Arts Aloud Review: Taking Cézanne Portraits at face value

Almost a year to the day since we braved the half term chaos to enjoy the opening days of Picasso Portraits, we found ourselves battling the crowds again at the National Portrait Gallery, keen to explore one of the most eagerly awaited exhibitions of the year.

Cézanne Portraits brings together for the first time, over fifty of the artist’s portraits from collections all over the world, celebrating some of his most iconic pieces and uncovering a number of works seen for the very first time on British soil.

I’ve long carried affection for this ‘father’ of the Post-Impressionist era, but admittedly my exposure has been limited to reoccurring images of his landscape Mont Sainte-Victoire, or his fruity still life arrangements. A somewhat underwhelming introduction for my companions perhaps, but with thousands of paintings produced throughout his life, under 200 of which were portraits, we could at least agree that what we were about to see was very special, and more importantly, new for us all.

Armed with sketchbooks and a spectrum of coloured pencils to pay homage to his bold colours, the girls were excited to be back in this magnificent gallery and couldn’t wait to start exploring. Sadly, the position of Room 1 smack bang in front of the main entrance, created an unpleasant bottleneck from the outset, rendering The Artist’s Father, Reading “L”Evénement and Self Portrait c.1862-4 almost impossible to view, and failing to provide the introduction that both the artist and these eager young viewers deserved.

By the third room, space began to level out, with the man himself replaced by evolving portraits of his Uncle Dominique, providing the perfect cue to plot down and pay closer attention. We really enjoyed the imperfections of work in this room, with so many of the pieces feeling like a test run for the larger work. His distinctive manière couillarde style, also caught us by surprise. Scared to represent his heavy-handed use of paint with their meagre art pencils, the children instead used adjectives to describe his expression, appearing to have sat so long, yet left with so many details seemingly incomplete. Impatient, bored, dull, fidgety.

Lessons in conserving canvas was another highlight for this room, where Cézanne’s sister and mother are displayed back to back, resulting in his poor mum being viewed upside down on her debut in London. We had to giggle.

As we journeyed through his life and his work, the boldness of his palette knife and the non compliance of his sitters, seemed to continue in earnest, with Madame Cézanne capturing even more of their imagination by Room 7.

Without the urgency to clamber over other visitors in order to spy the iconic set of self portraits, or the famous Man with Pipe, they instead flocked to the fabulous skirt of Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair, hair in bun, lips pursed, hands folded and unresolved. One of twenty-nine completed portraits of his wife, Hortense Fiquet, the children surmised that she must have sat for so many pictures, she didn’t even bother to look up for Madame Cézanne Sewing. Her narrow eyes in one piece made me think they had a point.

With lengthy wall panels to digest and growing crowds, the atmosphere began to move from enjoyment to intensity, with attention starting to wane. We had just enough time for a quick mid-gallery loo stop (handy) and to marvel at the angel-like translucency that the artist had gifted his son’s skin in The Artist’s Son. It was interesting to see how his touch became more gentle and colours had become lighter, almost watercolour, as he faded into his later years.

As we escaped into the fresh air and freedom of London’s west end, heading onto St. James’ Park, we had no regrets about making the visit. We might not have had the energy or endurance to complete every room, or enjoy the additional children’s activities on the first floor, but we felt that we had made the right choice in focusing on the main show. We were grateful to the gallery attendants for batting away the few ‘old guard’ objections that came from us sitting and sketching, but what was really missing was a guide of some description to bring Cézanne’s form, friendships and focus to life, to wade us through the jargon and smooth our passage.

From unknown entity to surprise hit, it was testament to this magnificent body of work that we took away so much discussion around what we had seen. With so little to go on before, during and after we left, all we could do was take each room, each piece and each detail at face value. Surely the best way to tackle any world-class collection of portraits, don’t you think?

