Keith Arnatt, Liverpool Beach Burial, 1968. © the artist
Kay Carson goes on a journey to the centre of the creative universe - currently residing at Tate Liverpool.
Just as a warm-up man works audiences into a frenzy in preparation for the main attraction, a major exhibition chronicling Liverpool’s rollercoaster role as epicentre of an entire arts phenomenon provides a perfect prelude to next year’s European City of Culture celebrations.
Centre of the Creative Universe: Liverpool and the Avant-Garde at Tate Liverpool until September 9, 2007 is a work of art in itself. It is huge; take a few hours, if not days, to peruse and digest. There is everything in here from Adrian Henri to Barbara Kruger.
In fact, the first thing to hit you smack between the eyes is a colourful spider chart of the illustrious cast of characters associated with Liverpool, from the homegrown George Melly and Carla Lane to Tracey Emin and Lucien Freud - bringing home the breadth and depth of arts and culture inspired by this once industry-heavy metropolis which far exceeds The Beatles (although, of course, they do get a mention along the way).
Taking the post-war scene as its starting point, strong, black-and-white panoramics by Stewart Bale show the extent to which Liverpool was destroyed in war-time bomb attacks. Were it not for the royal landmark in the centre - still a meeting place to this day, fronting the city’s law courts - Devastation Around The Victoria Monument (1944) would be utterly unrecognisable.
© National Museums Liverpool, Merseyside Maritime Museum
(Above) Stewart Bale, War Damage to Liverpool City Centre: Devastation around the Victoria Monument, 1944.
In 2007 she is surrounded by chaos of a different kind: the city’s glass-fronted Paradise Project, a 42-acre shopping, transport and housing regeneration scheme, is gradually taking shape.
Morning In The Streets (1959), a grainy film by Denis Mitchell, features rows of old terraced houses, the obligatory Northern pigeons, and scenes from a dolls’ hospital - but it harks back to a time when dismembered heads and arms were simply those of broken toys and not something from Dinos and Jake Chapman’s oeuvre.
The 1960s section of the exhibition, Beat City, has a completely different feel: you can pick up the vibes of the artists emerging from the period - pulsating and edgy. While the Cavern and Hope Hall (now the Everyman Theatre) were the places to hang out, Liverpool 8 was THE postcode in which to live during this bohemian upsurge.
Pop artist Sam Walsh was one such inhabitant, with John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe also in the neighbourhood. Walsh’s wonderfully surreal M. Paul Cezanne On The M6 (1969) depicts the French artist, palette in hand, on the hard shoulder. Even though the arts scene was on the up, typical, off-the-wall Scouse humour kept shining through, banishing any notions of pretentiousness.
Bernd & Hilla Becher, Prince Albert Dock, Liverpool, GB, 1966. © Bernd & Hilla Becher
But just as Liverpool’s new star was rising, the old one - shipbuilding - was setting, if not yet sinking. Photographs of the then disused and derelict Prince Albert Dock by Bernd and Hilla Becher (1966) have extra-special meaning, given the exhibition’s location. The pictures are of the very building which is now Tate Liverpool aptly demonstrate how, and in which direction, the city has reinvented itself.
The realist paintings cast a different light during the 1970s, with the likes of Maurice Cockrill’s precise but uncanny Sudley (1974) and John Baum’s Windermere House (1972), but the 1980s and 90s section of the show again accentuates Liverpool’s political struggles:
“An industrial city crumbling in a state of decay, losing its identity”, the streets fraught with racial tension during the Toxteth Riots of 1981 and the last of the dockers are laid off. Liverpool circa 25 years ago is captured in all its excruciating glory by Melik Ohanian in the film White Wall Travelling (1997) -.
Martin Parr’s lens focuses on England, Liverpool (1983-86), a series of photographs depicting blatant and inexorable social corrosion. In one photograph, a little girl plays tomboyishly in the street, oblivious to an upturned car nearby. Another print shows a young mother sitting on a bench outside some high street shops to put new shoes on her toddler. The shoes are pristine; the pavement under the bench is filthy. The bin is overflowing and the woman is ankle-deep in litter.
Bill Drummond, I Challenge You, 2006. © Penkiln Burn 2007
The past decade, however, has seen a great and definitive sea change for Liverpool. The arts scene is blooming on a scale as great as in the 1960s, as illustrated with character portraits on display by photographer Alex Soth, and Anna Fox’s Mum In A Million (2003-06), an installation tribute to the many mothers of Merseyside.
But, deep down, that Liverpool grit is the glue which holds the place together against the odds. As Bill Drummond so eloquently puts it in I Challenge You (2006): “If you succeed, you will win nothing but the respect of all those that doubted you."
“Something that only Liverpool could do.”