Kettle’s Yard is a gem of an art gallery in the centre of Cambridge. It was founded in 1957 by Jim Ede, a former curator at the Tate in London in the 1920s and ‘30s. He and his wife Helen bought four slum dwellings, knocked them together and filled his living room with a wonderful collection he had amassed that includes works by Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Joan Miró, Constantin Bracusi, Alfred Wallis and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.
The latter’s Bird Eating Fish (below), a masterpiece that shocked the art world when it was made in 1914, offered a premonition of the First World War and is one of the first objects that greets the visitor inside the House. It’s mounted not on a usual plinth but on a piece of driftwood from the Scilly Isles and surrounded by pebbles, illustrating perfectly the kind of homely feel that makes the gallery unique.
There are rugs on the floor, sofas for people to sit on and the exhibits have been meticulously placed with colours that complement and lighting and position to best show off their beauty. Now, the gallery has reopened after a two-year refurbishment. A new wing has been added along with more education spaces to enable the gallery to present an annual programme of changing exhibitions to complement the quality of the permanent collection.
The inaugural show is entitled Actions: The Image of the World Can Be Different and brings together works by some 38 renowned international and British artists whom the curatorial team felt to have made and inspired actions through their work. They include such luminaries as Sir Richard Long, Cornelia Parker, Joseph Beuys, Edmund de Waal, Jeremy Deller, Rama Begum, Mary Kelly, and Caroline Walker. As Kettle Yard’s Director Andrew Nairne explained to me, “ They make art with real purpose, a real sense of wanting to alter the images we see of the world. Artists give us these images that reflect our current world but perhaps offer a way forward into a more positive future in quite troubled times.”
Take Melanie Manchot’s The Ladies (Wren Library) 2017 for example. The gallery encouraged the artist to collaborate with a group of Bangladeshi women who live in Cambridge. She asked them to tell her where hadn’t been in the town and they all agreed that they’d never been inside a Cambridge college despite living in the city for many years. So she took them to the famous Wren Library in Trinity College and the result is a beautiful, colourful, amusing and very painterly portrait of a group of women transplanted into an unfamiliar setting. Manchot also captures them in King’s College Dining Hall sitting at High Table, normally the preserve of the crusty, academic establishment. The photographer is looking at such issues as class and cultural division, unequal opportunity and so on, but it’s also fun.
The inspiration for the new exhibition was a letter written to art critic Herbert Read by artist Naum Garbo in 1944 in which he stated that art should have the capacity to change our view of the world and influence how we engage with life. His Linear Construction in Space Numbers 1 and 2 illustrate his training in mathematics in Russia. They are among the first sculptures to be made from perspex, a material that had only just been invented. He envisaged them as models for huge sculptures to be placed in large public areas. He believed their rhythm, beauty, harmony and space of light could tell us how the image of the world could be different and how art can change our perception of our current and future experience.
The exhibition also includes stills from films that will be shown at later dates. They include a piece by Regina José Galindo (above) in which she is seen naked standing on turf while a digger excavates the space around her – a reference to her sense of vulnerability following the government’s mass murder of innocent citizens in Guatemala who were buried in a communal grave.
Another film called Auto da Fé (Acts of Faith) by John Akomfrah, a British artist of Ghanaian descent, charts episodes of forced migration through the ages by way of costume drama. A still taken from it (above) of a woman in her Sunday best inside a dilapidated, burnt-out building is bursting with symbols and provides a jaw-dropping contrast. I love it!
There is much to love in this show and a rare opportunity to see so many iconic works together in a small but intimate setting. Not to be missed.
The exhibition continues until 2nd April 2018.