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July 24, 2006

This exhibition shows why painting is in such deep trouble today, argues Jane Kelly - Passion for Paint at the National Gallery

Posted by Jane Kelly

Passion for Paint
National Gallery, London
20th July - 17th September 2006
Daily 10am - 6pm (Wednesdays until 9pm)

Previously shown at Bristol's City Museum and Art Gallery (21st January - 2nd April 2006) and Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle (13th April - 9th July 2006).

This small exhibition, showing the work of twenty-four painters, spanning 450 years, opens with an image displaying not so much a passion for paint as a passionate contempt for it.

Glenn Brown's small, grisly A Little Death, painted in 2000, looks like the pastiche of a religious painting, done in gloopy paint squeezed from large tubes.

It is in fact a pastiche of a pastiche. Close up there is no visible texture at all as it's painted with tiny brushes on a smooth wooden panel, producing the effect of a photograph.

Rembrandt and Auerbach painted the living. Their flesh has become paint, so I paint paint.
Or so says Brown, tongue fully extended at his audience. Even the title of his work, a reference to orgasm, is an attempt to mock the traditional painting of religious ecstasy.

Brown uses visual tricks to make vulgar jokes about painting, but this may be preferable to the painting opposite, Ian Davenport's Poured Lines, painted in 1995, which suggests an artist who has really given up on the medium.

Looking like a Venetian blind, this doesn't have Bridget Riley's equivalences with nature, it is about paint pouring, house paint at that, doing exactly what it says on the tin.

We are asked to be fascinated by the:

small accidental variations in the pour which bring out the freedom and spontaneity of the way that paint behaves.
There seem to be hardly any variations, as his support is so strong that the paint can't stray, and perhaps the artist doesn't know it, but this is about control not creativity. You can see the spontaneity of paint better in almost any other artist's work.

We are let off the leash of modern thought a bit in the main room - containing some authentic paintings - which you come to like as a guilty pleasure.

Worse, the four sets of eyes that watch us as we enter, all belong to wealthy hedonists of a by-gone age, the sort of people who bought and owned paintings in the centuries before the politics of ownership became an issue.

Van Dyke's portrait of Lady Elizabeth Thimbelby and her sister Dorothy, painted in 1637, shows us two confident aristocrats, receiving roses from an angel, as people of that class probably do for all I know.

Dorothy was in disgrace at the time, cut off without a shilling by her family for marrying the wrong man. Her sister is in the painting showing support, and one wonders who paid for the work, as Van Dyke was the leading portraitist of the time.

The painter is not interested in their problems or their feelings, only in their status. He suggests this with his emphasis on representing heavy satin, thin silk and flawless skin. You can see that family disapproval or not, nothing is really going to bother these quietly confident "It" girls, in their buttons and bows.

Next to them, Singer Sargent also presents us with two sisters, daughters of a Jewish plutocrat, painted in 1901. He also dazzles us with surfaces. His bold brushstrokes create a scintillating surface to silk and velvet dresses, pearls and gleaming skin. A fan is painted with a few masterly flicks of the brush while the bluish-green glaze on a vast Chinese Kangxi vase, has been lightly scribbled on.

A bravura show from one of the last great, unashamed painters, from a time when painters could still express what Courbet called "a physical language".

As a contrast to this, there is a display of late 20th century female individuality in large canvass by Gillian Ayres, RA, painted in 1989. Her abstract work in primary colours is vivid and instinctive.

I wanted to achieve a sense of grandeur, but wanted the paint itself to do it,
said Ayres, now 76, who was at the preview of the show, accompanied by her friend the author Shirley Conran.

Ayres is a remnant from the last age of painting, and still believes in its possibilities. She says:

Painting and sculpture are visual forms, installation and video used in contemporary work are not visual, they are literary, not about the hand and the eye.
She added doubtfully:
Painting might come back. Some people tell me it is being taught again in schools and colleges.
The exhibition tries to find connections between some famous artists who loved paint. There is an ebullient Rubens, Minerva Protects Pax from Mars, created while he was working as a diplomat, attempting in paint to bring about peace between Britain and Spain. Perhaps someone should try this in the Middle East? Perhaps not.
Rubens' make love not war image is a romp, a panoply of female flesh, fruit, cat fur, and babies, with light shimmering off rosy buttocks, apples, glinting satin and armour, in paint applied in a dramatic variety of ways.

A large Veronese, The Vision of St. Helena, included presumably to represent the glory of late 16th century Venetian painting, looks rather lost, put on a side wall near to a small work by Seurat.

In his River Bank of 1883, before he invented "pointillism" Seurat experiments with the complementary colours red and green, fascinated by how they vibrated when put next to each other, but I wasn't clear if we were supposed to see links between this and Veronese - who creates decorative harmonies in red and gold, creamy gold painted thinly over a red base. His warm colours were once off set by a bright blue sky, but it was painted in smalt, potassium glass containing cobalt, which has sadly faded. Did Veronese instinctively know about the power of complementary colours, I don't know and the exhibition catalogue doesn't say anything about his ideas on colour.

