Celebrate Shakespeare’s influence on artists through the ages in Compton Verney exhibition

Visitors to an exhibition celebrating the plays of Shakespeare in art may feel they are stepping on to the stage themselves.

The exhibition at Compton Verney is arranged in eight acts focussing on different plays. It has been designed by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Director of Design Stephen Brimson Lewis and this brings a dramatic air to the gallery spaces, and really enhances the exhibition.

Entering Act 1 brings a disorienting feeling and it’s quickly clear that’s from the different slopes to the temporary wooden floor, with light shining through it, representing the shipwreck in The Tempest, and the sound of the sea. Works on show there include a large dramatic oil, The Shipwreck by Philip de Loutherbourg, showing two figures clinging to rocks. In contrast, there’s Antony Sher’s contemplative self portrait from 2009 of himself as Prospero. Karl Weschke’s image of Caliban shows a strange misshapen figure on the beach.

Act 2 explores the deaths of Ophelia and Lady Macbeth, and is dominated by a dark, carpeted side room featuring Davy and Kristin McGuire’s Ophelia’s Ghost (below), a holographic projection on to water. Kristin was filmed multiple times under water ‘drowning’ for this work which now looks beautiful and ethereal, the image seen through bubbling water and colourful flowers.

Ophelia’s Ghost © Kristin and Davy McGuire, photograph by Electric Egg

Also featured are Simeon Solomon’s Ophelia from 1887, a Rossetti drawing of Lady Macbeth and Bryan Organ’s 1973 work, Ophelia after Millais, the drawing gird marks still visible. Above them all stands the dramatic tall portrait of a crazed looking Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth by John Singer Sargent (below). A spooky soundtrack adds to the ambience.

Act 3 celebrates the work of designer, director and writer Edward Gordon Craig, with some lovely, clean cut modernist woodcuts included. Act 4 features a new commission by Tom Hunter, in which he re-enacts Ophelia’s death in modern costume, in the Compton Verney lake. You walk below green foliage, and movements trigger audio recordings of plays in this gallery.

Act 5 shows more of his dramatic photos showing samba dancers, a thrash metal band and Pearly Kings and Queens playing roles from A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the gallery is split up with a wall with a chink in it, drawing on a line from the play.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

Acts 6-8 features King Lear, Macbeth and Henry VIII. Henry Fuseli’s paintings from the late eighteenth century stand out for their dramatic use of light and dark, especially in The Weird Sisters and The Vision of Katharine of Aragon. A room of his work features a silver floor and moving lights.

Paired with Shakespeare in Art: Tempests, Tyrants and Tragedy, is Boydell’s Vision: The Shakespeare Gallery in the 18th Century, which examines the history of John Boydell’s gallery which opened in 1789 in London, using the Bard to develop a national form of history painting. It contains prints and paintings from that period, plus a digital re-enactment of what the gallery may have looked like.

It’s interesting, but the main exhibition can take a bow for being an appropriately and enjoyably dramatic show.

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