Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Grayson Perry and the Reith Lectures

I started two of Perry's Reith lectures. I did not finish either.
They are full of the stench of cheery hypocrisy. As a "transvestite potter from Essex", complete with cor-blimey accent, he pretends to stand as the plain-person's scourge of art establishment, while being both part of it and absolutely dependent on it. His whole stance, artistically and personally, is designed for head-line effect in the disingenuous establishment of pseudo-transgression that is such a potent force in the art world.
I listened to some earlier interviews on line. In the older ones he finds it harder to sustain the accent beyond the opening sentences. Now he can perform "common" cackles and "working-class" tics with impeccable skill - to rival that of Nigel Kennedy. King Edward VI Grammar School, Chelmsford,  seems far away.
The laddish presentation (yes, he is laddish) somehow succeeds in masking the reality of views that are ill thought-through, and often ill-informed. Just two examples. In an Art Newspaper interview (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uE-u9Y76Y-I) he claims that "tapestries came before oil paintings". This is simply untrue. In the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, tapestries became far more expensive than paintings in exclusive aristocratic contexts - which is not the same thing at all. Then in a Victoria and Albert Museum interview on art and craft (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BAdcD4ZCKak) he tells us that "painting is becoming a craft". This seems meaningless without some kind of supporting argument. Having ill-informed opinions, that are aired with chirpy assertiveness and are self-consciously designed to be contrarian, does not necessarily stop an artist from making great art-works. I think the tapestries and the pots are rather good, even if he's no Hogarth. What is not justified is that Perry should be taken as some kind of authority on anything in art he choses to speak about.

Lucien Freud

Last week I was in Vienna for a gala opera performance for Gheri Sackler's admirable charity, Wiener Lerntafel (http://www.lerntafel.at/index.php?home) , dedicated to rescuing young children who are in danger of falling out of the educational system. There was an exhibition of Lucien Freud at the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Each time I see a body (no pun intended) of his works, they look more and more limited. The retrospective at the Tate showed that he really cannot handle more than one figure. His notable trick, turning gobs of impasted paint into flesh, is considerable, but it too has severe limitations. Walking from the room that housed his biggest paintings into the halls housing Titian, Rubens, Dürer, Brueghel & co. puts him into unkind perspective. You may say that the comparisons are unfair, but the reality of the present art market means that you have to pay as much for a Freud as for a major old master.

His version of Chardin's Young Schoolmistress, included in the Vienna show, demonstrates what is wrong. Chardin's painting is a miracle of eloquent and restrained precision.  The tender yet prissy delicacy of the teacher's profile is wonderfully translated into the sharp and steely gleam of the hat-pin with which she points to the rows of small images in the open book. The chubby child's blunt face and podgy hand serve as a telling counterpoint. Chardin exploits his unique kind of clotted surface, like unglazed ceramic, to create open surfaces that somehow become flesh and drapery. Nothing is overtly described, but he cajoles our perception into seeing materials that are not there.

Freud literally blunts all this - emotionally and formally. The schoolmistress's face is given the standard Freudian lumpiness, and her incisively instructive pin is removed entirely. She points meaninglessly to a blank page, as does the child. The face of the child suffers less, but looses its translucent softness as it is battered into Freudian shape. Whereas Chardin invites us to see the structural folds of the drapery, as they respond to the interplay between tailoring and posture, Freud's brushstrokes only convey a generic painterliness, which becomes an end in itself.  Look for example at the "boat-prow" fold at back of the teacher's lower neck.   Chardin does just enough to let us sense its structural integrity. Freud's thick splodge turns into nothing outside his own mannerism.  You may say Freud is doing something different from Chardin. Sure, he is painting "Freuds". Chardin is painting "Chardins" in such a generous way that they also become something else in the eyes of the viewer.

Freud is an artist with a highly recongisable voice. The best of his images of single figures are impressive and often poignant. But he is not really great artist. Let's get things in perspective.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Leonardo and the supposed portrait of Isabella d'Este

Another promotion of a non-Leonardo, pushed by the Corriere della Serra, which has been a great newspaper. I was contacted by someone called ********** (removed at the request of the editor) - not, apparently, an accredited arts journalist. I declined to express a visual opinion on the basis of the poor reproductions I had seen but made it clear that any attribution to Leonardo was not consistent with the documentation. The result is that I am implicitly cited as a supporter of the attribution. I will be asking for a retraction. (note: they subsequently published an accurate interview with Francesca Pini, a very good arts journalist)

Having looked further at this, it is clear that the painting cannot be by Leonardo, on the basis of the documented account of Leonardo's relations with Isabella d'Este and his evident failure to paint her portrait. The documentation (in summary) runs as follows:

1) Leonardo made a finished drawing of Isabella when he was in Mantua in 1500. He left this behind in Mantua but Isabella's husband, Francesco Gonzaga, gave it away, much to her irritation. This is almost certainly the autograph cartoon partly coloured in chalk in the Louvre, which is pricked for transfer.
2) The studio made a revised version of the cartoon to take away with them (now in the Ashmolean Mus in Oxford), which was seen when Leonardo visited Venice. This was made from the Louvre cartoon, as the sploveri (dots of charcoal) confirm. The original cartoon has been revised to give more adequate room for the sitter's right arm, which is lowered, together with the ledge on which is rests and the book to which she points. The revised cartoon was taken back to Florence so that Leonardo could potentially make a painted version.
3) When Leonardo was back in Florence Isabella pestered him for 6 years  for a painted version of the portrait or for any painting from his hand.
4) The correspondence suggests that she was not successful.
5) If Leonardo or the studio produced a portrait it would have been based on the revised version that they had with them not the one Alfonso had given away.
6) At some point the Louvre cartoon was cut down, with the loss of the ledge and book. This makes nonsense of her pointing gesture. The painting is based on the Louvre cartoon after its cutting down not on the Ashmolean one.
7) The crown and martyr's palm indicate that someone has used the Louvre cartoon to transform it into an image of Sta Barbara (as in Palma Vecchio's painting), or possibly of Santa Caterina.
Connoisseurship is not needed in this case. The documentation and evidence of the surviving drawings exclude the possibility that the painting can be by Leonardo.