Tag Archives: Royal Academy

‘Earth: Art of a changing world’ at the Royal Academy

Edward Burtynsky, 'Super Pit #4, Kalgoorlie, Western Australia', 2007, Chromogenic Colour Print. © The artist, courtesy Flowers, London

Edward Burtynsky, 'Super Pit #4, Kalgoorlie, Western Australia', 2007, Chromogenic Colour Print. © The artist, courtesy Flowers, London

‘Brave’ contemporary art or climate change agit-prop — which is more tiresome?

Such is the quandary with which, at least in theory, Earth: Art of a changing world presents visitors to the Royal Academy’s Burlington Gardens site, in the second of three annual GSK Contemporary seasons. If, in the event, Earth turns out to be something rather different from what either climate change sceptics or enthusiasts might reasonably have expected, the result is, nonetheless, revealing.

Don’t get me wrong. Earth isn’t without the odd pleasant surprise. For one thing, low expectations do pay good dividends. It’s still simply not that easy to gather together work by 34 artists without stumbling over something that merits at least brief consideration, perhaps even a degree of visual interest.

And then, even when faced with the reliable disappointment that is our contemporary art scene, there’s a point at which basic human sympathy starts to assert its own modest if stubborn demands.

Consider, just for a moment, the plight of the exhibition’s organisers. Faced with the need to bundle together a disparate job-lot of contemporary art in a manner unlikely to repel the out-of-town Christmas-shopping crowd who constitute so lucrative a slice of the RA’s winter audience, the Earth theme was, all things considered, a perfectly rational choice — capacious enough to include pretty much anything, of course, but also right-on enough to cast a flattering glow of moral rectitude across faces long since hardened by the rigours of several hours’ of full-throttle seasonal consumerism, while at the same time not excluding at least the possibility of ‘edginess’, that sparkling decorative flourish without which no contemporary art exhibition could ever be complete. Comprendre, c’est pardoner, this being the season of goodwill and everything. Continue reading


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Ancient and Modern: Palladio at the Royal Academy


Architectural exhibitions are, by default, flawed exercises. Few curators would have the nerve to stage, say, a Titian blockbuster without a single Titian painting on view, a marble-free Bernini show, a Schiaparelli crowd-pleaser offering the curious not a single faded frock or frill. And yet the celebration of a lacuna — a high-profile Hamlet minus the prince — is a matter of necessity in the world of architectural exposition. Goethe once claimed, apparently, that architecture is frozen music. If so, the best a curator can offer is a glimpse of the score. The actual performance takes place on some other stage entirely.

Hence the inevitability with which the Royal Academy’s excellent Andrea Palladio: His Life and Legacy comes to be made up out of sketches, plans, notes, printed pages, painted portraits, sections and facade elevations, near-doodles, a set of drawing instruments in a leather case, maps, and of course those meticulously-constructed lime and beechwood models, smelling of varnish and scholarly obsession — dolls’ houses made by angels for princes, immodest household shrines of formal perfection, each one as cleanly excised from the environmental matrix encasing actual buildings as inital intention ever can be from deed or subsequent doubt. Continue reading


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Waiting for Palladio


Before long, I may even post a review of the Royal Academy’s fascinating if sporadically frustrating Andrea Palladio: His Life and Legacy, celebrating (only one year late) the quincentenary of the birth of the Paduan architect who, however indirectly, did more to shape Britain’s built environment than anyone else.

Until that moment arrives, however, here are two Palladio-related distractions.

The first is a new Palladio and Britain website, launched this week by the RIBA, currently enjoying their own 150th anniversary. Continue reading

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The Empire Strikes Back: Byzantium 330-1453 at the Royal Academy

Procuratoria di San Marco/Cameraphoto Arte, Venice

Unknown artist, Incense burner in the shape of a church, 10th - 11th century. Photo: Procuratoria di San Marco/Cameraphoto Arte, Venice

Some civilisations vanish. Others endure, at least at the level of shorthand signifier, conjuring up in a single, highly-charged word vast networks of association — networks, it must be said, often weak on detail, depth or historical accuracy, yet boundlessly rich in the stuff of imaginative sympathy, normative distancing, moral disgust or approbation.

