PRINT September 2005


Svetlana Alpers on the life of painting

I WENT TO SEE “The Triumph of Painting: Part 1” at the Saatchi Gallery on a morning in February. (There will be three more installments this year and next of this vast survey of some 350 canvases from Charles Saatchi’s collection.) I went out of curiosity about seeing the works, of course, but also out of curiosity about the site—the old London County Hall (opened in 1922; until 1986, the seat of the city’s government), which had been vacated, sold, and converted into a leisure complex with hotels, an aquarium, and, eventually, the gallery. As it turned out, the paintings and the site had an unexpected relationship to one another.

For all the elegance of the refurbishing, there is an unreality about the Saatchi rooms. The present has not quite taken over; the past still lurks. A series of small galleries had been offices before. Freshly painted walls, dark woodwork, a window, a fireplace, and a single picture from the collection hung in each, replicated over and over again. What stuck in the mind, however, were the clocks, built into the mantelpieces of the identical fireplaces, which had stopped dead, each one marking a different time. Life had been arrested and emptied out.

These quarters seemed a just match for the emptiness courted in different ways by at least three of the six painters Saatchi had put on view (i.e., Peter Doig, Luc Tuymans, and Marlene Dumas; Immendorff, Kippenberger, and Nitsch round out the roster). In some cases, it results from working after photographs employed to absent the world by replacing it: Doig’s Canoe-Lake, 1997–98, depicts a boat drifting in water in a world taken over by the lie of digital color; in Tuymans’s Still Life, 2002, a pallid group of objects out of Cézanne or Morandi barely emerges from the haze of an immense painted field. Isolated in a large room of its own it appeared as a stunning void. In his works as in his words, Tuymans maintains that painting today is necessarily belated and inadequate to the world. It is, in other words, a phantom in relation to both art and life. But the belatedness of painting and the predicament of its relationship to the world are hardly new. Velázquez, Tiepolo, and Manet (remember Baudelaire’s “you are only the first in the decrepitude of your art”) were latecomers all; well aware of the fictive relationship of their medium to the world, they put it to productive use. It is a question of the attitude an artist takes to his or her skills.

Marlene Dumas also uses photos. But she is not depressed about painting. In her hands, photos are a mode of access, a way to connect with the world much as earlier painters had used the resource of paintings past. Working her medium is what matters in facing a bleak and brutal world. It is by means of the supple laying on of pale, washlike pigments that Dumas gives value to an extended strip of naked youths (Young Boys, 1993), even as she is mercilessly exposing their vulnerable bodies.

Wandering through the National Gallery later that same day, I happened on an arrow pointing to Lower Gallery A, which is the secondary, or reserve, collection. It being Wednesday, the eight hundred or so paintings—out of a total of about twenty-three hundred—that are not in the galleries were open to public view (from 2 to 5:30 PM).

The paintings hang in a shadowy basement space, chronologically arranged according to “school” much like the public galleries above, but crowded onto floor-to-ceiling racks with only the briefest label: artist, subject, source (by purchase or bequest). Often the names of distinguished donors—George Salting, for example—turn up on things that are no longer on view.

I recognized some of the pictures right away: Two near-life-size portraits of men of a certain age seated in solid chairs, the hand of one supporting his head, the hand of the other resting on a stick, once hung upstairs as Rembrandts. Demoted, they remain impressive, still lost in Rembrandtian thought. There was a set of four Arcadian scenes famously (because mistakenly) purchased for the gallery by Kenneth Clark as Giorgiones and subsequently attributed to Andrea Previtali, a minor master. And a worn wreck of what was once a splendid Raphael Madonna with a building in the background (the “Madonna of the Tower,” she was called) perhaps eclipsed (forever?) by the successful campaign to purchase the “Madonna of the Pinks.” A number of seventeenth-century Dutch landscapes, not yet cleaned, had the warm, varnished look familiar from gallery visits in years gone by.

There were also things I didn’t know or hadn’t seen, discoveries to make: a poignant portrait of a schoolboy by the young Delacroix, and a small oval image of a woman dressed in white that, despite its size, had that gravity Corot found in the women he painted.

All these paintings are stored, on hold, in limbo, just waiting; or so it seemed to me. Perhaps one day a curator will take an interest, look at some, have them cleaned and repaired, restore them to view. But since the National Gallery is forbidden by law to deaccession anything, all of them—unlike Charles Saatchi’s paintings—are in the collection to stay.

The “triumph of painting” had little to do with my experience. It had been a day of paintings made in the present and paintings made in the past, those on show and those withdrawn, those just coming in and has-beens that are out. It made one think of painting itself as having a life, as being like a living organism: individual works, but also more generally artists’ performances in the medium, can wax and wane. On balance, I think “survival” rather than “triumph” is the appropriate word.

Svetlana Alpers’s Vexations of Art: Velàzquez and Others is being published by Yale Unviersity Press this month.

“The Triumph of Painting: Part 2” is currently on view at the Saatchi Gallery, London.