Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery currently have a free exhibition called ‘Turning to See‘. It’s a novel premise, but it’s well worth exploring. Curated by John Stezaker, its centrepiece is Van Dyck’s splendid last self-portrait, which was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery with the Art Fund. It’s now touring the country so that everyone has a chance to see it – and I do suggest you take the opportunity, if you can. As it travels, the portrait will be part of a number of different exhibitions, many of which will relate to portraiture, I imagine. BMAG’s exhibition is creative and unusual in its approach: ‘the display will create a spectacle of turning in the gallery and will mirror the way the viewer moves around the space’, and one does feel watched, moving around and looking at the pictures, many of which look back at you. This effect is heightened when you visit at a quiet time: it’s just you and lots of people looking back.
‘Turning to See’ is a deliberately ambiguous title. The exhibition notes suggest both turning as pose, and turning as metamorphosis. The transformational effects of pose are apparent here, as the subjects turn towards or away from the viewer. I was fascinated by how this raised my awareness of pose in portraiture: not all of these are natural poses, though some are casually glancing at their audience, while James Jefferys, in this self-portrait, below, appears to be looking up with annoyance at whoever has come to disturb him. A turn to see, of course, is always a pause, a disruption of previous activities, the opportunity to see something new or rethink things. Art should be like that.
Van Dyck himself, in this very immediate and powerful self-portrait, is posed formally, his posture slightly uncomfortable, but looking very much the man in charge of the exhibition, while others seem to be turning to deliberately avoid looking directly at the viewer. Burne-Jones’s Phyllis and Demophoon demonstrates a much more physical turning (without clothes on) while Rossetti’s Proserpine is mournfully turning her eyes away.
There are quite a lot of Pre-Raphaelite works here, including this wonderful portrait of Jane Morris, awkwardly turning, looking somehow both completely natural and also splendidly posed. (My picture here isn’t great, but I quite like the post-modern juxtaposition of Jane Morris with the reflection of me holding up my iPad!) There’s also a sketch for Rossetti’s Found, in which the ‘turning’ both indicates the metamorphosis of a respectable woman into a fallen one, and a turning away in remorse and anguish. Rossetti’s sketch for Orpheus and Eurydice also appears, as does Arthur Hughes’s beautiful ‘Study of a Girl’s Head’, the picture of innocence, unlike Rossetti’s disdainful ‘Portrait of Ada Vernon’, whose turning posture suggests she is looking rather snootily at you.
John Stezaker also has a few of his own works here, which are photo-collages and indicate both the physical turn and also metamorphosis: merging film portraits, the works indicate a blurring of boundaries of gender and space. Man Ray’s striking portrait of Lee Miller almost obliterates her, focusing on a length of exposed neck as she turns away. The exhibition space is surveyed rather grandly by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s imposing bronze Alfred Wolmark, who is turning to have a closer look at Van Dyck. Posture, I think, brings out character and narrative, speaking without words to tell the viewer what is really going on. This effect s intensified here, though, because these portraits are encouraged, by their positioning and juxtapositions, to interact with us and with each other, across the centuries, across countries. There is much to be considered here: it has made me think about portraiture more carefully, but it is also a playful exhibition which challenges our notions about portraits, people and the gaze.