The Museum of Everything’s third exhibition plays host to the collected paraphernalia and curatorial musings of the godfather of British art, Sir Peter Blake. Long before Pop art was about shopping and commercialism, it was about collecting and curiosity born out of the development of mass spectacle in the 19th Century. Institutions such as the circus, music hall and private museums present a type of pre-history of this type of popular entertainment which provide a rich seam for anyone interested in mass visual culture.
Like much of Blake’s own work the collection is organised around themes to do with the sameness or difference of each object on display. These collections are lexicographically organised - a collection of clowns, a collection of screens, a collection of puppets. A few works of his own have made it into the collection but, by-and-large the show is drawn from Blake’s own extensive personal collection of curiosities. This has two strategies – one being that something is unique and weird and the other being that there are many things that are trying to be the same. Blake describes this as a celebration of “difference”, the difference between the bearded woman and the weightlifter, which are both in their own way beautiful or the difference between each of the hundreds of animals all made from tiny shells which all attempt to do the same thing.
On the first floor of the museum is a rare chance to see taxidermy from the collection of Walter Potter. Menageries of stuffed animals play out these elaborate dioramas of traditional British life. The most striking of these is probably the “Original Death and Burial of Cock Robin” which depicts the passing away of the tiny bird as described in the famous rhyme. Like much in the show this rhyme found it’s way into popular culture as a subject for parody in everything from Steinbeck to Orwell’s 1984. It is hard to belief that the works of Damien Hirst or Polly Morgan would have ever transpired without the work of someone like Potter. In this respect the authors of much of the work on display at the Museum of Everything are retrospectively cast as Outsider Artists.
In one of the more entertaining reflections Blake makes he compares his own career to that of CHEETA, a chimpanzee who was the first non-human artist to be shown at the National Gallery. I suppose it is the logical conclusion of outsider-art to focus on an artist who isn’t even human.
The origins of our modern palate for the brash, the shocking and sensationalist are uncovered through this wonderfully accessibly survey. For anyone interested in the pre-history of our modern visual culture then you could hardly wish for a better guide than Peter Blake.
-- Mike Tuck
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