Just looking: Bellini and the East at the National Gallery

Last December I tried to write a review of the Royal Academy’s Turks exhibition. I didn’t succeed.

At the time I blamed this on the fact that Turks was, in some ways, such a richly annoying experience. On the day I visited, the rooms were so tightly packed with jostling pre-Christmas hordes, locked in all-absorbing battles with truculent audio-guides, that it proved impossible even to glimpse the more popular exhibits, let alone figure out what they were, or, indeed, why they were so popular. By way of consolation, I had only the 500-page, £50 catalogue to help clear up any minor questions once I’d fought my way free of the crowds and made my way home. And as for those perennial lurking doubts about the wisdom of serving up as a melange of art, education and entertainment a series of artefacts originally intended as something else altogether, much worried over on here — well, Turks did nothing to dispel them.

But with hindsight, there may have been more to my failure than a cocktail of misanthropy, laziness and the unweildy nature of that catalogue. If I’d actually written my review of Turks, I’d have noted that this was far less a conventionally didactic exhibition, or even a theatrical and crowd-pleasing one, than an exercise in the most naked and unabashed PR. Put simply, Turks showed every sign of displaying its artefacts solely in order to make a particular series of points: that the Turks are really very much like us (by which I mean cosmopolitan, reflexively liberal, apparently secularised Europeans), that Turkish culture has always been very similar to our own, and that, in short, whatever else the Turkish people may got up to over the past millennium or so, there is no reason to assume that they are necessarily scary Muslim fanatics, subsidy-hungry Third Worlders, or the sort of uncultured barbarians who might, within living memory, have had some serious problems regarding human rights, military coups and organised crime, not even to start to mention Armenia or Cyprus.

Turkish delight
Simplicity invariably requires hard work. Doubtless the presentation of such a streamlined, soothing picture involved a fair bit of editing, excision and ornamentation on the part of the exhibition’s curators. While items from halfway across the world were included — in part, I suppose, because they constitute some of the jewels of the collection of the Topkapi Saray Museum, which loaned generously for this show — explanation of the selection criteria was vague, if only because the alternative might have meant playing up the theme of far-side-of-the-Bosphorous ‘otherness’ at the expense of pan-European inclusion. So conflict and conquest were played down. Religion, certainly, was played down, except where it was polytheistic, syncretic or very, very tolerant. And where there was, unavoidably, a bit of difference, it was aestheticised as exotic and beautiful, rather than politicised as divisive and dangerous. At the same time, congruences between the court culture of East and West — of which there are, admittedly, many — were very much played up. Medieval Turks? Medieval Europe? What’s the difference?

No, the message could hardly have been more obvious had someone got round to putting it up in lights on the façade of Burlington House. The Turks, having been so very much like the rest of us for so very long, will make entirely proper and unexceptionable European Union partners.

Eastern promise
All of which may be perfectly fair, or alternatively, may be dangerously tendentious nonsense. The rights and wrongs of Turkish accession to the EU were not, however, the point of the review I was trying to write, nor are they really the point here.

When it came to writing that review, my problem was that the politics of Turks got in the way of everything else, leaving me with the feeling that those objects had, somehow, been badly served by the rhetorical function they were forced to perform. And this was a shame, if only because I felt so very ready for the sort of exhibition I wanted Turks to be. Having seen the stunning Heaven on Earth: Art from Islamic Lands at the Hermitage Rooms in Somerset House back in the bleak spring of 2004, I was left wanting more. For understandable reasons, Heaven on Earth had emphasised the complicated, fascinating interplay between Russia and its Islamic neighbouring states. Now, however, I was hungry to learn more about what happened when East met West, what took place at the margins where Christianity and Islam clashed and interlocked — not just as some sort of scrying-glass into which I might peer for news of the geopolitical future, either, although to be honest I probably wanted that too, but primarily as a tale worth hearing in its own right.

In retrospect, I probably should have paused, just for a moment, to wonder why I hoped that an art exhibition would be the venue for such high-powered enlightenment. But this question didn’t occur to me at the time. Instead, I simply regretted that the ‘message’ delivered by the show had been a crass and dubious one, rather than a sophisticated and compelling one. And so the review of Turks never got written, the catalogue found its own few inches of double-reinforced shelf-space somewhere in my study, and the RA turned its PR skills to the services of an infinitely more objectionable regime. It wasn’t a very satisfactory conclusion.