Cezanne Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery until 11 February 2018
St. Martin’s Place, London WC2H 0HE
Opening hours: Sat to Weds 10am-6pm, Thurs and Fri 10am-9pm
Admission Adults £20 (including donation), Children under 12 free, concessions available

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Speeding around Electronic Superhighway with a toddler in tow

So if you’re a parent to very young children, you’ll know that the days of taking a slow and luxurious meander around an exhibition are long gone. I for one, feel very fortunate for the amount of work I have managed to see in the last (almost) 6 years with the children in tow. But nothing prepared me for the rate that my toddler was keen speed around our recent visit to Whitechapel Gallery’s brand new multimedia exhibition; Electronic Superhighway.

Named after the term coined in 1974 by South Korean video art pioneer Nam June Paik, who foresaw the potential of global connections through technology, the exhibition brings together film, painting, sculpture, photography and drawing by over 70 artists. Starting in the current day, and working its way back in time, ending in the 1960’s.

We were lucky enough to grab the last place on their fantastic Crib Notes session. Held for every major exhibition, Crib Notes is a unique opportunity for parents with children under 5 to enjoy a dedicated tour of a current exhibition, without the fear of ruining the enjoyment for other patrons. Staff are well briefed, relaxed and genuinely empathetic to visiting parents, whilst parents can (for a moment) feel at ease with the surroundings and pride at sharing something more than just the usual playgroups and kiddi-haunts.

The retractable belt barriers outside the exhibition entrance might as well have been a starting block, as my toddler could not wait to zip these back and get inside. What better place to start than being greeted by James Bridle’s Homo Sacer; a projected ‘hologram’ similar to those increasingly ‘keeping us company’ in stations and airports.

Sadly, this was the last I heard of the tour by Assistant Curator Séamus McCormack. I was being dragged back in time almost as quick as Doctor Who, by a toddler exploring at her pace. ‘This is a disaster’I thought, and then it dawned on me. Her pace was not so much about her lack of interest and her impatience at having to stop, stand and listen. It was in fact the complete opposite. It was her insatiable appetite to see more and more and more. To seek out the kind of works that she was interested in seeing, which in this instance, was anything and everything with a screen.

Highlights for our visit, therefore included:
More Songs of Innocence (Thomson & Craighead) – This karaoke machine installation pokes fun at the Dickensian english and strange translations used by the many unsolicited spam emails that we receive as part of modern communication. Toddler’s dulcet tones left our group in fits of giggles. Luckily she can’t read.

A Family Finds Entertainment (Ryan Trecartin) – The artist himself stars in this weirdly warped and colourful video installation which reflects on the chaotic culture of celebrity and reality TV that we now live in. Hypnotic viewing for toddlers, but keep it brief!

Substrate (Thomas Ruff ) – Plenty even for the very young in this kaleidoscopic abstraction which takes Japanese anime images and distorts them beyond recognition, exaggerating their neon colours and detaching it far from its original source of reference.

Glowing Edges_7.10 (Constant Dullaart) This first ever picture to be manipulated using Photoshop has undergone a range of treatments resulting in what the toddler referred to as a ‘wobbly’ wall.

Surface Tension (Rafael Lozano- Hemmer) Continuing the theme of surveillance which underpins a vast amount of work in the exhibition, this Big Brother inspired eye (Orwell, not Endemol) follows your every move, barely letting you out of its site.

In addition to this, Gallery 8 also plays host to the hypnotic Internet Dream (Nam June Paik); a video wall consisting of 52 stacked monitors to form a large image surface which streams content from multiple information sources. I chose not to include it in our highlights as oddly it drew no reaction whatsoever from toddler (despite it being the screen to end all screens). Proof that too much screen-time causes them to implode.

A celebration of how long the digital world has been influencing our lives, there is so much to see here. For once, this is actually a big plus for parents, ensuring they can leave still having seen a great deal for their admission fee, however speedily they might be led around by little ones.

