Wednesday, December 26, 2007

TLS December 14 2007

Julian Bell wrote a wonderful review of the exhibition of British art at Ghent's Museum of Fine Arts. Describing each exhibition room in turn, and the art works in each, the review takes the reader through the different galleries of "British Vision: Observation and imagination in British Art," thus tracing the curatorial intentions nicely. "Hooze and his advisers, who include British art scholars like John Gage and Timothy Hyman, " writes Bell, "are showman in the best sense: their persuasion is visual, a matter of inspired display. With so many star exhibits at their disposal, they know how to give the aura of each its due and still draw sparks from making them interact." Here's Bell giving the tour, with which I try to pair the art works he mentions:

We enter at first a close warm space. We are among eighteenth-century group portraits and nineteenth century crowd scenes, including "Work", the urban material of which leads on to pictures of the poor - photos taken for Henry Mayhew's 1862 London survey, for instance - and of heavy industry in its Victorian heyday.

Joseph Wright of Derby, A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery, in which a Lamp in put in Place of the Sun, c. 1766, Oil on canvas, 147.3 x 203.2 cm, Derby Museums and Art Gallery.

Ford Madox Brown. Work. 1852-65. Oil on canvas, arched top, 53 15/16 x 77 11/16 in. Manchester City Art Galleries.

The claustrophobic heat increases as we pass through to a room of caricature. The roaring drunks of Hogarth, the leering debauchees of Rowlandson, Fuseli's fetishistic fantasies and Lear's 'nonsense' noses, the murderous sardonic mayhem of Gillray - all jostle and trip the viewer: this is a printsellers' market gone mad. [JL: Bell does not mention specific prints, and so here's a Rowlandson etching from the Royal Academy.]

Thomas Rowlandson 1757 - 1827, Doctor Syntax made free of the cellar, Hand-coloured etching with aquatint 110 X 189 mm, Royal Academy of Arts, London.

Then suddenly, we are released into a cool, open clearing. A gallery with just five canvases from the later eighteenth century: three landscapes by Richard Wilson, two by Joseph Wright of Derby: the former mindful of classical precedent, the latter of industry and science, but each spellbound by light.

Richard Wilson (1713 - 1782), Snowdon from Llyn Nantlle c1765, Oil on canvas, 101 x 127cm, National Museum at Liverpool

From this breathing space onwards, the land and how to describe and interpret it become the theme for several galleries. An outstanding selection of small-scale visual experiments represents the recording practices that grew up in tandem with the Industrial Revolution - watercolour, the camera lucida and photography - as well as the sciences of geology, meteorology and botany that evolved with them.

Robert Howlett (British, 1830–1858), Isambard Kingdom Brunel Standing Before the Launching Chains of the Great Eastern, 1857, printed 1863–64, Albumen silver print from glass negative; 11 x 8 7/16 in. (28 x 21.5 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Here the large-scale works are those that embody the land's normality - as a working space for towmen and farmboys in "Flatford Mill" and for the jockeys of Stubbs's Newmarket, as a walking space for townspeople in Charles Collins's wonderfully deadpan view of "May in the Regent's Park." The dense greens and reds of that Pre-Raphaelite panel have by now settled in as the exhibition's dominant color scheme, and we are still no further on than the mid-nineteenth century.

John Constable, Flatford Mill (`Scene on a Navigable River') 1816-17, Oil on canvas, Tate Collection.

Charles Collins, May, in the Regent's Park 1851, Oil on mahogany, Tate Collection.

But the very next doorway is a kind of cliff-edge. Two cataclysms resonate across a semi-circular hall: Nash's "Menin Road", his three-metre-wide-wide panorama of the Flanders trenches in all their hideous beauty in 1918, and the apocalyptic black "Deluge" imagined by John Martin eight years before. An awesome Epsteins alabaster carving of Christ rising from the dead and a Henry Moore "Falling Warrior" - almost the exhibition's only sculptures - reinforce the hang's visceral impact. Other images, from Stanley Spencer, David Bomberg and others at their giddiest and wildest, register as aftershocks. I'm not sure if the addition of Holman Hunt's similarly extreme "Scapegoat" isn't too much here, yet the layout of the galleries permits a deft onward transit from this thunderous array. . .

Paul Nash, The Menin Road, 1919, oil on canvas, 182.9 x 317 cm, Imperial War Museum, London.

