Manchester Art Gallery I

Journal Entry, 29 Jan 16:

Many years ago I bunked a day off school with my mate John; not to go glue-sniffing or carry out an armed raid on the local post-office, but instead to travel down to London (British Rail had launched a special offer of return tickets for just six pounds!) to visit the Great Japan Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. We wandered round London and had tea at Harvey Nichols where I defaced our receipt so that it read ‘Over (rather than ‘At’) The Top’.

Then we made our way to the Academy, and encountered a vast display of paintings, porcelain, kimono and ceremonial swords; everything had been embroidered, gilded and lacquered to within an inch of its life. I remember feeling exhausted and having to rest. When we boarded the train for our journey home there were no seats left in second-class (it wasn’t called ‘standard’ class back in those days) so the train guard instructed us to take up residence in the First-Class carriage, an experience from which I think neither of us ever fully recovered.

I was reminded of this when I called in to the Manchester Art Gallery yesterday as part of my job-hunting activities. En route, I passed the All Hallows RC School which had a large banner fixed to the railings outside proclaiming that the school had been rated ‘Good’ by Ofsted because of the “Fantastic GCSE results” (58 percent of pupils scored five grades A* to C).

Is this fantastic? Does the quoted figure mean that 42 percent of the pupils failed to achieve anything higher than a grade ‘D’ in four of their exams? Perhaps Ofsted should adopt a new gallery of writhing superlatives, alongside the prosaic ‘Good’ and ‘Adequate’. How about ‘Marvellous’, ‘Splendid’, or even ‘Corking!’ as tax-bands of attainment?

Anyway, back to the Art Gallery: I had not been for several months, and did not realise that there were three new exhibitions to be enjoyed. Keenly drinking in the atmosphere of cultured elegance, I made my way through ‘Black on Black’, in which curator Jo Bloxham had brought together items of jewellery made from Nacron synthetic resins, animal skin, oxidised silver, or genuine Victorian jet. The gallery walls had been painted with a special vintage shade of black from Farrow and Ball; the whole thing was just too much, or as Harvey Nicks would have it, Over the Top.

And after this journey through the Chamber of Gloom, I ascended the frosted glass stairways to the second floor where the gallery was holding an exhibition of Modern Japanese Design. Except that, in Japanese culture, nothing is truly ‘modern’. The top floor gallery had the original white plaster nymphs and muses around the distant, elevated ceiling; beneath them, large, sturdy glass cases contained small ceramic figures or those amazing sculptured garments created by Issey Miyake from endless yards of welded polyester fabric. Around the gallery, elegant banners carried brief descriptions of the aesthetic and philosophical concepts behind and inside Japanese art, such as the notion that beauty is enhanced by small imperfections or asymmetries.

One object on display was a set of red plastic trays mounted on an upright metal spine; the caption described these as being ‘metacrylate’ (sic), a tiny blemish which marred my enjoyment of the display. Likewise, the exhibition of black jewellery included some item labels saying ‘steel’ and ‘paint’…surely, if the objects are valued at thousands of pounds, a precise technical description would be justified.



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