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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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Jacob van Ruisdael: Master of Landscape at the Royal Academy

‘Landscape’ is an English misspelling of the Dutch landschap, a fact which goes some way towards suggesting how significant Dutch painting has been to a particularly English tradition of depicting nature — even, perhaps, to a certain way of seeing the world around us. And when it came to influencing English taste, especially during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there were few Dutch landscape painters who mattered more than Jacob van Ruisdael, the Haarlem-born artist who died in Amsterdam in 1682.

Jacob van Ruisdael: Master of Landscape, currently showing in the Sackler Wing of the Royal Academy, provides a welcome reminder of Ruisdael’s remarkable skill, fluency, range and emotive force. It also demonstrates — and surely Burlington House is the perfect setting for such an insight — how very disparate are the lessons that later generations can mine from a single, if extensive and sometimes problematic, body of work. Yet because the curators have somehow failed to get to grips with presenting the work in a compelling, comprehensible way, the exhibition inadvertently raises a much larger question as well. In a culture that rewards above all else speed, shock, variety, evanescent celebrity, blink-and-you’ve-missed-it sensationalism, the new, the easy and the would-be ‘ironic’, do we still have what it takes to appreciate Jacob van Ruisdael?

Background, foreground
The sort of gallery-goer who wishes to fix the artist’s extant work onto an armature of incident, accident, sex, violence and controversy may find this exhibition hard going.

To put it mildly, not a lot is known about Ruisdael’s life. His father, Isaack van Ruisdael, was a modestly successful frame-maker who sometimes dealt in pictures and may even have painted a few himself. His uncle, Salomon van Ruysdael, was a landscape painter of some importance. It isn’t clear who, if anyone, encouraged the young Jacob to pick up a brush. By 1648, however, when he was about 20, he had become a member of the local painters’ guild and was already producing works of bracing proficiency, a number of which appear in the present exhibition.

In the early 1650s, while in his mid 20s, Ruisdael left his native Haarlem for the borderlands between the Netherlands and Germany, where he painted several versions of his Bentheim Castle. By about 1656 he had moved again, this time to Amsterdam, already in the midst of what would become its Golden Age. Ruisdael was a contemporary of, amongst others, Rembrandt, but there’s no particular evidence that the two men ever met. Instead, Ruisdael evidently appreciated the work of a painter called Alart van Everdingen who had travelled to Scandinavia and continued to paint that terrain long after returning to the Netherlands. Other than that, and his Haarlem upbringing, the influences on his work are mostly conjectural.

Ruisdael never married. We know nothing much about his professional relationships and little if anything about his personal ones. He died in 1682, aged about 54. But since art historians abhor a vacuum, many other things have been suggested about him over the years. It has been claimed that he practiced as a physician (not true), that he died penniless (not true either), or that he was prone to bouts of depression (impossible to prove one way or the other). Yet he was nothing if not prolific. If one is to trust his catalogue raisonné, he is supposed to have created about 800 paintings, some of them very major ones, in a working life of perhaps 40 years at the very most.

Haarlem renaissance
Despite his crucial importance to later artists, Ruisdael was by no means the first Dutch landscape painter of real significance. Even at the start of his career, he was following on in a strong tradition — not least, that of fellow Haarlem painters Jan van Goyen, Pieter de Molijn, Hercules Segers, Jan van de Velde the younger, Claes Jansz. Visscher, Cornelis Vroom and, of course, Salomon Ruysdael himself.

These were the so-called ‘tonal painters’, and while Ruisdael’s own painting would eventually feature areas of strong local colour, it is clear that he learned much from the subdued palettes and subtle atmospherics of this older generation. Meanwhile in Amsterdam, Ruisdael would have had access to one of the world’s great art markets. Hence he may have known not only the work of Dutch contemporaries like Aelbert Cuyp, working in a far more Italianate mode, but perhaps also art from France, Italy and beyond.

The point is worth making, if only as a reminder that the apparent ‘realism’ of Ruisdael’s most famous work was very much a matter of personal choice, not a naïve inevitability. He built on the work he knew best, as well as the actual landscape he saw all around him — but like the artists he would in turn influence, his borrowings were selective, personal and intelligent. He would also bring something new and unique to his strongest work, injecting into those images of the created world what later generations would go on to read as a moral and psychological significance hitherto undetected. Therein — in that flexibility, in that richness — lies his greatness.

A patch of yellow
About that greatness, I’ve long had no real doubt. For what it’s worth, I can even point to the actual painting that opened my eyes to this painter — that made him stand out from any number of his Dutch contemporaries and made him matter to me.

An Extensive Landscape with Ruins is a small painting, and in some ways, not outstandingly different from others in the National Gallery’s collections. The National Gallery owns, indeed, a rather similar painting by Ruisdael, Landscape with a Ruined Castle and Church, which, unlike An Extensive Landscape, is included in the present exhibition. And as far as that goes, there are also works by Philips Koninck, e.g. this one, that really don’t look so very different either. So what’s so special about this particular Ruisdael?

An Extensive Landscape is, like many of Ruisdael’s works, laid out on a squarish rectangle, the lower third of which is taken up with flat fields and low trees, whereas the upper two thirds are filled with a lowering sky that is slate-grey in places, but almost a dirty-brown in others. The oncoming storm has darkened the land beneath it, so that all incident — a little pond, a modest and scrappy ruin, some scrubby vegetation — blends together in the gloom. A church steeple, near the centre of the composition, is hardly even visible against the sky — or, rather, seems to matter little when compared with those mountainous clouds which, the true patriotic topography of this flattest of art-historical hegemons, rolling and swirling above. So in a sense, the subject of the painting is no more and no less than the tonal relationships out of which it is concocted: something to do with the balance of blue and brown, of foxy russet and a green so dark as to be almost a sort of ersatz black, leavened with the drama of the brush-strokes with which it was created, free and strong but very personal. Fantastically moody, potentially violent even, yet totally composed, there’s more real fierceness packed into this little painting than in whole square acres of theatrical baroque canvases elsewhere in the National Gallery — which is perhaps, although the choice is a hard one, the thing that I love most about it.

But then, I haven’t even mentioned yet the really extraordinary feature of the painting — not least, because it’s hard to find the words to do it justice. Along the right half of the horizon, just under the lowest of those clouds, Ruisdael has painted in a field in brilliant yellow. Well, if anything were going to do it, what that little patch of yellow wall did to Bergotte, Ruisdael’s canary-coloured field would do to me, because no matter how often I see it (the painting isn’t always on show, either) that flash of colour always leaves me slightly giddy. Having seen it, I feel ready to go home because, let’s face it, after that, there’s not much more that art is going to do for me today.

This effect is, among other things, a technical triumph. Yellow isn’t an easy pigment to handle. Titian, like Giovanni Bellini and Giorgione, knew the secret of making it work. Van Dyck had his moments of working magic with it. Artists within living memory who could do so are few and far between, although — strangely, perhaps — Pollock, de Kooning and Auerbach, all firm favourites of mine, spring to mind. For it’s harder than it might sound to avoid making yellow go all muddly, to give it the room it needs not just to exist, but to burst with real opulence and clarity from the surface of the canvas. In achieving this, Ruisdael has shown us something truly wonderful: a miracle taking place against the most uneventful of topographies.

That, however, isn’t the main point. What I am trying to say this simply this. As many have done before me — some of them, very great landscape painters in their own right — I really do love Ruisdael’s work, which is why I had great hopes for the present exhibition. These hopes were, however, not entirely fulfilled, and even a little disappointed.

A bit flat?
Ruisdael is not an enormous show. Packed into such a small space, however, it manages to look cluttered. About fifty paintings have been shoe-horned into four rooms, accompanied by some 36 works on paper — which might sound like quite a lot, until one remembers that Ruisdael’s catalogue raisonné of paintings runs to something like 800 entries. So at best it’s a survey, a tour d’horizon rather than an encyclopaedic account of Ruysdael’s achievement, let alone a rigorous and thorough examination of the man and his oeuvre.

Furthermore, although the genial, well-illustrated catalogue, written by Harvard emeritus professor and veteran Ruisdael scholar Seymour Slive, is illuminating in places and entertaining throughout, the background information available at the show itself is both patchy and, where it exists, confusing. The problem here may lie in Prof. Slive’s characteristic approach, which over the decades has tended to subordinate issues of iconography, historical context, patronage and the study of taste to what used to be known, without as much as curled lip, as ‘connoisseurship’.

Now, in deference to ERO’s own longstanding tradition of cheerful perversity in these matters, in a sense it would be all too tempting to welcome such an approach. Yet there are three reasons — three criticisms too nagging to be ignored — that ultimately prevent me from doing so.

Put out more paintings
The first of these brings us back to the point about the exhibition’s limited scope. There simply isn’t enough visual evidence here to engage with the basic issues of how Ruisdael’s work looks. Many of Ruisdael’s paintings appear in variant versions. It would have been fun, certainly, and perhaps even instructive to have been led through the evolutions of particular compositions, with hints about derivations, detours, meanings. For instance, I’d have loved to have seen the Detroit Jewish Cemetery, which travelled to Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum a few years ago for The Glory of the Golden Age, placed next to the Dresden version on show here. It would have been interesting to have learned more about Ruisdael’s technique, which was evidently subject to considerable fairly dramatic shifts. It would have been informative to have been shown how some of his effects, so much admired and so widely copied, were achieved. And if the show had been held downstairs in the main galleries, rather than upstairs in the Sackler wing, there would have been more than enough space available to allow the display of works by some of Ruisdael’s predecessors and contemporaries, just to show us all what he was, at it were, painting ‘against’.

Finally, we could have done with hearing more about the way in which Ruisdael’s growing popularity spawned, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a host of copies, forgeries and the creeping transformation of plenty of dull old landscapes into bright new ‘autograph’ Ruisdaels. But then that particular line of enquiry rarely stirs much happiness in the hearts of curators, dealers, auction houses or private collectors — which, is perhaps, why the organisers of the present exhibition decided to steer away from it.

Lacking, however, as we do, their humane and practical inhibitions, this leads us, albeit rather indirectly and by gentle stages, to my next major objection.

Spot the difference
The best thing about the present Royal Academy exhibition is what it has to say about the breadth of Ruisdael’s achievement — how many other Ruisdaels there are, in a manner of speaking, beyond the poet of the flat fields outside Amsterdam.

No wonder that for centuries landscape painters continued to turn to this rather obscure Dutchman for inspiration. It’s impossible to wander through the four rooms of the Sackler Gallery without spotting seeds from which would later spring whole new landscape painting traditions. The Bentheim Castle from Dublin, for instance, perched adventurously on its not-very-authentic mini-mountain, reminded me hugely of the vedute of Bernardo Bellotto, seen most recently (by me, anyway) at Masterpieces from Dresden, here in these same Sackler Galleries, only a few years ago. Ruisdael’s seascapes are so compelling that one momentarily forgets he forged his reputation as a painter of dry (by Dutch standards, anyway) land. And The Jewish Cemetery made my jaw drop, not just because it’s such an astounding painting, but because it seems to have turned up in the wrong exhibition. Surely, this isn’t the stuff of staid, Calvinist, reassuringly burgerlijk Amsterdam, c. 1665? Surely, with that thunderous sky, the mouldering tombs, the crumbling ruins, the blighted tree, the whole landscape throbbing with sturm und drang — this has to be a stray from Gothic Nightmares, currently at Tate Britain? And then the graphic work is another thing altogether — as pleasing as anything in the show. With his unerring eye for the specific and his incredible facility with pen and burin, Ruisdael’s eloquence is enough to make Gainsborough’s copies seem crude.

But even within the bounds of similar subject-matter, Ruisdael can look surprisingly various. Compare, for instance, the near-monochrome Village in Winter, drawn in white on a very dark ground, with the warm midsummer colour of Two Water Mills and an Open Sluice, or the gem-like brightness of the Duke of Buccleuch’s Hilly Wooded Landscape with Cattle with the almost metallic golds and coppers of The Great Oak. Or compare the almost hyper-real intensity of The Great Oak, each kinking, curling branch observed with meticulous care, with the explosive, rather Turner-esque freedom of Waterfall with a Half-Timbered House and Castle. The light changes, the handling changes, the colour and tonality veer this way and that, the range of mood and atmosphere is virtually infinite.

There are moments, indeed, when it becomes hard to believe that these canvases all passed through the hands of the same young painter — however innovative he may have been, however driven in the development of his personal style, however supernaturally agile when it came to negotiating the transitions between his wildest and quietest modes of expression.

When is a Ruisdael not a Ruisdael?
For hard, actually, read ‘impossible’. And this is the second major problem with the exhibition. One of the basic points about connoisseurship is that, well, it helps to be sure who created the relevant works. And yet at least one critic — by which I mean, obviously, the Evening Standard’s brave Brian Sewell — has questioned whether several of the paintings included in the Royal Academy’s exhibition have anything to do with Ruisdael at all.

Who knows? Let’s be entirely honest about this. Unlike Prof. Slive, I’m no expert on authenticating seventeenth century Dutch paintings, and unlike Mr Sewell, I lack the sort of training on which such expertise is built. Further, since even those who are experts seem unable to reach anything approaching consensus, it probably wouldn’t matter much if I were. On the other hand, however, one would have to be blind, or perhaps simply very inattentive, not to notice a certain lack of family resemblance in the works on show.

There could be all sorts of reasons for this. To state the most obvious, cleaning and conservation make a huge difference. Take, for instance, a very basic feature — the white of Ruisdael’s billowing, cumulous clouds. In several paintings, these have all the tobacco-golden lustre old varnish can confer on them, while in others, the surfaces look rather as if someone’s been at them with Lemon Cif and a scouring-pad. The impact of this difference on the whole atmosphere of the painting, the sort of weather indicated and the mood established, could hardly be greater. Meanwhile, some paintings have quite a lot of surface crackle while others have disconcertingly little; there are at least two that suffer from re-touching so blatant as to be downright distressing; a few simply don’t seem to fit in with the rest at all.

Perhaps they are all perfectly genuine works, scarred by such divergent histories as to mask or even erase their essential similarities. Or perhaps Ruisdael was simply that much of a chameleon, changing the most basic features of his art to suit unrecoverably altered circumstances. Who can say? All I know is this. After visiting the exhibition once, I went away with some doubts, but put this down to my mood, bad lighting, distractions, a naturally suspicious mind, visceral dislike of freshly-scrubbed Old Masters, pure ignorance — I can’t even remember what else, but really, I was making every effort to suspend some increasingly burdensome disbelief.

On a second visit, however, the doubts doubled and trebled. Nor was my confidence in the work boosted in any way by the response of my companion to the first two rooms. ‘How many of these are fakes, then?’ he asked me, before nominating a few particularly dodgy examples.

There may well once have been a time when respect for authority was such that the inclusion of something in a serious exhibition, curated by acknowledged experts, stilled all such concerns. But for better or worse, that time has passed. The atmosphere of generalised distrust, however ill-informed and mistaken it may be, surely means that someone, somewhere, ought to have addressed the issue of attribution and, if possible, put our collective doubts at rest. Whereas in contrast, ignoring the problem only detracted from the entirely authentic delights of what is, in many ways, a worthwhile exhibition.

Second glances
The third problem with Jacob van Ruisdael: Master of Landscape is, in a sense, as much the fault of the world we inhabit as it is a defect of the show itself.

To return to a point raised several times earlier, Ruisdael has long attracted the interest and adulation of connoisseurs, collectors and painters alike. Prof. Slive’s catalogue is full of information on this topic, both in the general essays and in the descriptions of particular painters. Perhaps most memorable is his account of John Constable’s relationship with Ruisdael’s work. The practicalities of this convey us to a now-unimaginable age, before cheap colour reproduction and blockbuster exhibitions, let alone the mixed blessing of huge million-colour LCD displays and Google Images — back to an age where seeking to expand one’s visual horizons might mean, for instance, riding a long way in order to borrow someone else’s copy of an engraving of a far-distant painting by a long-dead artist.

For some reason we find it irresistible, now, to sneer at those aristocratic Grand Tourists, with their well-publicised superficiality and provincialism, without pausing to realise how literally impossible it was for most Englishmen, even those who cared about it most, to form any decent mental picture of the great art and architecture of France, the Netherlands, the Italian city-states and lands beyond. Whereas for us, the once-exotic has been domesticated to the point of banality. The tangled green fastness of Machu Picchu, the dusty magnificence of rose-red Petra, the famous inaccessibility of what’s left of Timbuktu — the few of us who haven’t passed through these during gap-years or interludes of personal crisis are doubtless nonetheless familiar with their every crooked enfilade and inscrutable stone, having been coaxed through these by Dan Cruikshank or Michael Palin on one of those many, many evenings when there was nothing good on television but cooking dinner in silence seemed too great an enormity to contemplate. And as for the ‘natural’ world, in which the hand of God was once seen to be particularly evident, it is now most easily observed through the agency of someone else’s long lens, in the weirdly aestheticised and depopulated ghetto of ‘wildlife photography’, where all those meerkats and snow leopards detain us briefly only as something halfway between art and entertainment, succeeding really, poor beasts, in neither capacity.

