Art review 2012: A world both solid and transient

Winter Timber, 2009 by David Hockney
Winter Timber, 2009 by David Hockney
Share this article
Have your say

Contrasting the rigour and craft of the 17th century and those it inspired against the spurious fad for film in galleries, it’s clear which disciplines ought to be taking precedence... but aren’t

LOOKING back over the last 12 months, what is most recent inevitably looms largest. Nevertheless, the painting by Robert Peake of Prince Henry Stuart as a knight in shining armour – on show at the National Gallery in London until 13 January as part of the exhibition The Lost Prince – is so poignant, it will stick in my mind for a long time. Henry, though just a boy, was already a renaissance prince. He was for instance the first royal owner of the Holbein drawings, stars of the show from the Royal Collection, Holbein to Dürer at the Queen’s Gallery. Henry should have succeeded James VI and I and the picture speaks of all the hope invested in him for the new, united kingdom over which he was to reign, but he died young. His much less gifted brother succeeded instead as Charles I whose reign, as we all know, ended under the executioner’s axe.

In the painting, Henry leads Time by the forelock. Peake’s picture was old-fashioned, but this allegorical figure echoes one of the principal concerns of his contemporaries, the first modern artists who in Holland were just then beginning to produce pictures that were as radical as Cubism three centuries later. Their concerns were the same as those we now call scientists: to understand the world by observing and describing it. They painted the weather, the movement of light and, in the work of Frans Hals, fleeting facial expressions. Observing the transience of things, they recognised that any attempt to describe the world must take account of time; that what seems permanent is also constantly changing.

This conundrum finds clear expression in Rembrandt’s self-portraits and was to lead artists on the long meandering road to modern art. You see it three centuries later in Peploe’s work in one of the best exhibitions of the year – SJ Peploe at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (SNGMA). Peploe studied Cézanne closely and in his magnificent still lifes, paid homage to the way the French master, resolving the conundrum, managed at once to reassure us that the world is solid and dependable, while also capturing most beautifully its transience.

Cézanne is regarded as the father of modern art, yet few grasped so well the significance of what he had done. It was interesting, therefore, to compare Peploe with the artists in the major Picasso show that preceded it. Nominally it was Picasso & Modern British Art, but the SNGMA had hastily to add some Scottish artists for a public with a clearer idea than the organisers at the Tate of what “British” actually means. Nevertheless the exhibition included some major Picassos. The comparison between Peploe, who knew Picasso at the advent of Cubism and understood what he was doing, and his English followers was illuminating. Market forces may have had something to do with it, nevertheless it is clear that the Scottish empirical tradition was too strong for Peploe to abandon the interrogation of the complex and ever elusive actual world for something less rooted in experience.

In contrast, the Pre-Raphaelites seen in the major show at Tate Britain thought the best way to deal with it all was to put the clock back. This led to some wonderful paintings and also to some rather awful ones, but the show did make a case for their modernity. The approach of Ford Madox Brown and Holman Hunt to colour and direct observation anticipated the Impressionists, while putting the clock back was, after all, much the same as Picasso and Matisse sought to do by imitating the primitive.

Looking at the history of art in this long perspective, you can even make a giant leap that links Robert Peake to the Turner Prize, won this year by Elizabeth Price, a film-maker. The second serious contender – if that’s not an oxymoron in the context – was Luke Fowler, also a film-maker. The distinction between films made by artists and the films we see in the cinema and on television is, I think, spurious. They are the same art form. Nevertheless, clearly something drives contemporary artists to make films. If you take the long view of art history, perhaps it suggests their concerns are not so different from those who went before. They are not as well equipped to describe the world even as Robert Peake was – certainly not as well as John Bellany whose current retrospective has been a major event of the year and whose art is based on the power of his drawing – but they are driven to choose a medium that reflects it and of course it is one that also explicitly incorporates the dimension of time, not simply in a linear progression, but as we experience it, present and past commingled by memory.

Any imaginary line between art film and ordinary film vanished completely in a three-screen projection of film of volcanic activity on the Galápagos Islands shown at the Fruitmarket in Edinburgh by Semiconductor (Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt.) It was brilliant, but was also simply a documentary.

To my surprise, I was also seduced by film at David Hockney’s show at the Royal Academy in London. In fact I was seduced by Hockney as a landscape painter altogether. Constantly inventive, he has recently turned to film and his multiscreen projections slowly moving down a country lane are beautiful to watch. They really are artist’s film, too. They derive directly from Hockney’s painting, or indeed from his extraordinary drawings done on an iPad. They are not an art form poached from the cinema.

Time, or at least eternity was also the theme of Fascinating Mummies at the National Museum of Scotland. It set out how the central concern of Egyptian art was not actually death, but preparation for the afterlife and displayed the richness of the art that resulted, including details of the rather gruesome business of mummification.

Implicit in the show was how much the Christian idea of death and resurrection derived from Egyptian religion. The drama on which this depends in the Christian narrative was also central to the Rembrandt exhibition at the Hunterian in Glasgow. A beautiful show, its focus was the Hunterian’s own little painting of the Entombment of Christ. A small, quiet and very moving picture, it will be forever modern although it was begun in the 1630s, little more than 20 years after Robert Peake’s portrait of Prince Henry was painted. The exhibition brought together prints and related paintings by Rembrandt and others to illuminate a picture which it seems Rembrandt himself especially valued. It hung, not in the room where he displayed his work to visitors, but where he lived with his family. If it spoke to him so intimately, how much more in its quiet compassion should it speak to us? The exhibition eloquently conveyed that thought. What more can we ask?