In that sense, Byzantium — the subject of the Royal Academy’s magnificent new exhibition Byzantium 330-1453 — is still very much with us. It never really went away. Contemporaries, both Muslim and western Christian, of the later Eastern Empire had obvious reasons for denouncing a major geopolitical rival as untrustworthy, cruel, effeminate and worldly — while retaining a sly regard for Byzantium’s imperial wealth, splendour and occasional military successes. Later, once republican Rome had again become the measure of all things, at least for reasonably well-educated people in Western Europe and dependent territories, it became possible to despise Byzantium simultaneously as a debased — which is to say, altered — form of classical civilisation, and at the same time, as unalterably despotic, reactionary, God-bothered and doomed. Its thousand-year history was reduced to nothing more than ‘a tedious and uniform tale of weakness and misery’, as Gibbon put it, sounding only slightly more enthusiastic about Byzantium than Montesquieu and Voltaire had done previously. And thus it was that, by the time at which Ruskin, Yeats and Cavafy all began to invoke Byzantium within the ambit of their own differently modernist writing, they did so more with reference to what Byzantium meant, that with what it might, at some point, actually have been.

It’s this tension — the ever-widening gap between the historical Byzantium and its literary, artistic and moral cognates — that lends the current Royal Academy exhibition a sharp polemical edge. Without it, the experience might well have added up only to 350 marvellous objects, most rare indeed and a few of them astonishingly beautiful, deployed theatrically across ten rooms, dimly lit, dressed with a light gloss of scholarly commentary and packed, even early in the morning, with far too many visitors — each of them presumably lost in the creation or revision of some inner, highly personal, differently-inflected version of ‘Byzantium’. Continue reading


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Listening to Byzantium

Icon of the Archangel Michael, Constantinople, twelfth century. Silver gilt on wood, gold cloisonné enamel, precious stones, 46.5 x 35 x 2.7 cm. Basilica di San Marco, Venice, Tresoro, inv. no. 16. Photo per gentile concessione della Procuratoria di San Marco/Cameraphoto Arte, Venice

Icon of the Archangel Michael, Constantinople, twelfth century. Basilica di San Marco, Venice. Photo per gentile concessione della Procuratoria di San Marco/Cameraphoto Arte, Venice

Darkness falls before six in the evening now, closer to five on dull days. It’s that time of year when life increasing centres around deep sofas, books like this and this, dark chocolate, alongside astonishment at our culture’s inexplicable failure to embrace hibernation as a universal human right.

Nevertheless, nightfall last Friday found me making my way to the Chapel of King’s University, London, to hear a lecture on The Heavenly Liturgy: Byzantine Psalmody to 1453, organised in conjunction with the Royal Academy’s magnificent Byzantium exhibition, supported by the London Centre for Arts and Cultural Exchange.

Now, persistent readers of these pages may reasonably object that while I know little enough about music in general — entirely true, by the way — my ignorance of Byzantine psalmody must surely be as perfect as ignorance ever can be. That, though, was precisely the point. For while it’s in the nature of an exhibition like Byzantium — a vast enterprise, in which more than 300 objects are made to represent a thousand years of history, played out on a stage that stretched from York to Moscow, Damascus to Belgrade, the deserts of North Africa to the shores of the Black Sea and beyond — to raise more questions than it could possibly answer, the questions it had raised regarding music were particularly insistent. 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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Jacob van Ruisdael: Master of Landscape at the Royal Academy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The John Madejski Fine Rooms at the Royal Academy

The decision of philanthropist, chairman of Reading Football Club and erstwhile Conservative Party benefactor John Madejski to give £3 million to the Royal Academy of Arts — and thereby funding the restoration of a suite of rooms in which the highlights of the RA’s permanent collection will be shown — can only be applauded. Similarly deserving of praise are the number of private donors who provided smaller, but still substantial contributions for the same purpose. The RA receives no state funding. More so than many of our cultural institutions, it depends on generosity of the sort that Mr Madejski and his fellow donors have so graciously provided. The urge to increase access to the RA’s treasure-trove of paintings, drawings, graphic work and sculpture is, finally, a sound and sensible one. These works have been hidden from general view since 1939 — not for any very obvious reason other than general lack of initiative — and it is good to have them back again.

Given, then, all the laudable generosity that has gone into the creation of the John Madejski Fine Rooms, it is with sadness that one has to say the unsayable: that these rooms are a bit of a mess, really, both in terms of their appearance and in their functional fitness to display the sort of art that is being shown in them. What, then, went wrong?

