Even old masters had off days

Tom Lubbock makes the refreshing discovery that, hundreds of years ago, artists were just as capable of being superficial, vacant and cynical as they are today
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Masters of Light - Dutch Painting from Utrecht in the Golden Age

National Gallery, London

It's always good to be reminded that works of art can be hundreds of years old and still be as superficial, dumb, vacant and cynical as anything made in our time.

The title evidently wants to sound like a bit of rare old posh. Masters. Golden Age. Marvellous. Quality goods. But if, encouraged by that title, you go along expecting to find yourself in the presence of greatness, think again.

These Utrecht painters are certainly of interest to art-historians (or at least to the art-historians who organised the show). The artists aren't very well known. The big names - Hendrick ter Bruggen, Dirck van Barburen, Gerard van Honthorst - are hardly household names. What's more, they're outside the bourgeois, secular-Protestant mainstream of 17th century Dutch art. They worked for a Catholic and aristocratic clientele. They did pictures with saints and classical myths and nudity. They went to Italy, and saw Caravaggio's revolutionary works, and got turned on to low-life realism and high-contrast light effects, hence "Masters of Light".

Whether they need be of interest to anyone else, whether indeed they should be called masters, is more doubtful. Those three, at least, were talented men. But what to do with those talents, they didn't really have a clue. Set them beside contemporaries - Caravaggio, Georges de la Tour, Velazquez, Ribera, Zurbaran - and the comparison would be embarrassing.

To be blunt, these aren't artists one can take very seriously. Don't get too intrigued by their relative obscurity (there may be good reason for it). We live in a time when everything must be reclaimed. We're suckers for the undiscovered masterpiece. But ancient or modern, a futile display of technique is still a futile display.

In Honthorst, for example - Gerard of the Night, as he as known - ask yourself why he paints his candle-lit night-scenes: do they have any point? Caravaggio used chiaroscuro for sudden, flash-lit revelations. De la Tour used it to create profound stillness, scenes where the candle-flame is the only thing that moves. And later, Wright of Derby used it to dramatise intellectual enlightenment. But as for Honthorst, there is no vision guiding the visuals. He can do the effects, and he does them. It's no good asking why, just as it's no good asking why he often gives his figures dolly faces and vacant grins. He just thought it was nice or something.

Tone is a general problem. Look at Barburen's The Procuress. Presumably this encounter of tart, gent and madam is meant to convey a rollicking sort of fun (a dismal enough idea), and it might do that - except that facial expression here looks like something the artist once overheard a conversation about and thought he might have a go at. And you may wonder how an artist, in some ways so expert, can in this respect be so incompetent. The answer can only be lack of interest - a total lack of interest in anything apart from his depressingly efficient representational formulas, for example the neat sculpted putty surface he gives to flesh. His subjects, everyday or mythical, mean nothing to him.

Similar criticisms apply to ter Bruggen, but he is a bigger proposition. He's not just slick like Barburen. He's a gifted artist, a rich colourist, and (especially) a virtuosic painter of flesh. He can handle it all sorts of ways, do it chalky or smoky or deeply translucent. It's a bit disgusting but it's certainly powerful, and it makes a strong showing in, say, his alleged masterpiece, St Sebastian attended by Irene, dominated by the martyr's corpse-like figure.

But when people start finding high pathos and tenderness in this picture, they're just being wishful. It isn't even sadistic. Ter Bruggen toys with being realistic about the subject (the thongs biting into the saint's wrist), then flunks it when things get tricky (that is absolutely not the way you would even think of trying to pull a deeply embedded arrow out of someone). Irene's expression is meaningless. The spatial articulation is a complete shambles. The overriding priority is texture.

If only ter Bruggen could have found a way of painting human flesh without also having to paint human beings. Human beings involved him in all those troublesome areas - anatomy, psychology, drama - that he really has no idea about at all. In The Annunciation, the fluffy wings and the gorgeous materials are beautifully done. But don't bother trying to read anything into the relationship between the angel and the virgin. The question hasn't entered the artist's head.

When he does attempt something more interactive, as in The Calling of St Matthew or The Mocking of Christ, he's clearly in foreign country. So you might think that a picture like The Fifeplayer, being static and pretty well empty of any human interest, a perfect post-card image, would be just his ticket. Even here, though, anatomical problems butt in. How is the pipe being played, like a flute or like a recorder? The two hands are placed so as to give contradictory answers. Quiet likely, ter Bruggen just hadn't noticed.

What was his metier? As I say, human flesh without human beings - in short, cannibal still-lives. That really is the solution to ter Bruggen's art, the way to put together the few things he's good at and leave out the many things he can't do. It's what his better pictures are straining to become: disconnected bits of bodies lapped in luxurious cloths. It wasn't a genre available to him, but it almost makes him an interesting figure: not a Master of Light, but a Master of Long Pig.

There are 70-plus paintings in this exhibition, and I don't think there's one that's wholly good (though some of the Mannerist works in the first room are amusingly extravagant, and there's quite a nice Dead Swan by Jan Weenix), and this begs the question: why should the pictorial culture of Utrecht have produced nothing of value? Did the Utrechters not mind, not notice? Did they positively relish the flash but vacuous? (They'd hardly be alone in that). These are questions that the art-historians might try to answer, if they could bring themselves to ask them.

Masters of Light runs until 2 August.