An exhibition poster that was tantalising me all summer and that I caught a couple of weeks before it ended.
This is exactly the sort of show that, if he was still alive, Brian Sewell would have raged about in the Evening Standard for sloppy curating and charging people £12 to see the main, free collection. It felt badly like it should be one of the gallery’s free one-room shows but had been over-inflated.
The genesis seems to have been the fact that Lucien Freud left some of his personal collection to the nation, in gratitude for England having sheltered his family in the 30s, although I noted that his will was contested in the courts by one of his children and that the donations were in lieu of inheritance tax too.
Whatever the motivation, the nation as a whole has benefited from a fiery Corot portrait (on the poster) and a delightfully vague and abstract Desgas sculpture, and the first room is a semi-recreation of Freud’s drawing room, Corot in the centre, Desgas and Cezanne to one side, and some of his own paintings dotted between showing, with varying degrees of interest, how the older pieces allegedly inspired the new.
The rest of the show was rather clumsily expanded to show Desgas’ reverence for Delacroix and Manet (a good deal of it repeating the recently closed Delacroix exhibition the National Gallery had shown earlier this year, making visitors pay twice for the same sight), a small room of Matisse/Picasso/Gaugin that repeated a Royal Academy show of about 15 years ago that had resulted in the RA offering 24-hour viewings to accommodate the visitor flow, but this time without having the space to trace Matisse and Picasso’s developments artistically or make any point other than the fact they knew each other socially, another room that felt like it had been petitioned for by two niche galleries (the Watts gallery and Leigton House) – again, easily accessible at a lower price and in more interesting surroundings – and finally a gathering of Baroque and Renaissance Italian art owned by former Royal Academicians Reynolds and Lawrence, which allowed the show to remind us that the collections of these men’s patrons formed the nucleus of the National Gallery.
Comparative exhibitions, like comparative history, are the hardest to pull off with any depth and real insight. In the art world this approach been very much in fashion in recent years: sometimes done well (the National’s autumn show last year on the art dealer who promoted the Impressionists), sometimes badly (the current Georgia O’Keefe show at Tate that reads like a duller version of a biography; yes, she knew lots of people, so what?). Here it feels like a cynical exercise to bolt together much of the main collection and charge a fee. As a final insult, postcards which would normally cost 60p in the shop upstairs have been removed so they can be sold here at £1 a go.
Maybe this is the only way the gallery can keep afloat financially in a world where their leaking roof is sitting literally directly above Monet’s waterlilies (though they should learn from their neighbours at the Coliseum that endless runs of Madam Butterfly may not be enough to save you); maybe it was a training exercise for young curators who were each given one to two rooms to do without any editorial overview. Either way I was glad the Art Fund card prevented me from paying full price. Not recommended – next time I’ll stick to the main galleries, which are superb.