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Art

Ooh, Art, Cantona

Manchester United legend Eric Cantona and artist Michael Browne make a formidable front two, as you can see from the fruits of their prolific partnership at the National Football Museum

WORDS Dan Poole | PHOTOGRAPHY Nathan Chandler

To start, an excerpt of a chant taken straight from the Old Trafford terraces (for context, it needs to be sung to the tune of 1968 song Lily the Pink – the verse, specifically – by The Scaffold): “Eric is so cool, remarkably cultured, he likes good music and poetry too. Performing the fine arts on the field for the boys they call Man U.”

This hasn’t been included as a mere bagatelle: it’s the ‘fine arts’ bit that we’re most interested in. For yes, while the Eric in question – Monsieur Cantona, no less – painted the prettiest of pictures on the pitch, his passions also extend to creative endeavours off it. And that brings us to this here exhibition at the National Football Museum.

But an action replay first. In 1994, artist Michael Browne first caught the eye when he unveiled his replica of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling at a restaurant in his home city of Manchester. But it was another work inspired by the Renaissance, The Art of the Game, that really set tongues wagging, thanks to its depiction of the Frenchman as Jesus Christ.

The Art of the Game (1997) (above); Muhammad Ali Freedom Without a Crown (2018) (top right); Michael Browne with Eric Cantona and Sir Alex Ferguson at the launch (right)

“It was the first time I’d combined art and football in my work,” says Browne. “As a United fan who’d watched Eric’s kung-fu kick and subsequent return to the team after his ban, it occurred to me that he was the perfect figure for a Renaissance piece. It also meant I could include experiences from my own life, rather than figures like Jesus when nobody actually knows what he looked like.”

The hero of the piece was certainly an admirer: he came to see Browne working on the painting and bought it before it was even finished. The two have stayed in touch ever since – including a recent(ish) and poignantly productive catch-up over a drink.

“We met up back in 2017, at the Lowry Theatre at Salford Quays, and he told me about this idea he had for an exhibition,” says Browne. “So we’ve actually been working on it in secret for the past six years. Eric gave me the names of the athletes he wanted to include, who have all been responsible for great social change.”

Browne adds that Cantona has helped his career “when I’ve needed a boost”, which was never more true than in this instance. Browne moved to Italy for two-and-a-half years to imbue himself in the culture of the country, inspired by the legacy of the likes of Raphael, Botticelli and Donatello. However, struggling to progress his career out there he returned to Manchester, where he soon found himself homeless. As he tried to get back on track, he managed to set up a studio – and then along came Eric.

“The athletes Eric chose have all been responsible for great social change”

Browne has made reference to this period of his life in one of the paintings in this exhibition: England and Brazil Real-estate and Human Rights. The heroes of the piece are Viv Anderson and Socrates, stood side by side, defiant. But just below them, looking lost and alone, tired and hungry, sprawled on a set of stone steps? Browne himself.

From Moss Side to Marseille is a triumph for Browne on any number of levels. It features massive paintings depicting huge characters: Muhammad Ali, Jesse Owens, Wilma Rudolph, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, to name a few. Footballers too, of course, including Diego Maradona, Brian Clough, David Beckham and Phil Neville and, naturally Cantona himself.

Browne gives some backstory to the logistics behind the show. “I’ve got a small studio in Chapel Street, near the National Football Museum,” he explains. “Because it was all top secret, the paintings had to stay in my studio; I had to stack them up, so I was running out of room to paint! Some of them were so big that it was impossible to fit them through the door; we ended up having these massive tubes made to get them out, then we had to reconstruct them all at the museum and get them into their frames. The museum has done a remarkable job in staging an exhibition like this.”

Browne isn’t done with paintings of Manchester United footballers: he tells us he was thinking of producing a Marcus Rashford work even before the striker started his inspiring projects off the pitch. Whoever his next subject is, the object will be the same: performing those fine arts.

To start, an excerpt of a chant taken straight from the Old Trafford terraces (for context, it needs to be sung to the tune of 1968 song Lily the Pink – the verse, specifically – by The Scaffold): “Eric is so cool, remarkably cultured, he likes good music and poetry too. Performing the fine arts on the field for the boys they call Man U.”

This hasn’t been included as a mere bagatelle: it’s the ‘fine arts’ bit that we’re most interested in. For yes, while the Eric in question – Monsieur Cantona, no less – painted the prettiest of pictures on the pitch, his passions also extend to creative endeavours off it. And that brings us to this here exhibition at the National Football Museum.

But an action replay first. In 1994, artist Michael Browne first caught the eye when he unveiled his replica of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling at a restaurant in his home city of Manchester. But it was another work inspired by the Renaissance, The Art of the Game, that really set tongues wagging, thanks to its depiction of the Frenchman as Jesus Christ.

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The Art of the Game (1997) (above); Muhammad Ali Freedom Without a Crown (2018) (top right); Michael Browne with Eric Cantona and Sir Alex Ferguson at the launch (right)

“It was the first time I’d combined art and football in my work,” says Browne. “As a United fan who’d watched Eric’s kung-fu kick and subsequent return to the team after his ban, it occurred to me that he was the perfect figure for a Renaissance piece. It also meant I could include experiences from my own life, rather than figures like Jesus when nobody actually knows what he looked like.”

The hero of the piece was certainly an admirer: he came to see Browne working on the painting and bought it before it was even finished. The two have stayed in touch ever since – including a recent(ish) and poignantly productive catch-up over a drink.

