Terry Grimley views the Art of Birmingham 1940-2008 exhibition at the Water Hall gallery.
Having previously given us an overview of art produced in Birmingham from 1890 to 1939, the Museum & Art Gallery has now completed the job with a fascinating survey covering the years from 1940 to the present day.
As it turns out, Art of Birmingham 1940-2008, now showing at the Water Hall gallery, spans a period which starts with physical ruins and has ended with financial ones. In between come decades of momentous social and technological change, prompting both optimism and anxiety, which have inevitably left their mark on art.
The very first image is a watercolour by Norman Neasom recording the aftermath of a bombing raid, resulting in six fatalities, on Redditch in 1940. It is one of a group of wartime works by this long-time stalwart of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists which was acquired by the museum in 2002.
Opposite, William Gear’s Mau Mau is a rare example (for Britain) of tough 1950s abstraction, inspired by the colonial conflict in Kenya at that time.
Gear, a Scot who had served in the Second World War and shared a two-man show with Jackson Pollock, came to Birmingham as head of fine art at Birmingham School of Art in the early 1960s.
His name crops up much later in the show at a time during the 1980s when he was advising the Friends of the Museum on acquiring work by younger Birmingham artists.
This is one of a number of threads which help tie the exhibition together. Another is the small group of watercolours by Frank Lockwood, recording wartime life and postwar demolition, which anticipate the recent watercolours by his son Arthur documenting a later phase of the city’s redevelopment.
The central focus, as in the first exhibition, is the Birmingham School of Art, where most of the 60-plus featured artists were either students or members of staff. In fact, the exhibition is presented in association with the school’s present-day successor, Birmingham City University’s Institute of Art & Design.
Whereas the previous exhibition was dominated by the school’s important, if somewhat parochial, Arts & Crafts ethos – an influence which continued well beyond its classic early 20th century era to the inter-war years – the last half-century has inevitably encompassed a much greater diversity of styles and media and a world which is much more internationally connected.
Wolverhampton-based Robert Jackson Emerson, professor of sculptor at the RBSA, poignantly completed his Golden Youth, a female nude embodying hope for the postwar world, in 1944, the year of his death. The sculpture itself, now in the collection of Wolverhampton Art Gallery, was almost destroyed in an air raid when it was being cast at a London foundry.
A small section recalls, alongside Emerson, the career of William Bloye, best known for his sculpture of Boulton, Watt and Murdock, and his pupil Gordon Herickx (1900-1953), whose near-caricature portrait head of John Hampson, a member of the scarcely-remembered Birmingham Group of poets and writers, is one of those arresting pieces that seems to have a life of its own outside any school or context.
There is the odd episode of Birmingham’s surrealist group, represented by the work of Emmy Bridgwater, Desmond Morris (later much better known as a popular TV zoologist) and a not-very-surreal portrait by John Melville.
From the 1960s come paintings by David Prentice and Jess Bruton which for a long time held the fort in what was very much a token representation of contemporary art in the museum’s collection.
They are rarely allowed out these days, but the Prentice in particular can stand alongside anything produced in Britain at that time.
It’s from this point that the art starts to become really diverse – richly or confusingly so, depending on your point of view.
From the 1970s come two notable works from Brummies working abroad. Raymond Mason moved to Paris as long ago as the late 1940s, but his sculpture A Tragedy in the North, inspired by a French mining disaster, is clearly related to his working class origins in Birmingham. John Salt’s White Chevy, Red Trailer reflects his unlikely reinvention as a member of the short-lived American Photo-realist movement.
Then there is John Walker, whose early talent as a child was encouraged by his mother, a cleaner, saving paper for him. Now he is professor of painting at Boston University.
There were more than 20 paintings by Walker in American museums before the museum in his home city had one. At the last count it there were three, of which the latest, included here, was painted in 2006 but looks disconcertingly like the ones he was producing 20 years ago.
Harry Seager is another artist who enjoys an international reputation, creating innovative sculptures from stacked plate glass. And then there is Barrie Cook, represented by a huge canvas which was recently purged from the Welsh Arts Council collection. Their loss is our gain.
There is a generation of Birmingham artists who, while they can now look back on substantial careers dating from the 70s or 80s, are still very much an active part of the city’s contemporary scene. They include the painters Paul Bartlett, Graham Chorlton and Paula Woof and the former painter Myfanwy Johns, who now works with constructions and digital printing.
Another artist associated with the recently defunct Birmingham Artists group, Ian Skoyles, tragically died in 2006 just as his work was beginning to catch national attention. Ruth Caxton, whose surreally amended knick-knacks share a kitsch sensibility with Pamina Stewart’s fabulous beasts created out of sea shells, is another artist who has recently demonstrated that it is possible to make a mark on the London scene while being based here.
Then there is Paul Hill, who has lived on Castle Vale since the age of nine and paints its street-life as an insider. His Little Street Fighter recalls a shocking incident when two women were fighting over a man and the small daughter of one of them joined in. Hill reminds me of Francis Bacon’s remark about wanting to make paintings directly off his central nervous system.
Peter Grego is represented by his video Flagrant which, if I remember correctly (because there didn’t appear to be any explanatory label), is about the ambiguous national identity of his mixed-race son. It’s significant because as far as I’m aware it is the first video to have been collected by the museum.
There are some other works here that I would be very glad to see the museum add to its permanent collection. One is Mick Thacker and Mark Renn’s comic masterpiece Acme Meteor, a giant whistle/miniature aircraft (or “whistle missile”) which theoretically, if dropped from a great height, would produce the largest sound ever made by a whistle.
Unfortunately, it would require the services of two kamikaze pilots. The whistle itself, produced in association with Birmingham’s celebrated J Hudson Whistles Ltd and beautifully crafted in brass and steel, is accompanied by a video showing the artists testing the whistle under laboratory conditions, in a stiff-lipped parody of the kind of black-and-white science documentaries produced between the 1930s and 1950s.
Then there are Graham Chorlton’s painterly cityscapes and, making a particular impression on me here, Ian Burch’s vibrant little abstracts.
If there was one work I could actually take out of the collection it would be Reuben Colley’s trite canalside view. To be fair, this artist has painted much better pictures than this.
What about omissions? The Pop painter Peter Phillips, Birmingham-born and trained, is a surprising one. Keith Piper, Birmingham-born and a leading pioneer of the black art movement of the 1980s is represented but his colleague, the late Donald Rodney, is recognised by the Tate but not by his home city.
* The Art of Birmingham is at the Water Hall, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, until February 1 (Mon-Thur, Sat 10am-5pm, Fri 10.30am-5pm, Sun 12.30pm-5pm; admission free).