From Genoese tantrums to offensive royal gifts.
Until 16 March 2014
I completely mis-read the invitation to the press viewing at the Queen’s Gallery as Castiglione: Lost Genius and Gifted. It transpired that there were two exhibitions, side by side, the first featuring the extraordinarily talented, but relatively unknown, Genoese painter Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione; he was born in 1604, making him a contemporary of Anthony van Dyck, who also worked in Genoa, the French painter, Nicholas Poussin, and Rembrandt van Rijn. If Caravaggio was a bit of a bad boy, Castiglione must be regarded as Giacchino the Lad, forever getting into punch-ups and rows with his patrons, at one time throwing a hissy fit and slashing a painting commissioned by the Doge of the Republic of Genoa Giovanni Battista Lomellini to shreds. This was not a good diplomatic move, either in terms of his career, or making friends and influencing people. He subsequently fled his home town for, first of all, Rome, then Florence, Naples, Venice and Mantua. He was, in effect, una gazza ladra, borrowing styles and compositions from other painters, and in the case of his Study of Heads, he clearly ‘liberated’ two figures from Rembrandt’s Ecco Homo. He soon, however, developed not only his own style, but some innovative techniques, from painting in oil paints on paper to monotypes.
The large oil drawings are the colour of sanguine, a reddish-brown pastel favoured by Renaissance painters a hundred year earlier, but the effect has a fluidity and fuzziness achieved when the oil soaks into the unprimed paper, which he would apply spontaneously and directly without drawing first. These are some of the most striking images in the exhibition, including Circe with the companions of Odysseus transformed into animals and Omnia vanitas, but his etchings, particularly his large and small Oriental heads, have a dark, brooding quality, which mark him out as great exponent of the medium, although still not a patch on his Dutch contemporary Rembrandt. As well as facing a dozen lawsuits and shooting a fellow artist during an improvised theatrical event, he is said to have been in brawls, beaten up people and even attempted to throw his own sister off a roof. He suffered badly from gout, which may account for appalling temper, and he died intestate.
The second exhibition features works on paper by the one hundred Royal Academicians, and given, or rather gifted, to HM The Queen during her Diamond Jubilee year, with the standard ranging from the inspired to the downright dreadful. At the top end, Humphrey Ocean’s Birds of Ngong is a simple, pared-down and charming gouache, while David Remfry once again demonstrates his ability to capture movement in Dancers, Havana. Ken Howard looks as though he may have simply delved into his unsold daubs in his plan-chest and come up with Florentine Farmhousedating from 1959. Lord Foster, still annoyingly referred to as Sir Norman, has the most feeble of drawings - School in Sierra Leone, 2009 - which stands out as being the worst work on paper in the entire two exhibitions, which is quite an achievement in itself.
Runner-up to his lordship is Tracey Emin, who has on offer a monoprint entitled HRH Royal Britania (sic); her appointment as Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy Schools brings to mind Tom Lehrer’s famous quote about quitting song-writing: ‘Political satire became obsolete when they awarded Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize.’ Tom Phillips also must have ferreted about in his drawers to come up with a handily apposite Sixteen Appearances of the Union Jack from 1974, while David Hockney is one the few artists to do something specifically for Her Majesty Jubilee, a vivid iPad birthday card.
Some works have a tenuous connection to The Queen, the inclusion of Olwyn Bowey’s charcoal and watercolour drawing of a West Sussex pony, Susie (2007), being justified because she hoped that it would appeal to Her Majesty’s interest in horses. Grayson Perry may have given the excellent Reith Lectures this year on the subject of art, the first entitled ‘Democracy Has Bad Taste’, but his own royal offering is a piss-poor drawing of a motorcyle that he sent the motorbike builder to be custom-made for him. It is ‘the equivalent of the Queen’s glass carriage’, he adds spuriously. It is a mystery how the bike ever got made.
So, gifted? Well, not on the strength of what’s on show from the RA, whereas the exhibition Castiglione could have the descriptor ‘Extremely Gifted'.
Originally published in Kensington and Chelsea Today.