The show demonstrates how other artists, such as Gainsborough, Turner, and Degas, consciously experimented with colour.

Gainsborough's The Morning Walk, painted in 1735, showing a newly married couple in their wedding finery, created a sensation when it first appeared. The Morning Herald remarked on "a new style". The curmudgeonly Sir Joshua Reynolds called it a mass of "odd scratches and marks". But the painter had found a new way to deal with space - by using very long brushes, painting with thin smears of paint and making indistinct outlines, he realised that from a distance the viewer's eye and brain completed the movement of the unfixed image.

His priority is the likeness of movement, and dress, fabrics and even the fur on a Pomeranian dog were used to this end. It is rather amusing the way the Pom and the wedding dress all merge into one, and the lady also blends with her background, which shows, according to the fashion of the time, that she was "at one with nature".

Representing more recent times, the show includes a powerful Degas, Combing the Hair, 1896, pumping over the canvas like arterial blood, all in hot hues, emphasising the stifling sensuality of small domestic acts such as a servant girl combing out the hair of her mistress.

In this late work, Degas shows a striking radicalism by the way he leaves so much of his subject alone and unfinished, and his expressive use of bare canvass. He leaves a whole hand almost untouched, making a white highlight out of the grainy canvas beneath.

This technique is explored again in Francis Bacon's studies of Isabel Rawsthorne, painted in 1965. Using a portrait triptych, Bacon is painting disintegration, increasing a sense of rot and despair through distortions and abstract shapes that unbalance the viewer. His textures are as varied as Rubens', and in one place he pressed a sharp tool into the paint, pulling it into serrated ridges, revealing a blood-red colour beneath.

Neither Degas nor Bacon had a problem with paint, it was their means of expression, and they probably never envisaged a time when traditional themes in painting, or even painting itself could only be dealt with ironically.

A professor of painting at the Royal College of Art once told me he wanted to paint flowers, but the only way his students would accept such a thing was if the flowers were clearly "non celebratory". He used only grisailles, grey and white. The flowers had to look like emblems of death to survive stricture from the modern Inquisition of taste.

Lois Oliver, one of the two female curators of this show, told me they'd had difficulty finding any new painting to include, as they wanted something "different".

She settled for two works painted specially for the show, which demonstrate the cultural cringe about painting - we can only have it by default; both works are by non-Europeans and hideous.

According to the press release the two new works, Liwu River Loops by Taiwanese painter Suling Wang, and the Garden of Earthly Delights XV by Kashmiri artist Raqib Shaw:

use a variety of exciting and unusual methods of application.
Wang's work refers to Chinese landscape as it shows something like a mountain, a multi-focus vertical image with sky, water and floating islands around it. Curator Lois Oliver explained excitedly:
The space is not constricted, it goes in and out, and the colour goes in and out, and she turns the canvas as she works to create trails of paint.
They might find this "exciting and unusual" but it produces the kind of overworked, dead paint you see in student's end of term shows. The colours she uses are horrible, jarring but muddy orange against dense blue and red, and it is not clear whether this clash is ironic or unintentional.

In his eastern, decorative style, Shaw resembles Chris Offili, but there is no dung here, rather his images are flashy, precious, drawn into the paint with a porcupine quill no less.

He uses vivid car paint poured into enamel moulds, appliqué jewels, spread across a flat, shiny acrylic surface.

He's not afraid of decoration,
says Lois, no indeed and the effect is like eating a very sickly sweet, with all the painterly depth of a Victorian decoupage screen.
One can't help thinking of the paintings that could have gone in the show, and perhaps the curators should put up some instructions for further study, after all most of them are very close at hand.

We could have had some Paula Rego who decorates the gallery restaurant; she draws with paint, creating her own graphic language. I would have liked to see a Rembrandt self-portrait, as they somehow seem to turn him into paint, and a work by Freud, the modern master of paint, who goes on building up crusts of the stuff, year after year, whether the art establishment approve or not.

There is a marvellous self-portrait of his next door in the National Portrait Gallery, painted in 1963. It shows his unpleasant face peering out of a black background. Realised in superbly confident brush strokes, with no recourse to line at all, it clearly shows the separate, physical language of painting.

We might also have had Titian's Mother and Child, now in the Mond Collection, in a nearby room of the National Gallery. It's dark and sweet, showing Titian, the greatest Venetian, using paint to create a strong personal mood of contemplation and reverence.

Or perhaps, as a descendent of Gainsborough, they could have moved in one of the gallery's views of the Thames by Monet, which look so abstract and wild close to, and so sharply defined from a distance. Still a great trick if you can do it.

But this is not an age where anyone cool or PC can seriously celebrate painting - this is a side-poke, corner show, which invites you as a viewer to creep in with hat pulled down and collar up, making sure none of your smart friends in the contemporary art world see you.

Jane Kelly worked as a full time staff feature writer for the Daily Mail for 15 years, but she now lives as a freelance journalist and painter in west London.

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