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Artist: Unknown - a new exhibition at Kettle's Yard


By Alex Spencer


As any avid viewer of the TV show Fake or Fortune knows, a famous signature on a work of art or evidence it was painted by a sought-after artist can mean the difference of millions of pounds in value.

Curators Eliza Spindel and Andrew Nairne at the Artist:Unknown exhibition at Kettle's Yard
Curators Eliza Spindel and Andrew Nairne at the Artist:Unknown exhibition at Kettle's Yard

Whether in a museum or at auction, the way we look at art has revolved around the cult of the individual. But what happens when we don’t know who made something?

Now a new exhibition at Kettle’s Yard is asking whether beautiful objects or artworks can be appreciated and valued without knowing the name of their creator and has drawn together a collection from the University of Cambridge’s museums where the artist is unknown.

Director if Kettle’s Yard, Andrew Nairne, said: “Of course we could have a done an exhibition on the masterpieces of the University of Cambridge museums but, in a way those are on show all the time. What’s interesting is a lot of these works are a little bit hidden and obscured.

“We realised that the university’s collections have many objects where we don’t know who the artist is and in some cases that might seem not entirely surprising because they're so old. So considering this extraordinary Roman portrait we have from the first century, it would be rather amazing if we did know the name of the artist. On the other hand this 17th century rather swish self portrait by a Dutch or Flemish artist where it feels rather strange not to know who the artist is as the face stares out at us. It is the artist unknown painting himself.”

Miniature. Krishna and Radha walking by the Jumna by moonlight after having exchanged clothes. Unknown, Kangra School. Bodycolour including white, pen and ink with gold, drawn within decorative border, on paper, height 177 mm, width 124 mm, circa 1820. (13522445)
Miniature. Krishna and Radha walking by the Jumna by moonlight after having exchanged clothes. Unknown, Kangra School. Bodycolour including white, pen and ink with gold, drawn within decorative border, on paper, height 177 mm, width 124 mm, circa 1820. (13522445)

The exhibition will unite objects dating from antiquity to the 20th century, originating from five continents, all of which have been catalogued as ‘artist unknown’.

Combining paintings, drawings and ceramics with wood carvings, scientific instruments, taxidermy and scrimshaw, the exhibition will invite the visitor to think about who should be considered an artist.

Andrew Nairne said: “If you take away the usual obsession with who the artist is and the biography of the artist and what we know and what does that mean. Does that leave you with nothing or by taking one lens of interpretation away do other lenses come into focus.

“It also challenges ideas about what is art and who is an artist. For instance, we have three beautiful samplers from the Fitzwilliam made by anonymous young women that are astonishing. Are we saying they are not art, just craft?

"Jim Ede, who created Kettle's Yard, put no labels in the house so what he is saying to us is look at the work first before worrying about who the artist is.

“By not knowing who the artist is, whose history and other works we might know where does that leave us? Can we still value them and the case we are making is they are absolutely worthy of attention”

Curator Eliza Spindel at the Artist:Unknown exhibition at Kettle's Yard
Curator Eliza Spindel at the Artist:Unknown exhibition at Kettle's Yard

Visitors will see more than thirty objects loaned from thirteen museums and collections in the University of Cambridge, including the Fitzwilliam Museum, Scott Polar Research Institute, Whipple Museum of the History of Science and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, alongside objects from Kettle’s Yard’s own collection.

The objects on display include a Dutch still life of flowers that Andrew describes as having ‘wonderful presence’, as well as paintings made by Indian artists as souveneirs for workers of the East India company, and a selection of forgeries of 16th century scientific instruments bought by the founder of the Whipple Museum, now revealed to have been made in the 1920s.

Carving on tooth. Universty of Cambridge SPRI (13522452)
Carving on tooth. Universty of Cambridge SPRI (13522452)

Andrew said: “We have not chosen third rate dusty things in corners where it is entirely obvious why the artist is unknown. We are deliberately giving you beautiful, compelling objects which underline the surprise that we don't know the person who made it. That then asks the viewer if it matters when we can tell you a lot of other things about the object that give it meaning. And use your eyes, just look before anything else.”

ARTIST: UNKNOWN Art and Artefacts from the University of Cambridge Museums and Collections. July 9 to September 22. Visit kettlesyard.co.uk.



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