Van Eyck, dog detail from The Arnolfini Portrait (1434, National Gallery)

The press view of the National Gallery’s new exhibition Reflections: Van Eyck and the PreRaphaelites started at half past ten yesterday morning. The room was fairly full with people from various establishments. Gabriele Finaldi, the Director of the National Gallery, introduced the show before a brief highlight tour by joint curators Alison Smith (Tate) and Susan Foister (National Gallery).

Most of the gallery had emptied long before the press viewing did. There was a gradual lull until it became just a trickle of people wandering around. Myself, a photographer, and a lady in a hat (how else would we recognise her serious art credentials?) who protested at the absence of Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini! (a comment which I disagree with) seemed to be the malingerers. I stayed until twenty three minutes past one, a mere seven minutes before I was going to be kicked out. I did this not because I am a deeply intense exhibition viewer, but because I was busy looking.[1]

Siddal, The Lady of Shalott (1853, The Maas Gallery)

In fact I was so busy looking that I left once only to promptly return again because I had another question I needed to answer before a rarely seen Lizzie Siddal work which is on display (see above). I was so busy looking that I stood for some time waiting for the throngs of ‘press’ to disappear from my line of vision in order that I could look properly into the various mirrors that have been discreetly positioned in the Sunley Room. If you stand in the right position looking into William Orpen’s convex mirror from the left, you will not only see Phillip’s ‘Velázquez’ work (see below) being reflected but the Arnolfini Portrait too. I suspect Jonathan Jones may have been one of the people who didn’t notice this deliberately playful hanging, and if he did he certainly never mentions it in his current temper tantrum outburst of a review for The Guardian.

Orpen, mirror detail from The Mirror (1900, Tate) – ‘It turns out there are mirrors in Victorian paintings, too!’

Jones’ review is hilarious: do read it. Or if you wish to save yourself the indignity as experienced by @OldPanks who ‘wasted 10 minutes of life reading this tosh – THEN up comes the Grauniad [sic] asking for £ 5 per month, adding insult to intellectual injury’, then I have included some of Jones’ petulant yet beautifully childish comments for your entertainment:

  • The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood are the most successful frauds in art history.
  • We might as well be seeing the Arnofini Portrait next to Damien Hirst, Beryl Cook or Quentin Blake
  • It turns out there are mirrors in Victorian paintings, too!
  • How could they bear to spend time and effort on the overladen yet empty art of these steampunk dinosaurs – and claim it deserves equal attention with one of the very greatest artists in history?
  • the briefest comparison of Velázquez’s miraculous art with their clumsy bolted-together balderdash reveals what a load of Victorian cant still blocks the British imagination like a 170-year-old fatberg of bad taste.

For Jones the exhibition is ‘not worth a look’ and he gives it one measly star. Jones’ petulance is pure snobbery: his voice is not authoritative, it is just provocation without substance. Has he read Jenny Graham’s The Remaking of an Artist for the Modern Age (2007) or Claire Yearwood’s The Looking-Glass World: Mirrors in Pre-Raphaelite Painting 1850-1915 (2016), or looked at G.P. Landow’s discussion on the Pre-Raphaelites and the Northern Renaissance in William Holman Hunt and Typological Symbolism (1979)? I doubt it, there is certainly nothing in Jones’ review to make me think he is anything but a ‘pseudo-intellectual’ such as he accuses the Pre-Raphaelites of having been (and something I suspect myself of being).

Jones concedes the thesis behind the exhibition is fair enough but then promptly asks ‘why should we care?’ It is here he says we may as well compare the Arnolfini with Beryl Cook – which is hysterical. Jones’ refusal to see the scholarship behind this display shows his own inability to identify the ‘subtle and rich influence of Van Eyck’s realism on Victorian art’ which he claims is absent and which Landow, Graham, Yearwood, Smith and Foister have each perfectly elucidated.

John Phillip RA, Partial copy of 'Las Meninas"
John Phillip, Partial Copy of Las Meninas (1862, Royal Academy)

Somehow Jones’ snobbery detests the thought that these ‘successful frauds’ get wall space, particularly when they encroach on the likes of Jones’ obviously deified artists Van Eyck and Velázquez. It must have pained Jones to admit, reluctantly, that John Phillip’s Partial Copy of Las Meninas (1862) is ‘not a bad copy’. Indeed it isn’t. A fine copy I would say, which brought memories of standing in the Prado flooding back to me.

