The National Gallery

All the art I saw in The National Gallery.

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The National Gallery — Level 0, Gallery A

Level 0 is in the basement of The National Gallery. Or feels like it after the airy heights of Level 2 and the Sainsbury Wing. It contains a cruciform quintet of rooms, with a couple more off one side I blasted through. This was “Running out of time!” territory and “Really need to get to airport, Frances.” Gallery A, though, how could I not?

Honoré-Victorin Daumier’s Don Quixote and Sancho Panza was before all that, but appears at the end here, as chronologically it makes more sense, and was in one of those other small rooms. It’s a bit of an orphan. I would gladly steal it and have it break me into a smile every morning.

So much good art here! Gallery A is a rotating exhibition of the Gallery’s collection, and spans much of the last seven hundred years. On its own it could be a small town museum, like Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes with its walls of Rubens. And there’s a Rubens here: A Roman Triumph, which is frankly bonkers, more or less in keeping with him. A lot of mediæval and Renaissance Italian art, the dominant region for these periods in the gallery. It speaks of how vast and strong the collection is that some of these are only worthy of being in Gallery A and not upstairs.

Amidst all the mediæval art, Agnolo Gaddi’s The Coronation of the Virgin caught me for the delicate colour that needs to be seen up close, as does Benozzo Gozzoli’s The Virgin and Child Enthroned among Angels and Saints, almost sculptural in its flatness, like a bas relief. Yes, Rubens, elephants and a huge, thronging crowd of musicians, dancers, animals probably going to be slaughtered, fire, smoke, noise, they’re all well amped for a party, definitely one of my favourites of his.

Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo’s The Lamentation at the Foot of the Cross reminds me of Master of the Saint Bartholomew’s The Deposition though each such different works in style and technique. It’s the grotesque, visceral movement in both, frozen and posed, like a scene in a film. And I felt like I’d already written this exact sentence before realising there is an almost identical one by him in the Level 2, 1700–1930 collection, from a slightly different angle, like two moments in time by photographers standing side by side.

I was by then running late for the airport and now have been writing all day, so in both instances this where I stop. Abruptly.

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The National Gallery — Level 2, 1700-1930: Post-Impressionism

I did not spend much time on 19th century art. I was running out of time, my camera battery was looking shaky, and I’d already gorged myself on mediæval art. But I have a soft spot for Cézanne and Gauguin. And lately one for Toulouse-Lautrec, cos he made a habit of painting queer women.

So we have the beautiful Faa Iheihe by Paul Gauguin, from his time in Tahiti. And paraphrasing The National Gallery here (cos all their works are online, so why I spent so much time photographing and editing, I’ll never know), the title is his translation of the Tahitian “‘fa`ai`ei`e’ which means “to beautify, adorn, embellish”, in the sense of making oneself beautiful for a special occasion” and uses “a horizontal format inspired by Javanese sculptured friezes.”

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s The Two Friends is one of his paintings from his Paris brothel visits. The National Gallery says it “belongs to a series of paintings focusing on the friendships between the women which often, as here, portrayed intimate moments or gestures of companionship or sympathy”, but having seen some other of his paintings and drawings, I think it’s quite explicit this work and many others are of queer women, and he identified with this milieu. There’s a tendency, or rather a compulsion, in art history to refuse to see what’s there, or — being charitable here — to be ignorant of signifiers. The rest of us know when we’re being spoken to. There are works of his with two women that are clearly not queer, that are, as the Gallery says, friendships between women. And there are others, some which are so similar as raise the challenge, “How can you claim this and not that?” which are obviously more. We read the signifiers, we know what we’re seeing, even while art history erases them — and there’s at least one photograph of Henri dressed in the same clothes the women he drew wore, so there’s that to read too.

Lastly, there’s a Degas. He’s the opposite of everything Toulouse-Lautrec lived for, and today would vote to the right of Le Pen, as well as being well suss around all those young, female ballet dancers. I can be a bit of an apologist for Wagner, who I think gets a harsher rap than he earned (largely though not entirely because of his family), but Degas gets far, far less of a thrashing than he deserves. He’s well dodgy. But his art can be sublime. Plus it’s ballett, and I’m a sucker for seeing what I’ve lived for in art.

