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Four hundred objects go on public display for the first time in the newly refurbished Toshiba Gallery of Japanese Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London. More than 550 items dating from the sixth century to today are on show, including 30 new acquisitions.

The gallery initially opened in 1986, and houses works from the V&A’s collection of Japanese art and design which was founded in the 19th century.

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Part of Alexander McQueen’s genius and enduring influence on fashion was his constant pushing of boundaries, both through construction of clothes, and the usage of unconventional materials in making them. His fascination with birds, which began in his boyhood, extended into his professional oeuvre, manifested in ethereal and fantastical couture collections that subverted ideas of weight, structure, and conventional beauty. Yet his mastery at tailoring was equally evident in even the most unadorned of garments, with jackets cut severely to emphasize various parts of the body, and extremely low-cut trousers aptly named “bumsters.”

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The V&A has announced details for the only major retrospective in Europe of the work of the visionary fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen. One of the most innovative designers of his generation, McQueen was celebrated for his extraordinary creative talent. He combined a profound grasp of tailoring and eclectic range of influences with a relentless pursuit to challenge the boundaries of art and fashion, blending the latest technology with traditional craftsmanship.

Originated by the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, "Savage Beauty" will be edited and expanded for the V&A’s large exhibition galleries. It will feature 30 additional garments, including some rare early pieces, lent by private individuals and collectors such as Katy England and Annabelle Neilson as well as pieces from the Isabella Blow Collection and the House of Givenchy.

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Photography is a mechanical art. The photographer points a lens at an object, records the image on a plate or film or, today, in digital memory. Therefore all photographs should be similar, the hands of individual photographers unrecognisable. Yet the new Photographs Gallery at the V&A, which opened on Monday to showcase the world's oldest museum collection of photographs, reveals the apparently limitless variety of the art and the utterly personal genius of great photographers.

A photograph of a steam train taken by Alfred Stieglitz in 1902 hangs near Henri Cartier-Bresson's 1932 picture Behind Gare St Lazare, Paris, on the blue-painted wall of the long, elegantly restored, Victorian gallery.

Both black and white prints portray a ragged industrial landscape of rail tracks in brooding weather. But they are so profoundly different that you almost feel you are looking at two different art forms, two technologies. Cartier-Bresson's image is so light and mobile, an impression of a passing moment, whose meaning is as enigmatic as it is poignant. Stieglitz gives his print a monumental power, a weight, that is the very opposite: a column of black smoke assumes iron authority.

Lightness and weight, the momentary and the enduring: right from its invention at the close of the Romantic age, photography displayed these extreme possibilities in its nature. The oldest photograph in the V&A collection is an ethereal silvery phantom of a London street in 1839, taken using Louis Daguerre's pioneering method in the year he made it public. By the 1850s photographers were shooting such diverse masterpieces as Robert Howlett's 1857 portrait of the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, cigar at the corner of his mouth, tall hat on his head, the chains of the Great Eastern falling into Miltonic darkness behind him, and John Murray's icily majestic panorama of the Taj Mahal, taken in about 1855. The camera could capture the craggily real – Brunel lives for ever in his portrait – or the stupendously beautiful.

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Wednesday, 28 September 2011 04:51

Thank heavens we’re POST-Postmodern. V&A show review.

Charles Jencks, the architectural theorist credited with inventing the term “postmodernism”, once pointed out that what is exciting and avant-garde one moment tends to feel like old hat the next. No doubt he is right: younger generations often berate the immediate past to assert their own identity.

Even so, walking through the V&A’s new exhibition, which traces the rise and fall of postmodernism across different disciplines during the Seventies and Eighties, I was tempted to ask: has there ever been a more irritating movement in the history of art and design?

The curators tell the story of postmodernism perfectly well. We learn about its development during the early Seventies, in the work of architects such as Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, who believed that the lingua franca of high modernist style was defunct. In place of clarity and functionality, they introduced new styles and techniques, such as pastiche and irony. (Venturi and Scott Brown were obsessed with the signage of Las Vegas, which gives a clue about the direction in which postmodernism would head.)

Their ideas proved infectious. Before long, artists, musicians and filmmakers, as well as fashion and furniture designers, were also making “postmodern” work — characterised by brash, bold colours, a skin-deep interest in surfaces, and the playful juxtaposition of different styles and “looks” usually identified with distinct periods in history.

There are countless examples of this at the V&A, such as Wendy Maruyama’s Mickey Mackintosh chair from 1988, which “updates” a distinctive piece of Art Nouveau furniture designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh by adding a pair of enormous Mickey Mouse ears.

For a movement obsessed with nuances of style, though, it’s remarkable how glaringly unstylish most postmodernist design actually is. It is as though, for a short but frenzied period around the turn of the Eighties, many of the architects, artists and designers whose work features in this exhibition collectively lost their bearings on what constituted good taste.

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The Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel stands in front of the massive chains used to launch his ship the Great Eastern, wearing a top hat, smoking a cigar. The casual confidence of his pose, paraphernalia of industrial might, and the proliferating phallic imagery have made this 1857 portrait by Robert Howlett one of the most renowned photographs of all time. This autumn, it will go on view in a new photography gallery at the V&A along with classic pictures by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus and other luminaries, in a grand survey of the medium from its origins to the 1960s, with an additional gallery dedicated to the photograph today.

An ambitious new permanent photography gallery in an art museum – it's so 21st century. And yet so 19th century, too. In giving the photograph its due, the Victoria and Albert Museum is living up to the vision of its Victorian founders, who embraced all aspects of design and invention and all places and times. This was conceived as the ultimate museum, at once forward and backward looking – a laboratory of new culture and a dreamy cabinet of curiosities at one and the same time. The announcement of a new photography gallery opening this autumn is the latest in a series of gallery openings, redesigns, and restorations that are fulfilling the ideals of its Victorian creators and making the V&A London's best museum.

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