Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago

I was lucky enough to go to Chicago for work last week – for three days – literally a flying visit from the other side of the Atlantic! It was my first visit to the city, and I was struck by how progressive, liberal and balanced it felt with a diverse population of white, black, Hispanic as well as a China Town, Little Italy, Polish Downtown, Greek Town, well dressed professionals, homeless veterans and the buzz and grit of cosmopolitan city life that makes any Londoner feel at home. However, a trip to the Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP) was a powerful reminder of the civil rights and segregation issues which have plagued America, and the Chicago area is no exception. The current exhibitions by Dawoud Bey and Carlos Javier Ortiz & David Schalliol both highlight problems with integration; Bey’s two poignant bodies of work tell the story of three Klu Klux Klan members who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 killing four fourteen year old African American girls, and the ensuing violence that followed as a consequence. This is revisited in a 2012 series of black and white portraits in which Bey captures images of children the same age as those who had died, alongside portraits of adults at the age the children wold have been in 2013 (the 50th anniversary of the bombs). Bey’s work is coupled with Ortiz and Schalliol’s Chicago Stories, a more contemporary exploration of similar issues via evocative images of isolated buildings and those who live in them which explore the legacy of the Great Migration and the continued demolition and resettlement of African American communities across Chicago’s “black belt” in the south and west of the city where black residents were limited to living, but have since created thriving communities which are now being destroyed. The staff are both helpful and knowledgeable, entrance to both exhibitions is free, and I would highly recommend dropping in before 7 July when the shows close.

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War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City

The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh city was arguably the busiest attraction I visited on my two week adventure around Southern and Central Vietnam. Busier than any other must-see in the city including The Independence Palace, Fine Arts Museum, Saigon Post Office, History Museum and Saigon Zoo & Botanical Gardens, I was interested to see how the Vietnam War is interpreted and displayed to the thousands of tourists at this museum. Founded in September 1975 the museum aims to “systematically study, collect, conserve and display exhibits on war crimes and consequences inflicted on the Vietnamese people by foreign aggressive forces” and has nine permanent galleries over three floors covering Historical Truths, Vietnam; War & Peace, Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, Agent Orange Effects, Agent Orange Consequences, War Crimes, Requiem, International Support for the Vietnamese people in their Resistance War, Imprisonment, and an outdoor exhibition showcasing military aircraft and tanks from the period. The display is blunt – almost crude – and fairly harrowing. There is often very little text or interpretive material and it is heavily image led, with densely hung walls displaying photographs of other countries protests against the war and explicit images of the violence, incarceration and deformities inflicted upon both children and adults as a result of the chemical warfare deployed by the U.S military. As the museum is so strongly image led, it was also interesting to view an area dedicated to photographic journalists (many of whom sadly died during this conflict) and the poignant images captured during this war such as ‘Napalm Girl’. I did not get the impression the displays had been refreshed or updated since the 1970’s and although it is refreshing to view such an uncensored display, there was an undeniable bias and I left the museum feeling as though I had learnt less about the war than I had hoped to.

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London Nights: Museum of London

As an insomniac you make a decision, either you embrace the night or resent it, and I have embraced it. I appreciate everything from London’s night skyline, to nights out in different areas of the city, catching rare quiet moments where you are the only person on an ordinarily busy street, spotting a bold urban fox running across the road, and the general sense of calm after 11pm… so a photography exhibition dedicated to ‘London Nights’ easily caught my attention. In a wonderfully contrary way I visited this exhibition at an early morning private view, and had the pleasure of starting my day by viewing these 200 images captured by over 60 photographers. The exhibition is displayed in the museums’ basement gallery, and is dimly lit with grey walls and dark floors, adding to the nocturnal atmosphere. One of the things that struck me most was a feeling of familiarity, and appreciating how little the city has changed over the last century, as so many of the buildings and streets were immediately recognisable and only the fashion or adverts captured within each image gave away the decade they were taken. This was most evident in George Davidson Reid’s 1920’s photographs of Trafalgar Square, images of Liverpool Street station during the Blitz, Bob Collins’ 1960’s shots of Piccadilly Circus, numerous iconic images of St Pauls Cathedral from almost every decade, and contemporary photos of a night out in East London and West London displayed side by side. Broadly split into three categories; ‘London Illuminated’ which focusses on the capital’s landmarks from both familiar and unusual vantage points, ‘Dark Matters’ which explores the more sinister side of the city and how darkness can evoke fear, threat or isolation, and ‘Switch On Switch Off’ which observes Londoners who inhabit the city rather than the city itself. On until mid November the show is certainly worth a visit – incorporating architecture and portraiture, moments of resilience and shared acts of exhilaration, as well as exploring social issues and current threats to London’s night venues.

