I’m reading Fingersmith by Sarah Waters at the moment. It is set in Britain during the Victorian era. It’s an atmospheric and descriptive read that conjures images in the mind of the reader of life in the back streets of London, life in a country house and at points also a lunatic asylum. Waters’ writing is excellent at pulling you into these worlds, the people, the struggles of life and in the case of Fingersmith, the deceptions that could play out in these places.
I travelled to The Drendtsmuseum in the northern Dutch town of Assen to catch the last day of the Sprezzatura – fifty years of Italian painting 1860-1910 exhibition, wondering whether my insights from Waters’ book may be relevant in the way I viewed the exhibition. The seventy or so paintings from various Italian museums cover very much the Victorian period. In the end though, I have to conclude that I found only limited parallels and overlaps. Britain in the second half of the of the nineteenth century was of course a very different place in comparison to the newly established and unified country of Italy. Equally, northern Europe and southern Europe were in terms of landscape, traditions and politics also very different places.
The exhibition pitches in on trying to catch the diversity of artistic focuses in this period, but ultimately seems to get a little stranded in the middle ground between thematic approaches that artists took in their choice of content in the their work and technical and painterly innovations and developments.
We move from history painting to travel paintings, from gritty realism to luscious handling in idealized figure painting and from innovative painterly technical experiments to gushing symbolism. There is also space for sentimentality and tragedy. All in all, although I really quite enjoyed looking at the displayed work, it left me feeling a little confused by the switch from one sub-group of paintings to the next.
Italy must have been a country searching for an identity in this turbulent period, and in this sense the curating of the exhibition may well be an appropriate and fitting approach. But in terms of a clear direction or theme that helps the viewer work their way through an exhibition it was a difficult path to find.
In the train on the way home I’ll be returning to my book. Fingersmith certainly has an easier narrative to follow.