The work of Lawrence Alma-Tadema didn’t feature heavily during my years at art school. No, maybe I should be more specific, as far as I can remember, it didn’t feature at all. Perhaps not surprisingly, for despite being one of the most financially successful artists of the nineteenth century and ending up being knighted and buried in St Paul’s cathedral in London, Alma-Tadema’s work and the works of the closely related Pre-Raphaelites were something of a forgotten sub-tributary in the flow towards a more modern world. Many would argue that it wasn’t even a tributary, and more of an isolated pool that was completely detached.
This may well be the case, and also the reason why his work fell so far out of favour in the twentieth century. But in recent decades there has been a renewed interest in Alma-Tadema’s luscious fantasy world. My own first, and rather accidental encounter with his work was in 1996 when I visited the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. There was a temporary show of his paintings and now, twenty years later there is a second show in the Friesmuseum in Leeuwarden the capital of the Dutch province in which this Dutch-Anglo artist was born. The exhibition has attracted unprecedented numbers for this relatively small town in the north of The Netherlands, well over 100000 visitors in the first three of its four month run. The exhibition then tours to Vienna and onto London.
The memories of my visit to the Van Gogh museum exhibition back in the nineties prompted me to make the trip up to Leeuwarden to renew my something of a love-hate relationship I have with the artist’s work. What I remember from my first encounter with the paintings was the colour, the light and the overwhelming lushness of it all. At their best these are paintings that ooze an almost oppressive detail and rich colour. Although, it must also be said that other works feel at times like the artist has beaten any life out of them through his astonishing eye for detail, whether it is pressed up against the picture-plane in the fore-ground or seemingly miles away in the background.
These reservations aside, there are some gems in the exhibition, paintings that are extremely difficult not to be drawn to; the likes of The Roses of Heliogabalus, Unconscious Rivals and A Coign of Vantage. Over the top the paintings definitely are, and also out of touch with the world and time in which they were made, but simultaneously they display a phenomenal work ethic, patience of execution and eye for detail.
The exhibition goes to some trouble to draw comparisons between Alma-Tadema’s work and the influence it has had on the visual styling of various Hollywood epics over the years. Fragments of films such as Gladiator and Cleopatra are also on display. The artifice and escapism of the movies would seem appropriate. This whole exhibition and body of work is a quite huge display of the fantasy world that must have occupied the artist’s mind. He consistently painted image after image of a distant and mythical world, a world that spilled over into the high life of soirées and parties that were also known regularly to require costumes that fitted the artist’s visionary world.