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Musee Yves Saint Laurent Marrakesh: Marrakesh

After exploring the southern medina and its breath-taking palaces and tombs on my first day, and the museums, galleries and souks of the northern medina on my second day, I hesitantly left the old town and ventured into the New City on day three. The streets are wider, the architecture blander, and a sudden sense of calm exudes – as traffic lights and order replace humans, mopeds, bicycles, donkeys and carts vying for space in the narrow hubbub of the medina. Not far from where the designer owned a home in the city, you’ll find the Musee Yves Saint Laurent Marrakesh. Only in existence since 2017, the museum is housed in a stunning purpose-built terracotta brick and pink stone space commissioned by French architects Studio KO who echoed the couturiers fascination with slight lines and curves. The vast 4,000 square metre space comprises the Yves Saint Laurent Hall, a temporary exhibition space, a gallery space, an auditorium, library, bookshop and serene café and outdoor terrace. The main hall displays fifty pieces from the archive collection (spanning 1962 to 2002) including the Piet Mondrian inspired dress, the infamous ‘le smoking’ jacket, the pea coat, and several garments where the Moroccan influence and its vibrant colours, nature and heritage shine through, most evident in the bougainvillea cape and Berber inspired dresses. The temporary exhibition space compliments the main hall showcasing sculptural dresses created by Noureddine Amir, suspended against a black background and mirrored walls. The auditorium helps enliven these clothes further by displaying a montage of the designer at work, YSL catwalk shows and photo shoots, as well as past controversy including Yves Saint Laurent himself posing naked for the labels’ debut aftershave in 1971! The gallery space contains a series of photographs of Catherine Deneuve modelling a YSL collection utilising Marrakesh’s carpet shops, spice souks, decorative tiling and bustling main square as a sublime backdrop, and reinforcing the affiliation between the designer and this city.

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The National Technical Museum: Prague

I won’t lie, I was far from enthused by the prospect of spending hours inside The National Technical Museum in Prague, but was outvoted by the males on our festive trip to the Czech capital. The National Museum, numerous art galleries, monasteries and libraries brimming with antique books were far higher on my agenda, but was pleasantly surprised and impressed. The museum is housed in an enormous concrete and brick building adjacent to Letna Park with views over the Vlatva river, and I was immediately won over by the gruff looking but utterly charming old(er) man who sold us our tickets and took the time to share much information about the museum with us! The collection is vast; comprising transport, architecture and civil engineering, printing, mining, astronomy, horology, photography and household appliances across six floors. The stand-out gallery is dedicated to transport and takes up the entire back of the building with a triple height exhibition hall filled with bicycles, motorbikes, cars, trains, planes suspended from the ceiling, and even a hot air-balloon charting the history of developments in Czech transportation. With fourteen large permanent displays as well as the temporary exhibition and only two hours allotted for our visit, we decided to focus on printing and architecture. The printing gallery mimics an antiquated print shop with typesetting blocks, printing presses from various periods, newspaper and bookbinding machinery, and outlines the role print material played in developing the country’s national consciousness. Similarly the architecture gallery documents the most significant buildings erected across Czechoslovakia over the last century via original models, plans, sketches, photographs of their construction and replicas – and I enjoyed recognising and learning more about the civic landmarks I had already visited or walked past in the city. Despite my reservations, this museum challenged my preconceptions and highlighted how important technical innovations are in all our lives in myriad ways.