Electronic Superhighway succeeds where previous exhibitions like Digital Revolution and more recently Big Bang Data fail. It isn’t overly techie and it doesn’t live or die by over-interaction. There are no silly queues nor a bun-fight over the big-ticket exhibits. It’s held together by its exciting variety of work and fantastic storytelling. Not completely what I expected, but in many ways a very pleasant surprise too. Much the same as every time I take a deep breath and allow my toddler to explore a major exhibition.

Electronic Superhighway is at the Whitechapel Gallery until 15th May
Tues-Sun 11am – 6pm, Thurs 11am – 9pm
Admission £13.50 (incl Gift Aid) £11.95 (without) Under 16s Free

Whilst you’re there: Loose yourselves in some classic computer game graphics by standing in the middle of Harun Farocki’s multi-screen installation Parallel I-IV (2012-14), Admission Free

The gallery is also hosting a Family Day around this exhibition on the 12th March, providing a chance to explore digital technology in art and take their new activity trail (Booking advised).

Noémie Goudal’s brilliant West End diversion

It’s that time of year when love it or hate it, whether you live in London or elsewhere in the UK, you’re likely to find yourself in the heart of the West End. If you’re planning on braving it for a spot of Christmas lights action, scoff free samples at the Christmas markets or take in one of London’s fantastic family theatre shows then I’ve got just to spot to escape the crowds.

Tucked away at the very top of The Photographers’ Gallery is a gorgeous bite size exhibition that will give you all a warm glow, without a touch of mulled wine.

In her first major solo exhibition in London, artist Noémie Goudal explores our relationship with the sky, taking inspiration from myths and legends and using research from antiquity to the Middle Ages to inform her work. By placing ambiguous shapes and constructions in the middle of some incredible landscapes, she cleverly tricks the viewer into believing that these incredible images have some kind of solar or celestial significance.  But take a closer look and you’ll see ropes, a platform or some scaffolding, holding it all together.

Whether or not you understand the theories at play here, the landscapes themselves are awe-inspiring and the space a breath of fresh air from the mayhem on the streets below.

Without doubt the centrepiece of the exhibition is an observatory-style construction where (with a bit of a lift up from you) little ones can look through and marvel at some spectacular 3D cloud images, all of which will fire their imagination and make them feel like a magical floating fairy (or elf for that matter).

For those still not convinced about combining kids and the meditative feel of London’s premiere photographic gallery. Rest assured, you won’t need to stay long. One word of advice on your way out, don’t stop for a gander on the lower floors, which are currently showing the gripping yet macabre Burden Of Proof: The Construction of Visual Evidence. A collection of war crimes photography and corpse shots from real forensics, this is definitely one for the grown ups, and even then, it’s guaranteed to give you nightmares.

Far more fun is the Camera Obscurer which can be found in the Eranda Studio on the 3rd floor. Set in a darkened room, pull back the curtain (which is exciting enough in itself) and you’ll find a small hole in the wall which projects an inverted image of the world outside onto the screen inside. More than your average camera obscura, this particular set-up has a wheel and a mirror to rotate what you might spot into a range of interesting positions. So when you finally feel ready to move on from the peace and tranquility, no matter how obscure the scene you’ve created inside, you’re all the better prepared for the chaos that awaits you back on the streets.

Noémie Goudal – Southern Light Stations is at The Photographers’ Gallery until 10th January 2016.

16–18 Ramillies Street, London W1F 7LW
Mon- Sat 10am- 6pm, Thurs 10am-8pm during exhibitions, Sun 11am-6pm. Admission free before midday (daily), £3 thereafter or £2.50 advance/concessions.

NOTE: The Photographers’ Gallery is hosting a festive family photography workshop on Sunday 6th December, 2-5pm. Free, drop-in, no advance booking required.

