Sunday, 13 January 2013

Cotman in Normandy

Dulwich Picture Gallery, 10 October 2012 - 13 January 2013

From the Dulwich Picture Gallery website.

One for the specialists: restrained orderly landscapes that confirm that an older tradition lived alongside the Romantic revolution of the imagination. 

Supposedly the topographical representation of landscape so widespread in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe was replaced, by Cotman’s time, with a different kind of landscape depiction, more poetic than merely noting facts, and certainly imbued with greater dramatic tension. 

As this show proves, the recording of facts continued, with Cotman only mildly embellishing scenes from Norman landscapes. But it also confirms that facts are never mere when they have to be selected, and that drawing / painting etc require this throughout. 

Rather, it is the purpose and skill of the artist in selecting facts that transforms a dull topographic landscape into a masterpiece. None of the works in this exhibition are masterpieces, but some are very striking, and even the worst are picturesque, which as I understand the term means that they offer us an exotic, attractive, view. 

The exhibition has more interest for Sunday amateurs than for anyone seeking a great artistic experience, and the exhibition space cruelly tempted me with glimpses of the larger, more brilliant oil canvases hanging in the main gallery.   

This is an exhibition of quite small drawings and watercolours. They typically depict either a barren landscape, or more commonly a bustling medieval town scene from Rouen or Caen. Very few images suggest contemporary, nineteenth-century France; it was the medieval remnants that inspired the artist (and his friend Turner, also exhibited here briefly). 

This is a poor kind of inspiration, a variation on the landscape-with-ruin image that was central to the romantic oil painting of the era. But the mood is closer to the antiquarianism of the previous century, images depicting stillness (even in bustling towns), rather than intense emotion and feeling.

Mostly these are images of scenes and objects that are themselves supposed to be sufficiently exotic that they reward our interest. The contemporary Wordsworthian approach to imagination, that any scene can be infused with power if the artist is sensitive enough, is not in evidence. 

Put differently, the images depict a humanised world, one in which awe, when invoked, has its place in reminding us to find beauty in the natural landscape. The imagination is under control, whereas later, greater landscapes reveal the interaction of our imagination with the world. 

One or two images refute my claim. Two of the best are not by Cotman at all, but an idiosyncratic architect who saw beauty in the mismatch of building styles in Normandy towns. These images strongly appealed to me – all corners and strangeness, exactly how I perceive the urban space I live in. 

I don’t recall a similar image from Cotman. Rather, if the curators reflect it accurately, his trips to Normandy provided him with material that he later reworked and invested with sentimental nostalgia.

This is an aesthetic development, but not much of one, and my sense of Cotman as a minor figure best left to art historians was not altered by this show.

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