Visions of Venice (Bankside Gallery, till 2 December) In the Shadow of Vesuvius (Accademia Italiana, till 27 November)
Skills of seeing
Recently I was told the story of rather a solemn seven-year-old who, when asked What career he intended to follow, replied: `Ideally, I would like to be an artist. But if I can't do that I would rather be normal.' , Somewhere along the way the percep- tion of the profession of artist seems to have slipped a little, even among juveniles. Perhaps this is because the hierarchies of skills which are apparent when we look at the art of the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries have largely vanished today or are widely looked on as tedious or inappo- site. Thus the international art on view at the Venice biennales of the recent past has seldom concerned itself either with beauty or with the skills of drawing and painting associated for so long with that city. At times I think a North German industrial city would make a much more appropriate venue instead for the often hideous art put before us, once every two years, in one of the world's loveliest urban locations. Cer- tainly, artists of the early 19th century did not take the beauties of Venice for granted but were inspired by them to produce extraordinary evocations of the city's unique light, atmosphere, waterways and build- tugs. The Bankside Gallery, located at some distance from the main byways of art at 48 Hopton Street, SE1, has put together an exhibition of real merit to mark its tenth anniversary as home to the Royal Waterco- lour Society. visions of Venice examines how British artists from Turner's time to the present have reacted to that city through the mediums of watercolour and drawing. We are familiar with the excellence of Turner and Bonington, Leighton and Poynter, Sickert and Sargent, of course, but the exhibition makes clear also the continuing tradition of skills found to this day among members of the Royal Watercolour Socie- ty. Harry Eccleston, Dennis Flanders, Christa Gaa, Diana Armfield and their fellows are artists in whom even a seven- year-old might still recognise strains of normality. They are painters who look to past practice with respect yet are not afraid to exercise their own interpretations. While Turner and Bonington show sublime skills, the likes of Goodwin, Bunney, Scott and Ruskin reveal what diligent looking and a well-trained hand can achieve. Re- grettably Brabazon and Cade11 come too close to cliché for comfort, setting a precedent for armies of would-be artists who have been seduced by La Serenissima into making slight fools of themselves. There is an urgent need for a handbook for artists entitled Pitfalls of the Picturesque. Visions of Venice boasts an excellent soft-covered catalogue and gives its name also to a hardback volume by Michael Spender covering contributions made by members of the Royal Watercolour Socie- ty. Yet Venice has probably influenced British art even more profoundly as a treasure-house than as a city. Sir Joshua Reynolds, Richard Wilson and Wright of Derby led the way for British visitors, travelling to Venice to admire works by Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and other Venetian talents.
Wilson and Wright of Derby were also early artistic visitors to what is almost the other end of Italy. In the Shadow of Vesuvius, on view currently at Accademia Italiana (24 Rutland Gate, SW7), deals with views of Naples from 1631 to 1830, the latter being roughly the date from which the Bankside exhibition begins. Anyone who continues to doubt the genius of Turner could find evidence enough to dispel disbelief even in this pair of exhibi- tions. If we compare Turner's works with those of his fellow Englishmen Cozens and Towne, Turner's skills seem effortlessly superior. The art of topographical painting advanced considerably between 1631 and 1830 and improved even more in the century following. But what has happened to such art in the past 60 years? A foolish belief has permeated our modern con- sciousness that mere use of a camera has supplanted any need to make painted or drawn records of our physical surround- ings. Artists have thus lost yet another enjoyable function which might link their lives with some kind of normality. In the face of breathtaking physical scenery, the modern artist prefers to explore instead his or her often uninteresting psyche, imagin- ing wrongly meanwhile that he or she could match the skills of past art if needs arose. Anyone confident in such a view should address themselves forthwith to Giovan Battista Lusieri's `Naples from Mergelli- na', a watercolour which combines the most extraordinary topographical detail with a wonderful luminosity, depth and poetry. Lusieri established himself as an artist by extraordinary skills rather than extraordinary social behaviour. He was the respected friend of ambassadors and kings. Perhaps those with such great skills found less need to draw attention to themselves by displays of social eccentricity. A large part of the abnormality of present art rests in the lack of skills associated so often with those claiming to be artists.
'Santa Maria della Salute, Night Scene with Rockets', by J.M.W. Turner