Exhibitions: The Pleasures of the Flash
Hilton, Tim, The Independent (London, England)
I find the Tate Gallery's "Grand Tour" exhibition dry and uninspiring, though there's no doubt that it covers one side of its subject in a thorough way. The show's subtitle is "The Lure of Italy in the 18th Century", and although there are significant contributions from French and German artists who crossed the Alps before the Napoleonic wars, this is really a show about English connoisseurs, and therefore about the kind of taste that fashioned the decoration of country houses in the days when art collecting was confined to people who possessed such properties.
These were also the men who had the wealth to send their sons (never daughters) to Italy to look at classical antiquities, Renaissance art and the topography of the Roman campagna. Such people went to Italy and made lots of purchases, bringing paintings, sculpture and other artefacts back to England. As is seldom remarked, least of all in the present exhibition, this was the only time and the only sphere in which our landed aristocracy made any contribution to visual culture. Not that they did so for the good of culture in general. They were interested in their own houses. To this day, country-house art is stuck in the late 18th century. There was little significant collecting by the aristocracy in the 19th century, and none at all in the 20th.
For such reasons the Tate exhibition is extremely old fashioned. It could be compared to "Italian Art and Britain", a significant event at the Royal Academy in 1960. The subject matter of "Grand Tour" is pretty much the same, except that the attitude is far more documentary. It's as though the whole exhibition has been designed as an illustration of its catalogue. All the accompanying scholarship is excellent, but the work on the walls is almost entirely of the second rank. One has the impression that the people who devised the show are simply not interested in the larger spirit of art - just like the rich travellers whose collecting activities are so respectfully examined. One looks in vain for the kind of painting that stirs emotions or tells us something new about the world. Alas, wonderful artists are few. There's a fine Claude, but he's the last artist to tell us anything new, and really one looks at him with some weariness. The interest provided by Canaletto is soon exhausted. Vernet, Bellotto, Piranesi and many others are revealed as trademark artists. The Turner is a Turner. Joseph Wright of Derby is not at his best in the view of Vesuvius in Eruption. This is obviously a routine work, for it was painted in England and is one of no fewer than 30 of his paintings of the same subject. Repetitions and cliche are obvious components of art associated with the Grand Tour, a problem unnoticed by the catalogue essays. …