Painting | Head VI

Francis Bacon | Manchester Art Gallery

In my earlier blog on Grayson Perry’s wonderful ‘Jane Austen in E17’, I mentioned the artist’s particular skill at creating a work that catches the eye of a viewer, even in a crowded gallery, even when the visitor is moving through at speed, as I often am.

Even more powerful than a piece which stands out while the visitor is in situ, is one which leaves a lingering impression long after it has been left behind. With fingers itching to write and the frustration of being trapped on a train for eight hours – I’m off to St Ives, the artists’ Mecca, so the pay off will be worth it – I find myself wandering through my mind-gallery of such artworks to find a worthy subject to satisfy my creative urge. 

(I’m well aware that the fact that I have this list of favourites that I can recall at will, while on a train when most sane people would be napping, is the mark of a true obsessive. What can I say… everyone needs a hobby.)

From Rubens to Rembrandt, Klimt to Klein, via Picasso and, of course, Perry, I’ve amassed quite a collection over the years. But to keep it close to home, until my inevitable post on the wonders of Tate St Ives, there is one piece that stands out; ethereal, dramatic, frankly quite scary, it’s Francis Bacon’s Head VI from 1949, on display in Manchester Art Gallery. 

 

The first of a series of paintings based on Spanish artist Diego Valazquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X, with imagery drawn from medical textbooks on mouth and facial diseases, the result is a jarring clash between formal, traditional composition and ghostly, nightmarish delivery. 

The blurred but obviously still papal form screams out of its frame, the remnants of a manic wide-eyed stare just visible before the top part of the face is wiped into obscurity. Not usually one to be drawn to images that are so obviously pained, Head VI catches me off-guard every time I am near it, it is so arresting, yet a visual embodiment of something inherently disturbed, and disturbing.

It’s not a huge leap of the imagination to suggest that this tortured figure echoes the mental state of its creator. Passionate and impulsive, a heavy drinker and gambler, gay at a time when it was illegal to be so and involved in a series of doomed relationships with emotionally unstable younger men, Bacon’s life was certainly not an easy one. Aside from his own, Bacon also witnessed the impact of others’ demons, including lover George Dyer’s six-year demise and ultimate suicide. One can expect an unhappy artist to make unhappy art, and Head VI is no children’s party. 

The rough, sketch-like quality of the painting adds to the impression of a sudden, emotional release. A thinly drawn white cube cages the figure, in a weak attempt to contain the sheer strength of feeling. This is not the kind of face that is meant to be shown to the outer world, and perhaps Bacon acknowledges this as he blurs the figure into the background of the canvas. 

It’s hard to look at Head VI for long without feeling some of its darkness creep over you; the fact that Bacon lived into his 80s working on such spectres every day is testament to his strength if character. There is no happy ending with Bacon, all of his art is bold and brutal, he turned bodies into carcasses and faces into deformities. But the appeal of his work is that it was brave; as if he had lifted the veil on humanity’s fear of its own mortality and, instead of running, he stared it in the face.

And then he decided to paint it. 

Pottery | Jane Austen in E17

Grayson Perry | Manchester Art Gallery 

I love Grayson Perry. I confess it’s been a slow-burn kind of love; as a final year Art Historian tired of the Renaissance my head was turned by Grayson’s peers; Young British Artist bad boys Jake and Dinos Chapman. They may have been shortlisted for a Turner prize but Perry had beaten them to it, which meant he was just too mainstream for my tastes at the time. The irony is not lost on me.

However my natural inclination towards a well-crafted, interesting and visually appealing work of art soon reared its head. And with his engaging combination of wit, insight, character, historical references and sheer force of personality, my love of Perry was inevitable.

Whatever material it is made of, Perry’s work stands out in any room that it is displayed in, and its creator is recognisable on sight. That’s why it was impossible to miss the large ceramic vase ‘Jane Austen in E17’ as I made a dash through Manchester Art Gallery. With its intricate engravings, overprinting, jewel-like colours and sheer size, it is an incredible object.

The ornate drawings on the surface of the vase, of bonneted ladies from Jane Austen novels, are like book illustrations, and are simple but disarmingly engaging. The joy of a three-dimensional object means that the images can be viewed in a continuous loop as you circle the vase, admiring the quality of Perry’s work from every angle.

In the gallery notes next to the vase, Perry explains that it is about linking past and present, showing quintessential examples of the prim Georgian middle classes alongside images from gossip magazines and photos from the trendy East London. However, he admits that actually this sort of analysis of the piece is “post-rationalisation of my own work. Embarrassing as it is for an artist to admit nowadays, I was really striving for beauty”.