Make mine a Bellini, please
I was reminded of all this recently by the National Gallery’s Bellini and the East, showing in the Sunley Room until 25 June 2006. The exhibition is organised in conjunction with the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston, where it appeared last year.

If Turks was huge, tattered tapestry, its sporadic magnificence let down by intrusive modern ‘restoration’ and over-cleaning, Bellini and the East is more the delectable miniature, tiny but intense, all the better for attempting to concentrate its force. Like most exhibitions, obviously it has its flaws, and we’ll get to those in due course. Suffice to say, for now, that these are more than outweighed by its pleasures. If you haven’t already seen it, it’s well worth making the effort over the course of the next month.

The story around which Bellini and the East revolves is a compact one. In 1479, less than thirty years after the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, had fallen to the Ottoman Turks, an important painter named Gentile Bellini was sent from Venice to the strange, half-European, half-Asiatic city which the Turks had begun to call Istanbul. There, Bellini spent some time as a guest of that cultured, intelligent and highly successful jihadiste, Sultan Mehmed II, before returning to Venice. Bellini and the East focuses on that visit, during which Bellini produced (apparently) a handful of exquisite drawings as well as the strange, damaged yet weirdly compelling Portrait of Mehmed II, and the dreamy, engimatic Seated Scribe.

Yet perhaps because of its compact character, the sense of so much history packed into such a tiny space, Bellini and the East raised all sorts of broader questions as I started to make my way around the smallish Sunley Room. What can it have been like to witness that terrible thing, the death of Byzantium, and what legacy did Byzantine culture, our last direct link with the Classical civilisations, bequeath to Western Europe? And once Crescent overtook Cross, what was the result? What sort of conflicts, accommodations, compromises, borrowings and thefts began to connect the courtly culture of Istanbul with its equivalents amongst the republican city-states and princely courts of Europe?

Lions with wings
On and on the questions came, growing more complicated and improbable by the moment. Well, maybe it’s just me, but more or anything connected with La Serenissima sends my mind racing in this incontinent, irresponsible, thoroughly enjoyable way. But I don’t think it is just me, actually, because if it were, I doubt that the list of English-language books on Venice would be nearly as long as it is. Rather, it’s a quality of Venice herself. There is something about Venice’s sheer peculiarity that seems to compel not only pleasure, but pleasurable speculation, too.

For as even the most incurious day-tripper soon discovers, Venice is the most magnificent of mongrels — a melting-pot that’s been stewing away for a millennium or more now. Venice is the hardy if odd-tasting fruit of intermingled faiths, linguistic groups, nationalities, ethnicities and ways of living almost beyond number. Even now, its ability to absorb sub-Saharan Africans with suitcases full of fake Prada bags, or the ambitious victims of Balkan conflicts, or indeed North Americans in pursuit of a particular strand of High Culture, never fails to astonish. In London, we tend to treat Venice as a theme-park of the elegantly moribund, but in fact Venice is at least as alive, even now, as our own great city. For is there anywhere else on earth that can swallow up anyone, anything, so voraciously, yet remain so resolutely herself?

And by the same token, it hardly takes brilliance to see that Venice’s architecture, the tangled network of canals, the whole texture of that man-made demi-paradise resembles nothing else in continental Europe — although even if it did, Deborah Howard would have explained it all to the rest of us in Venice and the East, an eye-opening book that’s as elegantly written as it is learned, which is saying a lot. Thus it was pleasing to discover that, along with exhibition curators Alan Chong (from the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum) and Caroline Campbell (now at the Courtauld Institute), Howard is one of the contributors to the well-illustrated if sometimes confusingly-organised catalogue of the National Gallery’s current exhibition.

