Canaletto and his Rivals – The National Gallery
The opening of the Canaletto show at the National Gallery, London, coincided with my own at the Portland Gallery, London. Rachel Campbell-Johnson at The Times trashed the former in a pre-review saying ‘Don’t see the show, buy the postcards’. Harsh, I thought. The implication was that Canaletto’s paintings were little more than souvenirs churned out for the itinerant milords on their Grand Tour, images of Venice to adorn the walls of their stately homes. True in part possibly – market forces have always existed in art, but that condemnation rather misses the point. Canaletto and his followers are entirely responsible for the global immortality of Venice and it’s huge popularity today.
Canaletto worked during the last decades of the Republic, the heyday of La Serenissima portraying a glorious, ceremonial and at times languid paradise of cities. We do not see the squalor, discomfort and poverty of the time – the truth of actuality. But art is not necessarily about truth. Instead we see a triumphant vision which has lured all those who tramp in pilgrimage to this outlandish city believing it to have been the truth. It was of course no more true than his beguiling perspectives, contrived for pictorial effect – the wide-angle vision, the camera obscura. They are glorious paintings nevertheless, from a fashion which spawned the ‘vedutisti’, the painters who documented (accurately or not) the great cities of history in order to colour our judgement and to furnish our nostalgia. Postcards maybe, but they changed the course of 18th century art history.
Canaletto and his rivals – Vanvitelli, Guardi and Bellotto – gave us our vision of how Venice should look, just as Constable set the benchmark for English landscape or Hubert Robert described ancient Rome: romantic, utopian and largely untrue. Today we see Venice though the eyes of others, be they Canaletto, Turner, Whistler, Seago. ‘That’s Sargent’s view’ we exclaim looking at the Rialto Bridge.
Today every view has been portrayed before; by the good, the bad, and the frankly awful. On almost every bridge in Venice there stands some amateur attempting a watercolour, inspired by the images of the past, in some vain hope that the subject alone will render the painting a success, regardless of ability. Some succeed, many do not.
As tourists we yearn for Venice to look how Canaletto portrayed it, with elaborate processions transported in shiny black and gold gondolas over milky blue water with little silver wavelets. It’s almost there today, the gondolas, the couples in embroidered silks selling concert tickets, the occasional hearse on the Grand Canal. But where is the hideous plague which killed over half the population twice in a century? Where is the seedy squalour of Casanova? Or the languid decadence of Byron or Thomas Mann? Canaletto disinfected all that, just as Constable ignored the truth of the rural deprivations of industrial revolution Britain. The carefully crafted vision of Canaletto has given us a benchmark to aspire to. Instead of his processing citizens we see hoards of twittering orientals photographing each other in front of the scaffolded wraps of the Bridge of Sighs emblazoned with advertisements for expensive handbags. We see streets thronged with crowds of the multinational middle-prosperous buying tourist tat, and bridges colonized by African itinerants selling counterfeit leather goods, darting into the alleys like startled rabbits when the gamekeeper appears. Canaletto wouldn’t paint any of this. Nor do I. Nor does anyone.
Our vision aspires to higher standards than the truth. Art forms the truth, not vice-versa. Our nostalgia for, say, the unspoilt Roman campagna might form the lament over suburban development proposals, but our vision of it is based on the views painted by Claude Lorrain as an imaginary Arcadian setting for a mythological tale. A long way from the truth both historically and geographically – Arcadia was nowhere near Rome – but effectively embedded nevertheless. Then we take the influence even further and examine Capability Brown who, inspired by Claude’s paintings, created landscapes in the English countryside to mimic the art of the painter. Which is the truth now? The hills and lakes of Milord’s park or the Roman campagna? The answer is of course both, thanks to the power of art.
In my own work I turn to Venice as an embodiment of the elements which excite me: namely the juxtaposition between architecture and water, between the deliberately manmade and the unpredictably natural. For the same reason I also paint beautiful yachts racing. I write just after another huge acqua-alta has besieged Venice, inflicting yet more damage to the fabric of the city. Like the contemplation of ruins, painting Venice is an exploration of the fragility born of this elemental juxtaposition. In the fragility of the present we see the possible futility of the future. Or the victory. The art is in the balance of the two – failure or success, the beauty is suspended in the dichotomy. A portrait of a beautiful woman exists not as a reminder of the inevitability of transience, of eventual death, but as a celebration of the present for as long as it lasts. If it were not in fact true, how much would you, the viewer, like it to be true? You have to believe.
Canaletto painted the beauty of a life that may never have existed, before or since. Yet his images cause the viewer to aspire to something above mere existence. That is why his paintings became the ‘must-have’ of the time, and that is how market forces earned him and his followers a successful business. Is that any more of a crime than Giovanni Bellini churning out Madonna and Child paintings for hungry patrons? Or Damien Hirst manufacturing butterflies stuck in wet paint. No, I think not.