Tag Archives: Liverpool Biennial

Whistler at The Bluecoat

The Bluecoat’s offering for this year’s Biennial is an exhibition celebrating one of the most influential figures in the arts of the 19th century, James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). A crammed collection of paintings, sketches, letters and notes. It’s like entering the head space of this outspoken, argumentative and maverick creator.

James McNeill Whistler

Whistler dressed in his black patent shoes and with a white plume of hair coiffured against black waves, cultivated a charismatic public persona who challenged the art community and elicited the mocking attention of the popular press. He had famous spats with Oscar Wilde and his one-time friend and benefactor F.R. Leyland.

His work was hung well-spaced out – on the line – marking a radical change from conventional salon style, which saw pictures cover the walls. He described his works as symphonies, arrangements, harmonies, nocturnes. The deathly marks of industrialisation are captured in his watercolour paintings Nocturne in Grey and Gold, Piccadilly (1881-83). The thick fog – or pea soupers, as they were known – seeps off the canvas.

nocturne

His Venice etchings were presented in 1883 at an exhibition at the Society of British Artists, titled Arrangement in White and Yellow. Whistler wanted the event to be more than just an exhibition; he wanted to give his guests an experience. The walls were decorated in different shades of white with the skirting boards, yellow. The attendants wore yellow clothes to match. A final detail for favoured guests, he designed yellow butterflies to wear at the launch. The press cruelly labelled the spectacle, The Poached Egg. One critic commented on the etchings The Piazetta, The Palaces and The Two Doorways,

He has been content to show us what his eyes can see, and not what his hand can do.

Etchings on paper, fabulous depictions of Speke Hall in Number 1 (1870) and the billiard room indicate his connection to Liverpool. A notable piece in this exhibition is his caricature of F.R. Leyland, The Gold Scab: Eruption in Filthy Lucre (The Creditor) (1879), crafted at the time of his bankruptcy.

The Gold Scab

It is one of three paintings intended as a prank for his creditors to discover when they arrived to make an inventory of his possessions. It depicts Leyland as a rich peacock wearing a favourite frilled shirt sitting on a piano stool that is the White House (the artist’s Chelsea home) which was on the verge of repossession.

It is interesting to see the evolution of his Butterfly trademark. Proof of Six Butterflies is printed on proof paper (1890), loosely based on the initials JW, a butterfly signature often had a sting in its tail, the point directed at his enemies.

Whistler’s involvement with the Aesthetic movement is illustrated throughout this expansive collection. The movement consisted of Rossetti, William Morris and Wilde, a bohemian group of artists, writers and designers who favoured beauty and form over sociopolitical content: art for art’s sake.

The press (like that of today with celebrity culture) were fascinated by the group’s ostentatious style, dress and lavish lifestyles. This exhibition is one of the highlights of the Biennial and I feel that the setting (the historical Bluecoat) really adds to the whole essence of the experience. Whistler would indeed approve!

Recently, the Merseyside Civic Society celebrated the fact that the Heaps Rice Mill, in the Baltic Triangle, has been categorised as a Grade II listed building by the government following an inspection by English Heritage.
Not to be developed into yet another series of apartment blocks to remain empty, owned by an off shore property conglomerate in the Seychelles! We need to see the old buildings re-claimed and used for the people of Liverpool by the people of Liverpool. Projects like Opera for Chinatown by THE SOUND AGENTS and the recent use of the Old Blind School as part of this year’s Biennial are exemplary. Let’s pimp up the old architecture lying barren in this city with similar innovative offerings!

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The Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome

The architecture impressed even before I’d seen the artwork at the Group Show, part of this year’s Biennial, at the Old Blind School, 24 Hardman Street L1 9AX. I was intrigued to wander around the former Blind School, which was founded in 1791 by Edward Rushton and was the first school of its kind in the country.

I found dis-used rooms textured with peeling paint, rotted walls and cast iron fireplaces. Echoes of its former use as a Trades Union Centre in 1983 are illustrated in a mural on a dome ceiling. A Scouse Diego Rivera creation, perhaps? The building immediately charms in all of its sumptuous decay.

Liverpool Old Blind School mural

One of the walls is entirely taken over. Showing three miners in the atmospheric Quarry (1907) by Marc Bauer.You can practically taste the sooty atmosphere with the effective use of charcoal.

Quarry Marc Bauer

Marc Bauer Quarry detail

Bonnie Camplin’s pencil on paper – Sparkle – is an illustration you will not find in the windows of a Bond Street Jeweller’s. A vacuous face in amongst the items for sale, a metaphor for the shallowness of materialism.

Bonnie Camplin Sparkle

Throughout the show basic mediums of pencil, charcoal and watercolours are displayed and this simple skills-based approach is effective. Peter Wächtler’s two paintings reminded me of work by Hogarth. One particularly looked like an updated version of a snapshot from Nan Goldin’s erotically charged body of work, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.

Nan Goldin

Other highlights include:

  • Amelie Von Wulffen’s zany caricatures that poke fun at modern attitudes. A banana having stage fright, two glasses of wine lounging on comfy chairs watching television.
  • Nicola L’s room full of white objects, including an inflatable couch in the shape of a hand, looked like the kind of décor that would not be out of place in the Notting Hill apartment of Patsy and Edwina from Absolutely Fabulous.

With all modern art, there are always bound to be pieces that suffer from what I call the emperor’s new clothes syndrome. All pomp and no substance! One such piece is by Norma Jeane (the artist was born the day Marilyn Monroe died and decided to label herself with the legend’s name). A simple ice machine is plonked in the middle of a room, powered by solar energy, with its door open. The ice is made and then spills out onto the floor to dissolve.

Transforming heat into cold, and liquid into solid. The machine keeps working relentlessly, even though its product continually melts away into the wet floor.

I found myself perplexed by this piece. Bamboozled, even! After reading the description, a little sarcastic Scouse internal voice, (like Margie Clarke’s) said to me, ‘No shit, Sherlock!’ One of the highlights of experiencing this ‘objet’ had to be seeing people trying to manoeuvre themselves around the wet floor, in case they accidentally walked onto the art. Taking a little droplet of a souvenir home with them. Art crime! You really could not make it up.

What is fantastic about this group show is to see a robust piece of architectural splendour, the building that is The Old Blind School, being totally re-energised with the lifeblood of new creatives. This aspect of the Biennial is marked by a building as impressive – part Berlin crack den, part faded decadence – as some of the content on display.

The Old Blind School Liverpool staircase

Next stop on the Biennial review will be The Bluecoat!

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