Artistic taste is inversely proportional to political nous

‘Wherever the British settle, wherever they colonize,’ observed the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon, ‘they carry and will ever carry trial by jury, horse-racing and portrait-painting.’ This doesn’t sound like a bad set of cultural baggage, even for those who don’t care for the races. There is clearly a lot to be said for trial by jury, and portraits make up the most enjoyable — in fact, downright humorous — section of Artist & Empire, a curious new exhibition at Tate Britain.

Not, of course, that Tate approaches this subject in a playful spirit. At the entrance, a hand-wringing text declares that the British empire’s ‘history of war, conquest and appropriation is difficult, even painful to address’. Even so, it points out — correctly — that the whole sorry business had a considerable effect on art, in Britain and elsewhere.

The show turns out to be a good deal more fun than this introduction augurs because of the intrinsic charm and, quite often, absurdity of the objects on show. A good deal of space is taken up by grand Georgian and Victorian paintings on imperial themes. Among these first prize for hilariousness goes to Edward Armitage’s ‘Retribution’ (1858), which depicts a burly, governess-like figure of Britannia throttling a full-grown Bengal tiger in revenge for the Indian Mutiny. This represents another game effort on Tate’s part — followingSculpture Victorious earlier in the year — to find something to do with the 19th-century paintings previously relegated to the storeroom (or perhaps the officers’ mess).

There are much more engaging, and better, things to be seen. The flora and fauna of the empire are depicted in delightful images such as the Indian artist Shaikh Zain ud-Din’s ‘Common Crane’ (1780), a lanky bird with enormous feet, twisting its neck around to peer at the viewer with one sharp little eye. George Stubbs’s ‘Cheetah and a Stag with two Indian handlers’ is an out-and-out masterpiece, apparently recalling the moment when the big but timorous cat tried to run away rather than take part in a deer hunt.

Similar panache, plus a hint of fancy dress, is to be found in the portraits. Van Dyck’s full-length of an early nabob, the hefty ‘1st Earl of Denbigh’ (1633–4), strides along in Indian dress, with palm tree and attendant in the background. In John Singer Sargent’s portrayal, ‘Sir Frank Swettenham’ (1904), the first Resident-General of Malay States, wears a uniform as gleaming white as hotel napery in a setting worthy of Louis XIV, but looks as though he might be more at ease in the club bar.

Elsewhere — an introductory section of maps, for example — the exhibition is a bit thin, visually (the ones in which a strident imperial red covers much of the globe looking the jolliest, although that is not the curators’ point). Art & Empire poses a question for the new director of Tate Britain, soon to arrive: whether to carry on with this lowering blend of art and social history — or mount more exhibitions like the marvellous Frank Auerbach, currently on show upstairs. Time for a change of policy on Millbank, I would say.

Meanwhile, at the Queen’s Gallery there is Masters of the Everyday. This is a display of some — just some — of the Dutch pictures in the Royal Collection. Nonetheless, it contains no fewer than four Rembrandts (the Queen has more of those) plus enough Jan Steens to make up a mini-retrospective, several fine Pieter de Hoochs and a single, superb Vermeer.

‘The Music Lesson’ (c.1662–5) was bought by George III as part of a job lot from Consul Smith of Venice. At the time it was attributed to Frans van Mieris, and even if it had been labelled ‘Vermeer’ no one would then have been interested. Now it’s one of the best known pictures in the world, and subject of a film, Tim’s Vermeer.

Paintings have their fates; so do their owners. The greatest contributors to the Royal Collection were George IV and Charles I, both disastrous rulers. In Britain at least there seems to be an inverse relation between artistic taste and political nous. This may explain why the mighty empire did not produce very much in the way of good art.

First published in The Spectator

How pop is Peter Blake?

Painters and sculptors are highly averse to being labelled. So much so that it seems fairly certain that, if asked, Michelangelo would have indignantly repudiated the suggestion that he belonged to something called ‘the Renaissance’. Peter Blake is among the few I’ve met who owns up to being a member of a movement; he openly admits to being a pop artist. The odd thing about that candid declaration is that I’m not sure he really is one.

A delightful exhibition at the Waddington Custot Gallery presents Blake in several guises, including photorealist and fantasist, but — although one of the exhibits is an elaborate shrine in honour of Elvis Presley — ‘pop’ is not the term that comes to mind.

One reason why artists don’t like being classified is that the more those categories — baroque, impressionist — are examined, the more they fall apart. For example, Blake has genuinely ‘pop’ tastes in one sense: he is a fan of rock’n’roll — indeed famously created an album cover for the Beatles. But there is none of the irony of an Andy Warhol about his work, or the intellectual distance of Richard Hamilton. He comes across partly as a gentle realist, and partly as a romantic with a love of eccentric outsiders.

One half of the exhibition is made up of portraits, among them a fine one of Leslie Waddington, founder of the gallery, whose death was announced this week. Blake makes no secret of the fact that these are based on photographs, which he traces. Such a procedure has been common for centuries, but a superstitious feeling lingers that it is somehow ‘cheating’ to use a camera to help make a painting. But what Blake is doing is far more subtle than simply copying a photograph. His translation of the original image into paint is delicate and subtle — and sometimes requires an extraordinary amount of time.

Blake is renowned for continuing to exhibit certain pictures as ‘works in progress’ for decades (one in this exhibition was begun ‘c.1980’). If he can be very slow, however, Blake — now 83 — can also be surprisingly quick. Many of the exhibits in this show date from this year.