Hence the ever-accelerating devaluation of our visual currency in a century where images are too abundant to be valued much, and where anything that requires a degree of persistence and patience is likely to be elbowed out of the way by pleasures that, while seeming to offer more, demand far less. How, then, to ‘sell’ a painter like Jacob van Ruisdael to the world in which we live now?

Difficult loves
Whatever else may be said about Norman Rosenthal’s time at the Royal Academy — and personally, although this perhaps is just old-fashioned ERO perversity piping up again, I have to say that I’ve got quite a lot of time for Mr Rosenthal — he’s shown a strong stomach for exhibiting the unfashionable, the difficult and the downright hard-to-love. For every ‘Sensation’, for every loan of high-profile booty from a far-away country with a bad human rights record, there’s been something surprising, challenging but genuinely exciting. Who but the RA would have put on such a comprehensive Frank Auerbach retrospective — so much better, in every possible way, than Tate Britain’s embarrassing apotheosis of Lucian Freud? Who else would have given such full outings to Vuillard, Guston, Kirchner? Who would have reminded us of Sir William Nicholson, or coaxed those remarkable Russian Constructivist paintings out of their provincial collections, or come up with the 1900: Art at the Crossroads exhibition?

So in that sense, it isn’t surprising that the Royal Academy have chosen to host an exhibition of Ruisdael’s work, complemented with a small display of related work by past Academicians in the John Madejsky Fine Rooms. What is surprising, though, is that the curators haven’t somehow injected more enthusiasm into the project — that they haven’t made more effort to bring the exhibition to life — to help us and our contemporaries, with our gnat-sized attention spans and our addiction to the flashily superficial, to find a way into the windswept sand-dunes and crepuscular forests of Ruisdael’s art.

A blind spot
For as we’ve seen, the fit between Ruisdael’s visual culture and our own isn’t exactly a very neat one.

His preoccupations are not our own. Ruisdael’s art has neither the literalism of the point-and-shoot photograph, nor the lurid, self-conscious fantasy of the Surrealists. It’s not Baroque in the sense of being remotely flashy, extrovert or susceptible to adoption under the rubric of High Camp. It’s too skilful to be ‘primitive’ but too genuine to be ironic. Nor is there a sexy back-story. Ruisdael didn’t, so far as we know, murder anyone during a tennis match, or keep dozens of mistresses, or having interesting political views of a progressive and left-wing nature, or even keep a journal. Most hopeless of all, though, is Ruisdael’s subject-matter. He painted neither the super-rich, the scorned outcasts of polite society nor the beautiful and underdressed. He painted neither religious art capable of anachronistic readings as ‘fantastic and imaginative’ or ‘richly psychologically revelatory’ — nor stuff useful for illustrating volumes of social history. He didn’t even paint animals.

Instead, Ruisdael painted landscapes, always with some trace of human activity present — because Nature for its own sake presumably interested him as little as it did any of his contemporaries — yet often remarkably low on incident. Featureless fields, decrepit trees, unremarkable and indistinct buildings — this were the stuff out of which so many of his finest works were made.

Ruisdael painted the world he saw around him. His perception was shaped, as all our worlds are, by the visual culture in which he found himself, but still grounded in the knotty genuineness of sight, touch — habitual contact. Furthermore, he painted for a clientele that still knew how to look — not simply to scan an image for its meaning, as if it were a piece of roadside advertising or a corporate logo, but really look — with patience and persistence. Truly, hard though this may be to believe, Ruisdael’s contemporaries, like Constable’s, could lose themselves in an etching as fully as ours can vanish into an episode of Desperate Housewives or the non-stop rapid-fire action and gory yet painless deaths of a new generation video game.

But we can’t — or at any rate, so few still can, and those only with such a desperate expenditure of will or generous dollop of good luck, that the Royal Academy, unable to count on mass appeal, hasn’t even been able to garner much support from the usual tame flock of arts journalists. Oh, it’s not that the arts press doesn’t like Ruisdael. It’s just that this show does nothing — tells them no story, gives them no new angle — in order to make their pulses race a little faster when contemplating him. Compare the number and length of the British reviews of this exhibition with those of other exhibitions in the Sackler Galleries, even the really unpopular ones, and you’ll see what I mean. The attraction, then, is all tick-the-box worthiness. Ruisdael is, after all, a certified Old Master. The pitch seems to be that if you like that sort of thing, come along and see it — but don’t worry much if you don’t.

Gnarled trunk, green shoots
Yet the final irony here is that, as has been mentioned so often above, Ruisdael has proved himself more than capable of appealing across the generations.

Samuel Palmer, for instance, writing from Shoreham in the mid 1820s, saw in Ruisdael’s ability to ‘draw from the visible creation’ a welcome antidote to ‘imaginative thought’, which provided ‘practice’ while refreshing a ‘mind tired with better things’ — by which, it’s clear from the context, Palmer meant the inventive frenzies of artists like Michelangelo and Blake. Ruisdael thus served, for Palmer, as a reminder of the importance of balance between God’s own creation and men’s flights of fancy. The latter might be fascinating — Palmer evidently found them so, and complained about the need to spend days drawing tree stumps — but without being grounded in the former, something was lost.

On the other hand, just to pick the example that springs to mind the moment Palmer is mentioned, Graham Sutherland also seems to have learned something from Ruisdael, in part, of course, via Palmer. But in this case the lesson could hardly have been more different. Wandering around Wales, spending weeks worrying over a mossy darkened lane or single twisted tree-trunk, Sutherland was following in Palmer’s footsteps, and thus by extension in Ruisdael’s. Yet for Sutherland, nature seems largely to work as a language in which emotional truths — in the late 1930s and early 40s, it must be said, usually pretty anguished ones — could find a sort of voice. Nature and man were thus in some sense inextricable one from the other, a mirror for each other’s convolutions and deformities.

By the same token, it’s easy to think of artists who have gone to Ruisdael primarily for lessons in colour, or composition, or for a host of other reasons. Nor are other painters the only ones who can play this game. Each of us who engages, truly and deeply, with his work will bring something unique to it, and hence has the potential to take something unique away.

In short, then, I don’t doubt that future generations will continue to find their own distinctive epiphanies in Ruisdael’s painting, drawing and engraving. I only regret that the present exhibition didn’t push harder in trying to encourage what will, clearly, happen anyway.

Instead, however, lacklustre commentary, a cluttered display of distractingly odd-looking works and a sort of take-it-or-leave-it attitude have the strange effect of making the work of this extraordinary painter seem so much duller and deader than it ought to do. Ruisdael, ultimately, deserves a better show than this. Yet this is doubtless the only one we’ll see for some time. For that reason, the Royal Academy’s exhibition is, for all its various defects, of course, unmissable.
Bunny Smedley was co-founder and arts editor of electric-review.com. Until very recently, she wrote about art for the website of the Social Affairs Unit.

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Over there: Americans in Paris 1860-1900 at the National Gallery

[This article first appeared on the website of the Social Affairs Unit.]

Three centuries on, the passionate affair between the United States of America and France shows no signs of cooling. As is usually the case with affairs, this one has to no small degree proved an exercise in self-definition. Because for Americans, at any rate, France — and, in particular, Paris — has long been more than a place. It’s been an ideal, a standard against which Americans can test, shape and assert their national character.

There’s nothing new in this. For the ‘Founders’ such as Franklin and Jefferson, France was, above all else, a civilised place that at the same time was not, delightfully, Britain. For the age that followed, France was the other place that had recently dabbled in ‘revolution’, with all that meant and did not mean. Later, as the nineteenth century rolled on, France was the international capital of progress and cultural attainment, where the spectres of impacted racial hatred, civil strife and industrialised ugliness seemed, as long as one didn’t look very hard, agreeably far away. The France of Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and so forth restored to modernity a lustre that the carnage of the First World War might otherwise have tarnished indelibly. Next came, in no particular order, the German occupation, Camus, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Bridgette Bardot, 1968, draft dodgers, Foucault, Derrida, Euro Disney and Houllebecq. And indeed, on and on go the rows, the name-calling and the splits, as well as the interludes of ill-disguised desire and passionate reconciliation.

Most of all, though, France has allowed Americans who are that way inclined to say something intelligible about who they are, or at any rate who they wish to be. So for every American simmering with gee-whiz nativist contempt for all the things France might be seen to symbolise — which is to say, intellectualism, sensuality, frivolity and decadence, as opposed to the classic American virtues of practicality, decency, earnestness and healthy New World vigour — there’s another American who wonders, with varying degrees of guilt, whether an old Chateau Latour and a volume of Collette’s more feline stories might somehow have the edge on Garrison Keillor and a super-size helping of Liberty fries. Whisper it quietly, but — well, isn’t there something about those cheese-eating surrender monkeys that’s actually, when you come to think about it, pretty darned séduisant?

This land is your land
The present exhibition at the National Gallery reminds us of one particularly fruitful model of Franco-American rapproachment. Americans in Paris: 1860 – 1900 sets out to survey the experience of those American men and women who came to Paris in the latter half of the nineteenth century in order to study art there, seeking to examine not only at what they achieved whilst resident in the City of Light, but also how their time in Paris affected them once they returned, as most but not all of them did, to American shores.

In achieving this goal, it must be said, the organisers have not entirely succeeded. This isn’t surprising. The subject-matter, which superficially could hardly be more simple, is in fact fraught with hazards. How, for instance, to define ‘American’? As a nation largely peopled with immigrants of one vintage or another, it’s doubtless fair to include artists who weren’t born in the US but simply moved there at some point. It’s probably even fair to include those who were born in the US but chose to live and die somewhere else. There’s a bit of a difficulty, though, when three of the artists most central to Americans in Paris — Cassatt, Whistler, Sargent — were ‘American’ only in differently complicated, problematic ways. And if not, what on earth does it say about the experience described in this exhibition that none of these three showed much desire to spend time in America?

Come to think of it, though, ‘in Paris’ isn’t as straightforward a concept as all that, either. For while some artists stayed for a year or two, speaking American English to other Americans, attending their various American protestant chapels and generally entering into the swing of the so-called ‘American Colony’, others, in contrast, shunned their fellow countrymen, learned to speak good French, and lost themselves in a luxuriously thorough otherness. So there were very different ways of doing that, too.

Finally, since much of the work on show was painted outside France altogether, sometimes decades after the artist in question had last seen European shores, the organisational rigour stretches and sags in places. There’s a strong sense that the rules have been bent in every direction to license the inclusion of a handful of superstar works, whilst at the same time some fairly second-rate stuff has also been allowed in for the sake of scholarly completeness. In places the gaps between the strongest artists shown here, and the weaker ones, are almost distressingly vast. The result can, like any dodgy fusion cuisine, feel confused, indigestible — and sometimes more than a little unappealing.

American Beauty
All of this bothered me for about two minutes as I started to go round the exhibition. By the end, though, I hardly cared.

The National Gallery — by any sane standard, one of the world’s greatest art museums — holds, I think, exactly one American painting. (By ‘American’ I mean, incidentally, painted by an American in the United States. And if you want to defend the notion that Sargent’s great Lord Ribblesdale, perhaps the consummate statement of what an English milord ought to look like, should be considered ‘American’, this blog has an excellent comments facility — I can’t wait to see someone try to make that case.) Here it is. It isn’t exactly dreadful, but neither is very good. Certainly, lurking as it does in solitude and obscurity, it hardly testifies to the breadth or quality of American art. And while other British collections include a number of important American paintings — one thinks here of Tate Modern’s Rothkos — the emphasis is very much post-1917, even post-1939. It’s almost as if the art that Americans produced in the twentieth century came either directly out of Europe, or out of nowhere.

All of which matters for a number of reasons, not least because this narrative plays to the general British suspicion — long since implanted by Roger Fry, Herbert Read & Co — that most if not all worthwhile art made in the mid to late nineteenth century was necessarily created in France. As we shall see, British opinion was not alone in that particular delusion. But being reminded of the strengths of other national schools — what was happening, for instance, in the various places that are now Germany, Russia, Italy and the United States — is, if nothing else, a salutary prelude to discovering the real, serious strengths of Britain’s own art history, still far less well known or loved than it ought to be, both abroad and at home.

Down, anyway, from that well-exercised hobbyhorse, and back to the topic at hand. Here’s the point. The real joy of Americans in Paris has less to do with Americans, or Paris, than it does with the opportunity to spend time with a handful of very striking paintings rarely if ever seen in London, as well as a host of other works which, if less exciting, still have the capacity to charm, impress or perhaps surprise. An American friend of mine, having heard me lavishing praise on this show, expressed surprise at my enthusiasm for ‘that sort of stuff’ — but then admitted that he himself, however much he might love it too, probably took it a bit for granted. And the truth is, he probably does, because he lives in a part of the States where American art, good and bad and indifferent, is everywhere around him. It’s different in London.

And yes — to address my friend’s other entirely reasonable objection — when compared to the best French painting, too often the American art of the 19th century lacks the lustre of the cutting edge, sometimes looking more than a little derivative, safe and sensible. But so does most art, most of the time. Why should that be a barrier to enjoying it? And anyway, a few paintings easily clear that particular hurdle through sheer force of brilliance. Yes, I do love ‘that sort of stuff’, and hope that this show will make that sentiment more general, over here, right now.

Over Here
Americans in Paris has been organised in conjunction with two major American collections, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City) and the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston). Both have been remarkably generous in their loans, as have other institutions, not only in the United States either, resulting in a large and sometimes spectacular show.

From the National Gallery (Washington D.C.) comes James McNeill Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862), while that much-admired, much-parodied classic, Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1871), borrowed from the Musée D’Orsay, occupies the same room. It’s an exciting conjunction — two compositions grossly self-congratulatory in their obsession with formal issues, yet utterly different in emotional temperature — the one all sensuality and breathlessness, the other so stern and dignified as to seem, even now, like a sort of reproach. Elsewhere the exhibition includes an amazing Whistler seascape called Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, 1865, loaned by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (Boston). It was apparently painted while Courbet was working at Whistler’s side, yet the work — and it’s typical Whistler, this — almost aggressively rejects every last shred of the older painter’s influence.

And that, in a nutshell, is the sort of juxtaposition that raises Americans in Paris well above any flaws in its overall coherence. Wherever Whistler’s national loyalties may have resided, whatever the influence of France (as opposed to Britain or Japan) may have been, these are canonical works by a serious artist. The London viewing public is, frankly, lucky to see them.

She worked with animals and children
And then there is Mary Cassatt. What to make of her? My own view varies. Sometimes I think that she’s a tedious second-rater, her reputation engorged by the crude biological fact of her gender far more than by her talent, and her popularity largely contingent upon the accident that her painting and prints make really good greeting-cards, exhibition posters and decorations for the better sort of paediatricians’ waiting-rooms. But come to think of it, such suspicions are at their strongest when I’ve seen too much of her work in reproduction which, by embracing its sweetness, rarely seems to do much of a favour for either its rigour or complexity.

But how else to judge her? Again, there isn’t much Cassatt work on show in Britain. Americans in Paris contains about a dozen of her paintings. Standing amongst these works — for there’s a little room more or less devoted to them — I was really surprised at how strong they looked, and how little effort it takes to imagine what Degas saw in the very proper, very determined Philadelphia lady who became his pupil, colleague and lifelong very good friend. True, her drawing wasn’t as tough as his, her forcefulness swaddled in the soft stuff of domesticity — but how many artists could bear the comparison? Here, if not all the brushstrokes genuinely thrill, at least many of them do. The colour clashes, reverberates, surprises. Cassatt’s way of filling a canvas is more full of boldness, in the flesh, than it is of easy charm. Those sleepy, cuddly babies function well as softly solid forms, not just as the icons of cuteness that they also, incidentally, are.

Sargent major
The third great star of this exhibition is John Singer Sargent. Britain is fortunate in its holdings of this infinitely elegant artist’s work, present in public and private art collections as well as in an excellent exhibition at the Tate in 1988. We’ve had access not only to his society portraits, but to his landscapes, genre scenes and war paintings. So we can hardly say that we don’t know what a good Sargent looks like, or claim to be surprised by his breadth or fluency. If anything, familiarity might lead, if not directly to contempt, then at least to a certain apathetic disregard en route to it.

