Watercolour at Tate Britain

I actually went to see this exhibition about a week or so ago, but I’ll just jot down some belated impressions. It is, as the title suggests, a historical survey of watercolour painting, from the medieval to the present.

There are only a handful of medieval pieces, bits of illuminated manuscript, which just serve as a reminder that, although they are not what we usually think of as ‘watercolour’, that is technically what they are.

The exhibition makes the interesting point that originally watercolour was mainly seen as an adjunct to drawing: a work would be drawn in pencil or ink and then effectively coloured in, sometimes just with a few hint of colour to liven the drawing and sometimes in a more thorough way. So many of the early pieces are technical works of one kind or another: costume designs for Elizabethan masques, maps, plans of fortifications, as well as a few specific uses like portrait miniatures.

That technical aspect leads on to what is probably my favourite room of the exhibition, a room of scientific illustrations; especially botanical illustrations but also birds and mammals. Many of these were lent by the Natural History Museum or Kew, which is a clear sign that they were not originally created as Art, but they are gorgeous things. It even included some lovely C19th paintings of rock types — each one is a lump of rock on a plain white background, and they look like an elegantly minimalist conceptual art project.

After that we get into watercolour as an artistic medium in its own right. This includes plenty of ‘typical’ watercolours — landscapes, basically — but also a variety of paintings chosen at least partially to challenge that stereotype. So we have a room of war paintings, a room of ‘visionary’ paintings, a room of exhibition watercolours (i.e. large-scale C19th narrative paintings designed to compete with oil paintings for gravitas), and a room of contemporary work using watercolour.

My single biggest problem with the exhibition is that C19th British painting is not something I particularly enjoy. And that was the golden age of watercolour. So the aesthetic of the paintings was more off-putting than anything to do with watercolour as a medium. The exhibition watercolours seemed particularly pointless. I don’t like Victorian narrative painting and find the Pre-Raphaelites exceptionally noxious; seeing them painted in watercolour instead of oils didn’t make them any more likeable. Especially since there was no obvious attempt to make a virtue of the different medium: rather they seemed to be straining to make watercolours look as much like oil as possible.

And some of the paintings had clearly faded, which is the great technical problem of watercolour as a medium. There’s nothing much you can do about that, but it is a pity. There was a painting of some sun-drenched imperial outpost (Egypt? India?) which just didn’t look very hot, and I think it had probably faded a bit. So the shadows weren’t as dark, and the tones weren’t as warm.

As you can tell, I wasn’t blown away. But every room had something of interest and something covetable. And every so often there was a painting which was gorgeous and which could only have been done with watercolour: liquid and light and translucent. So it’s well worth a visit.

» The painting of the Lion-haired macaque, Macaca silenus, is by an unknown Chinese artist working for John Reeves, who employed locals to paint the specimens he was collecting while working in Canton from 1812-1831. That particular work is not in the Tate, though they do have a different monkey from the Reeves collection, lent by the NHM.

‘Rude Britannia’ at Tate Britain

I went along to Rude Britannia, the Tate’s exhibition of ‘British Comic Art’. Which was likeable enough, although much of the ground covered is pretty obvious: Hogarth, James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson, Gerald Scarfe, Steve Bell, Spitting Image, Donald McGill, Viz. Bits of Punch, Aubrey Beardsley, Beryl Cook. There are also some pieces from the contemporary fine art world: the Chapman brothers, Sarah Lucas, Grayson Perry.

All of which is somewhat interesting and even sporadically amusing — although both 200-year-old social satire and wryly humorous conceptual art tend to be quiet-smile-funny rather than uncontrollable-belly-laughter-funny.

I suppose the suggestions is that there is some kind of overarching narrative about the British sense of humour or the British approach to art, but I’m not completely convinced. I guess if you were not British and were encountering all this material together for the first time, you would come away with a somewhat coherent overall impression: a kind of anarchic vulgarity which attempts to undermine anyone’s attempts at self-importance. Scatological humour and knob gags not just for their own sake but also because they are the enemy of dignity.

