Les défigurés, Amiens

A striking exhibition at La Maison de la Culture, Amiens, features photographs of disfigured or facially injured people treated by Prof Bernard Devauchelle, the pioneering facial surgeon. The photographer, Cyril Crépin, refers to the unsuspected beauty which emanates from these difficult images, often relegated to the margins of the visible.

The exhibition is part of a large-scale EU-funded project on Les Gueules Cassees, the facially injured soldiers of WWI, and the astonishing long-term cultural and clinical legacy of the revolutions in facial surgery to which their situation gave rise. The project, entitled FACE, brings together clinicians, psychiatrists, psychologists and specialists in the literary and artistic legacy of trauma, and is international in scope, featuring French researchers based primarily in Amiens and a UK team led by the University of Exeter.

Version Control

Version Control, a large-scale exhibition just opening at Bristol’s Arnolfini, is concerned with the notion of appropriation and performance in contemporary artistic practice. It looks at performance not as a live activity but in terms of its documentary traces or, to put it another way, in the way performance inhabits documentary forms like archives, texts and other objects. In this, it’s perhaps symptomatic of a wider tendency that’s also seen in developments like the Tate Tanks project, which extends Tate modern in a distinctly performance-orientated direction.

More specifically, Version Control asks questions like these:

What happens when apparently stable information shifts and transforms according to context and perspective? How do our actions and thoughts correlate with the material world of ‘things’? The artists included stage their work through mediation, appropriation and representation of established material, thus touching on questions of historiography and ownership. Through a series of interventions and “performing objects”, the exhibition will be itself performative and change over the course of the show. As part of the project, an extended series of live events will be presented in the galleries and the auditorium.

There’s a conscious focus here on ‘performance… as a method of making the past present. Performativity, in this way, explores the conscious moment of staging, appropriating, archiving and re-visiting images and other forms of representation, touching on questions of historiography, mediation, subjectivity, and ownership’.
So is this performance studies or visual culture? That is a key question not just for this project, which emanates from the AHRC-funded research project Performing Documents, hosted by the University of Bristol in partnership with Arnolfini, In Between Time and the University of Exeter, but for those disciplines too. The dividing line between disciplines has never been more thrillingly blurred and, arguably, visual culture and performance studies have in common the kind of dynamic reaction by which they emerged from art history and theatre studies, respectively.

Version Control is at the Arnolfini, from Saturday 2 Feb until Sunday 14 April, 11am – 6pm (except Mondays). Entrance is free.

Warriors of the Plains: 200 years of Native North American honour and ritual

Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter (22 September 2012 to 13 January 2013)

Curated by the anthropologist Max Carocci (Birkbeck College) this wonderful exhibition looks at the warfare and ritual of Native North American Plains culture. Using a variety of ceremonial objects and costumes it shows the importance of warrior society to the men and women of these communities, from 1800 to  the present. Each of these warrior societies was a social, political and ritual group that engaged in warfare and organised ceremonial life and the exhibition includes feather headdresses, shields, moccasins, painted hides, scalps, pipes, tomahawks, and traditional and contemporary dress. Exeter has one of the best collections of this material in the U.K. (examples are on permanent display in the ‘World Cultures’ galleries) and it was very appropriate that the British Museum chose to work in partnership with the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) and bring this exhibition to a West Country audience.

Inter-tribal conflict was suppressed by the U.S. government which, of course, fought its own wars against Native peoples west of the Mississippi throughout the 19th century. One might have presumed that the warrior societies and the ceremonial activity they supported would die away once the west was ‘won’ and along with them the ritual and deep spirituality that had sustained them. But in fact they have endured into modern times and now support those who have served with U.S. forces in the world wars and more recent conflicts such as Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. This continuation of a long-standing tradition is a very good example of what the Native American (Anishinaabe) scholar and activist Gerald Vizenor has termed survivance – the word is a combination of ‘survival’ and ‘resistance’- by which he means not merely the retention of Native American culture against the odds but also, and just as importantly, a means of escaping the stereotypical understanding of the American Indian as a victim of colonial oppression, whose culture is marked today only by absence, powerlessness and historical tragedy. Survivance, instead, highlights the Indian’s contemporary presence, the articulation of indigenous character and culture in new contexts and, insofar as current social and political contexts permit it, a readiness to assert tribal values in the contemporary world.

A section of the displays, Once a Warrior, added specially by RAMM, was produced by servicemen and women based in this region. Their recorded voices and artwork reflect on the parallels between Native American Warrior Societies and their own military experience.

In Pursuit of Art: Charles Eastlake’s Journey from Plymouth to the National Gallery

(Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, 22 September – 15 December, 2012)

Three years ago Plymouth celebrated the career of its most famous artistic son, Sir Joshua Reynolds, the founder and first President of the Royal Academy, in a major exhibition (Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Acquisition of Genius). The life and career of another artist associated with the city, Sir Charles Lock Eastlake (1793-1865), is less well known, but Eastlake, too, was historically important, rising in his turn to become President of the Royal Academy and also Director of the National GalleryThe exhibition was curated by Susanna Avery-Quash, Research Curator in the History of Collecting at the National Gallery, who has recently published The Travel Diaries of Sir Charles Eastlake (National Gallery/Walpole Society, 2011), as well Art for the Nation: The Eastlakes and the Victorian Art World, (National Gallery, 2011; co-authored with  Julie Sheldon ) and curated a small exhibition,  Art for the Nation: Sir Charles Eastlake at the National Gallery (National Gallery, 27 July – 30 October 2011).


Gerolamo dai Libri, The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, 1510 to 1518 © The National Gallery, London

The Plymouth exhibition showed a select collection of exhibits and was designed to review Eastlake’s career and highlight his local connections in his early years, especially his Plymouth patrons and his art training there and  in London from two Plymouth-born painters, Samuel Prout and Benjamin Robert Haydon. Eastlake’s activities as a painter of landscapes and subject pictures in Italy in the 1820s and, more extensively, his work for the National Gallery made up the rest of the exhibition. Eastlake was responsible for building up the National Gallery collection and a great many of the masterpieces permanently on display there today were acquired by him in the 1850s and 1860s. Unlike many of his contemporaries he championed the idea of building up a collection that was not merely strong aesthetically but also historically, including examples of so-called ’primitive’ painting from the early Renaissance, for example.  With an annual purchase grant from the government of £10,000 he travelled across continental Europe, primarily but not exclusively in Italy, ferreting out pictures from owners who often had little affection for their ancestral collections. At Plymouth, five examples of these works were on display: Jacopo Bassano’s Good Samaritan, Gerolamo dai  Libri’s Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, Giovanni Battista Moroni’s L’Avvocato ,  Jacob van Ruisdael’s Waterfall in a Rocky Landscape and Gerard ter Borch’s Portrait of a Young Man. In addition, JMW Turner’s Margate (?) from the Sea, acted as a reminder of Eastlake’s 40-year friendship with the artist and the arrangements made by the National Gallery for the Turner Bequest after his death in 1851.

The general public is rarely given the opportunity to reflect on the ways in which major collections, such as the National Gallery’s have come into existence.  This exhibition revealed Eastlake’s connoisseurial strengths when seeking out works by the old masters but more importantly it stimulated visitors to think of the National Gallery in future as a collection whose history is fascinating in its own right, both in and of itself and as a reflection of 19th-century debates about the value of art and the social and educational functions of a major art collection.