11 JANUARY 1992, Page 30


Images of Christ: Religious Iconography in Modern British Art 1910-1991 (Albemarle Gallery, till 17 January) Leonora Carrington (Serpentine Gallery, till 26 January) The New Patrons: 20th-century Art from Corporate Collections (Christie's, till 24 January)

Reasons for respect

Giles Auty

The current exhibition at Albemarle Gallery (18 Albemarle Street, WI) is one I would like to have reviewed earlier since its basic theme is an unusual one these days. However, there is still a week to run. Any- one who produces Christian iconography in this century cannot but be aware of the heritage which overshadows them from the past. To treat the Crucifixion afresh is an extraordinary challenge, yet William Roberts (1895-1980) for one responded with typical, idiosyncratic imagination when only in his twenties. His 'Crucifixion' was shown at Chenil Galleries in 1923 and bought there by Augustus John, who retained it during his lifetime.

What is ostensibly the same subject was approached also by Anthony Green (b. 1939) while similarly youthful. But 40 years on the interpretation of the subject had grown increasingly profane, solipsist and vulgar — some may think in like manner to society itself. However, any exhibition which includes such original artists as Stan- ley Spencer, Edward Burra and Eric Gill remains very much worth a visit. John Nap- per's 'Betrayal' makes the always difficult transition of a New Testament scene to modern dress with that artist's customary intelligence and imagination. Craigie Aitchison has possibly painted a Crucifix- ion or two too many for my personal liking but the small example from 1964 remains one of his more convincing essays. il was impressed also by the beautiful linocuts of Sybil Andrews. The exhibition, which is a thoroughly intelligent one, was conceived and organised by James Huntingdon- Whiteley.

I would care to be similarly charitable about the large-scale exhibition of paint- ings, drawings and sculptures by Leonora Carrington which is currently at the Ser-

pentine, but fear I.cannot. Even at its best, surrealist painting irritates me profoundly and I account myself extremely lucky not to have enjoyed the company of any of its major practitioners, each more intent than the next on indulgent forms of self- dramatisation. Indeed, this last seems to me the main thrust of most surrealist art and I am no less resistant to this than to learning about the dreams of others in tedious detail. As the observant Irish Jesuit Arthur Little once remarked, 'Surrealism holds that man reveals the inmost truth of his nature, not while he is in a condition of alert rationality, but when the lawless sub- conscious is liberated in dreams'. Indeed, it was to escape just such rational influences that the young Miss Carrington ran off to Cornwall in 1937 in the company of Max Ernst, Nusch Eluard, Man Ray and Roland Penrose. The company of these and the subsequent patronage of the late Edward James had a major influence on her artistic career. These are all famous names and one would wish their joint friendship had helped encourage rather more satisfying art. Carrington's subject matter is incurably whimsical and, like so much surrealist art, none too convincingly painted. But can this last be held as a valid criticism of art which is necessarily of an arbitrary nature? A lav- ish catalogue, replete with inflated prose and sentiment, complements this odd endeavour. The reason for the exhibition's presence among us may be attributable to another cause, however. As Marina Warn- er writes of Carrington in the catalogue, 'Her commitment to feminism has led her to direct action on several occasions', or, as Whitney Chadwick puts it, 'Central to her work for 40 years has been her recognition that patriarchal culture has suppressed women... . ' In short, are we meant to judge this exhibition as art, or by the creep- ing criteria of that latest insidious import frOm American life, PC?

Ar Christie's (8 King Street, WI), The New Patrons shows art collected in this cen- tury by business buyers. The corporate pur- chase of art is already very big in the USA and Germany and has the potential to grow much larger here as well. The crux of this matter seems to me whether art is to be regarded as expensive wallpaper or as an integral part of the culture of a company and its buildings. Robert Fleming Holdings is looked on by many as an exemplary buyer, partly for acumen shown in buying Scottish Colourists before they became fashionable. Investment is only one aspect of buying, of course, but seems one no self- respecting executive need neglect. A major buyer of more recent origin is Robert & Hiscox, whose collection consists primarily of modern British art, including such notable names as Bacon, Bomberg, Freud, Lanyon, Ben Nicholson and Sickert. In a catalogue note, Robert Hiscox generously acknowledges the invaluable professional advice he received from dealers Andras Kalman and Ivor Braka. Other successful collectors among the 24 represented in this exhibition arranged by the National Art Collections Fund include the Financial Times, Stanhope Properties and the W.H. Smith Group. In times of a sluggish market the input of such patrons is especially wel- come. No less agreeably — unlike the The Crucifixion', c.1923, by William Roberts, from the Methodist Church Collection

domains of academe, arts administration and the publicly funded gallery circuit — here is a world where reasons outside ostensible artistic merit remain unlikely to count.