The Greats

October 30, 2015
John Singer Sargent, 'Lady Agnew of Lochnaw' (1892)
John Singer Sargent, 'Lady Agnew of Lochnaw' (1892)

At the Art Gallery of NSW the dream of a gleaming new building has become so intoxicating that management seems to have forgotten about the humdrum business of exhibitions. This has been slightly frustrating for old-fashioned types like myself who would prefer the gallery to be a place to see art, rather than a glorified urban planning office.

Last year’s program was threadbare, next year’s seems only marginally better. But wait, what’s this? Suddenly there is one outstanding reason to visit the gallery! Until mid-February, Sydney audiences will be able to see The Greats: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland, easily the finest exhibition the AGNSW has hosted since the Picasso blockbuster of 2011-12.

The Scots are renovating their Edinburgh premises, and in time-honoured fashion have sent the highlights of the permanent collection on tour. Ten paintings were shown at the Frick Collection, New York, at the beginning of this year. A further 45 works were added when the show subsequently travelled to San Francisco and Fort Worth. For its only Australian showing, in Sydney, the exhibition has lost a few paintings but gained 33 works on paper.

If you think this sounds like a way of padding out the display, consider that these drawings and watercolours were made by artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, Poussin, Rubens, Rembrandt, Watteau, Gainsborough, Tiepolo, Blake, Ingres and Turner – to list only the ‘household names’.

The works on paper alone are worth the price of admission. When it comes to the paintings the Scots have demonstrated that they are – contrary to national stereotypes – the most generous of lenders. In the very first room we encounter pictures by Titian, Botticelli, El Greco and Veronese. Walk on and meet Velázquez, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Hals, Reynolds, Watteau, Constable, Sargent, Gauguin, Pissarro, Degas, Monet, Seurat, Cézanne; along with works by celebrated Scottish artists, notably Henry Raeburn and Allan Ramsay.

What these roll-calls don’t convey is the exceptional quality of individual pieces. This holds true even for those artists who are not so well known. Look, for instance at The stoning of Saint Stephen (c.1603-04) – a breathtaking small oil by the German master, Adam Elsheimer; or Niagara Falls, from the American Side (1867), by Frederic Church, who dominated landscape painting in the United States during the second half of the 19th century.

When it comes to discussing paintings in depth, I’m spoilt for choice. I gave an hour-long lecture on the Church painting last month, and there are many works here that deserve that kind of attention. It’s tempting to focus on the affinities and contrasts between pictures.

When the first painting one sees is Titian’s Venus rising from the sea (c. 1520-25), and the second is Botticelli’s The Virgin adoring the sleeping Christ child (c.1485), it’s impossible not to think of the latter’s The Birth of Venus (1483-85) in the Uffizi.

Was Titian familiar with Botticelli’s fanciful masterpiece? It’s almost as if he has painted the next chapter. After the zephyrs and the woman with the cloak have gone home, the goddess wrings out her wet hair. The scallop shell on which she has entered the world bobs on the waves in the background. While Botticelli’s Venus is an ethereal beauty, Titian’s is all flesh and blood. The art historian Rona Goffen has said Titian “reinvented womankind”, and by putting his work alongside that of Botticelli we can see what she means.

Botticelli’s vision of feminine beauty was partly inspired by the Neo-Platonism of the Medici court, and his women belong to the world of Ideal Forms. For Titian, even Venus had to be based on an earthly model – a model he had already used for many different subjects. It was only as he entered the last stage of his long career that Titian’s palette would grow darker, and his figures more indistinct.

Botticelli makes the Virgin look no less alluring than Venus, all golden hair and perfect skin, robed in sumptuous cobalt and pink.

Look to the left and one is confronted by Veronese’s bawdy picture of the goddess perched on the knee of her lover, Mars, who is quietly removing her dress. This painting dates from the 1580s, indicating how artists’ perspectives had changed in the course of a century. Botticell’s Venus has come from the heavens, Veronese’s from the local tavern.

By the time we arrive at Velázquez’s youthful painting, An old woman cooking eggs (1618), we find a new, acute level of realism. An old woman and a boy are shown in a completely ordinary setting. There is no false piety, no overt symbolism – painting has started to detach itself from its religious and mythological preoccupations. A moment of everyday life has been immortalised in a work in which details and textures are handled with prodigious skill.

One could make comparative studies of the portraits in this show, or the landscapes. As space is limited, I’ll stick to the human element.

In Raeburn’s iconic portrait, Reverend Robert Walker skating on Duddingston Loch (c.1795), the clergyman is a model of self-absorption, gliding across the ice like a dancer. Diego Martelli, in Degas’s portrait, has turned from his writing desk and dropped his eyelids, as if pondering what to do next. In John Singer Sargent’s Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (1892), the sitter looks us in the eye, daring us to find anything to criticise in this most glamorous of paintings.

Lady Agnew is not the only woman in this show who stares boldly out of the canvas. Allan Ramsay has portrayed his wife, Margaret Lindsay, with a three-quarter turn of the head. Her gaze is just as direct as Lady Agnew’s, but there is gulf between these two trophy brides, separated by roughly 130 years. Margaret has a prim and proper aspect, which may be Ramsay’s way of insisting on the respectability of their marriage. No-one would guess that only a few years previously, this woman had eloped with the artist and been excommunicated by her aristocratic family. In the painting Margaret is shown arranging flowers, holding a white rose in one hand as a sign of innocence and virtue.

For Sargent, whose acquaitance with Lady Agnew was purely social, there was no holding back. He has created a vision of up-to-the-minute taste and timeless beauty in which the discreet Chinoiserie of the wallpaper frames a sensuous face with a raised eyebrow and the ghost of a smile. When one learns that the sitter was recovering from a nervous condition that expression becomes more complex. Is it self-confidence, or perhaps a hint of anxiety in those mesmeric, asymmetrical eyes?

Considering the ambiguities of these feminine portraits, it’s almost comical to turn to Raeburn’s two full-length portrayals of Scottish noblemen – Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, 1st Baronet (1790s), and Alistair Ronaldson Macdonell, 15th Chief of Glengarry (c.1812). These proud, war-like characters stand like statues. They are self-styled heroes and upholders of tradition; one in trews, the other in a kilt. Raeburn knew how to flatter his clients but he was probably happier recording the Reverend Walker’s escapades on ice.

Antoine Watteau, 'Venetian pleasures' (1718-19)

Antoine Watteau, ‘Venetian Pleasures’ (1718-19)

In Watteau’s paintings there are no fixed points or certainties. Even the garden statues in his Venetian pleasures (1718-19) seem to be joining in with the party. This garden may be nominally in Venice, but it is essentially a dreamscape. Historians can identify Watteau’s friend, Nicolas Vleughels, and perhaps the artist himself, but they still don’t know what is going on. A beautiful woman stands serenely in the centre of the picture, facing Vleughels; behind her a young man grapples with a woman who seems to be wearing a mask. We might be watching a scene from a play, a pantomime of shadows and shimmering costumes.

Every painting is open to variant interpretations, but Watteau dramatises this ultimate lack of closure. He makes us realise how little we know about a picture, about the people it portrays, the circumstances of its making, the thoughts and moods of the artist. The greater the painting, the more profoundly we feel its mystery, and perhaps our own smallness. In a show such as The Greats, we draw closer to an elusive truth by eavesdropping on a conversation between artists that echoes down the centuries.

The Greats: Masterpieces From the National Galleries of Scotland
Art Gallery of NSW, until 14 February 2016

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 31st October, 2015