I didn’t mention the Cézanne. As with Gauguin, I just like Cézanne. I think it’s because they’re all Post-Impressionists, and whereas Impressionism leaves me cold (there were walls of Monet and Manet, plus rooms of 19th century stuff I did not touch) Expressionism reliably does it for me, and I see plenty of what moves me in that in artists like Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, and Cézanne, so enjoy Bathers, cos it’s beautiful. (There were stacks of van Gogh too, including Sunflowers. The crowd though, like getting the Metro at rush hour.)

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The National Gallery — Level 2, 1700-1930: J. M. W. Turner

There are two museums here. The first painting, Life-Boat and Manby Apparatus Going Off to a Stranded Vessel Making Signal (Blue Lights) of Distress, is from the Victoria & Albert Museum which I’d visited a couple of days prior to my National Gallery jaunt. The blogging of my V&A trip was solid Mediæval and Renaissance, and along with everything non-North-East Eurasian European peninsula, there was no place for Joseph Mallord William Turner. The National Gallery put on a Turner trio for me, so I’ve rolled the V&A one in here.

Michel Serres loves Turner. I’m sure he resonated with me as well prior to my student years introduction to Serres, but I forever associate Turner with that time when my university philosophy friends, having already blown my mind on Butler and Deleuze said, “Well if you like them, you’re gonna love Serres.” It was probably Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy, and the chapter Turner Translates Carnot, seducing me with the interplay of these three subjects, with thermodynamics and art. It occurs to me now that the scene in Feersum Endjinn, where Count Sessine is in the bowels of a steam train with a younger, forked version of himself is a work of Turner.

It may be unremarkable to love both The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up and — especially — Rain, Steam and Speed — The Great Western Railway, but perhaps it is having seen them so often they serve as a mnemonic for Serres, who in turn leads me through the art of Turner, through science and aesthetics and ethics, and makes it so much more than just singular, remarkable paintings.

As with Joseph Wright of Derby’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, I found myself in Room 34 faced with works I’ve seen for years in print unexpectedly there before me. I made some noise. The school kids were all, “What the fuck, tall old weird person?” They were being forced to stand before it and experience Art. I wonder if they could sense how remarkable these works are, or if that was drowned beneath the imperative to concur, that yes, like the Mona Lisa and Shakespeare these are masterpieces. The Mona Lisa is unremarkable, mediocre, forgettable. Turner, particularly in his 1830s and ’40s period, is a monster. You can see him moving toward the intensity of Rain, Steam, and Speed in much earlier works, in the cloud and circulating light, and you can see traces of where he came from in the Temeraire itself, sliding between Baroque, Romanticism, and Realism, going somewhere that superficially resembles Impressionism, but there’s no way to get to that from where Turner ended up.

To see these close up, shoving in a crowd to get close enough to marvel at the detail, to wait for that break in the throng to be able to photograph them, all while rushing to make the airport. The hare running before the train is a long diagonal blob, and the detailed photo misses it entirely, but look at the train, a black maw around a white-hot inferno, and on the shore between the bridges’ arcs, a group of dancers; like the wheels on the train precise in the raw chaos of brush strokes. Look at the sky in the rectangle of paddle-wheel tug, funnel, smoke and the Temeraire’s pale bow. It shimmers and burns in the heat, convection rising and falling, peeling off, dirtying and hazing the air. The slender black upright of the funnel links both these paintings; as Serres says, “the entire world becomes a steam engine … Turner entered into the boiler … the painting is inside”.

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The National Gallery — Level 2, 1700-1930: Joseph Wright of Derby: An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

I know this painting from when I was a kid. I think it was in one of those Time Life books, of which we has piles, rescued from pulping at some point along the paper recycling process. There were a lot of good books coming from that way. It might have been in Life Science Library, or maybe Life Nature Library, but either way I stared at it often, and it’s engraved in my memory.

It’s a beautiful painting, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, and harrowing. Even more so stumbling on it in The National Gallery. There’s nothing better than turning a corner and bumping into paintings you’ve know your whole life but this time they’re real. The light is sublime, one of Joseph Wright of Derby’s greatest strengths, and I love how my eyes circulate around the composition, from the moon to the boy’s face, clockwise past the girl covering her eyes in horror, past the glowing glass bowl obscuring the light source behind, up the faces in profile, over the scientist — or charlatan — who stares directly at me, and finally back to the young girl. She’s comforting the older girl, or maybe also on the verge of looking away, but for the moment, she’s riveted. She sees death, science, technology, and she’s all there. She’s the only person we see actually looking at the glass air pump, paying unqualified attention to it and the white cockatoo suffocating inside. There are others who are looking, the trio on the lower left, but we see them only from behind, or in profile, and none of their attention is as sharp as hers. Her face though, it’s front on, closest to the light, the brightest and most central. I look at this painting and think, “There’s a scientist,” even as she is before vivisection. It’s the emotion on her face that balances this horror at power and death with dispassionate curiosity. She’s taking it all in, and of all those present around this table, she’s the only one thinking.