For as I moved around the exhibition, trying to understand the connections between the various items on display, my thoughts kept turning back to Howard’s book. One of the main things I took away from Venice and the East was the notion that the cultural transfers which nurtured Venice were not the result of any single trading relationship or period of conquest, but rather, the consequence of a non-stop two-way traffic — ebbing and flowing in volume, perhaps, but persisting in various forms over many hundreds of years. After a while, under the force of such a narrative, distinctions between ‘East’ and ‘West’ start to dissolve. The result is that many items familiar not only from the paintings of Carpaccio or Giovanni Bellini, but from those of Van Eyck, Memling, Holbein and others as well, take on a double aspect. The ornate carpets, the glassware, the ornamental vessels of various sorts, the exotic robes and headdresses, even the cuspid arch — all these seem, in a very real sense, emblematic of ‘our’ Christian Middle Ages, yet all came from the East and would have reminded contemporary viewers of a Holy Land only intermittently freed from the control of the Infidel. Venetian words that are now a part of our own language — ghetto, arsenal — have Arabic roots, but their associations speak clearly enough of international conflict and tense relations between those of different faiths.

Complicating all of this even further is the love-hate relationship binding Venice with Byzantine Constantinople, one of the great Christian cities of the world, sacked with incredible ferocity by Christian armies — with Venice very much at the forefront — at the end of the Fourth Crusade. Again, there is so much of Byzantium in what we know of Venice — the Pala d’Oro, the four bronze horses on the façade of San Marco, countless relics, icons and treasure — that at times it becomes impossible to separate the two. If Venice is unthinkable without the Islamic world, it is equally inconceivable without the Orthodox Christian one.

In short, then, the tale told by Howard in Venice and the East is neither an inspiring one of irenic co-existence, nor a gloomy one of perpetual and inevitable conflict. Rather, it’s both at once, with Venice, for geographical and historical reasons, serving as a microcosm of what went on elsewhere, albeit to a less extreme degree. So instead of the simple and encouraging teleology of Turks, we have something denser and more ambivalent. And that, I thought to myself as I went round the exhibition, is the stuff of which Bellini and the East, too, is made. The realisation made me happy, because I very much admire Howard’s book. It seemed pleasing to think that I could slot the items before me into a story I already knew, while at the same time, expecting their presence to enrich, deepen and somehow validate the narrative.

Sailing to Byzantium
Bellini and the East is a seriously enjoyable exhibition. Throughout, the explanatory material is excellent — concise but intelligent — while the display of the objects and overall appearance is far more attractive, more visually aware, than in many past National Gallery shows. (Americans in Paris was also remarkably good-looking — have the National Gallery’s curators made a conscious decision to raise their institutional game in terms of sheer sensory appeal?)

Confined to a small space and hinging on a handful of works, the organisation of Bellini and the East is straightforward enough. First comes the build-up, with some very necessary scene-setting about Mehmet II and the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. Then comes a nod to cultural interchanges. We turn next, briefly, to Byzantium’s legacy. Finally, we arrive at the inner sanctum of the exhibition and stand contemplating, first, a case of bronze medals, and then, finally, the small group of works generally believed to survive from Gentile Bellini’s visit to Istanbul.

The thread running through all these various topics is Gentile Bellini himself. His work, or at any rate, work associated with him is adduced to articulate each of the main themes. Thus we have his rather stern and unlovely portrait of Caterina Cornaro; his cover for Cardinal Bessarion’s reliquary where, while the figures are pretty dire, the attempt to reach across visual traditions in order simulate an icon is fascinating; an enthroned Virgin and Child illustrates the architectural and decorative bonds between West to the East. What, then, to make of the artist whom the Venetian Republic sent to Istanbul, and who was sent back, with a glowing letter of recommendation from the Sultan, just over a year later?

Non-celebrity big brother
Extremely famous in his own time, Gentile Bellini is now to a great degree obscured by the shadow of his younger brother Giovanni, who not only left a relatively large quantity of first-class work, but who was also, famously, teacher both to Giorgione and to Tiziano Vecellio. Indeed, the careers of these three are so closely intertwined as to leave a few key works bouncing around, attributed first to one artist and then to another, and sometimes to all three at once. Linked so intimately with two of the most admired artists who’ve ever lived, Giovanni’s reputation remains an enviable one. Some historians go so far as to hand him the palm for inaugurating the High Renaissance in Venetian art — which, of course, has to be a Good Thing, as it places this calm, devout, decorous maker of altar-pieces and creator of interior decoration in the forefront of the militant avant garde of art’s progress — and what could be better than that?