John Martin (1806-70), The Deluge, 1834, Oil on canvas, 66 x 102 inches.

Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat, Oil on canvas 87 cm x 139.8 cm, Liverpool Museums.

. . . to the tiny, fierce heart of visionary Britain, namely to the prints and drawings of Blake and Samuel Palmer.

William Blake, The Circle of the Lustful, 1824-1827, Watercolour, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery.

And after Palmer, it seems quite fitting to turn to the neo-Romantic, pastoral values of Graham Sutherland or of David Jones: the twentieth century has now been brought into the drame. The great historical caesura represented by Nash's war image has more or less been bridged, and in its wake we can revisit the categories of landscape (an Auerbach "Primrose Hill", a Hepworth bronze), of caricature (Edward Burra and early Hockney) and of portraiture (early Freud, for instance).

Frank Auerbach (b.1931), Primrose Hill, Oil on board, 86.4 x 117 cms (34 x 46 inches), 1954.

David Hockney, Bedlam (from "A Rake's Progress"), 1961 - 3, Etching in two colours, 30 x 40cm.

The survey comes to an end in the early 1960s, but its last really climactic image is Spencer's "Shipbuilding on the Clyde", his 1940s altarpiece to heavy industry. Spencer in effect becomes the hero of the show's later sections.

Stanley Spencer, Panel from 'Shipbuilding on the Clyde' (early 1940s), Imperial War Museum, London.

After the guided tour, Bell reflects on the British-ness proposed by this Ghent exhibition, and then suggests the deliberate limits of this exhibition's vision of British art.

What kind of imagery, then was the prospering new united kingdom to make its own? One answer was suggested by the empirical philosophy of Locke, the influence that also informed Britain's scientific and technological advances. The artist was to collect items of experience and combine them, in a spirit of dedicated recording - as a topographer, for instance, or much later as a photographer. . . . But this impulse to accrue, item by item, was also a incentive that promoted capitalistic enterprise. Money, running through the hands of London's entrepreneurs and enabling the import of cultural goods and their schemes of modernization, was apt to send artists' imaginations reeling in a kind of vertigo. . . .

It [The exhibition] is an explicitly partial, angular treatment of a nation's art history, and while many selections fo present artists at the height of their originality . . . , there is not the slightest will to treat all candidates judiciously. As a matter of principle, Britain's would-be internationalists are shown the door. Hardling any Reynolds . . . or Lawrence or Leighton, let alone the Bloomsbury artists. These exclusions help sharpen the visual argument, but a more significant limitation on the Ghent interpretation is that the two painters by whom Britain has probably been best known on the Continent fail to come into focus. It's probably inevitable that a show pivoted on Constable will sequeeze Turner into uncomfortable corners - at one end a gritty quasi-realistic country road, at the other the mysticallyirradiated "Interior of a Great House", with too little to bridge the big distance between. But Francis Bacon, in his own way another great reinterpreter of the European tradition, also makes only an oblique appearance: his confined to two figure studies of untypical tastefulness and restraint, and a study after the life mask of William Blake that says more about the subject's cultural significance than the artist's. . . .

. . . How far is it possible, in all historical seriousness, to uphold the separateness of the island tradition? The more one ploughs through the imposing bulk of scholarship collected in the 420-page catalogue, the more one touches on all the other stories that might have been told with this material. . . .

. . . This huge and provocative display finds a place for Lewis Carroll's own deeply bizarre drawing of Alice, as well as a Tenniel engraving; for a telescopic description of the Moon, drawn by John Russell in 1976; for a gorgeously painted canvas of uncertain attribution, executed in 1786, which shows a British soldier among his Indian womenfolk, the type of union that would later be thrust beyond the pale of Imperial respectability. The interplay of glances between the major, the begum, the ayahs and the children is as warm as the palette - yet all is tremulous, and the family portrait was never finished. An alternative history and an alternative Britishness might have taken root there.


Anonymous said...

On Brown's painting, at the right hand corner stand two gentleman. One of them is Carlyle who inspired this picture. He wrote against education, and labor or exercise of the body should come first. The other man, I forgot his name, set up schools for workers/laborers. Carlyle, Brown and J. S. Mill taught in these schools.

Interesting huh?

Jee Leong Koh said...

Thanks for the comment, hansel. Very interesting indeed.

Jee Leong