Painting Family: The De Brays, Master Painters of 17th Century Holland
Dulwich Picture Gallery, until 5 October
Cecil Collins — A Centenary Exhibition
Monnow Valley Arts Centre, Middle Hunt House, Walterstone, Nr Abergavenny, Herefordshire, until 14 September
I must say I admire museums and galleries that put on exhibitions devoted to the revival of lost reputations, in other words to a genuine spirit of reassessment. In these revenue-dominated days, exhibition organisers are driven increasingly in the direction of guaranteed best-sellers, and the crop of predictable subjects on the gallery circuit grows apace. So it is refreshing to be greeted by a relatively unknown name, and have a whole exhibition attached to it. I am an admirer of Dutch painting of the Golden Age — within certain limits. I can quickly surfeit on a diet of richly detailed still-life paintings and genre scenes. In a mixed exhibition, the Dutch tend to fare worst. In last week’s review of Love, the summer display at the National Gallery, for instance, the Dutch contingent didn’t get a look in, though in passing I was interested to note that the pale profile of Leah in Hendrick Ter Brugghen’s ‘Jacob reproaching Laban’ was strongly reminiscent of Balthus. At Dulwich, the focus is squarely on the Dutch once again.
Dulwich is keen to mount exhibitions of Dutch painters — in the past they’ve done splendid shows of such masters as Pieter de Hooch and Adam Alzheimer — but this time the subject is somewhat more recherché. The de Bray family consisted of four painters: the three brothers Jan, Dirck and Joseph, and their father Salomon. They were something of a dynasty in their own time, a successful workshop of Catholic painters, with Salomon working also as an architect. Dulwich calls Jan de Bray (c.1627–97) ‘the most important painter in Haarlem in the second half of the 17th century’, but that alone is no guarantee of greatness. How do these painters stand up today? There is, after all, fierce competition from all the other Dutch. And just why, if the de Brays are so good, have they been practically forgotten?
The show begins with Salomon, and gives a mixed impression from the start. In the first room there’s an arresting half-nude from the Louvre called ‘A bathing woman combing her hair’ (c.1630). Pale-fleshed and rosy-cheeked, she is arranged around a dynamic profiled form of angled arms. All well and good, and yet nearby hangs an awful little painting of St John on Patmos, sentimental and horribly drawn. Then there’s ‘Judith and Holofernes’, which seems to depict a calm-looking serving wench with ribands in her hair and a decapitated head in her lap. The drama of the subject is so down-played the ornate cloak she wears is given more prominence than her ghastly deed. Very odd.
The second room moves swiftly on to Jan de Bray who is obviously billed as the hero of the piece. In ‘A girl with a dove and a boy’, the neurasthenic girl fixes us with a hopeless stare while showing off her pet dove. The multicoloured feathers in the girl’s hair echo the tints in the bird’s breast, but the whole thing is terribly twee. Jan is supposed to be famed for his painting of children, but his speciality lets him down here. ‘Leda shows her daughter’ is ludicrously out of proportion. More impressive is another ‘Judith and Holofernes’, with the whiskery villain out for the count in drunken slumber, about to receive the coup de grâce. But by and large, the biblical and mythological scenes are stilted and sentimental. The best painting in this section is the double portrait of Jan’s parents, Salomon and Anna: unidealised, dignified and deeply moving.
Room 5 features Joseph and Dirck de Bray and is the best so far, with a group of flower paintings which come as a relief after so many clumsy figure compositions. But these still-lifes (even Dirck’s rabbit and falcon and Joseph’s pickled herrings) are overshadowed by the paintings in the last room — the group portraits of the regents and regentesses of the alms houses and hospitals by brother Jan. Here are four paintings which really invite comparison with Franz Hals. (This seems to be the aim of the whole exhibition.) They are not as fine as Hals, but they’re remarkably good nonetheless. I particularly liked the earliest: ‘Regents of the Children’s Almshouse in Haarlem’ (1663), greyer and more mysterious than the rest. In the middle of the group hangs a rather overblown and melodramatic historical subject, ‘The Judgment of Zaleucus’, emphasising the worst points of the de Brays — their facility and industry notwithstanding.
So a revealing show, and only good in parts. The gallery was almost empty when I was there (cruel August, no doubt). Painting Family is not a great exhibition but it is redeemed by its last room, and it certainly deserves more attention. Definitely worth a visit, if only to hone one’s powers of discrimination.
The work of Cecil Collins (1908–89) is of another order altogether. Collins was part shaman and part showman, both in a very English way (not to be confused with the continental antics of a Joseph Beuys, for instance), and a visionary painter of some power. There are those who devalue his art because they deprecate his seigneurial behaviour (what’s wrong with a penchant for rich lady students?) and question his sincerity. There are others who say he stole all his best ideas (notably the whole concept of the Fool) from his wife Elisabeth. This is blatant nonsense, though I’ve no doubt that the gentle and talented Elisabeth was a constant support and inspiration to him. I first saw images by Collins 30 years ago and their strange magic made an instant appeal which has not only lasted but was even confirmed by the interview I conducted with the artist in 1988. At his best, Collins was an original, an English mystic who made images of potent beauty.
This is the last chance to see a Centenary Exhibition of Collins’s work at Monnow Valley Arts Centre. His work depicts a world of angels and envisioned souls, radiant energies and hope. That considerable poet and Blake scholar, Kathleen Raine, stated that: ‘His paintings are icons, for they are informed by spiritual presence, he has penetrated into a luminous world of archetypal forms. The purpose of Cecil Collins’s work is anamnesis, the awakening of imaginative reflections: he is a painter of the lost paradise.’ These are landscapes of the heart, visions of other levels of consciousness. Collins could draw with great authority (see his pen and ink ‘Hymn’ of 1944), but his images are evocative rather than recognisably descriptive. His characters pursue their spiritual quests. The fool is a pilgrim and the pilgrim is a poet and the world is full of poetic possibilities. In the lunatic hurry of our daily lives, it’s not a bad idea to pause for contemplation. Cecil Collins offers good reason for doing just that.