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“Arty Wow Moment”: Review of Angels of Anarchy @ Manchester City Art Gallery

 

UPDATE ADDED:  5 March 2012.  Tremendous blog post on Francesca Woodman and her work over at Wayne Ford’s Posterous.   Her tragically short life is put under the microscope and the resulting post is a wonderfully informed and a comprehensive look at her background, work and influences.  Thank you Mr Ford!

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It has to be said I probably attend my fair share of exhibitions, but what doesn’t happen very often is that I enjoy one so much I feel a powerful urge to blog about it.  But the “Angels of Anarchy” exhibition currently in residence at Manchester City Art Gallery really does deserve to be seen by anyone with even the vaguest interest in the visual arts.

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My last real big “arty wow moment” in Manchester was back in 1997 at the David Hockney exhibition, the one with all his photocollage stuff.  OK, well yes, I did also have one seeing the footage of Gandhi visiting Darwen at the Procession exhibition (Cornerhouse, Summer09).  But that doesn’t really count as it wasn’t the art that made me hold my breath with wonder, rather the actual event happening at all and being recorded forever by someone with a movie camera.

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To be truthful, the only reason ‘Angels of Anarchy’ even twitched on my radar was due to the inclusion of some of Lee Miller’s photographs.  I am not really a big fan of Surrealism.  A few years ago, when I got to see some of Dali’s best work up close, I could appreciate the beautiful brush work but I didn’t find myself particularly moved.  It was all a bit too clever for me.

Surrealism emerged in the mid-Twenties, a potent, shifting and bubbling period in the art world.  Most of the celebrated artists and thinkers were male (Breton, Dali, Freud, Magritte, Man Ray, Picasso) and these are the names which are inextricably linked with the movement and whose work we have become accustomed to seeing.

Where the curators of this new exhibition have struck gold is by choosing to limit things to a unique viewpoint, namely the part women played as creators.  This helps to make the work relevant, it introduces a much more human aspect and allows the viewer to better understand and feel the emotion pouring out from the artists work on show.

Exhibition spaces can often feel cavernous, cold and intimidating.  Manchester Art Gallery have got things right here though.  Subdued lighting, warm rich colours and intelligent grouping of images make for a meandering and intuitive journey.

The work takes all forms, from painting and photography through to film, sculpture, books and poetry.  Many of the pieces can usually be found ensconced within numerous different private collections, there are 150  images from the 1920’s through to the 1970’s.

After viewing the exhibition I came away with much to think upon.  Many images deal with the representation of women as sexual objects; beautified, empowered, sad, disconnected, shackled.  Sometimes it felt like a celebration, stumbling into someone else’s party, women united and enjoying each others artistry, support and friendship (Lee Miller’s portrait work).  This is women experimenting and questioning, using their art to examine traditional roles and their place within a wider world and trying to find a voice.

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It is a privilege to have the opportunity to see powerful work such as Lee Miller’s ‘Severed Breast’ (a freshly removed female breast is photographed served up on a dinner plate complete with cutlery on a white linen tablecloth, the was showcased in Vogue the magazine Miller worked for at the time) and Meret Oppenheimer’s wickedly disturbing “Fur Gloves With Wooden Fingernails”.  I really like the work of Manchester-based artist Rachel Goodyear and I believe her images would feel right at home in the slightly gothic and fetish-themed room where Oppenheimer, Penny Slinger and Josette Exandier’s work is displayed. Within this leatherbound haven you will find a fur teacup, a blonde human hair whip (fairytale/Rapunzel?) and bird skeletons.

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Argentinian painter Leonor Fini’s work stands strong and powerful.  A remarkable women, artist, costume designer and novelist.  I was wowed by her “Little Hermit Sphinx (1948)” with it’s subtle colours and exquisite technique, capturing decay and innocence, a guardian for life and death.

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Batting for the British corner I found Edith Rimmington’s painting “The Oneiroscopist (1947)” haunting, weird and beautiful.

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Photography is well-represented in the exhibition.  I mentioned Lee Miller’s work earlier, but there is an abundance of powerful work.  I discovered the images of Francesca Woodman (Kate Bush a big fan apparently).  This US artist took the photograph chosen for the Exhibition poster and “Untitled” (1977) a self-portrait showing her hanging from a doorway really stayed bouncing round my mind long after I had left the gallery.  Using long exposures she generates a ghostly atmosphere, made all the more powerful when you discover she had a troubled life and committed suicide aged 22yrs.

