The Vanity of Small Differences is an exhibition of six huge tapestries by Grayson Perry, which has recently opened to the public at Salisbury Cathedral. The tapestries have toured extensively over the last few years, but this is the first time they have been seen in an ecclesiastical setting. The tapestries open up an excellent opportunity for the Cathedral to create a dialogue around the subject of social class and the myriad ways in which not only economic factors but also habits and tastes differentiate human beings one from another.
“It is ten years since these tapestries were created, and in all that time we have never shown them in a venue quite as awe-inspiring as Salisbury Cathedral.” Beth Hughes, Curator
The Very Revd Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury, says: “This can be challenging. Perry asks us to see ourselves as others may see us, and he also asks us to acknowledge the ways in which we judge others. This, I believe, is worthy of exploration in a Cathedral context. Self-questioning and self-reflection are vital disciplines in the life of faith, just as welcoming and honouring people from every walk of life is part of our vocation as a place of prayer and worship and as a place which is visited by thousands.”
Beth Hughes, Curator, Arts Council Collection, has said: “It is ten years since these tapestries were created, and in all that time we have never shown them in a venue quite as awe-inspiring as Salisbury Cathedral. Arts Council Collection has a long history of taking art to unexpected places, and we are thrilled to be able to share these bright and bold tapestries with the Cathedral’s visitors.”
References to classical art and religious painting inform the work, bringing, in some cases, a reverence to an otherwise mundane scene or adding an extra layer of meaning. Exhibiting the series in a cathedral makes such references more apparent. Additionally, tapestry is an art form the Cathedral’s early custodians would have been familiar with and was employed to bring religious stories to life and depict historical events.
JE: What factors have come into play because these tapestries are now being exhibited in a cathedral?
BH: It has been an interesting process following ten years of high-demand British Council and Arts Council tours, nationally and internationally, primarily in white cube and non-gallery spaces. The Cathedral provides a really unique context. I have studied social class in art but found my initial conversation with The Dean particularly energising in thinking differently about works I thought I knew. Is Perry poking fun or paying homage? What is it that he is saying? It was a really interesting conversation. This first tapestry series by Perry is, in part, about art history. Perry creates in-jokes and a feeling of familiarity from our recognising an element in the work through his art historical references. The context of the Cathedral mirrors this, as when these buildings were created, every detail was carefully thought through, and that includes the in-jokes.
NP: My concern was, knowing that a number of panels are titled after famous works of sacred art, I wanted to be sure that Perry’s treatment of the themes was respectful and enlarged understanding and appreciation. He’s a magpie-like figure, taking ideas and imagery from a range of sources. He goes to those archetypes and makes use of them, so wasn’t simply singling out medieval sacred art. The tapestries have never previously been shown in an ecclesiastical space, but as the original works to have inspired them were themselves inspired by places like these, showing the tapestries here seemed like an inspired move.
JE: How has the space influenced the hang?
BH: The tapestries will be in the nave – three on one side, three on the other – a bit like a comic strip. A little dog and other motifs run throughout the panels. The nave is a space for procession and movement. The tapestries will bring a vibrancy of colour to the nave, so that colour is not just in the stained glass. They will then have an effect on how people move through space. I’m interested to see the kind of selfies that people will take in the space, as those reveal what people find visually intriguing.
NP: The tapestries are made on a monumental scale which works well in a building of this size. The scale is exactly right, and the colours blend. They fit very well under the double windows. The stonework is quite muted and sets off the extraordinary bursts of colour in the tapestries. They leap off the wall at us. Hanging them has brought some lovely parallels. One cage fighter in ‘The Adoration of the Cage Fighters’ has an image on his back of the Archangel Michael casting Satan out of heaven, which sits under a window with that same image. You couldn’t make it up.
JE: These are works which have significant religious references. How will those references be highlighted by this exhibition?
BH: The exhibition will make clear the artworks that have been referenced as intermediaries. The tapestries are not about telling a bible story, however, rather they are more about art history. Is this about the grandiose nature of the way we treat past artworks or about Perry aligning his artworks with paintings from the past? In the second panel, a club singer is aligned with Grunewald’s Isenheim altarpiece. There are clear references in relation to size and shape. This layering of references shows that art doesn’t come from nowhere.
NP: The point I like to make to visitors is that Perry is using the religious references to address issues of class division and that post-Brexit, Covid, the cost-of-living crisis, and the Ukraine conflict, the issue of how united or divided we are is of more relevance than ever. Vibrant, witty, and well-observed, they are an invitation to see ourselves. That surely is one of the purposes of liturgy and worship, to look at ourselves in the light of the Gospel. Doing so is a core spiritual discipline.
JE: There is a lot going on in these works – themes of class and social mobility combined with religious and art historical references, plus references to the related TV programme. They are busy works. How do you manage all of that as a curator?
