Was this Norfolk artist’s centenary show the shortest ever?

PUBLISHED: 10:47 16 July 2020

Norfolk Coast Sunset by Alfred Cohen

Norfolk Coast Sunset by Alfred Cohen

Alfred Cohen

How coronavirus closed Alfred Cohen’s exhibition as it opened - and where to see the show now and in the future

It might have been the shortest art exhibition ever. An exhibition featuring the work of Alfred Cohen, who lived and painted in Norfolk, officially opened and closed at almost exactly the same time.

At the precise moment opening speeches were scheduled, the Prime Minister was announcing people should make only essential journeys.

Alfred Cohen: An American Artist in Europe was to have celebrated the life and work of the internationally acclaimed artist in his centenary year. It would have moved from London to the gallery Alfred and his wife Diana opened in their home village of Wighton, near Wells, and then on to Norwich Castle Museum, and finally the Sainsbury Centre in October.

Instead, for now, it is only available online, alongside a documentary made by Norwich-based Coda Films.

Alfred’s widow, Diana, travelled from Norfolk for the opening, which was also a closing, making headlines in art publications in Britain, and in America where Alfred was born.

After winning the chance to study abroad Alfred lived in Europe for the rest of his life, first in Paris and then Britain.

Alfred began painting the Norfolk coast in the 1960s. His style was bold and vibrant, leaping from landscape to abstract in a few brush strokes. His paintings include Evening Sky Wells, which is part of Norwich Castle’s art collection, Coaster Leaving Wells, Norfolk Coast Sunset, and Lifeboat Cafe Cromer. They are rich, colour-drenched responses to light and water and architecture.

Alfred and Diana moved to the School House, Wighton, in 1980 where Diana set up an art gallery. In the garden they unearthed a block of marble which turned out to be an abandoned sculpture by Henry Moore who, they discovered, had once lived at the same address.

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Their School House art gallery staged exhibitions including works by Moore, and by Prince Charles. The Queen Mother also visited, to see an exhibition of paintings by her friend, and Burnham Thorpe resident, Joan Zuckerman.

The centenary exhibition includes paintings of London and Paris, as well as Norfolk, and was curated by Alfred’s stepson, Max Saunders, who is a professor of English at King’s College, London.

Diana and Max put together a memorial exhibition after Alfred died in 2001 and Max said: “As I started tracking down his earlier work for the show I became fascinated with how different it had been and how many different but equally engaging styles and techniques he had evolved. He was a much more versatile and mercurial artist than I’d realised.”

His paintings are owned by many private collectors and galleries, including the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia which has nine of his works and organised an exhibition of Cohen’s work as part of the 2016 King’s Lynn Festival.

As he put together the 2020 exhibition Max also helped write an accompanying book and Coda Films of Norwich began work on a documentary.

They were filming as the exhibition opened, and closed. “That afternoon the College decided to start locking everything down and it became clear the exhibition too would have to close by 7pm, – exactly the time the speeches were scheduled to have been starting at the private view,” said Max. “We opened and closed at the same moment, making it possibly the shortest exhibition in history. But luckily we had the film footage and also images from a still photographer who had also been working that day. We decided the only thing to do was to put the exhibition online, hoping that at least people would be able to see it in that form and to watch the film.”

It is hoped the exhibition might go ahead in the Sainsbury Centre in October, with the possibility of autumn dates for the the Castle Museum and the School House, Wighton.

For now Alfred Cohen: An American Artist in Europe can be visited at alfredcohen.benuricollection.org.uk

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