Study visit: Reality, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

realityI’ve had a very slow start to Part 5 due to  feeling compelled following tutor feedback go back to rework some of the exercises for Part 4 and indecision about which Part 5 Option to take forward.


However, I am pleased that I have been on my first OCA study visit. I found it a very rewarding experience and it was a great opportunity to meet some of my fellow students and appreciate what a varied and diverse bunch of people we are.

Reality, at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, is an exhibition of modern and contemporary British paintings. Curated by artist Chris Stevens (whose own work was also on display), the exhibition brings together the paintings of 53 key 20th Century artists including Walter Sickert, LS Lowry, David Hockney, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon and Paula Rego, alongside the likes of Ken Currie, Philip Harris and Jenny Saville.

We divided into two groups and  viewed a selection of paintings with a very knowledgeable volunteer from the Centre who facilitated a discussion about our interpretations of the paintings. As the exhibition title implies the works are united by the sometimes harsh realities that have concerned the artists over the years. We also had the opportunity view the whole exhibition at our own pace. After lunch, we took a look at some key pictures with our tutors who, rather than give their own insights, encouraged us to give ours.

We were encouraged to think about what was going on in the paintings –  the messages they communicate, the relationships between the figures, objects and the painter, the choice of viewpoint, the techniques used as well as when the pictures were painted and why. These points may be quite obvious but the indepth discussions that ensued made me realise that I have been viewing art in a quite shallow way. I have resolved to take the time to look more deeply and think about my own interpretation of meaning rather than always rely on the views of others.

I have also resolved to try to keep  more up-to-date with what’s happening in the contemporary art scene as this exhibition made me realise that there are great things happening in the world of painting that I know very little about.

Back to the Reality exhibition… it was was absorbing to consider how the theme of Reality related to the paintings  as many were enigmatic and one or two completely unfathomable! There were many different interpretations and reactions from the members of our group.

In this show, reality comes in all shapes and forms:  bleak industrial landscapes, altered perceptions, imagined realities, the harsh reality of war,  the naked human body painted in harsh light.

These are some of the paintings that have lingered in my mind and my thoughts about them.

Snare, Paula Rego 1987 (acrylic)

What at first appears to be a playful scene of a young girl and a dog is in reality everything but. It’s a menacing image with the girl pulling the front legs of a toothless, scared dog towards her. She’s looming over the poor creature, which is on its back, all the power is in her hands. In the foreground is a miniature horse with a cart – running away from the scene? A helpless crab is also on its back.

My Mother Alone in her Dining Room, Anthony Green (1975-76) – Oil on board

The viewpoint is as if the artist is looking down from above and the room is opened up to allow us to see everything from floor to ceiling and wall to wall. An immaculately dressed and bejewelled mother is sitting at a highly polished table. The room is full of her precious possessions. Fancy clock, vases, lamps, inlaid furniture, decorative mirror, fan and much more. All the components of the picture are drawn together by a swirly whirly green patterned carpet – the kind my own mother would have loved in the 1970s.

But what is the message? Perhaps the clue is in the word ‘alone’. Although the artist is painting his mother, perhaps he feels she is closer to and cares more about her possessions than people. It’s not a room that seems to welcome family or friends, everything looks too precious and fragile. Or perhaps these precious objects matter more than they should because she is a lonely woman living on her own.

Odalisque, Jenny Saville (2012-14) – Oil and charcoal (click on image 3)

Just what is going on here? This post-coital scene (?) between a black man and white woman makes us stop and wonder. There are extra limbs and an extra torso, an under (or over) painting of a head. Does the picture represent different positions in an energetic love making session? Is love the right word?  The expressions on the faces are not those of two adoring people, they are more complex. The woman looks slightly upset, resentful. The man (on top) seems to be saying “this is the way it is, this is the reality”.

The mirror (or is it a painting?) is reflecting a different reality, different positions, a different relationship…

Odalisque is a term coined by the French  to refer originally to a Turkish courtesan. A favourite for the salons of the late 18th Century and 19th Centuries and made famous by Jean August Dominique Ingres’s Grand Odalisque (1814).



Reality is a fabulous exhibition of really good quality, thought provoking paintings. It runs until 1 March 2015 and is a well worth a visit.  Find out more on the Sainsbury Centre website.


Reality – Modern and Contemporary British Painting (the book) 2014



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