Duccio and Sir Anthony Caro handling the same space, currently at the National Gallery

We had asked a security guard where the ‘Art in Dialogue’ exhibit was situated, as it is a temporary arrangement. He enthusiastically gave us directions to Room 66, then added: “It looks like a pile of Lego to me.” Though amusing, the aptness of this comment made sense a little later.


Unobtrusively installed in this small chamber-like room in the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery, in an intimate space similar in dimensions to that indicated in Duccio’s Annunciation (1311), Anthony Caro’s Duccio Variations No.3 (1999-2000) takes up a central position that allows the viewer to walk around the sculpture. Room 66 normally houses one of Piero della Francesca’s masterpieces, The Baptism of Christ – so the appropriation of the space was clearly well considered.


The NG has a history of allowing and encouraging contemporary artists to engage with the collection over many years (including ‘The Artists Eye’ exhibitions since the 1970s and the Artist in Residence and Associate Artist schemes). When the late British sculptor, Anthony Caro, responded to Duccio’s ‘Annunciation’ in the latter part of his career (he died in 2013) he was concluding a lifetime’s interest in returning to other artist’s works (starting with Cézanne and followed by others including, most notably, Giotto, Rembrandt, Picasso and Matisse) to continue to develop his ‘New Sculpture’.


Looking again (and therefore re-conceptualising) Duccio’s pictorial achievements in creating and organising space and architectural form actually brings this 700-year-old panel painting alive in the present. The Caro work (one of a series of seven made in a variety of materials – this is the walnut wood variation – and first shown at Marlborough Gallery, New York in 2001) provides evidence of the sculptor grappling with the optical and pictorial, as well as the quantitative, physical, mass of forms in space (including voids and distances between open and closed forms). Caro was always interested in investigating architectural space and would have argued that his dialogues with so many paintings were not transpositions but analogies. The internal architecture of the paintings, as compositional and pictorial entities, was re-thought, and re-made into original equivalences rather than substitute forms. Merely ancillary or trope-like forms would have negated the fundamental experience of engaging with the works – and in this pairing we see the Duccio through Caro’s eyes, and in turn re-examine the Annunciation with our own.


What might this dialogue tell us? What is being said? Is the dialogue one to one, or is there a third party? What questions are asked? Are answers given? Who will provide the answers? Is there resolution?


The publication in 1550 of Giorgio Vasari’s ‘Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, from Cimabue to Our Times’, referred to the necessity for artists to learn positively from the past and for lessons to be learned and aspirations raised. An historical perspective enables artists (and critics alike) to engage with works of art as elements in a continuum, often extending or breaking traditions, to realise their own intentions in whichever age they ply their trade. But referencing of the past does not have to be reactionary. Though he debunked tradition, Henry T. Ford said that history “is made today”. So when we witness art in our own time, that references the past, we might consider if the response is conservative and backward looking (and therefore utterly useless) or if it is truly, and above all else, engaged in the present.


Paradoxically, history is always accessed from the present time and cannot, by definition, be fixed in the past. Artists have persistently been influenced by, appropriated, re-interpreted or ransacked, the artifacts of history. Picasso (the ‘Las Meninas’ series) and Bacon (his screaming Popes) both paid homage, in their own idiosyncratic ways, to Velázquez. Duchamp’s desecrated ‘Mona Lisa’ (‘L.H.O.O.Q.’) of 1919, arguably a Freudian joke, interrogates Leonardo’s portrait to question the mass produced image even before Walter Benjamin critiques mechanical reproduction (and how we experience and consume visual art forms), in 1936.


The contemporary artist may run the risk of derision if copying, reproduction, transcription or mimicry of style (without irony) is the desired outcome, so studies from the Masters are no more than worthy practice (albeit a bona-fide exercise in ‘academic’, traditional forms of art education). A re-reading, or a spring boarding from images in painting and sculpture, can be sympathetic, dialectical or transgressive. The interest in art of the past by contemporary, post-modern, artists continues, both on a conceptual and a stylistic level. For example, see Kader Attia’s installation, ‘Continuum of Repair: The Light of Jacob’s Ladder’; Ged Quinn’s multi-genre subject matter; Lara Favaretto’s ‘Son coup de coeur’, or her sandbagged monument of Dante Alighieri of 1896 questioning the permanence of history; or Simon Denny’s ‘Secret Power’, alluding to global representation across the centuries to get an indication of what is happening now.


Re-interpretations or responses to art of the past will most often rely on a viewer’s knowledge to make connections, or for a catalogue essay to explain. But the results, when fortuitously exhibited with the original, as presented at the NG, can display curatorial completeness and an ideal, thought provoking, spectacle.


So, perhaps in a highly sophisticated way, Caro broods, then plays with and succeeds immaculately with his Duccio inspired building blocks. This particular conversation: Caro’s with the borrowed and reconstituted pictorial architecture occupied by the two figures from the holy narrative, reverberates as an incubation of form and energy; whilst Duccio’s small panel from the Maestà, realises the narrative of the miracle conveyed by the Archangel Gabriel in egg-tempera and gold leaf, both a spiritual and an earthly space, in a celebration of love.

June 20, 2015