In what now seems like a dim and distant past, universities could be considered places of learning which sought to foster a spirit of enlightened exposure. To this end, collections were established, built and bequeathed for posterity’s benefit. The University of Liverpool’s own collection, perhaps modest when compared to the holdings of The Ashmolean and Fitzwilliam, nevertheless remains something of an enigmatic treasure, often overlooked in terms of the City’s cultural attractions.
Housed in the Victoria Gallery and Museum, itself a grand statement of late Victorian architecture, the current special exhibition focuses on the works of women artists in the University’s collection. Curated by Amanda Draper, the exhibition is a meditation on the late Linda Nochlin’s seminal essay of 1971, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’
The works displayed include sculpture, wall sculpture, etchings, drawings, paintings and works of text. A curious feature is the reference to all the artists by only their first names on the labels. This either provides a refreshing informality to the description (as opposed to the absurd pomposity of referring to artists only by last name), or might this approach herald a challenge to the patriarchal idea of a surname, as championed by Valie Export? Irrespective of the motivation, it gives one pause for thought.
The exhibits are comparable to those at larger national collections, and includes work by Dame Elizabeth Frink among other notable artists. Her Goggle Head of 1967 is a significant departure from her more familiar tortured males. This menacing Cycladic-like head suggests a hidden malevolence behind the sunglasses. Bridget Riley’s Study for Ra (1980) is an interesting work in that it demonstrates how her polychromatic works only achieve the familiar sense of swell and distortion when executed on much larger canvases. The inclusion of a work on this more ‘domestic’ scale in the university’s collection may owe more to the funds then available for its acquisition, rather like the Cratchits’ goose.
The range of subjects addressed is myriad, and certainly eclectic. Race, place and identity are among the themes explored but one can also sense in the works the pedagogical value of certain pieces. Gillian Ayer’s Fountain (1967) evidences how one of the leading abstract artists of her generation shifted away from her earlier figurative style, whilst Eve Goldsmith’s bust of Prof. Herbert Fröhlich demonstrates a mastery of modern bronze which equals that of Jacob Epstein.
That such a collection continues to be added to is encouraging – Fiona Banner’s Runway Show of 2018 is a recent acquisition – though the lack of an associated academic discipline, the history of art, is no longer taught at the university, and is greatly lamented.
One cannot help but conclude that perhaps this exhibition was a missed opportunity to make an adroit point: consider, for a moment, that the visitor were not made aware all works on display were by women artists? Could the slowly dawned upon revelation have made for a more profound experience? Perhaps not, but in revealing the conceit only at the conclusion, the visitor may have been invited to consider further Linda Nochlin’s question, and respond, ‘why I’ve just been looking at their work’.
Ed Montana-Williams is an Art and Architectural Historian and writer based in Liverpool.