Among them is a series of new watercolours entitled ‘Tatooed Men & Women’ (see p33). They all have everyday faces, presumably derived again from photographs, but emblazoned on their skin is a whimsical phantasmagoria. One has a full crucifixion on his chest, plus the word ‘Mother’; a woman has portrayals of princes Harry and William across her naked breasts. These hark back to Blake’s long-standing love of fairground entertainers and what you might call contemporary folk art. So, too, does a series, still ‘in progress’, depicting fantastic wrestlers, each with a fighting pseudonym — ‘Considerate Boy’, ‘Princess Perfect’, written beneath their picture and a characteristic costume. Princess Perfect wears a crown to fight.

David Jones, subject of a retrospective exhibition at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, is also hard to place in any category. That’s about the only thing he has in common with Blake, except for origins on the south bank of the Thames. Blake hails from Dartford; Jones (1895–1974) was brought up in Brockley, the child of an Anglo-Italian mother and Welsh father.

The mixture in his life and work of medievalism, poetry, piety and modernism was perhaps — like some chemical compounds — inherently unstable. A poet and writer — T.S. Eliot described his book In Parenthesis, based on his experiences in the first world war, as a ‘work of genius’ — Jones was absorbed in a mental world of Arthurian legends and Celtic literature. At Camberwell School of Art he had absorbed the influences of Cézanne and later Picasso and Derain. In his 20s, he converted to Catholicism, and lived for a while in craft communities presided over by Eric Gill.

In Jones’s most dense images, such as ‘Aphrodite in Aulis’ (1940–1), there is a chaotic thicket of symbolic bric-à-brac in which you can make out a bulbous, naked goddess, soldiers from the first world war and fragments of Roman architecture. His wood engravings on religious themes, though more refined than Gill’s, still have a touch of art deco Romanesque about them.

Jones did much better when tethered to the real world by a subject such as a portrait or a landscape seen through a window (a favourite theme perhaps because Jones suffered from agoraphobia). Even then the results could be both muddy — as watercolour — and muddled; but when it came off the effect could be ecstatic.

In ‘Flora in Calyx-Light’ (1950) everything — not just glass but wood and stone — becomes translucent. Ostensibly this is a picture of three glass vessels filled with flowers on a tabletop in front of a window. But it’s simultaneously a mystic vision in which these solid objects appear to melt in front of your eyes.

This painting almost but not quite dissolves into a shimmering cobweb of fragments: leaves, tendrils, petals, reflections.

In a curious fashion this waywardly backward-looking man was completely of his time: ‘Flora in Calyx-Light’ is about the Holy Grail, but also close to Jackson Pollock. A teacher at Camberwell once announced, addressing the whole class, ‘You see, Jones leaves out everything — except the magic.’ That’s true of his masterpieces, and despite his inner complexities and contradictions there were quite a few of those.

 

First published in The Spectator

Why would a dissolute rebel like Paul Gauguin paint a nativity?

A young Polynesian woman lies outstretched on sheets of a soft lemon yellow. She is wrapped in deep blue cloth, decorated with a golden star. Beside her bed sits a hooded figure, apparently an older woman, holding a baby. In the background is a huddle of resting cows, suggesting that the setting is a barn or stable.

There is something familiar about the set-up — baby, young mother, farm animals — but it may take a while to notice certain details. The head of the woman on the bed is encircled by an area of darker yellow, which forms a sort of halo, and the baby’s head is similarly ringed with green. A subsidiary figure standing in the shadows has an odd protuberance, which looks a little like a wing. Then you realise that this is a painting of a most unusual kind: a Tahitian Nativity.

It was painted in 1896 by Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), who inscribed the title at the bottom left of the canvas: Te tamari no atua, which means — roughly, since Gauguin’s grasp of Tahitian was shaky — ‘The Child of God’. But why should Gauguin have produced such an unexpected image of what might seem, for a dissolute adherent of the avant-garde, such a surprising subject?

A standard interpretation is that the picture is connected with the fact that the artist’s teenage Polynesian mistress, Pahura, gave birth around Christmas time in that year (the baby, a little girl, lived only a few weeks). However, the scholar George Shackelford has pointed out that the picture must have been one of those the painter dispatched by ship to Paris in July 1896, so, Shackelford concluded, at the latest it could have been painted in the early months of Pahura’s pregnancy. It is equally possible that it has nothing to do with Gauguin’s impending fatherhood; that he simply decided to paint a Tahitian Madonna because, in a highly unorthodox fashion, he was a man with religion on his mind.

There is a lingering impression that when Gauguin went to the South Pacific he painted and drew what he saw. This was not altogether so. Certainly, local people, landscapes and objects got into his work. The space in which ‘Te tamari no atua’ is set might be based on the house Gauguin built for himself in the village of Puna’auia, with walls of bamboo cane and a thatched roof of plaited palm leaves. The mother on the bed is presumably modelled on Pahura. But just as much Gauguin depicted what was in his head, and also in his luggage.

He came to Tahiti — sailing for the first time in 1891, returning after a period back in France towards the end of 1895 — with a travelling photographic library of visual sources. Among these were details from the 5th-century Greek Parthenon frieze and Buddhist sculptures from the Javanese temple of Borobudur. Poses and plants from the latter crept into an earlier Tahitian Madonna and Child, ‘Ia Orana Maria (Hail Maria)’, from 1891. This sort of cross-cultural cut-and-paste — south-east Asian forms, Polynesian setting, Christian subject — is typical of Gauguin.

