Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Paintings within Paintings

I was invited to attend a workshop today at the Yale Center for British Art in association with the exhibition Seeing Double: Portraits, Copies, and Exhibitions in 1820s London, which opened in June and is closing this coming weekend (link to the exhibition guide). The one-room show is a small but focused exhibition about paintings within paintings, frequently shown as if on exhibition in the painting itself. The exhibition centers around the 1829 painting you see above, Interior of the British Institution Gallery by John Scarlett Davis. The scene depicts a gallery during an exhibition of modern British paintings, but as co-curator Catherine Roach pointed out during her gallery talk the picture in fact is artificially crafted. The two leading pictures that frame the left and right sides of the main archway are by Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, two of the most important 18th-century British artists, and while we know both were in the 1829 exhibition, neither were hung in this location. This, plus the conscious rearrangement of other paintings on display, make us wonder why Davis would redesign such a space? Was it for pedagogical reasons for other artists? Was it to demonstrate his own skills as an artist? Was it meant to create a canon of masterworks of British paintings? And why the inclusion of the self-portrait by Reynolds, the 1st PRA (President of the Royal Academy), being displayed by Benjamin West, the 2nd PRA, to a viewer? Pictures such as this urge the viewer to look more closely at the inclusion of works of art in these pictures, and to reconsider their placement and value as such and for what purpose. The exhibition relates to Roach's forthcoming book on this topic, based on her recently completed dissertation.

Pictures such as these were not new in the 1820s. Paintings and prints had existed since the Renaissance of interiors of manor homes and palaces with art collections on the walls. Aristocrats traveling to Italy on the Grand Tour in the mid- to late 1700s would commission paintings of themselves standing amidst ancient works of art by artists such as Pompeo Batoni. Other artists, like Johann Zoffany, would paint galleries in museums to showcase the great works of art on display there as well. Co-curator Cassandra Albinson continued the gallery talk by drawing our attention to a small drawing by a woman artist of Thomas Lawrence's studio, in which one can make out many of his portrait paintings arranged in the studio as a showcase of his commissions at this time. What makes this drawing unique is that it is one of the only surviving examples of Lawrence's studio, which is unusual since he too was a PRA and a very important artist in his day.

We were given lunch and then listened to 3 short presentations by others working on topics related to this. Emerson Bowyer gave a very interesting talk about a bronze medal commemorating the renaming of the Louvre as the Musée Napoleon in 1802, designed by Dominique Vivant, Baron de Denon. The medal included on the back a display of the ancient sculptures appropriated from Rome and Florence as war booty and displayed in Paris. Bowyer considered the work as both a sculptural object and a form of commercial commodity, reducing the idea of ancient works of art to their financial value during Napoleon's imperial reign. Gustav Percivall spoke about J.M.W. Turner's painting Rome, from the Vatican. Raffaelle, Accompanied by La Fornarina, Preparing his Pictures for the Decoration of the Loggia, from about 1820. This painting includes in the foreground a number of works by the Italian Renaissance master Raphael, as well as a recreation of his decorative work in the loggia, and other unidentified pictures, all of which Percivall argued created organized chaos in the arrangement and significance of their presence on the canvas. (I wasn't always completely sure what he was talking about, and his ideas were challenged by a few people in the room.) Lastly, Bridge Alsdorf spoke about a small print from the 1890s by the Swiss-born artist Félix Vallotton. Shifting the focus away from pictures within pictures, Alsdorf drew attention to the idea of the spectator, as a caricature-like crowd of men gather before the window of a Parisian printseller gawking at his latest works for sale, which we, the audience, now cannot see. Following their presentations, there was a general discussion on various topics, including general issues about copies and reproduction, and the association of these paintings within paintings to printmaking and the commercial dissemination of art. All in all, the workshop made for an interesting afternoon of networking and intellectual repartee.


Dr Selby Whittingham said...

Gustav Percivall writes critically about Turner's "Rome from the Vatican" in the latest issue of the British Art Journal. Such hostility to Turner is hardly novel. Unfortunately a display that would make better sense of his oeuvre has been rejected by the Tate. www.jmwturner.org

bklynbiblio said...

Thanks for the comment. Yes, if I remember correctly, his talk was perceived by some in the room as being a bit hostile and judgmental about Turner's intent and thus failure with that painting in particular. One person told Percivall outright that he had missed the point about Turner as an artist.