All credit, then, to the organisers of Americans in Paris for pulling off the remarkable coup du theatre they achieve here. For one of the best things about this show is the degree of visual drama that underpins it — something more familiar to the Royal Academy than the National Gallery in recent years, but entirely appropriate for this particular exhibition.

There’s a handsome Sargent early on — a suave, voguishly monochrome portrait of that great dandy and self-promoter Carolus-Duran, whose studio offered a particularly warm welcome to rich, fashionable American art students. Painted in 1879, when Sargent was 23 years old, in a sense it effortlessly outshines everything else in the first room of the exhibition. Sargent’s confidence appears complete and, what’s more, well-justified. His ability to make a nondescript patch of taupe or umber flicker with interest looks back, meaningfully, to Velasquez, as does his contempt for the easy appeal of colour, or his ability to drive white into black, wet-into-wet, thus creating a cuff or a collar. What’s more, though, this last trick was one that Carolus-Duran particularly recommended to his pupils, whom he also encouraged to ‘draw’ directly onto the canvas with paint. (In the Luxembourg Gardens, also in this show, shows this strategy to full advantage.) So at several levels, then, this portrait of Carolus-Duran is a tribute to what France, or at any rate a single Frenchman, gave Sargent. At the same time, normally resident in Williamstown, Massachusetts, it’s a lesson for any complacent London viewer in what Sargent was doing before he took up painting the British aristocracy.

Room with a view
The real kick, though, comes a little while later. Two rooms on, turn to the right and suddenly the view through the long enfilade begins to register — it’s Sargent’s great portrait of the daughters of Edward Darley Boit, painted in 1882 in Paris.

As regular readers will perhaps remember, I am no great fan of the basement of the Sainsbury Wing — considering it eternally pokey, airless, incredibly badly lit, etc, etc — but this particular view is one of the few gifts its design affords the curators, and there’s little doubt that here they make the most of it.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) is a very large picture (87 3/8 inches x 87 5/8 inches, apparently), and because the image itself includes a view into another room — with a broad hint of Velasquez’s Las Meninas in the composition — the way the work is positioned encourages it to expand into something grander than either reality or its own richly mythic, symbolic status. Four little girls, kitted out in starched pinafores, each project an entirely distinctive personality, but are all the same made to share the space with a big Chinese carpet, an enormous porcelain vase, a hard-to-read item in Chinese lacquered red, as a half-lit doorway beckons beyond. Maybe it’s the throw-away elegance of the muted colour, maybe it’s the almost frightening formal power of the composition — or maybe, who knows, it’s the unrelenting, unsmiling faces of the three younger sisters, whilst the eldest half-turns away into the darkness, driving the viewer’s glance further across the canvas to the right, giving this painting a sense often present in Sargent’s best work, of something left unsaid. Over the years, much has been written about this painting. Standing in front of it, or indeed a few dozen yards away from it, one suddenly understands why.

The ugly American?
Sargent is also responsible for the painting chosen by the organisers as the symbol for what they evidently hope will be a crowd-pleasing blockbuster show. In a way this is fitting, as Sargent’s Madame X (1883-4) is a painting that says, in its own way, something particularly interesting, if not entirely positive, about the experience of Americans in Paris.

The subject, Madame Pierre Gautreau, society beauty and wife of a very rich banker, grew up in New Orleans. When Sargent showed Mme Gautreau’s portrait at the Salon in 1884, one shoulder-strap dangling down against her icy-white upper arm, the scandal that resulted was in part about the amount of bare flesh on show, and in part about rumours connecting her with a doctor whose portrait hung nearby, but was also in part rooted in anti-American feeling — resentment of the brashness, lack of subtlety and plentiful success with which so many rich Americans were launching themselves into the higher echelons of Parisian social life.

It would be easy, given the fame of this work, to feel a bit bored by it, were it not for the fact that the painting itself is, seen up close, so amazingly odd. Sargent usually laboured hard at making the most spectacular effects seem effortless. Here, though, everything has a strangely laboured, almost awkward quality. The most alarming feature of the work isn’t, as one might have expected, Mme Gautreau’s décolletage, but rather, her profile. It’s sharp as a newly-ground blade — hard, unfeminine, almost inhuman. Moreover, in defining its curves and angles, Sargent evidently worked and worked at the surfaces surrounding so that it almost seems to be carved, physically, out of the surface. Meanwhile the sitter’s eyes are strange, over-dark smudges, and her skin has the faintly livid quality of a newish corpse. Heaven only knows what Mme Gautreau looked like in real life, but what one sees here has more to do with determination than with beauty, more to do with nerve than grace. When the work was received badly, Sargent responded by leaving Paris for London and America, taking the painting with him. Later, when he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1916, he called it ‘the best thing I have done’. It’s hard to agree, but at the same time, it’s equally hard to deny that this gifted, shy, brilliant painter captured something of importance here.

In the beauty of the lilies ….
Although quite a lot of Americans in Paris is taken up with works by Whistler, Cassatt and Sargent, this is in fact a generously-sized exhibition, including paintings by quite a wide range of American artists.

There are, for instance, a number of works here by Thomas Eakins. One of them — a huge, alarmingly life-like Crucifixion (1880) — turns out to be the fruit of sessions in which Eakins convinced a fellow-student to allow himself to be suspended from a life-sized cross while Eakins photographed and then painted the resulting image. There’s a cold-blooded Yankee literalism here that only gains from its proximity to a particular strand of scientifically-minded spiritualism, very much the creature of own Eakins’ time and place — and perhaps just a hint of guilty homoeroticism, too. Painted in America, it was rejected by the jury of the Paris Salon of 1890. An earlier work, however — Starting Out after Rail (1874) — shows another facet of Eakins’ ability. Here a small boat sets out under sail on a brisk, bright, slightly windy day. The subject matter couldn’t be more simple, but the colour is subtly brilliant, the composition stark — so much so, indeed, that a certain sort of critic, fond of lineages and national tags, might wish to connect it with a world of colour-field abstraction which, another sort of critic might argue, is entirely out of sympathy with anything Eakins might have intended. Still, it’s a startlingly effective painting.

And then there is Winslow Homer. Sadly, I remain, despite a certain amount of hard work, unable to understand exactly out how Prisoners from the Front (1866) is meant to relate to the governing theme of Americans in Paris, aside from the fact that when he eventually travelled to Paris, the American-born, Boston-trained artist-illustrator for Harper’s Weekly showed his picture at an international exposition there, where it could hardly have been flagged up more clearly as ‘American’ — not only by the context, of course, but by the painting’s then-topical subject-matter.

Prisoners from the Front is one of small handful of paintings in which American painters came anywhere close to making serious art out of the bleakest hours in the history of the Land of the Free. (Photography, in the main, did a better job.) And although the catalogue for Americans in Paris describes this work as ‘confrontational’, in truth, like the magnificent The Veteran in a New Field, it radiates ambivalence.

Homer’s painting doesn’t depict a famous assault, or a gallant defence, or the great actions of massive armies commanded by supermen. On the contrary, its scale — emotionally, as well as physically — could hardly be more modest. A frieze-like composition laid out against a background of muddy-gold fields and cloud-curdled sky, it pictures the moment when an youngish officer of the Army of the United States (a family friend of Homer’s, it turns out) confronts three recently-captured Confederate prisoners, fresh from the front at the battle of Spotsylvania. One’s a dashing young cavalryman, hair long, expression arrogant, hand curled defiantly on the hip where his sabre ought to have been resting; one’s a bewildered old veteran who’s seen many a fight before this last one; the third is the spiritual forefather of generations of redneck trailer-trash, too incuriously stupid to wonder what kind of mishap has befallen him this time.

Now, it’s easy to read this trio as stereotypes representing what’s wrong with the South, and hence why the North was right to crush its secessionist impulses — pitting obsolescence, arrogance and ignorance against progress, dignity and rationality, as personified by the Union officer. But it’s also possible to see in it an attempt to humanise and soften one of the world’s first mechanised, mass-conscription conflicts. The Southerners, for all their archtypical simplification, are by no means demonised. Rather, they are depicted with a degree of sympathy, understanding and kindness that argues more for shared humanity than for ongoing partisan hatred. Well, that’s my reading, anyway. What the Parisians of the late 1860s would have made of it is even harder to know. Homer, in a sense, stands at the other end of the spectrum from lifelong expats such as Cassell and Sargent. Although he lived for a while in Paris, he soon returned to his beloved New England, not very much altered, as far as I can tell, by his time away.

E Pluribus Unum
And this, in a sense, leads us directly to the major question raised by Americans in Paris. At what point does individual creative expression intersect with national identity? In other words, is there such there as an American way of painting, as distinct from a French way of painting? Was there something basically American both in what these young men and women brought east across the Atlantic with them, and in what, if anything, they ended up taking away from the ateliers of Paris?

In a word, no — at least on the evidence of this exhibition.

Part of this stems from the point made earlier, regarding the diversity of ways in which a person could be an ‘American’ spending time ‘in Paris’. There were so many different stories, different affinities and antagonisms, different frustrations and achievements. How to compare, for instance, Sargent’s story with that of Henry Ossawa Tanner, a skilful, learned and sometimes inspired painter of Biblical scenes, who at the age of 32 decided to make Paris his home — and in doing so, surely avoided at least some of the bigotry that an Afro-American artist would have suffered in his native United States? How to compare Cassatt’s trajectory with that of Elizabeth Jane Gardner? Having arrived in Paris in at the early date of 1864, this enterprising woman initially made a living by copying paintings in the Louvre for American collectors, all awhile dressing up as a man in order to attend men-only drawing lessons. She not only studied (as so many American did) with William Adolphe Bouguereau, but in fact ended up marrying this pin-up boy of academic classicism — a fact which, with the benefits of hindsight, could hardly be more obvious from the glossy surface of the faintly alarming Shepherd David, on show in the present exhibition.

The broad chronological sweep of American in Paris also tends to emphasise difference over similarity. The earliest works here are, I think, from the mid-1860s, whereas the later ones — including Frederick Childe Hassam’s spectacular Allies Day, May 1917, a riot of French and American flags which bursts through the time-constraints of the exhibition with triumphant aplomb — take us well and truly into a place from which we can glimpse the high peaks of Modernism before us. So the lessons these Americans internalised in the ateliers, the crowded salons and the summer sketching-holidays, all of which might have started out forming direct trans-generational links with the shades of Ingres and even David, came at last to encompass Impressionism and its offspring. The shifts in subject-matter reflect this, in an exhibition that takes in everything from the Orientalist fantasy of Charles Pearce’s The Arab Jeweler to the brashly skilful rendering of artificial light in Willard Metcalf’s In the Café and the Art Nouveau eroticism of John White Alexander’s Isabella and the Pot of Basil. These were, in other words, the work of different individuals attempting different things in different styles at various different times. Small wonder, then, that the overall impression is one of variety, not homogeneity.

French Connection
Yet despite this, it’s clear enough that in a very broad sense, the continuing artistic traffic between France and the Unites States was to have serious and lasting implications for American art history. Young Americans, seduced by the effortless self-confidence as much as the actual merits of French painting, were quick to convey their enthusiasm to the folks back home. Several of the artists included in Americans in Paris went on to advise American patrons on acquiring French art, which does a great deal to explain the wealth of first-class Impressionist paintings to be found in American collections, both public and private. The impact on taste, both commercial and critical, was immense. In a virtuous circle, all the feelings about France that had propelled those students to Paris in the first place ended up reinforcing a particular notion of France. In particular, the burden of all those gilded memories of riverside picnics, the cool halls of the Louvre, the raucous bonhomie of the smoky cafes and faces half-glimpsed amidst the throngs in the crowded boulevards only increased the sense that France, more than anywhere else, instantiated culture in the highest, most Apollonian sense — rather to the exclusion of has-been high-art hot-spots like the Italian city-states or the Netherlands, let alone places like Great Britain that, for whatever reason, have never needed to add art history to their arsenal of state-formation tactics.

And this, in turn, meant that when Old Europe seemed too tired out and torn up by war to sustain any longer the flames of artistic pre-eminence, the torch could only be passed to the United States, which was conveniently doing its darnedest at the same time to slip into the role of geo-political hegemon. Or something like that, anyway. Neat art-historical narratives, like the broader historical narratives in whose shadow they develop, trade not on the inconveniently lumpy stuff of individual lives — the sensitive and cultivated American, the boorish and Philistine Frenchman — but rather on the quality of their own relentless, remorseless streamlining. When they start to fall apart, there is something unappealingly messy and unsatisfactory in the result, however more ‘true’ it may be. So if there’s something slightly undigestible about Americans in Paris, it probably has as much to do with this, as it does with the exhibition’s breadth, variety and complexity. And that, in its own way, is a sort of recommendation.

Red, white and blue, what does it mean to you?
Yet it’s hard to untangle the knotted strands of art and nationhood, no matter how devoutly one might wish to do so.

After going round the exhibition, I stopped for a coffee nearby. I ended up chatting with a man — young, a bit trendy, quite ‘normal’ really — who’d been involved, in a marginal sort of way, with organising Americans in Paris. Well, the behind-the-scenes side of these things always interests me, so we spoke for quite a while about various aspects of the show — decisions about wall-colour, how high to hang a few key paintings, fiddly things that were done with the lighting.

Eventually, we even got round to the merchandise available in the National Gallery’s shop. He smiled ruefully, agreeing that this stuff would doubtless sell particularly well to the American tourists who were, he felt, the prime audience for Americans in Paris. I expressed surprise — surely British and European visitors would be interested, too? Especially when they so rarely have the opportunity to view American art of this calibre?

His reply shocked me a little, but on consideration, I think he was probably had a point. What he said was this: that it was a shame that the word ‘Americans’ had to appear in the exhibition’s title, because it would put far too many people off coming to see what are really, when one came to think of it, some pretty good paintings.

Well, be that as it may, whatever France or, as far as that goes, the United States symbolises to you, please don’t be put off seeing Americans in Paris — a show that, for its various flaws, is nonetheless both thought-provoking and beautiful.
Dr Bunny Smedley was born in the United States, but despite her admiration for American painting, now carries a British passport. She lives in London with her husband and young son.

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The Welfare Show at the Serpentine Gallery

Too Much Like Hard Work
Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset : The Welfare Show at the Serpentine Gallery

[The following article first appeared on the website of the Social Affairs Unit.]

Whatever its defects, The Welfare Show at the Serpentine Gallery is not short on grand ambition. Here’s the sort of scope the organisers promise us:

What is the welfare state? What has caused its decline? How socially responsible has it been? The Welfare Show by artists Michael Elmgreen (born 1961, Denmark) and Ingar Dragset (born 1969, Norway) uses sculptures, installations and an encyclopaedic style catalogue to focus attention on welfare systems in the Western world. Within this context, visitors are invited to consider such concepts as power, economic disparity, health care, immigration, the police state, and the social role of art.

Modesty is such an attractive virtue, don’t you think? Yet it was exciting to dream that by simply spending twenty minutes at an installation in Kensington Gardens’ old tea pavilion, and then perhaps a few more minutes leafing through the ‘encyclopaedic’ catalogue (texts variously in English, German, Norwegian and Danish, yours for £29.80), the casual visitor might hope to gain insight into so many of the Big Questions of contemporary social policy, in so pleasant and painless a fashion. For — as another reviewer here recently suggested — art these days has become increasingly self-referential and detached from real life. There’s much to be said for work that can see past its own navel to the wider world beyond.

So I made my way to the Serpentine on a bitingly cold winter morning, full of — well, if not hope exactly, then at least a degree of genuine curiosity. The Welfare Show had received, I knew, some very good reviews. Elmgreen and Dragset’s contribution to Utopia Station at the 2003 Venice Biennale hadn’t been particularly inspiring, but maybe they’d make more of a splash in a solo exhibition? And while — fair enough — I perhaps wasn’t expecting answers, I did at least hope that the works might, at the very least, raise worthwhile, stimulating questions. These are, after all, crucial issues. It would be nice to think that art could play a role in our engagement with them.

Spot the difference
Unfortunately, The Welfare Show fell far short of its billing.

There are few congruences between The Welfare Show and the actual Welfare State — so few that it was often difficult to remember what the show was notionally ‘about’. For one thing, the Serpentine Gallery is extremely clean. There’s no rubbish, no graffiti, no foetid and ancient puddles of hard-to-identify bodily fluids. Instead, everything smells as galleries usually do, which is to say, of nothing except cleanliness, with perhaps a whiff of linseed oil from the colour reproductions in the catalogue. The loos are bright, spotless and well-maintained. The young woman at the reception desk was charm personified. The signage is not only helpful and accurate, but was composed with attention to grammar, punctuation and nuance. I didn’t have to wait around for anything at all.