» Donald McGill, A Stick of Rock, Cock?
British Cartoon Archive, University of Kent
© Donald McGill Archive

Exhibition roundup: Nash, quilts, Moore

Dulwich Picture Gallery currently has an exhibition of the English painter Paul Nash, best known I guess for his work as a war artist in both world wars. I know I first encountered him at school, when we were doing Wilfred Owen or Robert Graves or someone.

This exhibition did include some of that work, but also provided a bit of context for me. It was certainly interesting to see the kind of surrealist/symbolist paintings he did, often of the English landscape, when it wasn’t wartime. But it wasn’t really to my taste; it didn’t trigger that acquisitive urge. All else being equal, I am drawn to paintings which use strong, clear colours and sharply defined forms: Vermeer, El Greco, Matisse. Provençal Van Gogh rather than Flanders Van Gogh. Paul Nash is kind of the opposite: grey-brown tones and splodgy brushwork.

Meanwhile, the V&A has its first exhibition of British quilts, Quilts 1700-2010. I went to see it at an evening event in aid of Fine Cell Work, a charity that teaches prison inmates to do needlework as a rehabilitation exercise. There’s a quilt in the exhibition made by inmates with FCW; it is given context by a quilt made in a Japanese POW camp and one made by inmates on a prison ship who were being transported to Australia in 1841. Not surprisingly, the exhibition is keen to tease out this kind of social history from the quilts, but the other pleasure of it is just the extremely high quality of work on show. I’m fairly familiar with this stuff — my mother is a keen quilter — but they really have put together some great pieces.

The curator of the exhibition has managed to seriously annoy my mother by coming out with stuff like this in the Guardian:

Curator Sue Prichard thinks this enthusiasm is partly due to the global downturn. “I started on this project in 2004. Now there is a huge revival of interest in traditional crafts. There are a lot of women out there who are really keen to learn new skills and step away from their computer and their Blackberry.”

or in the Times:

Ms Pritchard said she hoped that the museum would inspire a revival of the craft through workshops that would teach people traditional techniques.

Because if there’s one traditional craft which didn’t need a revival, it’s quilting. That’s what appeals to me about quilting; it’s a genuinely living tradition, a vernacular art form which is thriving. It doesn’t need to be supported by government grants, it’s not the preserve of a handful of obsessive enthusiasts. Quilt shows are big business; indeed, the V&A’s exhibition is their most successful ever in terms of advance ticket sales. If there’s one criticism I have of the exhibition, it’s that it doesn’t give much sense of the liveliness of that current tradition. That gripe aside, it’s well worth visiting.

And finally Henry Moore at Tate Britain. Henry Moore was perhaps the biggest name in British art in the mid-C20th century, but he’s probably been rather out of fashion for a couple of decades, so it’s quite interesting to see this big show at the Tate.

Rather like the Paul Nash, I can’t say this particularly excited me, though it had its moments. Moore’s sculptures are often quite appealing as objects, with their curves, and the textural qualities of the materials; but it often feels like they are attractive in the same way as a weathered tree stump. Don’t get me wrong, I like a weathered tree stump as much as the next person, but I kind of feel that art could aim a bit higher than that.

The most interesting bits were probably the famous drawings of people sheltering in the Underground during the Blitz. Even though he makes the people look so much like his own sculptures, they have more impact than the sculptures themselves. They seem to hit a sweet spot between sculptural dignity and living humanity. There were some fine pictures of coal miners at work that managed the same trick.

Some of his post-War sculpture had some of the same human vulnerability and oddness, a bit of edge to it; but generally he seems to have reverted to weathered tree stump territory. Perhaps his greatest strength was a knack for producing sculptures that really worked as public art: large scale, impressive, and just about modern enough while unlikely to offend anyone.