“We met up back in 2017, at the Lowry Theatre at Salford Quays, and he told me about this idea he had for an exhibition,” says Browne. “So we’ve actually been working on it in secret for the past six years. Eric gave me the names of the athletes he wanted to include, who have all been responsible for great social change.”

Browne adds that Cantona has helped his career “when I’ve needed a boost”, which was never more true than in this instance. Browne moved to Italy for two-and-a-half years to imbue himself in the culture of the country, inspired by the legacy of the likes of Raphael, Botticelli and Donatello. However, struggling to progress his career out there he returned to Manchester, where he soon found himself homeless. As he tried to get back on track, he managed to set up a studio – and then along came Eric.

“The athletes Eric chose have all been responsible for great social change”

Browne has made reference to this period of his life in one of the paintings in this exhibition: England and Brazil Real-estate and Human Rights. The heroes of the piece are Viv Anderson and Socrates, stood side by side, defiant. But just below them, looking lost and alone, tired and hungry, sprawled on a set of stone steps? Browne himself.

From Moss Side to Marseille is a triumph for Browne on any number of levels. It features massive paintings depicting huge characters: Muhammad Ali, Jesse Owens, Wilma Rudolph, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, to name a few. Footballers too, of course, including Diego Maradona, Brian Clough, David Beckham and Phil Neville and, naturally Cantona himself.

Browne gives some backstory to the logistics behind the show. “I’ve got a small studio in Chapel Street, near the National Football Museum,” he explains. “Because it was all top secret, the paintings had to stay in my studio; I had to stack them up, so I was running out of room to paint! Some of them were so big that it was impossible to fit them through the door; we ended up having these massive tubes made to get them out, then we had to reconstruct them all at the museum and get them into their frames. The museum has done a remarkable job in staging an exhibition like this.”

Browne isn’t done with paintings of Manchester United footballers: he tells us he was thinking of producing a Marcus Rashford work even before the striker started his inspiring projects off the pitch. Whoever his next subject is, the object will be the same: performing those fine arts.

To start, an excerpt of a chant taken straight from the Old Trafford terraces (for context, it needs to be sung to the tune of 1968 song Lily the Pink – the verse, specifically – by The Scaffold): “Eric is so cool, remarkably cultured, he likes good music and poetry too. Performing the fine arts on the field for the boys they call Man U.”

This hasn’t been included as a mere bagatelle: it’s the ‘fine arts’ bit that we’re most interested in. For yes, while the Eric in question – Monsieur Cantona, no less – painted the prettiest of pictures on the pitch, his passions also extend to creative endeavours off it. And that brings us to this here exhibition at the National Football Museum.

But an action replay first. In 1994, artist Michael Browne first caught the eye when he unveiled his replica of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling at a restaurant in his home city of Manchester. But it was another work inspired by the Renaissance, The Art of the Game, that really set tongues wagging, thanks to its depiction of the Frenchman as Jesus Christ.

The Art of the Game (1997) (above); Muhammad Ali Freedom Without a Crown (2018) (top right); Michael Browne with Eric Cantona and Sir Alex Ferguson at the launch (right)

“It was the first time I’d combined art and football in my work,” says Browne. “As a United fan who’d watched Eric’s kung-fu kick and subsequent return to the team after his ban, it occurred to me that he was the perfect figure for a Renaissance piece. It also meant I could include experiences from my own life, rather than figures like Jesus when nobody actually knows what he looked like.”

The hero of the piece was certainly an admirer: he came to see Browne working on the painting and bought it before it was even finished. The two have stayed in touch ever since – including a recent(ish) and poignantly productive catch-up over a drink.

“We met up back in 2017, at the Lowry Theatre at Salford Quays, and he told me about this idea he had for an exhibition,” says Browne. “So we’ve actually been working on it in secret for the past six years. Eric gave me the names of the athletes he wanted to include, who have all been responsible for great social change.”

Browne adds that Cantona has helped his career “when I’ve needed a boost”, which was never more true than in this instance. Browne moved to Italy for two-and-a-half years to imbue himself in the culture of the country, inspired by the legacy of the likes of Raphael, Botticelli and Donatello. However, struggling to progress his career out there he returned to Manchester, where he soon found himself homeless. As he tried to get back on track, he managed to set up a studio – and then along came Eric.

“The athletes Eric chose have all been responsible for great social change”

Browne has made reference to this period of his life in one of the paintings in this exhibition: England and Brazil Real-estate and Human Rights. The heroes of the piece are Viv Anderson and Socrates, stood side by side, defiant. But just below them, looking lost and alone, tired and hungry, sprawled on a set of stone steps? Browne himself.

From Moss Side to Marseille is a triumph for Browne on any number of levels. It features massive paintings depicting huge characters: Muhammad Ali, Jesse Owens, Wilma Rudolph, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, to name a few. Footballers too, of course, including Diego Maradona, Brian Clough, David Beckham and Phil Neville and, naturally Cantona himself.

Browne gives some backstory to the logistics behind the show. “I’ve got a small studio in Chapel Street, near the National Football Museum,” he explains. “Because it was all top secret, the paintings had to stay in my studio; I had to stack them up, so I was running out of room to paint! Some of them were so big that it was impossible to fit them through the door; we ended up having these massive tubes made to get them out, then we had to reconstruct them all at the museum and get them into their frames. The museum has done a remarkable job in staging an exhibition like this.”

Browne isn’t done with paintings of Manchester United footballers: he tells us he was thinking of producing a Marcus Rashford work even before the striker started his inspiring projects off the pitch. Whoever his next subject is, the object will be the same: performing those fine arts.

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