Alexander Calder’s Performing Sculpture is a hard act to follow

I couldn’t help but have a giggle at The Guardian’s Adrian Searle admitting that ahead of reviewing Performing Sculpture, which opened today at Tate Modern, he had long before relegated Alexander Calder’s work to ‘child’s play’, characterised by ‘New Yorker cartoons and twangly mobiles dangling over the trust-fund infant’s cot’. ‘The irony’, I thought. It was actually these qualities that I would be using in order to entice the kids to experience the sheer wonderment of this incredible exhibition – much of which has never been seen before on British soil.

One of the truly ground-breaking artists of the 20th century, Calder was born into a family of artists (his mother was a portrait artist and his father was a well known sculptor). With them keen for him to get a ‘proper’ job, he initially trained as an engineer, before enrolling at the Art Students League in New York. Following his dream, Calder eventually moved to Paris where he settled down and made a host of artistic friends, before developing the unique wire sculptures, which were soon to become his signature work.

I was hooked from the minute I entered the gallery. I almost completely overlooked the intricacies of his early work, having been immediately drawn to the wire sculpture portraits of art heroes such as Fernand Léger and Joan Miró, staring down at me from a great height. As with traditional sculpture, you can’t help but move backwards and forwards in front of them, peeking through the gaps in their caricature faces, desperate to see a nuance or change in the shadow reflected on the wall behind.

This early body of work also introduces Calder’s fascination with the circus and performance art, having been commissioned to illustrate the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus whilst jobbing on the National Police Gazette. With the mind of an engineer he was fascinated by the mechanics of the circus, the placement of wires and how (to the viewer on the ground), it was achieving something impossible, suspended out of reality and defying all logic.

Calder went on to set about creating an entire circus, complete with a full complement of characters that are bound to excite younger viewers. These early works are playful and figurative – such as Circus Scene (1929) and Acrobats (1927), but even the later mechanical pieces which are boxed in glass, require little more than a child’s eye and an active imagination to bring them to life, making many of the accompanying video demonstrations seem slow and clunky by comparison.

Calder’s work really came to life when he met abstract artist Piet Mondrian in 1930, and he began to imagine what could be achieved by bringing Mondrian’s famous geometric landscapes into the 3D space, setting them free to move about. This combination of strange shapes and glorious colour gave rise to the invention of the Mobile in the mid 1930’s, and a host of other ‘framed’ mobile sculptures, that now teeter way up high, safely away from curious little fingers, looking very much like illustrations of molecular science or abstract micro-worlds.

The splash of colour continues in a room dedicated to Calder’s ‘panel’ works, never been shown together before and typical of some of the artist’s more experimental work with painting and sculpture. This is a great room to allow kids some interpretation; I spotted a butterfly in Blue Panel (1936) and a gliding bird in Form Against Yellow (1936).

The centrepiece of the exhibition is Black Widow (1948), recently restored and standing in stark isolation before you exit through the gift shop. For me, however, the crowning glory is in the penultimate room, which from the moment you enter casts you out into an incredible universe of mobiles, a sea of drifting forms all moving on the natural air currents in the space.

Suddenly, instead of the usual rushed-parent desire to push on to what’s next, you’ll all be looking up in a zombie-like fashion, enjoying a rare, almost meditative, opportunity to be ‘in the moment’ at an art gallery, safe in the knowledge that anything of any value is safely strung up out of harms way. “Look a Snow Flurry!” and “How many circles are in Triple Gong?”, “If you stand for 5 minutes more it might come around again”. Games like these could run and run.

There’s so much to see here, it’s hard not to divert in different directions, almost completely missing exhibits like Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere, hidden in the nooks and crannies. The abundance of space between each exhibit makes you want to dash from piece to piece, but what I especially loved about Calder’s work was how he liberates the viewer by celebrating the unpredictability of what you’ll experience on your own personal visit. There’s no right or wrong view and it’s unlikely that you’ll ever see a piece in the same position twice, with sculptures free to thrive on the excess energy that you might bring to a room, or simply be still in the wake of your exit.

If that isn’t akin to how the average family experience an exhibition, then i don’t know what is.

