When the new director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny, came on board in early 2008, he made some splendid noises about the importance of ‘connoisseural’ exhibitions but also some more worrying ones about the end of the blockbuster. If one accepts this rather artificial division (I suspect that to many of the public all Old Masters paintings have the whiff of the connoisseur about them), surely any ambitious curator should be able to handle both. One would certainly not want to drop blockbusters like the National Gallery’s Caravaggio, perhaps the gallery’s most significant exhibition so far this century, but nor would want to lose gems like the 2001 exhibition on Pisanello.
Pompeo Batoni, Gregory Page-Turner, Manchester Art Gallery, 1768-9. I had always presumed the surname was a joke.
However, having seen the recent exhibition focused on the refined, aristocratic and lifeless portraits by Pompeo Batoni, one would fall down to ones knees and beg any curator never to touch a specialist exhibition again.
It is one of the most least engaging exhibitions the National Gallery has ever put on, soporific Madonnas, tiresome history paintings and a bevy of rotund British men prancing around Roman ruins and looking as pleased as Punch. The images all form useful evidence if one is doing a PhD on eighteenth-century Rome, but they carry little aesthetic weight. It is the very definition of an exhibition that is ‘of academic interest only.’
The exhibition is also reflective of a time when the artist had full control of what a portrait could do, in terms of documenting a patron’s appearance and foibles in a flattering way. Thousands of stately portraits, some done with with deft brushwork, others executed with cold-hearted automatism, were churned out in the eighteenth century by Batoni and his ilk. The rich wanted their identities and achievements recorded; the painter needed a wage and could deliver images that satisfied the patron’s gradually expanding ego. The needs of any general viewer interested in art do not come into this formula, and this is patently clear in this exhibition.
Batoni’s paintings are theatrical but in a rather disastrous way. They remind one of a primadonna actor who thinks himself more important than the play. The sitter makes some rather hammy gesture, head pushed to one side (as if disdaining the viewer), shoulders thrust out, fingers pushed out in some needlessly expressive way. The sitter sees himself as an actor in a grand setting (more often than not with echoes of glories of classical Rome, so he bask in the magnificence of Caesar or Hadrian). But in actual fact there is no narrative, no actual story attached to this grand gesture, no other players around who could provide a context for grandiloquent movements of Batoni’s customer. And so the painting falls flat and the gestures seem ridiculous; it is all empty rhetoric.
The painting of Colonel the Hon. William Gordon says it all.