22 NOVEMBER 1997, Page 57


Georges de La Tour (Grand Palais, Paris, till 26 January 1998)

Master of light

Andrew Lambirth

Georges de La Tour (1593-1652) worked all his life in Lorraine, north-east- ern France. It's possible that he travelled to Italy or into the Netherlands, given the nature of his art and influences, but there is no documentary proof of this. He was very successful in his lifetime, but then fell completely from view until rediscovered in the 1920s. The key feature of his paintings, mostly genre and religious works in the tra- dition of Caravaggio, is their dramatic lighting effects. Many were nocturnes. Per- haps La Tour took these from a Dutch painter like Honthorst — we simply don't know. Certainly La Tour was a French Classical artist, not unlike his contempo- rary Poussin. (Another painter working then was Claude Lorrain, conceivably an acquaintance of La Tour.) But there is a greater calmness to La Tour: his is an art of simple masses, the figures smoothed and rounded to near-geometrical shapes. For this reason, for his apparent modernity, he appeals strongly to our century's taste. La Tour was also a master of the colour red. Many of his best paintings contain areas of glowing vermilion which enrich the composition rather than simply playing a decorative role. The two versions of St Jerome are chief among the high points of the exhibition. The saint is depicted with and without his scarlet cardinal's hat, which functions almost as a fashion accessory. Both pictures are wonderfully moving. The tortured saint flagellates himself with a knotted rope, his aging body naked apart from a loincloth, the flesh sagging convinc- ingly. He kneels in a stylised unspecific space, probably a cave. In one version a scarlet robe is draped over his loincloth, in the other (containing the hat) it is merely over his arm. In both cases, red is the emo- tional key to the painting. La Tour was immensely popular during his lifetime. His output of different images was actually tiny, but the market for repli- cas was great. In some cases, the original no longer exists, or it can't be rediscovered. Only copies remain, the product of a facto- ry, or production line. But, if it is the image itself which is of paramount importance, does this matter? Even if the technique is perhaps inept, surely the import of the image, its emotional and narrative freight, will still be conveyed to the viewer? Per- haps, but the effect of a painting relies upon a fine balance, of which the aesthetic content is a crucial part of the equation.

What purpose, apart from an art histori- cal one (essentially an academic exercise), is served by hanging together eight copies after the original La Tour of St Sebastian tended by Irene? Yet it happens here. Each painting features the same composi- tion but is differently lit, differently nuanced and, as a result, more or less emo- tionally convincing. One is noticeably smaller in size, which distorts the propor- tions of the image. The rest are really very much alike, boringly so, with the principal variations occurring in the intensity of the colour and light. Is this kind of display of interest to the general public? Would it not be of far greater relevance to have the orig- inal with which to compare the copies?

Sadly, it is lost. The Parisians were thronging five or six deep in the galleries to see these exhibits, but quite what did they make of them? The queues outside were impressive (two or three times the length of those currently gracing the Royal Academy's courtyard for Sensation), but then it is said that Parisians take their art very seriously indeed. As an added induce- ment to visit the exhibition, French experts have been stirring up the already muddy waters of attribution. They dispute a num- ber of supposed La Tours in American col- lections. Who has the most right to own original paintings by Georges de La Tour? Why, the French of course. Cultural patrio- tism is thus invoked. By implication, the Americans only deserve copies.

The Choirboy, Leicester City Museums The inclusion in the exhibition of a cou- ple of paintings by Caravaggio, one of the famous 'Cardsharps' from Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, the other a fortune- teller from the Louvre, is probably more confusing than elucidating. Again, from the point of view of the art historian, such com- parison is of the greatest interest and use- fulness. But for the average punter? Although most museum-goers spend more time reading labels than in actually study- ing the subtleties of paintwork and compo- sition, and so would thus probably register that these paintings are by another artist, what would this tell them? Perhaps the plug-in commentary so many visitors seemed to be listening to was of a particu- larly high and informative standard.

Early in his career, La Tour favoured the depiction of recognisable types — the hen- pecked husband, the shrew and so on, much like the characters in the engravings of his contemporary Jacques Callot. The low-life scenes of brawling and cheating, reminiscent of Brueghel, seem to sit uneasily with the radiant spirituality of the later religious paintings. Where did they come from? There is much about La Tour that remains mysterious. Certainly he is more a sentimental than a humorous painter. The girl squashing a flea is faintly amusing, recalling the joke about pre-war cinema-going when, on a visit to the fleapit, you'd go in with a cardigan and come out with a jumper. The blind old hurdy-gurdy players verge on the folksy; they're a bit like Franz Hals on a bad day — Hals with- out the fizz and the inventive bravura brushstrokes, without the succulence of surface, the juicy impasto.

Much of the appeal of La Tour's work for his own time would have lain in its clar- ity, simplicity and intelligibility. Today we see a degree of abstraction in his paintings — a strong pictorial invention, transforma- tive rather than purely descriptive. Look at the wryly painted image of Job being admonished by his wife: not just her awk- ward pose in a high-waisted gown, but the way she looms so much larger than him. One of La Tour's favourite tricks was to depict a woman looking askance at another character. This sly side-glancing is very pro- nounced, and oddly enough is a gesture more often to be found in movies than in paintings. It has a large dramatic quotient, and risks the cliché, but usually makes rather than breaks a painting.

The last major La Tour exhibition was in 1972. The current show comes to Paris from the National Gallery of Art in Wash- ington. The beautifully illustrated cata- logue of the American show, Georges de La Tour and his World by Philip Conisbee (DO) is distributed in Britain by Yale, and contains several stimulating essays, both historical and technical. The Paris exhibi- tion is in three sections: the first compris- ing works now considered to be definitely by La Tour, done before 1646. The second section is concerned with the ancient copies of lost originals, and is increasingly documentary in feel. The third section mixes studio works with authenticated orig- inals and rounds off La Tour's career, from 1646 to 1652.

Actually, this is an exhibition of endless copies, exploring too thoroughly the differ- ent types of replicas and variants. There's a whole slew of fair to middling to downright terrible copies. Probably the worst are the Apostles from the Toulouse Lautrec Muse- um in Albi. To say it's a show of one artist is misleading, there are so many other hands at work here. Wouldn't it be fabu- lous to see an exhibition simply of the cream of La Tour's paintings? The best say, a dozen works — sumptuously dis- played? Yet the trend in exhibitions is towards blockbusters which will make museums large profits, The prevailing wis- dom is that with smaller shows the audi- ence doesn't feel it gets its money's worth. Is that really true? Some research needs to be done. Urgently.