After last week’s stroll along the soft southern streets of Bath, today I’m relocated several miles northwards for a few days situated among the grittier meaner streets of Manchester and Liverpool. Although, since most of my time will be spent in the same chains of coffee bars that I frequent when in London, and the public galleries that I’ll be visiting are run by a cast of curators all cut from the same small societal sector of bien pensant Post-Modernists who currently share similar visions of museological best practice, the only real regional variation that I’m expecting to encounter will be on the walks between hotel, cappuccinos and exhibitions. Of course, the two northern cities I’m visiting are also both built on a much grander industrial scale than their smaller country cousin and their architectures are consequently more bold and assertive, an attitude perhaps reflected in their indigenous populations – at least judging by the gangs of lads and gaggles of girls who swagger and strut in the ritualistic displays that seem to form such an important part of their Friday and Saturday night’s routine of recreational engagement.
Anyway, enough of the sociological and anthropological ruminations and on to the art, with my first stop at the Whitworth in Manchester which, I have to admit, is one of my least favourite of all exhibition spaces since it seems to epitomise the very worst of all that is wrong with current contemporary curation. Whenever I visit, there always seems to be an atmosphere of dread aimlessness about the place suggesting to me that whoever is in overall charge of coordinating the running of the gallery is some dull bureaucratic box-ticker rather than a passionate art enthusiast, and that they’re much more at home chairing soulless committee meetings or trying to suck up to dodgy grey businessmen in the hope of getting financial donations, rather than being excited by being given the opportunity to organise exhibitions that might invigorate, enlighten, shock, stimulate, or inspire. As such, the large overall display space is divided into about seven or eight separate open-plan rooms each seemingly designed to try to appeal to some special separately targetted demographic that’s doubtless been identified through focus group research as being in need of some kind of watered down cultural quick fix. So, to be specific, the current extraordinarily diverse selection of shows includes looks at Textiles from the Islamic World; Mid-19th century Wallpaper Design; Ibrahim Mahama‘s vast installation work referencing contemporary politics in Ghana; Li Yuan-chia‘s manipulated photographs of Cumbria; Pearl Alcock‘s colourful Outsider Art drawings (see above); an interactive display relating to The Reno nightclub; and a round-up of recent additions to the gallery’s permanent collection that range from a pretty Turner watercolour to a brash Emin embroidery and one of Bert Irvin‘s better abstracts (see below).
None of that lot keeps me engaged for very long but then I’m not sure it was meant to. What did make me think it might be worth calling into the Whitworth was the final show on the random list of obscure entertainments noted above, that being a small selections of drawings and works on paper created by the grandfather of Modernism, the great Paul Cezanne. The suite of works displayed together here – about twenty or so prints and drawings – were the personal collection of Karsten Schubert, whose eponymous commercial gallery had been particularly influential in the promotion of British art in the 1980s and ’90s. As his obituary in the Guardian a couple of months ago indicated, while he had perhaps not been universally revered, he was certainly an interesting and intellectually spirited dealer who devoted his life to promoting the art that he liked and the artists that he respected, and his early demise was certainly a rather sad and untimely artworld loss. The only time I ever exchanged words with him was to compliment him on his book The Curator’s Egg which was an interesting historical examination of the changing nature of museum exhibitions an gallery displays, and I remember being slightly surprised at just how pleased he seemed to be that someone had actually read his small book and found its ideas worthy of consideration.
As for the work of the artists that Schubert chose to exhibit, I was never a particular fan and now, looking at his accumulation of Cezannes, I realise that our divergence in personal aesthetic preferences seems to have extended from the contemporary to the historical. By which I mean that, having re-examined the evidence on show here today, I remain unconvinced that Cezanne had any great ability as a draughtsman. In fact, I’d go further and have to say that while he was one of the greatest painters in all of Modernism’s great long history, producing work that was often fascinatingly experimental and frequently exquisitely beautiful, he couldn’t draw for toffees.
