One of the foremost and eldest challenges in art is certainly the struggle to face the barriers of time and to choose between eluding or overcoming them. This concern places art in our history and makes "political acts" off artworks; it is also the main cause of critical impasse when the concept of time itself becomes a cultural obsession and the future, once thoroughly dreamt of, anticipated, discussed, built up, forged, is finally overwhelmed and absorbed by the present or sent back to the past in a mixture of indifference and terror.
Thus, Encounters. New art from old opens with an indicative background ambiguity that leaves space for the exhibition to take simultaneously two opposite directions. In this ambiguity the curatorship "encounters" an inevitable deadlock.
While delivering this experiment, the National Gallery tries to keep its outpost in the art world, and its curatorial approach up with the more radical Tate. This means breaking down the traditional historical-chronological format of display and putting forward new ways of reading the art from the past: for instance, through a diverse attention to layers and intersections of themes and forms from different periods, and through an open discussion with the public on art as "simulacrum" on one side and "experience" of art on the other
The 24 contemporary artists commissioned to make works in response to the National Gallery collection (from Balthus to Clemente, with a vast majority from the 20s and 30s generations) have revealed not only a personal ability in reviewing the past according to new perspectives, but have also proved an extraordinary variety of approaches in their interpretation of the Old Masters (from Duccio to Van Gogh, through Bosch, Raffaello, Vermeer, Turner, Monet, just to mention a few), and therefore the strength of eclecticism that characterises contemporary art.
With Encounters we are invited to penetrate a seemingly straightforward but then finely tangled territory, rich in continuous resonances, correspondences and elective affinities between past and present.
While the works by Freud, Hodgkin, Kossoff and Oldenburg/Van Bruggen are more literally close to the Old Masters they chose, in most cases the relationship between old and contemporary is built on personal reasons intertwined with a common interest in specific themes and codes of representation.
The virtuoso exercise by Freud in copying Chardin's The Young Schoolmistress (1735) raises questions from the comparison between classic realism and Freud's all modern realism, but also brings up further thoughts on the "representation of a representation". Such an analytical study on composition and its contents paradoxically pushes the "copies" away from the original (furniture and pen disappear, the two characters' features blur and change), down to the relentless loss of the master's perfect stylistic balance.
Oldenburg and Van Bruggen's installation is an allegorical interpretation of two Vermeer's oils on canvas (A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal, and A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, 1670): the contemporary version is an ironic mise-en-scene in which human characters disappear and leave room to a "language of objects".
Paula Rego's tryptic offers a modern account of Hogart's Marriage A-la-Mode: based on the tale of an arranged wedding in Portugal, it concludes with a sarcastic pieta in which the unsuccessful husband lies on the lap of his longlife firm and steady wife, whose disillusion can be read in her posture and her expression.
David Hockney has always been a regular visitor of the collection since he was student at the Royal College. He now retrieves the genre of "portrait" as exemplified by Ingres' work (Jacques Marquet, baron de Montbreton de Norvins, 1811-1814), and, adopting a "camera lucida" technique (which Ingres might as well have used in the past), he draws 12 portraits of actual National Gallery warders. These portraits are arranged on one wall in such a way they give the impression that the warders are still vigilating from the wall on the viewers, while on a second wall the enlarged heads are surmounting the related heads according to a fragmented "post-Cubist" code.
Kitaj's work is an explicit comment on the arrogant power of money and its disturbing effects on traditional art masterpieces such as Van Gogh's Chair (1888).
Finally, Jeff Wall's lightbox works as an ironic annotation on the regal posture of Stubbs' Whistlejacket (1627-30), and the classical celebratory code of representation is reduced to the modest and more actual sizes and postures of A donkey in Blackpool.
But this is just to mention some of the artists involved.
However, on the other side, as follows from my very first note, this experiment, while going back over the past in the search for new perspectives, gets stuck in the present. During the "encounter" with the "old Masters", we witness the silent consumption of a rare opportunity to reopen a dialogue, nowadays inconvenient and not fashionable, about time and history. Once again this dialogue gets petrified and museified in the exhibition's traditional formula, and the meaning of each artwork concentrates on its relevance as simulacrum rather than experience. It doesn't help having the artists' voices recorded in the audioguides freely distributed to the visitors: didactic intentions excel and direct the viewers in a perfectly pre-arranged and "explained" maze.
