The exhibition in galleries 17 and 18 at Manchester Art Gallery is a reminder of the power of a crowd - sometimes benign, sometimes violent, sometimes tragic.
Manchester Art Gallery – or what was the Royal Manchester Institution – was built a handful of years after the Peterloo Massacre. Whatever was on that site would have overlooked an event that is being remembered this year, the 200th Anniversary.
It might be said that the gathering of sixty to eighty thousand people was defeated by cavalry violence, but the ultimate legacy of the deaths and injuries was social reform. Although almost a hundred years later, in 1913, paintings in the gallery itself were attacked and damaged by three suffragettes.
The Pankhurst statue and Manchester Art Gallery both now stand overlooking St. Peter’s Field.
The exhibition running until the end of September is a curation of people power, politics and progress. People power in this exhibition is the display around the works and walls of thousands of comments from visitors. An interactive way of measuring the impact of the images on show.
Some are old favourites that are on exhibition in the main galleries permanently. Ford Madox Brown’s homage to the working man in Victorian times – full of detail in the highlighted figures, but with the shadowy peripheral figures of the bourgeoisie looking on.
The Saunders/Sargent painting of the Royal Exchange trading room in 1877; most of the top-hatted merchants are real people (there is an explanatory, named diagram archived). But try and spot in this ‘Where’s Wally’ picture the two – only two – women. Go on, have a go.
The 1869 painting of ‘The Central Executive Cotton Famine Relief Committee’ is nicely juxtaposed with Empire images, creating a thought provoking wall, footed by a demonstration made up of tiny plasticine figures carrying their own placards.
But interspersed with many paintings and images are some that are new, at least to me, along with one which is very familiar to me.
I hadn’t seen Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s 1966 painting ‘Protest’ before, but found it quite beautiful. Based on a student protest that the artist witnessed in Amsterdam, the image is stripped down as severely as a Mark Rothko or a Bridget Riley, but captures the agitated bustle of a crowd breaking formation.
One that was very familiar to me – although on show is an original poster – is the Solidarnosc ‘logo’; a spontaneous image that became an iconic symbol of the People’s Polish Solidarity Party, founded in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk in 1980. The first trade union in the Warsaw Pact not controlled by a communist party.
This is one of my favourite three pieces of ‘graphic design,’ all coincidentally feature flags. Solidarnosc is one. Otto Treumann’s Star of David flag designed for Holocaust memorials and the extraordinary Romanian flag, which spontaneously greeted the downthrow and execution of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989.
In Romania the liberated people simply physically cut the Ceausescu coat of arms from the centre of the flags and took to the streets waving them. The most eloquent visual symbol of liberation.
‘Get Together and Get Things Done’ is a fascinating focus on groups of people, their commentary and effect on social history. At the time of writing I can’t help but reflect on the current turmoil in Hong Kong. And hope upon hope that the result – as it was to the People’s Protest in Tiananmen Square in 1989 – doesn’t lead to more writing in the history books of China and Hong Kong.
Get Together and Get Things Done
What brings people together, from protest to partying? What is the use of a crowd?
Venue: Manchester Art Gallery
Dates: Until Sunday 29th September