22 NOVEMBER 1969, Page 23


Pastures and masters


You still need the digestion of an ox and the mental stamina of a Whitehead to steer your way through the present spate of shows, so rich in content and diversity—and so geographically dispersed. Apart from Claude and Berlioz, the rarest and certainly the deepest experience is provided by the short hymn (no less affecting for its brevity) sung at Wildenstein's in praise of J. F. Millet: choirmaster for this occasion, the redoubt- able scholar and connoisseur, Denys Sutton, whose helpful catalogue is yet another model in a notable series. This selective gathering shows early portraiture as well as the better known rustic scenes and field workers.

Pursued by childhood memories of ship- wrecks, disturbed by the idea of suicide (all this and much else made explicit in Mr Sut- ton's text), Millet clung like a limpet on a rock to the comparative reassurance of Barbizon. As a social realist in its purest connotation, free of moralising but rein- forced always by an ethical drive, Millet leaves all these qualifications behind in his stature as an artist and what he did with paint ; though it is hard not to consider him in the same light, with different inflections, as Courbet. To walk from Courbet's Hunts- man to the Millet gallery in the Boston Museum is a revelation, like listening to Schubert after Bruckner. In Labourer Rest- ing (No 21) you can sense at once the flow of tonal density and clear light on the integ- rity, seen formally as well as spiritually, of an isolated figure that was eventually drama- tised as a concept by Daumier, and made more palatable by Forain. For Van Gogh, of course, Millet was a constant hero and lode- star: he made seven copies of The Reaper in one week and spent much of his life in re-thinking Millet's ikons.

But the structure and interdependence of art as an historical process needs time for thought and space for breathing ; all I can do is point to the depth of feeling and lack of sentimentality in two adjacent paintings: Going to Work (No 26) and La Fin de la Journee (No 41). In the one, a country labourer with a pitchfork over his shoulder saunters down a hillside with a woman, a basket over her head casting a heavy shadow across her face, like a cowl. The mysterious construction and unoppressive depth of paint, shot through with shifts of colour and touch, is not unlike the surfaces built up by Rembrandt in his late portraits: but here we are so convincingly out of doors that you can almost feel the cold air suggested by the steely-dark light of dawn.

In the other, a single male figure stretches to pull on a jacket in a melancholy, flat landscape of scarred, stone-strewn fields: so flat that anything vertical acquires the exclamatory intensity of Chartres Cathedral looming up from its plain. But here, the lonely space and figure are suffused by the dull veils of sunset: more sadly than the

bloom on a peach, though just as beautifully filled with mortality. Some agricultural implement or lean-to, deceptively near the horizon, has the mystery of those isolated anchors, half buried in Turner's wet sands. Across the room, Le Repos de la Bergere (No 37) has the exact supersensory defini- tion and resolved equation between calmly seated figure and landscape as a Memling Madonna does with its interior. Millet's girl sits calmly, hands loosely clasped on lap, on a rise in the land with a thicket for protec- tive screen (or throne) to offset in its enclo- sure the open valley, clustered with grazing sheep, stretching to the far hills.

The water-colours of the Norwich School, shown at Kenwood House (till 30 Novem- ber) provide an excellent demonstration of how English painters received the Dutch tradition but preserved their individuality : the watercolours possibly reveal the more abstract disposal of compositional parts more clearly than the oils. The show is a pleasure, heightened by a sparkling context of a house (and gardens) in which Rembrandt, Vermeer and the lesser but often unexpected delights of Reynolds, Romney and Raeburn jostle for attention. In the re-arrangement, I miss the long view down the Orangery of one of Gainsborough's masterpieces, Lady Howe. This stately apparition in periwinkle and silver-grey is now half concealed by a chan- delier ; elsewhere, the new wall colours appear somewhat harsh, and garish in the library, but one hates to cavil over a place so lovingly attended.

For an example of the transfiguration of Baroque art in highly original sculptural terrhs, it is vital to see Michael Sandle's im- mense M01114111eln14111 Pro Ge.rualdo, trapped rather than installed at the Hayward Gallery, where five other young artists take uneven part in a show devised by Michael Comp- ton for the Arts Council. Sandie's sculpture is a glistening black and gold tableau vivant: a snail-like molluscular shape coils round and rears up as an ear trumpet, or baleful listen- ing device, and confronts, like Oedipus meeting the oracle, an enshrined demi- mollusc dome set on a dais beneath a soaring canopy. The dome shape is surmounted by a tilted disc. and thrusts forward a smaller variation on itself on a polished gold expanding trellis. An attenuated ovoid shape lies on the ground nearby ; below the dais, near the listening mollusc, a more rounded, demi-ovoid, stands up. The 'sense' of this astounding work is best expressed by Aldous Huxley in the 'Faith, Taste and His- tory' essay where, in discussing Monteverdi, he compares the expressive freedom and boundlessness of the Baroque composers with their retention of closedness and sym- metry. Sandle's noble work catches the nar- dissism as well as the flying trumpet notes, bouncing off stone, of his theme.

At the New Art Centre, there is a show of Mary Potter's dry, chalky land- scapes and still lifes, in which salmon-pink, orange and cooler mauves and near-whites make a casually formal world with decep- tive play of space. The paintings need time to assume their full strength ; until then, they are the visual equivalents of an inspired cook at work, seemingly slapdash and arbi- trary, who juggles with food and utensils whilst keeping up with the talk—and some- times dropping cigarette ash in the soup.

Leon Underwood's show of sculpture, in his seventy-ninth year. at the new Archer gallery is an extraordinary occasion in which figures in movement, so originally conceived, =invigorated by decoratively formal ideal.

jagged and ragged, which show some kin- ship with Zadkine. At Gimpel's an equally underrated sculptor, Henri Laurens, also shows a debt to cubism but re-emphasises his claim to a limpid, infinitely restrained authenticity. His reliefs have the clarity of Assyrian cylinder seals.

Light relief at the highest level can be found at the Wright Hepburn gallery, which is showing the costumes (and some sets) designed by Erte for the Folies Bergere. Devotees of Busby Berkeley musicals, let alone those with Parisian memories, will hugely enjoy these wickedly incisive, tightly- mannered concoctions of fruit, flower* and beads, on hooped or comb-like skirts, for naked showgirls wearing equally incredible headgear.