by Theodore Dalrymple
London is among the best cities in the world for art exhibitions, and whenever I go there, which is rarely, I try to see as many as time and energy will permit. Recently, for example, I saw two in a single day, the contrast between which seemed to cast a light on the soul of modern humanity, or at least of that part of it that concerns itself with art and aesthetics.
The first, in the Wallace Collection, was called Sir Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint; the second, across the city, was called Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden. Reynolds, the most famous British artist of his day, was born in 1723 and died in 1792; Dumas was born in South Africa in 1953 and has worked in the Netherlands since 1976.
The Wallace Collection was once my favorite London gallery. My father had his office, where I worked during my school holidays, around the corner from it; I spent many a lunch hour in the collection, the run of which I often had almost to myself in those days. The courtyard had not yet been made into a restaurant, a transformation that altered the atmosphere of the collection profoundly. Nowadays, it seems almost like a restaurant with Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Velázquez attached.
It was in the Wallace Collection (1) that I first tried (without success, which eludes me to this day) to work out why some art was better than other art, why some pictures moved me while others did not. The picture to which I always returned, and that I never miss a chance to view even today, was Woman Peeling Apples, by the Dutch painter Pieter de Hooch. This small painting of a Dutch interior shows a seated woman peeling apples for her small daughter, who stands by her. The daughter is not beautiful—indeed, one could describe her as almost plain—yet the picture never failed to move me, however many times and for however long I looked at it.
Why was this the case? Was it the obvious technical mastery, the pleasing composition (the main figures to the right of center of the picture), the exquisite taste of the coloration, the evident love of the mother for her child, the sense of quietude and contentment conveyed, the celebration of the glory of existence in itself that the choice of so ordinary a subject implies? Was the intensity of my response affected by my personal biography, by the lack of tenderness in my own early life?
I came to the conclusion that while no definitive criteria could be given to distinguish good art from bad (and every gradation in between), neither was it impossible to say something about the basis—or rather, the bases—of artistic judgment.