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Arts: Visual Arts: Victoria would not be amused

THE NEAR life-size figures gambol across the wall, their black silhouetted forms startlingly strong against the whitewash. At first glance the image evokes pastoral gaiety but, on closer inspection, it reveals abuse and murder. Appearances can be deceiving.

World's Exposition (1997) by Kara Walker, takes the silhouette, considered a genteel and acceptable pastime for Victorian ladies, and subverts it to a tale of social inequality and comment on the racial prejudice that lay behind the master-slave relations that existed in the pre-Civil War American South.

The Victorian era, seen as excessively ornamental, socially repressed and sentimental, often gets a bad press, even though underneath all the paper doilies it was a time of great creativity, intellectual curiosity and technological innovation. To put the record straight and point out how far-reaching the Victorian legacy still is, Secret Victorians, a touring exhibition from the Hayward Gallery, has gathered the work of 20 contemporary artists from England and America to give a 20th-century spin to aspects of the Victorian age.

Mat Collishaw's Soliciting a Reward (1994) is modelled on a praxinoscope, devised by the photographer Eadweard Muybridge to present animal locomotion. But, instead of a horse, a middle-aged man busks with his accordion at the foot of an escalator deep in the Underground. Music hall music envelops the work, the musician moving ever so slightly, trapped in a never-ending merry-go-round.

The Victorians' invention and love of photography has been taken up by a number of the artists. Bill Jacobson's work plays on the Victorians' sentimental use of photography to commemorate the dead. In his soft focus Interim series he conjures up a sense of lost lives, which he explains has drawn on "feelings around the tentativeness and vulnerability of life in the age of Aids" where photographs are often the only reminder that friends and family have after someone has died.

Hiroshi Sugimoto has also turned his camera on death with his photographs of Victorian criminals taken in Madame Tussaud's. The sharp focus of the St Albans Poisoner and the Brides in the Bath Murderer gives the figures a strangely life-like quality while retaining the waxiness of death. Photography was popular with Victorian women as it was not considered high art, and was therefore an area in which they were given free reign.

Sally Mann's nostalgic images, which recall the work of Julia Margaret Cameron, focus on her children as they languish in the countryside, swimming and playing fancy dress.

Today we still live in Victorian houses and use Victorian furniture and William Morris prints. We are surrounded by 19th-century leftovers. Secret Victorians has taken the icons most familiar to us and inverted them. A paper doily is blown up into vast proportions, all the more claustrophobic for its gigantic size; Victorian costume is recreated using African prints; and a silhouette of two Victorian men playing chess with the utmost decorum is undermined by the inclusion of their hugely exaggerated genitals.

Queen Victoria, photographed at Madame Tussaud's by Sugimoto, stares out glumly at this reinterpretation of her empire, her grim expression and familiar down-turned lips looking far from amused.

`The Secret Victorians', Firstsite, The Minories Art Gallery, 74 High Street, Colchester (01206 577067), until 5 Dec then on tour

Kate Mikhail