He was attracted to the idea — in the air in the 1890s — that all the world’s religions and mythologies were essentially the same. In 1897 he wrote a long, rambling essay entitled ‘The Catholic Church and Modern Times’. In this Gauguin claimed that divinity was an ‘unfathomable mystery’. ‘God does not belong to the scientist, nor to the logician; he belongs to the poets, to the realm of dreams; he is the symbol of Beauty, Beauty itself.’

Gauguin’s behaviour at Puna’auia appalled the local priest, especially the artist’s installation of a large, nude female woodcarving outside his house. His liaisons with a series of young Polynesian women — Pahura was under 15 when their relationship began, and he was 47 — seem more profoundly abhorrent in the 21st century.

There is a touch of Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz about Gauguin’s last years, descending into the heart of darkness. As the art historian Belinda Thomson has put it, however, ‘If Gauguin was something of an immoralist, he was also something of a moralist.’ He once painted a self-portrait in which he wears a halo, but grasps the satanic serpent from the Garden of Eden between two fingers like a cigarette. His imagination was filled with Catholic imagery and doctrine, and had been from an early age.

At 11 he had become a boarder at the petit séminaire de la Chapelle-Saint-Mesmin, near Orléans. There Gauguin underwent what he called ‘the theological studies of my youth’. He was taught by the Bishop of Orléans himself, Félix-Antoine-Philibert Dupanloup, an influential campaigner for religious education. The way that the Bishop’s instruction shaped the young artist’s mind is suggested by the questions Dupanloup posed in a text on the catechism. ‘Where does the human species come from? Where is it going? How does it go?’

The Bishop believed such rhetorical inquiries would linger in the pupils’ inner worlds, so that in later life, even if they were living irreligious lives and had lost their faith, ‘instinctively, instantaneously’ such questions would come into their consciousness. In the case of at least one ex-student he seems to have been correct. ‘Te tamari no atua’ is one of a sequence of splendid paintings that led up to Gauguin’s masterpiece of 1897–8. Its title, of course, was ‘Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?’

The Nativity was not the only Christian subject that Gauguin painted — he also tackled the Last Supper, the Agony in the Garden and the Fall of Man among others. But it was a scene he depicted several times. Evidently, it meant something to him. Indeed, Christmas was a significant season for Gauguin, connected with the birth of his beloved daughter Aline and the catastrophic breakdown and self-mutilation by Vincent van Gogh that ended the short but dramatic period during which the two painters shared a house in Arles.

A hidden clue, I believe, links ‘Te tamari no atua’ to Van Gogh and the south of France. Its arrangement — Mary lying on a bed with folded coverlet, a seated figure beside her, cows in the background — is unusual but it is echoed closely in a carving on the Church of St Trophime in Arles. The superb Romanesque sculptures of this building — the most powerful works of art in the town — made a strong impression on Van Gogh, as we know from his letters, and apparently on Gauguin too. So perhaps this extraordinary tropical Nativity was triggered by a memory of medieval Provence.

 

First published in The Spectator

Martin Gayford recommends the exhibitions to visit – and to avoid – over the coming year

Until a decade and a half ago, we had no national museum of modern art at all. Indeed, the stuff was not regarded as being of much interest to the British; now Tate Modern is about to expand vastly and bills itself as the most popular such institution in the world. The opening of the new, enlarged version on 17 June — with apparently 60 per cent more room for display — will be one of the art world events of the year. But, like all jumbo galleries, it will face the question: what on earth to put in all that space?

Essentially, there are two answers to that conundrum. Give the public what they want, or — alternatively — what you think they ought to see. Cynics might suggest that Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear at the V&A (16 April–12 March 2017) falls into the former category. And it looks very much as if the Royal Academy has also gone for the first option with Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse (30 January–20 April). This, of course, is just what a lot of people like to contemplate: pictures of flower-beds, in an impressionist idiom — and has already been pre-denounced as such. Personally, I’m rather fond of Monet — and of gardens too for that matter. So, for the time being, my judgment is suspended.

Opening later in spring upstairs at the RA In the Age of Giorgione (12 March–5 June) looks as if it might be one of the year’s highlights. Giorgione is one of the most elusive figures in art history. The list of facts we don’t know about him with any certainty begins with the year of his birth, and what he was called, apart from ‘Big George’. The late E.H. Gombrich once told me he thought Giorgione was the art-historical equivalent of an untreatable case: there was so much uncertainty about what he actually did that little can be said. Wisely, therefore, the RA is surrounding a few — in general estimation — authentic pictures by Giorgione with works by Giovanni Bellini, Lorenzo Lotto, Sebastiano del Piombo and others. The result may well be magnificent.

The National Gallery kicks off the year with Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art (17 February–22 May), which is one of those exhibitions — the Rubens extravaganza last year at the RA was another — which examine the effect an artist had on those who came afterwards. There will be pictures by Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) but also by his distinguished fans, among them Manet, Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin (so this may turn out, in part, to be an impressionist show in disguise).

Botticelli Reimagined at the V&A (5 March–3 July) aims to do something similar with the Renaissance Florentine master. It includes plenty by Botticelli himself — a tremendous favourite with the Victorians and ever since — but also works Botticelli-inspired by other artists, from Burne-Jones to Cindy Sherman. Simultaneously some of Botticelli’s drawings of scenes from Dante will be on display at the Courtauld Gallery (18 February–8 May).

Lucian Freud would not have enjoyed the last few exhibitions mentioned. He memorably described Botticelli’s art as ‘sickening’ and could not understand why Van Gogh preferred Delacroix to Ingres. However, he was a tremendous enthusiast for other varieties of 19th-century French art. The superb Corot, ‘Italian Woman’, which used to hang above his mantelpiece, will be the centrepiece ofPainters’ Paintings from Van Dyck to Freud at the National Gallery (22 June–4 September). This is an exhibition about pictures that artists once owned, among them Van Dyck’s Titian and Matisse’s Degas. We shall have to wait and see whether the works on show have anything else in common.

