Visiting 'Portraits by Ingres' in the Sainsbury Wing's deep basement involves a desperate, baa-ing struggle against other woolly art lovers, in what feels like a cultural sheep dip. The CDs in the audio guides provided by the gallery are printed with an image of a principal work, Madame Moitessier (1856). It is strange to see these epilepsy-inducing discs spinning crazily in their transparent casings on the comfortable tummies of senior citizens as they push through the gloom. An 'exclusive range of merchandise' also accompanies the exhibition, including cut-out paper dolls of Napoleon and Madame Moitessier in full costume, which can be undressed down to their underwear.
Ingres (1780-1867) claimed to disdain portraiture in favour of history painting, but however compromised his principles were in accepting portrait commissions, he executed them with great skill. Portraiture, possibly more than any other art form, elicits strange lunacies of vanity and despair from both sitter and artist: Ingres and his subjects can be observed both suffering and enjoying the mutual sychophancies, combats and controlled underground orgasms that go with the artist's slow analysis of human flesh.
A great deal of the show, however, as its subtitle 'Image of an Epoch' suggests, is devoted to the political and social history of the times and, although necessary and interesting, is somewhat over-emphasised at the expense of Ingres-the-artist. The show's caption texts, scholarly descriptions and provenances, along with the Tatler-ish minutiae of vain bourgeois fatties, exaggerated beauties, bureaucrats, police chiefs and businessmen's over-bejewelled society wives, all tend to displace the potent, if sometimes repulsive, fascination that the artist's work still evokes.
The debates that Ingres prompted in his day about the nature of art practice, class and politics, gender and ethnicity continue today - unless wilfully ignored, as this somewhat old-fashioned show tends to do. There is not, for example, an even halfway adequate examination of gender, a subject particularly relevant to this artist. Ingres had a very particular psychological relationship with women, and women with him: he represented them over and again as both ridiculous and sublime.
For many people, the fascination with Ingres may be an appalled one: throughout his career, he suffered excruciating public humiliations for his wilful errors. Now, as then, Ingres' hybrid archaisms and distortions - strange spatial foreshortenings and flattened, shallow modelling - are as disturbing as they are pleasing. It is interesting that it is principally his most beautiful female sitters who suffer elongated limbs, bonelessly pneumaticised flesh, spatially wrenched bosoms and impossible vertebrae.
Baudelaire described Ingres with what would now be praise of the highest order - complimenting the artist for his power, while calling him 'freakish'. Ingres' distorted figures were, he said, 'a population of automatons that disturbs our senses by its all too visible and palpable strangeness'. Delacroix snidely remarked that Ingres' art was 'the complete expression of an incomplete intelligence'. So it is an enjoyable irony that Ingres - perceived at the time as an unimaginative Classicist, overly dependent on art-historical precedent - should have been denounced by the Romantics for being out of touch with Modern sensibilities when subsequently his practice of deliberate exaggeration inspired both Degas and Picasso, and his relationship with photography anticipated contemporary manipulation of digitised imagery.
Ingres' distortions usually hover at the threshold of awareness. They are all the more effective for being couched in a conservative, unarguably convincing visual language of superlative draughtsmanship and authoritative, depersonalised brushmarks. Even Madame de Senonnes (1814), one of the most ravishingly elegant and beautiful of the portraits, depicts a reflection of the sitter's head and shoulders that, relative to her great beauty and poise, are those of a sad, slumped stump. Vicomtesse Othenin d'Haussonville (1845) shows an overly smooth female subject with a seemingly plasticated arm, held at an imaginatively unnatural angle to her body. Madame Philibert Rivière (1806) - as well as having an enormously extended right arm - occupies a flattened picture plane that is shallow and shadowless, and which now looks extremely Modern.
Ingres' distortions were a conscious choice, an assertion of the right of the artist to exceed actuality in pursuit of a highly individualised vision of it. Strange hybrids of portraiture and mythology, his works are a deliberate auto-subversion which wilfully corrupt the otherwise crystalline precision of his practice. Great fusions of the absurd and the sublime, the paintings combine hyper-realistic, fetishistic attention to detail with grotesque error in a manner that spiritually conjoins him with much current art practice.