As is often the case when I find myself in a relatively unfamiliar place, a recent weekend in Manchester simply seemed too good an opportunity to miss for sampling at least some of the city’s culture (that is, in addition to the city’s music and the cricket ground).  I hastily acknowledge my habit can reveal an unappealing air of desperation at times – am I really that keen to just go see some art, any art? – but repeated self-examination reveals the sad truth: I actually like this stuff.  Other people have exotic beaches or glittery nightclubs to excite them – I’m genuinely thrilled by the chance of that one great painting I’ve never come across before leaping out at me.

On this occasion, a lot of long hard Googling came up with the Whitworth Art Gallery to explore.  A solid-sounding collection of prints, wallpapers, textiles and, erm, watercolours, my interest was truly piqued by two complementary exhibitions showing now and until the start of August.

The first – Urban Evolution – is a one-woman show by Anne Desmet, who excels in intricate engravings, linocuts and collages.  The last of these, spiralling ‘flowers’ inspired by the story of Babel (not least Bruegel’s interpretation) are stunning.  The kind of modern art that you would gladly hang on your wall and – while that’s rarely the highest form of praise – as each piece is for sale that’s no doubt of some relevance to proceedings.  Rewarding more patient perusal though, Desmet’s portrayals of Manchester’s Victoria Baths are not only beautiful records of an ornate location, but smuggle in the occasional weight of something faintly sinister going on too.  I don’t think I’m the first to be reminded of Piranesi’s Carceri.

Desmet’s exhibition provided an excellent excuse for a themed dip into what sounds like a fantastic print collection.  City Visions barely filled a room (the scant regard paid to it by the Whitworth’s own website should have been a warning) but the quality was very high indeed.  A more sinister Piranesi than the oversized postcard of Venice actually present would have been welcome, but the incredible Hiroshiga landscape with a visible woodgrain was alluring.  Edward Paolozzi’s Wittgenstein in New York was another highlight, although arguably more a portrait than a cityscape.

wittgenstein in new york

With regard to the gallery as a whole, I was left with the distinct impression of unfulfilled potential.  I assume a considerable collection – certainly of breadth and in some aspects high quality – is stifled by a relatively small space, which is insurmountable for now, but a bit more contextualisation (especially with regards the textiles and wallpapers) would have been extremely useful.  My sympathies were also undermined by the all-day closure of the impressive-looking shop, which was grumpily explained to me as due to staff shortage.

Strange, there seemed to be plenty of underemployed staff willing to watch me on my way round the gallery.  But then I guess I couldn’t be trusted on my own with Anne Desmet’s works going for £3,000+ at a time…

 *** Part two of the Manchester story can now be read here***