Published  14/06/2000

Encounters: A dialogue with art from the past

Encounters: A dialogue with art from the past

There is at present, at the National Gallery in London, an exhibition entitled Encounters, where twenty-four contemporary artists of international stature were invited to choose a work of art in the famous collection as a starting point for a work of art or series of works


The artists included Auerbach, Bourgeois, Clemente, Freud, Johns, Kiefer, Hockney, Viola, Rego and Tapies - an international and varied line-up of artists spanning cultural phenomena and style. The result is one of the most creative and inspiring exhibitions. Indeed, as an artist/visitor to The National Gallery, one embarks on a creative adventure with the past and present simultaneously. Further, the manner in which the works are located throughout the large building (rather than confined to a single gallery or level) means that in order to locate the next section or group of works, one has to travel visually through various centuries as if by chance. And so, on the way to see how Kossoff responds to Rubens one encounters quite by chance, a room containing Gauguin, Van Gogh and Rousseau and to one side Monet and Picasso. Serendipity within the walls of the gallery seems to parallel aspects of life that provide inspiration and visual excitement at unexpected moments from the unlikely events.

Many artists can experience insights in the ordinary aspects of life and learn to develop an individual harmony between the mundane and the sublime. The uneasy juxtaposition can evolve into a process that can be adapted in due course to altered circumstances. In this situation the unexpected is almost assumed in the creative act. Dialogue in whatever form helps to anchor artists so that there is a constant thread connecting thoughts and acts as their career unfolds. The exhibition to celebrate The Millennium Year provides a most remarkable range of artists' creative methods and processes that one could imagine. Encounters is the brainchild of Director, Neil MacGregor. He describes the exhibition thus:

"This is an exhibition of snatches or dialogue. We invited, a few years ago, twenty-four great artists of our time to converse with the greatest artists of all time, and the fruits of those conversations are the works of art now on show ..... " (1)

MacGregor continues:

"Every day, in the rooms of The National Gallery, similar conversations go on. Rembrandt talks to Titian, Velàzquez looks at Rubens, Seurat nods to Piero della Francesca, and Turner, by his own express wish, hangs forever beside the artist whom he revered and admired above all others, Claude Lorrain .....

The artists taking part in this exhibition are not just letting us see the work they have produced as a result of our invitation to respond to a painting in the National Gallery. In the process they allow us to look again at pictures we thought we knew well. And to look at a painting through the eyes of an artist is, in many cases, to discover a new painting or perhaps, more accurately, to be reminded that great paintings are inexhaustible, and always have more secrets to yield." (3)

This exhibition is layered with human reactions to ideas, to personal dilemmas or issues; it is also layered with personalities, cultural manners, stylistic considerations and history. The sum total is profoundly moving. It is the best way to begin to comprehend who we (as artists) are and where we come from. The experience of Encounters throws up the simplest question about what art is and what it is to interact as individuals that are often deemed somewhat naive in academic circles. To have a conversation with the past requires the simplicity of a child, and a sophistication and knowledge of a poet and scholar. The juxtaposition of naivety and the sublime, of the practical preoccupations and skills of creating a work of art, and the spiritual and intellectual, at once creates tension and energy. The choice of artists and in turn, their choice of artists from the past and the manner in which their responses were executed was "masterfully steered to completion" (3) by Richard Morphet, former Keeper of the Modern Collection at The Tate Gallery. The catalogue is a masterpiece, one of the finest collections of essays on contemporary art for many years. Certain factors, such as employing one author, curator Christopher Riopelle, to write all of the entries on the artworks in The National Gallery - results in a very fine and accessible sourcebook on contemporary art - with a consistent thread linking the vast range of artworks chosen. Riopelle's essays combine scholarship and clarity that are a pleasure to dip into and then re-read.

