Andrew Lambirth

Evocations of London

Andrew Lambirth on dramatic contrasts in two exhibitions by the artist John Virtue

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John Virtue (born 1947) is the sixth National Gallery Associate Artist. A great deal of fuss is being made of the exhibition which marks his two-year period in residence in a basement studio. On display are the 11 new paintings he has made, several of them vast, and the show spills out from the Sunley Room into the adjacent corridors and galleries. The accompanying catalogue is a very plush affair, published in hardback (special exhibition price £12.95) and containing essays by the historian Simon Schama, Paul Moorhouse of the Tate and Colin Wiggins of the National Gallery. The current issue of Modern Painters magazine carries a laudatory article about Virtue by the National’s director, Charles Saumarez Smith. There have been colour-supplement features on Virtue’s work and he has been interviewed on radio. The publicity machine is in full flight, and extremely flattering things are being said. Interestingly enough, nowhere in catalogue or press material can I find a list of the previous incumbents of this prestigious position. Is such information not considered of general interest?

What a difference of mood 25 years ago when the first artist-in-residence, Maggi Hambling (born 1945), was appointed. There was such anxiety that the presence of a living artist actually working in this sacred hoard of Old Masters might provoke a riot that the powers that then were scarcely allowed Hambling to hold an exhibition of the work she did there, let alone publish a catalogue of it. Tenure was three months extended to six (it later became a year, before reaching the generous two-year allocation now available), and at the end of this period Hambling was only permitted ‘Drawings and Paintings on View’ rather than a proper exhibition. Nevertheless, the experience was deeply valuable and enriched her work. After that, a number of artists of varying talents were appointed, until the idea became somehow discredited or ran out of steam. Perhaps the problem lay in the choice of younger artists. Why not reinvent the position, call it something altogether more dignified and tempt more established painters to disrupt their careers to work in the context of the National’s collection? Why not even (greatly daring) invite a sculptor or two? And so it was.

The first Associate Artist was Paula Rego, whose murals still enhance the first-floor restaurant. Then came Ken Kiff, Peter Blake, Ana Maria Pacheco and Ron Mueck. The scheme is an excellent one, but surely it doesn’t have to begin with a clean slate every two years. Can’t there be some recognition of predecessors’ achievements? Encouraging contemporary artists to work with the art of the past helps to emphasise the continuity which is one of the glories of Western art, and actively contributes to the essential reinterpretation of earlier times for a modern audience. The public responds well: there’s an evident demand for contemporary interaction with the National’s great historical holdings. Hence indeed Mr Virtue’s exhibition.

Approaching through the Sir Paul Getty Entrance (from Trafalgar Square), the new lobbies and shops and lurking areas open out before the visitor. In the stairwell of the East wing hangs a massive four-panel panorama of London by John Virtue. If you crane your neck as you ascend the stairs to the Sunley Room, you will get a foretaste of the exhibition. Better, though, to wait until you can view it in comfort from the landing above. The first impression is one of high drama. The scale is impressive and there’s a sense of grandeur. But there’s something loose and unconvincing about the sky. The masses of the picture don’t knit together to produce a really powerful effect, and its energies are strangely dissipated. The immediate optical punch of this completely black-and-white image is deceptive. As you look more closely, the large sky, which aims at drama, actually falls lamentably short of meaning and even formal cohesion.

The paintings in the Sunley Room are oddly Dutch in feel (particularly in their house fronts) for what are intended as evocations of London. In this context it is hardly surprising that the Thames becomes a canal, narrowed in places to little more than a ditch. Virtue’s pitchy blacks are gashed here and there with harsh white, like stage lighting suffused with chalk dust. Specific passages are lit high: fa