Review: The V&A Dundee – very good but it should promise so much more

Review: The V&A Dundee – very good but it should promise so much more

by Charles Harris
article from Friday 11, January, 2019

TOGETHER WITH MY ASSISTANT I recently visited the V&A Dundee, with the intention of providing a review of the building and its contents. 

Inside, the building itself has an open interior, with light orange colours, and sloping timber panels, all offering a kind of seashore affect, with large open exhibition spaces, above the wide openings and opportunities for glorious display.

The views from the upstairs restaurant across the River Tay and down to the ship The Discovery situated next to the museum, allow sunlight to play inside, lighting those large interior spaces.  While above, the ceiling is constructed in wide supported panels with dark spaces. 

From the marketing material Joanna Norman, Director of the V&A's Research Institute and Lead Curator of Scottish Design explains:

"The influence of Scottish design is not limited to one country; it has been felt around the world.  I think those who visit V&A Dundee will be intrigued and inspired to learn about the impact this relatively small country has, and continues to have, on the world of design.

"Drawing on the V&A's world-famous collections of art, design and performance, as well as other collections across Scotland, it has taken several years of careful research to bring together this unique collection of objects to tell a fascinating and a relatively unknown story."

We then have a further section in the written material provided, which deals with its Scottish design galleries at the heart of V&A Dundee and we can explore what is unique about Scotland's design landscape, history, and today.  The new museum firmly believes visitors will experience the processes that underpin Scottish design and will discover the everyday relevance of design and how it improves lives. The galleries displays around three hundred beautiful and innovative objects representing a wide range of design disciplines from the decorative arts, including furniture, textiles, metalwork and ceramics – to fashion, architecture, engineering and digital design. 

The final section entitled: Design and the Imaginationexplores how design can be used to tell stories and spark the imagination, seeking to show how it makes the world more beautiful and fun. Included here are comics and graphic novels, including original Dennis the Menaceartwork by David Law for the Beano, as well as contemporary video games, an area of design that is particularly strong in Dundee itself.

A further unexpected surprise and heart-warming experience, occurs in the new Museum with the restoration and reconstruction of the Charles Rennie Macintosh tearoom interior.

The first step before restoring and conserving the Oak Room to its original glory was to undertake the initial piecing together of the jigsaw.   Surviving panels and parts were trial assembled onto a temporary structure so we could see the room as removed in 1971.  The team of specialists involved in the conservation and restoration project has worked to restore the interior to its original design, visitors are now able to walk into and around the room and experience Macintosh’s brilliant spatial design and arrangement.  The Oak Room is unfinished but illuminated with electric light fittings that Macintosh originally intended.  

The purpose of the interior was for businesswoman Catherine Cranston’s first tearoom. As the temperance movement gained in prominence wealthy woman began to have a degree of independence and tearooms became hugely popular between 1900 and 1912. Macintosh designed and oversaw the fitting-out of eight interior spaces for Cranston’s steadily growing Ingram Street tearooms.

Happily in the V&A Dundee at present is a wonderful fun exhibition entitled Ocean Liners: Speed and Style and what a treat this is for the visitor. We are transported almost physically into the world of big ships and cruise liners and encouraged to share a past and a somewhat glorious experience for those passengers involved. The exhibition has a wide range of assorted artifacts, including immaculately made scale models. The first we encountered was all of twelve foot long and three foot deep, and with no difficulty it is easy to see the skill and expertise that went into this model’s design and construction. There were a variety of these models and one in particular was very charming, having little lights shining out from its portholes and looking like a Christmas display.  These models and a range of other items reflect broad and often personal examples of this past time, in intricate delicate fine detail and features. 

Another wonderful facet of this exhibition was a grand opening doorway into the captain’s cabin in splendid Victorian opulence. And so impressive it was, along with lively white decorations of marine life too.

For us in this exhibition, plus every one of the other exhibitors we spoke to, we were all very thrilled by the large wall to ceiling, side to side, video display of one of these cruise liners sailing sedately past us.  In-front of the screen at an appropriate height there was a handrail going wall to wall, so you could experience a sense of being on one of those ships, and the visual imagery for this experience was really convincing, in a most happy and charming fashion.

