Arts: Visual Arts: Victoria would not be amused

SECRET VICTORIANS FIRSTSITE, COLCHESTER

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions