The Wall Street Journal gives us a travelogue of London’s museums by Tom Freundenheim where he tries to relate two disparate shows through the idea of the cultural transformations caused by outsiders . . . or something like that. But we’re just happy to have an excuse to run a magnificent van Dyck picture and marvel at his skill as a painter:
It would be easy to misread the beautiful van Dyck exhibition as one more way in which our culture celebrates power and celebrity, since most of the sitters exude the kind of self-assurance that comes with position. But the Tate Britain exhibition, assembled by curator Karen Hearn, really wants us to look at portrait painting in Britain, and how it was transformed forever by a visiting painter.
Working our way from the British Robert Peake’s exquisite yet stiff and self-conscious portrait (c. 1606) of a young Princess Elizabeth, the daughter of King James I, to the glory of van Dyck’s “Charles I on Horseback with M. de St. Antoine” (1633), we see the ways in which the Flemish painter used paint not just for the glory of the king but for our delectation as well. Silks and satins, hair and jewels, along with the occasional props, move effortlessly across these canvases. While one may be drawn into the anecdotes that bring the sitters to life, what draws us into the canvases has more to do with painting than biography.
The exhibition includes items of clothing much like those in some of the portraits, and in one of the fascinating essays in the catalog Christopher Breward deconstructs the meaning of some of the fashions and stances shown in these paintings.
This is an exhibition about diving into an almost endless pool of painting, but the artist being celebrated is almost outclassed by one of the first works on display here: “The Apotheosis of James I” (1628-30). One of Peter Paul Rubens’s oil sketches for the famous ceiling of the Banqueting House at Whitehall, it was recently acquired by the Tate. With this work, van Dyck’s famous teacher almost steals his pupil’s thunder, even while underpinning the argument that Flemish artists changed British portraiture.
Contemporaries a World Apart (Wall Street Journal)