New Places: The Labours of Herakles @ Leeds City Museum & Japanese Sculpture @ the Henry Moore Institute
This being a particularly cold and icy January, it has felt harder than usual to get to new places in the last week. Happily, the familiar environments of Leeds City Museum and the nearby Henry Moore Institute are both currently presenting exhibitions which, at least mentally, transported me to other surroundings.
The Labours of Herakles is a show of work by the artist Marian Maguire. It re-imagines the Ancient Greek hero Herakles (more popularly known as Hercules) as a European colonist in 19th century New Zealand. Maguire’s lithographs emulate the style of Greek pottery, to show Herakles trying – not always successfully – to complete the twelve labours necessary to establish himself in this new land. There is a strong vain of wry humour running through the show. For example, one piece shows him abandoned by the goddess Athena in his attempt to oppose votes for women. Other works are darker, reminding us that man’s destruction of the environment is nothing new. Most haunting of all, one lithograph shows Herakles, a Maori and a British officer preparing to go into battle at Gallipoli in 1915.
This is a great show. Maguire’s work is both visually striking and thought provoking. She successfully brings together imagery drawn from two very distinct cultures and times to create something new and, in its themes of encounter between different peoples and the impact of man’s strivings for achievement on the natural world, very relevant to today. It avoids feeling preachy or over worthy, instead letting the audience make up their own mind about Herakles’ labours. As hero, he is thoroughly debunked by the end, yet the character becomes oddly sympathetic. It’s not that easy to be a hero and history won’t always be written how you hoped it would.
Alongside Maguire’s work, the Museum presents several examples of Maori artefacts, Greek pottery and 19th century paintings she has referenced. These compliment the art very well, helping to provide additional context to the story. Part of the show’s success lays in the way it blurs the line between the historic and the fictional. Indeed, it would be just as at home in a gallery as it is here.
Leeds City Museum
Meanwhile, at the Henry Moore Institute, a one room exhibition of Japanese sculpture has just opened. This focuses on works from 1912 – 1940. All of the pieces are small scale and draw on nature for inspiration. These are really quite beautiful, full of life and charm. Particularly outstanding for me were the two birds who seem on the verge of flying away together and the rather alien looking spiny red lobster. It’s a shame that the show couldn’t be bigger and it does feel rather hidden away, especially as these pieces haven’t been seen outside of Japan before. All the same, it was a welcome opportunity to see some non-European sculpture.
Henry Moore Institute
Art Galleries and Museums outside of London are sometimes unfairly accused of provincialism. Both these shows demonstrate how far from the truth that accusation is.