This is not the best time of year to look at paintings, with the marquee galleries and big shows besieged by holiday and shopping crowds. If, though, you want to see pictures rather than the backs of heads then there are several fascinating exhibitions running in some of the less populated artistic institutions.
Take, for example, A Victorian Obsession at Leighton House in west London. Here is a gathering of 52 paintings from the collection of the Mexican telecoms gazillionaire Juan Antonio Pérez Simón. The show’s title has a double meaning: Pérez Simón’s obsession with high-Victorian art and the painters’ obsession with what Tennyson called “dreams of fair women”. The artists on show on the walls of Leighton’s Topkapi-in-Holland-Park palace include Leighton himself, Millais, Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Alma-Tadema.
Anyone with a taste for social realism should give this exhibition a very wide berth; this is as rich and intense a display of Aesthetic Movement art as you will find (Pérez Simón’s collection is the largest outside Britain). Not one of the artists had the slightest painterly interest in their own times but preferred to escape into the Classical or mythological past in the company of beautiful, compliant women and, just occasionally, heroic men.
Leighton’s own Greek Girls Picking up Pebbles of 1871 is a good example of why these pictures have had such a dismal post-Victorian reputation. Here are four girls, all to some degree based on his favourite model Dorothy Dene, wandering along a Mediterranean beach in a flutter of wind-blown drapery. There is no narrative or rationale except to show variations of beauty. To modern eyes it is undoubtedly a silly composition. Leighton, though, based his figures on Classical Tanagra statuettes which have highly worked drapery and was aiming for the sort of frieze grouping to be found on the Elgin Marbles. His intent was high-minded.
The exhibition’s show-stopper, Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s The Roses of Heliogabalus of 1888, reveals the same disparity between intention and reception. At more than six feet across, it is the largest canvas Alma-Tadema painted and shows in minute detail the teenage emperor Heliogabalus literally drowning his dinner guests in an increasingly heavy downpour of rose petals. The painter depicts the guests at the moment they begin to realise that this fragrant jeu d’esprit is turning very macabre indeed.
As with the Leighton the painting is highly skilled — Alma-Tadema was peerless with marble, and imported roses from the French Riviera to get his detail just so. It is his taste that looks so flawed. The painting originally sold for the huge sum of £4,000: in 1960, back on sale, it failed to find a buyer. The pendulum has swung back part of the way but there is still a distance to go before this picture and the others in this show are viewed with the seriousness with which they were painted.
Taste is also the issue at the Allen Jones exhibition at the Royal Academy. Jones, a contemporary of Hockney and Hodgkin, made his name specialising in girls in their smalls — furniture made of mannequins of women in high heels and fetish underwear, and paintings of shapely legs and stilettos. In the late 1960s and early 1970s his work seemed stylish and of its time; now, however, it looks irredeemably sexist and, much worse, dated.
It is hard to get exercised by feminist complaints about his art because his pieces don’t objectify individual women but show creatures that conform to a blandly ersatz version of sexual deviancy, an S&M-lite that is neither properly dark nor, it seems, deeply felt by Jones himself. The real regret is that Jones hasn’t moved on as a painter. He remains the purveyor of the stylish silhouette but, like silhouettes, his art is two-dimensional. Indeed, it has almost slipped from art into the vacuity of fashion. The similarities of Jones’s work with that of the French fashion photographer Guy Bourdin (currently on show at Somerset House) reveal an uncanny similarity of style. The Bourdin exhibition is subtitled “image maker”, a phrase that in the sense of “image only” neatly covers them both.
A more interesting artist can be seen at Dulwich Picture Gallery — the Canadian landscapist Emily Carr (1871-1945). From the Forest to the Sea showcases the work of a highly distinctive painter all but unknown outside her own country. Carr started as a Victorian maiden transplanted to Pacific coast Canada and ended a solitary writer-artist whose paintings captured British Columbia’s wilderness and the artefacts of its indigenous peoples.
Carr’s artistic training was global: she had spells in San Francisco, London, St Ives and Paris. Her travels left her well-versed in European post-impressionism and modernism but back in Canada, when she put them to use, her paintings were too avant-garde to find acceptance. Nor did the disjunction between her artistic provenance and her subjects help: “I was as Canadian-born as the Indian,” she once said, “but behind me were the Old World heredity and ancestry.” From 1913 for more than a decade, she barely painted at all, the result of both disappointment and poverty. Recognition was late in arriving.
Some of her paintings, in particular of totem poles and carvings and of the coastal forests where she would take a caravan and her pets and paint on her own, deserved better. There is an almost Vorticist movement to her trees as they twist and sway in the wind, while her totem pictures have a Gauguinesque sense of wonder at the mystery — and sometimes menace — of native American traditions. Her “nature” is not a safe place but full of potency, while her pictures of tribal carvings had an almost anthropological aim: “These things should be to us Canadians what the ancient Britons’ relics are to the English.” Her striking pictures are one of the reasons why her fellow-countrymen did indeed come to cherish them.