Nor was there a sense of boredom, disorientation or fear, if only because during the time the visitor spends there, he knows perfectly well that he is viewing an art installation, and that he can exit whenever he likes. When I was ready to leave the exhibition space, two gallery attendants rushed to help me pull my son’s push-chair through a narrow pair of doors. ‘What did you think?’, one of them asked me, looking genuinely interested. You certainly don’t get all that on the NHS, nor on any other bit of the Welfare State with which I’ve ever made sustained contact.

But more to the point, the really important non-resemblance is this — although The Welfare Show is free at the point of delivery, it really is absolutely free, in the sense that I was not being asked, or rather forced, to convey a large portion of my earnings to it in order to keep in action something I neither want for myself nor wish to impose upon others. This, after all, is art, not life. Many of us can, by now, tell the difference.

Socks slavery
So, what happens in The Welfare Show? It isn’t hard to describe. The viewer, entering through double doors, encounters a featureless foyer, empty except for a sign offering socks at £1.25 a pair. In what will become a recurrent leifmotif of the show, however, there are no socks for sale — nor is it clear what socks and their pricing has to do with the welfare state, as I find it hard to believe that even in the most nostalgically socialist Scandinavian societies, the production of socks has been nationalised.

No, there’s a point of some sort being made here. Presumably, we are meant to think of the dismal sweatshops in which 12-year old subcontinental wage-serfs toil ceaselessly over their looms, manufacturing cheap socks soaked in the blood of the workers, for a parasitical capitalist superstructure of callous, exploitative sock-wearers. We are not, I suspect, meant to think about, e.g., frugal working people who might wish to buy cheap socks. Actually, though, in my case, it all went wrong, because it was only too easy to think of a class of gallery-goers who buy delicious Fogal tights at £21 a time, and then throw them away after one wearing — but who wish to act as if they mind very much indeed about these £1.25 socks. Real socks, on sale in the gallery, might have raised better questions, but would perhaps subsequently have been sold for inflated prices on eBay, thanks to having been part of an installation and thus no longer being socks at all, but rather Art, which is worth more. In any event, if this idea occurred to the artists, they evidently got cold feet about it. As it were.

On a roll
But enough of unfulfilled promise. Here’s a minor mystery. Turning the corner, I had to pass by another viewer, in this case one in a wheelchair, chatting with a member of the gallery staff. Or at any rate, that was what I thought I was doing. Like most people who travel with a toddler in a push-chair, I always read up on disabled access before going to art exhibitions, for the simple reason that any non-accessible show means relying on the generally fairly ropey kindness of strangers. The Serpentine, though, because it is situated on a single level, is incredibly push-chair friendly. This man, then, didn’t seem to need help of any kind. So I simply smiled politely at the man and the gallery attendant as I passed.

It was only later that I realised, reading someone else’s review, that the man in the wheelchair might have been part of the installation. But since he looked like a happy, comfortable, sociable and, well, if we are being honest here, actually rather attractive male fellow visitor, it didn’t actually occur to me to read his presence differently simply because he was sitting in a wheelchair. Now, however, I worry that he should have been ‘raising issues’ for me, rather than just chatting in some miscellaneous Scandi-language and looking pleasant. As it was, however, he was pretty much the most aesthetically satisfying feature of the show. So perhaps I shouldn’t complain too much.

Cash & Carry-cot
Turning the corner, then, past the chap in the wheelchair, I was confronted with what appeared to be an ATM.

Except that in keeping with the developing theme here, the object in question wasn’t an actual ATM. It didn’t even look much like a real ATM. There were no lights, no branding, no obvious functionality. And that, too, seemed like a missed opportunity, if only because in this day and age any minor villain seems to be able to set up data-stealing pseudo-ATMs on any street-corner in the part of the West End where I live, and to do so with a level of simulation good enough to wrong-foot plenty of passing custom. Whereas the ATM here wasn’t convincing at all. Would it really have been so hard to install a real one? But again, why set one up at all? For the Welfare State doesn’t set up cash points, any more than it sell or even prices down-market socks, or supplies galleries with men in wheelchairs. What, then, was the point?

Well, under the ATM there was a large plastic doll in carry-cot which was, again, I guess, supposed to make some sort of profound statement. Now, at present, whatever my other critical faults may be, I am not remotely short of maternal instinct. Indeed, when I hear a baby cry in the next aisle of my local Tesco, my hormones force me to roam the aisles until I have looked at the bawling baby in question and satisfied myself as to its wellbeing.

But at the Serpentine? Plastic dolls in carry-cots don’t do much for me. And why leave a baby next to an ATM anyway? The one thing you can say about ATMs is that people do seek them out, so if you were abandoning a baby and wanted someone to find it, there are probably worse places. However, why not read the display as one where the carry-cot has been put down for a moment so that the baby’s mother is free to use the ATM? Or a dozen other equally anodyne scenarios? If you want art that makes a more eye-catching comment on the power of automated banking, there’s a Banksy intervention on a cashpoint somewhere around the top of Farringdon Road. Passed in a taxi on a dark night at speed, it at least makes a sort of impression. This, however, did not.

Insofar, then, as this carry-cot display was emotive, what it evoked was, at best, mild irritation. Even my son was bored. He likes looking at real babies, or even real ATMs, with all their lights and funny noise. Neither of these, though, even registered a blip on his mental radar. Yet several critics, even a very good one, found the display ‘shocking’. And while every review repeats devoutly the belief that this mannequin replicates a ‘new born infant’, it doesn’t. Am I the only art critic alive who actually knows what a new born infant looks like? Apparently so. And yes, well, I guess most art reviewers stay in a lot, spending quality time with their critical texts.

Lights, camera, yawn
What next? A corridor of institutional-looking doors. One could look into a window and see neon lights, as if part of the set for a television programme called “The Welfare Show”. Presumably we were supposed to register outrage at the role of the media in something or other … or not. If Tom Paulin had been imprisoned in the room with Germaine Greer, Frank Kermode and one of those trans-Atlantic-accented, wholly interchangeable women who are given airtime in order to achieve quotas I might have watched a bit longer, but not with enormous interest. As it was, I moved on.

Qui custodiet ipsos custodes?
The high point of The Welfare Show was probably the small room staffed with half a dozen security guards. The artists had gone all out for big effects here. For rather than being represented by plastic dolls, the security guards were — and I know this purely because I read it somewhere; it’s by no means obvious just from looking — simply job-seekers hired to pretend they were security guards. Several pretended, in one case, convincingly so, to be napping at their stations. Another smiled so adorably as to make my son wave at him. And one rather dashing one yawned theatrically at me — but then winked. Again, though, it was hard to know what part of the Welfare State these people were trying to replicate. For in what bit of the Welfare State are there six guards guarding a small empty room? Presumably, we were meant to take away a message about the uselessness of their work, the emptiness of their daily activities.

Here, though, for a moment, I am going to be serious, if only because at this point the show intersected with my own life, and with that of my son.

Once, a year or two ago, when my son was in the Special Care Baby Unit there, I spent two months walking in and out of an NHS hospital several times a day. A high point of this largely miserable experience was one of the security guards. He was an old West Indian man with a lovely voice. He sang hymns to pass the time. Better still, though, he realised something that many of the better-paid staff did not, which is the importance of treating patients and their families like real human beings. So this man, who basically sat in a little cubicle all day, remembered who we all were, and said hello and goodbye, and smiled, and commented on the weather, and made little jokes, and kept on singing. In doing so, he boosted our sanity more than I can begin to describe. Sorry, then, if this sounds a bit boring, but the point is a real one: is the exhibition trying to argue that anyone who works as a security guard within the Welfare State is doing something vacuous, boring and ultimately pointless? Or is that only a reflection of the real character of this show, leaking out on what it seeks to depict?

Round and round we go
In any event, contemplating this question, we went through the room and turned another corridor. On the right there was a window into a room with a baggage carousel going round and round, with a single parcel on board. Beyond, a modernist staircase had neatly dissolved into ruin. Why? But there was no departure or landing board, no tired-out passengers — and in any event, once again, surely few Western states run airports as a facet of welfare provision? Meanwhile that single bit of luggage looked clean, well-handled, happy enough — unlike most that one sees in a similar situation. So what was the point? Oh, sure, I know — but you’d have to be a very stupid asylum-seeker not to carry hand-luggage only, and many don’t even have that. The airport code on the parcel was, after all, the one for Ibiza. Likely enough, it was full of nothing but sweaty, unwashed and otherwise dodgy clubbing gear, a few old Ministry of Sound cds and perhaps, if Customs was having a good day, the odd disregarded tab of E. One quite sees why no-one collected this bag. Fair enough. But what does the welfare state have to say about any of that?

Don’t worry, we’re almost done now.

A dead end
I walked into what turned out to be the final room. To the right was a door — we weren’t allowed to pass through — in which a mannequin lay on a hospital trolley. in what must be the cleanest, quietest, most peaceful hospital corridor on earth. Ahead there was simply another door we weren’t allowed to open. I really do not know what this was supposed to say to us. As ever, it didn’t seem to me to resemble any bit of the welfare state, if only because as I stood there, contemplating the final ‘no entry’ sign, there was a gallery guide with a walkie-talkie standing by in close attendance, ready to help me deal with any challenges raised this apparently momentous discovery. Oh, and there was a ticketing machine of the sort that I associate with the fish-counter at Selfridges, but as there was nothing to buy, nothing to wait for, I didn’t take a ticket.

And then finally, in the room beyond the hospital gurney, there was evidence of floor-cleaning. I have since discovered, through reading other reviews, that what I was supposed to have seen is ‘a pole dancer’s podium’. Having lived in Soho for half a decade, this would not have occurred to me independently. How helpful it is, then, that so many critics read their press packs — not available, alas, to the general public. Still, though — and for the last time — is there really a place where the Welfare State treats the provision of pole dancers as one of its basic functions? And even if there were, wouldn’t it be quite a good thing if the floors were kept clean?

A cheap holiday in other people’s misery
Readers who have made it this far may perhaps have detected a persistent note of bad-tempered impatience here. Rightly so.

Art that speaks only about itself may do very little good, but it is also unlikely to do much harm. Lives are not often ruined by a bad juxtaposition of yellows, or an allusion to Sol Lewitt that doesn’t quite come off properly. Whereas art that seeks to raise big questions opens itself up to criticism on an entirely different level. At the very least, when done badly, such art panders to the fantasy that wafting around a gallery for half an hour equates to serious engagement with the topics at hand — that by looking at an installation the viewer has somehow shared someone’s suffering, understood what caused it, and perhaps even made the world better in some way. All of which is, very often, nonsense of a particularly voyeuristic, solipsistic and nasty sort — the rancid half-life of the older idea that beauty, or at any rate art, can somehow make people better. A single example sums it up what I mean. Writing in the Guardian, critic Adrian Searle pronounced himself deeply moved by The Welfare Show: ‘it makes me want to weep’. So that’s that, then: the Welfare State and its ills reduced to material on which a Guardian journalist can be seen to exercise his exquisite sensibility.

To be fair, for those who wished to experience this exhibition at an even more profound level, the Serpentine, in conjunction with the Office for Contemporary Art, Norway, also offered a one-day conference — now, sadly, finished — as well as a talk by Tony Benn MP and other assorted treats. The conference apparently covered quite a lot of ground.

Topics include: content and form in the politics of art; the Scandinavian model of welfare as a socio-spatial form of experience; the current viability of the welfare state and its possible future forms; the architecture of welfare; and institutional critique and relational aesthetics.

Not having been there, it’s hard to judge, but my dark suspicion is that the programme mostly consisted of some very unexceptional middlebrow banalities given a minor grit-induced frisson through the admixture of some Old Left political content and marginally less stale postmodern language, and that everyone went away feeling particularly clever and socially responsible.

All the same, it seems to me that the main defect of this sort of art isn’t so much an explicit political bias, as it is a failure to take sides — a failure to say anything very clear at all about the topic at hand. I have written here about Luc Tuyman’s habit of ‘dealing with’ controversial historical subjects in a manner so sleekly ambivalent as escape controversy altogether, and elsewhere about the tendency of war art these days to avoid saying anything much about war. In a way, both are symptoms of the same problem. Engagement anywhere is seen as a weakness, a lack of critical detachment, a failure of art. At the same time, it’s virtually impossible to create a work of art that doesn’t absolutely crackle with implicit personal commentary, in what it does and doesn’t say, about the world in which it was created. So the lack of engagement here is a stance in its own right, and not, in my view, a very constructive or admirable one. In a really excellent brief review, again in the Guardian, the marvellous Frank Field rightly draws a contrast between The Welfare Show and the nearby Albert Memorial. One of these works has something to say, the other doesn’t, and whether you agree with what’s being said or not, there is little question that one makes a stronger, clearer, and far more lasting impression than the other.

Insofar as The Welfare Show takes a view about its subject matter, then, it is, I think, this: that the Welfare State is grey, mysterious and obscurely unsatisfactory. And, err, that’s it. Anything else depends on what you bring with you — cynicism about the whole enterprise, a great desire to show off the tenderness of your feelings, a curdled Bennite romanticism for the future that never was, or perhaps something altogether. The exhibition itself, in contrast, seems to me robustly noncommittal. So the implicit message is that none of the detail really matters that much anyway — as long, that is, as ‘conventional notions’ are being ‘challenged’, the overall atmosphere is ‘disturbing’ or ‘unsettling’, and provided that no one is gauche enough to suggest anything resembling a solution.

Reality check
Elmgreen and Dragset are probably safe, though, because the sort of people who sniff out exhibitions like this are only too well aware of the rules, and play along accordingly. They also tend to be — and I don’t think this is remotely an unfair assumption — people whose experience of the Welfare State is limited, occasional and, when it does take place, relatively privileged.

Who won’t see The Welfare Show? Well, there’s Kerry, for one. I met her recently at a local toddler group, where her two-year old boy battled amiably over the toys with my slightly younger son. Kerry obviously has quite a lot of self-respect — she had put on makeup and was rather smartly dressed, although her platinum-blonde hair was showing salt-and-pepper roots. She also looked tired — not just the normal tiredness of a toddler’s mum, either, but more as if life had worn her down a bit.

We got to talking. Because her youngest son was in fact her fifth child — the oldest is now 18 — her local NHS hospital (the same one where my son was born, as it happens) decided that she was ‘an old hand’ and so left her to give birth absolutely alone, with consequences that left her boy in the Special Care Unit for a couple of weeks. The boy’s father was even less interested than the NHS, from the sound of it. Recently, Kerry had been moved to an ethnically homogenous estate where she and her son were the odd ones out, and were made to feel very unwelcome. A frequent trope in her stories, all of which were sad, involved calling out the police: ‘But they don’t do nothing until someone gets killed, do they?’ The toddler group that gave her the scope for conversation was, needless to say, sponsored not by the welfare state, but rather by a local Christian group, getting by on a wing and a prayer and attracting a genuine cross-section of the local toddler community.

Kerry, I suspect, knows as little of relational aesthetics as I do, and probably takes a similarly vague line regarding “the Scandinavian model of welfare as a socio-spatial form of experience”. In contrast, what she wanted was fairly simple. She wanted a flat where her neighbours wouldn’t come to the door and scream at her, or ring the police, every time her son had a tantrum. And she’d have preferred not to have had to give birth in conditions so bad that, as she and I reflected in unison, ‘you wouldn’t treat a dog like that, would you?’, that had left her son with serious, probably life-long difficulties.

In other words, what makes Adrian Searle want to weep when he sees it in a gallery is just the palest reflection of Kerry’s everyday life. And why go to a gallery to see that? Anyway, if her narratives are anything to go by, Kerry’s version of the Welfare State isn’t grey and featureless at all. It’s full of colour, distinct personalities, particular preferences and grievances and plans. The empty nihilism of The Welfare Show would, I think, have alienated Kerry, if only because to her, due to where she’s ended up in life, the actual Welfare State is the locus of such urgent, specific, persistent concern.