BH: For the TV series Perry went to places such as Tunbridge Wells, Sunderland, and the Cotswolds. He took lots of detailed pictures which captured details that show the affectations of human behaviour. He has then layered these small details into larger narratives about class differences. I have seen people stand side-by-side, pointing out the small points of familiarity. Perry provides people with bridges to contemporary art. He’s a maximalist artist in terms of his aesthetic, and his art works well in busy settings as they dominate. The two-metre width he used for these works was the largest digitised tapestry you could have at the time. The result is eye-catching, with characters that are close to life-size. The Cathedral is itself layered with different imagery, and the architecture is so strong and clear that the tapestries will sit well in the space.
JE: ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’ reverses the journey made in Hogarth’s ‘The Rake’s Progress’, yet the story still ends in tragedy. In what ways do you think Perry’s narrative fosters positive reflection on social mobility?
BH: It’s a moralistic tale to not be consumed by wealth and success within a materialistic frame of reference. There’s so much wealth in each of the insights we get into aspects of social class. There’s a strong level of community shown in the first panel. This is not a timebound tapestry; it points to the mother in old age and shows Tim at different ages. There is no judgement of the different social classes. Tim, however, has forgotten his roots and has left his roots behind in trying to move between all these groups. Appreciate the vibrancy of whoever your tribe might be as, in the last tapestries, Tim is not really part of the tribes of which he’s become part.
NP: In the penultimate panel, Rakewell has bought into the landed gentry and is surrounded by protestors demanding he pays his taxes. He’s forgotten where he came from and his wider societal obligations. We see that personal wealth at all costs doesn’t end well. The question the tapestries raise is what’s the basis of social mobility. Is it just the acquisition of money, and what responsibilities attach to us as members of one human community? The last panel suggests that Tim’s last word is “Mother”, so, in the end, he’s recalled to the non-negotiability of family and where you are from.
JE: These are works that have been exhibited for the past ten years? How do you keep reception of the works and the exhibition itself fresh and up-to-date?
BH: It’s about carefully considering where they are and their relationship with that environment. They can’t just be parachuted in. When they were exhibited in Coventry, we thought about Graham Sutherland’s tapestry at Coventry Cathedral and about the nature of tapestry. In Manchester, the tapestries were displayed alongside Hogarth’s prints. The context and reading of them changes, as no artwork remains static. The mother is aligned with the Virgin Mary. What does that mean in the cathedral context? The Crane as a cross is specifically pointed out in the interpretation provided here.
JE: Grayson Perry has an idiosyncratic approach to religion, although it is a surprisingly frequent theme within his work. He’s spoken, for example, of being like a holy fool making mad visions of his own personal religion, of psychoanalysis and art as making meaning, and of religion as being about people getting together. Do you think that this exhibition held in this space brings those views into dialogue with Christian belief?
BH: Those that know Grayson will know he can be a challenging artist with huge public appeal who is adept at bringing up elements of universal humanity that people can relate to. Most go to galleries in their free time, doing it for entertainment as much as anything else. As his works are saturated in humour, this provides a meeting point. People go to the Cathedral as visitors to enjoy the space, while some also go as pilgrims. Making meaning is common to art and religion. Artists, like magicians, work with the idea of something that’s not there that they bring into being. These aspects result in a great intersection with the Cathedral. These are objects that provoke thought and encourage reflection. There is a peacefulness in that combined with a working it through in your own mind as ideas from the images reverberate.
NP: Cathedrals are gathering places. They bring people together. Part of the purpose of staging exhibitions in cathedrals is to bring people together; people who wouldn’t otherwise come. So, I hope they will gather. But, by gathering in a cathedral, those who come will look at tapestries and, by hearing Evensong sung or hearing prayers on the hour, also gain a sense of a place where worship of God is paramount. Those who encounter the work here, will have to try very hard if they are not to have a different encounter as well.
JE: There was criticism in 2017 when Hereford Cathedral showed Perry’s ‘Map of Nowhere’, which was perceived to be questioning the existence of heaven and hell and which uses obscenities. Are you anticipating criticism of this exhibition being held in this space?
BH: There is a possibility for controversy, and discussion of that was part of the initial conversations. Grayson is a controversial figure with strong opinions. However, in the grand scheme of his artworks, the story and parallels here are on safer ground. Some may not want to see works by Perry in the Cathedral, others will be enchanted. It is important to have that conversation and to deepen the relationship between the Cathedral, art, and visitors. Figural and narrative work has an immediacy to it. Previous works shown at the Cathedral may have been more abstract. This work tells a story but with space for interpretation. People identify with the story. There is an appetite around the Cathedral to explore interesting themes. There is so much searching going on at the moment. People are really bruised from recent events and current challenges – they are looking for belonging and place and meaning. How can future programmes in the Cathedral speak into this and provide points of clarity and connection, moments of respite and reflection?
NP: We have been exhibiting contemporary art for more than a decade. We’re known for it. I take very seriously my responsibility for the building. There’s a body of opinion that says the building is the work of art and doesn’t need embellishment. I understand that, but, if the issue arises, I will answer in terms of the self-questioning and self-reflection in these works being vital disciplines in the life of faith.
The Vanity of Small Differences, Salisbury Cathedral 29 Jun 2022 – 25 Sep 2022
Lead image: The Very Revd Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury, walks past The Agony in the Car Park – photo by Finnbarr Webster.