Book Review: ‘The Art Museum in Modern Times’

This new book by Charles Saumarez Smith (Thames & Hudson, 2021) is a fascinating look at how museums, their mission and their vision, have evolved over the past half-century. Forty-two museums are explored; the choice is personal, focusing on institutions that the author knows well, without any aim to be deliberately exclusive. Saumarez Smith joined the staff of the V&A in 1992. Throughout the course of a distinguished career, he has been director of both the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery, and Secretary and Chief Executive of the Royal Academy, all in London.

As he was writing the book, Saumarez Smith noticed a clear pattern: a ‘universal decline in belief in a master narrative.’ In its place, he detected ‘a growing interest in the validity of individual response…and in treating the museum as an opportunity for private adventure.’ In an age when Tate thinks Wikipedia can give just as good a summary of the life and work of the artists represented in their collection as their own curators could or should, this study is more than timely.

Museum directors were once upon a time supremely imperious. The director of the V&A in the early 1930s described the public as ‘a noun of three letters beginning with A and ending with S…We heave sighs of relief when they go away and leave us to our jobs.’ For him, the visitor off the street was an unwelcome nuisance, not the raison d’être of his institution. Museum directors might still be imperious, but so are donors and trustees—and so are artists and architects. Lina Bo Bardi, who designed the MASP in São Paulo (opened 1969), is quoted as declaring: ‘The museum belongs to the people…They gaze at a picture in the same way they look into a shop window…They take part even if they lack “cultural grounding”.’ Far from being in the way, the visitor off the street has become fetishised. The museum and its designers take their cue from him or her and try to appease his/her appetites.

The idea that ‘museums and galleries should be places of deep scholarship more than public enjoyment’ has gone. And it is interesting to see how museum design reflects this. Firstly, there is the building. Up until the outbreak of WWII, the accepted architectural style for a museum was Neoclassical, a temple to the Muses. As an example, Saumarez Smith gives the National Gallery of Art in Washington, designed in 1937. With its colonnaded portico, its central rotunda modelled on the Pantheon in Rome, and its gallery spaces arranged around a courtyard, it was designed to be stately and solemn and to serve the art it housed.

Two decades later, the construction of the Guggenheim in New York brought to the fore a tension between curators, who wanted spaces to exhibit art, and architects, who wanted those spaces themselves to steal the show. The Guggenheim’s architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, was seen to have won the contest when almost three thousand people queued up to get inside his building when it opened in 1959. Ever since then, people have regarded the Guggenheim Museum as ‘a great symbolic monument, at least as important for the experience of its architecture as for seeing its collections.’ Another architect who liked to call the shots, Mies van der Rohe, said airily of his Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin (1968): ‘It is such a huge hall that of course it means great difficulties for the exhibiting of art. I am fully aware of that. But it has such potential that I simply cannot take those difficulties into account.’ And this concept, of the museum building not simply as a receptacle for knowledge or revelation but as an iconic piece of starchitecture, has been tenacious. A later Guggenheim Museum, the one in Bilbao by Frank Gehry (1997), represents what Saumarez Smith believes is a paradigm shift: ‘No one thinks of it in terms of its collection.’ It is famous as a monument in its own right, like the Taj Mahal. People go to visit it for its own sake, to experience the excitement of its architectural form.

I.M. Pei (National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1978) celebrates the fact that ‘Museums have become much more than storehouses for art; they have become also important places for public gathering.’ The museum’s role is to provide visitors with a special sort of experience, beyond what everyday life can provide, and the emphasis is no longer on learning but on individual response. So it is not only the architect who holds the reins; it is also the public. The Victorians regarded themselves as public-spirited, as educators, as throwing open doors to a wider populace. Now, though, we see their attitude as de haut en bas. We see their grandiose buildings not as thrilling and inspiring but as intimidating; we see their egalitarian educational ideal as elitist; we see as blinkered their belief that focusing attention on the objects on display would open windows in the mind. Saumarez Smith himself directly tackled this in the Ondaatje Wing of the National Portrait Gallery in London (2000): ‘A coolly democratic attempt to open up and widen public access to a Victorian public institution…and to make it look outwards by giving it a view from the restaurant over the rooftops.’ 

With the desire to make the public feel embraced rather than instructed, art loses its pole position. Nicholas Serota describes Tate Modern (London, 2000) as ‘a place that people will want to go and meet others and then perhaps go and look at some modern and contemporary art. It’s a place that should become part of the social fabric as well as the cultural fabric.’ In the 19th century this function was provided not by the museum but by the village church or opera house, where people went to catch an eligible eye rather than pay attention to sermons or soprano solos. But today, it is not only the design of museum buildings which has shifted, it is also the curatorial approach. At the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas (Renzo Piano, 1987), the walls were kept free of explanatory texts so that nothing could ‘interfere with the emotion art could inspire in the viewer.’ Deep knowledge, which a traditional curator might have thought necessary before the public can fully understand and appreciate the art on display, has become an encumbrance. Instead people go to explore themselves. Again discussing Tate Modern, Serota says, ‘Our aim must be to generate a condition in which visitors can experience a sense of discovery…rather than find themselves standing on a conveyor belt of history.’ It now seems axiomatic that historical narrative is bad, that fixing individual works of art in historical relationships to other works of art is too preachy, too systematic, too objective. Peter Zumthor, architect of the Kolumba diocesan museum in Cologne (2007), talks of works of art being treated as ‘objects to be contemplated and appreciated aesthetically and spiritually without too much explanation or an imposed historical interpretation. The point is to look, to think, to contemplate, and to absorb their beauty.’ Instead of the works, via the medium of the museum, transmitting inherent meaning to the viewer, the viewer is invited to bring his or her own meaning to the works and to be somehow redeemed by them. 

The design of the Benesse House Museum in Naoshima (1992) was informed by ‘a belief that museums could provide access to a different order of quasi-spiritual experience from the everyday consumer world.’ At Renzo Piano’s Beyeler Foundation in Basel (1997), people use its spaces for ‘reflection and contemplation—spiritual recuperation.’ But alongside contemplation and response, museums have also come to be about adventure. Architects have been keen to make their spaces mysterious. Instead of the progression through a clear enfilade we have the maze. ‘Mystery has replaced logic. Order and rationality have been displaced by unpredictability.’ This is the museum as funfair, ghost train, escape room. Parts of it might be given over to retreat and contemplation; other parts are for social mingling; still others for fun or for commerce. It is a city within a city and as such, the museum has given itself an ambitious role; it has ‘increasingly important public responsibilities beyond the simple display of art.’ But when museums start thinking in terms of public responsibilities, is this not arrogating authority to themselves? And how does one avoid the danger of institutionalisation? The new MoMA (2004) designed by Yoshio Taniguchi, is, Saumarez Smith thinks, ‘too bland, too like a corporate headquarters for modern art.’ So on the one hand there is the risk of corporate vanilla; on the other, a danger of turning art galleries into retail spaces. ‘Museums are becoming ever more commercial and looking ever more like shopping malls.’ An ephemeral quality is becoming more apparent, too. Major Western museums are starting to franchise their collections in other parts of the world—China, the Gulf—but while governments are keen on financing totemic buildings, paying for high-quality staff and long-term running costs is another matter. Perhaps a museum might have no permanent collection at all but simply be a pop-up, borrowing iconic works for a limited period, used as a tool of soft power.

