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Exhibition: The Lost World Of Norman Cornish

MIKE QUILLE is impressed and moved by an artist who recorded magnificently the world he belonged to

The Lost World Of Norman Cornish

University Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

5 Stars

In his recent Reith lecture, artist Grayson Perry explained how the art world is dominated by small cliques of curators, collectors, critics and gallery owners.

Between them they agree what is and is not "good" art and what will and will not be promoted, purchased and exhibited in the big public galleries for we ordinary mortals to see.

This metropolitan, elitist consensus has traditionally ignored or marginalised art about industrial working-class life in the north. As Christine Lindey recently pointed out in this paper, it happened to LS Lowry for many years and it's still happening to the art of Norman Cornish.

The fact that such art is lost from public view and excluded from the mainstream discourse of the art world gives an ironic resonance to the current exhibition of Norman Cornish's work at Newcastle's University Gallery.

For too long Cornish, a pitman as well as a painter for most of his working life, has been seen as too parochial, sentimental and superficial to qualify as a good artist. And while it is true that some of his paintings of street life are unexceptional, nostalgic and frankly as commercial as a Christmas card, there are other much more important and complex images in this exhibition.

The "pub" pictures are very well observed drawings and paintings, with tremendous evocation through shape and line of character and atmosphere, of individuals and social groups. Cornish's technique of applying thin layers of oil glaze to a white background allows an inner light to shine through these paintings, which unifies and warms the images of workers in relaxed and convivial relationships, bringing out a strong sense of class solidarity, comradeship and warmth.

Where Lowry the rent collector observed and expressed well the alienation, poverty and hardship of the industrial working class, Cornish the pitman paints from within, not outside, his class.

Unlike many of Lowry's paintings, there is no sense of distance or coldness between the subjects in Cornish's paintings or between the artist and the subjects.

The "miners on the pit road" series of paintings dispel the mainstream myth that Cornish idealises and romanticises working class life. Hunched, stooped colliers make their way up narrow winding lanes to the dark and oppressive shapes of the pit-head gear.

They struggle along in a kind of Calvary scene, beneath the oppressive tracery of telegraph wires and the numerous crosses formed by telegraph poles, looming out of the dark skies. One rarely seen image of a miner crucified on a telegraph pole is particularly striking.

When Cornish signed up as a 14-year-old at the local pit, he was told he was signing his death warrant. Thus he had no illusions about the suffering involved in the industry but all his characters, whether at work or play, never lose their humanity or dignity.

In the drawings, more realist, there are many superb images of men, sketched quickly in pubs.

But the most honest and evocative images are of women, particularly of his mother and wife. That of his mother is the best image in the whole exhibition, comparable to Rembrandt in its sympathetic tenderness and psychological acuteness.

Aproned, exhausted but resilient, her weariness and warmth both comfort and reproach the viewer. This, you feel Cornish saying, is the basic emotional truth of life in industrial working-class communities.

The exhibition is recommended precisely because of the different, almost contradictory strands to Cornish's art.

There is a range of reactions to the world around him, an ambivalent mixture of appreciation of its wit and warmth and sometimes its visionary beauty, alongside a sharp awareness of suffering, hardship and political oppression.

Sometimes, those reactions verge on the naive and sentimental, giving a sense of mere reflections and perhaps even exploitative in themselves of a certain popular nostalgia for an idealised past.

But the harmonies of colour and composition and the way figures, faces and relationships are depicted and the way strong lines and shapes are made, linked and rounded provide a searching but ultimately warm and unifying sense of compassion expressed and engendered between artist, subjects and viewer.

Cornish has captured this compassion on paper and canvas and it means that some of the essential qualities of the "lost world" of industrial working-class life in the north are not lost at all but are preserved forever, not only as a memorial but as an example and inspiration to us all in the here and now.

Runs until January 31. Free. Opening times: www.northumbria.ac.uk/universitygallery

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