Sunday, November 19, 2006

National Gallery [hearts] Velazquez. I don't

To the National Gallery, for their blockbuster Velazquez exhibition. 13,000 tickets sold in twenty seconds, don't you know?

Now, I'm sure I'm going to enrage a fair number of people (and why not?), but I have to say I wasn't wild about it. I had two main problems, one artistic, one curatorial.

Perhaps dispense with the arbitrary one first. (Arbitrary not because it's a baseless objection but because it's to do with the choices made when hanging.) You cannot really object to four rooms stuffed with Velazquezezez, and indeed the first two rooms were rather nicely done, being a chronology of his early career. However, there was a huge gap in the paintings c.1640-50, jumping you from relatively youthful work to his mature stage.

Add to this the fourth's rooms odd and rather desperate groupings of 'mythological' scenes (a whole four of them) and portraits of intimes (three) and you end up with a mishmash of gappy chronology and messy themes. Either theme it or don't.

My bigger problem was with the quality of the paintings themselves. The little handbook the Nat provided had a miniature rapture over most of the paintings, each one being splendid or masterful or possessing the psychological depth of a year in Freudian analyis. I paraphrase.

Frankly, some of the painting seemed extremely variable, if we're being kind. Velazquez, in his early career, had a fabulous way of representing cloth in almost three dimensions; in 'Christ at the House of Martha and Mary' and 'Joseph's Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob' (the brothers to the left) you can see fabulous examples of this. These clothes practically glow. They look real. But there are so many paintings where this light effect is completely avoided in favour of a dull, flat colour.

I'm not talking about paintings like 'Philip IV of Spain in Brown and Silver', where Velazquez's proto-Impressionist technique of blobs and blurs is very effective; there, clearly, he is going for a different effect. So many other times he seems off his game, and I fear the tendency to lionise certain artists and everything they do has claimed another victim.

Some of the paintings are incomplete, which detracts from their beauty. I love the left half of 'Joseph's Bloody Coat' but it gets less and less finished as you navigate rightwards; you can see its potential beauty, but this is not its actual beauty. The cuckolded 'Mars' has had his inner thigh retouched in a crosswise direction, while one of the royal portraits has the shadow of a moved hat.

These may seem like trifles but when taken together, they left me unsatisfied. You can't fault the Rokeby Venus, which combines his luminous-clothes technique with erotic mystery and philosophical conundra, but so often the paintings feel uninspired. Naturalism is one thing, but spirit is something else.

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