This desire to create what is quite simply a beautiful object without shrouding it in obscure intellectual justifications is one of the best things about Perry. Even in his earlier works which dealt with issues such as abuse, child sexuality and pornography, with a penchant for inserting penis symbols onto any available space, the draft of Perry’s work was undeniable. Embracing a variety of mediums, whether painted miniatures, pottery, tapestry, screen-printing, his own transvestitism, everything at it’s very core is aesthetically pleasing.

I’m a great advocate of the view that being high-brow, pretentious, over-educated or well-read has nothing to do with the appreciation of art. A gut instinct is as powerful as any footnoted thesis. I’m aware that this line of argument is making my three years holed up in a library seem even more pointless than many would believe it to be already. I did learn so much, and one was the belief that art should be for all.

By “striving for beauty”, Perry’s work taps into a person’s most basic, magpie-like, attraction towards something pretty. There’s a child in all of us that, when we see something we like, has the impulse to reach out and say “I want it”. So many artists (like the aforementioned enfants terrible of the 90s, the YBAs) veer off in the opposite direction, creating art to shock. This shock factor often isn’t as a tool to drive home some profound point; rather it’s an attempt to stick the middle-finger up to the establishment by causing a ruckus in an art gallery. Viewing a piece by a contemporary artist which causes pleasure rather than discomfort is a refreshing change.

‘Jane Austen in E17’ is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of Perry’s oeuvre and a tiny insight into what he is capable of an artist. But it is a beautiful insight nonetheless, as successful as the artist could have hoped, and Manchester is lucky to have it.

Exhibition | Artists in the Frame

Manchester Art Gallery | 21 May – 31 August 2015

How many times do you look at yourself a day? For some, a perfunctory glance in the mirror first thing in the morning is enough, and they’re usually later found with toothpaste on their chins. For the selfie generation (and here I raise my hand), we see our faces copious times a day, pouting at our reflection either on our phone screens or in a Facebook status.

If you really want to get to know your face, and yourself, do a self-portrait. I tried it a few years ago, and by the end of the process I can honestly say if you’d held up a picture of me next to one of Quasimodo I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference. Raising your face up to that much scrutiny, first from yourself, and then anyone else looking at the finished article, is an anxiety-inducing process. 

But it is exactly this ‘bare-faced’ nature of the self-portrait that has made it so appealing to generations of artists, and also allows us as viewers a privileged insight into not only how the artist sees themselves, but also how they want to be seen by the world.

Due to open next week at Manchester Art Gallery, the exhibition ‘Artists in the Frame: Self-portraits by Van Dyck and Others’ centres around Sir Anthony van Dyck’s self-portrait which was recently acquired by the National Portrait Gallery and is on its way through a three-year national tour. There will be 20 other artist self-portraits alongside it, covering the themes of self-expression, self-analysis, social status, and artistic identity.

Van Dyck’s piece is heralded by the art world as one of the most remarkable self-portraits ever painted in Britain. While many wax lyrical about the poise and finesse of Van Dyck’s style, it is more the artist’s position as Charles I’s court painter and his role in raising the status of art in polite society that makes him significant. 

This portrait will be the ‘headline act’ within the exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery this summer, but I confess that it’s the ‘and others’ that I’m particularly excited about seeing. The ‘supporting acts’ list is impressive and spans centuries of British portraiture, including William Hogarth, Angelica Kauffman, Wyndham Lewis, Chris Ofili, Sarah Lucas, Julian Opie and Grayson Perry. While the ornate golden frame surrounding Van Dyck’s work is touted as impressive, I suspect the traditional painted portrait will show its age when seen alongside more modern mediums such as photography, digital and graphic works. 

The press preview is next Wednesday and I’ve wrangled my way in. Will the contemporary offering herald a new era for self-portraiture? Or despite their best efforts, will Lucas, Perry and Opie languish in the long shadows cast by Van Dyck? Stay tuned…  

Exhibition | In the Footsteps of a Master

Emily Allchurch | Manchester Art Gallery | 13 March – 8 June 2015

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun”, bemoaned the author of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. While this quote has been used to berate artists across the centuries for a lack of originality, modern pieces are more likely to be referential, and often deferential, to the precedents set before them.

Emily Allchurch’s work is based around making modern photographic recreations of old master paintings of iconic scenes, allowing the viewer to see the changes not only in artistic medium but in the places themselves. There’s nothing quite like juxtaposing the past and the present to show us not only how far we’ve come as a society, but how much things have stayed the same.

