A Day of British Art

Yesterday I set off, in the brilliant, sunny, autumnal weather to go see some art. I’m at a university (the Courauld Institute of Art) that only teaches art history and I’m doing a Masters degree in art history, so I’m looking at art constantly right? Right, but sometimes it can be easy to forget to go and look at the real things, especially in London where there is so much to choose from! Yesterday I stayed very local, both in terms of location and time. I went to see the work of two contemporary british artists, Tracy Emin at the White Cube and Grayson Perry at the National Portrait Gallery. The work in both these shows was created in the last two years, so its very current, and both explored themes of identity, making them an interesting couple to compare.


My first stop was the White Cube in Bermondsey to see Tracy Emin’s latest show ‘The Last Great Adventure is You.’ Tracy actually came to my university a few years ago and did a talk, which was amazing, and since then I have been a real fan. This show is brilliant. It starts with a whole row of really rapid sketches of female nudes. It’s hard to tell, but from the names of the sketches, written in pencil on the bottom of each work, they could well be self portraits. There are no information panels with any of the works in the gallery, nor describing the show as a whole, so it is really up to the viewer to draw their own conclusions.


In the next room, the gallery entitled 9x9x9, there are what appeared at first to be much larger versions of the first sketches. They are and huge and imposing and very impressive, really dominating the whole space, despite only using black lines on a white background. However, as the viewer gets closer, it becomes clear that they are not made of drawn or painted lines at all, but are in fact embroidered onto a lineny sort of material. Tracy has used different thicknesses of thread to create the differences in line and build up some areas more than others. This room was undoubtedly my favourite in the exhibition, and I had to revisit it one more time before I left.

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The next room shows her versatility as an artist. It includes works made of paint, neon lights, plaster, clay. The paintings have the same feeling of rapidity as the female nude sketches, but are much more colourful and abstract. The furthest end of this space is made up of little tables with sculptures of women of varying degrees of abstraction and deformation. I was reminding of the maquettes Henry Moore made before creating his enormous stone sculptures. However the way they were presented on these isolated tables also made me think of the presentation of Edgar Degas’ sculptures of dancers, like the ones we have in the Courtauld Gallery.

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Another room is full of very bright, abstract paintings, which contrast with the black and white sketches of women. This show is definitely worth a visit. It’s engaging, versatile and shows a great amount of artistic ability. Also, Bermondsey Street, which the White Cube is on, is just a fabulous place to mooch around or get breakfast, so make the most of the opportunity to visit!

I then ran across town (via Borough Market, because hey, I was in the area and hungry!) to the National Portrait Gallery to see the new Grayson Perry exhibition ‘Who Are You?’ This exhibition is quite unique in that it is not given a dedicated space in the gallery, but rather the works are distributed within the 19th and 20th century rooms. The viewer is then led on a trail through the different spaces to seek out his works.


The show is made up of portraits of all different people, from politicians to celebrities to transsexuals. He is hoping to get to the bottom of the question ‘who are you?’ Like Tracy’s show, this too includes a lot of different media, from ceramic to tapestry to screen printed silk to sculpture. The first work in the show is a self portrait in the form of a map. It shows a walled city, with the sense of self in the centre; the roads are called things like ‘boredom’ or ‘inspiration.’ This map of personality serves to set out the aims of the rest of the exhibition.


The next work is a huge tapestry showing British identity. It is brightly coloured and loud and commands attention, and comments on British identity as a collective. The viewer is then led through the 19th and 20th century galleries, spotting pots and rugs, money boxes and hi jabs. Each work includes a description written by Grayson himself, outlining what his aims were in creating the piece and what he was trying to convey about each person. This was very unlike Tracy’s starkly blank walls with no descriptions or information.


I thought there were both positive and negative attributes to the work being displayed within the permanent galleries. The exhibition was taking a huge number of viewers into galleries that they might not normally visit- I’ve never seen the National Portrait Gallery so busy! (But then, I normally don’t go on a Saturday…) Many of the works, it seemed, were placed in a very specific gallery for a reason, and they often provided an interesting comparison to the other works in the room. A lot of the portraits in the gallery, particularly the 19th centuries ones, show powerful, white, men, so Grayson’s portraits of arguably more normal, less idealised people seemed almost subversive, dotted among these galleries. However, there also seemed to be a lot of people ignoring the permanent collection completely in their hunt to find the Graysons. IMG_6771 IMG_6777 IMG_6779IMG_6772

My favourite was called ‘Memory Jar,’ and showed a man with Alzeihemers disease, and his wife, who acts as his carer. The pot included photographs of their life being snipped into tiny fragments by a personification of the disease itself. I think this was the most emotionally arresting piece in the exhibition.

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The exhibition ended in the 20th century gallery, where a portrait of Grayson himself, from 2011, hangs, which seemed a fitting way to end.


Like Tracy’s show, this serves as a exploration of identity. Tracy’s, at first glance, appears to be much more autobiographical, focusing mainly on self portraiture, whereas Grayson creates images of other people. Yet, through these images he seems to be trying to understand something fundamental about people in general, and therefore, something about himself too. IMG_6776

Grayson’s show is run in collaboration with a Channel 4 documentary, which shows some of the people he has depicted and him creating the works. I had seen one episode before visiting, however, the works that I hadn’t seen on the documentary seemed to me to be far more engaging. I would thoroughly recommend seeing the art first, and engaging with it in person, and then watching the documentary to hear the story behind it, instead of the other way around. The Tracy Emin is on until the middle of November- so get down there quickly! The Grayson is on until March, so you have more time, but both are well worth a visit and free, so there really is no reason not to! xxR


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