The risk with Beyond Caravaggio (National Gallery, 12 October–15 January 2017) is different. Again this looks at a hugely influential — and popular — master. The effect of Caravaggio’s revolutionary realism was immense in 17th-century Italy and throughout much of Europe. Here the danger is that his own paintings may make those of his followers look a bit dull, but that remains to be seen.

Over in the ever-proliferating Tate empire, the menu looks a good deal more austere. There is more emphasis on what’s good for us, and less on what we know we like. I must admit I’m slightly dreading theConceptual Art in Britain 1964–1979 at Tate Britain (12 April–29 August). Works that are not exciting or enjoyable to look at are my bête noire, and a good many of the exhibits in this will consist of nothing but text. However, Performing for the Camera (Tate Modern, 18 February–12 June), which is concerned with the way that artists have presented themselves in photographs since the 19th century, could be intriguing; it’s certainly an example of the avant-garde blazing a trail. Now the whole world, brandishing selfie sticks, is doing the same thing.

Painting with Light: Art and Photography from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Modern Age (Tate Britain, 11 May–25 September) takes a similar theme, but again quite a promising one. Painters tend to make good photographers, and — conversely — many photographers have striven to make their pictures look like paintings.

As the year continues, Tate exhibitions become more accommodating to the pleasure principle. The summer exhibition at Tate Modern is devoted to the American painter Georgia O’Keeffe (6 July–30 October) and will presumably contain almost as many modernist flowers — one of her most frequent subjects — as will be on show at the RA, albeit much more blatantly sexual blooms than Monet’s. In the autumn, a major show at Tate Britain is devoted to Paul Nash (26 October–5 March 2017), one of the most delightful British painters of the first half of the 20th century — though a decidedly uneven one. The question here will be how well his work stands up to the full retrospective treatment.

Over at the RA, there is an exhibition of new work by David Hockney, who continues to paint with extraordinary creative verve. The 79 Portraits and 2 Still Lifes (2 July–2 October) that will be included are just a portion of the work he has produced since 2013, and — the RA notes — the title is subject to alteration. The current total of 79 portraits, one guesses, might well increase.

The big autumn event at Burlington House is Abstract Expressionism(24 Septermber–2 January 2017) — another topic that is liable to draw the punters in throngs. Indeed, Rothko and Pollock are now almost as reliable box-office draws as Monet and Matisse, which demonstrates how over time the most outrageous of art may become mainstream. My only doubt is how well all those drips and splodges will look in the grand Victorian galleries of the RA.

Back over at Tate Modern, there is Wifredo Lam (14 September–8 January 2017). A Cuban who evolved an Afro-Caribbean modernist idiom, Lam started off with the same sort of influences as Jackson Pollock (Picasso, surrealism). Towards the close of the year on Bankside there will be a fresh look at Robert Rauschenberg (1 December–2 April 2017), a prominent American artist in the 1950s and 60s whose reputation has slipped a little. He may well deserve a revival.

Finally, there is a change of director coming up at the British Museum, but Neil MacGregor’s extremely successful exhibition programme is set to continue, with two rich subjects tackled in early 2016. Sicily: Culture and Conquest (21 April–14 August) looks at an island that is a palimpsest of cultures, with ancient Greek, Islamic and Norman periods overlaying one another. Sunken cities: Egypt’s lost worlds (19 May–27 November) deals with more complex layers of civilisation — in this case ancient Egyptian and Hellenistic Greek — in sites recently explored by underwater archaeologists. That’s one reason why museums keep getting bigger: more art keeps appearing to put in them.

 

First published in the Spectator.

Cool, beguiling, Duchampian set of still lives from Michael Craig-Martin at the Serpentine Gallery

Michael Craig-Martin has had a paradoxical career. He is, I think, a disciple of Marcel Duchamp. But the latter famously gave up painting in favour of something more conceptual — ready-mades and whatnot — whereas Craig-Martin began with Duchampian concepts. He once exhibited a glass of water on a shelf together with a claim that he had mentally transformed these, by a kind of transubstantiation, into an oak tree. Then he metamorphosed himself into a still-life painter.

As his current exhibition at the Serpentine demonstrates, for nearly 40 years Craig-Martin’s staple subject-matter has been everyday tools, gadgets and accessories. An early example, ‘Vertigo’ (1981), consists of elegantly pared-down line drawings of a tin-opener, cassette tape, briefcase, book, plastic sandal and refrigerator ice-cube tray spread out in a fan-shaped flourish on the wall.

These oddments differ from many more traditional painterly themes in an interesting way: they are liable to become obsolete. Making predictions is tricky, especially — as Sam Goldwyn noted — about the future, but it is hard to envision an era in which the apples, glasses of wine or bunches of flowers favoured by still-life masters such as Chardin will have been superseded.

On the other hand, some of the objects in Craig-Martin’s work are already almost museum pieces. Sandals, tin-openers and —for the time being, at least — books are still around. But cassette tapes? Ubiquitous in the 1980s, they are rapidly going the way of the penny-farthing bicycle and the speaking tube. That’s why the Serpentine exhibition is entitled Transience.

Admittedly this has always occurred. Indeed, it happened to Duchamp, who, before he gave up his brushes, made wonderful depictions of chocolate grinders, perhaps a familiar sight in 1913 but almost unidentifiable a century later. But Craig-Martin’s exhibition underlines how the process is speeding up. A work from 2003, ‘Palm “Tungsten” T-Handheld’, represents an object — the personal digital assistant (or PDA) — that existed for a brief interval before smartphones came along. Twelve years later it has become an antique.

