Goin’ Back (The Birds/The Byrds x 32 + 1)

I wouldn’t admit to being a great fan of “video art”. I often find it to be pretentious and uninteresting – and sometimes downright silly. But in recent years I’ve come across some good quality works which I’ve liked. There was one at the Leeds Art Gallery during our visit last Sunday.


While exploring the galleries upstairs we could hear a haunting sound coming from one of the rooms. Going inside we found a video work playing – Goin’ Back (The Birds/The Byrds x 32 + 1) by Mark Dean.

In Goin’ Back (The Birds/The Byrds x 32+1), 1997, Dean combines the moment when Tippi Hedren wakes up to relive the horror of being attacked by the birds in Hitchcock’s classic film with two lines from the song Goin’ Back by legendary sixties American group The Byrds: ’1 think I’m goin’ back, to the things I knew so well in my youth. I think I’m returning to those days when I was young enough to know the truth’. The momentary film clip is slowed down to last the same amount of time as the sample of music, and then both are played backwards and forwards – one bar forward, one bar back, two bars forward, two bars back – until they have progressed through the full thirty-two bars of music.

The work lasts for 9  minutes and the overall affect was eerie and hypnotic. You can see it for yourself here*


* Video on the web site is at lowered resolution, and does not reproduce the experience of works installed for exhibition

“Art and Life” in Leeds

Last Sunday we drove over to Leeds to visit the exhibition “Art and Life” currently showing at the Leeds Art Gallery. It’s only on until 12 January and we wanted to catch it before it finishes. Being a Sunday, and Leeds United were playing away, it was relatively quiet on the roads, and the weather was fine, so the journey over the M62 wasn’t bad at all.

The exhibition focuses on the work of Ben and Winifred Nicholson from 1920-1931. the years when they were married.

Ben and Winifred Nicholson

Ben and Winifred Nicholson in  Westmorland, early 1920s (source)

Like many male artists, Ben was something of a philanderer and in the early 1930’s started a relationship with Barbara Hepworth who he later married and then deserted for yet another woman. Winifred has been very much in the shadow of her ex-husband.  But she was a talented artist and her work deserves to be better known.

Winifred Nicholson, Summer,1928 source here

The exhibition examines their work both individually and in collaboration. The couple became close to Christopher (Kit)Wood during this period and a number of his paintings are included in the exhibition, as are paintings by  Alfred Wallis and pieces by the potter William Staite Murray. The exhibition has been curated in collaboration with art historian and curator Jovan Nicholson, who is Winifred and Ben’s grandson.

There were a large numbers of works exhibited, the majority loaned from Private Collections so this was a good opportunity to see works not normally accessible to the general public. It was a decent sized exhibition but not so big that you felt overwhelmed and "arted out".

During the period covered the Nicholsons had travelled to France and lived in Switzerland, Cumberland and then St Ives, and the structure of the exhibition followed this timeline showing works from each period. So it was possible to see how their styles evolved and also how they influenced each other. There were examples were where both Ben and Winifred (and in one case the Nicholsons and Kit Wood) had painted the same scene, a view looking towards Northrigg hill in Cumbria, and it was interesting to "compare and contrast".

Northrigg Hill

Winifred Nicholson, Northrigg Hill, c.1926

Christopher Wood Cumberland Landscape (Northrigg Hill), 1928 (source)


Ben Nicholson, Cumberland Farm, 1930

Ben and Winifred, with their son, Jake, are featured in the following picture painted by Kit Wood when they were staying together in St Ives


Christopher Wood, Fisherman’s Farewell, 1928

The development of their individual styles could also be traced. We could see Ben moving more and more into abstraction, his adoption of an earthy pallet and his use of a "weathered", "scuffed" style, and his penchant for still lives.

Ben Nicholson, Jamaique c.1925 (source here)

Winifred mainly concentrated on landscapes, with some portraits also included in the exhibition. We could also trace her increasing use of bright, but subdued, pastel colours, and how she began to favour painting pictures of flowers on window sills.


