Tag Archives: National Gallery

Christen Købke at the National Gallery

When I set out to see Christen Købke: Danish Master of Light at the National Gallery recently — on the day before it closed, in fact, although it’s now moving to Edinburgh, where it remains until 3 October 2010 — the name ‘Kobke’ rang no loud bells, so I assumed that I’d never seen this early nineteenth century artist’s work before.

So much for the reliability of memory, eh? Although I didn’t post about it at the time — although I can’t quite reconstruct the crisis of confidence that prevented that 10,000 word draft getting as far as actual publication, unpublished it remains — in truth I could hardly tear myself away from the Royal Academy’s extravagant, eye-opening Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760-1830, the late Robert Rosenblum’s final major gift to art-historical revisionism. I know I must have visited that show half a dozen times, perhaps more. And while the the slightly disorienting array of treasures there included work by David, Reynolds, Houdon, Zoffany, Goya and Ingres, as well as dozens of less stellar figures, one of the pictures that really stood out was, of all things, a portrait by Christen Købke himself.

Painted when the artist was only 22 years old, Købke’s Portrait of the Landscape Painter Frederik Sodring (1832) is an extraordinary, lucid, arresting little work. Across its surface, the oil has been applied as thin as tempera. The details of that pot of trailing ivy, the enamel snuffbox, upturned brush, oh-so-practical improvised chair-cover and meticulous sketches of the Roman Forum are all so ‘real’ as to seem almost hallucinogenic. None of this, though, is achieved at the expense either of warmth — the coolness of those blue-grey tonalities notwithstanding, could anyone doubt that these two young men were friends? — or indeed of structure. Everything in the relationship between the panels of the door behind the figure, the round mirror over his head, the sheets of pinned-up paper and the slope of that resting body, all apparently so casual, even proleptically ‘photographic’, has surely been calculated with precision. For how else could it be the case that the viewer’s glance runs round and round, weighing up this and that, wondering at the balance of colour and tone — not really caught by the digital image to which I’ve linked above — incredulous that this initially rather informal-looking keepsake should, in fact, turn out to be a work of such slightly weird, distinctive brilliance?

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Let our Titians go — they don’t need “saving”

Titian, 'Diana and Actaeon', 1556-9, National Galleries of Scotland, Bridgewater Collection Loan 1945. Photo © The National Galleries of Scotland.

Titian, 'Diana and Actaeon', 1556-9, National Galleries of Scotland, Bridgewater Collection Loan 1945. Photo © The National Galleries of Scotland.

Would it matter much if those two great masterpieces of the Bridgewater Collection, Titian’s Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto, having been on loan to the National Gallery of Scotland since 1945, were soon to be sold abroad?

Ever since the Duke of Sutherland announced his intention to sell the two paintings — offering them to the National Galleries of England and Scotland for a mere £100 million, if such a sum can be raised by the start of 2009 — much fuss has been made about saving them for the nation.

Personally, however, I remain unconvinced. Continue reading

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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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The Westminster Retable at the National Gallery

[This article was written for the website of the Social Affairs Unit.]

The British people do not love their own visual culture as much as they might. All the clichés of our national identity tell us to look elsewhere for Britain’s greatness. Ask a thousand people what it is that Britain has historically done as well or better than any other nation on earth: the answers, though plentiful and various — language, political institutions, legal systems, written literature, engineering, industry, empire-building, choral music, children’s television, self-deprecation, irony, whatever — will not include the visual arts. We are aware that our most feted artists — from Holbein and Van Dyck to Sargent and Freud — were born elsewhere, have rightly or wrongly regarded most of our native-grown products as mad or silly or both, and look out towards Italy, France or points farther west, our faces creased with a mixture of anxiety and condescension, for our measures of visual achievement. It is as if we still, at some level, need to define ourselves as a people of the Word rather than the Image — of reality rather than imitation — and are never really comfortable unless this is seen to be the case. Hence the jealous husbanding of ‘our’ second-rate Raphaels, the assumption on the part of the media that every arts story is humorous, and an ongoing inability to get to grips with even the most modest of public commissions — except, oddly, in wartime, when we do this rather well.

Ruined choirs, reused retables
These, anyway, are the reflections prompted by the Westminster Retable, just back from six years’ worth of painstaking conservation work and currently on show in the basement of the National Gallery. For most of its 750 years, this extraordinary object could be found about half a mile south, in Westminster Abbey. For although its history is more a matter of learned conjecture than of certainty, the best guess — and much has apparently been learned in the process of conservation — is that the Retable was created by Anglo-French artists around 1260. It may well have been commissioned by Henry III in the course of the pious project of rebuilding and decorating the Abbey as a fitting shrine to his royal predecessor, St Edward the Confessor, whose body was interred behind the abbey’s High Altar. The Retable’s dimensions, sophistication and splendour suggest that it could well have formed part of the High Altar itself. And if this were true, what we see before us in the National Gallery today was once a focal point of one of pre-reformation England’s most opulent and famous devotional destinations.

Less than three centuries after it was set in place, however, the Retable fell victim to the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which in 1540 transformed the Benedictine abbey into the cathedral church of the new Diocese of Westminster, and then in 1560 refounded again as a collegiate church. Like other popular pilgrimage sites, the Shrine of the Confessor was largely demolished. Although there was a brief restoration of St Edward’s cult under Mary, Elizabeth’s reign saw a reorganisation both of St Edward’s Chapel and of the Choir, where the High Altar stood. As so often was the case in the English reformations, however, this reorganisation was the stuff of matter-of-fact bureaucracy rather than hot-blooded iconoclasm. Some unknown administrator’s practical streak ensured that the Retable, rather than being tossed onto the bonfire or smashed into a thousand pieces, ended up, by the late seventeenth century, serving as part of a cupboard in which the wax funeral effigies of monarchs were stored. In 1778, the disregarded cupboard was modified once again so that an effigy of William Pitt the Elder could be displayed more attractively for paying tourists — a project that involved scraping down some of the surfaces and repainting part of the Retable in fetching shades of green, white and grey. More damage was done to the wretched object at this point than in the course of its entire previous history.

Only in 1827 did anyone apparently realise that the Retable was of any interest whatsoever — and needless to say, this being Britain, the ‘interest’ was antiquarian, rather than aesthetic. Nevertheless, a rescue was executed. The Retable then survived in varying degrees of general obscurity until 1998, when the Dean and Chapter sent it off to Cambridge’s Hamilton Kerr Institute for cleaning and conservation. And now for four months the Retable — Britain’s oldest major altarpiece, and undoubtedly one of the most significant survivals from the medieval art of the British Isles — is on display in the National Gallery, before returning to the Abbey. Public display may, perhaps, raise this magnificent, ruined treasure to a more elevated place in our national consciousness. More likely, however, indifference will prevail, followed swiftly by oblivion, if only because the object on show in the National Gallery constitutes, at some level, such an alarming departure from what we believe to be the truth about British art. Or to put it another way, while our seventeenth century forefathers recast the Retable as a cupboard and did so quite successfully, there are all sorts of reasons why our own attempts to remake it again as ‘art’ may prove a good deal less effective.

Moving images
What is there, then, to see in that rather dingy Trafalgar Square basement? At first glance, not much. The Retable is, at some level, even after all that restoration, a wreck. Over three yards long and perhaps a yard high, shaped like a long rectangle divided into five panels, the initial impression is of a mess of damaged gilding and missing inlay, blank surface where there should have been line and colour, omission and loss where there surely ought to have been something else. It’s hard not to wince a little as the reality sinks in. But then, stepping closer, some of that remaining line and colour starts to resolve itself into meaning. Yes, there’s damage and chaos and pointless violence. But here and there, fading in and out of sight like a vision on the point of embodiment or disintegration, there is also — one gradually begins to see — the most astoundingly intricate, delicate, elegant painting, executed in rich and jewel-like pigment on gold ground. This isn’t just a ruin — it’s a wonder, too.

Before discussing its significance, it’s worth spelling out the subject-matter of the work. The first panel, on the left, depicts St Peter. Moving from left to right, the next panel contains three damaged yet largely legible compartments featuring scenes of Christ’s miraculous interventions — The Raising of Jairus’s Daughter (Mark 5:22-43, Matthew 9:18-26, Luke 8:41-56), The Healing of the Man Born Blind (John 9), and The Feeding of the Five Thousand (Matthew 14:14-21, John 6:3-14). Finally, the middle panel — the last in which any painting survives — shows Christ standing under an intricate Gothic tabernacle, flanked by the Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist. Christ is shown, not crucified, but rather standing whole before us, dressed in magnificent robes, one hand raised in blessing, the other gracefully supporting a tiny globe representing Creation, guarded and guided by His might.

Needless to say, the Westminster Retable was never meant to be a work of art. It was meant, instead, to do its job, which was to provide a fitting setting for the miracle of the Eucharist which took place daily before it. Perhaps, given its proximity to St Edward’s shrine, it also provided some sort of commentary on God’s ability to work wonders with the dull stuff of everyday life. For the imagery of the Retable is extremely unusual. So, too, is its opulence. It is, after all, a good deal more than just a painting, which is what most of us tend to think of anyway when confronted with that word ‘art’. Elaborately carved and gilded, some of the surfaces were once set with stained glass, while elsewhere glass has been placed over oil-based paint in order to simulate enamel. Originally the Retable would also have been decorated with simulated gemstones and cameos. When trying to reconstruct the impact the Retable must have made when new — its sheer visual firepower — it is worth thinking not just of the various thirteenth century altarpieces we now know as isolated panels, stranded in the secularising limbos of galleries and museums, but also of garish, exciting confections such as San Marco’s Palla d’Oro, which in terms of sheer magnificence is perhaps not unlike what Henry III might have wished to achieve, had he possessed the wherewithal to do so.

Get thee to the V&A
For we can’t escape those international comparisons, can we? Not least, conventional wisdom tells us that there’s far too little extant medieval British art with which to construct some sort of frame of reference. And when it comes to painting — ‘art’ in the sense of something that can be seen, looking through the appropriately teleological lenses, to develop over the centuries into museum-quality easel painting — this is, of course, true. How typical was the quality of, say, the Thornton Parva retable, stranded in rural Suffolk? How typical was the Coventry Doom? How mutually comprehensible, let alone consonant, were the visual rhetorics of the court painters and their country cousins? We’ll simply never be sure — and since these wall-paintings, by their nature, are scattered across all sorts of unlikely locations, we are unlikely to be troubled overmuch by such questions.

What we do know, however, is that English embroidery, stained glass, manuscript illumination and, in particular, the alabaster devotional sculptures produced in Nottinghamshire were at various points considered sufficiently desirable as to flow steadily into continental Europe. Unfortunately, however, we are particularly likely to ‘know’ this fact if we spend a lot of time poking around the museums and galleries of continental Europe. For what it’s worth, my first encounter with a Nottingham alabaster carving was at the Musee Cluny in Paris — and my first run-in with a really handsome set of English vestments may well have been in the museum of the Cathedral Chapter House in Siena, if not in Padua — certainly, though, Italian regional collections are full of the stuff.

The point, though, is this. Here in London, panels from altarpieces by Giotto di Bondone (maybe), Duccio di Buoninsegna, Hans Memlinc and dozens of others take pride of place in our National Gallery. At the same time, if you want to see medieval British art, you need to travel down to South Kensington to a museum which, for all its glories, was explicitly created to improve the quality of contemporary design and manufacture, rather than to display ‘art’. And there is, alas, still enough life in those old snobberies to provide a persistent undercurrent of commentary on the relative quality of home-grown visual culture, past and present. Or to put it another way, it’s possible to get rid of potentially troublesome objects without actually smashing or burning them.

Art and the Absolute
So, how to regard what’s left of our pre-reformation visual heritage? Stranded somewhere between art and objecthood, these relics — to use a loaded word — challenge us to categorise them.

In the finest British tradition, I was expecting the Westminster Retable to be — what? Interesting, maybe — or better still, to use that good seventeenth century word, ‘curious’, in the sense that I hoped the Retable might somehow tell me something about the devotional practice of 13th century Anglo-French court culture. What I wasn’t expecting, because we are not really accustomed to thinking of British medieval art in these terms, is the degree of aesthetic shock it would confer. The Retable’s beauty — and this time there isn’t really any other word that will do — literally made me catch my breath. The play of blood-bright reds against the dark greens and lapis lazuli blues is delicate, lyrical, intelligent. The flow of line is sinuous, playful, surprising. There is evident love for detail — the curl of a lock of hair, the twisting contours of outstretched fingers — but the demands of that love are never allowed to interrupt the formal imperatives of whole panels, or of the overall composition. There is sweetness in the faces, but also real vigour in the sway and balance of the figures. Naturalism isn’t the really point — but I can never for the life of me understand why anyone looks for ‘naturalism’ in a depiction of Christ in Glory.

Those who enjoy seeking some putative Englishness of English art in anecdote, decorative qualities and an ineffable yet present sweetness will find much to enjoy and recognise here. They may smile particularly on the tiny landscape — the most English, apparently, of artistic endeavours — captured, in schematic miniature, in the tiny orb Christ cradles in His hand. But anyone who might wish to move on from the Westminster Retable to, say, the work of Duccio or Simone Martini may be taken aback by the Retable’s sheer quality. No, it wasn’t meant to be ‘art’ any more than Duccio’s panels were — but there can be little question, even in its current, mangled form, that it can hold its own against the best products of contemporary Siena, Dijon or Paris.

The painted Word
Finally, those who suspect that a rather gentle, low-key, regretfully nostalgic Romanticism was always the authentic mode of English (in this case, not British) visual culture will perhaps suggest something further, which is that the terrible, ravaged nature of the surface of the Retable cannot honestly be disaggregated from our reaction to it. They would, of course, be correct. The chips, the yearning gaps, the achingly empty panels and the pointlessly brutal excisions underlie a thick varnish of known history, for which no degree of wilfully anachronistic aestheticisation is an effective solvent. The work might as well have ‘protestant reform woz here’ scratched across its damaged gilding. To that degree it is now poignantly about loss, change, unrecoverability. Those two long Tudor reigns which made ours a different country likewise made their marks, literal as well as figurative, on the Retable. All of which means that the post-Christian poetry of lost or failed beauty is powerful here — although it is by no means the only possible response to the Retable’s unmistakeable aura. It’s worth noting that both Paul Binski, the Cambridge University art historian who wrote the explanatory notes for the work, and a spokesman for the National Gallery have described the survival of the Retable as ‘miraculous’. Whether this strikes you as to any degree an odd choice of words is, if nothing else, a reliable index as to the subtle secularisation of your own intelligence.

All of which is quite a lot of reflection for quite a small area of extant pigment. Do, though, if you are in London over the next four months, do your best to visit the Westminster Retable in its dun-coloured, ill-lit, slightly depressing basement. It is not well sign-posted, and since the inexpressible delicacy of the brushwork requires extremely close-up viewing, there’s a certain amount of time spent standing behind dreary and self-important fellow Retable-spotters, craning for a glimpse of this extraordinary thing itself and often failing to achieve that glimpse. But it’s worth every bit of trouble you put into it, if only because viewing the Retable is sure to be so unlike any other gallery experience you will have had before, or are likely to have any time soon. There is, quite simply, nothing like it. For that reason alone, it deserves far more interest and engagement than I imagine it will receive.

