Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Van Dyck at Tate Britain

“This sumptuous exhibition brings together some of the most magnificent paintings by Belgian-born painter Sir Anthony van Dyck, startlingly portraying many of the leading characters of the Stuart period.” - the advertising hook for the Tate’s current Van Dyck exhibition.

I disagree. The Tate’s Van Dyck exhibition is slghtly underwhelming - it feels almost provisional, as if it was hastily arranged in celebration of the Tate’s recent acquisition of Rubens’s Banqueting Hall sketch. Rubens being Van Dyck’s master and Van Dyck being thus partly the reason for the national collection of British art buying a foreign artist’s work. The Royal Academy had a Van Dyck show relatively recently, and it truly felt sumptuous - this one perhaps is missing too many of the great Royal pieces, concentrating mostly on the court paintings (and some of those overfamiliar, from the National Gallery and even another outing for two paintings the Tate showed last year in the Orientalism show, of Charles I’s ambassador to Persia and his wife (hung on the opposite wall in this one). The show never seems to come to a considered argument about the artist’s work - it just hangs what it can on the walls and ‘celebrates’.

A room focussing on the painter’s private life - his wife and mistress - is the highlight. The last couple of rooms chronicle Van Dyck’s posthumous influence, and seem to suggest that any old portrait painted in Britain in the last few centuries was somehow indebted to Van Dyck, filling the walls as it does with random examples of same. Weak and unconvincing.

I was fascinated by ladies fashions as displayed in the portraits. All the men seem individuated, but all the women conform to a very strict type. They all wear double-drop pearl ear rings and a single rope of pearls. They all wear their hair in very tight ringlets around the face.

Does this truly reflect the fashion of the time? If so, it remained remarkably stable throughout Van Dyck’s career (and into the careers of his immediate followers) - unlike the contemporary fashions for men. I can’t quite believe this. Could it be that this was simply the way he chose to portray women? - and that he had a pair of prop ear rings and a pearl necklace hanging around his studio? Weird.

1 comment:

Sylvia said...

went to see this last Sunday. All the standard portraits were there, and thank goodness it wasn't too crowded in there too. Some great pictures, some not so great, but you're right about the women - the clothes are all the same! Still, the faces were quite magnificent. Did you go and see the other exhibition there, the modern stuff - what a contrast! Still, all in all, a great day out.

wv: surresms. You couldn't make it up....