A rather splendid coincidence is that Birmingham is also home to a new exhibition entitled 'Love and Death: Victorian Paintings from Tate'. Well, while I was in Birmingham, I think it was inevitable that I would end up in the Museum and Art Gallery. I have to admit it is one of my favourite collections anywhere, having an awful lot of material pertaining to Fanny Cornforth, and so toppling through the doors of the BMAG is never a hardship, but it's always nice if there is an added reason for a visit. Plus, look what the headline image is...
The Lady of Shalott (1888) J W Waterhouse
|Brilliant exhibition from New South Wales, Australia|
It might be a bit stereotypical to think of the Victorians as being obsessed with love and death, but it is the subject of some of the most outstanding works of the nineteenth century. I'm sure each one of us could make a mental pick-list of what we would put in our own exhibition on these themes, especially when combining works from the Tate and Birmingham.
The exhibition is only two rooms and has no catalogue or booklet, but it is free of charge (as is the rest of the museum's galleries) so any comments I make in this review have to be backdropped by the fact that any chance to see these works is a privilege and to see them free is a joy. I can never see The Lady of Shalott enough, it is astonishing in person and I never grow used to how beautiful she is in her lovely boat, with those swooping birds and guttering candles. Anyway, Room One....
|Lieder Ohne Worte (1860-1) Frederic, Lord Leighton|
|The Dreamers Albert Moore|
|Sapphires (1877) Albert Moore|
|Phidias Showing the Frieze...(1868) Lawrence Alma-Tadema|
Other highlights are sketches by Walter Crane and Frederick Sandys, and a study by Charles Perugini, and other beautiful oils on the theme of classical beauty and ancient Greece and Rome. And so to the second room....
|Medea (1868) Frederick Sandys|
|Circe (1902-6) Edgar Mackennal|
Anyhow, enough about my odd fixation on marble-y men. The lefthand wall is dominated by the main event, The Lady of Shalott but beside it is a collection of other images to do with the poem, including this treat, by Arthur Joseph Gaskin...
|'I am Half Sick of Shadows...' (1888) Arthur Joseph Gaskin|
|The All-Pervading G F Watts|
|Hope Comforting Love in Bondage (1901) Sydney Meteyard|
|The Lament for Icarus Herbert Draper|
Go on, go to Brum and see gorgeous Icarus for free! However I have a couple of points I'd like to raise - I think possibly BMAG have been rather too shrewd in their marketing of Love and Death, when actually the exhibition encompasses 'the Victorian fascination with re-imagining life in ancient Greece and Rome, from lovers' flirtations to dramatic martyrdom.' There is a real disconnect between the first and second room, and starting in a room of aestheticism, paintings without subject, is a bit difficult to tie the theme of love and death to it. What does Sapphires have to do with flirtation and martyrdom? And what does The Lady of Shalott have to do with ancient Greece and Rome? The exhibition examines 'universal themes of love, beauty and tragedy' but then that covers a lot of eventualities, and I think those themes could be applied to pretty much any picture you care to mention. If you hang the pictures together with a notion of 'love' and 'tragedy' then how do you explain Phidias Showing the Frieze? It's like you are watching one programme on telly only to flip over to Grand Designs by accident (thank you Mr Walker for pointing that out). The only way to tie Phidias to tragedy is to say that hundreds of years later the Frieze would be subject to some dodgy conservation at the hands of the British Museum, but I feel that might be stretching the point a bit.
In a way it would have been enough to give the opportunity to see the major works from the Tate in a regional museum without having to tie it to a theme. Looking at the BMAG collection online, there are many other pictures they could have chosen to make the point of their exhibition. The theme hangs well with the major images of The Lady of Shalott and The Lament for Icarus but marrying them to something like The Dreamers is always going to be an uphill struggle. However, as it is free and the art works are jolly I am feeling forgiving and grateful so I would encourage anyone to make the journey to Birmingham, not least because you can couple the visit with seeing the rest of the nineteenth century stuff and see the new history of Birmingham galleries, which are amazing.
And I bought a hairband with the Lady of Shalott on it from the gift shop. Marvellous!
'Love and Death: Victorian Paintings from Tate' runs from 8th September to 13 January 2013 and further details can be found at www.bmag.org.uk.