A Triumph of Hype over Experience; A Promising Crop of Exhibitions Opens in the Next Three Months. but Can They Live Up to Their Own Advance Publicity?

By Sewell, Brian | The Evening Standard (London, England), January 3, 2003 | Go to article overview
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A Triumph of Hype over Experience; A Promising Crop of Exhibitions Opens in the Next Three Months. but Can They Live Up to Their Own Advance Publicity?


Sewell, Brian, The Evening Standard (London, England)


Byline: BRIAN SEWELL

IF I write that exhibitions scheduled in the first three months of 2003 seem promising, it is because I know only what I have been told of them in fervid press releases and vainglorious announcements. I have been an art critic far too long to trust a word of such material, have suffered too many deceits and disappointments and am now both too cynical and too sceptical to believe that any exhibition is the first, the biggest or the best.

Consider the short first paragraph of the National Gallery's encomium for its Titian retrospective, opening on the holy day devoted to the inventor of the Armenian alphabet. "An unprecedented opportunity," it claims, " ...

the first ever grand-scale exhibition ... remarkable [and] ... remarkable [again]".

Even if it were all these things, think of Titian's luminous and glowing colour trapped in the dim, poky and misshapen rooms, doubly subterranean, fit only for Wagnerian gnomes, that pass for exhibition space in Trafalgar Square - yet Titian is a painter whose work cries out for daylight, that changes astonishingly and wondrously between the cool light of morning and the warm light of afternoon.

Prolific in all the many phases of the three-quarters of a century that was the length of his working life, if we are to grasp the measure of the man we need to see his paintings in space, height, distance and far greater number than the National Gallery can offer.

We are never told that an exhibition is not what its curators wanted it to be, that for a multitude of reasons significant loans were refused - too fragile, in all respects too valuable to risk in different climatic conditions, too important to lose, even temporarily, from permanent exposure in their own museums, too often loaned in recent years or already reserved for another exhibition; we are not told that substitutes too, first, second and third, have been refused and that what is on the walls is no substitute at all; we are not told that pictures are borrowed because exhibition curators have never visited the remote museums to which they belong and are anxious to see them without effort - only to discover that they are in disastrous condition, ruined by cleaners and obscured by restoration. Far too often, what is presented as a great curatorial achievement is the consequence of compromise, substitution and even accident.

And I want to hammer home the point that for all the Lottery and private funding that has been spent on the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum, and is about to be spent on the National Gallery again, not one of these great national institutions has a decent exhibition space capable of housing great international exhibitions - cafEs, absurdly expensive restaurants, education areas and meetingplaces, but not one single exhibition space to match the enfilade of spacious, well-lit rooms offered by the Royal Academy.

Titian, 19 February-18 May, National Gallery.

David Hockney

HOCKNEY, having made an ass of himself a year ago with a supposedly learned tome on the camera obscura, now makes himself an ass again by painting in watercolour.

I am well aware of the folly of commenting on works of art known only from reproduction - even in such a handsome catalogue as this - but shall nevertheless risk suggesting that what talent David once had as a draughtsman (and 30 years ago it was considerable, even unrivalled by his peers) has entirely evaporated. Clumsy, grotesque, childish and absurdly overblown in scale, with these incompetent landscapes and gloomy caricatural portraits of his friends (including Lucian Freud), David is in grave danger of winning, not Watercolour Challenge, but the Turner Prize.

17 January-1 March, Annely Juda, 23 Dering Street, W1.

Constable to Delacroix

THIS exhibition examines the relationship of French and British painting in the period 1820-1840, stressing the supposed influence of Constable, Turner, Wilkie, Bonington and Lawrence on their French contemporaries (and possibly the dreadful Haydon too, for Delacroix once described him as "a very great talent").

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