PRINT September 1979


Where the English Draw the Line

WHATEVER THE CLAIMS OF art to universality, the institutions where art is displayed have a clear tendency to exhibit national characteristics. They have, as we perhaps need to be reminded, precise historical origins, and they correspond not to some ideal blueprints but to the particular circumstances of their origins. The categories and divisions that they introduce into the body of art are never neutral. Indeed, the notion of an “art world” that effectively sets its own norms and practices is not a mere paranoid delusion of the outsider: it applies beyond the immediate field of commercial dealings and critical interchange to the very august institutions which might appear to defend the principle of ideal neutrality—to our national galleries and museums of ancient and modern art.

Two recent incidents illustrate, if proof were necessary, the implications of this fact in contemporary England. On the one hand, the National Gallery has purchased and put on show two pictures which extend the date-line of its collection to the very brink of the First World War: the Matisse Portrait of Greta Moll, of 1908, and the Picasso Fruit, Dish, Bottle and Guitar, of 1914. Visitors had been prepared for this extension, no doubt, by the long-standing loan of a pre-Cubist Picasso. But here, with the intrusion of Cubism into the ordered array of Monet, Seurat and Cézanne, an attempt was evidently being made to define a limit, a “this far and no farther,” for the foreseeable future. And on the other side of that limit, of course, lies the collection of the Tate Gallery, which had previously been secure in its claim to Cubism—and Matisse. In the economy of a division between the “classic” and the “modern,” Cubism and Fauvism together would now have to fill the role of Janus, looking both ways. Would it be worth bearing in mind that the Tate Gallery only obtained its status as an independent institution as late as 1954, and that its raison d’être has always been awkwardly divided between the housing of the national collection of British painting from the 16th century onward, and the more vague commitment to an international modernism whose temporal boundaries can only be approximately defined?

Whatever flurry may have been caused by this apparent poaching has not yet made itself felt in public. Yet the Tate Gallery was recently involved in an open polemic, in the pages of The Observer, when David Hockney made a forthright attack on its purchasing policy. Hockney was speaking in effect on behalf of that “School of London” which seems so much more convincing when seen, as if from New York, through the vicarious gaze of R.B. Kitaj. But his protestations about money wasted on minor Abstract Expressionists were not simply the evidence of crude nationalism; the absence of Edward Hopper from the Tate collection was one of the omissions which he deplored. Indeed the warhorse which Hockney was riding was that gallant veteran, still good for whipping up, of the Figurative versus the Abstract. Ritual reference was made to the work which has belatedly become the Déjeuner sur l’herbe of English art polemics, Carl Andre’s Untitled 1966 (120 firebricks), known fondly to millions as “The Bricks.”

It would be fair enough to take these two incidents as contributory evidence of the fact that, in art, the English have usually tended to be puzzled about Modernism, and rather baffled by Abstraction; and that the two issues are inextricably intertwined hardly needs proof. In the three studies under consideration here, despite vast discrepancies in treatment and subject matter, there recurs, in filigree as it were, the same motif. Although it is not very productive to define it in abstract and general terms, one might perhaps begin with the simple metaphor of the about-face. In each of these studies, considered as an adventure, there is first the sense of movement in the direction of an ideal that might be identified as Modern Art, and then there is the sense of retreat from an encounter that has proved either too demanding or too discouraging. Facilis descensus Averni would be the unkind comment. For certain English artists, and by no means the least brilliant, the option is in the end for a respectful and respectable provincialism.

The career of Sir Charles Eastlake, which David Robertson charts with exemplary care and rigor, is the veritable epitome of this process. Beginning at the stage when both operations were housed under the same roof in Wilkins’ building overlooking Trafalgar Square, Eastlake presided with distinction over the two leading institutions of art in Victorian England: the Royal Academy, whose presidency he occupied from 1850 until his death in 1865, and the National Gallery, of which he was initially keeper and subsequently the first director over the crucial period extending from 1843 again to his death. Of Eastlake’s early promise as a painter there can be no doubt. Of his ability to steer his course, and that of both academy and gallery, through the turbulent mid-Victorian epoch, there is ample evidence in this study. But the star of the painter declines in direct proportion to the rise of the connoisseur and administrator. An encomium of 1847 welcomed the presentation of his Christ Weeping over Jerusalem to the National Gallery with the judgment that the painting was “well qualified to hang side by side with those of the greatest men of any age” and described him as “the first of our school who has truly succeeded in popularizing high-class art.” Yet long before that stage, Eastlake had been typecast as the chronicler of picturesque banditti, reproduced in mezzotint for the benefit of a wide public. On the other hand, the superlative quality of the early Italian masters in the National Gallery collection. unsurpassed in the world outside Italy, stands as a splendid testimony to his judgment and initiative. S.N. Behrman’s witty study of Duveen does not mention Eastlake. Yet in the chase for Renaissance masterpieces Eastlake was half a century ahead of Duveen, and his adventures apparently no less enthralling.

