Exhibition overload.

If you are fortunate enough to live in an area that is well supplied with Art Galleries decisions often have to be made, usually on financial grounds, as to which exhibition you should go to. If you live in or around London and went to every fee-paying exhibition on at any one time, the cost would be astronomical. On the other hand, which exhibition should you not attend and on what criterion should you base that decision? Then there are the exhibitions that you intend to go to but put off until the very last minute, by which time it is much too late. Making decisions is no easy matter.

Major public Art Galleries are out to both educate the public and generate much needed revenue and they have publicity departments ready and waiting to promote their products. The biggest money-spinner is the Blockbuster Exhibition and the biggest of the big will probably have Monet in the title. When you combine this with the Nation’s love of gardening then queues will begin to form just thinking about it. I have nothing against the R.A. I have a Friends’ ticket, have paid in advance and can go as often as I like. The trouble comes when I have to decide whether or not to venture half way across London on public transport to visit what is one of the best small galleries around – The Dulwich Picture Gallery.

A recent exhibition was of the work of M.C. Escher. He is a graphic artist whose intricate interlocking designs are approved of by schoolchildren and astrophysicists alike. His prints are so well reproduced and familiar that that alone would be enough to preclude a visit. The exhibition turned out to be one of the most interesting I had seen all year and would have made an excellent study visit. Seeing Escher’s work in reproduction is no substitute for seeing the actual sized pictures in the correct medium in real life and for students interested in drawing it was one not to be missed.

Art Galleries have sprung up in seaside towns all around the South Coast from Chichester to Hastings, Eastbourne and Margate and are easily accessible by day return. The Pallant House Gallery in Chichester is top of the list for interesting exhibitions. While Tate Britain relies on the well known names of English Modernism to bring in the crowds, Chichester can concentrate on the lesser known artists such as the poet artist David Jones, the war artist Evelyn Dunbar, or the Surrealist Edward Burra, bringing these often forgotten and neglected artists back to public attention.

Exhibitions I have missed include the William Gear exhibition at Eastbourne and then again for a second time when it was in Edinburgh. I missed the Helen Frankenthaler when it was at the Turner Contemporary at Margate and the L S Lowry by the Sea exhibition at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings, as well as Sickert at Dieppe at Chichester and of course many more. They might not have been great exhibitions but then again now I will never know.

Nickolai Astrup

Scanning the exhibitions guide I spot the latest show at Dulwich. Nicolai Astrup was a Norwegian contemporary of Edvard Munch known and loved in his native country but unknown here. Here is an opportunity for the marketing department to go into overdrive. Astrup painted idyllic scenes of rustic Norway with fiords and happy peasants celebrating fire festivals in flower filled meadows in front of snow capped mountains. Is this enough to tempt a visit? Perhaps. (And OCA will be running one to this show on the 2 April – blog post to follow)

The current show at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings is of work by the painter John Bratby. The general public was invited to “Bring Us Your Bratbys” from which a retrospective would be formed – and 300 turned up on the day. Bratby was an artist of mixed fortunes who was also highly prolific but could often lack quality control. Will this be an exhibition of his not very good later pictures or of his much better pictures from the 1950s on which his reputation is based? The chances are it will be the former but on the other hand this might be an opportunity for reassessment. Then again it could just be a very enjoyable day out.

One way or another, a decision will have to be made…


  1. Catherine Lloyd 16 February 2016 at 9:57 am

    This is good. However James mentions cost and some of the posh galleries like the Scottish G on Dundas Street in Edinburgh have excellent exhibitions, produce a reasonably priced wee catalogue and are free. Why not let the wealthy art patrons support our quest for knowledge? I’ve seen great exhibitions there and they’ve never looked at me askance.

    1. Margaret Borthwick 18 February 2016 at 5:09 pm

      I really like the Scottish Gallery too and even painted the view of their garden from the gallery window as part of an OCA course.

  2. robertjohnread 16 February 2016 at 10:24 am

    I thoroughly agree. The Escher exhibition is a revelation with so many of his drawings which are not generally shown. and the Pallant is always an interesting place to visit.

  3. annemacleod2013 16 February 2016 at 8:59 pm

    I saw the Escher Exhibition when it was in Edinburgh last year. His work was absolutely amazing.

  4. alison512497 17 February 2016 at 3:56 pm

    I keep meaning to visit the Pallant but haven’t got there yet. I think I’ll plan a South East Coast gallery crawl.
    I stumbled across william Gear when I was in Edinburg visiting the Scottish National galleries. I saw Arthur Melville, The Turner watercolours and the Scottish women artists. It was a lot to see in the space of 3 days, but it was a long way to travel for me.
    It is expensive and can be difficult to know which to go to, but I also love the Dulwich gallery and go if I’m in London which isn’t that often.
    It’s helpful to have your recommendations on smaller galleries.
    I thought william Gear would be too obscure to mention, but I really liked his work.