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Josehov: the Jewish Quarter, Prague

Nestled between the Old Town Square and Vlatva River you’ll discover Josehov, Prague’s Jewish quarter. Turning off a street brimming with designer shops and boutiques, the cobbles are suddenly decorated with the Star of David – and six synagogues, the Jewish Town Hall and one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in Europe all vie for space within a few streets. My first stop was the Spanish Synagogue, a Moorish revival style building which opened in 1867 with a double height gilded main hall surrounded by balconies and stained glass windows. The exhibition inside tells the story of Jews in Czechoslovakia since the emancipation under Emperor Joseph II through to the traumatic events of the 20th century. Five minutes’ walk away is Pinkas Synagogue, devoid of any interior decoration and instead the walls are covered in 78,000 names written in black or red ink representing Czech victims of the Holocaust. This powerful memorial was designed by the painters Vaclav Bostik and Jiri John and opened in 1960 but was closed eight years later during the Soviet occupation of the country, and only reopened after the fall of Communism in 1998. Behind this synagogue is the Old Jewish Cemetery, an apt location to memorialise the pre-twentieth century Jewish community with graves dating from 1400’s until 1768. A path leads you around the tomb stones to the Ceremonial building which outlines daily and special Jewish rituals and practices through a basic but informative display. My final visit was to Maisel Synagogue, a neo-gothic style building which resembled a church more than a traditional synagogue. Whilst it was interesting to witness such architectural variation in close proximity, their singular usage as museums felt a little unnatural and I was sad not to see a practising community within the synagogues, and ultimately the exhibition content began to feel a little repetitive across all five sites.

Musée national Picasso: Paris

Having attempted to visit the Musée national Picasso-Paris on a couple of occasions but defeated by queues, it was third time lucky for me on a drizzly Saturday afternoon pottering around Le Marais! The museum is in the old Hotel Sale building dating back to the 17th century and listed by The Historic Monuments department. It opened as a museum in 1985 following extensive restoration, creating stunning modern gallery spaces whilst being sympathetic to the original architectural features and surviving furnishings. The collection comprises over 5,000 paintings, sculptures, ceramics, prints, engravings, illustrated books as well as an archive of newspaper articles and personal documents associated with the Spanish artist. The vast majority of the collection was acquired through two large donations from Picasso’s heirs, and is currently host to an additional body of work on loan from the Pompidou Centre as part of their 40th anniversary celebrations – offering a full spectrum of Picasso’s myriad styles and techniques. The lead exhibition focusses on the year 1932 during which Picasso dated every painting or sculpture he created, highlighting the strong biographical element in his work. This was also an interesting year with regards the artists’ personal life as many of the portraits painted depict variations of just two women; Dora Marr and Marie-Thérèse Walter, the former a photographer and surrealist artist who was Picasso’s mistress leading to the demise of his marriage to Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova, and the latter a seventeen year old additional love interest of the forty-five year old artist! The variable and often contrasting portrayals of these two woman is a good analogy for the multifarious nature of Picasso as an artist, embracing innumerable different styles throughout his career. Ultimately that was what I took away from my visit to this museum – that Picasso was far more than the surrealist painter I was familiar with, but a far more complex and talented creator unafraid to provoke.

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Museum Lapidarium: 8th International Festival of Visual Arts

I was a Novigrad newcomer until last month (and embarrassingly must confess to thinking it was a town in Russia rather than Croatia) however was utterly charmed by the Istrian town. Old Venetian city walls from the 13th century enclose a space littered with historic bell-towers, churches, a colourful harbour, and narrow streets decorated with bright umbrellas and other artworks! I was also fortunate enough to be visiting during the 8th International Festival of Visual Arts, breathing additional life and activity into this small but progressive town. This years’ theme was ‘Let there be… bicycle’ to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the invention of bikes and incorporated modern and contemporary art, a photography exhibition, performances, film screenings, workshops and other activities emanating from the Museum Lapidarium – the nucleus and organiser of the festival. Outside the museum you were greeted by a large-scale installation by Italian artist Marco Milia, created from interconnected blue plastic circles. Its site-specific nature, lack of clear boundaries and circular rhythms forced viewers to interact with the space differently; kids explored, locals and tourists were absorbed, and the sun and wind played with it throughout each day and evening. The museum building itself was animated with sculptures of cyclists hunched over their bikes created by Croatian artist Vasko Lipovac, Braco Dimitrijevic’s bicycle themed artwork ‘Tryptichos Post Historicus’ decorated a nearby window, and a selection of vintage photographs of cyclists was displayed in the Gallery around the corner. As night fell, festival activity stepped up a gear as films were projected in the main square, performance art took place in small parks and on street corners, and visitors were able to both watch or help with a workshop led by London’s Bamboo Bicycle Club to build a rideable bike out of bamboo from start to finish in just three days. With both a permanent archaeological collection and changing programme of contemporary art exhibitions, I left eager to return to Novigrad and see what future exhibitions hold.