Gentile, on the other hand, as if by some immutable law of contrasts, has been far less fortunate. As the head of the family art ‘firm’ (his father Jacopo was also an important Venetian painter, having studied with Gentile da Fabriano, who was one of the first Venetians to make an impact on the unshakeably parochial collective consciousness of Tuscany) Gentile tended to concentrate on official commissions, both for the Venetian republic and for Venice’s thriving scuole. Doubtless, during his lifetime this stirred up plenty of resentment and envy amongst his peers, as did the fame he achieved on his visit to Istanbul. But it’s also the case that very few of Gentile’s works have survived, and those attributed to him are often in wretched condition. His important paintings for the Palazzo Ducale, for instance, were long since reduced to ash. His paintings for the scuole are scattered, where not simply lost. Many other surviving works are suspected of being workshop copies. All of this, for obvious reasons, could hardly have failed dampen critical enthusiasm for him.

Perversely, then, those months spent in Istanbul — an anomalous sabbatical in the midst of a brilliant, successful career — have done more than anything else to keep Gentile’s memory afloat. Vasari, amongst others, was clearly fascinated by this liason between a culture that shunned the image, and another intent on propagating it. Nineteenth century Orientalists found in the visit a recipe for much romantic and colourful speculation. (Incidentally, in the present semi-secularised moment we are apt to treat the Islamic and Judaic prohibitions on images as odd aesthetic quirks, but to a fifteenth century Venetian the issues would have been marginally more immediate and interesting, not least as the schism between the Eastern and Western churches involved differences on the proper role of images. The sacred texts of all three great monotheistic faiths include warnings against the making of images; it’s less odd that Islamic societies sometimes banned the making of images than that Christian societies so very rarely did so.)

As we’ve seen, Gentile’s story also dovetails well with current preoccupations. That fabled meeting between, on one hand, a painter so closely tied into the central organising narrative of Western art history, and on the other, a Muslim conqueror who was, by all indications a sensitive consumer of European painting, is almost too good to be true when it comes to cross-cultural daydreaming. We see this, for instance, in a Richard Dorment’s review of the exhibition. There’s almost the sense, in some reviews of the show, that if we looked hard enough at these works we too might find a way of reconciling two sets of apparently inimicable ways of living. Clearly, I’m not the only one who finds it hard to look at little pictures without needing to extrapolate from them, by force if necessary, Big Conclusions.

Surface tensions
Before we worry about that, though, let us pause to consider a few of the individual exhibits. Of the works on show, the portrait of Mehmet II is one of the most memorable. It’s also, frankly, a mess. It doesn’t take an expert to notice that the condition falls short of, say, the hyper-real clarity of Giovanni Bellini’s Doge Leonardo Loredan. In places (portions of the turban, the sultan’s nose) the quality of the (re)painting is more or less what one might expect to find on any competently-executed pub sign. But all the same, there’s something a little bit magical about the way the head and shoulders emerge from the black background, about the arched frame and the cloth of honour in front of the figure, and certainly something in the sultan’s expression, which seems to combine a variety of emotions. Looking at it, I couldn’t help but feel that here was at least the wreck of a real, individualised, human portrait, combining — as the best works of Giovanni Bellini sometimes does — the sad reflectiveness of Flemish painting with the distinctive colour and emphatic rhythms of late fifteenth century Venetian art.

And then there are the drawings. The exhibition includes seven sheets, executed in dark brown ink, borrowed variously from the Louvre, British Museum and Stadelsches Kunstinstitut, Franfurt. More than anything — and much to my surprise — these reminded me of John White’s drawings of the British settlement at Roanoke, dating from the end of the sixteenth century.

Of course, there are vast differences. Bellini, as we have seen, was as skilled an artist as the Venice of his age had to offer, which is saying a lot. In contrast, White, from the little that is known about him, seems to have been a surveyor and administrator first, an artist only incidentally and rather controversially. So when it comes to visual sophistication, there’s hardly any comparison. But at the same time, much seems to connect the two. In each case, the result of their efforts is a sort of ethnographic record, produced centuries before the term was even invented — the fruit of curiosity about the outlandish sights and strange occupants of a distant and fabled land, coupled with a desire to document these wonders, to share that sense of wonder with friends and neighbours at home. Bellini seems to have been just as fascinated by the myriad ethnic groups, religious sects and otherwise oddly-costumed subcultures that rubbed shoulders in late fifteenth century Istabul, as White was with the aboriginal occupants of the Outer Banks of present-day North Carolina. Yes, one can easily imagine a practical side to this project, with Gentile intending to re-use these exotic figures in future paintings for many years to come. But leave ‘art’ to one side for a moment. Part of what appeals in each man’s work is the sheer freshness of that encounter with something unexpected, the pleasure to be had in discovering and, though drawing, capturing the previously unknown.

