Royal Academy, London: 20 January - 16 April 2001

the genius of Rome

When I walked into this exhibition I was gobsmacked. The thought came to me: now this is painting! I have just had the privilege of being shown some paintings in another London gallery by one of the few painters around who knows how paintings were constructed before impressionism, so to awe was added the realisation that it may still be possible to learn how to do this.

holy family by Vouet

Holy family with St Catherine by Vouet

Look at the pure colours. Apparently they didn't mix complimentaries together to produce neutral and intermediate tones (which you have to if you paint opaquely as almost everyone does since the impressionists), but rather they worked out the composition to a high degree of finish in grisaille (monochrome) before colouring using semi-transparent glazes, almost like a wash in watercolour. You can see this in the unfinished Rubens of The Judgement of Paris in the exhibition, and in other unfinished Rubens paintings in the National Gallery.

Now see what is happening in the paintings. A lot of them are frankly quite sexy. There is stuff in there that you could scarcely get away with today. Apart from the boy pissing into Mars's helmet which you have already seen on your way to this page, there is a picture of naked nymphs so tantalisingly gorgeous that a cardinal stole the picture from the artist and had the artist put in prison when he objected. That's how good it is. (Diana and her Nymphs by Domenichino: I think the cardinal fancied the one in the foreground.) There is an almost naked Saint Sebastian having an arrow removed from him by a male angel, in which pure angelic love and sexual desire could not be more confusingly interwoven (St Sebastian healed by an angel by Baglione). One wonders whether this is the only way an artist can express the highest emotions: through the only higher emotion most of us know. Look at the face of the saint: is he in agony or in ecstasy? Compare his face to the face of Bernini's famous Ecstasy of St Theresa (a sculpture in Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome), where another male angel is about to pierce her heart with a golden spear. God is like sex, only better.

While I'm haing a bit of a rant, I shall go further and say that those who are afraid of sex are afraid of God (and in a way they are right to be). Those who are against sex are against art and those who are against art are also against God. One might apply a new critique to modern art: is it sexy? If it is not sexy, does that make it degenerate or merely impotent?

By the time you have read this far the picture at the bottom will have loaded. Look at the way the baby Christ is ruffling St John's hair. He's almost grabbing him ready for a wrestle. What's he saying? My guess is How're you doin' cheekyface? We're going to upset a few people before we're finished.

holy family by Vouet

Holy family with St Catherine by Vouet (detail)

Click here for the link to The Royal Academy, London.

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