Barber Institute, Birmingham.
Permanent collection and Peasants and Proverbs: Pieter Brueghel the Younger as Moralist and Entrepreneur (until January 22).
The Barber Institute of Fine Arts at the University of Birmingham owes its existence to Lady Martha Constance Hattie Barber. As the widow of property developer William Henry Barber, with whom she had discussed the idea of establishing a permanent contribution to his home city, she founded the Barber Institute in 1932. She died four months later, leaving the joint Barber fortune (she was an heiress in her own right) to the Trustees of the Institute to develop an art collection, fund public concerts and build a home for it all – a magnificent art deco building opened in 1939.
Her strict conditions forbade the trust from acquiring any artwork later than 1899. Happily, that demand has been relaxed, while the trust has met her far more important requirement that all works purchased demonstrate “exceptional and outstanding merit”.
The more recent additions are both modern and ancient. I loved the statuette of Saint James the Great, circa 1500, by an unknown artist, bought in 2019. James is carved from alabaster, once abundant in the Midlands, and has a wide-brimmed hat, a pilgrim’s staff and a broad, benign face.
At the more secular extreme, Nude, Miss Bentham (1906) by George Bellows, was purchased by the Barber in 2014, when it became only the second painting in Britain by Bellows, who is feted in the United States. The National Gallery acquired the first. You could say it is entirely fitting the Barber Institute is at the vanguard of Bellows’ appreciation in Britain given that Lady Barber’s family acquired its wealth through bellows-making.
As visitor assistant Simon Preece, who has a reputation for making the gallery friendly and accessible, will tell you, Miss Bentham was previously owned by Andy Warhol and stands apart from the nudes of more conservative times in that it names the artist’s model, who was almost certainly working class as evidenced by a body made robust by physical labour.
Preece, with almost proprietorial pride, also explains part of the reason for the collection’s richness is that much of it was acquired in the 1930s when the Great Depression meant the Barber legacy went far.
Many greats are represented from Rubens to Reynolds and Rodin, Bellini and Botticelli to Brueghel.
Van Gogh’s Peasant Woman Digging (1885) is fully clad, but the painting is aligned with Bellows’ Nude in that its character resides in muscularity and roughness, not conventional charm.
Such realism is the antithesis to the urbane 18th-century and its flattering representations of the aristocratic classes.
One of the most charming is French artist Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun’s Portrait of Countess Golovina (circa 1797). LeBrun, formerly official artist to Marie Antoinette, was living exiled from revolutionary France in Russia when she met Golovina and they became friends. The result is that Golovina gazes candidly from the frame, apparently totally at ease.
Surrealism is also well-represented at the Barber.
“Homme vu par une fleur” (Man Seen by a Flower) by Jean Arp is a polished, sensual bronze. It was one of 400 given by the Belgian government to contributors to the 1958 Universal Exhibition in Brussels. It speaks to our times as climate activists call into question so many decades of viewing the world from a purely human perspective.
René Magritte’s “The Flavour of Tears” also taps into the devastating disruption of the natural world. In it, a bird assumes the form of a tobacco leaf, which is consumed by a caterpillar that normally would be eaten by a bird.
The fantastic, bordering on surreal blends with earthy peasant realism in the world depicted by the generations of Bruegels active in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
One of the Barber’s most well-loved paintings Two Peasants binding Firewood (about 1604-16) by Pieter Brueghel the Younger is central to a temporary exhibition exploring peasants and proverbs.
Brueghel the Younger’s sharp business mind might have appealed to William Henry Barber whose property development expanded Birmingham, as well as building the fortune that together with his wife’s created the Barber Institute.
The younger Brueghel took on nine formal apprentices (as well as an h after the g that distinguishes him from his father) and his workshop produced more than 1,400 paintings, including exact copies of his father’s compositions and more original works embedded in the Bruegel tradition of scenes of peasant life.
Around a dozen versions of Two Peasants binding Firewood (about 1604-16) exist, three of which are featured alongside the Barber version.
The leaner of the two peasants has a bandage round his head, which could be a reference to the Dutch proverb “to have a toothache behind the ears”, meaning to be a malinger, giving weight to the interpretation that the two peasants are pilfering the firewood rather than engaged in honest labour.
It also provides a link to Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “Netherlandish Proverbs”, the original of which hangs in Berlin.
The Barber has managed to borrow one of the Younger’s many copies from Nuffield College, Oxford, so we can explore the Bruegels’ depiction of at least 100 proverbs whose summing up of the follies of human nature is as true today as in the Dutch golden age.
Clicking on the QR code beside the painting takes you to a guide that explains the proverbs one by one and leads into the depth and richness of a portrayal of bawdy peasant life.
As if that isn’t enough to justify a trip to the Barber, curators Jamie Edwards (Exeter University) and Robert Wenley of the Barber Institute have provided further context. The total of 17 works in the temporary exhibition include Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s The Wedding Dance (circa 1607 – 14), on loan from the Holburne Museum, and Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s virtuosic engravings The Fat Kitchen (1563), and The Thin Kitchen (1563) on loan from the Ashmolean Museum.
Like the proverbs, they sum up humanity and the yawning gap between the fed and the hungry; the haves and the have nots. The Barbers definitely were haves, but their legacy is free to all.
Barbara Lewis © 2022.