Anish Kapoor – Royal Academy – Autumn 2009

Shooting into the Corner, Royal Academy, 2009

His little piles of powder are intensely beautiful in colour. And yet …

The reflective perfection of the mirrors is a joy to behold. And yet ..

The buzz of expectation in waiting for the cannon to eject its barrel of bloody wax is palpable. And yet …

And yet I’m not quite sure what is all adds up to. I can’t deny that there is a sense of wonder in walking around the Anish Kapoor exhibition at the Royal Academy. But what I struggle to find is some lasting argument within the exhibition, some defining narrative that makes me alter how I see the world. The works are full of allusions, but have very few reference points. One can feel the exhibition, but what do you take away? It’s clear that the the body, sex, defaecation, the universe, the self and the art gallery itself are all part of the thematic make up of his oeuvre. He makes us aware that sex is ubiquitous; and that the spiritual is just the flip side of the scatological.

Svayambh, Royal Academy, 2009

Is that Kapoor stretches too far, whirring through an endless panoply of tricks, without ever stopping to work through the deeper ramifications of what he is saying. Or is that that we are tricked into such reactions? The artist’s hand is often non-existent (all metal and mirror in the larger works) and the exhibition therefore leaves a sense of dislocation between the atmosphere of philosophical eloquence and the mechanical, soulless way in which such a sensation is created. Do we yearn for a voice to shine through the light?

I doubt, of course, Kapoor will care. He may indeed point to entirely different genesis for his work, drawing on traditions far removed from the sources that inform much western art. Kapoor’s oeuvre is more closely aligned to a Buddhist world where everything and nothing is said; where life is perceived rather than interpreted. There is little of the fetishising of intellectual complexity that Christian art, and much of the western art tradition, demands. Kapoor may occasionally reference other texts or myths, but the creation of the huge abstract gestures that fill and take control of the Royal Academy galleries negate the need for such contexts.

I think Anish Kapoor is great for the art world. He produces grand, spectacular art that draws in believers and non-believers. He gets attention. He makes art exciting. Yet I would fervently insist that he is not seen as the pinnacle of achievement. There is much more that art can achieve.



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Van Dyck and Britain – Tate Britain – Spring 2009

The crucial painting in Tate Britain’s excellent Van Dyck and Britain show isn’t a Van Dyck after all. Robert Peake’s Henry, Prince of Wales and Sir John Harington in the Hunting Field stands proud but confused in the very first room. The absurd boy in a hunter’s body, the pistachio green clothes, the misshapen limbs, the angular style, the cadaver of the stag hanging awkwardly at the bottom of the canvas, the miniature crests swinging on twigs: Peake’s magnificent yet deeply flawed British school painting represents everything Van Dyck’s majestic style would eliminate over the course of the seventeenth century.

For the connoisseur and the art historian this is a brilliant exhibition. It shows how British art became European. How the stiff Dutch and oblique British painters of the sixteenth century gave way to the flowing, regal style of the seventeenth. How we got from the Cholmondeley Sisters to Kneller, Lely and beyond.

But it’s more than just transformation in the history of art. Van Dyck developed not just a pictorial manner, but a whole visual concept of nobility and royalty emanated from his workshop. The portraits of Charles I would become a touchstone for depicting kings and queens, or indeed for imbuing any sitter with a sense of majesty. And because Van Dyck has been so influential, because we are so used to a certain type of regal portrait, it is Peake’s painting that leaps out (here compared against Van Dyck’s painting of the future Charles II)

Robert Peake, Henry, Prince of Wales and Sir John Harington in the Hunting Field, 1603, Metropolitan Museum, New York

Young Charles II
Anthony Van Dyck, Future Charles II as Prince of Wales, c.1637-8, Private Collection

And just as Van Dyck canceled out a whole aesthetic, removing not just the painted stiffness, but he clarified what a painting is, a recording of the visualised world which suspended disbelief.