Craig-Martin’s art also reveals how the things we use are getting more and more alike, visually at least. Old-fashioned tools such as a hammer, safety pin or gardening fork look dissimilar, and their shapes give clues to what they are. Newer essentials of daily existence look much more cloned. The card-reader, smartphone, credit card, laptop screen and Memory Stick — each of which is represented in a recent Craig-Martin — are all oblong thingamajigs with rounded edges.

Nowadays our gizmos have an abstract appearance: Craig-Martin’s credit card looks like a Rothko with less fuzz. While his study of a corner of a laptop, essentially a right angle positioned off-centre on a square is, as he has pointed out, more of a Mondrian. The difference is that the austere Dutch master — who believed red, blue and yellow to be the only proper colours — would have been outraged by Craig-Martin’s palette.

Actually, once you get used to it, his colour sense — suggesting a man gone mad with a Dulux colour chart — is distinctive and beguiling. What his pinks, purples and oranges have in common is that they are luridly artificial. This makes them seem modern, just as his cool, diagrammatic line — much, come to think of it, like Duchamp’s — suits objects that are mass-produced by the million. If his pictures tend to look all a bit the same — which they do — that’s part of his point.

The exhibition a few minutes’ stroll away at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, Products for Organising by the New Zealand artist Simon Denny, also takes its themes from what’s happening right now. His subjects here are firstly the management systems used by organisations such as GCHQ and Apple, and in the second part the modus operandi of computer hackers. So far, so cutting-edge. The problem, as far as I was concerned, was his medium: installation.

Denny stacks a lot of stuff — LED displays, flow charts, architectural models, monitors — on warehouse-type shelving, then leaves the viewer to work out the connections (or read about them from a text). While Craig-Martin has found a way to make still-life seem very up to date, in this show installation art appears curiously old-hat. Unlike painting, it does not seem able to deal with the digital world.

First published in The Spectator

A short history of statue-toppling

One of the stranger disputes of the past few weeks has concerned a Victorian figure that has occupied a niche in the centre of Oxford for more than a century without, for the most part, attracting any attention at all. Now, of course, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign is demanding that the sculpture — its subject having been posthumously found guilty of racism and imperialism — should be taken down from the façade of Oriel College. The controversy is a reminder of the fact, sometimes forgotten by the British, that public statues are intensely political.

This was clear — until quite recently, at least — when one drove into the Syrian city of Hama. There, dominating a roundabout, was a large bronze representation of the late President Hafez al-Assad. This was a reminder to the inhabitants not only of who was in charge, but also who had ordered that the centre of the town be blown up in 1982 and somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 people massacred. Since June 2011 that statue has no longer been there.

Here in Britain we have never been particularly statue-conscious. With the exception of Nelson on his column, few of the monuments to the once powerful dotted around our cities have made much impression on the national consciousness. It is hard to imagine a memorable sculptural monument to any living British politician (though I am a little sorry the ‘Ed Stone’ was not saved as a curiosity for the V&A).

Elsewhere, however, it is different. Images of the Assad family may have been crashing down in Syria, but 2015 was a boom year for the statuary manufacturers of North Korea. All over the country, in accordance with some enigmatic political imperative, 3D representations of the ‘Eternal President’ Kim Il-sung, founder of the dynasty, are currently being removed and replaced by those of his descendants Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un.

This was the way things often went in the ancient world. The woman pharaoh Hatshepsut was erased from history by her successor Tuthmosis III, sometimes by the simple expedient of removing her name from carved figures, a process eased by the fact that she was often represented in male guise. Similarly unpopular Romans, such as the Emperor Domitian, were sentenced post mortem to damnatio memoriae or condemnation of memory. This, however, has seldom worked either in ancient or modern times. Hatshepsut is now one of the best known among the pharaohs, though not as famous as Tutankhamun — whose successors also attempted to eradicate his very name.

Nonetheless, the procedure is still popular. And when one statue falls, or is discreetly moved to the outskirts of town, another often rises. This was the case last year in Ashgabat, capital of Turkmenistan. The former president Saparmurat Niyazov had in 1998 erected a 75-metre monument commemorating his nation’s neutrality and vaguely resembling a space rocket. This was topped by a 12-metre, gold-plated revolving figure of Niyazov himself, which turned so that it always faced the sun.

Last May, the country’s current president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov — a former dentist — had Niyazov’s colossus replaced by an equestrian sculpture of himself, cast in bronze, covered with 24-carat gold leaf and set on a craggy spur of marble. The whole caboodle rises to an immodest 64 metres. Meanwhile, the golden revolving Niyazov has been transferred to a suburban site.

The sculptures of the great that are relocated, historically speaking, are the lucky ones. A worse end awaits those whose fate is decided by an angry populus, as in the case of a vanished work by Michelangelo, the more than life-size bronze portrait of Pope Julius II, which he made between the end of 1506 and the beginning of 1508. It took him more time to carve the David, but even so the Julius might well have been a masterpiece.

It was commissioned soon after papal forces conquered the city of Bologna, installed over the entrance of San Petronio — the principal church in the main piazza — and smashed to pieces soon after the Pope’s enemies retook the city in 1511. The bronze lasted such a brief time that not even a detailed description exists. Its fragments were melted down and recast into a cannon that was mockingly named after the Pope — La Giulia.

