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Visualising the Invisible: Royal West of England Academy explores British art and air

a painting of clouds

John Constable, Cloud Study, Hampstead, tree at right (1821). Oil on paper laid on board. Courtesy Royal Academy.

The Royal West of England Academy takes us into the firmament for Air: Visualising the Invisible in British Art 1768 – 2017

Balloons drifting out to sea beyond the clifftops, intensely atmospheric paintings of skies and contemporary sculptural responses to the oxygen we breathe; the artworks that await visitors to the Royal West of England Academy’s newest exhibition celebrate that most beautiful and intangible of things – the air around us and the skies above us.

Covering four centuries, Air: Visualising the Invisible in British Art 1768 – 2017, brings some famous masterpieces to Bristol; among them Joseph Wright of Derby’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump and John Constable’s famous sky studies.

The annotated cloud paintings of Constable, arguably the most accomplished British painter of skies, reminds us of his remarkable understanding of the structure and movement of clouds, but he is in good company here with CR Nevinson’s Battlefields of Britain (1942) just one of the paintings brilliantly capturing the spectacle of the firmament.

Nevinson’s painting is one of the best evocations of an RAF pilot’s view of the air war over Britain in World War Two, and Eric Ravilious is also on hand to offer a cross hatched view of the vapour trails that streaked the heavens in time of war, while Peter Lanyon’s later gliding paintings provide a visceral, abstract take of his own experience of the skies above.

an aerial painting showing clouds giving way to glimpses of fields below

Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson, Battlefields of Britain. Government Art Collection

a painting of a balloon floating out across the ocean past a series of white cliffs

Balloon Over Cliffs’, Dover, Kent, 1840. © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

a sculpture showing a grounded balloon and its basket

The Andree Balloon Side, Alex Wood. Courtesy the Artist

a painting by Turner of London's sky seen across the Thames

The Thames above Waterloo Bridge c.1830-5 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01992

a Lowry painting of an industrial scene with chimneys belching smoke into the air

L. S. Lowry, A Manufacturing Town (1922). Science Museum, London.

Air features many explorations of flight, including depictions of the earliest hot air balloon flights celebrating the ‘balloonmania’ that gripped Britain in the 1780s and which made celebrities out of aeronauts like the Italian Vicenzo Lunardi and Blanchard and Jeffries, who undertook the first balloon crossing of the English Channel in 1785.

But it’s not all derring-do, blue skies and little fluffy clouds. J.M.W Turner’s The Thames Above Waterloo Bridge (1830-5) offers a glimpse of the smoky and populous capital during the early industrial revolution, while LS Lowry’s belching factory chimneys of A Manufacturing Town (1922) show the inexorable progress of industrial pollution a century later.

The quality of the air has provided a recurrent theme for artists down the centuries with people like Dryden Goodwin (best known for his 2012 projection Breathe, which was mounted upon St Thomas’s Hospital opposite the Houses of Parliament to highlight the effects of air pollution on our children’s fragile lungs) just one of interdisciplinary artists here exploring themes of pollution and air quality.

a photo of a model of the arteries in a pair of lungs

Capacity, Annie Cattrell. Courtesy the artist.

a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby showing an experiment in which a bird is deprived of oxygen in a glass jar

Joseph Wright of Derby, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768). National Gallery

a photo of a man on a headland looking out to sea

Collective Breath, Neville Gabie. Courtesy the artist.

Air is also explored as ‘the breath of life’, with a number of works featuring musical instruments such as Dora Carrington’s Spanish Boy, Accordion Player, Elizabeth Forbes’ Allegory of Spring: Pied Piper, and Kate Williams’ hand-blown trombone in boroscilicate glass, alongside Neville Gabie’s installation Collective Breath which features ‘the breath of one thousand, one hundred and eleven people collected together and released to play a single note for 49 minutes.’

Gabie isn’t the only contemporary artist seeking to turn the invisible visible; a new work has been created especially for the exhibition by ‘international man of the clouds’, Dutch artist Berndnaut Smilde, who recreates the physical elements of clouds indoors.

Sculptor Mat Chivers’ Outbreath and Alter Outbreath, turns breath into a three-dimensional form, whereas Annie Cattrell’s delicate transparent lungs highlight each and every ventricle and airway. Also utilising the ghostly transparency of glass is the internationally celebrated Bristol-based artist Luke Jerram’s colourless sculpture Avian Flu (H5NI) from his Glass Microbiology series, highlighting the dangers of airborne disease.

a photo of a carved pebble-like rock on a plinth

Solid Air III, Peter Randall-Page. Courtesy the artist.

Cleverly evoking the air we breathe and the skies above us, this exhibition may explore the idea of air being ‘ever present and ever there’, but perhaps more importantly, it reminds us that it’s also in need of our care.

Air: Visualising the Invisible in British Art 1768 – 2017 runs at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol, June 16 – September 3 2017.


Royal West of England Academy

Bristol, City of Bristol

The RWA Art Gallery is situated in fashionable Clifton and is open throughout the year. The building is one of the finest examples of Victorain Italianate style built in 1858 as the first art gallery in Bristol. The RWA shows contemporary art exhibitions of painting, printmaking, drawing, sculpture and architecture…




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