Tuesday, 9 February 2016

National Gallery

Trafalgar Square
London W.1

Thursday February 3 2016

Well we have a dwindling following – not sure whether our remarks about architects  (we like architecture) lost us some followers but they seem to have dwindled from 199 to 170…
Today’s visit was, as with all our trips to the major London museums, to be the first in a series in order to do justice to a major collection. As the 176 wended its way to Trafalgar Square I brooded about the dearth of UK-based artists in the period covered by the Sainsbury Wing –  never had as much Art as central Europe? all destroyed by the Reformation then Cromwell? anonymous? painted directly on the fabric of the church? – but I did not really reach a conclusion except that Italy clearly had artwork surplus to requirements. Or was it a case of out with the old, in with the new for them, leaving collectors to pick up the pieces?

The the website for the National Gallery is excellent and really makes most of what I write totally redundant. The room arrangement is both by chronology and area so locality artists are grouped together with Leonardo’s two works having rooms of their own. I suppose he was a man both of his time and out of his time and he certainly moved around more than most of his Italian peers.
Probably 90% of the works in these rooms are religious so it helps to have a working knowledge mainly of the New Testament and the more esoteric saints and evangelists. Any gallery visitor (or indeed art lover going to Italy) does well to arm themselves with a Dictionary of Saints as often by their symbols or props ‘ye shall know them’. For example St Peter with his keys is very familiar but there were several examples of a guy clutching what looks like a rusty barbecue – this is of course St Lawrence who met his end being roasted on a grid… St Catherine leans on her wheel and there are several St Margarets being spewed out by a dragon.

Many of these paintings are altar pieces so you did get a lot for your money – usually a central picture with two smaller side wings possibly painted both sides  and underneath the more ‘comic strip’ Predella with its story board accounts of a local or well-known miracle or Gospel Story.
There was of course a preponderance of Madonnas and child sometimes together with St John the Baptist, the Infant Jesus’ playmate and later life companion until John went off wandering in the desert and Salome claimed his head as a prize (you’ll have to wait for the Caravaggios for the full gory story).

Up to Victorian times blue remained the colour most associated with the Virgin and thus girls’ and women’s clothing and likewise deep pink was not unusual for men – at some time this ‘convention’ was reversed.

Once artists have mastered both perspective and scale the babies are roughly the right size but most look either like scaled down boys or quite overweight.  Fra Lippo Lippi one of my personal favourites, really achieves more appealing infants. His was a life and talent not to be confined to a monastery and clearly a temperament more temporal than religious meant at least that he travelled beyond his religious order, painted widely  and left a legacy of wonderful art and a son almost as talented as himself. Lorenzo di Medici was a patron and he rarely backed a loser. 

The preponderance of religious themes does not mean you do not get a good idea of what the people contemporary to the artist would have worn or looked like; plus as the century progressed artists included more background – usually the city where they had set up shop. There is a small side room where the Flemish and Northern ( German and Austrian) artists are collected and these have a  quiet clarity to them – also include more worldly paintings such as the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait and some memorable though by now unnamed local patrons.

Rogier van der Weyden, another favourite,  is represented here also and is a good place to linger.

Ucello’s battle scene and a couple of mythological treatments ate the key exceptions to this particular morning’s principal viewing. At some point in front of the Crivellis we both glazed over having really been quite concentrating for nearly two hours – it was an absorbing visit.

The pictures are exceptionally well captioned, giving a succinct precis of the scene depicted the context of the painting (ex church/commission etc) plus why if might be important – and they are honest where authorship might be disputed. Given such scholarship anything I might say is pretty much redundant but go and see for yourself – it is free after all.

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