A look back at past masters


August 11, 2000

Marina Wallace reflects on the National Gallery's exhibition of contemporary works inspired by the art of the past - and finds the results uneven

Giorgio Vasari was in no doubt that artists and architects of the Renaissance needed to refer to exemplars from the past. After Giotto had restored the ancient qualities of design in the early 14th century, several other artists produced "good work" in marble and stone, which, according to the 16th-century author of The Lives of the Most Important Painters ..., represented a progressive improvement. The remaining defects, maintained Vasari, were partly due to the fact that "at that time there were only too few good works to imitate".

Artists in the 21st century are in an enviable position. Great works of art are available to view in public collections, while travel and new technology allow easy and immediate access to images and information on the art of the past. One of the myths of modernism is that artists of the past two centuries continuously unburdened themselves and fought against the dead weight of the past. The National Gallery in London has challenged this view by initiating and hosting Encounters: New Art from Old , an exhibition that runs until September. Twenty-four contemporary artists, selected on the basis of their established interest in the art of the past,were invited to choose and respond to the art of their favourite "masterpiece" in the gallery's collection. The works chosen span more than 600 years, from the mid-13th century with Duccio da Buoninsegna, to Claude Monet at the end of the 19th century. The living artists embrace a relatively long period in contemporary art, from Christopher Le Brun in his 40s to Balthus in his 90s.

Like any enterprise that includes a number of diverse individuals, the results are predictably uneven. In the fat and evangelical catalogue accompanying the exhibition, a number of authors make elaborate and effective cases for juxtapositions between the "24 great artists of our time" and "the greatest artists of all times" - as Neil MacGregor states in his director's foreward - implicitly echoing Vasari's reverence for the canons of the past. Indeed, it is specifically in relation to the National Gallery as an institution that such an exhibition finds its rationale. As Robert Rosenblum reminds us in his chapter "Remembrance of art past", artists had always copied earlier art. Rubens, for example, copied Leonardo's composition of the Battle of Anghiari as well as Caravaggio's Entombment , while the radical Manet, in his 20s, made versions of paintings by Titian, Tintoretto, Brouwer, Velazquez and Delacroix, and, famously, reworked Rembrandt's Anatomy of Dr Tulp . As one public museum after another opened in the early 19th century, artists were increasingly able to refer to works hanging in such important collections as the Musée Central des Arts (now the Louvre), the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which opened in 1815, the Prado in Madrid in 1819, and the National Gallery in London in 1824. Rosenblum argues in the Encounters catalogue that "in the 19th century, British painting kept reflecting, as it still does today, what there was to see in Trafalgar Square".

Consider the specific case of the hanging of two of Turner's paintings in the National Gallery, Dido Building Carthage and Sun Rising through Vapour . According to the artist's own will, they are to be seen side by side with two paintings by Claude Lorrain, acquired by the gallery in 1824. The Lorrain-Turner compare-and-contrast installation is, in a way, the historical predecessor of Encounters . With Turner's example in mind, the staging in adjacent rooms of Hieronymus Bosch's Christ Mocked (1490-1500) and Bill Viola's wonderful Quintet of the Astonished (the only work in the exhibition that uses the moving image) suggests a new way of looking at these two masters of human emotion.

Marco Livingstone points out in his perceptive essay on David Hockney that this contemporary draughtsman is, perhaps more topically than any other artist in the show, engaged in a very thorough and enthusiastic trawl of old masters to establish the widespread use of optical devices to aid the artist's eye. For his Twelve Portraits after Ingres in a Uniform Style , comprising a set of "uniform" drawings of National Gallery warders in uniform, Hockney contemplated Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres's sitters, their faces and hands rendered as traces in graphite on paper with a precision and attention to the "first expression" that Hockney attributes to the immediacy and accuracy of camera lucida drawings. His is a long-standing project, of which we will see and hear much more, the National Gallery portraits and catalogue serving as welcome tasters.

