“Magnificent obsessions”

8 Jan 16

Today, I visited the Sainsbury’s Centre for the Visual Arts “Magnificent Obsessions: The artist as a collector”. The exhibition presents the personal collections of selected post-war and contemporary artists, and featured Andy Warhol, Arman, Peter Blake, Edmund de Waal, Damien Hurst, Howard Hodgkin, Sol LeWitt, Martin Parr, Hiroshima Sugimoto and Pae White. I met up with a group of 3 other OCA students, 2 studying painting and one printmaking. We discussed our personal responses to each of the collections as we went round the exhibition.

The collections were grouped by artist and displayed alongside a key example of work of each, to illustrate how their obsessions may have influenced their practice. Although sometimes obvious, it was also sometimes difficult for me to make that connection, particularly where I was unfamiliar with the artist’s work.

General comments

I was left feeling slightly perplexed by the exhibition. Part of me wanted to view the collections themselves as artistic displays (e.g. Edmund de Waal’s Netsuke), however other collections seemed piecemeal and haphazard (an example being Edmund de Waal’s childhood collection of assorted object and archeological fragments). 

Seeing the collections in an art gallery, gave me the feeling that they were “out of context” – in some cases very different from the configuration in which they would be displayed in the artist’s house or studio. They somehow seemed to lack a feeling of “clutter” and intimacy. The exhibition catalogue, showed photos of some of the collections in situ (Yee, L. (2015) Magnificent obsessions – the artist as a collector. Prestel. London). How different Peter Blake’s collection of elephant figurines looked in his home (grouped on a bookshelf against a painted blue brick background), compared with the sterility and openness of the exhibition space.

Specific comments

For my detailed discussion, I would like to focus on the collections of Damien Hirst and Edmund de Waal.

Damien Hirst is a prominent member of a group of artists called YBAs (Young British Artist’s) who came to prominence in the 1990s. Works such as his preserved shark “The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living”, (1991) and cattle “Mother and child (divided)” (1993), may have produced a visceral response among art goers, fuelling his fame and notoriety. However, what struck me looking at Hirst’s private collection of taxidermy, anatomical models and skulls, is that much of his work is in fact a modern interpretation of taxidermy (consistent with his interest in death and the transience of life).

The example of Hirst’s work displayed at the exhibition “Last Kingdom” (2012), is a facsimile of the Victorian insect and butterfly display case. It consists of insects, spiders and butterflies arranged in a steel case in vertical columns of identical species mounted on a mirror. The piece feels like a curtain of flowing water, or perhaps moving fabric. The specimens form an interesting array of positive patterns and negative shapes. Some are iridescent (beetles and butterflies), others hairy (tarantulas). There is high contrast between the shiny light reflecting and the the dull and textured. The reflections of their bodies and feet add another layer of dimensionality and movement to the piece, as different parts of the undersides are revealed as you view the installation from new angles. 

From “the collection of a private man” (2011) Edmund de Waal’s work of 57 porcelain vessels is divine in it’s simplicity. Handmade individual pieces of porcelain of different shapes, arranged purposefully in groups of similar and dis-similar items to showcase the beauty of each of the objects and of the space between them. Uncluttered, delicate, plain.

It was not apparent to me how de Waal’s collection of Netsuke had informed his work (if at all). It is intriguing that the netsuke are functional idems (kimono toggles), and yet so much time and skill has been expended on carving each of these miniature works of art. In contrast, de Wall’s pieces are purely decorative. 

The netsuke are whimsical. They arouse curiosity as to why each were chosen as a subject for carving. They are unique and with character, small enough to hold, easy to pick up put down and re-arrange. Perhaps in this why they were so intriguing to de Waal. Unlike his pottery (made from the same material) the netsuke are carved  from a wide range of different materials. Although the size of the netsuke is similar and their functionality identical, the scale of the carvings vary enormously, each constrained to the size of a toggle – a fascinating mis-match. 


One thought on ““Magnificent obsessions”

  1. Pingback: Sketches at the SCVA “Magnificent obsessions” | Sketches and studio work in support of textile degree studies after 20 April 15

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