Frans Hals: The Male Portrait review – painting as performance art

·6 min read

The brewer is mighty: a man of outsize prowess looking down on you with all his shrewd vigour, satin doublet straining to contain his huge girth. The hat is so large it has its own planetary halo; the lace collar could cover a table. It is not hard to imagine the awful strength of his grip.

He was the owner of the Swan’s Neck brewery, this gentleman of Haarlem. But he was also a lavish collector of Dutch portraits, and none can have exceeded this one. From the affable yet undeceived eyes to the reddening jowls, the shaggy pelt of hair to the elbow jutting out of the frame in a dazzle of creased satin, everything is painted with an apt and equivalent force. The portrait rises to meet the man at every turn.

This is one of two masterpieces travelling all the way from the Metropolitan Museum in New York for this magnificent Hals exhibition, the first in Britain since 1990. It is a vision of astounding originality. Frans Hals (c1582-1666) seems a painter without precedent in Dutch art. His portraits are so sudden and instantaneous, so fluid and democratic – from the bar boy to the civic guardsman, the drinker and draper to the diplomat; above all, so bold in their freedom of movement, in the unconcealed adventure of each mark.

He lived his whole life in Haarlem, with only one expedition to Antwerp in 1616, where he may have seen the pictorial audacity of Rubens and late Titian. For many years he was as successful a portraitist as Warhol in Manhattan, followed by a decline so steep that he could not afford to burn peat to keep warm in his 80s. Yet a portrait here from that very time, of an intriguingly louche man leaning back in a tipped hat, is so youthful in its virtuoso strokes, so loose and deconstructed, it seems to prefigure the modernist Card Players of Cézanne.

Kenneth Clark scorned Hals, notoriously, as “revoltingly cheerful and horribly skilful”. But Manet and Van Gogh revered him for these profound likenesses, all done “in one rush”. Sharp-eyed spies, patrician peacocks, the textile magnate Tieleman Roosterman in black rosettes and white cartwheel collar, one hand bare, the other in a luxurious gold-corded glove (I am what I make) – their depth is as evident as their style at the Wallace Collection.

Where contemporaries preferred stillness, gravity or flawless finish, Hals was always breaking out, communicating his sitters’ vitality with the darting dabs and irregular spots so admired by the impressionists. But yet more startling is his gift for the double response, for the sustained connection between sitter and viewer that makes it seem as if they are equally fascinated to see you.

The pinnacle here is the Wallace Collection’s very own Hals, The Laughing Cavalier (1624). He is not of course laughing so much as turning his smile upon us in a pose so complex and subtle it is difficult to know exactly where he sat in relation to the painter. In any case, it is the eyes that do most of the turning, with their captivating, sidelong innuendo. To see this comparatively early masterpiece in the context of Hals’s long career is to realise how rapidly his originality dawned. The French embroidery on the sleeve is an amazing salad of strokes, twisting and twinkling against the copper-coloured cuffs, the lace like splintering ice. Perhaps there are fragments in those eyes.

But it’s a pose, more than an encounter. And what you sense from this brilliant orchestration – where all the portraits are displayed together in a single colossal gallery, but each man is separately defined against a glowing oblong of painted wall, something like a Rothko – is the changing relationship between the sitters and Hals.

Take the portrait of Isaac Massa, on loan from Toronto. Massa turns backwards in his chair, darting a glance to our left, one eye in daylight, the other in mysterious shadow. His mouth is half open, somewhere between speaking and breathing. His right elbow hangs over the chair back, a stem of holly dangling from his fingers like a casual cigarette. Behind him is a view of conifers, sometimes thought to be by a second artist (though why, since Hals is so infinitely various?).

Massa spoke several languages and had been Dutch ambassador to Russia. Hals painted him several times, and always there is this air of friendship. The artist visits the sitter’s home (Hals rarely did this) for the conversational exchange. This is a portrait of deep intelligence in every respect.

Turn round and there is the Dutch admiral who was one of the first Europeans to taste coffee, with his mirthful smile and unruly hair. He is telling Hals his traveller’s tales. He bangs his stick on the floor for emphasis, eyes creasing with laughter, tendrils of hair flickering round his head like urgent black script. It is this very minute, right now.

Hals’s brushwork astounds. There are free-floating episodes of such coruscating energy they appear almost independent of the subject – but never quite. A sleeve that looks like a spattered Jackson Pollock; a hand disappearing into smoke; those fierce vectors and crisscrossing diagonals that resemble the fractal geometry of a snowflake. He draws with paint (which Manet loved) and graduates through infinitesimal tones (27 different blacks, according to Van Gogh). This is painting as performance art, describing its own action in a non-stop present tense even as it registers the surefire appearance of each man on that particular day.

These portraits may look quick to make, but their slow conception is evident in the careful layers of under-painting often visible at the canvas edge. Nor is Hals’s calligraphy rapidly read. Try counting those 27 blacks and your eye will take in more and more of the human subtext. The most mysterious portrait here, from the Metropolitan Museum, is all nuanced contradiction. It shows a man exquisitely dressed in black, with lilac, pale green and rose ribbons at his waist, yet no delicacy in his face.

The execution – of lace, hair, the thumb holding the broad-brimmed hat – is spectacularly refined, almost abstract. Yet the man holds menace. Whatever he has seen – and surely he is a spy or enforcer – it is a brutal kind of knowledge. The face is sombre, and the measure of light in the eyes so reduced that they appear both sighted and yet oblivious to anybody else – a dead-ended gaze. Look for this light too closely and you will see nothing: which might be a lesson. Too much attention to Hals’s style distracts from the profundity of his art; the two are never separate.

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