Winifred Nicholson, Flower Piece, late 1920s


The influence of Alfred Wallis on Ben and Kit Wood could also be seen. Wallis, who they met in St Ives in 1928, was a prolific, self taught naive painter who painted on any suitable materials that came to hand with paint bought from ships’ chandlers. Nicholson and Wood were influenced by his simple style and, Nicholson in particular, followed his example of painting on scraps of wood and card.


Alfred Wallis, Four Luggers and a Lighthouse c.1928

1928 (Porthmeor Beach no. 2)

Ben Nicholson, Porthmeor Beach no. 2, 1928


Christopher Wood, Le Phare, 1929

One aspect I found particularly interesting was the range of styles Kit Wood adopted. Some paintings were clearly influenced by Ben while there was a flower painting that was very reminiscent of Winifred’s style.

a still life of flowers in a vase

Christopher Wood, Flowers, 1930

There was a painting from a private collection of his then female lover, Frosca Munster (The Blue Necklace, 1926) – he’d painted her oversized, just like those paintings of women by Picasso from the early 1920’s. There was no question for me that he was copying Picasso’s style. The exhibition also included Woods’ final painting of a zebra in front of the Villa Savoy with a parachutist descending from the sky in the background. Very surreal. 

Christopher Wood, ‘Zebra and Parachute’ 1930

Christopher Wood, Zebra and Parachute 1930

Wallis’ pictures were included to illustrate his influence on Ben and Kit, so that made sense. But I really couldn’t see why Staite Murray’s pots, as nice as some of them were, were included in this exhibition. The only connection was that he was a friend of the Nicholsons. I suppose it provided some variety and allowed things to be displayed in the centre of the exhibition rooms!


William Staite Murray, Persian Garden, 1931,

The exhibition moves on to Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge soon and then to Dulwich Art Gallery in London. It would be worth the trip to see it at one of these venues  for anyone interested in the St Ives school or, the work of Winifred.. 

“Liberty and Anarchy”; – Op art and string theory in Leeds

The main exhibition showing at Leeds City Art Gallery at the moment is “Liberty and Anarchy”, with works by the Australian artist, Nike Savvas. The exhibits occupy two rooms on the ground floor of the gallery.

One of the rooms is devoted to a specially commissioned large scale installation ‘Liberty and Anarchy’ , after which the exhibition is named. It comprises 18 large screens made up of thin plastic, brightly coloured ribbons, hanging down vertically from the floor to the ceiling, each screen with ribbons of a different colour.

Entering the gallery and seeing a curtain of brightly yellow coloured strips, with hints of other colours through the gaps, wasn’t particularly inspiring. The work really needs to be experienced from the inside – by walking through the spaces between the individual curtains when visually unsettling patterns will be experienced by the viewer, like the effects created by “op art” paintings. Unfortunately the ribbons are fragile and so  the gallery has restricted access within the curtains to “guided tours” at specific times (11 o’clock each day). Unfortunately we arrived too late to participate. However, I found the following video where the curator talks about the work and which gives an impression of what it would be like to get inside the work (once you’ve watched the advert at the beginning).


In the second gallery there are a number of structures made of coloured wool threaded on wooden frames, not unlike the stringing that Gabo, Hepworth and Moore sometimes used on their sculpture. The stringing on these works, however, was more complex. The artist had created them in accordance with a mathematical formula, x 2/3 + y 2/3 = L 2/3, an equation that can be used to determine the length (L) of a ladder that can be carried horizontally around a corner, or the positions on the wall and floor of the ends of a ladder sliding down a wall. The solutions to the formula (anyone mathematically inclined can read find out more about the procedure here). Hence the collective name for the works the “Sliding Ladder” series. The ends of the strings have been positioned in accordance with the solutions to the formula (the x and y co-ordinates) generating a distinctive star shaped “envelope” – an astroid. The results reminded me of the patterns I used to create with my “Spirograph” when I was a boy.

