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.

Culture Other

‘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.