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 | 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 | Dance of the Butterflies

Romuald Hazoume | Living Worlds Gallery, Manchester Museum | 14 February – December 2015

I’m a fan of blurred lines, although certainly not in a Robin Thicke kind of way. Previous exhibitions covered in this blog, from the fashion of Andrea Zapp and Helen Storey, the daily drawings of Thomas Schutte or the mixed-media of Sarah Lucas all not only bridge a gap between one form of art and another, but also challenge the typical way art is viewed and appreciated in the gallery setting.

Particularly in the case of Storey’s recent exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery, one of the most powerful aspects of the show was the pieces’ installation alongside the regular exhibits. Works of art which may have been hung in the same place for years and seen countless times by regulars can be experienced in new ways when given a different context. This is a risky decision for the artist and curator involved as a fair balance is hard to strike; either the old favourites or their new neighbours can suffer from the adage that “comparisons are odious”.

Romuald Hazoume’s ‘Dance of the Butterflies’ currently installed in the Living Worlds gallery in the Manchester Museum is another of these integrated exhibitions, (generally known as a gallery trail but hard to call a trail when all of the art is in one room). Thousands of paper butterflies were mounted on various walls throughout the room, grouped together to form simple depictions of animals or flowers. The pieces were pretty, although not particularly striking, and did not attract much attention from the visitors there to see the Museum’s impressive collection of stuffed animals on display in the series of glass cases alongside.

With their references to the natural world, Hazoume’s pieces were in keeping with the overall theme of the room, and the butterfly/animal shapes mimicked the artefacts on display. However, as someone more likely to be found in a gallery than a museum, normally revering the man-made aesthetic over the contributions of nature, the most powerful aspect of the ‘Dance’ exhibition was how much the pieces paled into insignificance compared to their neighbours. Only a small sample of the animal kingdom is on display in the Living Worlds room, but even that was striking enough. It may be cheesy, but the sheer variety on offer in the natural world made me think how high the bar was set for someone to create art that could seem genuinely wonderful in comparison.


Never one to be distracted by the interpretations contained in gallery notes (‘Dance’ is obviously a commentary on African politics, according to the Manchester Museum), the main theme of Hazoume’s exhibition seemed to me to be “if you want to compete with nature, don’t bother”. Placed next to racks of preserved butterflies, how could the paper cut-outs not seem crude? What would be the point of drawing the outline of a whale, when a whale itself is so interesting a creature?

In that sense, ‘Dance of the Butterflies’ is worth going to see, but probably not for the reasons intended. It is an example of an exhibition where the most interesting thing to look at is not what is on display on the canvases, but rather everything else on display around it. That may seem like I’m doing Hazoume a disservice, and perhaps I am, but one of the best things you could say about an exhibition is that it brings new and powerful insight to the viewer, and ‘Dance’ certainly did that.


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.


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.