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Dora Maar’s photographic portrait of an armadillo embryo is freakish, spooky and rather innocent, whereas her “Sans Titre” seashell with a hand is classic surrealism, another of her prints hints at her striving towards a more documentary style and one can understand there is a truth to rumours of her appreciation of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange .  Maar is perhaps better known as Picasso’s muse, but I would love to see more of her photography.

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A big star of the show is Frida Kahlo, probably acknowledged as one of the more celebrated female surrealist artists, her work is vibrant and pulses with it’s own distinctive style,  symbolism and themes.  I must make an effort to see the film “Frida” based on her life,  she overcame huge odds to create such powerful paintings.

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A new discovery for me was Kay Sage, an American painter working mostly with oils.  She created beautiful, linear landscapes filled with futuristic structures all coloured from a sublime palette.  Sage’s work felt decidedly modern and distinctive, her painting “The Hidden Letter” immediately made me think of Phillippe Starck’s famous iconic lemon squeezer (or am I alone in that thought!).

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This really is a feast, an exciting opportunity to see such a range of high quality work in one place.  The Gallery has made sterling efforts to enhance the experience, with a programme of talks and tours, games and interactive websites.  All part of a quietly terrific marketing and social media campaign, steered by Wilmslow agency Wonder Associates. Fantastic to see an arts organisation making such an effort to find and engage with their audience.

Further reviews of the exhibition can be found at the Guardian, Independent, Prospect Magazine, creativetourist.com and for a queer slant try Chroma Journal. Angels of Anarchy continues at Manchester Art Gallery until 10th January 2010 and was curated by Dr Patricia Allmer, MIRIAD, Manchester Metropolitan University.

UPDATE: Nov 2010.  Just found a well-written piece in The Telegraph newspaper (England) today on Francesa Woodman.  It’s well worth a read, particularly  if you have an appreciation of Francesca’s work and would like to learn more about her (sadly) rather tragic and short life.  It also highlights the fact that some of Francesca Woodman’s work will be on display at the Victoria Miro gallery in London 17 Nov 2010 – 22 Jan 2011 and also in the New Year 2011 a major retrospective will be on show at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art and then on to the Guggenheim in New York in 2012.

Next year, a major Woodman retrospective will travel to San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, and on to the Guggenheim in New York in 2012. Before that, though, an exhibition of around 50 of her photographs, including some rare colour prints, opens at the Victoria Miro gallery in London on Wednesday.

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Zaha Hadid @ Manchester International Festival, past, present, future …

Last year I watched a programme illustrating the shortlisted buildings for the “architectural Baftas” aka The Stirling Prize.   One entry that stood out for me was the elegant and fluid Nord Park Cable Railway built in Austria by Bagdad-born Zaha Hadid.  I read up a little on the architect and the more I delved, the more I liked her, and realized her projects had  seeped closer to me than I had imagined.

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Zaha seems to relish tackling different practical and creative challenges and she is not averse to mixing her genres.  She designed one of the better elements of the Millenium Dome “The Mind Zone” and has set-designed for the Pet Shop Boys and the Belgium Charleroi Dance Company.  Earlier this year she was guest editor on the Radio Four “Today Show”.  She has a mathematical aptitude, she studied for her Mathematics degree in Beirut and moved to England following her graduation.  In Sept 2008, Zaha guest edited “Wallpaper” magazine and designed the award-winning die-cut front cover.

Her London-based architectural practice grew in size and reputation during the 1990’s and she is now world-renowned for her innovation and organic sensual style.  Awards started winging her way,  judging by her current work, it seems she has gained an appetite for them.

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The scene is now set.  It is a cold, windy late winter day and I get my first chance to pick up the newly-pressed Manchester International Brochure for 2009.   I admire the design, the graphics and printstock.  I then open up the pages and I’m very excited to discover Zaha Hadid will be working on something here in Manchester for the Festival.

“Zaha Hadid Architects have created a unique chamber music hall specially designed to house solo performances of the exquisite music of Johann Sebastian Bach.  A voluminous ribbon swirls within the room, carving out a spatial and visual response to the intricate relationships of Bach’s harmonies. As the ribbon careens above the performer, cascades into the ground and wraps around the audience, the original room as a box is sculpted into fluid spaces swelling, merging, and slipping through one another.”

