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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Blaydon Races

Blaydon races

An Extra in the Blaydon Races; a Painting by William Irving

This painting is displayed along with a key and sound commentary at the Shipley Art Gallery, Gateshead.

I’ll be reading this poem of mine as part of the Late Shows on 14 May at the Shipley.

*

I told him I wanted to be recognised, immortalised –

why he painted that bloke with his upside-down pipe

and starving whippet on his arm beats me.

He’s stealing my thunder, elbowing me out of the way,

I’m barely visible. I told him to paint my new hat

with the betting slips prominent but I’m too far away, more

an extra rather than a leading player. Surely as manager

of Spencer’s Iron Works I should be in the foreground.

My nether regions have gone; obliterated, why I don’t know

my legs and feet are up to scratch, I’m only half the man

without my twill trousers and brown leather shoes.

It’s just not on; he should have shown me his sketches

before lashing out in oils. Anyway sitting here isn’t fun

the bairn behind me’s bawling its head off; The Punch

& Judy man’s slipped in the mud for the third time.

That’s Nancy in the pink dress sitting on the grass

with her bairn asleep on her lap; hope she doesn’t

recognise me – she can talk the hind legs off

the proverbial. A newspaper’s handy that way – you

can hide behind the small print. Why did he have to

have so many bumpkins -look, there’s goggle-eyed Mally

and Fester the Jester doing a jig; centre stage please note!

There’s some right low life here, a pick-pocketers

paradise to be sure. I don’t trust that card sharper

or the Dick Turpin character on his horse. I wish

the Scots Piper would go and blow his bags

somewhere else or leg it back to bonny Scotland.

*

It’ll soon be time for the three o’clock – I’ve backed

William Irving three ways, lets hope I win some notes!

As a betting man you can bet your bottom dollar

I won’t be recognised in fifty years’ time; no I’ll just be

another extra – a portrait in oils my foot!

Meeting Shakespeare

I wrote this poem after visiting the Oak Effect exhibit by Mathew Darbyshire in the Shipley Art Gallery in Gateshead. The exhibit ‘presents a 2 bedroom show home made to EU recommended standards with ubiquitous oak effect finish.’ Various old artifacts are displayed within the rooms. Hence the juxtaposition of the new and old; and artifacts taken out of their usual context. I didn’t notice the carving of Shakespeare the first time I visited! Its by Gerrard Robinson.

Visiting Shipley Art Gallery

I walk into the art gallery and see
William Shakespeare
carved in wood.
Oak leaves form a sort of halo
around his eight inch figure.
Evidence of his seven ages
is all around:
1. Infant – a wooden African cradle
2. School pupil – a 1930s desk
3. Lover – a 1920s gramophone complete with shellac 78
4. Soldier – a spear from New Guinea
5. Maturity – a Burmese Buddha
6. Old age – an abacus
7. Death – a faceless long-case clock

Falstaff is nearby to ensure we don’t dwell
too much on ‘mere oblivion.’

On the wall behind Shakespeare
there is a chorus of birds, painted in oils on copper(c) Shipley Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
by Jan van Kessel around 1650.
Polychromatic parrots, parakeets and hoopoes sing
from a little song-sheet.
Is this a coda, an afterthought afterlife or
is this how it always is?