Remaking the Whitworth Gallery
MUMA architects’ transformation of Manchester’s Whitworth opens with a bang
Not everyone recalls that the Whitworth Art Gallery was the first British public gallery to acquire a Picasso. Or that this painting, Poverty (1903), together with Gauguin’s Tahitian Landscape (1891) and Van Gogh’s The Fortification of Paris with Houses (1878), was stolen from the gallery in a 2003 heist, before being evetually located in a public lavatory.
Twelve years later, the Whitworth is enjoying happier days. Its £15m transformation by MUMA architects has been a success, and its programme of events to mark its reopening in February hoped to welcome both international visitors and a local audience from Moss Side, the poverty-stricken ward bordering the gallery. ‘When we initially visited the Whitworth, we were touched by kids wandering in from the park without parents, finding themselves a place to be,’ said Stuart McKnight of MUMA during a press view. When asked about what art he was most excited to see in the spaces he designed for the Whitworth, McKnight replied, ‘I like art that is beautiful and interesting. Cornelia Parker’s work is both.’
As the key attraction of the opening programme, Parker’s major survey show takes centre stage in the central exhibition gallery, a vaulting space with rib-like louvres and soaring views across the park. On entering, you feel like you are Jonah, taking refuge in the belly of a great whale. Parker has selected works that not only interplay with one another but also complement the architecture of the building itself, utilising the full extent of the gallery’s volume. In symmetrical arrangement from the ceiling hang Composition with Horns (Double Flat) (2005) and Rorschach (Accidental I) (2005) – flattened tubas, trumpets and trombones, and a Chekhovian Mad Hatter’s tea party of samovars, soup ladles and candelabras. In The Distance (A Kiss with String Attached) (2003), Parker famously took Rodin’s sculpture The Kiss and wrapped it in string; here it sits in bound ardour on the building’s central axis, while on the floor nearby, her casts of pavement cracks Black Path (Bunhill Fields) (2013) and Jerusalem (2015) rest on nails, delicately playing with the space.
Two smaller galleries flank this main room and present dramatic installations by Parker. Her most significant early work, Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991), throws out spectacular, frozen shadow from the innards of a garden shed that are hung from the ceiling like a huge mobile, while War Room, created for the Whitworth show, is an immersive space draped with reels of red paper from which thousands of Remembrance Day poppies have been cut out.
Parker understands well the elegiac presence of absence, an absence we often try to forget. I asked the Whitworth’s director Dr Maria Balshaw about the choice of reopening the building with work by a female artist, in the context of women being generally so under-represented in the art world. ‘We do have a lot of women artists on show at the Whitworth,’ she replied, ‘but only because they’re really good. That’s fair.’
Alongside Parker’s show, the Whitworth’s opening programme celebrates a broad range of historic and contemporary fine art, as well as applied art such as textiles and wall hangings. Not everything is a success. The room exhibiting Turner, Blake and Cozens watercolours and drawings, a collection bequeathed by John Edward Taylor, combines low light, dark wall paint and little space between works, making viewing difficult. Such close hanging has better impact in the portraiture room, in which individuals connected to the gallery are honoured, including Sir Joseph Whitworth, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud – the result is an eclectic Salon, or grand ‘Who’s Who’.
Other highlights include a 45-metre long gunpowder drawing by Chinese-born artist Cai Guo-Qiang, two exhibitions of British and American contemporary artworks donated by the Karpidas Foundation, Johnnie Shand Kydd’s photographs featuring youthful-looking YBAs holidaying on the famous Greek island of Hydra, and, ahead of her representation of England in the Venice Biennale, a gallery papered with Sarah Lucas’s Tits in Space (2000), providing candid backdrop to the artist’s suggestive sculptures.
‘The idea is that as you move around the building, you are always catching a glimpse of the next bit of art,’ Balshaw explained. ‘Sightlines pull you to the other end of the building.’ This awareness of environment is extended outwards. Balshaw’s brief to MUMA included a quote by Margaret Pilkington, an honorary director of the Whitworth for 20 years. In 1932 Pilkington said, ‘I have come to the conclusion that a good museum or gallery is a place where people feel comfortable. If it stands in a garden or a park, one should be able to contemplate the beauty of the outdoors as a counterpoint to the beauty within.’ So landscape designer Sarah Price, a Gold Medallist at the Chelsea Flower Show, has created numerous green areas suitable for displaying outdoor artworks, and MUMA’s new west-facing windowed promenade unlocks the surrounding environment for visitors, who are free to enjoy the trees ‘greening up’ as winter turns to spring.
In this way, MUMA’s designs share the same spirit of Parker’s artworks: both take the ordinary and transform it to reveal rich new life.
This article was first published in Architectural Review in March 2015