Raqib Shaw‘s latest exhibition has brought new life and colour to the Manchester Art Gallery – both inside and out. Having draped their railings with flowers, foliage, and the twisted branches of Willows, the museum invites you inside to find Kashmiri-born/London-based Raqib’s work scattered and displayed in various locations. Vivid, fantastical scenes combine real and fictional creatures within sparkling fairytale landscapes both Indian and European in influence; together these conjure up a mythology that feels familiar – like a childhood memory – and highly original – bold and shocking. Surveying his beautiful (and at times slightly macabre) menagerie you can almost hear the sound of wild animals. Of course it’s always nice to look at the more traditional pieces in the Gallery’s collection, but finding one of Shaw’s pieces next to say, George Stubbs, or Charles-August Mengin, makes for an enjoyably startling contrast.
Although given a vast amount of space in the Patron’s Gallery, I’d say that it’s more stimulating finding Shaw’s works amongst pieces from the Victorian era. Seeing them all at once threatens to generate a certain loss of impact that comes from being over-awed by his use of jewels, gold, and enamel. Similarly, Susie MacMurray‘s Widow – a stunning and meditative dress made using black leather and 100,000 adamantine silver pins – is equally helped by being positioned among pieces dealing with life and death in the 17th century. New observations and ideas arise at these intersections. MacMurray’s dress says something about mortality as flawlessly as any of the masters behind her.
Something I also really like about the Gallery is the space that is devoted to activities for kids/big kids in the Clore Interactive Gallery. Technical problems aside (sadly many machines were out-of-order when I visited) it’s great to find a play space where you can let your imagination wander and your creative side express itself after soaking up all the “proper” artworks. Of course, participation is a big thing in museums and cultural institutions these days and it’s not always done well. Sometimes the best you can hope for is a pile of hastily gathered crayons and a few “give us your comments” cards; not exactly inspiring! For me, the Manchester Gallery has got it spot on. Somehow they manage to offer a range of activities that are as stimulating for adults as they are for children. In fact, I’m fairly sure it was exclusively adults who were “interacting” with the objects in the Clore room on Sunday! By letting visitors climb into a giant rotating “kaleidoscope”, invent their own “free form” still life compositions, or activate a 3-D spinning model of a painting (Marion Adnams’ Lost Infant), artworks are brought to life in a way that encourages collaboration.
Raqib Shaw’s exotic monkeys – and the lovely staff who let people wander around taking as many photographs as they like! – demonstrate in quite different ways that going to a gallery is definitely not all about tradition, reverence, and intimidating curation. Creativity is, after all, all about a certain freedom.
Yesterday seemed like a good day to explore the Manchester Art Gallery and it really was worth the trip. A black-tie function blocked me from getting a look at Lowry and Valette but of course, with three floors, there was plenty more to contemplate and admire. There were some examples of Scottish Colourism: John Duncan Fergusson’s impressions of Paris, for instance. But it was Ken Currie’s “On the Edge of a City” in the Modern & Contemporary Gallery that really reminded me of home. Burning cars and grim-faced Gorbals gangsters. What sums up Glasgow better?
More seriously, there is a fantastic painting by Mervyn Peake, author of “Gormenghast” and “Mr Pye”, titled “The Glassblower“. He was commissioned to do this during World War II by the slightly Soviet sounding “War Artists Advisory Committee”. It’s fiery and atmospheric at the same time as the figures are balletic and delicate. The poem he wrote to go along with it is included in the record I’ve linked to. Sadly the image isn’t yet public domain but you can look it up!
The Gallery is notable for its amazing Pre-Raphaelite collection. That meant I could go home with a nice little postcard of D.G. Rossetti’s “Astarte Syriaca” (a “more malign” Syrian Venus, whatever that means) – the original being sadly a bit too big to sneak into my bag.
But, reminding me why I am really here in Manchester (and what my next post should really be about), I was struck by one of the portraits on the balcony: “The Student” by Welsh painter Gwen John.