The Wellcome Trust describes itself as “the free destination for the incurably curious” and so it’s no wonder I loved my first visit last weekend. I only wonder why I’ve never made it there before, but then I do take comfort that there are still plenty of treasures in London as yet undiscovered by me.
We walk past the imposing building on Euston Road often, on our way to and from Euston station from the tube. But it was the posters on the underground that really got me there, advertising an exhibition of Miracles and Charms… What could be more intriguing than that and their invitation to ‘explore faith, hope and chance’?
It’s free to get in to what are actually two exhibitions in their own right: ‘Infinitas Gracias: Mexican Miracle Paintings’ and ‘Felicity Powell: A Charmed Life’. Not an instantly obvious pairing, but joined under the umbrella of the Wellcome Trust they actually work together beautifully. Long enough to get me happily engrossed, but not so long as to take up our entire Sunday, these thoughtful and beautifully curated exhibitions are certainly a must for us curious types.
First, we stepped through the exhibitions’ glass double doors to find a white washed room in which two walls had been completely covered in small panels of vivid artwork, rather like individually decorated tiles. A panel on the wall told us (as did the free, and highly informative guide leaflet) that the pictures were actually copies of hundreds of ‘ex-voto’ offerings, ranging from the 16th century to the present day. The story telling pictures depict scenes of families, couples, parents etc. asking their Saint for help in a time of crisis. A tribute to the divinity who had granted their requested ‘miracle’, the offerings are signs of gratitude commissioned by all manner of people.
At the foot of each are written the details of the dedication, but as they’re all in Spanish, and there were too many in that first room to have the translations next to each, it was up to us to guess the stories…. Some seemed relatively simple with parents praying next to their child’s sick bed, and various images of surgeons operating on people etc. Some of them though were a little harder to decipher, and were rather inappropriately amusing to us…..a man who had fallen out of a tree…..a car in the middle of a river…..we began to wonder if these Saints were being honoured for some rather every-day, mundane things, as well as the more ‘miraculous’.
In the next room, the walls were rather less crowded, with original ‘Votives’ from the 1800’s painted onto canvas, hung on the walls and protected in glass cabinets. These paintings represent the more elaborate, professionally painted ex-votos commissioned by the wealthy (later, those who couldn’t afford canvas would have them painted onto tin roof tiles which gave a beautifully lustrous sheen). Again, we saw a mixture of thank you’s for very dramatic events, as well as the every-day. The inscriptions below each often detailed how the commissioner ‘invoked the miraculous saint’ or ‘invoked with intimate truth at the core of my heart,’ whilst above this the pictures sometimes appeared in layers or strips to portray the passing of time, or two scenes in one painting. The rather naive images and the odd scale seemed to make light of disasters, whilst sometimes having the effect of dramatising the far less serious (‘freed from catastrophe’ might just mean someone survived a nosebleed!). In some ways, I began to think that these may well be excuses to celebrate the power of these Saints (‘for this was an evident miracle’), although a big part of me thought how wonderful it is to be so grateful just to live each day, and with ‘humble proof of recognition’.
The next room opened with its first long wall collaged with modern documents and artefacts, lent by the people of Mineral de Cata. Here, near to the entrance of one of Mexico’s earliest silver mines, is the church dedicated to Senor de Villaseca who is attributed with miraculous powers. Once the practice of dedicating ex-votos to such divinities diminished in the 20th Century, people instead began to offer other thank you’s to show their gratitude for answered prayers. The wall contains a bizarre assortment of tributes, such as a polystyrene food tray on which a biro-inked drawing thanks a Saint…. several wedding dresses, bouquets and veils express thanks for women who have found love…. and baby clothes thank the Saint for delivering a healthy child to the parents and ask that he or she grows strong and lives well. Again, I was rather bemused by this need to thank someone, or something, for what would largely in our culture pass as every day things, or at least simply the achievement of one’s own hard work.
One inscription that caught my eye, underneath a detailed architectural diagram, thanked a Saint for something surely attributable to the person himself rather than any other power: ‘I thank you with all my heart for this accomplishment: a warehouse with multiple uses.’ I found myself feeling rather sorry for the skilled surgeons and doctors in some of the paintings, who themselves were not attributed with saving lives, but instead the gratitude went to the associated Saint for granting a miracle. I wondered how one could feel satisfied in one’s own work and others’ skills when their successes were credited to some divinity instead.
The exhibition began to move away from these very visual appreciations though, as it presented details of a remote place called Real de Catorce, also in Mexico. Accessible only by a narrow tunnel of 3km, the site was a major source of Mexico’s mineral wealth in the 18th Century, and inhabited thousands of foreign investors, until 1910 when the mine owners fled in the Revolution. A curious sounding place, I soon became interested in this sort of lost city, especially as I learned that right to this day over 40,000 faithfuls gather there every October for the fiesta of St Francis of Assisi. Bright images in photos and video of the procession of the fiesta caught my attention, with crowds swelling through the streets and carrying a just over life size likeness of St Francis, high above their heads. It is the practice there for the faithful to leave small amulets in honour of this Saint, and these were shown sewn onto a robe as tiny metal eyes, ears, houses, hearts, animals, coins and limbs….each asking a particular prayer for health or prosperity. I loved these charms, especially in their clever arrangement on this robe and two walls hangings, and they provided a wonderful link to the next exhibition…….
Felicity Powell’s ‘Charmed Life’ is an exhibition made up of both her own work and some of the 1400 amulets collected by the Edwardian collector Edward Lovett. These charms, once owned by Londoners who believed they would ward off ill-health and bad luck, intrigued Powell who was ‘intrigued by the silent witness they bore to countless personal narratives’. Similarly enchanted by such treasures and the ‘comfort of things’, I delighted in viewing the tiny and beautifully detailed talismans and became engrossed in their possible meanings and their histories. A large horse-shoe shaped glass cabinet encased hundreds of keys, shells, glass shoes, tiny dice, dominoes and plenty of unrecognisable artefacts….all carefully arranged into meaningful groups.
Powell’s own work plays with scale and detail just like these objects, and one could certainly imagine using one of her beautifully intricate works as a charm of some sort. A video showed us, in reverse, the incredible process of how Powell makes her wax pictures on the back of mirrors. The effect of the video was almost magical and by the time we came to see the pieces themselves I adored their charm and complexity. Born seemingly of pure imagination, hands spawn coral and a head turns into a tree as roots sprout out from its neck. The vivid white and red on black (I’ve always loved this colour combination) serves to burst forth the subject from its backdrop, whilst it still seems as one inside its circular setting.
Her works were a perfect end to the two thought-provoking exhibitions, from which I gained some wonderful inspiration. In fact, I can’t wait to play with such scale and detail in some crafty arty projects I have got lined up….. so watch this space.
Cameras are not permitted in the exhibition, so I’ve taken these snaps from the little guide leaflet I took home, to at least give you an idea….. really though, I’d very much recommend a visit to anyone ‘Incurably Curious.’ Both exhibitions run until 26th February.