"Love is Enough" – William Morris and Andy Warhol – MOMA Oxford

My first thought on seeing this exhibition listed was that there seems to be precious little in common between these two men – they’re both great but how do you link them? Bit like chocolate cake and chesse..on their own great…together……how?

Takes about 5 minutes in the first room of this exhibition at MOMA Oxford to have a revaluation: repeating printworks! Flowers and birds = Elvis Presley and electric chairs. It’s the repeating printworks stupid!!

Of course it isn’t just that, nowhere near. In fact one of the things I got out of the show was the way it made me think about the ways they’re the same. Warhol began his career as a commercial illustrator and Morris was focussed on work which would sell to a mass market (though one has to comment that one needed a certain level of affluence to be part of that mass market). Warhol called his art studio ‘The Factory’ while of course Morris and Co quite literally had one! Neither of them worked alone but in conjunction with other craftspeople in the production of their work.  Both were writers as well as visual artists. Both were interested in social change. Etc

Richard Dorment in The Telegraph fails to like it, calling it a “half-baked self-indulgent mess” ; it’s a scathing and frankly brutal review which does make some very valid points, and clearly Dorment likes both Warhol and Morris so it’s not just the material he dislikes. It’s a great piece of writing though and you should read it as it WILL make you think

Mark Brown in The Guardian is more generous to the show

So, does having read the Dorment review make me think differently in retrospect? Would it have made me think differently had I read it before? I think that by it’s very nature an exhibition which seeks to compare and contrast two artists separated by some of the most world-changing decades history has seen was always going to be somewhat artificial. Quoted in The Guardian review linked above Jeremy Deller (the curator) says of the show that he was asking people “to suspend their disbelief momentarily and make connections about art across two centuries”.  Of course one can find limitless differences – volume produced wallpaper for ‘the masses’ (even if the working class couldn’t afford it) is a lot different to limited runs of silk-screen portraits of pop-culture icons and food packaging. After all there were pop-culture icons and packaged food in Morris’s day and he doesn’t, so far as we know, even consider putting them on wallpaper! The whole cultural atmosphere is also totally different, which creates a totally different cultural context for the work, and Morris seeks to change society by exposing them to beautiful well crafted things rather than producing graphic images of the aftermath of things like the Chartist Riots and the Newgate Gallows: transformed by beauty rather than inspired to riot one might put it.

But, and I think there is a but, the exhibition does make you look at their work and by showing the similarities makes you realise there are some. The past is a different country and they do do things differently there..but Morris’ old buddy Rosetti might not have been too out of place hanging out with the Velvet Underground (and Lizzie might have just dumped him for a rock drummer and lived).

Even if you agree with Dorment and find it all ridiculous, or like me find some things which do make you think,  I think it’s a great show. If you can get to Oxford before it closes on the 8th of March then do so.  It’s also free so if you find yourself finding that it’s rubbish you’ve not lost any money and just go and have a coffee instead!


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