Canaletto and His Rivals, National Gallery

    First, a confession: I am a Canaletto groupie. I consider him to have been one of the most intoxicating and imaginative landscape artists we have seen. There is a good chance, therefore, that the review ahead will betray a lack of balance. In the circumstances, it seems right to begin with a shot of caution: to step outside myself and present the Canaletto quandary as calmly and clearly as I can manage. So here goes.

    Most of us have little difficulty accepting Canaletto as a skilled and pleasing painter. The problems start when we try to recognise him as a great one. At which point, nasty little questions begin sneaking into our brains. Didn’t he paint too much? Isn’t his art too touristy? Wasn’t he churning out the same views over and over again? Aren’t these, basically, painted postcards? As the doubts gather, even Canaletto’s most obvious skills begin to seem questionable; and the clever use he made of recyclings and rulers strikes us anew as the shortcutting of a hack.

    None of which, of course, has dented his popularity in Britain. For reasons that have their origins in the dubious 18th-century values of the grand tourist, the British have always been the world’s leading Canaletto junkies. There are more paintings by him here than anywhere else. We were his leading buyers. Without us, he would not have happened. We made Canaletto. But did we also ruin him?

    To answer this type of niggling question, and to pander simultaneously to the immense national appetite for Antonio Canal, the National Gallery has organised a colourful regatta of Venetian “view paintings” devoted not just to the master, but also to his “rivals”: Carlevarijs, Marieschi, Bellotto and Guardi.

    All were involved in the same dodgy trade: flogging souvenirs of Venice to intoxicated foreign tourists.

    Personally, I hate the term “view painter”. To me, it sounds demeaning and unserious. Why is it that when Turner, say, paints a view of the Thames at Richmond, or Constable records Dedham Vale, they remain landscape artists, but when Canaletto gives us the Venetian lagoon, with the Island of San Michele bobbing mistily in the distance, he becomes a view painter? Should we not dispense forthwith with this inglorious term?

    The National Gallery bandies it about merrily in a show that is, in various ways, disappointingly old-fashioned. The paintings that have been brought together are superb: the finest group of Canalettos unveiled here in several generations, with magnificent loans from St Petersburg, Madrid and HM the Queen. But those of us who hoped we might encounter a new vision of Canaletto here, a Canaletto for the 21st century, are let down. As far as the show’s basic understanding of his contribution is concerned, it’s business as usual. He was a “view painter”. He was really good at it. So were some of his precursors and followers.

    The display is arranged on broadly chronological lines and trots forward at an even pace. This is usually the most informative way to arrange a career, but in this case it leads to the achievement of an unwanted sense of smoothness and results in the worst thing happening to Canaletto that can ever happen to him: the creeping in of the illusion of repetitiveness. More could and should have been done to bring further light and shade to our understanding of him. That much is made clear by any examination of the works themselves, the best of which prowl around the confines of “view painting” as edgily as tigers in a cage.

    The first image you encounter, painted in about 1722, when Canaletto was in his twenties, is a dark, thundery, King Learish evocation of the Island of San Michele threatened by an afternoon storm. These days, San Michele is Venice’s cemetery island. It’s where Stravinsky, Diaghilev and Ezra Pound — hardened Venice-lovers all — are buried. In Canaletto’s time, it was still a vulnerable huddle of ancient towers and religious spires, floating precariously on the lagoon’s blackest waters as the devil prepared to unleash the mother of all storms upon them. Somehow, a beam of golden light has fought its way through the clouds and singled out the tallest church for illumination, like one of those laser beams assassins use in Die Hard films to guide their bullets. Few churches in art have looked as threatened. This is Romanticism before the Romantics, Turnerism before Turner. This is truly superb evocation, observation, incantation and drama. All of which could, I feel, have done with a bit more bigging up.

    Venice’s problem as a location is that it is so unusual, so distinctive, that its basic urban template of crumbling building + canal = Venice is immediately unmistakable. So unmistakable that one bit of the city can too easily seem like the next. When Constable poked about in East Bergholt, he found a river here, a hillside there, here a hay wain, there a leaping horse.

    Wherever Canaletto glided on his gondola, he still encountered the same basic combination of building, canal, sky.

    In fact, every view in the show is substantially, and even dramatically, unlike the one before.

    My tip is to look closer. However familiar a canal may initially seem, examine the gorgeously observed skies above it or the billowing wavelets of the water’s surface, the darting figures animating the corners, the perfectly shorthanded shipping and its wondrous reflections, the hugely imaginative switches in viewpoints. True, no amount of subtle observation of the light conditions on a crumbling Venetian wall will ever make the final picture seem as dramatically different as a forest is from a river, or a hillside from a hay wain, but to find this much variety in as consistent a location as Venice requires an imagination of rare depth and strength.

    As the show progresses, the vistas get bigger and sunnier — we British have enough clouds at home without travelling to Venice to purchase foreign ones. And the skill with which Canaletto orchestrates his increasingly complicated pot of effects is progressively more remarkable. The show’s central space, given over to the biggest views of the biggest regattas, contains gigantic displays of crowd control worthy of the organisers of a Nuremberg rally.

    So: he’s a fabulous orchestrator of huge effects dismissed as a lesser talent; an imaginative Romantic mistaken for a “view painter”; a pioneering celebrator of nature’s humblest textures traduced as a postcard-seller; a painter of great imagination and ambition wrongly dismissed as repetitive. Not a good painter. But a great one.

    What, then, of his “rivals”? All get a stretch of wall to make their case. All are blasted out of the water by the master except, perhaps, Bellotto, who just about holds his own and who was in any case Canaletto’s nephew. Bellotto’s light is cooler, less thrilling. He seems less besotted with his location than his uncle. It is no surprise that his best work, not on show here, was produced later in Dresden and Warsaw.