David Robertson places before us invaluable materials for assessing this phase in the development of the English taste for the classical. But he also allows us to glimpse the more problematic aspects of Eastlake’s contribution to the “Victorian art world.” In his preface, he quotes the remark of a “friend in London” who predicted that as a result of his book, “Ruskin would suffer.” Does he? Only if we are prepared to weigh sophistication and historical judgment in the balance against the obsessive commitment of one of the great critical and creative figures of the century. Ruskin cannot challenge Eastlake on Eastlake’s ground; but, on the other hand, Eastlake hardly began to operate in the sphere which Ruskin perilously acceded to. Lady Eastlake, a formidable figure in her own right, could write a “blistering review” of Modern Painters, and complain of Ruskin’s reluctance to affirm “the power of mere colour to touch the emotions.” However, although Ruskin is not Baudelaire, his writing on color accumulates to form, by the end of Modern Painters, an extraordinary meditation invoking the concepts of materiality and repression. Ruskin’s achievement is precisely that of conjuring up, in the late Romantic miasma, the concepts that were later to clarify the analytic method of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and to be left as a (largely untouched) legacy to modern art criticism. Here Sir Charles and Lady Eastlake cannot compete.

An equally significant test is that of the Pre-Raphaelites. One knows the ease with which the youthful dissidents were accommodated into the structure of the Royal Academy, at almost the same moment as Eastlake became its president. But it is hardly irrelevant to point out that, when Eastlake finally purchased the Garvagh Raphael for the National Gallery, Millais went in to shake his fist at it! David Robertson is surely ill-advised in trying to palliate Eastlake’s hostility to the Pre-Raphaelites by suggesting that “in 1856 he must have supported his wife’s anti-Ruskinian assertion that the true end of painting is not a thought but a picture, and that in 1860 he hailed the first London appearance of Whistler.” The crude binary opposition which places on the one hand Ruskin and “thought” (or morality) and on the other Whistler and the “picture” is not adequate to explain the antithetical strains which attended the genesis of modernism in England. Again, Robertson quotes with approval Eastlake’s perceptive remark, delivered in a letter to Lawrence of 1825, that in England “the arts and literature are doing each other harm.” But it is surely false to imply that benefit could have come from the more strenuous segregation of the arts and literature—to imply, in short, that England might have had its Manet if it had chosen to. As the student of poetry knows, and as the student of painting can also verify, the particular contribution of England to modernism lies in precisely that work—by the Pre-Raphaelites, by Ruskin and Pater, by Morris and Swinburne—which deceptively presents itself as archaistic, and which encompasses new notions of symbol and text that are almost equally applicable to linguistic and visual expression.

It is noteworthy that Professor Robertson uses Clive Bell’s well-known denunciation of Victorian taste to support Eastlake’s diagnosis of the mutual harm done by the arts and literature. With Lytton Strachey, the author and denouncer of Eminent Victorians, Clive Bell makes a peripheral—perhaps surprisingly peripheral—appearance in Richard Shone’s Bloomsbury Portraits, which turns out to be largely concerned with Bell’s wife, Vanessa, and her close friend and colleague, Duncan Grant. Apart from the amusing accident that the Eastlakes resided for most of their life in Fitzroy Square, where Roger Fry was to set up the Omega Workshops, there is however more than one echo in Bloomsbury of the attitudes of the Victorian couple. Vanessa Bell dismisses Ruskin at an early stage in her apprenticeship, under the significant pretext that he “never cares for anything unless it is a symbol.” Bernard Berenson, who was just old enough to call upon the aged Lady Eastlake in Fitzroy Square, is held to have taught Duncan Grant to see what Shone describes as “the disadvantages and sentimentalities of Ruskin.” Indeed, the only writer on art of the period to assume Ruskin’s mantle, before Adrian Stokes began to write Stones of Rimini in the late 1920s, was that arch-enemy of Bloomsbury, D.H. Lawrence.

