Archive for the 'National Gallery' Category

Art in London

A while back, I took a trip to London in order to look at paintings and sculptures. As I did on my trip to Paris, I made notes of my tours of the British Museum, Victoria and Albert, National Gallery, and the Tates and these posts are based on those notes. I’m pretty much uneducated in art matters, so the result is a sort of reconstructed memory of my effort to educate myself. Here’s a list of the posts minus the romances, little scenes which I attached to certain Modernist paintings:

(1) Meeting Old Friends in the British Museum
(2) The Arrogant Spectator
(3) The Elgin Marbles
(4) The Mona Lisa of the British Museum
(5) Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas
(6) Gods Are Dead and I Feel Fine
(7) Sunshine Horrorshow
(8) Shape and Texture
(9) How Good Can You Get?
(10) Whaam!
(11) Just Express Your Feelings
(12) Explosive Decompression
(13) Who Owns Andy Warhol?
(14) A Flange of Venuses
(15) It Was Ever Thus
(16) It Was Ever Tush
(17) Allez, vivants, luttez, pauvres futurs squelettes
(18) The Hapsburg Jaw
(19) J’en ai assez de ces putains de serpents!
(20) Paint Orgasm
(21) Cartoon Saints
(22) Off with His Head Already!
(23) Virgins and Their Children
(24) Past the Wit of Man
(25) And After the World Exploded
(26) Paint / Glass / Rage
(27) Messianic Complexes
(28) A Sight I Didn’t See
(29) Hodge-Podge
(30) Bernini Clinical
(31) Truth and/or Reality

There’s a tendency for these to get more bizarre as the paintings become more abstract and hence have less to say. That could also be taken as an issue with editing and quality control, but this is an internet blog and both of those terms are, after all, the very opposites of quality control. Therefore, don’t expect carefully constructed essays with each post. You might call them “impressions” if you have to call them something.

Truth and/or Reality

There are some artworks I’ve tried to take in which just don’t seem to make sense to me. Many of these are from the Romantic period and John Constable is a good example of one. It’s not clear why they seem so dead to me, but I would think it has something to do with the fact that similar scenes, sometimes called chocolate box art, are toned down and relatively neutral to the eye.

Source: Wikipedia

Dedham Vale 1802
Perhaps it’s the MTV-reared kid in me that wants entertainment instead of refinement, or the thrill-seeking intellectual daredevil I like to picture myself as in my daydreams, or an eye used to photographic detail, but despite their status as masterpieces, they do not do much for me.

Source: Wikipedia

The Hay Wain 1821
The French became huge fans of his work and he provided inspiration for Géricault and Delacroix, two Romantic painters whose stuff I absolutely love. Why, then, is this British master so bland to my tastes? Maybe there is a psychological reason to all this and I’m trying to force myself to like these landscapes like I tried to force myself to like cauliflower, or believe in God, because my parents-cum-superego told me that’s the proper thing to do. Thing is, I never put much weight on Freud either.

Source: Wikipedia

Brighton Beach with Colliers 1824
In short, I’ve spent quite a bit of time looking at Constables, trying to figure out what their point is. I’ve done this more than with some paintings I actually like. Compared to other English Romantic landscape painters like Turner, he still seems boring. Turner’s paintings, even his landscapes, are filled with action and strange colors and various weird effects and points of focus which make them exciting. In comparison, Constable is stiff and starched, very much unexciting. Why is he considered one of the greats? I have no idea, but it supposedly has something to do with truth and reality. Maybe that’s what gets in the way.

Messianic Complexes

Before the Internet existed, geniuses with an unfaltering love of themselves flocked under the The Death of Chatterton, a painting by Henry Wallis.

Source: Wikipedia

That constant interplay of amour-propre and amour de soi, the fine line between self-esteem and pride we all must tread, was roped together with sterner stuff back then. At least the rhetoric that kept pride in check still had the mighty finger of eighteenth-century moralism wagging vigorously, but that changed as the story of Western civilization approached the mechanical destruction of humanity in the two Great Wars. Thomas Chatterton was to miss all that, Henry Wallis would be around for the first couple of years of the First World War, albeit a very old man with failing eyesight. The former did not poison himself to make a dramatic gesture but to escape the ravages of hunger and poverty. It also sounds like he was nuts, but it’s hard to tell of people who do not make it past eighteen. A boy’s pride is his life at that age.

The symbolic significance of Chatterton was forged by Wallis’s picture, but also by Wordsworth, Shelley, Rossetti, Coleridge, Byron, and a whole host of poets who saw in him a great subject for flights of Romantic fancy. In these immortal works of art we can find something that is lacking on the Internet, the culmination of human technological achievement: genuine pathos. If one looks at online discussions on public forums on general topics, the first response to any message will likely be someone trying to act as the valiant straight-talker whose skillful one-liner bursts the bubble of the emotional charge set up by whatever was said to initiate the discussion. One does not usually do this with the masters of English literature, because anyone who has taken time to learn to read them values their craft too much to pee in the proverbial pool. So, if we are to think of Chatterton as a martyr for some cause free for us to choose, let us think of him as our Messiah of pathos and civilized discussion thereof.

Paint / Glass / Rage

When one walks into a gallery filled with masterpieces, it is almost a hallucinatory experience. The physical reminders of the journey there with the usual aches and pains of travel melt away as sore feet carry the viewer through halls where genius materialized hangs on the walls. All the crowds around the paintings are insignificant, all the noises of school parties and their teachers bellowing commands, all that quiets down and one is faced with something that tells of the otherworldly skill and dedication of the artist and restores one’s faith in humanity and its shared existence in the world. The volume of the surrounding world slides down, the self stops its incessant chattering, and after a moment one snaps out of it and moves to the next work.

