‘-Yon calm retreat, where fcreen’d from every ill,
The helplefs orphan’s throbbing heart lies ftill;
And finds delighted, in the peaceful dome,
A better parent, and a happier home.’ – William Roscoe, Mount Pleasant
Concluding the Bluecoat’s three-hundredth anniversary, its latest exhibition, In the Peaceful Dome, looks inwards and explores itself as a gallery, alongside the responsibilities that come with being a place of artistic expression. Through both archival and contemporary art, the exhibition considers how the past informs the present and how the Bluecoat remains a place of critical engagement.
The title of the exhibition (assuming that William Roscoe considered the Bluecoat School peaceful) is challenged by the harsh nature of some of the pieces featured. Janet Hodgson’s ‘I must learn to know my place’ (1994) takes the form of a lightbox, displaying a photograph taken from the artist’s intervention on site. Handwritten lines of school punishment were projected onto the walls of the Bluecoat. There is something relieving about the Bluecoat acknowledging its strict past. The preservation of the event on a lightbox elevates the punishment into something more – an empowering message on the benefits of education and wisdom. This retroactive approach demonstrates how both the gallery and society have changed.
Perhaps the most controversial part of the exhibition is the inclusion of Jacob Epstein’s sculpture of the female body, ‘Genesis’ (1931), which when first installed at the Bluecoat caused outrage, but also helped with the gallery’s financial upkeep. It’s difficult not to feel uncomfortable viewing it: a man’s idea of an intentionally ‘unfeminine’ woman. Although Epstein may have created his work out of admiration for motherhood, today’s society attempts to break down stereotypes attached to gender, such as being either ‘feminine’ or ‘motherly’, and Epstein’s work is more likely to be viewed in a different light. Note that while Epstein’s piece was first displayed with a black velvet backdrop, security rail and top light, it now simply faces out into the city centre, further reflecting a change in society’s paradigms.
Placed in close proximity to ‘Genesis’, Jo Stockham’s art creates a dialogue with this work. In contrast to practices such as sculpting, Stockham’s work is comprised of fabrics and found materials. ‘Empire Made’ (1989) takes the shape of an axe, with its head resembling Britain. In ‘Canon, model 3’ (1989-2017) Stockham constructs a cannon wrapped in fabric, covering an object known for its violence in something soft. The decision to use the word ‘canon’ in the title implies her challenge of what is typically expected in society. Throughout her work, Stockham elevates typical domestic materials into something higher while maintaining a quiet plainness, posing questions to those it shares the gallery space with: on the violence of our history, our current political landscape, and the privilege imbalance between members of society.
In the Peaceful Dome displays a self-awareness of the Bluecoat’s history and the harshness of its past. There is a humility in sharing personal history, and these collected artworks highlight how aware the Bluecoat is of its responsibility as a place where people are free to engage with and be informed by art.
In the Peaceful Dome is on display at the Bluecoat in Liverpool until 25 March 2018.
Callan Waldron-Hall is a Liverpool-based writer and is studying an MA in Poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University.