Like other OCA tutors I encourage students to see as much art in the flesh as possible and it’s easy to think that this means going to London or another large metropolitan centre to catch blockbuster shows that seem so significant. Not so. I recently visited Huddersfield and went into the civic gallery and was immediately transported back to other visits made to other similar galleries in towns and cities across the country.
It’s important to state up front that I’m talking in this post about the kind of gallery that is likely to be run by your local council containing a permanent display of works and not a privately run commercial gallery that sells work.
My local gallery is the Graves in Sheffield and I’ve been visiting it on and off for thirty years. Although the collection has been shuffled and added to over the years, there’s a core of works that have probably been on display in the same space for all that time. Returning to see them is like greeting old friends and, over time, they’ve become important to me. My opinion of them has evolved and shifted as I’ve changed and, as such, they might be considered a barometer of my own interests and taste.
Although I would never discourage a student from using books and the internet to search out images, seeing work at close proximity can be a profound experience when compared to seeing even major works in reproduction. Paintings, drawings, and sculptures are physical things as well as images and seeing them first-hand allows the viewer to see brushstrokes, appreciate their scale and, if hung with other thematically linked works (as is the case at the Graves) visual ‘conversations’ can be glimpsed.
I want to pick out two works, both made about 100 years ago, to illustrate my point that great works can be seen for free all year round all over the country.
These works – both studies of interiors – appeal to my love of the overlooked or peripheral. They are Gwen John’s Corner of My Room and Eating House by Harold Gilman. John’s picture is one of several similar works of the interior of her Paris flat with a wicker armchair and an umbrella. The blurb on the gallery wall likens it to a portrait, which is useful way of thinking about the way that spaces reflect personality. I’m always struck by how tiny it is (317 x 267mm) which insists on an intimate relation with its audience simply because you have to get close to it to see it properly (and of course you can, because there no blockbuster crowds). It’s small and perhaps a little sentimental – even pretty – but I’m drawn to its lack of pretension and the way John has handled the light that floods in from the window. I know from talking to gallery staff that if this painting is ever removed from display that there are complaints.
The second painting is larger (727 x 914 mm) and though there are three people in the picture, they are obscured and overwhelmed by the decor. This painting is all about structure and colour. The acid-greens and yellows resonate with and against the reds and pinks. It’s about as vibrant as painting can be – probably in thrall to Pierre Bonnard despite being resolutely English (there’s even an R White’s Lemonade advert on the wall) – but if looked at ‘through’ Mondrian you can see the composition as very Modern with a capital M. It’s very rectilinear and despite the space being explained, the painting is a basically a flat patterned surface. The back wall is a little less vivid, but no less colourful, than the yellow stripe that frames the bottom of the image. Only the dark room through the door at the left seems really distant.
Seeing these two works in close proximity means that they can be easily compared with one another. A good student ought to be able to write a thousand words using them as the subject of a ‘compare and contrast’ exercise by thinking about colour, how architecture is represented, mark-making, subject matter (private genteel space as opposed a more robust public one), composition and so on.
While I’ve focussed on two works from the early part of the twentieth century it’s important to mention that you can usually see the following at the Graves:
Kiss by Marc Quinn, a Damian Hirst ‘spin’ painting, a modest Cézanne, a large Bridget Riley (Rise I), a couple of Frank Auerbachs, a Bomberg, a Peter Blake, a Lowry, and a Richard Long sculpture.
Artists build relationships with work that endure over time and that nourish their practice. Whenever I’m in London, for example, I end up in front of Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus at the National Gallery and though Gwen John’s little picture is modest by comparison, seeing it is always rewarding. I’m betting that most tutors could tell a similar story.
Gwen John, A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris,1907-1909, oil on canvas
Harold Gilman. Eating House, 1913/14