Oil paintings have the unique physical opportunity to stand the test of time. Other art forms can fade away or morbidly date. Pre 20th Century novels - with the magnificent exception of Jane Austen - often seem verbose or incomprehensible now. Pop promos which once seemed totally cutting edge and zeitgeisty (such as Duran Duran's Rio) now look washed out and clunky. Even watercolours, which make use of the selfsame painterly skills as oil on canvas, must be maintained in pristine conditions. Oils speak to us of lives cancelled, vanished civilisations, dogs who've had their day and cats who've had their night.
London's Tate Britain, now that all the international crowd-pulling art has been shipped across the river to Tate Modern, is entirely dependant on the work of a civilisation which has shot its wad and raped its last victim (though the people of Iraq, Ireland, Sudan, and Zimbabwe might be forgiven for thinking otherwise). They've still got worthwhile modern painters on their walls like Freud, Hockney, and Bacon but these obvious outsiders (Jewish, queer, and Irish, to list but a few of their outcast qualities) are the elderly or dead exceptions which prove the rule. Tate Britain is currently promoting a puke-inducing tourist-orientated nostalgiafest in the shape of a BBC tie-in, A Picture of Britain. It is also, however, hosting Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity, a stunning celebration of transcendent art and gory imperialist majesty.
Reynolds was a painter of men and specialised in two types of men, warlords and artists/intellectuals. His portraits of writers (who were part of his close social circle) include famous representations of Anglo Irish creatives such as Laurence Sterne, the Clonmel-born author of Tristram Shandy who once said "I write not to be fed but to be famous," Edmund Burke, and Oliver Goldsmith, author of The Perverted Village, which contains the memorable couplet:
Beyond the church, beneath the steeple,
There they stood, the village people.
Remarkable in a more bloodthirsty way are the representations of men who forged the British Empire. It was customary, having subjugated some impoverished race or grabbed some lucrative territory, to get one's image immortalised by Reynolds. His leading patron was Augustus, 1st Viscount Keppel, a top ranking Admiral, and a close friend of Reynolds, who painted him several times, using jowls, weapons, and paunches to convey the flatulent vulgarity of wealth and power.
Admiral Keppel was responsible for an important Michael Jackson-style moment in Reynolds' life which helps explain why his men are so vigorous while his women are so boring. In 1749 the painter sailed to Italy with Keppel. In 1752 he returned to London, bringing with him an Italian teenager, Giuseppe Marchi. One of the first things he did on his return was to paint the 1753 portrait of Marchi currently hanging in the Tate. The boy was fifteen when he first met Reynolds in Rome. He became his principal studio assistant for the next forty years.
A more famous pretty boy was the tragic Omai, who's celebrated - and shockingly pleasing - 1776 portrait is being used to promote this show. One of the first representations of a man of colour in Western fine art, this big impressive work is currently owned rumour has it, by the Irish capitalist John Magnier.
Omai was a young Polynesian brought to England from Tahiti in 1774. His British patrons "wanted to evaluate his responses to civilised western society," and he quickly became a source of amusement for the educated classes. They didn't quite put him on display, naked in a cage, so people could find out how big his cock was, but he was dragged around like a novelty item. According to the Tate's commentary, "Omai himself hoped to gain British support against invaders who had taken over his native island, Raiatea. But when Captain Cook returned Omai to the South Sea Islands in 1776 he refused to take him to Raiatea, fearing bloodshed, and settled him on a neighbouring island. He is said to have died there three years later." Poor old Omai - that's the way the Brits like to treat their niggers. Colonials setting up house in London, to this day, should beware of the British desire to whip out the measuring tape to see what they're made of.
Go see Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity if you get a chance. I've not seen so much fine art in one place since I saw the Goya show at the Prado almost ten years ago. It runs until September 18th. Tate.org. .
Joe Ambrose is the author of two novels, Serious Time and Too Much Too Soon. He is currently working, with South Tipperary Arts Centre, on a celebration of Laurence Sterne and Tristram Shandy.