"Critics turn on 'Turner & Claude' at the National Gallery"

March 13 2012

Image of "Critics turn on 'Turner & Claude' at the National Gallery"

Picture: BG

That's not my headline, but Reuters'. Adrian Searle in The Guardian and Richard Dorment in The Telegraph dislike the National Gallery's new 'Turner & Claude' exhibition so much, it seems, that their response is the basis for a news story itself. 

First, here's Searle:

Quite why the National Gallery is bringing together the British landscape painter with the 17th-century French classical landscapist, I can only wonder. It is only three years since Tate Britain mounted Turner and the Masters, a fascinating overview of his rivalries and influences – including Claude Lorrain.

Most of the works here are in British collections, the majority from Tate Britain and the National Gallery itself. There are only three major foreign loans, all from the US. So it will cost you £12 to see lots of paintings we already own. Perhaps the exhibition is intended to give respite to all the guards who had to shepherd the fainting, weeping and often hysterical crowds around its recent Leonardo show. Turner apparently burst into tears when he first saw Claude's 1648 Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba. As well as being moved, he probably realised how far he would have to go to beat Claude as a painter. There is nothing new in this observation; nor does this exhibition have anything new to say about the relationship between the two artists.

And here's Richard Dorment, in a petulant mood:

For the life of me, I can’t understand why the National Gallery has gone to so much trouble to tell us something that most people with an interest in British art already know. [...]

The show is a muddle from start to finish. The best I can say about it is that the curators have borrowed some wonderful pictures to hang alongside much-loved warhorses from the National Gallery and Tate. But in the catalogue essays, art historians are given carte blanche to waffle on for page after page explaining ideas that could be written on the back of a postcard.

Don’t get me started on the labels: surely there are limits to the number of synonyms curators may use for “soft”, “glow” and “light”. And you only have to tell us once that Turner left Sunlight Rising through Vapour to the National Gallery in his will.

After seeing the exhibition, I found myself writing a single word in my notebook, but that word happens to be the kiss of death for any exhibition: “Why?”

To which the only response is, well why not? Both Dorment and Searle make the common mistake of thinking exhibitions always have to teach us something 'new'. Personally, I see nothing wrong in putting on shows that just have good pictures, well displayed. One of the nice things about the exhibition is that it isn't constantly trying to impress the visitor with a new theory, or a different idea in each room. Instead, it is a pleasant and gentle extended essay on two of landscape art's greatest proponents. I liked it very much. The rooms are well presented (really, we must stop whingeing about the Sainsbury Wing exhibition space - it's fine), and the pictures are given plenty of space, which is essential for Turner's larger works.

Searle's moan about there being only three major foreign loans is pretty daft, for a key point of the exhibition is that English collectors were so obsessed with Claude that fully half his works were in England by the 1820s. Those that Turner drew particular inspiration from (in the collections of Angerstein, Beaumont and Beckford) went on to become some of the central pictures in our permanent collections. And of course it was Turner's explicit desire that many of his best works remained in public ownership in the UK. So we should be glad that we don't have to look overseas to fill an exhibition like this.

Incidentally, I don't know which catalogue Dorment was reading, but it can't have been the one which accompanies this exhibition. The lavishly illustrated catalogue for this show is shorter than usual NG exhibition catalogues, and the essays, which I thought were excellent, even shorter. There is no waffle.  

For better or worse, critics in the national press have the power, collectively, to make or break a show like this, and by extension have an impact on the National Gallery's reputation. In my view they therefore have a responsibility not to write off major exhibitions so glibly. For in the space of just over a month, the National Gallery has finished hosting a stellar success in Leonardo, bought a £45m Titian, and now presents us with 'Turner & Claude'. And I think that's pretty damn good.

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