Presumably the real fear being demonstrated in Jones’ extreme response is that our galleries are being tarnished by Pre-Raphaelitism, like the ‘consumerist homes of the Victorian bourgeosie [sic, well done there] who lapped up this Pre-Raphaelite tosh and cluttered our regional galleries with it for all time’. As a fan of ‘modern art’ presumably he is demonstrating a preference for a less narrative challenge, entirely missing the symbolic and liminal challenges within Pre-Raphaelitism. He seems to share the same sense of Pre-Raphaelite horror that Laura Cummings does, and worryingly neither of them comment about Victorian art in a way that is meaningful, analytic, or scholastic (even allowing for their need to maintain a sense of journalistic readability). For Jones ‘These mediocre Victorian painters knitted together a pseudo-intellectual style from bits of John Ruskin’s theories, quotations of popular poems and pretentious artistic references’.

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Van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait (1434, National Gallery)

One thing we have to note about the current state of art journalism is that many aren’t art critics or with a background in art history: thank goodness for Waldemar Januszczak. Jones is a Cambridge History Alumnus, not art history. And having an interest in art doesn’t make you a good art commentator. As someone interested in modern art, I was surprised the inclusion of Mark Gertler’s Still Life With Self Portrait (1918, Leeds) didn’t even prompt a comment. Often today’s newspaper reviews are staid, repetitive and unimaginative – perhaps this is one of the downsides of having to write to order: Jones’ review was published at 16:07 the same day as the press view so it would appear it took him around three hours to write.

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Cook, Dining in Paris

Jones seems not to have looked but reacted: perhaps he has become so saturated with images that the intense analytical time-consuming looking required for this sort of work is no longer part of a journalists creed. My own review is not yet written partly because I don’t have to write to order, but mainly because I need more than three hours to decide what to say. Jones’ current style of writing is alienating, even to the educated and patient:

@TheTalkingOak writes ‘I love the Pre-Raphaelites and I love 15th-century Flemish Art. I do not love this nasty snobbish review’. I couldn’t agree more.

@Graciado commented this: ‘stroppy Guardian review. PRB still getting the hate. Plus ça change’. Proof of the repetitive trend in art journalism on Pre-Raphaelites.

I love an acerbic review, and if Jones is trying to fill the BHS shoes of the late and great Brian Sewell he has fallen short. Sewell improbably excelled at sucking lemons whilst delivering insultingly astute yet concise blows, whereas with this review Jones has just proved himself to be the fatberg he claims this exhibition to be – unable to break down, to analyse, to separate the finer nuanced details within works, preferring instead to adopt the position of fear and resistance as did the many critics in the glut of reactive condemnatory reviews of the 1840s and 1850s. It seems Jones mistakes challenging and subversive as a form of ‘cool’, one which he presumably hopes to achieve through including words like ‘fetishising’ and ‘steampunk’ in his column. To quote Ed Reardon, “it’s not dumbing down, it’s sexing up”.

Jones certainly seems to have missed the evidence that the Pre-Raphaelites paintings transcend generations of artists and continue to communicate to generations of gallery goers despite their so say fraudulence. Furthermore,  the irony of Jones mentioning Foucault to give his outburst creditability is not lost: who’s the pseudo-intellectual here? I’d be interested in hearing Jones’ thoughts on the invocation of the Annunciation though as I’m all up for talking angels.

What I will say though, is that you should go and visit the exhibition because you will see some beautiful works and be made to think about the inheritance of art through the ages.  And please do read Jones’ review, if only to do as @claireyearwood did and snort your tea whilst reading it and laughing. It’s good sport to see someone bluster about something, isn’t it? Pass the biscuits.

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Meteyard, I am half sick of shadows” said the Lady of Shalott (1913, Private Collection)


Images via National Gallery, Tate, Wikipedia, Pinterest and my own.

[1] And, admittedly, talking a bit.