Alexander Calder Performing Sculpture is on at Tate Modern until 3rd April 2016.
Sunday to Thursday 10am-6pm (last admission 5.15pm), Saturday & Sunday 10am-10pm (last admission 9.15pm)
Admission: Adults £18, Under 12’s free, Concessions and Family Tickets available

London Design Festival: 6 Amazing Family-Friendly Installations

The London Design Festival started last weekend, with a view to promoting everything that is great and good about the city’s creativity. The event is running at various venues across the capital, and as well as a host of dedicated family events, including an 80’s Pop-Up Dress Up & Dance performance and Alice in Wonderland inspired workshops, there is also an immense collection of family-friendly installation work.

Here’s 6 of the best on display until the festival closes this Sunday.

1. The Drawing Room, Faye Toogood
Literal depiction of a drawing room, where visitors can relax in an environment that evokes a derelict country house, where surroundings have literally been drawn in.
West Wing Galleries Somerset House, 21-27 Sept Mon-Wed & Sun 10am-6pm, Thu-Sat 10am-9pm, Free

2. My Grandfather’s Tree, Max Lamb
When an old ash tree on his grandfather’s farm started to rot, Max was keen for it to take on a new life beyond its original roots. The result is 130 logs all created from sections of the tree and laid out in order of diameter, with the 187 annual growth rings clearly visible.
The Embankment Galleries – Mezzanine & Studio, Somerset House, 21-27 Sept Mon-Wed & Sun 10am-6pm, Thu-Sat 10am-9pm, Free

3. The Wave, Alex Rasmussen with Neal Feay
The West Wing Galleries will be awash with 700+ anodized aluminum panels, invisibly fastened to form a structural swell, reflecting crystalline shades of Pacific blue.
West Wing Galleries Somerset House, 21-27 Sept Mon-Wed & Sun 10am-6pm, Thu-Sat 10am-9pm, Free

4. Tower of Babel
A monument to the great British pastime of shopping, the tower stands 6m high and comprises of 3000 bone china shops, each depicting a real London shop as photographed by the artist.
Brompton Design District, Medieval & Renaissance 1350-1600 The Paul and Jill Ruddock Gallery, Room 50a, Level 1, Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, 19-27 Sept, Mon-Sun 10am-5.45pm, Free

5. The Cloakroom
Don one of the 150 navigational Toogood coats from Room 55 and be guided to 10 places in the Museum galleries where unique sculptural garments offer a response to items in the Museum’s collection.
V&A Museum, Britain 1500-1760, The Clore Study Area, Room 55, Level 2, Cromwell Road, 19-27 Sept, Mon-Sun 10am-5.45pm, Free

6. Curiosity Cloud
Supported by Perrier-Jouet, enter this playful installation exploring the interaction of humans and nature, comprising of 250 mouth-blown glass globes set in a darkened room, 25 of the which contain insect species either extinct, common or newly discovered.
V&A Norfolk House Music Room, Brompton Design District, Gallery 52b, British Galleries, Level 2, Cromwell Road, SW7 2RL, 19-27 Sept, Mon-Sun 10am-5.45pm, Free

In Pictures: The art of Dreamland, Margate

HemingwayDesign, led by Wayne, Geraldine and Jack Hemingway have worked closely with local artists and Margate enthusiasts to recreate the sights, sounds and even the smells of a good old fashioned seaside fun park. The result is a visual feast for visitors of all ages.

Dreamland Margate, 49-51 Marine Terrace, Margate, Kent, CT9 1XJ
Mon to Weds 10am-6pm, Thurs to Sun 10am-9pm
Admission Adults £17.95, Children 3+ £14.95 (advanced online concessions available)
After 5pm Adults £7.49, Children £4.95 (Thurs-Sun, until the end of August) half price admission after 5pm

5 arts-inspired family day trips from London

If you’re still feeling that your world has shrunk a little too much since having kids, the summer months are a great excuse to venture further afield, with a reduced rush hour, no school run traffic and (hopefully) more hands on deck. Here are 5 family day trips from London with fantastic arts appeal:

1. Explore Henry Moore’s giant sculptures in the open countryside

Henry Moore was an early pioneer of modernism and large-scale public art in the UK and a visit to his former home in Perry Green, Herfordshire offers the chance to be dwarfed by over 20 of his monumental sculptures in the setting that he always intended. Kids will love exploring the 70 acres of sheep-filled gardens and fields, as well as curious barn-based galleries and studios.