Conceptually, this stringing is a simple idea. But constructing the individual pieces would have required considerable skill and patience. And Savvas has introduced some interesting variations on the theme in this “sliding ladder” series.  So, for example, the astroid is normally a four pointed star shape, but Savvas’ use of polygonal structures to support the strings has created different patterns. Combining several strung frames adds complexity and interest, as does ghostly shadow patterns cast on the floor by light shining through the structures.

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For most of the works, she’s used brightly coloured yarn for the stringing, in some cases using garish, fluorescent, hues.

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She has also used the approach with three dimensional structures producing more complex structures and patterns.

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There were also some related black and white two dimensional works on display from the Sliding Weave series, also created using mathematical relationships, which were quite similar to the op art work produced by Bridget Riley

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Leeds City Art Gallery and Henry Moore Institute

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I always look forward to the break over Christmas and New Year. A great chance to forget about work for a few days and relax, catch up on some reading, watch TV and a few films on DVD. The trouble is, after a few days in the house I start to get stir crazy and want to get out somewhere other than Tesco. So yesterday we decided we’d drive over to Leeds and visit the Henry Moore Institute and Leeds City Art Gallery. It’s been a while since I was last there and there were a few new temporary exhibitions on that sounded interesting.

The Henry Moore Institute is part of The Henry Moore Foundation, which was set up by Moore in 1977 to encourage appreciation of the visual arts. The building is physically connected to the Leeds City Art Gallery by an interior bridge, and although they are independent of the Gallery they collaborate with them and manages their sculpture collection and archive.

The main exhibition at the Institute at the moment is 1913: The Shape of Time featuring sculptures and some two dimensional works created in 1913.

“Marking the eve of the centenary of this year, and with George Kubler’s book The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (1962) in mind, 1913: The Shape of Time is an exploration of the complex lives sculptures lead after their original production. …… This exhibition points both to the impact of sculptural thinking on the mutability of time and to the ways in which temporal thinking impacts on the production of and encounter with sculpture. All of the works on display were first produced in 1913, however many have been cast or replicated at a later date

I particularly liked the two sculptures by Henri Gaudier Brzeska, a beautiful little crucifixion sculpture by Eric Gill (despite despising his personal life I love his work), a Modgliani sketch, a Picasso collage two sculptures by  by Vladimir Baranov-Rossiné. I’ve not come across him before so will have to follow up with some research.

Christ on the Cross

Eric Gill Christ on the Cross 1913 (source: National Gallery of Scotland website)

In another room there was a recreation of a work by my Marcel DuChamp (I can’t avoid this guy!!) – his "Bicycle wheel" by an American-born, Paris-based artist, Elaine Sturtevant.

Made from memory and with the same methods as the original, Sturtevant’s repetitions are eerily similar, if not almost identical. Through this subversive approach, Sturtevant divorces an artwork from its visual image to investigate its conceptual meaning and value.

Elaine Sturtevant ‘Duchamp Bicycle Wheel’ 1969-1973 (Source: Henry Moore Institute website)

We spent most of our time looking round the City Art Gallery. Unlike the public galleries in Manchester and Liverpool, where there is a major emphasis on Victorian art, Leeds’ collection is strongly biased towards the 20th Century and they including a good selection of sculptures. It’s an excellent gallery with a good collection and they show some good exhibitions. They don’t allow photography but, despite this, they aren’t great at providing information on the exhibits that visitors can take away with them and their website isn’t particularly good, with only limited information on the works in their collection. It can be difficult to follow up on discoveries made during the visit.

The Henry Moore Institute collaborates with the City Art gallery to curate sculpture exhibitions and at the moment are showing a selection of small scale works from the city’s collection in an exhibition titled Natural Form: Shape and Growth in Sculpture. It was really excellent with works by Moore, Hepworth, Jean Arp, Paule Vézelay, Richard Long, David Nash etc etc etc . There were a number of ceramics too, including a really nice "squashed vase" by Elizabeth Fritsch and a plate by Henry Moore.

What particularly caught our attention were a number of pieces by Andy Goldsworthy made from leaves formed into boxes and other forms. They were particularly excellent.  They must have required tremendous skill and patience to create them and I couldn’t help but wonder how the fragile leaves stay intact. Perhaps they are sprayed with some sort of preservative?

