A Review of the New Whitworth

The University’s Whitworth Art Gallery reopened on Valentine’s Day after a 16 month redevelopment. The grand showpiece of the opening night was a live piece of art called ‘Blakean Abstract’. Kostya Novoselov, one of Manchester’s graphene inventors extracted a tiny sample of graphite from one of the gallery’s William Blake illustrations. Working with artist Cornelia Parker, this graphite was then converted into graphene, which was used to create a sensor to be activated by the artist’s breath to launch a huge firework display and inaugurate the gallery’s brave new era.

The Whitworth Gallery is owned by The University of Manchester and is one of the city’s prime cultural hotspots, with 170,000 visitors in the last five years. The gallery and the surrounding Whitworth Park, were established for the people of Manchester as a result of a bequest by nineteenth-century industrialist and inventor Sir Joseph Whitworth, and much of the inspiration behind the £15 million refurbishment has been to bring the Park and the Gallery closer together.

On first entrance, things seem much the same as before, with the first gallery room as ever exhibiting exemplars from the gallery’s globally-important textiles collection, which reflects Manchester’s history as, ‘Cottonopolis’ the world’s first industrial city.

The second room showcases the gallery’s fantastic watercolours collection. In the past, there was a rotation of watercolours on show, determined by a particular theme or inspiration. As part of the reopening celebrations, and no doubt down to the added space available, the gallery has been able to showcase a wide selection of its most significant works, with seven William Blake pieces, four by J R Cozens and numerous landscapes and seascapes by Turner, among scores of others.

Moving towards the rear of the gallery, you begin to see the impact of the changes wrought over the last few months, with wide, bright corridors which reach outwards from the old gallery towards the park. One of these corridors was used to great effect as an exhibit space for photographs by Johnnie Shand Kydd, for what was in effect a collection of holiday snaps – albeit of a select group of artists spending the summer on a Greek island – ranging from the mundane to the slightly debauched, and everything in between.

One of the new spaces at the rear of the gallery has been christened the Landscape Gallery, and the inaugural exhibit here is a 45 metre-long, four metre-high drawing by Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang. Commissioned by a gallery in Hiroshima, Japan, this serene landscape of mountains, lakes, and a scintillating, metallic sun was created using controlled explosions of gunpowder. The calmness of the scene and the room, enhanced by a reflecting pool in the centre juxtaposes with the violence of the work’s production, and after a circuit of the space the acrid smell of explosives is left in your nose and eyes for a few moments as a lingering presence.

My favourite part of the visit was the Portraits room, which showed off the gallery’s collection in an innovative, interesting, and fun way. Rather than sorting by medium, or period, the portraits had been curated in such a way as to demonstrate the myriad ways in which the ‘likeness’ of a person can be captured, conveyed, and explored by the artist. Thus eighteenth-century printed portraits are hung with modernist works, and outsider art is placed next to works by Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, and Walter Sickert. I really enjoyed a work by Gilbert and George hanging at the top of a flight of stairs, showing a photographed boy’s face spotlighted, with glowing eyes, with photographs of the artists on either side behind him. It was so over-the-top and bombastic that I thought it was hilarious (especially as I couldn’t shake the idea that the artists looked almost identical to Morecambe and Wise).

The new café which extends out into Whitworth Park at canopy level among the trees, with ceiling to floor windows on four sides, was bright and expansive even in mid-February, so I imagine it will be gorgeous by the summer, with the trees in verdant leaf on all sides and the Mancunian Sun glinting through.

A thumbs up for the new Whitworth!

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