No art, please, we’re British
Britain’s casual disregard for her nation’s artistic achievements is, no doubt, a sign of strength. Not for us the wistful resignation of the Italians or the Dutch, always looking back to an increasingly distant Golden Age when everything was so much better — nor the assertive boosterism of anxious places like Catalunya or Eire, or for that matter the USA in the mid-20th century, labouring under the historicist delusion that a strong artistic past might somehow imply an even stronger geopolitical future.

Britain, in contrast, is always wondering, admittedly without any great sense of urgency or seriousness, why her own art isn’t something else. We, for instance, have Hilliard and Oliver — instead of Tintoretto or El Greco. We have Dobson and Lely — rather than Watteau or Poussin or Claude. We have Thornhill — yet who visits the Painted Hall at Greenwich? Meanwhile our Reynolds kept talking to us about the sublime delights of Italy, and our Turner just swore and whored and kept on painting, and our Sickert was half-foreign anyway. By the time we come to the 20th century, what is there to say about British art? Picasso didn’t happen here, nor Matisse, nor Malevich. While the watery lager was flowing in the Cedar Tavern and America was lost in the throes of creating its own high imperial style, British artists were patiently adumbrating kitchen gardens, chalk figures and parish churches. The heroes of Abstract Expressionism played out their various drunken, messy endings with self-indulgent grandeur; in contrast, when our best artist of the 1930s died young, it was because he was shot down over Iceland while serving as an official war artist. We more or less invented Pop Art — a movement hard to read as anything other than commentary not on our own culture, but on someone else’s. And so on, and so on. Art history can be seen to move first in one direction, then another. Quite rightly, we are ambivalent about where we stand, as a nation, in regard to such movement. It must also be said, we also don’t really think it matters that much one way or the other.

On one hand, we do not see ourselves as successes in the field of art. On the other hand, we know perfectly well that political stability and mercantile success has ensured that Britain has better holdings of Italian, French and even Dutch art — let alone that of ancient Egypt, Greece or the Far East — than any other single nation on earth. We may have destroyed, in a low-key way, most of our own medieval art, but we’ve collected an awful lot of everybody else’s. We have provided a safe working environment for Warburg and Gombrich, although we have also nurtured Blunt and T. J. Clark. We would rather have launched the YBAs through the agency of a lazy sort of dole than any sort of concerted patronage of the arts. We quite like Tracey Emin, if only because she lives up to the sort of drunk, promiscuous, shambolic frivolity we’ve expected of artists, from Whistler and John to Bacon and early Hirst and beyond. And for that reason — to protect our sense of who we are, and what matters to us as a nation — we’d probably rather forget the aesthetic claims of the Westminster Retable, and what this strange, sad, horribly abused object says about us. Soon, of course, it will be back in the Abbey, which without doubt is a very good thing. That’s where it belongs. But for the next four months, we are going to have to work harder than usual to ignore the full complexity of Britain’s own visual inheritance.
Before she started writing about art, Bunny Smedley’s doctoral work at Cambridge University addressed the tensions between popular piety and official policy in the course of the Tudor reformations.

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Caravaggio: The Final Years at the National Gallery

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

At the heart of any exhibition review, after one’s stripped away the informative, fun or rancorous bits, there is almost always a simple, yes or no question waiting to be answered: is it worth bothering to see this show? So I might as well come clean right away. Yes, Caravaggio: The Final Years, currently showing at the National Gallery, is worth seeing. The organisers have managed to bring to London a few paintings of extraordinary quality, interest and importance, most of which rarely leave their usual domiciles in southern Italy. One or two are truly unforgettable. And it hardly needs saying, at least amongst people who know anything at all about art, that Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was a magnificently innovative, endlessly surprising painter whose influence was immense and who continues to be copied and name-checked now, centuries after his short life ended. So to experience any of his autograph work at first hand, even amidst the least encouraging of circumstances, is a boost to anyone’s visual literacy. For that reason, if no other, it would be a mistake to miss this exhibition. In the end, after all, it’s the art that stays lodged in the mind — not all the transient infelicities of this misguided, mismanaged exhibition, which is so very many ways ought to have been so very much better.

In the spotlight
Let’s start with the single worst misjudgement first. What’s the one thing that everyone knows about Caravaggio? And no, I don’t mean his homicidal turns, his energetic bisexuality, his gift for making enemies or any of the other colourful content of his turbulent life — what’s the one thing that everyone knows about his art? It hinges, of course, on light. Caravaggio’s chief legacy to his followers was a whole new vocabulary of light, in which the intense contrast between illumination and shadow could frame a moment of drama, add weight to a composition or simply speak for itself with a degree of expressive potency unparalleled in earlier art. This, coupled with the so-called ‘realism’ of Caravaggio’s work — his tendency to people his holy scenes not with ideal types cribbed from classical art, but with the all-too-human prostitutes and petty criminals who filled the streets of places like Messina and Syracuse — bundled up, it must be said, with the strange lithe sexiness of some of his figures — that is what contemporaries found most striking about his work. And indeed, it what we find most striking now. But over the course of his life, Caravaggio’s use of light changed. It seems clear that in those last years preceding his death, his treatment of light and darkness grew more extreme, more intense and more violent than ever before. So presumably, an exhibition focusing on Caravaggio’s final years should provide ample scope for examining the painter’s use of light — its development, and, to the extent that the chronology of works is clear, its ultimate conclusion. We should expect to learn a lot about Caravaggio’s light. And if we don’t, then something has gone pretty badly wrong.

Yet what we encounter instead, as we file with the rest of the throng down the stairs into the airless, charmless bunker that constitutes the Sainsbury Wing’s special exhibition space, has to count as one of the most bizarre and inexplicable mistakes ever perpetrated by a major art institution. What we see isn’t Caravaggio’s light — it’s the gallery’s light, and pretty darned strange it is, too. Somewhere along the planning process for the show, someone obviously decided that it would be a really good idea to keep the exhibition space extremely dark — dark walls, in oxblood and slate, as well as a generalised absence of illumination — while at the same time training spotlights on the paintings themselves. The result? As might have been predicted, this arrangement (more familiar from, say, the London Dungeon than the more upmarket reaches of the tourism spectrum) has the effect of making the usual unremarkable crowd of massed cultural consumers look marginally more like figures from Caravaggio’s canvases — while making the canvases themselves almost unreadable. The raking light tells us a great deal about the glaze layers and the overall condition of the upper few inches of the larger works, bleeds all the colour out of the centre of the work and inflicts strange patches of glare everywhere else. The larger paintings are simply impossible to see in their entirety. Did no one notice this before the exhibition began? Did no other critic notice it? The literal-mindedness behind this decision might be vaguely endearing had the show been organised by a team of enthusiastic six-formers. Coming from the curators at one of the world’s greatest art institutions, though, it is nothing short of scary. What next? Insisting that viewers can only enjoy Bruegel’s riotous kermesse scenes after consuming four or five pints? Refusing to show Turner canvases anywhere except outside, preferably in a thick fog? Making everyone strip off on their way into a Lucian Freud retrospective? Demand that only horses can see the forthcoming Stubbs show?

Down to our level
But then there’s other evidence afoot that, in the midst of organising all the loans and scholarship and hype, no one actually thought to look at the end result. For one thing, the large works are all hung incredibly low. Does this matter? Well, yes, in all sorts of ways.

Let’s take a simple example. One of the highlights of the exhibition is a magnificent Flagellation (1607), usually on show at the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples. It’s a spectacular work even in the company it encounters there, tall and commanding, powerfully emotive — a perfect painting to experience in the run-up to Holy Week. Christ, head bowed, figure painfully twisted, naked except for His crown of thorns and a brilliantly-executed strip of white cloth, is tied to a massive stone column, flanked by the figures of three of his tormentors — two framing Him, one just a little taller and one a little shorter, another crouched at His feet. It is this grid of bare, pale limbs — Persecuted and persecutors entwined together in the elaborate choreography of suffering and forbearance — that gives the composition its almost electric charge — that, and Caravaggio’s inimitably successful way of establishing complicated spatial relationships through gesture and illumination. In a canvas that divides neatly into three horizontal fields, it is the lower two in which all the action occurs, while the velvet black of the upper canvas is mostly there to bear down upon the actors, forcing down Christ’s head, pushing His tormentors in closer to Him. In some ways, in fact, the lowest third, while less obviously full of psychological force than the centre third, has the most vital part to play, for this is both the area that establishes most clearly the relationship between all the figures, and that gives the viewers that almost frightening sense of proximity to, or perhaps even complicity in the terrible scene unfolding before us.

Yet here, at the National Gallery, what do we see? Not what we would have seen in the church of San Domenico Maggiore, that’s for certain, where the painting once hung and where a replica version hangs today, high above a raised, consecrated altar in a relatively narrow transept chapel flooded with natural light — which is to say, leaving the liturgical context aside for a minute, an uninterrupted, clear, upward-looking view of this magnificent painting. Instead, in the Sainsbury Wing, we simply see a flock of dramatically-lit gallery-goers lost in the whispered confidences of their audio-guides, and then rising above them, the upper two thirds, or perhaps the upper half, of the Flagellation. Well, perhaps even half of something this good is better than nothing?

Notes and queries
Still, while waiting in the inevitable informal queue that develops alongside the smaller works in order to allow some sort of view of them — the handsome, sober Portrait of a Knight of Malta for instance, or the distinctly creepy Sleeping Cupid — there are plenty of minor puzzles to help pass the time. How, for instance, did it come to pass that a costly, purpose-built, contemporary exhibition space, created expressly for the display of Old Master paintings, suffers from a nasty, glare-afflicted lighting scheme that, while it might please conservators, plays havoc, again and again, with what we must assume to be the painters’ intentions? And given the tendency of these Old Master shows to include large altar-pieces — one thinks here of the recent Titian, El Greco and Raphael exhibitions — isn’t it unfortunate that London’s main Old Master exhibition space has such repellently pokey little proportions, truncated sight-lines and all the charisma of a particularly lacklustre underground car-park? And — here’s an old favourite — why is it every time the National Gallery shows its own Old Masters alongside those from other collections, the National Gallery paintings always look so flat, so lacking in depth and luminosity, in a word, so hideously over-restored? (At least the answer to this final, rather upsetting question is being explored to good effect elsewhere.)

So far, then, so bad. Time, perhaps, to give the organisers of Caravaggio: The Final Years a small dose of credit where credit is plainly due. There is one practical aspect of their work that deserves a generous dollop of praise. Having complained recently on this site about the usual dichotomy between the uninformative, free exhibition leaflet versus the unwieldy, far-from-free catalogue, I was delighted to encounter a neat response to this problem — a compact, free exhibition guide containing a brief introduction, a short description of each painting and a tiny bit of useful additional material. Although one could quibble about some of the content, this is, more or less, the right size and shape and complexity of thing to accompany most of us around an exhibition, answering the most urgent questions and providing a point of reference if we want to pursue more complicated points elsewhere. (The catalogue, while illustrated in admirably true colour and hence in some ways a better source of visual information about the pictures than real life encounters with them in the present exhibition, is otherwise an oddly hermetic affair, of interest to connoisseurs of Italian art-historical academic cat-fighting only.) Other institutions would do well to adopt this format, although curators might well argue that it is particularly suitable for shows featuring only a tiny number of actual works.

Qualitas quam quantitas?
For that is another curiosity of this exhibition. When Caravaggio: The Final Years first appeared at the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte in Naples, it was considerably more expansive, containing 19 accepted works, 9 copies of missing originals and 5 new proposed attributions. In London, by way of contrast, there are 16 accepted works — and that’s all. But the Italian show had another advantage. To crib a point made by Brian Sewell in his perceptive Evening Standard review of the London exhibition, Naples is so glutted with work painted by Caravaggio, as well as work profoundly influenced by him, that viewers can be assumed to know a lot, consciously or otherwise, about this painter, whilst visitors from Rome have the full benefit of all his earlier, more spectacular achievements there. By contrast, what do we have in London? The National Gallery’s Supper at Emmaus (1601), which is perhaps stretching the ‘final years’ concept more than a little, a Salome that Sir Denis Mahon bludgeoned the Trustees into acquiring, and not a lot else. All of which means that these 16 works, hung sparsely across the six dark, underlit rooms, are presented not only with very little context in terms of their original patronage, function or reception — the kind of lacuna we’ve come to expect by now — but also with very little context even in terms of art history. Or to put it another way, if you have the misfortune to enter this exhibition without any knowledge of what Caravaggio was getting up to before his ‘final’ years began, you’re going to emerge back into Trafalgar Square none the wiser. All of which is a bit odd, because surely half the point of the whole ‘final years’ tag is to make a distinction between earlier and later work, even to argue (however gingerly, given the bad teleological risks involved) for some sort of ‘late’ quality inherent in the work, some intimation of the end, perhaps something approaching a summation.

But it just isn’t here. How are we to recognise from this exhibition the distance travelled between the lush, overripe, gone-to-seed homoeroticism of his early work and, say, the very late St John the Baptist included here — coarse-featured, enervated, bled dry of fleshiness and physical appeal but perhaps more seriously invested with psychological insight? Or between the vivid colour of the earlier work and the near-monochrome rigour of David with the Head of Goliath — a really magnificent work, by the way, made all the more arresting by the suggestion that Goliath’s head was modelled on Caravaggio’s own? The overall effect is less a narrative of change and development than the evocation of one particular phase of a career. Yet even here, the chronology is still so hotly disputed, the number of works so small and the span of time over which they may have been painted so relatively large, that in the end, really, what is produced is more effect than argument — a show to experience with your eyes and heart and viscera, but not necessarily your intellect.

Spot the difference
There’s an exception to this, however. One of the high points of the exhibition is a comparison between two versions of The Supper at Emmaus — the National Gallery’s own painting and a loan from the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan. It is the one point at which the comparison between ‘early’ and ‘late’ becomes real, because there — assuming one can see past the crowds, the glare and the nasty finish on the National Gallery’s version — it is possible to look back and forth from one to the other, analysing what was gained and lost in the development of the image. This is the kind of totally engaging experience that perhaps uniquely justifies all the time, effort, cost and danger consequent on the organisation of an exhibition involving paintings of this quality. What a shame, then, that there are not more such experiences on offer here.

Here, in front of these two powerful yet divergent works, even the least experienced Caravaggio-watcher can chart out for himself the way in which a completely different mood, a completely different spiritual impact is achieved. He can see, as it were, the brilliant reds and golden yellows of the National Gallery’s version drain away — we have to assume that they were not all created by dodgy ‘cleaning’ — to become the sombre, umbrous tones of the Brera painting. He can watch the focus simplify from that rather elegant repast to a quasi-sacramental loaf and wine-jug and the circle of interconnected gazes. He can see how apparently minor shifts in the gestures of the figures transform the scene from one of high drama to one of wonder too deep either for exclamation or exertion. Movingly, he can experience a sort of nightfall between the two works, drawing in about the Brera piece as if to make this scene the only one in all the world, so that the viewer shares the uncertainty of the participants: ‘And while they yet believed not for joy, and wondered …’ For of the two — and doubtless familiarity plays its usual deadening role here — while the National Gallery version may be the more spectacular piece of painting, it is the Brera version that makes the more powerful spiritual point. And because Caravaggio is a painter who always seems, in a strangely modern way, to draw the conversation back to himself, one stands before this painting somehow imagining that the man who painted it must have felt in his own heart the appeal of the Emmaus story, with its promise of hope, even when hope seems most foolish and futile.

Is nothing sacred?
All of which brings us to a very basic problem — for once, not the problem of this exhibition per se, but of virtually all exhibitions of devotional art. No one would be barbaric enough, in these robustly civilised times, to suggest that a Cubist work by Picasso or Braque would look better with a thick layer of varnish. Nor would they suggest ripping the glass off one of Bacon’s Studies after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X. And what is clearly the worst thing Clement Greenberg ever did? Not his self-centred mistreatment of lovers, colleagues and students, obviously, because that only hurt other human beings. No, his real sin was to encourage the loss of paint from the surfaces of some of David Smith’s sculptures. For these days there’s a general agreement that the artist’s intentions regarding a work are, if not literally sacrosanct, then at very least worthy of serious, scrupulous respect. Who, when hanging a Rothko exhibition these days, would ignore his well-publicised views about the height at which his works should be hung? Only someone who was purposefully making some sort of statement by doing so. It would be like hanging late Turners without frames, in order to make them look more contemporary — a tail-wagging intervention, soliciting approbation from critics and, mostly, other curators. It would not be done accidentally, not only without comment but almost without consciousness. If the edict were disobeyed, such a dandyish gesture would only call more attention to the edict, and to the importance of its conservation.

And yet such is, almost invariably these days, the fate of Baroque devotional art. Who cares if an altarpiece was designed to be hung at a certain height, to be seen from certain vantage-points but not from others, to be illuminated in a certain way and from a certain direction, and to be experienced in the context of particular surroundings — paintings, sculpture, architecture, whatever? While I have no idea whether Caravaggio is known to have made a great fuss over such matters, I do know for a fact that Titian, Tintoretto, El Greco, Raphael and others all did. What’s more, their patrons, critics and admirers were also demonstrably conscious of this sort of issue. Anyone who has ever yawned their way through any serious work on Renaissance or Baroque patronage knows the immense amount of tedious discussion surrounding scale, frames, harmonisation with other nearby work, visual puns, the overall impression made by a work once installed in its intended site — in other words, aspects of its visual functionality. Nowadays, however, it is considered perfectly normal — and like the present show, the El Greco and Titian exhibitions were perfect examples of this — not only to show unfinished, cut-down or otherwise damaged work, but to hang work low, more or less unframed, against gallery walls under artificial light. Is this really the best way to learn anything about an artist, though — even at the basic level of trying to understand how he wanted his paintings to look? Of course not. Instead, such hanging schemes bring the devotional hardware of other times and places down to the level of our present-day art, created for the tartish humours of public scrutiny in a shifting world of white-walled, anonymous galleries. And of course something is lost in this translation. No wonder these Old Master exhibitions so often have a strange, inexplicable air of sadness lingering about them.

God and man in Sicily
Inevitably, a lot of meaning is lost, too, in the decision to move a painting from a church into a gallery. Those who derive their knowledge of Caravaggio principally from broadsheet newspapers’ regurgitations of National Gallery hype, if not from that Derek Jarman’s film, may be surprised at the notion that Caravaggio’s work might have any religious meaning whatsoever. Surely a mentally-unstable bisexual murderer — for few artists have ever been luckier in their modernist, ‘misunderstood outsider’, creative credentials — couldn’t possibly have painted a ‘straight’, serious devotional work? Surely the hand that enthusiastically depicted all those pouting rent boys masquerading as St John, what with everything else it got up to, couldn’t have been connected to a self-consciously Christian soul? Surely these works, with all their drama, earthiness and patent genius must always have been mostly about art, or perhaps about the artist, and not about something as old-fashioned and dreary and unremarkable as actual Christian faith?

To be fair, Caravaggio is hardly the only painter who is burdened, again and again, with our baggage of anachronistic and frankly myopic secularist assumptions, although his bad-boy image makes him a particularly soft, receptive target. Goya is another, especially for those either unwilling or unable to understand the distinction between anticlericalism and atheism. For what, after all, is the point of painting something if you’re not out to undermine it, critique it or transgress against it?

It would, obviously, be foolish to ignore the amount of pride in his own workmanship, the sheer competitive zeal that must have gone into the scraping-into-life of Caravaggio’s most successful paintings. There’s a kind of wilful extremism in some of those compositions, in some of the schemes of illumination, that speaks as clearly as mute pigment can of the desire to push his medium just that little bit further than any of his contemporaries dared to go. The need to be at the cutting edge is one that we understand, although perhaps these days that understanding is intercut with a hint of nostalgia That is perhaps why the National Gallery is so keen to tout Caravaggio was ‘the first modern artist’. But I think we need to take seriously, too, the possibility that there was more than artistic ambition, coupled of course with the desire to make a bit of money, behind the creation of Caravaggio’s devotional work. It is all too easy, now, to read into those broad-featured peasant faces and dirty feet some sort of attempt to criticise the wealth and power of the ecclesiastical hierarchy or perhaps even to subvert belief, full stop — less easy, perhaps, to remember the desire of many Counter Reformation thinkers to develop an affective, personalised, down-to-earth style of religiosity both to wrong-foot protestant critiques and to improve the breadth and depth of public devotion. Surrounded by all the trappings of liturgy and faith, in the churches for which they were painted, we might at least have been able to explore whether this work might still speak to us at the level those who commissioned it, and perhaps even the artist himself, intended. In the Sainsbury Wing basement, however, it is hard enough for the paintings to function as art, let alone as anything more significant. And really, this should be a source of sorrow for all of us, Christian or otherwise, if only because it sets up a barrier between us and these magnificent, mistreated acts of creation.

Not in the South
Still — well, in the end, for all its faults, Caravaggio: The Final Years is still worth the admission fee. Several of the paintings are simply that good. I’ve mentioned, already, the Flagellation from Capdimonte and the David from the Galleria Borghese, Rome. Both are remarkable, yet what admirer of the Baroque won’t eventually find his way to a gallery in central Rome (no matter how eccentric its opening hours) or to the hills above Naples?

In that sense, the real wonders here are the three major Sicilian paintings which are much less well known to those of us languishing in London — the Burial of St Lucy from Syracuse, and the Raising of Lazarus and Adoration of the Shepherd from Messina. Of these, the St Lucy seems, at first, the easiest to dismiss, but is perhaps the greatest. It is a bit of a mess — thin in parts, with areas of repainting and a complicated, vexed history — and looks deceptively simple. But the longer one looks, the more there is to see in this strangely warm, earthy yet luminous work. The two gravediggers (what Leon Golub always tried to achieve, yet never did) seem too monumental to be ordinary humans, leaning inwards, their gigantic forms describing a sort of parenthesis within which much of the action occurs, while the almost scary foreshortening of the dead saint’s body provokes a sense of crisis, looking just that little bit too dead for comfort, and the cusp of the bishop’s mitre is picked out abruptly by the raking light. A blood-coloured cloth, near the centre, provides the only flash of colour. Meanwhile, the upper half of the canvas is occupied only by shadow and a mysterious double arch. The rhythms here repay protracted study — the composition is nothing short of amazing — but perhaps even more remarkable is the sense of age, mystery, gravity produced by this rather sketchy-looking, damaged marvel, which alone would have made entry to the exhibition worthwhile. It looks almost like an excavated fragment of classical Roman painting. It looks almost like some sort of artefact, a relic of something real, rather than just a painting, just a construct. The National Gallery speaks of ‘the first modern painter’ with the implication that this is a point in Caravaggio’s favour. Whereas in my own mind, Caravaggio may be the only painter other than Rubens to tackle the classical world more with lust and understanding than with deference. And what, in the first decade of the seventeenth century, could be more of a marvel than that?

But then the two Messina paintings are also, in their own ways, marvellous. Both share the reddish-brown cast and the low, wedge-shaped composition of the St Lucy. The Lazarus is laid out like a frieze, with Lazarus stretching his arms out in clear evocation of the Crucifixion, his right hand rising above the file of wondering mourners in order to connect, visually, with the imperative, pointing finger of a monumental Christ. The strange frightening light picks out bits of drapery, contours of flesh. Intuitively, the hot-blooded Caravaggio seems a world removed from cool, cerebral Poussin, yet at moments like this the two draw very close indeed. Meanwhile the Adoration is unlike any other treatment of this subject I’ve ever seen. It isn’t so much that all the actors are ‘ordinary’ — Netherlandish painting tended to cast those shepherds as very ordinary indeed — but rather, the psychology of the moment is evoked so unsparingly and perhaps so personally. Once again, much of the upper half of the canvas is lost in the dark — but in this case, rather than suggesting infinite space above, some sketchy rafters instead reveal how low are viewpoint is beneath the eaves of this low stable. Mary is lying on the ground, propped up on a feed box. She looks, frankly, exhausted — like a woman who has just given birth. She is nuzzling her baby, who reaches His tiny fat hand up towards her face. This, obviously, and correctly, is all she cares about — not the strangers kneeling in front of her, not Joseph, certainly not the indifferent bulk of the livestock, as impassive as statues, only a few feet away. It’s a very tender painting, but the sacramental still-life in the foreground lifts the tenderness above sentimentality, just as the emotive power pushes the composition far beyond mere artistic brilliance. It’s real and raw and beautiful. It’s the sort of painting that reminds us why Caravaggio is so easy to copy, yet so impossible to equal.

Ultimately, then, Caravaggio: The Final Years provides an odd sort of access to the life and work of one of Europe’s greatest and most influential painters. There’s no context, no sense of development, because the late work we see is contrasted with nothing. There’s no particular sense of why the work was painted, or what it was painted against, as it were — the work of Caravaggio’s predecessors and contemporaries, so richly represented only a few yards away in other parts of the National Gallery. The paintings are hard to see, while the lighting scheme and the overblown emphasis on the artist’s tempestuous life broadcast a pointless air of theatricality over the proceedings. Did the curators really believe that these paintings could not have made a case for themselves without all that regrettable ‘first modern painter’ bombast, the glaring spotlights and the melodramatic darkness? If so, they were bizarrely, inexplicably wrong. Viewed either at the level of stepping-stones in some narrative of learning how to make pigment on canvas do heart-stopping things — or, better still, as a particular individual’s highly distinctive meditations on the great truths of suffering, death and redemption — there’s enough here to make yet another grudging visit to London’s worst exhibition space entirely worthwhile. Despite itself, this is an exhibition worth seeing.
Bunny Smedley used to be Arts Editor of electric-review.com.

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Human interest: Making Faces at the National Gallery

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

I have recently taken to reading lots of books about birth and early childhood development — well, it makes a change from worrying about whether painting’s dead, doesn’t it? Thus it is that I have learned more over the past month or so than I ever wished to know about the way in which people respond to each other’s faces.

A newborn baby, apparently, has an absolutely innate interest in the human face — not only his mother’s face, either, although within days he can recognise this, but in all human faces. The part of his brain responsible for this achievement develops early, long before birth. Stranger still, within the first week or two he is drawn not only to actual human faces, but to man-made images of the human face, with black-and-white, full-face line-drawings being the preferred media. This fascination is not, however, you may be pleased to learn, primarily aesthetic in motivation. Babies, it turns out, are also amazingly adept both at ‘reading’ emotion — affection, anger, boredom, amusement — in other people’s faces, and at mirroring what they find there. It’s part of the way in which we learn to relate to each other — to function socially thorough the course of our lives. One can think of all sorts of reasons why the development of these abilities should have been smart moves in evolutionary terms. That, however, need not detain us. The point is simply that curiosity about our fellow creatures’ faces is entirely natural, instinctive and universal. There is, put starkly, nothing we’d rather see, and nothing we are better at seeing.

The potency of cheap printed portraiture
If you think that this smacks of overstatement, you can test the thesis yourself. Pay a visit to your local newsagent. Scanning the shelves — newspapers (both broadsheet and tabloid), magazines covering a variety of topics, community free-sheets — what do you see? Chances are that your gaze will be confronted by a wall of human faces, their two-dimensional eyes seeking contact with yours. It’s a basic rule of newspaper layout — and one, incidentally, that much visual-media-based advertising seems to follow, too. Perhaps recalling those early infant days, female faces are believed to be more enticing than male faces, friendly faces more alluring than cross or impassive ones — while the most popular images of men tend to have what are traditionally seen as rather feminised features (smooth skin, big eyes, rosy lips). Or to put it another way, there’s a strong commercial imperative reason behind our ongoing persecution by those pandemic images of Britney Spears, David Beckham, Prince William, whatever identikit nonentities won Fame Academy and the late Diana, Princess of Wales. However rational we may believe our own behaviour to be, however slyly we may justify our own expenditure of 40 pence on today’s Evening Standard, the fact remains that faces somehow do get to us, draw us in emotionally and make us want to know more. Iconoclasts smash faces — ‘deface’ images — as a matter of priority. Men dying in combat apparently experience visions of their mother’s faces. Faces matter. There is, apparently, only so much human nature we can outgrow, try though we might.

Familiar faces
The National Gallery’s current touring exhibition, Making Faces, provides a good opportunity to ponder all this. True, it is a modest exhibition, enormous neither in scope nor in aspiration. It had already appeared in Bristol and Newcastle before pitching up in London. Some of its strongest works are, in any event, part of the National Gallery’s permanent collection. Given all these limitations, it was bound almost by necessity to be a bit of a dog’s breakfast, throwing a few dozen paintings into a small space, conjuring up a catch-all theme and then hoping for the best.

But don’t let that put you off. There are still plenty of reasons to make your way down to Trafalgar Square. For one thing, the exhibition is free, having been generously sponsored by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and the Bernard Sunley Charitable Foundation. And for another thing, it includes some absolutely delightful pictures. Also it’s certainly more coherent than its predecessor, the wretched Paradise. Finally, although one can charge forward too far and fast along this route (are you listening, Sir Nicholas Serota?) there is, nonetheless, a case to be made for shaking up the arrangement of familiar pictures, hoping to expose an unappreciated relationship or to spark off a moment of novel revelation. The hang, in this case, is playful and understated rather than the usual high-volume broadcast of curatorial self-importance. But in any event, how much of an excuse do you need to visit what is, after all, blasé though we may be about it, one of the greatest art collections on the face of the earth? If Making Faces provides that excuse, then it’s all to the good — and if you find yourself seeing the world slightly differently in its wake, well that’s even better.

What else is there to say by way of introduction to this small but strangely compelling exhibition? First and foremost, despite what some other reviews seem to suggest, Making Faces is not an exhibition of portraits. True, many of the works on show are portraits — but these only just outnumber the history paintings, devotional works or the exercises in social comment, sexual fantasy and existential horror. This is one reason why likeness becomes a less important theme than qualities such as expressiveness or intrinsic visual drama. Nor should this surprise us, really, once we stop to think about it. When it comes to historical portraits, how could we begin to judge their versimilitude or otherwise? How on earth would we know? Just to pick an example that has nothing to do with this exhibition but which makes the point neatly enough, when we think of Charles I, chances are that the image that comes to mind is one fresh from the hand of Anthony van Dyck — all regal glamour, laced with the faintest proleptic whisper of impending tragedy. Never mind that every portrait of the king — one thinks here of the work of Daniel Mytens — shows a shorter, considerably less elegant, marginally more down-to-earth fellow. Van Dyck’s images, we realise, show what such a person ought to look like. For that reason we gladly suspend disbelief in favour of enchantment. This capacity to foster happy deception is, after all, one of the qualities of great art, just as the ability to detect yet enjoy such deception is central to the wholehearted appreciation of art.

