Curated by Jacquiline Creswell, Visual Arts Advisor of Salisbury Cathedral.
Escaping London finally, we arrived early on Saturday morning in Salisbury to view the exhibition Celebrating 800 Years of Spirit & Endeavor at the Cathedral. The exhibition commemorates the 800th anniversary of its foundation and the curator, Jacquiline Creswell, explains her concept was “informed by the influence of the ordinary people who came together in the spirit of faith to achieve something extraordinary” in building the Cathedral. Twenty British Modern post-war and international contemporary art works have been installed in the grounds and interior of the medieval complex alongside nine pieces from the Cathedral’s permanent collection.
Arriving first through the Cathedral close from the east side, a white Henry Moore Large Reclining Figure dazzles in front of the façade. The fibreglass piece from 1983 is made up of surrealist feminine forms and its curvaceous silhouette guides the eye towards the gothic cathedral behind it. Stairway (2007) by Danny Lane is made out of steel and green glass, which dapples in the sunlight and it wittily appears to lead up to the cathedral roof evoking the imagery of Jacob’s Ladder.
Close to Lane’s sculpture, stands Conrad Shawcross’s Formation I from 2015. Three constellations of tetrahedra perched on hairpin legs in weathered steel, formerly exhibited in the Royal Academy courtyard, the sculptures are pleasant but not overly exciting in this context. Between Shawcross and Lane, Dame Elisabeth Frink’s Walking Madonna (1981) strides purposely away from the cathedral with her body shrouded almost completely in thick fabric, except for her delicate hands emerging from out of the bronze cast single piece. This remarkable sculpture and Helaine Blumenfeld’s Angels Harmony (2011) are the only two sculptures that have explicitly religious subject matter in this exterior grouping and they belong to the permanent collection. Nonetheless, the most memorable work for me, installed on the Chorister’s Green, was Subodh Gupta’s When Soak Becomes Spill (2008), made out of silver pots and pans spilling out of a giant silver bucket. Reminiscent of the excess of wares in kitchen shops in India, the overflowing bucket makes reference to the constantly expanding consumer society of India.
With only a little time to spare because of parking restrictions, we popped quickly inside the cathedral and its cloisters to see the rest of the exhibition. We were not disappointed by the tasteful curation of the pieces intermingled with the original decoration and features of the nave. At the west front, framed by two tombs of notable figures, stands Grayson Perry’s colourful tapestry Death of a Working Hero (2016), inspired by the ceremony of the blessing of the banners in Durham Cathedral, part of the annual Durham Miner’s Gala. Perry presents a mournful scene in bright orange and purple contrasting with the sombre funerary monuments either side; the artist gives prominence to the working man, while the elaborate tombs most likely belonged to the landed gentry.
The other highlights inside the cathedral are the two standing figures: Edouardo Paolozzi’s Daedalus (1990) and Anthony Gormley’s GRIP (Net) (2019). Paolozzi’s sculpture stands seamlessly on a plinth between two existing tombs and the geometric compartmentalised forms mimic the armour of the knights’ effigies. Gormley’s stainless steel net figure is placed high up on the inverted arch of the north side and you almost miss it if you do not look up towards the fan vaulted ceiling. In the cloisters Tony Cragg’s oval Sail (2016), made from white onyx, harmoniously fits beneath the arches in front of Martin Creed’s neon Work NO. 2663 MUMS DADS KIDS GODS (2016).
The pièce de resistance from this carefully curated presentation is one of the best Dame Barbara Hepworths I have ever seen, Construction (Crucifixion) in homage to Piet Mondrian is a stunning geometric constellation of black lines and yellow, blue and red shapes framed by the gothic arches of the cloister. Hepworth and her husband Ben Nicholson were close friends with Mondrian, who lived with them in Hampstead in the early 1930s.
Intended as a glorious celebration of the 800th Anniversary of the foundations of Salisbury Cathedral the exhibition was a treat to behold. The religious subject matter of the works in the permanent collection counterpoint some of the more socially directed messages, for example, of Gupta’s and Perry’s works. The juxtaposition of modern and contemporary art in the historic setting serves to highlight the continued relevance of the relationship between art and the sacred. While a museum can be seen as a secular cathedral for the ‘worship’ of art works, the Cathedral’s purpose of sacred worship is aided with art works that visually represent devotion. The presentation of contemporary and modern art in this context conveys the continued use of art to enrich both sacred and profane experience in the history of art. Running until 2021, the exhibition is definitely worth the trip and is a chance to reflect on the history of the important Cathedral.