Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Giovanni Antonio Canal and his gang

In a column on the left of this page there is a list of the categories into which fall the 570 (as of today) posts in Other Men's Flowers. I suppose it does reflect more or less what is important to me: there are 88 posts about words, for example, and only 4 on fashion; 24 on food and drink but only 7 on art. Actually this last figure is not really representative, for while I am without artistic taste, talent or understanding, I do quite like looking at pictures, provided no-one expects me to say anything intelligent about them.

Anyway, I went to an exhibition last week, so here’s post number 8 on art.

This year there have been two London exhibitions of pictures including many of the city itself: by Hogarth, showing its squalor and the depravity of its people, and by Canaletto, showing its beauty and the elegance of those who stroll there. I get quite enough squalor and depravity at home, so it was the Canaletto exhibition, in Dulwich, that I went to and enormously enjoyed.

Looking at Canaletto’s pictures of London and Venice, it struck me how tedious architectural painting must be for the artist: one of the buildings had a dozen identical windows, another a row of ten identical pillars. Of course I knew that artists of that period used various devices to help, and had apprentices to work from their sketches, but I had never realised just what an industry they created until I read this:

Recent studies have brought to light the extensive efforts Canaletto employed in creating such works. The paintings were drawn, if not painted, from inside a portable, room-sized, camera obscura by highly trained (and no doubt very patient) draughtsmen (we could hardly call them artists), and then turned over to studio assistants and apprentices for the actual painting. Canaletto, of course, oversaw the whole enterprise and no doubt lent his hand to the all-important finishing work, but in large part, these incredible painted images were the output of a surprisingly sophisticated art factory.

So one can see how it was possible that he had nine hundred paintings attributed to him.

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