Notebook: Mystery of the picture in a million homes Mysterious art of a wealthy vulgarian

THIS WEEK I went to see the Millais exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, because I wanted to, and then, out of a feeling of duty to Abstract Expressionism, to the new Jackson Pollock show at the Tate. I knew I'd enjoy the first; of the second I was much less certain.

Non-figurative art - drawing or painting which doesn't describe the physical world - has never much interested me, and Pollock's fame now seems to owe as much to his life as the stuff he painted. He was what, in this century, we feel an "artist" should be: troubled, alcoholic, and not shy of publicity. Born the son of a poor farmer in the American West, he died young (aged 44) when he drove his car into a tree after a bottle too many. A perfect arc for a modern hero, who at his zenith seemed to take modern painting as far it could go by dispensing with brushes and chucking paint at the canvas instead.

Millais, on the other hand ... but the truth is that until I read the catalogue I knew nothing about the life of John Everett Millais other than that he'd run off with John Ruskin's wife, though his were the first paintings I ever saw.

We had two of them on the wall at home, The Order of Release and The Boyhood of Raleigh. Coloured prints, naturally, not the real thing; they'd come from some astute coupon-gathering on the part of my parents in the 1930s, or perhaps an agreement to take the Daily Herald for a month or two from a travelling salesman ("We felt sorry for the chap who came to the door"). Whatever the case, there they were above our mantelpieces and, I imagine, in a million other homes as well.

The Order of Release never appealed to me then - a woman (Ruskin's wife, as it turns out), a man in a kilt, a key - but The Boyhood of Raleigh made such a lasting impression that I can still name many of its details from memory: the bare leg and foot of the man in the hat who is pointing out to sea, the green velvet of little Raleigh's suit, the model galleon (I want one! I thought) which juts into the picture, next to the dead starfish in the bottom left.

Apart from Constable's Haywain and the "Blue Woman" from Boots, it must be the most popular British painting ever. And, according to the catalogue, it was popularity that destroyed Millais' reputation.

By the time he died in 1896, he was both rich and unfashionable, a vulgarian who knocked off portraits at a thousand guineas a time, whose pictures were spreading down the layers of social class, cheaply, by new techniques of mechanical reproduction.

He painted Bubbles as an advertisement for the Pears soap company. He had a knighthood and a big London house, and went salmon-fishing in Scotland every season. Even in 1890, long before Pollock's car hit the tree, the true artist was expected to suffer rather more.

The National Portrait Gallery's exhibition is an attempt to revalue him as portraitist (none of his other pictures is there, no Boyhood of Raleigh), and I reckon it's successful. Some of the portraits are stunning. Ruskin (he has just made the shocking discovery of female pubic hair, but does he know he's being cuckolded by his friend at the easel?), Gladstone, Tennyson, Disraeli, Lillie Langtry; all of them taken from the stiff sepia corset of Victorian photography and suddenly vivid.

The women look modern, the young girls especially. One small picture, of Emily Patmore, looks as though it might be today's hyper-realism, a snapshot pinned against a blue kitchen wall. You can hardly detect a brush-mark. In the caption, the artist regrets that it has "the truth and untruth of hard photography".

There was a good crowd when I was there, though 60 was probably the average age. Couples stood for quite a long time in one place and pointed out features to each other: Tennyson's eyes (one bold and brilliant, the other lazy). the brocade on a dress. The crowd for the Pollock was younger and possibly moved rather quicker.

Judging by the exhibition guide and the quotations printed on the walls, the aim was to show how revolutionary he had been. "Compared to Pollock, Picasso, poor Pablo Picasso, becomes a quiet conformist, a thing of the past," wrote a critic in 1950. Another wrote in the same year: "We have a deliberate disorder of hypothetical hidden orders, or `multiple labyrinths' ... he [Pollock] is saying that his labyrinths are by their nature insoluble."

I wonder if he was, really. Pollock himself said that the source of his painting was his "unconscious", in an age when the popular question about painting changed from "what does it look like?" to "what does it mean?" and abstraction still felt that it had to defend itself. In Pollock's words: "It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express this age, the aeroplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old form of the Renaissance or of any past culture. Each age finds its own technique." But what had all his angst and paint-dripping actually achieved, back then in the days of the radio?

I surprised my own prejudice for the figurative and "real": many of his pictures are, well one word is pretty, and some might even be beautiful; magnificent looping rhythms, striking and often tender combinations of colour.

They may be mysterious, but none of them is threatening. You can buy them on mugs (pounds 7 at the stall). They no more evoke the mid-century terrors of the atom bomb than Millais evokes child labour and rickets. Whatever they thought they were up to at the time, Millais and Pollock were in the same game of canvas and paint and ended up pleasing people.

Elsewhere at the Tate there are installations and conceptions. Damien Hirst has a chemist's shop which is a chemist's shop but located in an art gallery. Another gallery is entirely devoted to a waste-destruction machine with uniformed mannequins posed around the place as a privatised workforce; the floor is covered with hundreds of little gingerbread-men type figures which have been cut from waste paper and cardboard.

The idea, says a notice, is to demonstrate how "business and political ideology" affect our lives (Blimey! Capitalism chews us up and spits us out and makes us all the same).

I went to look for The Boyhood of Raleigh, like "The Man Who ..." in the HM Bateman cartoons. It wasn't on display. The Tate is expanding at the back and moving other things to the new gallery at the Bankside power station, and in the meantime its entire collection of British art in the 19th century, Turner apart, is confined to a couple of rooms.

I made do with a postcard. What a strange picture it is. Young Raleigh looks terrified out of his wits at what the man in the hat is telling him. The beak and glassy eye of a dead toucan edges its way from the right.

The old story-teller seems to be wearing a skirt; his leg is strong and very fetching, the most noticeable element in the picture. Behind him lies a straw bowl of the kind you might find in an Oxfam crafts-from-Angola catalogue.

In 1870, according to the portrait gallery catalogue, it was painted as a clarion call to empire and foreign adventure, but many of its features must have been enigmatic even then.

Mystery is a great part of its appeal, just as in the pictures of Pollock. Good art often shares the quality. Conceptualism, on the other hand, usually lacks mystery, though it tries so hard to confect it. No mystery about the waste-destruction machine, other than why it is there in the Tate.

Or so I thought, wondering about the dead toucan and remembering the smell of the coal fire below the Millais, my father's pipe tobacco, and many other items which needn't detain us here.

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