'What the Artist Saw', New Walk Museum's Joe Orton Exhibition | Leicester


This post is rather new for me as I've never reviewed a museum exhibit before, and it's not something I read much of either. However, as a history student passionate about the importance of public history, I figured that my blog would be the perfect place to talk about museums and other heritage hotspots in my ever ongoing (albeit sporadic) efforts to get people engaged in the past.

What the Artist Saw marks the 50th anniversary of Joe Orton's murder at the hands of his partner, Kenneth Halliwell. However, the exhibition does not focus on his death but rather, more positively, upon his work's cultural impact. Orton was a Leicester playwright of working-class origins, whose work helped to subvert both the classist and homophobic status quo of 1960s Britain. He was also the inspiration for many socially-conscious art pieces which make up the bulk of this exhibition.

Be under no illusion that this is a particularly large exhibition. It takes up a small room off to the side of the New Walk Museum's main art gallery, making the walk to it through a room of paintings from around the nineteenth century a pleasant one. We made our way around the exhibition clockwise, which I can only assume was the way the curators intended as it poignantly leaves Orton's own artwork to the end. There is a really great sense of hometown pride in the exhibit, with artists from Leicester, or artists whose other works include Leicester heroes featuring heavily.

There was a lot of reference to Orton's working-class roots within the exhibit, appropriate to the class commentary of much of his work. The curators did a brilliant job of using Orton's posthumous legacy to bridge the gap between his world of the 1960s and our twenty-first century. This served as a much-needed reminder that despite the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967 (shortly after Orton's death) and the attempted progress towards narrowing class inequality, we still have far to come.
Before I went into this exhibition all I knew of Joe Orton were the names of two plays. I left this small side-room knowing so much more. This wonderful intertwining of literature, art and social history not only gave me a burst of local pride, but a reminder too that art (in the broadest sense of the word) has a wonderful power that can be wielded by anyone - even a young man from Leicester's humble Saffron Lane.

What the Artist Saw is running until 22nd October in Leicester's New Walk Museum. Entry to the museum and the exhibition is free. Thank you for reading!

Paris out 💃 xxx