Self-Portraits from the Uffizi

The full title of this exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery is Artists’ Self-Portraits from the Uffizi. But I don’t think it’s overly pedantic to point out that self-portraits are pretty much always by and of artists. The Uffizi has a collection of 1600 self-portraits, apparently; 50 of them are currently in Dulwich, arranged in roughly chronological order from Filippino Lippi in 1485 to Mimmo Paladino in 2003.

The Uffizi isn’t apparently in any hurry to embrace the internet age, so I can’t illustrate this post with any pictures from the exhibition. Instead, here’s one by Gwen John which is in the Tate:

Self Portrait by Gwen John

I wandered into the exhibition whimsically wondering if I was going to be able to see some kind of common trait in the portraits; some kind of physiognomical identifier of artiness. Well, if this exhibition is to be believed, artists are much more likely to be men, but apart from that they didn’t have much in common physically.

There was a certain kind of expression, though: whether the artists were presenting themselves as glamorous men of substance or bohemians or just unadorned faces, they all tended to share an expression of quizzical detachment.

It would be tempting to see this as indicating a painterly scepticism about portraits; the expression of someone who has seen behind the curtain and knows that a painting is deceptive: contingent, unreliable, manufactured.

In fact, though, it’s probably just the expression of someone examining his own face in the mirror.


‘Canaletto in England’ at Dulwich Picture Gallery

I almost forgot to blog about the Canaletto exhibition at DPG which I went to on Friday. As the title suggests, it focusses on Canaletto’s time in England. I knew he’d painted a few paintings of London, but I was surprised to learn that he lived here for nine years.

Not surprisingly, the show has been a big hit. He isn’t one of the top gods in my personal artistic pantheon, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Canaletto that I wouldn’t like to own. Elegant cityscapes bathed in sunlight and full of glittering water, with lots of little figures so that there’s always something to look at in the details: what’s not to like?

However, the Venice scenes he’s most known for can feel a little production-line. The Wallace Collection has a whole roomful of Canalettos. Seeing them all together, the sense of a commodity produced for the tourist market is overwhelming. So an exhibition of English scenes not only has local interest, it also offers a different perspective on the artist. This is Warwick Castle, which normally lives at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery:

By no means my favourite picture in the exhibition, or even my favourite picture of Warwick castle, but I couldn’t find many online. I rather liked this one, but the colours look screwy to me in that version.

As a Londoner, I was naturally drawn to the London pictures, although in fact if it wasn’t a few landmark buildings (St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey especially), I wouldn’t have felt confident identifing it as London. The period (1746-55) is just at the start of modern London, and there are enough C18th buildings left in London that the scenes often look generally Londony; but the specifics are almost all different. The skyline is dominated by church spires instead of office buildings, the river is heaving with traffic, and most of the key buildings haven’t been built yet. That in itself is part of the interest, of course.

It’s rather hard to find descriptions of Canaletto that don’t sound like damning with faint praise: his paintings are elegant, decorative, likeable. To some extent this is just a reflection of a shift in taste; we’re all Romantics now, and we’re all suckers for the sublime. In 1826, Hazlitt wrote, in ‘On Depth and Superficiality’:

Elegance is a word that means something different from ease, grace, beauty, dignity; yet it is akin to all these; but it seems more particularly to imply a sparkling brilliancy of effect with finish and precision. We do not apply the term to great things; we should not call an epic poem or a head of Jupiter elegant, but we speak of an elegant copy of verses, an elegant headdress, an elegant fan, an elegant diamond brooch, or bunch of flowers. In all these cases (and others where the same epithet is used) there is something little and comparatively trifling in the objects and the interests they inspire… [long snip]

The Hercules is not elegant; the Venus is simply beautiful. The French, whose ideas of beauty or grandeur never amount to more than an elegance, have no relish for Rubens, nor will they understand this definition.

I’m not sure Canaletto would have been very sympathetic to Hazlitt’s definition either. I’m not sure I am completely, but for better or worse, our taste in places and art has been re-shaped by the Romantics. The Romantic approach has its own pitfalls, of course; insisting that art should have profundity and authenticity tends to result in a lot of fake profundity and fake authenticity. And the borderline between sublime and kitschy is wafer-thin. I really like this painting (Gordale Scar (A View of Gordale, in the Manor of East Malham in Craven, Yorkshire, the Property of Lord Ribblesdale) by James Ward), but its wildness is so theatrical that it’s difficult to take it completely seriously:

No 500 pixel version can do it justice; the real thing is 14′ wide.

