Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Exhibitions, missable and unmissable

Jupiter and Antiope
Picture: Metropolitan Museum of Art
The most exciting upcoming exhibition this season is Bartholomeus Spranger: Splendor and Eroticism in Imperial Prague at the Met in New York. Spranger isn't a household name, and he isn't one of the very greatest artists. But this show is much more worthwhile than a routine 'big name' blockbuster because it draws attention to an artist who is too often neglected. Spranger is not well represented in major museums, and he's a bit out of the central narrative of art history (eccentric Bohemian mannerists are denied their week's lecture in most survey courses, more's the pity). The Met has a great record of mounting shows like this, usually accompanied by brilliant catalogues. I'm making a special trip to New York to see it. And as an added treat, there's the Leonard Lauder collection of cubist art and Grand Design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance Tapestry. This is what exhibitions should be about - fresh light on original and interesting subjects. I can't wait!

Meanwhile in London there's a tedious roster of rather predictable blockbuster exhibitions opening this autumn. Most are obvious shows of artists who have been exhibited exhaustively and exhaustingly, but are well enough known to draw crowds. 

The Royal Academy has had some great recent exhibitions like Chiaroscuro Woodcuts, and the highlight of this season in London is their Moroni show. There are an awful lot of Moroni portraits at the National Gallery (they even once considered selling some), but I'm looking forward to a rounded presentation of this talented artist. But the RA has also hosted some of the flimsiest recent shows, which don't pretend to be anything more than entertainment. Catalogues have been a travesty - some colour pictures with captions, plus a few brief essays by celebrities. I'm already put-off by the excessive and daft publicity for Moroni, which presents him as a precursor to Caravaggio and Manet. Oh puhleeze.

They've out-done themselves in the promotional material for Rubens, which re-assures a public unschooled in the classics that "the show would make them not worry about details they did not understand". Curator Van Hout just wants to "cheer the public up". That's the most shamefully dumbed-down publicity I've seen for a major show. Yes, exhibitions are there to be enjoyed. But surely at least part of the point is to challenge and educate too. A more focused exhibition of Rubens' tapestries at the Getty looks more worthwhile. Manageable size and meaningful focus. And they do good catalogues at the Getty.

Then there's Late Turner (again) and another Constable show at the V&A. The pairing is supposed to allow us to assess their relative merits, which is a rather obvious conceit. Turner is clearly the better painter (although I must confess to preferring Constable). There aren't many great British artists, so they just get exhibited over and over again in predictable ways. Late Turner especially will be mobbed, I'm sure. I'd like to see it, but will pass on the crowds. 
Picture: MS
Then there's Rembrandt: The Late Works, another obvious topic and a guaranteed blockbuster. The term 'blockbuster' used to be used to deride exhibitions, using a word from the entertainment business to rebuke museums for failing to provide anything more worthy. Now it's adopted proudly; the NG boasts that this will be a blockbuster, meaning that we should go to marvel at the huge crowds rather than the great pictures.  

The earliest stirring of my interest in art was reading a book on Rembrandt in my junior school library. I remember marveling at The Blinding of Samson, which I've since seen several times in Frankfurt. And we had a print of The Man with a Golden Helmet, then thought to be by Rembrandt, in the school's corridor. I'd love to see this exhibition, but I'm not sure I'll be able to go at all. The busiest shows are literally un-seeable. I once traveled specially from Edinburgh, at a cost I could barely afford at the time, to see the El Greco exhibition at the National Gallery. I left after about ten minutes, because every picture was surrounded by a crowd three or four deep. You could just about catch a glimpse of the top of large pictures, then shuffle to the front and see a bit more a few minutes later. Now that I live in London, I have been able to buy season tickets and visit each exhibition several times to see a little bit on each visit. Now they've stopped offering season tickets, and there's no news on their replacement. They promise a 'friends' scheme, but no information has yet been provided and requests go unanswered (perhaps because they've got rid of their information department). Meanwhile timed entry slots begin to sell out.