There would even appear to have been a strong kinsnip between the artistic tastes of the Bloomsbury painters and the taste that had enabled Eastlake to build up his superb national, and personal, collection of the Italian school. Richard Shone is no doubt quite right in mentioning that, in 1904–05, Duncan Grant was unusually independent in his enthusiasm for early Italian painters like Piero and Masaccio. Sir Charles had, however, personally bought the St Michael and Baptism of Christ that together form the basis of the National Gallery’s unequalled Piero collection (Eastlake had made a personal purchase, as far as the Baptism was concerned, because the state of the picture raised slight doubts about its suitability in the national domain, and “certainly for no other reason”). Yet the major opportunity of the Bloomsbury painters, critics and collectors came with the challenge to respond, on many different levels, to the work of an exemplary modern painter, a task that Eastlake never seemed willing to assume. It was Roger Fry who introduced Cézanne, and the full flood of Modernism, to the wary English public in his exhibition at the Grafton Galleries in 1910. It was Maynard Keynes who, curiously echoing the quasi-official sorties of Eastlake into the territory of foreign sales, vainly attempted to persuade the director of the National Gallery to buy a Cézanne in 1918, and returned from Paris having purchased a still-life of Apples on his own account. Whether as painters Fry himself or Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell succeeded in responding to the magnitude of Cézanne’s example is quite another matter. Indeed, Shone, who writes with a warmth approaching familiarity about the interlocking lives of the group, makes no such claim. He is keen to assert the importance of certain works, particularly those painted by Duncan Grant around 1914, which have suffered an almost total neglect. He claims for Grant’s Abstract Kinetic Collage, of 1914, the status of a “pioneering work in European abstraction.” But he does not push the arguments for the European significance of the work, in general, very far, and when he quotes Clive Bell’s own denunciations of the “provincialism” of English art (an attack from which Bell’s friends were of course excepted), he does not make strenuous efforts to defend the exception.

Evidently there is a fascination which attaches, for those outside England as well, to the lives of the Bloomsbury Group. Richard Shone both succumbs to it and successfully manages to convey it. Yet his book, in its very honesty, leads one to conclude that the secret of this fascination is not, in the realm of painting at any rate, artistic achievement. The numerous photographs that he reproduces are, for the most part, extremely informal snapshots. Yet they convey, to a degree greater perhaps than the genuine “portraits,” the considerable charm of Bloomsbury. And that charm is made up, to a great extent, of a strange equilibrium between privilege and vulnerability, exclusiveness and informality, which it was the historical opportunity of the Bloomsbury Group to strike. The spectacle of Maynard Keynes, dropped at the end of the lane near Charleston Manor by Austen Chamberlain’s automobile—in the counsels of the mighty yet caring only for the good opinion of a coterie—is the most extreme demonstration. But there is also the half comic, half tragic, business of Duncan Grant and David Garnett applying to be registered as conscientious objectors during the First World War, and using the influence that could be exerted on their behalf but still exposed to the real possibility of refusal. And then there is the death of Vanessa Bell’s son Julian, in the Spanish Civil War. This event, which was for Vanessa Bell “the end of all real happiness,” poignantly exposes the world of Bloomsbury to the greater, darkening world of European politics. Clearly in inter-war Europe, the bohemian, bourgeois, agrarian Utopianism of the Charleston menage could have been lived nowhere else than in England.

It is an illusion that grows—and yet is no more true for being pervasive—that modern art in its advance obliterates, or at least alleviates, national differences. The fact that David Hockney is now (or was recently) contemplating a nomadic existence between Los Angeles, New York, Paris and London does not make him in any whit less English than the Bloomsbury painters. Indeed it is fascinating to note the strange congruence of Hockney by Hockney with the effect of Bloomsbury Portraits. No one can deny the sheer, shocking vitality of the early student paintings, with their unconscionable blending of de Kooning, Bacon and Dubuffet (to begin with). Moreover, it is hard to resist the cocky, assertive charm of the autobiographical subject, or the seductive mirage of life lived—not by Vanessa, Duncan, Maynard, Bunny and friends, but by David, Peter, Celia, Ossie, Mo, and so forth. The difference, of course, is that with Bloomsbury we have the endless babble of brilliant conversation undercutting the mirage: no one could reproach the Bloomsbury Group with any lack of self-knowledge or failure to be explicit. In the Hockney circle, hotel room or swimming pool is plunged into languorous silence. Henry Geldzahler’s introduction credits the artist with political idealism, but, despite the complaints about the English class system, the overall effect of Hockney by Hockney is a quite unearthly ideological quietism. The youthful visitor to California carries his moveable Eden (to adapt Hemingway’s saying about Paris) around with him for the rest of his life.

