Hull: City of Culture 2017 review – prepare for a whale of a time

From old masters to new visionaries, this year’s City of Culture offers a wealth of sensual treats amid a tide of human history

Rembrandt lived in Hull. That, at least, is one speculation about a mysterious period in the late 1650s when his whereabouts remain unknown. To escape personal and financial chaos, he supposedly takes a quick ship across the North Sea and sets up shop in the cobbled streets of the old town. A sighting is even recorded. According to the antiquary George Vertue, writing in the early 18th century, “Rembrandt liv’d at Hull about sixteen or eighteen months, where he painted Gentlemen and sea-faring men’s pictures.”

If nobody has yet been able to prove (or disprove) this salty yarn, there certainly exists a magnificent portrait of a Dutch shipbuilder working on a design for a hull, of all things, which will alight at Hull’s Ferens art gallery in April. This Rembrandt comes from the Royal Collection and is one of many marvels travelling to Yorkshire to celebrate Hull’s status as UK City of Culture 2017.

The Shipbuilder and his Wife, 1633 by Rembrandt, in Hull from April.
The Shipbuilder and his Wife, 1633 by Rembrandt, in Hull from April. Photograph: Royal Collection Trust

Some are there already. When the Ferens reopens on Thursday, after a lustrous facelift, visitors will be able to walk straight into renaissance Italy in the first gallery. A golden panel showing a strikingly amiable-looking Christ between Saints Peter and Paul, painted by Pietro Lorenzetti around 1320, goes on display here for the first time in Britain. Bought by the Ferens, with the aid of the Art Fund; cleaned by the National Gallery and shown alongside exquisite loans of Giotto and Simone Martini from British museums, this is a perfect instance of art world cooperation: everyone uniting to set masterpieces before the public.

The Ferens is a masterpiece in itself of course: a compact white palace on Queen Victoria Square built in 1927 by the Hull MP and philanthropist Thomas Ferens. Ferens was chairman of Reckitt cleaning products, and there is a spruceness to these intimate neoclassical halls. New roofs allow the daylight to flood down through cupolas and wells, illuminating the Stubbs and the Constable, the Arctic seascapes and Dutch interiors below.

The 1921 self-portrait Mr Wyndham Lewis As a Tyro.
The 1921 self-portrait Mr Wyndham Lewis As a Tyro. Photograph: Ferens Gallery

The Dutch connection is very strong, with terrific paintings by Frans Hals, Cornelius Gijsbraechts and Jacob Ruisdael, whose landscapes of low-lying horizons and high white skies look so like the countryside around Hull. Horses pull sledges big as train carriages through snowbound fields. Ships scud across the North Sea, and the day’s catch is for sale in the fish market. These scenes appear in both Dutch and English paintings all through the museum; the distance between the two countries is so narrow, after all, that Hull to Rotterdam is a day trip by ferry.

The Dutch should come to Hull for the City of Culture. At the Ferens they would see Ribera, Canaletto, Pissaro and Sickert; Gwen John’s marvellously spectral study of a girl reading; and five of Francis Bacon’s screaming popes, which arrive later this month. And star of its modern collection, which runs all the way from Stanley Spencer’s Heaven-on-Thames to Mark Wallinger’s quizzical self-portraits, is Mr Wyndham Lewis As a Tyro, in which the artist appears as a ferocious amalgam of jagged blades, fishhooks, scimitars and scalpels, hard as steel against a violent mustard ground. This is that rare thing, a satirical self-portrait and a brilliant coinage – the cutting-edge vorticist as monstrous embodiment of his own art.

This 1921 icon is worth the trip to Hull alone, but the city has much more art to come through the year. In February, the new Humber Street Gallery opens in a Victorian fruit warehouse in the old town with a show curated by performance artist Cosey Fanni Tutti, and Sarah Lucas’s sculptures from the last Venice Biennale. Spencer Tunick’s Sea of Hull photographs, showing a flood of local citizens pouring through the streets, naked and painted blue, is at the Ferens gallery later in the spring, along with paintings by Manet, sculptures by Ron Mueck and the 2017 Turner prize show in the autumn.

Spencer Tunick’s Sea of Hull, 2016.
Spencer Tunick’s Sea of Hull, 2016. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

Right now, at the magnificent Maritime Museum, the city’s computer artists have created a captivating audio-visual installation of a Bowhead whale, that immense dark mammal that can live for two centuries and was so important to Hull’s Victorian whalers. The music changes character during the film, altering one’s sense of this mysterious creature. How beautiful it is, and yet how elusive and alien.

On Hull’s gable end billboards, murals are springing up. A throbbing soundtrack in an old town underpass heralds a film installation about the 90s club culture. Projected on to the side of the Deep – Hull’s aquarium, nosing like a great silver sea beast out into the estuary where the city’s two rivers meet – is a poignant film showing the successive waves of immigrants who have shaped Hull, from the Dutch and the Poles to the latest Middle Eastern refugees.

Perhaps this will hit nerves in a city that voted by a staggering 68% to leave the EU, despite the enormous and crucial investment in jobs (and in the City of Culture itself) of the German company Siemens. But the film is hardly didactic: a vision of great ships, whales and golden fish tumbles in among the tide of human history.

‘Tide of human history’: a poignant installation, Arrivals and Departures, is projected on to the Deep.
‘Tide of human history’: Arrivals and Departures, telling the story of how Hull’s distinct culture has been formed over the centuries, is projected on to the Deep. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

Thomas Ferens – a committed autodidact, whose appealingly modest portrait hangs in the art gallery next to a sober scene of factory workers attending night school – also gave enough money to found the University of Hull. And housed in the library made famous by Philip Larkin is a permanent collection of British art from 1890-1940, a timespan brilliantly selected to include Bomberg, Tonks, Sickert, Gertler, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Paul Nash among others. There is, too, a yet more haunting portrait of a girl by Gwen John, and Stanley Spencer’s startling dream of saints sitting about in comfortable conversation with the villagers of Cookham.

But more astounding than the surprise of this collection, somehow financed over the years on a shoestring, is its neighbour in the gallery next door. Lines of Thought is a show of drawings from the British Museum, jointly conceived with the University and supported by Bridget Riley (whose shimmering op-art Blaze is among the exhibits). The selection of images is stupendous. Here is Rubens’s hectic drawing of dancers birling so close to the artist you can feel the air move, and Albrecht Dürer’s incisive sketches for Adam’s hand grasping the fatal apple.

An Asian elephant c1637 by Rembrandt.
An Asian elephant c1637 by Rembrandt. Photograph: Trustees of the British Museum

Michelangelo’s seated nude bodies forth from the page with pungent vigour. Seurat’s deserted sketch for La Grande Jatte rings with emptiness and silence. Mondrian draws the structure of a tree, just on the verge between figuration and abstraction, and Leonardo imagines the Christ Child cuddling a cat, which is attempting to escape. It is a point of entry straight into the artist’s mind.

It is rightly said that art helped win Hull the City of Culture bid to an unusual degree, not least because of some exceptional Ferens gallery shows, specifically the 2012 exhibition of Leonardo drawings. So it feels apt that art should figure so predominantly in this year’s programme. And this exhibition is a pinnacle at the very outset. From Tintoretto’s flying man to Rembrandt’s gentle elephant standing patiently foursquare, from Watteau to Ingres, Daumier and Picasso, it is surely the greatest gathering of artistic genius that will ever be seen in Hull.


Laura Cumming

The GuardianTramp

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