Monday, June 01, 2009

Art, Beer and Sunshine

Kuniyoshi, Shah Abbas, Garden and Cosmos, and the RCA
On one of the hottest days of the year to date, I decided to spend several hours indoors. I'd let several large exhibitions reach their final weeks without visiting, and now was the time. The weather can wait.

Shah Abbas
First up, Shah Abbas - The Remaking of Iran, at the British Museum until June 14th.

Iran, being high on my list of places to visit, following all the lovely people I have met from there, the glowing recommendations from those who have visited, and all I have read, is of interest, and this exhibition did not disappoint. In the reading room exhibition space, at a steep £12 a ticket, I visited relatively early in the morning, meaning the place was full of oldies with their audioguides.

It's a very personal thing, the audioguides, but I generally don't like 'em. An exhibition at the British Museum generally has more than enough information for my casually-interested brain to take in. Every exhibit has a large text box with it explaining what it is, the history, where it's from, dates, stories etc. And you want more information? I think you have to be careful to not overload with these things, and for me (each to their own), an audioguide is one step too far.

Anyway, Shah Abbas took an eroded Iranian state (circa AD1600), which had lost territory on all sides to Uzbeks and the Ottoman Turks, grabbed it all back, and filled the Persians with a pride they had forgotten. He was responsible for making Isfahan the great city it is today, for fostering trade links with Europe and Asia - Iran being on the great Silk Route. He was ruthless, but could be gentle, promoted art and culture, and respected other religions - his dynasty, the Safavids, being responsible for making Iran an Shi'a Islam state, thereby giving it an identity separate from its Sunni neighbours.

The exhibition is an interesting mix of art, history, carpets, texts, silk.. the whole package. And a welcome seated area half way round where recent images of the beautiful architecture of Iran are projected on the wall. More interesting than Hadrian, but as said at the beginning.. expensive. The money might be better spent flying Easyjet to Istanbul and taking the weekly train to Tehran!

Garden and Cosmos
Next, the Garden and Cosmos exhibition which has just started, and runs until 23rd August. £8 entry, but a wonderful show awaits you inside the upper exhibiton space above the reading room. The cryptic title does not immediately give away the subject of imperial art of the 17th - 19th centuries from Jodhpur in Rajasthan in India - much of which has never been on display before.

Huge paintings of such fantastic scenes, with tiny detail revealing itself the closer one approaches. The colours.. the stories.. the exotic and erotic! I highly recommend this show to you. You may wish to read a more reasoned and intellectual critique of the show in the Times here.

Kuniyoshi, at the Royal Academy is on until June 7th. Irritatingly in the Sackler wing, meaning a smelly climb up the stairs to get to it, and invariably a cramped and overcrowded exhibition once you're up there. I would say "mustn't grumble", but for £9 (assuming you don't know someone who is a member) I think you have every right to grumble.

Anyway, the exhibition, with prints from the C19th Japanese artist and print-maker Utagawa Kuniyoshi, all supplied by Arthur R Miller. Yep, one guy! Kuniyoshi, along with the better known Hokusai, was a master of the "floating world" Ukiyo-e Japanese art, creating intricate prints, often illustrated with vivid colours.

There was humour in the exhibition, both in the price originally charged for some of his more modest prints (around the cost of two portions of soba noodles!), and also in the ways he responded to government efforts at censorship - by switching entire scenes from humans to sparrows or octopuses!

Outside the sun was shining on the "waste of metal" sculpture currently disgracing the space in front of Sir Joshua Reynolds:

Finally a pleasant walk through Hyde Park to the Royal College of Art, where their degree show, entitled "SHOW 2009", has just started. Free entry, and the chance to snap up work from budding new artists at a reasonably rate. Or perhaps scratch that last comment. I don't know how these student artists price their work, but the numbers are crazy - the lowliest mug will go for £30, with bigger paintings going for 5 digit sums. And they do sell.. those little red dots had already started to appear by the strangest of works.

Overall though, as a disaffected punter (I don't know much about art.. but I know what I like!) who doesn't buy into the rubbish touted by Saachi and their ilk, I found the show disappointing. One usually encounters a mix of absolute tat, mediocre drivel, and the occasional sign of brilliance. Sadly, the latter was missing from this show. The best that seemed to be on offer were four paintings which were mounted in such a position as to be hard to examine. It would not surprise me if the powers that be are embarrassed about genuine artist talent amongst all the modernist rubbish. Anyway, roll on next year, and keep those students coming!

Having done my time.. it was time.. for a cold beer, though maybe not one at.. zero degrees!

Zero Degrees
Zero Degrees in Blackheath is a micro-brewery and restaurant which has been on my list of places to visit for a very long time (for a place that sells beer at least - all those obscure museums can wait!).

Presumably named after the meridian it must be on or close to, and just the other side of Greenwich Park, Zero Degrees sits near a large church. On entering, it seemed busy but we readily found a table. Right.. a drink please!

They had four beers on the menu - a pilsner, a mild, a wheat, a dark, and off menu they had a special fruit beer - mango. I sampled them all - finding that the sweet beer was of course not to my taste, but all were good ales.

Initially unsure about whether to eat, we were sold by the food being delivered to adjacent tables - the bruscetta had an enormous portion of chopped tomatoes on the toast, and the pizzas looked good, as ours also turned out to be! I'd recommend the food here - reasonably priced and really tasty food. And there's beer too!

Main complaint? Too noisy! It's clearly been designed with that "industrial minimalist" feel to it, but the combination of loud talking and the background music slowly becoming foreground music was making conversation increasingly difficult. So don't visit at busy periods - how about the happy hour time - weekdays 4-7pm, when pints are just £2 - a saving of 80p a pint!

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