Where's the orgy, then?

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema painted the daily lives of the ancient Greeks and Romans in all their naked splendour. But not even a Victorian could have been shocked.
At an art bookshop where I worked once there was a very regular customer. A seedy-looking man, he turned up about twice a week, always and only to inquire - furtively but as a matter of some urgency - whether the Alma-Tadema book had come in yet. I think it never did, and he got to be treated rather wryly, not just for his persistence, but because it seemed likely that his evidently pressing need was of a pretty obvious sort.

That may have been unfair. Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema does have a reputation as a light pornographer, and it's not groundless. There are pictures like Tepidarium, probably his best-known painting, with its naked Roman maiden flaked out full-length in a bath-house, an ostrich-feather fan just concealing (while standing in for) her pubic hair, and if that sort of delicate suggestiveness in an antique setting is your cup of tea, no contemporary skin-magazine will do the same job. But there aren't many of his pictures like that. If this was what the customer had in mind, he was in for a let down.

A larger view of Alma-Tadema's work shows an artist whose interest in antiquity goes beyond its erotic potential, and a larger view is what you have with the show at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. The exhibition comes from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, reminding one that Alma-Tadema was born Dutch - christened Lourens in 1836 - and only moved to London in his mid-thirties because London proved the better market for his speciality: meticulous reconstructions of the life of ancient Greece and Rome. He produced prolifically, changed his tune very little, and prospered.

He's never been without fans - perfectionism never is - and the Walker's rooms had a large and absorbed attendance last Friday. Of course, by his death in 1912, smart taste was moving far from this sort of thing, but in recent years it has been turning back, lending at least a more sympathetic eye to artists left behind by the usual story of modern art. I think it's hard now for us to be as interested as his contemporaries were in what was a big point of pride for Alma-Tadema: archeological authenticity. He kept up with recent research, made his own investigations of the ancient sites and collected photos of them, so that every bit of furniture and architecture in his scenes, every hairdo, may be sourced and footnoted. But I don't deny that he is in several ways an intriguing painter.

For one thing, his subjects are so down-beat. He doesn't do mythology or heroic history, but almost always everyday life. Even when his topics are famous, his treatment is intimate. Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to His Friends: what a great subject, the most elevated Western artwork at its Private View, the guests milling around on the scaffolding, the sculptor looking modest and the marbles authentically coloured. Or you have Hadrian in England: Visiting a Roman-British Pottery, a sort of archeological joke, with the artefacts that later turned up as buried shards seen at the point of original manufacture. Alma-Tadema is always keen to show that antiquity once was new.

What's more, he stresses the everyday "foundness" of his stories with some striking compositions. Scenes are viewed off-centre and at odd angles. Often a bit of background is glimpsed through a door or behind a wall and then suddenly cut off by the pictures edge. He has a penchant for continuing perspective-construction below floor level, as in the Phidias, where you get a view down through the scaffolding. And then there is Alma- Tadema's sheer perfectionism, his painstaking rendering of texture and illumination, with never a wrong touch, but getting in some bold colours too: this can't but be impressive.

And yet... he is a dull artist. Dullness in art is always difficult to demonstrate, you have to prove negatives; and it's not simply avoidance of high drama that's the trouble. Perhaps the point can be made by saying that it would be almost impossible to take a camp or ironic pleasure in Alma-Tadema. That may be surprising. High Victorian classicism sounds like an ideal candidate, an occasion for artifice, fantasy and all sorts of turbulent sub-texts - cruelty and eroticism that are overt but not properly conscious. And looking at Alma-Tadema's work, you feel you ought to be able to say, "wonderfully over the top!" or "does he really mean to be as saucy as he seems?". The curious thing is, you can't.

Nothing here is in excess. Everything in on the level. Tepidarium is erotic, but not more erotic than it clearly intends. There are several scenes of amorous dalliance or reverie, but they don't let anything slip through their surface story. Alma-Tadema never tips you the wink. He is a master of the anti-expressive face, whose sober neutrality always offers less than you might try to read in it. And this is never so clear as when the subject seems extremely promising.

The Vintage Festival, for instance, and again A Dedication to Bacchus, have scenes which in other hands could be orgies. The ancient historians provide a warrant for this, and there's obviously something exciting about debauchery that is also an official rite. And what does Alma-Tadema give? Pipes are blown, torches waved, tambourines banged and rather elegant eurhythmic poses are struck. But these remain Bacchanals as they might be organised by the Anglican Church or The English Folk Song and Dance Society. Perfect decorum is maintained.

And, you might think, surely then in the sheer understatement of it there must be something a bit fey - a sense of languorous charade to have fun with. But no. You look for a cue, some just too melting or droopy expression, and you look in vain. The torch-bearing girl at the head of the Vintage procession is simply a nice, solid girl doing her torch-bearing job. It really is remarkable how Alma-Tadema controls his imagination or has no imagination to control, so that even when his topic is obviously decadent, when decadence is its whole point, he simply won't do it. The Roses of Heliogabalus shows an incident from the life of the notorious late Emperor. He dropped an enormous load of rose petals on to his court, suffocating some of them. Could you stage this subject without a hint of sado-masochism? Alma-Tadema could. What takes all the attention is that he has filled a full third of this large canvas with pink petals, each one perfectly rendered.

The problem is partly that while Alma-Tadema had a keen interest in the past, he had no sense of history. He doesn't feel that the ancients were better or worse, more civilised or more savage than his own contemporaries. They had different customs, different clothes, hairstyles, buildings and furniture, but they were sober, homely, normal people who one might pass the time of day with. Archaeology is all you need. It's just a matter of putting the clock back on the accessories, and the past is brought alive.

And it isn't, or course. For in his reconstructions every period feature is presented in mint condition, straight from the catwalk or the catalogue. His objects are ideal museum pieces, perfectly preserved. Look at the elaborate chariot in Entrance to a Roman Theatre, and look at the street it's parked in. Those wheels never trundled, those flagstones never saw traffic. In this world, marble is never chipped nor pots cracked nor silver tarnished, as if the usual attrition of life was something that only happened later. It is worth saying that the ancient world was once new. But to suggest that it was always brand new is another sort of falsehood.

This connects with a further problem, probably more damaging because it goes to the heart of Alma-Tadema's painting and what he valued in it. His perfectionism, his fanatical sense of detail - these things are essentially deflective. His hard-studied representation of the physical world aims at getting the look exactly right, to strike the eye with its perfection and wealth of detail, and then turn the eye away. It smooths things over. It invites no further attention after its first impact. It designs to make the world unobtrusive - quite the opposite to the Pre-Raphaelite sense of detail, and quite deliberate I'm sure. It's all part of Alma- Tadema's rigorously normalising vision. Astonishing, in a way, that he could pull it off without the faintest blip: but as a view of dead cultures it can only make then deader stilln

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool (0151-207 0001). To 8 June

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