I love the chutzpah of any municipal gallery that confronts you with a statue of Lucifer as you walk in.
Birmingham is another of those under-praised midlands destinations with an oft-derided accent.
I have no idea why the Birmingham accent is so often ridiculed, I think it suggests a delightful innocent sarcasm, scepticism without guile, a knowingness that may be missed by the casual visitor keen to delude themselves into a position of superiority.
It seems fitting that curators chose Jacob Epstein’s disconcerting Lucifer, with its male body and female face, to lure us into their Pre-Raphaelite wonderland (with added penguin portraits).
I was particularly drawn to the feet, human but inhuman. Unlike Epstein’s Paul Robeson bust in York, there was no touching suggested, which might have been for the best, what if my palm sweat awoke the dark, sleeping spirit of the satanic, just in time for the Hallowe’en screenings of They Live.
Spending time in local art galleries, I have been impressed by just how prolific some British artists seem to be. You’d be hard-pressed to find a gallery without a few LS Lowry paintings or a Walter Sickert. I am also sure I have seen David Cox’s very similar capturing of the sands of Rhyl on at least four occasions. My hankering to go to Rhyl is no longer at a subconscious level, though I need to work out how to get to Rhyl in 1854, and though most privatised train providers are able to drag out time to a destination, they are sadly unable to do anything useful like shatter the laws of physics for the purposes of a Victorian holiday. Anyway, being a Philip Larkin fan, I should probably go to sunny Prestatyn, or to Barmouth for the giant crabs.
Looking at Alfred William Hunt’s Norwegian Midnight, I remember that for most of the gallery promenaders of the 19th century , this would be the nearest they would get to experiencing a Norwegian midnight. We have grown to blasé in our ability to travel the world, one more currency collapse and it may be better to get an art pass than a holiday abroad.
The Tate Britain exhibition of the epic biblical paintings of John Martin recreated the theatricality used to bring hell and damnation into the original exhibition, and looking at Samuel Coleman’s Delivery of Israel out of Egypt, I see it as the Charlton Heston movie of its time.
One room is dedicated to images of the personalities of Birmingham, including the Arthur Shorthouse’s portrait of the Official Ratcatcher of the City of Birmingham, Big Issue seller Vernon Burgess, and Emily Spark’s Ode to Christian Joy.
And then there was a container filled with copper coins and congealed milk. This was the work of Donald Rodney. At York Art Gallery there was a photograph of his father’s hand with a small, paper house resting on the palm, except it wasn’t made of paper. The house was made from a skin sample of his son, now looking dry and sharp. This is one of Donald Rodney’s art reactions to his own sickle cell anaemia, a genetically inherited disease. There, from his own skin, he had built his father’s house.
Inside this container of milk and coins, we can see the decline and corrosion of its contents. This is Land of Milk and Honey II. From other matter, he has constructed a representation of his declining health. Donald Rodney succumbed to sickle cell anaemia in 1998.
Barbara Hepworth’s garden is one of my favourite places to see the meeting of sculpture and spiders’ webs, in Birmingham Art Gallery you can see her H Graph works. They are unembellished by arachnids. Inspired by the surgeons who operated on her daughter to treat her bone disease, Hepworth became fascinated by “the extraordinary beauty of purpose and co-ordination between human beings all dedicated to saving a life”. It reminded me of the Ken Currie’s Three Oncologists, a painting that continues to obsess my partner in anger, Michael Legge. During the Edinburgh Fringe, he would go to the National Gallery almost every day just to look at that painting.
Waiting to see Arab Strap, he took a trip to see Ken Currie’s Jesus and is now similarly obsessed, he may now have to commute daily from Lewisham to Glasgow. This is the first time he has felt any need to make a pilgrimage for any Jesus.
(other works of excellence in Birmingham Gallery include
-Spencer Gore’s Wood in Richmond Park from his final series of works, painted shortly before he died from leukaemia.
-Edward Burne Jone’s Pygmalion series
-Germaine Richier’s emaciated, leaf patterned sculpture of depleted man)