For much of the second half of the last century, pedagogues would talk about language ‘acquisition’ as opposed to language ‘learning’, convinced that acquiring language naturally, as a child does, instead of memorising cases and declensions, was more communicative and more fun. For most of that same half-century, museums have stopped being ‘places where visitors come to find out, and be told, about the past: they are no longer treated as public lecture rooms, where works of art are laid out according to strict historical sequence.’ But grammar can be a democratic and liberating tool and it can level the playing field. Can art history not do the same? And if curators believe in a definite message and in an imperative to transmit it, will the schoolroom approach not have to make a comeback? It might be that we are at just such a juncture now. In Lens in northeast France, at the satellite Louvre museum by SANAA (2012), the part of the project which Saumarez Smith found most successful and memorable is the Galerie du Temps, ‘laid out as a walk through a three-dimensional, transnational history in which some of the greatest objects from the Louvre’s collection are presented laterally along a strict timeline…It is exceptionally logical and intellectually coherent; possibly oversimplified, but all the better for being so easily understood and properly transnational—indeed, as far as possible, global.’ In 2012, the agenda was not the same as it would have been in Victorian times, when global and transnational were not buzz-words, but the curators have a new message and they have reached back to the logical, intellectual, historical approach to convey it. 

This superb and eminently readable book takes us along a roller coaster of ups and downs, experienced by museums as they lose, regain, refashion their intellectual confidence, their belief in or rejection of, the notion of a set of universal values, alternately giving prompts to, or taking their cues from, the public. Are we a temple or a shopping mall? A schoolroom or a playground? A set-menu restaurant or a smorgasbord? At the back of our minds we know that our conclusions, half a century of ‘experiments in trying to relate the experience of art to the public’, might seem hopelessly wrong-headed by the generations that come next. But that is natural and museums ‘will continue to be rethought, redesigned and redisplayed as a result of new beliefs about their purpose.’ The 19th-century museum founders, with their mission to educate, believed that by studying the past we could learn about our present selves and the progress our civilization had made. Today, in an age which is at once self-flagellating and narcissistic, we are less interested in our past, but the mission to direct people’s thinking and to cultivate their responses is alive and kicking. 

Saumarez Smith ends on a slightly sombre note. He is not sure that museums will regain their moral confidence or their financial security. There are also, with collections sourced from around the globe, inevitable questions of legitimate provenance and restitution. He concludes too, that after the death of George Floyd, museums failed to pay attention to public concerns, that they did not find a systematic way to respond to the legacy of slavery. Might a moral certainty about the need for a certain way of thinking return in the light of this? Might we see, after all, the resurgence of the didactic approach, with carefully thought-out explanatory labels unequivocally telling us what’s what?

Reviewed by Annabel Barber

Book review: Lost Prestige

Lost Prestige, by historian, diplomat and former Hungarian Foreign Minister Géza Jeszenszky, now published in English translation, is a book about reputation. Using British perceptions of Hungary in the years leading up to the First World War, it seeks to examine more broadly the relationships between states, and how international reactions to particular events can shape universal judgements. We have all become used to seeing opinions presented as general consensus by a manipulative Press, or appearing to have traction on an unedited social media, but what does this really reveal? We are in a hall of mirrors, Jeszenszky suggests. And behind this, as the silvering on the mirror, lies moral posturing or vested interest. 

No mirror is perfect: every looking glass, however well made, distorts the image, sometimes in subtle ways. Nor is the person who looks in the mirror an impartial spectator: they are looking for a reflection that will show them what they want to see or that will flatter their sense of self. 

The specific conundrum with which Jeszenszky grapples is this: In 1848, Hungary rebelled against Austria, demanding its constitutional freedoms. Hungarians gained wide international support, particularly in Britain, and came to be seen as a noble people standing up bravely against oppressive and absolutist masters. By 1914 this reputation was in tatters and it was Hungary, rather than Austria, who was regarded as authoritarian and chauvinistic. How did this happen?

If we cannot see things directly ourselves, we rely on mirrors and lenses for information. Lost Prestige is an examination of how the perception of things and the way those perceptions are presented can alter the course of history. Immediately after 1848, Hungarians were largely telling their own story. The anti-Habsburg revolutionary Ferenc Pulszky spent his exile in Britain and his wife Theresa wrote a best-selling memoir in English. The architect of the revolution, Lajos Kossuth, toured Britain and America giving talks to enthusiastic audiences. But although reactions were widely favourable, the Habsburg empire was nevertheless still seen as integral to the European balance of power. Voicing public support for plucky Hungary’s bid for independence was one thing, but Britain’s mandarins were privately pleased when in 1849 Russia stepped in to crush the revolution and to restore the integrity of Austria. A fully independent Hungary was not in Britain’s interests. It was a romantic idea, perhaps, but not a sensible one. In the first years of the 20th century, however, two influential British commentators appeared: Henry Wickham Steed (Vienna correspondent of the Times), and R.W. Seton-Watson, a journalist and campaigner. Initially both men were great champions of Hungary but over time their attitudes became more and more critical. Their conclusions not only swayed the opinions of the British public; they also began to influence British foreign policy, in Hungary’s disfavour. How and why?

By the 1890s, Hungary was no longer the underdog. She was widely seen to have received a “good deal” in the Compromise agreement of 1867, when the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary came into being, but the huge bulk of her non-Magyar population—Croats, Slovaks, Romanians and others—lacked political representation. International sympathies now turned to these marginalised minorities. Britain had another reason, too, for deploring Hungary’s attitude: internal conflicts between Magyars and non-Magyars blinded the country as a whole to the external threats besetting it. In holding up a mirror to Hungary, Britain hoped to see a bulwark against German ambition. Instead it saw selfish, Magyar-centric chauvinism, an arrogant assumption that the prosperity Hungary enjoyed was all of her own making, and petty quarrelsomeness with Austria in demanding more rights for herself while denying those same rights to her non-Magyar peoples. Hungary’s obstreperousness in obstructing the proper workings of Parliament and stubbornly insisting on a Hungarian language of command (instead of German) in the Hungarian army (despite the fact that almost half of its soldiers were not Magyars) was widely deplored. For decades the existence of a united Austria-Hungary had been central to British policy, its dissolution unthinkable. Britain now began to think about it.

