Grog Blossoms

Not every painter reputed great pleases me, and among those who do not is Jacob Jordaens (1593 – 1678). There is an exhibition of his work on at the moment the Petit Palais in Paris, and as I left I heard a French woman sigh as she, too, left, ‘That’s enough for me.’ My sentiments exactly.

Jordaens is best known for his acres of canvas covered with depictions of unattractive fat flesh and bacchanalian drinking scenes. These usually include someone vomiting quietly in the corner while an obese, grog-blossomed king wassails away in the middle of the picture. Frankly I think they are all in the most appalling taste, badly drawn and vilely over-coloured; but in a way it is reassuring that bad taste is not a phenomenon of our own times alone.

In the event, I preferred the book of comments on the exhibition to the exhibition itself. Such books are always a clear window on the banality of the public mind, or at least the mind of some of the public: to what kind of mind, for example, would it occur to write ‘Howdy Folks’ in such a book of comments? But it did occur to one or both of Stan and Phyllis. Howdy, Stan and Phyllis!

A child of ten did better. ‘You see a lot of nude men and women, but the exhibition was BOF-BOF’ – the latter an expression of bored contempt, in my view entirely appropriate.

The comment that interested me the most, however, was the following:

Long live the baroque Counter-Reformation!
Long live female nudes!
Long live drinking parties and wine!

To this was added:

All the things that the Koran does not allow.

The first thing to say is that the Koran is, for good chronological reasons, silent on the subject of the Counter-Revolution. But clearly the writer of this comment was thinking more of female nudes and drinking parties than the Counter-Reformation.

The comment is an implicit manifestation of the ideological temptation in art criticism. If a work of art expresses some idea or attitude to life of which we approve, or alternatively some idea or attitude to life of which our enemies disapprove, then it must be good. But this is as false as the notion that people with religious ideas that are completely alien to ours cannot ever have created anything beautiful or worthwhile. And Jordaens was not so much a bad painter, as a painter who painted many bad pictures (and a few good ones).

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