Since my wife started getting The Daily Telegraph regularly, I have been reading the exhibition reviews by Richard Dorment. The work of some art journalists can be looked forward to whether you agree with them or not. Waldemar Januszczak, for instance can come out with observations that are so sharp that I feel compelled to copy them into my commonplace book eg. ‘Compared with the enormous flesh fest (by Jenny Saville) the art of Rubens is a celebration of anorexia.’ Dorment, on the other hand merely irritates.
On the first day of the year I read about him waiting eagerly to see what two curators will do with the work of LS Lowry who he describes as an old bore. (See my blog Curating versus Creating.) Reviewing the mixed media show Dance around Duchamp, he made a comment about Cage’s prepared piano compositions that showed clearly that he had preconceived ideas about them. (See my blog Duchamp in Capitals.) Now with his piece on the exhibition of the work of Baroccio, Brilliance and Grace at the National Gallery, London, illustrated with a reproduction of the painter's Rest on the Flight into Egypt, he continues to annoy.
His first canard is geographical. Is the Marche, where Baroccio worked, due east of Bologna? It would be truer to say that it is due east of Florence though Urbino and Loreto which he mentions are even further south. To say that it is a region that the British have yet to discover is arrogant in the extreme. I am sure I am not the only art lover who has driven over the Mountains Of the Moon, following the Piero della Francesca trail from Arezzo to Urbino via Monterchi and Sansepolcro. And you don’t have to go there to see works by Borocci. There are works in the Uffizi, Perugia cathedral, the Vatican and the Louvre.
That Baroccio is a highly skilled painter and that his many drawings are very sensitive is undoubted but the greatest artists transcend their periods in a way that he doesn’t. I suspect that many have seen his work and passed it by, because it takes a very definite interest in religious ecstasy to stomach so much Counter-Reformation art. Dormant asks us to remember that the Virgin’s ‘ineffable sweetness is part of the picture’s meaning, since it is a characteristic assigned to her by theologicians of the Counter-Reformation.’ In Dorment’s aesthetic we have to go along with clerical dogma as well as the authority or curators.
One further nonsense: Dorment asks us to notice ‘the sole of the Madonna’s conspicuously bare foot….. it is a realistic detail that helps make the biblical story believable.’ There is nothing believable about this Rest on the Journey into Egypt. Compare it to the several versions by Rembrandt of the subject, which are eminently plausible. Barocci’s work is all fluttery garments in bright blue, red and yellow with spotless white, hardly desert-journey attire.