Bristol meets Bordeaux in ‘bizarre’ new exhibition

Posted on by Lauren MacCarthy.

by Jenny Gaschke, fine art curator

Two metal doors open and reveal an impressive number of picture crates. They have been stacked carefully inside a climate controlled truck. While we watch on Zoom, over in France exhibition registrar Sylvaine Lestable calls out: “It’s like Aladdin’s Cave!” as she begins to oversee the orderly unloading of the truck.

Two men unloading a painting encased in a wooden crate from a lorry in Bordeaux

We have waited for this moment for nearly five years. This loan of over 60 pictures forms the core part of a major exhibition dedicated to the ‘Bristol School of Artists’ at the Fine Art Museum in Bordeaux – Bristol’s twin city since 1947. Other paintings are coming from the Louvre and from the Tate Gallery in London. Brexit and even a global pandemic could not stop the teams here in Bristol and in Bordeaux form working together on this show. Opening on 10 June, it is the first exhibition of this subject in France. It promises to change the way we see these artists who worked in Bristol 200 years ago.

Our French colleagues have called this exhibition Absolutely Bizarre! Strange tales from the Bristol School of Artists (1800-1840). But it is not bizarre in an English sense. The French bizarre here means singular and amusing. The show introduces paintings of burlesque city life, idyllic landscapes and suburban views. It includes portraits as well as fantastical images of bible stories. The exhibition includes works by Edward Bird, Francis Danby, Samuel Colman, Rolinda Sharples, and William James Müller.

Four people inspecting Sunset at Sea after a Storm by Francis Danby

If you have visited Bristol Museum & Art Gallery or M Shed you may have seen many of these pictures before. We usually display them as examples of regional creativity. They introduce Bristol’s inhabitants and illustrate aspects of our city’s history at a time of significant social change. But in Bordeaux the paintings will be works of art in their own right and take centre stage. This exhibition will hopefully impress French audiences. And it may also make British art lovers and critics rethink art produced outside London: British art in the 1800s is not all Turner and Constable…

This is the argument our French colleagues Guillaume Faroult and Sandra Buratti-Hasan made when they first came to Bristol in 2016 to discuss the project. Guillaume is curator of British Art at the Louvre and has been working with us on the exhibition from the start.

Civic museums do not get the opportunity to work internationally on such a scale often. And even national museums may not rush to organise a project this complex. Here in Bristol the collections department has been largely responsible for getting all the pictures ready to go on loan.

New curatorial research went into the lavishly produced exhibition catalogue (which will also benefit Bristol’s online collections by the way). Lending so many precious works to another museum requires a legal loan agreement. You can hear our registrar Alice Rymill talk about that in this short video clip.

Alice also worked with Sylvaine and the art transport company on organising the actual journey of our pictures to France. Our conservators Ellie, Helen and Liza did a huge amount of work so the pictures would look their very best and stay safe on during the transport. Listen to their account the video below.

The team on the Bordeaux side mirrored all this effort with their work on the exhibition’s narrative, its design and layout. They created the interpretation, graphics as well as the public and learning programme.

Soon the show will open to the public and we cannot wait to hear what they think of our Bristol School paintings. We would love to be there, but may have to wait some time for Covid restrictions to be relaxed. Until then we continue to talk to our French friends on Zoom.

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