Family Matters – The Family in British Art

I visited this exhibition at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery. The exhibition was just about to end there but will move on to Sheffield and Newcastle, ending up at Tate Britain in October – December 2012.

The exhibition charts the depiction of the family over 400 years of British Art and looks at how the notions of family have changed over time. The exhibition brings together representations of the family across different periods and media.

It was arranged around the five themes of;

  • Inheritance
  • Childhood
  • Couples and Kinship
  • Parenting
  • Home

I found it a really interesting exhibition and I liked the way that it mixed contemporary art forms (video and photography) with traditional paintings. For example an oil painting by Henry Walton “Sir Robert and Lady Buxton and Their Daughter Anne, 1786” was in the same “Home” section as a couple of untitled photographs taken in 1995 by Richard Billingham from his “Ray’s a Laugh” series. This showed a complete contrast in approaches to the family. The relaxed portrait painted in the 18th century depicting how children can enrich a marriage and portraying family virtues. Whereas the 20th century photographs were rom a series depicting the fathers alcoholism and its effect on the family.

I think the exhibition also showed me that the best photography can stand up as an art form with traditional media. For example, in the”Inheritance” section Donald Rodney’s photograph “In the House of My Father”1996-1997 was a moving image of his own sickle cell anaemia from which he died at an early age.

Studying this photo I realised how a great image can have many layers and meanings within it. To quote the exhibition catalogue;

A miniature house of discarded skin is photographed in the palm of the artist’s hand. It was made from skin removed in one of the many operations Rodney underwent to combat his sickle cell anaemia, the genetic blood disorder from which he was to die aged 37. The tiny house seems so delicate and vulnerable , cradled in the artist’s hand. The work propmpts us to ask our own questions. What role does inheritance play in our identity? And how does it affect the way we live?

It was fascinating to see how one photograph can stimulate such fundamental questions.

I would thoroughly recommend the exhibition.

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