Ancient Values

Joanne Savage enjoys a Renaissance of fine art at Gormley's

There are bronze women everywhere, in their nude glory: a Mata Hari frozen in dance, a prima donna parading herself to the room, a princess pondering a frog.

And then, on the walls, women worthy of the Italian Renaissance or the finest Dutch and French masters. 'Romana's Sandal' by Paul CampbellNeo-classicists would be satisfied; the sfumato is just-so, the women are porcelain-skinned and their eyes fixed on something inscrutable, far-off, beyond the grubby reach of noughties’ Belfast. One or two of the paintings reminded me of Vermeer’s celebrated 'Girl with a Pearl Earring', but with a Gyspy-Rose-Lee twist.

The combination of Paddy Campbell’s Florentine-feel bronzes and Ken Hamilton’s impeccable portraits is to be reminded of Renaissance values in art, of classical approaches to representation, sculpture that shows fidelity to the proportions of the body, painting that keeps precision in form and perspective. A bust of Apollo looms near the door – is this the Uffizi or Gormley’s Fine Art?

Hamilton’s study of 'The Valpincon Bather' (1808) by the French neoclassical painter Ingres, was – and I don’t care if this sounds ridiculously gushy – an absolute joy to behold. Hamilton painted his study of the masterpiece in the Louvre, Ingres’ work right there in front of him while he set to work. Ingres’ painting shows the female nude from behind, as she sits on the bed, and the work has a chaste quality, even a serenity in its perfect, silvery-light and marmoreal calm.

The French Symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire went against the grain of popular critical opinion when he described 'The Valpincon Bather' as having a 'deep voluptuousness'; the bedclothes crumpled around her and a sheet drawn half-heartedly to her breast suggested post-coital languor, not timidity. The point is that the figure has that ambiguity, a stillness like the riddle of the Sphinx. Hamilton has captured this eloquently and his mastery of the subtle gradations of light is magnificent.

'L'Alba (The Dawn' by Paddy CampbellCampbell’s bronzes are a fitting complement to the paintings and show real skill in the medium. 'L’Alba (The Dawn)' features a woman sitting at her dressing table, staring into a mirror, her naked skin giving off such a sheen, the bronze all polished and smooth. Her nude form is perched on a chair, cosmetics cluttered on the table. She is sizing herself up, maybe assessing the damage caused by the night before, about to powder her nose before her lover wakes up.

The sculpture incorporates domestic detail – the little vanity items, the immaculate mirror – making the classical curvature of her form embedded in the earthy, in time and routine. This isn’t a classical abstraction floating above the domestic like Apollo – this is a woman caught in the web of human interaction where all is vanity.

Campbell’s 'Mata Hari' Is quite something. The bronze is arched in abandon, the arms flung back, one foot off the ground, she is lost to the dance, she has outdanced thought. I wanted to carry this sculpture home with me, but the weight and the hefty price tag were significant concerns. Plus I couldn’t decide between Mata and the immaculate study of 'The Valpincon Bather'. Best to just stand there and gawp.

Ancient Values: Ken Hamilton and Paddy Campbell runs at Gormley’s Fine Art, Lisburn Road, Belfast until June 3. For more information or to view the exhibition online visit www.gormleys.ie.