To Victoria station and then walk down Buckingham Palace Road to get to the Queen’s Gallery for Canaletto and the Art of Venice. And, judging by some of the comments appended to previous blogs, I kind of think that that’s the sort of opening line to a review that will make half the subscribers emit a loud groaning noise and then click off and go and update their media profiles or spend the unforgiving minute engaged in some other more useful and productive enterprise. Thankfully, however, not everyone thinks that the purpose of going to art galleries is in order to look at stuff designed to shock the senses, stretch the intellectual muscles till they twang or otherwise find the conventions and norms of polite society being clumsily recalibrated out of existence.
So, what follows is mainly for the other remaining two or three trusty followers who have reached this second paragraph and are willing to accept the notion that there may, occasionally, be some nutritional sustenance to be gathered from grazing on the comfort food of the artworld smorgasbord. And that allowing the eyes to enjoy a little simple pleasurable retinal stimulation and the mind to hum along in neutral, distracted away from the grim realities of the current news cycle, is not entirely sinful. Indeed, I confess that I find the idle, time-travelling thought of being transported back to join Canaletto as he gazes on to the green lagoon waters filled with happy gondoliers or else wanders around the purlieus and piazzas of Venice and Rome admiring the architecture, carries quite an alluring appeal. It’s not just that everything looks so peaceful and idyllic under the perpetual blue skies of 18th century Italy, but there’s such a happy contrast between the precision geometrics, Canaletto employs to delineate all the fancy facades of the buildings he records, and the looser, lighter touch he uses so deftly to caricature the vast, colourful cast of locals and tourists with which he chooses to populate his paintings.
What’s not to like? Well, as already mentioned, for some amongst the modern sophisticated audience, the paintings are just too sunny, sweet and undemanding but even in earlier years I think that Canaletto’s reputation suffered from the snobbish sneers of different sets of detractors. Some of the criticism rests on the ancient prejudice against certain stylistic genres, such that so-called history painting narratives were considered to be at the hierarchical peak of creative achievements with portraiture then landscape filling the lesser categories and, finally, the kind of urban topographies that Canaletto favoured remaining firmly settled on the artistic bottom rung. It’s been a while since I last read my copy of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses on Art but I think the underlying assumption behind this kind of stylistic stratigraphy was that it required far greater intellectual insights and abilities to be able to render complex and subtle narratives – whether retelling historical, religious or mythological stories – than it did to simply make a fair copy of a stretch of canal, a junction of paths or a row of buildings. Which, on the face of it, may sound quite reasonable and true except that, as far as I’m concerned, looking at a first rate historical cityscape will always be a much more interesting and enjoyable experience than being expected to admire the ugly child stuck in the middle of yet another poorly constructed pieta; or grimacing at the wobbling mounds of flesh from three more graceless graces; or scratching my head trying to remember exactly what promoted Judith to decapitate Holofernes, why the elders ogled Susanna, and who it was that massacred the innocents. Of course, when the true masters take on these latter subjects the results can be absolutely spectacular but so many art museums appear more interested in quantity rather than quality and seem to be happy just to pad out their wallspace with row after row of any old versions of the classics, regardless of the fact that many of them may be the minor efforts of second or third rate daubers. And it’s on those occasions that coming across a proper, well-proportioned Canaletto really can be such a refreshing delight.
The other attacks on Canaletto tend to arise from the fact that he was just a jobbing artist: that he had an agent and a ready market; that what he painted was somewhat circumscribed by the demands of the clientele for whom it was painted; and that he was utterly unbothered by having to work under that constraint. In short, that his artistic integrity was somehow compromised so that instead of being able to let his imagination run free to paint solely according to his own personal desires and instincts, he was more of a businessman and craftsman willing to succumb to the demands of the artistic marketplace. Of course, this sort of view contrasts with the more modern, romantic notion of the artist as being a rebellious spirit, unfettered by moral or pragmatic constraints and so able to occupy the role of society’s conscience, free to paint a picture of the world as it really is rather than how it would wish to be seen. At least, that used to be the general idea of the role of the artist when I was growing up although, dented by the cynicism of the likes of Warhol, Hirst, Koons etc, I’m not sure it still holds sway very much today.
Anyway, while it’s fair to say that Canaletto’s visions of Venice are absolutely thorough and tremendously detailed, it’s also clear that he’s only ever showing us the neatly polished, shiny outer surface and it’s hard not to believe there was a poorer, mundane, more squalid background side to the city that he very deliberately chose not to record. But, then again, the role of photographs that I took when I last visited La Serenissima were full of shots of pretty bridges and boats rather than the backstreet takeaways and tacky souvenir shops selling Murano glass baubles and silly festival face masks. And perhaps most of us, given the chance, choose to look on the brighter side of life rather than dwell on the disappointments of its darker and more dispiriting dimensions. Frankly, it’s hardly surprising that when the rich young men of England who went off on the Grand Tour wanted to crystallise their adventures into tangible souvenirs, the scenes they wished to have memorialised similarly tended towards the pretty and picturesque rather than the grim or grittily realistic. And that Canaletto was so well qualified to satisfy their needs must have seemed like a win-win situation for all concerned
And so finally taking into account all the historical debates about Canaletto’s reputation and his ranking in the classical canon, how does the current exhibition help or hinder the case for a review of the artist’s position? Well, the show starts off with a large collection of works on paper – sketches, line drawings and fully worked up prints – that absolutely confirms Canaletto as being a terrifically skilful draughtsman and a real technical virtuoso. There then follows a bit of a boring interlude, with a selection of pretty dull paintings by some of his Venetian contemporaries, before the final dramatic reveal of a room full of large scale Canaletto paintings. There are no surprises here – it’s all pretty much as expected with a succession of scenes that lead the viewer round the picturesque lagoons and walkways of Venice and Rome – but it certainly strikes me as not just a technical tour de force but a real triumph of artistic craftsmanship.
Ok, some may still wish to write off these works as mere glorified tourist postcards but I have to say that I find them all hugely attractive and, whisper it softly, I think I even prefer them to all the other famous views of Venice painted over the years by the likes of Turner, Monet and Sickert. In fact, I think I’d be tempted to argue that looking at these paintings could be preferable to actually visiting the place, especially when the Biennale is on and everywhere is swarming with hoards of over-excited art fan tourists. And so, instead of bothering with the hassle of battling through the maze of little streets and then joining the other queues trudging round the Arsenale and the pavilions of the Giardini, I think I’ll give the Biennale a miss this time round and maybe just pay a return visit to enjoy the serenity of our own dear little Queen’s Gallery.