In France, some statues have gone through a similar process, sometimes more than once — having been liquefied and remade alternately according to the political situation. Giambologna’s equestrian monument to Henry IV on the Pont Neuf was destroyed in 1792, early in the Revolution. In 1818, however, after the restoration of the monarchy, it was reproduced, some of the metal being provided by a statue of Napoleon that had been on the top of the Vendôme Column.

The bronze Napoleon had taken the place of Louis XIV on horseback, and after its destruction in 1816 it was recreated once in 1840 by Louis Philippe, and again — in a more classical style — by Napoleon III. The whole column was taken down in 1871, during the Paris Commune, then re-erected afterwards (the painter Courbet, who had initially proposed the demolition, was saddled with the bill and had to go into exile in Switzerland).

On a much greater scale, the fate of the thousands of sculpted Stalins, Lenins and Karl Marxs that once strode and gestured all over the Soviet empire is an index of changing times. Several Lenins fell in western Ukraine in 2013 and ’14, but similar sculptural topplings have been going on for over half a century. In 1951, a colossal figure of Stalin was put up in Budapest to commemorate his 70th birthday. It was pulled down by revolutionaries in October 1956, leaving only a remnant of bronze footwear on the plinth. This farcical vestige was the subject of an ironic monument to the 1956 revolution entitled Stalin’s Boots.

Some of the homeless statues of Eastern Europe have found refuge in theme parks such as Gruto parkas (alternatively known as Stalin’s World) in Lithuania. This seems a good solution to the eternal question with all sculpture: where do you put it? The problem is especially acute with statues that have been knocked off their plinths. After all — who knows? — posterity might like the chance to see some of these figures.

‘Nobody can rewrite the history.’ So the leader of the Tajik Communist party, Shoddi Shabdolov, insisted in April 2011. His objection was to the removal of a 74-foot statue of Vladimir Lenin — rumoured to be the most colossal in Central Asia — from the centre of the city of Khujand. Mr Shabdolov was, of course, completely wrong about that: history is being tweaked and reinterpreted all the time. The difficult trick is to ensure your alterations are permanent.

It is, however, much easier to destroy a sculpture than to recreate it. The new Colossus of Rhodes, recently proposed to rise again in cash-strapped Greece, looks truly ghastly. The bronze and marble Assads and Kim Jong-uns may also be utter rubbish, artistically speaking. But many of us, not least the Bologna tourist board, might wish Michelangelo’s giant Pope Julius was still there, arrogantly dominating the city.

First published in The Spectator

Sargent at the National Portrait Gallery: he was so good he should have been better

The artist Malcolm Morley once fantasised about a magazine that would be devoted to the practice of painting just as some publications are to — say — cricket. It would be filled with articles extolling feats of the brush, rather than the bat. ‘Well painted, sir!’ the contributors would exclaim at an especially brilliant display of visual agility. ‘Fine stroke!’ If such a periodical had existed in the late Victorian and Edwardian ages, no one would have been heaped with more praise than John Singer Sargent (1856–1925).

Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends at the National Portrait Gallery is filled with mesmerising displays of his skills. There are so many, indeed, that to list them would be to describe just about every picture on view. There is, to choose an example almost at random, the ostentatious casualness with which a few slashes and dabs of whitish pigment over greenish-grey perfectly evoke the silk dress of ‘Mrs George Batten Singing’ (1897). In the same way, the pinkish-blue lolling tongue of Asher Wertheimer’s poodle, in the extreme bottom left, brings what is otherwise a more or less monochrome portrait to witty, outrageous life.

Or consider the pitch-perfect transition between shade and Mediterranean sun in ‘Ramón Subercaseaux in a Gondola’ (c.1880), which depicts a friend of the painter sketching under a canopy while rippling canal water can be seen beyond. Sargent revelled in such tricky contrasts — his celebrated ‘Carnation, Lilly, Lily, Rose’ (c. 1885–6) turns on the distinction between the evening gloaming and the bright Chinese lanterns being lit by — to my mind — a couple of sickly sweet children.

His portrait ‘Madame X’ (not exhibited at the NPG) caused a scandal when it was shown at the Paris Salon of 1884, because of its unabashed sensuality. It looked like what it probably was, a picture of a beautiful socialite who was far from faithful to her husband. Sargent withdrew to London and reined in his tendencies to salacious raciness.

They were still there, though, in the best of his works. Indeed, ‘Mrs George Batten Singing’ goes rather further in suggestiveness than ‘Madame X’. The sitter, whose lovers included the Prince of Wales, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt and Radclyffe Hall, author of the pioneering lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness, is portrayed with closed eyes and open mouth in an ecstasy that does not seem entirely musical.

The two portraits of Robert Louis Stevenson (1885 and 1887) show Sargent’s knack for a type of portraiture that came close to caricature. They present the writer, as he put himself, as a ‘weird, very pretty, large-eyed, chicken-boned, slightly contorted poet’. Sargent let himself go like this in the more private pictures, and in those of more bohemian sitters. Those provide the highlights of the show.

Anyone who enjoys the art of painting is bound to find endless charm, skill and virtuosity in Sargent’s work. This exhibition, which focuses on pictures of friends, writers, musicians, actors and fellow artists, emphasises the best in him. The fun and verve are not kept on a leash, as they tended to be in his portraits of the grand and the plutocratic. In many ways this is a worthy way to conclude Sandy Nairne’s directorship at the NPG, during which the gallery has mounted numerous outstanding shows.

So why not leave it at that? I cannot subdue the feeling that there is something unsatisfactory about Sargent. Perhaps he was a case of talent that flowed too easily. You never get much sense of him struggling to do something immensely hard — and occasionally failing — as you do with Manet, Degas or Cézanne. Or maybe he lacked the nerve fully to follow his gifts.

