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The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich has undergone a transformation in recent months as the first phase of its redevelopment draws to a close. It has come back with a splash, with four simultaneous shows ranging from Art Nouveau to Japanese Manga comics.
The first exhibition in its new Modernisms Gallery is ‘The First Moderns: Art Nouveau, Nature to Abstraction’. This features the gallery’s acclaimed Anderson Collection of Art Nouveau objects, as well as loans from the Victoria and Albert Museum, Glasgow School of Art and several private collections.
Drawing on glassware by celebrated designers Emile Gallé (1846–1904) and Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933) and comparing these with contemporary botanical illustration and evolutionary theory within the sciences, ‘First Moderns’charts the emergence of sinuous, floral forms for furniture and decorative objects. The arrangement of buckles, hair ornaments and brooches from René Lalique and Georges Fouquet emphasizes this interplay of art and science so effectively that the case appears more like a natural history cabinet of preserved insects.
The exhibition boldly explores the emergence of erotica, particularly through small objects constructed to display the female nude with untamed and uncovered hair, pushing against the fashionable conventions of acceptable society. This incorporation of the liberated female form led to the accusations of decadence brought against Art Nouveau designers. Simultaneous developments in the field of psychology also contributed to an anxiety about the nature of sexuality in civilized society.
How Art Nouveau was presented to the world is addressed in a fascinating display on the creation of world fairs using postcards that record the fantastic buildings and furnishings of the many national contributions to this ‘modern’ style. The world beyond Europe is also presented through the many trading links with China, India and several Arab nations that were formed in the 19th century. Several key designers also produced objects that imitated patterns from Chinese illustrations and prints.
The final section of the exhibition examines the shift from Art Nouveau to the Machine Age and industrial geometric design. Although seemingly at odds with the natural forms explored earlier, the argument here is that even organic forms had been subject to geometry and pattern, and it is no surprise that many Art Nouveau designers also contributed to Art Deco and the International Style, which encompassed the Bauhaus art school in Weimar, and the De Stijl and Constructivism art movements, to name but a few.
Below the mezzanine, within the new Modern Life Café, is a special exhibition by photographer Avi Gupta. His new series, ‘There Is Here’, was commissioned by the Sainsbury Centre and explores the private spaces of homes in Washington DC and Kolkata, India. Gupta’s images present several thought-provoking and intimate views of a globalized world, emphasized by a number of key cultural juxtapositions, such as an illuminated Hindu shrine next to a wide-screen television. His play with the depth of field in his photographs together with the rich colours captured by the lens create a sense of familiarity in unfamiliar space; a home away from home.
Also showing are two new exhibitions that both take their inspiration from Japanese popular culture. ‘Japan: Kingdom of Characters’(supported by the Japan Foundation) explores half a century of Manga, Anime, collectables and mascots. Many visitors will be familiar with the stars of recent global phenomena, such as Hello Kitty! and Pokémon, which feature as life-sized sculpture in the exhibition. Devotion to fictional and expressive characters in Japan, however, extends beyond the world of the playground into all walks of life.
As the displays trace the emergence of these fantasy icons of consumerism over the decades, it becomes clear that children and adults alike are fanatical about their ‘characters’. From the trading of playing cards by school pupils, to the mass consumption of Manga comic books by morning commuters, or the adult collections of erotic figurines from video games and films to the furry community mascots that are worshipped by young and old alike, fictional characters can be friends, lovers or protectors. Unfortunately, the emphasis on recent characters at the expense of a longer history of Japanese mythologies leaves the visitor yearning for more background on the phenomenon.
In the Link Corridor is an exhibition of photography that takes the Japanese character phenomenon as its inspiration. ‘Manga Dreams’by Anderson & Low (Jonathan Anderson and Edwin Low) features a number of highly stylized figures in fantasy costumes and poses. The digital editing and post production on each image accentuates expressions, hairstyles and backgrounds that are reminiscent of popular Manga and in particular the console-based fighting games that are played by millions of people in arcades and at home around the world.
That these four exhibitions are running together will be a draw to a wide range of visitors. ‘First Moderns’provides a chance to appreciate some highlights of the Anderson collection for a year; ‘There Is Here’remains true to Sainsbury family’s emphasis on the domestic environment and the juxtaposition of objects from different cultures; ‘Japan: Kingdom of Characters’and ‘Manga Dreams’will be greatly appreciated by younger visitors. The gallery’s decision to allow free entry to all these exhibitions is all the more reason to pay a visit in 2012.
Media credit: © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2011