Force of nature

Iwona Blazwick
Iwona Blazwick
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She has been tipped to take over the Tate, so what’s Iwona Blazwick doing curating an exhibition in a Yorkshire stately home? Sarah Freeman finds out.

Iwona Blazwick’s artistic credentials speak for themselves.

First person to stage a solo show of work by Damien Hirst in a public gallery? Check. Brains behind the phenomenally successful Turbine Hall installations at Tate Modern? Yes. A Christmas card list which includes Turner Prize winner Rachel Whiteread, sculptor Cornelia Parker and Angel of the North creator Antony Gormley. Again check.

She has also recently overseen a £13.5m expansion of London’s Whitechapel Gallery where she has been director since 2002 and when ArtReview compiled its 2012 list of the art world’s 100 most powerful people Blazwick came in at 47, just a few places below Hirst. For good measure, whenever the topic of successors to current Tate director Nicholas Serota crops up, her name is among the half a dozen or so considered worthy of the post.

All of which begs the question, how has Harewood House managed to lure one of London’s most sought-after curators north? It helped that she and the current Countess, Diane Howse are friends. They met at art school back in the late 1970s, but the In Cloud Country exhibition was more than just a personal favour.

The title of the exhibition is taken from Sylvia Plath’s Two Campers in Cloud Country, a poem inspired by the indifference of the natural world to man’s attempt to tame it.

“It’s a universal theme and one which crops up again and again in art,” says Blazwick, who has just arrived back in England from California where she was holidaying with her husband, Richard Noble, a fine art lecturer at Goldsmiths College. “What we very quickly began to notice was that while some of these artists may be born a century apart when you hang their work side by side, they instantly complement each other.”

Wandering through the property’s Terrace Gallery, which Howse opened in 1989, Blazwick is in her element. The venue might lack the grittiness of the East End, but she has staged the exhibition with much the same philosophy with which she has run the Whitechapel Gallery.

“The idea was to bring together work by artists that you would never normally see side by side,” she says. “It’s not about showing work in chronological order.

“Originally we were only going to include drawings, because we wanted to capture that first response to something, but we soon realised that if we kept that narrow focus we would have to exclude some really incredible pieces, so in the end we tweaked the title to works on paper.”

As blank canvases go, it was a large one. Starting with Harewood’s own extensive art collection, Blazwick jointly curated the exhibition with her old college friend. Each suggested works and as their wishlist came together they also persuaded galleries to let them rifle through their unseen treasures.

“It’s the nature of galleries that their collections are often so large it would take them years to display all the work they hold,” says Blazwick. “I could spend hours, days even, looking through these stores.”

The work came from collections up and down the country, including the New Gallery in Walsall, Dublin’s Kerlin Gallery and the Hepworth Wakefield. It includes more than 60 pieces of art and spans almost two centuries.

In the Terrace Gallery a 1947 print by Matisse sits alongside a 1983 work by Ian Hamilton Finlay and elsewhere the exhibition sets a traditional a black and white watercolour by Turner against contemporary interpretations of nature by the likes of Rachel Whiteread and a number of abstract works by Howse herself. Upstairs in the State Rooms the theme continues with Degas’ 1869 work Coastal Landscape at Sunset hung directly above a 2002 abstract by Julian Opie. “Who knew that Degas did landscapes?” says Blazwick. “I was so excited when we found this work because like a lot of people I associate him almost exclusively with figurative work and the world of ballet, so to discover this painting was a real joy.”

While art has been a focus of Harewood for almost 25 years, there are still some traditionalists who believe that contemporary art sits oddly in an historic home and some visitors who balk at the idea of abstract prints being hung in a wood-panelled room.

“Properties like Harewood have always been avant garde,” says Blazwick. “When people think of Turner, they think of an artist who is one of the cornerstones of British watercolour and he is, but when he was brought to Yorkshire by the first Earl of Harewood, he was a 22-year-old emerging artist. He was one of the Young British Artists of his generation and Harewood gave him a platform.”

Harewood’s ongoing programme of art exhibitions is also in part a way to attract repeat visitors. Having previously curated an exhibition at the National Trust’s Killerton House in Devon, Blazwick and Howse also believe that contemporary art helps to make these historic properties relevant to the modern age.

“Iwona’s Killerton Park exhibition was incredible,” says Howse. “Walking through the grounds you were suddenly confronted with a work by Cornelia Parker or Anthony Gormley. No-one had really done anything like it before and it really showed what was possible.”

Blazwick has clearly enjoyed working with her old friend, so could she be persuaded to come back to Harewood in the near future? “Well, that all depends whether they’d have me back.”

In that case, expect the follow-up to In Cloud Country very soon.

In Cloud Country runs at Harewood House until June 30.