Whatever the cause, there is a lingering sense of disappointment about Sargent’s career. The exhibition dwindles away into an Edwardian travelogue in which his friends are seen sketching in pleasant spots abroad. The brilliance was still there, but with too much gloss and not enough truth. He was so good he should have been better.

Sargent was nominally American but really a perfect example of the transatlantic cosmopolite described by his friend, supporter and sitter Henry James, equally at home in Boston, Paris and London. His fellow countryman Jacob Epstein (1880–1959) was, you might say, an outsider everywhere. Born to a Polish–Jewish family in the Lower East Side of New York, he studied sculpture in Paris and settled in London.

Although eventually he attained grand old man status — and a knighthood — his career was long dogged by the scandal and vicious criticism that Sargent experienced over ‘Madame X’. A small, engaging exhibition at the Foundling Museum, Sir Jacob Epstein: Babies and Bloomsbury, focuses largely on one favourite subject, infants and children. Many of his sitters were his own children, of which there were five (all illegitimate), although the best of the sculptures is of ‘Romilly John’ (1907), son of Augustus, whose head is encased in a sort of helmet: the baby as martial modernist.

Epstein’s wife Margaret, who was unable to have children, tolerated most of his lovers but shot the one who meant most to him, Kathleen Garman (fortunately not fatally). Kitty, Epstein’s daughter by Garman, was later briefly married to Lucian Freud. Their daughters, Ann and Annabel Freud, also feature in this array of angst-ridden bronze putti.

As the catalogue notes, Epstein’s private life was complicated, tumultuous and unorthodox. The same could be said for that of Lucian Freud, who nonetheless found his father-in-law’s ménage intriguingly mysterious. He once told me about going to Epstein’s rambling house to sit for a portrait. ‘His studio was on the ground floor and bedroom on the first. On the way out I asked him what went on on the second floor. He replied, “How should I know? I haven’t the faintest idea.” It was very odd.’

First published in the Spectator

Marlene Dumas at Tate Modern

‘Whoever wishes to devote himself to painting,’ Henri Matisse once advised, ‘should begin by cutting out his own tongue.’ Marlene Dumas — whose work is the subject of a big new retrospective at Tate Modern — has not gone quite that far (and neither, of course, did Matisse). On the other hand, she does not hand out many clues as to what her work is all about.

On the contrary, when Dumas says anything about her painting, it is inclined to be a self-deprecating paradox. ‘I paint because I am a woman,’ she states on her website. ‘(It’s a logical necessity.) If painting is female and insanity is a female malady, then all women painters are mad and all male painters are women.’ Fair enough, we don’t expect artists to be linear thinkers; Dumas points out that she is not one of those at the start of the Tate catalogue. Nor should we expect pictures to be easily decoded.

Now in her early 60s, Dumas is one of the most highly regarded painters in contemporary art. She was born in South Africa, but has lived in the Netherlands since 1976. She now probably qualifies as the greatest living Dutch artist. But she has not, up to now, had a major exhibition in a public gallery in this country, so she is a bit of an unknown quantity as far as the British art public are concerned.

It is unlikely that Dumas will score such a resounding hit as Anselm Kiefer did last autumn at the RA. Her art is too elusive, and perhaps too narrow in range for that. But there is plenty of evidence that she is a remarkable and distinctive painter.

That does not become clear straight away at the Tate. The first few rooms, which are mainly devoted to early works, including drawings and collages, are distinctly low in visual energy. It is necessary to persevere; the exhibition gets better as it goes on. Indeed Dumas herself seems to be improving with age. Some of the strongest rooms come towards the end of the show.

Just why she is good is not so easy to pin down. One crucial factor is that Dumas has an individual touch. That is, she puts the pigment on to the canvas or paper in a way that is distinctive and visually compelling. Her starting point is a pre-existing image, usually a photograph but occasionally another painting (Holbein and Caravaggio are among the old masters she has recycled).

The original, however, is subject to metamorphosis. ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ (2008) is based on a still of Ingrid Bergman from the 1943 film of the same name. Instead of being a simple reproduction of the still, however, the paint surface is blurred and mottled as if the whole picture were weeping. It is one of a series of works about grief, made after Dumas’s mother died.

Mortality is one of her subjects. Her themes are mostly traditional ones in northern European painting — sex, death, nudes, portraiture — but given a personal twist. A series from 2003–4 represents the heads of dead women; one is taken from Caravaggio’s late painting of the ‘Burial of St Lucy’, another from the last shot in the celebrated shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho. Here the oil paint looks like watercolour or ink, just staining the canvas.

At times, Dumas’s work slightly resembles — of all people’s — Walter Sickert’s. In his later years Sickert often used photographs and images from newspapers as a basis for pictures, and he, too, liked his paint thin — sometimes dry and almost scrubbed into the canvas, as Dumas also likes to do. Another unexpected affinity is with Auguste Rodin. Her naked figures, derived from pin-ups and pornography and done in ink and acrylic on paper, are loose and fluid in the same way his figure studies are.

There these resemblances end. Dumas’s subject matter is often political in a contemporary manner. Among her few pictures that could be described as landscape are views of the Israeli security wall on the West Bank. Africa and Africans are frequent subjects — evidently she is still preoccupied by her South African upbringing and the conflicts of that era.

A powerful recent picture, ‘The Widow’ (2013), shows the wife of Patrice Lumumba publically mourning her husband, the first democratically elected prime minister of the Republic of the Congo, deposed, tortured and executed in 1961 (when Dumas was eight). Her nudes, which are mainly (but not all) female, are far from being erotic. They are more the ‘poor, bare, forked animal’ of King Lear, but with a sort of sleazy poignancy.

