Grayson, Nell and Uncle Joe

London shows salute unsung artisans, Spanish draughtsmen, saucy actresses and Soviet radicals

Michael Prodger

The exhibition year in London is ending with a flourish. With the big Leonardo and Gerhard Richter shows representing the best of old and new art and sucking in the gallery-goer’s oxygen there is still a clutch of other recently opened exhibitions offering alternatives. 

Perhaps the most interesting is Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman at the British Museum. In a novel collaboration, the museum gave the Turner Prize-winning transvestite potter the run of its collections and allowed him to pick a selection of objects to accompany his own in a display that amounts to a quirky spin-off of the History of the World in 100 Objects project. Here the history laid out is that of Perry’s distinctive worldview. 

His own pots and artefacts stand alongside such bizarreries as a 19th-century turtleshell bonnet from Samoa, 17th-century Staffordshire slipware dishes, Congolese carved ivory, Egyptian grave goods and so on. Perry’s aim is to salute the nameless artisans who fashioned such pieces, to provide an antidote to the modern cult of the celebrity artist. The irony that he is just such an artist — the well-known craftsman, as it were — is not lost on him. But his work is interesting because it elucidates a richer interior life than that displayed by many of his peers. One can’t strip away his bobby-socked alter ego Claire or his devotion to his teddy bear Alan Measles (the presiding deity of this show and a recurring motif) because they are not mere Anthony Blanche affectations but integral to what he does. 

There is, of course, a degree of self-indulgence in the way Perry links himself with the craft tradition and he himself, in whichever persona, is not to everyone’s taste. Nevertheless, his grouping of exhibits does speak poignantly about how some of the most moving and spiritual of objects were the product of the most humble of hands. 

The little-known is also the theme of The Spanish Line at the Courtauld Gallery. This is a choice selection of 40 drawings from the gallery’s important holdings and while it includes examples from masters such as Ribera, Goya and Picasso the real surprises lurk among unfamiliar Golden Age names such as Antonio García Reinoso, Vicente Carducho, Antonio del Castillo y Saavedra.

“Spanish school” has long been a dumping-ground term for 17th-century drawings of uncertain provenance (often from Italy) but this exhibition sets out to prove that Spain has its own distinct tradition of draughtsmanship. The Spanish line of the title was essentially a magpie one, with artists taking inspiration from Low Countries prints and Italian Renaissance masterpieces such as Michelangelo’s Last Judgment

There are some exquisite works here, from the Four Studies of a Young Man by Antonio del Castillo y Saavedra (1616-68) to Goya’s typically unsettling Singing and Dancing, c.1819, and a charming and refreshingly non-show-off drawing of five pigs by Picasso, c.1906. Taken together, the drawings trace Spain’s often uncertain passage from Renaissance through Counter-Reformation to the stirrings of Modernism. This is a quiet and quietly satisfying exhibition of the sort the Courtauld does so well.

Another piece of imaginative curating is on display at the National Portrait Gallery in its exhibition The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons. The period covered, therefore, is from the early 1660s when, during the Restoration, women were first permitted to perform on stage, to the late 1780s when figures such as Mrs Siddons and Perdita Robinson had become powerful influences on fashionable society. The moral transition of actresses from prostitutes to the ton was never a concern of the artists and the paintings here are from Simon Verelst (a favourite of Charles II’s brother the Duke of York) and later royal portraitists such as Reynolds and Gainsborough.

The portraits themselves, however, are evidence of the changing perceptions. Verelst’s Nell Gwyn, c.1680, is pure mistress, rouged and with an eye-snagging décolletage, but by 1775 some of England’s grandest women including Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire and Viscountess Melbourne were happy to pose for the jobbing Daniel Gardner as the witches from Macbeth. This exhibition nicely highlights how by the high Georgian period both portraiture and acting were linked in a mutually beneficial publicity enterprise.

A more challenging link between art and changing society is the subject of Building the Revolution at the Royal Academy, which examines the brave new worldism of Soviet art and architecture from 1915 to 1935. The two disciplines were closely entwined in the formative years of the USSR with Con-structivist artists such as Malevich and Rodchenko producing mechanistic and geometrical drawings that fed into the work of architects such as Melnikov and Tatlin. The idea was to produce an art in three dimensions as well as in two that would symbolise the forward-thinking radicalism of the Soviet project. The great symbol of this fraternity was to be Tatlin’s 400-metre high Monument to the Third International, a spiralling lattice of metal joists that would have stood over St Petersburg as the Eiffel Tower does over Paris. A scale model stands in the RA’s courtyard. The structure itself was never built.

Architecture is not always the most emotive of art forms but this is a surprisingly moving show, and not just because we know of the price extracted in human lives by Stalin. Alongside the drawings and paintings there is a selection of documentary photographs from the Schusev State Museum of Architecture in Moscow. These show the radio towers and workers’ clubs, housing projects and factories that resulted from the artist-architect collaboration when they were new and shiny. There are also photographs showing some of the same buildings now in a state of decay. For a brief period Soviet art and architecture was the most radical in the world and Bolshevism’s utopia was something in which these practitioners had a real stake. Its failure was personal.

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