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March 10, 2006

Christie Davies enjoys a real and imaginary Venice with Canaletto at Buckingham Palace and thinks about Ruskin, old queens in Venice, Rolf Harris and our beloved Queen, and our one-day-to-be queen - Canaletto in Venice at The Queen's Gallery

Posted by Christie Davies

Canaletto in Venice
The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace
11th November 2005 - 23rd April 2006
Daily 10am - 5.30pm (last admission 4.30pm)

The Queen's Gallery, Palace of Holyrood House, Edinburgh
16th June 2006 - 7th January 2007

Everyone who has ever been to Venice will want to go and see the Queen's collection of drawings and paintings by Canaletto. The city has hardly changed since the eighteenth century except for the vandalism wrought by the tyrant Napoleon who, as usual, demolished and stole. During his Italian campaign Napoleon was angry because some of his armies' stores had vanished and ended up in the possession of the Italians. Napoleon complained:

You Italians are all thieves.
The Italians replied:
No not all of us, sole Buona parte.
Even under the wise and efficient rule of the Austrians a railway terminal was intruded into Venice and near it is Mussolini's car park, but otherwise Venice is still the city of Canaletto.

With Canaletto the sky is blue but not too blue. The sun always shines but not too fiercely. It is the city at its best, not like the last time I went there to lecture about the theory of masks during the annual Venice Carnival in February, when it rained for several days without pause. The revellers' papier-mâché faces must have reverted to pulp. Even the illegal Ibo immigrants who made the masks in little workshops looked pale. But Canaletto makes the weather "turn out nice" even in winter. If one were to judge by his paintings, one would think there had been a good deal of global cooling since the eighteenth century.

Yet all is not what it seems. Canaletto's paintings are not photographs taken by tourists and trippers from Trento who trip you with tripods. Canaletto has given us imaginative works of art, not colour photos to be tucked forgotten into an obscure file in a computer or emailed to bored cousins.

The awful Ruskin called Canaletto's work "servile and mindless imitation". It is not. Ruskin ought to be tarred and feathered with snippets of Mrs Millais' pubic hair and lapidated with the stones of Venice. Canaletto produces idealised, even playful and capricious paintings of Venice, versions that never existed, can not be seen, could never have been seen. When it suits him he widens the canals, narrows them, straightens them, bends them - and all to achieve the effect he wants. He moves buildings so as to provide scenes it is impossible to see, using his skill with perspective to deceive us into thinking we can. Oes Canaletto? Sometimes he invents imaginary buildings or transfers items from Rome and puts them down in the middle of the familiar Venetian landscape. Never underestimate Canaletto in the way that the narrow, Whistler-hating Ruskin did.

Not only is it worth looking at Canaletto's parade of paintings of the Grand Canal, look carefully at his drawings; some are preliminary sketches, some works in their own right. All of them are well-preserved because they were kept out of the light in an album by their collector, Mr Joe Smith, the British Consul General in Venice, who later sold them to George III. What a romantic name Joe Smith is. It has a charm completely lacking from the anatomical surnames of such Italians as Canal and Colón. Many of the drawings are done entirely by line, no wash, no chalk and yet light, shade and shadow as well as perspective and distance are conveyed to us merely by his skill in using black or brown ink to fill in white space. He was not in any sense a chocky-box man.

He drew not just the canals but the fine churches of Venice, and also the campi so loved by nineteenth century homosexuals on sex tours, who ranged from the pederasts Fr Rolfe, Baron Corvo and his Toto to Henry Scott Tuke RA who liked to portray golden lads swimming and gondolier-loving Arthur Symons, from Prince Philippe zu Eulenberg to the Mannly Gustav Aschenbach, a paedophile pursuing a prepubertal Polish pan in the plague. In Venice such men sought le vice Allemand, il visio tedesco in a city with a tradition of it that long ante-dated Canaletto. Here they could preen and prance in the sunlit squares of Canaletto, free of the cold, harsh, prejudice and disdain of we Northern squares.

Today our gay friends have, in the tradition of Gide and Keynes, Orton, Halliwell and the tormented Kenneth Williams, Maugham and Forster, all moved to tolerant Islamic Morocco and the rest of sunny Sunni North Africa where the boys are cheaper – Maynard Keynes the economist was emphatic on this point, bed and boy for a shilling in Tunisia. Why did he ever come to doubt neo-classical economics and the price mechanism? If you look at Canaletto's drawings of the squares of Venice, you can imagine the ghosts of gays past about to scream round the corner of the Arsenale. Most of us prefer not to, but moral judgements have no place in art.

