Photo: Shipbuilding on the Clyde: Burners (detail), 1940 by Stanley Spencer. © Imperial War Museum.
Aidan Jones travelled up to Manchester to see this imaginitive and moving double-header exhibition.
A joint exhibition of works by a renowned figurative war painter who died in 1959 and a Glasgow-born contemporary artist, acclaimed for abstract video projects, may seem an unlikely artistic union.
In reality, Sir Stanley Spencer’s Shipbuilding paintings of working life at Port Glasgow during the Second World War and Patricia MacKinnon-Day’s digital videos of disquieting spaces at a Birkenhead shipyard 60 years later enrich each other in this bold exhibition at Imperial Museum North until June 7.
The altarpiece-shaped canvases of Stanley Spencer dominate the cavernous room in which the gallery is housed.
Photo: Red Door by Patricia McKinnon-Day.
The Cookham-born painter was commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committee in 1940 to capture the contribution made to the war effort by the Clyde shipbuilding communities of Port Glasgow.
The series of detailed, sprawling paintings Spencer produced reflects the intimacy he reached with the lives and culture of a working-class industrial community.
As such he operates as a social commentator, cramming his paintings with repetitive detail of the shipbuilding process.
This process is laden with religious gravitas and the ritualistic dedication of the workers to their tasks becomes a metaphor for what Spencer perceived to be a moral worth amongst the Port Glasgow community that had embraced him.
Photo: Shipbuilding on the Clyde: Furnaces, 1946 by Stanley Spencer. © Imperial War Museum.
Spencer elevates the monotonous grind of working men to a heroic scale.
The homogenised faces of the tweed-wrapped plumbers, welders, burners and riveters, all wearing doughy flat-caps, also works persuasively as wartime propaganda presenting collective sacrifice for a higher purpose.
There is immediacy to these paintings; we can almost feel the intense heat of the furnaces and hear the cacophony of hammering, bolting and soldering on the joints and sheets of metal.
The abstract video projections of Patricia Mackinnon-Day are eerily quiet by contrast.
Photo: Black and White Structure by Patricia McKinnon-Day.
"I thought it was quite a brave thing for the museum to do," she said of the first artistic exhibition to be held alongside the permanent displays at Imperial War Museum North.
"They approached me without an agenda and did not know exactly what they were going to get."
Mackinnon-Day, recipient of an Arts Council Grant for their Year of the Artist scheme, spent much of 2000 as artist-in-residence at the Cammell Laird shipyard, Birkenhead.
Her videos of deserted shipyard spaces and the mesmeric ripples, reflections and swells of dock waters contrast strongly with Spencer’s work.
Photo: Shipbuilding on the Clyde: Welders (detail), 1941 by Stanley Spencer. © Imperial War Museum.
They are much more than a backdrop to the Shipbuilding series and their lulling abstraction, poses questions of how we see and where we find beauty that the representational work of Spencer does not.
Mackinnon-Day, brought up in the Govan district of Glasgow, an area deeply affected by the decline of the shipbuilding industry, looks at the shipyards without sentimentality:
"Shipyards are a really interesting world that we haven’t got access to and although they are slowly closing some are still very active as dry docks for ship repairs and maintenance," she said.
"I liked looking at the unusual images in these spaces; an old polythene bag wrapped around a railing, the abstract shapes foam and water make, a forklift truck with a balloon attached to it in this barren area. The place is not at all aesthetic but there are moments where it may be. My videos show the grimy side and aesthetic side of the shipyard."
Photo: Hole - work in progress by Patricia McKinnon-Day.
Shipbuilding feels like an accidental gallery within a space previously reserved for more traditional war museum exhibits.
The strength of this exhibition is in that it draws distinctive artistic work together with such subtlety as to both complement the historical context and celebrate the artwork in its own right.
The contraction of the British shipbuilding industry from the total global dominance it enjoyed at the outbreak of the First World War adds poignancy to this absorbing gallery.
To those for whom the decline of this industry is too remote there is a strong emphasis on interactive learning, through talks and role-plays available through out the day.