UU Retrospective

A 'fast-track lesson in art history', courtesy of the Faculty of Art and Design

From classical busts and Victorian life-drawing rooms to abstract paintings and 1960s interior design, the latest exhibition at the Ormeau Baths Gallery is dizzying in its reach and scope. The collection looks back on the 160-year history of what is now the Faculty of Art and Design at the University of Ulster, and uses artworks, photographs and a variety of archived material to map the school’s past and showcase pieces by some of its many illustrious alumni.

As such, this retrospective exhibition charts something of the history of the arts in Belfast from 1849 onwards, when the first Government School of Design - as it was then called - opened its doors. A centre for design (rather than art) was initially granted to help Belfast artisans excel at industrial design and thus aid commercial enterprise. The syllabus was spare and closed to the freewheeling genius of sketching and art making.

Core trade designing classes came first. Belfast was then a thriving industrial centre and the new school was opened to promote this success. Students would, for example, help bolster the linen industry by working on paper designs for bundling up linen exports or perfecting patterns for tablecloths and vests. Even drawing was regulated: they worked on emulating the cleanly elegant outlines of engravings from Flaxman’s Odyssey, honing their skills at precision and diagrammatic accuracy.

One of several images from the archives shows hands labouring over the measured whorls and curlicues of delicate calligraphy beneath a bold motto etched on the wall: ‘A nation’s greatness depends on the education of its people.’ Art purely for art’s sake, at least according to the dictums of the early 1900s, simply would not do.

The school loosened up slowly, widening its syllabus and relaxing its fixations with geometric exactitude and corporate-friendly design. Other photographs in the exhibition from the early 1900s show classical busts arranged in an impromptu pantheon, easels in their midst; symmetry and a Greco-roman sense of proportion were vital for the precise drawing and painterly realism that were then in vogue.

The institution was not without controversy or beyond the arrows of sectarian cultural warfare. After the Easter Rising, unionists complained that the school was championing Celtic Revival images that were too ‘Irish’ for its liking. Others considered the art school a frivolity.

The school’s early quaint hangovers from 15th century Tuscany lagged on longer than was strictly necessary. Even as the 20s loomed and Picasso was doing his thing on the continent, there were those at the Belfast School of Art (as it was now named) who dismissed modernist trends as ‘inappropriate’.

And yet, 160 innovating years on from these tentative beginnings, we have a burgeoning centre of the arts under the auspices of the University of Ulster, coolly edgy and open to all things abstract and weird, including bewildering performance and conceptual art.

This exhibition showcases pieces of work from some of the school’s most notable alumni and gives a broad - though chequered and zigzag - sense of its history and development. From the classically stunning marble busts of Samuel Ferres Lynn in the 1850s (so finely hewn that they could grace a Florentine piazza) to the liquid surrealism and convex cheek of FE McWilliam’s sculpture; the abstract heft of Colin Middleton and William Scott in the 30s, to the kitsch designs and architecture of Max Clendinning, there is much to marvel at in this collection.

Early work by Neil Shawcross sits near photographs of art students from the 1910s and video pieces by noughties graduates. In another room FE McWilliam’s 'Metronome' sculpture, all slender female legs cast in bronze with arch surrealist humour, sits near a camouflage screen and a very 1960s chair designed by Clendinning. A landscape by Paul Henry is jostled by the modernist daring of that most chameleon of artists, Colin Middleton. We are granted a swooping, sweeping glimpse of the high points in local art.

What we have here is a potted overview of the revolutions in art styles and forms that have taken Northern Irish art - sometimes dragging its feet - into the 21st century.

The collection is a fast-track lesson in art history. From the buttoned-up formalism of the Victorian era, when one had to paint the Venus di Milo with perfect verisimilitude or not at all, to the wild shake-up of modernism with its abstract canvases, distortions and reinvention of art’s purposes and ontology, the whole journey is beautifully mapped.

Less attention is given to the cynical self-parodying of postmodernism or the rage for installations, found objects and performance pieces often favoured by contemporary art students, but you’ll be too beguiled by the work of Colin Middleton, FE McWilliam and Ferres Lynn to much care.

University of Ulster 160 Years runs at the Ormeau Baths Gallery until January 30.

Joanne Savage