For much of the summer, visitors to London’s National Gallery have been invited to feast their eyes on temporary exhibition Painters’ Paintings. Featuring eight well known artists – Freud, Matisse, Degas, Watts, Leighton, Reynolds, Lawrence and Van Dyck – the show places their works alongside those pieces which they collected in their lifetime. Though this attempt at a fresh perspective does make some headway in terms of over-coming the traditions of art history and gallery display, its unimaginative choice of featured artists means that the fruit borne by this experiment leave a sour taste in the mouth.
If you’ve been to shows at the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing before, you’ll know you usually start from the left at the historical beginning of the story, and end at the most recent images, on the right. That’s how we read words, and its considered our favourite way of digesting paintings too. This show tips that on its head, making you begin with startling recent works by Lucien Freud (2002?!) and having silky, seventeenth century Van Dyck for dessert. This was extremely promising, as it suggested that the traditional order (literally) of the cannon was to be a little upset – no longer the steady march of progress through isms touted by the ‘gospel according to MoMA’, but something a little more inward-looking and genealogical is in store for the visitor here. Though a linear narrative would still be observed, it would be sufficiently alien as to perhaps offer a more innovative view of the well-known favourites on offer.
Secondly, the exhibition’s proposal that artists might be something more than just painters seems extremely innovative. The modernist cannon frames artists as purely singular beasts, remote geniuses engaged in a constant maelstrom of creative energy. Painters paint, and that’s all there is to it. This exhibition reveals, through the boring old lens of economic activity, the reality behind this reductive legend. Painters earn money, and they buy things with it. They have their own tastes; they have homes that they decorate like any common or garden bourgeois. The modernist principle of the artist as art-incarnate is re-illuminated, and they are shown to be a multi-faceted, but nonetheless more conventionally, human producers. In the discipline of art history, where such artists have been deified for centuries, this dose of reality can only be helpful. Once we’re done worshipping the Giotto of myth – chosen as a painter when just a simple shepherd boy scratching his charges’ likenesses on the rocks – we can hopefully write something of use about him rather than shielding our eyes from the transcendent glory the Arena Chapel.
The exhibition is also commendable in that it denies the image of the lone artist. When the painters of legend do nothing but paint, they certainly do not engage with others. The artist is a paragon which creates alone. The displays of works by one artist, each distinctly separated from the next, entered our visual vocabulary with galleries like MoMA. In this setting, the visitor is supposed to engage with each work purely in terms of a singular biography, viewing the production of one man in isolation from his brother. While the National Gallery’s hangs don’t quite require from the visitor the awed contemplation of one distinct juggernaut at a time, it’s display techniques are still heavily influenced by the principles of former director, Sir Charles Eastlake. Eastlake oversaw one of the gallery’s greatest periods of purchasing, arranging his new buys by national school and then chronologically. So while inside it’s no surprise to compare Rubens and Rembrandt, or Raphael and Leonardo, it seems counter to the logic of the gallery to trace connections that transcend the implicit borders of time and space.
In selecting artists from different periods and schools, Painters’ Paintings seems to offer an alternative to this method. The artist’s chosen hark from British, Flemish and Parisian schools. The paintings they owned form an even more diverse range. Taking poster-boy Lucien Freud as an example, we see works from his own collection – including the Impressionist master Cezanne and the fairly inoffensive L’Italienne by Corot. Freud’s own collection, as such, acts as an emblem for the tendency to extend the boundaries of school and period which is embodied throughout the show. Furthermore, these fairly unchallenging images – the Corot could be an olive oil advert and, for all his tits and unorthodox pastels, Cezanne has long been postcard territory – contrast dramatically with Frued’s own bleaker style. Faced with his grey, fleshy palette and his contorted nude, I overheard visitors who remarked only on the colours of the Cezanne and Corot condemn Freud in his After Breakfast for “not being kind to his models”. The fact that the former were enjoyed, prized and a source of inspiration for the creator of the latter confirms the artist’s words emblazoned above the display“…nothing goes with anything; it’s your taste that put’s things together”.
However, while the collection places its artists within a connective web that denounces geographical and temporal restrictions, the subjects of the exhibition remain worryingly conservative. Of the eight artists chosen not one challenged the well-established definition of the artist as white and European, but most of all aggressively and uncompromisingly male. Though, admittedly, there is only so far you can push this envelope in a collection like the National Gallery’s (dealing with European art from 1200 – 1900), such an oversight in 2016 remains a little embarrassing. There is no denying that those chosen were great artists. I also cannot argue with the fact that the connections between them provided a fresh perspective on their works and the works of those they collected. But to see also a minimal amount of named female subjects seems an avoidable shortcoming. Though he only featured as a collected artist, not as one of the featured boys, there were by far less women all the wall than works by Cezanne.
I am sure I could be challenged on practical grounds here. Perhaps these artists did not own and collect any paintings by female artists. That could well be the case. However, in this instance, I might ask why other painters were not chosen. Almost a quarter of the exhibition (two large central rooms) is given up to works collected by Degas. While these provided an interesting comparison between old and new works owned by the artist, I feel the space could have been used to add a ninth artist to the group. Those who feel that this is too many and would distract from both the overall show and the ninth artist herself (whoever she might be), should direct themselves to the minimal amount of wall space afforded to Watts and Leighton, who shared a room half the size of Degas’ pavilion. If the National Gallery were willing to squeeze them in, there should be no qualms about doing the same in the interest of variety. And, frankly, to confront my imagined challenge of practicality: I find it hard to believe that in the four hundred years of art history covered by the exhibition, there has not been a single male artist of this calibre who did not collect works by their female contemporaries. This is especially true given the prevalence afforded to works produced within the long nineteenth century, when the importance of Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot within the Impressionist circle and beyond has long been acknowledged.
In short, despite establishing artists as humans, and connecting them in new and interesting ways, Painters’ Paintings falls short of truly breaking the mould in terms of the traditional fallacy that art history consists solely of a chain of male artists, influencing each other one by one. While it shows the chain to be longer and further reaching than we’d expect, and with multi-directional branches, the male remains the dominant theme of those artists selected due to their emblematic greatness. The suggestion, as always when such a show is created, is that such greatness is lacking from those who do not fit the physical bill of the Western painter. Putting the sultry L’Italienne on the poster is not enough to convince me that women played a strong enough role in this exhibition.
Painters’ Paintings will continue to be displayed at the National Gallery until 4 September 2016.