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Reviewing the Liotard reviews…

29 January 2016

“The first duty of a critic is to lavish unalloyed praise”, Lawrence Gowing is said to have told the young Brian Sewell (according to an article Sewell wrote for the December 1990 edition of The Art Newspaper: it was entitled “This ‘profession’ has much in common with prostitution”, and it won’t surprise you that he did not share Gowing’s view). The words came to mind some six months ago, after I had visited the first leg of the Liotard exhibition in Edinburgh and was keen to compare my views with others’. I penned a first draft of this post, but shelved it in order to wait for a more complete picture of the state of British journalism.

What do you want from art criticism, at least in the form in which it appears in the newspapers? Perhaps you are content to be told whether or not to go to an exhibition: for that a simple star rating should suffice. Maybe you want a little hint at what you will see, in case the title doesn’t give enough away. Maybe you need to be enthused: this artist is important; you will never get another opportunity to see this again; and so on. Or maybe you expect something more: analysis of the exhibition, new angles and insights that enhance your enjoyment and deepen your experience of the works to be seen. And perhaps a critical assessment of how well it has been put together: did the organisers choose the best examples, arrange them with intelligence, light them with skill and design the displays with taste? (Ideally of course, did they find new, convincing additions to the oeuvre?) Was the artist “contextualised”, in the jargon – that is, compared with his contemporaries and placed in the cultural environment? Was the catalogue well written, informative and accurate? Were the attributions correct?

Perhaps you want to leave the last of these questions to specialist journals: the Burlington Magazine, for example, has frequent displays of scholarship (Pierre Rosenberg’s review of the Poussin exhibition a few months ago is exemplary), often in the small print notes at the end of many of its reviews, which you wouldn’t expect to find in the Guardian (although let us remember that Brian Sewell never dumbed down his contributions to the Evening Standard). But I think you will probably expect more that a rewritten press release.

In the immediate aftermath of my visit to Edinburgh (July–August 2015), I saw four reviews: in the Sunday Times, the Financial Times, the Observer and the Spectator. All were unanimously enthusiastic, and perhaps one should ask for no more. Although none stooped to awarding stars, it is clear that a full, or nearly full, complement would have been earned, and the target of attracting visitors no doubt achieved. But in reviews of up to 1200 words each, one craves more.

Here is just what we want, from the Financial Times:

Liotard Nelthorpe Holburne

Liotard, Nelthorpe (Bath, Holburne Museum)

In Edinburgh, a bust-length 1738 portrait of James Nelthorpe shows the young man in an extravagant white-and-scarlet turban and robe lavishly trimmed with black fur. Rippling through furrows of darkness and ridges of shimmering colour, this tour de force of stroke-making testifies to how effortlessly pastel can lend itself to opulent surfaces.

This is impassioned writing, informing us of the author’s aesthetic response to a picture, making us want to go and see it for ourselves and see whether we experience it in the same way. There’s only one problem (and perhaps a second – see below): the picture of Nelthorpe wasn’t shown in Edinburgh (it only joined the exhibition in London in October: we don’t know how the journalist reacted when, as I hope, she eventually saw the picture in London). Nor was this reviewer the only culprit: the Observer too mentioned the pastels of the Thellusson couple, who were also not to be seen in Edinburgh.

The critic in the Sunday Times didn’t make this mistake. Instead he devoted much of his space to a rather silly play on the names of Liotard and Lyotard, the literary theorist who invented the concept of “metanarrative” into which the writer promptly attempts to slot the pastellist. In a tweet promoting his piece, he claimed to be the first to put together Liotard and Lyotard: sadly this is untrue, as a rather clever footnote in a 1998 colloquium of Michel Butor notes “Comme le a de différance, la différence entre Lyotard et Liotard (qui va revenir) est, dans la communication performée, muette.” But this wordplay didn’t really tell us much about Liotard, not least because most Sunday Times readers probably won’t know much about Lyotard (or Butor or Derrida, or indeed différance), if I’m allowed to patronise in turn.

