Old-Fashioned Art?

Yesterday, while on a local history walk I asked the historian if he had seen the current exhibition of the Treasures From the Shipley Collection at the Shipley Gallery, Gateshead. He hadn’t so I told him there were a number of seventeenth century Dutch Mannerist paintings on show. I expressed my admiration for them and he replied. “People aren’t interested in those kinds of paintings nowadays.”

At the time I thought I was out on a limb, but afterwards I tended to agree with him. His response got me to question my own reasons for liking the paintings. Was I enamoured because the paintings were centuries old and had been cleaned to show bright and shiny colours? Was I harking back to pre-modernist times when all paintings were representational rather than abstract or conceptual? Was there even a hint of snobbery in my admiration? (I am aware that many people do not even step inside a gallery.) After all such paintings, along with the huge and impressive Tintoretto in the gallery, are examples of ‘high art’ and, that the distinction between ‘high and low art’ is anathema to art critics today. There may be some truth in this latter claim as I do believe in a kind of ‘gold standard’ in art. No amount of pleading will convince me that Andy Warhol’s Marilyn prints are qualitatively on a par with Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. Yet, this is what post-modernist critics claim!

However, I’d like to make clear I am not a reactionary or debunker of modern art in the tradition of Brian Sewell. There is much I enjoy in contemporary art: Anthony Gormley, Andy Goldsworthy and Robert Smithson to name but three which come to mind.

I’ll choose David and Abigail as one of the paintings to discuss. It was thought to be by the Dutch artist, Joachim Wtewael (1566-1638), but now is designated as ‘after’ the artist.

Wtewael, Joachim Anthonisz., 1566-1638; The Meeting of David and Abigail

When I first saw it I had no idea what was going on in the picture. I had a vague idea it referenced a bible story. Even so, I admired the skill of the painter to depict people, horses, trees and buildings in harmonious colour and tone and I noted the convincing perspective. I had to wait until I got home to look up the story – those visitors with smartphones can do this while looking at the painting!

Now, here is our first hurdle. Not many of us today see the relevance of bible stories. However, I was prepared to put that to one side. Art Aestheticians often talk about the principle of ‘disinterestedness’ when looking at art. They ask us to step into the artist’s shoes and not make snap judgements based solely on personal preferences.

So, in a nutshell the story is as follows:

Nabal, married to Abigail, is a rich landowner with many cattle and crops. He is proud and selfish. David has allowed Nabal’s men to graze cattle on his land and yet when David asks for food and shelter one day, Nabal refuses. David is offended and arms his 400 men who are under orders to kill Nabal’s men. Abigail hears about the plan and sets out with friends with food and drink to meet David. They meet and Abigail says her husband is an arrogant fool and she implores forgiveness. That’s David on horseback on the right with Abigail kneeling. Miraculously, her intervention does the trick as David is moved by Abigail’s determination, compassion and generosity. (Later, poor Nabal is ‘smitten by the Lord’ and dies – oh dear, this sounds like the old Old Testament ‘eye for and eye’ justice! David then marries Abigail).

The figures on the left are Abigail’s men carrying supplies and food, and those on the right are David’s soldiers. There is hence, a perfect symbolism in the composition with Abigail ( the force for compassion) in the centre of opposing forces. The two main tree trunks form a kind of arch which frame the crucial meeting of the protagonists.

If we are to take any spiritual teaching from this archaic story today, surely we can agree that reconciliation is superior to vengeance and war. In our own time we only need to think of Northern Ireland. And, on an individual level, forgiveness is a wonderful gift. Taking a leaf out of Alain de Botton’s book, Art As Therapy, I always try and relate art works (whether paintings, novels, plays, or music) to my own life; they can add to self-understanding. (The book, Art As Therapy,  is co-written with John Armstrong. Published by Phaidon, paperback 2016.)

To my eye, such paintings are not so much ‘old fashioned’ but timeless. They may not give up their magic straight away but with a little patience and, above all, leisure and time to look in a sustained manner, they can provide so much aesthetic pleasure.

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