EXHIBITIONS / Strange case of the attic prints: Several big names have been found tucked away in darkest Peckham. Who collected them is a mystery, but they knew what they were doing

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BEFORE saying something positive about the South London Gallery's 'Permeations: Light in the Attic', I have to say that in my view one of its star exhibits is a fake. The show opens with a Picasso print of some kind of interior. You might date it to the 1940s, and there is a general resemblance to the master's style just after the war. But a closer look suggests that it's not by Picasso at all;

his characteristic line isn't there. So this interesting anthology begins

with a disappointment.

That apart, Maureen Paley has made an imaginative selection from the works that belong to the South London Gallery but have long been in store. Packed away upstairs in the Peckham Road building, next to Camberwell Art School, are hundreds of late Victorian watercolours and paintings, the best of which have been shown in recent years. But most of the modern prints have never been exhibited. It's not even clear who bought them. One theory is that the collection was purchased by librarians employed by the old Borough of Camberwell. There's a dingy, hand-written acquisitions book that throws a little light on such matters. One finds, for instance, that the pseudo-Picasso was bought in the Sixties (from those reputable dealers Craddock and Barnard) for just pounds 15 - a price that apparently made no one wary.

On the other hand, the librarians - or whoever - did get some good things to put in their attic: the genuinely good, or rare, or works that now seem to be treasurable curiosities. There are some routine pieces, of course. They are provided by Piper, Pasmore, Hepworth and Graham Sutherland. Perhaps one day they will be relished by connoisseurs of colour lithography of the Fifties, but at the moment I find them tame, and get more enjoyment from William Strang, represented by a drypoint self-portrait, a fine head of Chamberlain, at home in Birmingham in 1903, and by The Road to Calvary. This you might call late Pre-Raphaelitism, but it also says something about the artist's turn-of-the-century Scottish socialism.

It's good to be reminded of Strang, and one pleasure of the exhibition is in finding such neglected artists. We are also given works that show unfamiliar aspects of people we think we know well. Among the oil paintings is a piece that tells us more about Stanley Spencer, and today has a particular melancholy. It's a view of Sarajevo from the hillside above the city. Spencer went there to paint landscapes in the summer of 1922. He was attracted to the place because he'd seen photographs of its mosques and minarets in the National Geographical Magazine. There was a further reason. The photos reminded him of Macedonia, where he had served in the First World War. Spencer returned to Bosnia to do what we might call peace paintings. The unassuming Camberwell picture therefore has a special role in the development of Spencer's pastoral. Those of us who prefer his landscapes to the more dramatic figure- paintings will be intrigued. And all will feel distress at this glimpse of a bit of Europe now gone for ever. The Spencer entered the Camberwell collection in 1954 through the friendly offices of the Contemporary Art Society. The CAS involvement suggests that the gallery was quite active at that date. It hasn't been so in more recent years. In fact the place has been closed to the public for long periods, and the occasional exhibitions have been dreadful. Now there's a new regime and we can look forward to some decent shows. The original philanthropic foundation, which had the purpose of bringing art to the masses, has now turned into something else. 'The Source of Art is in the Life of a People' is the motto written into the floor of this 1893 building. Today that sounds quaint, if not ridiculous. But what would be the right slogan for 1993?

Or so I wondered when looking at the Hogarth prints of Beer Street and Gin Lane. They are the oldest works on display by more than a century, and seem to have nothing in common with the rest of the show. Could it be that some educated type from the Borough offices thought that the urban poor might benefit from examining these sententious parables? I can never understand why Hogarth is so highly rated. Apart from the tedious assumption that he can scold other people, he's such an insensitive artist. He goes wrong not so much through want of skill as through the obtuse conviction that he knows best. At least he's on the right lines about beer. I had never previously read

the accompanying verse. It starts:

Beer, happy Produce of our Isle

Can sinewy Strength impart,

And wearied with Fatigue and Toil

Can cheer each manly Heart.

Did Hogarth write this? If he did, he can't manage syntax, any more than he can understand the higher purposes of perspective. But never mind about him, for not far away are works by decadent Frenchmen, people who understood that art tells you about life but doesn't tell you how to live. Here is the suggestive Forain, with a woman tying, or untying, a young man's necktie. He also presents us with a portrait of Renoir. Degas shows us Manet; and there is also an etching by Manet himself.

Manet was one of the greatest of artists, and though the etching here simply depicts a cat and a vase of flowers, it is not a trivial work. Cats keep sidling into Manet's art, especially in the crucial period at the end of the 1860s, and one cannot help but suspect that they have some connection with his understanding of the world. One or two of his contemporary critics thought that he painted like a cat. I agree. Manet leaps effortlessly on to shelves, slips through saucers and glasses, always with the insouciant touch of genius.

Evidently he was a real cat lover and, like all true lovers of cats, Manet meditated on their self-possessed waywardness and aristocratic domesticity. He also, like Baudelaire, sensed that they had a role in the new avant-garde. Why do we know that cats are more intelligent than dogs? They do not obey orders from humans like Hogarth, for one thing (he painted cats as though he wished they were dogs). They also, unlike dogs, have secrets. But the main clue to their intelligence, Manet tells us, is in their aestheticism. The boulevardiers of animal life, they are in some measure the symbols of Manet's own art.

It's just a theory, but Maureen Paley is suggesting that many more such might be found. 'Hogarth and Degas,' she writes, 'have a mutual friend in Sickert.' I don't agree. 'Spencer, Strang and Rouault find common ground in their religious themes.' I don't agree with this either. Paley is known as a champion of conceptual art: perhaps that explains it. Anyway, the attic is now swept and on the South London Gallery's future programme are installations by Andrea Fisher and Mona Hatoum, and recent paintings by Steven Campbell. In other words, the South London Gallery may soon be like the Whitechapel, just as it was when both were founded.

'Permeations: Light in the Attic', South London Gallery, 65 Peckham Rd, SE5 (071-703 6120), to 20 June.

(Photograph omitted)