Sex, sisterhood and shellfish
The distance between artifice and accuracy is one of the fascinating strands that runs through Making Faces. One of the finest paintings present — and, incidentally, one of the few genuinely capable of thriving against the fire-engine red walls — is Goya’s magnificent Dona Isabel de Porcel. On one level, the work was a commissioned portrait of the wife of some long-forgotten minor bureaucrat. Yet if all it did was to represent her features accurately, why on earth should we care about it? But of course it does so much more than that. One doesn’t have to take much of a leap of imagination to suspect that Goya enjoyed this particular assignment perhaps a little bit more than Dona Isabel’s husband might have liked. Goya had, as do many men, a particular ‘type’ that appealed to him. Perhaps Dona Isabel approached it more closely than most. At any rate, what was meant to be a portrait has been elevated, here, into the stuff of full-bodied sexual fantasy — the slightly damp-looking curls, the flushed cheeks, the plump bosom only just encased within the black lace shawl, the remarkably full lips — and, most notably, those impossibly huge, luminous, indeed slightly bulging eyes. No one, frankly, has ever looked quite like this, which is perhaps just as well, because real life would render these exaggeratedly large and emphatic features freakish and unpleasant. As a fiction, however, they are stunningly successful. This is one of Goya’s most perfect paintings, which is saying a lot.

But it was also an excellent decision on someone’s part to place this masterpiece next to Sargent’s The Misses Vickers. The Edwardian society painter complained plangently about having to travel to ‘the dingy hole’ of Sheffield to paint the daughters of this armaments magnate — ‘three ugly young women’ as he put it, not entirely gallantly. Yet if they really were ugly one finds no trace of this in his group portrait. Slim, graceful and with three very distinct sets of exaggerated features — big eyes and rosebud mouths set out against porcelain skin — their appearances are as skilfully idealised in the fashion of their era as that of Dona Isabel was in her own. The hanging ensures that the shift in taste becomes a locus of interest in its own right. The plump young matron, with her confident deportment and flirtatious half-smile, is replaced by this demure, virginal grouping set out against the background of a dark, airless room. Yet one can’t help but feel that Sargent was idealising to order here. Failing to fall in love with these girls in the way that Goya seems somehow to have done with Dona Isabel, Sargent falls back on playing super-sophisticated formal games with the positioning of an outstretched arm or the arc of a turning page, the rigid pattern of a chairback or a silvery little still-life in the distance, which seems to have charmed him at least as much as any of the sisters. One is intensely aware of artifice here, but then awareness of artifice is a civilised pleasure in its own right. Perhaps no one ever conveyed this as well as Sargent did. The Misses Vickers is a tidy example of this.

Both Goya’s portrait of Dona Isabel and Sargent’s portrait of the Vickers girls were commissioned pieces. In each case, the artist’s decisions about pose, costume, format and finish had to compromise with those of his paying patron. We look today for directness, charm and painterly bravura where an earlier generation of viewers may well have read claims for wealth, social prestige, virtue or simply cognisance of up-to-date fashion. We are drawn to speculate on the relationship between painter and subject because we have grown up in a time where great painting is supposed to express something real and important about its creators’ inner lives, rather than simply to complete a job of work and fulfil a contract.

Yet even those of us inclined to insist on this sort of kill-joy caveat are able to go a bit weak in the knees at the painting that has been placed next to the Goya and the Sargent. Hogarth’s The Shrimp Girl was, evidently, painted to please no one but Hogarth himself. True, the red wall does this magnificent exercise in subtle tonality no favours at all, and a certain sort of viewer will find it hard to resist moving the painting across the room to join Auerbach’s Julia (1987), with which it has affinities. Never mind, though. Always one of the most shockingly effective works in the National Gallery when encountered casually, this brilliantly free, funny, adorable sketch of a painting only gains force from the company it keeps here. The Shrimp Girl’s rounded breasts, ready smile and illusion of arrested motion rhyme delightfully with their counterparts in Goya’s painting, while the wild yet weightless flurry of brushwork, executed in that silver-and-rose-based palette, casts the Sargent in a whole new light. The roughest of sketches — she doesn’t even have eyelids, for heaven’s sake! — the image is nonetheless wholly believable, wholly alive. And this, on reflection, and in conjunction with these other two works, tells us something important about the whole business of looking at pictures of faces. One doesn’t need much of a subject, much of an available context, even much in terms of finish to find a human face fascinating. The artist can hold back, letting our eyes and minds fill in the detail. It is in this sense that pictures of faces, however they are made, connect with us at the deepest, most instinctive level. We simply can’t help but meet the Shrimp Girl’s wide-eyed smile halfway. Our own human nature somehow makes us care, even when there’s really no earthly reason why we should.

Face to face
These are three pictures which, in their various ways, I very much like — the Sargent, normally Sheffield-based, is a particular treat. Of course, there are others that leave me cold. Is there anyone out there, for instance, who is capable of responding to Sassoferrato’s Virgin in Prayer with a truly satisfactory blend of religious devotion and aesthetic oomph? Sorry, but try though I might, I simply can’t manage it. Devotion chokes in my throat when faced with this catastrophic level of plaster-statue kitsch; aesthetic admiration stops short as one suddenly feels with a sickening lurch the truth of all those boring things that David Hockney is always arguing about the early use of the camera lucida. There’s something creepily dead about this painting, which I usually avoid whenever possible. And at the other end of the spectrum, what about Renoir’s La Premiere Sortie, to give it the better of its two titles? Cute girl, mucky handling, rules of perspective jettisoned to no great purpose — yes, it’s all the slackness, sloppiness and self-congratulation that linger like a miasma round the worst sort of Impressionist daubs — blurry pointless bilge to satisfy a sentimental and uncritical bourgeoisie. Why not include a nice puppy or something , perhaps with a silk bow round its neck, and be done with it? And yet, exploring my dislike of these two very different works — both of which I’ve seen dozens if not scores of times — for the first time it occurs to me that in each of them, the principal subject averts her eyes, throwing the emphasis back onto her situation, rather than encouraging direct contact, person to person, however simulated and fictional. Could this be part of the reason why neither painting really works for me? It is at moments like this that Making Faces makes one, in fact, see these faces entirely anew.

And then there are some odd, even surprising choices. It’s obvious enough, and quite right, to include ‘normal’ portraits such as Philippe de Champaigne’s famous treble portrait of Cardinal Richelieu — although worth remembering that this was created less as a work of art than as a businesslike set of instructions to the sculptor Francesco Mochi who was carving a bust of the great statesman. (I hadn’t, however, realised that the completed bust was decapitated in 1793 and the head used as a counterweight for a roasting spit — a minor addition to the catalogue of unforgettable evil attended on that unfortunate ‘revolution’, but interesting nonetheless.) It was also a good choice to include a bracingly austere portrait by Cranach of Martin Luther (borrowed from Bristol) in which everything except the face itself is reduced to richly articulate minimalism — a painting that still begs to be reproduced in cheap printed versions, teetering on the fence that separates fine art from fine propaganda. And one absolutely unforgettable addition is a portrait of a black man who might or might not be the ex-slave, author and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano, dated to about 1780 and attributed only to the British School. Luminous and sensitive, this image is both beautifully-painted — a reminder of the way in which even rather ordinary painters are sometimes capable of raising their game when confronted with the unfamiliar challenge of African skin — and powerfully direct. Whoever this broad-featured, strong-browed, confident-looking man may have been, one is somehow left feeling one has had some sort of direct encounter with him. It is a measure of the quality of this work that it can hang on the wall alongside a good Moroni portrait and can bear the comparison. Borrowed from Exeter, it is almost reason enough in itself to encourage jaded Londoners to visit this exhibition.

To look or not to look?
The oddities, where they appear, are odd for a variety of reasons. Wyndham Lewis’ Mr Wyndham Lewis as a Tyro is weirdly cartoon-like — a sinister, grinning, luridly-coloured creature awaiting animation. Its creator’s purpose in painting it was, as far as we can know, so very different from that underlying most of the works around it that it tends to look a little lost here, if only because Lewis was so evidently not painting an image of a real face, but of a deliberately, indeed disturbingly unreal face. Nearby, meanwhile, hangs a Warhol silkscreen portrait of Joan Collins. It was an interesting decision on someone’s part to represent Warhol not with a more meaningfully iconic gold-ground Marilyn Monroe portrait, but instead with a late (1985), high-camp, low-energy studio work. What strikes the viewer more than anything else, though, is the simple boredom of the surface. Like the raw materials of cheap popular print mentioned above, this is an image that exists to be scanned for a second, recognised — and then one can move on, safe in the knowledge that one has missed nothing — disposable art for a generation that is good at channel-surfing but bad at concentration. One is left wondering whether the simple printed phrase ‘Joan Collins’ would, ultimately, have conjured up more — gone deeper or wider in terms of richness of memory or quality of nuance — than this gloomily demotic, cynical exercise.

This sounds negative. I wonder, though, if the presiding curators were not rather slyly encouraging this sort of negativity. Who, in Making Faces, are Miss Collins’ companions? Across from her hangs the aforementioned portrait by Frank Auerbach of his wife Julia. Now, for anyone who knows anything about Auerbach’s working methods, the contrast could hardly be more poignant. Auerbach has been painting Julia — and indeed many of his other models — for decades. His practice? For days and days he’ll drive and delve with fierce, haptic, glutinously thick strokes into the face of his panel — only to scrape away the pigment the next morning and start all over again. If you don’t like this work, obviously, you may read this method as self-indulgent irresolution and preciousness. If, on the other hand, you agree with me that, for better or worse, Auerbach is probably the most important painter working in Britain today, then you may well consider that what is lost in terms of paint or recognisable images is richly repaid in terms of accumulated, patient, hopeless yet dogged looking. You may find something poignant and powerful in this recognition. Or to put it another way, it isn’t just Hollywood versus Camden, fame versus hard-won familiarity, slickness versus struggle that’s at stake here. It goes deeper. Warhol, famously, wanted to be a machine — Auerbach wants, I think, to be Titian or Rembrandt or late 1940s de Kooning, and although his achievement does not approach that of even the worst of these three painters, at the very least his aspirations speak to theirs.

You do, honestly, get more out of a good Auerbach the longer you force yourself to look at it, in the same way that an irritable love-hate friendship sometimes comes to mean more, a few years on, than any succession of well-behaved yet shallow social niceties. But just to sharpen the poignancy, Auerbach and Warhol are joined here by Julian Opie’s Nantra, Pool Attendant. ‘I try to make a universal symbol for each individual I draw’, says Opie. But of course what humans are hard-wired to care about is not the universality of a face, but rather its specificity — otherwise, we’d constantly be confusing our own mothers with any other woman possessing the conventional array of basically symmetrical features. One can admire Opie’s work as the nice, sharp, savvy graphic design that it is, but it won’t haunt anyone’s dreams the way that the Shrimp Girl might. At best, in its own way it speaks for the tendency of its age to value a lack of engagement, failures of empathy or affect — the coolness that doesn’t get involved, or hurt, or compromised — and in that sense, the image is as idealised as any other in the show. It may well be the case that in two or three hundred years, this Opie will still be placed in galleries — assuming, which incidentally I do not, that such things will still exist — alongside the Goyas and the Hogarths. If so, however, the prospect of what such things will say about our times is more than a little sobering.

Every picture tells a story
Other works, here, probably speak more as period pieces than as great art. From the Museum of London comes The General Post Office: One Minute to Six by George Elgar Hicks. This is, in its own way, another reposte to Warhol’s image of Joan Collins. That silkscreen surface asks to be scanned — whereas Hick’s big narrative canvas, dated 1860, demands to be read like a Dickens serial. Every face, every set of clothing, every letter or parcel not only tells a story but demands that we listen, assimilate, judge. Here is a survey of Victorian London at its most unguarded. Hicks runs smoothly through the social types, from the demure, upper-middle-class girl, surely clutching a love-letter, to the brutish, malformed pickpocket who’s just been apprehended by a very tall policeman. Once again, the work was a clever inclusion, because it reminds us of the extent to which we expect, even now, that the ‘character’ of a face ought to agree with its social and economic standing. It would be strange, at least in a literary context, if the virginal girl had stubby features or really bad skin, in the same way it would be odd for the messenger-boys to evince aristocratic hauteur or poetic dreaminess. It reminds us, in other words, how very much looking we can do, pace Warhol and Opie, given half a chance — and indeed, how little we can help ourselves from looking.

One final oddity is Ruskin Spear’s Haute Couture (1954), a large work executed in oil on board. I’m delighted that someone thought to include Spear, who is all too often written out of history, since his son-of-Sickert neo-realism continues to be seen, mistakenly, as the sort of pointlessly retrograde art-historical cul-de-sac that could only happen in art-phobic Britain. Having said all that, however, this particular work was a distinctly odd choice. It shows, roughly, a fashion-show in progress — but only just shows it, because the scene is squeezed into a tall, largely monochone panel that seems nearer to the Japanoiserie of Whistler than anything one would expect to encounter in the 1950s. But never mind. On the right, a slim and stylish model paces proudly along the catwalk, while on the left, a brooding, saggy-faced, over-made-up old crone watches her reflectively. The brief catalogue for the exhibition (at £3.50, an entirely worthwhile little publication) identifies more than a note of anti-semitism in this caricature-like portrayal. The catalogue may well be right. But if so, the picture’s inclusion makes a sort of sense, if only because it reminds us how little we need, visually, in the presentation of a face to start to read not only narrative or character, but also quite a lot of other nuances into the scene we are watching — ideological or historical, racist or anti-racist, instinctive or conscious. We look, after all, not only with our eyes, but also with our minds and memories and cultural expectations. It’s a measure of the success of Making Faces that it can remind us of this in a fresh, persuasive way, yet without making some great enormous fuss about it.

The camera doesn’t lie — does it?
For all its lucidity, however, Making Faces is dominated by a dog which, while never actually barking, growls menacingly throughout the proceedings. He’s called Photography.

There’s no denying that photography is now the primary vehicle, other than personal experience, through which we encounter the human face. How many celebrities of the past seventy years or so do we now imagine through painted, rather than photographic images? All the way from Charlie Chaplin to Churchill to the Beatles to Margaret Thatcher or Diana, Princess of Wales, our mental iconostases are festooned with the stuff of flash-bulbs, receptive plates and analogue imagery, rather than canvas and pigment. Who, I wonder, was the last person to be remembered first and foremost through his or her painted, rather than photographed appearance? The most famous handmade portraits of the past century seem, on the contrary, either to spit on photographic versimilitude or, alternatively, to evince a discouraging desperation to snuggle up with it. One thinks on one hand of Picasso’s Gertude Stein or Dora Maar — literally turning themselves inside out in order not to look photographically ‘real’ — and on the other, Hockney’s languorous Bel Air fantasias or Chuck Close’s monster viages, worked up from Polaroids and faithful to their memory. Or to put it another way, it’s part of the modernist predicament that one either paints for photography, or against it. We have seen, in the collision of Auerbach with Warhol and Opie, evidence of this cleavage in action, and in some ways it is hard — and not even necessarily desirable — to hold oneself aloof from the battle. If photography is there to tell us what people really look like, what’s the point of painting people? And if the only point of painting people is to do the things that photography arguably cannot do — to interrogate or interpret them — then what’s the point of making paintings that look like people at all?

