Tag Archives: The Bluecoat

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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Digital Detox

Sunday morning and I am now 24 hours into my digital detox. No social media, no e-mail! I am not even allowed to turn on my iPad to type up my scraps of material from the week before.

I have a presentation to make in the University early next week. I know I need to sort the slides, visuals and notes. I aim to get through until Monday morning and map out my session on paper with sketches and rough drafts.

I did contemplate sticking a small microchip or a bar code to my arm, like a Nicorette patch, to help stave off my digital cravings.

digital detox

Stop the need to view a TED talk or play music through Spotify. I‘ve even got my old long player vinyl records, that I inherited from my parents, out of the loft. The scratching sounds of Marc Bolan’s Tyrannosaurus Rex, to help me with my electronic fast.

I had an action planned day, scheduled on Saturday with Sophie, my ten-year old niece. Drama class at eleven for her, giving me an hour to work on my new piece of writing PUPPET.

Lunch in Chinatown, followed by the new exhibition at The Bluecoat (ironically, focusing on how artists are questioning the impact of digital technology on humans), then to the Planetarium at the Museum for a show on the Winter Sky at night.

The works on display at The Bluecoat were extremely interesting.

The stand out piece for me had to be by Marilene Oliver. The artist has reconstructed her mother and father through stacked screen printed sections taken from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. The sculpture is like something out of a Sci-Fi movie. It has a strange, other worldly presence that is captivating and also quite unnerving.

Marilene_Oliver__Family_Portrait__Self-Portrait___Sophie__2002__02

By chance, whilst at The Bluecoat, we stumbled upon an open day for the printing studio, The Juniper Press. A newly formed letter-press studio equipped with traditional type and presses for the use of artists and designers. The room was brimming full of people, with lively demonstrations taking place. The space smelt of raw oil based ink and crisp sharp printed pages, metal prints hot off the press – literally.

Juniper_Press_Stamps_THUMB

Letter-press printing has been in existence for over 500 years. There is currently a revival of this lost art taking place, perhaps people yearn for something more practical. The printmakers told me that there is a real resurgence of interest and use in contemporary art and design.

My niece had the opportunity to work a Victorian Anvil Press and see exactly how the letters were composed and physically pressed on to the paper. A process that requires complete accuracy and attention to detail. With no room for too much error, as paper, print and resources were costly.

Now in these more austere times, we can learn a lot from this way of working, for it’s so easy to just press the mouse and print off a document, typos and all. The art of taking time and care to compose the structure of a piece of writing is something that can often be omitted. It is so easy to rattle off an e-mail and put it out there without having the time to think. I am an advocate of the ‘think before you click’ philosophy.

So for half an hour in the studio I was transported away from this modern life. I lost myself in the pleasures of print making. It was fantastic for my niece to see the mechanics of the process and understand the origins of the word font.

I must confess I am now a converted lover of letter-press printing. Leaving the studio, I purchased a book mark with a quote emblazoned on it from Benjamin Franklin,

Give me twenty-six SOLDIERS OF LEAD and I will conquer the world.

In a week that has seen the loss of the admirable activist, Tony Benn, a man of true values, this did bring a smile to my face.

tony benn

Back to my writing studio and the digital detox.

That night, in keeping with the Victorian theme, I started my next reading project. To get through the entirety of Charles Dickens’ back catalogue. I’ve recently purchased a superb collection from Kernaghan Books. As you can see, this may take me some time.

Dickens books

I encourage a weekly daily digital detox, it’s cleared out the electronic clutter in my mind.

Now to my inbox.

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