I recently had the chance to go to one of the Tate’s regional outposts in Liverpool. I had not been to Liverpool before but I had high expectations since it was crowned the European Capital of Culture in 2007. The museum is neatly tucked into the carefully renovated Albert Docks and so is surrounded by views of the Merseyside and the boats that fill it. Albert Docks is an area I would definitely recommend visiting if you are in Liverpool even if you are not planning on visiting the Tate Liverpool. However, if you do have time the museum is one of Liverpool’s highlights which should not be missed.
Unfortunately I did not have an unlimited amount of time to spend in the Tate Liverpool and so had to be selective about the exhibitions that I choose. My first choice was a little unlucky as it was a black and white photogram exhibition by György Kepes which did not strike me as particularly unusual or interesting. The limitations of the photogram medium meant that the images remained fairly simple and abstract. However, once I left this room and took the stairs to the next floor I experienced a much more thought-provoking exhibition. The DLA Piper Series: Constellations explores how different types of art can relate to each other across movements and periods. A ‘constellation’ of pieces is drawn on the wall with a central piece, such as Matisse or Pollock, serving as a stimulus and an anchor for the surrounding artworks. Artists have always undeniably been influences by work that has come before them and those that they work with or react against but I still found it fascinating to trace how a particular idea or philosophy was explored and tested. The challenges of representation which the Cubists tackled were juxtaposed with alternative attempts to reinterpret the trope of still life. Although artists have painted still life scenes for centuries the inventiveness of the images on show demonstrated that art can continue to refer to itself while creating something completely new.
A painting which made a particular impression on me was Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s painting of his lover Sophie Brzeska. It felt so modern and fresh although it was painted over 100 years ago in 1913. The careful detail contrasts with the unusual colouring of the face and simple background to ensure the viewer is left wondering more about the woman in the picture. It is not a typical portrait but I felt that it clearly conveys the strong personality which Sophie Brzeska must have had even as she looks away from the painter. This simply reassessment of how to paint a portrait felt much more understated than the overtly experimental Cubist paintings surrounding it but quietly incorporated the influence of the modern which still acknowledging the strengths of the traditional style.
Although some might argue that the constellations create a simplified and linear narrative of how artistic styles have developed I found the contextual placement of the paintings made me question the idea of a progression in art. Artwork which was finished only years apart from one another could look as alien as possible when compared with its contemporary. However, this did not create an impression of ‘right’ art and ‘wrong’ art but merely interpretations on themes which will continue to develop and expand. I plan to go back to the Tate Liverpool so that I can explore the constellations further and question the connections made in other parts of the gallery – I’m looking forward to it!