Monday, 14 October 2013

At the Barber Institute

Picture: Meet in Birmingham
I think of Birmingham's Barber Institute as my alma mater. I grew up in Birmingham, and although the City Art Gallery was nearer home I always felt a stronger affinity to the Barber. The plain exterior gives no hint of the riches inside. It's a fine and well-balanced collection, with a few duff works and a few supreme masterpieces (Degas, Rubens, Murillo). Their Landscape is one of my favourite Rubens, less showy and spectacular than his great large landscapes in the National Gallery, the Wallace or the Pitti, but a work of understated genius. I especially value the more unusual works at the Barber: an unlovely but fascinating Beccafumi, Mazzoni's Three Fates on the end wall of the gallery above, and still lifes by Baschenis and Bonvin.

I returned on my way back from visiting the Bowes Museum a couple of weeks ago, and I found the gallery much busier than it used to be. Since Richard Verdi's directorship they've made great efforts to attract a wider public. It's to their credit that they have achieved popularity without populism, attracting a diverse audience without sacrificing the Barber's special ambiance.

The Barber has made excellent acquisitions with a depleted budget in recent years, buying pictures that complement its own collection, but also focusing on areas that are poorly represented in other British galleries. Until 1997 there was just a single still life in the collection, by Heem. Dutch still life is already very well represented in other British collections, so the Barber added a French and an Italian example. There's now a fine group of nineteenth century landscapes by Bidauld, Brett, Dahl and Fearnley and a magnificent pastel by Rosalba Carriera.
Copyright Trustees of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham
I was delighted to see its latest acquisition, a great late Reynolds Maria Marow Gideon, and her brother William. There are good reasons not to have bought this picture. Reynolds is already well represented in British collections, there were already three at the Barber and its condition isn't great. But they were right to set aside those concerns. It's a kind of portrait not previously represented at the Barber, and it's a nice tribute to a previous Barber director, Ellis Waterhouse, who was a Reynolds specialist. Reynolds' pictures have generally suffered as a result of his experimental techniques, and this is better than many. It's escaped the darkening that's ruined the effect of some of his pictures. Above all it's simply an excellent painting that towers above the other Reynolds at the Barber and provides a great focus for its English portraits.

It's best not to be too formulaic in developing a collection; enhancing an area of strength can be better than a spacefilling approach of trying to ensure broad and comprehensive representation. I don't suppose they set out to acquire a second Rubens or a fourth Reynolds, but they were quite right to have seized the opportunities. 

There have been a few attribution changes since my last visit. The Ugolino is now rightly downgraded to school (on the wall text - 'attributed' online) and the Botticelli studio work is ambitiously upgraded to autograph. It's good, but not that good. There are also some interesting loans, including Manet's Madamoiselle Claus and a fine early Lely. And the Barber's website is much improved. I like this collage of works on the same page, which works with a small collection like this and makes navigation really easy.

I had a couple of niggling concerns. A room off the main galleries had a sound installation accompanying three pictures from the collection, Sonic Voices: New electroacoustic music inspired by art. I didn't like the sound or the installation. The emotive power of music inevitably imposes a particular mood and constricts our engagement with pictures. It apparently does encourage people to look more closely and for longer, but it also enforces a particular kind of response. At least this exhibition was in a separate room and didn't intrude on the main galleries.  

The Barber used to have handouts available in each gallery with details about the works. They've been replaced with conventional wall text, which I think is a shame. The old handouts gave you a souvenir of your visit, and I thought it encouraged engagement with the pictures because you didn't have to run backwards and forwards to look at the edge of each picture. I also liked its distinctiveness. Sharing 'best practice' is all well and good, but museums seem to be increasingly homogeneous and I yearn for a little more eccentricity. Still, the Barber continues to provide a fabulous space for enjoying art.

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