What is it that warrants Canaletto (and let us not forget, his rivals) an exhibition at the National Gallery? What differentiates these paintings from others known for their landscapes – Claude, Turner and Constable? Perhaps, even more pertinent a question ought to be: what differentiates Canaletto from his rivals – Marieschi, Belotto, Carlevarijs and Guardi?
What struck me first about Canaletto’s scenes of Venice, was the glow of warming light that basks the building forming dramatic shadows, and highlights the ripples in the lagoon. Yet, his work is unlike the seventeenth-century hero of the landscape genre, Claude and his inseparable infamous glow. For Canaletto’s brushstroke, composition etc. lacks the fantastical air of Claude’s classical landscapes – the classical that represents the element of mythology - the invented. Therefore I see Canaletto’s landscapes as both more assessable and relational.
It is true that here Canaletto (and his rivals) portray an idealised view of the city – always seen in pleasant weather and complimentary light. However the other aspects of its formal qualities assure us Canaletto’s Venice can be trusted with our eyes. Crisp lines, perfect perspective, well-plotted compositions, and deep shadows – His chiaroscuro is the well balanced mid between natural visual drama and mistrusted melodrama. Such shadows are entirely considered so that they are not a wayward add-on, but factored into the very composition. It seems impossible that even in the darkness of the shadows, there is the warmth of Canaletto.
As far as beautifully painted landscapes and cityscapes go, this is a worthy collection of paintings to view in exhibition. However I must confess, I sped around the six rooms of paintings in under thirty minutes. This is a thematic exhibition of Venetian scenes – you cannot come expecting a menagerie. It will be of no surprise then that I struggled to identify the painting I wished to buy at postcard stand, now in smaller size. It’s an exhibition I’d invite an art lover, traditionalist, or general romantic (to which looking upon pictures of Venice alone conjures up a good reception). In structure it’s strikingly similar to ‘Turner and the Masters,’ where indeed some Canaletto’s and Guardi's were shown, last winter at the Tate Britain. And my belief is that if an artist is to stand up against Turner, that artist will lose.
In terms of how Canaletto measures to his rivals in Venice and at the exhibition, I admired Guardi’s creative tease on the city’s views. Particularly in A Regatta on the Grand Canal c. 1777 the subtle sway of the buildings clustering the riverbank that lean inwards sandwiching the scene together. It’s that light adaptation, like Canaletto’s stark shadows, which become a part of the cohesion of the composition. I did not at all fall for Carlevarijs’ overtly Baroque scenes of Venice in festivities. There is great, refined taste in Canaletto’s paintings that can’t be denied.
The exhibition stays in the Salisbury Wing of the National Gallery until 16 January 2011 -http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/venice-canaletto-and-his-rivals