Oil paint, the most powerful of mediums, can also be nasty-looking stuff. Watercolour can be feeble or messy, tempera can lack verve, distemper can look flat, but none of them has oil paint's potential for unpleasantness. Its physical qualities - its brilliance, the way impasto can give weight to a brush stroke, the way one colour can merge with another on the canvas, the way it can be spread like butter or, when diluted, dribble down a canvas - are potentially wonderful. Its physicality can, however, get out of hand even in the work of a great painter. When oil paint is put on with a palette knife the picture surface can look like a badly iced cake. There are passages of foliage in Courbet which are nasty in this way; all of Vlaminck demands a strong stomach. It is the quality of the paint - knifed on with forced expressiveness - that makes most of Strindberg's little pictures in the exhibition at Tate Modern (until 15 May) unpleasant to look at. And they don't offer much that makes up for the nasty surface. There is usually a band of sea, a band of sky and something rocky or sandy in the foreground. There are cliffs or a lighthouse. In some of them a small, solitary plant is outlined against the sea. The most effective are of breaking waves; some of the least effective are sunsets in which a red disc sinks below the horizon of a putty sea.
LRB 5 May 2005 | PDF Download