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In Praise of the Permanent Collection

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.

2576 John

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.

2779 Gilman

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.

Image Credits:

Gwen John, A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris,1907-1909, oil on canvas

Harold Gilman. Eating House, 1913/14

Posted by author: Bryan
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12 thoughts on “In Praise of the Permanent Collection

  • Thank you from a student who is studying Drawing 1 and needs to read examplars of how to look at artist’s work and to say soemthing clear and accessible.
    Since starting the course, I have also discovered the riches that can be visited in local galleries. There is one, in Honiton, colse to where I live, the Thelma Hulbert, that has a very small number of her works,which I re-visit, and regularly showcases interesting work of local more contempory artists. It is a trust,and struggles to keep afloat, charges no entrance fee, but suggests a nominal donation.
    I feel strongly that we should support such organisations.

  • Thank you Bryan for that salient reminder. It is easy to miss that which is under our noses, deferring to the more flamboyant. I recently sought out the lesser known Borough Gallery in London and was rewarded with the sensitive charcoal work, Beauvais Cathedral East End, by Dennis Creffield, part of the Sarah Rose permanent collection. There are ‘treats’ waiting everywhere, we just need to seek them out.

  • I thoroughly enjoyed this article, thank you. Like my namesake above I appreciate reading such examples of how to look at artists work and by doing so get so much more out of them.

  • My intention for this post was to highlight the preponderance of good works of art that are available to be seen, at least around the UK, without having to spend money except perhaps on bus fare. I’d love it if other tutors wrote about their local gallery and a couple of works that tend to be on display.
    It seems, though, from the comments that there is a need for some guidance about writing about art. Is that fair? What are the issues? Reply below and I’ll try and write something in response and perhaps it will form a future blogpost.

  • Hello Bryan,
    Your intention was clear to me, and I would also appreciate it if other tutors followed your lead. However the content of your blog held other bonuses for me, as I’ve indicated.
    These are some of my issues about writing about art.
    The critques in newspapers and catalogues about exhibitions tend to use opaque language and phrases, and address the collection, as opposed to individual works.
    Books about artists frequently concentrate on the life of the artist and do not often (in my experience) discuss individual works.
    The “blurb” in galleries is similar.
    I struggle to know where to begin in my looking at art in galleries, although I think this is getting a little easier the more I do it. I know what I like, but find it hard to articulate why. The writing about what I’ve seen is very challenging as I do not feel comfortable with the langauge I come across in the examples I have given above. Your approach in your post was accessible and understandable to me.
    I have been asked by my tutor to visit galleries and to try to consider works which might be thought to be “difficult”, and to try to expand on my written account by talking about approach, media and techniques and processes. I would very much value guidance in how to go about this, or pointers to resources which will help me to establish a basis upon which to build the skills to do so.

  • I’ll come back to this, but you could do a lot worse than read Ways of Looking: How to Experience Contemporary Art by Ossian Ward.

  • After I closed the exhibition on Chapel Walk I grabbed an hour with Angela before she had to set off home and I took her to the Graves, Millenium and had a look at that Chapman Bros piece in the cathedral. These really are little treasures and we had a FANTASTIC time. I have a special soft spot for the Graves, probably because it was my first up close and personal art experience, and that you never forget. And you are absolutely right, even though the work doesn’t change much your view of them and your relationship with them does!

  • Whenever I go anywhere, whether it be in the UK or abroad, i always check to see if there is an art collection housed somewhere. Even if they are showing artists from their history that I have never heard of I get a lot of satisfaction on looking and learning about them. Before it closed for renovation, i went to Aberdeen Art Gallery and was struck by powerful feelings of recognition. I used to go there frequently when i was a medical student longing to be an art student. That was over thirty years ago. Going back and seeing the paintings by Joan Eardley, Augustus John, James Cowie and James Guthrie was, indeed, like visiting old friends.

  • I so agree with your comments. I too always look for art collections in cities I visit and have just had a wonderful experience in Hamburg where I was staying for a few days. Their permanent collection is housed in the Kunstehalle but as this was closed for renovation they had an exhibition of selected paintings from the 15th century to the present day from the collection with a very good commentary describing the development of painting over the years with particular reference to the portrayal (and perceptions) of women over the period. It was an excellent way of looking at paintings. As well as painters I knew well there were many works from German painters I did not know. All of this was housed in the museum of contemporary art which was also showing an exhibition of the work of a Hamburg artist, Emil Nolde. The Exhibition was titled “Nolde in Hamburg”. It was so good that I visited twice!

  • Dear Bryan, Thank you for your posts, I always read them and find them interesting and helpful. Personally, the problem with visiting large exhibitions is that there are just too many paintings to look at properly. I can only really look at 2 or 3 – but of course, having made a long journey to get there and knowing I may never see those works again, persevere until exhausted!
    I thoroughly agree with Alison 512497 that art critics and art books are opaque and do not always address the actual physical works itself: how it was made, the composition, tonal balance etc. and I really appreciate this sort of thing being explained to me. I don’t really want to be told what to think but just led by the hand to begin with.
    I am at the last stage of Drawing 1 on Assignment 5 – I always approach the writing part with extreme reluctance but every time have gained from the experience, finding that writing concentrates the mind and reading around the subject makes the artist and his work so much more interesting. Even a few notes written at an exhibition make me recall an individual painting. Drawing, even just a scribble made in front of a work in an exhibition, marks it indelibly in my mind. But I’m not brave enough to do this too often!
    I am looking forward to the next installment.

  • These are interesting responses – and I’m delighted to have sparked something. There’s an important essay by Susan Sontag from 1964 called ‘Against Interpretation’ that ends with a great line:
    ‘In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.’
    Hermeneutics is the ‘branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation’. Her broad argument is that we move too quickly to talk about what a work is ‘about’ or its ‘meaning’ rather than enjoying the sensuality (that is, the ‘erotics’) of works of art. Think about Picasso’s ‘Guernica’. Most commentaries or interpretations of it waste little time in raising the subject matter (the bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War by the Luftwaffe, generally regarded as the first ‘modern’ aerial bombing and rehearsal for the Blitz), skipping past the painting as a THING. While the subject matter IS important, part of the painting’s concern is painting and composition, scale, mark-making, distortion, and so on. Seeing the painting is a visceral experience, not an intellectual one.
    Responding to two or three works can, as I mention in the original post, be a much more profound experience than being bewildered at a large show. The pressure of paying a lot of money / spending a whole day getting to and from London to see a blockbuster can mean that it’s hard to get to see work clearly as it’s tied to all sorts of expectations.
    Go and see your local collection and pick three works. Write about them. Draw them. Buy the postcards. Put the postcards up on your wall as a triptych and write about them again.
    None of this is an argument for a purely formal or technical appreciation of art. If that were the case then Celine Dion would be a better artist than Bob Dylan or The Fall (which she resolutely isn’t, and anyway Dylan’s is a GREAT singer, but I digress). It is an argument for taking time to appreciate or wrestle with the ‘objectness’ of works of art. Their ‘grain’ or physical presence.
    It’s impossible to over-state the importance of seeing works as things and not just as images. Looking at paintings on computers (or even phones) is NO SUBSTITUTE AT ALL for seeing them in the flesh. If you’re writing about works you’ve only seen online, you ought to acknowledge this in the text.

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