Chris Ofili at Tate Britain

Chris Ofili is a contemporary British artist who is, I suppose, best known for using balls of elephant dung in his paintings. Indeed I’ve been well-disposed towards Ofili for years, ever since The Daily Mail or some other self-consciously philistine rag decided to be terribly outraged when he was nominated for the Turner Prize. It’s always irritating when hard-nosed tabloid journalists pretend to have the delicate sensibilities of Victorian spinsters, but it particularly irritated me because actually elephant dung is really very innocuous stuff: I remember reading about palaeontologists in Africa having ‘snowball’ fights with elephant dung, which gives you an idea of how harmless it is. They eat lots of dry vegetable matter and it passes through them barely digested, emerging almost as tightly-bundled balls of hay.

In retrospect, this quibble about the particular characteristics of elephant dung was rather missing the point. Especially since when you look at the early paintings he clearly was being intentionally provocative; for example, one of the titles is 7 Bitches Tossing their Pussies Before the Divine Dung. And several works with ‘shit’ in the title, like the distinctly creepy little sculpted head, made with elephant dung, dreadlocks and human teeth, called Shithead. And the painting of the Virgin Mary surrounded by snippets cut from pornographic magazines. Indeed, if you’re an artist who wants to shock people the Daily Mail* provides a valuable service; it must be difficult to find anyone easily offended in the world of contemporary art.

Not that the dung is just there to wind people up; it’s also a symbol of Ofili’s African background. Apparently he started using elephant dung after a trip to Zimbabwe, along with a dot-painting style inspired by cave paintings in the Matobo hills. The style developed into elaborate paintings that combine paint with collage, sequins, resin in layer after layer, and the effect is both decorative and very visually engaging: there’s a lot to look at in these paintings. The major theme is, broadly, images of black identity: hip-hop and blaxploitation movies provide a lot of the visual cues. These paintings really are gorgeous as objects, which always helps.

Over time his paintings got less aggressively confrontational and more, um, spiritual, I guess. But he still kept developing that style, with the dots and the elephant dung and so on, in various different ways, until recently he clearly felt he had taken it as far as it could go, because his latest paintings are quite different, much more straightforward, painted with big sweeps of colour. I’m sorry to say I wasn’t really keen on these new works: they didn’t have the same visual impact and they just felt a bit insubstantial to me. But it will be interesting to see where he goes with them, because he’s a talented man.

* And, incidentally, Rudy Giuliani.

» The Adoration of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars 1998 © Chris Ofili. Courtesy Victoria Miro Gallery, London

Van Dyck at Tate Britain

I went to see the van Dyck exhibition at Tate Britain the other day. I can’t say I was very excited by the prospect, but I’m a member and it seems silly to miss exhibitions I can get into for free. Perhaps especially if you’re English, Anthony van Dyck seems like the most establishment figure possible; court painter to Charles I, and primarily associated with grand portraits of aristocrats, above all the famous propaganda images of Charles himself. Which was what I expected and what I got: the least introspective portraits imaginable. People in shiny clothes standing around looking solid and respectable. I bet if Bernie Madoff ever produced any publicity material with his picture in, he found a photographer to make him look like that: with a sheen of prosperity, but carefully not allowed to look too exciting. Designed to conceal as much as it showed.

My favourite picture was actually one by Robert Peake the Elder, included to show what English court portraiture was like before Van Dyck, which normally lives in the Met in New York.

Gorgeous, innit. I’m not suggesting, btw, that this painting offers any more psychological insight than van Dyck does, just that I prefer it stylistically. I also preferred some of the later picture influenced by van Dyck, including some by Joshua Reynolds and Peter Lely. Most of van Dyck’s own work left me cold, although his self-portrait and his portrait of his wife have a bit more spark to them.

Francis Bacon at Tate Britain

I went to see the Bacon exhibition at Tate Britain today. And I enjoyed it, if enjoyed is the right word for work which is quite so bleak. He was an atheist who made a habit of painting crucifixions; and without the theology, a crucifixion is just a man being tortured to death.

Study of a Baboon 1953

So there were lots of trapped, screaming, contorted and frequently eviscerated figures, brutally unflattering portraits, and distinctly unhealthy-looking flesh. Which makes the work sound like some kind of chaotic stream of consciousness, but actually it seems tightly controlled: figures isolated in large plains of colour.