But neither, standing in the National Gallery in front of these seven drawings, can we forget ‘art’ forever. At their best, these drawings are almost inexpressibly satisfying. The mark-making is, much of the time, so feather-light and flawless as to seem hardly the work of human hands — elsewhere, so clear, definitive and unarguable as to look downright supernatural. The balance between meticulousness and economy rarely falters. There’s skill here, as well as something very like enchantment. We know very little about the subjects the drawings depict, or why they were executed, but their freshness is more or less unfailing. More than anything else in Bellini and the East, they looked like unproblematic evidence of Gentile’s genuine importance, not only as a near-accidental link between two worlds, but as an artist. And if doubts surface later, it happens hours afterwards, only once the spell cast by these fragile, powerful things had begun to fade.

Are you sitting comfortably?
And then, finally, there is the Seated Scribe, borrowed from the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum — in some ways the culmination of Bellini and the East, located right at the exhibition’s heart. A drawing with colour and gilding applied on top of it, this is an extremely strange work, and very hard to place. It helps to learn that the image was cut down, and that the Arabic inscription in the upper right-hand corner was added later, because the oddity of both of these features enhances their unfamiliar, non-European quality. But even after one makes the mental effort to strip away reality, to imagine a larger, inscription-free drawing, the image still seems a more plausible bridge than most between the visual traditions of the Islamic East and Christian West.

The artist — we’ll assume for the moment that this means Gentile rather than someone else altogether, although that’s far from clear — has depicted a lavishly-dressed young man with rather delicate features, seen in profile, sitting cross-legged on the floor, quill poised, ready to write or maybe draw on the tablet held on his lap. The young man wears a large white turban and a very opulent robe the colour of lapis lazuli, decorated with patterns in gold and silver. The robe is rendered in a flat, not particularly naturalistic manner, which, along with the very non-Western pose and the strangeness of the costume itself, gives the work an oddly hybrid appearance. Finally, it’s probably worth pointing out that this little work is only 18.2 cm x 14 cm in its present form — which is to say, very small indeed. It’s a feature that doesn’t come out in reproduction, yet actually matters quite a lot in real life, since it connects it more squarely with miniature-painting traditions rather than with the larger portraits it otherwise might be thought to resemble.

Very little is known about The Seated Scribe. We don’t actually know who, if anyone, it represents, or where it was made, or exactly why it was created in the first place. Wherever it originated, it seems fairly certain that by the mid sixteenth century, the drawing had migrated to the Persian Safavid court, where it was pasted into an album belonging to the youngest son of the Shah and admired as an example of fine European workmanship. Several Persian artists went on to copy it. One such Persian copy is on show at the present exhibition.

Human nature being what it is, the desire to make comparisons between the original image and the copy is irresistible. And there are, indeed, plenty of differences. The copy separates into big areas of strong local colour far more easily than does the original, where the garments tend to blend together into a single pyramid-type shape. In the copy there is no attempt at all to render the pattern of the fabric naturalistically where it falls into folds or curves around the body. The facial features of the figure are clearer, more distinctly drawn in the copy than in the original, where the modelling is very soft indeed. Whereas the original doesn’t show the scribe’s feet, the copy depicts a single foot poking out, at an angle that looks odd to Western eyes, from the bottom of the garment. And, in an alteration that seems less fascinating to me than it does to some observers, the tablet, which in the original is left bare, in the copy becomes a drawing, representing what looks like a male figure. The seated figure has revealed himself, not as a scribe at all, but as an artist.

West is best (or perhaps not?)
In a thoughtful essay by Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, brought to my attention here, Pamuk makes much of the way the copyist has changed the image from a portrait to a self-portrait:

In so doing [the Safavi copyist] reminds us how little Muslim artists knew about the western art of portraiture, and most particularly the concept of the self-portrait, and how they were beset by anxieties about their technical inadequacies in these areas.