Anyway, I’ve wandered off the point slightly. I actually think, despite everything I’ve been saying, that Canaletto’s paintings are just too attractive to be easily dismissed. Here’s one (Old Walton Bridge Over The Thames) which is actually part of the Dulwich permanent collection. Unusually, it has a few clouds, and is perhaps all the better for it:

Nice, innit. For a video introduction to the exhibition, go here.


Adam Elsheimer at DPG

There’s an exhibition of Adam Elsheimer paintings at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. From the DPG site:

On hearing of Elsheimer’s early death Rubens wrote ‘Surely, after such a loss our entire profession ought to clothe itself in mourning. We will not easily succeed in replacing him; in my opinion he had no equal in small figures, in landscapes, and in many other subjects’. This exhibition is a unique opportunity to re–discover this painter ‘without equal’.

I admit I’d not heard of Elsheimer, but apparently he was an important influence on Rembrant, Rubens and Claude Lorrain. He makes an excellent choice for an exhibition at a small gallery, because he wasn’t very prolific and his paintings were small. That (and the fact that he’s not so well known) has allowed them to exhibit effectively his entire output: 30 of 34 accepted surviving paintings.

The paintings are small because they’re on copper, and apparently copper sheets had to be small for practical reasons. I found myself wondering whether he did small paintings because he liked working on copper or he worked on copper because he liked doing small paintings. I know that it’s not the most sophisticated aesthetic response to get fixated on the size, but I do think there’s quite a profound division between people who are miniaturists by inclination — in painting, poetry or whatever — and those who like the grand sweep.

The distinction is brought out in Elsheimer because many of his paintings have the kind of complex, dynamic compositions that you can imagine being painted ten foot tall by his contemporaries. This picture, The Stoning of Saint Stephen, which normally lives in the National Gallery of Scotland, is one of his larger works, but it’s still only 34.70 x 28.60 cm:

The size means they have less immediate impact, but there’s an intimacy in viewing these paintings; there’s only really room for one person in front of each, and you find yourself standing with your nose practically touching them. And the execution of tiny details is fascinating in itself. Still, I found there was something weirdly constrained about them, as though the practical explanation for why they were small wasn’t quite enough to explain it.


‘Rembrandt & Co: Dealing in Masterpieces’ at DPG

‘Rembrandt & Co’ is on at the moment at Dulwich Picture Gallery, as part of the 400th birthday celebrations. Rembrandt’s 400th birthday was July 15th. To quote them:

Dulwich Picture Gallery explores, for the first time, the story of one of the most important art dealerships in 17th-century Amsterdam. The exhibition will show 19 Rembrandts from this period along with work by his contemporaries.

The idea presumably is to provide context for the Rembrandts, although a cynic might point out that it’s easier to persuade other galleries to loan you their Flincks, Ovenses and de Lairesses. They have got hold of some major works, though, most notably the portrait of Agatha Bas from the Royal collection and Man in Oriental Costume (“The Noble Slav”) from the Met:


I found this painting interesting because it’s so grand for what is basically just a character study – not a portrait of anyone in particular, or a historical or religious subject. It’s 5′ x 3′ 8″ and both very imposing and highly finished. I suppose there’s no reason why an important painting needs to be on an important subject, but it’s still slightly odd; almost as though it’s a quiet joke on Rembrandt’s part.

There were some nice prints as well, like this view of Amsterdam:

I always think it’s striking how much difference the medium makes. You can see similarities between Rembrandt’s prints and his paintings, particularly with the portraits and biblical scenes where the composition and the use of chiaroscuro is similar, but the feel is so different. You can see quite a few Rembrandt etchings and copperpoints on the Rembrandthuis website.

I didn’t find the context of the other artists’ work particularly enlightening, although it did emphasise the quality and distinctiveness of the Rembrandts. It also brings out the ruthlessness of time’s effect on art. These were all respected and successful artists in their day, but not many of the paintings offer much to the modern viewer. Some are quite attractive, but hardly any of them spark any kind of connection. For me, at least.