The bird though. This painting was done in 1768, the British Empire was about to get booted from the Americas and just before invading Australasia. It looks like a cockatoo, whose habitat is Australia and north through Indonesia and Philippines. A lot of the art from this period features wildlife brought back from expeditions, more frequently used as exotic signifiers (like the Dinglinger Werkstatt in Dresden) of dominion, but this work is naturalistic, yet has this rare and exotic bird from a distant land being snuffed out. Exotic signifiers, eh.

As for the girl, I hope shortly after the moment in the painting, she smashed the glass, grabbed the cockatoo, kicked the ‘scientist’ in the nuts, ran off with the boy in the background — cos he looks like he’s handy with equipment and would make a good lab assistant — and did mad science and invention, changing the world.

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The National Gallery — Level 2, 1700-1930

The last of The National Gallery‘s Level 2 collections, starting with Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s Self Portrait in a Straw Hat. I took far too many photos and edited far too many and trying to write about the art at a commensurate level of ill-discipline is — probably for the best — not happening, so I’m just making quick notes on some I liked. This one because it’s a woman artist, and museums do such a weak job of representing us on either side of the canvas, particularly once we get to the 1700s, plus she was talented as her self-portrait evinces, and looks like fun.

Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo’s The Lamentation at the Foot of the Cross reminds me of Master of the Saint Bartholomew’s The Deposition, also brutal and moves the setting back to the Middle East. His father, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, has The Banquet of Cleopatra nearby. As with many of the Italian artists doing large works, it owes a heavy debt to Veronese, including having a little person in the scene.

William Hogarth’s Marriage A-la-Mode: 4. The Toilette is kinda grotesque and mainly I included it for that, and not in a praiseworthy way.

Giovanni Antonio Canal, or Canaletto as he’s better known, makes a solid appearance. I first saw him in the Gemäldegalerie and sometimes I feel a little ashamed for liking him so much, but I like Fast & Furious, so what do I know? There’s several of his, Venice: The Upper Reaches of the Grand Canal with S. Simeone Piccolo, The Feast Day of Saint Roch, and Campo S. Vidal and Santa Maria della Carità (‘The Stonemason’s Yard’) with a woman working stone in the sun. Following him is Pietro Longhi, who I thought was Canaletto at first — same time and place. Exhibition of a Rhinoceros at Venice for the strange masks, and the Rhino.

The National Gallery has all these works online, and Wikipedia has most of the artists, so I’ve been repeatedly wondering why I committed to so many photos and words. I think it’s because this is my experience of a museum or gallery I visit, and blogging serves as a kind of external memory. As well, in editing the photos I spend a long time looking at them all, revisiting my trip, looking at details, reading about the artists. So what was a short afternoon in the Gallery while heading airport-wards becomes days of looking at art as I do the editing and writing. This is for me what visiting a museum or gallery is, what being an audience in these places is, how I experience art. Perhaps too, long periods of unemployment combined with a tendency to get very involved in a task lead me to currently enjoy visual art like this. To be clear: it’s work. It’s not always fun, sometimes it’s to be endured, or I get through by persevering. I don’t know ‘what it’s for’ except for itself.

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The National Gallery — Level 2, 1600-1700: Salvator Rosa: Witches at their Incantations

Between the great religious and classical Italian Baroque works of Mattia Preti, Carlo Dolci, and Luca Giordano is Salvator Rosa. It is dark, blasted, full of nightmarish, skeletal creatures. It centres on the swollen, stretched and broken neck of a hanged man drooping from the bones of a destroyed tree. Women in pairs and trios, many naked and ravaged by age pull corpses from coffins, grind bones into brew, one pulls a baby from the carapace of a monster; a knight in silver armour and a bearded man with his unsheathed sword prepare the blade. For what? Who else will die after this rite is finished? The light gutters in a scrap of blue on the horizon, burning red the torn darkness. For a painter primarily of typical Baroque themes, Witches at their Incantations is a disturbing canvas, more so because he returned to the subject more than once.

