The present director, Charles Saumarez Smith, was cut and pasted from the National Portrait Gallery, next door, where he made his reputation by removing the work of the celebrity photographer Mario Testino from old issues of Vogue and Vanity Fair and featuring it instead at the NPG. As soon as he was pasted onto the National Gallery, Saumarez Smith started fiddling with the layout of this great collection, cutting bits of it here, pasting them there, until the route he arranged for us no longer made chronological or national or notional sense. Today, you walk into the plush new entrance that has recently been pasted onto the front of the gallery, and the journey ahead of you begins with 16th-century Italian portraiture. Why? It’s not the beginning. It’s not the end. It’s just a bit from the middle, cut and pasted onto the cover.
So it certainly does not surprise me that the National Gallery, hitherto a collection only of oil paintings, has decided to branch out for the first time into photography, with a selection of digitally scanned, high-resolution Lambda prints by Tom Hunter, a quintessential cutter and paster. I remember interviewing the former director here, the great Neil McGregor, and asking him if he had ever been tempted to expand the gallery’s remit by including sculpture, say, in the display? McGregor’s eyes narrowed into a look of accusatory surprise: “Sculpture,” he quipped camply, “is what you fall over when you step back from the paintings.” He was a purist. With an unshakable sense of gallery direction. They’re a dying breed. The cutters and the pasters are replacing them everywhere.
Hunter’s photographs are contemporary reworkings of old-master paintings. His best-known work, an image of a woman reading a letter by a window, was cut and pasted from 17th-century Holland, where Vermeer invented it, and transferred to the East End of London. In Vermeer’s original, the sad girl by the window is reading a letter from a departed loved one. In Hunter’s photo version, she’s become Woman Reading a Possession Order. We’re in some cheap housing. There’s a fidgeting baby by her side. The timeless poetry of Vermeer has been sampled by an episode of EastEnders.
This depressing lowering of tone is a reliable feature of Hunter’s work. He redoes the Rokeby Venus as well, turning her into a sleazy Hackney stripper. He takes a gentle river bank painted by Constable and makes it into a murder scene. Manet’s magnificently introspective barmaid at the Folies Bergère is transformed into the girl behind the counter at Hunter’s local pub, The Dolphin.
These transformations are achieved with a decent amount of care, and not all the results are negligible. I was particularly taken by the relocation to Hackney of a pair of pre-Raphaelite masterpieces by Millais. That famous scene of the dying Ophelia, floating prettily in her watery grave, has been reimagined in some twilit urban scrubland and renamed The Way Home. A dead girl floats mysteriously in black water, surrounded by weeds. It’s the end of the day, and the light is fading, but the colours manage to mimic a pre-Raphaelite look. All sorts of dark imaginings about the manner of the girl’s death are coaxed out of us by this haunting sight. Was it suicide? Murder? The pre-Raphaelites themselves were, of course, early cutters and pasters, plucking big-haired Victorian girls out of their humdrum domestic existences as artist’s mistresses and playthings and turning them into mythical and theatrical heroines. Hunter, I read, uses his friends as models too, and seems also to have an eye for big-haired female prettiness. That is perhaps why so many of his friends are dreadlocked crusties.
At his worst, though, he’s too keen on tabloid story lines and shoddy sex plots. The transformation of Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus into the rear view of a pub stripper, her G-string cutting unpleasantly into her bits, is a cruel and graceless act of borrowing. It isn’t just her pose that Hunter has stolen from Velazquez’s lovely Venus, but her dignity.
Too much of the action here is set in seedy strip joints and grotty sex clubs, as a single-minded parallel keeps being drawn between old-master nudity and the modern kind. Hunter may imagine that by borrowing his setups from the old masters, then updating them, he is illuminating the true tenor of his predecessors in a subversive way and showing up their taste for sex and violence, but his own taste for grubbiness is relentless. I felt I was watching a display of class warfare: the deliberate rubbing of elegant old-master noses in the mud.
His latest series of works is called Living in Hell and Other Stories, and all the imagery was inspired by headlines encountered in the Hackney Gazette. Here’s a list of titles: Lover Set on Fire in Bed; Gang Rape Ordeal; Naked Death Plunge; Father and Son Run £2m Vice Racket from Saunas. Each of these titles is illustrated by a photographic tableau that Hunter has imagined for us, based, with varying degrees of accuracy, on an old-master painting. Thus, Murder: Two Men Wanted, in which a furtive man is seen leaning over a dead woman in a park, is an arrangement borrowed from that delightful painting by Piero di Cosimo, in the National’s own collection, of A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph.
Rat in a Bed shows a naked oriental girl in a bed surrounded by rats, and has been inspired by that gorgeous Gauguin of his Tahitian lover awakened by nightmares. The Gauguin is sublimely beautiful, effortlessly mysterious, very unsettling and open to a thousand readings. Hunter’s girl in bed with rats is grubby, silly … and that’s it. Because you can cut and paste the poses from the old masters, their story lines, their compositions and their setups. But you cannot cut and paste their depth.