We are simultaneously lucky and unlucky in York. The Art Gallery, though good for a provincial small city, is by turns a glare of hope for those wanting to see visual arts in York and a bit of a let down. The current exhibition downstairs, Art & Music, is happily an continuation of the recent run of luck. The fantastic Bigger Trees Near Warter by David Hockney and the in depth William Etty exhibition following it were two recent peaks of the gallery.
Art & Music aims to encourage us to think of painting and music together, practices which have perhaps influenced each other. The collection in general is interesting, flowing from the European Vanitas to Japanese Woodblock printing with ease and the odd perfunctory glance back at the criteria of the exhibition. Pan, the god of all that ancient animal husbandry stuff, is also the god of rural music and so features heavily in the first half of the gallery. However, once the picture is set and we understand the theme, the collection gets a little samey and repetitive. There are some interesting paintings which reflect the social history of the local area, though the restrictive size of the collection limits how far these tangents can run for. The real worth of the room lies in a handful of pieces which seize the eye almost immediately. The title piece, ‘African Musicians’ (1939) by Samuel Haile, is one such standout; grimily slapped on the canvas are several figures merging with their instruments – a useful image of the task at hand for the curators. British Op-artist Bridget Riley has two pieces which are worth a look at, though not representative of her career as a whole. The unmissable painting is Roger Fry’s homage to Cezzane. A rarely exhibited artist and brilliant art critic, Fry is underrepresented in almost every survey of British art. Clive and Angelica Bell, Duncan Grant and most famously Manet were all indebted to him for their popularity. Arguably, he brought Modern Art to the forefront of European practice, any chance to see his work up close should always be jumped at. There is an obligatory Warhol which unfortunately draws attention away from Peter Saville’s classic cover design for the New Order’s ‘Power, Corruption and Lies’ from 1983.
The soft focus Victorian gaudiness of a few of the pieces go a long way to detract from the overall quality of the works, though I imagine most people can let this slide. Ultimately the problem I found was that the idea of music and art intertwining needed better explanation, it could have just as easily been People & Music, Music & Space, Time & Music or simply Music. However, as always, the charm of our little gallery ensures that we give leeway to these matters. The exhibition holds just enough water to allow visitors to pass from painting to painting and at least the thematic concern is underwhelming and not overbearing. The instrument placed in the centre of the room, bashed and struck by those children brave enough, is entertaining and provides relief from the normally hush hush persona these rooms take on. As with anything free, continuous and nearby, it is worth popping in again and again to revisit the odd difficult work. The relaxed feel of the exhibition as well as the soon to begin concert series will certainly allow for this.