So in Peake’s canvas, there still remain the artificial elements which would leave a viewer to question its visual authenticity. The studded colouration on the saddle, giving the canvas a tactile presence, the two crests dangling from the trees or the text at the bottom left or etched on the trees. Such devices were relics of a mode of visual communication which thought not of painting as simply representing the visual world but providing a more heterogeneous mode of communication, which documented abstract values in more concrete fashion.

In Van Dyck’s oeuvre just about any device which distracts the illusion of verisimilitude is eliminated; the Fleming has such belief in the rhetoric of his style that he is not need to bolster the message of majesty with other symbols and icons. The paintings speaks for itself. And once Van Dyck had made this transformation Britain, or perhaps more correctly England, could no longer be insulated from southern as well as lowland Europe.

How did he do this?

Anthony Van Dyck,Lord John Stuart and his Brother, Lord Bernard Stuart, c.1638, National Gallery London

Van Dyck creates sitters that are effortlessly relaxed. The splendid clothes (probably done by assistants as well as Van Dyck) show an absolute mastery of the textures of silk and satin – close-ups of trousers and skirts form their own abstract symphonies.

Detail of Stuart brothers painting above

Each item is unsullied and loudly declares that their wearers need not work nor labour.

William Killigrew, 1638, Tate Britain

Emotions are calm and restrained, showing the sitter’s absolute control of any internal sentiment and often stand in contrast to the more tempestuous weather in the background (for example the portrait of William Killigrew) And while there are dark greens and browns in the background, the lead characters are illuminated by a clean, pure light.

Details of noses

And with the poses themselves, the way the sitters organise themselves within the space around them, that each characters asserts his regal bearing. Van Dyck’s characters are often (although not always) haughty in their attitude, carrying their arrogance before them. The gaze of the viewer is disdained. Sitters either look askance, bearing acknowledging a spectator’s presence, or simply look through the viewer. This is no level playing field; the spectator is clearly in the presence of superiors The phrase ‘looking down your nose’ seems a perfect fit for Van Dyck’s sitters. The fingers too are worth noting, long graceful digits that add to a sitter’s elegance.

Details of fingers

Yet all the while that Van Dyck was concocting the new regal approach, the English political scene was fermenting – the Civil War would explode in the year of Van Dyck’s death. Does the exhibition blindly ignore all the fault lines cracking open in English society, the gaping ideological differences which would result in twenty years of trauma? Well, in a sense yes. There is little or no mention of politics in the labels, and there is no contextual visual documentation to place Van Dyck in the society in which he worked. We learn nothing about this history. But at the same time, Van Dyck gave the contemporary curator very little to work with. Van Dyck’s visual world, entirely focused on the world of the cavaliers rather than the roundheads, offers no indication of the friction and strife that would follow. Is that really a surprise? Patrons did not commission paintings that reflected doubt. I suppose the political interpretation is in the very absence of politics in Van Dyck’s oeuvre, showing a mindset that was desperately trying to close itself off and develop in splendid isolation. The great antagonisms of the Civil War were everything Van Dyck’s leisured, majestic world was not.

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Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, On the Subject of War – Barbican – Winter 2008

Too often big galleries shy away from exhibitions based on ideas or themes, concentrating instead on the big names (the vermeers, the turners, the rothkos) that grab the attention of the paying public. Artists and their works become frozen in time, denuded of broader contexts in which they worked

The Barbican has hit on a good compromise. Include the big name (Capa and his partner Gerda Taro) but mix it in with a contemporary subject (Iraq, Afghanistan) and some contemporary artists. The result is one of the most surprising and powerful exhibitions of 2008, a demonstration of the intimate relationship between artistic creation and its political context.

There was a misty point in time when a photo-journalist’s pictures were taken as gospel – visual reports from the Spanish Civil War or from the D-Day beaches that stood testament to not only the personal challenges of a soldier, but represented a whole set of democratic values that many believed in. But as wars faded from public consciousness, or at least became messy, ambiguous affairs that happened in far away lands, the status of such work was very much under question.

