||[Oct. 25th, 2011|11:27 am]
the full Van Dyck experience he'd give it them- columns and urns and all- but when he could- with more amenable, more sympathetic clients- he liked to experiment, to try new poses, new ways of expressing character and relationship. There had never been anything before quite like his portrait of his short-sighted friend Joseph Barretti with the book held inches from his eyes, or that profile of Johnson (without the silly wig) looking like a man with a migraine. Reynolds liked people. Sieve out his best paintings from the mass and they are good enough to share a wall with Titian or Rembrandt . Is there a better portrait of a military hard-arse than his Heathfield of Gibraltar? Or- going to the other extreme- a tenderer, more connected portrait of a friend (with benefits?) than his Nelly O' Brien (with her shadowed face moulded by reflected light)? He was particularly good with children. Before Reynolds children were stiff little adults in training; After Reynolds they are people in their own right. He puts them in their own space- out of doors, in nature, doing characteristically childlike things. He produced any number of pictures of children with dogs, and never repeated a pose or let the conceit turn into a formula. Before Reynolds every mother and child was essentially a Madonna. Reynolds would have none of that. His mothers play with their kids. I don't care what Blake said about him, Joshua Reynolds was amazing. OK, if a duke or earl wanted |
In the final analysis, though, Blake was correct and Reynolds was not. Genius cannot be taught and unless he's suffering from the divine afflatus a man slopping oil on canvas is at best engaging in a mere technical exercise. In fact, I think it arguable that the Reynolds works you cite here tend to support Blake's observations.
Also, Reynolds tended to serve the needs of power and that inevitably leaves him vulnerable to critique from a man like Blake, I think justifiably so.
I see Reynolds quite differently. I find his art genuinely humane and- in its treatment of women and children and middle-class men- implicitly democratic. Yes, he sought the patronage of those who could afford art (that is to say, the rich and powerful) but then so did Blake (only with less success).
Genius cannot be taught, but technique can. Genius needs technique if it is to express itself fully- and Blake himself was a trained artist. He and Reynolds were united in their admiration for Michelangelo and the art of the high renaissance. I love Blake dearly, but I don't see that I have to fall in behind him in the quarrel he chose to pick with Reynolds.
I don't think we're forced to choose between the two men, either. Blake's problem with Reynolds, at least according to what I've seen, was not that he was so vastly different than Blake, rather that Reynolds claimed to be different, in theory, yet in practice not so much.
The question of genius vs skill is an example of this. The side Reynolds claimed is preposterous and his own work belies the claim. More broadly, I think Reynolds downplaying the role of genius like this is just English pedagogy -- arguably, one of your greatest achievements -- insinuating itself into the field of fine art. I am reminded of the difference between literacy and intelligence.
Portraying those in power in the grand style in which they see themselves is a fine way of gaining and maintaining patronage, but it is hardly democratic and arguably quite the opposite. Pandering to the social aspirations of the English middle class doesn't seem necessarily democratic, either. This is what Reynolds did. Blake did not do these things to any appreciable degree, so far as I am aware. In fact, Blake seems to have turned at least some of his talent toward challenging the power structures of his day.
Reynolds had probably never even heard of Blake.
What Blake hated about Reynolds was that Reynolds praised Michelangelo but painted in the manner of Rembrandt and Rubens (both of whom Blake hated). Blake was a very good hater.
Reynolds gave people what they wanted- just as every artist in history had done. Michelangelo, for instance, worked for the Pope. It's only very recently that artists have gained the status to paint as they damn well pleased. Reynolds, by setting up the Royal Academy, did his bit towards establishing that status.
There exists a core of paintings in Reynolds's huge oeuvre which represent him painting to please himself.
His portraits of his friends- Johnson, Barretti, Garrick, Nelly O'Brien- come into that category, I think- and are touched by genius.