Sunday, 10 May 2009

Ways to paint a bruise

Yesterday to Dulwich to visit the art gallery, which is showing 'Sickert in Venice', and also to take in the park, which we hoped would feature a playground, some ducks, a variety of dogs and an ice cream van.

Neither T nor I have ever been to Dulwich and its gallery. This is despite the permanent collection having a high Old Master hit-rate, probably equivalent or even better than the national galleries of some smaller European countries, Ireland for instance. But we're spoilt in London and don't really appreciate what we've got. The Wallace Collection is a similarly semi-secret trove of great works, with an even more impressive housing. But unlike the Wallace, and entirely because it's south of the river, Dulwich had remained unvisited after fifteen years in London.

Apologies for the 'funny things kids say' moment: 'Is that Mowgli?', on seeing Reni's John the Baptist (I imagine the loin-cloth did it). Favourite painting: Ricci's 'Fall of the Rebel Angels', a terrific action painting featuring free-falling muscle-bound struggle and a blindingly shiny silver shield and sword. Unsurprising, I suppose, given the eldest's current fascination with super-heroes. St Michael has joined the ranks of Batman and Spiderman.

We then must have had about twenty minutes worth of questions. I tell you, explaining what was going on took a lot of work: try defining 'angel', 'heaven', 'God', 'Lucifer', then explain why the 'naughty angels' got kicked out, all in terms to be understood by a three-year old. Angel is to bird as fairy is to butterfly, for instance.

But the real reason we'd made the trip was because the Sickert show had been reviewed on Fugitive Ink. I enjoy this blog as its concerns interest me and are always taken on with intelligence, wit and engagement. Art is a major preoccupation, often worked out through essay-length reviews of exhibitions.

I'm someone who's always had a slow-burning interest in art but never really studied it seriously; like a lot of people probably. And I'm finding it pleasantly self-improving to read up on art in a more serious and extended format than that provided by the review sections of the weekend papers. For example, Fugie's piece on the recent Bacon exhibition at Tate Britain really helped clarify what I thought.

So Sickert. Well, being untutored I'm just going to give you my sort of gut response: really quite disturbing. For the first time, I understood why Patricia Cornwell had speculated that Sickert and Jack the Ripper could have been one and the same (even if the theory remains crackpot).

I tend to respond quite strongly to colour and Sickert's palate is an unusual one. It's full of what ordinarily would be the colours of life: purples, pinks, greens, yellows. However, they are given a dusty, overcast taint draining them entirely of vitality. Why did I find this disturbing?

It took a while to put my finger on it. But it struck me that this palate looked like nothing more than the life-cycle of a bruise. Or more precisely, that of a haematoma: from dark purple through to leaden yellow. I just saw a dull pain - suffered, inflicted and lovingly savoured - infusing almost every painting.

The last room contains portraits of prostitutes sitting in rooms, alone (even when in pairs). The subject combined with the bruised colours contusing the canvas provoked quite an unpleasant imaginative response. I wondered whether I was alone in this (and really hoped I wasn't) but T had a similar reaction. As must have Patricia Cornwell for that matter.

We were happy to return to the permanent collection of the main gallery. But also glad to have made the detour. It's all knowledge and experience, isn't it?

By the way, and changing gears in crashing fashion, things cheered up considerably in the really rather lovely Dulwich Park, which checked every entry on the wishlist: ducks, dogs, swings and ice cream.


Bunny Smedley said...

Thanks for the kind words, Gareth. If Fugitive Ink achieves nothing else, at least it helped to propel you towards Dulwich. I account that a success.

As for the bruise-based colour palette, that's a fascinating observation, and at some level unarguable. How I wish you'd seen the Courtauld exhibition of those Camden Town studies. For although I didn't personally find the Venice paintings disturbing (the colour seemed right for shuttered rooms in Venice, somehow), the Camden Town ones certainly struck me as rather chilling - yet erotic, too, which is a disturbing combination.

Meanwhile, 'crackpot' is clearly the right word for Cornwell's theories - Matthew Sturgis, whose biography of Sickert is as impeccably scholarly and soundly researched as it is humane and readble, has repeatedly shown Cornwell's 'evidence' to be hollow where it isn't entirely nonsensical. It's striking now, though, to what an extent Sickert's reputation has come to be dominated by an aspersion that has no basis in fact. Your observation makes more sense of this than most. Perhaps Cornwell was on to some sort of obliquely symbolic truth, if obviously not the court-of-law kind?

Bunny Smedley (again) said...

100 per cent off topic, by the way, but looking at that very pleasant photo atop your blog title, I am reminded of a distressing piece of 'Farming Today' this morning, about how some farmers find shearing sheep a nuisance - hence the growing popularity of breeds of sheep that have hair, like goats, rather than an actual fleece. Although frequently quite libertarian about quite a lot, I think that's more or less exactly where I draw the line.

(Just had to get that out of my system ...!)

Gaw said...

I don't think I'd been influenced by Patricia Cornwell's accusation. But you never know what's going on beneath the surface of a supposedly instinctive response. In any event, he's not an artist I'll be seeking out in the future: at best I felt he was a bit musty. So I guess the Sewell camp is for me, so to speak.

It's a Welsh Mountain ram, a breed that surrounded me at my birth and which I still occasionally hang out with. On the basis of this experience I can vouch that sheep really are the stupidest, smelliest, rottenest beasts and I can well understand the attractions of making them hairy rather than woolly. But why stop there? Why not genetically engineer them to be mint-flavoured?