Saturday, 11 January 2014

Masterpieces: Art and East Anglia

On the 9th January 2014 some  Members of the Broadlands Art Textiles group visited the Sainsbury Centre for Contemporary Art at UEA in Norwich.

Several very impressive and inspirational exhibitions of interest to textile artists have been held in recent years at SCVA so I had high expectations of the exhibition Masterpieces: Art and East Anglia. I certainly feel this exhibition is worth visiting (and indeed  worth visiting again if you have been only once). It is chock full of interest. It continues until  24th February 2014.

I was delighted to see the two items from Happisburgh beach displayed together.

This Handaxe was found on the beach in 2000. It is dated to 700,000BCE and alters our view of the early inhabitants of Britain. It suggests Britain was inhabited much earlier than previously thought and is one of the most important recent archaeological finds

Happisburgh Handaxe
Unknown maker, Lower Palaeolithic, c. 700,000 BC
Flint; 12.8 x 7.9 x 3.7 cm
Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service, Norwich
Castle Museum & Art Gallery

This small sculpture was made by Henry Moore from a pebble of iron stone he found walking on the same beach in 1930 on a holiday visit. The small scale is very pleasing and the comparison with the handaxe in the same display case is interesting.

Henry Moore (1896-1986)
Reclining Figure, 1930
Ironstone; 11.5 x 17.5 x 3.5 cm
Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts
Reproduced by permission of
The Henry Moore Foundation

There are many artefacts of interest to the textile artist. There are a great range of  design inspiration as  the exhibition offers all  sorts of materials on display  (enamel, silver, glass, illuminated manuscripts, paintings, photographs, leather, textiles, carvings and sculpture, furniture, industrial design, models and maps). There are over 250 objects in the exhibition. One of the things I enjoyed seeing was this famous portrait by Sargent. The original dress was also  on display and has interesting machine embroidery probably made using a Cornely machine.

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
Portrait of the Marchioness of Cholmondeley, 1922
Oil on canvas; 161 x 93 cm
Private Collection
Photo: Pete Huggins

Worth Dress
(as worn by the Marchioness of Cholmondeley)
House of Charles Frederick Worth, 1922
Private Collection
Photo: Pete Huggins

It was a rainy weekday and the exhibition was busy and well attended with a buzz of interest as people explored and discussed their favourite items. The exhibition was large and disabled access using a lift was available to the lower floor but there was a lot of ground to cover. There were folding portable chairs available on the lower floor so you could rest in comfort near of an item of interest.

As I have said there were lots of interesting things to see. At the same time, some aspects of the exhibition concerned me. One of the key problems for me was the layout the exhibition. For example: The handaxe and its juxtaposition with the Henry Moore are described as the starting point for the exhibiton but to get to these items you have to travel through the rest of the exhibition.

There were several themes and ideas explored in the exhibition. The thematic arrangement meant that there isn’t a simple chronological order and the geography of East Anglia was not explored as fully as I felt  it might have been. The reason for including items was not always clear.  I couldn’t always immediately fathom the item’s links to East Anglia. In general the labels were clear (though not always well lit). I felt one still needed quite a lot of prior knowledge to fully enjoy the exhibition.

Some items were not as well displayed as I would have liked. An example of this would be “Farewell Festival.”  the Akenfield engraved vase by Sir Lawrence Whistler (1974). The glass engraving could not be seen because there was no contrasting background; the lighting and  the viewing angle were not effective.

I think of exhibitions I have seen in Scotland or Yorkshire where national and regional identity is much more clearly defined already, however cliched this can be. In the end what it means to be a craftsman or an artist in East Anglia was, for me, still ambiguous  and the search for regional identity continues. This exhibition provides a good starting point for that exploration.

— Helen Durrant

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