Thursday, 22 March 2018

Can a book depict an art gallery?

I’ve been in a fair few art galleries in my time, and Kettle’s Yard is one of the most individual. What makes it so different? And can that difference be communicated in a book? Since the art gallery has just reopened after a lengthy closure and enlargement, this is a good time to try to assess what makes it distinctive. Is it just an arrangement of objects, or is it something more mysterious, associated with  Kettle’s Yard itself, the building once lived in by Jim Ede? All these questions became more apparent when, during the gallery closure, some of the Kettle’s Yard collection went on tour around British galleries and could be seen in very different surroundings. A few pieces from the collection were on show in the Fitzwilliam. Parts of that building are very dour and soulless, and the few sad pieces on forlorn display, surrounded by dreary glass cabinets of porcelain, looked very sad indeed. You would have said there was something about the place, since the same works of art that had earlier inspired you now looked dusty and unimpressive.

A good starting point is Jim Ede’s own book, A Way of Life (or, as he presumably decided it was to appear on the cover of his book, A way of life).  Published in 1984, it is one of the worst designed books I have ever read. The text looks horrifically over-sized for the page. There are no page numbers. None of the pictures has a caption. There is an index of quotations, but no index to the book contents, or index to the photos. The book, perhaps like the collection itself, does not appear to have any organizing principle. The book ends with 12 pages of full-page photographs, that are announced at “an unexpected extra!”. They are interesting, but look to be just that: pictures that arrived after the book had been created. They are followed by a quotation from Antony and Cleopatra that appears to have zero relevance to anything that has come before in the book. In other words, the book is a hotchpotch - and unlike the gallery, a failed hotchpotch. 

What are the organizing principles behind Mr Ede? An attachment to 1920s art, a strong but rather vague religious sense  throughout, together with the oddest mixture of the profound with the trivial.  Captions written by Ede range from “I had forgotten about this unfortunate stain” to art criticism that leaves a lot to be desired: “This painting by Christopher Wood … even when almost black still has a magical quality. He gave it to me more than 50 years ago.” This text fails as a concerted discourse – I’m sure it was deliberate, but it is a maddening effect. It is the combination of mundane and formal that most people separate into different worlds before going public.

Perhaps that is the achievement of Kettle’s Yard – it manages to be a personal statement at the same time as being a collection of artefacts. Or is it simply a bag of tricks, that could be replicated anywhere? Let’s look at how Kettle’s Yard creates its effect (and how the Wakefield Hepworth gallery exhibition of Kettle's Yard content was able to replicate it):

  • Armchairs everywhere, very rarely matching. Armchairs, like sofas, invite you to sit down and relax. You don’t find armchairs in a standard art gallery. Armchairs suggest home – as furniture companies realised many years ago.
  • Everywhere there is a mixture of artworks and incidental, homely details. Fresh flowers appear next to carefully arranged groups of pebbles, next to formal works of art. 
  • Nothing appears to be hidden behind glass (although many of the paintings are behind glass)
  • The art is all on a scale that fits a private residence.
  • There are many spiral rush floor rugs. These suggest a domesticity, a rustic quality so powerfully that they even worked when Kettle’s Yard objects were shown in the brutalist reinforced concrete of the Wakefield Hepburn Gallery – what should have been the most unsympathetic environment for Kettle’s Yard objects.
  • The collection has the name of an owner, and the location is the owner's house. The owner has not just a first name but a colloquial, friendly name - not "Kenneth Clark" but "Jim Ede". I don't think Kenneth Clark's house would have looked like Kettle's Yard at all. 
  • The book shows many lighting effects – of course, these would only be visible at certain times of day, and perhaps not noticeable to the public visiting when the sun is high in the sky. Are the photos, in other words, suggesting an atmosphere not found in the house itself? 

So here’s the question: could you follow this formula in any art gallery, and transform the environment?  Given the frigidity of the Fitzwilliam Museum, it might be worth a try there, for a start. 

No comments:

Post a Comment