The beauty and the fashion
There's a lot of noise going on in London about the National Gallery's major show "Picasso: Challenging the Past." Some critics are cross because the London show, unlike its Paris avatar, does not display the Picasso pictures alongside the Old Masters they are "challenging," while others regret the absence of Picasso's contemporaries (viz., Matisse) being available for enlightening comparison. For myself, I enjoyed walking through the main rooms of the NG's permanent collection, on the way to the excellent Picasso prints show in Room 1, and looking for connections with that I had just seen in the Sainsbury wing. My only reservation is the Sainsbury wing galleries themselves, which feel mean, pinched and crowded. We know from the Velázquez show last year how much better temporary shows can look at the NG, when hung alongside the permanent collection.
A little noise is being made, too, about the new "Van Dyck & Britain" show at Tate Britain. In the Evening Standard Brian Sewell even grumbles about its title. Why, he asks, call it Britain - which "did not exist." As he says, Scotland was then another country, and Van Dyck was attached to the English court of Charles I. And he thinks it does Van Dyck no favours to mount a show with only the work he did in England, as it "shows how bad a painter he could be and swamps the few masterpieces with paintings that are curate's eggs, flawed in drawing and construction, more than faintly ridiculous in conception, and by workshop hacks as much as by himself." Whew
I found the few masterpieces very worth the journey - especially the several that have come from the queen's collection at Buckingham Palace. In fact, they look better hanging in the more generous rooms at Buck House than at the Tate, and the Queen's Gallery there is open to the public. But there's plenty to be said for seeing in the company of lots of other Van Dycks the incredibly large 1633 equestrian portrait of Charles I with M. de St Antoine and the 1632 family group, "The Greate Peece" of King Charles with Henrietta Maria and their two elder children. The little dog in this picture is nothing like so successful, though, as some of Van Dyck's other pooches: don't miss the much-too-tall greyhound in the c.1633 portrait of James Stuart, Duke of Lennox, loaned by the Metropolitan, or the even bigger and better Irish wolfhound in the c.1635-6 portrait of Thomas, Viscount Wentworth, where the dog serves the function of showing the power of his master to subdue him.
The organisation of this show stresses the fashions in pose and costume set by Van Dyck - though I thought it slightly undermined the first by including the Titian double portrait from which some of Van Dyck's own compositions derived. Still, it was almost startling to go into one of the later rooms and see the very derivative poses of pictures by Zoffany, Reynolds, Sargent and even Philip de Làszlò. And while it was wonderful to see the showcase with some of the sort of costumes Van Dyck had in his studio's famous dressing-up box - we could have done with many more of them. On the whole, I recommend seeing the show. But don't bother going upstairs to see the really derivative show, "Altermodern," the "Tate Triennial."
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