The Museum of Mystery and Imagination
The Allsop Gallery, Bridport Arts Centre, 15 July-20 August, 2021
Imagine if Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, and Giorgio de Chirico had been born in the British Isles; if they had still turned out to be artists (and that presupposes that artists, and not just poets, are born and made: are natured, not nurtured). Would they have created their distinctive visionary blend of Surrealist and Symbolist art with an Anglo-Saxon sensibility? So, indirectly, this exhibition speculates – that there is a particular British form of these traditions that, it is argued, predates them. It is glimpsed in the works of William Blake, Samuel Palmer, Lewis Carroll, David Jones, and Leonora Carrington – tangible influences in the works on display here. An eclectic exhibition of paintings and ceramics, populated by strange creatures and creations from the fringes of consciousness. It is like walking into a fairy tale forest, or Cocteau’s castle from La Belle et La Bête: this is a place of chimerical metamorphosis, and ambiguous, amphibious dream-like imagery. People and animal blend into fluid hybrids, take on iconic potency in their postures and expressions. Some have the stained-glass clarity of tarot cards, or the rude energy of church grotesques. The natural world cross-fertilises with the human. There is a sexual frisson to many, but the female gaze dominates. The images suggest a chthonic female experience erupting into the waking world, defiant and empowered. A cat and a mermaid make strangely compatible companions. A naked woman hovering between two chairs explodes with flowers. In an age of heavy realism, this celebration of the imagination – blossoming out of the enforced interregnum of lockdown – is a welcome escape hatch.
Kevan Manwaring, 7 August 2021
Thank you to the staff of Bridport Arts Centre, who kindly let me in to view the exhibition while building work was under way.