But sometimes there are problems, little annoyances in the paintings themselves that don’t allow a good viewing. There are numerous entries in my journal from the National Gallery in London where I’ve written down: “Glass.” There’s a sheet of glass between me and the canvas, and sometimes it ruins everything. Not always, mind you, because there were paintings that had one where my notes do not show any protest, but this happened often enough for there to be a good number of “glasses” scribbled in agitated letters. For instance, the great Bronzino‘s Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time is an exquisite example of Mannerist weirdness, but all the distracting gleams and reflections the lights and the movement of the crowds created on its surface made for a sad viewing.

Source: Wikipedia

It was still wonderful to look at, but it could have been better. There’s probably a good reason for the glass, vandals and whatnot, but it’s a sorry sight because it somehow reminds one of the fast food age we live in. I don’t know if that makes sense, because for all I know Renaissance paintings might have been placed behind a glass to begin with, but I doubt it. By the way, Monty Python fans will recognize Cupid’s foot in that Bronzino.

Vermeer is a painter whose stuff I’ve always wanted to see, but sadly I’ve managed to get a glimpse of only a couple of his paintings. I can’t explain it, but I think they are just about the greatest things ever splashed on a canvas. There was one in the National Gallery.

Source: Wikipedia

It’s called Lady Seated at a Virginal and I’ve written in my notebook: “I just want to touch it.” Maybe that’s why there’s a glass disfiguring this one as well. It just didn’t settle because of it, the light went all over the place and created reflections which made it impossible to find a spot in the hall which would have enabled me to see the painting in its entirety.

Source: Wikipedia

It seems like many of the Vermeers have found their way to New York. That seems like a long way to go to see his paintings, but I just might have to cross the ocean to see them properly. Are they behind glass screens in the Met?

Virgins and their Children

Source: Wikipedia

Carlo Crivelli

Source: Wikipedia

Filippino Lippi

Source: Wikipedia

Andrea Mantegna

Source: Wikipedia


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Giovanni Bellini

Source: Wikipedia


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Cima da Conegliano

Source: Wikipedia

Bronzino

Source: Wikipedia

Valerio Castello

Source: Wikipedia

Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato

Off With His Head Already!

Here’s an interesting fact you can use in clever table conversation: The vandyke beard got its name from the Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck, who painted portraits in England when this particular combo of facial hair was all the rage. The most famous of his models was no doubt the soon-to-be-headless King Charles I. And here’s another interesting tidbit: the most famous of his portraits, the triple portrait, was actually made for a sculptor who made a bust following the painting. So, it’s pretty much a sketch for something else, not an actual portrait.

Source: Wikipedia

He looks like a small, unassuming man, but he was an incredibly vain even for a monarch. He had a huge collection of art and even called van Dyck over as “principalle Paynter in ordinary to their majesties,” but it doesn’t seem like he ever got around displaying his staggering collection to his subjects. If he wanted to buttress his throne with art, it was silly of him to hog all these pictures and keep them locked up. Not the sharpest of pencils, this one.

Source: Wikipedia

Van Dyck was a great find for Charles and the portraits he painted would have a hold on English portrait painting for at least the next century and half. The one above is in the Louvre and one can see how the understated colors are in perfect harmony with the deep shadows. There is something very earthy about the image and yet it retains a mysterious dim glow as the King is bathed in golden sunlight.

Source: Wikipedia

This one’s in the National Gallery and when I passed it, obviously awed by the portrait, I wrote in my little notebook: “Served him right!” I was impressed by the size (367 x 292.1 cm) as well as the technical perfection of the piece. It is the most conventional of royal portraits, the King on horseback, but it is executed with such force and grace that it had even a kid brought up in a socialist country momentarily seduced by monarchy. However, a nodding museum employee quickly made me realize that the King didn’t do anything but sit on his sorry ass for his portrait. This sudden back-and-forth made me realize that it is as easy to worship Kings as it is to call for their heads.

Paint Orgasm

Caravaggio‘s Boy Bitten by a Lizard has not one but two Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the picture of the one in the National Gallery they provide is a bit too light and does not really bring out the dark, damp feel of the scene.

Source: Wikipedia

The first Wikipedia article describes the painting in the same terms as the blurb attached to the painting in the museum:

The painting also contains complex sexual symbolism, which would have been quite clear to educated audiences in Caravaggio’s day: The bared shoulder and the rose behind the boy’s ear indicate excessive vanity and a wish to be seen and admired, the cherries symbolize sexual lust, the third finger had the same meaning in the seventeenth century as it does today, and the lizard was a metaphor for the penis. The boy becomes aware, with a shock, of the pains of physical love.

Added to this, there are the famous dirty fingernails and Caravaggio’s usual take on the nastiness of the human world. In short, the painting is about an orgasm and all that comes with it (pun not intended) — “the pains of physical love” is just pussyfooting around the subject. The other Wikipedia article is a confusing history of scholarship about the painting and it mentions that there has been a lot of discussion about the homosexual themes in the picture — that’s just a way of saying that a lot of people are wondering whether or not Caravaggio fucked or wanted to fuck his model. Someone interested in that might be wrestling with an interesting question, but, being a peasant, I don’t know how that is of any relevance to the painting itself. I find the picture opens up when you look at it and remember the first time you found release in the arms of a lover.