EXHIBITIONS AT THE WHITWORTH


An exhibition at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, 30th September, 2017 to 15th April, 2018


An exhibition at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, 27th January, 2018 to 28th October, 2018

Reviewed by Charles Ashleigh

The recent exhibition of Egyptian surrealists at the Tate Gallery in Liverpool was an eye-opener in terms of introducing little-known work to a British audience. I might go as far to say “unknown work”, because I doubt that many people in this country even knew that there had been surrealists in Egypt, and it’s certain that very few had seen examples of their work.

It wouldn’t be true to say that the South Asian Modernists featured in the Whitworth’s fascinating show are totally unknown here, though I suspect that most visitors to the gallery have been, like myself, previously unaware of their work. They had earlier exhibited in Britain, however, largely thanks to Victor Musgrave, whose Gallery One opened in London in 1953. Musgrave, together with his wife, the photographer, Ida Kar, made a point of featuring South Asian artists who, in most cases, had spent time in Europe because of the lack of opportunities in their own countries.

Paris and London were the obvious places for them to move to. The standard accounts of art history tends to point to New York taking over as the world’s art capital in the 1950s, but it would be difficult to detect the influence of abstract expressionism, for example, on the work of the artists in the exhibition. Their ideas often appear to be derived from European art movements, including Expressionism, Cubism and Surrealism, and what might be termed traditional South Asian practices of colour and design.

Francis Newton Souza appears to have been perhaps the best-known of the artists concerned, and he had arrived in England in 1949. It was thanks to Musgrave that Souza’s career, after a period of near-poverty, began to flourish, and he achieved some success. The Whitworth exhibition provides an opportunity, as it does with the other artists, to at least view a sample of Souza’s work. And from the general point of view it serves as a useful introduction to a group of painters who deserve to be better known in Britain.

I might also add that the exhibition throws some light on both Victor Musgrave and Ida Kar, as well as John Kasmin who worked at Musgrave’s Gallery One for a time. I knew a little about Kar, having seen the excellent exhibition of her work at the National Portrait Gallery in 2011. The book, Ida Kar: Bohemian Photographer, published by the National Portrait Gallery to accompany the exhibition, is a wonderful record of her career as she photographed artists, writers and others in Cairo, Paris, London, and St Ives. 

Also at the Whitworth there is a small exhibition based around artists mostly active in St Ives in the post-war period, and using items from the gallery’s own holdings. As an accompanying leaflet says, landscape is a “recurring subject in the Whitworth’s collection”, though the intention is not to feature the “landscape as scenery”, but rather to show how the artists “wished to capture the physical and sensory experience of the land itself”. There is an intriguing Peter Lanyon, which spotlights his liking for aerial views, a small, but striking Bryan Wynter canvas, and other contributions from Terry Frost, Roger Hilton, Barbara Hepworth, John Milne, John Piper, and Ben Nicholson (a much more interesting piece than his purely abstract works). 

A small exhibition. but decently displayed and illustrative of directions that some areas of British art were taking in the 1950s.