Townies, Gownies

After the last couple of Francophiliastical blogs I’m now returned to the bosom of our own dear little sceptered isle set in its silver sea but still feeling in fairly touristic mood so decide to venture outside the confines of the capital and head off for a day trip to Oxford.  I suppose I tend to pass through here once or twice a year and I’m not sure if somehow I always just happen to mistime these trips to occur during specific seasonal holidays but, considering the place is primarily known for being home to one of the nation’s great seats of learning and chock full of all those famous old university colleges, I’m always a bit surprised by the fact that I never seem to see many actual students wandering about.  It’s not just that I’ve never ever spotted anyone decked out in a gown and mortar board – and, of course, I’m fully aware that that particular clichéd attire is only really required for a few specialist scholastical activities and the occasional fantasy role playing scenario – but by far the vast majority of the people cluttering up the streets here are clearly too old or wide-eyed to be anything other than desperately enthusiastic coach-party day-trippers.  Presumably all the undergrads are hidden away in their dorms or libraries poring over research books, writing essays or thinking great thoughts and never leave the safety of these haunts until after dark.  In which case, I wouldn’t blame them as the crowds of gormless gawpers gazing up at the dreary dreaming spires do tend to block the pathways, fill up the cafes and generally lower the tone of what would otherwise be a rather pleasant little town with some rather charming old stone and brick buildings, albeit that they’re set amongst the more typical modern plasticated shopping facilities familiar to every other town in the country.

I confess that I’ve never been all that enthralled by the spiralised architecture here in Oxford, nor ever really felt any great desire to peek into the sheltered confines of the quads or other privileged purlieus through which the educated elites tread their paths, make their marks and start their journeys destined to continue along the corridors of power, ascending into the upper echelons of our establishment societal structures before finally clambering onto the stairway to heaven.  Well, maybe not that last bit.  Anyway, back in the real world, on those occasions when I do visit the town I tend to keep my head down, ignore the surrounding surrounds and stick to calling in on the same few sites on the same limited itinerary that I’ve always done, endeavouring as much as possible to avoid interactions with townies, gownies and any other inhabitants, whether peripatetic or permanent.

And so it is that I find myself once again stood outside the imposing façade of the Ashmolean Museum and mumbling to myself in a deprecatory manner that the main central glass revolving doorway is still stopped and blocked with a simple cardboard signage instructing entrants to use the door to the right (exiteers being directed leftwards). It’s a bit of a disappointing introduction to the building and, sadly, a precursor to another ill-considered aspect of the major renovation work carried out on the Museum a decade ago.  For, having entered the building, instead of reaching some kind of foyer where the first-time visitor might pause to gain bearings and orientation prior to determining which way to proceed, the poor noviciate immediately enters a busy T-junction of paths leading off to either galleries, information desk or café and shops.  Fortunately, unlike others who reach this point and then dither and stumble and risk being swept along with the throngs heading off to see the Egyptian mummies, Samurai suits or Saxon jewellery, I’ve been here before and so know that I must stride straight ahead in order to join the short queue for tickets to the special exhibition:  America’s Cool Modernism.

The show is a sort of short general introduction to the Modernist paintings and photographs that were produced in America during the first half of the 20th century.  It’s a period that, since it pre-dates the great Yankee invention of Abstract Expressionism and the subsequent promotion of the Warholian version of Pop Art that confirmed the relocation of the capital of contemporary cultural creativity from Paris to New York, tends to be not all that well known.  Or that certainly would have been the case were it not for the fact that just over a year ago the Royal Academy staged their own After the Fall show which covered much of the same ground.  And so looking at this exhibition now it’s hard to shake off an overwhelming sense of déjà vu that, for me anyway, reinforces an initial opinion that this is a particular period of art history that has been generally overlooked for the very good reason that it’s simply not all that interesting. Again, as with the RA show, the small groups of Georgia O’Keeffe floral abstracts and the gloomy frozen narratives of Edward Hopper are probably the best things here.  Other bolder abstracts by Marsden Hartley and Patrick Henry Bruce are a bit crude but ok and the Charles Demuth collagistic gathering of overlapping buildings is rather stylish although, since the label reveals that it was painted in France, perhaps it was the European texture and stylings that made it look more confident and professional than most of the work here.  As for the various other simplistic cityscapes and landscapes, featuring their crudely painted barns and grain stores, well, I’m afraid I think these are more dull than cool and many look just a bit amateurish to my critical eye.  There are certainly no truly great individual works here and nothing to match Grant Wood’s American Gothic which the RA managed to borrow for their show.

