Art and culture in Liverpool are driving the city’s creative renaissance in spite of UNESCO’s recent decision to strip it of World Heritage Status. Don McCullin’s exhibition of photography at Liverpool Tate could not be better timed. His collection of simply framed black-and-white photographs perfectly expresses the port’s past and vibrant regeneration. The loss of a mere title will not stop Liverpool’s remarkable resurgence.
Primarily celebrated for his painful work as a war photographer, McCullin was drawn to photograph Britain’s urban decay in the 1970s. A quarter of a century on from the Second World War, bleak bomb sites remained. Derelict factories decayed. Children played amongst puddles and rubble. The backdrop of Liverpool’s once mighty dockyards emptied of men were the inspiration for Alan Bleasedale’s Yosser “Gizza job” Hughes in Boys from the Blackstuff.
Born in bombed out Finsbury Park, McCullin knew poverty intimately. In his early days as a photographer money was so tight that he took his camera to the pawnbroker. McCullin’s desolate scenes were Liverpool and Britain at rock bottom.
Tate Liverpool, housed in a perfectly restored Grade 1 listed former warehouse was part of the regeneration of a run-down waterfront. Now, this magnificent red-bricked collection of warehouses is home to some of the largest collections of art outside London.
Currently, the McCullin exhibition at the Tate, also recalls his role as a witness to the bloodiest and most brutal conflicts of the second half of the 20th century. It is a litany of horror: the Congo, Vietnam, Biafra, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and Iraq. A catalogue of death and despair. Has any other man witnessed so much suffering?
A northern powerhouse of culture, Tate Liverpool currently also exhibits the work of Lucian Freud, whose detailed realism took portrait painting to new heights. The exhibition also chronicles Freud’s developing relationships with his favourite models.
Amongst the Tate’s free exhibitions there is a highly topical selection of bold, colourful portraits from New York painter Alisa Nisenbaum. She recorded the heroic efforts of NHS Merseyside staff as they battled against the COVID 19 pandemic.
Also housed in a restored warehouse is The International Slavery Museum. Entry is free as the museum is sponsored by a number of charities and organisations. Displays present the horror of the enslavement of Africans and the barbaric Middle Passage as they were taken across the Atlantic to work on the plantations of Caribbean islands. The museum’s continues the narrative to visions of contemporary slavery.
Remember, that as Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet battled for their lives, three words appear behind them as the ship sunk, “The Titanic Liverpool.” Another floor of the museum tells the story of the ship’s construction and life on board the “unsinkable” ship until it struck that iceberg.
These warehouses, carefully restored for museums, restaurants and shops, alongside the neo-classical splendour of the Three Graces – the early twentieth century grand buildings housing headquarters for Cunard, Port of Liverpool and the Royal Liver – encouraged UNESCO to award World Heritage status in 2004.
Increasingly, UNESCO had felt uneasy about the modernist tendencies of Liverpool’s developing skyline. Liverpool Museum looks like a giant white door wedge housing a television screen. While the shiny black triangles of the Mann Island building, a monolith that might make a remake of 2001: A Space Odyssey, also raised eyebrows. Ultimately, it was the plans for a waterside stadium for Everton Football Club which seemed to be the final straw for UNESCO.
Consequently, 13 out of 20 UNESCO delegates, in a secret ballot, voted for Liverpool to lose its status. Becoming only the third site, after Oman’s Arabian Oryx Sanctuary and Germany’s Dresden Elbe Valley to suffer such an indignity.
Although there are fears that the decision will damage tourism, 67 million visitors bringing in nearly £5 billion in 2019, this is a resilient city and thriving art and culture in Liverpool point to a confident future even without UNESCO’s nod of approval.
The people at Merseymade, a creative hub for Liverpool’s artists and makers, speak for many when they express their determination that Liverpool will continue to thrive. Located on the edge of Albert Docks, in an elegant building that once housed The Gordon Smith Institute for Seamen, artists in 10 studios chat to visitors as they work. Amongst the art, cards, chocolate, clothing, gin and gifts there is a strong belief that Liverpool, a former European Capital of Culture, will now have the freedom to develop, to look to the future, as it chooses.
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