thu 25/07/2024

Whitworth Art Gallery Reopens with a Meteoric Bang | reviews, news & interviews

Whitworth Art Gallery Reopens with a Meteoric Bang

Whitworth Art Gallery Reopens with a Meteoric Bang

The Manchester gallery celebrates its past and looks to its future

Cornelia Park, 'Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View', 1991Photo: David Levene

The Whitworth Art Gallery was showered with meteors in a spectacle devised by the artist Cornelia Parker on its reopening weekend – appropriately Valentine’s Day. The £15m project (architects MUMA) has doubled the exhibition spaces, reclaimed the Victorian Grand Hall from offices, added state-of-the-art on-site storage and more space for conservators.  

Here is public art with sculpture and installations on the building itself, and in the surrounding park – landscape art not only in its park setting but within new gardens, and with the building providing wrap-around scenic views. There are two elegantly redesigned shops and access is emphasised: there is now a huge study centre, with handling sessions promised, as well as the opportunity to call out stored objects for perusal. Henry Cole’s maxim for the founding of the Victoria & Albert Museum, that the body has to be fed as well as the spirit, is exemplified by a quietly exuberant glass-walled café, on the raised ground floor and thus almost at tree level.

The gallery was opened in 1889 for the gratification of Mancunians, as its founders put it. Named after a Cheshire-born industrialist, engineer and philanthropist, it embraces both fine and decorative arts and is the perfect example of Victorian philanthropy: art not only for its own sake, but also for enlightened pedagogical purposes. The ruling classes believed in the morally improving power of art – or at least in distracting the masses.

The Whitworth Art Gallery, ManchesterThe Whitworth became part of the University of Manchester in 1958, and so it is also a teaching gallery, part of the art history and museological study programme of England’s largest university, with an internationally significant collection, numerically modest compared to – say – our great national museums but high in quality: 55,000 catalogued objects so far.

The historic and contemporary collections of wallpaper, textiles, fashion, British watercolours, international works on paper and outsider art, are the kind of magpie mix that means curators have lots to play with in terms of telling different stories, from social history to art history. And visiting artists can play too: the Sarah Lucas exhibition is peculiarly tasteful as well as eerie. The big first-floor gallery is given over to several weird stuffed dolls, leaning at weird angles, oddly poignant, and the walls are covered in Sarah Lucas wallpaper: paired images of balls made out of half-smoked cigarettes, recalling her obsessions with the female breast. It’s titled Tits in Space (installation pictured below).

Sarah Lucas at Whitworth Art GalleryOn the ground floor four galleries are given over to new and old installations and wall hanging works by Cornelia Parker. Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, 1991 (main picture), the result of Parker persuading British army explosive experts to blow up a garden shed, remains as dramatically captivating as ever in a darkened gallery all to itself, its exploded quotidian self casting mysterious shadows, a benign disaster. This mesmerising installation shows us how Parker can transform  the ordinary. The fragments, no longer useful or practical, are curiously made whole as an arbitrary yet thought-through work of art.

Parker highlights the discarded and the disregarded elsewhere: there are floor-hugging metal sculptures which are casts of the cracks in sidewalks and pavements. One large gallery has its walls and ceiling covered – the roof tent-like – with the offcuts from the factory that makes the Royal British Legion poppies we bought – 45 million of them –  in the autumn leading up to Remembrance Day. The installation is called War Room, oddly innocent and decorative, peculiarly suggestive of the conflicted emotions of commemoration, pride, celebration and horror that surround and even obscure the hideous realities of warfare.  

Posed against the views of surrounding park, Parker has wrapped the entwined marble figures of  Rodin’s The Kiss with a mile of string, calling her intervention The Distance (A Kiss with String Attached).

Elsewhere, Turner, Blake, Girtin and Constable and a host of others are exhibited in a dense hang of watercolours in three installations. A gallery of portraits offers an attractively bewildering mash-up of styles, and includes Bacon’s evocation of Lucian Freud, Otto Dix and Eduardo Paolozzi. One wall of portraits of various benefactors, collectors and artists tells the history of the Whitworth in visual terms, while a further gallery focuses on British art of the 1960s. 

Cai Guo-Qiang, Unmanned Nature, 2008; photo David LeveneIn the Landscape Gallery, again looking out on to the park, there is a magnificent installation of a huge wrap-around landscape, Chinese in feel, although made by that magician of ephemeral explosions – including the opening and closing of the Beijing Olympics – the Japanese artist Cai Guo-Qiang. Unmanned Nature (pictured above) was commissioned in 2008 by the city of Hiroshima, and its meandering lines suggest an evocative landscape of rolling hills; blackened, softly wandering contours overseen by a blazing sun, were made by burning gunpowder onto a paper surface. The drawings, altogether 12 foot high and 126 foot long, surround a reflective pool.  

The galleries do not provide the kind of straight chronological walk-through that is so often the usual display: rather there are lots of different stories and byways. Nothing is taken for granted. The large rooms and wide corridors bathe the visitor in natural light. The unexpected juxtapositions of the different galleries and varied collections encourage unforced speculations on the astonishingly different things people make. In various glimpses into the permanent collection both stylistic unity and coherent chronology are abandoned as organising principles, while the single artist exhibitions suggest both individual style and coherence. The renewed Whitworth is an exciting place to be.

The collections are the kind of magpie mix that means curators have lots to play with in terms of telling different stories

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