Sunday 21 April 2019

great art galleries

The grand National

  • The National Gallery in London is that most civilised and democratic of institutions – crammed with masterpieces yet absolutely free
  • No admission charge means visitors can afford to relish the art slowly without the least pressure to get value for money
  • Tourists or locals should just drop in and sample the delights of high culture on a plate. It’s got to be worth it

By Giles Smith

Bargains every day at the National Gallery. The Rokeby Venus by Velázquez? Yours for free. Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait at the Age of 63? Reduced to clear at £0.00. Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières? Pay nothing today! Nor any other day! Turner’s Rain, Steam & Speed? Price breakthrough! Now only nought pounds noughty-nought! Simply hundreds of other great offers like these!

Yes, the Louvre in Paris and the Met in New York are bigger and attract more visitors. But they can’t match this for a deal. The Louvre will set you back €9 and the Met $25. Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum is €19 and the Uffizi in Florence wants €20 in high season. Only the National Gallery in London among the world’s great art collections can slap a proud red banner across the top right hand corner of its website: “Admission free”. And, it surely follows, only the National Gallery can lay claim to being a truly democratic, properly public asset, wide open to all (subject to entry times, obviously, plus an electric scan and a discreet visual once-over from the door guards in white shirts).

Yes, the need for compensatory fund-raising efforts may occasionally have caused the gallery’s board to take missteps. Derision certainly greeted the decision in October 2011 to accept sponsorship from an Italian arms manufacturer. (Weapons dealers enjoying cheese and wine evenings among the Manets and the Titians was not a good look, and the arrangement was gently terminated after protests.)

But free admission to a gallery is, of course, a precious and game-changing asset. It removes from the gallery-goer the instinctive obligation to extract value from the experience, typically by somehow trying to take the whole place in – an almost certainly doomed ambition leading only to exhaustion, short temper and blisters, which can’t be what Rubens specifically had in mind for you when he painted Samson and Delilah. Assuming Rubens did paint it – but we’ll come on to that little controversy.

Frankly post-coital: Samson and Delilah, attributed to Rubens

Perhaps best of all, free admission makes economically viable the idea of the quick visit – the non-intensive drop-in – in which the art-seeker spends a few minutes looking at one or two things and then (via the coffee shop or otherwise) leaves. In terms of likely absorption and overall satisfaction, the drop-in model may be the ideal way to view art’s masterpieces, and is certainly the most artist-friendly. When Manet set down his brushes after completing Corner of a Café-Concert, was he fervently hoping you would eventually cast it a brief, bleary look after examining 2,300 other paintings comprehensively covering four centuries of artistic endeavour? We cannot know for sure, but it seems unlikely.

All praise free entry, then, which is arguably, along with the power-shower and a wide choice of breakfast cereals, right up there among the marks of civilisation at its peak. But what if the free gallery we’re talking about happens to be in the city where you live? We tend to regard the major art galleries as tourist destinations (which is also, with their memorabilia boutiques and bespoke eating opportunities, how they seem to regard themselves), and mainly think of browsing their permanent collections as an act of tourism. It’s not just coincidence, surely, that the traditional purchase from a gallery is a postcard. Certainly Parisians seem largely absent from the queues for the Louvre, and the crowds thronging the courtyard at the Uffizi are unlikely to feel especially Florentine. What’s in it for the locals?

Refurbished interior at the National Gallery

We’re talking here about the permanent collections, rather than the special, temporary exhibitions that these galleries stage – the post-impressionist blockbusters, the Leonardo mega-shows – which are clearly compelling for trippers and locals alike. But the temporary exhibitions are the circus. They arrive in a blaze of self-justifying noise and more or less contrived urgency. By contrast, the permanent collections, typically buzz-less and unspun, must, by definition, be constantly pulling against the dead weight of their own permanence – especially if they’re permanently just around the corner, and permanently free. At the National Gallery, Gainsborough’s Mr & Mrs William Hallett just has to hang there being Gainsborough’s Mr & Mrs William Hallett, as reliable as the building itself and, to that extent, as miss-able.

Here’s how it goes for many of us with the National Gallery. You come, perhaps, as a teenager, with your school and leave with (of course) some postcards and, possibly, with some memories. A number of those memories prove oddly indelible as the years elapse between you and the taking of your Art History A/O level, yet without ever quite amassing the strength to draw you back to the scene. And eventually this world-leading repository of art and enlightenment becomes another in a long list of your city’s abundant attractions and resources which, as a resident, you feel entirely entitled to ignore. Which is why your correspondent, to his shame, could probably count on the fingers of one hand (and not including the thumb), the number of times he has wandered into the National Gallery’s treasure-hung halls in 30 years of living in London.

A return was overdue – and not least at these prices. Surely this too-good-to-be-true deal can’t last for ever?