There certainly are political, and feminist, aspects to Dumas’s painting. But maybe that’s not the real point. Like all good painters, she’s trying to make an image that stays in the head, that is memorable. It’s the capacity of this perennial medium to do that so well that explains its survival into the 21st century. ‘Painting is a very slow art,’ Dumas has said. ‘It doesn’t travel with the speed of light. That’s why dead painters shine so bright.’

First published in the Spectator

Flying witches, mad old men, cannibals: what was going on in Goya’s head?

It is not impossible to create good art that makes a political point, just highly unusual. Goya’s ‘Third of May’ is the supreme example of how to pull it off. It is a great picture with a universal message — the terrible suffering of the innocent victims of war — and one echoed, with fresh horrors, in the news today. The figure in front of the firing squad, arms flung wide, in Goya’s picture is everyman.

One of the reasons for its power, and for that of ‘Disasters of War’, his series of aquatint etchings, is that images of violence and evil sprang spontaneously from his imagination. There are some clues to what went on in the sombre but sometimes sardonically humorous recesses of Goya’s mind in a marvellous, succinct exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery: Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album.

At its heart is a splendidly old-fashioned scholarly enterprise: the reassembly of an album of drawings by the great Spanish painter that was split up and dispersed to the four quarters of the world in the 19th century. It is known to Goya specialists as ‘Album D’ and was made, probably, between 1819 and 1823, when Goya himself was between 73 and 77.

More than any other major figure in art, Goya straddles the boundary between the old feudal world and the modern age. He was born in 1746, and spent much of his life as the servant of absolute monarchs, the kings of Spain. But by the time he died, exiled in Bordeaux in 1828, the railways had arrived, the French revolution was long over, and he was a free, independent artist. Just like Picasso or Francis Bacon he drew and painted just what he wanted to depict.

His albums of drawings seem particularly private. Some may have been intended as preparations for prints, but many strike one as personal fantasies or meditations. Not surprisingly, since Goya was in his mid-seventies when he produced ‘Album D’, quite a few of its sheets are musings on being old.

The very last of the series shows a figure, enormously aged, bald, bent almost double and of indeterminate gender, shuffling along with the help of two sticks. Like most of the album, it is almost entirely drawn with a brush like a Chinese landscape, in subtle veils of black and grey ink. Underneath, the artist has written a comment, or perhaps a transcription of this person’s thoughts: ‘Just can’t go on at the age of 98’.

In another an old woman is leaning on one stick, with a beady eye — anxious or maybe deranged — on a soft feline silhouette. The caption, in Goya’s elegant handwriting, reads, ‘She talks to her cat’. Typically, it is not quite clear how we are intended to feel about this old lady. Perhaps she is touchingly lonely; on the other hand, she might be a witch.

Sometimes we are given a less ambiguous clue, as in the old woman with staring eyes who is apparently about to sink her broken teeth into a struggling, naked baby. Beneath her, Goya has exclaimed, ‘Wicked Woman’.

Even there, however, it isn’t quite obvious what he means. Does she stand for the horrors that arise from superstitions, such as witchcraft, or more generally for human malignancy? Or is she a figure who has just swum up from the depths of Goya’s consciousness?

He was fascinated by cannibalism, as he was by flying witches, madness and dreams. There are drawings of all those subjects in ‘Album D’. Two are entitled ‘Nightmare’, while a third depicts an old man lying down but in a panic, legs flying wildly, with the inscription, ‘He wakes up kicking’.

Did Goya? On the most mysterious sheet, showing a knot of figures emerging from a gothic doorway, the artist has simply noted, ‘Nothing is known of this’. He might be making some topical point that eludes us; on the other hand, he might be saying: ‘Here’s a drawing, and even I don’t have a notion what it means.’

‘The nightmare of history,’ the painter Leon Golub once remarked, ‘has no beginning and has no end’, a view with which one suspects Goya would have concurred. But Golub, unlike the mighty Spaniard, had mixed success in giving his outrage visual form. That is perhaps why — although the Serpentine Gallery is one of the most delightful smaller galleries in London — the exhibition there of Golub’s work, Bite Your Tongue, still somehow feels too big.

Golub (1922–2004) was a member of an overlooked group: American figurative artists of the post-war years. When abstract expressionism was all the rage, he wanted to make pictures with a more direct human significance. You can understand why, but the line between abstraction and figuration is an elusive one (if it truly exists).

Despite his aims, Golub was best when he was at his most abstract and least Michelangelo-esque. He had a nicely individual touch as a painter — raw and edgy — but lacked the skills to put together large compositions of multiple figures. Nonetheless, that was what Golub attempted. His best-known pictures were, like Goya’s, visual catalogues of the atrocities and disasters of war.

The conflicts of the 1970s and 80s in Central America were the focus of his indignation. The most powerful of these, ‘Interrogation III’ (1981), shows a deeply shocking subject — a naked, blindfolded woman being assaulted by uniformed men — but its impact is muffled by the clunkiness of the drawing.

Some of the later paintings strike me as much better. ‘Are You Ready’ (1993) consists of stencilled writing, ghostly heads and the outline of a snarling dog, all laid out on a canvas smeared and stained with black, like the wall of a burnt-out inner-city building. It emits a sense of menace, darkness and anger which memorably expresses the artist’s sense of the world. But too much of the exhibition is taken up with failures, even if honourable ones.

First published in The Spectator.