Notes on the Gainsborough exhibition at the MFA

Went to the Thomas Gainsborough exhibition last night at the MFA. I must admit I wasn’t madly keen on going. Of all the eras in art, Gainsborough’s has got to be among the most blah. He was a passable portrait artist, it’s true (of note are his scrumptious Blue Boy and An Officer of the Fourth Regiment of Foot), but certainly no better than Reynolds. The fact that he was the It Boy of portraiture in swinging eighteenth-century Bath tells you there wasn’t much else going on in the neighborhood at the time.

Even elsewhere in the world for the bulk of the eighteenth century there was nothing to get too excited about as far as the arts were concerned, except maybe the Rococo Movement in France and the Neoclassical rebellion against it everywhere else. Revolution, Restoration and Romanticism came late in the century, of course, and overturned and overshadowed what came before, so that when we look back, the early- to mid-eighteenth century seems timid, uninspired, and actually terribly unsexy by comparison. There was a lot of foment early in the century, of course, a lot was about to happen, but Gainsborough wasn’t in on any of it, as far as I can see.

His early portraits are almost naïve. Which makes sense, as he was a poor boy from Suffolk with little formal training. Awkward and folksy, the early portraits bear next to no resemblance to his technically flawless later works, in which a premium is placed on likeness. He gained his amazing facility for painting faces partly from painting full-scale copies of works by Anthony Van Dyck, the 17th-century Flemish painter, and his landscapes allude to the Dutch idylls of the previous century, too. His entire oeuvre, in fact, shows a kind of harkening back, a nostalgia, that is sometimes sincere and other times, as with his Blue Boy, a bit cynical. One thing is for sure, if in the beginning Gainsborough was naïve, by the end he had learnt the lucrative art of marketing. His society portraits pander to the elite of Bath, and his ‘fancy pictures of rural life’ do, too. His Cottage Girl with Dog and Pitcher is pure sentimental fabrication of rural poverty for his rich clientele.

For me, at least, Gainsborough’s work is particularly uninspired and uninspiring. He is much beloved in England to this day because his portraits seem to—seem to—show a vanished world in which the English behaved themselves with a little dignity. Relative to how people behave today maybe. Even when he portrayed them a bit saucily, as he did in his portrait of Mrs. Philip Thicknesse, nee Anne Ford (the subject is seated with legs crossed in what at the time was considered a manly fashion, but would now be considered effeminate) they look more dignified than the modern-day freaks now populating that wretched, god-forsaken island. The fact is, Gainsborough’s real claim to fame, and the reason he has remained revered is that he was a chronicler of emergent empire. His portraits were the products of a new luxury culture in which a rising mercantile class sought all the fineries previously reserved for royalty. According to the London Magazine of 1773:

"The constitution of this country, from the effeminacy of our manners, and from the luxury of our entertainments, seems not to rest on a permanent foundation. True nobility now consists in splendid titles, gay equipage, and princely palaces ..."

while a rampant `middle class' sought `to acquire respect and esteem from the vulgar.' And Bath was one place they came to do it. As one novelist of the time (Tobias Smollett) had it:

"... Clerks and factors from the East Indies, loaded with the spoil of plundered provinces; planters, negro-drivers, and hucksters, from our American plantations ... agents, commissaries, and contractors ... usurers, brokers and jobbers of every kind ... [men of] low birth [who] hurry to Bath because here, without any further qualification, they can mingle with the princes and nobles of the land."

It’s little wonder his portraits resonate for some today.

Basically, Gainsborough was the Herb Ritts of mid-seventeenth century England. He was a skilled schmoozer and society painter. And just like in the 1980s having your portrait snapped by Ritts meant you’d arrived, the same was true, in the 1780s, of having your portrait painted by Gainsborough. Both men were indisputably talented, maybe or maybe not principally in art. Only when the memory of the celebrities Ritts snapped have been obliterated will anyone know for sure the value of the portraits themselves. Is his portrait of Madonna as a mouseketeer a masterpiece? That’s really the question with Gainsborough now. His portraits are of very limited appeal to the general public, except as either executions of technical skill or glimpses into a bygone historical era. Which is precisely what made the exhibition such a big yawn.

