The new art exhibition at the Rugby Gallery has been inspired by its visitors! Familiar questions such as `What motivated the artist to create this work? `What kind of childhood did the artist enjoy? or`What kind of personality did this artist have? are questions the gallery seeks to answer every day of the week, from its many visitors! The latest exhibition attempts to answer those questions by telling the story of the person behind the art work.
Rugby’s nationally acclaimed collection of 20th & 21st century contemporary British art is exhibited and curated to encourage past visitors to return and to attract new audiences to step inside its galleries. This years exhibition explores the theme of portraiture with an amazing collection of self-portraits from some of the world’s most celebrated artists including several new additions to the Rugby Collection from Lubaina Himid and Claudette Johnson.
Both of these artists have played a leading role in Britain’s Black Arts Movement, creating art which focuses on racial politics and identity. Lubaina Himid won the prestigious Turner Prize in 2017 for her art work which tackles such issues as colonial history, racism and the legacy of slavery. Her unusual portraits of acrylic faces painted in two open `Paper & Pencil’ Drawers, respectively, should provide much thought and discussion for visitors to ponder. The drawers reveal the art work as you approach them and could reflect the artists interest in the filing and archiving of Black Histories, sometimes out of site!
Claudette Johnson’s Standing Figure, 2017 created in Charcoal and Masking Tape is a drawing of a young Black woman. It is obviously a portrait, yet Johnson herself suggests her drawings are ` outside of portraiture’ because there is `no reference to the sitters personal history or location’. The drawing gives a strong sense of physicality and presence. The standing figure is not posing for the viewer, yet it is an intimate and moving moment of contemplation. A beautifully composed drawing in charcoal.
An £18,000 grant was successfully applied for which facilitated the eight loans from the National Portrait Gallery and two from The Lowry, which includes self-portraits by Lucian Freud, Richard Hamilton, Roger Hilton, Leon Kossoff and Eduardo Paolozzi. These loans have allowed visitors to Rugby, a relatively small town, to see national works of art by world renowned artists, which they would normally only be able to view in large urban galleries.
I was surprised to discover that the Rugby Collection is such a large and comprehensive collection of great art. The Rugby Collection includes several self – portraits by Stanley Spencer, Maggi Hambling and Linda Ingham, which were all on display in the exhibition. Established in 1945, The Rugby Collection now boasts more than 200 pieces of art by many of the leading contemporary artists of the 20th and 21st century.
The star of the exhibition for me, rather predictably perhaps, has to be Laurence Stephen Lowry. Visitors will be most familiar with the typical Lowry industrial landscapes of `Monday Morning’ with factories and cotton mills in the background and his “Matchstick Men and Matchstick Cats and Dogs” scurrying around in the foreground but less so with the portraits he painted, two of which are presented in the exhibition.
If people call me a Sunday painter, I`m a Sunday painter every day of the week.
Created 13 years apart, there is a huge contrast between the two paintings. `Self Portrait` with Lowry suitably attired in flat cap and raincoat is an accomplished self portrait of himself as a middle aged man, showing very little expression or emotion.`Head of a Man’ is a more disturbing portrait of a man struggling to come to terms with the death of his mother. The red eyes penetrate the viewers gaze, staring back at them from a face etched with stress, neglect and pain. It is such a powerful self-portrait revealing a great deal about the man behind the canvas, at the time the portrait was completed.
Head of a Man (with Red Eyes) has been described as, ‘like a reflection one might catch of oneself after a sleepless night, all healthy vigour drained, leaving only strain, tension, physical discomfort and utter despair.’ In Lowry’s own words, ‘It was really an emotional self – portrait. I was simply letting off steam. I started a big self-portrait… I thought, “What’s the use of it? I don’t want it and no one else will.” I turned it into a grotesque head. I’m glad I did it. I like it better than a self-portrait.’
The loans I chose to sit alongside our works represent all different mediums and have allowed us to get some of our most prestigious artists’ works out on show, giving our visitors the chance to not only see an example of their work, but also to see how they wanted to represent themselves through self-portraiture. The loans were a way of getting to know our artists and where they were in their careers when they painted the work in our collection.
Rugby’s collection was built around artists of promise, which sometimes meant that works were unusual and not in the style they are known for. A good example of this is Lucian Freud’s Fig Tree; he is mostly famous for his portraits and so it is great for our visitors to see a work that is in keeping with his style alongside a piece of work that is not so typical.
This is what I wanted for the show; to give something back to our visitors so they could learn about the artists within our collection. It is a new way of displaying the collection and hopefully it will inspire visitors to want to know more.
Katie Boyce – Curator – About Face
Man in a Room by David Tindle is a compelling piece of art because of the extraordinary technique applied by Tindle to the facial skin by the smooth clear application of the`egg tempera` paint. The smooth clear thin coat of paint has helped produce an extremely well executed painting.
‘Although one is invited to inspect, or crawl over the face surface and the entrance to the slightly open mouth,’ the artist writes, ‘the spectacles and the one eye obscured seem to hold back further inspection. The idea of the diagonal light lines and the painted edge at the bottom of the picture and the general boxing-in of the painting in composition makes it a self-contained experience’
We now live in the age of the selfie or self-portrait photograph. Millions of images are posted on social networking sites across the world every second. A selfie is often taken for reasons of vanity and the subject is often made to appear casual. In this new age of effortless and simple self-portraiture, has the selfie become the latest chapter in the long and captivating tradition of self-portraiture in the history of art?
Visitors to the exhibition are encouraged to become directly involved in the exhibition space by adding their own ‘selfie’ to the changing gallery of faces and a free caricature by celebrated caricaturist Steve Garner was available on the preview evening, which I took advantage of! After all, this exhibition is all About the Face!
There was also a wide range of LS Lowry merchandise available in the gift shop including postcards, mugs, prints and books about the celebrated artist.
The exhibition is an intriguing, stimulating, far ranging and eclectic mix of portraits by some of the leading contemporary artists of the 20th and 21st century, not to be missed!
About Face is on at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum until 16 June 2018
Rugby Art Gallery and Museum,
Little Elborow Street,
Telephone: (01788) 533201
If you visit About Face exhibition as a result of reading this blog please mention The Travel Locker