Indeed, in light of the recent RA exhibition, I can’t help thinking that the Ashmolean should have nixed the idea of a broad survey show and instead picked just three of four of the early abstract artists and shown their work in more depth.  Potentially this might have produced a much more satisfying and sensible show than the current one but perhaps planning was too far gone before anyone realised that this unfortunate thematic overlap was on its way.  Frankly, it would be hard to recommend anyone making a special trip to Oxford just to look at this show and, to be brutally honest, the permanent collection of Modern works here is also a bit on the thin side (with Pissarro and Sickert providing the fairly low highpoints).  What does ultimately tip the balance and make the journey here worthwhile is the opportunity to revisit the small but neat selection of Pre-Raphaelite works and, in particular, the chance to see one of the most extraordinary and iconic portrait paintings in all of British artistic history, namely that of Millais’ vision of Ruskin stood by the waters of Glenfinlas – a picture that deserves far greater prominence than it currently receives.

Having paid my respects to, arguably, the most technically gifted of all recent British artists and, unquestionably, the most prolix of all British art critics, I stroll on to the Bodleian Library or, to be more specific, the Weston Library annexe which stages temporary exhibitions drawing on items from the main collection.  As its title suggests, the current exhibition From Sappho to Suffrage features items from the distaff demographic half of the population, commencing with lines from the famous female poet inked onto sacred scraps of papyrus that were apparently salvaged from an ancient Egyptian rubbish dump.  Other fascinating items here include draft pages from Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein complete with additional editorial suggestions from helpful husband Percy; extracts from Louise Bourgeois’s book on midwifery (that’s the 16th century medic not the 20th century artist); equations and doodles from the hand of Ada Lovelace, the pioneering programmer; and a bunch of ephemera charting the struggles of the early feminists to persuade parliament to give women the right to vote.

So, finally on to my last stop at Modern Art Oxford, a medium-sized, grant-funded gallery that, I suppose, is the provincial equivalent to somewhere like London’s Camden Arts Centre.  And, like the Centre, it similarly seems to put on a fairly standard mix of mainly one-person shows by young to mid-career contemporary artists many (perhaps even most) of whom are guests from overseas.  I’m not really quite sure what the point of this slightly forced sense of cosmopolitanism is, since few of the artists ever seem to allude very specifically to issues relating to their own homelands and, instead, prefer to dabble in the kind of Neo-Conceptual, Post-Modern waters that have become the preferred current universal monoglottal artistic language that streams through art establishments throughout the globe.  And so it is with the room-sized installation works from Brazilian artist, Cinthia Marcelle, that currently fill the spaces here but would doubtless not look out of place in a gallery anywhere from London to Lisbon or Riga to Rio.  I’m not sure how representative it is of her work in general but for her Oxford debut Marcelle has gathered an assortment of bricks, chalk sticks, rocks, lengths of paper and fabric and other mundane supplies and neatly lined them up in one room.  And then in the other room she’s used exactly the same materials but got together with some pals to chuck, drape, spread, swirl, scatter and generally disperse them around the space.  One room looks nice and neat and the other looks a right old mess.  Aside from confirming the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the bit that suggests entropy has a tendency to increase, I’m really not sure what the point of all this silliness is but I hope the gallery makes here clear it all up before she heads back home.

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