Campus Focus: The Barber Institute of Fine Arts | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Campus Focus: The Barber Institute of Fine Arts

Some of you may not have remembered that there is an art gallery on our campus, and some may not even know

Some of you may not have remembered that there is an art gallery on our campus, and some may not even know.  After all, it is there, it is free; why would you not take advantage of it? It may be that you think art doesn’t interest you or you won’t understand the paintings.  You needn't understand the context of a piece of art to take something from it.  It is simply a case of recognising the fact that masterpieces by some of the world’s most famous artists such as Manet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Van Dyck and Monet are displayed in our university and if you don’t take advantage of this while you’re here, you’ve missed a trick.

The first paintings you’ll see in the Green gallery are the earliest; coming from the end of the 13th century.  Most have religious themes, which were common because art was mostly for the purpose of decorating churches, or depict stories from classical mythology.  It’s extraordinary how well the colour, and particularly the gold leaf effect, have lasted for so many years and have been so well preserved. These works should be admired for their history if nothing else.  Most of the art in this gallery originates from Italy, recognisable by the ornate Italian style and it is interesting to note the difference between this and the sparse, simplistic style of the few Northern-European paintings in this gallery.  You’ll notice that many of the titles, artists or dates are unknown. This reflects the ambiguity of the art; it was about the work itself rather than the artist, a remarkable contrast to today where splatters of paint are sold for millions of pounds because scrawled at the bottom are the words ‘Tracey Emin’.

Moving chronologically into the Red gallery, the change in style is noticeable through the introduction of oil paints, creating a smoother, waxier effect in which the brushstrokes are indistinguishable.  The religious imagery continues into the 17th and 18th centuries but there were also more portraits being done, particularly by well-known and sought after artists like Van Dyck, and this period sees the hierarchical introduction of artistic subject matter.

Particularly interesting for me are the modern periods of 19th and 20th century art, which are also found in the Beige Gallery, and the apparent influences of technologies, like photography, upon the art.  Look at Degas’ Jockeys Before the Race for example; there is unusually and quite disturbingly a pole cutting the image in half.  It depicts an undramatic moment which Degas has captured, like the camera would, and the pole is consciously left in the way to represent a spontaneous moment and unchanged scene.  This painting is incredibly important in the history of art as an icon of the impact and alteration photography made to artistic style and technique.  What an interesting topic for discussion. How impressive to then drop into conversation that you have also seen the other famously important paintings which stand alongside Degas’, including the exotic work of Gauguin in Tahiti, the classically loose Monet landscapes and examples of Van Gogh’s expressively rough brushwork?  Really, it has to be done.

Sophy Thomas


9th November 2012 at 7:00 am

Last Updated

8th November 2012 at 8:39 pm