphic kind of figuration favoured by the leading lights of the original Austrian Secessionists, Gustav Klimt or Egon Schiele (who, coincidentally, are soon to be honoured with a joint show at the Royal Academy), although I suppose maybe it is just about possible to discern echoes of some of the colours, lines and sinuous floral motifs that the pair occasionally incorporated into the decorative patterning parts of their otherwise more seriously sensuous paintings of friends, relatives, lovers and other pulchritudinous personalities. Frankly, to my eyes, the items on display here seems to be more reminiscent of the design motifs created by Charles Rennie Mackintosh but perhaps the Minton marketing department thought that creating a nomenclatural link to Austria, rather than Scotland, might better conjure up the chic and fashionably decadent resonances they were evidently trying to evoke.
Anyway, whatever the original influences, the works on show now – from the smallest vase to the grandest of umbrella stands and aspidistra holders – are all delightfully ornamented and must have represented the ideal purchase for anyone wishing to announce their post-Victorian sensibilities and impress the neighbours with intimations of advanced good taste and daringly modernistic views. That all the pieces still look so stylish now, a hundred years later, is credit to John Wadsworth and Leon Solon who were responsible for the original commercial production of the series.
After which I kind of think that there should probably be some neat way to segue back from these rather swish decorative artefacts to the more robust forms that preceded them and which emerged from the studios of the Arts and Crafts movement and their originator, William Morris. But I’m not sure I’m qualified to make it – suffice to say that among those artists from whom Morris commissioned designs perhaps the most prolific is the subject of the major new exhibition now just opened at Tate Modern. I speak of course of the former Ned Jones who, having been knighted and self-hyphenated, is now better known to posterity by the impressive appellation of Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, the so-called last of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Thankfully, the curators haven’t gone in for any gimmicky tricks and the exhibition is laid out in a nice sensible chronological order and provides what seems to be a fairly comprehensively review covering Burne-Jones’ forty-odd year artistic career. Curiously, however, it doesn’t really have the feel of a typical retrospective show. By which I mean that normally such displays tend to try to provide a sort of simultaneous illustrative charting of the evolving technical and stylistic developments of the artist along with a convincing narrative to explain the changing choice of subject matter to which these techniques and styles were then applied. Instead of which, this show strongly reinforces the idea that Burne-Jones fell fully formed into the artistic firmament and remained therein almost utterly unchanged during the entire course of his two score year tenure. And indeed, if you think you’re familiar with one or two famous Burne-Jones paintings (and just about all Britain’s national and provincial galleries are likely to contain at least one or two of them) then you are in many ways familiar with his entire artistic oeuvre, since the chief characteristics of these works, with their neatly patterned and intricately detailed representations of episodes from medieval fairy tales featuring pretty knights and swooning maidens, really do make up the vast majority of all the works on display here.
And so it is from the earliest item, an ink drawing based on a scene from a Chaucer poem (albeit one about Cupid rather than Sir Galahad or Lady Guinevere) to the final tapestries revealing visions of the Holy Grail and its knightly seekers, Burne-Jones revels in his repeated reimaginings of courtly scenes and all their attendant floral flourishes, mystical ornamentations and overall overegged decorative embellishments. Ok, so Burne-Jones does extend his repertoire to including the occasional reference to stories from the bible and classical mythology but even here it’s very much as if the scenes have been recast with a troop of medieval actors who’ve brought along with them all their own contemporaneous props and scenery.
On the plus side, Burne-Jones self-contained world is a very convincing creation, every bit as believable as those conceived by JRR Tolkien, JK Rowling or, perhaps even more so, George RR Martin who, through his Game of Thrones stories, constructed a similar sexy pre-industrial landscape where good-looking men with big swords could woo women with big dreams and where dragons could still fly about and belch out fire to frazzle their foes. On the downside, I suppose it doesn’t really take too much for the spell to be broken, the veil to fall and the audience, having rubbed its collective eyes, to find that all those helpless callipygous young maidens with their Rapunzel locks, and all their fearless armour-clad amours, suddenly all look just a little bit ridiculous. At which point the mythical golden age of chivalric mystery tips over into one ridiculously camp, clichéd and pantomimic extravaganza of meaningless fantasy froth.
And if you do find yourself getting a bit too caught up in the fantastical romanticism of Burne-Jones’ seductive reveries and need a jolt to get you back into the dull quotidian realities of contemporary life, just imagine what would really happen if someone was strolling through a wooded glade today, came across a defenceless narcoleptic damsel recumbent in a briar patch and attempted to make an unbidden revivifying kiss. I imagine court action rather than courtly love would follow. And similarly, any young princesses pouting their lips prior to trying out some unauthorised osculatory manoeuvres on their froggy acquaintances would surely be risking the wrath of a SWAT squad from the RSPCA’s amphibious protection unit.
By way of grim contrast to all this nurseryland silliness, the Tate’s other main gallery offering today is an exhibition of displays from the four finalists in this year’s Turner Prize. In years gone by when interest in the competition was starting to fade, the strong (but I’m sure entirely unwarranted) impression was given that the curators would go out of their way to shortlist artists who produced work that was almost deliberately shocking or silly or otherwise offensive. Presumably with the intention of creating some kind of public outrage that would draw media attention and so revive interest in the Tate’s promotional projects. And I can’t help thinking that something similar is happening this year with the perversely provocative decision to choose four artists, all of whom use the medium of film and all of whom produce heavy documentary work of a serious political nature.
Personally, I prefer to view films at the cinema armed with some Coke and popcorn while if there’s a important TV documentary that needs to be seen then it’s usually best endured when sat on the sofa at home where a cup of teas is available if required to settle the nerves. I just find it a rather daunting prospect to go to an art gallery and be confronted with the obligation of having to watch four hours of Naeem Mohaiemen’s films showing a man wandering around an airport; the Forensic Architecture group’s clip of the Israeli police clearing a Bedouin village; Charlotte Prodger’s intimate diaristic musings about her gay lifestyle; or Luke Willis Thompson’s filmic portraits of Diamond Reynolds’, whose partner was shot dead by an American policeman.
Not that I don’t think there’s a place for socially committed art, it’s just that sometimes you can have too much of a good thing and, after all, I already specifically buy the Guardian and watch the Channel 4 news to have my conscience pricked and my middle class guilt stirred. Whereas one of the reasons that I go to galleries is to escape from the real world or at least have it mediated into something more bearably entertaining. Talking of which, I think maybe it’s time to give up on the Turner Prize and head off to find some Hobbits to join in a game of Quidditch over at Westeros.