The answer to this rather tail-chasing dilemma lies, I think — and this is a strange thing for any Tory to hear herself saying — in technology, of all places. For more than a century now, the more perceptive sort of observer has realised that the ‘truth’ told by photography is, at best, subjective, equivocal and frankly slippery. Through its own framing, its selectivity of interest and emphasis, its cropping and scene-setting, its captioning and accompanying commentary, photography constructs the world as much as it reproduces it — which is to say, as partially and unreliably as any painting. (It should probably also be said, and not only out of good manners either, that some other extremely intelligent observers, including Professor Roger Scruton, have made precisely the opposite point, believing that photography really does represent reality in a direct, consequential way, free from aesthetic choice-making of the sort that governs painting.) Either way, though, a minority of professional quibblers have at the very least seen the ‘realness’ of photographic representation as a contentious area. But that still leaves a large majority who were convinced that photography told, and tells, uncomplicated truths. We still see this, for instance, in the almost total lack of a visual-arts response to the tragic events of 11 September 2001 — what is there to say, when photography has said everything already? And at the other end of the spectrum, if Madonna evinces signs of cellulite or Britney Spears seems in danger of starting to let herself go, only photographic evidence really convinces us of these grave truths. Print media no longer has any need of the engraver or lithographer at all. In general, we believe the photograph like we believe nothing else.

Yet into this trustful Eden a serpent has insinuated itself — digital photography. The arguments made by Professor Scruton and others regarding photography rested, in large part, on the fact that no matter who was handling the camera or manipulating the raw materials of the photo-shoot, ultimately photography itself was a simple chemical reaction — the effect of light on a sensitised plate. The fact that the photographic plate had to be right there with the subject, in the same place, gave the whole business of photographic image-making a kind of relic-making stature, while the unthinking nature of that chemical reaction ensured that photography was the stuff of science and fact, not art and imagination. But that was analogue photography, and while Soviet propagandists and fairy-folk-spotting hoaxers found their various ways round its simple rules, it could lay claim to a sort of conceptual integrity that its digital offspring never even pretended. Digital photography, in contrast, has always had something labile, whorish and unstable about it. One pixel lost or added, here or there — what does it matter? There’s no negative to keep — no clear line between accident and invention. And for this reason, the print media rightly love it, because it can be made to produce ‘better’ — which is to say, clearer and brighter and more persuasive — images than its predecessor ever could.

Digital deception
Yet as time passes, and the brand-name ‘Photoshop’ becomes more familiar, the audience for photographic images is rapidly learning to become less trustful of the images all around it. Some publications have countered this by making public declarations about the percentage of digitally manipulated images they use. Others have simply ignored the issue. And while high-profile credibility disasters like the case of the Mirror’s so-called ‘prisoner abuse’ photos have made cynicism the stuff of high-ish politics, the proliferation of estate agents’ brochures featuring skies of unlikely blue and lawns of unlikely green have brought cynicism down to earth to become the stuff of our everyday lives. We are, I think, only a few years away from bringing up a new generation which is just as distrustful of photography as it is of every other medium. All of which again raises the question — if neither photography nor hand-made art has a claim to absolute authority any more, is it not time for art to start articulating anew the sorts of claims it can make most strongly and exclusively? Is there a way in which painting can pique our inbuilt curiosity about our fellow creatures by ‘making faces’ in a way that no mechanical means can hope to parallel? Are we looking at the end of a great and ancient tradition, or simply at yet more evidence of its flexibility and resilence?

Those, in any event, are big questions that will have to wait for another day. Yet it is somehow typical of Making Faces that one feels inclined to raise them in the first place. There are lots of oversized, bombastic, ‘blockbuster’ shows each year, most of which charge £7 or £8 a time to confer what they claim will be a unique, unforgettable, never-to-be-repeated experience. A few live up to this billing, more or less. Most, as the late Francis Haskell reminded us so powerfully in his final book, do no such thing. Making Faces makes no such claims, charges no such West End prices and has failed to dominate the media with its press-releases. Yet in its own modest, intelligent fashion, it manages to achieve that rare thing — not only making us look anew at the familiar, but in fact making us look anew at our whole way of looking.
Making Faces will remain at the National Gallery from 15 July – 26 September 2004. Admission is free. A brief catalogue is available for £3.50.

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Not-so-easy steppes: Russian Landscape in the Age of Tolstoy at the National Gallery

It’s simple enough to imagine what went on in the minds of BP executives when they decided to ‘support’ (as the current euphemism has it) the National Gallery’s current exhibition Russian Landscape in the Age of Tolstoy — at a guess, the black stuff here probably wasn’t the kind that comes in little lead tubes — and equally easy to imagine what went on in the minds of the National Gallery’s own senior management staff when the possibility of sharing this exhibition with the Groninger Museum was but a twinkle in a curator’s eye. It may be unfair, but I imagine some well-intentioned figure, who came into this line of work through his love of art but who has since spent far too long pouring over balance-sheets, thinking to himself, ‘We’ve had the blockbuster Why El Greco Was Really A Proto-Modern Master and we’re about to have the blockbuster Why Raphael’s Art Is Important Even If You Know Bugger All About Christianity And Care Less, so why not fill the space between with a really educational show for once?’ The thing one shrinks from imagining, out of human decency as much as anything else, is what the Gallery’s marketing department made of all of this. In any event, given the signal lack of big names, recognisable images or obviously sexy ‘hooks’ associated with the exhibition’s content, the otherwise meaningless evocation of Leo Tolstoy probably answers the question. Throw in a set of Matryoshka dolls, a few Penguin Classic paperbacks, a CD of Russian-type mood music, the obligatory if pointless notebooks and that’s the gift-shop sorted out, at any rate.

And it has to be said that Russian Landscape in the Age of Tolstoy is indeed educational, even if the education it provides probably teaches us more about what it is we expect from an exhibition at a major national collection than it does about anything else. This being the case, we can certainly save you some time and money here. Is Russian Landscape your sort of show? Here’s a simple diagnostic procedure, exclusive to Electric Review, designed to help you find out:

When you shell out your £7 and make your way down into the Sainsbury’s Wing’s airless, charmless bunker of a basement, which of the following do you expect?

(a) I expect to see Great Art, the sheer excellence of which renders it timeless, universal — unconstrained by the need to know anything of its content or context — enlightening and inspiring for all in its innate, unarguable Importance;

(b) I expect to see Influential Art — A-list stuff that plays an important role in the narratives of Art History that I have carefully absorbed over the years, and which I believe to be important;

(c) I expect, being a bit of a cultural anthropologist or at any rate having been set Hauser in some long-ago university course, to add to my knowledge of what certain individuals produced in certain places and and at certain times — disparate products all of which are now encompassed in that very culturally specific and frankly rather flawed catch-all ‘Art’;

(d) Um, I just wanted to pass the time, really, in a way that sounded vaguely impressive to my more Newsnight Review-focussed pals —can I get back to you about that fine detail bit, please?

If your answer was either (a) or (b), Russian Landscape probably isn’t for you — why not save your cash for a coffee after a ramble round the National Gallery’s unparalleled permanent collection? The room with all the Poussins was completely empty the last two times I was there, and no overcrowded, overpriced travelling show is ever going to be able to top that. If, on the other hand, your answer was either (c) or, however secretly and regretfully, (d), then get on down to Trafalgar Square. Russian art, at this quality and on this scale, rarely makes it as far as London — probably frightened away, quite rightly, by our general ignorance, apathy and complacency — and so it may well be another twenty years before you have a chance to expand your horizons in this particular direction.

From Russia, with preconceptions
The experience of looking at Russian Landscapes turns out to be a disorientating collision of familiarity and unfamiliarity. On one hand, there are the paintings — landscapes, as the title suggests — which is to say, rural scenes, rather than cityscapes, few of them containing much in the way of human traffic. The works, like the names of the men who painted them or the history of the movements they might be adduced to illustrate, will be completely unknown to anyone in Britain, a handful of specialists and ex-pats apart. We live, after all, in a country where few art lovers could actually name four or five nineteenth century German or Dutch or Spanish or Scandinavian or American painters — what hope for a single Russian one?

Yet on the other hand — well, there’s Russia itself. We may know virtually nothing about Russia, but what matters is what we think we know — and here we are operating under a heavy burden, harvested unthinkingly and uncritically from misunderstood scraps of Russian and Soviet history, Russian literature and drama, perhaps even the present-day realities of that far-away fairytale land of oligarchs and gangsters and ex KGB statesmen, derelict industrial towns and toxic forests, endless festering imperial wars and talentless girl bands, old smoke-blackened gold-ground icons and Boris Mikhailov’s exploitative photographs of naked babushkas crouched in the snow, exposing themselves for the price of their next shot of vodka … you know the sort of thing I mean, don’t you? Tsars great or terrible or nymphomanic — Lenin and Stalin, Yeltsin and Putin — every bad televised adaptation of War and Peace or Crime and Punishment that we ever dozed and daydreamed our way through — every John Le Carre aside or journalistic shortcut relating to ‘the Russian mind’ — every adumbration of the relative qualities of Russian culture and its alternatives — this, for that it is worth, is what we bring with us to Russian Landscape, our talkative companion as we pass through the galleries, the lens though which we view the pictures and the standard by which we judge them.

What, then, is the effect of this unavoidable if regrettable framing device? Well, for one thing, since we know so little about Russian art, everything else we believe about Russia starts surging to the fore instead. And this, in turn, invites us to look at the work not really in narrative art-historical terms, let alone in formal ones, but rather through a creeping mist of historicist assumptions, as if from spending time amongst these mute little relics we could learn something, directly and unproblematically, about the ‘age’ and ‘nation’ that created them. We are more or less invited, for instance, to see in the works of painters like Venetsianov and Sukhodolsky a liberal condemnation of serfdom, in Nesterov’s work some sort of ‘Russian spirituality’, in the rather tame innovations of the Wanderers the desire to shake off academic convention in favour of a ‘realism’ as much of content as of manner, and in Shishkin’s huge and meticulously-rendered canvases successful attempts to ‘capture the Soul of Mother Russia’. And indeed, to quote the exhibition curator, landscape still rules supreme, in a way hardly imaginable in normal places:

Landscape plays a central role in the Russian imagination. The emptiness of the country’s vast reaches, the rigours of its climate, the difficulties of transportation, and the intense isolation that long winter months impose, all contribute to a specifically Russian sense of nature, different from — perhaps more fatalistic than — that found elsewhere.

So … well, if you haven’t managed it before, here’s your chance to gain access to the ‘fatalistic’, landscape-dominated, deeply peculiar and strangely homogeneous ‘Russian imagination’, then.

But the oddity of all this should be lost on none of us. Call me a pedant or worse, but I don’t believe in ‘the Russian mind’, ‘Russian spirituality’ or the ‘Soul of Mother Russia’. Seriously, can you imagine a show of nineteenth century French landscape painting being organised on similar lines, with Renoir’s smeary fantasies adduced to illustrate ‘the French mind’, Monet’s cathedral fronts there to represent ‘French spirituality’, and a race-course by Degas or an Italianate hillside by Corot or a crystalline mountainscape by Cezanne bearing witness to the ‘Soul of Mother France’? Oh, the patronising nonsense of it all — and of most of the critics who’ve written about it, too! The exhibition organisers may claim that, by seeking recourse to such terms, they are simply expressing what the painters thought about these subjects themselves, in their own times. Well, if so, the curators should also contextualise this with information about what the painters felt about a number of other topics, such as religion, history, economics, politics, art and nature — an exercise that would reveal, in an instant, what a tangle of diversity, complexity and frank disagreement hides behind these bland assumptions of common terms, because ‘the Russian mind’ was no more homogeneous then than ‘the British mind’ is now. Either that, or the curators should simply stop this patronising, meaningless line of commentary.

At the same time, though, it is parenthetically amusing to notice how relaxed a certain sort of middlebrow critical opinion becomes in the face of what is, in many of the works on show in Russian Landscape, nothing more or less than a fairly assertive expression of Russian nationalism. Were anyone to try to run a show of German nineteenth century landscape painting — cue all that Landscape, Myth and Memory stuff about solitary Nietzschean super-cedars silhouetted heroically against a receptive sky — even the simpler sort of critic would, I suspect, spot something deeply unpleasant cohabiting alongside the love of nature, the interest in science, the elevation of the pure Teutonic outdoors over the overheated cosmopolitan clamour of the bourse and the boudoir. And today it would take a curator with strong nerves to run an exhibition, as the Tate did within the past decade, of of the American landscape painting of the 1800s, with its optimistic rushing towards ever-wider horizons, gleefully heedless of whatever native peoples or otherwise harmless creatures might get in the way of a certain sort of republican liberal imperialism. Can it be anything other than a reflection of our perception of Russian geo-political impotence that we can look with such indulgence on the darker aspects of its recent past? Or to put it another way, does the fairly frequent tendency, in these works, to subordinate the individual to a mere flash of staffage, there to give the Russian landscape scale, not make anyone except me a little bit anxious sometimes? Does the habit of treating art like an agit-prop political poster not seem every bit as creepy in the 1860s as it would come to be in the 1930s? Is this not the Russia of Marx, Engels and the youthful Lenin, then, just as much as it is of the aged Tolstoy?

A far-away country
Apparently not. As one further illustration of this notably wholesome and productive Russian obsession with landscape, the National Gallery press team has put together two pages of ‘Literary Quotes’, helpfully included with each press pack relating to the exhibition. (A list of artists and their dates might have been more to the point. If nothing else, though, the ‘Literary Quotes’ sheet has at least provided for some of us the cheap entertainment of working out whom amongst our fellow critics relied, with varying degrees of subtlety or relevance, upon the crib-sheet.) I suppose this is also meant to implicate poor Tolstoy more closely in the stuff of the exhibition. But of course it is really just a great fluffy nonsense, aimed to remind us of one of the several aspects of Russian nineteenth century culture that has, in fact, travelled very well. Even the greatest Russian novels and plays do, obviously enough, make references to nature and to landscape from time to time. So, however, do English novels and plays. So do French ones. So do American ones. So do Australian and Dutch and Czech ones. In each case, however, what makes any of these literary works potentially ‘great’ — in other words, what makes them of enduring interest, even for those of us reading them in translation, a century later, separated from their realities by countless differences of age and scene and nuance — is not their national specificity, but rather some enduring thread of human relevance. Or to put it another way, if, as I do, you think that the hunting scene in War and Peace is one of the most beautiful chapters ever written in any language, this is quite possibly not because you are a Russian nationalist, but rather because Tolstoy manages in it to capture a fragile nostalgia, a feeling of confraternity and sense of place that could, I suppose, mean something to almost anyone, anywhere, who had ever felt some sort of love for the place where he grew up, whatever it was like. It works despite its ‘Russian-ness’, in other words, not because of it.

So — do any of the works in Russian Landscape approach this level of universal appeal — this ‘greatness’? In a word, yes — but only a very, very few. This is not, in the main, a show of superstar paintings. Instead, we are offered a narrative of development, and then a handful of important individuals — Shishkin, Kuindzhi, Levitan. Relax, though — the narrative, as presented here, is not particularly complex. Throughout the nineteenth century, Russian painters went first to Italy and then Germany and France, learned something about landscape painting and then brought their discoveries back to Russia where they shared them with less peripatetic colleagues, to varying effect. The fact that Russian collectors made similar journeys, and that by the end of the century there were plenty of rather good European landscapes, all the way from the seventeenth century Netherlands to contemporary France, to be found in Russian collections, is more evident from the well-intentioned if badly-organised catalogue than it is from this Russian-only exhibition.

