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October 31 2011

Magic Worlds? The Museum of Childhood's show lives up to its billing

From Dürer to Harry Potter, an exhibition about the relationship between folk tradition and childhood comes up trumps

The best art exhibition to see this Halloween weekend was Magic Worlds at the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green. Putting on an exhibition that all ages can enjoy is quite an achievement: this one really comes up trumps. It even manages to show a print by Albrecht Dürer in the same section of the show where kids dress up as witches, and make this juxtaposition quite natural and effective. The Dürer print portrays a witch riding a goat, her back to the animal's head as it flies through the air.

Dürer was the greatest artist of the German Renaissance. He travelled to Italy and introduced classically proportioned nudes into German art. Yet his vision was profoundly northern. In an age when Johannes Gutenberg had unveiled the first printed Bible in Frankfurt in 1454 – the beginning of Europe's printing revolution – Dürer was at home with the printing press.

German artists led the way in visual applications of print. But in portraying a witch in eerie detail, Dürer did more than make good use of the medium – he also tapped into a dark world of folklore and superstition.

With great lightness of touch, Magic Worlds explores how folk traditions have interacted with the culture of childhood. It includes an early 19th-century painting of Cinderella by George Cruikshank, various editions of the fairytale collections of Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, and ... Lego Harry Potter.

The Museum of Childhood is actually an outpost of the V&A, and I love the way this exhibition draws on the V&A collection – and loans including Derren Brown's props – to offer a genuinely rich exploration of its subject. It shows the ways magical beliefs become magical fictions, how fairytales evolved into fantasy literature, and how real superstition merges into conjuring tricks. Another fascinating exhibit is a 16th-century book on witchcraft that includes a depiction of the fairground trick known as the beheading of John the Baptist – a Tudor version of the modern magic trick of the assistant sawn in half.

I don't want to give a false impression of this show: it is no blockbuster. But it is an unpretentious, free, family exhibition at a museum whose main galleries are a treasure trove of historic toys. I learned more from it – and got more genuine pleasure from some of its exhibits – than many massively promoted, self-consciously intellectual events where children are encouraged to shush, instead of being invited to run about dressed as fairies. It continues through the winter, so if you missed it at Halloween it will add to the magic of the Christmas season. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 23 2011

Moving art: the magic of animation

From Bernini to Bridget Riley, artists have long brought art to life. But the animator's art is unique – innocent, imaginative and fun

Animation, when you think about it, is a very strange art. The invention of cinema in the late 19th century made it possible to show apparently moving, lifelike photographs of real people. But it was also used from the very beginning, as Watch Me Move – a summer exhibition of animated films and art at London's Barbican – reveals, to make drawings and models come to life.

Bringing a statue to life is an ancient dream, embodied in the myth of Pygmalion. It was said that this Greek sculptor literally "animated" one of his statues: it lived. Less luridly, such artists as Bernini and Rubens infuse their (static) statues and paintings with stupendous effects of dynamism. Bridget Riley's paintings do the same thing inside your head, inducing an illusion of movement.

There are fascinating, profound issues in the way animated movies work, and how they relate to high art both past and present – but the Barbican exhibition does not explore them, at least not in a conventional way. It does not weigh down the visitor with an opening gallery on the psychology of vision. Instead, it plunges you into a vast collection of moving images. Very early films by the Lumière brothers show near art films by William Kentridge and the Brothers Quay. There are forgotten Czech masterpieces, clips from South Park, the Disney classics ... It is great fun for adults and children alike, although one or two exhibits need parental caution (such as South Park).

There are some props and stills, too. My favourite thing here is not a film clip. It is a real treasure: the original model for one of the skeleton warriors in Ray Harryhausen's masterpiece of stop-motion animation, Jason and the Argonauts.

Animation can be all things to all people. Adult TV cartoons have revealed the ironic satirical power of the medium. But perhaps the most beautiful aspect of cartoons and stop-go special effects in the 20th century was the reinvention of the fairytale. In an age of science and reason, animators such as Harryhausen brought the world of magic and fable to life in entirely new ways. Powerful moments from Walt Disney's fairytale features are shown in the exhibition, as well as one of Harryhausen's early fairytale films.

Harryhausen has filmed Greek myths and yet he always gives them a quality of nursery fable and folkloric simplicity – as they surely possessed for children in ancient Greece. There are few films as fun to watch as his fabulous tales. And there are few modern achievements as innocent, imaginative and joyous as the animator's art. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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