And, intellectually, the whole postmodern turn re-evaluated and then tore down the authenticity of the image. Photographs like Capa’s Fallen Soldier were questioned, perhaps even ridiculed. Robert Capa (real name: Andre Friedmann) no longer carried symbolic value. Cynical viewers lost their faith.

This then is the intellectual landscape that contemporary artists have inherited, and are replayed in the Barbican exhibition. In particular, Omar Fast’s The Casting, was an exceptionally enlivening piece of work that embraces and extends the mutual inheritance of the photo-journalist and the visual artist.

The Casting is very much a single work, featuring multiple stories and multiple screens. As the video commentary below explains, it gives perfect voice to the idea “there are two sides to every story” (or even more).

A superficial review of the work could view it as a piece of postmodern trickery. Certainly, there is no attempt to present the work as documentary truth. Rather a series of narrative devices first confuse, and then admit to the fact that this is a created work of art.

So we hear the narrative and the accompanying images switching between the story of the American solider and the German girl, and the American solider and the Arab shooting; we see the characters suddenly breaking off the narrative as if frozen in their roles; we see other characters looking directly at the soldier recounting his story(s), emphasising its first-person, subjective nature (and maybe also reminding the viewer of the presence of the cameras).

And then, later on our visit to the gallery, we chance upon a room with the other side of the screens, where we hear the same soundtrack but witness an entirely different visual scene – a scruffy journalist interviewing a young, burly solider, and we think the true source of the story of the German girl and the Arab family is revealed. But then this document falls apart again: the image keeps jumping around, showing the journalist and the soldier in different poses, different clothes and with different attitudes; the video and the soundtrack have been spliced together from several interviews. The whole thing has been (re)arranged for artistic consumption.

The Casting works hard to admit the transparency of its fiction, and yet we do not react with cynical withdrawal. Emotion is invoked with the initial set of stories – the soldier’s confused relationship with the German girl, but it is the impulsive shooting of the Arab family member in the battered car that provokes a response. There is clear emotional distress here, but the precise nature, cause and fault of such distress are not clearly articulated with an reliability. There’s a story here, but the details are smudged. The fact that both narratives are recounted by the soldier, thereby not offering even the Germans or the Arabs a voice, assists this notion. We feel for the victims (and the victims could also include the solider, at the centre of events he cannot comprehend) and the confused narrative urges us to discover more – what is the truth of the story?

The Casting demonstrates the mutable nature of war art, but also clamours for its accurate documentation. In the context of recent western ‘adventures’ in the Middle East, its images and its reporting (‘weapons of mass destruction’, ‘rendition flights’, Abu Gharaib), The Casting serves as call to acknowledges the foibles in communicating war but also highlights the need to surpass them. The viewer is forced into seeing the absolute need to restore credibility to the image.

The subtlety with which Omer Fast reveals the fragility of the image as a carrier of truth leads us back to the work of Capa.

the-falling-soldier_capa.jpgA Fallen Solider, 1936 (?), Robert Capa

capa framesExhibition shot of Capa’s A Fallen Solider with other photos from same film. The Fallen Solider is at the bottom of the middle column. (Thanks to Paul Carvill for the original picture.)

The curators have made an excellent effort to respond to the fluctuations in Capa’s reputation. The status of Capa’s republican icon for the Spanish Civil War, The Falling Solider, has withered since its creation, critics providing a variety of evidence to undermine its reputation as an authentic, spur-of-the-moment portrait of heroism and individual pathos. So the curators have presented not just the single image, but all the shots from that film, shots that re-establish (but probably do not quite confirm) the original argument that the event was a sudden dramatic event in the midst of some routine photograph. We see how the image, with the passage of time, became gradually separated from the other photos that provided evidence of its genesis.

