The old-new thing

Artists have always looked to the past. Even the anarchic YBAs of the 1990s, with their unmade beds and their post-industrial gallery spaces, were influenced by art history. Tracey Emin looked to the early 20th-century painter Egon Schiele; and Damien Hirst placed himself in a long tradition of artists depicting death – as well as explicitly referencing Francis Bacon.

Looking back at the year’s exhibitions, a trend emerges for shows that encourage us to see and make connections across art history. Metamorphosis: Titian 2012, at London’s National Gallery this summer, invited three contemporary artists to “respond” to three paintings by the 16th-century Venetian master: “Diana and Callisto”, “Diana and Actaeon” and “The Death of Actaeon”. The exhibition explored fascinatingly the nature of inspiration and artistic response, Titian’s paintings themselves having been inspired by Ovid’s epic poem Metamorphoses, a work composed some 1,500 years earlier.

Pairing old with new art is not a sure recipe for success. Sometimes it works: the Royal Academy’s autumn blockbuster Bronze, which used the medium as a thread through 5,000 years of art, teased out unexpected links by presenting its wealth of pieces thematically not chronologically. But without such lightness of touch, the effect of such juxtapositions can be over-literal, even patronising. The National Gallery’s current Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present – which puts early and contemporary photographs with the paintings that, in some sense, inspired them – is one such show. Some pairs have bite: Martin Parr’s “Signs of the Times, England”, a photo of a middle-class couple in their home, wittily references Gainsborough’s “Mr and Mrs Andrews” – the modern couple’s body language implying the same tensions and their setting the same questions about material wealth. But, overall, the show is frustrating: the conceit tires, like a game of snap that has gone on too long.

Often it pays to take curatorial risks. For me, the most striking cross-historical exhibition of the year – catch it while you can; it ends on December 15 – is a small show at the Ordovas gallery in Mayfair, London. Curated by the dealer Pilar Ordovas and Xavier Bray, chief curator of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, it pairs portraits by Lucian Freud with three head studies by the little-known 16th-century painter Annibale Carracci, one of which belongs to Dulwich.

It is a gem of an exhibition: small but illuminating. In these paintings, both artists worked from life, seeking to capture a “warts and all” likeness. The subject of Carracci’s “Head of an Old Woman” (c.1590), for example, has sallow skin, a stringy neck and raw eyes. When Freud saw the study he said simply, “I wish I could paint like this.”

The curators are confident Freud would have liked the show. He displayed his pictures among those at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in 1994, and was said to have been pleased with pairings such as his fleshy nude “Benefits Supervisor Resting” (1994) and Sir Peter Lely’s comparably fleshy “Nymphs by a Fountain” (c.1650).

But Carracci would most likely be horrified by the exhibition. These works were quick studies on paper (“Head of an Old Woman” is on the back of a laundry list) probably made for the benefit of students at the informal academy he established in Bologna. They were certainly not for public view. “It’s so loosely painted,” says Bray, peering at Carracci’s “Head of an Old Man”. “It’s not what he wanted to achieve ultimately; he probably would have used this and idealised it to make it into St Peter or a Magi. Now the taste for painting is not really classical but more for realism: that’s why these feel modern.”

This year, England’s oldest public gallery didn’t just send its Old Masters out into the world; it invited contemporary artists in. Installed in Dulwich’s Poussin room facing “The Triumph of David” (c.1631-33) is a large painting of London’s Victoria Underground station by the artist Clive Head. When he showed works in the “modern perspectives” room of the National Gallery’s 2010 Canaletto exhibition, Head drew record visitor numbers. But while that comparison was one of content – both artists depict city life – this is one of approach.

Head is known as a realist artist but dislikes the term: though his style may be indebted to photography, his compositions are painterly. His pictures are distillations of experience rather than snapshots – cubist in spirit, if not in aesthetic. “[‘Terminus Place’] is a vision of a different kind of world where you can stand in one place but you can see around corners,” he explains. “In our world you can’t do that, you have to move – and once you start moving you join the pace of life and everything becomes uncertain. Here, everything is still, at one, forever. So it’s kind of an Arcadian notion, which is where it links back to Poussin.” (Poussin is perhaps most famous for the pastoral memento mori “Et in Arcadia Ego”.)

The gallery hopes that Head’s accessible work will provide a way into Poussin, a favourite artist of Bray but one he admits is “unfashionable”. To those who linger in the small room, subtle echoes – in the artists’ split-level compositions, rhythms of arcs and spirals and expansive pictorial space – may sound.

While that pairing is about a contemporary artist paying homage to an Old Master, other exhibitions show Old Masters next to newer work to highlight incipient modernity. Turner is often called a proto-Impressionist, father of modern abstraction. In 2005, Tate Britain sought to show his impressionistic qualities in Turner Whistler Monet (first shown in Paris’s Grand Palais); this year Tate Liverpool developed that idea, putting Turner’s late works with those of Monet and Cy Twombly, who died last year.

But Turner expert Andrew Wilton believes it’s anachronistic to see him as harbouring modernist ambitions. “Turner had a completely different agenda from anything we can imagine in our time,” Wilton tells me. “His great aim in life was to emulate the Old Masters and, it’s quite possible, outdo them. This doesn’t mean he wasn’t a great innovator, but he was innovating for purposes quite different from what the modern perspective on art history would like us to believe.”

Turner is particularly “susceptible” to such interpretation, Wilton says, “because of the accident that his studio contents came to the nation” [in the Turner Bequest, after his death in 1851], so art historians have had access to unfinished works and sketchbooks Turner would never have exhibited. “The problem is partly that people don’t have any historical imagination; they have difficulty thinking themselves back into those times, and so they’re constantly trying to transplant those works into a period and a mindset they feel more comfortable with.”

Wilton is co-curator of a new show at London’s Royal Academy bucking the trend for cross-historical exhibitions. Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of Landscape investigates what Wilton argues was a “pivotal moment – when landscape emerges [as] an emotionally and intellectually powerful medium”. It asks how technical advances and commercial considerations (as in printmaking), as well as trends such as the rise of English tourism and theories of the sublime and the picturesque, shaped the rise of the genre.

There is, of course, room for both kinds of exhibition: the historically rooted investigation, and the more subjective linking of ideas. And although institutions may lure visitors with contemporary pieces, once they’re inside, exposure to the older work that shaped art history may inspire them to appreciate its radicalism anew.

‘Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present’, National Gallery, until January 20,

‘Painting from Life: Carracci Freud’, Ordovas, until December 15,

‘From Victoria to Arcadia: Clive Head and Nicolas Poussin’, Dulwich Picture Gallery, until January 13,

‘Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the making of Landscape’, Royal Academy, until February 17,

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