Friday, March 20, 2009

Van Dyck at Tate Britain

For all the marvellous brushwork, there's something quite repellent about these seventeenth century aristocrats and courtly hangers-ons on display at the Tate. The reason lies not so much in the expensive clothes as the body language: the stuck-out elbows and the knowing looks that express both pride and, by implication, a vague disdain for the onlooker.

The catalogue tells us that this half-turned-away pose, invented by Van Dyck, was much imitated by his contemporaries as well as by later artists. Considered an improvement on the stiff full-frontals of the Elizabethan era, to my mind it merely reinforces the expression of aloofness.

Van Dyck painted wealthy courtiers at a time when upper-class clothes were flamboyantly theatrical. He was, as excellent audio guide discloses, a genius at depicting 'flesh and fabrics'. His habit of consorting with royalty gave him plenty of opportunity to play to his strengths. He spent a few months in England in 1620-21, getting to know potential customers and gathering commissions, before leaving for Italy. He returned in 1632 , was given a knighthood and appointed by Charles I as court painter. A big house and appropriate income went with the position.
As he was the son of a Flemish silk merchant, it's not surprising that there are yards and yards of the highly-cloured shiny stuff on display, set off by Flemish lace cuffs and collars, satin-lined sleeves and soft leather boots. Another innovation ascribed to Van Dyck was the double portrait, not of married couples but of friends, usually male. One of the fanciest canvases shows a pair of cavaliers, typical of the young earls and dukes who formed factions or early gangs, based on shared hobbies and enthusiasms.

The famous painting of Charles I on horseback has a wall to itself, the riding-teacher standing by to hold his hat and gaze with upturned eyes. Van Dyck charged wives and mistresses of courtiers £60 for a full length portrait, although parts of the canvas must have been completed by apprentices. Art experts have calculated that the painter couldn't have been solely responsible for his studio's enormous output over the eight years of his life that remained after his return.

There's no evidence here that Van Dyck even noticed England had any poor people. The only servant depicted is a young Indian boy, dressed as smartly as any liveried flunkey and pointing out a parrot in a tree to a pioneer expat Englishman.

Van Dyck's strength as a painter was, as the audio guide has it, 'flesh and fabrics' and there's any amount of dress material here to prove it, not to mention rosy complexions and curled locks. There's even a case with an example of a costume lent by the V&A and a facsimile of Van Dyck's will. The curators make a case for Van Dyck's influential role in the history of portrait-painting, an argument supported by examples of from earlier as well as later times. His work was not intended for the common gaze, which was perhaps just as well. Many of the individuals shown in all their finery were killed fighting on the royalist side in the civil war or, like the king, were executed. After an hour or so of exposure to their supercilious glances, that particular bit of news, conveyed by the audio-guide, didn't upset me.

Van Dyck Exhibition:

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