09 Jul, 2009

What went wrong with British art?

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

While impressionism took off in France, Victorian painters lost their way – as two current exhibitions show all too clearly

Seeing, in the last few days, both the admirable exhibition Corot to Monet at the National Gallery and the execrable JW Waterhouse at the Royal Academy, I can’t help wondering what happened to British art. It seems to me there’s a century between 1850 and the age of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, when British artists lost their way and suddenly stopped mattering.

Corot to Monet is about French art, but it introduces some great British paintings for comparison. A dab of Turner proves that British artists were more than equal to their European contemporaries between the 1760s and the 1840s; British landscape art sits merrily beside French landscape art in this era.

Moving, reluctantly, to JW Waterhouse, we see the sad spectacle that was British art a few decades later. Waterhouse, a belated (and definitely not, as the RA claims, a “modern”) Pre-Raphaelite, seems to have absorbed into his own hand, his own eye, all the mechanisation and smoke and hypocrisy of Victorian England. It’s as if his paintings are all powered by a steam engine; they drive forward with such blind, inhuman energy.

What Turner shared with the French was a sensitive eye for light and atmosphere, an openness to the world. In French art that openness deepened and widened in the second half of the century. Modern art began with introspection, subtlety, a keen look at nature. The impressionists and post-impressionists let the world, sensuality and reality into art. They were liberators.

It’s simply impossible to defend British art in comparison. After Turner, Victorian art turned to coal dust. It must have something to do with the history of the senses. Victorian repression is a reality in Victorian art. Then again, the empire and industry must have made us hard, complacent. I don’t really know the answers. What I do know is that by seeing these two exhibitions back to back you can learn the difference between art that is alive and art that is dead.

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