I thought it deserves its own post, because it’s so horrific, because it’s so singular. It is a work of villainy and wickedness, not of the witches, rather of the artist and the European world of the 17th century. It debases women, age, unchristian lives, judges, yet cannot see itself as the the one who in fact is walking in darkness, who brings nightmares into the world. Part of me, the young me who was all about cool Satanic imagery loves this painting for all its Metal-ness. It’s a Black Sabbath album cover, or Slayer, proper Heavy Metal territory, screaming vocals and trashing noise to get kicked out of home by. I still love it for that, and any of the detailed photos would make most excellent album art. A more recent version of me sees this as when women were being pushed from European public life, when colonialism and the philosophy of white, European supremacy was greedily consuming the world: it’s a seductive painting of hate. Some may see traces of Goya in this, but there is no comparison. I don’t think Rosa’s rebellious or satirical streak extends so far as to make the kind of social commentary Goya did, or we might today pull from such a painting. Look at Los caprichos or Los desastres de la guerra or Goya’s late Pinturas negras series. He was painting from the other side, judging the history and morality of Europe.

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The National Gallery — Level 2, 1600-1700

Pushing on through the centuries in The National Gallery. I’d been blasting through, sated on mediæval stuff and just wanting to not leave without walking through every room, even if nothing moved me. We’re getting into Baroque here, and to be clear, my interest in European art diminishes from here on, really until the Expressionists and Post-Impressionists. It becomes wallpaper of rich white men who were doing all the colonialism and other barbarity; women dwindle and largely vanish, and the diversity of previous eras is replaced by a monotony of aggrandisement.

But there’s still a few pearls here, like Juan de Valdés’ The Immaculate Conception of the Virgin, with Two Donors, which — as with so many of my photos — fails to capture the depth and beauty, but just pretend the photo is as striking and profound as it actually is.

Later there is Mattia Preti’s The Marriage at Cana, a homage to Paolo Veronese’ Les Noces de Cana in the Louvre. It’s compositionally very different, and the use of light, contrast, and depth is closer to El Greco, than Veronese, as well as the naturalism. But what struck me is the figure pouring the wine, a black youth or maybe a little person. His face almost in profile and with the exception of the outline of his ear is a solid dark brown, there’s almost no variation in colour or tone. Nearby is Luca Giordano’s A Homage to Velázquez, with a similar figure in the bottom-left corner, not quite as singularly painted as Preti’s but pretty close, with again his ear highlighted, and faintly the contours of his face.

Lastly, Carlo Dolci’s The Adoration of the Kings. I think I traipse around Europe just looking at these. I love his white turban and the floral embroidery; he’s particularly finely dressed is our Balthazar here.

I’m writing these posts only slightly slower than I saw all the art, so next stop is the 1700–1930 bunch.

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The National Gallery — Level 2, 1500-1600

These were the last images I edited from The National Gallery, large works by Paolo Veronese, El Greco, Jan Gossaert and others.

The same room in the Louvre that houses the Mona Lisa also contains that colossal, 10 metre wide by 6 high Les Noces de Cana by Paolo Veronese, as well as the smaller but equally superb Esther et Assuérus. The National Gallery has his The Adoration of the Kings (which required a lot of editing to deal with light glare in the top, right corner), The Consecration of Saint Nicholas, and The Family of Darius before Alexander. And I reckon there’s a lot of the same people in all of them. I think the person with dwarfism on the far left with the toy dogs might be the same person as in the Louvre works, or Veronese had a habit of including little people in many of his works I’ve seen.

Jacopo Tintoretto’s Christ washing the Feet of the Disciples is another work that suffered from glare, which I mangled until it looked passable, but the photo doesn’t convey the sublime light, which comes from both the left-front, and softly from behind, giving them all a golden halo. Sometimes it’s just the lighting in a painting that really moves me. Bronzino’s An Allegory with Venus and Cupid is quite the opposite, so stylised, posed, and far from the more photographic naturalism of Tintoretto. And same for whoever did Leda and the Swan, which is both grotesque and dreamlike, and gets an inclusion because of Orphan Black.

