I love a good question mark. It was a dismal, late winter morning when I saw the sign outside the Museum for an art exhibition called The Rules of Art? As it had been a very long time since I’d visited a gallery and I had some time to myself that morning, I stepped inside, out of the rain.
The first work in the exhibition was a painting by Alessandra Botticelli, depicting the Virgin and the Christ Child. He’s holding a pomegranate, and the accompanying text explains that the pomegranate was understood to be a symbol of the resurrection. Both mother and child wear golden halos, each decorated with small, seed-like details. It is beautiful and seems to glow with vivid life.
The next image sits in stark juxtaposition. Mother and Child, South Wales is a black and white photograph by Helen Muspratt. The composition mirrors the Botticelli painting, again depicting a mother holding an infant, but the tone is harder here, and the surfaces rough. In the 1930s, Muspratt travelled through the Rhondda Valley, photographing the families of unemployed miners. The curator’s note states by using the visual language of religious art, Muspratt exalts the lives of working people.
And for me, this is where the question marks start. What is mirrored between these two mothers? What is revealed and what is concealed by the ways they are depicted?
New ways of seeing
By setting these two images together, the curators of the exhibition are raising questions about the nature of art and exploring and challenging traditional ways of seeing. The art world has shifted since the hierarchy of genres was established by the French Academy in the 17th century, but we still tend to view certain subjects as more worthy of artistic depiction. In this exhibition, the museum’s collection presents 500 years of art as a continuing conversation as works by Old Masters such as Rembrandt and Botticelli against works by contemporary names from a range of backgrounds and media. Photography, ceramics and film share gallery space with oil paintings, sculpture and drawings, and, through juxtaposition, something new is created. Hierarchies are flattened as is a sense of history itself, and new ways of seeing are celebrated.
What does it mean to see a miner’s wife as a modern Madonna? Or to set portraits of everyday people beside the famous faces of history?
Where do such comparisons take us? What is worth looking at?
A shared story
This experiment in honouring a more inclusive vision feels like what we are doing in the pages of this newspaper. Stories of national urgency share space with more intimate, reflective columns and we set the old with the new, not in confrontation, but so that deeper ways of seeing may emerge. Daily life on all its stages is honoured, and, despite variety, there is a shared story here. This is what interests me in our community. We’re creating something new as we seek to write redemptive journalism, working towards restoration, wholeness, and even holiness. So where do we put the question marks? What new life comes from these juxtapositions?
The Rules of Art? exhibition is running at the National Museum in Cardiff, Wales. You can find out more and see a video about the exhibition on their website.
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