The essay by Robert Rosenblum, Remembrance of Art Past, establishes the significance of the exhibition in terms of how we have perceived modern art:

"Of the abiding myths about modern art, one of the most stubborn would tell us that artists of the last two centuries kept unburdening themselves of the past, hoping forever to wipe their eyes clean of history. Like many grand generalisations, this one is both true and false and something in between. If the history of modern art is taken to begin with such masters as David and Goya who, born in the mid-eighteenth century, responded to the irreversible upheavals that marked the next revolutionary decades, then this precarious balance between respecting and destroying tradition is at the very roots of our heritage."(4)

Rosenblum traces the establishment of museums and the degree to which artists such as Manet, Matisse, Kandinsky and Mondrian copied from art of the past or were influenced by the great themes in art history. He quotes Fantin-Latour's advice to Renoir: "There is only the Louvre! You can never copy the Old Masters enough."(5) Picasso, Rosenblum claims:

"once heralding everything new in the twentieth century, has slowly been transformed into the guardian of the past, as we discover that his terrorist attacks on tradition turn out to be a way of rejuvenating, not destroying, our heritage, even preserving for us the conventional subject hierarchies of ambitious figure paintings, ideal nudes, portraiture, landscape and still-life." (6)

Rosenblum links some of Kandinsky's most apocalyptic explosions to Breughel's fantasies of Hell's chaos.

The Australian artist Arthur Boyd, who died last year, would have been a natural candidate for this exhibition.(7) As a response to the Second World War in Melbourne he painted some of Australia's finest works of art inspired by the work in reproduction of Bosch and Breughel. His career was fundamentally inspired by art of the past and he had a great dialogue with the Old Masters. As a young artist he worked with inspiration and borrowing from reproductions, at The National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Subsequently, in London, he used The National Gallery there over a thirty-year period, while living mostly in England. Boyd's creative process is complex and interesting, for he also recharged his imagery by working on key collaborative projects with the medieval scholar T S R Boase and the distinguished Australian expatriate poet, Peter Porter. Throughout Boyd's prodigious career a vital part of working as an artist had been to connect with other artists, so creating a dialogue with our cultural heritage, and to reassert the fact that an artistic impulse is there only to be realised as best we can, on the basis of whatever inspiration if selected, a conscious act of creation.

In his fine analysis of modern art Rosenblum observes:

"With the triumphant story of modern art safely turned into a catechism endlessly repeated in textbooks and lecture courses, artists of the later twentieth century could relax again and look back not only at the Old Masters but at the early twentieth century revolutionaries who had become Old Masters themselves. It now seems predictable that, as the twentieth century drew to a close and its inherited myths of progress turned into naive anachronisms, artists become, like everyone else, more retrospective, contemplating the known and more comforting terrain of history rather than the scarier prospects of the future.(8)

In Richard Morphet's essay, Using the Collection: A Rich Resource, he provides something of an analysis of the exhibition.(9) For example, nine of the twenty-four artists participating in Encounters had previously exhibited in direct connection with the Collection. Twenty-one works in Encounters (by two artists) were executed in the Gallery. Many works in the exhibition reveal an ongoing or frequent use of the collection by the artists; others are more specific in terms of the response, that is, less an ongoing dialogue within the particular artist's oeuvre. Morphet relates the various responses to the "source" in the creative process to, "the way images are transmitted in the contemporary world".

"It corroborates the importance of art museums' dual capacity as a place of display and the propagator of visual information about its works by many additional means, all of which have the purpose and effect of attracting people to view the actual works of art. Even a glancing encounter can be the catalyst for remarkable work that could not otherwise exist. As Keith Roberts wrote in the catalogue of an earlier related exhibition, "Works of art become part of the imaginative landscape of the artist"."(10)

There are obvious limitations of this exhibition: twenty-four artists cannot possibly create a comprehensive expression of contemporary art practice; limitations of space meant that the whole exhibition could not be housed in one area of the museum. But these facts do not detract from the strengths of the show and the standards of absolute excellence achieved. Indeed the space question precipitated the need for the viewer to have to travel every which way through the gallery to locate the next group of artists, but as I have already noted this makes the exhibition all the more a creative adventure.

