On Friday I was fortunate enough to get a ticket to the National’s latest blockbuster, Less of an Exhibition, More of a Thesis (or Inventing Impressionism: The Man Who Sold a Thousand Monets). I won’t expand too much on the drawback of such exhibitions to the average punter – too crowded, bed blockers parking themselves with their audio guides in front of the good stuff, the sharp elbows of the English Middle Classes, the inexplicable amount of babies and toddlers, the all-too-BIGNESS of the show. We all have our personal grievances on emerging from these things.
Across the road is another show, a teeny tiny one, of work by Jeff Wall, put on by White Cube in the Canada House Gallery. I’d been to visit it a few weeks ago in altogether different circumstances to those in the NG. Apart from having to go through an airport-style security check (it is part of the embassy after all and you can forgive them for being rigorous after the events in Ottawa last year) I didn’t see another person in the place. I had the room to myself to contemplate a handful of pictures, among which was at least one masterpiece, in absolute peace.
So, to an extent this is a piece about the value of seeking out the free treasures that are to be found in London’s art world. The various charitable spaces, private art dealers, cultural centres and auction houses that bespeckle the London map are full of things that the big institutions, even the free ones like the National, would make you pay to view as part of their monster spectacles.
From memory over the last few months I’ve seen a Breughel exhibition at Bonham’s as high quality as any you’d find in Brussels or Vienna (also with a lot of modern toss larded between), a collection of masterpieces at Christie’s that ranged from Chinese art to Rembrandt and Monet, and a little exhibition of Martin Parr photographs at some private dealer off Bond Street. As far as I remember I’d only gone to them because I’d passed them in strolling around and thought to pop in or go back when I had the spare time. Each time I had the Exhibition largely to myself.
What luxury. What pleasure for the cost of slithering under the gaze of the laser-eyed harpies that often act as the gardiennes of these places. So yes, do visit these things.
But do more than that. Think too. For what is the curse of the blockbuster exhibition? It is the audio guide. The mental crutch of the intellectually crippled. Fully formed opinion at the cost of a fiver and a surrender of self-respect.
And here the experience of gallery-going ties in with academia. By all means seek opinion, an academic lecture is after all just opinion (if you’re lucky, expert opinion) that should inform your own writing or lecturing but not dictate it. Students should be encouraged to question the view of their teacher but all too often they listen (well, it depends what time of day it is) and repeat without a digesting process in between. Which is what the audio guide does, it gives you opinion (of excellent quality no doubt) at second hand. It interrupts thinking. Put it away and think.
In an exhibition of the most tremendous quality (I urge you if you can to get to the NG before it shuts) one picture, for me, stood out in particular. Manet’s The Battle of ‘Kearsarge’ and the ‘Alabama’ (1864, Philadelphia Museum of Art). This is an extraordinary painting of an incident I knew nothing about. Now I know a little more. During the American Civil War the Confederacy operated a guerilla war at sea against the navy of the Union. The Kearsarge was a Union warship keeping watch off the French coast for three Confederate Navy commerce raiders: Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. The Alabama was lying off the coast near Cherbourg, waiting for a response from the French authorities to a request to land civilians captured in the course of capturing and burning two United States merchant ships, the Rockingham and Tycoon. After some to-ing and fro-ing, during which the anticipated battle between the two ships had attracted the attention of the world’s media and brought a number of visitors to Brittany to witness the event for themselves. The battle finally took place on 19th June 1864 and the Alabama was sunk in short order. Such is what I have learned this morning but intend to find out more, especially what Manet was up to.*
But that was afterwards. I don’t know what the commentary said about the painting, although judging by the catalogue it almost certainly told of when Durand-Ruel bought it and how much he sold it for. My immediate thoughts on looking at it were of what an extraordinary thing it is – big, contemporary, striking. A colossal study in grey-blue. With echoes of the Raft of the Medusa and parallels in Manet’s own work (so much more politically engaged, it seems to me, than a lot of the other impressionists and hence why he’s of more interest to historians) The Execution of Emperor Maximilian and its concern with the modern world.
Apparently contemporary critics decried the amount of space that Manet gave to the sea, seeing it as overwhelming the more important matter of the battle. Yet to me this is what thrilled because the sea he makes a turbulent danger. The sea is the subject in any maritime painting for anyone concerned about the individual. This occurred to me as I watched coverage of the ongoing losses of life in the Mediterranean as people try to escape conflict in Africa to make a better life in Europe, at enormous risk. A fisherman turned coastguard showed the humanity that Manet shares in his canvas when he pointed out that fishermen-coastguards and the refugees they pluck from the water both share an awareness of the brutality of the sea. Its indifference to what is tossed into it and what is pulled out.
Such a sentiment was also in my mind at the Jeff Wall exhibition. At the two previous shows of his that I’ve seen, at Whitechapel years ago (when I worked in the City and snuck off for intellectual nourishment (being a Guardian reader on the IPE I naturally earned the nickname Trotsky (when the traders were in a benevolent mood – usually I was called far worse))) and Tate Modern more recently, I perceived in Wall’s work this theme of the indifference of nature. I saw it in his A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) and also in his faintly menacing landscapes.
At Canada House there’s a picture I realised I’d seen before but probably through gallery fatigue hadn’t really looked at, Boy Falling From A Tree. It could be comic, most boys have fallen from trees haven’t they? It viscerally reminded me of the sensation of falling off a thing, or not so much the falling off as the landing – landing on the ground after falling off a shed when playing at a friend’s house and laughing at my dizziness after banging my head, or landing on a big bush after falling out of a window at university and impaling my leg on a branch.
Then there is the metaphorical implications of falling from the Icarus story to Lucifer, which put me in mind of Breughel (another favourite artist). But these stories involve human agency and what I get from the dispassionate view of Wall, and to an extent Manet, is that it’s not the person but the thing that is the agent. The sea swallows errant sailors. The earth crushes those who fall onto it. They are moral tales that warn us to be cautious, to be respectful of natural phenomena for our own good. And in this election time, after listening to the leader of the Green Party go on about what we are doing to the earth through our misguided actions I was struck by how wrong-headed this approach is. Nature is indifferent to us, both globally and individually. If we should persuade people to respect nature the more we should thus appeal to self-interest. Nature is capable of a far more brutal retribution on us for the wrongs we heap upon it. Manet and Wall show us that.
* My source is J. Wilson-Bareau & D. C. Degener, Manet and the American Civil War: The Battle of U.S.S. Kearsarge and C.S.S. Alabama (Yale University Press, 2003)
Blue Badge guide to London and academic specialising in early twentieth century history. Blogging on history, academia, and food and culture in the capital (and occasionally elsewhere).