A masterpiece of backbiting

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The Independent Online

I gave up expecting catalogue essays to be readable many years ago, having slowly evolved a prejudice that runs something along the following lines.

I gave up expecting catalogue essays to be readable many years ago, having slowly evolved a prejudice that runs something along the following lines. Catalogues have two, widely varying purposes and serve two essentially incompatible audiences. For those with an academic or professional interest in art, they offer a survey of current scholarship on the artist (or period, or style) in question, along with useful bibliographies and valuable information about attribution and provenance. But for the general gallery-goer, they usually fulfil a quite different function. They're about emotions, rather than knowledge - and not all of those emotions are particularly high-minded.

One of the things the catalogue allows us to do is safely dissipate some of the acquisitive urge that a good exhibition will generate. We can't have the originals, but we can have a reproduction - and buying it will also promise to extend a transient pleasure into something more permanent. As we buy it we think, "Yes, I can just see myself browsing through that one night - a bit of Bach playing in the background perhaps..." We may even flick a contemptuous glance at the people buying the coffee mug and the pencil case in the exhibition shop, warmed by a sense of our own serious intent. And the heft of most catalogues seem to confirm that we are viewers of substance. Then we get home and slide it on to the coffee table and watch Brat Camp instead.

If you don't - if you settle down to work your way through the text, then all too often you find that you've unwittingly pushed through a door marked "Curatorial Staff Only". Some catalogue essays are zealously ideological, deploying the devotional language of the latest intellectual cult, while others are tweedily academic. But what you don't often get is a sense of passion or open horizons. Overwhelmingly, catalogue essays come from the deep valleys of specialisation - and they can leave most ordinary readers feeling claustrophobic.

You can't afford not to check, though - a fact I've been reminded of by the two most recent catalogues I've encountered, both of which contained rewarding essays - in one case because it confounded the prejudice and in the other because it confirmed it in richly comic style.

The straightforwardly intriguing essay was Jonathan Ribner's "The Poetics of Pollution" - published in the catalogue to the Tate's excellent Turner Whistler Monet show. Ribner's piece - a gem of social history rather than a formal monograph - details the cult of smog that flourished in London during the 19th century, which reached its cultural apogee in Monet and Whistler's paintings of the city. There's a simple well-I-never fascination to many of the facts - from the calculation that in 1892 more than 200 tons of fine soot were being added to the atmosphere per day to a description of the Duke of Devonshire's ball, held in a fog so thick that you couldn't see from one end of the room to the other. But his essay also touches on the way that these painters were looking for landscapes that would meet them halfway. Monet and Whistler's impressionism was itself a kind of smog - particles of Japanese aesthetics and European avant-garde thinking catalysed into something spectacular by London's unique climatic conditions.

The unintentionally pleasurable essay is published in the catalogue for the National Gallery's Caravaggio: The Final Years exhibition - a predominantly Italian affair compiled for the original Naples show. The preface, by Nicola Spinosa, sets the tone - taking time out from a general overview of the show to take a dig at "those who, excluded from the organisation of this initiative, have been decrying it for some time past and will no doubt continue to do so". A little later, she snaps that the Co-Cathedral of St John Valletta had refused the loan of one painting for "entirely specious reasons".

But her querulous, score-settling tone is beautifully taken up by her colleague Ferdinando Bologna - particularly in the piece he writes about The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, the bulk of which is taken up with a minutely detailed account of how the picture came to be attributed to Caravaggio. Bologna appears to be distinctly peeved that "exclusive merit" for this discovery has been handed to one Professoressa Mina Gregori, and he reclaims the credit here in a small masterpiece of academic backbiting.

It's as good as a short story, in its way - the decorous vendettas of Academe counterpointed against Caravaggio's street-brawling life - but it's also a reminder that many catalogue essays are written for an audience of 15 people at most. Ribner's piece is proof that you can improve the box office without betraying the scholarship.