And this, in a sense, starts to hint at one of the defects of Bellini and the East, or at least a defect in the way that some of us experienced it.

As was mentioned above, there is no particular reason to think that A Seated Scribe is in any sense a portrait. Nor do we really know much about who painted it, or where it was painted, or why. It seems fairly clear, in contrast, that the copy was made in about 1600, which is to say, more than a century after the original was probably executed — and the copy was probably produced in Persia, not Istanbul. Further, while Pamuk seems, strangely, to lump together ‘Muslim artists’ as if they constituted an homogenous body, this was hardly the case. After all, a Safavi painter, working at the start of the seventeenth century, would himself have been heir to one of the great traditions of miniature-making — a strongly Chinese-influenced heritage whose protagonists excelled in producing small, brightly-coloured evocations of people going about their daily lives.

Pamuk seems to suggest that the copyist, ‘beset by anxieties’, wanted to paint more like a Western artist. But why not assume that the copyist took pleasure in translating the older, Western-style work into something more agreeable and graceful within a different visual tradition? Why assume that a preference for naturalism is the direction in which all painting ought to aspire? Why assume that the best sort of portrait is one that replicates, camera-like, what the subject looks like, rather than representing his qualities in other, possibly equally sophisticated ways? And anyway, why assume that any vaguely plausible picture of a person must, of necessity, be a portrait?

Love amongst the ruins
If all of that suggests a degree of frustration with one particular take on Bellini and the East — and probably I should reiterate that Pamuk’s article is a thoughtful and thought-provoking one, well worth reading, even if the conclusion bothered me a bit — this in many ways admirable exhibition itself is not without a defect or two of its own. By far the most serious of these has to do with what it tells us about Bellini himself.

Gentile Bellini is, as mentioned above, the central lynch-pin holding the exhibition together, his work the linkage between its disparate themes, his journey to Istanbul the narrative impulse propelling the entire project. Unfortunately, however, virtually all the works included in Bellini and the East are either of questionable attribution, or have been restored extensively — or in many cases, both.

Walking around the exhibition, especially on a second visit, there was a strong sense of ‘change and decay / in all around I see’. For however much one trusts the attributions in the present catalogue, there’s a bleak sort of fun to be had in looking up the relevant works in, say, the National Gallery’s own older catalogue of the Earlier Italian Schools (first published 1951, revised 1961, most recently reprinted in 1986), and chart the gradual transformation of various relevant works.

From the older catalogue one learns, for instance, that the Virgin and Child Enthroned is ‘very much worn … extensively repainted … the flesh parts in their current state show little of Gentile’s style’. Sultan Mehmet II, for its part, is only listed as ‘ascribed to’ Gentile, with the following rather pessimistic comment: ‘There are now only traces of a very much worn and neglected old picture here, almost entirely repainted, especially in the figure …’ The self-portrait of Gentile may be neither a self-portrait, nor indeed the work of Gentile himself. Even The Seated Scribe has often been plausibly attributed to artists other than Gentile, as the exhibition catalogue itself makes entirely clear. On and on the list goes, raising a dozen new questions for every one it answers. The overwhelming impression is one of many damaged fragments held together by the mucilage of hope and faith. And although the foregoing are clearly theological virtues, they are not necessarily curatorial ones.

Yet whatever the exhibition catalogue may say, the labels next to the actual paintings in the National Gallery are almost entirely silent on the subject of destruction, doubt and loss. At the practical level one can see why this is the case. What if virtually nothing on view in the Sunley Room is actually, in its present state, the product of Gentile Bellini’s own hand? The result would, by definition, be an exhibition that tells us little about Gentile’s qualities as an artist, that lacks a strong connection with the whole Bellini and the East story, that can’t quite deliver the authentic frisson of close association with this most poignant, evocative and suggestive of cross-cultural encounters. And while the admirable Peter Campbell over at the London Review of Books feels that all of this simply delivers valuable information about the relevant workshops, I’ve got to admit that I, for one, would have gone away feeling just that little bit cheated if Bellini and the East had included nothing by the relevant Bellini, and not actually that much from the East, either.