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Tickets sold out fast for all the evening performances but free tickets were available for lunchtime concerts featuring students from Chethams School of Music and the Royal Northern College of Music, two highly prestigious Manchester-based music schools.  It soon became clear that one could not just stroll down ten minutes prior to the concert as demand was huge for these 1pm sessions.  After a thwarted first attempt, I was still not certain I would get in when I went down to the Art Gallery for a second time the following week.  I had to go onto a waiting list for returns, and as I was number 13 on the list I was non-too hopeful, but the luck Gods were shining on me and I was given a late entry.  Hallelujah.

So, alongside 191 other lucky punters of all ages, sizes shapes and colours, I took my seat and felt quite special within the cocoon-like protection of the Music Hall Sound Pod.  The simple colour scheme of black and white belies quite a complex construction and the months of acoustic research the aim of which is to create a magical listening experience.  There was certainly an expectant crowd, our noises bounced around and created an excitable hubbub.  Our entertainment for the next 24 miutes entered quietly through a neat side archway, stepping onto the stage came Christian Elliott a talented cellist from the RNCM.  The Bach piece chosen was “Cello Suite No 3 in C major”.

Though a massive fan of music, my knowledge of classical is extremely limited, nevertheless the whole experience was entrancing.  The connection between performer and audience was instant.  The designed space fostered a sense of intimacy and many of the performers have spoken of feeling relaxed and protected within this womb-like aural grotto.  Delicate moments on the cello were crisp and easy to hear, silence was broken with a slight background hum (maybe air conditioning?) and the rich sweeping notes which tumbled out from the stage were moving, filled with warmth and fullness.

This was a bold and exciting use of a fairly standard boring gallery room and fantastic to see the Manchester International Festival pushing on with their remit to bring new work and collaborations to a wider audience.  I also applaud the blending of pricing options so those on a tighter budget can get to experience some of the work on offer.  It would be nice to see this remain a key policy for future years.  I bet that Manchester Art Gallery’s collections and visiting exhibitions have benefitted from a vastly expanded footfall too.

If you can, I urge you to take half an hour out on your next trip into town and pay the Zaha Hadid ‘ribboned wonder’ a visit.  The live lunchtime concerts have now finished, (but maybe with demand so high it would be a welcome decision to have them continue?) however, music is piped through to allow visitors to gain a sense of the sound experience.  It is worth a trip just to examine and walk through this beautiful temporary creation.  Opening hours are Tuesday – Sunday (and Bank Holiday Mon) 10am – 5pm exhibiting until 31st August 2009.

One wonders whether the design could be pushed even further?  Imagine an all-weather self-supporting version which could travel the world and bring gifted performers from all musical leanings to remote audiences, but within a sound arena of such exquisite quality.

Future UK build plans for Zaha Hadid include the Transport Museum in Glasgow and the Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

UPDATE : Zaha Hadid´s pavilion for the Burnham Centennial recently opened at the Millennium Park in Chicago (updated 25 Aug 09).

UPDATE: First images of Zaha Hadid’s new Contemporary Arts Centre in Rome, Italy, which opens today (updated 13 Nov 09).

UPDATE: A further in-depth look at MAXXI museum in Rome, Italy with some fab photographs by Iwan Baan. (updated 18 Dec 09).

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Manchester International Festival – 5 day countdown begins …

mif_09_festivalpavillion

The Manchester International Festival is nearly upon us and the lineup this year is certainly eclectic and exciting.  I am sure even the most difficult to please should unearth something to tickle their fancy.

I have my eye on a few things:

If anyone has a spare ticket to donate to me I would quite like to see what happens at the Velodrome when Kraftwerk are allowed to run amock and also what Rufus Wainwright creates for his first opera to be premiered at the Palace Theatre.

That Festival Feast sounds a great idea too, but it sold out weeks ago so I shall have to keep checking for returns along with every other Mancunian food lover.

UPDATE : For anyone that missed it (me included as I had to work yesterday!) a nice little 5 minute piece on the Jeremy Deller curated “Procession” along Deansgate is over on the BBC Manchester website.  The steel band version of The Buzzcocks “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)” is a real crowd-pleaser.

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