There’s a self portrait that is A-level adequate but as for the rest of the stuff on show, it may have some ephemeral art historical interest but none of the sketches of his children, taken from life, nor the ranks of mythological figures, so laboriously, heavy-handedly and poorly copied from prints or the pages of books, show either technical facility or compositional felicity. All they reveal is just how hard and unsuccessfully Cezanne struggled to master this basic aspect of art. As to whether he was aware of the really notable disparity between his awful amateurish attempts at drawing and the breathtaking quality of his later great still lifes, portraits and landscapes, it’s very hard to tell. As is the extraordinary possibility that it might somehow have been his very obvious failings in the former format that actually helped to lead him on to his great stylistic success in the latter. Either way, it does seem utterly bizarre that the man who had such a great eye when it came to producing those wonderful fruit bowl arrangements, those splendid views of Mont Sainte-Victoire and those exceptional portraits of card players, could be so cack-handed when it came to trying to organise the anatomy, render the musculature and structure the scenes of the groups of bathers he seems to have been so determined to commit to paper (in the example shown above). As a whole, the show is intriguing in its oddity and I suppose I’m sort of grateful for having had the opportunity to confirm my previous prejudices of the artist’s ineptitude but I do wonder if true Cezanne fans might be better off choosing to look away rather than having to accept that when he put his brushes down and picked up a pencil the great man’s superpowers simply drained away.
The following day I’m off to Liverpool and the outpost of the Tate that forms the artistic centrepiece of the trendy gentrified and generally very smartly restructured area that was once the heavily industrialised dockland hub of the city. Now, the contents of the gallery here are not quite as poorly arranged as back at the Whitworth but it’s a pretty close run thing. The great bulk of the collection is displayed in a series of arrangements called ‘constellations’ which seems to be a term dreamed up at some brain storming meeting as a wonderfully meaningless coverall title to allow for the randomised allocation of any artworks in any combination across time and space, style and substance. So, a Braque Cubist still life work, created in France at the start of the last century, when the artist was experimenting with Picasso to try to find new ways of recording the world that was appropriate for the new modern times they were living through, is hung next to a typically restrained item of British Surrealist quirkiness – a whimsical beach scene – painted a quarter century later by Edward Wadsworth…and the viewer is left to try to come up with a connection, constellational or otherwise. And that’s by no means the only example of clunking artistic incongruity, there are plenty of others to choose from, some more egregious than others. A poignant example of American Abstract Expressionism by Mark Rothko, created when the artist was making the darker and darker works that seemed to reflect the inner despair that preceded his sad suicide, is shoved in a corner next to an upbeat stylised figurative painting by Ben Shahn. Perhaps most dispiriting and disrespectful of all, however, Is finding a wonderful work of quiet Minimalist metal sculpture by Donald Judd trapped in the same room as the violently dazzling floor work of Jim Lambie (see above).
Frankly, I would advise the thoughtful sensitive viewer to avoid all the rooms housing works from the permanent collection and instead head straight to the main temporary exhibition display space which is now housing a comprehensive review of the short life and compelling works of the American graffiti artist Keith Haring. And here, in contrast to yesterday’s Cezanne show, this time I have to admit that I exited the exhibition with my previous prejudices well and truly confounded. Having seen occasional examples of Haring‘s work over the years I suppose I always rated him as a fairly talented graphic designer type rather than any kind of a proper fine artist worthy of serious consideration. But the show is so excellently put together that I’ve had a change of heart. And while the old arguments that I would have used against the artist – that the works lack dimensionality, colour and purpose – are all still relevant, I think it’s fair to say that Haring manages to overcome these limitations by sheer determination and force of will. And that the explosive power behind the dynamic stream of inventive patterning and creative mark-making that were so characteristic of his idiogrammatic cartooning style should be taken as a whole and read as being directly reflective of the period and location of their creation. That he really did manage very successfully to capture both the upbeat the zippy disco zeitgeist of New York in the 1980s and the dreadful down beat curse of the Aids epidemic that followed in its wake.
And so, in keeping with what I think was the artist’s spirit of exuberant hectic urgency, I’ll terminate my usual plodding prolix verbosity and simply offer up another couple of images that hopefully can better convey the speedy Haring along vision of someone who was perhaps both a very fine commercial artist and a very commercial fine artist. So, here’s one.
And here’s another.