It was clear from everything about Kerry — the makeup, the clothes, the hair, the almost painful need to be seen to behave well and to be liked (because she helped clear up the toys, she lavished praise on everyone else’s children, she thanked everyone as she left, for all the world as if normal conventional courtesy was a favour she didn’t quite deserve) — that what she needed was, in fact, a bit of beauty, entertainment and distraction. In other words, some old-fashioned aesthetic pleasure might have done her a world of good. And yet in a sense I’d have loved to have gone round The Welfare Show with her. ‘Oh, I don’t know anything about art,’ Kerry had said, modestly, when we’d got round to the subject of what each of us ‘did’. But I strongly suspect she’d have seen through the vacuous nonsense of The Welfare Show in an instant, which is more than many art professionals seem willing or able to do.

Art failure
Art that talks only about itself may be tiresome, but at least it is talking about what it knows best. Whereas when artists attempt to engage with the world around them, they have a duty to do so intelligently, or, at very least, responsibly. Otherwise, there is something exploitative about the whole business that leaves a very unpleasant taste. Socially engaged art is one thing — shallow, pretentious, failed art is another.

The Welfare Show, in summary, does little to meet the preposterously oversized goals its organisers claimed for it. If you want a quick introduction to welfare — past history and present-day issues — read James Bartholemew’s accessible yet eye-opening The Welfare State We’re In and check out its related blog. Or keep up with the activities and publications of the excellent Civitas. Or, as far as that goes, follow the frequent contributions on this very website, many of which deal, from a variety of points of view, with welfare and related issues. The Welfare State, as it currently exists in this country, is ageing disaster that had already consumed far too much time, energy, wealth and self-respect from far too many individuals. Its problems, so complex and deeply-entrenched, deserve serious consideration, honest analysis and real solutions — even if all of this means challenging a few conventions or upsetting people. It really is that important.

If, on the other hand, you simply want to look at dreary installations, there is always The Welfare Show at the Serpentine.

Bunny Smedley has a doctorate in history from Cambridge University, and lives in central London with her husband and young son.

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Dan Flavin at the Hayward Gallery

This article first appeared on the website of the Social Affairs Unit.

Strange to say, on the day after I’d been round the major Dan Flavin retrospective currently showing at the Hayward Gallery, I found myself in a DIY shop, staring at a display of fluorescent lighting.

For most of us, these days, fluorescent lighting is sufficiently ubiquitous as to have become invisible through sheer familiarity. This is a pity, because in some ways it’s surprisingly interesting. For one thing, as technologies go, it is a lot older than most of us might assume. Its origins stretch back as far as 1856, while by the 1890s recognisable forebears of the present-day models were already in production. In 1938 General Electric bought Edmund Germer’s patent and brought fluorescent illumination into widespread commercial use. The strip-light, and all that followed on from it, was born.

In doing so, it must be said, this unwieldy American mulinational helped to create the world we see around us. One of the practical distinctions between incandescent and fluorescent lighting is that the latter generates more light with less heat, and hence is cheaper to run over long periods. From this dreary sum follows the open-plan office, the call centre and the light-industrial building, the 24-hour shopping mall and the bright new hospital whose clever design cannot quite obscure its faint air of private tragedy — the cold, white, unforgiving light that illuminates each of these not only makes their existence possible, but colours their character, too, so that we cannot really imagine our lives without it.

Fluorescent light may affect us in other ways, too. Fluorescent lighting, especially as fixtures age and become faulty, ‘flickers’ in a way that incandescent lighting does not. Although this variation is rarely visible at the conscious level, people who suffer from photosensitive epilepsy, for instance, are advised to avoid fluorescent lighting. Whereas over at the more excitable end of the healthcare spectrum, intense fluorescent light has been blamed for everything from infertility and high blood pressure to hyperactivity and agoraphobia. Silly? Downright ridiculous? Well, possibly. Still, it worth reflecting how much of our indoor lives are presently observed in a series of tiny, intermittent, arbitrary vignette, rather than as a continuous totality. Who can say what this has meant, or whether the texture of modernity would have been different, somehow, perhaps incalculably so, had it been otherwise?

A bright idea
By the time of his early and diabetic death in 1996, aged a youthful 63 years, Dan Flavin knew quite a lot about fluorescent light — not its technical side, which never interested him particularly, but rather its potential as a high art medium. The New York-born artist’s career had not started auspiciously. In his early 20s he was drafted into the US Air Force, serving as an air weather meteorological technician in Korea. There was also a false start during which he studied for ordination in the Roman Catholic church. Both may have left a mark. By the late 1950s, however, he was back in New York, working as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim — and at the same time, attending the Hans Hoffman School of Fine Arts, art history classes at the New School for Social Research, and drawing and painting classes at Columbia University.

The start of the 1960s found Flavin experimenting with the use of electric light in a series of works he called ‘icons’. Only in 1963 did he achieve his breakthrough, with the Diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Constantin Brancusi) — an 8-foot long yellow fluorescent tube placed at a 45-degree angle to the gallery floor. To a great extent everything else that followed over the next thirty years would simply be an elaboration of this basic formula. Working with standard two, four, six and eight-foot fluorescent tubes in only ten colours — prefabricated industrial products, incidentally, all commercially available at the time in more or less any neighbourhood hardware store — Flavin carved out fo a place for himself alongside Donald Judd and Carl Andre at the (rather austere, presumably) summit of the Minimalist pantheon.

Now, it’s easy enough to make fun of an artistic oeuvre concocted entirely out of fluorescent tubes. Indeed, the basic juxtaposition of ‘art’ and ‘fluorescent tubes’ can be made to sound, with a bit of hard work from those seeking that end, self-evidently ridiculous. The estimable Hilton Kramer, for one, denied that Flavin was an artist at all, rather than simply someone who’d been given gallery space. Meanwhile the equally estimable Roger Kimball is scarcely more enthusiastic, singling out a particularly silly claim on the part of a former director of the Dia Foundation — the notion that Flavin is ‘as important as Michelangelo’, which he clearly isn’t — for particular derision. And the virtually infallible Brian Sewell recently pronounced Flavin ‘tedious’. Many of this website’s regular readers may instinctively agree with this eminent consensus of scorn and derision. Can something available in any hardware store in 1960s America really be considered art? Isn’t it just, well, a bunch of lighting fixtures given a boost by good PR in ArtForum?

Certainly, this is a respectable point of view. It is, in some ways, very hard to dismiss. Maybe what’s at the Hayward isn’t really art. And if there’s anyone out there who is still confused about the relative merits of Flavin and Michelangelo, this ought to set you straight.

High Art Light
On the other hand, there are plenty of things in the world that don’t quite measure up to Michelangelo — things don’t even count as ‘art’, as far as that goes — that are still worth having. All of which explains why I am not about to pretend that I didn’t enjoy the Hayward’s Flavin retrospective — why, in fact, I am happy to admit that I found parts of it genuinely beautiful.

It probably mattered that this wasn’t my first experience of Flavin’s efforts. The Hayward is publicising its current show as ‘the first comprehensive exhibition of the work of major American artist Dan Flavin’. While almost certainly technically true — the technicality here residing in the construction of that word ‘comprehensive’ — it’s a claim that may surprise those lucky enough to have visited the Serpentine in the late summer of 2001.

Not that anyone could confuse the two shows, or indeed, fail to notice the difference between the impact made by a massed exhibition of Flavin pieces versus single items stranded in far-flung survey collections. Flavin, as an astute art dealer friend recently commented to me, just doesn’t do well on his own. And while some might be all too ready to take this as yet another sign of Flavin’s heinous deficiencies as an artist, for the rest of us it nonetheless offers a key to understanding his work.

Here’s the crucial thing about Flavin’s installations. Most of us — the polite, gallery-going readers of art reviews — are used to viewing art, even three-dimensional art, very much as an object. We look at it, contemplate its surfaces and textures, shape and scale, masses and volumes. If we are feeling particularly energetic, and if circumstances allow, we might even make the effort to walk part way round a three-dimensional work, to see how its appearance changes when viewed from different angles. But the point about Flavin’s work is that the real drama takes place not on the surface of the work itself, but rather, everywhere around it. We may look at the fluorescent tube, but ultimately, it’s only the messenger. The message is elsewhere, radiating from the chemical reaction occurring deep within the tube, filtered through the coloured glass and then projected into the world beyond, so that everything near it — the gallery walls, the floor, the ceiling, other nearby works, even our own hands and faces and figures, are all implicated in the commentary of its insistent, artificial light.

This is why environment matters so much when it comes to experiencing Flavin’s work. The Serpentine show differed from the Hayward retrospective not only through being more selective, but because the whole atmosphere in the Serpentine Gallery is in every way so different. The Serpentine Gallery is, after all, a neo-Georgian tea-pavilion turned to new purposes, airy and light-hearted, offering views across the domesticated arcadia of Kensington Gardens. The Hayward, in contrast, is a windowless, Brutalist bunker, resembling nothing more than a concrete multi-storey car-park — albeit a very high-spec, slightly decadent one — where wood has been pressed into the concrete to give it a rich, grainy texture, and where the concrete or wooden floors are burnished to a soft, lustrous finish. Therefore the Serpentine gave us, back in 2001, a vision of Flavin as a conjuror of light entertainments, a strangely lyrical, even romantic figure capable of turning the greenest distant prospect an odd shade of gilded tangerine, while at the Hayward in 2006 we re-encounter a sterner, more serious Flavin, more interested in geometry and grammar and realism, less so in the more evanescent logic of pleasure.

And thus it’s the distance between the two Flavins — the one I glimpsed in 2001, versus the different one available now — that finally convinced me of the artist’s real merit. For someone who’s instinctively attracted to everything that’s most gestural, haptic and hands-on ‘human’ in art — a gross aesthetic prejudice that takes one all the way from Titian to Auerbach, which is quite a long way really, but that certainly doesn’t have much time either for Duchamp or his epigones — an oeuvre that could be passably replicated on a quick trip to Homebase can feel cold, alienating, ‘mechanical’ in the most perjorative possible sense, if only because it lacks the moods, the passion, the palpable risk-taking and occasional naked failure that speaks to us from that other, more explicitly handmade sorts of work. But I’ve learned that despite his limited, in some ways limiting materials, Flavin has enough scope to speak in different tones when his work finds itself faced with different situations and circumstances, and so can change and grow with each successive installation. No, Flavin’s not like Michelangelo, but why on earth should he be? Am I the only one out there who lives through moments far better suited to the low-key nostalgic glow of a Flavin than the full tortuous metaphysical force and scarcely contained fury of a mature or late-period Michelangelo?

Light fantastic
Needless to say, Duchamp, with his DIY superstore ‘readymades’, is often cited as a source for Flavin’s work. Two other more interesting links, which mattered to Flavin himself and which in fact show up in the titles of some of his installations, are with Russian icons on one hand, and with the work of Soviet Constructivist artists such as Vladimir Tatlin (himself once an icon restorer) on the other. From the icon-making tradition Flavin derived something about the undesirability of ego in the production of his works, and perhaps also (with a nod to his own truncated theological studies) a consciousness of the permeability of the physical world by the genuinely numinous. From Tatlin, on the other hamd came a more tangible inheritance — glass, tower formations, and a sense that ‘art’ might be revolutionary simply by being something accessible to everyone, rather than to a small, wealthy elite.

There are ironies here. A young friend of mine, having been dragged round the private view by his glamorous art-curator girlfriend, lamented plangently the lack of free drinks, but admitted that the show had at least given him some good ideas for cheap ways to decorate his new flat. In saying this, I suspect he was trying to be outrageous. Yet in some moods, Flavin himself would have very much agreed with the latter sentiment — indeed, perhaps with the former as well. A down-to-earth New Yorker by birth rather than conversion, Flavin occasionally, the weight of his high-art training notwithstanding, lapsed into a New Yorker-ish rhetoric of ‘it is what it is’ when speaking of his own art. In this, he was to some extent an emperor proclaiming his own nakedness whilst wearing a rather expensive body-stocking, because he knew his Tatlin as well as anyone. In that sense he’d perhaps have liked my friends to go out and buy some fluorescent tubes and make a work of art out of their London flat. He’d have enjoyed the democratisation of his practice that this would imply. This was, I suppose, part of the Revolution that Tatlin desired and that Flavin, by implication and hence through a sort of imperial beau geste, invoked.

And yet, and yet … revolutions in art, as well as politics, have a nasty habit of eating their own young. No matter how cleverly my friends made their credit card orders and installed their tubes, what they would have created wouldn’t have been a Flavin, any more than the Dia Foundation, which conserves and displays a great deal of Flavin’s work at a site in Marfa, Texas, could simply go out and raid their local hardware stores if they wanted to top up their collection.

And this, ultimately, is why Flavin’s democratic urges never quite bore fruit. I once read an unforgettable article, which sadly I have not been able to find online anywhere, about the conservation issues raised by Flavin’s work. For while it was all very well to create art out of what one could buy, in terms of fixtures and fittings, in any hardware store in 1960s urban America — well, it was quite another thing, in the early years of the 21st century, for anyone to repair them when they broke down, or to source replacement tubes when the brands and models in question had long since gone out of production. So the rich collectors tried to buy up the few tubes still out there with a bit of life left in them, and contine to look out for electricians who still understand the old ways, the old fixtures. Mostly, the article concluded, they just leave the works unplugged, so as not to wear them out. So the end of Flavin’s dream was, in a way, as poignant as the end of Tatlin’s, if far less serious — history, as Marx would have it, replayed a second time as farce. Will the last one who still believes in a truly revolutionary role for art please switch off the lights when he leaves the building?

The light fantastic
In the Hayward, of course, as we all would rightly expect, the Flavin pieces are shown off as precious relics, displayed to gain our attentive patience, respect and eventual reverence. Even this raises questions, though. If the quality of the individual installation is so central to how a Flavin work comes across, doesn’t it matter that Flavin has now been dead for a decade? Apparently not.The curators invoke Flavin’s sense that there was something downright liberating in the sheer unrepeatability of each installation — whilst belt-and-bracing this assertion with an assurance that each work in fact replicates earlier installations, was put in place by people who know and understand Flavin’s work intimately, and who thus can provide the requisite warmth of authenticity, alongside the bracing rigour of theoretical purity. Well, who could argue with any of that?

As I mentioned above, however, the result is of all this is often memorably powerful, and sometimes downright beautiful. For me, the high point came on the first floor, part way down a corridor. There’s a work called untitled (to Jan and Ron Greenberg) (1972-73) which is basically a small alcove full of tall, yellow fluorescent tubes with one green tube at the right-hand end. Gazed at frontally, it hurts the eyes a bit. But if one stands, as I did, close to the tubes but with one’s back to them, and looks outwards from the alcove, an extraordinary thing happens. There’s a nearby installation which throws its own sheen of luminous violet across a white wall, and thus where the ‘yellow’ wall of the first work meets the ‘violet’ wall of the second work, the result is amazing. Both walls, of course, are really white, so what one is seeing is reflected light, pure and simple, rather than mediated through earth-bound pigment. But since yellow and violet are what used to be called, back in pre-pixillated times, ‘complimentary colours’, the chance to view a real-life stand-off between the two is astonishing. As one traces the distinction between the two, the line separating them (which exists nowhere but in one’s own mind) seethes, trembles, boils. It’s hot, it’s icy, it’s alive and it’s moving somewhere — where, through? It’s mad and slightly scary and at the same time, totally enthralling. And there’s a purity about the experience that makes it all the more powerful. Who knows whether it’s what Flavin meant us to see, or what he’s have liked to have seen himself, but it was unforgettable. Oddly enough, there wasn’t a single ‘work of art’ in sight, yet it’s an experience I’ll treasure forever.

That, though, was a high point. Admittedly, not everything in the Hayward retrospective measures up to it. The show starts forcefully enough with untitled (to you, Heiner, with admiration and affection) (1973) which is basically a lengthy fence made up out of incredibly bright, green fluorescent tubes. It’s a clever piece of installation, because the fence itself is an unsubtle trope for liminality in the context of the High Art Experience (‘this is the world of Art, not the world of Life — we do things differently here’) yet at the same time, as charming and accessible as a fairground attraction, turning everyone’s faces a funny colour and making the Hayward look new.

Back in the normal world, though, there are also some works capable of projecting wit or charm. Smaller works like ”monument” for V. Tatlin (1964) have a delicate Art Deco charm. The upstairs room showing Flavin’s sketches, on the other hand, simply reminds us all how right he was to stick with the genre in which he ultimately made his reputation. There’s a sweet humility about the fact that he apparently always carried a little sketch-pad with him, because it connects him with a world where ‘artists’ could actually create illusionistic, representational works. But — well, he couldn’t draw, could he? There’s one handsome illuminated work here (Chamber Music I, no. 6 (to James Joyce (1959) that shows both Flavin’s reverence for literature, and perhaps even a weak affinity to Blake, which will make those of us happy who believe that Flavin was, for all his claims, ultimately a Romantic, capable of seeing angles in unlikely places and the warm patron of hopeless, discredited causes. But that’s about it, as far as drawing goes.

