Alessandro Vincentelli, the curator of exhibitions and research at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art Gateshead-Newcastle, has lived and worked in the UK’s northeast for over twenty years. He gives us an insider’s guide to Newcastle and Durham’s often overlooked modern art masterpieces.
Pop art and river gods in Newcastle
“Kurt Schwitter’s Merz Barn is major piece by one of the greatest and most inventive artists of the twentieth century. You can see it in the recently renovated Hatton Gallery, a short walk from Hotel Indigo Newcastle. Schwitters came to Britain to escape the Nazis. In 1947 he decorated the inside of a stone barn in Cumbria. He died shortly afterwards. The barn began to deteriorate in the northern weather and there was a campaign to move it somewhere so it could be preserved. Amazingly, none of the big galleries in London were interested and so, luckily for us, it ended up here in Newcastle.
“One of the people who lead the campaign to save the Merz Barn was Richard Hamilton, generally thought of as the father of Pop Art. Hamilton was then teaching at the University of Newcastle, enjoying the music and fashion scene in the city (he’s cited as an inspiration by local rock legend Bryan Ferry).
“In 1955, The Hatton Gallery hosted one of first shows. You can see examples of Hamilton’s work there today. Perhaps there’s nothing in the collection that matches the impact of Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Home So Different, So Appealing?, but the gallery’s archive on one of most influential artists of his generation is outstanding.
“Hanging out with Richard Hamilton in Newcastle during the late-fifties and early sixties was Victor Pasmore. The Surrey-born artist’s work was heavily abstract and was credited with revolutionising British art in the late 1940s. His relief sculptures decorate the walls of Newcastle University’s Culture Lab and his mural the customer services area of Newcastle Civic Centre.
The Civic Centre opened in 1968. Art was an integral part of the project. You’ll also find work there by sculptors Austin Wright and Bridget Jones. The most striking piece is David Wynne’s River God, a huge bronze figure representing the River Tyne that hangs from the side of the building like a superhero.
“Victor Pasmore’s greatest work is the Apollo Pavilion, an iconic piece of 1960s brutalist architecture in Peterlee, a new town a few miles east of Durham. In the city itself, a few hundred yards from Hotel Indigo Durham, you’ll find another fine example of angular concrete sixties modernism – Ove Arup’s Kingsgate Bridge. The Newcastle-born engineer built the Sydney Opera House, but regarde this stark concrete walkway across the River Wear as his finest work.
“Durham Cathedral has a long history of commissioning artists, so it’s always worth checking out what’s going on there. Amongst the collection of modern work my favourite is probably the wood sculpture Christ in the Tomb by Durham-born Fenwick Lawson, which sits really well in the space at the east end of the Cathedral.
“Durham University has an eclectic collection of modern art—work by Picasso, Warhol, Damien Hirst and Sandra Blow amongst others. It’s housed in the Palatine Centre. The public can go on a guided tour once a week on Wednesdays at 1pm, though there are plans to increase accessibility in the future.
“Easier to access is Durham’s Botanic Garden, which is home to variety of work including Foxglove by Iain Hamilton Finlay. Finlay’s Little Sparta was voted Scotland’s greatest ever piece of art by a panel of artists and critics back in 2004. This sculpture of green oak, inspired by the shape of the foxglove flower and carillon of bells that ring out from the Cathedral, is one of the few examples of Finlay’s work on public view south of the Border.