The Family in British Art. Millennium Gallery Sheffield. 04-02-12

Click on the links to see images of the art works if you wish.

The real joy of this exhibition lies in its variety. There is an enormous range of work here, in a relatively small space, by the widest range of artists that you can possibly imagine and from a wide range of historical eras. Every medium is represented. I defy anyone to walk round it without finding something to like. Seeing such a disparate selection of work, united only by its subject matter, the family, adds great resonance to the individual pieces. The family is a broad, intimate and emotive subject, and one which has been at the heart of painting and sculpture. Those who could afford it have always wanted a record of their nearest and dearest, and since the moment that the majority of people were given the means to record images of their family for themselves the world has been awash with them. Family means many different things to different people, and evokes strong emotions in everyone. Those who have no family are looking for one. We all need intimacy, however difficult and painful life may be because of it. It is a strong subject for any artist and makes for a powerful exhibition. The brief verbiage for each exhibit has been written with unusual insight and it is well worth reading, making a thought provoking addition to the works.

Given the intimacy of the subject it is not surprising that many of the works are telling a moving and sometimes painful story. There are two wonderful works by Stanley Spencer on show, paintings which are so blisteringly personal that they stop you in your tracks. His nude portrait of his wife Patricia Preece, from 1936, is both heartbreaking and disturbing. She is staring straight out at you, challenging you to meet her gaze, and her naked body is painted with obsessive detail. Every pore is laid out for us, from the blue veins in her breasts to the small patch of reddened skin at her neck which has been exposed to sunlight. It is a formidable image of a formidable woman and seeing her through the eyes of Stanley Spencer you can understand why he was sometimes reduced to impotency in her presence. The second painting, The Lovers from 1934, is a charming image of unashamed open affection in which a dustman and a washerwoman embrace. He is clutching her tenderly in front of an audience of mildly shocked and disapproving neighbours who are all watching intently. It makes you feel that perhaps Stanley was portraying a joy in intimacy that he longed to have for himself but couldn’t find.

For sheer beauty it is hard to beat Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of his daughters chasing a butterfly, from 1756. It has a tenderness which is in contrast to his more formal portraits of wealthy sitters. The brushwork is quick and light, suggesting movement, and there is a look of  intense concentration on the faces of the two girls. Even here there is more than simple beauty going on. The younger daughter May is holding out her hand and looking towards the butterfly which they are chasing. May was named after a sister who had died two years earlier and it is hard to imagine that her lost sister was not being immortalised by Gainsborough in the short lived fragile beauty of the butterfly.

There is some interesting and enigmatic photography in the exhibition. A beautiful early image of a mother and sleeping child by Julia Margaret Cameron, Devotion from 1865, is another hymn to the fragility of young life at the time. Martin Parr’s modern photograph of two children eating ice creams on a seafront from his collection The Last Resort makes you wonder whether they are really having a happy day out or not. Both faces are covered in ice cream, the boy looks combative and the girl stares out at us as if she is about to speak. We will never know what she is about to say.

Thomas Struth’s photograph, The Smith Family from 1989, is a fascinating examination of family likeness. It is made all the more interesting thanks to the fact that they also seem separated and still thanks to the long exposure which he uses in his work. The eight family members are both bound together by the ties of family and alone. Ted Duncan’s photograph, Absent Friends from 2005 is hard to even recognise as a photograph, it is more like a Craigie Aitchison painting, far removed from an image of reality as we would see it from the naked eye. An adult female figure and a small boy, possibly a mother and child, are facing each other and she is leaning towards him, seeming to tell him something but there is no telling what. The two figures seem to be barely there at all, there are no facial features, no facial expressions, just the simple body language to give us a clue. It is an image which expresses Ted Duncan’s own longing for a family of his own after growing up in a series of foster homes. Is the mother telling the small boy his past? If she is, we can never know it.  I couldn’t find an image of it afterwards on the web to link to and somehow that seemed very appropriate.

There are two very poignant video pieces from Gillian Wearing and Mona Hatoum. 2 into 1 by Gillian Wearing shows a mother and two sons speaking very honestly and openly about each other, but the soundtrack has been re synched so that we see the words of the mother coming out of the mouths of the boys and vice versa. It is a simple but very telling exploration of what is said, or not said, between the generations and the power of conditioning. An obsessive love and concern is contrasted with the knowledge that a mother and child will not usually allow themselves to be heard speaking with such directness. When the mother says- through the mouth of one of the boys- that when you have children you are constantly faced with the border of love and hate it is a truth which many mothers may feel from time to time under the intense pressure of bringing up a child, but few will allow themselves to articulate.

Mona Hatoum’s work, Measures of Distance 1988, showing hazy naked images overlaid with Arabic text, read out in English,  is also about intimacy between a mother and child. It examines the time when Mona Hatoum was unable to return home on the outbreak of war in 1975 and she and her mother were forced to communicate by letter. Her mother speaks openly about sexuality and desire, breaking the taboo about children seeing their parents as sexual beings, in a way that she may not have done in other circumstances. It is a strong heartfelt piece. So strong that two teenage girls who sat down confidently in front of it were instructed to come out by their father. “Your mother doesn’t want you to see this one.”

The darkness at the heart of family life is one of Grayson Perry’s key motifs and one of his beautiful glittering pots, Difficult Background made in 2000, is on show. Idealised pale blue images of 1950’s children smiling and playing are set against a war torn background and a fiery orange sky. We often idealise childhood, both our own and that of others, but the truth is rarely that simple. The nostalgic beauty of memory plays tricks on us.

A small piece by Rachel Whiteread, Untitled 1993, is a simple cast of a doorknob in bronze. It is dealing with the intimacy of touch and shared space both in the moment and across time, and it makes its point very neatly. Alice Maher’s piece The House Of Thorns is a small childlike boxy house covered in rose thorns. While I was looking at it a small boy dragged his father across to it and demanded to know why it was covered in thorns. His father simply said, “Do you think that they are safe in there”, which I thought was a perfect answer. It is a metaphor for the family as a refuge from the dangers of the world, but any adult looking at it and being reminded of a Hansel and Gretel type fairy tale house knows that nowhere is safe.

This exhibition is well worth a visit. It was far darker and more interesting than I expected it to be when I walked in, but then isn’t that also true of families?

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