To Charing Cross tube station and then the short walk across Trafalgar Square to get to the National Gallery, which means passing by the lisper’s nightmare, the famous fourth plinth – the empty one, the one unadorned by any statue of a long-departed royal or long-forgotten military buffer. These days the space comes under the aegis of the Mayor of London who, every six months or so, presumably advised by a team of art establishment worthies, picks a contemporary artist to produce some kind of sculptural whatnot that can be placed on the massive granite pediment and ready to confuse the tourists and other passers-by. Not unlike the commission to fill the vast expanse of the Tate Modern Turbine Hall, it’s a tough gig, a tricky job and something of a poisoned chalice with very few artists managing to make a success of either venture. Certainly, the last three sculptures to have been stuck on top of the plinth – a boy on a rocking horse, a big blue cockerel and a skeleton horse clad in a fluorescent tickertape scarf – have all been decidedly underwhelming. But it seems to me that David Shrigley, the most recent artist to accept the challenge and take a sup, has produced something even more feeble and irritating than those previous duffers – a 20 foot tall thumbs up sign with the main digit extruded out like Pinocchio’s nose. For those who go in for semiotical deconstructions, I guess that, on the one hand, the author is indicating that everything is ok but then, on the other hand – well, the same hand, actually – that maybe he’s also telling us fibs.
I kind of think that most of us probably already know that humanity can be duplicitous and fickle but maybe this has come as a recent discovery to Shrigley, such that he now feels some kind of artistic compulsion to share this novel psychological insight with the rest of us. But even if that were the case, I can’t help thinking that he could have tried a bit harder to find a more elegant, stylish, pretty or clever way of conveying his newly mined nugget of information. Of course, in the past, an artist wishing to comment on man’s proclivity for mendacious behaviour would have scanned through the bible for inspiration and then illustrated Jacob tricking Isaac or some other such example of double-dealing. Alternatively, he might have made a character study of an appropriate personality from ancient mythology – maybe Janus in this case – or else just carved a bit of marble into the form of some swooning sepulchral maiden and labelled the finished work as an allegorical study of untruthfulness.
But then back in those days, the point of the art wasn’t just to try to give the viewer a lesson in morality but also to allow the artist to impress the audience with the ingenuity and sophistication of his compositional skills and the technical virtuosity displayed in making convincing representations of reality. That kind of narrative, figurative, realistic kind of art has largely fallen out of favour these days, certainly amongst those kinds of artworld committee types who determine what goes on top of Trafalgar Square plinths and into any other such public spaces. All of which creates a bit of a problem, since the current default position for today’s acceptable salon art is a kind of modish Neo-Conceptualism that seems to be churned out with increasing regularity and comformity. Such art has a tendency to be a bit like a cartoon or a one-liner joke – deliberately throwaway, insouciant and self-deprecating. Hence the disconnect when something essentially rather lightweight and trivial gets scaled up and placed on a massive stone block in one of the capital city’s most historically resonant sites. In summary, while a mini-sized version of the Shrigley sculpture, placed among a series of other similar soppy works in one of London’s many little white cube galleries, might look just about ok as an example of ironical, faux naif art, in its current manifestation and current location it looks embarrassingly silly and deserves just a very little attention and a very large harrumph.
At which point I feel I’ve been detained en route to my National Gallery destination for far too long, and so determine to get right back on course for the current exhibition in the subterranean Sainsbury Wing which is billed as Beyond Carravagio.
To get the gripes out the way first, it has to be said that, despite the implicit promise in the title, there isn’t very much Carravagio to be seen in the show. I reckon that of the 50 or so paintings in the exhibition only five are by the master, three of which are usually on display anyway in the National’s permanent collection. Under normal circumstances, these could be viewed gratis whereas a full price ticket for this show is £16 (annual membership £50). I’m sure that budgets are tight at the National but it can’t just be me who finds the recent trend for designing shows that repackage works from the main collection and convert them into temporary exhibitions so that entrance fees can be charged as somewhat tacky.
Having said that, all the actual Caravaggios on show are real zingers and the exhibition itself tells a moderately entertaining story of how the artist developed a new style of painting that was hugely successful in his lifetime; that it had great influence on his contemporaries for a few decades in the mid-1600s; and that it was then superseded by the return of a more Classical, less realistic, style. So, what were some the great man’s gimmicks and innovations that proved to be so seminal, at least in the short term? Well, he had a penchant for naturalism and dramatic lighting effects which means that instead of illustrating scenes with idealised, stereotypical characters he liked to paint from nature, employing normal everyday people as models. He also like to show his subjects in close-up, in unusual poses and sometimes looking straight out at the viewer, in fact anything that would help add to the sense of drama and realism. As a result, it’s pretty easy to spot the Carravagios here as they are all so much more vibrant and punchy when compared to the flat and stagey works being produced by his fellow artists at the time. No wonder contemporaries tried to borrow his innovative tricks and techniques, not just the use of spotlighting and close cropping but also pinching his actual compositional idea, whether it’s scenes of card sharps fleecing a dupe or portraits of a resting Cupid. Which, incidentally, raises another bit of a moan, since on two or three occasions the curators have managed to borrow actual paintings to illustrate the inferior copyist versions but can only offer small, postcard photographs to show the Carravagio originals.
As the exhibition makes very clear, Carravagio was not only more inventive than any of his compatriots, he was also had a far greater technical facility. It’s not just that fruit and flesh look particularly luscious when he paints it; nor that his foreshortening is so magnificently convincing that an outstretched arms thrust in the direction of the viewer is as impressive a scene as any created by today’s 3-D technology gizmos; nor that he can manage to seamlessly fit together all the figures in a crowded scene; but that when one of his characters look the viewer straight in the eye across four centuries of time, we immediately look back ready to engage with the person and his predicament. When it comes to the exhibition as a whole, this presents a bit of a problem since Carravagio’s brilliance has the unfortunate side effect of diminishing all the other works around his and putting them deep into the shade. Ok, maybe there are a few real second raters padding out the show but that still leaves a fair few that deserve a second look, not least those by Georges de la Tour, Artemisia Gentileschi, Guido Reni and Jusepe de Ribera. In the end though it’s Caravaggio’s versions of The Supper at Emmaus and especially The Taking of Christ, which usually resides in the National Gallery of Ireland, that make the exhibition worth the visit (though not at £16).