Facing the Music: 20th-Century Portraits of British Composers at the Barber Institute of Fine Art, Birmingham

Facing the Music: 20th-Century Portraits of British Composers at the Barber Institute of Fine Art, Birmingham

Set deep in the heart of the University of Birmingham campus is the Barber Institute of Fine Art. It’s a rather solemn looking building that feels impeccably out of taste with the rest of the campus, it does however therefore harbour its own intriguing personality. The ground floor of the building is reserved for the concert hall. On the second floor are the gallery spaces, consisting of permanently displayed works as well as smaller individual exhibitions, and it is here that the Barber Institute’s latest exhibition Facing The Music is located.

Facing The Music is an exhibition focusing on the portraiture and documents of British composers. The collection shows works painted and photographed by a hoard of different artists and assistants working at varying times and harbouring different aesthetic styles, which offer a unique window for one to stop, absorb and be encompassed by. At the top of a spiral staircase and marble landing that precedes ones entrance, the impression given out is one of a more traditional gallery such as the Tate Britain. This in turn could seem worlds away from anything associated with students, whose place as young potential developers of tomorrow would perhaps be unexpected to interact with a form of culture which appears so traditional. However, this exhibition in turn is helping steer these two vastly separate social groups together, as the music students are the sole curators for the work. They grouped the collection of documents, photographs, paintings and sculpture into four sections: 1) work that portrayed gestures, 2) work that evokes a sense of the genius, 3) work showing portraying the composers in their workspace, 4) Close ups of the composers.

The first group of selected work consists entirely of paintings. Amongst them is Sir Gerald Kelly’s portrait of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1970), a photorealistic painting of Ralph reclining in a chair looking unnaturally old and weathered, emphasised by the hearing aid in the right ear and the skeletal pasty hands that seem to have spent a lifetime at their masters command. However, subtly upon a closer inspection the hair reveals wild streaks of blue and yellow that are not blended nor are they obscured, as if they would unravel the mystery as to how this was painted, on the contrary: they are on show. They engage the viewer and more so the figure within as a man who still has elements of vitality and life to him yet. Next to it with similar striking prowess is Philip Oliver Hale’s portrait of Thomas Joseph Edmund Ades (1971) which sees Thomas sitting in what appears to be an awkward and socially ugly position, as well as a canvas dimension and invasive angle which appears equally awkward compared to the other portraits in this exhibition – not that he is being provocative, but that he might be shy or nervous trying to ascertain control of the situation. The colour of his suit, an unappealing spoilt cream seems to perhaps corroborate this… then again it was painted in 1971.The brushwork is very similar to Lucian Freud, where upon layers are built with controlled but aggressively chaotic marks constituting a thicker texture, where brushstrokes have more opportunity for expressionist style collision and conflict for space, perhaps this enhances the somewhat uncomfortable appearance of the composer. This contrasts the soft and gracefully controlled brushwork in Sir Gerald Kelly’s portrait of Ralph Vaughan Williams. The contrast between the two in aesthetic style is fantastically mirrored in the old man portrayed in a faultlessly traditional manner and the younger man in Oliver Hale’s portrait of Thomas Joseph Edmund Ades painted with such vigour and emotion. One could almost see the orchestration of these two pieces as a symphony of colour and mark making.

Displayed along the opposite wall is a collection of paintings, documents and photographs under the titles Work places and Close-ups. It is here that the prolific juxtaposition of works is created. The black and white photography that emulates that of Diane Arbus and Jean-Loup Sieff in which the face and detail within becomes the subject matter. These can be seen as the most devoid of music as the facial complexion, skin defects, wrinkles and contours that map the faces and all that they have created become the brush marks and setting for an almost abstracted composition. A pertinent example is Jorge (J.S.) Lewinski’s photograph (Agnes) Elisabeth Lutyens (1969) where Elizabeth is seen staring across the camera as it just captures her face in deep thought. In front of her are sheets of music and a window looking out towards a house with the partially visible outline of a tree. In her hand is a cigarette is being tightly clutched as if not to lose her train of thought – on the brink of a seminal concept. Her face is marred by deep angst and the glasses prevent any form of intimate relationship with the viewer – seemingly giving her the aura of a tortured artist. The black and white limits, again, any sense of intimacy as the high contrast casts deep sections of pitch black shadows to dwell upon her like tormented daemons. This is juxtaposed with the snowstorm of white alluding to a freedom cascading through the window. In its own right this image is a wonderful mesh of existentialism, full, if one cares to ascertain, of symbolism and narrative just like those available when listening to the powerfully evocative concertos and symphonies these composers have enriched us with.

Facing the Music: 20th-Century Portraits of British Composers, 25th May until 27 August, Lady Barber Gallery, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B15 2TS. www.barber.org.uk

Text: William Davie

Barry Marsden, James Loy MacMillan (1994)
Courtesy the artist and National Portrait Gallery