Last month I visited the newly extended and refurbished Whitworth Gallery in Manchester. (Whitworth Gallery) I remember the Whitworth as an impressive red brick Victorian building with an interesting collection.
The Whitworth now is a curious monster. The Victorian building is still there, as impressive as ever. The new extensions are a strange mix, in places blocky, clumsy, ugly; in others elegant, light, ethereal. The setting – Whitworth Park – is beautiful, and sitting in
the new glass-walled café is like sitting up in the tree canopy. The cakes aren’t half bad either. The new gallery areas are light and open but quirky, with balconies and views into adjoining rooms and to the outside – the kind of spaces that make you feel like exploring. Some of the materials used are lovely, but there were rather too many different materials, which made the place look a bit busy – not really what you want from an exhibition space.
The main problem for me though was the work, and the way it was displayed. They’ve concentrated on contemporary artwork, with the historical collection treated with something like contempt. Some of the new stuff was very good. Some of it was interesting. And some, well… One of the ‘pieces’ was a paint splattered overall hung on the wall. Brilliant! You finish creating your artwork, take off your overalls and think to yourself ‘you know what, the people at the gallery are such mugs I reckon I can probably sell them that as well’.
On the wall opposite was a crummy, badly executed tapestry by that Tracey Emin. It showed (just about) a woman with her legs open and coins flowing out from her you-know-what (I’d use the correct gynaecological term, but I’m worried about this post being blocked by the search engines). I guess she’d say it’s not about having a talent for the media, so much as communicating a message. The message in this case is presumably that women are, and have been, exploited sexually. Well, wow Tracey, I’d have never have thought of that if I hadn’t seen your tapestry. Next to one of the works, there was a space on the wall. On the floor, beneath the space, was a dustsheet. The area was cordoned off by a barrier, as if there was some decorating being done. Both dustsheet and barrier each had their own labels – both were exhibits. By the side of the cordon, on the floor, was a walkie-talkie. I never did find out whether the walkie-talkie was an exhibit or had been left there by a member of staff while they went off to the loo. It didn’t have a label. But maybe that was a statement by the artist. Or maybe the non-existent label was a separate artwork in itself. That Duchamp fellow really started something.
All of the recent artworks were very carefully displayed, all had plenty of wall space. And then we came to the collection of watercolours. Crammed in with no more than half an inch between them, they completely filled one wall and half filled a second. They weren’t labelled individually, they were numbered, with a sheet of paper listing an artist and title for each number. Somewhere in the middle were half a dozen or so Turners and one of William Blake’s best known works (The Ancient of Days). Which were, apparently, an embarrassment to the gallery. They might as well have left them in the storeroom and had done with it. And this from an institution that won the Art Fund’s prize for Museum of the Year 2015! Just goes to show how much some of us are swimming against the tide. In fairness to the Whitworth, some of the modern exhibits were very interesting, and some showed great technical ability by the artists. Though, with a few exceptions, none of them were particularly aesthetically pleasing, which to me is an important consideration (being a fan of William Morris). I used to draw once. And paint a bit too. The only artwork I get to do these days is decorating our living room. Which is now, thankfully, finished. So I can hang up my overalls. Hang on a minute, I’ve just had an idea…