Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist

Richard Dadd At The Watts Gallery, Compton

If you've only seen the Fairy Feller's Masterstroke in reproduction you probably think of it as a large painting. Wall-sized. How else could all that detail be accomodated? In fact it's tiny- 54 x 39.5 cm. You have to get up very close to see everything that's going on in it. The same goes for Contradiction- Dadd's other fairy masterpiece- which is fairly swarming with mischievous, hyperactive homunculi.

Dadd was mad. I think the modern diagnosis would be paranoid schizophrenic, but I prefer mad; it has more dignity. He killed his father- mistaking him for the devil- and assaulted a fellow traveller on a French diligence- and most of his adult life was spent in mental institutions- first the Bethlem Hospital (Bedlam) then Broadmoor. He was a competent artist before they locked him up but became an extraordinary one inside. Cue discussion- endlessly renewed but unlikely ever to get anywhere- on the relation between madness and genius.  He spent years working on his major paintings. One supposes he escaped into them, lost himself among the hordes. The Fairy Feller was never finished- and I suspect he dragged it out on purpose, believing that the gates of fairyland would remain open to him for as long as some portion of the canvas remained uncovered.

The exhibition at the Watts Gallery is small but choice. The Fairy Feller and Contradiction are both here- as is the painting of a campsite in the Arabian desert that turned up- sensationally- on the Antiques Road Show in the late '80s; it now belongs to the British Museum. Dadd was petted by his keepers and took commissions from them. Among these less personal works there's an intense- almost sane- portrait of a young man who might be one of the Bedlam doctors and a set of watercolour drawings of "the Passions"- my favourite of which- illustrating "patriotism" shows two gnarled old pensioners with clay pipes pouring over a military despatch which chronicles- with maps and in tiny but legible simulated print-  the campaigns of General Popgun.

You leave the Dadd exhibition and go out into the main galleries- which are full of the grand, mythological, symbolical imaginings of the Victorian master G F Watts. Nomally I'm a great admirer and partisan of Watts, but after exposure to Dadd his stuff seemed just too conscious, too calculated; he had thought too much about what he was doing. Dadd on the other hand gives us the unfettered human imagination. It doesn't make sense; it doesn't have to. It's totally mad- but in a good sense.
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