Ai Weiwei Unveils Lego Monet Water Lilies At Design Museum – Suffragette Millicent Garrett Fawcett Portrait Acquired By Parliament’s Art Collection

Ai Weiwei

In advance of his first-ever design-focused exhibition — opening next month — the Design Museum has unveiled a major new work by the celebrated global artist Ai Weiwei. 

Constructed entirely of Lego, the work is a recreation of one the most famous paintings by French Impressionist Claude Monet. It is the most significant Lego artwork Ai Weiwei has ever made. Titled Water Lilies #1, the work is over 15m long and will span the entire length of one of the walls in the Design Museum gallery.

It is fashioned from nearly 650,000 studs of Lego bricks in 22 colours. This extensive new work will be seen in public for the first time when the Ai Weiwei: Making Sense exhibition opens on Friday, 07 April. It is his biggest UK show in eight years. Water Lilies #1 recreates Monet’s famous painting, Water Lilies (1914 — 26), a monumental triptych currently in the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In the original painting, Monet depicts one of the lily ponds in the gardens of his home in Giverny near Paris. It is an image that has become world-famous for showing nature’s tranquil beauty. However, the pond and gardens were an artificial construct designed and created by Monet himself at the turn of the 20th century. He had the nearby river Epte partially diverted to create this idealised landscape.

By recreating this famous scene, Ai Weiwei challenges our ideas of reality and beauty. The new image has been constructed out of Lego bricks to strip away Monet’s brushstrokes in favour of a depersonalised language of industrial parts and colours. These pixel-like blocks suggest contemporary digital technologies central to modern life and how art is often disseminated in the contemporary world. Challenging viewers further, included on the right-hand side of Ai’s version is a dark portal, which is the door to the underground dugout in Xinjiang province where Ai and his father, Ai Qing, lived in forced exile in the 1960s. Their hellish desert home punctures the watery paradise.

Ai Weiwei has been using Lego bricks since 2014 when he used them to produce portraits of political prisoners. But Water Lilies #1 is his largest-ever creation in this medium.

Water Lilies #1 will be seen alongside another significant new Lego artwork by Ai Weiwei, also making its international debut at the Design Museum. First announced in January, Untitled (Lego Incident) is part of a series of five expansive ‘fields’ where hundreds of thousands of objects will be laid on the gallery floor. In this field, visitors will see thousands of Lego blocks donated to the artist by public members worldwide in response to Lego’s refusal to sell their products to him in 2014. In addition, these donated bricks are presented at the Design Museum for the first time as fully-formed artwork.

Ai Weiwei: Making Sense will be the artist’s first exhibition focusing on design and architecture. It sees Ai using the method and the history of making as a lens through which to consider what we value.

Other exhibition highlights include dozens of objects and artworks from Ai Weiwei’s career that explore the tensions between past and present, hand and machine, precious and worthless, and construction and destruction, such as his Han dynasty urn emblazoned with a Coca-Cola logo, which epitomises these clashes.

Several examples of Ai’s ‘ordinary’ objects, where he has transformed helpful something into something useless but valuable, will also be shown. These include a worker’s hard hat cast in glass which becomes solid and fragile and a sculpture of an iPhone cut out of a jade axe head.

Large-scale Ai Weiwei works will also be installed outside the exhibition gallery, in the museum’s free-to-enter spaces and outside the building.

Ai Weiwei said, “Our world is complex and collapsing towards an unpredictable future. Individuals must find a personalised language to express their experience of these challenging conditions. Personalised expression arises from identifying with history and memories while creating a new language and narrative. Without a personal narrative, artistic narration loses its quality. In Water Lilies #1, I integrate Monet’s Impressionist painting, reminiscent of Zenism in the East, and my father’s and my concrete experiences into a digitised and pixelated language. Toy bricks as the material, with their qualities of solidity and potential for deconstruction, reflect the attributes of language in our rapidly developing era where human consciousness is constantly dividing.”

Ai Weiwei: Making Sense runs at the Design Museum from 07 April to 30 July 2023. Tickets are available to pre-book now.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett

Suffragette  Millicent Garrett Fawcett Painting Enters Parliament’s Art Collection

An important portrait of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, one of the leading figures in the fight for women’s suffrage, has been acquired for UK Parliament by the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art. Set to be unveiled as part of Women’s History Month on 27 March, the work will be the first-ever representation of the celebrated ‘suffragist’ to appear in the Parliamentary Art Collection.

Dating from around 1910, the oil on canvas portrait shows Fawcett in the academic robes of the University of St. Andrews, which awarded her an Honorary Doctorate in Law (LLD) for services to women’s education in 1899 – the first woman to be so honoured. She is shown holding a quill, likely sitting in her home in Gower Street, London.

Portraits of suffrage campaigners are rare. Painted by the critically-acclaimed artist Annie Louisa Swynnerton – who also painted friends and family of Fawcett – the acquisition represents a rare opportunity for Parliament to acquire a highly significant work that not only portrays a prominent figure in the fight for women’s suffrage – but also one that was created by an artist who was herself involved in the fight for women’s rights.

The Committee has been actively collecting suffrage-related objects for more than 12 years and seeking to broaden the diversity of the Parliamentary Art Collection with more women sitters and artists.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929) was one of the most prominent campaigners in the fight for women’s suffrage and leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, who campaigned by ‘constitutional’ means. She led suffrage demonstrations and marches, regularly wearing the doctoral robes shown in Swynnerton’s portrait.

The work will be the first-ever representation of Fawcett in Parliament’s Collections. In 2018, the artist Gillian Wearing selected Fawcett as the statue’s subject to commemorate women’s suffrage in Parliament Square. As a result, she is the first – and only – woman to be represented in the space.

Annie Louisa Swynnerton (1844-1933) was a leading figure in the various social and political movements that characterised the late 19th and early 20th centuries and a uniquely successful female artist. An admirer and friend of Fawcett, Swynnerton became involved in fighting for women’s political rights and joined the Manchester Society of Women’s Suffrage in 1880.

Swynnerton made history in 1922 as the first woman to be elected an associate of the Royal Academy of Arts since its founding in 1768.

The Committee will formally unveil the work this evening at its annual Women’s History Month lecture, which Jess Phillips MP will open. This year’s lecture will focus jointly on Fawcett and Swynnerton, examining their lives, legacies and relationship to Parliament.

Given its importance within the Collection, the work is expected to be sited in a prominent location in the publicly accessible area of the Palace of Westminster, with additional interpretative material available on the Heritage Collections website. Installation is expected to be complete by the Summer.

Fawcett helped collect signatures for the first mass petition for women’s suffrage despite being too young to sign it herself. This petition, presented to the House by John Stuart Mill MP in 1866, was to mark the starting point of a campaign that continued until 1928.

Married to Liberal MP Henry Fawcett (1833–1884), Fawcett regularly accompanied him to the House of Commons and sat in the Ladies Gallery. Following an accident which left her husband blind, she acted as his eyes during proceedings. Together they supported proportional representation and trade unionism and advocated free trade principles as well as the advancement of women. Millicent’s campaigning activities influenced Henry Fawcett’s voting in Parliament.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett was present in Parliament in 1928 to see the passing of the Equal Franchise Act that granted women the same voting rights as men. In addition to her work expanding the vote, she also supported campaigns for women’s education and equal pay and campaigning against the exploitation of working women and child abuse.

Fawcett’s statue in Parliament Square is not part of the Parliamentary Art Collection – Westminster City Council has purview over works of art in Parliament Square

Photo Credit: Millicent Garrett Fawcett painting by Annie Louisa Swynnerton©UK Parliament WOA 7739

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