Friday, 31 May 2013

Manchester Art Gallery

As I was in Manchester for a training course during the day, I decided to explore its art gallery. Great to see they also do late openings on Thursdays much like in London so this gave me until 9pm to wander at my leisure. Note: This is my first comparison between London and Manchester galleries and it won’t be my last – London is my home after all!

Another similarly is that like the National Gallery they also had classical musicians playing during the late opening, which is always a nice ambience for exploring art – but the purist in me prefers the silence to absorb the detail in the works.

I was gutted that I arrived the week after the Raqib Shaw exhibition had ended – I loved his work a few years back at the White Cube so I’m sure I would’ve enjoyed a larger exhibition.  But luckily there were many works that were worth the trip - the quality of the collection will never match those of the major museums in London but I went on a chronological tour and have picked out some highlights. 

The first thing to hit you is the fantastic atrium and grand central staircase where every wall at the top of the stairs is covered with paintings to admire as you ascend.  Ignore the familiar names like Tissot and Sickerts – it’s not their best works and they pale in comparison to the superior neighbouring works by lesser known artists.

The staircase is flanked by a diptych of reliefs by Harry Bates titled War and Peace respectively that literally jump off the walls in a display of expert casting. Also of note is Edward Matthew Ward’s Byron as he stares longingly through a window at the object of his affections – the contrast of internal warmth versus the darkness that envelops our protagonist gives him the sinister air of a disturbed stalker.
However, the best work is a portrait of a pretty young girl by Albert Lynch – despite her youth stares confidently back at the viewer.

We then pass through rooms with familiar names like Reynolds, Gainsborough and Hogarth but these didn’t stand out for me. When we get to a Turner depicting boats amongst tumultuous waves it’s amazing to see how one of his works can own a room and drown out adjacent paintings. This is when I recognised that having all the Turners together at the Tate Britain does rob them of their potency to a degree.

The oddest addition to these classical paintings is a lone Banksy – it’s interesting to see how the few contemporary works in this collection have to be hung incongruous to the rest of the art. He’s a major artist that deserves to be displayed in a gallery so it must be a challenge deciding where to hang it.  The other notable contemporary work is a video by the divisive Spartacus Chetwynd, but it lacks the barmy energy of her Turner Prize nominated performance.

The Pre-Raphaelite collection is excellent. Even though I’d seen the Tate show only last year, I was still impressed by the powerful works. John William Waterhouse idealises feminine beauty in his painting of Nymphs while John Millais’ biblical scene of Moses being supported by his sons would not look out of place among early Renaissance works.  Arthur Hughes’ Ophelia contemplating plunging into a lake to drown herself is evocative – it may not be as effective as Millais’ Ophelia but is still a great work in its own right.

The impressionism and post-impressionism section can’t rival the collections at the National Gallery or the Courtauld, but breeze through these and head to the Dutch paintings section to see a fascinating juxtaposition of classical and contemporary art.  Interspersed among the vanitas paintings are Mat Colishaw’s ‘Death Row’ series – easily his best work that takes the last meals of death row inmates and photographs them in a Chiaroscuro style to capture the emotion that these plain foodstuffs belie.

On an adjacent wall is a ‘moving still life’ by Rob and Nick Carter. It’s a video work that appears to be a still vase of flowers until the breeze flutters the petals – wait long enough and a snail, ladybird and butterfly all make appearances. It’s an interesting take on still life and in my opinion better than the similar works by Julian Opie.

There is also some Lowry works scattered about which only sought to whet my appetite for the Lowry exhibition coming soon at the Tate

I’ve purposefully re-arranged my recounting of the gallery to preserve the best ‘til last. Gallery 9 states that it’s a temporary exhibition but please let it be permanent as this small room is worth the trip up to Manchester just to see it. There is an impressive array of Francis Bacon works, with a screaming homage to Pope Innocent a real treat.

For me the gallery’s best work by miles is a huge Kossoff painting of York Railway Bridge from Caledonian Road. I’ve recently seen a great exhibition of his work in London but this blows all of them away. The paint is so thick and effusive that you feel that if you touched it, the paint would leap off the canvas and encase your hand – it’s like the work is alive and breathing! No image could do it justice so I haven't included one.

Overall an enjoyable visit with some excellent works, and I recommend you pop in if you’re ever in Manchester.