I thought I’d post a few more pictures of the extraordinary Joana Vasconceles exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery. As well as the main exhibition on the top floor and the astonishing sculpture in the atrium, there are pieces of her work dotted among the permanent collection throughout the gallery.
This piece was in one of the Pre-Raphaelite galleries in the older wing. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was an Victorian art movement that felt that painting had lost its way. In an attempt to get it back on track they looked backward to the art that was about prior to Raphael changing it during the Renaissance, hence its name, Pre-Raphaelite. They went into painting every tiny detail of a scene, with the things in the distance being given as much clarity as the things close to the viewer. I like colour and so did the Pre-Raphaelites, their colours glow and are jewel like. They went in for pictures with strong storylines. A lot came from the Bible or from the legends of Arthurian folklore. Sometimes they went for pictures with a strong moral tone in tune with the Victorian morality of the day. But their own lives often didn’t match the morality depicted in their pictures. They liked to paint women and had favourite models who they would return to again and again. Their work could be denigrated by London based artistic circles but it found favour in the industrial cities of the Midlands and the North, like Manchester and we have a wonderful collection in the city.
Into this gallery, Joana Joana Vasconcelos has been allowed to put up one of he artworks. It consists of a structure covered in the kind of tiles that you find in old buildings in Spain and Portugal. Draped across this structure and across the floor are more of her astonishing soft sculptures made of brilliantly coloured materials, velvets, sequins, knitting and crochet. The sculpture changes as you walk around it. The brilliant colours in her work echo the brilliant colours in the paintings in the room.
One of Manchester’s great artistic treasures seems to have made its way into a lot of the pictures. It’s a painting called ‘The Shadow of Death’ by Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood artist, William Holman Hunt. He painted it between 1870 and 1873. It’s easy to decipher. Jesus, before he went off to do his world changing teaching, is seen in Joseph’s wood shop taking a rest from his endeavours. He stretches and the shadow he casts falls across the rack of tools on the wall and creates an image of Jesus being crucified on the cross. A look of pain, as he stretches his muscles is seen on his face, an omen of what is to come. His mother, Mary, is looking at the gifts brought by the three kings at his birth. You don’t see her face but her body language tells she has seen the image and is clearly frozen with shock. A star like the one that appeared in the sky at his birth appears in the window.
The picture wasn’t well received. Some people objected to a half naked, muscular Christ when the prevalent view of him was ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild.’ Others didn’t like that he was depicted as a carpenter. But, before he went walkabout in Roman Palestine, it’s likely that he did have to work and the chances are he would have followed his earthly father’s profession before following his heavenly father’s. They didn’t like Jesus being placed in a work-a-day setting, they thought it detracted from his divinity. Now it’s regarded as a great work of art. And modern artists often struggle to get contemporary audiences to appreciate what they are doing now of course.
I love this picture. I like its strong narrative. I love the colour and the attention to detail. You can almost smell the wood shavings on the floor.