The curator chatted to Emma Clarendon about the Guildhall Art Gallery’s exhibition The Enchanted Interior, which is available to view online due to the ongoing Coronavirus situation.
Hi Katherine, when people view The Enchanted Interior online, what can they expect to see? There is so much to enjoy and although my colleagues and I were looking forward to welcoming visitors to the gallery in person, we are entirely confident that they will be ‘enchanted’ by what they will now see from the comfort of their own homes. The exhibition presents a range of beautiful and visually stunning art works from the Victorian period to the present day, and a range of aesthetics from Pre-Raphaelite, to Orientalism, Surrealism and Symbolism. Above all, they should expect to be challenged about the depiction of women in British art, and how that may – or indeed, may not – have changed. By the time they leave our online art gallery, they may have deduced that the ways in
which women were depicted were somewhat limited, even if the work is rather wonderful to look upon, and take something away about the legacies of ‘Enchanted Interiors’ in modern art. I think visitors will be genuinely surprised by some of the contemporary installations that revisit the
old tropes of ‘damsel in distress’, ‘femme fatale’, or ‘hysterical madwoman’. They are clever, creative, and they show women artists kicking back against the so-called ‘gilded cage’.
How did the concept for the exhibition come about? The original exhibition was formed by Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle. Now that it is on tour in London, we have adapted it at Guildhall Art Gallery for our own space. We have added a few works drawn from our extensive permanent collection, in particular, by Ethel Sands, the early twentieth-
century artist from the London Group, whose work is rarely displayed.
Madeleine Kennedy is the brains behind the concept of exploring all those Victorian domestic interiors and harem scenes that present women as the chief ornament of a room. Along with Julie Milne at Laing, she has put together an incredible range of works with layers of meaning and
Could you tell us more about the themes that run through The Enchanted Interior? Objectification, as you might expect, is writ large in the exhibition and the idea of the ‘gilded cage’ – a metaphor for the way in which women have historically – and importantly, not only historically –
been trapped in marriages and homes that may offer material comforts, but no exit, and no independence. The show looks at the concept of private versus public space, whereby women’s spheres are considered to be small and confined, while men are given more freedom, space, and
opportunity. The exhibition also explores the idea of enchantment as a double-edged sword. We are enchanted by the beauty of these nineteenth-century paintings and indeed, by luxuriant rooms, wealthy lifestyles, but enchantment can also be sinister. It can stupefy us and keep us from going out of doors to find freedom. It can prevent us from moving and learning.
Transformation and escape are also explored here and hopefully, visitors leave understanding more about the relation of the past to our present experience.
In your view, what are the stand-out pieces of art in the show? Some of the highlights include classic Pre-Raphaelite works such as Edward Burne-Jones’s Laus Veneris, showing Venus, beautiful, languid, yet also perhaps utterly suffocated and bored. Elsewhere, John William Waterhouse’s oil sketch for the classic Lady of Shalott reveals his working practices and brush strokes in great detail. George Frampton’s stunning ivory and bronze sculpture, Lamia, is an absolute ‘wow’ moment. She is eerily life-like, yet also appears like a death mask. She is a beautiful figure, trapped by her own mythic fate. What people may not expect are the female artists, including Evelyn De Morgan, who was at the forefront of Victorian proto-feminism and a very interesting, and yet overlooked, artist. Her works
contain overt messages about women’s right to education and creativity, which most artists did not address at the time. In terms of modern works, Hayv Kahraman’s Hussein Pasha is a huge, dominant installation about
Iraqi women in the home, segregation and transitional spaces, interwoven with the artist’s own life experiences. I would also single out the unassuming, but powerful, installations, by Shana Lutka, based on the
stories of nineteenth- century hysteria patients who were displayed and objectified by male psychoanalysts, such as Freud and Charcot, in Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris. You have to search low down for these, but they are well worth finding. Many of the photographic works will hit home, too – from Penny Slinger’s uncanny, monochromatic collages to Francesca Woodman’s increasingly disappearing, spectral women.
What have you enjoyed the most about creating and curating this exhibition? I was constantly thrilled and amazed by the constant surprises found within the artworks! It has really caused me to think anew about Victorian art which, if you work around it, day in day out, you
can get a bit complacent about. I have especially loved encountering modern women artists from a range of backgrounds, whose
work really strikes a chord with me. Maisie Broadhead’s pieces, Shackled and Hero, literally come off the wall to engage you. Anya Gallaccio’s Double Doors is so evocative, with their gradually dying red flowers. These artists can make explicit what their Victorian counterparts could only imply.
I have also enjoyed learning more about the artists who are out there, speaking to modern women, and making space for themselves as creators and makers of culture.
Finally, if people wish to view the exhibition online, how can they find it? They can find us at https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/guildhallartgallery and we are working hard to post more online content, including a video tour, so there will be plenty of art to enjoy at home.
By Emma Clarendon