Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Club visit to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

It was Tuesday morning and instead of setting off for a ‘Walk & Draw’ session we went by train to Birmingham for a visit to its main Art Gallery.

New Street Station has been re-vamped but we found our way out on to the street and in the correct direction without the aid of our Christmas cracker compass!

Victoria Square, less than half a mile from the train station, is impressive with its ornate Victorian buildings including the Council House and to its rear in Chamberlain Square the Museum and Art Gallery. It was free entry to the Art Gallery which housed some magnificent pictures – the largest collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings in Europe plus many modern paintings by top artists. Although appreciative of these paintings our main objective was to view the visiting exhibition by Grayson Perry of ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’ which was housed in a separate area with an adjacent film room showing the research done on the project.

You are sure to know of Grayson Perry, a Turner Prize winner, Reith lecturer and with an unusual taste in dress sense which includes, on occasion, wearing lady’s clothes and high-heeled shoes!

The exhibition itself was stunning – consisting of six tapestries each 12 ft x 6 ft displayed around the walls of the Gallery. The colours and artistry in each tapestry were outstanding and depicted the life of Tim Rakewell from birth to demise. Grayson has a fascination with social taste and class mobility depicted in the tapestries. He based them on William Hogarth’s ‘Pilgrims Progress’ and each tapestry, as well as depicting the rapid growth of Tim Rakewell up the social ladder to the super rich computer king, depicts changes in society and its tastes.

The titles of the tapestries are –
Adoration of the Cage Fighters
The Agony in the Car Park
Expulsion from No. 8 Eden Close
The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal
The Upper Class at Bay

I’ll briefly describe the first tapestry which shows Tim the new born baby in his mother’s arms grasping for her mobile phone. Alongside in the room is an array of people and domestic objects. Mother looks admiringly across the room to her four girl friends all dressed in their ‘glad rags’ and off for a night on the town – how she wishes she could join them! Kneeling at her feet are two martial arts enthusiasts offering gifts to the baby – a small size Sunderland football shirt and a miner’s lamp. What future for Tim the baby? Tucked away in the corner of the tapestry, following the pattern of many religious paintings, is a small image of Tim some three years hence alone in the house and gazing at a TV screen. This tapestry holds the attention and leads to many discoveries each having a subtle inference.

These observations continue throughout the remaining tapestries through to the final ‘Lamentation’. This shows our rich computer mogul dead in the gutter of the city in the arms of a passing girl
nurse. Behind him – crashed into a lamp post is his wrecked Ferrari sports car – wearing no seat belt his demise was certain.
What an exhibition! You must see it and it is still at Birmingham until early May.

I mentioned the film show in the next room to the Gallery. This shows the research done by Grayson Perry for the project. He spent a considerable time in the Sunderland area meeting different people to assimilate their views and tastes. This included a night out with the girls and he dressed in a very fetching dress and wore high-heeled shoes!

Grayson explains why he chose tapestries rather than his usual traditional media. Tapestries are associated with grand stately homes and the idea of using this costly and ancient medium to show common place dramas of British life really appealed. Grayson had to learn how to draw on a computer and he used Photoshop to transfer his drawings on to the tapestries. The tapestries were woven in Flanders on a computer controlled loom. The preparation and arrangement of threads for the loom took months, the actual weaving four hours for each tapestry.

What a feat – what an exhibition!

Brian Frost

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