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PRINT May 2000

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“Encounters” at London’s National Gallery

“IT IS ONLY the unimaginative who ever invents,” wrote Oscar Wilde. “The true artist is known by the use he makes of what he annexes, and he annexes everything.” Everywhere we look we see artists borrowing, pastiching, reworking—from the straight rip-off to the ironic theft, to the subtle incorporation of a lifted image, to an under-the-breath whistle from another artist’s signature tune. There is Sigmar Polke making paintings after Goya, and Leon Kossoff hanging on the coattails of Poussin; there are Yasumasa Morimura’s re-creations en travestie, Gavin Turk as the murdered Marat in his bath, and, crossing borders, Steve McQueen as Buster Keaton. Behind them lie Jasper Johns’s appropriations from Grünewald to Munch; behind him the staggering variations woven by Picasso from works by Velázquez, Delacroix, and Manet. Copies and transcriptions of, and confrontations with, earlier works are crucial to the continuously evolving language of art, transformed by generations of emulation and challenge. This free access to the art of the past is the theme of the National Gallery’s forthcoming exhibition “Encounters—New Art from Old” (June 14-Sept. 17), which assembles commissioned paintings, sculptures, and films by twenty-four contemporary artists responding to old masters in the gallery’s collection. In this sense, the exhibition contains the key to the whole history of art.

The simplest link in this chain is the straight copy, or replica. Now comparatively rare, in earlier centuries it was a cornerstone of art practice—both a painstaking homage and the surest way an artist had of understanding his or her predecessors. On a practical level, it disseminated images, made money, and pleased patrons. But in the hands of an alert and talented artist unconstrained by a specific commission, the copy became a love affair between the master and the copyist, who infused the work with his or her own visual intelligence and distinctive sensibility. Think of Matisse’s version of Chardin’s still life La raie (Ray), ca. 1725-26: What began as a faithful rendering evolved over six years (1897-1903) into an interrogatory reworking of Chardin at a turning point in Matisse’s career.

Matisse’s laborious painting was included in “Copier Créer,” the comprehensive show at the Louvre in 1993 that brought together a huge variety of works derived from that museum’s collection. There were full-scale replicas and free translations; drawings after paintings; sculptures after sculptures; works with only a sliver of connection to their sources; works based on details that had caught an artist’s eye. Among the latter was Seurat’s drawing of Poussin’s hand, copied from Ingres’s copy of Poussin’s self-portrait—the whole French tradition encapsulated in one be-ringed little finger!

Seurat was in his teens when he made this drawing, but he already recognized his lineage and ambition. From such youthful alliance came mature rebellion. Of the invited artists in “Encounters,” on the other hand, none could properly be called young. We are looking here at consenting adults. I wonder if they would have chosen the same works earlier in their careers. Years ago, Lucian Freud might have picked an Ingres. As it is, he has produced a version of Chardin’s Young Schoolmistress, ca. 1735-36, the closest to its source of any of the show’s works, a veritable “Freudin.” A few of the choices are expected, or at least not surprising, given the artist’s predilection for certain stylistic mannerisms or subject matter. Thus we have Patrick Caulfield loolupg at a little Zurbarán still life (ca. 1627-3.0) and Paula Rego turning to Hogarth’s Marriage-à-la-Mode, ca. 1743, an interior with figures of high narrative tension. Cy Twombly has gone for one of the gallery’s icons, Turner’s Fighting “Téméraire,” ca. 1839. The scene of a famous ship en route to its last berth on the Thames before being broken up provides Twombly with the inspiration for a triptych imbued with transience and mortality. But Turner’s Cecil B. DeMille sunset has been replaced by a bleak palette and skeletal drawing, familiar from Twombly’s earlier imagery of ancient Mediterranean craft. The prophetic nature of Turner’s late painting has found a perfect, if unlikely, commentator.

Manet, in his early years, devoured and elegantly regurgitated his European forebears. Picasso turned the tables and did the same with Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. Now Jasper Johns has chosen Manet for his contribution—the four fragments of Manet’s Execution of Maximilian, ca. 1867-68 (in its turn inspired by Goya’s Third of May), that were reassembled by Degas and bought by the National Gallery in 1918 from the sale of his collection. Its eccentric appearance now—four uneven sections mounted on plain canvas and peculiarly out of relation to one another—obviously attracted Johns, who replicates these sections as ghostly divisions in his allover field of gray, a color lifted from the trousers of the soldiers in Manet’s firing squad. The French artist’s strategies, his emotional content deflected by and contained in pictorial complexities and spatial elusiveness, find frequent echoes in Johns’s work and underpin one of the most compelling contributions to the exhibition—and one that, unlike many of the others, departs little from the artist's current preoccupations (as seen in Johns’s show of recent paintings now in Dallas).

Howard Hodgkin has gone for the outright masterpiece of late-nineteenth-century painting in the gallery’s collection—Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières, ca. 1884. “For years I’ve wanted to ‘copy’ it,” he has said. Although their general disposition has been retained, the figures seem emotional recollections of Seurat’s men and boys beside the Seine but without Wordsworthian “tranquillity.” Instead, a swoosh of erotic energy runs through Hodgkin’s version, epitomized by the splashes of blue between the boys in the river. There is no doubt about the source in Seurat, but the result is unmistakably Hodgkin, fusing memory and sensuousness, abandon and control, all bathed in the anxieties of influence.

“Encounters” has been godfathered by the National Gallery’s director, Neil MacGregor, an enthusiastic Pandarus between the old and the new. The show’s meticulous curator is Richard Morphet, the retired keeper of the Modern Collection at the Tate Gallery who has a long history of working closely with artists. Morphet and the critic and Guggenheim curator Robert Rosenblum—for whom appropriation and cross-century connections are meat and drink—have written the catalogue essays, while Marco Livingstone, Judith Bumpus, Andrew Lambirth, and Morphet have provided articles on the invited artists and their work. In mid-March, some of the contributions to the exhibition were as yet incomplete (such as Louise Bourgeois’s Turner-inspired walk-in room), and the catalogue was still under way. The show will be hung in various spaces in the gallery, with only three works displayed close to their sources.

Two misgivings occur to me but may well be dissipated by the experience of the show itself. First, there are perhaps too many British artists—about half of the total—some not of the rank and quality of the invités from abroad (who include Antoni Tàpies, Anselm Kiefer, Jeff Wall, and Oldenburg and van Bruggen). Second, a place might have been found for one or two younger artists. If they were approached, none took up the challenge. If selecting among more youthful generations was difficult, it could not have been more difficult than selecting among their elders. As it is, the babies of the show are Francesco Clemente (b. 1952) and Christopher Le Brun and Bill Viola (both b. 1951); the average age, already high, soars with the presence of Bourgeois (b. 1911) and Balthus (b. 1908). But then again, among the artists I know under the age of forty, few ever set foot in the National Gallery. Younger artists are more likely to be on speaking terms with Tate Modern, a collection that opens with works from around 1900, the moment the National Gallery brings down the curtain. But the seasoned experience of those in “Encounters” may well be a prerequisite for the success of this show, in which artists such as Tàpies (after Rembrandt) and Richard Hamilton (after Saenredam) will likely revivify the old masters with salty aplomb.