Review of Tim Walker at the V&AOctober 28, 2019
Tim Walker is one of my very favourite photographers. His work is more like a fairytale illustration than a fashion shoot, and he has his models assume the characters of lore: Alice in Wonderland has appeared on more than one occasion, and Swan Queens, various princesses, Hindu deities, and oversized bowers of flowers regularly populate his work. I was overjoyed to go to the museum for this review of Tim Walker at the V&A .
The V&A has been really big lately on creating hugely theatrical exhibitions awash with innovative framing devices and overblown props. They should be very well matched with such a theatrical photographer. So I, for one, have been eagerly awaiting this exhibition.
Review of Tim Walker – Bright and White
Which makes the first room a little disappointing. It is bright white with cluster of salon style hangings of small, framed works. The frames are discreet, and the only room decoration is a thick white dribble around the cornice like an old paint tin’s crust. It features a lot of his portraits – here’s David Attenborough with a giant egg, here’s Joanna Lumley as Patsy from Ab-Fab. It’s all previously published pieces that I’ve seen before, and if this were a one-room show I’d happily linger and spend time acquainting myself with them. But I’m sure there must be more, so on I rush.
Inspired by V&A Objects
The following rooms are all new works, made for the show and inspired by objects in the V&A collections. (Though I still recognise at least a couple of the shoots, since they were also published in various magazines before the show opened). Here is the drama I was looking for. Soaring Gothic arches complement works inspired by Medieval stained glass windows.
There is a set of black and white photos inspired by Aubrey Beardsley, and a glowing kaleidoscope of shots inspired by an intricately carved Indian chess set. The long-legged, fantastical animals created for the shoot are mounted high above, and the pictures are printed on a kind of glowing, twinkling surface. It reminds me of the way road markings light up in car head lamps at night, and, well lit by spot lights, has a similar fascinating effect that is very appropriate for the sun-drenched riots of colour and glitter that Walker conjures.
The next room, very popular, is a little pink suburban bedroom. The inspiration here is a grand, wide, 18th century gown and a small hand embroidered work box. The detail on this, created by a skilled child, is lovely. The works by Walker are sparse, pink framed drag queen pictures of performance artists. The connection isn’t completely clear.
Review of Tim Walker – Strange Creatures
Down a corridor and a small portrait of April Ashley, one the first transgender models, is propped on a shelf alongside a kitsch porcelain ornament. A strange, but great scene is in a glass case in front of us. In it, a strange dwarf mushroom creature holds court in a pastel garden.
Now a tree, growing in the corner, hosts a small dragon. The pictures, vividly bright but intentionally blurry, hang alongside. A Chinese princess is taking her dragon for a walk. It is based on a snuffbox in the museum’s collection. The princess holds aloft a beautiful red gown, but her eyes are bling marbles. A little display also shows the process of creating the characterful dragon, from initial sketches to maquette onwards.
A beautiful set of images has the actress and model Tilda Swinton, increasingly ready to take on unusual roles, as Edith Sitwell, a distant relative. Sitwell was the magisterially eccentric British poet, known in later years for her sense of style. Swinton poses with a thinly pencilled brow in turbans, and swathes of giant rings (Sitwell’s collection is in the jewellery gallery upstairs, and very much worth a visit afterwards.) This suite is shown in a daffodil yellow room set, where everything, the walls the fireplace, the picture frames, is the same matching hue. A gold tasselled theatre curtain sets it all off. Also shown are the very large golden dancing shoes which Sitwell had made for her 75th birthday celebrations.
A Wig-Maker, a Tapestry, A Dress
An Alexander McQueen dress is displayed with a strange bagged head. A set is inspired by the wig made for Vivien Leigh. It includes letters from Cecil Beaton about his hand in Leigh’s casting for A Streetcar Named Desire, his neat pencilled handwriting full of underlinings and emphasis. There are some fleshly male nudes.
Around the corner and a print of the Bayeux Tapestry, part of the museum holdings, informs the next suite. The soldiers are all dressed up with re-used and repurposed items like ironing boards for shields, which, the text rather weakly explains, serves to offset the wastefulness of the fashion industry. It’s best not to draw attention to the huge use of resources used to produce this show, I think. Besides, although surely a lot is needed for extravaganzas like these, and probably usually thrown away if it’s not kept for an exhibition at the V&A, is it really classed as wastefulness? A cheap t-shirt from Primark, ruined after two wears, is a waste. These are enduring images of beauty.
Wonderful Things is definitely full of wonderful things. Do not miss the chance to see them.
Wonderful Things is on until the 8th March at the V&A Museum, South Kensington.