» Study of a Baboon, 1953, © The Estate of Francis Bacon/DACS 2008. Digital image © 2008, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. James Thrall Soby Bequest, 1979. Taken from the exhibition website, which is excellent as usual at the Tate.

British Orientalist Painting at Tate Britain

The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting is an exhibition of ‘the responses of British artists to the cultures and landscapes of the Near and Middle East between 1780 and 1930’. So the East here is Cairo, Jerusalem and Constantinople, and not Bombay, Singapore or Nagasaki.

Unknown artist, Sir Robert Shirley, Envoy from Shah 'Abbas of Persia to the Courts of Europe, before 1628

You can hardly touch on the subject without a name-check for one of the few bits of cultural theorising that’s so famous that even I’ve heard of it, and the Tate mentions it right up front:

In the 1970s the Palestinian-American academic Edward Said published his treatise on Orientalism, initiating a global debate over Western representations of the Middle East. For many, such representations now appeared to be a sequence of fictions serving the West’s desire for superiority and control over the East.

So I went round with that argument somewhat in mind, and I had a yeah-but-no-but reaction to it. The Tate’s one-sentence summary of the argument — a sequence of fictions serving the West’s desire for superiority and control — makes it sound like a coordinated propaganda effort to push a particular agenda, and it clearly isn’t that; but then I imagine that Said’s original book was rather more nuanced anyway.

Yes, there’s a focus on the picturesque and the exotic, and a certain superficiality in the images, and some particular subjects which bring out the worst in the artists, like the slave markets and the harem. And I’m sure they did travel around with a bone-deep sense of their own culture’s superiority. But to offer a couple of points in lukewarm defence: firstly, this is tourist art. Most of the artists travelled in the region for a year or two, so it’s a rather more immersive kind of travel than most modern tourism, but still, these are visitors painting for the British market. I think much of the picturesqueness can be explained simply by their tourist status, without the need to invoke some kind of deep cultural agenda. Not that the two ideas are mutually exclusive.

The other point is this. The bulk of the work here is C19th, and when you look at C19th paintings on other subjects — scenes from Shakespeare, or the Bible, or British history, or even contemporary life — you see a similar tendency towards the picturesque, the colourful, the sentimental and the didactic. These were not people keen on ambivalence and self-doubt.

Arthur Melville, An Arab Interior, 1881, National Gallery of Scotland

The one subject where cultural differences collide most spectacularly is the harem. Obviously, none of the male artists had ever been inside a harem — there’s not much point in sequestering your women if you let a load of nosy foreigners come in and paint them — and the idea of them came to occupy a rather sweaty part of the artists’ imaginations. The harem paintings in this exhibition are relatively tame (apparently French versions had rather more flesh on display), but they are clearly an opportunity to paint some exotic totty, rather than a sensitive and nuanced exploration of cultural difference. There’s one painting by a woman who had actually been inside a harem, and apparently it caused a minor sensation at the time for revealing what the harem was really like: not in fact a rich, tapestry-draped, incense filled hothouse full of scantily clad odalisques, but a rather plain domestic interior full of woman doing boring domestic stuff.

Other paintings were perhaps not exotic enough. There’s a great scene in Brideshead Revisited, where Charles Ryder, having established his reputation as a painter of country houses and English scenery, has been on a trip to South America, and has been getting rave reviews for an exhibition of South American scenes when Anthony Blanche turns up, takes him to a seedy gay bar and precedes to eviscerate the pictures.

“Oh, the pictures,” they said; “they’re most peculiar.” “Not at all what he normally does.” “Very forceful.” “Quite barbaric.” “I call them downright unhealthy,” said Mrs Stuyvesant Oglander.

‘My dear, I could hardly keep still in my chair. I wanted to dash out of the house and leap in a taxi and say, “Take me to Charles’s unhealthy pictures.” […] and what did I find? I found, my dear, a very naughty and very successful practical joke. It reminded me of dear Sebastian when he liked so much to dress up in false whiskers. It was charm again, my dear, simple, creamy English charm, playing tigers.’

