Sonia Solicari talks us through Victoriana: The Art of Revival

Roll up for hairy cakes and scary chairs as Guildhall Art Gallery celebrates Victorian style. The curator explains her love of retro with a radical edge

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Victoriana: The Art of Revival, the Guildhall Art Gallery’s first exhibition of contemporary art, isn’t the nostalgia fest the title suggests. Sure, there are Staffordshire dogs (not to be confused with Staffies) arranged on a mantlepiece in a room that, on first impression, looks like the kind of crib in which great-great granny may have learned to crochet. But check out the lamp, a moth-speckled hallucination by YBA provocateur Mat Collishaw. And the wallpaper  – ‘Devil Damask Flock’ by Timorous Beasties, which was last seen adorning Irene Adler’s bedroom walls in ‘Sherlock’. Clearly there’s a fevered narrative beyond the frills and chintz. 

Sonia Solicari (pictured above), head of Guildhall Art Gallery and London’s Roman Amphitheatre, has taken five years to bring her haul of vintage-inspired goodies to view. ‘It was a case of seeing more and more Victorian-inspired art and design around,’ she explains. ‘Everything from things you can buy in shops through to fine art. I thought it was time to do a retrospective on a retrospective.’

'I thought it was time to do a retrospective on a retrospective.’


These neo-Victorians aren't really a group – 'they don't have a manifesto,' says Solicari – but the show is full of artists who look back to the nineteenth century with wary eyes. ‘There’s sentimentality to neo-Victoriana’, Solicari says. ‘But also a political and psychological side to it, full of tensions about the social issues of the digital age and how these relate to conditions during the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century.’

There won’t be any actual Victorian art in the exhibition. In fact, the show will be staged in a series of atmospheric spaces deep beneath the Guildhall’s main galleries. The idea is that, having gorged yourself on contemporary, Victorian-inflected art, you’ll feel inspired to explore the Guildhalls collection of Victorian art to sample gems by the likes of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. ‘Although there are a lot of serious issues tackled in the show,’ says Solicari ‘the ultimate aim is to create a fun experience. I hope people will be pleasantly surprised to see all these layers of history and neo-Victorian themes bubbling away.’

Sonia elaborates on some of the exhibition's highlights

  • Rob Ryan

    'I Remember, Nobody Remembers', 2010

    © the artist

    ‘Ryan is having fun with traditional Staffordshire ceramics,’ explains Sonia Solicari, curator of the show. ‘He’s taken original moulds and created new figures, decorating them with texts and slogans. He’s interested in mass production – which started in the nineteenth century – and what that does to an object. The Staffordshire figure becomes kind of a blank canvas, ripe for reclamation.’

    Rob Ryan
  • Jane Hoodless

    'Shorn Out of Wedlock', 2012

    © the artist

    According to Solicari, Hoodless’s cake ‘probes the Victorian fascination with the symbolism and cultural meaning of hair – in particular the social codes governing freely flowing hair for married women. The intricate hair-work that makes up this “wedding” cake speaks of the changing role of women in Victorian society.’

    Jane Hoodless
  • Yinka Shonibare MBE

    From 'Dorian'

    © the artist

    ‘Shonibare’s series of 12 photographs is one of the key works in the show,’ says Solicari. ‘ It’s interesting because, positioning himself as Dorian, Shonibare plays with his identity as a black British man and also the shifting identity of Dorian Gray over the decades. In fact, the artist came to Dorian via Albert Lewin’s 1945 film version of Oscar Wilde’s 1890 story, so there’s this extra historical layering to it.’

    Yinka Shonibare MBE
  • Miss Pokeno

    'Trophy Chair', 2009

    © the artist, photo: © Tim Walker

    ‘There’s a tension between the terms “art” and “craft” in the show,’ says Solicari. ‘Miss Pokeno sidesteps the issue by describing herself as an armchair destructivist.’ Pokeno (better known as Alannah Currie, from 1980s synth-pop trio Thompson Twins) has snuggled taxidermy foxes in the back of a red plush wingback that will take pride of place in the show’s ‘Reimagined Parlour’ of  Victorian-inspired furniture and homewares. ‘It will explore what we mean by hearth and home today.’

    Miss Pokeno
  • Mark Titchner

    'I Want a Better World, I Want a Better Me'

    © the artist

    To create this digital print, Titchner has layered William Morris-influenced patterns mass produced by multinational companies criticised for poor labour conditions in developing countries. ‘It’s in the style of a nineteenth-century trade union banner,’ explains Solicari. ‘As well as being about Morris’s decorative lineage it’s about his avant-garde politics.’

    Mark Titchner
  • Matthew Weir

    'Hangman', 2010

    © the artist, image courtesy Alison Jacques Gallery

    Matthew Weir
  • Carole Windham

    'Dearly Beloved'

    © Carole Windham

    Carole Windham
  • Timorous Beasties

    'Devil Damask Flock Wallpaper', launched 2007

    © Timorous Beasties

    Timorous Beasties
  • Yuniko Utsu

    'Octopus Portrait', 2009

    © the artist, image courtesy Michael Hoppen Contemporary and GP Gallery

    Yuniko Utsu

Rob Ryan

'I Remember, Nobody Remembers', 2010

© the artist

‘Ryan is having fun with traditional Staffordshire ceramics,’ explains Sonia Solicari, curator of the show. ‘He’s taken original moulds and created new figures, decorating them with texts and slogans. He’s interested in mass production – which started in the nineteenth century – and what that does to an object. The Staffordshire figure becomes kind of a blank canvas, ripe for reclamation.’


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