So the exhibition didn’t really change my mind about anything, though it did reveal in Gainsborough one of the great animal-portraiture artists of his time. Along with his contemporary George Stubbs. John James Auduban comes to mind, too. But he was born three years before Gainsborough’s death. And Auduban was not an artist in the same sense Gainsborough was. He was a naturalist with an amazing facility for art on a scientific mission to catalogue the birds of America. Gainsborough wasn’t so much interested in birds. Whenever the composition allowed, he incorporated dogs into his work. He wasn’t the one who painted all those pictures of dogs playing poker (left), though. That was Cassius Marcellus Coolidge who was born six years before Audubon’s death (is there a pattern emerging here?). But, for Gainsborough the dogs may simply have been another accoutrement, along with the jewelry and gowns, the medals and musical instruments, meant to show his subjects’ place in society. Just as today, if you take a walk downtown in any fashionable neighborhood you find people parading their dogs up and down the sidewalk. Their dogs are as much advertisements for who they think they are, or how they would like to be perceived as they are dogs.

We opted for the audio tour, by the way. At the end of the exhibition, you can sign a visitor’s register with your comments. One visitor had just written about how having to listen to other people’s headphones was distracting, but she—the handwriting looked like it belonged to a she—was just being snooty. It’s pathetic how people have to prove to themselves that they’re better than somebody else (and everybody else if at all possible) by making a fuss over things like this.

I couldn’t resist writing next to her entry: ‘you would not have heard our headphones if you had been wearing a pair yourself.’ I mean, let’s be solution-oriented. All this bitch wanted was for everybody who read it to know that she—whoever she was—was better than them, was a real art-appreciator, not some headphone-wearing philistine. But what makes her any better than anyone else just for not wearing the bloody headphones? And who the hell cares anyway? That’s kind of what it boils down to. And what good does it do to write something nasty in the guest register?

I mean, first of all, the museum makes five bucks a pop over and above the cost of admission on the audio tours. So if you really like art, that’s money well-spent, isn’t it? Secondly, the audio tours are in different languages. Before the technology came along, there’d be an actual tour guide making a lot more noise than those headphones were. Thirdly, other people are already an annoyance in the gallery, bumbling around, bumping into you, walking in front of you, blocking your view of the pictures—the fact that you can hear the murmur of tiny voices from their headphones is just a drop in the bucket when you think about it. And if you’re such a hot-shit art maven, I guess you’d have known all that before you forked over twenty bucks for your ticket, wouldn’t you?

People are very snobbish when it comes to art, of course, but who the hell cares when it’s a Thomas Gainsborough exhibition? I mean it’s more history of art than art, really. And anyway, the environment is totally artificial, the set-up itself is a distraction. An art gallery or exhibition hall is not a library. Not now, and not in Gainsborough’s day, either. Why should you stop at just looking? Why not take the audio tour, where you can hear music from the same place and time as the pictures, and get all sorts of little tidbits they don’t write on the little plaques on the wall next to the paintings? Why not? What’s wrong with it?

And bless the Lindas’ little hearts, they really were trying. I suppose I have grown comfortable enough with art to be able to say I don’t know what it is, but I know what I like. I’m not too intimidated by it, at any rate. But people are. Especially when you make a big scary deal out of it like they do at the MFA. You charge people all that money—I mean, twenty bucks a head?—and you have to present it to them like it’s something pretty posh. And if they don’t understand it, they know it must be worth it. It’s like nuveau cuisine. You pay fifty bucks a head for dinner and they serve you a hotdog you’re gonna be pretty upset, but if they come out with a piece of Asiago D'Allevo on a leaf of Krizet suddenly it’s worth it.

Afterwards we wandered through some of the other galleries, The Impressionists were cramped together in a tiny room. Degas had a chamber of his own the size of a water closet. I have to say I was enormously impressed with Degas, an artist who has always annoyed me—or I should say, the marketing of Degas has focused on those little ballerinas, and they have always annoyed me. You’d think all he ever did was lurk around the dance studio leering at the little ballerinas from the way he’s been marketed. But his sketches are sublime. The pages of his sketchbooks reveal a keen eye and a big heart. At any rate, I much prefer his sketches from the brothels to anything he ever did at the ballet.

In a hallway crammed with art (thank the gods there will soon be a huge new extension built, although I doubt they’ll devote all that much space to the actual art – they’re spending millions on chichi restaurants and huge empty open spaces)—in the hallway was a Piazzetta I quite liked. Piazzetta had a foot fetish, I’m sure of it. He did feet better than almost anyone.

On our way out we passed another Chuck Close. This wasn’t in a gallery, it was out in the big foyer down the way from the coat check and the gift shop. And once again it was hung to totally neutralize the effect it was painted for. Chuck Close is, and has always been, a Photorealist. The Gee-Whiz thing about Chuck Close’s work—I mean, every painting he’s painted since he was paralyzed in 1988—is that close up it looks totally abstract, but from several meters back it all comes together, looks like a photograph. Except if you happen to have the misfortune of seeing it at the BMFA.


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