Encounters, succeeds then in a number of important ways: the role of the museum or in this case a most wonderful collection is brought into focus. The conversations that take place between the chosen artists and their chosen works from the past precipitate a most exciting series of dialogues between other works. Once Turner is experienced through Cy Twombly's eyes and visual skill, other paintings of his come to life almost independently. The layering of paint, translucent washes, the effects of light are suddenly of paramount importance. A great thrill for me was Anthony Caro's treatment of Duccio - Caro intended to make one sculpture, "but as work advanced the process itself provoked additional variations, eventually numbering seven in all".(11)

"Throughout his career Caro has been more inspired by past painting than by sculpture. Paradoxically, this is because the discipline within which he constantly seeks new forms of structure is itself that of sculpture, which has its own structural repertoire. By contrast, painting - another world - abounds in hints for structures unexplored in three dimensions that he can develop and make his own. The need to make it his own is the key. All artists draw on past art at will for their own work but those who make something distinctive assimilate the earlier material, transforming it into their own fabric and communicating their own vision, rather than the earlier master's."(12)

Morphet points out that:

"Only four of the artists, Freud, Hodgkin, Kossoff and Oldenburg/Van Bruggen, have made works that resemble their source works at a glance. A fifth case, that of Auerbach, is complex in this respect, as explained in the essay on his picture. In two further works, those by Caulfield and Kitaj, the source can be identified reasonably quickly by sight. That leaves as many as seventeen works that appear independent of their sources".(13)

The general standard of the works in Encounters is, as one would expect, exceptional - the skill and craft as well as the intellectual aspirations and personal poetry convey a great range of contemporary ideas and issues. Twombly, Caro, Hockney all display a preoccupation both with the physicality of their materials and the craft of their art. The thoughtfulness is in marked contrast to the manner in which ideas are communicated in today's culture.

"All these features, which imply a savouring of continuity and of making, are to some extent under threat today in a culture that lays emphasis on speed and simplicity in the consumption of information, and limits the opportunity to concentrate, or to explore anything in depth. These developments are combined with an information overload compounded by the speed and technological sophistication of its transmission. The pressure on artists to produce is a related problem. Not surprisingly, therefore (as Robert Rosenblum's essay shows), much new art quotes and combines available images from both the recent and the farther past with promiscuous abandon, in the process creating effective markers of contemporary existence. The works in this exhibition connect with their heritage in a slower way. They also lack the sense of irony and the detachment that are widespread in art today. Nevertheless, many on today's "cutting edge" would agree with the exhibition's implicit assertion of the inseparability of living art from the great art of the past". (14)

Leon Kossoff has taken inspiration by drawing from paintings at The National Gallery "for most of his life", since first visiting it sixty-six years ago. For Encounters Kossoff chose Rubens, as he has in the past. The result is one of the finest responses in the exhibition; the sheer volume of drawings and etchings is incredible. Done quickly, they capture Kossoff's lifelong commitment to drawing and the manner in which he infuses many of his own discoveries, his dialogue with self into his dialogue with Rubens. From his resultant work one may experience the combination of that visual and mental working knowledge of Ruben's painting in general as over a lifetime, together with the experience of "mark-making" itself. So the vital act of drawing, distilling thereby his own living experience, is a reciprocal process, via both drawings and etchings. The most effective process is through etching, where the mark-making process is intensified by the nature of the medium. In his essay on Kossoff, Richard Morphet writes:

"Since at least the 1960s Kossoff has been widely admired for the strength and distinctiveness of his drawing. Nevertheless in 1987, nearly forty years after starting to draw there, he stated: 'In my work done in The National Gallery and elsewhere from the work of others I have always been a student. From the earliest days when I scribbled from the Rembrandts in the Mond Room my attitude to these works has always been to teach myself to draw from them, and, by repeated visits, to try to understand why certain pictures have a transforming effect on the mind. In the copies, made in the studio, I have always tried to remain as faithful as I was able to the original, whilst trying to deepen my understanding of them. I have always regarded these activities as quite separate from my other work and only once, a long time ago, have I consciously used one of these works in the making of my own pictures'."(15)