It was at this point that Wickham Steed and Seton-Watson came into their own. The Monarchy’s Slavs, Wickham Steed reported, were more reliably anti-German than the Hungarians. Partition of Austria and the creation of new buffer states along ethnic lines might be a better safeguard against German domination of the region. The creation of such states would bring the added advantage of liberating peoples groaning under a system of repression by Hungary which Seton-Watson described as “without any parallel in civilized Europe”. This book does not directly blame Seton-Watson or Wickham Steed for the outcome of Trianon (the post-WWI treaty by which Hungary was deprived of two thirds of her territory, millions of her citizens and a significant proportion of her natural resources), but it was Britain who led the charge towards the dismemberment of the Habsburg empire and it did this even before the War was over, for example by entering into treaties with Italy and Romania, enticing them over to the Allied side in return for territorial reward. Jeszenszky quotes a telegram sent in January 1915 to the British Embassy in Bucharest by the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey: “We have already declined to entertain any suggestion of Hungarian independence that would prevent satisfaction of Roumanian national aspirations as regards Transylvania.” It was a done deal. What Britain did not see was that there is no such thing as “the Slavs”. Croats, Serbs and Slovenes do not always think alike and their interests are not necessarily the same; nor are those of Czechs and Slovaks. Prophetic voices such as that of the intelligence officer Leo Amery, warning that breaking up Austria-Hungary would create a “new Balkan” of weak, unstable states which would “sooner or later lead to another war”, were ignored. 

Britain was an imperial power not known for championing the self-determination of the peoples under her dominion. How dare she, one might ask, attack Hungary on the subject of the way she treated her minorities? Wickham Steed excused himself by maintaining that his attitude was directed purely and simply by British national interest. As he saw it, a Hungary which worked in harmony with its nationalities would be a stronger ally against Germany. One that was at daggers drawn with them was a danger to Britain. Seton-Watson’s attitude was more personal. He had friends among the non-Magyars in Hungary and the horror-stories they told him led him to see everything in black and white. His Racial Problems in Hungary (1908) was shocking and convincing but it was also exaggerated and factually selective, “a passionate piece of polemical writing”. Hungary was certainly unlucky in making an enemy of him, since he was more of an activist than a historian. He orchestrated the bombardment of Austro-Hungarian troops with leaflets showing proposed new national borders and urging Slav and Romanian soldiers to desert and join international legions. Murky tactics. But Jeszenszky notes that Hungary was fooling herself in clinging to the notion that she was or could become a homogenous nation and her tendency to see all manifestations of national feeling as separatism, and thus to crush them, merely served to fan the flames.

In some ways this book is a portrait in non-fiction of the plot of Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy: a wilfully blind elite class of Magyars refusing to see how hard the people they oppress (both the national minorities and the working classes) are longing for their destruction. And Jeszenszky pulls off a rare feat: he makes parliamentary history into a page-turner. But quite a lot of background knowledge is taken for granted and readers not already familiar with Hungarian history will need to look things up, because Lost Prestige is not a history book, it is a book about image: about how Hungary was viewed and judged by external media and about how it failed to turn the mirror on itself to see how big its warts really were.

The Paris Peace Conference made many mistakes. In Central Europe, multiple peoples were living “overlapping and mixed and it was next to impossible to create States uniting all the members of a nation and having no large minorities that had their own distinct language and identity.” Human nature is universal and after Trianon, Hungarians found themselves minorities among the peoples they had tried to Magyarise. But what would have happened if Hungary had appeased its nationalities? Would concessions have prevented the break-up of the Hungarian lands? Or merely accelerated it? The opinions that become history are all about perception. Perceptions drive events. Tony Blair and the spin doctors were right: it is crucial to put the right gloss on things. 

The English translation of this book is timely. How is it that Hungary has once again alienated the world’s press, when in 1956 and 1989 it was lionised? Are we seeing a repeat of 1848 and 1914? It is always tempting to look for historical parallels. The UK’s vote to leave the EU unleashed intense confrontation between leavers and remainers. Can similarities be seen with post-Dualist Hungary? Does today’s European Union approximate to the federation of states that some early 20th-century observers believed was the solution to Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia and European equipoise?

And to what degree were Seton-Watson and Wickham Steed’s analyses fair? Reputation is a fragile thing, an “idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving” (Othello). Hungary, as Jeszenszky points out, was neither so liberal before the turn of the 20th century nor so reactionary afterwards as British commentators portrayed it. But instead of angrily blaming the mirror for distortion, he suggests, a better response is to consider instead whether some of the faults it shows might actually be there. We should take Jeszenszky’s concluding lines to heart: “Self-awareness that also rests on criticism from others is essential to individuals as well as to nations.”

Lost Prestige: Hungary’s Changing Image in Britain 1894–1918, by Géza Jeszenszky. English Translation by Brian McLean. Published by Helena History Press, 2020. Reviewed here by Annabel Barber.

Blue Guide London, Daniel Defoe and the Plague Year

The first edition of Blue Guide London was published in 1918, the year of the Spanish Flu. Work on the 19th edition was supposed to be completed in 2020, the year of Covid-19. But the measures introduced to contain the spread of the virus have brought research to a temporary halt. Curiously, the last place we revisited before lockdown was Aldgate, the parish where “H.F.”, the narrator of Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, was a resident. Though a fictional account, Defoe’s Journal is based heavily on fact, as supplied by observation, experience and survivors’ stories. Defoe himself knew Aldgate well. He was married in its church, which features more than once in the Journal. He describes the great plague pit that was dug in its churchyard—“a terrible pit it was”—and he also recounts an incident in the church itself:

Once, on a public day, whether a Sabbath-day or not I do not remember, in Aldgate Church, in a pew full of people, on a sudden one fancied she smelt an ill smell. Immediately she fancies the plague was in the pew, whispers her notion or suspicion to the next, then rises and goes out of the pew. It immediately took with the next, and so to them all; and every one of them, and of the two or three adjoining pews, got up and went out of the church.