Yet Hockney’s charm is not so pervasive as to deprive us of all critical response. Hockney by Hockney, in fact, makes a claim for a certain image of the artist that is undeniably ideological, and quite consonant with the attack on “abstract” work in the Tate. The strategy of the book, ably exposed by Mr. Geldzahler, is to make us believe that Hockney has decided, after an initial period of brilliant fireworks, to settle down and become a classical painter. Benvenuto Cellini’s Autobiography is cheekily hijacked to provide an epigraph and, wonderful to relate, a precedent. The iconographic resemblance between recent dual portraits by Hockney and the tradition of the Annunciation is remarked upon. The book jacket refers, awkwardly enough, to Hockney the “Continental master.” Sir Charles Eastlake would feel at home in the distinguished company Hockney the iconographer avowedly keeps. Of course, the motive of this strategy is a splendidly impudent wish to eat one’s cake and have it, too, and its implications for the Tate’s commitment to “advanced” art are plain to see. “We must remember,” says Hockney, “that in 1975 many figurative artists are completely acceptable; the idea of abstract painting is also completely acceptable, it’s just that a lot of people think it’s not that interesting. I tend to agree with them. But the fight for modern art has been won.”

As the simple statement of an attitude, this is succinct and impeccable. The abstract and the figurative are two options, and the figurative is just more “interesting.” What the “fight for modern art” was about, or how we ever came to get mixed up with abstraction at all, is left to the judgment of those who wish to get involved in such unproductive questions (e.g., the staff of the Tate, whose exhibition on the “Origins of Abstraction” is planned for the early part of 1980). There is no more telltale lapse in Hockney’s picaresque narrative than his repeated misquotation of a much used saying from Cézanne: “the thing Cézanne says, about the figure being just a cone, a cylinder and a sphere: well, it isn’t.” Indeed it isn’t, and of course Cézanne never said anything of the kind about the figure, which makes one wonder about the vigilance, or else idolatry, of Hockney’s editors, who let such a gross misrepresentation slip through. But it also makes one aware that Hockney has never been able to see “abstraction” as more than a kind of willful device. It is worth contrasting with Hockney’s cheerful parochialism the deeply serious confession of an older artist who is much less well known, although he happens to have been chosen as Hockney’s successor for a one-man show at the new Mellon Center of British Art in New Haven. Kenneth Martin writes: “The moment I became a purely abstract artist I began to realize what I’d been missing . . . that I’d really missed the whole of the Modern Movement. I was in my 40s, the Modern Movement started in 1908.” If the Modern Movement started then, it was certainly anticipated by the remark about seeing nature, not the figure, which Hockney misrepresents—a remark that commits the modern painter to epistemological, rather than merely rhetorical, revision.

Comparing the attitudes of Hockney and Martin sounds an ominous note for English artists in general. It is possible to “miss” the Modern Movement, and the chance of not doing so has to be seized again in a different way by each generation. To declare the battle over, and the lines to the Renaissance reopened, is just another way of avoiding the issue, and joining the eminently respectable heritage of Eastlake and the Bloomsbury portraitists. Thus one’s reason for rejecting the kind of throwaway classical reference that relates Hockney’s double portraits to the iconographic tradition of the Annunciation is by no means the conviction that such connections must be categorically excluded from modern, or even abstract, art. Brice Marden’s fine exhibition in New York in September 1978 took as its title precisely the Annunciation. The question of how such a reference is employed and justified in such contemporary “abstract” work seems to be one of the most fascinating that can be asked in the present day. It requires us to review, as I would argue, the entire history and philosophy of representation in the Western tradition. And it can only be posed successfully with reference to artists who determinedly avoid the “about-face” into provincialism.

Stephen Bann


David Robertson, Sir Charles Eastlake and the Victorian Art World (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 467 pages, illustrated.

Richard Shone, Bloomsbury Portraits (New York: E.P. Dutton), 272 pages, illustrated.

David Hockney by David Hockney, ed. Nikos Stangos with introduction by Henry Geldzahler (New York: Harry N. Abrams), 312 pages, illustrated.