Of this early generation of artists, two stand out. The first, the previously-mentioned Aleksei Gavrilovich Venetsianov (1780-1847), is meant to be a ‘realist’ painter who pushed avidly for the emancipation of the serfs. Well, maybe, but if so this is not exactly the message his work conveyed to me. Idyllic in a soft, illustrational, rather sentimental way, his presentation of the realities of Russian agricultural life says less about the brutal facts of servitude and exploitation than it does about plump boys taking naps, or pretty, big-breasted women nursing their fat babies in front of fruitful, domesticated landscapes — less protest art, really, than a sweetly Virgilian paternalist fantasy given the faintest of Slavic glosses.

The other stand-out artist is, in contrast, represented only by a single painting — but what a painting, and what a story! Fishermen, by Venetsianov’s pupil Grigori Vasilevich Soroka (1823-1864), will for some of us be instantly reminiscent of the work of George Caleb Bingham with its serenely mirror-like water, calm sky, long horizon and faint air of mystery. Its naievity might be seen to give it a frankly documentary quality absent elsewhere in the room. I wish some other works by this artist had been included by way of comparison, but in any event, the painting remained stuck in my mind long after much else in this exhibition had been forgotten. All of which is a long way of praising the work’s intrinsic qualities — it can stand on its own formal feet. However much we may regret this, though, context does matter — sometimes it cannot fail to alter or enhance one’s sense of what a painting is about. I didn’t learn until a day or two later that Soroka was, himself, a serf; that his many attempts at securing emancipation never succeeded; and that in order to avoid harsh physical punishment for leading a rebellion of ex-serfs, he hanged himself. Such knowledge does nothing to decrease the gravitas and dignity of this single work. Indeed, it is especially powerful in contrast with some of the bombastic excesses elsewhere in this exhibition.

Red dawn?
Which brings us, perhaps, to the enormous — in every sense — oeuvre of Ivan Ivanov Shishkin (1832-1898). Shishkin is the card-carrying grand old man of Russian landscape painting, and one of only three artists accorded a room of his own in this exhibition. His pupils called him an ‘accountant of leaves’. One sees what they meant. Working on enormous canvases, at his best he created ‘all-over’ paintings of forests, all rhythm and no incident, in front of which one can get lost, just as one can do when standing slightly too close to a major main-phase Pollock painting. You literally cannot see the wood for all those trees. I guess that’s the point there. Yet even Shishkin’s smaller works — snow-scenes, and one little unfinished painting of oaks — have a slightly antiseptic super-veracity, strangely evocative of claustrophobia given their concomitant obsession with wide open spaces. On a technical level, there is a lot to wonder at, and of course it is interesting to try to understand what patrons and critics admired so much about these works. Yet when it comes to liking them, actually enjoying them as someone must once have done, things become more difficult somehow. Executed on an inhuman scale, these unpeopled vistas seem to me to revel, for all their naturalistic rigour, in a particularly unpleasant sort of romanticism — a suspicion Shishkin’s preference for technical perfection over nakedly subjective, individual human handling does nothing to dispel.

This, I freely admit, may well be my own problem, rather than Shishkin’s — because of course I am as much a creature of the ideological, literary and artistic preoccupations of my own time as he was of his — but I can’t look at Shishkin’s work without feeling, probably entirely unfairly, that somehow those forest paths, woodland vistas and tracks through the fields of rye lead somehow, pitilessly and ineluctably, towards the five-year plan and the famine, towards the communal farm and the re-education programme, towards the gulag and the firing-squad — towards a terrible century, in other words, of collectivist mass murder. Perhaps it’s even more unfair. All the same, though, some vicissitude of free association reminded me, when I was there in the National Gallery, of a time a few years ago when I stood with a friend in a pretty provincial town in Eastern Europe, looking towards a rather handsome stand of trees across a narrow river. It would have made an attractive landscape painting. My friend agreed that it was all very beautiful. Indeed, the local people still liked to take walks in those woods when the weather was good. ‘But not when it’s been raining,’ my friend said, ‘because there’s still a bit of a smell sometimes from the mass graves.’ It is at moments like that when one realises the capacity of landscape to go badly, unforgiveably wrong.

Alternatives to the Big Picture
But then Shishkin is only one of many voices audible here. His contemporaries were just as likely to eschew Shishkin’s epic scale in favour of something rather more lyrical. Mikhail Klodt’s The High Road in Autumn is a painting that would probably benefit from a bit of background information — what’s that plaque about, and what’s going on with that roadside cross? — but at least seems to convey something about the misery of a cold, wet, muddy, pointless journey carried out under a lowering gun-metal sky. Vasili Perov’s The Last Inn by the Town Gate is similarly gloomy — a grim fantasy of a frozen village inn at sunset, where the lights burning inside the windows contrast poignantly — perhaps just a little bit too poignantly — with the dim figure of a female peasant left out in a waiting sledge, more disregarded even than the weary horses who at least have some damp nameless fodder to eat. One can see the appeal of such paintings — how better, as one sat in one’s smart bourgeois townhouse in St Petersburg, to remind oneself how very warm, dry and comfortable one was fortunate to be? Or at any rate this is how I read them, finding such a construction more plausible than any claims to energetic social protest. There is nothing particularly Russian about this urge, either, which can be discerned in both Europe and America at varying times and places, not least the mid nineteenth century. Ditto its mirror image, as seen in Popov’s warm and luminous Morning in the Countryside — a good illustration of the tendency to present country life as simple, idyllic and virtuous. Any impulse towards urbanisation, however faint and faltering, encourages nostalgia about the charms of the recently-abandoned rural life. This isn’t something about Russia — it’s simply a point about how the human mind works, everywhere, at all times.

Halfway between these two poles is Alexksei Savrasov’s The Rooks Have Returned. This is spring, Russian-style — not a robin in sight to welcome the onset of fruitful and welcoming weather, but rather the sordid melting snow of an early thaw, a church rising from some scrubby scenery and, in the foreground, a colony of rooks building a new season’s set of nest in the empty branches of a thicket of scruffy trees. It’s an arresting image, if only because its account of seasonal change carries the burden of a set of clichés that are, for once, not our own. The painting, though, is wholly unremarkable — Barbizon School offcuts, competent but never surprising — a conventional thought given new life by being expressed in a foreign language. And this, in a way, is the sadness of many of the paintings in Russian Landscape. Good manners, let alone the suspect thrill of some sort of putative insight into ‘the Russian mind’, can’t entirely shoo away the notion that all too often here we are looking at second-rate imitations of better European work. Ultimately, provincial copies are provincial copies, no matter how vast, ancient and interesting the province in question.

So, Russian art is either proto-nationalist filth or a heap of derivative rubbish then? Well, no. Russian Landscape includes the work of two painters whose achievement transcends, each in his own way, this gloomy summary.

The right stuff
One is Arkhip Ivanov Kuindzhi (1842-1910). Kuindzhi will, I am sure, winning high praise from many, perhaps even the majority of British visitors to this exhibition. It isn’t difficult to see why this is the case, either. Perhaps due to a burst of foreign travel in the 1870s, or perhaps due to some personal gift of thick-skinned stubbornness, Kuindzhi was an artist who, in the teleological language so beloved of Western art history and its less literate practitioners, managed to ‘move Russian art forward’ a step or two — indeed, moving it away from its narrative, pastoral, lyrical and epic concerns (so subject-centred! so old-fashioned!), towards an interest in painting for its own sake which was much more in keeping with ‘mainstream’ — which is to say, French — art-related thinking at the time. Kuindzhi’s preoccupations appear to have been with light, colour and look-at-me tricks of composition, and he went at each of these with a bracing lack of subtlety and caution. In doing so, he produced the kind of work that a certain sort of person identifies as ‘great art’ — ‘shocking’, ‘controversial’ and — best of all — very much in the narrative mainstream.

Hence we are shown a room full of Kuindzhi’s most ‘innovative’, for which read ‘good’, works. Moonlit Night on the Dniepr is, apparently, one of these. From the monochrome darkness of the canvas, one can pick out only a phosphorescent greenish-blue glimpse of the tranquil river, silhouetting a windmill, and then the moon emerging from some clouds above. The story has it that when this painting was first shown — in a dark, velvet-lined room, incidentally — some viewers tried to look behind it to see whether it was back-lit, so convincing was the illusion of illumination it produced. And of course if you’re the sort of person who thinks that these technical conjuring-tricks equate with greatness, all this means a lot. But Kuindzhi’s appeal is potentially wider than this, if equally dependent on the stuff of ‘art’ for its putative firepower. Oddly, in works such as The North and Landscape, The Steppes Kuindzhi produces strangely luminous, blurry, momentous compositions that can hardly help but remind anyone, now, of the works of the more portentous sorts of American Abstract Expressionists — notably, that other Russian-born painter, Mark Rothko, whose ‘abstract’ paintings always read a bit like landscape at the best of times. And although in some ways it is silly to look forward like this, if nothing else, this sudden appeal to the world of MoMA, the Whitney and the Guggenheim franchise somehow lifts Kuindzhi’s work out of its alleged national peculiarity and its cosy obsession with its own means. I don’t, it must be said, particularly like Kuindzhi’s work, but seeing it certainly taught me something about the history of art, not only in Russia but further afield, too.

All of which brings us, by tortuous and none-too-easy stages, to the last painter featured in Russian Landscape. Isaak Ilich Levitan (1860-1900) is, perhaps, the only painter here with any sort of genuine claim to serious, international art-world importance, and his paintings are the finest in the show. They are, at very least, no worse than what a dozen ‘major’ French landscape painters of a comparable period produced, and ought to be better known in Britain than they are at present.

Levitan did, clearly, feel a good deal of foreign influence when he was producing his landscapes — not only the inevitable Barbizon School and Corot, yawn, but also Monet — this latter perhaps most explicitly in his painting of some haystacks framed against a fading evening sky. But as with Ilya Efimovich Repin (1844-1930) — Russia’s other great late nineteenth century painter — Levitan brought two distinctive qualities to the use of his Western cultural inheritance. One was an amazing facility in handling paint, both in terms of gesture and tonality; as with perfect pitch and musicians, the gift alone doesn’t guarantee greatness, but as painters like Velasquez and Sargent have shown, it certainly helps. The second, though, is harder to explain — and here I have to apologise to those of you who have little patience with this sort of stuff, and can only ask you to go to the National Gallery and see for yourself. What marks out Levitan’s work, and what is so hard to put into persuasive words, is the sheer melancholy that seems to have gone into every landscape he painted. His portrayal of the Russian landscape speaks not of nationalism, or literature, or social policy, or anything similarly public and expository. Rather, for Levitan — whose experience as a poor Jew may, for all I know, have given him a slightly less rosy view of ‘Mother Russia’ than that nurtured by some of his contemporaries — landscape seems to have been simply a vehicle for the most absolutely tragic and convincing personal expression imaginable. Was he particularly gloomy, this painter? I have no idea, but I can promise you that a roomful of his work enfolds the viewer in a sort of wonderful, gentle, sympathetic sadness that seems to echo and amplify every little sorrow, regret or bittersweet memory the viewer may have seen fit to bring along with him.

To my mind, anyway, this sort of universalism — this ability, as with the best of Russian literature and music, to speak out clearly across national and temporal boundaries — signals a kind of greatness. Here’s an example of the sort of thing I mean. Levitan’s most famous painting is, perhaps, The Vladimirka Road. When I first saw this painting I stood in front of it for some time. It shows a wide dirt track, red-clay rough, leading off across some flat and unremarkable scrub-land towards a level, uninviting, unreadable distant horizon. A miserable dark sky, dirty and unrelenting, looms overhead. To the extent that anything punctuates the boring matter-of-factness of this scene, it is a dark mark that can, just about, be read as a sort of roadside shrine, while over to the left there is something rather like an old church. It’s not a sentimental scene, and perhaps in describing it I have overplayed the grimness. What breaks your heart, looking at it, is not so much some explicit misery as it is the flat, numb, unending, soul-crushing tedium of it all. Standing before it, I was reminded not of Russia, but of another place, half a world away — somewhere where I’d once lived for a while, where the red clay and scrubby landscape were not dissimilar. I could imagine the journey along that track — how hours and days might pass but the land would keep looking just like that, with nothing to delight or surprise, nothing to respond to human interest or emotion — just the deadening sameness of it all, grinding into the traveller the logic of a life where plodding, unending, unthinking endurance is probably the best that one can hope for, because the journey itself with never yield up anything more happy than its own eventual, perhaps imperceptible conclusion. I stood there in front of The Vladimirka Road thinking all of this, and also thinking what a persuasive metaphor this painting provided for certain times in one’s life — certain situations, certain states of mind. Even the surface of the canvas seemed to radiate a kind of sullen quality, as if the painter didn’t really care whether anyone looked at it or not. Has depression ever been rendered more successfully than this? I tried to think of an example where it had, but couldn’t come up with anything.

Perhaps I should have mentioned before that Russian Landscape is, as an exhibition, rather light on curatorial exegesis. One could argue about the merits of that decision. But anyway, for The Vladimirka Road someone had made an exception, which — typically — I only spotted after staring at the painting for a good ten minutes. The actual Vladimirka Road, it turns out, was the highway along which political prisoners marched on their way to Siberian exile. Presumably, Levitan’s contemporaries would have understood the reference immediately, and would have thus read into the painting volumes of information about recent history, recalled all the books and newspapers they had read, thought critically about the speeches and pamphlets, about politics and religion, about freedom and patriotism and who knows what else. We can’t really recover that now, although the effort to do so could hardly be other than illuminating. What we can do, though, is to be honest about whether the painting still speaks to us, in our own time, with or without a bit of contextualisation. And to me, anyway, it does so in a way that is both powerful and memorable. This is not just a question of one work, but of many of Levitan’s paintings on show in Russian Landscape. For that reason, as much as any other, I really do believe that he deserves to be written, along with Repin, back into the history of Western art — not as a peripheral figure, either, but as a painter who used his medium with a skill, expressiveness and power that time and distance have done nothing to diminish.

In praise of curiosity
So, then — what to make of Russian Landscape? The works that have travelled to the National Gallery, via the Groninger Museum, are borrowed from Moscow’s Sate Tretyakov Gallery, which deserves a word of explanation in its own right. Pavel Mikhailovich Tretyakov (1832-1898) was a Moscow businessman who built up an enormous collection of Russian art. At first, he collected only the art of his own time, but later expanded the collection backwards, as it were, to include everything from ancient icons to the art of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century paintings. His dream was to create an encyclopaedic collection of Russian art, from its earliest beginnings up to and including his own times, which he then wished to give to the nation. And this, in fact, is exactly what he did.