All these reviewers seem to have accepted without challenge the claims in the organisers’ publicity that Liotard is the greatest artist of the 18th century whom nobody knows. One critic, better known for his interest in contemporary art, told us in a national newspaper that his “expectations were low [as he had] never heard of the subject of the show.” Another tells us that “no country has taken it upon itself to celebrate [Liotard] as a national treasure” (ever been to Geneva?); a third that “for anyone not schooled at the Courtauld, Liotard is likely to be as obscure as Bailey [the photographer, on show at the same time] is recognisable”; a fourth that Liotard is lost in between Watteau, Boucher and Mme de Pompadour: but this is the metanarrative of the Wallace Collection. (In fact the Courtauld isn’t too enthusiastic about pastellists either.) So effective has the RA publicity been that I even had a number of strangers come up to me in the exhibition to tell me they had never heard of Liotard. Does this happen at say the Francis Towne exhibition? Normally we are embarrassed by ignorance, not prompted to convert it into a boast that combines John Bullism with the real secret of this exhibition – that Liotard is the pastellist liked by those who don’t like pastel.

The trouble with all this is that it ignores the fact that Liotard is actually extremely well known to anyone genuinely interested in eighteenth century art, and not just to Marcel Roethlisberger and Renée Loche who have devoted lifetimes of research culminating in a brilliant catalogue raisonné. Curiously the FT critic noted that Liotard had been the subject of exhibitions in Zurich (1978), Paris (1985), Geneva (2002) and New York (2006) (to which one might add Utrecht and Amsterdam) – but didn’t seem to draw the obvious conclusion. And while the Sunday Times critic may go on and on about Ramsay and Raeburn, but never hears about Liotard, that isn’t reflected in the literature: Liotard has more entries in the International Bibliography of Art than Ramsay and Raeburn together. And, although it is a relatively recent phenomenon (dating to the purchase in 1986 by the Houston Museum of Fine Art for a spectacular sum), Liotard is also the darling of the salerooms.

What I look for from art criticism is a broader wisdom. Not an acceptance of the press releases, but a challenge to the assumptions brought either by the organisers or by the public. I want to be given an international perspective and to be told that in Geneva and in Amsterdam there is a profound respect for this artist, and brilliant examples that cannot travel. I want to have the contentions in the catalogue challenged by people who bring a deeper knowledge of the subject, not those to whom the subject is a surprise – let alone a complete mystery. I want to be provoked into scholarly debate, perhaps pointing to new facts and discoveries. And I want to know whether the exhibition works: is it just as a group of pictures put in a room, or does a coherent message emerge that amounts to more than the sum of the parts?

That is as far as I got six months ago. In fairness we did get in Apollo in October an informed, accurate and balanced account of the Edinburgh show (from Stephen Lloyd, a specialist: it shows, notably in understanding the different media included), albeit severely limited by the space allotted, but with an acknowledgement of the difficulty of borrowing pastels (so that the finest collections, in Amsterdam, Geneva and Dresden could not be included) rather than an acceptance that the problems of transport had been solved. I’ve written about that in a different post.

When the exhibition switched to London, I hoped we would see more of what I was looking for. Instead we got a flood of reviews (the RA press machine is certainly not to be faulted in its efficiency), but almost all covering exactly the same things (and with exactly the same deficiencies) as the initial flurry. We had it is true contributions from a wider range of backgrounds. One critic, who is a practising painter with an artist’s visual sense, announced the resounding “blare of intense copper-carbonate blue”, which immediately makes us pay attention to such wisdom. But numerous pigments, many copper based (not necessarily copper carbonate) can give rise to these blues, and the paper conservators who specialise in Liotard pigments are unable to make this determination without spectroscopy. Another artist–reviewer devoted just over 100 words to the exhibition catalogue, which it suggested “surveys the artist’s pastels” and provided “succinct but thorough information about each of the 82 exhibited items”, without any indication that fewer than half were pastels.

A different approach was taken by the writer Julian Barnes, who in fairness wasn’t reviewing this exhibition at all. His piece was about the exhibition on prostitution at the musée d’Orsay, which interested him (and about which he wrote with fierce intelligence), and about the Vigée Le Brun at the Grand Palais, which did not (and that comes across in his singling out for praise the worst, and least typical, painting in the show). But as a put-down, he included this comment:

Compared to, say, Liotard she [Vigée Le Brun] seems hidebound. The Swiss painter had a similarly peripatetic life and well-born clients. But set Alexandrine-Emilie Brongniart beside Liotard’s Princess Louisa Anne of 1754: Le Brun shows us what we might prefer to imagine childhood to be like; Liotard gives us the existential lostness of a little girl in a dress too big for her and a lace cap that looks silly not stylish.

I should have liked more of this sort of analysis. It makes one think, and makes one want to go back and look differently. And that’s certainly a valid contribution. But I’m not sure that it constitutes art historical scholarship.