Blue Guide London’s description of Aldgate reads as follows:

Busy Houndsditch, dominated by the catenary curve of the ‘Can of Ham’ Tower (Foggo Associates, 2019), follows the course of the old moat outside London’s city wall. At the the south end of it is the bright blue St Botolph Building (Grimshaw Architects, 2011), in whose glossy panels is reflected the now diminished-in-stature spire of the church of St Botolph-without-Aldgate, which stands on Aldgate Square. The square marks the site of the Aldgate, or ‘old gate’, which guarded the road out of London to the east. A ‘draught on Aldgate Pump’ (which still stands at the junction of Fenchurch St and Leadenhall St) was once a cant expression for a worthless bill. Geoffrey Chaucer leased the house above the Aldgate from the City of London in 1374. Overlooking Aldgate Square to the west is a handsome Primary School, founded in 1710 by the charitable alderman Sir John Cass (d. 1718). On the annual Founder’s Day (20th Feb), children and guests wear a red feather in honour of Cass, who suffered a fatal haemorrhage whilst writing the will by which he funded the school, staining his white goose quill red with blood. The Founder’s Day parade includes a sermon in St Botolph’s.

The church has a long history. The first chapel or oratory was built here over 1,000 years ago, outside the old City gate so that travellers could pray on arrival and departure (Botolph is the patron saint of wayfarers; relics of his were kept at churches dedicated to him at each of the London city gates). The current building is by George Dance the Elder (1744) with an interior by John Francis Bentley (1888–95). In the octagonal vestibule is a memorial to Robert Dow (d. 1612), a benefactor, with anxious-looking portrait bust, his arms clamped upon a complacently grinning skull. Daniel Defoe was married here in 1683. Thomas Bray, founder of the SPCK and SPG, was vicar here from 1708–22. Jeremy Bentham was christened here in 1747. William Symington, pioneer of steam navigation who built the Charlotte Dundas, died here ‘in want’ in 1831 and is buried here (tablet on the west wall). Built into the perimeter wall of the churchyard is an old Metropolitan Drinking Fountain of 1906, with the iron cup still attached by a chain.  

So far, so good. But there are other Defoe references we could add, marked on the map below.

Map extract from Blue Guide London 18th ed.

Beyond Aldgate Square, among massive new office blocks and thundering traffic, the ancient Hoop and Grapes pub (1) on the corner of Mansell St shows the former scale of the buildings that once stood here. Its foundations go back to the 13th century: Defoe would certainly have known it, although he chooses instead to mention two other taverns in his Journal of the Plague Year. One of them, no longer extant but which stood just to the west of the Hoop and Grapes, is the Three Nuns Inn (2), close to the entrance to the street known as Minories (3) (whose name comes from those same nuns, the Franciscan Sorores Minores, or Minoresses). It was from this end of Minories, while standing in St Botolph’s churchyard, that H.F. saw torches approaching. They were lighting a dead-cart bringing bodies to the pit, and accompanying it was a man, mourning his wife and children. Defoe describes how, overcome by grief, he is taken to the Pie Tavern at the end of Houndsditch (4), where he is mocked by a group of drunk and insensitive “plague deniers”, who end up themselves being carried off by the pestilence. And the dwelling place of H.F. himself is given with some accuracy: “I lived without Aldgate, about midway between Aldgate Church and Whitechappel Bars, on the left hand or north side of the street.” Just about where Aldgate Tube Station (5) is now, in other words.

Artemisia Gentileschi

This month, a new exhibition devoted to the art of the 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi was to have opened at the National Gallery in London. Blue Guides was to have visited the exhibition and posted a review of it. That will now have to wait.

Artemisia Gentileschi features in many Blue Guides, notably the volumes covering Rome, Florence and Southern Italy. She was particularly fond of biblical and religious scenes with a tough female protagonist (Samson and Delilah, Salome with the Head of the Baptist, Judith and Holofernes). London’s National Gallery recently acquired a self-portrait of the artist in the guise of St Catherine of Alexandria, the saint who was broken on the ‘Catherine wheel’. The entry on Gentileschi in Blue Guide Florence says the following:

Gentileschi, Artemisia (1593–1652). Talented and independent, Gentileschi trained under her father, Orazio Gentileschi, an artist who owed much to Caravaggio. She worked in Rome but moved to Florence to carry out commissions for Cosimo II de’ Medici. Dramatic Caraveggesque chiaroscuro certainly suited Artemisia’s choice of subject matter. She had a particular affinity for the story of Judith and Holofernes (her most famous treatment of the subject is in the Uffizi). Legend relates this to the fact that Artemisia was raped as a young woman and that her assailant was never brought to justice.


“Judith and Holofernes”. Museo di Capodimonte, Naples

According to the National Gallery, this story was no legend. Artemisia was indeed raped and her assailant, though found guilty, was never fully punished. Her attacker, Agostino Tassi, enjoyed a career in Rome producing painted decorations for a number of palazzi and as assistant to Claude Lorrain. Blue Guide Rome, in its Glossary of Artists, merely mentions him as a “painter known for his landscapes. In Rome he worked alongside a number of other artists.” Perhaps, after this London exhibition, we might feel tempted to say more.

Apart from the Judith and Holofernes in the Uffizi, there is another version of the same scene, in the Capodimonte museum in Naples. It is that version that is pictured above. And you can read more about the National Gallery’s planned exhibition on Gentileschi here.

Modernists and Mavericks

By Martin Gayford. ‘After the war, because everybody who was about had escaped death in some way, there was a curious feeling of liberty. It was sexy in a way, this semi-destroyed London. There was a scavenging feeling of living in a ruined city.’

This is the reflection of Frank Auerbach, one of the subjects of this absorbing study. Auerbach had arrived in London aged 16 in 1947. His passage to Britain from Germany when aged only seven had been sponsored by Iris Origo, well known for her sheltering of children in Tuscany in the war. His parents had perished in Auschwitz. It was understandable that he felt he was a scavenger and this might be said of many of the artists in this book, most of them figures marginal to society with a passion for a deeper understanding of reality that forced them to break through the barriers of conventional art. Auerbach’s friend David Kossoff put it well: ‘Nothing really begins to happen in a painting until you reach the point where conscious intention breaks up and ceases to be the thing that’s driving you.’

Gayford has already provided a detailed account of himself as a sitter for a portrait to the reclusive Lucian Freud (the acclaimed The Man with the Blue Scarf, 2010) so Freud and Bacon are presented here with authority. By adopting a chronological approach, from the 1940s through to the 1960s, and drawing on many notes and reminiscences, he presents a history of aesthetic struggle in which the personalities are almost as important as the art. One of the strengths of the book is the recording of many somewhat inarticulate attempts to describe what the act of creation means. There is a sense, encapsulated in the Kossoff quotation above, of breaking through to a higher state of being through the endless working and reworking of paint. The artist does not know how or why he or she has arrived at a masterpiece but recognises it when he sees it. There is as much destruction as creation, as rejected alternatives are scraped off in frustration.