The National Gallery, with pepper-pot dome above the colonnade

On a Friday afternoon in spring, Trafalgar Square was, as ever, Tourist Central. In common with the big piazzas of all the major European cities, the prevailing mood was of an ad hoc and slightly half-hearted pop festival. A party of French schoolchildren, their tour of the gallery apparently complete, had adopted the recovery position on the pedestrianised paving slabs. Hard against the gallery steps, beyond a levitating Yoda, a bloke in a silver cycle helmet was juggling with fire while a busker on a stool supplied electric guitar solos to a Dire Straits backing track.

Britain’s national painting collection has looked silently down on such scenes since 1838, when it was shifted out of a cramped town house in Pall Mall and put in this purpose-built and actually rather forgettable building, with its outsized colonnade and its faintly apologetic Italianate dome, ridiculed as a pepper-pot down the ages. Questions about the architecture aside, it’s hard not to reflect ruefully on what that pepper-pot might have housed. The British government seems to have spent the turn of the 19th century fumbling opportunities to buy important art collections, most famously in 1777 when the MP John Wilkes suggested the nation stump up for the treasures owned by the descendants of Sir Robert Walpole and use them as the founding material for a new national art museum. This was deemed a good idea by the government, who proceeded to spend the next 30 years or so thinking about it. In the meantime, Catherine the Great wrote the required cheque for £40,550, which is why, if you now want to see Rembrandt’s The Sacrifice of Isaac, Poussin’s The Holy Family with St Elizabeth and John the Baptist and Rubens’s The Stone Carters, you will have to go to the Hermitage in St Petersburg.

Still, the National Gallery didn’t end up doing badly. Both the Louvre and the Prado, and also the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, were immeasurably boosted by the nationalisation (occasionally at gun or axe-point) of their respective nation’s royal collections. Britain has yet to go that far, and probably won’t do so even in a possible future under Jeremy Corbyn. But the National’s collection grew fat in any case, swelled by handsome bequests as well as sharp-elbowed acquisitions. Indeed, with revered works by Titian, Caravaggio, Leonardo, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Turner, Monet, Manet and Van Gogh, to name only those, perhaps no other major collection covers the waterfront quite so impressively in terms of being able to offer, not just representative but important pictures from what are agreed to be the key periods.

Vermeer's 'A Young Woman seated at a Virginal'

You climb the stairs, then, and are very quickly in front of several supreme artefacts of the Dutch Golden Age, gathered closely in a warm room, including three De Hooch interiors and a pair of prize Vermeers featuring women at musical instruments. Incidentally, one appreciates the gallery’s desire to inform and engage via the explanatory labels beside its pictures, but in the case of A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (1670-72), one wonders whether the label goes a little far in suggesting that the girl’s “direct gaze invites us to pick up the viola da gamba and join her in an intimate duet”. Does it, in fact? Is the directness of the gaze not a little more defiant than that? And what if we can’t even play the viola da gamba?

Bosschaert's 'Flowers in a porcelain vase'

No matter. Close by, another room is dedicated to the exactly rendered, still-lives of flowers in vases against black backdrops, painted early in the 17th century by Ambrosius Bosschaert. Bosschaert, it may surprise you to learn, is among the star performers in the National Gallery shop, where the man from Antwerp arguably bats out of his league in a product range which includes Monet’s water lilies on a cushion and bottles of Van Gogh moisturising hand-wash, but where his deathless tulips lend themselves smoothly to tea caddies, tote bags and even “art-inspired leggings”.

'Drunken Silenus Supported by Satyrs' from Rubens' studio

The Yves Saint Laurent room (above-the-line sponsorship abounds here, but don’t complain because it’s covering your entrance fee) is rather queasily alive with fleshy Rubens, including the one of Minerva squeezing breast milk into the dribbly mouth of the infant Plutus from a distance of at least two feet, and thereby cunningly avoiding the trials of latching. Nearby is the equally memorable Drunken Silenus Supported by Satyrs (1620), produced in Rubens’s studio by other hands, possibly including Van Dyck, and featuring a Silenus who must surely have been the earliest source for Coca-Cola’s standardised version of Father Christmas, albeit that this Silenus is naked, roaring drunk and has an accompanying nymph squeezing grapes over his head. And then there’s the frankly post-coital Samson and Delilah, with Samson getting barbered in his sleep, which the National Gallery continues doggedly to attribute to Rubens, despite extensive doubts raised elsewhere about its authenticity. Fair enough, I guess. If you had paid what was then a record $5 million for the picture at auction in 1980, you would probably be attributing it to Rubens, too.

