The new National Gallery policy of not giving us “blockbusters”, outlined on his arrival by the latest director, Nick Penny, has begun to bear fruit. Only with difficulty can
I imagine a less blockbusterish experience thanCorot to Monet, a quiet survey of quiet French landscape painting in the 19th century, which has snuggled down quietly in the quiet Sainsbury exhibition basement.
On show is a selection of landscape pictures from the gallery’s own collection, most of which are usually hidden away in the B-displays downstairs, so that even fanatical National Gallery visitors, such as I, will have difficulty recalling many of them. Modest of nature, small of stature, fiercely unfierce in inclination, these pint-sized evocations of tranquil stretches of the European landscape are easy pictures to hurry past and difficult pictures to get worked up about. Getting pleasure from them demands some zen from the citizen. It is like enjoying the small print in a contract and ignoring the headlines.
In a nutshell, what is being examined here is the pleasing urge to paint nature as she really is, the facts and not the fictions, which began to emerge in European art at the end of the 18th century and came to dominate much of the 19th century’s thinking about landscape. At its climax, this noble urge brought us impressionism. And if this were a blockbuster, its second half would have been packed with colourful Monets and Renoirs. Since it is not a blockbuster, what we get instead are a few early Monets, which round off our journey with hints of new directions but are as brown, green and grey as the rest of the display.
We commence in Italy. A handful of skilled landscape specialists from France, Germany, Belgium and even Wales arrived here at the end of the 18th century to paint the celebrated views around Rome: the famous Roman campagna. They were lured by three obvious attractions. The first and most important was the light, which was outrageously golden and gorgeous. If you were a Belgian, as Simon Denis was, the sight of Italy’s evening sky must have sent tsunamis of raw ecstasy coursing through your shri velled-up Flemish capillary system. Denis’s Roman sunset, circa 1790, gives us a twilight brought to the point of orgasm by a late-evening sun streaming through the clouds. The second attraction was what I think the Japanese call wabi-sabi, that warm, faded, battered feeling that things acquire when they have been around for a long time and seen a lot of life. Italy, with its ubiqui tous Roman ruins and crumbling village surfaces, was and is a kind of wabi-sabi heaven, and the Welshman
Thomas Jones, who arrived here in the 1780s, gives us a dazzling miniature of some faded laundry hanging out to dry against a particularly battered wall in Naples. Apparently, Jones’s peep of a picture is the smallest painting in the National’s collection. What a brilliant little thing it is.
Italy’s third and most elusive attraction was its enticing drowsiness: that great national ability it has to slow you down and put you in siesta mode, where looking and dreaming can commingle. Artist after artist in this show – and everywhere beyond it where true landscape art is being aimed for – is tangibly enjoying the act of just sitting there and contemplating what lies before them. Corot, in 1826, was trying to record the truth about the parched colours of the Roman campagna around the Claudian Aqueduct and the hard shadows thrown on the ground by passing clouds, but he was also enjoying that fusion of seeing, thinking and dreaming that lies at the heart of the Italian landscape experience.
Having done a decent job of persuading us of the warm pleasures of Italy, the show returns to the north with a confused set of aims. Most of the artists we encounter next are French, but then Turner pops up, and Constable. The event begins to feel thrown together, as if unsure of what it is trying to tell us. Corot, who is the dominant presence here because the NG owns so many pictures by him, is, in any case, a thoroughly confusing artist. He starts out painting hot and excitable pictures in Italy, and ends up in his studio in Paris churning out cool and silvery views of a make-believe rural France. What, apart from a shared love of landscape, do his two approaches have in common?
Something this show does well is to introduce us to more obscure artists who do not usually feature in the telling of the French landscape story. I am not at all embarrassed that I have never previously heard of the splendidly named Achille-Etna Michallon, because he died at the age of 25 and was only briefly Corot’s teacher. Represented here by two outstanding views – a rocky pond with hints of premature cubism about the treatment of the shadows, and a bulky tree admired, unusually, for the thickness of its trunk rather than the featheriness of its leaves – Michallon is a highly original and electrifying presence. Another highlight is a row of thundery landscapes painted for us by the Barbizon artists Michel, Diaz and Rousseau. When it comes to animating the land, none of nature’s effects is quite as dramatic as the sudden appearance of a shaft of golden light in a black and stormy sky.
So, the best way to enjoy this show – and in its modest, stumbly way it is an enjoyable event – is to refrain from joining up any dots and to take it a picture at a time. What we end up with is a thumbnail sketch of the many tendencies that were abroad in French landscape art before the coming of the impressionists. Monet, when he finally appears, is three painters rather than one, a hesitant outdoor presence, unsure as yet of the direction to take. Here he mimics Manet. There he mimics Boudin. The last time we see him, he is actually in London, where he fled somewhat ingloriously in 1871 to avoid the Franco-Prussian war, and where his ambition is the thoroughly un-impressionist one of recording the acrid yellow smog in which the Thames was permanently wreathed at the time.
Directly outside the National Gallery, in Trafalgar Square, the sculptor Antony Gormley has given the British the opportunity to prove what an incorrigible bunch of show-offs we are by arranging for us to access the Fourth Plinth for an hour at a time. I watched one chap dressed as a panda and another reciting poetry through a megaphone. A woman stood about with a lollipop, and lots of people pretended they were Nelson. Is it art? Of course not. Is it fun? Of course it is. Would any of the grim generals and admirals on the surrounding plinths have approved? Not one of them. It is the best reason for doing this.