Seduced by Art at the National Gallery
A couple of weeks ago I critiqued Brian Sewell’s tirade against the Seduced show, which was actually a damnation of photography as art. After making a visit to look for myself, I have to say I agree with some of his assessment. Like Sewell, I have some problems with the NG’s proposition that this exhibition “argues” that early and modern photographers were influenced by the Old Masters. Is it possible to have an argument which nobody questions? One that’s so simple, almost akin to “Joe Bloggs argues that grass is green”? Surely influence is a given, and what we really see unfolding as we walk through the themed rooms in the exhibition is that, more obviously, artists return to the same subject matter again and again regardless of medium.
The exhibition is split into six rooms: Setting the Scene, Portraits, the Figure, Tableaux, Still Life and Landscape. The opening is strong. We are accustomed to glossing over the most blatant and misogynistic of violence in old painted masterpieces, instead concentrating on the beautiful brushwork and skill of the artists. Placing such works next to huge blown up interior scenes, where we know all too well to read between the lines of a juxtaposition of rumpled silk against a filthy setting, or an artfully destroyed room, means we are forced to recognise and confront the violence. It surrounds in the first room, we recognise latent aggression in scene photographs, we’ve been taught all too well by forensic imagery. The CSI generation can interpret sexually motivated brutality in a half second when confronted with the work of Tom Hunter, and this knowledge highlights what we know to exist in the Delacroix nearby.
In the portraiture section Martin Parr’s Signs of the Times, England and Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews sit next to each other superbly. Anybody who is familiar with both works could, in their own mind, link the two together thematically, but it’s gratifying to see them hung side by side in the flesh. What this room speaks of most clearly is privilege, of wealth, beauty or youth, and those privileged individuals revelling in their vanity, in displaying their wares. Further rooms are an excuse to flaunt naked imagery (old fashioned pornography, necessary?) or are used to show how Sam Taylor Wood’s video of decay was influenced by Vanitas paintings. Not too taxing on the grey cells.
There isn’t much in the way of groundbreaking dialogue in the interpretation. A favourite: “Still life is the most widely seen photographic subject today, found everywhere from advertisements to packets of frozen food.” Astounding. Discounting the fact that people probably populate photographs more frequently than still life, this sentence is so obvious it doesn’t need saying. The NG crowd are an intelligent bunch, surely they understand that still life is effectively stuff, and stuff is the saleable, desirable commodity in a consumerist society (again, omitting people). In fact, when you look at the broad breakdown of topics in this exhibition, you have sex, violence, death, nakedness, war, wealth and desire. Pretty average, universal artist themes; these must be represented in almost every gallery in the world, contemporary or historic.
One thing I would say, this exhibition highlighted those areas in which painting or photography provide more curiosity, where their hidden strengths might lay. On the subject of war, where we have been so saturated with imagery over the past sixty years, the Vernet rendering of the Battle of Jemappes looks fresh and still has the ability to take your breath. In stark contrast, Delahayes’ US Bombing of Taliban Positions looks tired and (excusing the language) done to death. The aforementioned naked photographs, the ‘idealised female form’ are as familiar to us as photographs of our own family, though not as welcome. Painterly representations of the naked body, however, always seem that more stunning, removed from the ordinary by the act of the brush. In the still life section, despite the patronising statement declaring otherwise, the photographs look most unusual to us, draw us in. Ori Gersht’s blown up flowers are the most arresting, because of their uniqueness. I suspect this exhibition brought his work into the consciousness of a whole new demographic.
On reflection, Seduced by Art is a strong display when speaking of progression, and of those human themes which all of us dwell on, the themes that define our lives. It’s the dressing up I didn’t like. If the National Gallery wants to create glossy, lovely exhibitions with nice selections of imagery, they are well within their rights to do so. The curators don’t always have to be scholarly; cultured people like to be spoon fed gorgeousness sometimes too. But, please, in these instances ditch the ludicrous theories.
On display until 20th January 2013.