Naturally many readers will be interested in the great names and there is much to enjoy. There is a particularly good section on Hockney, a close friend of the author, who was rejected by many of his contemporaries and their dealers because he did not fit into any recognisable category. As Gayford notes, like Hogarth, William Blake (a major exhibition of Blake opens at Tate Britain in September 2019) and Stanley Spencer, Hockney resolutely set out on his own path, although it was not until he arrived in New York that he found his personal and artistic awakening. He was drawn to the States for much of his working life.

Gayford is good on showing the impact of the arrival of the Abstract Expressionists, from their first London exhibition in 1956. This was the moment when the centre of the art world moved from Paris to New York. This left the London painters divided between those who followed the new trends and those who stuck to their own paths. It paid off for some. Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud (from 1969) became the most expensive work ever sold at auction when it went under the hammer for $142.4 million in 2013. It is only a few artists who have the determination and confidence to transcend movements. I enjoyed the many dismissive remarks of even radical professors of art when their fledgling students upset convention.

This being London, it was inevitable that by the end of the book I began longing for some warmth, sun and blue skies in the paintings. In the many illustrations there is much to admire—some pictures that I would even have on my walls—but there was one painting above all that haunted me: Michael Andrews’ Portrait of Timothy Behrens from 1962, now in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. I knew nothing of the Norwich-born Andrews (1928–95). I was inspired to research him more fully, being drawn to his humanity, the sensitivity of his portraits and his continuous reinvention of his subject matter through to a period of peaceful spiritual landscapes. Sadly, only 250 of his pictures survive.

One bonus of this book is its readability across such a spectrum of different movements and personalities. Not least, it is a relief to be free of the jargon through which so many art historians attempt to show off their apparent knowledge. It will be hard to find a better introduction to the ‘London Painters’ than this one and it left me looking forward to reading Gayford’s more detailed studies of Freud and Hockney.

Martin Gayford, ‘Modernists and Mavericks: Bacon, Freud, Hockney and the London Painters’, Thames and Hudson, 2018. Reviewed by Charles Freeman, Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides. His review of Martin Gayford’s ‘Rendez-vous with Art’, a discussion with Philippe de Montebello (Thames and Hudson, 2014), can be found on this website.

Lorenzo Lotto: Portraits

“Assumption of the Virgin”, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

“Lorenzo Lotto. Portraits” is the title of an exhibition currently running at the National Gallery in London. It has come from the Prado in Madrid, in slightly slimmed-down form. Not all of the works on show in the Prado can be seen in London (the catalogue is teasingly tantalising in this regard) but there are still a great many treats in store. This is a splendid show, for anyone who already loves Lorenzo Lotto just as much as for those who have yet to be introduced to him.

Lotto was born in Venice in 1480. He was greatly influenced by the school of art of his native city but his working life was an itinerant one, spent in Treviso, Bergamo, Venice and the Marche, where he died. He was a deeply religious painter and has left behind him many altarpieces (the devotion often leavened with an infectious sense of fun) but his bread and butter also came (when it came—and in Lotto’s case it was always intermittent) from portraiture, likenesses of members of the increasingly affluent and aspirational middle class of administrators, clerics, artisans and merchants.

The painting which begins this article, the Assumption of the Virgin from the Brera in Milan, is not part of the current show. The reason for including it here is because it epitomises the art of Lotto. He was of all the Renaissance masters the one with the greatest sense of humour. Here we see the Virgin, borne aloft on her statutory latex cloud, with the Apostles agog and incredulous beneath her. But Lotto makes us laugh with the witty details. One of the Twelve has taken out his pince nez, the better to view the spectacle. Another, Doubting Thomas, is in danger of missing the whole show. We see him off to the right, sprinting down the mountainside, drapery afloat. We can almost hear him crying, “Wait for me!”

If this is the Lotto you love, this exhibition will show you another side of him. There are not many jokes here, probably because his sitters didn’t want to be made fun of—nor did the artist dare to poke fun, in case he did not get paid. A good many of the works displayed here were painted in exchange for bed and board. Lotto never had much money.

Nevertheless, he loved a game and he loved a symbol. Some of the portraits include an elaborate rebus, playing on the sitter’s name. Lucina Brembati, for example, wealthy matron of Bergamo, is portrayed (c. 1528; on loan from the Accademia Carrara) with a crescent moon in the top left-hand corner, with the lettters ‘CI’ included within it. The Latin LUNA (moon), with the addition of CI, makes the name Lucina. Another Bergamo patron, painted in 1523 (on loan from the Hermitage), earnestly points to a red squirrel, rather bizarrely (but very sweetly) asleep beneath his cloak. It stands for constancy, a virtue that this new bridgeroom (portrayed with his very young and scared-looking wife) is going to do his level best to embody.

One of the heaviest symbolic portraits is the very first in the exhibition, the warts-and-all likeness of Bishop Bernardo de’ Rossi (1505; lent by the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples), a well-fed young thug with incipient rosacea, clutching a scroll which may allude to a successful lawsuit brought against opponents who had plotted his assassination. The portrait originally had a cover, likewise painted on a wooden board, an elaborate allegory of the progress of the soul. On the right we see a spent and drunken satyr, having given the best of himself to wine. On the left, an immature putto cluelessly dabbles with Art and Science, embodied by a pair of compasses and a recorder and pipes. Above them a tiny figure—De’ Rossi’s soul?—studded with four pairs of wings like a seraph, is determinedly making his way up a steep cliff towards a mackerel sky, as blushful as the bishop’s own complexion.

Let us not say, then, that the exhibition contains no jokes. There is a particularly good one in the portrait of Andrea Odoni (1527) from the Royal Collection in London. The wealthy Venetian antiquary poses with his treasures: a head of Hadrian, a Diana of Ephesus. Behind him stand two more: a Venus at her bath, foot daintily raised above a basin of water, into which a statuette of a drunken Hercules is casually urinating.

The “Assumption of the Virgin” in situ in Asolo cathedral.

Even in his altarpieces Lotto includes portraits. One of the delights of this show is the altarpiece of the Assumption from the cathedral of Asolo in the Veneto. In situ it is difficult to appreciate because it can only be viewed from a distance. Here in London, one can get right up to it and inspect the features of the Virgin as she ascends on her cloud. This is no saintly Mother of God. She has been given the mature, worldly features of the redoubtable Caterina Cornaro (1454–1510), Venetian noblewoman and sometime Queen of Cyprus, who retired to Asolo and gathered about her men of literature and learning. The font in Asolo cathedral bears her coat of arms.

