Frank Bruno, Robert Plant and Lucien Freud might not seem to have much in common; but this summer all three, or at least their portraits, can be found hanging together in Lasting Impressions at the Barber Institute.
Lasting Impressions is a new portraiture exhibition that explores the power of the print. Spanning the early 20th century up to the present day, the exhibition includes a mix of etchings, engravings, woodcuts and more, that highlight the versatility and enduring appeal of printmaking as an art form. The exhibition is the third in a series of successful collaborations between the Barber Institute and the National Portrait Gallery, a partnership which over the last three years has given postgraduate History of Art students at the University of Birmingham the opportunity to co-curate exhibitions and gain vital in-depth exhibitions experience. Resulting from numerous different techniques, the prints in the exhibition display a wide range of artistic styles, many are fantastically detailed and vibrantly coloured.
One wall is noticeably more black and white than the rest; this is where you’ll find the early 20th century prints. The portrait that immediately stood out to me here was Leon Underwood’s self-portrait (1921). The artist’s piercing eyes stare out of his boyish face right at you. Underwood is caught in the act of capturing his own likeness; his concentration is almost palpable. The rural setting of the picture, combined with the artist’s relaxed clothing, have an arts and crafts resonance. Quite different, Eric Gill’s striking silhouette portrait of artist Thomas Lowinsky seems to be quintessentially Victorian.
As you move around the exhibition space the works become more colourful. Julian Trevelyan’s playful Me And My Cats (1978) is a nice addition. The artist shares a stark black and white garden landscape with his expressive cats, with certain objects picked out in colour – red circles, the artist’s jacket. The glare of all three figures is hypnotic. Tomas Harris’ engaging self-portrait (1951) is a real contrast. The artist’s head appears to emerge from a swirling, fantastical landscape that has an art nouveau feel, his heavy eyes meeting your own.
The aforementioned famous faces appear towards the end of Lasting Impressions. Frank Auerbach’s etching of fellow artist Lucian Freud (1981) is a mass of black lines and marks that are layered to pick out facial features. It was intended to recall Freud’s own style. David Oxtoby’s portrait of legendary Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant (1978) is one of the most vibrant in the exhibition. The psychedelic colours and Plant’s expressive face, captured mid-roar, create a sense of energy and refer to the singer’s passion for music. Although Frank Bruno’s portrait (1983), by Tom Wood, might not be the most convincing likeness, it is one of the most striking and colourful pictures in the exhibition.
As well as works from the National Portrait Gallery, Lasting Impressions includes objects from private lenders and collections at the university. Cases arranged in the centre of the space are filled with interesting traditional printmaking tools and books of prints that explore the technical side of printmaking. In one case there’s a witty print from the university’s Research and Cultural Collections. Happy Couple I by Hans Schwarz depicts the artist and his wife standing side-by-side, their charming, primal figures made by pressing inky clay shapes onto the paper. Nearby there is a wonderfully stylish etching of the legendary raconteur Quentin Crisp (1978) by Anthony Parkin.
Lasting Impressions is a thoughtful exhibition that successfully highlights the versatility of the print through the surprisingly diverse portraits on show. You can catch it at the Barber Institute until September 28th. If you fancy trying your hand at printmaking you can also sign up to one of the Barber’s ‘Summer of Printmaking’ workshops.