In its intervention in the catalogue, the curator Richard Morphet insists very subtly but also quite vaguely on the uncompleted quality of the works:
«Intentionally or not, the works also communicate a sense of the time taken in their conception and realisation. The latter is part of the very subject of several. The majority of theworks not only direct attention to their own physicality but use their materials in an actively sensuous way. All these features, which imply a savouring of continuity and of making, are to some extent under threat today in a culture that lays emphasis on speed and simplicity in the consumption of information, and limits the opportunity to concentrate, or to explore anything in depth. These developments are combined with an information overload compounded by the speed and technological sophistication of its transmission. The pressure on artists to produce is a related problem. Not surprisingly, therefore (as Robert Rosenblum's essay shows), much new art quotes and combines available images from both the recent and the farther past with promiscuous abandon, in the process creating effective markers of contemporary existence. The works in this exhibition connect with their heritage in a slower way … A large number of the works in Encounters suggest an analogy with the stage, and in making them several of the artists worked like directors, manipulating cast, lighting or performance. The final form of many works either resempbles a stage or is a box-like interior in which something is either happening or latent.»
However, the open and "in progress" nature of these works (the infinitive reproductions of Rubens' The Brazen Serpent by Kossoff, the enervating video-loop of Bill Viola, the mirroring perspectives of the Saenredan Wing by Hamilton) implodes in the artform itself, and reduces the experience of art to a distant play of forms within an abstract time.
Final objective of this exhibition is to reinforce the traditional role of national art galleries as guarantee of accepted and repeated models, canons and values which, even when socially ambiguous and unattainable, the artists, recluded in their pretended "caste" are then called to hand down
3. Therefore, even in the more critical works, such as in Paula Rego's satire, in Kitaj's drama and in Jeff Wall's irony, any criticism is held back by the powerful inertia of the Sainsbury Wing's white walls, and reintegrated in the gallery's close structure. This structure, which would like to have a wider social impact, still ignores the contemporary "historical" issues and spoils its favourite artists, shutting them off from the rest of the world.
Finally, the worrying absence of any sense of future and the restoration of a reassuring idea of "history" is triumphally declared by another commentator in the exhibition catalogue, Robert Rosenblum:
As the twentieth century becomes the past, not the present, and as museums and historical exhibitions proliferate with seemingly endless vitality, our own angle of vision has become more retrospective, making it apparent that all the revolutions of modern art faced backwards as well as forwards…It now seems predictable that, as the twentieth century drew to a close and its inherited myths of progress turned into naïve anachronisms, artists became, like everyone else, more retrospective, contemplating the known and more comforting terrain of history rather than the scarier prospects of the future.»
Thus, an enigma: on one side, the ambition of achieving an original idea which can place the National Gallery ahead in the national and international art world (it seems bizarre that such a simple, almost banal, idea has never been perceived before); on the other side, the fear of radically and constructively tearing apart a tradition which the gallery as main institution represents, and in so doing tracing new curatorial policies and new active directions for the future of art.
This inherent vagueness does not necessarily frustrate the audience, rather the vertigo of the new stimulates the public; but this ambiguity also leaves a sense of insolved and superficial surprise in the most curious visitor.
As long as the shock of the new does not swallow us and render us blind ...
On this subject, the director of the Tate, Nicolas Serota, explained in Experience or Interpretation: The Dilemma of Museums of Modern Art, Thames & Hudson, 1996: « experience can become a formula. The best museum of the future will ... seek to promote different modes and levels of "interpretation" by subtle juxtapositions of "experience". Some rooms and works will be fixed, the pole start around which others will turn. In this way we can expect to create a matrix of changing relationships to be explored by visitors according to their particular interests and sensibilities ... We have come a long way from Eastlake's (Sir Charles Eastlake, was appointed first director of the National Gallery in 1855. Eastlake made important innovations in the display of museum collections, adopting a policy of chronological hanging by school) chronological hang by school, but the educational and aesthetic purpose is no less significant ... Our aim must be to generate a condition in which visitors can experience a senso of discovery in looking at particular paintings, sculptures or installations in a particular room at a particular moment, rather than find themselves standing on the conveyor belt of history.»
Catalogue of the exhibition, pp. 25-26
Nail MacGregor, catalogue of the exhibitions: "When the National Gallery opened its doors in 1824, it aimed to offer the pleasure of pictures to the public at large, rich and poor, believing that this shared delight would inevitably foster social harmony. But the founder had from the beginning one particular public in mind: artists.»
Catalogue of the exhibition, p. 16