Let’s start with some background regarding the rooms themselves. Although Burlington House dates from 1664, the Madejski Rooms can trace back much of their appearance to a renovation carried out by Richard Boyle, third Earl of Burlington, soon after his return from two grand tours of Italy (1717 and 1722), where he had been comprehensively and enjoyably seduced by the architectural achievements of Andrea Palladio. To Burlington — and to architect Colen Campbell and the artist William Kent — we owe the two ceiling paintings, the coved ceiling in the Saloon and the enormous amount of ornament, both in carved wood and in plaster, all picked out in generous quantities of gold, that give these rooms their very real magnificence. Later, in 1815, a new owner of the house, Lord Cavendish, employed Samuel Ware to re-arrange the spaces within the building to provide better spaces for entertaining. To a large extent, his emendations — creating a long enfilade of rooms — also endure. Over the years that followed, of course, tastes changed and further renovations ensued, although it is perhaps worth remarking on how many important alterations occurred during the 1990s, including the introduction of Lord Foster’s pointlessly ugly lift (1991). But in the Madejski Rooms, then, what we see today is a Neo-Palladian design of 1717 rationalised to suit the needs of 1815 — and of 2004.

The marriage, alas, is not entirely a happy one. Some aspects of the rooms are extremely handsome. One has to admire the boldness of all that gilding, the obsessive attention to detail in the carved and moulded surfaces, and perhaps most of all the elegance of that long enfilade — an authentic touch of Roman grandeur in the midst of Piccadilly. It must also be said that the RA Surveyor’s Department have used the restoration of these rooms as an opportunity both to learn a good deal about Burlington House, and as a chance to reinstate elements of Ware’s scheme that have been lost in the years since its completion. All of that, obviously, is to the good.

But at the same time, the recent restoration has introduced some bizarrely hideous elements. We can forgive the RA the strange-looking ceiling in the Saloon, above which Kent’s coffered ceiling was recently discovered, hidden under layers of old paint, and behind which it is currently being conserved. But whose idea was that appalling lighting? The little brown spotlights detract violently from the elegance of the gilt cornices. Their highly arbitrary-looking placement only serves to draw attention to them and to pick a mindless argument with the Apollonian regularity of the decoration and architecture that characterise the rest of the room. The lighting effect they produce is also weird and unattractive. It mystifies me to think how an institution could have gone to so much work to restore these magnificent rooms and then have planted something so gratuitously ugly in the midst of them. Surely some better solution should be found — and soon?

And then there is the question of the floor. I have no idea what sort of floor existed in Ware’s version of these rooms, but I doubt that it looked like that plain, glaringly pale new oak flooring that has recently been installed. Yes, I know oak will darken with age, but at present, anyway, it injects a raw, thoroughly modern element into a space that ought, presumably, to have spoke of times that were anything but raw and modern. It looks too much like a ‘selling point’ in a Soho loft apartment, too little like the town house of a Regency aristocrat. Would it have been impossible to have a few carpets made for the occasion? There’s a painful recognition here that the past is being filtered rather aggressively through a contemporary aesthetic sensibility — inevitable, I suppose, but jarring all the same. And while we are on the subject of jarring discontinuity, why does the Tennant Room not have any gilding at all? Consciously or not, it somehow comes across as a reproach to this blameless and generous man, so needlessly persecuted in the recent past by a publicity-hungry New York City district attorney. Why not gild the Tennant Room, too, given that it has the same moulded and carved decorations as the other rooms, so as to make the rooms all match?

And finally we come to the issue of the windows. The John Madejski Fine Rooms look out over what we must learn to call the Annenberg Courtyard and its screen, and then out towards Piccadilly. It would, I suppose, be a rather marvellous view — integrating this gilded, other-worldly interior space not only with the architecture outside (important in itself) but with the bustling life of the courtyard, the weather, the sky and the varying effects of light. Strange to say, however, the view is denied to us — shut off beyond rather grim, featureless, matte-finish blinds.