The significance of Tretyakov achievement, though, is lost unless one realises that at the time when he was putting together his collection, Russian art history was only in its earliest, infant stages. Its canon had not yet been set in stone, its heroic figures had not yet been identified — the language in which it was to be admired, explained and defended had not yet become habitual. So in his selection of paintings, his patronage of particular artists and his passionate defense of the sort of work he most admired, he was not reflecting Russian art history — he was, in fact, creating it. His contemporaries realised this, schemed and politicked and bitched over his growing cabinet of wonders, and called him the Moscow Medici. This is not, though, the only possible comparison. There is something almost Greenbergian about the fillip that Tretyakov gave to Nesterov and Kuindzhi, let alone the way in which he ‘created’ Levitan — ‘discovering’ him as a young student, buying up his key works almost before the last layers of glaze had dried and defending him against his many, many critics. At one level, of course, this rather assertive approach means that the State Tretyakov Gallery has an unparalleled collection of what is now considered the most important Russian art of the late nineteenth century. At another, it may raise questions about the well-rounded, critical, iconoclastic credentials of the art we are seeing in this exhibition. Well, you’d have to know more about Russian art than I do to produce a fair answer to that. As it is, this is probably the best shot at this type of work we’re likely to get for the next few decades, here in cosmopolitan central London.

All the same, all these reservations aside, I’m glad that the National Gallery saw fit to host the present exhibition. It’s easy, obviously, to complain that virtually none of the work on show is ‘great’ — easy and fair, too. There is some truly shocking stuff here, with Nesterov’s terrible faux-mystical rubbish by far the worst, being bad rather than actually just a bit boring and incompetent. The paintings you’ll see if you visit Russian Landscape are, in large part, little better than the sort of stuff whose English equivalent graces unpopular rooms in regional collections, when it isn’t simply cluttering up the darker corridors of little-known stately homes or making an occasional triumphant showing on Antiques Roadshow. It’s less about the coevals of Constable and Turner than — well, artists I couldn’t name, and I bet you couldn’t either. And needless to say, even the most important of the pictures on show here does not begin to approach the greatness quotient of the El Greco and Raphael exhibitions that frame it like a pair of unmatched if unimaginably grand bookends.

But all of that, for me at least, rather misses the point, which is that art — or ‘art’, as my editor would doubtless have it — isn’t always about greatness or universality, let alone the pursuit of the pleasingly neat narratives beloved of art history textbooks. Sometimes it’s about using these mute, rather forlorn old objects — which is to say, these paintings — as a means of stepping back from our own lives and dreaming, however lazily and imperfectly, about how other individuals have lived, in other times and places — what they believed, what they loved and hated, how they saw their world, what they wanted to do or say to preserve or change it. So whatever its occasional faults, Russian Landscape opens a door upon a world that is, for all its apparent familiarity as literature, still obscure to us in a thousand other ways. Looking out that door will not make us better people, or teach us much of great profundity — but it is inherently interesting, in the way that finding out about other people is, generally, quite interesting. This has something to do with basic human curiosity about our fellow creatures, and also more than a little to do with curiosity about our reflected selves. And to my mind, anyway, all of that is, in its own way, justification enough for art, for the presence of Russian Landscape in our midst — perhaps even a reason to make your way to the National Gallery before this flawed but fascinating, ultimately worthwhile exhibition goes back to Russia once more, leaving us alone with our own relative ignorance.
Russian Landscape in the Age of Tolstoy will be at the National Gallery from 23 June to 12 September 2004. Tickets cost £7. Concessions apply. A fully-illustrated, if badly-organised catalogue is on sale for £25.

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Manufacturing a modern master: El Greco at the National Gallery

There is something strangely depressing about the El Greco exhibition currently on show at the National Gallery. It isn’t just those airless, headache-inducing underground rooms with their mean proportions and ugly electric light, either, although they obviously don’t help — no more than they help any art, in fact, other than that painted after, say, 1950, which is the one sort of art they almost never hold. Nor was it even that moronic strapline, enjoining us from the side of every other bus to ‘Be Inspired — Cezanne, Jackson Pollock and Picasso were’, with its smug assumption that whatever fame adhering to El Greco comes entirely via the last century. (While we’re on the subject, though, why put the names in that order, when Picasso’s borrowings from El Greco took place long before Pollock’s — and why include Pollock’s first name but none of the others?) No, while the problem with this exhibition has something to do with both those things, it reaches deeper than either of them. Never before have I seen thrown into such sharp, almost painful relief exactly what I dislike most about this whole curious, confused, deeply arbitrary, in some ways regrettable business of ‘art’.

I write all this despite the fact that the El Greco exhibition has managed, in its own terms, to get an enormous amount right about this difficult, elusive artist. The catalogue, for instance, is a model of excellence, fairness and intelligent commentary, both in its longer essays and in the detailed, informative entries provided for each of the exhibited works. The catalogue’s contributing authors show every sign of being concerned less with the paintings as they appear today, on the gallery wall, than with the circumstances that led to the paintings’ creation, the intellectual and spiritual currents that streamed all around them, the context in which they were displayed and the reactions of contemporaries towards them. Most remarkably of all, the contributors — notably the excellent David Davies — have shown heroic strength in evading those lazy, easy stereotypes that linger around the image of Inquisition-era Spain, managing to portray it as a place positively bursting with vitality, open to developments in the world around it and highly theologically sophisticated. This matters, too, because it recasts El Greco as very much a creature of his age and culture, in touch with international developments in art as well as thought, rather than in the Romantic role of the misunderstood loner at odds with — or worse still, ‘ahead of’ — his time. Again and again, the catalogue chips away at misconceptions about El Greco until one is left with plausible, well-rounded, complicated and compelling new vision of the artist. So this really is that rare thing, a monograph that really ought to be read both before seeing the exhibition, and then again afterwards. I imagine it will take its place amongst basic reference-works on El Greco for some time to come.

The exhibition itself also scores some successes. First and foremost, the quantity and quality of the actual works is incontrovertibly impressive, including both surprises and old friends from abroad. If it has lost some works on its journey from Manhattan to Trafalgar Square it nevertheless remains the most generous gathering of El Greco’s oeuvre that London has ever seen. And — everything I am about to write notwithstanding — this is why this is, ultimately, an exhibition that no one who cares about the history of Western painting should possibly miss. From the cool corridors of Capodimonte came El Greco’s infinitely moving, highly Titianesque portrait of the aged miniaturist Guilio Clovio through whom the youthful Greek painter gained entry to the glittering company of the Farnese court, a work that is grave and elegant but also nothing like what one expects of the El Greco of modernist lore. From that island of American high cultural tranquillity, the Frick Collection, comes another surprising portrait — that of Vincenzo Anastagi, painted c. 1571-6, when El Greco was still trying to make a name for himself as a portraitist in Rome. Again, this is anything but an obvious ‘El Greco’ while remaining a staggering good painting — weighty, tough yet painterly — with a touch and feeling for volumes that resembles nothing more than Manet transcribing Velasquez, although in fact the surprisingly happy marriage here is that of Roman drawing sidling up to a Venetian sense of how to apply oils. If nothing else, this sends the sharp shock of contingency up the alert viewer: how different a painter might El Greco have been had he not more or less failed in Rome, been chucked out of his safe berth in a Farnese palazzo and wandered off to Spain in search of a less testing market? Then from Glasgow there is the ‘Lady in a Fur Wrap’ (late 1570s), a disturbingly sensual, sexy work from this apparently austere artist — her fur stole is all pastiche late Titian, as is that clumsy hand, but the huge wary eyes and high colour are something from El Greco himself. Or are they? No one knows who the sitter was and, truth be told, not everything thinks that El Greco even painted this beautiful, tragic thing. Tintoretto has been mentioned, as has Coello. And whatever this does or doesn’t say about the painting, it tells one something about El Greco, or rather ‘El Greco’, the art-historical entity, which is that we don’t necessarily know very much about him – who he was, what he was doing – and that what we do know often stresses his peculiarity less than it stresses his absolute integration into his time and his field of endeavour. And, of course, it also speaks of his absolute debt to Tintoretto, everywhere apparent in this exhibition.

Let us leave the great altarpieces to one side for a moment. Perhaps the greatest success of the current National Gallery show lies in its juxtaposition of four El Greco paintings, all on one theme but spread out over decades. Had there been nothing else for us to see, this would have been worth the journey. The subject is the Purification of the Temple — an ultimate type of cleansing, purification and redemption. Here the works we see are from, respectively, the early to mid 1570s, c. 1600, c. 1600 (again) and after 1610. Here the ‘progression’ is as much exegetical as it is artistic. In the first, we see El Greco as a sort of icon-maker, copying from someone else’s work in a devout sort of way, making a Tintoretto-type space but not fully understand its logic or rhythms; the figures lack weight and the mannerist ‘dance’ is out of step; there is clutter and great aesthetic sacrifices on the altar of theological intelligence. And then what happens? Over time, the spaces resolve themselves, like something hardening out from a woozy dream into waking solidity. Figures either fall away, or fall in with the linear demands of the composition. In one painting, a quartet of artists (Titian, Michelangelo, El Greco’s patron Clovio and perhaps Raphael) appears in the lower left-hand corner, one of the most literal footnotes that has ever appeared in painting. The focus narrows, the emphasis on the central figure of Christ increases. Eventually, all that elaborate architecture, the increasingly schematised colour, the increasingly powerful outlines, all the other figures all lead towards that one arched body, that one purgative and exculpatory blow. One could write a book on El Greco based on these four images alone, and it would not be a bad book. These comparative moments are, perhaps, what such big exhibitions do best. In the present show, these four produce what is perhaps the most intense, analytic, sympathetic moment.

All of which makes one wonder why the National Gallery did not do the obvious and direct this exhibition more generally toward the strengths of its own, first-rate collection. Otherwise, why commit the treasures of the Met etcetera to that hallowed yet grim little basement? There are, obviously, National Gallery pieces here, but they are all (at least notionally) by El Greco. I simply do not understand why, if the curators were unwilling to add works not by El Greco to the show, if only for the sake of comparison, they were so unwilling to assemble a room upstairs full of the Venetian, Roman and Spanish artists who continued to play such prominent roles in El Greco’s artistic life — something that the National Gallery is far better placed to do than virtually any other gallery in the entire world. Or, barring that — if, for instance, they feel that some visitors might be traumatised at failing to find a familiar Titian in its accustomed place — why not build on the example of the highly successful ‘Seeing Salvation’ exhibition, and arrange a walk from room to room, seeking out relevant works with the help of a sponsored information sheet? It is difficult, otherwise, to work out any reason why exhibitions should take place at the National Gallery rather than, say, the RA or even the Banqueting House. There are moments when the personal, individual, subjective comparison between two or more works can teach us more about an artist than any critic could ever hope to do, and if the National Gallery is standing in the way of such moments, it really ought to re-think the role that it serves — which is not, after all, simply a matter of ‘saving’ vulnerable Raphaels from the capacious devouring maw of the Getty Collection, which after all would never take good care of such works and show them off to a wide international audience, including the children of Raphael’s native Urbino — well, could it?

Never mind. Back to El Greco. I have not yet come to the end of the really remarkable, unmissable works in this exhibition. The National Gallery of Crete has sent along an amazing portrait of Mount Sinai — a work almost unnervingly in touch with Hellenistic painting — not via the indirect route of the Renaissance, either but rather via the icon-painting traditions of Greek Orthodoxy. Since the ‘View of Toledo’, in all its haunting stylisations, came out of something rather than nothing, this is a work of central interest for anyone concerned about the history of landscape painting. But then in this exhibition we have the ‘View of Toledo’ itself. For anyone used to seeing it in its usual home at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, amidst all the gilt and brocade with which the New World felt it necessary to greet the Old, this basement room creates a poignant set of sensations. Against the grey basement walls, the acid colours are all the more striking, perhaps excessively so, whereas the symbolic content gets a little more thoroughly lost than is strictly necessary. Next to it hangs the famous ‘Laocoon’, having travelled all the way from Washington DC. Hanging the two together makes sense, because both share that distinctive Toledo skyline, the ominous black sky, the restless flow of line. It is up to the catalogue, however, to make a really amazing case — heaven only knows whether it is true — that the Laocoon, far from being some modernist icon born out of its time, is actually a polemical little work addressed to an in-the-know audience, designed to suggest that a particularly high-profile campaigning priest was innocent of the crimes for which he had been denounced by the Inquisition. Thus at least at the level of thought-experiment we are propelled into a world where everything in art — not just an ‘innovation’ no one yet admired, but a deeply traditional sense of form, borrowed from classical sculpture via the Italian Renaissance — was subordinate to the claims of faith, and any secular work so obviously thin and uninteresting that one might naturally look for the devout, Catholic subtext. The intellectual and sensory convolutions most of us have to make in order to simulate sympathy with this are more extreme than anything shown in the ‘Laocoon’ itself. This, in other words, is what the experience of seeing what is known as ‘great art’ ought really to be about.

And yet, in the main central gallery of the exhibition, we are brought face to face with the extent to which such imaginative journeys smack of eccentric exceptionality rather than accepted mainstream opinion. Here we are faced with quite a number of altar-pieces — tall, intense, some of them very important indeed. All, needless to say, are hemmed in by the wretched low ceiling, the cramped proportions, a space so narrow that it would hardly suffice for the side-aisle in a minor provincial English parish church. Well, never mind. Many of them have also been mutilated — not only the usual damage sustained by works that have been rolled up, bashed about, ineptly transferred from their supports, whatever — but a surprising number have also endured the indignity of having a curved portion at the top removed, in some cases lopping off the principal iconographic focus of the work, while most have been narrowed down at the sides. Some are simply unfinished. They are modestly framed and shown at a level becoming to easel paintings. The light illuminating them is electric, which is to say glaring and harsh. Our eyes confront them from the smallest of distances, unmediated by altars or ritual, bathed in that unforgiving glare. What are we to make of the result?

Needless to say, most of these paintings were meant to be seen as if they were set about a pre-Vatican Two altar — which is to say, not only raised up a dozen or more feet above the level of anyone who would possibly see them, but lit only by a carefully-observed combination of natural light and candle-light. All would have existed as part of some elaborate scheme, again intensely well-considered, of liturgical apparatus, including altars, frames, statues, architecture and ritual practice. The catalogue is very clear about this, as it is about the pains El Greco took to ensure that each facet of this programme was executed to absolute perfection. A photo of, say, the Chapel of St Joseph at Toledo shows how much is at stake.

Put simply, appropriate context strips that alleged ‘modernism’ from El Greco’s altarpieces and restores them to their proper place as normal, mainstream, highly effective adjuncts to Christian worship. Hung high, in the right light and with the right surroundings, so much of what is freakish, individual, ‘modern’ about El Greco falls away. The same, incidentally, is true of Tintoretto. For years I found his drawing too emphatic, his colour too schematic, his figures too mannered and deformed — until I visited the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice and understood, in one of those rare moments of aesthetic revelation, what I had been missing. Like the great masters of the Venetian altarpieces, El Greco was entirely alert to the ends that his painting was intended to achieve. The fact that these poor, mutilated, misunderstood works still catch the eye at all is more a function of our own pathetic, anachronistic misunderstandings of them than anything else. One might as well half-scrape down a 1948 Pollock, add some canvas to one end and hack off the other end, put it in an enormous gilt frame surrounded by sculpted angels and place it high on the wall of a dark, incense-stained chapel before pronouncing on its spiritual qualities. Horses for courses, and all of that. As anyone who follows these things should be well aware by now, I love Pollock’s best paintings. But I see virtually no relation between what El Greco was trying to do and why Pollock was trying to do, and I find the attempt to shoehorn El Greco into this alien context not only barbaric and grotesque, but actually quite distressing.

