Wandering into Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery this week, I came across a small exhibition entitled ‘A Sense of Place’ (so small it doesn’t even merit a mention on their website, apparently). The introductory blurb suggests that the collection includes pictures which ‘represent an intense personal identification with environment’. While this could be said of an enormous range of works of art, in fact there were only a few artists represented there, including Howard Hodgkin, and the work which struck me most was his painting ‘Gardening’ (1960-3) (right). The painting combines figurative and abstract elements, and is apparently a portrait of his wife, Julia. It’s impossible not to stare and keep staring at this picture, I think (my baby son thought so too!) – it’s such a busy image, and yet so simple. The exhibition seems to take the word ‘environment’ to mean the natural world, but this image shows the natural world as highly cultivated, in the control of the gardener, perhaps. There is nothing naturalistic about it, and yet what is particularly interesting is how the figure blends with the garden around her. I also particularly liked ‘Venice Sunset’ (1989), with its atmospheric and evocative nod to Turner.
The paintings in the exhibition seemed to be the type which you could try to puzzle out for ages; Bryan Wynter’s ‘Sandspoor IV’ (1962), for example, shows the effects of wind and water across sand, but you could make out shapes in the sand for hours (as indeed one could on a beach, I suppose). Peter Lanyon’s ‘Offshore’ (1959) also seemed reminiscent of Turner, I thought, and again the natural elements seem drawn into the picture and harnessed, allowing the viewer to see shapes in them which seem almost to be changing.
You can see a YouTube video of the exhibition here.