Between Ice and Sky
Dundee has a rich history of developing far-flung shipping routes and industrial innovation, writes Jenny Messenger, both of which are flagged up in the McManus’ Charting New Waters exhibition – a showcase of recent acquisitions to Dundee’s permanent collection. Despite being set in a traditional gallery space, the artwork and objects on show are steeped in the art and business of travel.
A major acquisition is the Antarctic Suite, a series of six icescapes painted by Kirkcaldy-born Frances Walker, who travelled to the Antarctic Peninsula on an 18-day voyage after receiving a travel award in 2007. The series is a living bequest with an eye to inspiring future generations and representing the Antarctic as it is at this point in time. The paintings are large but subtly detailed, somehow capturing the delicate features of a harsh, isolated landscape. Andvord Bay, Antarctica (2009), for instance, depicts melting ice floes that glitter like sunlight on the water.
Leaving Elephant Island (2009-10) portrays an aquamarine sea stretching out between the viewer and the dark, mist-capped mountains of Elephant Island (so-called for its elephant seals). It looks ominous, and seems even more so in light of its history – in 1916 Ernest Shackleton and a few crew members set out from Elephant Island on a rescue mission aboard the James Caird (named after Dundee jute-manufacturer and sponsor of the exhibition, Sir James Key Caird) to get help after the Endurance was crushed by ice packs.
Without reading the painting’s title, it is very difficult to tell whether we’re viewing an approach or an exit. Another of the icescapes, Dawn Approach, Elephant Island (2008) could equally show either, and this uncertainty gives a sense of the almost boundless expanse of sea, ice and sky that characterises the Antarctic. If you can, ask a member of staff to show you the McManus’ other holdings of Walker’s work, including a selection of atmospheric sketches from her voyage.
In keeping with the Antarctic theme, the McManus has also acquired a watercolour sketch by William G Burn Murdoch (1862-1939), thought to be the very first artist in residence in the Antarctic. It’s a small sketch, depicting three ships emerging from a creamy white blankness. As in Walker’s work, ice, sea and sky become blurred.
The exhibition also focuses on three ornate ship models, acquired from a collection formerly owned by the Dundee, Perth and London Shipping Company Ltd (DP&L). Intricate models of the Motor Vessel Perth, the Steam Ship Perth and the Paddle Steamer Perth all mark developmental stages in Dundee’s history of shipbuilding and trade, as well as its leisure services.
Alongside Walker’s icescapes and the ship models are recently acquired pieces like Ron O’Donnell’s No Articles Beyond this Point (2000), a stunning example of fine art photography in which a skeleton takes a last look at photographs from the world of flesh, the door to its underground home standing open in the background as the sun blazes on the horizon.
Acquisitions of work by Stewart Carmichael (1867-1950) and James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998) expand and enhance existing collections for both artists. Other pieces include shoes from the 2013 We Dundee campaign (part of Dundee’s bid for UK City of Culture 2016), customised by Erin Ward and worn by Lorraine Kelly, and Kevin Blackwell’s sculpture Time and Balance (1999), a delicate iron construction referencing Dundee’s old foundry.
Although there will be other opportunities to see these items after the exhibition ends on 23 October, Charting New Waters gives an insight into how these purchases are funded (if they aren’t gifts), and the archiving process that follows any acquisition. It also suggests how and why objects might enter a permanent collection, and shows the range and diversity of visual art currently finding a home in Dundee.
The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery & Museum
Albert Square, Meadowside
Dundee DD1 1DA
Continuing until Sunday 23 October 2016