Canaletto And The Art Of Venice

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Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Canaletto And The Art Of Venice
"Bickerstaff tells the commercial, political and social stories, each reflecting in its own way on the history of the City of Bridges."

Born in 1697, Giovanni Antonio Canal, known as Canaletto perhaps because of his short stature, became one of the most famous urban landscape painters of all time. His particular passion was for Venetian cityscapes, most of which are now the property of the British royal family. This film takes advantage of an exhibition held in the Queen's Gallery in Buckingham Palace to present those paintings onscreen and place whem in the context of the artist's life.

It begins with preparation; we see Baroque frames restored, gold leaf pressed into place. We see the backs of the paintings as they are positioned. These are not just images but objects with depth both physical and temporal. Infra-red scans show us the sketches beneath the layers of paint. Later, an archivist wearing white latex gloves will open one of Canaletto's notebooks, which the artist carried around the city with him day to day, stopping to sketch the outlines of buildings, filling in details, little twists of black ink helping him to recall the movements of water, ships, people, dogs. One commentator is particularly fond of the dogs. We follow them throuygh a series of paintings, each one an individual, each with its own concerns, its individual relationship with the Queen of the Adriatic.

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How did the paintings come to be in this corner of England? Bickerstaff tells the commercial, political and social stories, each reflecting in its own way on the history of the City of Bridges. He takes in not only Canaletto's own work but also that of lesser-known painters working in the same style. All, no matter how grand, were primarily catering to a busy tourist market, laboriously producing the picture postcards of their time. In an intriguing aside we see the printing presses of the time, care of a Venetian craftsman who still works that way. In this age when almost any image can be accessed at will, it takes an effort to understand what this process would once have meant to people - how those who could never afford oil paintings might take home prints of Canaletto's Venice to remind themselves of a briefly treasured view.

The commercial focus of Venice has always placed it somewhere outside the ordinary flow of time. Listening to accounts of how Canaletto's agent managed the international trade in his paintings makes this feel like something that might have happened yesterday. Indeed, the street and canal scenes don't look all that different, but for the heavier clothing and greater quantity of sails. The precision of the artist's work, with its carefully ruled lines, its architectural and mathematical focus, feels intensely modern, as does the very concept of an artist working for a living in this way rather than pleasing a patron. Both alter one's perspective on the resulting images.

As thorough as all the works of the Exhibition On Screen team, this documentary touches only lighty on Canaletto's wider work but, through its dedicated focus on Venice, teases out many different aspects of his approach. His use of fantastical elements in day to day scenes, something that quickly dated his work, might bring it back to the fore as art once again takes a turn in that direction, so the film could be said to be fortuitously timed. It will be as interesting to photographers and draftsmen as to painters, and, of course, there is plenty to appeal to those whose desire is simply to spectate.



Canaletto And The Art Of Venice is screening in select cinemas in the UK from 26 September.

Reviewed on: 20 Sep 2017
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A documentary about the exhibition in Buckingham Palace.

Director: David Bickerstaff

Year: 2017

Runtime: 85 minutes

Country: UK

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