The exhibition is equally good for works in similar positions, concentrating not on single images from Capa’s oeuvre, but providing the photographic and historical context. The story of the D-Day landings is recounted; what films Capa took with him; what images he took; where he was when he took them; how the films got transported to London (and how some got damaged); what the editors of the publications thought about them; what the technical staff did (and what they messed up) with the images; how the images were presented in the final publication.

american-soldier-killed-by-german-snipers.jpgAmerican Soldier Killed by a Sniper, Leipzig, 1945, Robert Capa

This works particularly well for another dramatic Capa image, that of the American solider killed by a sniper’s bullet in 1945 Leipzig. By itself, it’s a powerful image. The ugly sprawl of the soldier, trapped between inside and outside, and the rich, telltale river of blood. But the exhibition shows not just this, but the other images taken by Capa at the same time – the soldiers casually chatting on the balcony, the sudden rush inside, the silent confusion of the other soldiers after the event. One gets a better feeling for the the hows and whens – where was Capa standing; how did he take this picture; and, perhaps most potentially fall, which of the soldiers was killed.

Nevertheless, the contextual information does not deaden the image with scholarly context, but provides a shocking reminder of war’s bleakness. Two soldiers are chatting idly on a balcony, smoking cigarettes, perhaps discussing the end of the war. The photo seems everyday, mundane. And then seconds later, there is a shot, a frantic rush to safety indoors, and Capa captures the infinite tragedy of death.


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Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons – Tate Modern – Winter 2008

Cycles and Seasons

Any proselyter for modernism will face their biggest challenge with Cy Twombly. The rough scribbles, messy blobs of impasto, uncontrolled drips of paint, simplistic representations of the world and smudged fingerprints are all strongly redolent of the nursery; Twombly seems to embody that disdainful phrase of the anti-aesthete: “My child of four could do that”.

Ferragosto V, 1961, Private Collection

And, indeed, I couldn’t quite escape the feeling that Twombly’s most iconic paintings were something of a rip-off. Even where there are astonishing bursts of colour as in the blood-red Ferragosto, it all seems too random and uncontrolled to really merit serious praise. There is so little apparent meaning in them and so little painterly depth … great stretches of the paintings are merely just primed or lightly washed canvas, and then there are areas of random splurges and curved scribbles. Meaning drifts in and out, but it again seems too superficial – rather than being visual retellings, the references to Greek or Roman myth seem like lazy gestures to add pathos, a kind of intellectual name-dropping.

A contrast with Jackson Pollock is useful. Whereas Pollock’s greatest paintings are full of tactile warmth, glistening like a phosphorescent cave and seem to possess their own pulsing, inner life, Twombly’s paintings just don’t reach that same transcendence – the artist’s hand is too transparent, the lack of coherence too jarring. The build up of paint, the construction of layers that gives any painting its richness does exist in Twombly but in a superficial way, with everything reduced to raw, jagged gestures.

Given all that there is something that still draws me to Twombly’s work. The sheer freedom with which he paints and expresses himself is a classic statement of artistic (and emotional) liberation. But I’m not sure that’s quite enough to create great art – it too easily ends up as the indulgent outpourings of the patient on the couch.

Indeed, there a plenty of connections between the exhibition and the art of psychoanalysis. The presence of forced deletions corresponds with the patient’s conflicting desire to both repress and recall a traumatic incident; the return to primordial sexual matters, and of course, the rough, ghostly outlines of genitalia in Twombly’s work represent the As in the work of De Kooning, primordial symbols float around like Jungian archetypes. Painting as a grand spiritual express of some cosmic essentialism.

And yet, as the exhibition progressed, a different Twombly began to emerge, one that was perhaps more comic, more ironic, more referential; an artist more suited for postmodernity, even if trapped amongst the frame of the modernist canvas.

Take for example, the suite of four paintings entitled Nini’s Paintings. At first glance, they seem modernist monoliths – fully abstract paintings, working to their own sealed logic. But in actual fact, not only do the canvases seem to take a naturalistic life of their own, depicting a flotilla of shimmering waves, there are echoes and references to earlier styles and artworks. Maybe, Twombly is not such a hardcore modernist after all.

Monet seems to be a particular reference point. Firstly, they recall series of paintings such as the Haystacks or Rouen Cathedral where the same subject is painted under changing light over time.

