There is no escaping the distinctive imprint of Eric Cantona on From Moss Side To Marseille.
A member at one time of The Portico Library, charismatic and poetic in a field in which the latter quality in particular is not noticeably abundant, the French citizen has taken Manchester to his heart, and has been adopted reciprocally by half of the city as its republican Roi. Certainly, it is hard to identify many other footballers who would act as patron to an artist of individualistic talent as opposed to, say, furnishing their Cheshire mansions with over-priced tat from Deansgate galleries.
If the shadow of Eric looms large, it is important not to lose sight of the artist he has commissioned, and with whom he has collaborated, to produce this new exhibition at the National Football Museum; one-themed, with varying looseness of fit, on those in sport whose willingness to speak out has seen them elevated from the back page ghettos of the nation’s daily press to the bold face headlines of their front.
Prior to this collection, the Moss Side-born Michael Browne was perhaps best known for his magnificent The Art Of The Game, a beautifully-executed piece in the style of Renaissance artist Piero Della Francesca’s The Resurrection, in which Cantona himself appears as the risen Christ, imperious despite the lack of any discernible collar to turn up on his robes, submitting himself to the adoration of his Manchester United teammates.
Deftly side-stepping kitsch, it both reveals something of the character of a player with the self-possession to conduct a post-suspension press conference with a parable, and illuminates the apostle-like truth of modern football fandom’s tendency to deify. Equally, it achieves this feat of balancing affectionate overstatement, emotional truth and something more akin to misgiving while remaining accessible to the casual eye.
Although the exhibition shies away from spelling it out, the outlines of Browne’s biography, so far as they are on record, mark him out as comparable to many of those he and Cantona have chosen to depict. Raised by a single mother, who had additional problems with alcohol, he was taken in for a time by his art teacher before going on to study at Chelsea School of Art and graduating with a Master’s degree from Manchester Metropolitan University. Following a spell in Italy, the site of a pilgrimage to study Renaissance art at first hand, he spent time in homeless accommodation after a number of promised commissions defaulted on their payment.
This, then, is where his own art departs most markedly from the works it has been inspired by. Rather than, as in their case, being commissioned by the wealthy to flaunt their self-importance, these are pieces that speak in the main for those who such patrons would have derived their wealth from, those unable to command a canvas to paint them in the most favourable light. Importantly, the works seem to be the result of genuine collaboration, each painting captioned by the dialogue between Browne and Cantona, like passes exchanged while homing in on goal.
Perhaps the most evocative among their number derive their potency from the symbolic power of a small gesture made on a larger stage, whether it be a raised, gloved hand on an Olympic podium or a handshake withheld from an autocrat. While better-known figures are illustrated, among them Maradona and Muhammad Ali, it is the piece narrating the story of Carlos Caszely, the footballer who refused the hand of Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, that settles with a chill in one’s bones, not least with the realisation that, under his regime, the national stadium was also a place where executions took place. Sensitively composed, with Caszely and his mother, who was arrested and tortured by the Government, front and centre, parent and son are nevertheless diminished in stature by the figures representing the Cold War blocs of that time, even as behind them the victims of the dictatorship are sentenced to death by a complicit justice system.
It’s not at all the kind of work you’d expect to see on display in the National Football Museum, being more imaginable in its former incarnation as Urbis, and it’s to the museum’s credit, as well as that of Browne and Cantona, that it has extended an invitation to those for whom football stadia may be more familiar territory than the art galleries which open their eyes to it.
Like Cantona himself, it’s populist, yet admirable in its refusal to compromise.
Main photo by Nathan Chandler
From Moss Side To Marseille: The Art of Michael Browne and Eric Cantona is available for the public to view until June 1, 2023. For more information regarding ticket prices, please click here.