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National schools and British taste

National schools and British taste


Two recent events at the National Gallery – the opening of Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance, and the display of its new acquisition, George Bellows’s Men of the docks (1912; see Fig.85, p.271) – raise specific questions about the Gallery’s collecting policy, past and present, and a more general consideration of national schools and British taste.


Strange Beauty, in the Sainsbury Wing, almost wholly consists of works from the permanent collection, with many very fam­iliar paintings by artists such as Altdorfer, Dürer and Holbein. Beyond the pragmatic need to remove works from the upstairs galleries in order to accommodate the current Veronese exhibition, the reasons for the show are difficult to fathom. Certainly it is always illuminating to see such familiar works in different surroundings, but we do not learn anything startlingly new about German painting of the chosen period. We do, however, revisit the old problem of a deep-rooted British antipathy for – or, at least, indifference to – German art. How this helped mould nineteenth-century attitudes to collecting was the subject of an article in our February issue, focused on the National Gallery itself.1 We learn that German paintings were ‘strange’, ‘not lovely’, often poor in drawing and colour, even ‘repulsive’. Appreciation of German visual art never matched the regard in which the country’s later musical and literary achievements were held. This distaste had a domino-effect, and nineteenth-century German art, for political as well as aesthetic reasons, fared even less well at the Tate Gallery in the earlier twentieth century. This state of affairs led Herbert Read to write in 1938 that ‘to the general public in Great Britain, modern German art is totally unknown’ and within the British art world itself ‘is almost entirely neglected’.2 To point to this blind spot in that year, in a popular paperback series, was hardly an auspicious moment to attempt conversion. It was only in the decades well after the Second World War that some amends were made: a Friedrich in 1987 for the National Gallery, for example, and a Beckmann for the Tate in 1979. This increase in the representation of earlier German works coincided with an enthusiasm for more contemporary German art, although even here acquisitions at Tate were slow to be made. This was not the case with recent American painting and sculpture. But of American art of the nineteenth century there was not a sign.


It is still difficult, after decades of ‘revisionary’ art history, books and exhibitions, to avoid the pre-eminence of nine­-teenth-century French art, from Courbet and Manet to the Post-Impressionists. We have been exhorted to consider the achievements of many other figures and movements from that era and this has certainly brought into the light works from beyond French shores. But acquisitions by the National Gallery of, for example, paintings by Købke, Menzel, Klimt and Gallen-Kallela have been inserted into the French rooms. It is perhaps the only possible way of displaying them, given the limitations of space, but, strictly speaking, it is inconsistent with the hang throughout the rest of the Gallery and not always to the advantage of the new works. It could be thought, for instance, that Menzel’s Frithian view of the Tuileries Gardens is no match for Manet’s Baudelairian depiction of the same subject. With the acquisition of the Bellows not only have these predominantly French rooms received a transatlantic broadside, but the date range of the collection has been confused once more, for Bellows’s career was entirely in the twentieth century.


The acquisition and placing of the painting by Bellows need some examination, for the circumstances are, to say the least, peculiar. At $25.5 million, it was an expensive purchase even in the competitive market for early modern American art. Most of the cost, however, came from a special fund established by the late Sir Paul Getty. That the painting was for sale became a matter of controversy when first mooted several years ago,3 for its vendor was Randolph College, Lynchberg VA, whose Maier Museum of Art had owned the painting since 1920. It is not the first sale made by the College from its Museum but the Bellows was by far its most celebrated work (and as such was blogged as ‘a deplorable deaccession’ by one American arts correspondent).4 Part of the deal includes establishing further connections between the National Gallery and – not to be disrespectful – this relatively obscure ‘innovative learning community’.5


The Bellows is bullishly hung between a Sisley and a Pissarro, both much smaller works from the very heart of Impressionist innovation. We presume the evanescent snow scene of 1875 by the former was thought an appropriate neighbour because, like the Bellows, it depicts snow; and the Pissarro was chosen because, also like the Bellows, it is an urban view, a rainy night in Paris. This is hardly subtle hanging. The Bellows is a substantial, highly competent ‘realist’ painting of a Man­hattan scene, carried out with a filtered dash of Manet and international conservative bravura (Sorolla and Jack B. Yeats come to mind). It is by no means backward looking but it suggests little of the future, unlike so many of the paintings hanging nearby. All we can hope for it is that the Gallery makes a heroic effort to give it, through acquisition or loan, an historical American context with works by predecessors such as Homer, Eakins, Church and the Hudson River painters, for, by those artists, it owns nothing, and examples by contemporaries such as Henri, Sloan, Hassam or Prendergast. A case for its stylistic context among its European neighbours is not fully articulated. Like German art, British taste for earlier American painting has led to some bald patches in our national collections. Only Whistler and Sargent are well represented, although not, unfortunately, at Trafalgar Square.6


1    J. Nuechterlein: ‘German Renaissance art through the eyes of the National Gallery’, The Burlington Magazine 156 (2014), pp.76–84.
2    Introduction by H. Read to P. Thoene: Modern German Art, Harmondsworth 1938, p.7.
3    See, for example, D. Ng: ‘National Gallery buys George Bellows painting from Randolph College’, Los Angeles Times (7th February 2014).
4    See L. Rosenbaum in her blog of 6th February 2014; www.artsjournal.com.
5    Press release, National Gallery, 7th February 2014, p.3.
6    A curious loan (from Tate) in these rooms is a 1917 Sussex landscape by William Nicholson, although it is a welcome sight as nothing by this artist was in Tate Britain’s recent re-hang.