Saturday, 28 February 2015

How Big Was Titanic?

Civic Centre fountain (empty)

I had intended to go to Oxford yesterday, in order to see the William Blake exhibition at the Ashmolean before it closes on Sunday.  It hadn't occurred to me to book a ticket in advance, though.  I mean, people have had plenty of time to see the show, it's a weekday in late February, and I had expected to be able to buy one at the door.  Luckily, I did check ticket availability on Thursday night, only to discover that there were no tickets left for Friday, and that Mr. Blake has proved so popular that extended late opening hours had been provided on Friday and Saturday.  Last chance to see!  But the earliest I could have got in would have been 17:00 on Saturday. Forget about it...  The man was a lunatic, anyway.

So, instead, I followed the prompting of Graham Dew, and visited our own outstanding local City Art Gallery, where painter Kurt Jackson has a major exhibition, Place.  The exhibition has an organising concept: 32 "contributors" were invited to share a written description of a place of special personal significance to them, which Jackson then visited and painted.  These contributors are very much a Who's Who of contemporary landscape writing -- the likes of Richard Mabey, Robert Macfarlane, and Alice Oswald -- with special guests like Michael Eavis of the Glastonbury Festival.  I'm not sure how far this concept has really motivated Jackson's work, beyond getting him to places he might not otherwise visit, but a theme is always handy, if only to give the hyper-critical something obvious to chew on.

It's a very good show, though, with some strong pictures, which you can see on Kurt Jackson's website.  You will get quite a false sense of the work there, however, as some of the pictures are very large indeed, and some are tiny, and many of them make use of collaged natural materials and bold impasto painting effects. I enjoyed the smaller pieces a lot -- his sense of the dynamics of colour within our landscape is very much to my taste -- but felt the large-scale canvases did rather expose the limitations of his technique, which tends towards the formulae of "spontaneity" used in much popular landscape painting, with lots of expressive splashes and dribbles, and bold brushwork.  A dribbly tree looks great at sketch-book size, less so at garage-door size.  Faced with a huge painting, I like to be able to get in close, as well as stand back; the "granularity" of a big image is important.  In a contemporary gesture more to my taste, he also inscribes text onto the paintwork, sometimes in a naive, child-like script which, oddly, reminded me of Anselm Kiefer.  In fact, these paintings are technically quite reminiscent of Kiefer's work, but without any of that Germanic angst, torment or portentousness, and with rather nicer colours: he's basically a very English pictorial painter of landscape, whose main anxiety seem to be to avoid any accusation of "prettiness". Well, we can relate to that.

It's an intriguing "Desert Island Discs" type of question, though: where, if you had been asked, would you have nominated as your place of special personal significance?  At the age of 61, I now have so many "special" places it's hard to know where to begin.  But -- having so recently re-imagined it -- I think I'd be tempted to propose that virtual space, fifty or so feet above the ground, where my teenage bedroom looked out so commandingly from our now vanished fourth-floor flat.  It seems to be where all paths lead, and, if nothing else, it would have presented Kurt Jackson with an interesting easel-location challenge.


As I was in the neighbourhood, I thought I might as well visit the newish and not uncontroversial SeaCity museum, dedicated to Southampton's maritime history.  Oh dear.  I never enjoy museums where the acreage of interpretative panels and interactive displays vastly exceeds the actual exhibits on show -- very much the contemporary style -- and Sea City is a classic example.  It also has an unbalanced obsession with the Titanic story -- which is, in the end, just one ship that sank.  I was in and out in a matter of minutes, and can't think of any reason I would ever go back.  Which is a shame, given the richness of this city's maritime heritage, and its key relationship to Empire, trade, migration and immigration.  Inevitably, I think of Amsterdam's Tropenmuseum, which impressed me so much two weeks ago; unfortunately, there's really no comparison.

For the avoidance of doubt...


Martin Hodges said...

We visited Sea City a couple of years ago, and we were mightily unimpressed. The grandchildren liked parts of it, but...

Mike C. said...


Yes, I've rarely felt so much like asking for my money back -- even with the over-60 concession it was £7!!