Turner in his grave

The moment when . . . Andrew Graham-Dixon realised that the art of the past had been relegated to the status of the Safely Historical
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Lucian Freud has hung four of his most recent paintings among the Baroque works in the Dulwich Picture Gallery. This is an extremely arrogant and an extremely brave thing for a living artist to have done: a modern painter's way of insinuating that he hasreached Old Master status, but also one that allows his public to make the necessary testing comparisons and come to their own conclusions. The exhibition is also a quiet indictment of prevailing attitudes to the great art of the past.

All four of Freud's pictures are hung around Rubens's great Venus, Mars and Cupid. The exhibition has a competitive edge to it, like a boxing match. But Lucian Freud in the grey and gritty corner versus Peter Paul Rubens in the bright, many-coloured corner is hardly an even contest. Freud is lighter and smaller and he has less reach than his opponent. His training regime has not been anything like as rigorous as it should have been. Gentle sparring with lightweights like Stanley Spencer and light-heavyw eights like Francis Bacon has not prepared him for a match-up with the big man from Flanders, who has been the full distance with men like Nicolas Poussin and Rembrandt van Rijn. The result is a first-round knock-out.

The vitality and pathos of the Rubens, its bright celebration of Venusian voluptuousness and fertility; its enigmatic addit- ional quality of melancholy in the distant gaze of Mars; the amazing free confidence with which it has been painted, especially in those feathery swipes of light reflected in Mars's shield; the bold radiance of its colour scheme - all these combine to make Freud by contrast seem a rather dismal, narrow, unsympathetic and academic artist. The impression is unfair to Freud, who is much better and more interesting than that - but that is the price a good artist must be prepared to pay if he sets himself up in competition with a truly great one. Marsyas, it may be remembered, challenged Apollo to a contest on the lyre which ended with the god skinning him alive.

The anatomies of Freud's nudes are especially unconvincing when seen beside those of Rubens: flayed, indeed, but over-emphatically livid, as if skin texture thus exaggerated might compensate for an actual absence of immediacy. Freud's perpetually distantmelancholics have become fatter and more substantial over the years: The Benefit Supervisor is a naked woman mountain slumped in exhausted boredom on her couch. Leigh Bowery, painted standing in a room that has the underwater quality of an aquarium, so that he seems vaguely and oddly reminiscent of a Damien Hirst shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde, is even more immense. But Freud's scale, like his handling, can easily seem like a form of over-compensation, a painter's way of a ttempting to make the people he has painted seem more real than he can manage by his skill with paint alone - one of the oddities of Freud's recent development is that the larger and more monumental his figures become, the more spectral and absent they s eem. His small pictures are his best pictures.

The paradox of this show is that while it makes Freud look rather old-fashioned, it makes Rubens seem tremendously modern. But although Freud comes out of it badly in that sense, in another he emerges from it with a great deal of credit. The real theme of the exhibition is passion, the curious love and hatred felt by a living painter towards a dead one - love, because there is a sense in which Freud clearly wants to be like Rubens, to paint as solidly and fleshily as he does; and also hate, because Freud's puritanical aesthetic, his profound distrust of colour, mean that it is also part of his ambition to be as unlike Rubens as possible.

Freud's passion for Rubens, which clearly has something of the obsessive about it, is both interesting and precious - because it is the kind of passion which is inseparable from the belief that dead art can still be very much alive. This is something which needs emphasis at the moment - so, for all its apparent hubris, Freud's act of useful self-sacrifice to make the point may be much more public-spirited than it at first appears.

When I saw Freud's exhibition, shortly after it opened last week, it occurred to me that it was precisely his sense of compulsion, of compelled fascination - his sense that the great paintings of the past can actually matter to people living now, can possess a living vital urgency - that had somehow gone missing, this year, from the texture of my experience in museums and galleries.

There had been many so-called Major Exhibitions, but hardly a single one that had given the impression that it had been mounted because the organisers truly believed that this art, or this artist, had a compelling message for people now. (An honourable exception would have to be the Hayward Gallery's Bonnard show, which was, perhaps revealingly, organised not by a museum professional but by a painter.) And while there were just as many exhibitions as ever devoted to the work of dead artists, nearly all of them presented that work with the unstated conviction that it was as dead as the people who had made it.