    1. James Cowan 17 February 2016 at 9:43 pm

      There have been a lot of good exhibitions on in Edinburgh lately and I was lucky enough to see the Arthur Melville Exhibition on its very last day. There are many exhibitions that don’t make it south of the border and Melville’s watercolours show just how impressive that medium can be. At present the Fleming Collection in London have an exhibition of Joseph Crawhall’s watercolours sent from Glasgow’s Burrell Collection while that gallery is being renovated.

  5. oliviairvine 17 February 2016 at 9:47 pm

    I often regret the exhibitions i have missed- the one I probably regret the most is the Chinese Warriors when they came to Edinburgh many years ago. To make matters worse, I missed them when they came back in lantern form last year!

  6. mikenadin 18 February 2016 at 4:39 pm

    I must admit that I have little sympathy with this blog. Most exhibitions are in London with a token few in other large cities. I would dearly love exhibitions to tour more but unfortunately the art cognoscenti seem to think the world begins and ends in London.

    1. annetteoca 20 February 2016 at 11:57 pm

      I don’t agree that there is nothing to see outside of London. I live in Edinburgh and recognise Jim’s sentiments. I have a huge array of exhibitors to choose from in Scotland. Indeed the excellent Two Roberts exhibition merited a study tour led by Jim. In the last three weeks I’ve seen ‘Scottish Women Artists’ at modern Two, the ‘BP Portrait Awards’ at the Portrait Gallery, ‘British Art Show8’ and next week will see ‘ 20th Century- Masterpieces of Scottish and European Art’. In a couple of weeks time I will get the chance to see ‘Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer’. That’s not to mention the changing print exhibitors at the Printmakers Workshop in Edinburgh which I popped in to today and the haunting painting by John Bellany currently on show in the foyer of the Scottish Parliament that I caught when I was there for work one evening last week. We are a long way from London but we have a vibrant cultural offer. Making choices is a live issue here too luckily some of it is free, all of it is accessible and it’s certainly eclectic. And it’s not even the Festival!

  7. Jeremy 19 February 2016 at 8:15 am

    Too much publicity, too many visitors, not enough time/money; these form the serrated knife edge that the art student/lover has to walk. These things are a pain! Oh for wonderful, quality exhibitions mounted by my next door neighbour with stimulating and rarely seen work drawn from all over the globe well hung next to iconic works from superstar artists. Shows to which nobody goes and I am left alone to imbibe the elixir of artistic life. All for free.
    I’m afraid that in the real world somebody has to pay and we have to be careful, for the success of our own practice if nothing else, not to be exclusive. Life, like art, is full of decisions.
    I do agree that it is a great sadness that I miss many exhibitions that I never hear about (or at least not until it is too late) but, unfortunately, shows by lesser known artists attract fewer visitors, meaning less budget for publicity. I’m also frequently angered by selfie taking, social outing, “today it must be the RA” crowds that impede my progress at blockbuster shows.There is probably no solution to all this other than to keep one’s ear to the ground, continue being selective, plan ahead and think about the timing. (Keep smiling through…)

  8. paulbutterworthocadrawing1 20 February 2016 at 9:04 am

    Hi James… thanks very much for this. You raise many interesting points not least our role as consumers of art – the power of advertising – the nature of artistic reputation – the roll of student and access to art in society… and many more.

    Having just visited both the Delacroix and RA (Garden) exhibition on the same day the contrast could not be starker. One an exquisitely curated academic and artistic masterpiece with revelations at every turn – how he uses that colour – how he spurned the academic control – his lifelong experimentation and improvisation – his influence on Cezanne and an exhibition guide that will be a study point for years to come.

    The other a chocolate box of mediocre exhibits and small Monets packed to the gills and lit by frequent flashes from smartphones. Commercialism at its worst and poorly curated.

    However, between the once in a lifetime major exhibition and the cynical there is a world of exhibitions of ‘lesser’ artists scattered round the country which we can all enjoy. Have time to look – think – and soak up ideas and techniques.

    Every work of art has something to teach the student. To inform and enlighten our practice and help us find our voice.

    1. James Cowan 22 February 2016 at 11:35 am

      Thanks Paul. I will certainly be going to both shows to make up for missing the Goya exhibition. I always find that something stands out even in less interesting exhibition. At Tate Britain for example in their ‘Artist and Empire ‘ an exhibition about Britain’s Imperial past, the picture that steals the show is George Stubbs’ ‘A Cheetah and a Stag with Two Indian Attendants’ from Manchester Art Gallery. It is always better to see great art face to face rather than in reproduction.

  9. Jeni 20 February 2016 at 10:33 am

    I didn’t even know that the Escher exhibition was on, does anyone know if it is on anywhere else please??


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