Brave art

Mas­ter­pieces from the Na­tional Gal­leries of Scot­land: an ex­clu­sive sneak preview

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

‘She stares out at you in a cer­tain way, doesn’t she? Quite be­witch­ing.” Michael Clarke, di­rec­tor of the Scot­tish Na­tional Gallery, knows well the power of the fe­male gaze. The pair of eyes in ques­tion gazes out of the frame of one of the gallery’s most fa­mous paint­ings, John Singer Sar­gent’s Lady Agnew of Lochnaw. Since 1925, Sar­gent’s fey, slyly smil­ing enigma has been draw­ing thou­sands of fas­ci­nated fans to Scot­land’s premier art mu­seum.

“It’s sen­sa­tional — though I’m sure Sar­gent flat­tered her enor­mously, which por­trait pain­ters are sup­posed to do,’’ Clarke tells Re­view. “But she’s def­i­nitely got per­son­al­ity.”

Sar­gent, the charis­matic, pi­ano-play­ing Amer­i­can ex­pa­tri­ate artist, painted Gertrude Ver­non, 27, young wife of An­drew Noel Agnew, ninth baronet of Lochnaw, in just six sit­tings in 1892. At the Royal Academy a year later, the paint­ing launched both their for­tunes, se­cur­ing Ver­non’s role as so­ci­ety beauty and Sar­gent’s rep­u­ta­tion as one of the finest por­trait artists of the Gilded Age: The Times, on April 29, 1893, hailed the work as “not only a tri­umph of tech­nique but the finest ex­am­ple of por­trai­ture, in the lit­eral sense of the word, that has been seen here for a long time”.

Hand­ily, it also res­ur­rected Sar­gent’s public rep­u­ta­tion, badly dam­aged by the scan­dal sur­round­ing his in­fa­mous Madame X por­trait at the Paris Sa­lon in 1884. “Though I don’t know why,” re­marks Clarke mildly of that lat­ter work, de­pict­ing so­cialite Vir­ginie Gautreau. “Her dress was fall­ing off her, but there were plenty of more risque por­traits in the 19th cen­tury.”

Over the years, Sar­gent’s grand lady has taken on a life far be­yond her gilt frame. With her un­usu­ally di­rect, liq­uid gaze and con­tra­pun­tal mix of lan­guor and ner­vous energy, her coiled fig­ure ris­ing like a ques­tion mark out of a cloud of pearly white satin girded by a li­lac sash, she would come to be seen as a po­tent sym­bol of fin de siecle malaise. Crit­ics re­gard it as one of Sar­gent’s best works, paving the way for a later wave of psy­cho­log­i­cally in­ci­sive por­traits by the likes of Gus­tav Klimt. There is an al­most an­i­mal energy to the work, as has been noted by Sar­gent scholar Richard Or­mond, a de­scen­dant of the pain­ter: “The pic­ture sim­ply sings out ... she is a liv­ing, breath­ing per­son.”

She has even be­come a cul­tural icon of sorts, im­mor­talised in ev­ery­thing from book cov­ers to prints and puzzles, and with her own tribe of ob­sessed fans, in­clud­ing Bri­tish co­me­dian Phill Jupi­tus, who has made so many vis­its over the years to pay homage to the “hussy”, as one staff mem­ber once de­scribed her, that he’s drawn the at­ten­tion of cu­ri­ous mu­seum guards. Find­ing her out on loan one day, he was thus con­soled: “Din­nae worry, Phill, she’s back in July!”

Sar­gent’s elu­sive lady, in all her witchy beauty, is on the road again, this time to Aus­tralia, where she joins another enig­matic muse, Rem­brandt’s A Woman in Bed, as part of the trav­el­ling ex­hi­bi­tion The Greats: Mas­ter­pieces from the Na­tional Gal­leries of Scot­land at the Art Gallery of NSW as part of the Syd­ney In­ter­na­tional Art Se­ries next month.

Drawn from the col­lec­tions of the Na­tional Gal­leries of Scot­land, on show will be 70-plus paint­ings and draw­ings by Ver­meer, Ve­lazquez, Ti­tian, De­gas, El Greco, Monet, Con­sta­ble, Gau­guin, Poussin and oth­ers, en­com­pass­ing 400 years of art from the Re­nais­sance (Bot­ti­celli’s lu­mi­nous 1485-90 mas­ter­piece The Vir­gin Ador­ing the Sleep­ing Christ Child ¸ saved for Scot­land by a dra­matic last-minute fund­ing res­cue, is the ear­li­est) to Post-Im­pres­sion­ism (Cezanne’s spiky, al­most geo­met­ric circa-1904 work The Big Trees), with a weighty Scot­tish bat­tal­ion bring­ing up the rear spear­headed by Henry Rae­burn’s so-called The Skat­ing Min­is­ter, which is widely cel­e­brated as “the Scot­tish Mona Lisa”.