There was certainly something of that about the exhibition: a failure, for example, to communicate any sense of heat.

I chose the two paintings here because I like them, rather than because they’re typical. In fact, I like them because they’re not typical. Most of the paintings left me underwhelmed, and that’s my real problem with the show; it’s fairly interesting, but it didn’t excite me very often as art.

» The paintings, both taken from the exhibition website, are Sir Robert Shirley, Envoy from Shah ‘Abbas of Persia to the Courts of Europe, painted by an unknown artist before 1628, from the collection of R.J. Berkeley; and Arthur Melville’s An Arab Interior, 1881, from the National Gallery of Scotland.

Peter Doig & the Camden Town Group at the Tate

I went to Tate Britain today, mainly to see the Peter Doig, but while I was there I also had a quick look round the Camden Town Group exhibition.

Doig is a contemporary painter, born in Edinburgh in 1959 but brought up in Trinidad and Canada, who went to art school in London and now lives in Trinidad. So he certainly qualifies for an exhibition at Tate Britain — he’s at least as British as Greg Rusedski and a lot more British than Kevin Pietersen — but many of his paintings feature Canadian or West Indian landscapes. Or at least most of them are apparently composite scenes rather than pictures of anywhere in particular, but the influence is there.

Jetty, Peter Doig

He does large, rather beautifully coloured paintings which are largely landscapes, using that term broadly. The earlier ones are built up of lots of layers of different paint textures: washes, speckles, a few big globs, dry brushwork and so on. But each layer is very light; they’re not encrusted with paint, and in fact the texture of the canvas tends to show through. The total effect is subtle and atmospheric; almost kind of misty and ambiguous. The paintings really don’t translate well to small jpegs, so it doesn’t do it justice, but fwiw, the picture above is Jetty.

His more recent paintings tend to be much less elaborately textured, and overall I didn’t like them quite as much, but the best ones are still lovely. It’s always nice to go an art exhibition where most of the works are attractive objects. I’m not suggesting that it’s either necessary or sufficient that art is attractive, but the basic pleasure of looking at beautiful things is worth celebrating.

Country Rock, Peter Doig

The exhibition website is full of stuff — yay for the Tate, who always do a good job of that — and there’s a nice little video interview by the artist. I found it froze a couple of times when I tried to watch it online, but there’s a link to download it at the top-right of the page.

The Camden Town Group were less exciting, for me. They were a group of Edwardian artists, with Walter Sickert the most famous, who lived in Camden (obviously) and were interested in urban subjects: cityscapes, the music hall, working class life. They painted rather drab Impressionisticky pictures which are sort of interesting but without much in the way of snap, crackle or pop. I think if I found one of these pictures in a second-hand shop, I’d think it was by one of the many many fairly talented but conventional painters who still churn out Impressionisticky landscapes all over the place. Obviously the work was a bit more radical at the time, but still… it didn’t do much for me. Here’s one of the few I really did like, a painting by Sickert of pierrots performing on an outdoor stage in Brighton in 1915.

Brighton Pierrots, Walter Sickert

Generally, though, it was most interesting as history and sociology rather than for the art itself. I think the gallery almost admitted as much by the amount of contextual material included: archive film, Suffragette pamphlets, music hall fliers, advertisements for the Underground. Perhaps that’s unfair.

» All pictures are taken from the Tate’s exhibition websites and are © accordingly.

Millais at the Tate

I went to see the Millais at the Tate today. After my scathing comments about the Pre-Raphs last year, it may not surprise you that I was a bit half-hearted about visiting this. But I’ve got a Tate membership, so I didn’t have to pay, and the exhibition is about to close; so I thought I’d check it out.