It would be arrogant to make any claims about my knowledge or appreciation of Rembrandt, but I can confidently say that few people can have studied him as intently as me. I have seen almost all of his pictures, making special trips to Minneapolis, Moscow and St Petersburg. I traveled to Holland simply to see Jan Six, which I made an appointment to see at the Six House in Amsterdam. I've read all that I can find about Rembrandt over a period of decades, and I've traveled to exhibitions of his work. The picture above is a shelfie of most of my Rembrandt books. But despite living in London, it seems likely that I will miss this major exhibition of his work. If you want more than a quick glimpse through a crowd, then I'm afraid this won't be for you. One of the pictures from Australia is one of the last Rembrandts that I haven't yet seen, but it's just not worth struggling to glimpse it through a crowd at the NG. Looking at art is supposed to be a pleasure, but going to these blockbusters is a painful chore.

Of course exhibitions shouldn't be only for people like me. But at the moment the cater generously to favoured professionals, with private out-of-hours tours in ideal conditions. You'd be surprised just how many of the people enthusing about the current crop of blockbusters will have seen them privately. And they do all they can to entice people with limited interest, trying to boost footfall and engage new audiences. But once you have become interested and you seek greater engagement, you are taken for granted. The main thing they offered us was the season ticket, which has now been taken away. Can it really be their intention that people like me shouldn't visit this exhibition? Let's see if they ever respond to me on the season ticket replacement they have promised.


  1. The Getty exhibition about Rubens was done before in the Prado and perhaps could have been more ambitious, exposing some bozzetti not only modelli and tapestries. Truly the exhibition "celebrates" the end of the restoration of the tables of the Prado and collaboration with the Getty. In spite of everything, the tables look spectacular

    1. Thanks, I didn't know that. The Prado really has had an exceptional record of putting on some of the best exhibitions.

  2. It is a shame that a seasoned viewer such as yourself should be put off the NG's shows. I must admit I stayed away from the Leonardo for much the same reasons.

    I am most disappointed that the NG have withdrawn the exhibition season tickets. I was not able to buy a season ticket for this year's Veronese, despite going in person to the ticket office on the first public day, being told they had sold out (read withdrawn) with no-one able to offer an explanation. I meant to write a complaint letter. In the event I booked a single ticket for mid week afternoon, in the last week of the show, and as is usual by the last hour the crowds had thinned away.

    Mores the pity that the Rembrandt will be in the dungeon galleries of the Sainsbury wing, in rooms of irregular and cramped proportions and without glimpse of daylight.

    Having Art Fund membership the prospect of the as yet unannounced NG Friends is not so appealing for me. Let's hope that the next director of the NG will make improvements for visitors.

    1. Agree that dungeon is an unfortunate venue. I think they probably did actually sell out of Veronese, because I managed to buy one. They often did sell out quite quickly - I used to keep checking the website months in advance to get one as soon as they went on sale for the more popular shows.

  3. In the catalogue Moroni presented as precursor to Caravaggio and Manet! What nonsense indeed. This whole intellectual devise that makes everything original to be derivative and foretelling at great distance in time something seemingly connected or made possible mostly by relying on ascribed antecedence is sickening. Perhaps the temptation is too great for an erudite to refrain from showing off .Moroni and Manet!!!! Why not Moroni and L.Freud. How such non-existing connections could ever be illuminating to anyone............

    1. Completely agree. Nothing can be worthy in its own terms, it must always be related to something more famous. And they also try so hard to make everything great. I like Moroni, but he's a good second-rate regional artist. I'm sure I'll enjoy the exhibition, but I doubt it will promote him to the pantheon of greats.

  4. In November, the Prado presents a small exhibition about Titian, with some of the results arising from the study of the artist's work at the museum, ahead of the publication of the catalog raisonné of the Italian painter at the Prado. The most important result is the consideration from the Danae, owned by the Duke of Wellington as a companion of the Venus and Adonis exhibited in the Prado, replacing the Prado property Danae, which I imagine to be considered a late interpretation of the artist from Cadore. Furthermore the restoration of Wellington Danae, and the Venus and Adonis will be presented after take (the last) several months out of the museum rooms.