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Are the Old Masters more indispensable than ever?

23 November 2020

With museums closed and the future uncertain, historic paintings offer particular forms of escape. How might the instability of a pandemic be countered by finding consolation in the past? 

Caroline Campbell

As we have all discovered over the last few months, it can be both uncomfortable and challenging to live in interesting times. Yet, throughout this period, my sense of resolve and purpose has intensified. Events have proved that museums, galleries and collections really do matter and make a substantive difference to people’s lives. It’s hard to quantify this, or itemise on a spreadsheet, but it’s part of what keeps us going and keeps us together, as individuals and as a society.

Art has been a blessing and a lifeline for so many. It reminds us of our humanity, and links us to others. In it, we can find resilience and comfort. The art of the past, however, has a task that seems particularly salient at this moment: to remind us that creativity endures in hard times, and that crises and pandemics are nothing new. Nor do they last for ever, or entirely define the life and experience of those who live through them. For this reason, the ‘Artemisia’ exhibition at the National Gallery, curated by my brilliant colleague Letizia Treves, has touched a nerve this winter. Although it is shocking to learn of Artemisia Gentileschi’s rape, the deaths of her children, and the difficulties she operated under, as a woman in a man’s world, these circumstances did not define her artistic identity. In her own day, she was ambitious, admired and highly successful. Her dazzling paintings still move and delight us more than 350 years after her death. They exist on their own merits, regardless of Artemisia’s traumatic biography.

The consolation of the visual arts lies in the fact that although they – like words and music – can be enjoyed in isolation, the act of enjoyment connects us to a wider world. During a time when there is little variety, and we are forced to live in restricted ways, art enables our imagination to fly. With the help of artistic stimulus, we can still be with people, places or experiences that are currently closed to us. To paraphrase the poet Keats on Chapman’s Homer, art lets us travel to our own ‘realms of gold’.

Since March, I’ve found something for every mood in my own memory bank of images. In spring and early summer, when my desire to swim and to smell the sea was overwhelming, I consoled myself with the noisy bathing pond of Monet’s Bathers at La Grenouillère, and the sandy beach in Bonington’s La Ferté. Paul Henry’s Dawn, Killary Harbour allowed me to experience early morning in remote Ireland from central London, Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews took me into the Suffolk harvest, and Antonello’s St Jerome in his Study removed me from the chaos of home schooling to a peaceful and productive space. In each case the pictures enabled me to conjure in my mind’s eye the smells, colours and light of those particular activities or places, and to connect them with personal and shared experiences.

Other artworks have sustained me, on an almost daily basis. I’ve looked forward to the pleasure that St Paul’s Dome consistently brings me, from many different angles, on my favourite lockdown walks through London. I’ve always loved Piero della Francesca’s Baptism for its ‘still small voice of calm’. The soft light and sense of purpose embodied in this measured, perfect landscape continue to inspire me. In a very different way, I feel a similar sense of belonging in Pieter de Hooch’s The Courtyard of a House in Delft. My grandmother had a reproduction of this next to a ticking clock in her hallway, where I often played as a child. For memories of the security and happiness that it evokes, de Hooch’s sunlit yard, with its imperfectly lime-washed bricks and prosaic activity, is one of my most special places.

For all the comfort that these bring, they’re more than the artistic equivalent of the warm blanket or baked potato. Historic art’s specific contribution for us now lies in this winning combination of sustenance and strength. These works have meant something to many more generations than our own. They embody the remarkable continuity of human experience. And, at this particular moment, they make me optimistic for our future.

Caroline Campbell is the Director of Collections and Research at the National Gallery, London. 

The Courtyard of a House in Delft (1658), Pieter de Hooch.

The Courtyard of a House in Delft (1658), Pieter de Hooch. National Gallery, London

Michael Prodger

‘About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters,’ wrote W.H. Auden in his poem ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’. He could, however, have substituted love, spirituality, power, death, vanity, humility, nature, or any number of other states and traits, for ‘suffering’. All are there, laid out unforgettably for our edification, consolation and fortitude, by artists who have been sorted by time into the category of immortals. Of course, there are moderns alongside them but Monet and Matisse, Picasso and Pollock are the scions of the artists who went before – they may be capable of profundities but are they in any way more profound than their predecessors? In almost all aspects of the human condition, the Old Masters – inevitably – got there first (Egon Schiele’s depictions of sex might be a rare exception) and established the ur-forms; later artists can only react against, or try to expand upon them.

An awareness of this has seemed almost to rankle with some of the moderns. Look at Picasso, forever measuring himself against the Old Masters, as if yelling, petulantly, ‘Let me in. I’m one of you.’ Or Francis Bacon, looking over his shoulder at Velázquez and Grünewald, as he sought to make sense of the scary post-war world. Or Gerhard Richter recalling, in homage and nigh-on pastiche, Vermeer and Georges de La Tour. It must be agony, knowing that even if you are a trailblazer you will always be a follower too.

Perhaps subliminally prompted by current events, one of the things that, for me, makes the work of the Old Masters worth returning to again and again is their sheer strangeness. However well we know a painting or sculpture, a Caravaggio, say, or a Bernini, and however well we understand its purpose, it will always have its mysteries. It is a temporal truism that Paris in 1874 will necessarily be more familiar to us than Rome in 1610. And the old saying that our ancestors ‘were just like us’ isn’t necessarily true. Perhaps Bosch’s hellscapes look familiar to anyone who has experienced war but the circumstances that gave rise to them are irretrievable and their full meaning is therefore unknowable. The viewer might, with repeated visits, put together an image of Bosch and his intentions, his patrons, his audience, his frames of reference, but, if this were a jigsaw, there will always be a piece missing – he was from way back then and we are here now and the distance is unbridgeable, despite the fact that we both know topsy-turvy times.

Again, 2020 reinforces that it is not just formal beauty and craft that give so many Old Masters works their potency, but the fact that they are also palimpsests, accreting interest through the centuries. The fascination of their creation draws one back; the patrons, the chapels or palaces they were meant for, the event that sparked the commission, the reception they received would be enough in itself (think of eavesdropping on Titian talking to Charles V, Raphael with Julius II, François Boucher and Madame de Pompadour), but then there are their afterlives too.

Down the centuries pictures have been bought, sold and stolen; they have witnessed the fortunes of their owners wax and wane; they have been present as history was made. Look at the pictures in Charles I’s collection, for example, so many of which were not just great in their own right but, dotted around the galleries of the world, have great stories of acquisition and dispersal attached to them. Now they have lived through yet more world-changing events.

These are pictures with a purpose rather than speculative works conjured up for dealers and an unknown purchaser and so are largely free of the post-Romantic fallacy that art is about self-expression. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is surely how tedious the individual self can be: here is art that while replete with self-expression and self-examination is not, Rembrandt aside, about it. The egos of the artists may have been just as colossal as those of many of their 19th- and 20th-century heirs but the times in which they worked were a defence against solipsism. Losing the Romantic and Freudian insights that have driven so much later art (though they can still be found) might be a price worth paying for the universality practised earlier. Auden was indeed almost right: they were never wrong, the Old Masters.

Michael Prodger is a senior research fellow at the University of Buckingham and art critic for the New Statesman.

From the December 2020 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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