You've probably heard by now that Seattle Art Museum has turned over—from the all-woman (hear me roar) 'stravaganza of Elles to the imperial sausage fest of Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London. The tagline, in cursive handwriting, is "European Masters."*
I went to the show Sunday afternoon and it was packed. You know what they say about an art show with big names: Big dicks. Don't blame me. It's what they say.
The place was like church. We parishioners gazed up at the oils. On the audio guide, we heard from Daphne Guinness, heir to the collection, who is beautiful and can hold a pose for a fashion photographer for a long time because she is "athletic." Don't hate her because she is beautiful.
There are really two shows: One is a handful of etchings by Rembrandt. They are full of life and warmth and oddness and curvy lines and if you don't love them, so help you god.
The rest is paintings. Big, haughty ones, paired with reverential wall labels that bring on the most hilarious experiences of cognitive dissonance.
That's a sendup of one of the paintings in the exhibition. The painting is Two Girls Dressing a Kitten by Candlelight by Joseph Wright of Derby. The label points out that the artist often depicted his subjects by candlelight: check. And that the girls are dressed not like girls but like society women: check.
The label does not point out that THIS PAINTING IS BANANAS.
Where should I start? The kitten is clearly a sociopath. Possibly a bat. Maybe a vampire. The kitten has an erection. Or, another possibility—someone standing directly behind the kitten has an erection that is sticking out through the kitten's legs.
The doll in the foreground? Also has an erection. And she's a girl.
The human girls are torturers by nature. Just look at the light on their faces. Evildoers. They are prepared to do the bidding of their kitten overlord.
People. PEOPLE! This is the most pure fun a person can have in a museum.
Plus, it's made only more fun by the fact that the presentation acts like there's nothing to see here, carry on. I'd love to see a British comedian let loose in this place. The elephants in the room are knocking into each other. Take Van Dyck's portrait of Princess Henrietta from 1634. She's seven feet tall and snooty. She has her hand on the shoulder—as if she's holding him back—of a little black boy who cranes his neck up at her with a cowed expression on his face. It's as if his life is in her hands...oh, right, because it is. The explosive dynamic between the two of them radiates out of the painting with the force of a blazing sun. But it's not even mentioned in the label; rather, the boy is described as being just like the ivy, another part of the environment in which she's the only full-fledged subject. This is the full, mad label text:
Anthony van Dyck's refined, elegant style and his dazzling brushwork had a profound and lasting influence on English portraiture, as will be seen later in the exhibition. The pose of the princess herself is fairly static; yet the artist has animated the scene around her with meandering ivy, billowing gold fabric, and a velvet-clad page who emerges from behind Princess Henrietta to offer a tray of pink roses. The variety of suptuous fabrics and rich hues brings the warmth of Venetian painting, which Van Dyck knew well, to chilly England.
King Charles I of England had owned this portrait, but after his beheading in 1649, it was sold abroad. Lord Iveagh paid relatively little—2,500 pounds—when he purchased it in 1888.
It's fascinating to consider any museum's tendency to pretend that there's nothing to see here, while artworks are right there in front of your eyes making the best kinds of trouble. Recall the strenuous repression of SAM's Luminous, expressed, as usual, in pseudo-poetic language about "treasures."
This Treasures exhibition is a thicket. Cut through it by noticing, for one, the stark difference between Reynolds and Gainsborough. Sir Joshua Reynolds is a drab neoclassicist. Gainsborough is an interesting artist for the ages. But Reynolds does tell you much about his period. When the audio guide says Reynolds is painting according to the dictates of the day, what it leaves out is that Reynolds was dictating the dictates of the day. Reynolds was founding head of the Royal Academy—he wrote the book on how art should be made in 18th-century England. (These rules stuck for quite some time.) From the book:
It is indeed difficult to give any other reason why an Empire like that of Britain should so long have wanted an ornament so suitable to its greatness than that slow progression of things which naturally makes elegance and refinement the last effect of opulence and power.
An institution like this has often been recommended upon considerations merely mercantile. But an academy founded upon such principles can never effect even its own narrow purposes. If it has an origin no higher, no taste can ever be formed in it which can be useful even in manufactures; but if the higher arts of design flourish, these inferior ends will be answered of course.
We are happy in having a prince who has conceived the design of such an institution, according to its true dignity, and promotes the arts, as the head of a great, a learned, a polite, and a commercial nation; and I can now congratulate you, gentlemen, on the accomplishment of your long and ardent wishes.
Fun with the 18th century! There's much more to do here. This is just a start in looking at Treasures. Note: There is one JMW Turner here. It's not the greatest of the great Turners, just a good one, but Turner is so great that it's nice to see it.
*The mastery of a master is in the hands, see.
*If this Slog post could have an audio title, it would be a British Sir saying, "Lovely!"