There is so much first rate art available these days, in museums, books, and on the web, that when you encounter a more typical mix of fine and less than fine, as in “Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces From the National Galleries of Scotland,” recently at the de Young in San Francisco, the experience can be unsettling. You can’t help wondering if you’re missing something. But maybe you aren’t. Maybe your reactions are perfectly sensible.
The show had many wonderful pieces, so I had to wonder why I was being bothered with, for example, these decidedly mediocre works by Sir Anthony Van Dyck and Paolo Veronese.
What to say about them? Competently executed formula pieces, nothing more. If we didn’t know that van Dyck was a notable artist we might be surprised that this incoherent “St. Sabastian” was one of his. If we didn’t notice from the label that this cute, cute “Venus etc” was a Veronese, we might just roll our eyes at the whims of those naughty Venetians. But it is Veronese, and the show is titled “Masterpieces,” so we peer dutifully before shrugging guiltily and passing on.
I say “guiltily” because one of the key effects of education is to imbue us with the notion that we owe the works of the masters an attitude of humble study and contemplation. Art, music, literature–surely you remember 11th grade English, and how unsophisticated you were to be bored by George Eliot. So don’t be hasty, is the moral. Which is good, up to a point; but when are you justified in saying that the present object inhabits a gray area, or even beyond gray? Which you need to be able to say, because most art is less than stellar, and no amount of humble attention will promote it to excellence.
For example, a room or two on from Van Dyck, etc, we find these routine, life-sized celebrations of social grandeur. No doubt it was very gratifying to have such a work in the great room of the family seat, but in a museum show they seem merely distracting. (Poor Raeburn–he of the wonderful “The Reverend Robert Walker Skating” admired last week. But I suppose we all have to make a living.)
And then it’s a disappointment to find, a little farther along, this tepid Claude Monet. Monet did several strong variations on this composition, but this isn’t one of them.And so on, room after room. Strong and humdrum pieces interspersed. The mixture a result, I suppose, of a museum feeling that it needs examples of everything, and having to settle for what it can get.
For other discussions on the importance of not confusing strong and weak art, see post of August 24, 2013: French drawings at the Cantor; and July 19, 2014: Matisse: a range of quality.
By coincidence, as I was writing this post I was struggling humbly but with growing interest with Middlemarch (1871) by George Eliot herself, and encountered this passage on the subject of enthusiasm in art:
“. . . I never could see any beauty in the pictures which my uncle told me all judges thought very fine. And I have gone about with just the same ignorance in Rome. There are comparatively few paintings that I can really enjoy. At first when I enter a room where the walls are covered with frescoes, or with rare pictures, I feel a kind of awe–like a child present at great ceremonies where there are grand robes and processions; I feel myself in the presence of some higher life than my own. But then I begin to examine the pictures one by one, the life goes out of them . . . It must be my own dullness. I am seeing so much all at once, and not understanding half of it. That always makes one feel stupid. It is painful to be told that anything is very fine and not be able to feel that it is fine–something like being blind, while people talk of the sky.”
The recent show at the de Young in San Francisco, “Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces From the National Galleries of Scotland,” was a decidedly mixed bag. Here we admire three particularly fine pieces; next week we’ll consider some of the duds and their deadening effect.
Particularly fine: “The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch” (c.1795) by Henry Raeburn. Landscape and sky are grayed and softened, and the darks of the reverend’s clothes intensified, to maximize contrast. The overall effect is very strong, almost abstract. And droll. You don’t often see consciously droll portraits.
And then “Niagara Falls From the American Side” (1867) by Frederic Edwin Church. A big piece, almost environmental as you approach it from across the gallery. The effect is naturalistic, but this is an artfully structured piece. The farther dark bit of forest contrasts with all those light, foamy shapes and keeps them from fading into mush. The nearer dark cliff drops, softening as it goes, and then curls upward and disappears into the spray. The eye follows, drawing you into the action and also providing some definition, some hard shapes, in the middle of all that delicate mist. The figure on the observation deck provides the scale.
It seems very odd that such a uniquely American view normally lives in Scotland.
And finally, “The Painting Season” by Henri Matisse (1909). Thinly, wetly painted, with very direct drawing of the shapes. The intensity of the blacks is what holds it together, together with rhyming lines (the diagonals of the painter’s brush, brush on the table, edges of the book, edge of the table, her arm, collar, shoulder; the horizontals of the canvas, the table front, the lines in the mirror) and shapes (the head on the canvas, the painter’s head, shoulders, hips, the mirror, the flowers, the vase, the lemons, her hair). Matisse’s loose drawing (like the length of the painter’s forearm, or the wandering shape of the mirror) can sometimes get sloppy, but here it’s superbly descriptive. If it were more “correct,” the organizing details would seem mechanical, and the freedom from pictorial literalism merely illogical.
Conventions in portraiture are much concerned with identifying social category. These Elizabethans can’t have been interested in making themselves the subject of some artist’s sensitive exploration of personality; they wanted their images to evoke grandeur. The more an earl’s portrait resembled a duke’s, the better he’d be pleased.
The same objective, group identification, applies to the War Gallery at the Hermatage.So many generals (who would have thought there could be commands for so large a number?), all done in a uniform size and with minimal variation so as to form an orderly display. They are individuals, realistically depicted, but it is the ensemble–the imposing mass–and not individuality, that is the object here.
Of course, nobility and generals aren’t the only ones whose uniform representations are impressive en masse:
Years ago I saw a small book–“Uniforms,” I believe, was the title. There was almost no text; it consisted of full-page photos of similarly dressed groups: bikers of various persuasions, gays, lesbians, mechanics, sports fans, groups of teenagers, different groups of teenagers, different bands of bikers, and on and on. We see those patterns every day, but to see so many examples in the same format, one right after another, was fascinating. I would include some examples here, but like a fool I didn’t buy the book, and haven’t been able to locate a copy since.