Lady Agnew and com­pany come here as part of an in­ter­na­tional tour that kicked off when Scot­land sent a core of 10 mas­ter­pieces to New York’s Frick Col­lec­tion last year. Another 45 pieces joined the show when it went on to San Fran­cisco’s de Young mu­seum and Texas’s Kim­bell Art Mu­seum. Clarke ap­proached AGNSW’s then deputy di­rec­tor Anne Flana­gan about an Aus­tralian it­er­a­tion of the show in 2012; in­com­ing di­rec­tor Michael Brand fine­tuned the mu­seum’s wish list with Clarke and the di­rec­tor-gen­eral of the Na­tional Gal­leries of Scot­land, John Leighton.

As a re­sult of those Ed­in­burgh talks, Clarke says a sub­stan­tial 30-odd piece graph­ics com­po­nent (Leonard da Vinci’s ex­quis­ite Stud­ies of a Dog’s Paw, usu­ally not on public dis­play even at the NGS, will make a rare out­ing) and three large pas­toral Bouch­ers are ex­clu­sive to the Aus­tralian leg of the tour.

In its three Amer­i­can in­car­na­tions, the show has drawn big crowds and crit­i­cal praise. But in the mix have been some dis­sent­ing voices, with art crit­ics rais­ing the spec­tre of such trav­el­ling shows be­ing padded out with sec­ond-tier works and act­ing as mere “cash cows” to raise funds, through fees, for cap­i­tal work projects (the Scot­tish Na­tional Gallery is un­der­tak­ing a re­ported £15.3 mil­lion ex­pan­sion set for com­ple­tion in 2018). Clarke says he un­der­stands the con­cerns but the NGS takes great care to min­imise risk to frag­ile art ex­ports through strict safety mea­sures. Fur­ther­more, “we live in an age where works of art are lent fre­quently … and we par­tic­i­pate in that fully. It’s also an op­por­tu­nity for us as well to get things out that would nor­mally be hid­den away.”

Brand de­scribes the show as “a state­ment of un­equiv­o­cal artis­tic ex­cel­lence — each piece in this ex­hi­bi­tion is of ex­tra­or­di­nary qual­ity”. It brings to­gether two mu­se­ums whose ties go back to their orig­i­nal ar­chi­tec­tural blue­prints: the AGNSW ar­chives re­veal that the trustees had in mind Wil­liam Henry Play­fair’s clas­si­cal tem­ple-style de­sign for the Scot­tish Na­tional Gallery, opened to the public in 1859, when AGNSW was be­ing built in 1896.

These links will be high­lighted in the ex­hi­bi­tion de­sign in Syd­ney, which will re-cre­ate the fa­mous oc­tag­o­nal rooms of the Ed­in­burgh in­sti­tu­tion in old-mas­ters red.

A grace­ful sand­stone pres­ence on Ed­in­burgh’s The Mound, the Scot­tish Na­tional Gallery forms part of the Na­tional Gal­leries of Scot­land along­side the Scot­tish Na­tional Gallery of Mod­ern Art and the Scot­tish Na­tional Por­trait Gallery. Clarke ob­serves that “we are very lucky that in a coun­try of about only five mil­lion, we have such a mag­nif­i­cent na­tional col­lec­tion which is known and re­spected around the world”. It has long punched above its weight, with a cer­tain David and Go­liath qual­ity to the story of many of its blue-chip ac­qui­si­tions. A case in point is the beau­ti­ful Bot­ti­celli — “a mag­nif­i­cent de­vo­tional paint­ing rich in sym­bolic de­tail and clar­ity of pal­ette”, ac­cord­ing to Suhanya Raf­fel, deputy di­rec­tor of AGNSW — wing­ing its way to Syd­ney.