On the other hand there is always Gallery 3, which is a tour de force by any standard. Here the curators are apparently replicating a work installed at the Institute for the Arts at Rice University, Houston, Texas in 1972. Forget, for a moment, rigour and toughness. Forget that the Vietnam War is raging, or that in a year or two the weird liberal coup d’etat now knownas Watergate would be well underway, with all its rich penumbra of plumbers, naval heroes with guilty liberal consciousnesses, and unindicted co-conspiritors galore. Forget one of the most tedious and lengthy recessions in US history. For Gallery 3 is a different proposition altogether. Here, an arrangement of tubes around so-called ‘crossed walls’ melds together blue, apple green, a gentle pink and an orange which recalls to anyone who lived in America in those days the taste, smell and faintly scary synthetic ambience of a drink called Tang — apparently consumed by NASA astronauts, so those multitudinous, mysterious E-numbers that stained our mothers’ kitchen counters so imutably must have been quality ones.

But in all seriousness, if Marie Antoinette had wished to have a pleasure-garden executed in fluorescent lighting fixtures, she could hardly have done better than this amazing realm of slightly unlikely sweetness, this paradise of soft insistent colour and gentle lusciousness, this demi-paradise of highly artificial luxe et volupte. It’s like being cuddled by light, like being wrapped in a big warm duvet of colour and radiance and sleekly commercial softness. Be honest, now, you incidental voyeurs: have you never looked out an urban window and thought how lovely people tend to look when they are lit only, and all unconsciously, by the light of a huge and overbright television screen? If so, Gallery 3 is your chance to be like that consciously, for a few minutes, and to enjoy it to the full. I don’t think anyone has really lived fully in our own debased age until they have been briefly pink, radiant and insubstantially beautiful in the Hayward’s Gallery 3.

American Beauty
The unforgiving doctrine of science teaches us that our perceptual world is nothing but a slurry of more or less badly-reflected light, filtered out by whatever happens to be right or wrong about our own flawed brain-chemistry. Well, fair enough. At one level, Flavin simply brings us up against the limitations of a world in which chemistry is only just inflected by culture and perception. Why stand and stare in a gallery? Why admire there, in that peculiar context, something we’d most likely ignore elsewhere? Why give ‘art’ a space for looking, while in general we simply skim over most of the life around us, seeing as little as we can manage, detained by as little as we dare?

This, ultimately, seems to me the challenge posited, however involuntarily, by one of the greatest artists of America’s most affluent, most anxious, most self-doubting era. Flavin, like most of his left-wing peers, attempted to make art about the Vietnam War. An example is present in the current Hayward Exhibition. Monument 4 for those who have been killed in ambush (to P. K. who reminded me about death) (1966) was, apparently, meant as a gesture of protest. What is present today, instead, and however far in default of the artist’s intentions, was a gesture of abstract beauty. For the work in question isn’t about high humidity, strange food that gives you the runs, homesickness, fear that makes your bowels empty involuntarily, a bad smell in the air, a bad feeling, the sound of live fire, the sense that no one in your home town understands where you are or cares about the cause for which, in a few minutes’ time, you are just as involuntarily about to die — rather, the signal impact of this work is that, shown over a highly-burnished concrete floor, the extended jutting tubes sketch out half a prism which, once reflected back from the floor, assumes a fully prismatic form, half of which is ghostly and half of which is palpably real. As art, it’s simply and analytically beautiful — as a reference to boys who die, unwittingly, for a state that never actually gave them very much, it’s derisory. Do we blame Dan Flavin for this? Or do we blame whoever drove modern art into the cul-du-sac in which it’s presently enjambed?

No matter. Flavin is a full-force, A-list American artist. There will be other retrospectives, other pleasure-gardens. Tomorrow it will all look different. Infinite frangibility is the hallmark of this age in which we all live.

Death, premature and perhaps unnecessary, may seem a strange context in which to recommend this present Hayward retrospective of Dan Flavin’s work. So may romance, broken and lost and impossible. Still, to avoid this show is to avert one’s gaze from something important, significant if sometimes sad about The World That Is. The Hayward deserves credit for having staged an important show about an important artist. The Hayward’s Flavin retrospective has something to say to all of us, even here, even now. And, no, you can’t quite get this in your local DIY shop, no matter how fully stocked.

Bunny Smedley, who was born in the United States at the end of 1965, has a PhD in History from Cambridge University, and her toddler son apparently quite enjoys fluorescent lights.

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Henry Rousseau: Jungles in Paris at Tate Modern

A Preference for the Primitive
Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris at Tate Modern

The following article first appeared on the website of the Social Affairs Unit.

“Loony! He’s a loony! Don’t you think he’s a loony?’

The oldish woman who said this to me at the press view of Jungles in Paris, the current Henri Rousseau exhibition at Tate Modern, hissed her words at me conspiratorially, as if imparting a momentous secret. My response was the conventional one. “Oh, um, absolutely,” I said, backing away slowly whilst maintaining eye contact — and not just because talking to strangers at press views isn’t really a sign of robust mental health, either. Ever since Hitler’s entartete Kunst exhibition, attacking art one doesn’t really like or understand by labelling its creator a nutcase has become a big professional no-no. Put bluntly, it tends to make one look like a Nazi. And since I harbour no desire to become the Louis Thoreaux of Tate Modern’s darker corners, I made my excuses and moved on to the next room, leaving the old lady mumbling quietly to herself amid her penumbra of overstuffed carrier-bags.

For what it’s worth, then, I am pretty sure that Rousseau was no madman. Certainly the story of his life speaks less of mental illness than of serial underachievement, leavened with a fair amount of deceit, squalor, self-pity and laziness — and then dusted with good luck and perhaps the tiniest hint of brilliance.

Rousseau was born in 1844 in Laval, a small market town in north-west France, where his father worked as an ironmonger. He attended the local school where, unlike many of his petit-bourgeois contemporaries, he remained until the mature age of 17. He then proceeded to get himself into a series of messes. A job with a local solicitor’s firm ended when it was discovered that he’d stolen a small sum of money from his employer; he joined the army, seeking to avoid a prison sentence, but ended up spending a month in prison all thsame. Despite what he was to claim later, he never in fact went to Mexico with his regiment. By 1868 he had moved to Paris. Here he got a job working as a clerk in a customs-house, hence his eventual nickname Le Douanier. He married and his family grew. Briefly, he seemed to have made a life for himself that was more or less respectable. So far, so dull.

By his late 40s, though, Rousseau started painting, not professionally but in an unremarkable, Sunday painter sort of way. The hows and whys of this remain obscure, although we do know that by 1884 he’d obtained a permit allowing him to copy pictures in the Louvre. Soon thereafter, although his work was rejected by the official Salon, he was allowed exhibit at the ‘Salon des Independants’. This wasn’t the end to his cultural ambitions, either, as he also wrote several unsuccessful play, gave music lessons and seemed to enjoy hovering on the edges of literary and artistic circles. In 1893, with his first wife dead, six of his seven children dead in infancy, and the remaining child packed off to an orphanage, he gave up the day job and took up painting full time. At a practical level, the decision was spectacularly unsuccessful. Before long he was running up debts, failing to win commissions or to secure official patronage. An attempted bank fraud soon had him back in prison. Freed, he was rejected in his efforts to seduce a middle-aged shop assistant with whom he’d fallen in love. He died in 1910, aged 66, of an infected leg wound. Only a few weeks later, the first Rousseau exhibition opened in New York, organised by Max Weber. The translation from laughable failure to misunderstood genius was well underway.

But could he paint?
Yet in a sense, we all knew the story would end, because in our own times Rousseau is a very well-known, even popular artist — the sort of figure, in fact, who merits major exhibitions at Tate Modern. The present exhibition takes Rousseau’s greatness as read, and it is probably right to do so. If nothing else, Rousseau created a set of images which are not only instantly recognisable, but which could be the product of no one but the artist himself. Say ‘Rousseau’ in the context of visual art, and except for the tiny elite whose thoughts turn instantly to the obvious other Rousseau, or even the less obvious other Rousseau, there it is — the image of that tiger leaping through the undergrowth as lightning flickers fitfully above, or perhaps one of the other jungle scenes, or even that dark-skinned gypsy sleeping by his mandolin, untroubled by the nuzzling curiosity of the nearby, benevolent lion.

Rousseau, in short, has made as much of an impact below the middle-brow snowline as he has above it. The dissemination of these images is the stuff of posters on the walls of undergraduate rooms, advertisements, album sleeves, carrier-bags and sofa cushions — indeed, because their success depends mostly on outline and pattern and not at all on painterly effects, they reproduce extraordinarily well. In a sense there’s nothing surprising about this. Rousseau’s most successful images are, as we shall see, largely harvested from popular culture, albeit the popular culture of our great-grandparents’ day, and it may be this, perversely, rather than any imagined ‘freshness’ or ‘innocence’ that gives them their easy accessibility. But anyway, there they are — once seen, hard to forget. For many, they seem less dated than Degas’ graceful dancers, and easier to love than Cezanne’s grave geometries. There is greatness of a sort in all of that.

A paradox
Those who like their art famous, then, will be reassured to discover that the present exhibition at Tate Modern not only opens with Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) but also includes The Snake Charmer (from the Musee d’Orsay, Paris) and The Dream (the Museum of Metropolitan Art, New York), if not The Sleeping Gypsy. This is the Rousseau that everyone knows and expects. The real surprise, though, for many, will be the other paintings that make up the fifty-odd works on show. They show what Rousseau was doing when he wasn’t concocting imaginary jungles and their dreamily improbable occupants. They bring us closer to the late nineteenth century Parisian petty bureaucrat who read illustrated magazines and attended popular exhibitions, who hoped to secure official commissions to design murals in town halls, who strolled through the great parks and boulevards of the metropolis, who was marked by the poisoned politics of his age and also by its expansive and increasingly complex popular culture.

But they also remind us of something else, or demonstrate it to us if we didn’t know it already. Yes, Rousseau’s strongest images are powerful ones. It’s no great wonder that artists and critics including Alfred Jarry, Picasso, Apollinaire, Leger, Magritte and Max Ernst were all, in their various ways, drawn to them. But on those occasions, and there were many of them, where he didn’t somehow stumble onto something apparently inspired, his work is often awful — inept, fussy, repetitive, even boring. And that, then, is the paradox that animates Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris. While Rousseau was arguably have been an artist of some importance, he was a pretty hopeless painter.

Who are you calling naïve?
For many of Rousseau’s admirers, the ineptitude was precisely the point. It was the charm, the genius, the virtue of his lifetime achievement. Rousseau was perhaps the first painter to build a critical reputation based not on his skill, but rather, on his own supposed naivety.

On one level, he recognised this and even played on it. His art was once produced as evidence in court, entirely successfully, to prove his simplicity and guilelessness. And yet here’s another paradox. While the avant-garde artists who, in every sense of the word, patronised him seem to have viewed him as a sort of urbanised noble savage, as a visual idiot savant, Rousseau apparently thought otherwise. That licence to sketch in the Louvre shows he was no stranger to the conventions of Western art, while the painters he most admired were precisely the sort of Academicians — Cabanel, Bouguereau, Gérôme — against whom his modernist pals were explicitly reacting. Nor was he short of self-assured critical judgements about himself and his peers. Rousseau complained that Cezanne couldn’t draw. Rousseau later announced that he and Picasso were the greatest painters of their day: Rousseau in the modern style, Picasso in the Egyptian one. And a self-portrait in the present exhibition, Myself: Portrait Landscape (1890), could, for all its various deficiencies, scarcely be said to lack an aura of self-importance.

What, then, to make of all this? Ultimately, those who knew him well could never quite decide. Was the innocence genuine or cynical? Was the whole persona of Le Douanier a work of art in itself? Was he an idiot or a genius? Who, ultimately, was being naïve here?

Can’t paint, won’t paint
Of course, ordinary life is one thing, art history another. When it comes to the use of ‘naïve’ as a critical term, Rousseau’s paintings — the bad as much as the good — set the gold standard.

The very ‘badness’ of this art proclaims its freedom from the deadening conventions of the art school and the academy, from the heavy heritage of naturalism, of learned attempts to idealise a subject or to paint realistically. Rousseau’s visual language has a different grammar. Large areas are filled in with pattern or undifferentiated local colour, lending them a flatness that emphasises outline, not on volume. Detail is either eliminated or stylised out of all recognition. Scale has escaped the laws of perspective, handed down from the Renaissance onwards, and instead has everything to do with psychology, or whim, or maybe accident. Nor is there anything painterly about them — no brushstroke capable of giving pleasure, no juxtaposition of tones that makes one’s pulse go a little bit faster — and the unselfconsciousness of this makes them look less like paintings than some artefact created for another purpose entirely. So the result is that fin-de-siecle Paris, in some ways familiar to us through the work of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, takes on the demotic strangeness of folk art, or of the products of ancient or distant cultures we don’t properly understand, or perhaps even the art of children or of madmen.

From whence, then, did he draw his inspiration? One of the strengths of Tate Modern’s exhibition — and if one accepts that Rousseau is in any sense a significant figure, certainly this exhibition is a strong and important one — is the way in which it both introduces us to the visual culture that surrounded Rousseau, and shows how this fed his own visual vocabulary. On one hand, it provides the source-material for the jungle scenes. Famously, Rousseau had never stood beneath a genuine jungle canopy, nor felt the close and humid breath of a tropical morning. Instead, his jungles were cobbled together out of the entertainments available to a Parisian middle-brow audience trying to work out their feelings about colonial expansion. On show at Tate Modern are illustrated magazines, bits of film, relics of great exhibitions, records of zoological gardens and taxidermied scenes of predatory drama — as well as reminders of what other artists were making of this same source-material. The exhibition handles this material well, and offers up a wealth of it, which tells us something not only about Rousseau’s imaginative resources, but also about the reception of his work. Yes, his paintings were strange — but as their strangeness came straight out of a milieu that was familiar to their initial audience, in some sense they simply entailed the surprising juxtaposition of two known quantities — bad oil-painting and present-day popular culture — rather than anything wholly novel. From pop culture they came, and now, to pop culture they have returned.

The beautiful game?
As with children or indeed madmen, or indeed most people over most of human history — but unlike most of his Parisian contemporaries — Rousseau was less concerned with showing what something actually looks like than with representing it, in the faintly abstract sense in which a pub sign, or a pane of heraldic glass, or indeed one of today’s corporate logos transmits a particular bit of information visually without literally depicting it.

In a painting like The Football Players, for instance, the ground doesn’t recede because it’s enough that it simply represents the stuff on which the players are standing. The stripes on the players’ jerseys curve in a stereotyped, undifferentiated way, signalling fabric covering a three-dimensional form without actually producing a convincing illusion of space. Each leaf in the trees above is enumerated, one by one, meaning that the result looks far more like patterned fabric than anything that ever existed on an actual living branch. The players’ faces are as similar as those of mass-produced dolls. Meanwhile the players are frozen in stances as stylised, if less sturdily timeless, than the friezes on an Assyrian memorial stele, bearing no more obvious relation to their surroundings than cardboard cut-outs would have done. Only in the line of the trees themselves, carving a crudely recessed space out of the picture-plane, is there anything suggesting perspective — and the literalism of this scheme is such that a tall tree in the distance, far above the horizon, signals the ‘vanishing point’! In other words, where Rousseau roguishly introduces a bit of apparent art-world knowledge, he immediately undermines it. And where these games work, they do so largely because we, the viewers, are aware both of the rules and the fact that they are being broken. In this sense, at least, Rousseau was full paid-up modernist.

The good, the bad and the ugly
The paintings, as noted above, don’t always work. There is a very thin line between so-bad-it’s-good and plain old bad, and that line runs right through the middle of Rousseau’s oeuvre.

Wandering through the airy, white-walled, brightly-lit rooms at Tate Modern — and wondering, incidentally, how these works would have fared in the context for which they were painted, which presumably included a lot more patterned wallpaper, gleaming ormolu and overstuffed divans — it becomes clear that few of the canvases would have detained the curators had they been painted by anyone other than the creator of Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!).

