‘Cactus Provisoire’, Trinity College, Dublin


Another work of art in the public spaces of Trinity College, Dublin.  This large metal sculpture is ‘Cactus Provisoire’, created in 1967 by Alexander CalderBest known for his “kinetic sculptures”, this is one of his non-mobile “stabiles

It’s located in Fellow’s square, an open space between the college library used by students and the old library which houses the Book of Kells. The square is on the well traversed route  through the college between College Green and Nassau Street. So plenty of people pass this sculpture every day.

Toxic Art – Alexander Calder’s Mercury Fountain

As an occupational hygienist, when visiting the Alexander Calder exhibition at Tate Modern last week I couldn’t help but stop and take notice of the pictures and description of one of the works created by this American artist well known for his mobiles and other “kinetic sculptures” . A mercury fountain.

While I was looking at the display, I overheard a comment by a young woman to her partner as they too read about this work

“It couldn’t have been real mercury could it. That would be dangerous”

I couldn’t help responding

“It was, and it is ”

Mercury, the magical Quicksilver, has been known since ancient times. A metal that’s a liquid at room temperature that flows like water.  Being a liquid, vapours are given off which can be inhaled and it can also be absorbed through intact skin. It’s highly toxic, affecting the brain, gastrointestinal system and kidneys. It’s particularly noted for causing neurological and behavioural disorders due to brain damage. Symptoms include tremors, insomnia, memory loss, neuromuscular effects, headaches and cognitive and motor dysfunction. In Victorian times mercury compounds were used in the manufacture of felt for hats and the workers in that industry were particularly affected. This is said to have inspired Lewis Carroll’s “Mad Hatter” from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This was disputed by the esteemed Professor Hugh Waldron back in 1961, but the myth persists.


The exhibition website tells us the story of the fountain’s creation

In 1937 Calder was one of the contributors to the Pavilion of the Spanish Republic designed by Josep Lluís Sert for the International Exposition in Paris, where his Mercury Fountain was installed in proximity to Picasso’s painting Guernica. In the middle of the Spanish Civil War, Calder showed his support for the embattled Republic by creating a fountain that would run with mercury from the mines at Almadén – a valuable economic and strategic resource. (Tate website)

I found it a little ironic that a work of art created in support of a government dedicated to improve the lot of working people celebrated an industry likely to have been responsible for poisoning the workers in the mine where it was extracted.

Although it seems likely that visitors to the exhibition back in the 930’s would have been exposed to mercury vapours, given the relatively short period that they would have been in the vicinity their exposure would have been limited and its highly unlikely there would have been a significant risk to their health. However, I’d be more concerned about the staff working in the Spanish Pavilion.

Today the fountain can be seen at the Fundació Joan Miró museum in Barcelona – carefully displayed under glass. Hopefully appropriate measures are taken to protect the workers who have to maintain it from the toxic liquid and vapours.

Mercury fountain

Picture from the Fundació Joan Miró museum website

Performing Art?


Last Tuesday while I was in London, I had a few hours to spare after my meeting finished and before I could catch the off-peak train back home. The meeting took place just round the corner from Tate Modern so I took the opportunity to visit Performing Sculpture, the exhibition of work by Alexander Calder that’s showing there at the moment. I’ve been keen to see it but as we missed out on visiting London in January, opting to go walking up in Cumbria instead, I was pleased to be able to grab the opportunity.

Calder was a sculptor of “kinetic sculpture” and  is best known as the inventor of the “mobile”(a name coined by Marcel Duchamp when he first saw one of the sculptures). Delicately balanced sculptures constructed of wire and metal.

As is usual with Tate Modern’s exhibitions it was a very comprehensive retrospective covering the evolution of Calder’s work. No photos allowed, so pictures are sourced from the Tate’s exhibition website.

Calder was also a master of wire sculptures. He expertly bent wire to create three dimensional ‘drawings in space’. Animals, circus performers and even portraits of friends, fellow artists such as Miro and Cocteau and other well known people like Josephine Baker.


Alexander Calder with “Edgar Varese” and “Untitled”, Saché, France, Gelatin silver print, 1963

I wasn’t aware of this aspect of his work and was fascinated by the works on display in two of the rooms at the beginning of the exhibition. Despite being constructed of wire which defined an empty volume, they almost seemed solid.


