Tess of the Barber Frills

Tess of the Barber Frills

Why the Barber Institute of Fine Arts is a must-visit

Come the zombie apocalypse, it should be a universally agreed condition of Brummie-ism that the unbitten fallback to the Barber Institute of Fine Arts for the final stand. Not only is it the closest thing we have to a castle, but it is, perhaps, the city's most beautiful building and demands our defence until the very last. Artist Tess Jaray agrees — about the beauty we mean, maybe not so much about the zombies. The 81-year-old's current exhibition is inspired by the Barber itself, making now a perfect time for you to pencil in an hour or two inside (and outside) the building's chunky, chiseled walls.

Quick history lesson? The Barber was set up by Martha Constance Hattie Barber in memory of her husband Henry, a loaded property developer who made his fortune building Brum's suburbs. By his mid-thirties, the couple had retired — alright for some — but when Henry died, Lady Barber (ooh-la-la, rah-rah, ah-ah-ah) decided to make a permanent contribution to the city in his memory, financing the entire concept. Which sounds like — wait for it — Good Romance to us!    

So, in December 1932, the Barber Institute of Fine Arts was founded 'for the study and encouragement of art and music.' Hence the stunning concert hall. Lady Barber died four months later, leaving all of her assets to the trustees. The money was used to acquire works of art for a collection, and to fund the construction of a new home; the absolute unit of a building we know today. In order to ensure that only tip-top artworks were bought for the Barber, Lady B stipulated that all purchases should be 'of that standard of quality as required by the National Gallery and the Wallace Collection'. So, bloody good then. 

Officially opened by Queen Mary in the summer of 1939, the Grade II, Art Deco beauty is home to major works by Manet, Monet and Magritte; Bellini, Botticelli and Brueghel; Rubens, Rossetti, Rodin and Renoir – not to mention alliteratively less helpful geniuses like Gainsborough, Turner, Degas, van Gogh and Picasso. And until May 12 it's home to Tess Jaray's exhibition From Outside.

For more than 50 years, Jaray — one of the UK’s most distinguished living artists — has been stimulated by architecture, exploring and testing spatial qualities of form and colour, pattern and shape – and translating these experiences of space into two dimensional abstractions. Like, for example, the tiled floor for Centenary Square. Yep, that's her work making way for a tramline as we speak, 17 years after it was first laid. This floor pattern from Victoria Station is also Tess's work. And now six hand-painted pieces, two years in the making are inside the Barber. Weird, wild, powerful and dizzying works, inspired by the Barber's slabby, zig-zaggy design.

The minimal, abstract compositions in shades of green, blue, buff and pink nod towards the patterned red brick and pale stone of the building's façade. This basically means that the jagged elements echo this bit of the Barber's exterior, while the impactful door-like moments in her work represent, you guessed it, the Barber's impactful door. The smaller squares, we reckon, nod to this pattern on the north side of the building

What our crude explanation doesn't do is give a sense of quite how spellbinding the exhibition is. Quite how juxtaposing the pieces feel in a gallery so synonymous with classical art — it's quite rare in fact for the Barber to display work from artists who are still alive. Jaray's foreboding, monolithic, playful pieces — as the title for the exhibition suggests — brings the outside, in. Before you take what you've seen inside, back out and, invariably do a circuit of this awe-inspiring building, mentally slotting Tess's jigsaw pieces into the walls and the gaps and the doorways.

From Outside is open until May 12, admission is free. The Barber is open until it falls to the zombie hoard, admission also free.

PICTURES: Tess Jaray: Fez Green, 2017 (green); Return, 2017 (zig-zag) © The artist, 2019, all rights reserved. Courtesy of Karsten Schubert, London.