As it is, the lesser works come to read like scene-setting background material for the greater ones. I had, for instance, long assumed that the uncomfortable tonal relationships between the greens in Tiger were the result of some sort of deterioration in the paints Rousseau used, whereas the present exhibition proves that Rousseau simply didn’t have much of an eye for tonal values. His paintings of Paris and its suburbs, in particular, combine a banal literal-mindedness with ambiguities stemming from a basic lack of technical ability, rather than anything more exciting. To play games with pictorial conventions is one thing — the result can be quite liberating for a picture or two — but after a few rooms of this stuff, it’s hard not to wish that Rousseau had simply been able to paint a little bit better than he did. Fatally, after a few rooms more, one starts to wonder whether any painter might eventually come up with a ‘masterpiece’ of sorts, given plentiful attempts, famous friends and a shrewd way with PR. Or perhaps he was helped a bit as well by a slightly insane self-confidence that simply blinded him to his own lack of evident merit?

It’s not a very nice thought, that, so I’m glad to be able to say that in front of a few works, anyway, accumulated doubts start to dissipate. Rousseau may be best known for his claustrophobia-inducing jungles, his great slow tropical rivers under sullen skies, his Noah’s Ark-toy wild beast and his enigmatic nudes. Yet the works here that impressed me most were, oddly, his history paintings.

War and peace
It’s worth remembering that Rousseau didn’t, as far as we can tell, see himself as some sort of proto-Surrealist, some poet of an arcane inner truth. He really did want to show at the more established salons, to receive public commissions — and not just because he needed the money, either. The signs are there that he would have loved to have achieved the high respectability of a proper history painter. So perhaps he pushed himself harder with the stronger historical and allegorical works here. The greatest of these is probably War (1894, Musee D’Orsay, Paris), where the crudity of the forms, the lurid colour and Apocalyptic violence deliver a charge of genuine violence that make the efforts of, say, Robert Motherwell, Leon Golub, Anselm Kiefer or the Chapman brothers in this direction look at bit silly and effete. There’s a directness that would, in fact, give Guernica a run for its money. The ugliness of the painting feeds into the ugliness of the theme. Perhaps at the end of the world is this cursory, brutal thing is all the art anyone could manage? Who knows? It is, at any rate, a brilliant thing that gains, as many of Rousseau’s paintings do not, from being examined at first hand, rather than in reproduction. I wish I knew more about what informed this image. Although the generally impressive catalogue features a chapter on this painting, War still raises as many questions as it answers, which is perhaps as it ought to be. The deadly colour, the stumpy forms, the borrowed religious imagery and lack of evident ‘artistry’ all speak for themselves.

The other painting that caught my attention was A Centennial of Independence (1892). It commemorates the hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution, and Rousseau had hoped to gain a public commission to execute it in some provincial town hall. As some readers may recall, I am not naturally in sympathy with its subject-matter. And yet despite this, there is something strangely compelling about the work. It’s a dream-scene, as far-fetched as any jungle fantasy, where a ring of timeless figures, each wearing the Phrygian cap, dances hand-in-hand under a line of colourful flags, as from the sidelines, a small group of aristocratic bystanders observes impassively the demise of the old order. Here it’s the sheer lack of naturalism that makes it all work. Areas are filled in, as if in a paint-by-numbers set, with local colour, but since Rousseau does not seem to have troubled himself unduly with the relationships between these patches of colour, the juxtapositions range from the sublime to the almost unbearable. This makes it into one of the strangest experiments with colour that I have ever seen. One might like to think that the prettiest thing about the work — the soles of the feet of the dancers — are cribbed from something by Poussin, but it turns out that they come from piece of contemporary commercial art instead. The faces of the figures are delineated much as the faces of badly-painted model soldiers, of the old lead-and-enamel school, might have been. The Liberty Tree is as frondy and flat as a pressed bit of fern. In short, if ever a work tended to undermine its own representational mission, if ever something conceived entirely for other purposes cried to be judged on wholly aesthetic, abstracted grounds, this is it. So, is that a triumph, or a failure, or what? Still the dancers dance, and still the jury is out. All I know is that I could hardly take my eyes off it.

It’s that ‘loony’ question again
And so we return to the old lady in the gallery, with her carrier bags and her accusations of lunacy. At one level, the question she asked was a rhetorical one, and probably deserved a sterner response than I could be bothered to deliver. For to write off visual art on the grounds of madness — as if we could really judge that at such a distance, as if we really could know what was going on in Rousseau’s mind, given that even his closest associates seemed so unsure about this — is as cheap a temptation as writing off art on the basis of any other strand of imputed intentionality.

True, such questions are interesting — but ultimately, not definitive. At the end of the day we are left with the work itself, and what it says to us — along with what we know about it — in the here and now. So if we smile today at a tiger that Rousseau yesterday wished to look ferocious, in the same way we might admire what was once a wonder-working icon for its formal values, or hang on the wall an African tribal mask of huge magical force because it goes well with an existing set of armchairs, then where’s the harm in that? Inanimate objects are, ultimately, ours to do with as we will. That goes for meaning, just as much as it does anything else. Certainly, however hard some may try, it is hard to imagine a realistic alternative.

Yet at the same time, it’s part of the whole mystery of ‘art’ that we want certain styles, certain approaches to encapsulate certain moral qualities. For just as surely as the stupider sort of Nazi, like the stupider sort of Soviet Communist, once viewed the reheated by-products of nineteenth century academic classicism as the acme of artistic achievement, for many of us there’s a countervailing tendency, however unconscious, to find in ‘primitive’ or ‘naïve’ art all sorts of admirable qualities — not least, innocence, directness and honesty. Some feel drawn to what they instinctively read as a lack of artifice, intellectualism and complexity. If they’re beset, as the British sometimes are, by a slight nagging worry that art might be mostly about deception and artifice, a bit of a confidence trick perpetrated by clever foreigners, they can relax before the work of artists like Rousseau, blanketed in the security that comes from slight condescension — not catching our breath, as it were, or looking back over our shoulders, but breathing a sigh of relief and smiling despite ourselves. How else to explain the success of Alfred Wallis away from the shoreline, L. S. Lowry outside the ranks of nostalgic Mancunians, or Beryl Cook with anyone?

Yet if the artist himself believes that his art was anything but simple, naïve and uncomplicated, then doesn’t that muddy the water? Surely ‘real’ simplicity would be better. Or does his madness, in not recognising what others saw in the work, actually make the work better?

In any event, don’t we need a certain state of mind on the part of the artist in order to legitimise what we think we see on the surface of the canvas itself? Sure, the result is just a fig-leaf — but as we all know, in civilised modern life, there are moments when fig-leaves matter enormously. Perhaps this is one of them?

So that, finally, is why it perhaps matters, at least a little, whether Rousseau was a loony or not. For what it’s worth, to reiterate something I implied at the beginning of the review, I think that Rousseau knew perfectly well what he was doing. I think he knew he was a bad painter yet had a thick skin and enjoyed the kudos of artistic success sufficiently to hang around the right circles no matter how badly or cynically he was treated, kept doggedly daubing away despite the criticism, and — crucially — preferred to be misinterpreted, rather than simply ignored, because fame mattered that much to him. One might pause at this point to wonder whether, in fact, this makes him godfather to Tracey Emin, Chris Ofili, Stella Vine and others — Jean-Michel Basquiat, even — the list could go on. Or is that simply being unkind? In any event, it is hard to deny that, mad or sane or somewhere in between, Rousseau is a figure of real relevance to the history of modern art. The current exhibition at Tate Modern does justice both to the relevance, and to the ambiguity. It is well worth making the effort to visit before the show closes next month, if only to try to judge this complex, contradictory character for yourself.

Bunny Smedley holds a doctorate in history from Cambridge University, and lives in central London with her husband and young son.

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Self Portrait: Renaissance to Contemporary at the National Portrait Gallery

[The following article first appeared on the website of the Social Affairs Unit.]

Self portraits are, at best, paradoxical things. As I was walking through the National Portrait Gallery the other day, looking for the entrance to the new exhibition there, Self Portrait: Renaissance to Contemporary, I was stopped in my tracks by a massive painting — a grid filled with multicoloured lozenges that somehow added up to a portrait — that could only have been the work of an American painter named Chuck Close.

Close is, in many ways, an interesting figure. Having started his career looking back over his shoulder towards the great days of Abstract Expressionism — the fascination with surface, the all-over emphasis, the stubborn refusal entirely to abandon figuration — by the late 1960s he was working in a sort of photo-realism that became increasingly abstracted, distancing itself ever further from painterly mark-making. Over the past few decades, his subject-matter has been the human face. He works from photographs. The result of this practice has been a series of huge, often bright, usually slightly disorienting portraits, where recognisable features flicker in and out from a series of seemingly arbitrary colours and shapes. And since Close has painted, in the course of a long career, many self-portraits — and, it must be said, since I’d read a bit about Close and once watched a documentary about him — as I stood there admiring the National Portrait Gallery’s new acquisition, it didn’t take me long to recognise the large, cheerful-looking man, sporting a distinctive goatee beard and round-framed spectacles, sitting in a wheelchair beneath the painting. It was, of course, Chuck Close himself.

It turns out that this classic Close self portrait was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery for the present exhibition. When I saw him Close was, sportingly, allowing himself to be photographed with the new work. And as I went round the show, he was going round at the same time, so it was hard not to form some sort of impression as to his character. From what I could see, Close appears to be a good humoured, intelligent, practical, in some ways larger-than-life person — confident, certainly, but not overbearing — in short, a likeable man. All of which was odd, because this is exactly the impression conveyed by the self-portraits by Close that I’d seen over the years. There was something neat about this, and the neatness pleased me. Put simply, it was reassuring to see that those paintings had somehow told some sort of truth about the man who painted them. They had not only conveyed a physical likeness, although they had certainly done that — they had captured something else, too, about both the painter and the man, so that when I encountered both I felt as if I recognised the person I encountered. And what more can one ask of a self portrait than to do all that, and to look good, too?

Art and illusions
But as Self Portrait — 56 paintings, mostly in oils, arranged in roughly chronological order over five rooms — insistently reminds us, we virtually never have the opportunity to compare a self portrait with its subject (which is also to say, with its creator) even in the cursory way I did with Chuck Close. And whether we do or not, our relationship with a self portrait is usually mediated by some fairly persuasive wishful thinking. Yes, it’s lovely to think that somehow paint could forge a genuine relationship between two individuals, painter and viewer, conveying to the latter profound truths about the former. It’s lovely to think that a painter might sometimes speak to the viewer in a language he or she comprehends perfectly. It’s lovely to think that art had the power to smash down every boundary of chronological and cultural difference. And at its best, art can, of course, make the viewer feel as if all these things are the case.

But as our eighteenth century forebears were well aware, art and deception are closely related. Sadly, the hopes articulated for portraiture in the lines above are entirely deceptive. And yet one can’t deny their allure. Post phrenology, post Freud (Sigmund, not Lucian), post the ‘objective truth’ of analogue photography, living now in a world where inexpensive surgery can give virtually anyone a new and different face, most of us still believe — which suggests that we must want pretty desperately to believe it — that somehow a good portrait tells us something about what its subject is really like. At the extreme, this can extend to foretelling the future: c.f., among a thousand other possible examples, this note regarding Lucian Freud’s 1952 painting of John Minton. Here we are encouraged to believe that because Lucian Freud paints Minton with sad-looking eyes, it somehow follows that Minton will kill himself soon thereafter. The fact that most of Freud’s subjects look sad, yet (happily) do not feel compelled to follow Minton’s lead, is, apparently, neither here nor there — and certainly not to be construed as some defect either on the part of Freud’s painting, or exposure to his social skills over the course of one of those famously long series of sittings.

Yet Freud’s the perfect example here, because we do know a lot about his sittings, if only because people write about their interactions with this famously reclusive figure so very so often. We know that he paints his mother, (ex)wives, (ex)lovers, children, fellow painters, patrons (if such a word can be used about such a grand figure these days — I mean, basically, the late Duke of Devonshire), whippets, exegetes and friends. We feel indistinctly yet forcefully that in each of these cases, personal knowledge ought to deliver something by way of insight on the surface of the canvas.

We’d be less comfortable with the idea that paint might be used, habitually, to cover something up or to manufacture a myth more durable than the truth. By far the best (and most realistic) moment in Love is the Devil, that film about Francis Bacon, is the longish shot in which Bacon, getting ready for a night out, applies his makeup — his ‘paint’, no doubt, in the language of his Edwardian parents and nanny — with the same skill, seriousness and desire for creating illusion with which he produced his art. Confronted with the face he knew better than any other, Bacon was more than prepared to edit, conceal, improve. And who amongst us can blame him?

A preference for the Primitives
And that, really, encapsulates the paradox of self portraits. It’s not just that we are stuck with whatever partial account the painter gives to us of a third party, compounded by our own flawed understanding of that partial account — on top of that, we have to deal with all the issues of a personal agenda, too — as well as with the usual encumbrances of ignorance, misinformation and anachronism. Painting his own portrait, the artist is up against not only all his predecessors, contemporaries and successors, but everyone who knows him now, who might know him in the future, and of course posterity. Rarely can there be works of art that carry a heavier freight of complexity, obfuscation and sheer mystery. Or to put it another way, self portraits carry before them so many ‘issues’ that it’s a wonder that we can see them at all. No surprise, then, that the NPG’s current show is London’s first on this theme for decades. So many painters paint themselves, but to such different ends in such different situations, that a lack of focus comes with the difficult territory.

Insofar as Self Portrait has a problem, that encapsulates it. The evidence is there from the very beginning. Upon entering the exhibition, one of the first things the visitor encounters is a stunning panel by Jan van Eyck. The work is dated 21 October, 1433 — meaning, rather movingly, that 572 years to the day separate its completion from the opening of the exhibition. This painting — Portrait of a Man, sometimes also known as Man in the Red Turban) — has for centuries, in part because of its punning inscription, been thought to be a self portrait. The fact that even this basic point can’t be established should tell its own story.

Yet the prominent place given to this Van Eyck is, among other things, a proclamation of seriousness on the part of the curators. The painting is, quite simply, a treasure. Its importance is beyond question, especially if one accepts the ‘self portrait’ tag. As one of the first, as well as one of the greatest self-portraits in oils, the little panel exerts a force out of all proportion to its modest size and apparent simplicity. Out from the darkness, beneath the fantastical crimson mass of that towering turban, stares a strangely impassive, calculating face of the sort one might still see today on the streets of Bruges or Ghent — a real face, perhaps one of the very first such faces in the history of post-classical Western art — with such a sharp look, meeting the viewer’s eyes, that no matter how many times one sees it, it still delivers a real jolt. The sense of one-to-one contact is all too real. The painting has the sort of presence one would attribute not to an old piece of wood, which is what it is, but rather to an actual living person.

In terms of art history, there’s plenty that later artists would come to borrow — the accumulation of detail as a signifier (however spurious) of accuracy, the featureless background focusing all attention on the face, or even the exotic costume as a display both of technical skill and perhaps a sign of something ‘put on’ about the whole enterprise — but in a sense, looking at Van Eyck’s amazing picture, art history is hardly the point. Here, at the beginning of a whole self portrait tradition, it becomes incredibly tempting to imagine that what we are seeing is, if only because the suppressed brushstrokes and the apparent lack of painterly self-advertisement encourage us to think so, something approaching reality. No wonder so many subtle and sensitive writers, from Schlegel to Burckhardt and Huizinga, claimed to detect in the work of the Flemish ‘Primitives’ truths that usually lie far beyond the scope of painting per se. Needless to say, however, the truths they found there were as various as the men who went looking for them.

What do we know?
For again, that’s the point about self portraits. It’s easy to admire them, but far harder to understand them, rather than simply to respond to them.

Much ink and ingenuity has been lavished on unpicking the minutiae of Jan Van Eyck’s life, so that we know much more about him than we do about most of his contemporaries. In fact, we know more about him that we do about most pre-modern artists, full stop. Yet at the same time, in some ways we know very little indeed about this tiny masterpiece that hangs at the moment in the National Portrait Gallery, and in general what we think we know turns out to be anachronistic and misguided.

Why did Van Eyck paint it? Who was it for? What was it for? Sadly, seriously, honestly, we simply do not know. All our art historical reading, all our gallery going, all our 21st century post-modern acculturation simply imprisons us in our own little narrowness. Whatever else we know about Van Eyck, we can be sure that our thoughts about this little panel are a world away from his — in our assumptions about verisimilitude, self-expression, creativity, originality, images, mortality, fame and, not least, in what we believe to be the case about ‘art’ itself — ‘art’ being a concept which would have meant nothing at all, at least in our present-day sense, to Van Eyck. Or to put it another way, we see Van Eyck primarily as an artist. Yet there is every chance he’d have looked in one of those small, convex mirrors and seen looking back at him a highly successful courtier, a diplomat and an effective all-purpose spin-doctor (to use a different anachronism) for Philip the Good.

