There’s a little bit of a walk into this before the serious art stuff but this visit was quite a significant experience!
So, I was lucky enough to find myself in Birmingham shooting an episode of Doctors… by 10am on the final day we’d finished up my last scene and I was back at the station. Should I get on the train and head for home – no, this was too good an opportunity to miss.
And there’s a handy left luggage office.
I’d determined to visit the art gallery in every town I filmed/auditioned in. I live 12 miles out of Cambridge so a trip to an art gallery is quite a big investment of time and money. In the past I’d have just come home but now I’m studying art I want to use every opportunity I can to see art in the flesh. To stand face to face with the ‘unique surface’ as John Berger might say.
It was exciting!!!
Birmingham’s city centre is lovely, it’s got lots of cool public art, buildings and very friendly people – I even saw the Birmingham School of Art.
Just 40 years too late!
And statues old and new…
Then into the museum.
There was one big change from visiting art galleries before… in the past an art gallery has been a pleasant bonus (I was quite happy to look and read about art in books) but this time it was different.
The real paintings were so rich and impactful, the colours very different from the photographs, the ‘physical’ impact of the painting was unique, details leapt out from the canvases that I’d totally missed in the books, the brushstrokes and finish made it like you could be standing with the artist.
They had a physical presence that was totally missing in art books.
It was the difference between reading a magazine article about a famous person and sitting down for a coffee with them. If you can make eye contact over a table and have a chat you’re going to get something of their humanity that you can never get from a photograph and an article. Those things can help you understand but the painting themselves affect you emotionally.
I hadn’t realised this as I haven’t been to a gallery for ages but since I started this course paintings, for me, have radically changed.
As I went round four paintings really leapt out – like meeting somebody you have an instant connection with. It’s a bit (probably ten years?) too early to start thinking about a voice. But I thought I’d start making a note of paintings I liked as that might give me a clue as to what I might eventually like to do.
John Melville’s ‘Aston Villa’…
This is much better in real life… to me it has a slightly Van Gough/Gauguin/expressionist feel. I love the way the colours work and how it captures the feeling of being there without having to show us lots of detail.
We’re ‘seeing’ the experience not looking at a frozen visual image.
The others pictures I particularly liked were woodcuts/prints:
One called ‘Inner Ring Road Birmingham’ by Gabriella Oliver (which I can’t find an image of.)
‘Canal Bridge’ by Tessa Beaver:
It doesn’t work 100% for me but I like the visual impact of the patterns and blocky shapes.
The white is too much and makes the supporting surface stand out… tells me it’s a print when I want to lose myself in the moment.
And a Picasso linocut:
I love the fact it’s two colours, that it uses words, how it pulls you in… and the patterns are delightful. I’m not a huge fan of the cubist element but it works, for me, despite that. Again it has visual punch and instantly works as a whole.
To the rest of the exhibition…
I made notes as I went along:
Which I’m now struggling to read!
Note to self, I need to slow down and maybe have a notebook? And ask if I can take photographs without a flash.
I’m almost tempted when I have a day to take a sketchbook and copy some famous paintings/details.
So, very briefly… I didn’t like the tempera 19th Century art/art and craft paintings. The colour and life seemed to have been sucked out of them. And they were not as technically proficient as the earlier paintings, yet in a similar style. And they did not have anything like expressionism/psychological realism or other elements to make up for the losses.
There was a Pre-Raphaelite exhibition which was great as I’ve never liked these in books. And could never see the point. However, face to face, they were much more appealing and had something beyond the finely crafted photographic surface.
The two things on this that particularly struck me were the colours – the orange, purple of the dresses, contrasting with the lemon green of the grass and the sky picking up the purple of the girls dress made it work like a Matisse (in colourist terms). And the clothes sprang to life… the poverty… and at a glance I thought she’d books on her lap, but it’s a squeeze box.
On the other hand the details and static stillness distanced me. There was no air, movement, breeze or scents… no distant birdsong.
It was almost like there was a passionate man locked in an ideological cage struggling to escape the confines of the overworked (my judgement – sorry!) surface.
In a similar vein the eyes worked here…
They capture something of Rosetti’s soul. It’s not dry, religious… ascetic… flat and dead. But has a passion and a fire which belies the controlled picture surface and outer ideology of the group.
I liked the simplicity of the introductions in each room giving an accessible entry to the paintings.
The 18th and 19th century art (room 23) seemed strangely dead. Nobody was alive and the group portraits were disconnected. Like somebody had cut and pasted the people onto a backdrop – and they had no relationship with each other.
Arthur Hughes (1832-1915) – A Christmas Carol At Bracken Dene
What struck me about this was the little girl with the misletoe. She could be straight off a 1930’s poster – or rather the other way round! The 1930’s poster people used these kind of dead over emotional images. Disney emotion – feeling without content – emotional manipulation.
There was a room considering portraits which got me thinking. It said how portraits were the preserve of the landed gentry… then the upcoming middle classes… and now everybody can do a selfie. They had examples of ‘social’ portraits showing local ‘ordinary’ people around Birmingham in the 19th century.
Too big a subject to go into here but ticking away in my brain as I complete Part 4.
A final picture was:
What struck me about this was that the models sat in the open, in the freezing cold, to get the sense of light in an open boat. And how, generally, the artists painted from models… copying meticulously. And how this must affect their art… make it static and detailed… photographic like.
And how this differs from a portraitist who might have five 2 and a half hour sittings for a painting. I forget who that was – he painted straight onto the canvas.
But in a portrait you’re capturing the presence of a person – as well as in the past his wealth and possessions, so the person in front of you is part of the painting. But in the Ford Maddox painting you have a dramatic scene. Spray would have been flying, it would have smelled salty, the travellers would be full of fear… the boat would be rocking and tossing. And yet you’re painting a friend or wife for hours sitting in a field dressed up in costume.
However good the painter the process is going to affect the outcome.
Would a press photograph capturing the same scene – then reinterpreted through the soul of the painter work better. Not an option he had… but modern cameras can capture (freeze) a moment… it’s not how we ‘see’ but could be useful?
The Ford Maddox Brown has lovely details such as the child’s hand beneath the cloak. But it’s detached… and doesn’t capture anything of the imagined moment. It is more like mannequins in a museum (I was reminded of Yorvik where life like mannequins are dressed up and put in a ‘real life’ viking village) than starving, freezing cold people being tossed about in a small boat – latter day Syrian refugees escaping poverty instead of war – facing an uncertain future and leaving behind everything they know.
But another painter might take you there… like John Melville took me to the football match!
All in all a brilliant 3-4 hours… and a great deal for £4.95 in a little cafe (though she didn’t have any change and I ended up with 16 £1 coins!) for a sandwich, water and crisps!