At one level this decision to cover the windows is a gross abuse of the Neo-Palladian thinking behind the architecture. If, for instance, the Saloon is meant to resemble a loggia, surely cutting off any contact with the outside world does brutal violence to the whole meaning of the room? But it does nothing for the carved and moulded decoration, either, or even for the very pale grey paint and the omnipresent gilding — all of which would benefit enormously from the play of a bit of natural light. And yes, I know what the RA would probably say to this — that letting in natural light would destroy all their careful conservation efforts, bleaching paintings and leading to terrible temperature fluctuations. To which I would simply say, there is nothing very difficult about controlling those temperature fluctuations, and the paintings won’t bleach noticeably unless they are placed in direct sunlight, which no one is going to do anyway. Otherwise, why do galleries including the Louvre, Pitti Palace, Uffizi, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Vatican Museums and so forth allow the free flow of reflected natural light over what are, frankly, far superior masterpieces? But there’s also an issue of principle at stake. Either the context in which art is shown really matters, in which it is worth spending money to recreate the beautiful spaces of the past, or it doesn’t matter, in which all art can simply be shown in something like the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery. Regular readers will already know which of these options appeals to me. Meanwhile, I find the RA’s apparent stance on this issue absolutely baffling.

But as far as that goes, the way in which art was being shown in the renovated rooms was not entirely satisfactory, either. There are, it must be said, some marvellous and important works exhibited in these rooms. Some were the so-called ‘diploma works’, on which aspiring Academicians were judged by the RA committee. Others were gifts, either by the artists themselves or by their descendents. In the latter category are a several of the stunning, endlessly worthwhile Constable oil sketches located in the old Council Room. If there were nothing else on show in these rooms, the Constable sketches would, in themselves, make the rooms worth seeing. But there are also other works, laid out in a broadly chronological scheme, ranging from some handsome portraits and self-portraits of early Academicians — notably, a brilliant self-portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds — to works by more recent painters such as Carel Weight, Stanley Spencer and David Hockney. Prints from Turner’s Liber Studiorum are displayed nearby. The Royal Academy has, from the time of its creation, existed to foster British art — through all its crises of self-doubt and mindless boosterism, in every phase of its turbulent relationship with the art of continental Europe and beyond — and its collection ought to tell that story, in which the work of second-rate painters may be even more interesting than that of their more famous colleagues. This should, by rights, be a fascinating exhibition.

Yet it misses, somehow. The paintings are hung at odd heights and in odd bunches, with little sign of thought for fruitful juxtapositions, the overall appearance of the rooms, or even for art-historical narrative-making. The effect is gappy and episodic. Why, for instance, not turn over the old Ballroom to a temporary display of, say, the realist painting of the 1940-60s, giving Spencer and Weight — with their quirky urban mysticism and frequent tumbles into outright whimsy — their proper context, and incidentally making a real contribution to public understanding of this subject? And why, for that matter, not hang the paintings a bit more densely — not necessarily the floor-to-ceiling fantasia of the recent Somerset House reconstruction, perhaps, but at least in a manner more suited to the conventions of the time in which the rooms were designed? Meanwhile, the Hockey painting is so absolutely wretched as to constitute an embarrassment — even at the Summer Exhibition it would have looked coarse, lurid and talentless. The Degas Dancer, kindly loaned by Mr Madejski, is a pretty enough work but completely out of place amid a bunch of 20th century British paintings and completely out of sympathy with the room in which it is being shown. Finally, the prints from Liber Studiorum are themselves very dark and atmospheric — meaning that the decision to keep the room in which they are shown pitch-black (presumably, for ‘conservation reasons’) — simply meant that it was impossible to make out anything about any of them. Elsewhere, the omnipresent glazing and those terrible lamps ensured that many works were more or less obscured by glare. During the hanging of these pictures, someone should simply have stood back and spared a moment to see how it all looked. As it is, one left the Madejski Fine Rooms with a slightly dyspeptic sense of regret for the wasted opportunities here.

The good news, though, is that virtually all the mistakes in the redevelopment of these rooms could be put right fairly easily. The pictures could be re-selected and re-hung — perhaps with a more focused emphasis on the history of the RA, the contributions its members have made and the controversies that have buzzed around it, which in turn could constitute a useful if oblique examination of several centuries of British art. The lighting could be improved. Someone could purchase a few carpets. Most importantly, those terrible blinds could be carted away, letting in some enlivening natural light, infusing energy into spaces that currently come across as cold and sterile, and generally reconnecting Burlington House with the world outside it. Such changes would probably need to be underpinned by a somewhat clearer understanding of what the rooms are for, rather than trying to be several things at once and not getting any of them absolutely right. In the meantime, we should all be grateful to the RA’s present-day benefactors for braving a punitive tax regime and a culture more keen on asserting ‘rights’ than soliciting patronage in order to restore these handsome rooms to public view.

The John Madejski Fine Rooms at the Royal Academy are now open. Admission is free.

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