The Royal Academy's exhibition of Venetian art of the 18th century was the most blatant example of the trend; a beautiful, ambitious survey, into which an enormous amount of energy and scholarship had gone, but also a show which felt completely out of time - as if it could have taken place in any year but had just happened to take place in this one, and for no particularly pressing reason either. Perhaps 1994 was the year (it may also have been the beginning of the era) in which it became normal to regard the art of the past as simply and merely that. It was the year when the art of the past became Safely Historical - something incapable of challenging or educating or shocking or enraging or enlightening or, indeed, endangering anyone nowadays.

The most outrageously misconceived instance of this attitude, this view of the experience of art as no more than a form of mildly diverting entertainment, was the South Bank's "festival" devoted to German Romanticism. In order to make this most dangerousof all modern artistic traditions seem Safely Historical, and thus comply with 1994 aesthetic standards, the organisers of the event made believe most ingeniously that there was no connection at all between the development of Romanticism in Germany and the concurrent development of Nazi ideology.

The most depressing instance of the same attitude was the rehang of the Clore Gallery, the single crudest and most mindless installation of a great artist's work in recent memory. Turner's pictures have been double-hung on mushroom grey walls - the colour of a city gent's shirt, and one which could not have been better chosen to muddy the brilliance of Turner's pictures. One of his most remarkable works, Regulus, which depends entirely for its effect on staring the viewer in the eye with its own single-eye sun, has been hung nine feet in the air.

It is only 20 years since Lawrence Gowing took his great Turner exhibition to the Museum of Modern Art - an exhibition which made the simple, passionate point that, although he might have died in 1851, Turner was still the most adventurous and truly modern painter in the world. The ,isguided people responsible for the new Clore have almost (but only almost) achieved the impossible, by making T urner seem dull, an artist who belongs back in the past. Nothing is more damaging to a great artist than the atmosphere of genteel, stultifying veneration which currently prevails in those galleries on Millbank.

Just what it is that makes an exhibition or presentation of art seem of its time, seem important or urgent now, is a vexed question, the answers to which may only be guessed at. But I suspect that it has a great deal to do with the responses of artists themselves - if artists decide that an exhibition matters to them (as modern American painters did in 1973, in the case of Gowing's Turner show) then it is safe to say that it has a direct and, crucially, a creative influence on contemporary

culture. It may be that this is where the greatest shift in attitudes has occurred and that this is what lies behind the generally passionless quality of the modern historical art exhibition.

While it is certainly true that artists of Freud's generation are still deeply engaged with the art of the past, that is much less certainly true of artists today in their twenties or thirties, artists of my own generation - whose major sources of inspiration are often less likely to be art objects than films or television programmes, or even comics or cereal packets.

Am I the only one to have noticed that when old art is being discussed on television or on the radio, the only artists to be doing the discussing - the only artists to whom dead painters like Rembrandt or Rubens, or even recently dead painters like Picasso, seem to matter - are in their sixties or seventies? No one would dream of asking Damien Hirst or Rachel Whiteread or Michael Landy or Ian Davenport what they think about, say, Tintoretto. The assumption is that they do not care very much either way, and the assumption is probably correct. A thread may have been cut.

This does not necessarily make younger artists less profound as artists, but it does have serious implications for the way great old art is looked at and received - without the pressure exerted by artists, without their passion and sense of belief in theimportance of the art in museums, it seems almost inevitable that museums will become deader, duller places.

Perhaps the only historical exhibition that truly felt of its time, that had something of the now and the relevant about it, that was also the most sensitively and caringly hung show of the year and the one that felt most loved by its organisers - was the large Whistler retrospective at the Tate. But that is a fact with its own melancholy significance because what a tame, timid, passionless and genteel artist it proved Whistler to have been. It seems fitting that the climax of the year should have been that exhibition because it was, in effect, the apotheosis of the Safely Historical historical painter.