For that we have had to wait, sadly until after the show is about to close, as it would have been useful to have the challenges set out while there was still time to march round the exhibition with the review in hand. (I’m not referring to my own blog post: a list of errata is not a review, whether you dismiss it as the rantings of a Beckmesser or agree with the cumulative weight of those observations.) But at the same time, one recognises the advantage of waiting for a good exhibition to mature; one goes back again and again (more than a dozen times in my case), and one sees things one hadn’t observed at first: so a reviewer’s first thoughts are rarely the last word.

The piece I allude to is indeed in the Burlington Magazine (February edition), and it is written by Alastair Laing: uniquely placed to do so, by virtue of his profound knowledge of both British and continental art of the eighteenth century, of his acute eye and of his track record of challenging accepted assumptions. His review of the 1992 exhibition of Liotard drawings was a major contribution to correcting the errors in that show. I haven’t yet received my copy of the magazine, but I glanced at it very hurriedly this afternoon in a bookshop, and I can alert you to the fact that it raises questions of attribution of several pictures, among them the Nelthorpe discussed above and David Garrick. I’m posting this article now so that as many of you can see it, and get back to the exhibition before Sunday, to look at the items in question.

I’ll leave my considered views on these specific points for a later post. But it is this kind of debate that has been so conspicuously lacking to date.

Postscript – 1 February 2016

Alastair Laing observes that the catalogue has not attempted to go into detail about the exhibited works in view of the recent appearance of Roethlisberger & Loche (for my review of which the Burlington curiously fails to follow its normal convention of footnoting), but he nevertheless suggests that the curators should have “devoted greater consideration to the individual exhibits” – while falling short of outright rejection for Nelthorpe and Garrick. (He does however reject the Duncannon oils, as I discussed in my errata post.) Garrick merits a fuller discussion, but doubts about Nelthorpe are I think misplaced.

Visually of course this is far less accomplished than the great Liotard pastels we normally expect to see. But it is far earlier than most of his work, was probably made in Constantinople where he didn’t have the materials he would later use (so that the colour range is restricted – a little less so had we been allowed a glimpse of the blue cummerbund concealed by the later gilt slip); the pastel is on paper, and is in poor condition (the work was transferred onto board some years ago, with losses and restorations whose extent is a matter of guesswork).

Who else would have done it? Knapton, perhaps, might be suggested, particularly because, among the few things we know about Nelthorpe was that he was a member of the Society of Dilettanti. But he joined after that club had introduced a rule saying that the portraits members had to offer were to be in oil. So presumably the narrative becomes: Nelthorpe commissioned Knapton to do his portrait for the Society, but the pastel was rejected. If so you would expect the pastel to have remained in Nelthorpe’s collection: but not only did it not figure in his posthumous sale, nothing like it did either (Nelthorpe had a vast collection of engravings, but doesn’t seem to have commissioned original portraits). It is I think more probable that this is the “Mr Nelthorpe in Turkish costume by Liotard” recorded in Sir Everard Fawkener’s collection. And it is not so very different in quality from the equally flat, but signed, comte de Bonneval, which has never been questioned.

There are two specific, but telling, weaknesses in the Nelthorpe pastel. The first is the rather poor treatment of the fur, with a central section of completely flat lighter hue. At first sight this looks like the efforts of an inept restorer. But as you went round the Liotard exhibition, you found exactly the same effect in several other works – e.g. William Constable and Lady Guilford. A busy restorer – or a particular incompetence of this artist?

The second passage is the intersection of the nose with the more remote eye. It is certainly an extreme example, but there is repeated evidence throughout Liotard’s career of his difficulty in this passage: this may perhaps explain his predilection for the lost look, where the problem is avoided. But in other cases (perhaps the most obvious cases in the exhibition were Lady Anne Conolly and Isaac-Louis de Thellusson), Liotard has a tendency to divide faces vertically, with the two halves occupying different planes. The effect is Picasso-like, but gives his sitters a distinctive, geometric feel. I think the Nelthorpe error is an early manifestation of this. For all these reasons, I have retained the attribution.

PPS – 4 February

I’ve only just seen this review in a Swiss online journal. I think it provides an interesting international dimension to the British commentaries. Etienne Dumont, an art critic from Geneva, is troubled by the inevitable gaps in the coverage, notes that the English public liked the show, but concludes that “Du peintre, ils ont un aperçu. Un aperçu seulement.”

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