'Young Man holding a Skull' by Frans Hals

On, then, through the golden Cuyps and the green and grey Hobbemas, to the Gavron Room, with its spread of Rembrandts (Woman Bathing in a Stream, Bearded Man in a Cap, the quintessentially brown and gloomy Elderly Man as Saint Paul). And then out the other side, past Frans Hals’s exquisite Young Man Holding a Skull (1626-28) and Velázquez’s perhaps rather too famous Rokeby Venus (1647-51), pausing to take in Jan Gossaert’s Adam & Eve from 1520 in which the traumatised couple, in the process of exiting the garden, have already been cruelly punished with permed hairdos reminiscent of Kevin Keegan in 1977.

The gloomy 'Fishermen carrying a Drowned Man' by Israels

The grimmest picture in the gallery, those hairdos aside? Josef Israels must be up there with his garage-sized and epically miserable Fishermen Carrying a Drowned Man (1861), though a shout-out, too, to Cornelis Van Harlem for his depiction of a dragon chewing the face off one of the Two Followers of Cadmus (1588), having already bitten off the other one’s head at the windpipe and spat it on the floor.

Turner's 'The Fighting Temeraire', another resident of Room 34

But the hits keep coming, and never more rapidly than in Room 34, where the curators really turn it up to 11 and go for broke. Up rears George Stubbs’s life-size painting of the racehorse Whistlejacket (1762), luminous against its gold background, a poster as much as a painting, and flanked by two major Turners (Rain, Steam and Speed from 1844 and The Fighting Temeraire from 1838) with Gainsborough’s Hallett portrait alongside and, on the opposite wall, Constable’s famous biscuit tin, The Haywain (1821). Talk about spoiling us. This is the moment in the set when Stevie Wonder bangs Uptight (Everything’s All Right) directly into Signed, Sealed, Delivered before dropping into Sir Duke and then, before everyone has had time to recover, fires up I Wish.

Joseph Wright's 'An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump'

And that’s before we even mention the presence in this same room of the eerily compelling An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, Joseph Wright’s 1768 picture of a scientist demonstrating by candle-light, and to mixed responses, that if you remove the air from a glass jar containing a white cockatoo, the cockatoo comes out of it badly. As I stood in front of the painting, a couple were playing the game of defining the picture’s subject without recourse to the gallery’s label. “It’s someone putting a parrot in a vacuum,” said one of them. “Got to be.” It is.

'Bathers at Asnieres', 1884, by Georges Seurat

I moved on to Seurat’s Bathers (1884), to Van Gogh’s possibly over-observed Sunflowers (1888), and to the starkly photographic composition of Monet’s The Beach at Trouville (1870), which is a mobile phone snap before the mobile phone. And then I went back to listen to an advertised ten-minute talk by one of the gallery’s researchers on Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus (1601). I had noticed before how the split elbow of the disciple’s jacket on one side of the picture, and the out-flung hand on the other, seem to burst beyond the frame into the room, but never appreciated how the fruit bowl, placed precariously close to the table’s front edge, was part of the same effect, nor noticed the Christian symbolism of the fish-shaped shadow cast on the table cloth. Apparently, when the gallery was gifted the picture, nobody much cared for Caravaggio and for a long time Supper at Emmaus was hung just inside the entrance where everybody could safely ignore it. Now I would say it was among the least ignorable pictures in the gallery, or even in Europe.

Unignorable: Caravaggio’s 'Supper at Emmaus'

After that, having slightly overdone it, I went to look for coffee in the Annenberg Court Espresso Bar, where, interestingly, the tendency to over-description seen beside some of the pictures in the gallery informs the food labels. Thus treacle tart becomes, on an accompanying card, “a quintessentially British dessert – we add real lemon zest for an extra citrus zing”, and a blueberry muffin is patiently explained as “a delicious handmade muffin crammed with fresh blueberries”. The National Gallery’s refreshments, incidentally, are most definitely not free. Indeed, what I interpreted as a rather meagre slice of coffee and walnut cake (“lavish amounts of coffee cream and walnuts go into this afternoon indulgence”) was optimistically priced at £4.75, which, for comparison purposes, would buy you four entire Swiss rolls at Sainsbury’s.

Still, I sat and ate and drank and thought again about that quote from Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove, when Milly Theale, an American tourist on a quest for enlightenment, visits the National Gallery at the start of the 20th century and is quickly overwhelmed. “Something within her was after all too weak for the Turners and Titians. They joined hands about her in a circle too vast.” She should go back now – now that the walls are soothing pastel colours and the paintings are carefully distributed and the place feels humanly proportioned and, give or take the occasional and inevitable loss of bearings (not least at the busy intersection where Room 14 somewhat abruptly becomes Room 29), chiefly unbewildering.

She could just drop in – take those Turners and Titians gently, one or two at a time. And so should more people who aren’t tourists. It’s got to be worth it. And it’s not like it’s going to cost us anything.