All of which brings us back to the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition Self Portrait: Renaissance to Contemporary. As we have seen, the 56 works begin with Van Eyck and end with Chuck Close. In between, there are paintings from Western Europe, North America and indeed Australia. The artists represented here include men and women, young and old, famous and fairly obscure, successful and less successful, reclusive and extrovert, alive and dead. The works were created in a correspondingly wide variety of social contexts, doctrinal climates and patronage structures, with very different levels of access to, inter alia, photography, the work of other artists, and whatever it is that critics provide. Nor are the works all self portraits in the most obvious sense of the term. Instead, several of the works fall into that category of self portrait called the friendship portrait; several simply include other people; one’s a family portrait, complete with maid, fruit, flowers and some miscellaneous allegorical statuary. Many were demonstration pieces, advertising the technical skill of a commercial portraitist in a cool, professional manner, while in a few, the desperate need for self-expression is so palpable as almost to ooze, thickly, from the surface of the canvas. The comparisons could run on for pages, but the point is clear enough. The ‘self portrait’ label is practically the only thing these paintings could, conceivably, be said to have in common, and even then it’s a bit of a stretch.

The problem, then, lies not in quality, exactly — for there are a number of very strong works here, as well as, admittedly, some puzzlingly weak ones — nor in lack either of good intentions or food for thought. Instead, such trouble as there is here lurks in the sheer variousness of the works on display. Oh, it’s a stimulating enough exercise as one goes around, making a little comparison here or being knocked off one’s feet by some masterpiece there. After one leaves, however, there’s a feeling of vague dissatisfaction, perhaps even of indigestion.

Insofar as the catalogue (written by Anthony Bond and Joanna Woodall, with essays by T. J. Clark, Ludmilla Jordanova and Joseph Leo Koerner) attempts to make sense of this embarassing profusion, it does so imperfectly. It’s all very well to write about ‘constructing an identity’ or ‘self presentation’ — be honest here, who hasn’t? — but however much academics may argue to the contrary, it’s rarely very long until they, and we, run into a brick wall of ignorance. For unless we are pretty sure of all sorts of things regarding the maker of a particular self portrait, the circumstances under which it was created and so forth, who are we to judge the success or otherwise of that ‘constructed identity’, the extent of ingenuity underpinning that ‘self presentation’? In short, unless we happen to see Chuck Close standing there beneath a painting he finished a few months ago and hence can compare the two, working within a cultural context with which we’re personally familiar, how much of what we end up saying is simply the stuff of forlorn, if harmless, fantasy?

Girls, girls, girls
It’s easy enough to believe, though, that this concern with ‘self presentation’ has played a part in the organisation of Self Portrait. Not least, the number of women painters represented seems frankly disproportionate to their historical significance.

A few of the works by female painters are extremely strong. Judith Leyster’s self portrait (a loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C, USA), for instance, is a brilliantly vivid, apparently rather offhand but actually highly skilful piece of work. Although Anna Dorothea Therbusch-Lisiewska is hardly a household name — at least not in any household I’ve encountered recently — there’s enough real flair in her handling of paint, and enough interest in her story, to make one glad of the inclusion. And despite my reservations about both of them, I suppose that Artemisia Gentileschi and Frida Kahlo are both now such well-established members of a certain sort of art-historical pantheon that they could hardly have been omitted. But I find it hard to justify, for instance, a typically slick, formulaic effort by Marlene Dumas, which comes across as nothing more than a sweetly-coloured amplification of a better painting by Gerhard Richter that hangs nearby.

Whereas possibly the only real reason to include Suzanne Valadon’s The Blue Room — not that it’s a bad reason — is the fact that the work is, intentionally or not, absolutely hilarious. Valadon, the illegitimate daughter of a domestic labourer, had come to Paris to work as a model, but eventually took up painting in her own right, encouraged by, amongst others, Degas. She went on to give birth to Maurice Utrillo. Her self portrait on show here is really quite remarkable. Present are many of the usual Post-Impressionist standbys – the cloisonnisme, the patterned fabrics, a model sprawled languorously across a couch — except in this case the model has somehow metamorphosed from some pretty girl into the Odalisque from Hell. Instead of some decorative creature, ready to shape herself to the daydreams of others, we see before us a bulky, fleshy, middle-aged woman, with thighs like hams and huge saggy breasts, her skin blotchy, her expression surly. She’s also got a cigarette clamped between her lips. In short, this is like a Guerrilla Girlz fantasy, or like Sarah Lucas transported back to Picasso’s Monmarte, fags and all. It’s a genuinely shocking painting, because it looks so much like a very broad parody and yet apparently isn’t. But in a sense that underlines the whole problem with ‘self presentation’. In presenting herself thus, what was Valadon trying to say? Did she like the way she looked? Did other people like it? Did the image look less peculiar then? Or more peculiar? What, exactly, is the point here?

Having stood spellbound by this challenging painting for several minutes, though, and having read about it later in the catalogue, I am not sure I’m any closer to an answer, even though the catalogue labels The Blue Room a ‘manifesto piece’ and claims it represents ‘a glamorous ideal of [Valadon’s] dual nature as model and independent creator’. Glamorous? Shocking modern, probably, with that pudding-basin haircut, the let-it-all-hang-out, full-fat figure and the cigarette, but hardly glamorous. It’s a painting of herself for herself, perhaps, but not an easy one to read today. It is not easy to capture the tone, to feel the distance between rhetoric and reality — and all of that, even though the work was painted within living memory! The truth is that, at least without a great deal of extra research, it isn’t really possible for us to know much about what Valadon was trying to say about herself — in the actual time and place and context in which she was saying it — let alone to compare it intelligently with the works that surround it. Self-creation may well being going on here, but who are we to spot the points where it begins and ends?

Instead, we are left responding to these things partially, anachronistically and superficially. The very breadth and variousness of the exhibition ensures that this remains the case. And knowledge, here, can be as much of a problem as ignorance. I have already mentioned my indebtedness to television films and to books when it came to knowing about Chuck Close. How much of what we know about that self portrait by Artemisia Gentileschi actually comes from her own ‘self presentation’, and how much from a half-remembered interview with Germaine Greer that took place a decade or so ago on Woman’s Hour? How much of our knowledge of Frieda Kahlo stems from her own ‘created identity’, and how much from a biography of Diego Rivera, and that film, and from the well-known art expert Madonna’s appreciative effusions?

Of nothingness, Nazarenes and nudity
All of which probably creates an unnecessarily negative impression of a stimulating, occasionally illuminating exhibition which ought not to be blamed for raising questions it cannot begin to answer. Not least, there are some excellent paintings here, including quite a few rarely if ever seen in London.

Where to start? Jacob Jordaens’ sumptuous family group (on loan from the Prado) is a pure, early modern, unselfconscious delight. So is Anthony van Dyck’s friendship portrait of himself and his old comrade and patron Endymion Porter (the work also a Prado loan), an elegant study in contrasts, where the confidence of the handling has to be seen to be believed. Velazquez’s brooding self portrait (like several works here, an early treasure borrowed from the Uffizi’s Collezionne degli Autoritratti) is at once magnificent and reserved, including one of the most stunningly vibrant, energetic backgrounds I’ve ever seen, featureless yet never less than mesmerising. Despite, or rather because of the apparent austerity of the work — and its fine condition plays a part here, with Prado works looking as fresh as Hermitage ones — one is reminded what a truly astounding artist Velazquez was capable of being. Whereas Sassoferrato’s self portrait comes as much more of a surprise. A crisply effective, luminous painting, it at once resembles his devotional works, yet is infinitely more easy to appreciate for a certain sort of protestant sensibility. (But for a fascinating discussion of the limits of good taste in religious art, see Professor Homan’s recent article on the Social Affairs Unit website.)

That impressive Sassoferrato is hardly the only surprise. Moving on through history a bit (and leaving out some very strong paintings along the way) there’s a powerful portrait here by Victor Emile Janssen, a B-list Nazarene. Dating perhaps c. 1829 (from the Hamburger Kunsthalle), it shows a young man wrapped in a cursory bit of drapery in front of an unmade bed, his hair tousled, his body stooped, intent, melancholy (apparently), possibly even consumptive. It’s a portrait of the artist as a young Durer, it’s canvas as a form of confessional — it’s the testament of someone who’d die at the Christ-like age of 38. It’s limpid, intense and sad. Whereas the much more famous Courbet’s Portrait of the Artist Called the Wounded Man is delirious moment of fantasy, executed with incontrovertible skill, somehow invoking (and this is what I mean about the impossibility of escaping our own limitations) that famous photo of Che Guevara as compellingly as it does the more contemporary yet indeed not entirely unrelated events of 1848. There’s a strong feeling that the bogus aestheticisation of terrorism and civil war starts here, right here, in front of this very canvas. It’s more than possible to admire this picture and deplore it, all at the same time.

And then, finally, there is Stanley Spencer’s Double Naked Portrait: The Artist and his Second Wife (better known as the Leg of Mutton Nude). As much as I disbelieve that one can learn much about an artist’s life from the visual language in which he reveals it or fibs about it, it’s hard to avoid the impression that the bodies are not the only naked thing in this picture. Confronted with Patricia Preece’s poignant old-woman breasts, her sagging flesh and with Spencer’s own sagging bits and pieces, the nature of his sexual obsession with this cold, unpleasant, deeply unfeminine woman seems ever more insistently unfortunate, as indeed it proved to be. But then there is a sort of creepy obsessiveness worked into the paint itself. It’s still rather alarming. The Spencer is not, however, illustrated in the catalogue. I wonder why? Surely the youth of today would not be unduly corrupted by the notion that most people, as the years go by, begin to look pretty discouraging once their clothes are off? Or is that simply one bit of ‘self presentation’ too far for the show’s organisers?

Present imperfect
With his slightly queasy collision of humility and exhibitionism, private religious conviction and very public adultery, tidy brushstrokes and warts-and-all nudity, Spencer’s painting seems to bridge the decades connecting our own present-day experience with a largely unrecoverable past. Elsewhere, though, the comparison between past and present is not necessarily a comfortable one. Put bluntly, there’s a distinct falling-off of quality in some of the more recent works. Forget, if only because there’s so little of interest to say about them, near-worthless efforts such as the Baselitz offering, which shows a badly-painted man not much improved by being displayed upside down, or Richard Hamilton’s contribution to the genre, which according to the catalogue ‘deconstructs the mystique of painting and originality in exchange for a very Duchampian visual conundrum’. (Yet it doesn’t, by the way, and in any event it’s hard to see why it would be a good thing if somehow, in a parallel world, it did.)

Forget, too, the paintings that are either not particularly fine examples of the artist’s work, such as a 1971 Bacon, painted long after the artist had slipped into the habit of slickly mannered and highly lucrative self-plagarism, or a 1989 Kossoff that similarly goes nowhere, mired in its muddy, self-congratulatory lack of direction, having forgot the lessons of Bomberg’s explosive orthogonals along with Kossoff’s own early and admirable force of convicition. And while we’re at it, let’s forget artists whose work I simply don’t much like, by which in this case I mean Warhol, represented here by a 1978 six-part image, which leaves me as cold as his oeuvre always does. I much prefer the big, prawn-pink Jenny Saville painting, depicting the artist naked, seated, from behind, which while not exactly up to the level of a Velazquez or a Courbet, is at least animated by a degree of scrutiny, effort, conviction and generous fleshy humanity.

No, the most discouraging comparison must, as it so often does, involve Our Greatest Living Painter himself. Freud, who paints self portraits with reasonable frequency, is represented here by a 1967 work called Interior with Hand Mirror (Self Portrait) (a loan from the Art Gallery of Western Australia). He’s lucky (but then isn’t Freud pretty consistently lucky?) in the choice of work, in that a number of his more recent self portraits have been a good deal worse indeed. For one thing, since he’s not very good at creating figures capable of supporting their own weight, his efforts to portray himself full-length, standing, invariably get bogged down by draughtsmanship so bad that any number of increasingly desperate expedients (painting himself nude, painting himself with a nude woman, etc) cannot entirely disguise it. In this case, in any event, Freud has avoided challenges of that sort by simply painting a small hand-mirror wedged into a window casement in some not-entirely-clear manner, in which the painter’s face can, just about, be discerned. It’s not so much a likeness as a sort of fleeting, broad-brush adumbration, but that’s all right, since by 1977 everyone who might conceivably care what Freud looked like had probably satisfied their curiosity on that point.

Freudian slippage
Instead, I fear, Freud’s self portrait is actually one of those ‘paintings about painting’. But the problem here is less the aspiration — in some sense Velazquez’s great Las Meninas might also be called a painting about painting — than the frankly inept execution. The relationship of the window sashes to each other is difficult to understand. The ‘mirror’ shows no sign of reflectivity. It might as well be a ping-pong paddle to which someone has affixed an indistinct picture of Freud’s face.

And then there’s the glass in the windows. It’s rendered, basically, as whiteness over a dark ground, applied with all the subtlety of a somewhat slap-dash housepainter applying a base coat to a bit of wall that no one is likely to see very much. These passages don’t read as anything — they are only intelligible in the context of the window sashes — but then neither are they beautiful as paint itself. And this simply won’t do. Unlike some of the contemporary painters represented here, Freud claims to paint in a great tradition, the visual language of Manet and Watteau and even Velazquez himself. Yet the sad truth is, if he still believes this to be the case, he must have lost the ability to see these painters’ work — and so must his various pet critics and curators. None of which would matter, even now, were the claims made for Freud’s greatness not so inanely overblown. Here, though, we see it once again. A few square inches of the Velazquez self portrait shown here, even the a few square inches of the featureless background, sdisplays a thousand times more life than do all the smeary, bleary, dead-looking surfaces that Freud has generated over the past three decades. When will the arts establishment accept that Freud may well have painted his last first-rate painting marginally before John Minton did? Or is there too much invested in Freud’s particular project for candour to have much appeal?

Chuck Close and personal
Compared with all of that, one turns with some relief to Chuck Close. As we have seen, unlike Freud’s long, demanding (for the subject anyway) sittings, Close works from photographs. And although there are obviously plenty of issues raised by the manner in which he chooses to convey the information, his paintings show every sign of being about likeness, about seeing, about face-to-face experience. At any rate, this is what Close himself says about them, and indeed, as I’ve seen from my own experience, it’s how they seem to work.

As Close says in the course of a genuinely interesting interview, printed in the catalogue,

I always thought that whatever has happened in someone’s life, there is evidence embedded in that face. If they have laughed their whole life they have laugh lines. And if they frowned their whole lives they have furrows.We almost relate to someone in one of these paintings as we would related to someone that we would meet [ … ] I think this can also happen with my own image and I think that is why I’m so careful to present it so neutrally, so that I’m not bound to get just one reading: that everyone can relate to this image as they would relate to me ….

And this, of course, takes us right back to the beginning. Almost as if enacting Close’s own narrative here, I first saw his self portraits, and then saw him, and was pleased at how well the two parts of the jigsaw puzzle came to fit together in my hands. It’s not just about verisimilitude, either — it’s about mood, warmth, iconography, palette, scale, ambience — and, as often happens with intuition, there’s nothing very objective about it. Let’s be honest. I was surprised, when I saw Close, about the extent of intuitive truth his pictures, for all their glossy contemporary self-consciousness, had been able to convey. Could it be that some of the pictures in Self Portrait, read not seriously but intuitively, whimsically, fantastically, might actually carry more weight than I could have believed? Sadly, yet obviously, the answer can never be proved. All we can do is to look, wonder, smile, grimace and stare, and generally do the best we can.

Some of the most stimulating art history of the past generation has attempted to excavate the circumstances surrounding the creation of specific works in search of context, meaning, purpose. Yet these have proved elusive. Looking back at even the best of such works, what is generally most striking now is not what they reveal about the art in question, but rather the preoccupations, political and cultural assumptions, quirks and blind spots of each art historian — although the datedness of these, like the clothing of ours parents’ day, may radiate as much retro charm as anything else, and may indeed come back into fashion again from time to time. What all of this does suggest, however, is that there is quite a lot one needs to know about a self portrait before it is possible even to begin to understand much about it, let alone comparing it with another self portrait. Beyond that, the rest is lovely, consoling, unsustainable daydreams.

And what’s wrong with that, you might well ask? Very little, probably. In any event, there’s no harm in making your way along to the NPG within the next few months, if only in order to decide for yourself.
Dr Bunny Smedley lives in central London, and wishes that her toddler son liked Van Eyck or even Velazquez as much as he does Rachel Whiteread.

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