The Whitworth and the ‘L’ Word

Then along came two art-related posts in a row.
I had planned something different for this March piece, but a visit to the recently reopened (and re-imagined) Whitworth Gallery in Manchester has changed all that. It is a simple pleasure to celebrate an example of good-hearted human endeavour that has produced such an unequivocal success.
Fall In Love Again is the ambitious title of the gallery’s free introductory booklet.
I have always liked the Whitworth a lot, but it would be an exaggeration for either me or the gallery to have claimed a love relationship. However, things change in matters of the heart and I think I can tell the world, and the authors of the booklet, that I am in love with the new Whitworth.
The building sits in a pleasant park at a point where the key components of modern city life meet: the park is surrounded by commercial buildings, a school, parts of the university, and busy multi-ethnic shops and residential streets. It has always had a good ‘feel’, a big red-brick legacy of a local philanthropist, but it was the quality of the exhibitions and the excellence of the permanent collection that kept me returning over the years.
Now, after a long closure and a spend of £15 million, the gallery has doubled in size. The original space has been beautifully renovated, and the new areas are truly magnificent. I went with a slight sense of trepidation, but at every turn there is a happy combination of light, angular nuance, reflection and depth of vision.
In the added galleries the architects have managed to unite the interior with the exterior of the building in ways I have not experienced before. This is an aspect that will become ever more apparent over time as work proceeds on the garden, sculpture terrace and orchard.
new Whitworth
The changes work on the ‘macro’ scale, but there has also been close attention to detail. The internal brickwork and wooden fittings are artworks and craftworks in their own right.
It was hard to believe, but also very refreshing, that a whole day there revealed nothing to feel negative about. Oh yes…with the exception of the shop. To borrow the telling phrase from the Banksy film, Exit Through the Gift Shop has become an important ritual for both visitor and gallery. The Whitworth shop is divided into two parts and both seem to be set up along minimalist lines, displaying a limited selection of expensive knick-knacks all too reminiscent of a rich person’s vanity shop project in Covent Garden…and (shock horror) a paltry selection of books and no postcards of the art in the building!
{Mental picture of a meeting of the executive board where a team of luvvy design consultants makes a successful presentation along the lines of “postcards are SO yesterday’s thing”}
Anyway, the Whitworth is now so good that even a Tesco Extra in the foyer could not spoil it.
To complete the experience, the re-opening exhibitions (ten of them) have been chosen with obvious care and empathy for the changed environment.
The largest space is given over to Cornelia Parker. With agonising self-restraint I shall resist the temptation to bang on about individual artists for too long here. Suffice to say that the Whitworth’s space provides real enhancement for everything from Parker’s calling-card Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991) to a wealth of her new work. Probably my personal favourite is the patinated bronze of Black Path (Bunhill Fields) (2013), a stunning installation using the pattern of paving-stones around the grave of William Blake.
Along with the commissioned exhibitions there are generous displays of new acquisitions and highlights of the permanent collection, which features some of the best British art of the twentieth century.
And I have to tell you about Cai Guo-Qiang.
One of the new rooms (almost a hangar) is called the Landscape Room and the installation chosen as first occupant is Unmanned Nature (2008) by Cai Guo-Qiang, a Chinese artist now based in America. Just before entering the room there is a video showing some of his mind-boggling work with fireworks and controlled explosions.
Unmanned Nature is over 45 metres in length and 4 metres high. It is a mountainscape “drawn” onto hemp-paper via flowing swathes of gunpowder scorches. It covers the four walls, and the centre of the room contains an icy tarn. The mountains and foothills have the burned colour of grainy sepia, and the tarn is a glacial blue.
You become immersed in the scene, as if standing, awe-struck, in some remote corrie in a land that could be perceived in two ways: either a world before humans existed; or a world after a human-driven apocalypse. A dirt-yellow sun bursts out towards the eastern end of the massive frieze. All the lines are both voluptuous and austere. Darker smudges of hand-swept gunpowder residue create depth and perspective.
I still feel almost overwhelmed by the experience…and I need to see it again in the same way that I need to revisit certain loved places. This is not a desire, it is a need.
Cai Guo-Qiang
“The art gallery is the new cathedral of our age…as religion shuffles off to take its place in the history books, so the museum and gallery grows in significance and in popularity”. Hopefully there is more than a grain of truth in Barbara Hepworth’s words, especially as they were written before the art interest boom of the last twenty years.
At their best, galleries (also libraries, bookshops, music venues and the like) can give us the humanist statements that inform our experiences of everything from the meaning of life to joyful fun. Creativity produces unique combinations of materials, visions, skills and energies. It is always individual in origin and in affirmation.
A gallery is not the only place to appreciate art, but it can be a practical and life-enhancing medium. The new Whitworth is all of that and more.
Cold Dark Matter
And entrance to the building and all the exhibition spaces is, as it should be, free of charge.
Ted x


  1. ‘Let’s meet between the trees’ is now the title on the Whitworth’s introductory booklet. Thank you for nudging me towards this particular place …. it proved a most wonderful meeting. My experience of the gallery was made special not so much for the precious objects themselves but for the sympathetic setting in which they were displayed. I loved it!


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