Sunday, 9 August 2015

'Drawn from the Antique' at the Soane Museum

Picture: Soane
Drawn from the Antique: Artists & the classical ideal Soane Museum, London to 26 September

Artists were spontaneously drawn to ancient sculpture, and there are very early examples of renaissance artists copying Roman statues. By the eighteenth and nineteenth century, copying casts of ancient sculpture was an essential step in academic artistic training, a part of a curriculum that ossified and sometimes became a little pedantic. The picture above can be taken as a wry comment on 'high' art. It's a self-portrait by William Daniels, adopting the persona of an image seller with a bust of Shakespeare, casts of ancient statues, and a brightly coloured parrot. 

The Soane's exhibition on the theme of artists' copying of ancient sculpture could have been a little arid, but quirky exhibits like this make it an absolute delight. There are some really top-notch exhibits, but even the best works are of a type rarely seen in London - a superb drawing by the northern mannerist Goltzius, and a sadly damaged picture by the scarce and fabulous Michael Sweerts. Most of the exhibits aren't famous at all. Some are anonymous, and others are by quite minor masters. But all are interesting. 'Greatest hits' shows can be overwhelming, and are rarely revealing. It's the chance to see something different that marks out the best exhibitions.

The exhibition is sophisticated as well as quirky, apparent above all in the outstanding catalogue, which is one of the best produced for a show in London. The introductory essay by Adriano Aymonino lays out the history of painters' engagement with ancient sculpture with a rare combination of erudition and brevity. It's almost a stand-alone monograph, strong on critical history and art history. It mercifully avoids the pitfalls of excessive theory, to which the theme lends itself: a
rtists' relationships with classical sculpture passing from spontaneous to institutionalisation to reflexive critique. Pah! Glad to read some solid art history instead, and this essay makes me eager for Aymonino's forthcoming book on the collecting and patronage of the first Duke and Duchess of Northumberland. 

Something that bothered me in the exhibition was the preponderance of loans from Katrin Bellinger, a prominent dealer in old master drawings. Bellinger is a highly respected connoisseur-dealer whose shows I've always enjoyed, but there is still the perennial potential for conflict of interest in taking loans from dealers, when they are seeking validation for attributions and exposure for their stock. My concerns were assuaged by the catalogue's explanation that the exhibition is in part intended as a show of her private collection, which focuses on depictions of artists at work. In a sense the theme of the exhibition is one of the themes of Bellinger's well-chosen collection, so the combination worked.

London attracts plenty of blockbuster exhibitions, but recently most have been disappointing; obvious selections of 'greatest hits', flimsy catalogues, dumbed-down presentation. The best shows have been at the smaller museums, particularly the Courtauld and the Soane. The Soane in particular has taken risks with some rather offbeat exhibitions. Not all have appealed to me, but they have all been consistent with the ethos of this most idiosyncratic museum. An instructive contrast is the Jacquemart-Andr√© in Paris, which tries to shoe-horn miniature blockbusters into its small spaces, often disappointing and often invariably overwhelming the intimate space. 
This tiny show is much the most rewarding I've seen recently. And even if you can't make it in person, do try to read the catalogue

1 comment:

  1. In quite a lot of shows it's the narrative that appeals to people - so the curator's work is important. "Greatest Hits" is an overused narrative that sounds more interesting than it looks when you get there because it isn't really a narrative at all.

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