Although James Northcote is known as a historical painter, his work is not as antiquated as his subjects. In “Picture Talking: James Northcote and the Fables,” the Yale Center for British Art’s new exhibition running through Dec. 14, the viewer finds political and ethical statements that are strikingly relevant today. Northcote continues to resonate with us because he was an intrepid artist of his era while cognizant of enduring symbols and methodologies from artists of the past. Northcote’s relevance also endures because of the unconventional storytelling utilized in his work.
The stories in question are a series of fables Northcote wrote over the last 20 years of his life. Inspired by Aesop’s fables and other allegorical tales, Northcote wrote his own fables and then paired them with original illustrations, using anthropomorphic symbols to condense entire stories into single illustrations.
“The Bee and the Drones” is one of the first pieces presented from the diverse collection of works selected to outline Northcote’s artistic career. The piece’s natural imagery, of bees collecting on rocks, gives a guise of simplicity. The illustration is actually modeled on a literary fable of a similar name, Tomás de Iriarte’s “The Drones and The Bee.” The exhibition explains the fable’s cautionary tale: “[It] dwells on drones who, lacking sufficient invention to create their own honey, mine the resources of their dead predecessors, celebrating past brilliance by ostentatiously arranging the funeral of a highly productive ancestor.” Its placement is at the forefront intentional and the mark of a curator that knows how to guide the audience’s attention towards underlying themes of an exhibition. This fable, in particular, emblemizes many of Northcote’s central fears as an artist. Understanding those fears informs the rest of the exhibition.
Northcote wanted to create his own honey but recognized the value of learning from the artists that preceded him. This aim gives rise to deep-seated anxiety experienced by not only Northcote, but also by any other artist in pursuit of genuine authenticity. Likewise, the exhibition thoroughly establishes the influence of literary and artistic forefathers, like Shakespeare and Michelangelo, on Northcote. Identifying these influences underscores one of the unifying themes of the exhibition: art begetting art.
Tradition weighed heavily on Northcote, who spent his career trying to balance his own ideas with self-conscious allusions to the past. He painted fictional self-portraits with famous artists and writers, and his work displays an almost erotic and obsessive reverence for the past. This wasn’t derivative, though — Northcote wanted to elevate others’ symbols and achievements rather than reduce and misinterpret them.
But we are left to wonder whether Northcote was a real creative force or just a series of impersonations of prior artistic greats, borrowing their symbols and mimicking their ideals. Visitors are primed to be critical of Northcote’s work, in order to distinguish what parts of the work are truly his own. What value does his work hold, if it relies so heavily on others? Each piece also provides the opportunity to assess whether it has stand-alone value without its accompanying labels and curator-provided explanations. Meanwhile, approaching each piece critically serves a dual purpose because the visitor is more likely to recognize the morals of Northcote’s fables.
“Picture Talking” is also unique because it encourages viewers to consider the end goals of art. What does it mean that Northcote did artwork for commission? There are drastic differences between the work Northcote undertook for pay and that which he undertook to fulfill his creative visions. This complicates the judgments made about his integrity as an artist. Northcote’s work lacks cohesion, something apparent in “Picture Talking,” but this should not lead us to doubt his capabilities. Instead, it should inform our understanding of his eccentricity and his preoccupations while encouraging us to avoid universal statements about his work. This is part of what is most exciting about the exhibition — it allows the discerning viewer to evaluate Northcote’s identity as an artist. Northcote is indeed an enigma, but becomes less cryptic with curatorial guidance.
Northcote is not one of the uncreative drones that he disparages in “The Bee and the Drones,” because he is marked by self-awareness. His obsession with the past was neither self-serving nor the mark of a megalomaniac — it was an indictment of his desire to actualize his predecessors’ excellence. It may be ambiguous where Northcote departs from his own “highly productive ancestors,” but there is no ambiguity about the abundance of meaning and contemporary relevance to be gleaned from the exhibition.