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Upstairs they have a large display of post war works including a significant number by St Ives artists (including 3 Christopher Woods paintings) and sculptures by Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and F E McWilliam.

There were a couple of temporary exhibitions including one Contested Ground, run in conjunction with the Contemporary Art Society, and which focuses on works connected to the landscape. The exhibition is curated by Debra Lennard, and it

explores the revision of the landscape tradition in British art throughout the last century, and the meaning of that tradition for artists today. Drawing on Leeds Art Gallery’s rich collections, this exhibition presents key works by pioneers of Modernism in England, from Paul Nash and Ben Nicholson to Barbara Hepworth and Peter Lanyon, alongside more recent experiments with landscape by artists including Richard Long, Boyle Family, and Clare Woods.

The information on the exhibition was very limited. BUt as I mentioned above, this is a particular problem with the Gallery. However, I did manage to late a copy of the exhibition catalogue online here.

Contested Ground, Leeds Art Gallery

Picture source: Contemporary Art Society website

Downstairs there was an exhibition "Liberty and Anarchy" of works by an Australian artist of Greek extraction -  Nike Savvas. One room had an installation specially made for the exhibition which consisted of curtains of hanging coloured strips. You’re meant to be able to walk through the work, seeing it from the inside, so to speak, but the gallery restrict when you can do this as the work would be easily damaged.  We didn’t have the opportunity during our visit which was a pity as we weren’t able to properly appreciate the work just looking at it from one side. The other room displayed three dimensional works with coloured wool threaded on wooden frames, not unlike the stringing that Gabo, Hepworth and Moore sometimes used on their sculpture, though more complex, especially as she created them in accordance with a mathematical formula. There were also some related black and white two dimensional works which were quite similar to the op art work produced by Bridget Riley.

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All in all a good day out.

Joseph Priestley – radical, dissenter and scientist

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I was in Leeds a few weeks ago attending a seminar held in the Queens hotel nest to the railway station. Across the road there’s a very grand building which at one time was the central post office. In front of the building there was a public square where there were a number of statues. It was quite common in the 19th Century for cities to honour notable citizens, often contemporary politicians, many of whom are now forgotten. So I was pleased to see that one of the statues in the square was of one of my heroes, Joseph Priestley – radical, dissenter and scientist.

Priestley, who was born in in Birstall, near Batley, which is a few miles from Leeds, in 1703, is probably best remembered for being one of the discoverers of oxygen (it was discovered independently by the Swede Carl Wilhelm Scheele). He was actually a clergyman – not in the Church of England, he was a Unitarian, and a “rational dissenter”, who rejected mysticism and emphasised the rational analysis of the natural world and the Bible.

As an amateur scientist he wrote a history of electricity and conducted chemical experiments that led to his discovery in 1774 of what he called “dephlogisticated air” which we now know as oxygen (named by the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier). His other innovations included the invention of soda water.


He was a political radical and supporter of the American and French revolutions, opposing slavery, promoting religious tolerance. He was also an educational theorist arguing for a more practical curriculum more relevant to contemporary society, with students studying English and the modern languages instead of the classical languages, practical mathematics, modern rather than ancient history, and the constitution and laws of England.

He moved to Birmingham in 1780 where he became an active member of the Lunar Society alongside James Watt, Matthew Boulton and Josiah Wedgewood.

While he was living in Birmingham, on 14 July 1791, the  second anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, Priestley and several other Dissenters had arranged to have a celebratory dinner. This was used by opponents to stir up a mob leading to 3 days of riots. Priestley’s house was attacked and set on fire.

Fleeing Birmingham he moved to London, living in Hackney where political and religious dissent was more accepted. He emigrated to America in 1794 and died there in 1804.

Henry Moore Exhibition Leeds


Yesterday we drove over to Leeds to visit the Henry Moore exhibition at Leeds City Art Gallery.  The exhibition had been shown last year at Tate Britain, but has now been transferred to Moore’s home county – he was born in the Yorkshire mining town of Castleford, and studied at Leeds School of Art (now Leeds College of Art).

