I spent a week in London looking at art, revisiting old friends and discovering some new.
The Felix Vallotton show at the Royal Academy – coming to the Met later this fall – was a revelation. With only 50 paintings and an approximately equal number of prints, it covered the Swiss artist’s career coherently and completely. Vallotton, we are told, completed 1,700 paintings, so there may be more than was said by this exhibition; but for now I feel I know him. Although the exhibition was divided neatly into categories – Early Works, Nabis, Domestic Life, Genre, Nudes, Landscape – two consistent threads ran through everything. One was Vallotton’s style: flat, hard-edged shapes in decorative arrangement with empty space or, in the prints, solid black. The other is captured in the show’s subtitle: “Painter of Disquiet.” There is something slightly “off” in most of the works. The people are tense, or intense, their situations fraught or uncertain. There are more overtly dramatic moments in the prints: a runaway carriage, people caught in a rainstorm, a street demonstration and, most famously, the “Intimacies,” where none of the lovers involved in affairs seem terribly comfortable or happy. This was my favorite kind of exhibition: complete yet compact, introducing me to an artist who is distinctive and appealing, leaving me with an acquaintance I will always have.
Alongside Vallotton, the RA presented a career retrospective of an artist I’d never heard of: Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946), from Finland. Her early works showed her gifts as a painter, but as the years progressed she seemed more intent on exploring new styles as well as revealing the rages of aging in her self-portraits. I was left more with admiration for talents – totally unexposed on this side of the Atlantic – than enamored of her work.
My strongest reaction from my first-afternoon visit to the National Gallery, covering only the Sainsbury Wing (1300-1500), came from seeing Giovanni Bellini’s portrait of Doge Loredan. The purity of the white robe against the blue background grabbed me from across the room, and then the sumptuousness of the robe when seen up close, with its gold embroidery and subtle shadows, blew me away. The image, of course, was familiar from textbooks, but more on that later.
Next on my amazement meter was the less familiar Man (in a Red Turban) by Robert Campin. Whereas Bellini’s Doge was formal and severe, Campin’s Man was warm and accessible. Except for the turban, you could imagine meeting him in the street today, and you almost felt you could know him. At a time when most paintings were of impersonal saints and donors (including, e.g, Campin’s Merode Altarpiece, one of my favorites), the realism of this portrait was exceptional.
These two paintings perhaps heightened my interest in portraiture when I returned two days later to see the rest of the gallery, for I was struck by less obvious examples from Velazquez and Rubens.Archbiship Fernando de Valdes comes across, as he should, as so much more human and relatable than Philip IV in Velazquez’s hand, but you recognize, as with the Rokeby Venus, that Velazquez is a magician with paint. Rubens is even more fluent; so amid all the bombastic works it is a relief to come across Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel. The loosely brushed hair, the penetrating stare (of someone sitting for a portrait), the ring around the eye, the vein in the temple, all sing out, This is as good as Portraiture gets. In comparison, my former favorite “The Straw Hat” seems artificial and decorative, albeit still appealing.
If we are to discuss portraits, we cannot omit the two great Dutch masters, Hals and Rembrandt. The former’s Man Holding Gloves was his most sympathetic, while Rembrandt offers many to choose among, starting with his two self-portraits. On this occasion I particularly noted his portrait of Jacob Trip’s wife, as further support for my theory that Rembrandt had a blind spot, or just didn’t care, when it came to painting hands: Margarethe’s left hand is every bit as bulbous and out of scale as the left hand in Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait at the Frick.
When one sees the level of accomplishment in portraits by Bellini, Campin, Velazquez, Rubens, Hals and Rembrandt, one can only imagine how a modern artist feels she must go beyond verisimilitude and use portraiture, instead, as a vehicle for one’s own style, a la Amy Sherald, Alex Katz, Kehinde Wiley, Alice Neel.
Beyond portraits, the National Gallery must be the greatest pre-1900 Western picture collection in the world. (How do the experts rank the Louvre, the Met, the Prado, the National Gallery in D.C., etc., I wonder?) As I turned from Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus to The Rokeby Venus, it occurred to me that in almost every gallery there is a recognizable “masterpiece.” There is also, unlike at the Met, not a lot of dross among the stars (the Uffizi is similar to the NG in this regard). But then I wondered how these “masterpieces” had been anointed. Clearly, they are works that are familiar from art history textbooks. But are they placed in these textbooks because they are truly the greatest works, or do they happen to appear in the textbooks because they are they works that scholars have studied and written about – because they were available in the National Gallery? Of course, the fact they are hanging there reflects a significant level of approval by expert curators, but what is in a museum is often just as much a matter of availability, or donor largesse. The biography of Kenneth Clark I am reading mentions that the NG, under Clark, was a pioneer in photographing its works, thus making them available for study and publication. How much was the canon established by happenstance?
We went to the Tate Modern to see the Olafur Eliasson exhibition, but I was more impressed by the Tate Modern itself. Eliasson is amazing, but a museum setting doesn’t do justice to his site-specific projects (like the bridge in Copenhagen shown on a video, or the rainbows in the sky at Apple’s opening party); and some of the exhibits came across as more gimmick than art. And while I applaud his efforts to call attention to climate change, they leave one asking what effect “calling attention” at this point really has.
When I first encountered the Tate Modern, it struck me as a very poor-man’s MoMA – a bit late in the game to be displaying Mondrian and Picasso. While the Tate still has these representatives in its permanent collection, it no longer mounts a display of modern art, as such. Instead, it offers a number of themed exhibitions that use its collection in a specific way: for instance, one exhibit was about “Materials.” Then there are spaces devoted to individual artists, like Ed Ruscha and Doris Salcedo. And there are whole rooms given over to large works, such as one by Sarah Sze and a Korean artist who made a hanging display of aluminum blinds that mimicked a Sol LeWitt structure, upside down. I was also impressed by the geographic diversity of the artists represented, with South American women prominent and more Japanese modern artists than I’ve ever come across in America. In sum, the Tate Modern presents a buffet of modern and contemporary art, and moving from gallery to gallery there is always something new and different to see, much of it fun. Perhaps it is geared at the masses – there is little that is dark, sexual, political or difficult to digest – but what’s wrong with making people smile and think at the same time.
There was a lot to see at the Sir John Soames Museum, but for me the highlight was the Picture Room, and specifically the Election series by William Hogarth. Not only could we put our noses right up to the pictures – and with all the details that was a good way to look at them – but we had two good “warders” who pointed out and explained every little detail: not only who the multiple characters were, but what this pig and that goose represented. Hogarth is much better seen in a busy home than a cold museum, and his upcoming show there should be a treat.
Finally, with 90 minutes to play with on our last day, I made a pilgrimage to Tate Britain and ran through the history of British art, a welcome refresher course of familiar names and images. By good fortune, I ended my visit in the Clore Gallery, immersed in the works of JMW Turner. I love early Turner, late Turner and everything in between, watercolors and oils. For my last, lingering look, with the guard urging me out, I stood in front of three views of Venice, ethereal white buildings set against hazy blue sky and water, a timeless blend of dream and reality.