In London: Roman Genius, and Debacle at the Tate Modern

For anyone with a serious interest in art, London at the

moment may be said to be enjoying the best of times and the worst of times. At

the top of anyone’s list of not-to-be-missed exhibitions is The Genius of Rome, 1592-1623 at the

Royal Academy of Arts. This is a sumptuous survey of what its curator, Beverly

Louise Brown, describes as “the confluence of artistic talent in Rome around

1600 that fostered what would become known as Baroque art.” It numbers some 140

paintings by 50 artists-among them Caravaggio, Rubens, Annibale Carracci, van

Dyck, Guercino, Elsheimer and Guido Reni.

At the bottom of my own list, alas, is an atrocity at the

new Tate Modern called Century City: Art

and Culture in the Modern Metropolis , which turns out to be only peripherally about art. (What this depressing

retrospective documentary on the 20th century is really about I shall get to

presently.)

Somewhere in between, at the British Museum, there is the

biggest-ever show of Rembrandt’s etchings, Rembrandt:

The Printmaker , a triumph of curatorial probity that gives us, among much

else, a profound and intimate account of the master’s draftsmanship. The only

problem in negotiating a visit to this splendid show (on through April 8) is

the horror of the new overscale entrance to the British Museum-a massive,

faceless, enervating structure that even Mussolini at his craziest might have

found too daunting to countenance. Fortunately, the show itself, when you

finally get to it after a mountain-climb up the endless stone steps, is

agreeably installed in the old human-scale galleries of the museum’s Prints and

Drawings department.

This it not to say that The

Genius of Rome exhibition, wonderful as it is, is itself entirely devoid of

problems. But its problems, beginning with its catchpenny title, are of another

kind. Is its title meant to be generic? If so, it is all but meaningless. Or is

it intended to focus on the starring “genius” role accorded to Caravaggio, the

celebrated “bad boy” of 17th-century Italian painting, whose brazen,

in-your-face realism can nowadays be counted upon to command attention and

generate gossip? Either way, the title is shamelessly misleading. As everyone

in London seems to be aware, it was decided by the top brass at the Royal

Academy that the word “Baroque” was too esoteric-and thus lacking the requisite

sales appeal-to be used in the show’s title, and so a major exhibition devoted

to the birth of the Baroque-the reigning style of the period-had to be called

something else, with Caravaggio pressed into service in all the advertising as

the show’s controversial star attraction.

But this, in turn, only

raised further problems. For not all of the 14 paintings attributed to Caravaggio

in this show are now accepted as authentic examples of his work. The very first

painting we encounter in the exhibition-the Young

Boy Peeling Fruit , circa 1592-is now thought to be a copy of the lost

original. And as all of the paintings attributed to Caravaggio are, like

everything else in the exhibition, arranged according to their subjects rather

than chronologically, it is left to the viewer to unscramble the story of

Caravaggio’s own pictorial development for himself. Thus does the current

marketing mentality in our museums undermine connoisseurship, even in an

exhibition of such remarkable quality and splendor.

Still, whatever its faults, The Genius of Rome is a thrilling exhibition for anyone with a keen

interest in the art of painting. Rome in the three decades under review in this

exhibition was the locus of one of the great flowerings of European art, the

place where many of the gifted and ambitious talents of Northern and

Mediterranean Europe joined in creating one of the most heroic periods in the

entire canon of Western painting. The exhibition remains on view in London

through April 16, and a somewhat different version of it will travel to Rome in

May.

To turn from the heroic achievements of Rome in the 17th

century to a global view of what is billed as “art and culture” in nine cities

in the 20th century-which is what an international cadre of 12 curators have

undertaken to do in Century City at

the Tate Modern-is to descend from the heights of artistic inspiration to the

lower depths of a highly politicized sociology in which mere works of art, even

where they are allowed to make a fugitive appearance, are all but buried in a

documentary phantasmagoria of culture high and low, but mostly just disgusting.

Century City is,

in other words, the elephantine offspring of the Cultural Studies movement that

has effectively destroyed the study of art, literature and other humanistic

disciplines in so many of our colleges and universities on both sides of the

Atlantic. It is essentially Maoist in its conception of art and culture and,

like Mao’s infamous Cultural Revolution, it represents the ultimate triumph of

ideology over both art and life. Mercifully, this movement is thus far lacking

in Maoist-type “re-education” camps for dissenters-yet under the current Labor

government in Britain, something akin to Mao’s “re-education” program is

already at work, as Colin Amery reported in a terrifying article called “The

Relentless Advance of the Culture Commissars” in The Daily Telegraph of March 6.

“Just as the thought police in China infiltrated everywhere,

in England today the commissars of culture are attempting to tighten their grip

throughout the kingdom,” Mr. Amery wrote. The entire article is worth tracking

down online, for current cultural life in Britain cannot be understood in

isolation from this ominous development.

Century City

effectively annexes the resources of London’s primary museum of modern art to

the untender mercies of this movement. Purporting to give us the cultural

lowdown on art and life in Moscow (1916-30), Lagos (1955-70), New York

(1969-74), Vienna (1903-18), Tokyo (1967-73), Paris (1905-15), Rio de Janeiro

(1950-64), Bombay/Mumbai (1992-2001) and London (1990-2001), Century City offers little more than a

parody of left-wing pop social history.

You might think it impossible to make Paris in the decade

preceding the First World War a nondescript subject for an exhibition, but the

commissars at the Tate Modern fully succeed in accomplishing this

impossibility. Some of the greatest Cubist collages of the period are hung in a

narrow corridor where they can scarcely be seen if three or four other people

are present.

New York in the early 1970’s is simply trashed, with a

“narrative” that reduces the art life of the city to the status of an art-starved

Third World disaster area, where the greatest artists are Linda Benglis, Vito

Acconci and Gordon Matta-Clark. One of the overscale wall texts in the New York

section quotes that eminent critic of urban culture, the late Nikita

Khrushchev, who complains about the lack of “greenery” in the city. London, on

the other hand, is treated as the art capital of the universe. As an account of

20th-century art and culture, Century

City is deconstructionism on a grand scale.

Don’t take my word for it. Century City was too much even for Waldemar Januszczak, the art

critic of London’s Sunday Times , who

can usually be counted on to lavish praise of anything far-out. I especially

recall an article of his a few years back, in which he took great delight in

announcing the death of painting. Yet here is the opening paragraph of his Times review of Feb. 4: “Oh dear. The

first exhibition at Tate Modern is a disaster. But in keeping with the

gallery’s innovative display policies, it is, at least, a new kind of disaster,

a progressive disaster. Most disasters have beginnings, middles and ends. This

one eschews old-fashioned narrative structures. It is a disaster all over the

place, all at once, around every corner, a massive, moneyed, international

mess.”As I say, London at the moment is enjoying the best of times and the

worst of times, and the Tate Modern is almost the worst that can be imagined.