For the East, per se, is not exactly over-represented in Bellini and the East. Yes, there are a few icons from Constantinople, which are well worth seeing — although, at the risk of reprising a weary old trope, one might pause here to wonder whether this demotion to mere works of art is not a source for sorrow. But what of the art of Islam? Perhaps this is a mistake, but I remember only a single work — that copy of The Seated Scribe — representing the entirety of the much-misunderstood riches of Islam’s visual traditions.

And this, too, is a problem. Deprived of context, deprived of Islamic build-up or Islamic follow-through, what are we to learn from this single, stranded item — an Eastern copy of a Western work — about the nature and potential of cross-cultural traffic? The problem isn’t that it tells us nothing. Rather, the message, however unconsciously articulated, is all too clear. Western art may have learned various things from the East, but what’s important is their novelty in Western art, not their rootedness in an alien culture of which we know little. The impact of Western art on the East is given even less attention. We leave the exhibition perhaps wiser about the Venice of the late sixteenth century, but no less ignorant about the Istanbul that was growing up out of what had so recently been Constantinople. We see Bellini’s drawings, the images he brought home, but are offered no Eastern images with which to compare them, meaning that we can know nothing of the biases and misreadings he may have brought to his account. One could go on, but there’s little point. The frustrations, at least, should be clear enough. True, Bellini and the East was meant to be a mini-exhibition, tightly focused on its topic. I do understand that. At the same time, however, it was disappointing to be offered not a lens, however small, but instead, yet another mirror. Bellini and the East had seemed to offer more than that. Or was I expected too much, once again, of an art exhibition?

By way of a conclusion
We have come a long way. Still, there’s one more point left to address, if only because it in some sense encompasses everything I’ve written above, as well as some of the awkwardness and uncertainty with which those things have, so obviously, been written.

The central theme of Bellini and the East was always going to be a difficult one to present. As we’ve seen, not an enormous amount is known about what happened during the few months that Gentile Bellini spent at Mehmet’s court, either, and what is ‘known’ relies almost entirely on second-hand reports. So there’s a limit to how deep that narrative can go. Whereas, in contrast, if one steps back for a moment from the smaller, more immediate story, the broader topics touched upon are potentially so vast that those fragile panels and sheets of paper sometimes seems to float helplessly on their surface, bobbing gently, waiting to be carried this way or that by arguments far removed from the circumstances of their actual making. Is it right, or at any rate, is it what was intended that the art should end up illustrating the history, rather than the history illuminating the art? I found myself worrying about this quite a lot on the way home from Bellini and the East.

And that, I suppose, is why exhibitions like Turks, or Bellini and the East, no matter how happy or hellish the act of viewing them may have been, turn out to be the least easy to review. More explicitly than most other exhibitions, they raise a question that I, for one, find persistently hard to answer: how are we meant to experience the works laid out for our curiosity and delectation?

Is it, for instance, enough — or indeed, is it even possible — simply to admire the miscellaneous items on show as ‘art’, with all that means and doesn’t mean, more than five hundred years after the fact? Well, I rather admire people who claim to be able to do this, but I am unable to emulate their achievement. Those stern bronze medals, the Florentine maiolica jug ambivalently celebrating the existence of the Great Turk, the slightly battered cover of a much-venerated reliquary — try as I might, I can’t quite make these things ‘work’ for me on a formal level, as opposed to a practical one — or rather, perhaps the practical one just seems marginally more important, more interesting.

And while the drawings and paintings might seem a softer target for ‘High Art’ exceptionalism than other species of artefact, for me, anyway, the problem still persists. The meticulously-constructed vertical rhythms and arching curves of Gentile’s The Virgin and Child Enthroned are beautiful, true enough — but I can’t help regretting that the painting is here in the National Gallery, briefly diverting the brighter sort of tourist, rather than ornamenting a consecrated altar in an ancient church, encouraging the faithful to pious contemplation and devotion, as its maker presumably intended. By the same token, as astoundingly lovely as Gentile’s drawings of Mehmet II’s court still look — and surely they were meant to be lovely, to delight and amaze as much as to record or inform — their loveliness is only a tiny part of what they were all about, merely an elegant means to a higher end. So did they ‘work’ — not in our usual vexed art criticism sense, but in terms of achieving Venice’s foreign policy goals, or boosting the Bellini family stock of eye-catching images, or to communicate some sense of personal fascination and excitement? Come to think of it, do we really even begin to know what they were meant to achieve? And more to the point, can we really drown out such questions, as we stand before those little sheets, with our exclamations at the delicacy and sureness of each line?