El Greco. My first outing with him was in the Gemäldegalerie’s El Siglo de Oro, and I would have spent the whole day just sprawling in his brilliance. Here there’s his The Adoration of the Name of Jesus and Christ driving the Traders from the Temple and pretty much I could have spent the afternoon with him (again a lot of work to compensate for glare, especially on the latter work). Beside him is Bartholomaeus Spranger’s glorious The Adoration of the Kings and it’s worth mentioning these two plus the Titian, Diana and Actaeon are not haphazardly thrown together. Spranger and El Greco knew each other in Rome, both were protégés of Giulio Clovio, and were influenced by Titian. So despite the significantly different paths they took, there’s a similarity. The use of light and the oval face of Mary, the colour and draping in the robes, there’s a lot of El Greco in Spranger.

Later there’s Quinten Massys, firstly with The Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine and Barbara, another work on cloth, and yes, I still love the soft, muted colours and delicate contrast. Beside that is his famous An Old Woman (‘The Ugly Duchess’), about which and whom so much has been said, and — as is frankly predictable for art historians — so much is shameful. So here’s what I’m seeing. The current position is she was suffering from Paget’s disease, rather than being a particularly nasty caricature of an old woman who didn’t know when to put away being a young maiden. I’ll go further and say she knew exactly what she was doing, wearing unfashionable clothes, holding the flower to signify she was available to a suitor.

Often when I read museums describing their own work, or art historians debating, there is an absence of the idea a subject has self-awareness, that they could be — with the artist — laughing not at themselves, but at those who see them as merely a constellation of disease and infirmities, as less than ideal, lacking in beauty, ugly, to be mocked. Like the Portrait of the Bearded Helena Antonia in Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu, or the little people in Veronese’ paintings. Yes, there was an element of the exotic at play, as with representations of Saint Mauritius, or Balthazar in The Adoration of the Magi, yet there’s something more, just as with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, where there’s a queer femininity that is unmistakable, one which he lived amidst. It does both the sitter and the artist a disservice to hold fast to the mean idea the latter was only there to mock the former and the former was too stupid or vain to realise. It feeds the pernicious trope that we who are not good and normal enough are not deserving of love and desire.

Here’s another version of the painting: There was no mockery or laughing at, either of her or others. She was desirable and desired, and had many lovers despite her age, and her dress and accoutrements signify this unambiguously — they were fashion in her youth and here denote her place and standing and history.

And speaking of Magi, two magnificent piece by Jan Gossaert (and Circle of ~) finish this century. And my photos don’t do them many favours. But feast your eyes on them anyway, particularly the last one, so opulent and grand. For me, this is the high point in European art until the Expressionists rolled in.

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The National Gallery — Level 2, 1200-1500: Sainsbury Wing, Northern Europe

For a city about as far from the Mediterranean as it’s possible to be and still be in Europe, not as much Northern European mediæval art here as Italian. I’m still surprised at this in The National Gallery. And as with all the Italian art in my previous post, I’m just mentioning a few things that attracted me to the works I both photographed and later liked enough to edit and post here.

The Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden: I’m consistently a fan of him. If I ever want to argue for the importance of Northern European mediæval art with someone for whom all art begins and ends in Italy, I just need to mention his name. The Exhumation of Saint Hubert is from the same period as much of the Italian works, mid-1400s, yet could never be confused with art from south of the Alps, as with Portrait of a Lady. Maybe it’s the muted colours and absence of swathes of gold, as well as the different arrangements of figures, use of depth, and structuring of scenes. The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Angels and Saints, probably by Michael Pacher is another that has this distinct northern style, along with Master of Cappenberg’s (Jan Baegert?) The Coronation of the Virgin, where it’s the rich tapestry in the fabric and the almost flat, formal, symmetrical composition.

The Master of the Saint Bartholomew’s The Deposition is strangely three-dimensional and animated. It was the two bringing Jesus down off the cross that first drew me in, but the odd proportions of all their bodies, the slightly large heads that seem vaguely detached from their necks, and how you go through the scene to this empty space behind the cross and before the gold screens, yet the foreground is definitely ground, cracked and broken, so in no way a staging — all these contradictions. And in closeup, all their fingers are like spider’s legs and they’re all posed, as if shortly after they’ll break and have a drink and bite to eat before resuming the tableau. The Master is also responsible for The Virgin and Child with Musical Angels with its own unique set of weirdnesses. Lastly is Dirk Bouts’ The Entombment, one of those soft, muted pieces I love so much, on linen, and like fresco a distinctive, fragile technique. It’s sparse and austere, like lightless northern winters.

From here, jumping forward to the Renaissance for the hundred years from 1500 to 1600.