Why put on an exhibition? What’s the point? The term curator comes from the Latin ‘curare’, “to look after”, simply meaning to care for a group of items, including cataloguing, conservation, and by extension academic research and education.
When an exhibition is planned, the curators are tasked with moulding themselves to whatever agenda the display intends to put forward. These can fall into several categories: a new view or slant on an existing artist (e.g. upcoming Goya’s portrait survey at the National later this year – super excited about this one); new academic research, such as a newly discovered attribution; a generous loan of a number of works juxtaposed for the first time (see the National and the Louvre’s two versions of Leonardo’s Madonna of the Rocks shown together in 2011), or the RA securing a huge chunk of sensational art from Russia in 2008, seemingly just for the hell of it; a retrospective. It is the curator’s job to argue the point, all under the pressure to make it accessible, exciting, entertaining as well as educational. So when institutions like Tate Britain decide to go off-piste with some wildly waffly left-field ideas – see ‘Ruin Lust’, ‘Folk Art’, or ‘Art Under Attack’ – it takes much curatorial vigour to stop it going totally bat-crazy. It was unsurprising that Waldemar Januszczak decided enough was enough for the paying public and demanded the resignation of TB’s director Penelope Curtis.
The National has enjoyed some mega ticket sales last year with some seriously well curated blockbusters bolstered by some seriously hard core loans: Veronese and Rembrandt didn’t lazily let the paintings do all the work, but backed them up with some consistently rigorous argument and captions. So what happens when you want a blockbuster, have got a blockbuster name, but, darnit, have no loans? This is the problem facing the RA’s ‘Rubens and his legacy’, who appear to have made up for it using sheer arm-waving chutzpah: he didn’t influence just Van Dyck, but the whoooole of Western art! We’ve got some Bacons, some Freuds, even some Sarah Lucas bunny tights in there. They’re all fleshy and wobbly, right? Before you accuse me of simply scoffing at this ambitious spread of his ‘influence’, it is worth noting that the texts supporting the juxtapositions are hideously tenuous, and fluffier than if they were communicated by an interpretive dance sequence. A caption argues that Rubens’s drawings were collected by Pierre Crozat, “one of Watteau’s principal patrons. With their proficient use of black and red chalk with white heightening they most likely inspired Watteau’s ‘trois crayons’ technique”. So being collected by a collector who also has someone else’s works means that those works automatically inspire yours?! The exhibition is filled with such assumptions based on vague links: “Gainsborough may have seen Rubens’s ‘The Carters’… He was almost certainly familiar with…’Evening Lake with Timber Wagon’.” You simply cannot make such links on so tenuous ground. BUT IF YOU SAY THEM LOUDLY AND WITH DETERMINATION IT SOUNDS LIKE YOU MEAN IT.
There are some times when curators get it woefully wrong, and this I think is down to a certain tunnel vision in working toward proving a very specific end point. Many comparisons are made purely iconographically: a Constable landscape with a rainbow is placed next to a Rubens landscape also with similar rainbow. A room filled with full length three-quarter turned portraits by Rubens, Lawrence and Gainsborough, posits simply by juxtaposition that Rubens practically invented this portrait type. The whole thing is desperate to ignore the age-old assumption that Rubens’s place in art history is characterised by fleshy fat ladies and endless pink buttocks, by focusing so heavily on other abstract iconographical ideas such as ‘violence’, ‘lust’, ‘compassion’ and ‘elegance’. In doing so it misses the one bolstering element that actually helps indicate a wide reaching influence: and that is his masculine, gutsy and truly inimitable painterly style that really is as far reaching as Bacon and, well maybe, Turner. Never has an example of curation so detracted from my enjoyment of pounds of flesh ripping into other flesh, or flesh swirling improbably amongst hell or heavenly clouds (and more buttocks), and that’s saying something.