The Henry Moore Foundation, Perry Green, Much Hadham, Hertfordshire, SG10 6EE
Sculpture garden’s open Weds-Sun & Bank Holidays, 11am-5pm, 1st May to 25th Oct 2015, admission £15.70 for a family of 4

2. Visit an artist’s enclave with a difference in Dungeness

This other-worldly outpost on the Kent coast has so much for visiting families; a historic lighthouse with panoramic views, a ride on the small and rickety Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway and incredible bird life but curious beachcombers will love treading the delicate pathways to marvel at the curious collection of flotsam and jetsam in the garden surrounding late filmmaker Derek Jarman’s house. Particularly if fish and chips at The Pilot pub lie at the end.

Prospect Cottage, Dungeness, Romney Marsh, Kent TN29 9NB
Lighthouse open daily throughout August, 10:30am-4:30pm, admission adults £4, children £2.50, under 5s free

3. See how Charlie & Lola started life at Mottisfont house and gallery

It’s never cheap visiting any of the magnificent National Trust properties that grace our home counties, but Mottisfont is proving a big draw this summer with an opportunity to explore The Art of Lauren Child. The award-winning creator of Charlie and Lola will be exhibiting 50 original art works in the gallery of this stunning medieval riverside property, alongside other objects that helped inspire the stories, such as Lola’s pink milk glass. Activity weekends extend the theme with craft activities, storytelling and face painting. Outside in the grounds, kids can also try their hand at building a den in the hidden hide out of the Wild Play Trail.

Mottisfont, Hampshire SO51 0LP
The Art of Laurent Child until 6th Sept. Gallery open daily throughout August, 11am-5pm, admission adults£14, children £6.50, National Trust members and under 5s free

4. Seek out hidden street art in Brighton

You don’t need many excuses to jump on a train to Brighton with the kids this summer. Since the development of the amazing seafront boardwalk scattered with artisan stalls and loved by kids of all ages, from roller-skating teens to scooting pre schoolers and bumbling toddlers, Brighton has started to feel like the UK’s answer to Venice Beach. But who’d have though just a few metres back from the seafront, hidden in a the sneaky side streets off of Trafalgar Road, as well as between George Street and St. Andrews Churchyard, and North Laine would be Brighton’s answer to San Francisco’s Mission district? Street art in Brighton really brings to life a different side of the city’s arts community. Be sure to see the incredible music mural on the side of the Prince Albert pub. The kids might not recognise most of the subjects but that didn’t make it any less impressive.

Street art is free to view by all ages, all over the city of Brighton, but Visit Brighton’s top picks is a great place to start.

5. Re-imagine a theme park as a Pleasure Park at Dreamland

Following a 12 year campaign led by The Dreamland Trust and £18m in public funding, the once popular theme park is back from the dead having been stylishly restored under the watchful eye of internationally renowned designer and local resident Wayne Hemingway. Rather than simply create just another theme park, Dreamland pays homage to the golden age of British seaside holidays by recreating the entire experience; right through to the sights, the sounds and the smells. The result is a visual feast; carousels adorned in original traveller art, lovingly restored rides and amusements (including the famous Hurricane Jets), a ballroom, a roller disco and a plethora of sideshows. It needs to be seen to be believed.

Dreamland, 49-51 Marine Terrace, Margate, Kent, CT9 1XJ
Daily, 10am-5pm, admission adults £17.95 adults, children £14.95. Reduced admission Thurs to Sun after 5pm.