Words by Laura Harris
Nostalgia plays an important part in the Lady Lever’s current Picturing Venice exhibition (showing until 27 September). Not only do the images look back fondly over Venetian history, but the idea of the exhibition itself was borne of nostalgia. After visiting the Venice Biennale 2013, in which the British Pavilion played host to Jeremy Deller’s reflections on Englishness, curator Charlotte Keenan returned to Liverpool nostalgic for her holiday and inspired to wade through the National Museums Liverpool’s collections to see what images of Venice it held. Therein she found pictures that told stories of Venetian history, art history and the collections of NML. This year, to coincide with the Venice Biennale, Picturing Venice eloquently tells these stories.
The exhibition is a walk-through picture book of Venetian history. Slightly too wordy wall panels are testament to the thorough researching of the exhibition, but snappy quotes from Ruskin and Byron offer more incisive and evocative captions. From the intricate oil paintings of the ‘Golden Age’ to the advent of photography, the exhibition crams a lot into its four rooms. It is both an abstract of art history and demonstrative of the comprehensive collections of NML. The curator is keen to linger on the romantic notion of cyclical history and indeed the same vistas pop up throughout the ages.
It is an exercise in story-telling. From the charmingly personal idea for the show – a breath of fresh air in an over-intellectualised artworld (to say nothing of the Biennale) – to Walter Sickert’s watercolour sketch hastily composed on hotel headed letter paper, the exhibition is a constellation of anecdotes. Included are Venetian scenes from the master of painting water JMW Turner, mysteriously missing from Turner’s sketchbooks which Ruskin catalogued for Tate only to resurface in Ruskin’s collection some years later.
The final room, which brings the story right up to 2013, includes prints ‘from a private collection’ which, the curator was proud to tell us, she had made herself. Making these images using stamps and ink formed a part of Deller’s 2013 pavilion, a homage to William Morris in Deller’s characteristic participatory style. These images cheekily bring the exhibition back to the nostalgic gesture of its curation, and deftly brings the history, and story, full circle. How romantic.
The finishing touch to this elegant exhibition is its subtle contextualisation. The Venice Biennale, with its pavilions designed to evoke a national character (the British Pavilion is an ex-tea room), houses art works in buildings that are more projection than reality. With its disjointed and multiple architectural styles, the Biennale can seem jarring and surreal. Standing in the Lady Lever, it’s hard to shake a similar feeling. Contrary to its Beaux-Arts appearance, the lack of phone signal is a reminder of the thick concrete walls through which even the internet cannot penetrate. It is a façade, and the architecture of Port Sunlight is a design. Add to this its watery connection to the city of Liverpool, and the invitation to picture Venice permeates the whole experience of visiting the exhibition.
For those of us that will not be jetting off to Venice this year, to wander around yellow sculptures and pictures of boobs, Picturing Venice diverts the attention to forgotten stories that are rich and engaging. The simple curatorial gesture of paddling upstream through the glittering reflections of Venice, against the flow of the contemporary art world, is refreshing and propelled by a wealth of in-depth research. And you can be back home in time for tea.
Picturing Venice is on display at Lady Lever Gallery until 27 September 2015.