It is said that painting is an old man’s art. Goya’s final period, the black paintings, and all those great, late self portraits by Rembrandt would seem to support the theory. Yet, like test batsmen, painters can also lose form. One of the best - or should that be worst? - examples is Corot. He started his career with some very impressive classical landscapes in the manner of Claude and Poussin then graduated to beautiful country scenes with a faultless sense of tone, proto- Impressionist works at least in subject matter. Then, in his final years, his work degenerated. It became infected with a fake, silvery tonality and a sentimental atmosphere. Corot’s best work influenced Pissaro and he too lost form. Mid-career he produced a series of rather grey works and some indifferent pointillist works inspired by his younger contemporaries, only to return to his high standards in his late busy Parisian street scenes painted from high up.
I have been thinking of these ups and downs in painters’ careers because I now have a much fuller idea of the worth of the paintings in Hockney’s Bigger Picture exhibition, after seeing the TV film presented by Andrew Marr. My judgement has not been favourable. All through the programme, I was impressed by the beauty of the Yorkshire landscape, but in the photography of the camera crew. In contrast, the paintings seemed to resemble nothing so much as illustrations in books for young children. The pinks and purples I found truly awful. The impressive work, which I mentioned in my previous blog, was one of the few where they were absent.
There does seem to be a problem with the post-Post- Impressionist landscape. The contemporary painter neither wishes to produce a photographic rendering of a scene nor to compete with the French Impressionists. Something has to be delivered that is true to the theme and personal. A switch to a bright palette is no answer. A whole gang of Scottish artists deal in bright reds and oranges, as false to their subjects as Corot’s silver or Hockney’s purples. Paul Nash had successes with war-damaged territory, and others have found new imagery in industrial landscape. William Gillies could still succeed with more pastoral work by bringing out the pattern in border landscape but retaining formal strength through accurate draughtsmanship. However, if the show I saw a few weeks ago at the Scottish Gallery, presumably of late work, is anything to go by, he too lost form. He adopted the favourite tool of the truly awful croute-producer, the painting knife, which destroyed the qualities of his best work.