Friday, 23 October 2015

Seeing red…

The one thing that you can guarantee from any visit to Compton Verney is that you will leave with both the physical and mental bits of you well-exercised (and enriched) – from the parkland stretching your legs to the exhibitions expanding your mind. It really is a wonderful and versatile place to have on your doorstep – “a unique cultural attraction that is inclusive and relaxed yet, at the same time, innovative and bold” – whether you are just popping in for a quick snack or a leisurely lunch; exploring the permanent collections; immersing yourself in the current exhibition (see below); treating the kids to well-veiled education (both inside and out); spending an afternoon just pottering around the grounds, admiring the antics of the great crested grebes, for instance; wandering further afield, climbing through the meadows above Compton Pools (aka the lake), and past Boathouse Coppice, following the valley towards Lighthorne (a right of way runs through it…); or simply revisiting an old friend – in my case, a Chinese bird (of which I would like a replica, please, for my walking stick…) –

During the Han dynasty, men reaching 70 years of age were awarded with a wangzhang, or king’s staff, which was topped with a dove-shaped finial. This reward earned them certain advantages and a greater respect amongst the community.
– Compton Verney: Chinese collection

The current seasonal exhibition is Periodic Tales – on until 13 December 2015 – and I accept that it may not, at first sight, be to everyone’s taste (although I do think most children will adore it…). This could be to do with its inherent modernity; or, more likely, it having a foot in each of “the two cultures” of science and art – but, for me, this juxtaposition is where its innate power lies. Experiencing it hopefully challenges any preconceptions you may have….

Neither culture knows the virtues of the other; often it seems they deliberately do not want to know. The resentment which the traditional [literary] culture feels for the scientific is shaded with fear; from the other side, the resentment is not shaded so much as brimming with irritation. When scientists are faced with an expression of the traditional culture, it tends (to borrow Mr William Cooper’s eloquent phrase) to make their feet ache.
– CP Snow: The Two Cultures

Although it is curated by Penelope Sexton, and has taken three years to develop – inspired and prompted by Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ wonderful book Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements – I do think this “elemental feast of contemporary art, installations, sculptures and paintings… alongside significant historic pieces” also reflects the open (and sometimes quirky – which is A Good Thing…) attitude and humour of Compton Verney’s genial director, Steven Parissien – who writes, in the accompanying programme that…

…the elements have always had a particular affinity with art: not just through the colours they have adopted or the paint pigments they have produced, but in the ways they have defined the very nature of artistic production.

And I think this statement gets to the nub of what visiting the exhibition is about: not just looking at the displays, but understanding their relevance, and appreciating the intense craft and conception behind them. Linger awhile, and it will soon get under your skin….

My two favourite works span two millennia: a small, Roman cobalt-blue glass model boat (from AD 1‑50) and Ken + Julia Yonetani’s Crystal Palace: the great exhibition of works of industry of all our nuclear nations (United Kingdom) (from 2013). The former’s delicacy and feat of survival (and with so few scars) astonishes. The latter, with its “nuanced expression of contemporary issues”, simply left me short of breath, once I caught sight of it, high above me… and then grokked its significance.

The display that will remain with me, though – simply because it still feels engraved into the backs of my eyeballs, is Tim Etchells’ something common… – which is cleverly succeeded by Pierre-Jacques Volaire’s Vesuvius Erupting at Night, now glowing voluptuously as your sight adjusts….

It is obvious, as you wander around, that there is a lot of investment going on at the moment – most of it outside the gallery itself – from the restoration, planting and landscaping of the grounds, to the construction of the new Welcome Centre (opening for the ‘Capability’ Brown season in March 2016 – when the Painting Shakespeare – yay! – experience will also start).

But don’t let all this work put you off visiting, next week – especially if you have children to keep occupied…! – as there are lots of activities for families during half‑term – including late opening (from 17:30 to 20:30) on Friday, 30 October 2015, for Museums at Night. A great way to see Compton Verney in a different light….

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