Thursday, 16 May 2019

Little and Large

Today I had lunch 'in town' (as we used to say) with an old friend, and, with mutual support, we summoned up the stamina to take in not one but two exhibitions, one before and one after lunch.
First we went to the Elizabethan Treasures exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery – about which I can only say that it is truly amazing, and that, alas, it is closing on Sunday. An exhibition of miniatures nearly all by the two great masters, Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver (whose The Browne Brothers is above), it magnificently confirms that these two were among the finest painters this nation has ever produced, and that their work amounts to one of the great treasures of English art (and one that's all too easily undervalued, like the equally great work of the 17th-century monument makers Nicholas Stone and Epiphanius Evesham, cf my forthcoming book). If you can make it to the NPG this weekend, do go – and allow plenty of time, as you may well have to wait your turn to get a close-up view of these little gems of English painting; the exhibition is proving very popular. Helpfully, magnifying glasses are provided, and it's well worth taking one to appreciate the almost superhuman delicacy, subtlety and psychological insight of these tiny masterpieces. They make nearly all the large-scale portraiture of their time (Holbein excepted) seem clumsy and crude by comparison.

From the exquisite and small-scale to the broad-brush and large, very large – after lunch it was the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery for the blockbuster exhibition, Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light. The 'master of light' epithet is well earned; this turn-of-the-last-century Spanish artist is certainly very adept at portraying strong Spanish sunlight, both direct and reflected. But, beyond that, I didn't find much to praise (apart from some interesting cropping): his paintings tend to the flashy and facile, with something of picture-postcard kitsch about some of them. Even in the more subdued pictures, there's a striving for effect and a lack of delicacy. Some of them suggest comparison with Sargent or Whistler or the Danish Skagen painters – but the comparison is never to Sorolla's advantage. Having said that, I'm sure these big canvases would look very much better in a different setting – hung in a large space, so that they could be seen from a suitable distance, and in a less unforgiving light than that of the Sainsbury Wing's underground galleries. I've never really liked it down there.
  Anyway, tomorrow I'm off on my Mercian travels, but not for long.


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