Mirroring the hits and misses of the exhibition itself, the essays, at their best, genuinely invite new ways of looking backwards and forwards. The learned, informative and wide-ranging texts in the catalogue are particularly helpful given that, faced with the contemporary works in the gallery, we must take into account what "point" is being made by the new works in relation to the old - clearly a consideration borne in mind by the curators. Reading texts by Richard Morphet (who played a central role in the development of the project and assumed overall responsibility for the catalogue), Judith Bumpus, Keith Hartley, Andrew Lambirth, Marco Livingstone and Christopher Riopelle about the genesis and completion of the different initiatives, it becomes clear that radically different mental tools are employed by different kinds of artists. The "measurers" and "designers" - Richard Hamilton, David Hockney, Euan Uglow, Patrick Caulfield, Anthony Caro, Claes Oldenburg with Coosje Van Bruggen, and, to some extent, Jasper Johns - engaged with historical works of art by artists with an equivalent language of order. For instance, Hamilton's rendering of Pieter Saenredam's The Interior of the Grote Kerk at Haarlem (1636-37), titled The Saensbury Wing (1999-2000) and hung at the top of the stairs to the Sainsbury extension, wittily and subversively speaks of the British artist's interest in the painterly constructions of his 17th-century Dutch counterpart, as Morphet aptly demonstrates.

Some of the choices and results are predictable, others not. Into the latter category comes Uglow, who associates himself unexpectedly with Claude Monet's The Water-Lily Pond (1899) in his painting titled Nuria (1997-2000), in which his naked model's body becomes the arch of a metaphorical bridge - geometrically charted in the search for a structural evocation of reality. Uglow looks at Monet not for evanescence but for his use of light to calculate the spatial relationships of forms. Here the interpretation is far from literal, but is closely related in one key intent to that of his source.

Among the living "colourists and expressionists", Howard Hodgkin more than meets his match, undertaking a close-to-source exploration of Georges Seurat's Bathers at Asni res (1884) - the latter resting in the visual calm of a historic classicism, while the former is animated by contemporary brushstrokes and heightened colours. Attempting something similar, Frank Auerbach responds to John Constable's The Hay Wain of 1821 with his Park Village East of 1998, which, as Morphet points out, bears a striking resemblance to its related National Gallery picture. Morphet's text with its illustrations help us make sense of an otherwise disappointing result that avoids surprise and merely confirms Auerbach's long-standing proclivities.

The concept of Encounters: New Art from Old works around the fundamental premise that everything artists do, even when they set out to emulate other artists, inevitably results in their own work, marked by their own temperament, individual handling, personal stances and habits. The curators knew that the great conundrum would lie in the uncertain territory between the literal rendering of a source work and its freer interpretation. A fascinating element of personal revelation was inevitably going to become apparent, as living artists, known for their established practices, disclosed their particular passions and affiliations with old masters. Reading Lambirth's text on Lucian Freud, we discover that the artist has long been obsessed with Chardin's paintings. We are told by Morphet that Leon Kossoff has been deeply taken for 66 years with Rembrandt's A Woman Bathing in a Stream , and that R. B. Kitaj feels remarkably close to Vincent van Gogh's statement of loneliness and contemplation in his famous empty chair.

The virtue of a good publication accompanying an exhibition lies not only in its informative and interpretative functions, but also in its ability to offer an added dimension to the exhibition itself. The Encounters catalogue certainly works in its punctilious historical referencing, providing an effective context and a telling series of comparative illustrations. At their most cogent, the juxtapositions make both old and new masters look different in a way that refreshes our perceptions. Performing a useful function for general and specialised visitors alike, the catalogue will in its own right happily survive its mentoring exhibition. It documents an imaginative initiative and supplies valuable analyses of the way in which the individual artists have each articulated their relationship to their artistic ancestors.

Marina Wallace is senior lecturer in critical and historical studies, Central St Martin's College of Art and Design, London.

Encounters: New Art from Old

Author - Richard Morphet
ISBN - 1 85709 294 5
Publisher - National Gallery
Price - £25.00
Pages - 336

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