The mood is celebratory in East Anglia: the University (UEA) marks 50 years since it opened its doors in Norwich, and the Sainsbury Centre, its visual arts flagship, is back in business after refurbishment by Foster & Partners. The first public building designed by Norman Foster, it opened originally in 1978, a huge glass and steel hangar to house the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, given to the University five years earlier. This impressive collection is wide-ranging, including a substantial group of early Francis Bacon paintings, an important collection of Hans Coper ceramics, and excellent things by Moore, Giacometti, Picasso and Epstein, as well as quantities of other artefacts, ancient and modern. There is also a temporary exhibition space, and the reopening show is called Masterpieces: Art and East Anglia (until 24 February), which takes upon itself the task of telling the story of art in the area through a selection of top-quality works. It’s a good idea, but is it actually possible to implement?
The current solution is a large show of some 250 items, ranging from silver salts to documentary photographs, and from paintings to porcelain and wooden chairs. The East Anglian connection can be tenuous: these objects have been inspired by, produced or collected in the region — which is a pretty wide remit. If the exhibition lacks all focus, this can only be because of these indulgent selection criteria and its hubristic title; it certainly can’t be faulted on enthusiasm or the serene reflected glory of (some) great works of art. But there is far too much on display, in an installation that lacks coherence and goes completely to pieces in the modern period. Although there are major things here, there are too many minor ones too. The exhibition resembles nothing so much as the jumble of taste in a large country house, where the family once had wealth, position and good connections, but has rather fallen on hard times. We could be visitors to an upmarket pre-auction viewing.
Entering the Centre on the ground floor, there are three large exhibits to be seen on this level before the descent via lift or spiral staircase to the galleries below. Against the light of the far wall is an exuberant stained-glass window designed by John McLean (born 1939), one of our finest abstract painters. The first of a suite of three, this has been presented to Norwich Cathedral and is soon to be installed. Over to the left is Ana Maria Pacheco’s sizeable ship of fools, featuring a real boat, a 30-footer from the Norfolk Broads, containing a motley crew of polychrome wooden passengers. Called ‘The Longest Journey’, it is typically disturbing: note particularly the eyes and teeth of these lost souls. At the far end of the building, in the Modern Life Café, reposes a black-and-gold Lotus racing car. Evidently the show’s remit extends to product design.
Downstairs the muddle begins. There are marvellous things here, but the mélée of periods is disorientating rather than stimulating. So we have a superb life-size head of a Roman emperor, traditionally identified as Claudius and found in the river Alde at Rendham in 1907. The jug-eared copper alloy mask is indeed a masterpiece, as is the 14th-century wooden effigy of Robert du Bois. But the Gainsborough self-portrait? The Hepworth teak standing figure? The Beechey portrait of Nelson? ‘Birdman’ by Elisabeth Frink? They’re all good or interesting examples of the work of these artists, but that does not constitute a masterpiece. Then there’s the very striking ‘Sketch for a Portrait of Lisa’ (1955) by Francis Bacon, but this cannot be called a masterpiece either — unless a ridiculously large proportion of Bacon’s work can be so designated. The term is diluted by such assertion. Better to forget the word altogether and enjoy the exhibition for the undoubted treasures it contains.
Visitors were evidently rather puzzled by the presence of various artists. ‘Does Bacon have some connection with Norwich?’ was one question I heard. Well, no, not beyond the fact of the Sainsburys’ Bacon collection now residing in the museum. There are local artists featured here (particularly in the modern period), but precious few masterpieces among them, and not all of them are worthy of inclusion at all. This is the problem with setting up a show that pretends to impersonal standards of excellence and yet is clearly marked by personal taste. There are photographs of local characters and maps — not so much art as documentation — and a rather fine and unusual Lowry among them (‘Old House Boat at Aldeburgh’), and then a painting by Michael Andrews (1928–95), who is certainly one of East Anglia’s modern masters. Yet the painting chosen to represent him is very far from a masterpiece: ‘The Lord Mayor’s Reception at Norwich Castle Keep’. In fact, it’s a commissioned group portrait to celebrate the first chancellor of UEA, and obviously the subject recommended its appearance here, even though it’s not a very good Andrews painting. Little of the originality that makes him — at his best — such a memorable painter is evident.
Other artists who are badly served include the brothers John and Paul Nash, both represented by a single print and confined to a corner of gallery three. Both were very considerable printmakers (though better painters), but it is ludicrous to suggest that John’s mass-produced ‘Harvesting’ lithograph for the School Prints series is more than a well-executed jeu d’esprit. He was a master of wood-engraving and an unparalleled painter of the Suffolk/Essex landscape, but you wouldn’t learn that from this exhibition.
Yet there are many very fine things to be seen, including the remarkable early 15th-century Crucifixion painting borrowed from Denver Art Museum. Also fabulous illuminated manuscripts — the Bury Bible, the Macclesfield Psalter and the Ormesby Psalter — and early alabaster panels, watercolours by John Sell Cotman, good things by Turner and Constable, Philip Wilson Steer, Colin Self and Alfred Munnings. But what a hotchpotch!
It’s a hugely ambitious project, but its very ambition is its downfall. No exhibition can be all-inclusive, but by trying to cram everything in – or at least the curator’s view of everything – this survey fails to live up to the high standard of its title. The definition of ‘masterpiece’ cannot be reduced and diminished merely to serve curatorial ends. We live in a culture of superlatives and lax critical standards, and this exhibition perfectly exemplifies the tendency. There are outstanding works here, but far fewer than the organisers would have us believe, and it’s advisable to maintain a healthy scepticism as you walk round the galleries.