Our Gallery Assistant Lauren has been exploring the Art Collection for translations, inspired by our upcoming exhibition:
Recently installed and opening to the public soon, The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery’s latest exhibition ‘Look Again: Leeds Fine Artists’ invites visitors to explore favourites from the collection from a new perspective. The exhibition pairs together highlights from the University Art Collection, including works by Vanessa Bell, Ivon Hitchens and Anthony Gross, with specially created artworks from the Leeds Fine Artists group. These new works take the collection as inspiration, with each artist responding to a different artwork and translating their chosen piece into their own media and format. The resulting exhibition is a stunning showcase of creative responses and diverse interpretations, encompassing a broad range of themes, subjects, and styles.
Comparing the artworks from our collection to the works by the Leeds Fine Artists highlights qualities that I’d never noticed before. While some of the translations have a strong resemblance to the original work and hence encourage a closer look at the details which differ, somewhat like a spot-the-difference, others bear no immediate likeness whatsoever. A painting is paired with a handmade book, a portrait with a triptych, and a colourful landscape with minimalist abstracted mark-making. These juxtapositions focus instead upon the colour palette, the brush strokes, or the mood of the reference work and, in exploring what the artists have chosen to maintain, omit, and alter, a dialogue emerges between the two. Appreciated side by side, each of the pairings in the exhibition open up the very process of looking; as if discovering the works all over again.
Following my initial wander around the new exhibition, I thought I’d take a closer look at the translations we hold in the University Art Collection. Having never really considered these in relation to the works which inspired them, I was quite curious what new impressions might emerge from the comparisons. But first, let’s define what I was looking for.
Translation in the visual arts has a long history spanning many centuries. Distinct from artists directly copying the work of another, a technique often used in art school for practicing draughtsmanship, translations can be better understood as recreations, adaptations, or transformations of a work of art. This might be achieved through a change in medium, altering the composition, or reinterpreting the original work in a new style, with the intention of creatively capturing the essence of the reference artwork rather than merely reproducing it. You might have seen the lockdown trend of recreating famous paintings using household objects – these are examples of translations.
Based on this criteria, my search revealed that the University of Leeds Art Collection contains some 70 translations, taking inspiration from a variety of well-known artists including Turner, Velazquez, Constable, Corot, Millet, Daubigny and others. The majority of these works are translations of paintings into etchings.
Originating in the 15th century, etching revolutionised both the production and dissemination of artworks. Allowing for far finer and more detailed prints than the woodcuts that preceded it, etching was quickly adopted by artists as a highly versatile new technique. As well as creating new artworks, many artists made use of etching as a relatively quick and affordable way of translating paintings into prints that could be easily transported, scaled, and multiplied.
Among the translated paintings in our collection is David Lucas’ intricate etching ‘Summer Evening, after Constable’. A quick Google search of Constable’s ‘Summer Evening’, and the incredible skill of Lucas’ draughtsmanship is made apparent; despite the change of medium, the etching beautifully captures Constable’s pastoral scene. Perhaps what I find most impressive is how Lucas translates the soft glow of the light and the painterly texture of the brushstrokes into a flat, black and white image, without losing any of the atmosphere of a warm summer’s eve. I hadn’t considered how the graphic linework of etching could evoke softness before.
While we don’t have any direct comparisons of translations and their counterparts within the collection, I did find some interesting examples of visual parallels between our translations and other artworks in our collection by the artist being referenced. Looking at William Brassey Hole’s mezzotint engraving of ‘The Boar that killed Adonis brought before Venus, after Westall’ beside Richard Westall’s ‘Leda and the Swan’, there are clear similarities in composition and style. Particularly I noticed how the red fabric surrounding Venus mimics the framing of the tree around Leda. William Brassey Holes’ ‘Mill on the Yare, after Crome’ and John Bernay Crome’s ‘Fishing by Moonlight at Sanderdorf’ also share elements of composition, as well as similar subject-matter. Despite the different media, both works capture the dramatic effect of light and shadow.
In contrast to prints produced from paintings, Vanessa Bell’s translations offer a different take on the artworks she takes inspiration from. The University Art Collection contains three portraits by Bell which have been translated from oil paintings dating from the 1600s. Rather than attempting to replicate the style of Baroque masters Rembrandt and Velazquez, Bell’s portraits have a looser, sketch-like quality. The use of brighter colours and visible brushstrokes gives the paintings a modern twist, and brings greater movement and life to the sitters. While the pose and expression of the figures is unaltered, the overall mood of the works has shifted.
I hope this whistle-stop tour of translations in the University Art Collection has been interesting, and perhaps encouraged you to look again at some of these artworks. Next time you come across a work that credits inspiration from another artist, do a little comparison of your own and see what the dialogue between the works reveals.
‘Look Again: Leeds Fine Artists’ will be opening soon at The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery. For all the latest news, sign up to the Galleries e-newsletter or follow us on social media @LULGalleries.
Leeds Fine Artists are an association of artists from across Yorkshire. The group was established in 1874, making it one of the oldest regional arts organisations in the UK. From its beginnings in Leeds, the association has spread throughout Yorkshire and is now one of the most prestigious arts organisations in the North of England. Leeds Fine Artists currently has over fifty exhibiting members, working in two and three dimensions in a wide variety of media, who exhibit work widely in group exhibitions and individually, both locally and internationally. The Leeds Fine Artists seek to encourage and promote art and artists throughout the region, as well as promoting excellence in the visual arts through education.