As the exhibition catalogue admits, “Lotto was not the greatest portraitist in Renaissance Italy and Titian has a better claim to this privileged title in Venice; yet no other painter’s portraits—not even Titian’s—could probably stand up to such a major exhibition without seeming monotonous or creating a sense of déjà vu.”

It is true. In Venice, Lotto (1480–1556) was completely surpassed by Titian (1488–1576). In Bergamo by Moroni (1520–79). His draughtsmanship (particularly of the sitters’ hands) is often clumsy. But the life of the imagination and the sense of personality is never so vivid or so manifoldly felt as it is in the idiosyncratic works of poor Lorenzo Lotto.

Lorenzo Lotto: thought to be his self-portrait (in red) among the paupers begging for alms.

Poor Lorenzo. In 1542 he painted what might be his self-portrait, among the paupers begging for alms in the wonderful Charity of St Antoninus altarpiece from the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice (one of the wonderful things that the show achieves is to have found a rug that matches the pattern of the carpet in the painting). Four years later, in Loreto, Lotto made his will. “Art,” he admitted, “did not earn me what I spent.” He died in 1556, melancholy and discouraged, in penury. A painting containing another putative self-portrait survives in Loreto, a Christ and the Adulteress (c. 1550), where a bearded figure in the crowd puts his finger to his lips in a gesture that warns us to “Speak no evil.” It is tempting to believe that Lorenzo Lotto was just such a man: broad-minded, tolerant and merciful.

This exhibition is poignant in the way it reveals to us a genius unrecognised in his lifetime and the injustice that that entails. We still have not learned to spot talent until it is too late. This show reveals to us an artist who, in a way that so many artists do not, leaves traces of himself in all his works. Lorenzo Lotto speaks to us down the centuries. We long to tell him how much we would have appreciated his work—if only we’d been there.

Lorenzo Lotto. Portraits. At the National Gallery, London until 10th February 2019.

Charles I: King and Collector

This magnificent display of Old Master paintings from the royal collection amassed by King Charles I, many of them reunited for the first time since the mid-17th century at the Royal Academy in London (running until mid-April) has been met with frenzied enthusiasm. And rightly so. There are some stunning works on show here, by Titian, Veronese, Mantegna, Correggio, Holbein, Rubens, Van Dyck and others. Many of them are from the Royal Collection. Others are from the National Gallery, London. Still others have been borrowed from international collections, to which they made their way following the Commonwealth Sale after the beheading of Charles I, when his collection was dispersed (from 1649).

Charles I, as is well known, was frail and diminutive of stature but magnificent in his own conception of what kingship meant. His ideas about the Divine Right of kings were to be his undoing: he met his death by beheading in January 1649. While alive, Charles made full use of his own image to create an iconic status for himself as God’s appointee. In Britain he was the first monarch to do this. With the aid of his court painter, Anthony Van Dyck, who was appointed to the position in 1632, he drew on Classical models, derived from the painting and sculpture of Renaissance Italy, to create an awe-inspiring image of a ruler somehow superhuman. Superhuman but not remote. Just as Roman imperial statuary was impressive in its ability to portray a natural likeness, so the portraits of the king and his family by Van Dyck show a real man, inhabiting and dominating the picture space in regal fashion, but a flesh and blood mortal nonetheless.

The paintings here, though ‘reunited’ in a sense (King Charles exhibited them throughout his palaces and the two great equestrian portraits of the king in armour would never have hung side by side in his lifetime as they do now in the Royal Academy Central Hall), cannot, in the exhibition space offered by the RA, replicate the effect they would have produced when seen at the end of carefully contrived vistas at Whitehall, for example. What they do show is the way Van Dyck, inspired by Rubens, reached constantly back into the world of the north Italian Renaissance (and through that, back into antiquity) for iconographical models to convey divinity and power. These models were made available to the artist by his royal patron, who bought wisely and well, with the express aim of setting up a collection to rival those of the great courts of Europe. His desire to do so appears to have been kindled during a visit to Spain in 1623, in an attempt to secure the hand of the Infanta Maria Anna. The marriage negotiations failed but the young prince had seen the magnificent portable trappings of the Spanish Habsburg court and his baggage train on his journey home to London creaked and groaned with masterpieces by Titian and Velázquez. After 1627, when the House of Gonzaga, rulers of Mantua, became extinct in the male line, Charles purchased the bulk of the family’s stupendous collection, which included masterpieces by Mantegna (the Triumph of Caesar cycle) and Correggio (The School of Love, which fetched a particularly good price in the Commonwealth Sale. Young men loved Correggio’s semi-suppressed salaciousness).

Rubens, who first visited London in 1629 on a peace-keeping mission from Spain, was to dub King Charles ‘the greatest amateur of paintings among the princes of the world’.There are many highlights in this show. To choose just two, it would be Titian’s Supper at Emmaus (c. 1534; sold for £600 in 1651, now in the Louvre), a magnificent scene with calm mountain peaks of the Veneto dolomites in the background and a cat and dog duelling under the table; and the deliciously self-satisfied self-portrait by Van Dyck, in which he looks complacently out at the viewer, holding up the gold chain that he received upon his knighthood in 1632, and pointing with his other hand at an outsize sunflower, surely a symbol of gilded royal patronage.

This is a triumph of a show, not least for the extraordinary borrowing power it demonstrates. Many of the works on display here are not readily lent. It also reminds us how intrinsically interlinked are all the strands of human endeavour and human progress. There has always been a great symbiosis between artists, of course. Antonello da Messina was influenced by Netherlandish painters. Dürer was influenced by Bellini. Without the great allegorical celing paintings of Venice, by Veronese and Tintoretto, or of Rome and Florence by Pietro da Cortona, or of Parma by Correggio, could we ever have had the Banqueting House in London by Rubens? Not likley. And the art of Rubens was brought to foggy Albion by Charles I. The canvases he painted for the ceiling of the Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace, between 1629 and 1630, celebrating the power and wisdom of Charles’ father and predecessor James I and culminating in the apotheosis of the monarch, had brought allegory, monumentalism, grandeur and godliness to the art of Britain. It came to a squalid end. It was through a window of that very Banqueting House that Charles I climbed onto the scaffold. His cosmography, his taste, his spirit and his vision were extinguished at an axe-stroke.

Reviewed by Annabel Barber

The Scythians at the British Museum

“The Scythians: Warriors of ancient Siberia” is the title of a major new exhibition at the British Museum, London, running until 14th January. The show attempts to redeem from oblivion the culture and character of a people who strewed their path across the steppe with gold but who are otherwise little remembered and little understood.

