In what amounts to a beautifully nostalgic show at London’s Redfern Gallery, an air of escapism pervades. The paintings and photographs here create a bucolic idyll, a space away from social, political, and urban concerns.
There are bodies, predominantly male, in movement or repose, leafy if slightly crumbled exteriors, and swooning wooden interiors. The lasting impressions are of petals, floorboards, and rococo mirrors. The latter is almost too perfect as a symbol of how desire functions in many of these works.
Bringing together artists ranging from Christopher Wood and Cecil Beaton to Patrick Procktor – whose two 1960s paintings titled Pure Romance, exhibited here, give the show its name – this show establishes a context in which to mingle such contemporary practitioners as Linder and Alessandro Raho. The former works with decades-old photographs as found objects, embellishing them with colourful streaks and pools of enamel. In a numbered series titled Superautomatisme Ballets Russes (2015), she experiments with composition while treating the unnamed dancers as ciphers. Her enthusiastic engagement with such classically beautiful figures as dancers gestures towards how, in the Romantic art of the future, the photograph will continue to dominate in a culture of art practice in which the life-drawing or still-life will likely remain rare.
The selection of works marks an attempt by curator Ian Massey to trace the lineage of an English Romantic tradition through the past to the present. This tradition dates back to Shakespeare’s faerylands and Blake’s luminous visions. We know from Massey’s preface to the show’s catalogue that he too recognises in them ‘a longing for idyll or utopia’. The word ‘utopia’ is key, because that which is Romantic must aim for communion with the impossible. Perhaps the very idea of being Romantic in the twenty-first century is, if not impossible, difficult enough to warrant the kind of highly emotional treatment it is afforded in this show.
Yet if we find that simply a vase of flowers, or unashamed nakedness, can conjure Arcadia, then perhaps times in which a glimpse of green seems a rare gift, or in which pornography and Instagram overwhelmingly inform attitudes towards unclothed bodies, are in fact the times that provide the perfect conditions in which the Romantic can thrive.
The Romantic seeks to remind us of eternal values. It seeks, in its use of motifs, its appeal to a sensibility, to reassert what is truly important. It is the antithesis of Pop, as described by jazz singer and critic George Melly, which knows only the present and cares nothing for the future – let alone eternity.
That is not to say that Pop cannot be Romantic, that it cannot find a stirringly impossible perfection in the present. Let’s not overly privilege the resolutely Romantic impulse, which when aiming to communicate something beautiful and honourable (that it deems otherwise neglected) can also be highly conservative and reactionary.
But for as long as the world comes up short, creating the desire for something better beyond, then there will be romance. Ω
‘Pure Romance: Art and the Romantic Sensibility’, curated by Ian Massey, is at the Redfern Gallery until 27th February 2016