Painted by the Floren­tine master San­dro Bot­ti­celli around 1485, the so-called We­myss Madonna, in the col­lec­tion of Lord El­cho (later

THE MIGHTY RAEBURNS ON SHOW HAVE A FAS­CI­NAT­ING BACK­STORY

10th earl of We­myss) since 1859, was thought to be a Bot­ti­celli work­shop piece be­fore it was con­firmed as an orig­i­nal in the 1990s. In 1999, Texas’s Kim­bell mu­seum made a huge bid for the work but, luck­ily, says Clarke, the £10.25m price tag was met by a last-minute fund­ing pack­age cob­bled to­gether by a na­tional lottery her­itage fund grant and phil­an­thropic con­tri­bu­tions, among other sources. ‘‘And so with less than 24 hours to go be­fore it was shipped off to the US, it was saved. And it’s now one of the stars of the col­lec­tion.”

At the time, it was con­sid­ered to be among the great­est Re­nais­sance paint­ings ac­quired for any mu­seum in Bri­tain since World War II. Why? Clarke says the vividly emo­tional na­ture of the piece “read­ily inspires de­vo­tion among be­liev­ers. It’s very mov­ing, it’s about a mother’s love for a child … but it’s also very much cen­tred on the cult of Mary, em­pha­sis­ing her pu­rity and un­stained na­ture, as it were, by the de­pic­tion of roses with­out thorns, and the en­closed gar­dens”.

Both the mighty Raeburns on show also have a fas­ci­nat­ing back­story. Rev­erend Robert Walker Skat­ing on Dud­dingston Loch, painted by the pre-em­i­nent Scot­tish por­traitist in 1795, is an un­usu­ally in­for­mal de­pic­tion of Robert Walker, min­is­ter of Ed­in­burgh’s Canon­gate Church, glid­ing serenely as a De­gas bal­let dancer across one of the city’s frozen lochs.

“It’s such an icon of Scot­tish­ness,’’ Clarke says. “It grabs the eye from quite a dis­tance away, you’re drawn to it by its sim­plic­ity be­cause Rae­burn catches the sil­hou­ette so well.”

It too, has an in­ter­est­ing prove­nance, with some crit­ics sug­gest­ing it was by French artist Henri-Pierre Dan­loux. Clarke is con­fi­dent it is a Rae­burn orig­i­nal, “but all de­bate is healthy”.

He loves, too, the sense of ro­bust ec­cen­tric­ity in Rae­burn’s mag­is­te­rial 1812 por­trait of the flam­boy­ant Alastair Ranald­son Mac­Donell, 15th chief of Clan Mac­Donell of Glen­garry, de­scribed by the nov­el­ist Wal­ter Scott as “a kind of Quixote in our age, hav­ing re­tained in its full ex­tent whole feel­ings of Clan­ship and Chief­tain­ship else­where so long aban­doned”.

Rae­burn’s de­pic­tion, so full of life, of the un­ortho­dox high­land chief­tain (wear­ing tar­tan, as the pro­scrip­tion on wear­ing High­land dress fol­low­ing the Ja­co­bite ris­ing of 1745 had been lifted in 1782) “is such an ar­che­typal Scot­tish im­age, isn’t it?’’ Clarke says. “Rae­burn was a won­der­fully painterly pain­ter ... to the best of our knowl­edge, no draw­ings by him sur­vived, he painted straight on to the can­vas. He was a great artist who thought with his brush.”

Brand has his own favourites — from Ver­meer’s mas­tery of light and shade in Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, an early work in the artist’s small sur­viv­ing cat­a­logue of only 36 paint­ings (“es­pe­cially in­ter­est­ing for tack­ling a re­li­gious sub­ject at a larger scale than his later works”) to the strik­ing, sunny 1899 Gau­guin, Three Tahi­tians (“for the way he com­bines an out­sider’s gaze into Tahi­tian life with the con­cerns of Euro­pean paint­ing to cre­ate a unique com­po­si­tion within a blaz­ing field of colour”) and De­gas’s 1879 por­trait of Floren­tine critic Diego Martelli in his Paris apart­ment, “which de­picts his good friend with gen­tle im­me­di­acy, well na­tured but slightly weary from his work help­ing to forge a new art for Europe”.

Also in­trigu­ing, says Brand, is the “head­scratch­ing” strange­ness of the enig­matic El Greco, An Al­le­gory (Fab­ula), fea­tur­ing a boy blow­ing on an ember be­tween a mon­key and a fool in a clever play on a work of clas­si­cal an­tiq­uity de­scribed by Pliny the El­der. It is, says Richard Beres­ford, se­nior cu­ra­tor of Euro­pean art at AGNSW, “a show-off of an artist’s tech­nique, show­ing his abil­ity to use freshly ap­plied paint to con­vey an ar­ti­fi­cial light caught on the face … it’s very likely that El Greco is play­ing a game here, set­ting him­self up against a pain­ter from an­tiq­uity, show­ing that mod­ern artists can do it just as well”.

