Friday, 24 September 2010

Raphael: cartoons and tapestries reunited

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes

While Pope Benedict arrived in the UK amidst a swell of protest, the tapestries he brought with him from the Vatican arrived to universal excitement. For the first time in almost 500 years, Raphael's cartoons depicting episodes from the lives of St Paul and St Peter have been reunited with their woven counterparts.

The cartoons were commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515 as designs for a set of monumental tapestries to cover the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Between 1516 and 1521, they were transposed into tapestry at the workshop of Pieter van Aelst in Brussels, the nerve centre of tapestry production in Europe. After completion, the tapestries immediately took up their place in the Sistine Chapel. The history of the original cartoons however, is rather more varied. To begin with, the designs continued to be used by various tapestry makers in Brussels until they ended up in Genoa in 1623, where they were purchased on behalf of King Charles I. Since then, they have remained in the Royal Collection and now reside at the V & A, having been lent by Queen Victoria in 1865.

Only four of the ten tapestries have come from the Vatican, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, Christ's Charge to Peter, The Healing of the Lame Man and The Sacrifice at Lystra, but it is undeniable that on entering the Raphael room at the V & A, the scale, grandeur and pure genius of the cartoons and tapestries alike is overwhelming. In each cartoon, Raphael combines a host of visual techniques to drive forward the meaning of the scene - the composition, gestures, colours are all interwoven to create the most dramatic effect. Raphael is telling a story and we understand every word.

But these paintings are designs, they do not represent Raphael as we know him. They lack the sense of depth we see in his oil-painted works, they are shallow and linear like stone reliefs. It is when we see them in conjunction with the tapestries that we truly appreciate the artist's vision. Interwoven with gold and silver threads, the colours of the tapestries are instantly lifted to shimmering heights, impossible to create in paint. Even now, their luminosity is astounding, no doubt a result of the rarity of their display.

It is likely that Raphael never saw the cartoons and tapestries together, so take the opportunity to marvel at the reunion. It's been 500 years coming.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Backstage at London Fashion Week

Last Friday I worked backstage at the Caroline Charles show at London Fashion Week as a dresser which means exactly that. I dressed models. Fast. To begin with I was extremely excited by the glamour of it all. Unlike all those style bloggers hanging around Somerset house,I was a lucky one, dressed in black and clutching a backstage pass. The prospect of being amongst fellow 5'11ers was also an appealing prospect. That was until I got back stage and saw what they looked like. There's no denying it, these models were knockout good looking. As I got to grips with my dwindling self esteem, I began to witness the explosive rush of creativity in this little room. Backstage at a fashion show is not just a case of shoving clothes on gazelle-like creatures, people are constructing gravity-defying hairstyles and applying make-up to perfection, they are styling, adjusting and studying their creations in a whirlwind of silk and sequinned pageantry.

Although Caroline Charles may not be on my top 10 list of designers I'd most like to wear (she caters for a more mature clientele) I have to admit, I really admired her focused attention to detail amongst the rush backstage with photographers and journalists clamouring for interviews. Before the show began, each model tried on her three different outfits for th e lowly dressers to practice the fine arts of zipping and tying, and for Caroline and her assistants to make the odd adjustment - vintage sunglasses here, a wide brimmed hat there. By the time the show began, each outfit had been carefully tweeked to create a luxurious and ladylike, candy-coloured nod to the 50s.

Witnessing fashion from behind the scenes was a fascinating experience. I defy anyone who says that fashion is a frivolous waste of time, these designers are curators, curators of spectacles worthy of all the cyber-analysis our there.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

An important message about the arts

The other day, my sister showed me this video by David Shrigley called 'An important message about the arts'. This short animation is the cartoonist's protest about the proposed 25% cuts to art institutions in the UK. Over 100 other artists including Damien Hirst (whose work 'A Thousand Years' is featured in the video - the one with the rotting pig's head swarming with flies and maggots), David Hockney, Anthony Caro, Howard Hodgkin, Anish Kapoor and Tracy Emin (who makes a brief appearance as a fire fighter) have joined 'a national consortium of over 2,000 arts organisations and artists dedicated to working together and finding new ways to support the arts in the UK'. Known as the Save the Arts campaign, its aim is to generate a lengthy petition to send to the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, which will show just how important the arts are to Britain and how damaging a reduction in funding will be to our culture, society and economy. If we're trying to drag ourselves out of the pit of recession surely taking money out of the very institutions that can bring more in is profoundly counterproductive? As Strigley explains, art institutions will tighten their belts (we all understand the importance of emergency services and education) but 25% cuts 'will strike a massive hammer blow' to Britain's cultural economy which in the long term will lead to greater unemployment and a reduction in financial gains from tourism. Aside from the benefits to our economy, art institutions entertain us, excite and educate us and they provide a refuge, an often free refuge from a world which hangs beneath a cloud of restraint and moderation.

Shrigley's video is the first of a string of works by leading artists to raise awareness about the campaign and if the rest are anything like this one, I can't wait. 'It's bloody brilliant, that's what it is son'.

Check out their blog and sign their petition at