The early 1600’s in Britain are best known for the political upheaval surrounding the English Civil War rather than an illustrious arts scene, however the Royal Academy of Arts’ current ‘Charles I: King and Collector’ exhibition certainly questions that. Twelve vast gallery spaces across Burlington House are dedicated to showcasing the kings’ collection, and the walls of each gallery are painted a vivid shade of regal blue or red and act as the perfect backdrop for works by Anthony Van Dyck, Peter Paul Rubens, Titian, Pieter Bruegel, Andrea Mantegna and Hans Holbein amongst others. These works have been sourced from the Royal Collection, the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid, the Frick Collection in New York and various private stores, and reunited for the first time in over four centuries, having been sold off following Charles I execution in 1649. The show flows easily, manages to feel relaxed despite its grandeur, and the works bounce off each other; evident in the opening gallery where a portrait by Van Dyck of Charles I from three different angles is positioned behind a marble sculpture of the kings torso, marrying the two together. The sheer scale of several paintings, four enormous tapestries from the Mortlake workshop and the nine canvases depicting the ‘Triumph of Caesar’ by Mantegna shown side by side in one space is truly staggering. Status affirming images are common, but this exhibition does more than simply portray Charles I as king, and there are numerous family portraits and intimate scenes between himself and his wife Henrietta Maria on display. The final gallery focusses on Van Dyck and Rubens, two artists who owe their careers to Charles I who commissioned several works, including the ceilings of Banqueting House by Rubens which are likely to have been the final images the king saw before being beheaded outside it.
The Royal Academy’s survey on Ai Weiwei was as highly political, subversive, provocative and critical of the state and censorship as I would expect (and indeed hoped!) it to be. However, what surprised me was the artists’ genuine appreciation of traditional dynastic craftsmanship, techniques and materials – which is palpable throughout the exhibition. Spanning eleven large galleries, it focusses on Ai’s work from 1993 onwards following his return to Beijing after living in America for over a decade when his father became unwell. The big-name monumental sculptures including ‘Bed’, ‘Straight’ and ‘Fragments’ take up entire galleries by themselves, and whilst I appreciated their ambitious scale and enjoyed exploring them from all angles, they didn’t grab my attention in the same way several smaller pieces did. The ‘Coca-Cola Vase’, a Han Dynasty vase (dating 206BC – 220 AD) emblazoned with the global brands’ logo raised interesting questions about old versus new, fakes being sold as originals, and if pottery is created today using centuries old materials and techniques what makes it a forgery? Similarly a collection of 3,000 ceramic crab sculptures collectively titled ‘He Xie’ is the result of one municipal authority inviting Ai to design and build a studio to help regenerate their province, which was quickly demolished and he was put under house-arrest, but through social media invited the public to dine on river crabs in protest – as the word for river crab in Chinese is synonymous with internet censorship. Human rights and suppression are common themes throughout; from a surveillance camera carved in white marble, to hand-cuffs made from a single piece of jade, gold wallpaper repeating a pattern interweaving the Twitter logo, hand-cuffs and CCTV cameras, and his most explicit fuck you in ‘Finger’ a black and white wallpaper showing the internationally recognised symbol of the middle finger in different artistic configurations!