Nini’s Painting, 1971, Kunstmuseum Basel


Claude Monet, Water Lillies, 1916, Tate Modern

But they also reference Monet’s late paintings, those splurges of colour that form the lilies drifting on the ponds at Giverny. Not only is there the same engagement with paint, hovering close to the no-man’s land where abstraction and representation blur, but there is the same insistence on thrusting the viewer into the middle of the space. At the bottom of the canvas there is no platform, dias or fence to block the viewer’s line of sight and so she becomes embedded in the painting, immersed in the encircling waters.

But there is also something faintly comic as to how the serpentine forms, traced in childish pencil, can build up to some misty melancholic state. Look closely at the badly drawn sine curves and the painting seems a like a childish stab at repetition; stand further back and the waves coalesce with the sombre background colours to give off a rather haunting glow. The low-brow and the high-brow blend together.

In other places, the references are more reverential. The triple set of paintings that Twombly based on the story of Hero and Leandro have strong echoes of late Turner; again, that deep painterly immersion in fluid brushstrokes, providing a strong sense of aquatic movement.

The series of water paintings (Untitled (A Painting in Nine Parts) throw up other visual echoes, most noticeably in the elaborate shapes of frames that mimic those used by extravagant rococo painters. The reference starts off as comic; the level of abstraction in Twombly’s work and the chromatic reduction to just two colours – his favoured white and a mossy green – seem to mock his the many-hued palates of his antecedents. But the intensity with which he homes in on the details of, say, a fast stream by a bank (again, close-up and immersed like Nina’s paintings), reveal a passion for his subject matter, for the simple fact of moving water.

Quattro Stagioni (A Painting in Four Parts), 1993-5, Tate Modern

This is not to say that Twombly was some crypto old-style Romantic. The towering Quattro Stagioni follow on from the mossy green water paintings, emphasise his modernist credentials and remind us of the overarching thrust of his oeuvre. Some critics love them. I remain to be convinced that the deliberate of use, conjuring up a world of angrily beautiful but failed articulation is the great moment of American modernism.

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Francis Bacon – Tate Britain – Autumn 2008

It’s possible to pontificate lots on Francis Bacon (and I shall probably try here), but there is a raw, burning intensity in Bacon’s best work that forces an immediate and rapid response. One can walk through this exhibition in twenty minutes and get just as strong as a reaction from the paintings as you could from an hour and a half of measured academic study. Indeed maybe even the charred, dark faces, the contorted flesh, the monstrous teeth are at their most dramatic when seen for the first time – innocent eyes exposed to twenty minutes of compressed horror.

Francis Bacon, Triptych, 1973, Private Collection

Nevertheless my brain went through some strange mental processes when visiting the Tate’s Bacon blockbuster, and I began thinking of the impressionists.

Like Bacon, the impressionists were creating artifacts that could be easily assimilated by the viewer in a short space of time. For Monet, Sisley and the like, the bright palette and the unambiguous emotional unity give the viewer an immediate visual impact, as do the dimensions of the landscapes; rarely panoramic in scope but based on dimensions the human eye can immediately absorb. Of course, the gentleness of many impressionist works is the polar opposite to Bacon’s emotional register. But the similarity is not in the content, but the way in which the image can be immediately apprehended by the viewer – unlike say work by Velazquez, David or Picasso.

Bacon also shares the impressionists’ lack of interest in telling stories. There is no need for the viewer to decipher expressions and gestures to understand what the painting and its characters are about. This, too, enhances the immediacy. Bacon’s poor sitters are ripped out of their context, their life reduced to flesh, blood, violent unbalanced copulation. Critics (and Bacon himself) have alighted on the cinematic nature of his paintings and certainly the emotional punch has similarities to the effect of the silver screen. But cinema, whilst being dramatic, still demands a narrative around which its characters are wrapped; Bacon does not offer his paintings this context – the genre he develops is very much his own.

