Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Tate and Lever

It wasn't fear exactly but definitely deep disquiet that I felt on standing in front of Ron Mueck's 'Ghost' yesterday. This hyper-real wax girl, perfectly scaled and formed but a soaring 7 feet high, seemed to inhabit her own anxious world that threatened to intrude into mine. What was so disturbing about this figure? She was so real in shape and texture that one almost expected to feel living breathing flesh - the hairs on her arms - because she had spookily hairy arms - made goosebumps rise. I felt I would not have wanted to have been in the Gallery alone lest she woke from whatever unfathomable adolescent torment to lash out irrationally. And yet I didn't fear violence - more an encounter with something so alien. How would I have reacted to a real 7 foot adolescent? I'm sure they exist. It is a possibility.

The Albert Dock - looking a little like off-season Venice

We were in Liverpool, in the Tate Gallery on the Albert Dock. What an earnestly arty place it is - I don't think I've ever 'enjoyed' a visit there. It's so like hard work and after such a schlep up from the shires did Chirbury and Marton Art Club want 'challenging' and full-on 'confrontational'? The short answer is 'no' - on the whole they like things they can recognise and which might look 'nice' over the mantle shelf. A cat, a landscape or some flowers - or something by that nice Mr Lowry. Perhaps it was as well that the Chapman Brothers show had finished......

Alan and I, non- members, tagged along for the ride. Alan wanted to see the Lutyen's model of the Cathedral that never was' at the Walker Art Gallery. And me, well I quite like a coach ride and do feel that a little challenge and a little confrontation is a good thing from time to time.

If the Tate with its 'contemporary' collection was hard for a coachload of countryfolk to get to grips with, everyone enjoyed the Lady Lever Art Gallery which was founded by soap magnate William Hesketh, the first Lord Leverhulme, in memory of his wife in 1922. It houses a fine collection of 18th and 19th century paintings, sculpture and decorative arts and furniture. There is the most exquisite embroidery. There were old friends in the form of familiar Pre-Raphaelites and, to the delight of our group, the paintings which were the basis of the original Sunlight soap ads.

The Gallery is in Port Sunlight, the garden village created by the philanthropic Lord Lever to house his workers. He was appalled by the squalid slum conditions in which most of his workers lived and resolved to house them in decent, pleasant conditions and at reasonable rents and provide them with schools libraries and public buildings in order that they could improve themselves - in return, they were to prove themselves worthy of all this by following a life of sobriety, thrift and the desire for self-improvement. It was within his interests to do so; he reasoned as did other social reformers of the age that a healthy and temperate workforce would be a more industrious one which would increase profitability for factory owners such as himself.

Unfortunately Lord Lever's philanthropic principles did not extend to his African workers - on whom he depended for his raw materials (palm oil from the Belgian Congo - and in Tate's case, sugar from plantations in the West Indies). They worked under conditions known as travail force - forced labour. Lever's vast fortune - estates, collections, bequests - were amassed on the back of practises of which we should be and are, less than proud.

......thoughts of which are easily forgotten as one stands in front of a fine piece of porcelain, marquetry lion or waxen 'Ghost'.

Think about it.

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