Before we go inside for a proper moan about the fall in standards we are witnessing here, let us first be clear about what is meant by dumbing down. In art, the phrase describes a process by which intelligent people put on vacuous shows because they imagine this is what the public wants. The old-fashioned phrase for it is second-guessing. But “second-guessing the public” doesn’t have the same demonic contemporary ring to it, does it, as “dumbing down”? The process can, of course, be eye-smashingly obvious, as it was when the National decided recently to exhibit the paintings of the television entertainer Rolf Harris. “As an artist, there is no higher recognition than to be invited to have my paintings exhibited in the National Gallery, one of the finest galleries in the world. This is the dream of a lifetime,” declared Rolf at the time, not surprisingly — as he found himself showing alongside Leonardo, Michelangelo and Rembrandt. Putting on Rolf at the National Gallery was as crude an attempt to get inside the public’s pants as I can imagine.
Yet dumbing down isn’t always this obvious. At its worst, its most insidious, the cheap thinking manages to get smuggled into the gallery under cover of something superficially worthwhile. Americans in Paris is an excellent example.
At first sight, you wouldn’t necessarily realise that this show isn’t actually about anything. At the end of the 19th century, an assortment of Americans arrived in Paris wanting to be painters. Yes, but so, too, did similar mixed bags of Danes, Swedes, Poles, Czechs and Russians. Once word had soared into the international ether about the intoxicating mixture of wine, women and art schools that was available in Paris at the end of the 19th century, every thrusting international art buck in the world wanted to go there for a nibble. Why pick on the Americans? I can only imagine it is because Czechs in Paris doesn’t quite press the same Hello!-magazine button, does it? And Swedes in Paris sounds like homework. The Americans were only really different in being richer and flashier than most. As far as talent goes, or innovation, or coherence, they were par for the course, as this show makes tediously clear.
It begins with a room full of portraits of the artists involved, and I confess to bursting out in full-bodied laughter before a couple of them. In art, a sure sign of a nonentity is the amount of puffing-up that goes on in the creation of a self-image. So have a good look here at the poseur called Paul Wayland Bartlett, a sculptor, apparently, who has been immortalised for us by another poseur called Charles Sprague Pearce. I have never heard of either of them before, because neither is an artistic presence of note, yet here is Bartlett, presented to us by Pearce as if he were a creative genius of Caravaggio-esque dimensions. Dressed crisply in a suit of perfectly judged grey — I bet he never wiped his talented artistic hands on that — he doesn’t even deign to look at us, but appears instead in strict Florentine profile while dangling a cigarette nonchalantly from his fingers. What a pretentious twit.
The show is full of them. For some reason, the organisers have chosen to deal mainly in artists who boast three names. So Charles Sprague Pearce is joined by Maurice Brazil Prendergast, Julius LeBlanc Stewart, Willard Leroy Metcalf and Frederick Childe Hassam. Even those artists I’ve always known by two names have been given a third for the occasion, which is why Mary Cassatt has suddenly become Mary Stevenson Cassatt.
What all these Nelson Norris Bickfords have in common with all the Jefferson David Chalfonts is that they are footnotes in art, painting in the bog-standard realist mode that was de rigueur among mediocrities in Paris at the time. In 1889, while Van Gogh, in Arles, was completing his glorious revolution in yellow and blue, having fled from Paris specifically to escape this plague of international nonentities that had descended on the boulevards, and Cézanne, in Provence, was painting and repainting the Mont Ste Victoire precisely because he had had enough of Paris’s global superficiality, Charles Courtney Curran was still in the Luxembourg Gardens being utterly superficial, watching pretty young girls in breezy bonnets feeding the birds as if the clock had slipped back quarter of a century.
All the double-barrelled mediocrities in this show, which is to say most of the exhibitors, do what you expect of such artists and slavishly follow the trend before last — half of them want to be Degas, the other half plump for Monet. But I admit that I expected more from the display’s nominal big boys: Whistler, Sargent and Cassatt. Whistler made such an outstanding impression at the Tate’s Turner Whistler Monet show last year that it really is surprising to see him dragged back into the mix here by the company he keeps.
A couple of his most famous paintings — The White Girl, from 1862, and the celebrated portrait of his mother, from 1871 — ought to have been highlights, but both are disappointing. The White Girl — or, to give her the supremely pretentious title that Whistler favoured, Symphony in White, No 1 — turns out to be a clumsy bit of cake-making with thick smudges of white rubbed into the canvas in coarse, dry skid marks. Even Whistler’s renowned mother manages here to underwhelm. Home alone on a temporary gallery partition, gloomily lit, she strikes you not as an Arrangement in Grey and Black, No 1, as the reliably showy Whistler chose to christen her, but as a dull and Protestant symphony in beige.
Sargent comes across as exactly what we know him to have been: a flashy society portraitist with quick hands and no depth. The show’s most iconic image, the one that’s on all the posters, is of the absurdly named Madame X, a kind of Footballer’s Wife of the 1880s, who came from Louisiana and scandalised fashionable Paris with her pale beauty, flirtatious manner and the rest. So, while Van Gogh was commemorating the spirit of his time by drawing worn-out peasants stooped over their back-breaking work in the potato fields of Nuenen, Sargent was painting Madame X scandalising Paris in a strappy black number. Understand that contrast and you understand the difference between proper art and this stuff.
None of which surprises me: Sargent is doing what Sargent always does. The most disappointing presence, for me, is Mary Cassatt. A friend of Manet, she was a true contributor to the Parisian art scene, famed for her gentle views of mothers and their children. I had expected more of her. Alas, Cassatt simply wasn’t much of a painter. Her subject matter has some weight to it, but her airy-fairy brush strokes don’t. The curse of the faux impressionist — approximateness — strikes her repeatedly.
Thus the National Gallery continues its descent into dumbness with a trite and unnecessary display. I see the next big show there is going to be called Rebels and Martyrs. How exciting. Why don’t they call it Gay Rebels and Lesbian Martyrs on Motorbikes? That will definitely bring in the crowds.