The Scythians flourished in the 9th–3rd centuries BC. Their heartland was the Siberian steppe, but at their greatest extent they controlled territory and maintained trading links from north China to the Black Sea. They were never a single people, but a loose confederation of tribes, sharing certain customs and, it appears, speaking a language or languages with Iranian roots. They were herdsmen and hunters, nomadic and warlike, fighting both outsiders and each other over territory and livestock. They were superb horsemen. Their mounted archers, riding with saddles but without stirrups, struck fear into the hearts of Persians, Assyrians and Macedonians. And it appears that Scythian women rode as expertly—and fought as dauntlessly—as Scythian men. Scythian art is filled with representations of totem animals: deer, big cats, birds of prey. Chief of all these, though, was the horse. It was the horse that, in death, was caparisoned for the final great ride, to the world beyond, where it is presumed it would live again with its owner, roaming and grazing Elysian pastures. It is thanks to the Scythians’ mastery of the horse and their skill with metal that they were able to rise to dominance.

The first room sets the tone for the show with an audio display of howling Siberian wind. As it whistles in your ears, you can admire the stunning gold belt plaque of the 4th–3rd century BC: a warrior, presumed deceased, lies in the lap of a woman, presumably a deity, under a tree in whose boughs he has slung his quiver of arrows. Beside him a groom holds two horses, their harness very carefully rendered. It is exquisite—and in Scythian terms, quite late. This type of narrative scene does not seem to emerge until about the 4th century and human representations before this seem to be rare. Instead we find examples of the so-called “animal style”: gold plaques fashioned in the form of stylised beasts: stags, vultures, panthers, often shown tortuously attacking each other, often inlaid with pieces of turquoise. Some of these plaques are quite large in size, designed to be worn on a belt around the waist. Others are smaller, for decorating bow cases or quivers or for use as bridle fittings. Others are tiny appliqué pieces that would have been attached en masse to articles of clothing.

These gold pieces were first revealed to the world in the early 18th century, when Peter the Great sent out exploration parties to Siberia in search of natural resources and trade routes. The pieces that were unearthed, from grave mounds, were all sent back to St Petersburg and drawings of all of them were made to serve as a record. It is from the Hermitage Museum that most of the pieces in the current exhibition have come.

A section of the finds in this exhibition were also preserved by ice. Water percolating into the tomb barrows, and afterwards freezing, has remained there ever since as a layer of permafrost. As the arid conditions in Egypt, so the freezing conditions in the Altai have preserved materials otherwise rare to find: human skin, leather, wood and textiles. There are pieces of clothing, horse apparel and tomb hangings made of wool, leather, squirrel fur, sable and felt. The women, presumably the high-born ones, had diamonds on the soles of their shoes, almost literally: a beautiful moccasin with a geometric decoration of pyrite lozenges on the sole is extraordinarily well preserved. The tomb remains of a Pazyryk chief from the Altai Mountains shows that these Scythians extensively tattooed their arms, legs and shoulders. It also shows how savage their battles could be. This man—not young, about 60 years old; and not short, about 176cm tall—died of axe blows to the head. Scythian warfare did not only take the form of mounted archery; they also fought hand to hand in close and bloody combat.

Which brings us to the question of what they looked like. This man was scalped, so the top of his head is missing. But as far as we can tell, the Pazyryk Scythians shaved their heads leaving only a tuft of hair at the crown. This applied equally to the women, who twisted this tuft into a tall topknot, threading it through a narrow, very tall conical headdress to form a sort of fountain pony tail. There is some debate as to whether the men wore facial hair. The gold belt plaque showing the dead warrior and his groom portrays both men with walrus moustaches. The Kul Olba cup (4th century), from the Black Sea (modern Ukraine), shows figures with flowing beards. There cannot have been a single type, or a single style. Fashions must have come and gone, as they do today, and different Scythian groups probably had different habits. The Pazyryk chieftain seems to have been clean shaven, but in death he was equipped with a false beard. Scholars speculate that it might have had a ritual function. False beards as divine appurtenances are not an anthropological oddity; they are known from ancient Egypt, for example.

The Scythians did not write anything down, which is frustrating, because we never hear them speaking for themselves. Instead, we hear from Herodotus, who encountered the Scythians of the Black Sea and wrote about their customs and behaviour. Some finds appear to bear out his accounts. He mentions their custom of inhaling the vapour of toasted hemp seeds at the funerals of their chiefs, and “howling with pleasure” as they did so. And sure enough, a hemp-smoking kit has been unearthed. Contact with Greece from the 8th century BC had an influence not only on their art but on their diet, as the traditional fermented mare’s milk was replaced with wine (a Greek kylix is one of the grave goods on display here), which they apparently drank undiluted, gaining a reputation for alcoholic excess. The famous Pazyryk rug, the world’s oldest known carpet, was found in a Scythian tomb, but in its design shows clear Persian influence. It would be fascinating to know who made it: a Scythian influenced by Persian forms? Or a Persian working to Scythian taste? The Scythians, at least in origin, were a nomadic people, and their goods are mostly portable. A round wooden table with lathe-turned legs reminds us of this: it is a collapsible table, which can be folded up and easily carried away. They took their art with them, and assimilated other styles and ideas as they went. But to what extent did they depend on settled peoples for manufacture?

7th-century gold plaque in the form of a stag, Hungarian National Museum.

The supremacy of the Scythians was waning by 200 BC, as other nomads moved in to replace them, or, as is probable in some cases, as they themselves settled down. They flashed brilliantly across the screen for a mere few hundred years. There is probably much of their culture left to find. And they are not entirely forgotten. In Hungary, for instance, the “Scythian gold stag” has mythical significance. There are two examples in the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest.

This is a very enjoyable exhibition, tantalisingly suggestive. It answers fewer questions than it asks, which is always the best way, leaving you thinking long after you have left the museum.

Annabel Barber

Abstract Expressionism at the RA

Abstract Expressionism emerged in the 1940s in the United States and remained a predominantly American phenomenon. Its main characteristic, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Art, is the “desire to convey powerful emotions through the sensuous qualities of paint, often on canvases of huge size.” The Baroque movement of the 20th century, then? A Counter-Reformation against intellectual, social- and community-minded –isms, with all their rules and strictures, and a headlong, self-conscious race into the arms of feeling.

Abstract Expressionism, on show at the Royal Academy, London, until 2nd January 2017.

The genesis of the movement is well illustrated in the first room. Two early figurative works by Mark Rothko are hung on the right. Both date from 1936. One is his Self-portrait: the fat, red twisted lips and dark blind circles of eyes hidden by dark glasses strike a disreputable and sinister note. The other work is Interior, where a pair of ghostly white and faintly grotesque classicist sculptures flank a dark doorway populated by a huddle of brown-clad, white-faced, stricken-looking people. Normality and the conventional are shown distorted and turning ghoulish.

