British Vision: Observation and Imagination in British Art, MSK Ghent

How long would it take you to visit almost every provincial art gallery in Britain in order to see the cream of work from our Islands? About a fortnight. That is if you jump onto Eurostar and get yourselves to Ghent to see what must be the most complete and eye opening exhibition in recent years before it closes on the 13th January.

Robert Hoozee, the director of the Museum Voor Schone Kunsten has scoured 63 UK and 14 foreign galleries and museums in putting together what is, in the opinion of your correspondent the most complete and staggering collection of British works assembled in living memory.

The purpose of the exhibition is to show how the exceptionalism/individualism in the English character that created the industrial revolution had an echo in the art produced there. As Hoozee puts is his fine introduction to the lavish catalogue,
“At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Voltaire was already full of praise for the climate of freedom he encountered in England. With respect to religion, he wrote in 1726 that ‘England is properly the country of sectarists...An Englishman, as one to whom Liberty is natural may go to heaven his own way’. Until well into the ninetieth century, artists and critics were fascinated by the specific circumstances under which art in Great Britain was able to thrive. One of these, Théophile Thoré wrote in 1863,
“Self-Government is complete in English Art, just as it is in all the institutions and all the customs of this proud people, where individuality asserts itself. It is this that lacking in French artists, who almost always obey some higher authority, tradition or prejudice”.
He claims, with some justification that in Britain art followed a distinctive path from that on the Continent, charmingly he describes it as ‘marginal’, which has as its mainstay the empirical experience of reality and otherwise wild flights of fancy and the visionary.

As one wanders through the gallery, through the 14 rooms over 300 works in all media, barring conceptual and video (oh what a shame) dating between 17 and 1950 at every stage and around every corner lies the shock of recognition. Work after work that has lodged in the mind over the years lies there to see.

The empirical tradition is exemplified by Joseph Wright of Derby whose magnificent rationalist alterpiece ‘A philosopher lecturing on the Orrery’ takes the high drama of religious work and places it firmly in the world of a questing for scientific knowledge. It was painted in 1766 and has to be seen in the context of works by Fragonard to see what a radical departure had been taken in England.

Add this to Bill Brandt’s photography, Richard Dadd, that photograph of Brunel, Gainsborough, Turner, Constable, Stanley Spencer, Lowry, Freud, Stubbs, the original Alice in Wonderland, Mad Martin, Ruskin, Epstein... you get the picture.

If you live in Belgium you have no excuse, go now, today. If you live in the UK, well get a move on.

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