Towards Night, Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne

Without the familiar light of day, the world after dark becomes an alien place. Darkness is anonymous, meaning that any response is valid; isolating, inviting, mysterious, magical, comforting, terrifying, unearthly. It is a time of dreams and nightmares, insomnia and fantasy, hauntings and enchantments. No wonder then that the nocturnal has continually fascinated artists. Dedicated to tracing the theme of night in art comes Towards Night, a major exhibition hosted by Eastbourne-based Towner Art Gallery.

Featuring the work of 60 artists, Towards Night draws on the 19th century European Romantic tradition and examines contemporary and historical feelings of wonderment and dystopia inspired by the midnight hour. Work from leading visionaries of the Romantic tradition such as John Constable, Caspar David Friedrich, Samuel Palmer and J. M. W. Turner, and celebrated 19th and 20th century artists like Edvard Munch and Emil Nolde, are juxtaposed with that of contemporary artists. Whilst divided by period, purpose, movement and medium, each of these pieces are linked by their fascination with the night-time world. En masse, their work reveals a plethora of emotional responses, each a reaction to the transformative quality of night; from awe, anxiety and solitude, to love and loss, revelry, insomnia, and closure. “The exhibition has grown way beyond its original conception,” artist and curator of Towards Night, Tom Hammick, describes.

As a result, it has become “a magnificent survey of painting and printmaking from over two hundred years based around the central tenet of night. The exhibition is a kind of painterly response to the way figurative artists use their artistic heroes as starting points for their own work, both compositionally and emotionally.” The exhibition follows the natural progression of the sky at night, opening with works that react to the liminal world of dusk and sunset. These are direct and positive responses to the natural world, and feature the bright, evocative colours associated with the setting sun. Underlying each of them though is the foreshadowed and fearful unknown of the oncoming dark, a notion evoked in the contrast between colour and shadow.

Highlights include Marc Chagall’s exotic dreamlike evening sky in The Poet Reclining (1915), eighteenth century Indian miniatures depicting brightly painted figures offset against darkening monsoon clouds, and William Crozier’s Balcony at Night, Antibes (2007), which features an iridescent and artificially-blue plant against a cool night sky. As the exhibition progresses the sense of uncertainty escalates; the dystopias become darker and more disturbing, and the connections between artists and works intensify.

Capturing the very last hint of light over the horizon, Friedrich’s desolate Winter Landscape (1811) and Emma Stibbon’s brooding Rome Aqueduct (2011) – though with a 200-year difference between them – capture a heightened sense of pathos. Placed together, Stibbon’s neo-Romantic tendency is highlighted and Rome Aqueduct appears as a continuation of Friedrich’s work. Reaching the dead of night and the extent of angst is Peter Doig’s cinematic Echo Lake (1998), Prunella Clough’s False Flower (1993) and Nick Carrick’s Night Shift (2015).

This angst is only emphasised by the accompanying pieces which reinforce the hedonistic aspects of night-time revelry: Tom Hammick’s Violetta Alone (2015), Michael Craig-Martin’s Ash Tray (2015), Betsy Dadd’s Four AM and L.S. Lowry’s The Crowd (1922). Finally, the last room in the exhibition features work that explores dreams, insomnia and nightmares, from Louise Bourgeois’ Spirals (2010) to Munch’s lovers embracing in The Kiss (1902).

Towards Night is at Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne from 24 September – 22 January 2017, Towner Art Gallery.

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1. Mariele Neudecker, The Sea of Ice (1997). Courtesy of Towner Art Gallery.