But on the other hand, the alternative position can seem equally unsatisfactory. If it’s possible to make a text mean almost anything you want it to do — and as someone with a 1990s-vintage PhD in history from Cambridge University, I can promise you that this is most certainly the case — then it really is child’s play to make an artefact turn somersaults in the furtherance of any fashionable case of your choosing. These things have all been ripped out of their original context, re-categorised in terms of origin, purpose and quality again and again, misunderstood in ever-new and different ways by generations of well-intentioned amateurs and specialists before turning up here, to speak about today’s particular preoccupation.

On one hand, the objects are themselves relics, talismans providing a reassuringly physical link with a past we need to remake again and again in order to validate our present. We love them for their genuine intimacy with the long-vanished at least as much as we admire their slightly ersatz and retouched present-day physical beauty. Mute and obedient under glaze and glass or in their climate-controlled cases, these objects provide our historical fantasies with something around which to coalesce, just as pearls eventually obscure the irritant grains of sand. Or to put it another way, reprising a point framed only as a complaint above, what we ‘learn’ from historical art exhibitions of this sort is to a great extent what we might learn from looking in a mirror. Our own questions are thrown right back at us — but because they are ours, we of course find them interesting, and only later realise how little we had by way of any answer.

Turks, with that strident special pleading, showed up all too clearly the defects of using art as illustration. In part, this may have had something to do with the defects of the argument thus illustrated. For several critics, Bellini and the East, in contrast, seemed to be making a much more subtle if even more soothing point. Yes, there will inevitably be conflict between different peoples and cultures, it seems to say — but art, above all else, offers a means of mediating that conflict. Even the most vicious differences can be dissolved with mutual curiosity, admiration for the best of each other’s traditions, shared styles, cultural transfers, the benign and modest triumph of syncretism. In that sense, Venice, that magnificent hinge connecting East with West, becomes a template for the world. Alteratively, another reading, marginally less cheery, might note the rather one-sided nature of cultural traffic as portrayed in the actual exhibition, plus a bit of inbuilt and perhaps unconscious Western triumphalism, and thus might further detect a fantastic vision whereby, just because the West accepted the number ‘0’, astromomy and gunpowder from the East somewhere back in the Middle Ages, then the East ought to accept the onrush of evanglical, messianic liberalism today.

Or is that pushing it all too far? Almost certainly so.

Bellini and the East is, after all, a small exhibition, occupying a single smallish room. So perhaps it speaks only about a particular set of objects, encouraging us to look more closely at them and to think about how they relate to one another. Because after all, that’s the other problem with using art as illustration. Taken too far, it encourages us to do what we’re all too likely to do anyway, which is to note each item momentarily, file it away under some sort of categorical label (‘medal’, ‘altarpiece’, ‘old stuff’) and move on to the next big idea — or, if the exhibition is too crowded and uncomfortable, just move on.

The first casualty of such an approach is the experience of actually looking properly at the art; the next is the pleasure or at any rate intensity of emotion to be had from engaging with it; the third is the whole sense of an individualised encounter, a really personalised engagement, with something that someone else produced, perhaps quite a long time ago, for some purpose we’ll never fully be able to reconstruct, in circumstances we’ll never fully be able to understand. Sometimes, if we’re being honest, meeting an object at the level of aesthetic regard may, for all its imperfections, be a more realistic and satisfactory goal than any other. At Turks, probably I should have found an unpopular khaftan lurking in some lonely corner and spent time trying to get to grips with its design, execution and, well, beauty. At Bellini and the East, certainly, the happiest moments were those when I was shocked out of my theorising by a particular red enjambed against a particular teal blue. Hard lessons, these, for someone who not only can’t remember whether the love for art or history came first, but who, worse still, still isn’t quite sure that it’s possible to distinguish between the two. At Bellini and the East, in any event, the conundrum is, at least, a thoroughly engaging one.
Bunny Smedley has recently been reading a bad biography of Clement Greenberg, which she hopes to review here soon.


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