Beres­ford is struck, too, by the pre­co­cious vir­tu­oso tech­nique on dis­play in Ve­lazquez’s An Old Woman Cook­ing Eggs (1618), painted by the Span­ish master in his late teens, and im­bued with an “ex­tra­or­di­nary pres­ence and clar­ity, so you can feel the drips of the glaze off the por­ous ter­ra­cotta, and you can see where the hands of the pot­ter have slipped as he has turned the ob­ject on the wheel”.

The sheer mas­tery of Ve­lazquez’s de­pic­tion of tex­tures, right down to the semi-cooked eggs (the best such de­pic­tion in Western art, quips Brand) com­petes for the eye with the work’s in­trigu­ingly dis­con­nected, frag­mented qual­ity: “The sub­jects are like a group of ex­otic an­i­mals brought to­gether from dif­fer­ent habi­tats and who are un­com­fort­able with each other. Is the old woman blind? I think that’s partly why it’s such a pow­er­ful pic­ture … the fig­ures are telling a story but it’s a story that no one can spec­ify.”

There’s a sim­i­lar sense of mys­tery in ev­ery­thing from the stormy “su­per­charged” dark clouds, preg­nant with psy­cho­log­i­cal por­tents, in John Con­sta­ble’s dreamy, uniquely au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal The Vale of Ded­ham, his last ma­jor work of his child­hood land­scape around the Stour Val­ley, in­flu­enced as much by Rubens, in Beres­ford’s view, as by Lor­rain (“a par­tic­u­larly ex­tra­or­di­nary work be­cause it so com­pletely en­cap­su­lates the life of the artist who’s made it — it’s a land­scape which stands for the artist him­self and the place where he was born and ed­u­cated, where he grew up as an artist, where he learned to paint in na­ture, where he learned to record the ex­pe­ri­ence of sun­light as it is caught on wet grass”) to Jean-An­tione Wat­teau’s Fetes Ven­i­ti­ennes (1715), a beau­ti­ful, small jew­el­box of a work by one of the fore­most ex­po­nents of the ro­coco style in French paint­ing.

Here again is a paint­ing that “is never go­ing to yield an an­swer”, de­pict­ing a group of peo­ple in a grace­ful park­land set­ting: a musette player thought to be Wat­teau, a male dancer re­sem­bling his friend the Franco-Flem­ish pain­ter Ni­co­las Vleughels, and a woman they’re both bat­tling for.

“But be­cause Wat­teau is so elu­sive, the imag­i­na­tive con­tent of the work gives you no clo­sure as a spec­ta­tor, you can’t ex­plain what’s go­ing on,” Beres­ford says. “It’s dream world.”

Sim­i­larly you have to work hard to de­ci­pher Rem­brandt’s sen­sual A Woman in Bed (c. 1647), pos­si­bly de­pict­ing Rem­brandt’s lover Geertje Dircx.

Some crit­ics be­lieve it is based on the Bib­li­cal tale of Sarah and To­bias on their wed­ding night, Beres­ford says, but “it’s not at all def­i­nite. I’ve come to the con­clu­sion that with a lot of very great paint­ings, their power stems from the fact that they’re not read­ily ex­pli­ca­ble, they don’t tell sto­ries we can just tick off and say, ‘OK, now we know what that paint­ing is about’ … All re­ally great paint­ings do have that mul­ti­lay­ered qual­ity. Dif­fer­ent peo­ple will take away dif­fer­ent things from them.”

The Greats: Mas­ter­pieces from the Na­tional Gal­leries of Scot­land opens at the Art Gallery of NSW on Oc­to­ber 24 and runs un­til Fe­bru­ary 14.

An Old Woman Cook­ing Eggs (1618) by Diego Ve­lazquez, top; John Singer Sar­gent’s Lady

Agnew of Lochnaw (1892), left; The Vir­gin Ador­ing the Sleep­ing

Christ Child (c. 1485) by Bot­ti­celli, above

From above left, Rev­erend Robert Walker Skat­ing on Dud­dingston Loch ( c. 1795) by Henry Rae­burn; Venus Ris­ing from the Sea by Ti­tian (c. 1520-25); Rem­brandt’s A Woman in Bed (1647); Michael Brand, top, and Michael Clarke

Colonel Alastair Ranald­son Mac­Donell, 15th Chief of Glen­garry (c. 1812) by Rae­burn, above; Bell Rock Light­house (1819) by JMW Turner, be­low

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