'Sculpture in Painting'
Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, 10 October 2009-10 January 2010
As a sculpture-fixated student at the Courtauld in the mid-80s, my tutor indulged me in an exercise in looking for sculpture in the work of Rubens and Van Dyck. He made it quite clear that mine was an anti-intellectual, even rather silly, project, but nevertheless let me go ahead. The up-shot? No sculpture to speak of in the former, unless you count Solomonic columns, but significant examples in the latter. A thesis emerged that Van Dyck was aware of the sculptural obsessions of the period, and of the English Court in particular. Sculpture appears in Van Dyck, either with a specific meaning as in the Continence of Scipio (c1621, Christ Church, Oxford), where direct reference is made to a work in his patron's collection, and indirectly to the Torso Belvedere; or generally as staffage, something his successors William Dobson and Peter Lely were to take further. As a juvenile essay it was worth doing. Twenty-five years later the exercise has been conducted on a fuller, deeper, and wider scale by the Henry Moore Institute, in a very cool exhibition, cool in every sense of the word.
Twenty-five years ago sculpture was the Cinderella of art history and research, and so Sculpture in Painting is both timely and appropriate, throwing up as it does rich new lines of enquiry, too many to be covered in a single review. The theme was chosen as an exhibition to mark ten years of the Institute, and its high profile and energetic participation in sculpture studies. This was the first exhibition at the Institute in which not a single piece of sculpture was shown: three galleries devoted to paintings alone, divided thematically into three different subject areas. The ideas and the selection had arisen out of a series of informal seminars, as part of the research programme conducted at the Institute. It was an anthology of paintings most of which included sculpture, and which the contributors, working with Penelope Curtis, saw as resonating with sculptural ideas. The catalogue too is an anthology of short essays, as has become the custom at the Henry More Institute, thus neatly spreading the load, the responsibility and the interpretation.
Before settling to the positive business of reviewing, this symmetrically minded reviewer must rid herself of a sad carp, which is that the beautiful catalogue in which everything is reproduced page-size in colour, its smart dust jacket lined in sunflower yellow, has a serious fault in its lay-out. This may be the result of some deconstructive rule-breaking design style, and if so it does hot work; it is very anti-visual, and distressingly disruptive to the whole. It seems that the decision to have all the colour plates fall on the recto page complicated the flow of the text. This has led to a number of images being placed at the beginning of their related essay and some at the end, creating confusing page lay-outs in which, in one outrageous example, two-and-a-half lines hang on the page opposite the exquisite rendering by Aubry of Louis-Claude Vasse's shot-silk gown. There are others equally unsettling, while a running heading throughout adds to the lack of clarity
Themed shows are often questionable. Do great paintings benefit from being hung as 'Dogs' or 'Fairies' '... in Painting'? These are usually pot-boiling exhibitions with an eye to popular reception. There must have been some meeting-room debate along these lines at the National Gallery, and the presence here of Titian's La Schiavona (Pl 1) is undoubtedly a regional coup, but could the National Gallery hot also have stretched to lending a Mantegna, or rive, as well? Perhaps they were not asked, but it is tantalising to have one of the Mategnas illustrated full page in one of the introductory catalogue essays. The Titian, a painting I visit regularly, was seen here against white walls and grey floors, divorced from its sometimes noisier companions, damask backdrops, and the aura of national authority. …