Hi! c 1928

Early in his career he visited the Paris studio of Piet Mondrian (we’d seen a reproduction of the studio at the Mondrian exhibition in Liverpool 18 months ago) and this experience inspired him to the extent that he  was “converted” to abstract art. Seeing the coloured rectangles pinned to the wall he suggested that it would be interesting to make them move about. Mondrian clearly thought this was a stupid idea but Calder went away and started experimenting with creating abstract works that moved, driven with motors. There were examples of these “stabiles” – pieces that were anchored to the floor or other horizontal pieces in several of the following rooms.


Red and Yellow Vane 1934

I particularly liked those works inspired by the planets and constellations, such as A Universe  a motorised work, in which a complex pattern is traced by two spheres, moving at different speeds along the looping wire paths.

When the sculpture was first exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Calder was told that Albert Einstein stood watching it for forty minutes, waiting for the mechanism to work through the ninety cycles of movement before it began to repeat itself. (exhibition website)

The culmination of the exhibition were the final three rooms which featured his mobiles, delicate structures hanging from the ceiling. I was fascinated by how he had been able to balance them. A process which would require a good understanding of mechanics, carefully balancing the metal elements by calculating “moments of force”, a combination of the mass of the elements and the length of the wires. So it wasn’t a surprise to learn that Calder trained as a mechanical engineer at the Stevens Institute of Technology in his early twenties, only becoming an artist a few years after he’d graduated.


Vertical Foliage 1941

There was only one work in the final room, but what a work it was. Black Widow, a 3.5 metre mobile suspended from the ceiling. The sculpture belongs to  the Institute of Architects of Brazil in São Paulo. Usually hanging in a central space in the Institute’s headquarters, this is the first time it has been allowed out on loan.

Calder’s mobiles and stabiles were designed as kinetic works. They are meant to move. So it was disappointing that there was very little movement in the exhibition, despite the video on the Tate website showing one of the mobiles slowly pirouetting in the breeze as Calder intended.  The works are delicate and many of those meant to be driven by motors are too old and delicate to allow them to be operated. That’s understandable. But there was also very little movement with the mobiles suspended from the ceiling. They swayed gently, but there were strict instructions not to touch them or blow at them.  Given that the whole point of these works is that they are meant to move, this was disappointing. The “Performing Art” didn’t perform. The mobiles were largely immobile. However, despite this I have to say that this was an excellent exhibition. Some beautiful works – particularly the wire sculptures, astronomical works and, best of all, the mobiles.

Sculpture at the McNay Art Museum

The McNay Art Museum have a good collection of 20th Century sculpture displayed in a gallery in the Jane and Arthur Stieren Center for Exhibitions , in a sculpture garden outside this wing and a few other pieces scattered throughout the grounds. There were also a few pieces displayed inside the main galleries. Here’s a selection.

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The McNay Art Museum – the Collection

Marion McNay was an American painter and art teacher who inherited a substantial oil fortune upon the death of her father. She was an enthusiastic collector of Modern Art and on her death bequeathed her collection of some 700 paintings and other works of art to found the first Modern Art Museum in Texas. The Museum has built on the bequest and now has almost 20,000 works in their collection.

The gallery spaces are light, bright, spacious and airy and there was an excellent range of works on display.


The collection particularly focuses on 19th, 20th and 21st-century European and American paintings, sculptures and photographs. It also includes medieval and renaissance works, art and artefacts from New Mexico and an extensive collection of theatre arts.

The 19th and early 20th Century is represented by artists including Monet









and Picasso


Post War European art included works by

Ben Nicholson


and Barbara Hepworth


Not surprisingly there were a large number of works by American artists, including Joan Mitchell


Hudson River Day Line (1955)

Willem de Kooning


Eddy Farm (1964)

Sue Fuller


String Composition #T220 (1965)

and two small paintings by Jackson Pollock


I liked this little sculpture, Snake on a table (1944) by Alexander Calder


This painting by Diego Rivera was one of the first works purchased by Marion McNay.


Delfina Flores (1927) by Diego Rivera

Upstairs in the old house there works from the Medieval and Renaissance collection and the collection of artefacts from New Mexico. I wasn’t so keen on the former but rather liked the display of paintings, pottery, textiles and other objects that constituted the latter.


I particularly liked the examples of Pueblo pottery, created by Native Americans, they had on display.



Overall an excellent gallery, well worth the ride out there on the bus.

They also had a good collection of sculpture (besides the two works above). I’ll return to that in another post.