Constable’s new country

By Agnès Poirier (THE GUARDIAN, 23/01/07):

Can you hear the ground shaking beneath your feet? The Louvre is to open a permanent gallery dedicated to British art in the spring of 2008 – a revolution in the world of museums. Since 2001, the French institution has been spending millions on British watercolours, snapping them up at auctions, in order to plug the gaps in its own collection.Until very recently, British art was never properly curated in France’s first gallery, the most visited in the world. Currently only 20 or so pictures by British artists hang on the Louvre’s walls, though, according to Olivier Meslay, the museum’s new curator for British art, it’s even worse elsewhere on the continent. Why did Europeans wait until the first years of the 21st century to start taking the dust off almost 300 years of British art? Because nobody cared. British art was always considered an oxymoron. Like power shower.

Of course, there always were the odd British geniuses: Purcell and Britten in music, Gainsborough, Hogarth, Turner, Blake and Bacon in painting, William Morris in arts and crafts, Wren and the Adam brothers in architecture. This has always been the assumption taught by French art historians.

Take Simone Colomb’s L’Art Anglais, published in 1947 and still used today at the Sorbonne. According to the historian, British art’s forte lies in architecture and furniture making. If you insist and want to look at painting, well, you will find a handful of portraiture masters, from Hogarth to Reynolds and Raeburn, and talented landscape artists, such as Gainsborough and Constable.

There is Turner, of course, but Colomb reminds her readers of what Delacroix wrote about him in his diary, on March 24 1855: “I saw him once when he came to my studio: he looked like an English farmer with a heavy black coat on, shoes like clogs; he was coarse with a harsh and cold face.” Charmant. As for sculpture, “of all the arts, it’s the one that has least interested the British”. British artists were little better – in 1821 Constable wrote: “In 30 years’ time, British art will have perished.”

In truth, British artists were never well understood on the continent. They felt strange, unfathomable, either dishevelled romantics exalted by the look of sheep in the English countryside or ferocious social satirists. Rodrigue, the barman at my local Paris cafe sums up the French view on British art rather well: “British painters are like British philosophers, you never know what to think of them or how to look at their ideas, let alone use them. Are they philosophers or economists? Are they painters or caricaturists? There is only Bacon: with him, it’s simple; it’s like Shakespeare, he is a genius.”

However, the prejudice and misunderstanding do not all come from France. In Britain itself, art was never as worshipped as in Europe. My supervisor at the London School of Economics used to say: “Art and ideas never drove history. Only economics does.” Perhaps this explains why British artists were rarely seen as the country’s best ambassadors.

Of course, the issue becomes more complex when one realises that great artists are usually guided by foreign influences that they have appropriated and digested in order to find their own style. The greatness of European artists such as Holbein, Van Dyck, Delacroix and Monet comes in large part from their travels to Britain and from meeting their British counterparts. The same goes for British artists who toured Europe for years before returning.

So by fighting old prejudices, the Louvre’s new gallery pays tribute equally to the Britishness of its artists and to the foreigner in them.