Column

‘Even if prints are all I can afford, on my walls will be Tintoretto and da Vinci’

Barbara Amiel February 5 1979
Column

‘Even if prints are all I can afford, on my walls will be Tintoretto and da Vinci’

Barbara Amiel February 5 1979

‘Even if prints are all I can afford, on my walls will be Tintoretto and da Vinci’

Column

Barbara Amiel

Until a relatively short time ago, maybe 150 years, art like everything else was possessed and enjoyed only by an infinitesimally small number of the wealthy or by the artists themselves. Then, along with land, money and consumer goods—at least in the Western societies—objects of art, especially paintings, began to be owned and collected by increasing numbers of people. By now there is hardly a selfrespecting lawyer, dentist or journalist whose living room would not boast at least one or two pieces of modern or primitive art.

It is a pity that, as it seems to me, this great increase of consciousness and accessibility has coincided with a decline in art itself. This was most forcefully brought home to me when I walked into a gallery opened 18 months ago in Toronto by a SwissHungarian named Gabor Kekko. It was just before closing time; the streets were dark and wet with stained snow. The lights in the gallery had been turned off in order to light and photograph a newly acquired oil painting by Van Dyck: Portrait of a Gentleman. Van Dyck’s gentleman was dressed entirely in black. His cheeks were flushed, his eyes knowing and confident, indifferent to the dirt under his nails that Van Dyck had so carefully noted. I had seen paintings and drawings by the Old Masters in museums but this was the first time I had been, as it were, alone with a Van Dyck. When the gallery lights went on I found myself in the centre of a room that contained works by Rembrandt, Vermeyen, and many of their pupils. Here was the work of painters who, as apprentices, had to sketch a finger a thousand times before their masters would let them try a hand. Still, I thought, modern art can be just as skilful.

In the past 200 years mechanical skills in mixing colors or achieving perspective have if anything improved. I asked the gallery owner why he had no painting later than the 18th century. “Because,” he replied, “it is not art. After this, artists became more inter-

ested in themselves rather than the subject of their work. They lost their seriousness and became selfish.”

I wondered, recalling paintings from Van Gogh to Lemieux I had enjoyed very much—all produced within the last hundred years. But, in a certain sense the art dealer may be right. Great Western art probably ended with the best pupils of Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyck and other Old Masters. Theirs was an objective art, not necessarily in the sense of being realistic, for the mythological figures and fantasies of a da

Vinci grotesque or a Bartholomeus Spranger satyr have nothing to do with realism, except in the sense of the artist being concerned with his object rather than with himself. The decline of art in the last 150 years is not the philistine complaint that “you can’t recognize a cow anymore.” It is rather a failure to heed Stanislavsky’s great dictum: look for the art in yourself, not for yourself in art.

The decline was easiest to understand when I turned away from Kekko’s Old Masters and looked at the collection of pupils. After all, the foremost practitioners of any age of art from the impressionists to the moderns to the postmoderns—from Renoir to Picasso to Bacon—have done works of shattering power and beauty. But between the Renaissance and the end of the 18th century it was not only the Old Masters themselves, not only Raphael, Tintoretto, Rembrandt or da Vinci, but the pu-

pils of their pupils, the very epigones, who put the objects of their study on canvas with an unparalleled flair, imagination, humanity and artistry. A chalk drawing of Jacob Jordaens (main pupil of Rubens) titled River God hung on the gallery’s east wall. His hair streaming and garlanded, eyes staring into a metaphysical promised land, his torso muscled and aging, this was an exquisite study of masculine contemplation. Here, in a minor master was a humility lacking in contemporary art: a concern for the subject, a distancing from the

narcissism of the artist. This is art in which the artist’s self-expression and self-discovery emerge only incidentally.

To some extent all this may be a matter of taste and temperament. But this separate-but-equal status of tastes cannot be extended indefinitely. Abstract expressionism or the minimalists cannot compare with Hieronymus Bosch. Of course our art collectors have not helped contemporary artists. Trying more to “understand” their own little souls than to expand them, they have leaned

with increasing fervor toward art that mirrors the “anxieties” of contemporary life: a search to see themselves in the frame. And what about the primitive work of Eskimos, native peoples or Africans? It is of course of much anthropological or archeological interest, if genuine. (If not, it is simply of no interest at all.) But it has the same relationship to art as an igloo to the Notre-Dame of Paris.

In the middle of Toronto sits a gallery filled with some of the greatest art of Western civilization. According to the owner he has never had a Canadian artist come into the gallery just to look at a drawing by Van Dyck or stand in front of a painting by Frans Hals. “They don’t seem interested,” he says.

He may or may not be right. Anyway, few of us can buy the Old Masters or even their pupils for our homes: even the River God I admired cost $28,000. But original modern art is no popcorn either. If reprints are all I can afford, on my walls they will be Tintoretto, Raphael or II Semolei.