Video artist Bill Viola, by contrast, chose Christ Mocked by Hieronymus Bosch. He sees Christ as calm in the centre of storm, inspiring to individuals who stand secure on their own. This aligns with Viola's ensuing work, The Quintet of the Astonished. He worked from reproductions of the painting rather than from the original. The five figures framed in the video, as for a painting, and painterly qualities are evoked, in both light and colour values. Viola is able to reduce the time-related sequence, to one of slow motion, and this time relativity enhances that painterly aspect of the work, bringing it into close relation with the original Bosch work. So Viola is seen here to be reinterpreting and re-investing the traditional criteria for the painting. "I don't believe in originality in art", says Viola. "I think we exist on this earth to inspire each other, through our actions, through our deeds, and through who we are. We're always borrowing. I think it's a beautiful, wonderful thing".(16)

Encounters is a wonderful exhibition. The works themselves have an enduring quality that comes about from the dialogue with the past, with self and with the materials and the craft of art. A special effort seems to have been made by all those associated with the exhibition: the artists themselves, the curators and staff at The National Gallery and by the authors of the excellent essays in the catalogue. As with artists themselves, art historians and critics work in a cyclical mode in which a great sense of clarity and achievement can be replaced with great despond, where all writing on culture, ideas and art seems disappointing. This exhibition leaves one on an absolute high. It is like an adventure, a rivetting conversation in which endless new avenues for one's work and personal endeavour seem possible. This is perhaps because we are forced to begin with and concentrate on the creative act itself. In doing so we return to the essential and spontaneous moment in which ideas are conceived and a dialogue struck. Ron Kitaj's quotation from Walter Sickert which he used to preface his catalogue introduction for The National Gallery's 1980 exhibition and which Richard Morphet re-quotes is particularly apt and moving: >

"And this, gentlemen of the press, curators, critics, experts and others, is the claim we painters make in regard to the Old Masters. They are ours, not yours. We have their blood in our veins. We are their heirs, executors, assignees, trustees. We are the pious sons, but henceforth it is we who are the interpreters of their wishes, with full power to set them aside, and substitute their own, whenever and wherever it seems fit for us to do so. They would have wished it so."(17)


1. Neil MacGregor, "Directors Foreword", Encounters, The National Gallery, London, 14 June - 17 September 2000, National Gallery Company Limited, London, 2000, p.7.

2. Ibid, p.7.

3. Ibid, p.7.

4. Robert Rosenblum, "Remembrance of Art Past", Encounters, ibid, p.8.

5. Ibid, p.11.

6. Ibid, p.13.

7. See Janet McKenzie, Arthur Boyd: Art and Life, Thames and Hudson, London, November 2000.

8. Rosenblum, op.cit., p.16.

9. Richard Morphet, "Using the Collection: A Rich Resource", Encounters, op.cit., pp.24-29.

10. Ibid, p.24. >

11. Morphet, "Anthony Caro: Duccio Variations", ibid, p.71.

12. Ibid, p.77.

13. Morphet, "Using the Collection: A Rich Resource", op.cit., pp.24-25.

14. Ibid, pp.25-6.

15. Morphet, "Leon Kossoff: Drawings and Prints after Rubens' Judgement of Paris, 1996", pp.224-5, quoting a letter from Kossoff in exhibition catalogue Past and Present: Contemporary artists drawing from the Masters, South Bank Centre, 1987-88, p.38.

16. Bill Viola quoted by Marco Livingstone, "Bill Viola, The Quintet of the Astonished, 2000, Encounters, p.322.

17. Morphet, "Using the Collection: A Rich Resource" ibid, p.28.

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