Sylvanian decadence @ National Gallery

This post is about art and therefore requires a poncy title.

George Shaw is the National Gallery’s current painter-in-residence, and we wandered into his exhibition the other day while trying to find some Klimt. The Telegraph was lukewarm (even though the guy was nominated for the Turner Prize), but I really liked it!

In a short video played on loop in one of the exhibition rooms, he takes us on his commute to work (past dozens of Old Masters before getting to his studio) and explains what links his collection to works in the National Gallery.

One link is the theme of woodland as a place of deviance. If you take a look at Poussin’s Sleeping Nymph Surprised by Satyrs (1627), you might initially see a standard old painting featuring some vague greenery and chubby semi-clothed characters. But look closer and the creep emerges: a sleeping woman is being unconsentingly disrobed by a leering man taking a good look between her legs, while another guy touches himself behind a tree.

The woman is undoubtedly the focus of the viewer’s attention; she is in the foreground, whereas the others are slightly behind and shadowed. Doesn’t our attention to her prominence kind of make us voyeurs, too?

Shaw’s depiction of modern voyeurism (torn-up porn mags on the forest floor) makes this even clearer: the subject is not present, we are the only observer, and the object has been torn to tatters. If we pay enough attention, we can just glimpse the fragments of human image under the leaves. The women pictured are perhaps more consenting as subjects, but hardly more respected than Poussin’s helpless nude: we’re not even presented with a whole human being to look at, just ‘bits’. While Poussin’s object is thrust into view, Shaw’s is further removed, a representation of a representation, not present or existing enough to fill the gaping abyss at the centre of the piece. Is the void the end for the voyeur?

Some of Shaw’s paintings are a bit crude, maybe (e.g. the phallus scrawled on a tree, the self-portrait answering the ‘call of nature’ against another tree), but it doesn’t detract at all from their beauty. I don’t know if it’s the luminous green colour he uses, or the fine detail, or the sharply drawn trees against blurred backgrounds, but it just goes to show that if we see with the right eyes, anything can be beautiful – even a discarded tarpaulin, which reminded me of Sassoferrato’s Virgin Mary (1640s), also in the gallery:

 The Guardian understands better how the tarpaulin, crumpled photos and beer cans don’t make these paintings, really, subversive or grotesque:

Schooled by landscape art and romantic poetry to look for unspoiled nature, we go for walks where we mentally edit out the cans and the bottles and concentrate on the greenery. But we’re in denial, Shaw’s perversely delightful paintings suggest. We ourselves are part of nature, the stains of our lust and violence belong in a painted forest now as much as they did

We and our despoiling and our eye for beauty are everything: we create the portrayed object, portray it, contemplate it. These paintings aren’t about woodland, beer cans or lecherous satyrs; they’re about us. That’s what makes it so interesting! 😆

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