Wednesday, 8 April 2009

The God of Small Things

Just back from the Thomas Bewick exhibition, Tale-pieces, at Ikon Gallery and I'm thoroughly charmed.

These vignettes of country life are marvellous in their detail and their dark, macabre wit. On the surface of it, his tail-pieces (or 'tale-pieces' as he punningly called them, because they illustrated 'some truth or point of some moral') show ordinary life in the last quarter of the 18th century, but look deeper and you see studies of human vanity and the fragility of life.

Bewick was obviously a great lover of animals, which tend to emerge with a greater dignity than his humans. A stag drinks from a tumbling cataract, a Latin motto on the rocks translating as: Everything Good Comes From Above; a pet monkey holds a razor thoughtfully to his face in front of his master's mirror; an ass rubs its rump against a gravestone. Elsewhere, a child has tethered a dog and cat to a toy cart containing a baby, and as he whips them cruelly, the animals pull the infant into a stream.

Given their tiny size, I did find a conventional gallery setting a frustrating place to view the vignettes, and in some ways, the catalogue was more satisfying than the show (it's worth taking a magnifying glass if you visit Ikon). But given that this is - incredibly - the very first exhibition devoted entirely to Bewick's vignettes, it's fantastic to see his art revived for a new audience.

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1 comment:

Eliza Ward said...

Having never played a string instrument, I had to google "tailpiece". Those images must be small! Are they only one or two inches wide? I want to see the one with the kid sending the infant into the river! It sounds hilarious!