Happily, the V&A collection in London includes British and European oil and watercolour paintings, as well as over 2,000 miniatures, for which the Museum holds the National Collection. Highlights include the Raphael Cartoons and major works by J.M.W. Turner and John Constable.

I was, however, a little concerned upon reading more from the V&A Dundee marketing material, as it could appear the new museum intends to run a constant program of design-based artworks shows.  It would be a great shame if the only objects this handsome museum displayed were in this idiom for the V&A London Museum holds a great collection of traditional, classic art. For example it holds the small watercolour of WIlly Lott's Cottage, the study for Constables Haywain, which is one of the most famous British Paintings.  It also hosts a wealth of other important works too.

At the top of the delightful V&A Dundee staircase stands a conceptual design piece, apparently a visual experience, created by Glasgow-based, Turner-nominated artist Ciara Phillips.  The piece captures the unseen process of making art, by evoking a moment suspended in time where vital decisions about materials and their composition are made.  Phillips is well known for context-specific installations; here the cultural representation of women is explored via references to the work of other female artists and print's important relationship to do-it-yourself culture.

Phillips it seems spent time in South Kensington working with world-renowned collections of textiles and ceramics, taking inspiration from items that exist as tests for ideas and methods e.g. ceramic colour charts, fabric samplers and embroidered swatches.

Her work as pictured above is entitled: This, looped and is a fifteen-metre-long digital print that has ceramic elements.  It reflects the pleasure makers take in the creative process, where ideas are constantly tried.  It is composed of a collection of images, layers, planes, windows, seemingly on the brink of movement, they are only the click of a mouse via the artist’s hand away from being repositioned.  Large pieces of glazed earthenware have motion painted via over-sized brushstrokes which top the print and bring the piece to life.  

Needing a breath of fresh air from the stale predictability of this kind of conceptual obsession and its ideas, I thought about the beautiful Chinese Art that the V&A holds in its wonderful collection in London. And the visits I used to make at weekends with the late Prof. David Morris, former Royal Academy Art Historian. We both marveled at the wonderful standard of workmanship, skill, beauty, and the quality of painting such Chinese work revealed. All displayed on a variety of different supports, including porcelain, silk, wood panels, canvas, etc.

As I have already written fully on 600 years of The Great Tradition in my book 'Trust Your Eye, an Illustrated History of Painting' and know the V&A Museum London has one of most comprehensive and important collections of Chinese Art outside of East Asia, with pieces dating from 3,000 BC, I thought it might be interesting to include something about this too – hopefully for the future.

Unsurprisingly, important dates in Chinese art appear to coincide, or are very close to, the relevant changes and progress in Western society. It also becomes clear, while there may be some deviations away from realism, and the necessity of presenting life, those soon appear as aberrations, for the artists themselves return naturally and faithfully to working from Life and Realism, Something I can whole heartedly support too. 

Since my first times as a student at the Royal Academy, I believed like others, that I was engaged in a Renaissance re-birth, where Art could benefit mankind, encouraging decent human values again, like kindness and sensitivity. Instead what has occurred is an attack on humanist values in every manner, in art, architecture, design, history, politics, popular culture and social behaviour.  The Western world has instead been engaged in a change that is taking it daily away from an ideal of balance and harmony within the mystery of nature.  

Now we see a turning away from nature to anti-descriptive dogma, to mechanical functionalism, to the denial of melody, to the cutting off from the past and the cutting out of history. Without the balance, beauty, and guidance of great realistic art, for beauty and truth are the same thing; and we have now instead a failure of inspiration. A sad failure in our inability to sustain an idea in the face of facts, not just the facts of science, but the facts of human behavior. As my dear past friend David Morris said, "In so many ways, we have lost hope in the progress of civilisation." 

