Picasso, Pacheco, Auerbach and Bomberg – just some of the artists who feature in Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery’s (BMAG) new free exhibition – Thoughts on Portraiture – which opened on Saturday 3 August and explores how artists have used a wide range of styles and imagery to interpret complex human emotion and experiences.
The display in Gallery 13 draws on Birmingham’s collection of modern and contemporary art and is centred around Man and His Sheep (1989) by Ana Maria Pacheco. This striking installation by the Brazilian-born artist consists of eight lifelike carved wooden figures arranged in a procession. A firm favourite with visitors in the past, the popular artwork has not been on public display for over 5 years. Each imposing figure is carved from a single piece of limewood then painted and waxed to give a startling lifelike appearance. The figures’ onyx eyes and acrylic teeth add to their sinister expressions. Pacheco’s oil painting In Illo Tempore I (1994) can also be seen on display.
The exhibition continues with the rare opportunity to see artworks that have never been on public display before, including an emotionally honest self-portrait by German expressionist painter, Walter Gramatté and a detailed etching by Frank Auerbach which depicts his friend, the art historian Michael Podro.
In the first decades of the 20th century, portraiture and the image of the body in art changed dramatically. Many of the artworks explore the impact that the First World War has on artists and their work. Previously, beauty and communicating social status were the primary focus of portraiture, but modernist artists began to explore their ability to depict more intimate and personal details of a person. These early explorations have shaped the way artists explore the image of the body and human experience ever since.
Strikingly different styles and imagery can be seen on display, including unusual animal and mythological references, as well as unexpected colours and heavy brush marks, which have been used by the artists to capture their emotional experiences and psychological states through portraiture.
Birmingham-born artist David Bomberg features, with a self-portrait, painted in thick, fluid marks, created by scrutinising his face in a large mirror. His unflinchingly honest depiction of himself, physically and emotionally, speak of how we each can be our own harshest critic.
Two works by the great Pablo Picasso join the display and showcase artworks from the Vollard Suite, from an intricate etching on paper of a monstrous mythological beast in Winged Bull Watched by Four Children (1934) to Portrait of Vollard I (1937,) which uses lighter and darker shades to depict different characteristics of Ambroise Vollard, the art dealer who commissioned the suite. The delicate works on paper are unlikely to be on display again soon and are not to be missed.
Emalee Beddoes-Davis, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Birmingham Museums Trust, said: “These artworks explore the individual experiences, beliefs, fears and passions of the people that made them or the people they depict. The evocative pieces speak to complex human emotions that are universal but will mean something different to everyone who sees them.
“We are thrilled to showcase many artworks that have not been on public display before, alongside popular favourites not seen for some time. The exhibition is a rare opportunity for visitors to view a beautiful range of expressionistic artworks from Birmingham’s collection that exude fascinating psychological intensity.”
Artists in the show include John Bellany, Pablo Picasso, John Stezaker, Frank Auerbach, Walter Gramatte, Georges Rouault, Saleem Arif Quadri, Craigie Aitchison, Amal Ghosh, David Bomberg, Keith Vaughan, Francis Newton Souza, Gavin Jantjes, Karl Weschke and Ana Maria Pacheco.
Thoughts on Portraiture runs from Saturday 3 August to Monday 18 November. For more on the free exhibition visit www.birminghammuseums.org.uk/bmag/whats-on/thoughts-on-portraiture.