Drawing the Line

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Nicholas Penny, the new director of the National Gallery in London, is getting awfully fastidious. In January he let it be known that he really doesn’t think his museum should be doing big blockbuster loan shows when it’s more important to focus on scholarly exhibitions that draw attention to neglected corners of art history. Now he’s announced that the National will also resume treating 1900 as a cut off year for the art it exhibits, a practice that Penny’s predecessor Charles Saumarez Smith had moved away from.

I’m not much interested in the fuss over whether encyclopedic museums are sufficiently on top of contemporary art. That’s not their primary mission. I’m more concerned about how they superintend the past. But Penny is going overboard. Art of the 20th century, certainly at least the first half, is the past, a period that’s pretty well sorted out and that benefits from being seen in the context of what came before. I’m thinking of something I came across at the National last October. Curators had placed two new sculptures by Yinka Shonibare, the London-based Nigerian artist, in the circular gallery where two of their great 18th century portraits ordinarily hang, Reynolds’ Portrait of Colonel Tarleton

Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton, Joshua Reynolds /Photos: NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON

….and Johann’s Zoffany’s dour looking Mrs. Oswald.

Portrait of Mrs. Oswald, Johann Zoffany, 1763-64

The two Shonibares faced each other across the circular gallery as a single work, Colonel Tarleton and Mrs. Oswald, Shooting, typical Shonibare figures, headless and in 18th-century dress made from contemporary prints.

One half of Colonel Tarleton and Mrs. Oswald, Shooting, Yinka Shonibare, 2007

They were present there among the gentry to point up the fact that Reynolds’ gallant Colonel was actually a notorious figure in the British slave trade, the son of a slaver and the implacable enemy of British abolitionists. (And before that the “Bloody Ban” responsible for a massacre of American troops during the Revolutionary War.) The quality of the painting in no way rests on the virtues of the man, but it was interesting to find out just who this noble character actually was, and the Shonibares were energized by the chance to engage in, ahem, a dialogue, with this dubious gentleman.

Another Reynolds, his great portrait of Captain Robert Orme, was also in the gallery to witness the Shonibare-slaver face off. Whenever I’m in London I always pay him a visit, but this time I remembered that while he’s in a magnificent portrait, he was actually a bit of a dolt, the man partly responsible for the defeat of the British and American soldiers by a much smaller force of French and Indians at the Battle of Monongahela

Captain Robert Orme, Joshua Reynolds, 1756

My point isn’t that contemporary art has to be brought in to fill in the historical record on older works. But that’s one way to do it and it stayed with me. It can be done on more purely formal grounds. Morris Louis needs to be seen from time to time with 19th century American Luminist painting, R. B. Kitaj within the long tradition of history painting, Francis Bacon with Velazquez. And although I think David Hockney’s huge new canvas Bigger Trees Near Warter, which he just decided to present as a gift to Tate Britain, will look fine there, it would be even more interesting to see it set among the Hobbemas, Van Ruisdaels and Corots at the National.

UPDATE: I originally managed to mangle the spelling of Shonibare’s name three times out of four in that post. All fixed now. Sorry Yinka.