wed 08/12/2021

The Genius of British Art, Howard Jacobson, Channel 4 | reviews, news & interviews

The Genius of British Art, Howard Jacobson, Channel 4

The Genius of British Art, Howard Jacobson, Channel 4

Howard Jacobson revels in the joy, and the anguish, of sex in Victorian art

Howard Jacobson, fresh from his Booker Prize triumph, was on an admirable mission last night: to rescue the good name of the Victorians. He wanted us to stop caricaturing our 19th-century forebears as prudish, self-righteous, pompous and hypocritical - you know, the sort of people who were so repressed that they went about covering piano legs in case thoughts should turn to the sensual curve of a lady’s well-turned ankle, but who were also notorious for sexual peccadillos involving underage maidservants, and worse.

In other words, so maligned and misunderstood did he think the Victorians had become in the contemporary imagination that he wanted to restore to them their full, morally complex humanity. And he sought to do this through art. “If you want to understand a culture”, he said, stalking the streets of his native Manchester, looking, as I‘ve often thought, like some Bacchanalian Satyr, “see how it tackles the subject of sex, because sex, love, desire, flesh, and the recklessness it drives us to, is at the heart of everything. And whatever we claim to think of sex, it is only in our art that we tell the truth.”

It would, he claimed, be in the fine-art museums of provincial (and he used the word with fierce pride) cities such as Manchester where you’ll find the true, complex character of the Victorians. And what a contrast these fine municipal institutions presented to the bloodless, tame and sterile temples of contemporary art that we find in London today. (He pointed a particularly accusing finger at Tate Modern - that “factory” where “space“ is more revered than the exhibits. It was a line that made me laugh: yes, bang on about “space“ and its “articulation” when talking about any contemporary-art exhibition and you‘re halfway to looking as if you know what you‘re talking about. But I digress.)

Etty-Candaules“Grimy, harsh, commercial, unfanciful - could any city encapsulate more completely what we think of as Victorian culture?” he asked, before entering the city’s fine-art museum. This place, which had fed and nurtured Jacobson’s boyhood imagination, was where you’d find an altogether different experience, for British art of the 19th century is far more adventurous, far more daring, far more sensual and complex and erotic than we’ve ever given it credit for. Or this was what Jacobson was claiming, and the art of the age that had apparently banned piano legs couldn’t have had a more convincing and passionate advocate. Sexy French art? Pah! Renoir may have painted with his penis, but British artists painted with everything they had: their penises, their eyes, their spleens, their minds.

But to be honest, he didn’t pick a particularly strong opponent for comparison - I mean, Renoir, that quintessential painter of fluffy pretty girls? Pah! Put him next to Sickert, as Jacobson did (while acknowledging that Sickert’s greatest works were, in fact, painted not in the Victorian era, but in the first decade of the 20th century, but, oh, forgetting that Sickert‘s greatest influence had in fact been a Frenchman: Degas) and what do you find? That Renoir’s nudes are “like fruit, creamy things of paint", while Sickert’s nudes are “grainy things of thought" - not nudes, as such, but “bleak narratives in the course of which a woman has undressed”. (The trouble with Jacobson is that he is so seductively quotable, hence persuasive; his words are both things of fruit and thought, and I could happily stitch this review together with many more of them.)

Anway, the hero of Jacobson’s passionate polemical visual essay wasn’t Sickert - as uncharacteristically un-high Victorian as he is - but William Etty, who looks to all intents and purposes like your typical Victorian painter of classical, seductive nudes. Which, of course, he was.

Etty introduced the genre of the nude to Britain, from Italy, in the 1820s, so we have him to blame for all those voluptuously cavorting nymphets with their togas slipping off. But not so fast, said Jacobson. Where the dismissive contemporary eye might just see a lot of inviting flesh, there is a deeper, more powerfully resonant and darker meaning at play. And so Jacobson tutored us through the story of Candaules, a story that Etty painted (pictured above right) about a king who secretly arranged to display his naked wife before the hungry gaze of another.

An erotic charge this strong can only lead to anguish, to probable death, Jacobson went on, obviously greatly animated by the story. In fact, now I think of it, Jacobson did write a novel with just such a theme himself - not a tragedy but a comedy - in which his masochistic character, Felix Quinn, adored his wife so much that he fantasised about sharing her with another, and so he arranged for her to become intimate with a younger lover. And so Etty’s painting, I think, probably reveals just as much, if not more, about Jacobson, than the age in which it was painted.

But back to the final matter at hand: is it true that we only dismiss the likes of Etty because our “moralistic” age can no longer deal with the genuinely erotic, but only with sex that is cool, detached, ironic, even disgusted by the act and by the flesh itself, as Jacobson argued? Yes, perhaps, uncomfortably, there is something to that - we were shown a work by Sarah Lucas by way of illustration.

But it is also because for so long we’ve been enamoured by the new. This suggests that it was probably inevitable that the age just before the arrival of the "new” - an age that venerated the old - was always going to get a rough ride. This programme, episode three in a series of six and the best so far, certainly gave us pause for thought.


“see how it tackles the subject of sex, because sex, love, desire, flesh, and the recklessness it drives us to, is at the heart of everything. And whatever we claim to think of sex, it is only in our art that we tell the truth.” Well, thank goodness Howard Jacobson wasn't 'banging-on' as, maybe some critics do. I don't recall thinking that he had coerced me into deciding - upon what he offered, art wise - whether it was to be piano legs (Fisun Guner's ideal) or the Victorians 'full morally complex humanity (Fisun Guner's words) by working through the same inane idealism on offer in 'modern times' ie. the 'prudish, self-righteous, pompous and hypocritical' (the inbetween porridge bit presented to us by Fisun Guner). I thought Howard Jacobson's portraiture use of Albert and Victoria (no stitching required) far more importantly revealing simply by combining them with their gifts of paintings to each other - what lies dangerously and yes, seductively (intelligently so) beneath the royal portraiture - ' there is a deeper, more powerfully resonant and darker meaning at play'. Yep loads of Howard Jacobson 'phrases from novels' to pick up on (great isn't it?!) not to 'reveal Jacobson' so much as to give a narrative to a voluptuousness in life and art that the painters (artists) around the historical dating of the Victorian era spoke out, boldly about. Great 3rd episode look forward to more. And, actually, liked this write-up for spurring me into replying.

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