I’m currently staying at my grandma’s, meaning full access to her voluminous shelves. There are tomes on photography, art, sculpture… You name the form, she’ll have several publications on it. When I was younger I’d spend hours flicking through the heavy texts devoted to Surrealism and Art Deco – primarily attracted because I found the creations intriguing or, quite a lot of the time, beautiful.
I was reminded of this a few days ago when reading this fabulous Guardian column by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett taking issue with Jake Chapman’s comments that children shouldn’t be taken to galleries because they can’t understand what they are seeing. She finished with this resounding statement:
“Art teaches us what it means to be human, and children should be allowed to get in on that, lest they end up a generation of robotic culture secretaries who believe that art is a luxury for the chattering classes, not, in fact, for everyone. And, above all: a necessity.”
She also made the point that an interest in art is seen in various circles as something pretentious within Britain – a meaningless preserve of the privileged few, rather than something that should be accessible (and hopefully enriching) to all.
I’ve been interested for a long time in what is framed as ‘elite’, and think it’s an incredibly complex thing requiring rigorous analysis of everything from cultural values to class stereotypes to educational opportunities to the realities of and privileges (or lack thereof) accorded by one’s socio-economic background.
But beneath all that, there’s a rather simple notion I hold on to (and one Cosslett touches on). Art enhances the way you see the world, regardless of how much you know or can contextualize it. Any learning on top of that is a bonus, a means of adding layers to that first gut response.
Galleries and museums, like libraries, are vital, and should be doing more to get young people from all backgrounds to experience the reward of connecting with and responding to someone else’s work – be it a photo, a sketch, a poem, a book. These are the creations that challenge us, that entertain, amuse, inspire, provoke thought…
I’m aware that I’m immensely fortunate to have been brought up in a family where creativity was, and is, a constant – both in consuming the work of others, and in being encouraged in our own imaginative endeavours. I spent large parts of childhood constructing junk sculptures from the box of ‘making things’ kept under the stairs (think egg boxes, pipe-cleaners and broken CDs), splodging paint around, scribbling stories, making clothes for my Barbies from fabric scraps (you can see the result, rediscovered recently, here). I was also taken to exhibitions and National Trust properties and had more ‘Art Attack’ books than strictly necessary.
I will always be grateful for the joy all of that gave me. I now love nothing better than an afternoon collaging, or spent wandering around marveling at the glitz and craft in The Wallace Collection, or – as in the case of the last few days – exploring my grandma’s shelves.
The reason for the expanse of her collection is an Open University degree she completed later in life. Having finished formal education in her teens when her family fled Czechoslovakia, but retaining a love of learning throughout her adult years, she went on to study Art History in her fifties. The books on Egon Schiele, Paul Klee, David Hockney, Rembrandt, Miro, Picasso, The Pre-Raphaelites, Matisse and many others are testament to her continual drive to be expanding and thinking and responding.
A particular favourite I’ve located this time is Josef Sudek – a Czech photographer with an intense style both melancholy and dreamy. By turns menacing and fantastical, his monochrome still-lifes, portraits and cityscapes are somehow hard to shake from the head. The outlines, the light, the textures - they tend to linger after snapping shut the cover.
I want to do what my grandma still does – to never get stale, or stop caring or stop learning. The acquisition of knowledge is such an exciting prospect. I want to keep the curiosity that first stirred five year old me – the sometimes inexplicable ‘feeling’ provoked – whilst also sharpening up my thinking, adding in those extra layers of understanding, discovering new ways to frame what I see.
I love the Mondrian-esque design of the top, bought in a charity shop. The lace skirt is also second hand charity shopped. The velvet DM's were second hand from eBay and the books were pulled from my own shelves.