So the excellent 'Ocean Liners: Speed and Style' exhibition gets my sincere thanks and should be seen so please do go and enjoy. It is an excellent show, but let us hope for the future that V&A Dundee uses this new space in Scotland, imaginatively and inventively, seriously displaying the many wonders it holds in its London museum for us all here in Scotland to share. It must not become just another modern art cog, displaying still more of that sad failed conceptual art, that has appeared everywhere today – without any natural beauty or meaningful human values for anyone to view.

Periods of Chinese art available from V& A London Museum

The Warring States 481-221 BC

Painted /worked on silk or tomb murals, or rock, or brick, or stone. Mostly simple styled in basic colours and design patterns. They showed both reality and mythological story telling.

The Qin Dynasty 221-206 BC         

Painted for honoring funeral preparations, spirits, ancestors, etc.

The Han dynasty 206 BC-220 AD   

Hunting, horseback, military reality. e.g. painting on the actual Terracotta Army soldiers.

The Eastern Jin Dynasty 316-420 AD     

Nanjing in the south, painting was official pastimes of Confucian Officials and Aristocracy.  Supported by music played by the Gugin Zither, Calligraphy, Poetry, Judged by social Court type peer groups 

The Eastern Jin Dynasty 344-406 AD    

Gu Kaizhi, one of the most famous artists of Chinese history.

The Tang Dynasty 618-907 AD         

Wu Daoz, detail conscious artwork on long hand scrolls, e.g. Eighty-seven Celestial People. Idealised landscape with few objects, persons, or activity, often monochromatic, and Zhan Ziqian who painted excellent landscape paintings in portrayal of realism. 

The Five Dynasties and ten Kingdoms907-960 AD

However, landscape art did not reach greater level of maturity and realism in general until Dong Yuan, who painted vivid and realistic pictures domestic scenes life.

Song Dynasty 960-1279 AD    

During this time landscape art grew in strength and was improved upon, and portrait painting also improved convincingly and became more conventional.

During the 13th century and first half of the 14th century the Chinese, under Mongol leadership, controlled the Yang Dynasty. they were forbidden to enter high posts of government and the Imperial examination was also suspended. So Confucian-educated Chinese, who now lacked a profession,turned to painting and theatre. So The Yuan period became a prolific time for Chinese arts.

Qian Xuan 1235–1305 AD      

…who was an official of the Song dynasty, but out of patriotism, refused to serve the Yuan court and dedicated himself to painting murals of the Yongle Palace, or "Dachunyang Longevity Palace" around 1262 AD. Within the palace, paintings cover an area of more than 1000 square meters, and hold mostly Daoist themes. It was during the Song dynasty when painters gathered in social clubs to talk about their art artwork. 

Ming Dynasty 1368-1644 AD

The statesman Shen Kuo wrote of the artwork of talented painter Li Cheng, who he criticised for his use of upward perspective and visually convincing interior space and form.  Although stylized artwork, or mystical content were often chosen before e.g. The shan shui style before realism with the medieval Song dynasty there were many Chinese painters following then who painted nature and were extremely real. Later Ming Dynasty artists would take after the Song Dynasty with fine detail and the realism of Nature, These included wild animals and birds shown among bright flowers and shrubs. e.g. The famous anonymous Ming Dynasty painting 'Birds and Plum Blossoms.' 

There were many good Ming Dynasty artists: Qui Ying a master Ming period painter, recognised and famous in his own time with the reality of domestic views palace scenes and grand landscapes of rivers, mountains, mists and changing skies. During the Ming Dynasty there were also different and rival Schools of Art e.g. The Wu School and the Zhe School.

Qing dynasty

Classical Chinese painting continued with realistic portrait paintings, as in the late Ming Dynasty to the early 17th century. With the portraits of Kangxi Emperor, The Yongzheng Emperor, The Qianlong Emperor, are all perfect examples of  realistic Chinese portrait painting. 

During the Qianlong reign period and the continuing 19th century European styles in painting showed their natural influence on Chinese portrait paintings, especially with tonal and temperature values which have almost disappeared today. Asian paintings and other works e.g. porcelain, or lacquered works, were popular in the West, with official formal recorded contact in the 16th century.  

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