As part of the first UK solo exhibition of her work, Manchester Art Gallery commissioned Allchurch to make a piece based on a painting of Manchester’s Albert Square by Adolphe Valette from 1910. Valette’s view of the city is dark, smoggy, industrial and slightly despairing. Allchurch’s photograph shows a lighter, brighter, and more demographically-mixed image of the square, although the sky is so idealistically sunny as to render it unbelievable.

Both pieces are true to the spirit of their medium. As an impressionist, Valette was committed to showing the trials and tribulations of daily life for the regular population, not just the posed portraits of the aristocracy. Similarly, photography lends itself to providing a snapshot of a moment in time in the hustle and bustle of one of the UK’s busiest cities.

Allchurch’s image may be sunnier, but like Valette’s it shows the hard-working face of Manchester – there is very little loitering going on here. Some of the buildings on the skyline may have changed, but what Allchurch’s work shows is that cabbies still drive, bin men still clean, and there is nothing new under the sun.

Exhibition | Northern Women’s Art Collective

Nexus Art Cafe, Manchester | 26 March – 1 June 2015

A group of women from across the North of England have come together to form an artistic collective and have put on their first show based in the creative hub that is Manchester’s Northern Quarter.

I’ll put my hands up to confess that I missed the launch on 26 March as I was schmoozing at an event in Coronation Street (sucks to be me, I know), but this is top of my list to dash to in the coming weeks. It combines some of my favourite things: cool women + art + hipster cafes + people-that-like-all-of-the-above-and-live-in-the-same-place-I-do.

Northern Womens Art Poster

The open exhibition features a variety of work including ceramics, painting, drawing, and photography, so what’s not to love?

The collective began meeting at Nexus Art Café in Dale Street in October, and have been working on pieces for the show since then. The artwork will remain in the cafe until 1 June and many of the pieces are available to buy.

The collective has 19 members; some are professional artists, but others have full time jobs outside the arts world, so props to them for making the time to create all of this stuff.

Although apparently their cultural origins are diverse, all the women now live in the north of England, and identify as Northern women.

I’m curious to see whether this ‘northern-ness’ is identifiable across the exhibition as a general aesthetic. Is it possible for the grey skies, the indomitable spirit of its inhabitants, and the industrial heritage of the North West to seep into the art of a group of almost 20 women in some subtle but consistent way? Or is that as patronising a thought as expecting their work to be based around the same themes simply because they’re all women?

I’ve pretty much defined the focus of a future review blog; now I must take the not-so-winding road to the Northern Quarter to find out the answer, and I suggest you do the same.

Hmmm... No grey skies to be seen here.

Hmmm… No grey skies to be seen here.

Exhibition | Cotton Couture

Manchester Art Gallery | Thursday 19 June 2014 – Sunday 14 June 2015 

Manchester is a city built on cotton. The import of the material from the US and Manchester’s production and distribution of it as a usable fabric was the core of the industrial revolution and the purpose of many of the massive Victorian warehouse still seen around the North West today.

Stylish is not a word that one associates with cotton. We use it for t-shirts, napkins and bed sheets, not cocktail dresses. Which means that despite its best efforts, the Manchester Cotton Board of the 1950s was not successful in its endeavour to prove to the world that cotton could be more than practical, it could be couture.

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The series of terrifyingly tiny-waisted mannequins across the ground-floor room at the Manchester Art Gallery show a series of outfits made by leading couturiers of the age, “inspirational creations” to prove that cotton could be as equal in a ball gown as the finest silk. From dresses for debutantes, to office chic, to clinging red voile for the aspiring femme fatale, the designs try their best, they really do. The silhouettes are gorgeous, but the dresses still seem… lacklustre.

At the risk of getting too etymological, it is that ‘lack of luster’ that is at the root of why cotton never made it from durable to desirable. The shine of silk, the vibrancy of velvet, the  sheer furriness of fur, all give off an immediate impression that the material would be a joy to touch, a pleasure to wear.

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Cotton is just too dull, too everyday. The most glamourous in society are not interested in a ‘special occasion’ dress that is machine-washable. Delicacy equals transience, and transience equals value. To wear an outfit that looks like it would only survive one showing demonstrates that you’re rich enough to afford a dress that only needs to be worn once.    

Of all places to have an exhibition on the untapped potential of cotton, Manchester is perfect. Despite the centuries since the peak of the industrial revolution, the city still has some grime under its fingernails; it works hard, and plays hard. London is a beautiful woman in silk, perfect and poised, manicured of hand and stilettoed of heel. Manchester is her fun-loving sister; she scrubs up well, but won’t let the fear of spilling ketchup on her pretty dress get in the way of having a good time.

After all, it’s only made of cotton, so she can just bung it in the wash.