I had cause to skip through some of London’s smaller museums this week, catching up on the shows I missed in the mad gallery month we have just had. As I wandered entranced through these world-class hoards, which in any other city on earth would constitute a leading national museum, I felt sensations of worthlessness rising up inside me, and spurts of nervousness. Why do we have all these things? What have we done to deserve them? How did we get them?
Excuse the existentialism, but I have just been staring at a cut-up Veronese altarpiece at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and the spectacle has affected my equilibrium. This was once a stunning altarpiece, the largest in Lendinara, near Venice. Then, in the 18th century, some Italian lunatic with a saw decided to cut it in into smaller pieces that were easier to sell. Dulwich has a part. Ottawa another. The National Gallery of Scotland a third. And, amazingly, a final fragment, a small head of the archangel Michael, has just turned up at the Blanton Museum of Art, in Austin, Texas. The pieces have now been reunited and an approximation of the whole altarpiece is on show at Dulwich.
Art historians delight in this kind of exhibition, as it is the result of such clever detective work, but as a viewer I found it a mystifying and depressing experience. Whatever the theoretical value of bringing the bits together, as an art experience it lacks impact. Observing the brutalised fragments floating closer in a vague conception of a whole is less rewarding than examining the bits separately. I have long admired Dulwich’s section of the altarpiece, in which one of the Petrobelli brothers, who commissioned the picture, is kneeling before some columns alongside St Jerome. As a composition, it surely worked better before it was cleaned and turned into a fragment. That is the trouble with art-historical truthfulness. It doesn’t lead to better art.
Keeping to a Venetian theme, Dulwich has also mounted a fascinating display of Walter Sickert’s Venice pictures. From circa 1894, for a decade, Venice became Sickert’s floating home-from-home. In London, his marriage had broken down. Venice was where he fled. The art he produced there makes quickly obvious what the attractions were. The hazy blurrings of land and water seem somehow to rhyme with Sickert’s misery. His Venice is rarely sunny. Instead, it glows spookily in twilit purples and ghostly evening greys. To me, it looks as if he is deliberately setting himself the task of capturing the city’s most difficult effects. Only a demented masochist, determined to test his own limits, would have had this many goes at evoking the ornate, overcrowded, bitty, bristling, unpaintable facade of St Mark’s Cathedral, as its flashes of gold alternate with so many unknowable shadows and hollows.
The other attraction of Venice would have been the women. Nowadays, it’s hard to get near a Venetian girl, as so few remain in the city, and those who do could buy your house with a week’s income from their souvenir stalls. But in Sickert’s time, and for centuries before, the working-class women of Venice were notorious for making their wares available to the travelling Eeengleesh. Sickert seems to have persuaded the proprietor of his favourite taverna to line him up with working girls – La Giuseppina, La Carolina, La Inez – whom he took to his room and painted with the shutters closed. The results are darkly evocative, as the speckled lagoon light spluttering through the shutters occasionally catches a yellow sleeve and illuminates it like a firework.
With no nudes included, the display affects a certain Dulwich primness. It remains a resonant event. Every Sickert show I see stokes up my admiration for him. He is surely in the top five British artists ever, alongside Turner, Constable, Hogarth and William Dobson.
To the Wallace Collection next, where some go to see The Laughing Cavalier, by Frans Hals, or Rubens’s gorgeous Rainbow Landscape, but where I go to admire the most exciting plate in Britain. It was made by a French Renaissance genius, Bernard Palissy, creator of the 16th century’s most unexpected pottery. The Wallace owns his masterpiece, a superbly realistic snake gliding across a latter as a nervous frog looks on. His super-squelchy creepy-crawlies seem miraculously real. His plate has, as its driving ambition, a fierce Renaissance desire to warn you of the unreliability of appearances. It therefore constitutes some appropriate preparation for a show that rejoices in the glorious, box-ticking name of Treasures of the Black Death. Of those five words, only “of” and “the” have not been specifically chosen to press your buzzer: what a transparent bit of exhibition showboating.