Defining Faces: 20th Century Portrait Drawings at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts is situated in the University of Birmingham’s Edgbaston campus and has collaborated with the National Portrait Gallery in London to create their new exhibition, Defining Faces: 20th Century Portrait Drawings which runs until the 26th August.
The exhibition is co-curated by postgraduate University of Birmingham History of Art students and is comprised of a series of preliminary drawings and sketches of prominent British figures.
I personally enjoy the aesthetics of ink and pencil so the exhibition is a refreshing break from the more traditional paintings exhibited elsewhere in the Barber. It is also fascinating to see the ways in which drawings can progress and to see the working mindset of the artist through these initial sketches. Big names include Oscar Kokoschka and Hans Schwarz, a personal favourite.
Percy Wyndham Lewis' portrait, 'Froanna', 1940. Photograph taken from the Barber website.

Percy Wyndham Lewis’ portrait, ‘Froanna’, 1940. Photograph taken from the Barber website.

An aspect of the exhibition that I was disappointed with was the information accompanying each drawing. Alongside useful biographical information about the depicted figures was rather a lot of art speak that reminded me of a humorous article in the guardian that I read a few months ago.
The captions in Defining Faces included sentences such as this: ‘the artist suggests something of the sitter’s inner world using apparently random lines and shading’. I have two problems with captions like this. The first is that they don’t really say anything, making the captions long-winded and taking important viewing time away from the pictures themselves.
Secondly they tell the viewer what to think. When visiting a gallery a visitor may respect the authority of such captions but I personally think that, save for a few factual details, no extra information, or in fact opinions, should be put alongside an image.
Tom Phillips' portrait of Richard Edward Morphet, 1972/3. Photo taken from the Barber website

Tom Phillips’ portrait of Richard Edward Morphet, 1972/3. Photo taken from the Barber website

To sum, I really enjoyed the concept of the exhibition and it was a nice change to see some drawings and rough workings that are usually hidden away. If you are going to see this exhibition (which I do think you should!) my advice would be to not pay too much attention to the captions. I know that I had more fun once I had tired of reading and instead spent the other half of the exhibition looking at the drawings themselves in detail.

You can find out more information about the exhibition here.

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