No-one could accuse the curatorial team at York Art Gallery of lacking in ambition for their latest exhibition, it’s certainly one of their most expansive in scope.
Making a Masterpiece – Bouts and Beyond (1450-2020) takes Bouts Workshop’s iconic work Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin and Child – which depicts the patron saint of artists at work – as a starting point to explore how and why artists create, and to look at artistic techniques across the centuries.
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The painting itself, a significant late 15th century Netherlandish work, was in the news a few years ago when it was saved for the nation in 2016 following an export ban. With support from Art Fund, Heritage Lottery Fund and private donors, over £2 million was raised to secure its future. Since then it has resided at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle and is currently on loan to York.
“When the painting was saved, the decision was made that the Bowes would work with Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, ourselves and the University of York to develop this show collaboratively,” says Beatrice Bertram, senior curator at York Art Gallery.
“It’s a big, ambitious exhibition and it has been three years in the making. We have been working very closely together throughout that time.”
The show extends across the gallery’s three temporary exhibition spaces, drawing together a wide range of works dating back to the 15th century right up to the present day. The aim is to give visitors a real insight into the creative process and allow them the opportunity to think about the various ways in which artists choose to present their work to an audience.
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“The first section is about Dieric Bouts himself and other early Netherlandish artists. Bouts was a very skilled landscape artist and he set up the workshop where a few artists would have worked together on this painting,” says Bertram. “That was part of why it lends itself to building a whole exhibition around – it is so multi-layered. It’s an incredible painting and there are so few of them from that period in British public collections.”
The other works on display in that section are of equal significance. “We have eight paintings on loan from the National Gallery some of which haven’t been on display for years, so we are delighted to be showing them here in York.”
The second section focusses on the Saint Luke painting as a template for later representations of artists at work in the studio. It features work by more modern artists including Larence Alma-Tadema, Leonard Rosoman and William Etty.
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“We’ve also looked at gendered art making between the 18th and 21st centuries,” says Bertaram. “We have featured women painters, including York-born 19th century artist Mary Ellen Best, and looked at women in the studio interacting with clients and models.”
The final section brings things bang up to date with new works by contemporary artist Christopher Cook whose monochrome pieces respond to artworks from the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of Dutch and Flemish Art, mostly drawn from York’s own collection.
“And everything comes back to the Bouts painting whether it’s to do with portraiture or workshops, studio practice, landscape, still life, interiors or ideas about perspective. To see all these wonderful paintings here together is really very special.”
At York Art Gallery until January 26, 2020. There is a whole programme of events and workshopos linked to the exhibition. For details visit yorkartgallery.org.uk