The exhibition booklet reminds you that Bacon is a portraitist, and the effect is somewhat jolting – when one thinks of an English portraitist one things of coiffured hair at a Regency club, or an aristocrat surveying his estate with proprietorial pomp. Yet it is useful to bear in mind, for it emphasises how Bacon, like many grandees of twentieth-century art, carves out a space which floats between the inherited traditions of representation (in this case the tradition of the portrait) and the modernist urge towards abstraction. Paint as a tool for representation merges into painting as an end in itself. This gives Bacon’s paintings not only aesthetic weight but also emotional impact.

His portraits struggle to asset their physical appearance. As soon as they make themselves apparent on the canvas they began to become deformed under the weight of being represented on a flattened plane of paint. Extraneous detail in background is eliminated, locking the sitter in the immediate foreground. Thin yellow bars that frequently act as cages jut awkwardly into non-existent space, framing and trapping the sitter. Like Richter’s anonymised portraits, as soon as the character is represented they become lost in the painted surface, the thickened oils scraped along the surface, almost erasing their features.

Francis Bacon, Study after Velazquez, 1950

The series of Innocent X portraits are the most striking examples. The 1950 Study After Velazquez, painted exactly 350 years after the Spaniard’s stunning papal portrait, shows the pope trapped behind flat grills of paint, his screaming face evaporating into the gloomy darkness; his very identity being wiped out. As the shutters descend downwards on the canvas, they develop into large waves of kinetic energy, as if representing the lifeforce being dragged out of the unfortunate Innocent. Interestingly, these waves also reveal themselves to be folds of a curtain – once can see the curved bar with the rings holding the folds in place. With this motif, a new horror for the sitter is implied – that the curtain can be pulled shut, and the sitter will disappear into the darkness, out of sight, out of mind. It is motif that reoccurs within the exhibition.

Amongst all this pain, there is pleasure too, violent, sensuous pleasure. Bacon takes an arrogant pleasure in these bodies, creating tactile, sculptural forms with large chunks of flesh that one wants to meld and push. Equally the painted surface itself is pleasure, stained solemn backgrounds (the rich colouration of which would not disgrace Rothko’s palette), then tougher scratches, and then the thicker blobs of impasto that construct the bruised faces, only to find themselves flattened out so as to emphasise their entrapment within the frame of the canvas.

Nevertheless it is the immediate visceral horror that predominates – the echoes of the slaughterhouse, the grim torture chamber – the horrific immediacy of it all. And it can’t help but create a certain image of Bacon in your mind – the tortured post-Romantic artist, obsessed with sex, flesh and death, a visionary world documented in layers of paint, with each canvas a failed exorcism of the demons haunting his living hours.

But this exhibition has another angle of interest. Besides the paintings themselves, the Tate also includes the Bacon archive, the massive jumble of papers, documents and images torn or ripped out from newspapers, journals or whatever source Bacon came across. It provides a fascinating and vital gloss to Bacon’s work.

Often these are the rooms the visitor skips through – irrelevant social details in tiny print that require a different mental approach to assimilating the images on view. But here the Bacon archive is stuck almost in the centre of the exhibition, and the mass of material provides a much richer perspective on Bacon the artist; not as an artist that responded solely to his own lone, tortured view of the universe, but one who responded to the wider world around him, soaking up its images, it own ways of seeing. With this, Bacon comes across as a much more calculating, analytic artist, and also one with a broader range of sympathies and concerns.

Francis Bacon, Pope I – Study after Pope Innocent X by Velazquez, 1951

Parts of the archive provide tiny visual clues – the vaulting in a photograph of some Vatican dignitaries was used as the ghostly outline of a church in the 1951 Pope I – Study after Pope Innocent X by Velazquez. Other parts reveal broader thematic preoccupations. Bacon, for instance, often alighted on laboratory images of animals in caged captivity, or scientific studies of human forms walking or growing over time. This gave him an immense range of source material for the captured and caged sitters in his portraits. Again, some of this is about details – in one or two of Bacon’s paintings there are ghostly echoes of the measuring tape and slide rules that appear in the scientific images. But it also illustrates the obvious resonance for Bacon between scientific and artistic modes of control.

