Thursday, January 20, 2011

Three paintings in a gallery

Between meetings yesterday in Manchester,  I dropped into the Manchester Art Gallery.

A collection representative of its solid, commercial nineteenth century roots with a commendable collection of Pre-Raphaelites including versions of both the iconic 'Scapegoat' and 'The Light of the World'.

For me there were three finds. The first was a Gwen John: The Convalescent:


In her trademark still interior a pallid girl reads with an abiding sense of effort underlying her quietness. The colours are drained and muted but the girl is now sitting upright, able to read at least. It was an image painted and re-painted so both had value for John, as image and materially. It has been suggested that it is symbolic of France (as John began to consider this image in the immediate post First World War world when France itself was convalescent).

I love her work for its still, contemplative quality but shot through with a robust, encompassing realism (especially around and in the portraits). John was by no means a simple, retiring figure: an introvert poised in contrast to her wildly extrovert brother, Augustus. She was, after all, both Rodin's model and his mistress (one of them). A situation requiring a certain robustness and common sense in expectation if one was to emerge whole (as she did).

The second was two unusual paintings by William Blake as they were designed to be decorative for his patron's, William Hayley's, library. A relationship that was difficult and lacked any robust navigating realism! One was of Shakespeare and the second (shown here) of Edmund Spenser (one of Blake's own favourite poets):


There is a subtle play on the image of Queen as both Faerie and monarch; and, I simply loved the idea of a library paneled by Blake. Sitting reading with eyes of variegated inspiration looking on with serious demanding glances.

Third was a painting by Winifred Nicholson - a perfect exemplar of flowers resting on window sill:



The delicate colour of the flowers set off by the white wrapping paper still attached to the pot. Flowers as islands of light in a human scale landscape. Nicholson said that flowers always evoked for her a 'key to the cosmos'. They are undoubtedly at one level functional: part of the process of reproduction yet they retain a sense of surplus gift, of simply being themselves in beauty. Nicholson had a deep sense of the graced, gifted nature of life to which the only meaningful response was celebration.

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