Is there a better way to make the provinces feel really provincial I wonder, than to install a vast, tired, old work by an artist whose star is fading? A month ago Damien Hirst’s Charity was hoisted onto the balcony at the front of the RWA amidst great trumpet-blowing and excitement from the exhibition organisers (or at least that’s how it seems from their literature), and a weary yawn from the rest of Bristol.
Charity, in all her 22-foot-high, painted bronze glory is certainly very photogenic, but as to her significance as a work of art, I must admit that the museum’s analysis set my teeth on edge. Apparently Hirst was inspired to create this copy of the Spastics Society collection box in order to highlight the erosion of society’s values. Just typing that made me feel inordinately tired and grumpy, but I’m afraid it gets worse: the RWA helpfully tells us that “looking across at the Victoria Rooms’ regal statue of Edward VII, Charity subverts the celebration of nobility and the monarchs who began the age of charity, its towering wretchedness standing as a massive reproach, the scale of our refusal to acknowledge a failure in charity.” Really? Honestly I just cannot engage with this sort of pseudo-intellectual artspeak. It is utter nonsense. Charity is interesting because she’s huge and because you think to yourself, if I had the money Hirst has, what smallish thing would I get scaled-up and cast in bronze? Oh, and of course you can’t help having ungenerous thoughts about how much money Hirst has, or has not, donated to the Spastics Society.
Anyway, enough of the Hirst-bashing. If you are in Bristol do go the RWA, if only to see the tiny exhibition of Mary Fedden’s paintings, none of which I managed to photograph very well, so the picture below will have to do. The works have been gathered from private and public collections and date from the 1950s to the present day. Familiar themes are covered, the sea glimpsed through an open window, jugs on trays, small bunches of flowers and plates of fruit, but they are nevertheless exquisite. I bought one of the RWA’s new tickets, which allows repeat visits for the duration of the show, and have now been in several times (the downside of this system is that each time I visit I am reminded that the incompetent Jack Vettriano has a bigger room).
Fedden’s paintings are not showy and the narratives, if and when there are such things, are not shouted out at the viewer, we can take what we want from her works: she trusts our intellectual capabilities and appreciation. So too does the RWA in this instance, as there is no heavy analysis of her work, it is allowed to speak for itself. Though I did come away wanting to know more about Mary Fedden herself – She is now in her 90s and still painting. An interview would have been a fascinating addition to the exhibition.
The interviews which play on a loop in a corner of the Beryl Cook exhibition at the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, are a complete joy. She is revealed to be a witty, charming, thoughtful and articulate woman, and talks candidly about her life and her work. Her raucous laughter can be heard throughout the gallery and is the perfect accompaniment to the show.
I must admit that when I walked into the gallery it was purely because I’d taken the girls to the museum as something to do on strike day, when their school was shut. I knew Cook’s work from postcards and posters, but I don’t think I’d seen any paintings in the flesh, as it were. I certainly had no idea of the range and breadth of their subject matter. By the time I left my prejudices and misconceptions had been completely toppled, and I came away a fan. It is hard to resist works painted with such wit and gusto.
And talking of wit and gusto, on Saturday I met up with Jane, whose fabulous blog is never short of either. In fact it was Yarnstorm that inspired me to start blogging, so I feel enormously indebted to Jane, even more so now, as I owe her several pots of tea.
PS There is an interesting review of Mary Fedden and the other exhibitions at the RWA here. The Frinks along with Fedden’s work, make a visit to the RWA worthwhile, just wish there were more of both.