Because it’s the last weekend the exhibition was absolutely heaving with people, which didn’t help, but I tried to give Millais a fair go and see if I could find things to like about his work. And… well, there were some nice paintings there, but he’s not suddenly my favourite painter. He left the Pre-Raphaelitism behind fairly quickly; his painting style loosened up a bit and his subject matter changed first to more contemporary subjects and then to less literal-minded story-telling—both shifts in the right direction—but he never seemed to quite lose the narrative instinct. He couldn’t just paint a picture of a woman in chair, it had to have some story implied: she’s holding a black-bordered envelope and she’s wearing mourning, or whatever.

portrait of Louise Jopling by Millais

So I rather liked the room of portraits, like this one of Louise Jopling, because if you just stopped him from trying to tell a story for five minutes he was a pretty good painter. I’m not quite sure whether there was actually anything wrong with his narrative paintings or if I’m just prejudiced against the whole genre, but I found them stiff and heavy-handed.

As ever, the Tate have put together a really comprehensive website for the exhibition with loads of pictures online, so judge for yourself.

‘Holbein in England’ at Tate Britain

I went to see the Holbein at the Tate today. It’s a large exhibition with a lot of Holbein’s work from collections all over the world. I can certainly recommend it, because Holbein was a remarkable and enjoyable portraitist. The finished paintings are outnumbered by drawings in a combination of coloured chalk and ink. As far as I can gather, most of these were studies for paintings rather than stand-alone works, but they work beautifully as portraits. If anything, the highly-finished and perfect oils paintings can seem a little inhuman next to the softer drawings.

My copy of the complete Thomas Wyatt has the drawn Holbein portrait on the front cover, and I remember thinking when I got it that if you’re going to be a famous poet, it’s a good idea to get a portrait you’d like to be remembered by. My edition of Keats has a distinctly ham-fisted portrait by a mate of his which makes him look very inconsequential. The drawing above isn’t Wyatt; it’s the other early sonneteer, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey.

Holbein seems to have produced very fine likenesses, although there’s a logical problem somewhere with looking at a portrait of someone you’ve never seen and concluding it’s a good likeness. Certainly his pictures all look different from each other, apart from that slight sense of period similarity that comes from all of them having the same hairstyles and frocks. And indeed facial expressions; although we’re not aware of it, I’m sure that our culture shapes the way we arrange our faces more than we think. Certainly Americans of European descent have different faces to people from whichever Old Country.

Anyway, he’s a fine portraitist and one of the pleasures of the show is a sense of being introduced to Tudor society; you ‘meet’ dozens of people from Tudor London. It’s not exactly a cross section — they’re all wealthy — but they are courtiers, bishops, merchants, poets, royalty, young, old, and each seems like an individual.

It’s quite a big exhibition and if there is a problem with it, it can get a bit same-y. It’s almost all bust-length portraits, and he doesn’t seem to have made much technical progress during his career. He was excellent when he reached London (aged 31) and was consistently excellent for the 17 or so years he lived here until he died, but if his worked changed stylistically in that period it’s not obvious to me. I don’t think I could tell whether a painting was early or late. Some of the finest portraits in the exhibition are among the earliest: studies for a group portrait of Thomas More’s family, painted soon after reaching London for the first time (the finished work doesn’t survive).

More was his first contact in London, thanks to a letter of introduction from Erasmus, and there’s some suggestion he may have stayed for a period with More in Chelsea. So he knew the family well, which may be why his portraits of them seem so good. Also, despite my comments about lack of change during his career, it’s worth noting that at this stage he’s working just in chalk without any ink touches, so that makes the pictures softer; that may be part of the appeal. Still, its hard to see that any of his later work improves on the famous portrait of Thomas More, or this study of Anne Cresacre, a ward of More’s.

If you’re interested and can’t easily get to Pimlico, do check out the exhibition website (linked to above), because the Tate always makes an admirable effort to include as many photos of the work as copyright allows. What proportion of the works are available online depends on who they are mainly borrowed from, but at least they make the effort.

