Spotlight on Collections: The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

This is the first post in our ‘Spotlight on Collections’ series, which aims to draw attention to the Modern British art held in the collections of museums and galleries around the UK.  Do let us know if there’s an institution whose collection you’d like us to cover in a future post. Next month I’ll be looking at Kettle’s Yard Gallery in Cambridge.

Situated on the edge of the University of East Anglia’s campus in Norwich, the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts is one of the region’s premier visual arts institutions. It opened in April 1978, some five years after Robert and Lisa Sainsbury donated their collection of world art to the University. The Sainsburys’ collection is housed, along with the Anderson Collection of Art Nouveau and the UEA’s collection of Abstract and Constructivist Art, Architecture, and Design, in Norman Foster’s first major public building; a vast, hangar-like structure, which both complements the functionalist aesthetic of the University’s Brutalist buildings and contrasts with its natural surroundings. Even as the Sainsbury Centre’s bright white, steel-clad exterior stands out against the bucolic riverside landscape, however, its interior space is reintegrated with it. ‘Walls’ of glass at either end of the museum allow sunlight to filter through and, from certain angles, make the University park the backdrop for the range of sculpture and two-dimensional works on display. The Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, acquired between 1931 and the early 1970s, comprises Modern art and objects of varying chronology from Asia, Africa, Oceania and the Americas. Both components of the Collection are prominent in the Sainsbury Centre’s permanent hang, which occupies ‘The Living Area’ – the museum’s large, ground-floor gallery. As its name suggests, this space is designed to make the viewer feel at home amidst the art works. He or she is able to get, relatively speaking, ‘up close and personal’ with the Bacons, Picassos and Pre-Colombian artefacts on offer, carving out his or her own path through the pieces rather than tracing the perpendicular routes often encouraged by more traditionally laid-out museums.

The Sainsbury Centre’s collection of Modern British art is extensive. Work which addresses the sculptural is particularly prevalent, although Lisa Sainsbury’s well-developed interest in ceramics is also clear via the presence of an impressive number of pots by artists including Lucie Rie and Hans Coper. When it opened, the museum was innovative in its encouragement of a comparative approach to viewing Western works and the non-Western art which in many cases inspired the former’s producers. Nowadays, such links form a routine aspect of exhibition design, with many curators keen to reassess the assumptions upon which broad art historical categories are founded. Still, the Sainsbury Centre’s organization of its collection is exciting. The parallel between the hands of Henry Moore’s Mother and Child (1932) and those of the Raratongan ‘Fishermen’s God’ (late 18th/early 19th century) might be fairly straightforward to spot, but there’s more detective-work to be done to root out the connections between other treatments of the human form and/or corporeal adornments. Pleasingly, explanatory text is kept to a minimum and so it is unlikely to spoil the fun of any visitor seeking such challenges. Certainly I never fail to find new courses, physical and conceptual, to plot through the works on show, despite having visited the museum on many occasions over the years.

Celia Dunne, Publishing Assistant

Selected Modern British artists in the SCVA’s collections (click on the links to see relevant Lund Humphries’  titles): Francis Bacon; Anthony Caro; Lynn Chadwick; Adrian Heath; Barbara Hepworth; F. E. McWilliam; Bernard Meadows; Margaret Mellis; Henry Moore; Mary Newcomb; Ben Nicholson; Winifred Nicholson; Eduardo Paolozzi; Lucie Rie; Edward Seago; Stanley Spencer; Keith Vaughan; Mary Webb.

Highlights to look out for:

1)      Francis Bacon‘s Study (Imaginary Portrait of Pope Pius XII) (1955): Despite its title, this oil painting resembles a finished work. Certainly, neither the sparse background nor the subject’s indistinct face indicates incompletion, each being characteristic of Bacon’s portraiture. Pius XII’s seated pose and ornate throne remind us of the iconography’s partially Velazquian provenance, while his sketchy visage projects us beyond figuration into what philosopher Gilles Deleuze described as ‘the being of the sensible’ – an experience of sensation at its fullest, bodily intensity.

2)      Lucy Rie’s Miniature Cup (c.1960): Featuring Rie’s characteristic raw glaze, these pieces are also typical in their conjunction of delicacy and domestic functionality. The cups evince a modern, formalist beauty whilst also retaining an unmistakeable sense of the human.

3)      Anthony Caro‘s Table Piece CCCLXXI (1977): This work’s scale is more human than other sculptures by Caro, having been made to sit atop a table rather than directly on the ground. Table Piece CCCLXXI ‘s component materials also seem familiar – is the part anchoring the sculpture’s right-hand side the plate of an iron, or perhaps the hinge from a door? Notwithstanding, there is also an abstract strangeness, here, the mixing of seemingly fragile lines and curves with more solid shapes prompting us to consider notions of weight and balance.

Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art, University of East Anglia, Norwich, NR4 7TJ

Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am – 5pm

Admission free

01603 593199