Great exhibitions are spoilt by the catalogues and wall labels, says Susannah Fiennes. Let’s have less art history and more on the art of painting.
London, 13 May 2000
Journalist Susannah Fiennes
As an artist, I go to exhibitions to see how other artists have approached and resolved the problems that I struggle with daily in my painting. The pleasure of it for me is in learning about and engaging with the visual language used by different artists. But isn’t that what everyone wants – and deserves – from their gallery visits? Surely people want to understand what they’re looking at, to enjoy it all the more?
Now, though, even the most venerable institutions have succumbed to the pull of populism: exhibitions have been dumbed down. And for this, I blame the curators and the catalogues and wall labels they provide. it is not the artists chosen that are at fault but rather the commentaries on them and quality of information supplied in the galleries.
The vacuous wall labels reported at Tate Modern and the thematic re-hang of Tate Britain both seem symptomatic of this trend, but here I would like to concentrate on two exhibitions of works by Old Masters: last summer’s Rembrandt Self-Portraits at the National Gallery and the Royal Academy’s current Chardin.
The glossy catalogue accompanying the Rembrandt exhibition has a large section devoted to analysts of the psychological reasons why Rembrandt painted himself wearing different hats; and an essay in the Chardin catalogue explores the history of “Ceramics and Glass in Chardin’s Painting”. What both publications lack is any discussion of these artists as visual dramatists, whose aims were to create an illusion of space and light on a flat surface using an ordered arrangement of shapes of relative colour values.
Indeed, the ellipses of Rembrandt’s hats and of Chardin’s ceramics and classes play a role in the drama, as devices for articulating the illusion of volume. These artists sought to express themselves by means of a concise pictorial language (one that was inherited from predecessors such as Titian and later used by Cezanne and Matisse, who themselves admitted their debt to Chardin, the 18th-centuray master of still-life).
In the Life Rooms at the Slade in the early Eighties, my fellow students and I practised this discipline and learned to express ourselves through a methodical system of looking and interpreting. Chardin himself said that the eye must be taught to look at nature – and people can be taught how to look at paintings. This is not a difficult process. it does not have to take years of study.
Gallery visitors could simply be given a little critical information, providing clues on what to look for in each work. What they get today, however, instead of information about the pictorial idea, is mundane descriptions, background history and artist’s psychology.
The banal audio commentary on the Rembrandt exhibition declared that one of the artist’s great triumphs had been to paint skin in such a way that it suggested living flesh. yet it failed to explain that an illusion of flesh is created with contrasts and connections of colour, tone and temperature, or that Rembrandt constructed rather than captured a likeness by piecing together a minutely observed sequence of shapes that, when possessing the correct colour values, constitute a likeness.
Likewise, the catalogue entry on Chardin’s The Young Draughtsman merely concedes that the artist was interested in the strict equilibrium of the composition. It does not discuss the way in which he organised the rectangle into three acts, the opening one of which comprises the horizontal stage of the table and leads the viewer into the central drama of the raised brush, which makes a right angle with the front of the boy’s chest. Or how the artist clearly delighted in the conflict established between the diagonal turn of the portfolio and the horizontal edge of the table, a simple devise for leading the viewer into the drama.
Chardin’s work revels in the dynamic tension inherent in the juxtaposition of opposites, whether of geometry or colour: red/green, light/dark, vertical/horizontal. He consistently demonstrated his mastery of the language of painting – so why does the catalogue mislead readers with the assertion that Chardin was the opposite of an intellectual painter?
One of the great joys of artists such as Rembrandt and Chardin is that they reveal something of the order of the visual world. They show that the elements within a rectangle do not exist in isolation but that, like the notes of a melody, they form an integral part of the whole. Above all, they know that the particular resonance of light, like that of sound, is affected by what surrounds it.
“The miracle…the ‘magic'” of Chardin described in the catalogue may well be apparent, but it emerges as a result of his tender – yet meticulous – observation of the particular character of a shape; the triangle of light between his young draughtsman’s arm and waist, for example, or the breathtaking delicacy of the grey shape that separates his hair from his neck.
The inadequate presentation of these two exhibitions does the public a disservice, as well as the artists. This leads me to conclude that the galleries do not trust their audiences to grasp or be interested in even the basics of art theory. It’s a tendency that must be discouraged.
The balance has to be redressed from an emphasis on art history and superficial commentaries towards equipping visitors with some knowledge of the language of painting, giving them the means to substantiate their intuitive, emotional response to the pictures and enjoy the works as they are to be enjoyed.