Tuesday 21 June 2011

London can show you the world in an afternoon

Intrigued by a fellow blogger's recent account - over at City Views, Country Dreams - of the Weiwei Zodiac Heads in New York, I was inspired to go along and see the same exhibition in London last week.

As in New York, where the imposing Plaza hotel and its fountains were the backdrop, the setting here was equally spectacular - Somerset House on the Victoria Embankment ...

Our iffy June weather was evident  - umbrellas were up (you can see some rain drops on my lens!), but there were little bursts of sunshine in between the drizzle ...

The heads have been placed in a semi-circle around the fountains in the courtyard (which in winter becomes an ice-skating rink).

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, as Frances at City Views mentioned, was detained in China shortly after launching the tour of his animal head sculptures to New York and London. Before this, he had made news in London for a remarkable exhibition at the Tate Modern of 100 million individually-created porcelain sunflower seeds! He remains imprisoned, for reasons to do with political dissent.

Some people didn't mind getting wet at all ...!

The Zodiac heads represent the twelve Chinese astrological signs and are a recreation of the heads that once decorated an 18th century fountain clock at Beijing's summer palace. The originals were looted when the palace garden was destroyed by the British and French.

Some looked fierce and imposing ...

others cute and even cartoon-like ...

I had another reason for coming here, though. The Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House opened an exhibition this week of Toulouse Lautrec's portraits of Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge.

The Courtauld is one of my favourite galleries in London (though I might have said that about the Saatchi?). Small and cosy, it has a fabulous little collection of impressionists and post-impressionists in a setting, in a wing of Somerset House, as beautiful as the paintings ...

Toulouse Lautrec helped make Jane Avril famous through his posters of her dancing at the Moulin Rouge ...

But the exhibition aims to go beyond that by exploring their private relationship off-stage. Nicknamed 'La Mélinite' (a form of explosive), she came from a harsh background of poverty and abuse, and suffered from a neurological disorder - St Vitus Dance or chorea.

portrait of Jane Avril

'La Goulue' (the Glutton), dancer Louise Weber, Avril's rival

Mlle Marcelle Lender    

I think I liked the lithographs best of all  ... I love the life and movement in these drawings ...

Walking back along the Embankment after leaving the exhibition I had a choice of the Victoria gardens on one side, where a ping-pong table had been set up, below. My mind still half on China, it reminded me of Boris Johnson's oafishly funny speech at the Beijing Olympics hand-over ceremony about 'ping-pong coming home' (watch here) ...

... or the Thames on the other ...

I liked this view of the London Eye apparently on the back of a smiling Sphinx (and a tiny aeroplane serendipitously overhead)

Behind the sphinx I could also spy Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament further down the river ...

Two faux (Victorian) sphinxes flank the Egyptian obelisk, below (an original, dating from 1450 BC).  It is one of a pair - the other is in New York's Central Park. An interesting coincidence I thought, given the twin exhibitions of Weiwei's sculptures in these two cities, the history of China's original Zodiac heads, and Weiwei's intention "to toy with ideas of real and fake, looting and national symbolism".

While pondering all this I snapped a more conventional view of the London Eye 

... and, taken just before I hopped on the tube, this view from under the Jubilee Bridge of St Paul's against a grey blue sky.

Quelle mélange this post has turned out to be - it seems a couple of hours meander along the Embankment can make the world connect in strange ways!


  1. I'm detecting some very impressive photography skills here! London landmarks cleverly caught in your sphinx pictures!

  2. These photographs are fantastic. It must feel as though you are on holiday every day - so many landmarks - that many only ever get to see once in their lifetime, if they are lucky! I enjoy the NY walks we are taken on by Frances at City Views Country Dreams. Two great cities and two great blogs to inform us about them.

    I am constantly taking photographs of Glasgow with a view to one day blogging about them but so far have never got around to.

    Your first comment above made me have a "double-take" - did I comment already? No, it seems there are two of us...! Bella B(heag)

    (Yes Karen, that was Lake Zurich at the bottom of my friend's garden. I could have dipped my toes in the water I was so close.)

  3. Karen and Bella Bheag, thank you both so much for the kind words. I take this opportunity to say how much I loved Glasgow on my to date only visit.

    Cities really can be remarkable. Yes, sometimes I really, really wish I did not have to travel on the underground subway, but still am so glad to have it there to get me from A to B to C and even further.

    I'll have to post a picture of the "Cleopatra's Needle" in Central Park. It is showing too much damage from our city air, and its years. Still, it's an eye catcher.

    I really love the Courtauld. There are some Gauguins there (one I saw this spring when it was on tour to Washington DC) whose beauty can make me a bit teary.

    Here's a toast to cities, and the riches to be found there! While not dismissing the riches to be found in the countryside.


  4. Again - a few wonderful spots of London.
    And then these stunning sculptures, the magnificent Toulouse Lautrec, the Sphinxes which I seem to remember seeing them several years ago...the Victorian garden I never visited..and...!!
    You are such a good reporter with a brilliant eye. All your highly interesting posts are so inspiring that one likes to book the next plane, train, or I could/would just jump into my car and...'on the road again'!
    Would really love to meet you one day. You are a human being with heart and soul and an open mind.
    Best wishes for a wonderful and sunny weekend and greetings from the Périgord,

    Dear Karen, sorry for late comments but I have 'blooged-out' for a week, just had the need for a rest from the PC and the outside-world.
    Now, try to catch-up, writing comments to followers and blogger friends and 'saved' you to the end. Just liked to read your posts quietly, thinking, feeling the atmosphere and enjoying all your wonderful photos!
    I'm not a good writer and as you know my English is very poor, mildly spoken. So, I apologize for all writing/typing mistakes and hope that you can read 'between the lines' of comments how much I appreciate your posts.
    And thank you so much for your comments on my blog! I'm more than pleased to have You as a regular reader!k

  5. The London setting is much grander and really sets them off compared to New York..
    Your photos are spectacular WOW
    What a feast of a post!

  6. Thank you all for such kind and lovely comments :))

  7. I just hope, when I finally come and see London, I'll find the city you are celebrating on your blog. Fantastic!


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