At Abbot Hall – again

It’s a sparky little art gallery is Kendal’s Abbot Hall, ever bringing out its permanent collection for roles in whatever diverse exhibition it’s putting on. I’ve seen that oversize etching of a male head by Lucian Freud so often, the one in which he uses the engraving tool as if it were a pencil, and on a plate big enough to have its own geography. On this occasion it has been moved to the top of the stairs, where it finds a place, albeit ex-officio, in the National Gallery’s touring Portraiture show. I mean it’s not in the NG’s possession but is an Abbot Hall inhabitant, others of which include, apart from the super Romneys (my favourite is the sexy, come-hither full size one of a society lady in a pose Romney clearly liked: see his Sarah Rodbard, in Liverpool), a modest Kurt Schwitters, a Frank Auerbach nude, an eye-watering triptych in broad-stroked pastels by Paula Rego, and the ‘Great Picture’ (another triptych) of Lady Anne Clifford and family, conflated by an indeterminate Dutch hand from miniatures and cameos. Poor old Anne: against all evidence to the contrary, she must have been resentful at coming to her inheritance so late in life. In case the Portraiture show doesn’t satisfy, other works have been brought out of storage for the viewer’s delectation, including a clutch of Sean Kennys, a meditation in prints and nominal sculpture by Barbara Hepworth based on a journey to Greece, casts of two small heads by Picasso and Derain respectively, a not-very-impressive Keith Vaughan, and a brooding, atypical Lowry. Also large and louring but not on show is a dark metropolitan landscape by the dolorous Celia Paul, which I know must cast additional gloom in the basement. The current exhibition, however, does include the exquisite ‘Kate Pregnant’, an etching by Paul and another small portrait head by her in oil.

‘Portraiture’ is one of those exhibitions for which the curators (modish word) have had to draw on all their imagination to make the obvious sound revelatory. Perhaps it is a revelation to some. There are portraits whose sombre character perhaps represent the artist’s mood, passing or prevailing, as much as the sitter’s (it’s called ‘expressionistic’); others in which the artist may be thought by some to have been self-indulgent or pretentious (the encrusted oils of Auerbach, the collagic self-portrait of Marc Quinn); and some ‘selfies’; the curators couldn’t help using that word, little understanding that the smartphone self-portrait is not intended to tell you anything about the ‘sitter’ but about the sitter in relation to the background or proximity of someone or something, preferably famous or noteworthy. Not what we understand by selfies today, these deflect from the features in order to spell out a political message (Sarah Lucas); and others (Tracey Emin and Chris Offili) whose negative virtue seems to be that they fall short of saying something interesting: Offili’s elephant dung has never been more than that, even though Offili himself might not realise it, and Emin’s otherwise touching attempt in a video to strike back, like Lucas, at skewed male perceptions and attitudes towards women, ends too self-consciously, that’s if it really is self-consciousness and not hopeful but off-target cleverness, though one supposes she has earned the right to stage that smilingly vengeful finale. Space often doesn’t allow expansion at Abbot Hall, but we could have done with more examples of some of the work chosen – David Hockney’s and David Bomberg’s, for examples. Through it all, ancient and modern, peers Mark Gertler’s self-portrait, defying the viewer to ask anything of the artist. It represents the integrity, the severity and the inflexibility of the artist’s vision. Like me or lump me, it seems to be saying – here I am as I see myself. Apparently, quite a few potential sitters lumped him.

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