I think there are fewer works on display than there were in the Tate. But I felt that it was a good exhibition that covered the breadth of his work without overwhelming the visitor. The Tate in London tends to show very large exhibitions which leave you feeling exhausted. At Leeds there were enough works to give you a good understanding of his work and I left feeling satisfied, with an understanding of his work and with my curiosity raised enough to make me want to find out more.

The Leeds exhibition was also free, which means that I’ll revisit it if I happen to be in Leeds again before it closes, whereas the Tate charged a £12-50 entrance fee.

Most of the ground floor of the gallery was given over to the exhibition. There were seven rooms covering different aspects of his work – the different periods and his main themes

  • Moore in Leeds
  • Modernism
  • Wartime
  • Post war
  • Mother and child
  • World cultures
  • Elm (two large reclining figures carved from elm wood)

There were several examples of works on the two main themes that Moore returned to time and time again during his career – “mother and child” and the “reclining figure”.

Henry Moore seems to have gone out of favour with a number of contemporary critics. The reviews of the original Tate exhibition last year  in the Guardian, Observer and Independent were not particularly favourable.

Entering the gallery you went straight into the long narrow room where post war works were being shown, including a couple of bronze helmets, “King and Queen”, two life sized figures sitting on a bench, and “Fallen Warrior” a version of which I’ve seen in the Walker Gallery in Liverpool.


These works were cast in bronze and have a colder feel to them than the earlier works in the adjoining room from his “Modernist period”. These were carved from stone and had a much warmer, more sensual feel to them. I mean feel in the metaphorical sense as you aren’t allowed to make direct contact the works. It was hard to resist – the smooth sensuous curves on some of the pieces really invite you to touch! There was a large reclining figure carved from a warm sandstone and some smaller curvaceous, abstract works carved from a smooth stone.

One of the rooms was devoted to his wartime sketches from his work as a war artist including drawings from the Tube stations, when they were being used as shelters during the Blitz, and of mine workers.

There were two large reclining figures carved from elm wood. Reading the reviews from the Tate exhibition these works met with general approval

“The elm reclining figures are exceptional” – Maev Kennedy from the Guardian

“his monumental Reclining Figure carved in elm between 1959-64 bears comparison with Michelangelo’s figures of Night and Day from the Medici Chapel” – Richard Dorment from the Telegraph

Next door, in the Henry Moore Institute (physically connected to the Art Gallery but a different organisation) they were showing a related exhibition of Prints and Portfolios by Henry Moore (it’s becoming repetitive using his name in this post, but it’s unavoidable) during the later part of his life, from the 1970’s onwards. I guess as he was becoming older it was easier to work on etchings and lithographs than to create large scale three dimensional works. There were an incredibly large number of prints. Most of them were in black and white but some were in colour. In some cases it was possible to see how a particular work had developed through several stages of the printing process. We took advantage of the offer of a guided tour of the exhibition by one of the young staff. This was well worthwhile as there were a large number of works and the young lady did a good job of highlighting the key works and explaining their development and Moore’s approach to printmaking.

The Institute also had an exhibition on the Mezzanine Gallery, “Dear Henry Moore”, which explores the artist’s relationships with his assistants who became well known sculptors in their own right, including Anthony Caro, Isaac Witkin, Ralph Brown, Hubert Dalwood and Geoffrey Clarke. A few works were on display by these artists from Henry Moore’s own collection.

There was a fascinating collection of letters in one of the display cases from wannabe assistants from all over the world accompanied by his replies. He must have been inundated with requests and it can be difficult to write replies that are not discouraging.

I enjoyed both exhibitions. One small criticism is that their was not a lot of information available to explain the works and put them into context. There were free leaflets but they provided relatively little information and there was only minimal details on the information panels displayed in the galleries. The exhibition catalogue was expensive and, in any case, too heavy to cart around the gallery. I realise it’s a free exhibition but I would have been willing to pay a few pounds for a more detailed guide book.