One can see why Bacon had such interest in this genre of documentary images, for it provided him with a pool of visual and intellectual ideas which he could adapt, expand and incorporate. But the curatorial decision to exhibit such work also provides a different emotional context to Bacon’s oeuvre; seeing the Bacon paintings not as only his projections of the artist’s own emotional state, but as desperate stabs at empathy with his sitters, reflecting a world that objectivises under a scientific gaze.

This should not distract from Bacon the painter – what the curators have assembled here is a magnificent roll call of his work – and such paintings still speak with their garbled eloquence whether the contextual evidence is present or not. But we should also be thankful to Tate for exhibiting the Bacon archive; it does a tremendous job in breaking down the Hollywood reflex of thinking of the artists as a tortured genius instinctively responding to the manic visions in his head, and replacing it with a much more human, complex person.

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Seizure – Roger Hiorns – a disused apartment block, Southwark – Winter 2008

I heard great things about Roger Hiorn’s site-specific installation, Seizure. Glowing crystals, an alien presence, an unnamed threat – all placed within a damp, decaying council house. It sounded like the alchemy of Anish Kapoor, with his pure geometry of colours and the exploration of strange architectural space of Rachel Whitehead, Mike Nelson or Christian Buchel


But alas the space was small, the queue long and the weather miserable. I spent a Saturday and a Sunday morning waiting to get in, but the polite, well-mannered collection of culture vultures moved with sloth-like pace. Other engagements called me, and the now the house will go to the wrecking ball.

Seizure - Queue

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Keeping Titian Here – National Gallery – Winter 2008

The National Gallery and the National Gallery of Scotland, suddenly thrown into panic by the Duke of Sutherland’s inevitable decision to sell Titian’s Diana and Actaeon, have not chosen a great time to try and raise £50m from, frankly, anyone who can stump up some cash. The year 2008 will always associated with a downward graph showing some vertiginous descents – a year when money evaporated. There is no jangle of spare cash for art.

Diana and Actaeon - Titian
Titian, Diana and Actaeon, Late 1550s, National Gallery of Scotland

And yet public opinion towards the gallery’s begging bowl has been, on the whole, largely positive. There have been the usual discussions in newspapers and television shows, as well as blogs and websites, and the expected comments about wasting-money-on-art-when-there-are-sick-children-to-be-cured-has-surfaced. But £10 notes continue to be stuffed into the boxes at the National Gallery.

In particular, the UK tabloid newspapers, generally accepted as the voice of the man in the street, have, in their own way, been supportive of the so-called Titian Campaign. One would expect a instinctive anti-elitism to kick in – the tabloid newspapers are usually the loudest voice to articulate the common sense pragmatism that is outraged when would see museums receive money instead of hospitals, and regards both old master and avant-garde art as elitist pretension wrapped up in the emperor’s new clothes.

Instead, the Daily Mirror happily showed the inventive recreation (commissioned by the Beeb I think) by the photographer Tom Hunter, and made some cheerful marks about the nudity on show with a typical red-top headline, ‘Nice Titians’.

Diana and Actaeon - Tom Hunter
Tom Hunter, Diana and Actaeon, 2008

The Sun made its lo-fi version of Diana and Actaeon, tailored to suit its readership

Diana and Actaeon - The SunThe Sun, Homage to Diana and Actaeon, 2008

A connoisseur may splutter about the irreverence – but it’s harmless stuff – and a million miles away from much more damaging headlines, e.g. ‘Arrogant art critics demand £50m during credit crunch’ or ‘Money diverted from dwindling health budget to pay rich aristocrat’ etc etc.

Does this reflect a change in dynamics of class and culture in Britain? Or are there some very bright people working in the Titian Campaign’s marketing office? Or is just the chance to embrace some gratuitous nudity (something the tabloids have been doing for years)?

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