Constable at the Tate

Tate Britain currently has an exhibition Constable: The Great Landscapes. It focusses on the ‘five-footers’, which are landscapes five foot across and include his most famous works like The Haywain and Salisbury Cathedral From The Meadows. Not only have they collected togther all of the paintings, but also nearly all of the full-size oil sketches he did for them.

View on the Stour near Dedham, 1822

The sketches are included not just because it enables you to see the development of the painting, but because it’s rather unique to do such large preparatory sketches. If nothing else it provides a new way of looking at potentially over-familiar work. There’s also, I think, a feeling that the sketches are more to modern taste than the actual paintings. Certainly I found that in some cases. If you’ve been brought up on the Impressionists, the less finished quality isn’t a problem, and the looser, livelier brush-strokes have their own appeal. They also often have a more dynamic use of colour and tone than the finished painting. In a couple of cases the slightly lurid effect even reminded me of El Greco, something I really wasn’t expecting at a Constable exhibition.

View of Toledo, El Greco, 1597

I couldn’t help wondering what Constable would think if he knew people preferred the sketches to the originals. Peeved, I expect. But there was a tendency for the later paintings to be sketchier and to use more dynamic colour and tone, so perhaps it’s something he would have understood. Although some of the sketches were duller and muddier than the final paintings, so perhaps one shouldn’t understand them as anything other than compositional exercises. Who knows. Unfortunately the Tate exhibition website only has quite small images of most of the works, so I can’t really illustrate the difference between the sketches and the paintings. The picture above is one of the finished works.

I wasn’t a huge fan of Constable and the exhibition hasn’t persuaded me, but it was an enjoyable enough way to spend an hour or so. I guess the fact I preferred some of the sketches suggests my problem with the work – it’s too well behaved, too orderly. I can admire it, but I just find it a tiny bit boring. Mind you, I suspect I’d find landscapes by his contemporaries (except Turner!) even more boring.

‘Gothic Nightmares’ at the Tate

I went to Tate Britain at the weekend to see Gothic Nightmares – Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination (which finished yesterday). It was mainly an exhibition of Henry Fuseli, with a few pictures by his imitators and contemporaries, including William Blake. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a large exhibition devoted to such a bad painter. This one, the snappily-titled Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma, from 1783, gives you the idea; contorted, rather inaccurately drawn figures, overwrought, melodramatic treatment, and obscure medieval subject matter (another of his paintings has the title Wolfram Introducing Bertrand of Navarre to the Place where he had Confined his Wife with the Skeleton of her Lover).

It’s not just that the subject matter and mood aren’t to my taste; the actual painting is clumsy. To be fair, he did do some that were both technically better and more sophisticated than that. The Shepherd’s Dream, for example. But even at the time, his reputation was based on his imagination and sensationalism rather than technical excellence, and while I can believe that the work was exciting at the time, it looks pretty tame now.

I found the most interesting thing was the context it provided for Blake’s work. The painting above may not look particularly Blake-y, but the exhibition made the connection obvious. For that matter, we know that Blake was a great admirer of Fuseli’s work. I preferred Blake’s pictures, on the whole. He wasn’t a great painter, any more than Fuseli, but he had a couple of things going for him, I think. The first is sincerity. Fuseli, you feel, relished the strange and sensational in the same way people relish a horror movie; Blake was a full-on visionary who believed in some kind of truth to his paintings and prints of angels and spirits. The fact that Blake’s work is much more stylised is also a help. Fuseli’s work is fundamentally representaional and narrative, and if the subject matter doesn’t do much for you, there isn’t much left. Blake’s work is just more visually interesting, on the whole. I was particularly struck by a couple of densely painted works in tempera I haven’t seen before. This is one of them, The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan:

Make of that what you will.

The other appealing thing was the Gillray cartoons that used imagery drawn from the paintings. Gillray is always good value, of course. Check out the portrayal of Charles Fox in The Covent Garden Night Mare on this page.

Having been rather negative about the exhibition, I do think it was interesting and I’m glad I went. It shed some light on a particularly moment of British artistic history, which is a good thing for Tate Britain to be doing; I just didn’t rate most of the work very highly.

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