Pink Floyd ‘Their Mortal Remains’: V&A

Pink Floyd have sold over 250 million records worldwide since they were founded in 1965, so it only makes sense for such an epic band be recognised with an exhibition on a truly epic scale. The V&A have done just that with the current ‘Their Mortal Remains’ retrospective of the band, presenting an enormous archive of material, huge displays and large-scale installations, all accompanied by a legendary soundtrack! The exhibition takes you on a chronological journey from sixties London through to the present day via promotional posters and tickets, press images, backstage photographs, archived interviews and footage, band members’ original instruments and other ephemera. That said, there is a distinct focus on the 1970’s – arguably the bands’ creative apex – witnessing the release of ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’, ‘Wish You Were Here’, ‘Animals’ and ‘The Wall’ all in a six year period between 1973 and 1979. This period of ingenuity is recognised in the exhibition with full-scale reconstructions of Battersea Power Station accompanied by a floating pig and other inflatables commissioned by the band to accompany their tours of this era, as well as a huge reconstruction of ‘the wall’. The show then moves on to explore more contemporary incarnations; the 1980’s ‘Final Cut, 1990’s ‘Division Bell’ and final 2012 album ‘Endless River’ – and closes with a gig projected on all four walls of one enormous gallery space. As well as celebrating the music, it highlights the influence of other artistic mediums; from David Hockney and illustrator Peter Blake to animators Gerald Scarfe and Ian Eames. Moreover it emphasises the bands’ ambition to constantly challenge and create more imaginative live shows, as well as their collaboration with graphic designers Hipgnosis to create some of the most iconic album covers of all time. You’ll need to dedicate a good few hours to take the whole exhibition in, but I’d suggest making the time this summer before it closes in October.

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Museum of Applied Arts: Budapest

Whilst googling, flipping through various guidebooks, websites and tourist information portals ahead of my festive trip to Budapest, the Museum of Applied Arts (and more specifically its stunning glass-roofed main hall) constantly stood out. Constructed in the 1890’s as a masterpiece of Hungarian art nouveau the building was purpose built to display and promote the country’s crafts and skills in an optimum setting; mixing eastern oriental influences with western vernacular architecture, alongside traditional Hungarian green and yellow ornamental tiling, and a huge exterior dome. Having walked along the river Danube, I approached the museum from the rear and was initially fearful that all my preparatory reading had been in vain and it had closed down! From the exterior the museum looked forlorn and almost derelict, and although its’ appearance improved a little at the main entrance it was far from the show-piece I was expecting. Once inside, the double-floor oriental arcade and glass-roofed hall charm, and the permanent collection of gold and silverware, aristocratic clothing, costume jewellery, furniture, ceramics, artworks and weapons are pleasant but not especially memorable. The two temporary exhibitions ‘Breuer – at Home Again’ and ‘In the Mood for Colours’ feel very modern, fresh and almost out of place in an otherwise tired and dated museum. The Breuer comprising strong examples of the Hungarian architect and furniture designers’ creations, and the Colour exhibition cleverly playing with perception by arranging the collection by dominant colour rather than historic period or style. The show is also accompanied by the ColourMirror project, an interactive installation which digitally reflects visitors’ clothes matching them to an object within the museum collection – which certainly engaged me on a search to find my ‘match’ within the collection! Despite a saddening lack of investment, it was heartening to see plans for refurbishment and redevelopment and I hope it is reformed into the grand building it once was.

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