Strangely Magnificent

PUBLISHED: 14:30 08 September 2015

The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts is hosting the Magnificent Obsessions exhibition, from this month until January,

The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts is hosting the Magnificent Obsessions exhibition, from this month until January,


They’re the artists the world loves to collect - but what do they collect themselves? That’s the starting point for a fascinating new exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich. Trevor Heaton reports.

Their works go, in some cases, for tens of millions of pounds, and include some of the most iconic works of their generation.

But behind the public face of such famous artists as Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst and Sgt Pepper cover-designing Sir Peter Blake there’s a quirkier side - their own private collections.

That’s the theme of the latest major exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, on the University of East Anglia campus in Norwich. The show, Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector - which opens on September 12 - lets us see the hidden, often playful, side of these and other post-war and contemporary artists, including Arman, Edmund de Waal, Howard Hodgkin, Sol LeWitt, Martin Parr, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Pae White.

Who’d have guessed, for example, that Warhol - who often shocked and confounded the art establishment in the 1960s - was such a fan of kitsch cookie jars?

By including both artworks and works from their private collections, Magnificent Obsessions shows the many ways in which the astonishing variety of things that artists surround themselves with directly impacts the art they make. These extraordinary collections - from samurai armour to glass eyes, scarves to space memorabilia - help reveal the creative processes of some of the most important artists of the past 50 years.

In 1960s America, Warhol redefined what we consider as art with his Pop prints of everyday items such as Brillo Pads and Heinz soup tins. An obsessive collector, Warhol hoarded an ever-growing stash of bric-a-brac and had a particular passion for mass-produced cookie jars.

Here in the UK, Peter Blake made iconic Pop Art works from the 1960s with a quirky combination of painting, print, collage and objects. As a teenager Blake bought objects, paintings and books from a station junkyard, triggering a life time of collecting. His home and studio are now filled with an eclectic mix of objects that range from elephants to shop signs and Punch and Judy puppets.

Hirst - the most talked-about artist of his generation - became the centre of Brit Art in the 1990s, notorious for his sharks and sheep, suspended forever in formaldehyde, so perhaps it comes as no surprise that he is an avid collector of taxidermy.

Ceramicist Edmund de Waal - whose family memoir The Hare With The Golden Eyes was a major bestseller a couple of years back - collects netsuke, exquisite miniature Japanese sculptures, while Howard Hodgkin’s glorious paintings in brilliant colour are collected and shown internationally, but perhaps he is less well known for his important collection of jewel-like Indian miniature paintings.

Sugimoto first met Robert and Lisa Sainsbury (the benefactors whose collection forms the core of the Sainsbury Centre) when they bought works from Japan from his gallery in New York, works that are currently on show in the centre. Sugimoto is now an internationally acclaimed artist working with photography. A career as a dealer of antiquities led to personal acquisitions, and his intriguing collection includes early medical illustrations and glass eyes.

Other individual collections on display include: African art and samurai armour owned by Arman; Sol LeWitt’s Japanese prints, modernist photographs and music scores; 20th-century British postcards and Soviet space dog memorabilia from Martin Parr, and more than 1,000 vintage scarves and other textiles by the American designer Vera Neumann from Pae White.

Visitors to the exhibition will also be invited to share their collections to create an interactive display that will form part of the exhibition.

The show has already been a hit at The Barbican in London, and hopes are high that its only East Anglian appearance will be just as sucessful.◆

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector opens at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts on September 12 and runs to January 24 next year. The show is curated and organised by Barbican Centre, London. Admission is £12, concessions £10.50;

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