There is a scene in the film Funny Face where the character played by Audrey Hepburn, feeling angry and put upon by the character played by Fred Astaire, says: “Isn’t it time you realised that dancing is nothing more than a form of expression or release? There’s no need to be formal or cute about it. As a matter of fact, I rather feel like expressing myself now. And I could certainly use a release.” And then she dances. Wonderfully well. It is the only really good scene in the film.

Abstract Expressionism is like that. An emotional response to an external trigger. Dark times (world war, economic depression) cannot be argued away by reason, logic or objectivity. Objects turn ugly. What we can use is colour and gesture.

The exhibition rooms are crowded with visitors. The air hums with their whispered reactions. There is talk of “creative revelation” and of “traumatic experience”. These are personal responses. The artworks themselves are personal responses. Here we are as an audience, being called on to respond personally to a series of personal responses. This is art as me-journalism. And when the artist’s response succeeds in triggering a response of our own, either in reaction or in sympathy, the result is extraordinarily powerful. This is the ideal time to be looking again at these works, in an age so politically polarised that we can scarcely even sit at the same table as people who don’t agree with us. We need Abstract Expressionism to save us from fetishes and propaganda.

But is self-expression anything more than simple self-indulgence? Yes, if the self-expresser is equipped with the vocabulary to interpret his or her feelings productively. All (or almost all) of the artists represented in this show are very well equipped, and their eloquence elicits a productive response. The solemn, Beaux Arts neoclassicism of the exhibition rooms is a perfect foil for this art.

The problem, though, is that too many feelings are being expressed. And too few walls are available to harbour all the wealth of feeling that is outpoured. The result is a clamorous hubbub. And there are very few places to sit down. But perhaps this is a quibble. You need to give yourself time. This is not a show to see in a hurry.

The work of Arshile Gorky had a formative influence on the AbEx movement and an entire room is dedicated to him. He does not use the medium of abstraction to express emotions or ideas; he is rooted in Surrealism and his paintings send audiences scrabbling for figurative interpretations. The exhibition points out Gorky’s “knack for camouflaging forms so that their identities hover between the recognisable and the cryptic.” This means that we are perpetually trying to see forms in all his works, forms that will provide the meaning and the interpretation, like looking for recognisable shapes in clouds. We do this with The Orators, which the wall text tells us is an “artfully obscured scene of figures around the funeral bier of Gorky’s father.” The figures are either obscured too artfully or not obscured enough. We spend too long intellectualising, trying to make them take comprehensible shape. If we aren’t careful, we can talk a lot of rubbish about art like this. Fortunately AbEx didn’t linger there.

For a while perhaps it looked as if it was going to. Willem de Kooning, in his figurative phase, makes us sit and watch while he wrestles with the age-old male dilemma: Women. Do you worship them or make fun of them? Thankfully he emerges from it to give us his best work (and the finest two pieces in the room dedicated to him): Villa Borghese (1960) and Untitled (1961), generous patches of lemon yellow, blue, green and pastel pink, which evoke sunshine and tranquillity. Franz Kline’s violent black slashes across white backgrounds evoke cast-iron bridges, steelyards and gantries. They are like photography gone backwards into painting. One enjoys them in silence, they are all about atmosphere. So is Milton Resnick’s beautiful, wintry Octave, which strikes the viewer like a grey day at Giverny.

Monet is not the only artist echoed and challenged by these painters. Picasso also looms large. And Jackson Pollock’s Summertime 9A looks like a Mondrian pulled so tight that the black lines have stretched and buckled: released, they spring back into a knotted, rhythmic tangle, clotted with the yellow, red and blue areas of infill.

Age-old scriptural and mythological figures are abstractly explored by Barnett Newman: Adam, Eve, and Ulysses (1952). Tempting as it is in Ulysses to interpret the strongly divided planes of blue as representations of sea and sky, Newman has chosen to make his axis a vertical one. So we are left more with a mood and a feeling than an idea, and the result is restful. Vast landscapes are evoked by Clyfford Still. Ad Reinhardt puts a frame around black nothing to turn it into something, a thing to go on a wall, like a sort of anti-mirror, sucking all reflections in, giving nothing back.

And what about Rothko, who famously hoped to “ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch” who dined in the room where his Seagram murals were to hang? If they had ever been hung there, I doubt he would have succeeded. His Self-portrait or Interior would have appalled the sons of bitches. De Kooning’s Woman II would have had them running for the door. Rothko’s colour-field rectangles such as No. 4 (Untitled) couldn’t possibly. Here is an artist who set out with such aggressive intent, aiming to “defeat” the walls with the plenitude of his art. Yet the result is tremendously relaxing and satisfying. It is daring but it is not terrible. The whole gamut of human emotion is there, but there is no dissonance. Each tableau speaks like a still small voice of calm. Expressionism, when it is figural, is grotesque. When it is abstract, it is not, however belligerent or morbid the emotions that engendered it. The Rothko paintings, in the central octagon, are as gorgeous and uplifting as any juxtaposition of tragedy and ecstasy in a Baroque canvas of sacred apotheosis. Where they triumph (and where other Abstract Expressionist artists fail) is that they leave you with nothing to say. You can only feel.

The scale of these works, in terms of the value of their content, is in almost every case equal to their size. The “sensuous qualities of paint” are also important. What strikes one forcibly is how old-fashioned the works are. There is no dilettantish daubing at play here. We are dealing with a masterly handling of the medium. What people are responding to is not just the call on their emotions but also the sheer skill of the artists. No one would ever look at one of these works and say, “I could paint that.”

Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy, London, until 2nd January.

Five major London museums

Emily Barber, author of Blue Guide London, recommends five main museums: 

1. “V&A” – the Victoria and Albert Museum – for its architecture and varied content. It is also home to the National Art Library which is a peaceful place to read or study overlooking the courtyard. And the V&A houses one of best collections of jewellery in world.

2. National Gallery – as the best place just to wander and see some of the finest paintings in the world.

3. National Portrait Gallery – where the galleries aren’t too large so feel personal. The brilliant portraits are stunning as art and fascinating as history.

4. The Tower of London – where the Norman White Tower still retains a sense of its impressive ancient past. The pure austerity of the Chapel architecture gives a peaceful sanctity (if there aren’t too many tourists). The gems in the Crown Jewels are legendary. Have a chat with the famous ravens who are excellent mimics.

5. Hampton Court – a perfect palace in gorgeous setting by river. It still conveys a sense of wonder as you approach and see twisted Tudor chimney stacks. The Stuart part of the palace has one of the finest 17th century interiors in the UK.