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Attack on artistic freedom in Russia

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Heaven on Earth: Art from Islamic Lands

Unscene

The inspiration of Italian cinema

Democracy

Pissarro in London

Of Villains and Villeins

Piazzas on the eve of destruction

Modernism resurgent

Wilkie - Painter of everyday life

Techno-gothic fusion

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Hyperlynx

Vietnam behind the lines

Romney - mirroring the gentry

Caspar David Friedrich - the essential Romantic

The awesome effects of the sublime

Earth & fire

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John Pilger's Great Eyewitness Photographers

Sarah Medway: In the Realm of the Senses

A glimpse of the Hermitage

Vermeer at the National Gallery

Paul Signac: Travels in France

The other story of British abstract art

Breaking the silence

Century City

Digitising the Hermitage

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The disasters of war

Picturing the people's game

Picasso as political icon

An art world Schindler

British modernism reclaimed

Brush Power

The modern bronze age

The first museum of modern art

Six women who shook the world

Frances Aviva Blane

Caro's challenge

Ellsworth Kelly at the Tate

Magnum resists the lure of the dollar

Rebel behind the American movement

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Wilkie - Painter of Everyday Life

Review by Kate McCabe

This wonderful exhibition of paintings by David Wilkie, the 19th century Scottish master of genre painting, is entitled Painter of Everyday Life, but it is everyday life from a very particular standpoint.

The early paintings which made Wilkie such a phenomenal success when exhibited in the Royal Academy are of life seen through the eyes of a son of the manse*, a conservative boy who only when much older allowed passion to emerge in his painting.

The picture that made his name was Village Politicians, which shows a group of working men in a poor cottage, engaged in political debate. The coherence of the discussion is not being helped by alcohol and the men’s semi-literate struggle to decipher the contents of a radical newspaper is portrayed in joking manner.

Village Politicians

It must have been a comforting image for the crowds of well-off people who fought each other to get a glimpse of the painting at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1806.

This was a time of revolutionary struggle, and the English bourgeoisie was deeply split over support for the French revolution. There was great fear that the revolution would be exported to Britain and the people would rise in a Jacobin spirit. In Wilkie’s native Scotland, in 1797 there was a major uprising of weavers and other working men against conscription, which was brutally suppressed. In 1820 three leaders of the early Scottish trade union and democratic societies were hanged.

What Wilkie portrayed was a nostalgic presentation of scenes from his own boyhood and not contemporary life. Pitlessie Fair was his first major painting, and though the influence of the Dutch and Flemish masters is obvious, this is not one of Breughel’s village orgies. It is the fair as Wilkie saw it when a young lad where excess is portrayed with a kindly eye.

Wilkie is not the first expatriate to remember his homeland through a soft focus lens, nor the first Scot to make a success in London and never return home. From the Village Politicians on, further paintings of Scottish life are based on childhood memory, or evoked by scenes from literature, for example poems of Robert Burns, with the exception of pictures made during a short tour of the Highlands.

To give pictures authenticity, he used props bought in junk shops and combed the streets of London for suitable faces for his cast of characters. He built a little wooden model room where he would place clay figures to work out the composition and light sources.

But in the end Wilkie has to be let off all charges because of his mastery of painting and his wonderful ability to evoke believable relationships – between the individuals and their surroundings and each other.

The blind fiddler
- the reaction of every member of the family, to each other and to the travelling fiddler, is totally believable and charming

By 1824 Wilkie was becoming dissatisfied with his work, which he felt lacked breadth and space. But experiments in a new style provide unpopular, though looking at them now, they seem rather beautiful.

The Gentle Shepherd
- one of the paintings exhibited in 1824 which the critics slated and the public didn't like

In 1825 he suffered a breakdown, caused by frustration, overwork and grief at the death in a short space of time of his mother and brothers. He could not paint and instead embarked on a belated Grand Tour. Throughout his life Wilkie had returned again and again to the Old Masters, and in Italy he was bowled over by Titian and Correggio.

In some way this crisis proved a liberating experience, because when he began to paint again he “came out” as a very different painter. From medium-sized very detailed canvasses portraying scenes of domestic life in muted colours, he began to produce very large and vivid pictures of contemporary subjects not designed to win favour with conservative British audiences. He spent seven months in Spain painting in a far freer style, portraying Spanish guerrilla fighters, elderly monks and handsome novices.

A striking example of the new style on show here is The Peep-o-Day Boy’s Cabin, which shows a heartbreakingly young Irish patriot, a member of the Home Rule movement, then sweeping Ireland under the influence of the French Revolution.

The Peep-o-Day Boy's Cabin

This is a very different view of “village politicians”. The young revolutionary is on the run. Slight and fair-skinned, he lies sleeping on an earth floor cradled in his dark-haired mother’s arms. The hut which is their home is bare, without a single stick of furniture or any comfort and the woman is anxiously on watch.

Painted in powerful and vivid colours, the two figures fill the centre of the canvas. There are no knick-knacks to tempt the eye away from this central relationship and the painting has a real immediacy, a sense that something tragic is about to happen.

I went to this exhibition armed with my own expatriate spirit, expecting to enjoy the early works but to find these later paintings slightly kitsch. But in the end it is these later evocations of a very different genre of everyday life that have remained in my thoughts, making me wonder what Wilkie would have made of his incredible talent if he’d got out from under the shadow of the Scottish manse a bit sooner.

Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, Dulwich Village, London SE21 7AD www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk
Until 1 December Tuesday – Friday 10am–5pm Saturday, Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays 11am – 5pm
Closed Monday except bank holidays
Admission £7; senior citizens £6; Unemployed, disabled people, students £3 (includes admission to the permanent collection).


*manse – a house provided for a minister