The absurd Ruskin, is finely and finally demolished by Canaletto's caprici, such as A Capriccio with a Monumental Staircase, c. 1755-60 or Capriccio, Palace with a Clock Tower and a Roman Arch in which imaginary neo-classical buildings, Roman ruins with weeds protruding from crumbling mortar flanked by the woods of Dunsinane come to Venice. Canaletto was after all the son of a stage set designer and painter and had at first followed his father's trade.

Have a wonderful afternoon at Her Majesty's pleasure. Look out in particular for the clever and probably impossible use of shadow in The Grand Canal looking East from the Caritá towards the Bacino 1727-8. Look at the care with which Canaletto attends to perspective in many of his drawings using Euclidean compass and ruler; perhaps this is what peeved a Ruskin who wanted wishy-washy. Make use of the free audio guide. Her Majesty's audio-guides are easily the best in London – most of the non-royal ones are dire but here you can hear experts who know their field, do not talk down to you and speak English that is pleasant and easy to understand, quite unlike the poncy RP used on BBC Yartz programmes.

On your way out look in on Rolf Harris' Portrait of the Queen and the video of him painting it. Seen close up the Queen has bright green forearms to match her clothes: shades of Andy Warhol? Her Majesty has a fine smile but then so does Rolf Harris. Off with his head. As you leave buy a postcard of Charles and Camilla's wedding, a true love-match, unlike the previous day long farce that filled the streets with disgruntled men taking fractious male children for an unwanted walk.

Christie Davies' lecture on masks, bastards and gays given in Venice at Carnival time is published in Efrat Tsëelon (ed.) Masquerade and Identities: Essays on Gender, Sexuality and Marginality, London, Taylor and Francis 2001.

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Does Prof Davies really mean what he says, that "moral judgements have no place in art"? None at all? So he would have no scruples over beautiful, or startling, or thought-provoking paintings (if ever there were any) of supposedly brave Germans exterminating Jews? Or scuplture celebrating sheer evil of some other kindred kind, perhaps Rwandans chopping the hands off other Rwandans? I find it hard to believe, and suspect that Prof Davies says this sort of thing out of kindness and good manners, but mistakenly so.

Many of us disapprove of Wagner but divorce that disapproval from his operas, because they have little palpable relationship to Wagner's offensive views. We may despise the man, but love his Pilgrim's Chorus from Tannhauser. Immoral people can make moral art; just as the Romans said that hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. This is the opposite saying, as Prof Davies appears to say, that any reprehensible belief or action must be immune from our approbrium or disgust if it claims to be art.

For all but the last few generations in the West, art was at least partly defined by its ability to delight and inform, predominantly in the moral sense. Now we are on the whole so ignorant that we miss most of the historical or Biblical references that helped convey the lessons. And particularly in England, we are late decadent cowards scared half to death to disapprove of any sort of perverted or wicked behaviour for fear of being ostracised by our fellow decadents -- unless we express outrage against one of the few safe, 'approved evils,' namely racism, sexism or being a Muslim. Being a Christian is, coincidentally, hot on the heels of the other three secular sins. But I suspect that, deep down in most people, there survives a faint propensity for true moral repulsion. And whatever it is, some despicable person will find it, win an art prize from other despicable people, then sell the work to Lord Saatchi.

Posted by: s masty at March 11, 2006 05:48 AM

Is there no end to Christie Davies' rotten liberalism? How dare he mention the vile orgies of the homosexualists in Venice in a review of the divine Canaletto and in a Royal Palace too. He is indeed a Benthamite, a man who places pushpin, poetry and pederasty in the same category.
Even worse is his admiration for Camilla Parker-Bowles at a time when the police are still investigating the suspicious death of Princess Diana.


Posted by: David Williams at March 11, 2006 10:09 AM

If readers look at the original context of my line about art and morality, I think they will agree that it does not the carry the implications suggested nor justify the comments. Perhaps our many square-bashing gay readers are in a better position to tease out its ironies and ambiguities than a mere right angled rhombus like myself.
Christie D

Posted by: Christie Davies at March 13, 2006 03:00 PM

I did not actually write anything about homosexual matters discussed in Prof Davies' recent column, nor did it really occur to me. I was, however, surprised to hear him say something more concerning, a blanket statement more or less unaffected by context, that moral judgements have no place in art. Normally, I quite enjoy Prof Davies' columns on art, and inevitably find something worthwhile and new, but this certainly caught me by surprise.

Posted by: s masty at March 14, 2006 02:07 PM
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