The National Gallery has put together what must be the most comprehensive array of the portraits of the 17th-century painter Frans Hals ever assembled, filling eight rooms on the museum’s main floor with a subtly lit splendour of black silk, white ruffs and orange flags. I was bored rigid.
Right from the start, something is off. In the first room, an unknown man and woman hang side by side. He’s holding a skull and looks grave. She’s inscrutable. Encountering these people I felt nothing, and it only got worse. I found myself walking back and forth increasingly adrift and unhappy, past one technically brilliant painting of a flushed face after another.
This blockbuster stakes a huge claim for Hals, who painted portraits in the small city of Haarlem in the Dutch Republic of the 17th century. It aims to place him where many aficionados believe he belongs, alongside Rembrandt and Vermeer as one of the very greatest art heroes of the Dutch Golden Age. But it instantly becomes clear this is misguided. Hals hasn’t got the right stuff at all.
Take his huge canvas The Militia Company of District XI under the Command of Captain Reynier Reael. More than four metres wide, it depicts a squad of citizen soldiers ready to defend their country, well-dressed, posing proudly. Hals captures their self-consciousness: a moustachioed man looks right at you as he holds the standard, another does the same, hand on hip. It’s like an amiable group photograph. But if you’ve ever seen it in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, which has lent it, you probably didn’t even notice. For it is totally eclipsed there by Rembrandt’s sublime rival portrait of a militia company, The Night Watch. Rembrandt portrayed a raggle-taggle citizenry as tragicomic everymen facing the dark: Hals just shows them as they wished to be shown.
Maybe it’s unfair to complain that Hals isn’t Rembrandt. Yet the exhibition courts that comparison. It doesn’t set Hals in a social or biographical context but just plunges you among his painted people, treating the artistic gravity of his work as self-evident. I think a smaller show, that explained more about the history of 17th-century Haarlem, would be kinder to Hals and make more sense of his paintings of rich and, sometimes, poor townsfolk. In this grand aesthetic searchlight, he corpses.
I started out struggling to engage and soon became alienated, even repelled. Hals’s portraits en masse are weirdly soulless. They are brilliant studies of exterior tics, flamboyant concoctions of costumes and poses that don’t dig deeper than the russet skin and cockeyed smiles. If you love extravagant male facial hair this is your show. A man called Pieter Verdonck sports an upward curling moustache over a forked beard, while Pieter Dircksz Tjarck has a goatee that sticks out like a spike.
Then you’ve got the clothes – and again it’s the men who rule. Isaac Abrahamsz Massa sports a sleeve covered with complex gold arabesques. The Laughing Cavalier has the finest garb of all, elaborate layers of silk and lace in black, white and gold. Practically everyone wears a frilly collar. Hats slouch. Cummerbunds glitter. Women are obliged to wear puritan black but rock it with accessories: Susanna Baillij has a subtly luxurious scarf, a pearl bracelet, bejewelled ring and wrinkled white glove.
But who cares? They don’t have inner lives. Or none you can sense. Hals’s endless playful variations on pose, facial expression, hair and costume rarely communicate – or to be honest, never communicate – the person within.
Quite quickly, I stopped believing in them as real people at all. This painterly painter reminds me of contemporary postmodernists such as Glenn Brown or John Currin, playing with paint without really believing it can depict anything true. One room celebrates Hals’s ability to paint fictional people, a genre known in 1600s Holland as the “tronie”. Hals loves playing this game of make-believe in paintings such as The Merry Lute Player, The Merry Drinker and a lot of other cheerful pissheads.
The trouble is, you start confusing his made-up people with his real ones. It doesn’t help that so many of the sitters’ names have been lost. They all started to seem like tronies to me. Here’s a nameless clergyman, against a brown background; there’s a red-faced militiaman holding up a glass. They may or may not be portraits. Either way, I don’t believe in them as people who once lived and breathed. Even Malle Babbe, a painting of a social outsider living up to the 17th-century stereotype of a witch, seems too unreal to be the moving social document I expected.
The very energy of Hals’s style is obstructive and pointless. He splashes and dashes in a way that you can get very excited about, seeing him as a forebear of impressionism, even. Yet seeing so many of his works, it starts to look like a trick. Vivacity isn’t the same thing as life.
At the start of the exhibition the words of no less an authority than Vincent van Gogh direct us to the supposed profundity of Hals. For Van Gogh and his contemporaries, the freedom of Hals’s brush and simplicity of his Dutch faces were liberating, modern. That was Hals’s golden age of reputation, when the 4th Marquess of Hertford outbid Baron James de Rothschild to pay the then stunning price of 51,000 francs for the Laughing Cavalier, bringing it to the Wallace Collection in London.
In the 20th century, Hals’s fame receded. Now the National Gallery is urging us to look again. But we know someone Van Gogh didn’t: Caravaggio. Practically forgotten in the 19th century, Caravaggio was rediscovered in the 1950s and his searing art of reality now has its rightful place as the beginning of what you could call a “truth revolution” in 17th-century art. Life itself breathes in the masterpieces of Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Velázquez. In Hals’s twitchy paintings it doesn’t.
Frans Hals is at the National Gallery, London, from 30 September to 21 January.