Art review: Turning To See, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery

Self-portrait by Sir Anthony van Dyck, c.1640 © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Midlands art legend John Stezaker makes his curatorial debut in one of the cultural highlights of the summer. John Kennedy went to investigate.

“There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.” Thus spoke King Duncan, though his jaundiced view needs qualifying – his trusted Thane of Cawdor was a two-faced, traitorous git. Let’s face up to it, we say – put on a brave face, face the facts. The denotation of perceived reality set alongside the connotations and motives of self-portraiture is the fascinating conceit of this intelligent, highly-instructive and deliciously self-referencing exhibition curated by John Stezaker.

Of the 31 exhibits, including Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Freud and examples taken from Stezaker’s own Marriage series – disconcerting monochrome portraits, where two different studies are dramatically juxtaposed by a vertical splice – the visitor may well be drawn most to a picture that isn’t actually on display. Van Dyck’s self-portrait aged 14 features in Stezaker’s brief video log. A work of startling prodigy, its evocative, vulnerable and brooding curiosity about a world he has yet to encounter enchants the viewer. We compare and reflect on his elder years’ iconic 1640 self-portrait that dominates the gallery, resplendent in its cartouche-style gilded ovoid frame. Stezaker has some intriguing interpretations of its compositional style and suggestive insights into van Dyck’s state of mind and body.

Helen Chadwick’s outrageously indulgent Vanity, with photographer as secondary mirror, resonates alongside Burne-Jones’ watercolour/chalk Study Of Perseus. With armour chest plating layered as though fashioned from feather-layered fish scales, the mythical hero prepares to confront the Gorgon whose sight will transform the beholder to stone. Bearing not the gift from his father, Zeus, a burnished bronze shield, this beautifully-drawn boy holds the most delicate of vanity mirrors. Is he as consumed by his own beauty as the grotesque creature’s reflection? A contemporary parallel suggesting our obsession with social networking, the modern malady of collective narcissism. Obsession with self where imagination surrenders to the triumph of vapid ephemeral form over content? Like this Perseus, do we ignore the ugly reality lurking in our own reflections? Stezaker certainly gets the visitor thinking.

Gillian Wearing’s Lily Cole (2009) is a provocative and contentious parody of fashion-model idealised beauty, where she has taken a life-mask impression of Cole, imposed it onto a photograph of her and then corrupted it. Baby-doll innocence distorted, the perversion of the Pygmalion myth laid bare. Both the exhibition and Stezaker’s fascinating interview with Lisa Beauchamp (curator of modern and contemporary art at Birmingham Museums Trust) in the accompanying eight-page brochure are free. Themes of metamorphosis, identity and perception are explored, allowing tantalizing interpretations of the exhibition’s title. Highly recommended.

Turning To See: From Van Dyck To Lucian Freud, Curated By John Stezaker is at the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery until September 4. For more information, visit http://www.birminghammuseums.org.uk/bmag/whats-on/turning-to-see-from-van-dyck-to-lucian-freud-curated-by-john-stezaker.

Image: Self-portrait by Sir Anthony van Dyck, c.1640 © National Portrait Gallery, London. Acquired with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund in honour of Sir David Verey (Chairman of the Art Fund 2004-2014), the Portrait Fund, The Monument Trust, the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Aldama Foundation, the Deborah Loeb Brice Foundation, Sir Harry Djanogly CBE, Lord and Lady Farmer of Bishopsgate, Matthew Freud, Catherine Green, Dr Bendor Grosvenor, Alexander Kahane, the Catherine Lewis Foundation, the Material World Foundation, The Sir Denis Mahon Charitable Trust, Cynthia Lovelace Sears, two major supporters who wish to remain anonymous, and many contributions from the public following a joint appeal by the National Portrait Gallery and the Art Fund.

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