Trying to Decode the Semiotical

Get out at Temple tube station and walk up the slight incline to get onto the Strand where I pause to take a quick look at the sculptural ornamentation that stands in front of St Clement Danes Church.  First off is a wonderful example of late Victorian* memorial architecture dedicated to the great 19th century politician William Ewart Gladstone.  A black bronze statue of the man is stood aloft on a stone plinth, at the corners of which are four allegorical women representing education, aspiration, brotherhood and courage.  The last of these is the best and most dramatic, with a sword-wielding heroine forever frozen as she’s about to lop the head off a snake that she’s grabbed by the throat, or whatever that bit of the reptile’s anatomy just below the head is called.  They just don’t make sculptures like that anymore and hence the two, much more recent monumental additions that flank either side of the extravagantly exuberant tribute to the former prime minister are, by comparison, decidedly less flamboyant.  Air Chief Marshall Lord Dowding, who played a crucial logistical role in helping to win the Battle of Britain, and the rather more controversial Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, who coordinated the aerial bombardment of German cities in the latter half of the Second World War, are represented by simple, unadorned statues that stand to attention as a pair of suitably sombre sentries.


There’s a return to overblown, symbolic grandiosity just across the road where a couple of massive marble monstrosities sprawl either side of the grand entrance to Australia House.  Presumably these groups of naturists make some symbolical reference to sheep shearing, spin bowling, sun bathing or some other heroic aspect of God’s own country, although it’s not at all apparent to me exactly what that might actually be.  Anyway, it feels slightly indelicate to be stood gazing at all this flesh trying to decode the semiotical meaning of the musculature so I lower my gaze.  Another reason for turning away is that I can’t help feeling that there’s some Aussie CCTV cameras trained on me with a beefy ocker at the other end trying to ascertain whether I’m a security threat and raring to race out and tazer me if I make the slightest of suspicious movements.  Consequently, I decide against reaching into my inside pocket to get my pen and pad in order to make some notes and instead walk away as casually as I can.


A few hundred yards later I start to breathe a bit more easily having ducked into the courtyard at Somerset House and, more specifically, entered through the glass doors into the ticket queue for the Courtauld Gallery.  Over the past few years the Gallery has given over a room or two on its top floor in order to run a series of small but superlative temporary exhibitions.  Not only has this resulted in the display of some truly beautiful artworks but, as expected from a Gallery with such close connections to the Courtauld Institute – the country’s leading centre for artistic teaching and research – the shows have usually had an equally interesting academic rationale to support their presentation.  Off the top of my head I can remember very clever and attractive shows concerning Sickert in Camden Town, Picasso in 1900, Egon Schiele portraits and Botticelli drawings illustrating Dante – all first class exhibitions.  Very sadly, that wonderful run of shows seems now to have come to an abrupt end with the presentation of a most appalling old turkey.


When I buy my ticket (£5 with my Art Fund card which also gives entry to main permanent collection, £9 without), the woman behind the counter says, ‘I assume you want to see Georgiana’ and it reminds me of that scene in Bicycle Thieves when Antonio, the desperate hero of that unfortunate tale, goes to visit the mystic to seek her advice.  The point being that instead of the usual exemplary exhibition of paintings or drawings by some acknowledged master of the medium, this time the Courtauld curators have had a brainwreck and decided to present the scribbles of an actual human medium – some cranky old spiritualist called Georgiana Houghton.  In a sort of half-hearted attempt at justifying this ridiculous display of Victorian doodling, the introductory wall panel burbles on about the, ‘…abstract works provide fascinating insights into 19th century culture,’ and that they, ‘…are also unexpected precursors to the development of abstract art in the 20th century.’  This is all such terrible nonsense and when the label on the very first watercolour advises that Houghton’s contact with the ‘other side’ came courtesy of a spirit guide called Henry Lenny, it’s hard not to assume that the whole exhibition is some sort of parodic comedy prank from the former star of Tiswas and famed Trevor MacDonought impersonator.


Frankly, I don’t think it’s worth spending too much time looking or thinking about the couple of dozen paintings here, suffice to say the early ones look a bit like botanical drawings and that they seem to evolve into a series of more abstracted swirls, whirls and whorls.  I don’t know about getting inspiration from angels and other otherworldly types, as Houghton claimed, I think it’s more likely that she woke up one Christmas and there, under the tree, was an early prototype of a Spirograph – one of those toys that uses wheels and cogs to help the budding artist make pretty curvy geometrical patterns.  I suppose that the one other picture that requires special mention is her solitary attempt at figuration in the form of a Portrait of Christ.  Apparently St Luke gave a helping hand with this one, although you’d sort of expect that the patron saint of painting would be a bit more skillful with the brushwork and not simply present a sort of crude cartoon figure.  Having said that, it’s nice to know that our Lord looks like a thoroughly decent type, albeit combining the centre parting with a hipster beard might be considered just a bit of a fashion failure.


Enough of that nonsense.  Next door is another small temporary display and at least this series of prints by Jasper Johns constitutes proper work from a proper artist.  Back in the late 1950s Johns (along with Robert Rauschenberg) produced some truly iconic works of art that in effect provided the transitional path that led American artists away from Abstract Expressionism and into Pop Art.  But, disappointingly, after a truly creative start, Johns seemed to run out of ideas quite early in his career, satisfied just to make endless, repeated riffs playing around with his earlier innovatory designs.  The series of prints here continue that process, so there’s the usual collage of familiar motifs including the stars and stripes flag, the cross hatched lines and a couple of optical illusion patterns, all of which seem to add up to not very much more than the tired, repeat ramblings of a once mighty force for artistic change who sort of gave up trying very hard a long while ago.


If both those little shows are something of a disappointment then at least there is still the opportunity to take a general look around the Courtauld’s permanent collection and this is, as always, an absolute treat.  The first few rooms, that begin with a selection of richly ornamented medieval religious works and then moves swiftly through the centuries with an interesting general selection that includes paintings by Cranach, Rubens, Gainsborough and Goya, are nice enough…but then comes the real goodies.  The Courtauld holds an exceptionally fine collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works which means a hugely enjoyable walk through half a dozen rooms containing some real stunners.  All the top team, from Renoir and Monet to Seurat and Gauguin, plus all their colleagues in between, are well represented but special mention must go to the tremendous groups of Cezannes, the pair of wonderful Van Gogh’s and, the pinnacle of the collection, Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergere.


*In fact, the memorial was erected in 1905 so I suppose it should really be described as Edwardian although, while I’m no expert, I think it has a sort of Victorian feel to it.


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