The complaint here is, in part, an aesthetic one. If we are, at some level, being shown, say, ‘The Opening of the Fifth Seal’ (borrowed from the Metropolitan Museum of Art) on the strength of the influence it exerted on Picasso during its sojourn in Paris, surely we should realise the extent to which what we are seeing has nothing to do with El Greco, his eye or his decisions? Surely we should be told, for instance, that it is unfinished? Or that there may well, in fact, have been an altar there at the (now truncated) top of the painting, giving the apparent yet otherwise pointless excitement of its figures a very specific focus? Or that the curious way in which the figures are packed into that narrow space — surely a powerful influence on Picasso’s ‘Demoiselles d’Avignon’ — owes nothing to El Greco and everything to the nineteenth century hands that cut it down to a manageable, frameable size? Or that of the ten ‘El Grecos’ that influenced Picasso in that famous private collection in Paris, this is the only one that is now accepted as having been painted by El Greco himself? Or that the handling — although we should have the wit to realise this ourselves — is coarse and obvious, as it is in all his altarpieces, because it is meant to be seen from afar, whereas the handling in all his easel works, meant to be seen from a distance of a few feet — the portraits, the smaller works — are all executed in a far more careful manner, with the brushstrokes largely hidden and the forms much more carefully integrated into the ground?

Even the formal qualities we admire in El Greco, then, stem completely from the selectivity with which proto-modern taste has excavated, isolated and misunderstood a perfectly mainstream, orthodox inhabitant of Catholic Christendom. Obviously El Greco is not the only painter to have suffered from this sort of mistreatment — Caravaggio is another blatant example of a painter whose work means one thing in one context, something else in another. Yet even looking round the National Gallery, it becomes clear that this case is more important than most. The Gainsborough and Reynolds canvasses may well miss their Palladian corridors and views across green lawns; the Dutch genre paintings may miss those absent intimate spaces and iconographic literacy; the Poussins may sigh chastely after a different understanding of landscape and the classical world; even the old Italian triptychs may long for the dull rumble of familiar prayers, familiar genuflections, a world of reverent attention of which they have been starved for too long. Yet although we cannot behave towards these works as their creators might have expected, at least we can see them from something like the right distance, so that their colours, lines and finish are vaguely clear to us. To belabour the point for one final time, this is simply not true of the El Greco altarpieces on show in this exhibition. Forget for a moment what we are meant to think or feel — we are not even seeing what El Greco wanted us to see. How does that work as ‘art’ — least of all in our own post-modern times?

All of which leads me to a second, more important point, which has very little to do with aesthetics. Put simply, why on earth do we take these poor silent things, put them in harshly-lit grey cubes and talk anachronistic nonsense about them? Yes, it occurs to me, too, that an art critic who decides to criticise the actual category of art per se may have backed herself into a fairly narrow conceptual corner. Still, what can a critic do other than be honest about her own reactions to the stuff with which she’s confronted?

Right at the beginning of the El Greco exhibition, in a little case in the middle of the very first room, is a small icon, painted by El Greco while he was still in Crete. It depicts the Dormition of the Virgin. Tiny and rather battered about, it is neither very attractive nor very brilliantly executed. There are too many figures and too much activity. For anyone accustomed to the affective, emotive emphases of Western art, the best thing about it is probably Christ’s tender, proactive inclination towards His mother, which surely — well, for some of us, anyway — typifies His grace in reaching out and welcoming to his family anyone, no matter how afflicted or damaged. But it is not, to repeat, a brilliant icon. Yet despite all of this, I found it extraordinarily moving.

Let us strip away a few formal devices from this review. As usual, I saw this exhibition on its press day. I was there by 10.45 am. Pretty PR girls with bobbed hair and appliquéd skirts carried clipboards and smiled delightfully. Obviously the curator gave a talk. It was full of the usual erudition, emotional investment, good manners, well-bred diffidence and heartbreaking dumbing-down — actually, less of that last on this occasion than is normally the case, and more of the first — but the guests could hardly pack themselves into those little rooms and so ended up slipping, like bad schoolchildren, into the rooms nearby, whereupon they congratulated each other on this minor act of rebellion. And of course they chatted with each other endlessly. Half of what they said to one another was banal but harmless — the other half, so wrong that I could hardly bear it. Rather bizarrely, it was the most emotional response that I’d had to an exhibition since, I think, the Pollock show at the National Gallery in the late 1990s. There, I hated the emphasis on his wild, untamed nature — the noble savage re-cast as a infantile, hard-drinking cowboy — ‘what a slur’, I thought, ‘on a man who had painted with Mexican muralists, who knew his Tintoretto from his El Greco!’ But now I was full of radiant discord in the face of these many pleasant, adorably-dressed people, embracing each other before declaiming on ‘I can’t believe how modern … before his time …just look at his treatment of the picture plane …’

Reader, it was all I could do not to assault them, shrieking as I did so ‘El Greco wasn’t ‘modern’, and Picasso got most of his ‘El Greco’ from fakes, and anyway, can’t you do anything other than reciting the press release?’ This makes me sound angry, but I really did feel angry — although obviously I didn’t assault anyone, because I love good manners and self-assured deference almost more than anything else. This whole site did, however, make me sad.

What it also did — what I had not expected — was to transport me to Athens, where I spent a few days last summer. There, one day, amidst those halting requests for chilled instant coffees — phrases which form such a large amount of my working grasp of the language of Homer and Thucydides — I had wandered into an Orthodox church. The church stood in a busy, central market square. It was not historic, beautiful or otherwise extrinsically interesting. I only went in because it lay almost exactly across my path. The icons, as it turned out, were nothing very extraordinary, at least in art-historical terms. But that was hardly the point. What made an impression was something else – the stream of men and women, old and young, who came in to venerate the icons. Here in our world, ‘venerate’ sounds so formal — such a dry word to encompass those kisses, the little bows, the warm familiar eye-contact made between man and image — and also embarrassingly credulous. We could not do any of this without self-consciousness or a highly literary suspension of disbelief and so we struggle to imagine that anyone else could do otherwise. So it was strange to stand in the National Gallery watching that lively congregation of Courtauld-educated men and women mouthing thoughtlessly the grave little platitudes they had been taught, and carrying out the unsustaining little rituals of their age and class. Meanwhile El Greco’s battered icon languished in its case, unvenerated — indeed, largely passed over — in favour of the revelatory, redemptive qualities to be ‘light’ or ‘space’ in some other nearby hacked-about yet oddly more ‘modern’ masterpiece.

Obviously none of this troubled anyone else, as far as I could tell. (One reason for this is the under-publicised fact that quite a lot of critics don’t even look at the paintings when they go to press views. More than one broadsheet review of the National Gallery’s Titian exhibition made this clear, what with those lavish references to works that did not in fact appear in the show, having been pulled out at the last minute after the press packs were written, coupled with the failure to note any undocumented late substitutions.) And why should it? Glaring anachronism underpinned by self-referential fiction is the lifeblood of art galleries, their idiom, the mechanics that underpins the shabby little conjuring trick whereby otherwise blameless objects are converted to ‘art’, its purposes and priorities. The anachronism of showing El Greco as if he were all about ‘light’ and ‘space’ is no worse than what is done, elsewhere in the Sainsbury wing, with the work of other painters. And anyway, past a point, minding about this unduly skirts close to being wilfully eccentric nonsense — a pointless anachronism of one’s own. As someone who is not a natural ally of T. J. Clark once observed, “modernity is the practice we have and the life we lead […] we have all to accept it and live as it commands us, even when we despise it.” Doubtless he is right. Yet there is no point in lying about what I felt at the National Gallery — the chill air rising from the chasm that by now inevitably separates whatever El Greco intended and whatever it is we now see in his work — reflected through the lenses ground for us by Pollock, Picasso, Cezanne and all the rest. El Greco is, in a word, a beautiful and grave exhibition, but also — for those reasons — rather a sad, bleak, disturbing one. How, one wonders, will the children of four centuries hence hack back our dearest achievements to fit their own, truncated vision?

El Greco, sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline, is at the National Gallery from 11 February – 23 May. Admission costs £10; concessions, £8. The splendid catalogue, which is highly recommended, costs £25 paperback.

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R. B. Kitaj at the National Gallery

R. B. Kitaj’s talent was always sufficiently frail as to raise doubts about whether his advocates admired the work itself, or simply admired what Kitaj appeared to be trying to do. From the beginning, labels adhered to Kitaj. American-born but art-educated in the UK, he was first of all yoked with Peter Blake and David Hockney on the British Pop Art scene – acid-drop colours, a whippy line out of de Kooning, enthusiasm for the unworked passage, engagement with subject-matter – although he never really bought into the Pop preference for mass culture over high culture. Then there was the so-out-that-it’s-almost-in adherence to figuration in the 1970s and early 80s, at a time when even abstract painting was looking distinctly jaded and the future seemed to belong to conceptual art. Kitaj, though, was having none of it. Even if the drawing didn’t ever quite come off, even when the painting failed to startle or please and the irony-free historical and literary allusions grew more laboured and self-important with each passing year, it was hard not to respect at least one germ of his work – the embedded hope that history painting, as a genre, hadn’t finished yet. And as long as one read the essays and ignored the pictures, that respect was, at least in the short run, sustainable.
More recently, though, we’ve seen Kitaj back himself into the martyr’s corner position. His 1994 retrospective at the Tate Gallery received generally, though not uniformly, awful reviews. Kitaj blamed these on anything and everything other than the quality of the art itself. He was, he claimed, hated for his painterly conservatism, or his political radicalism, or his Judaism, or for his Americanism, or – well, anything, as long as it didn’t have to do with skill or application. Then in 1997, his wife Sandra died suddenly, and he returned to Los Angeles. And now the National Gallery in London has given him a mini-retrospective in its Bernard Sunley Room.

It’s a remarkable enterprise on several levels. The National Gallery is surely right to bring living artists into its ambit – whether to amplify the ongoing conversation between the art of the past and the present, or to inject minor irritants into a collection so fantastically good, if largely over-cleaned and strangely labelled, that far too many of us have become all too blasé about it. So much for the theory. In practice, the sycophantic curatorial tone starts to grate (before he left, Kitaj was one of London’s ‘most colourful and influential personalities’ we are told – ‘with a ‘central’ role in the art of his time) – even before one has encountered the work itself, or begun to wonder about the nature of its relationship with the masterpieces in all the rooms around it.

The work, alas, is almost uniformly appalling. Kitaj has not been growing any stronger as an artist over the past few years. In the tiny handful of earlier works on show – notably, If Not, Not – there is bad draughtsmanship, arbitrary colour, and inept compositions of the sort one would not, for instance, expect to find in Hockney’s work over the same period. The curators also seem to accept the magnificently over-ambitious claims made for the subject matter and symbolic charge of some of the paintings; Kitaj may very well have intended that should address the subject of the Holocaust, but is it really wise to assert that it actually does so? The most one can say for the first few paintings, really, is that Kitaj had attempted something fairly important, put in a good deal of work trying to make it come off properly, and in the process created something of some art-historical interest.

The bulk of the show, however, consists not of these older works, but of a series painted after Kitaj’s return to America, in which he imagines himself and his late wife as angels, grouped in poses which make reference to art-historical precedents including Cezanne’s Bathers. (The series is called Los Angeles – get it?) In what presumably was meant as a flattering gesture, the National Gallery has moved a large Cezanne Bathers into the Sunley Room, as if to invite comparison between Kitaj’s work and that of Cezanne himself. The result, predictable though it may be, is almost painful to describe. If Kitaj has, as we are told, spent years observing and drawing the human figure, it is not clear to what end all that hard work has gone. The canvases (generally unprimed, but in two cases reused) are littered with passages of laboured yet unpersuasive drawing and blotched with bruise-like patches of meaningless colour. Though labelled ‘unfinished’, they in fact all seem to be finished in the same lazy, slapdash, tacitly formulaic way. They are ill-considered and uninteresting. In short, the overall effect is a little bit too much as if someone had asked Kitaj to create seven Kitaj paintings for a firm deadline, and he’d obliged – but only just.

On one level, this is all rather unfair. In human terms, it feels wrong to condemn paintings which were created, one can only assume, out of real love and still-raw loss. It seems likely that the process of making them meant something important for Kitaj – his abundant quoted commentary on the work suggests this – and have helped him confront the most terrible aspect of human love. Yet the work itself is no good at all, and it should not have been shown in the National Gallery. Just because Kitaj has had a terrible time recently, and because his name is linked for historical reasons with those of better painters, should not mean that museum staff drop their critical standards before this flurry of frankly inadequate material. It is right that the viewing public ought to be able to satisfy their curiosity about the way in which Kitaj’s oeuvre has developed. But there are plenty of ways in which this could happen without invoking the prestige of the past to validate the second-rate present. Bracketing it with Cezanne in the National Gallery confers upon the work a stature, and possibly even an economic value, that it certainly does not deserve.

Meanwhile Marlborough Fine Art is having a particularly good autumn, with handsome new shop-fronts opening up all over the West End. In Piccadilly, Frank Auerbach has been given a major retrospective at the Royal Academy in which he is twinned with Rembrandt. Skilfully hung amid those elegant surroundings, Auerbach’s paintings, mostly in private hands and rarely seen in public, look better than ever. And since Auerbach sells his work (including graphic work) through Marlborough Fine Arts – the proud owners of quite a lot of the work on show – the success of the show can only have been a source of pleasure to Marlborough. At the same time, over in Trafalgar Square, Kitaj – another Marlborough artist – is exhibiting what will surely be called ‘major’ new canvases as well as some really execrable sketches, all ‘courtesy of’ and hence presumably available from Marlborough Fine Arts. These works will have lost no prestige at all in this temporary cohabitation with greatness. After all, a bad charcoal scrawl that has been displayed in the National Gallery has to be ‘important’, doesn’t it, whatever the buyer’s critical judgement might say to the contrary? For what it’s worth, the National Gallery’s Encounters: New Art From Old exhibition last year also included a number of familiar names from this most blue-chip of stables: Auerbach and Kitaj, but also Le Brun, Freud and Rego. (Many, perhaps most, of the other Encounters artists were represented by London’s other top-drawer ‘modern master’ gallery, Anthony D’Offay – this includes Twombly, Viola, Wall, Hamilton, Kiefer, Johns, and Clemente – as well as Howard Hodgkin, who has recently been given a marvellous opportunity to show his work at Dulwich.)

This is certainly not sinister; it is not necessarily even a bad thing. Indeed, the Auerbach example underscores the grown-up, real-world inevitability of this sort of compromise. Given the fact that Marlborough owns a considerable fund of Auerbach work, knows who owns other important Auerbach work, and is generally more plugged-in to the world of heavy-duty Auerbach acquisition and distribution than almost anyone else, it would be impossible to hold a serious Auerbach retrospective without Marlborough’s enthusiastic blessing. If that means that the odd second-rate work ends up being included to make someone happy, it doesn’t much matter, since this is a trivial price to pay for the opportunity to see so much first-rate work.

The other side of the coin, though, is this autumn’s Kitaj show, in which the reputation of a badly over-rated painter – one who is only getting worse as the years go by – receives a much-needed boost from a public institution. Marlborough Fine Art can hardly be blamed for trying to sell this stuff, because that’s what they exist to do. The relevant National Gallery personnel, on the other hand, should have had more sense than to hang this exhibition, and the fact that it was ever allowed to see the light of day – let alone appear in the context of such uncritically enthusiastic endorsements – raises questions about their judgement on all sorts of levels.

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