Tuesday, April 16, 2013

London's National Gallery of Art

This is the second in a planned series of stories from my recent trip to London, where I had the great fortune to see great art--and to explore several remarkable urban parklands. My first installment, an introductory story called "How wild is London," is on my other blog, Urban Wilderness. As I've said before, I find the distinctions between my interests in art and nature to be arbitrary and confining. My experiences in London provided further weight to this view, which I hope to share in upcoming installments.

The National Gallery

From our long list of London’s museums and galleries we start at the top. As one of the premier encyclopedic institutions of its kind, the National Gallery has not only a little of everything, but many of the specific works of art that inevitably appear in the art history textbooks. We are far from alone. The National Gallery is the fourth most visited art museum in the world (after the Louvre, the Met, and the British Museum, just blocks from this one.)

My first impression is not of the paintings on the walls, however, but the grandeur of the rooms themselves. Contemporary museum design leans to minimalist interior spaces with color schemes in a narrow range of white. Not here.

courtesy Wikipedia
In fact, at first glance the paintings seem incidental, under high domed ceilings, surrounded by richly colored wallpapers and ornate Neo-Classical architectural detailing. (This museum, like so many, eschews photography by the masses and so I am resorting to wiki-images in the public domain, as noted.)
courtesy WikiPaintings

My architectural reverie is interrupted; my attention arrested by a painting so familiar I quickly realize I’ve seen it much more recently than whenever it was I last studied art history. The Fighting Temeraire had a cameo appearance in Skyfall, the latest Bond movie. Bond sat down in front of it to meet Q, his tech handler. The two characters even bantered briefly about the image’s metaphorical significance. Art imitating art. Life observing same. And popular culture clothing itself in references to high culture, to the extent that term retains currency in a museum as crowded as this is. Next to the frame is a plaque that informs us that this is the most popular painting in England. Typically ironic. Like so many ground-breaking artists, Turner stirred controversy in his day with an atmospheric style that prefigured Impressionism. How fickle is public opinion!

Now alert to the splendor of the selections on the walls, I begin to quiz myself. Upon entering I scan each room and try to identify the artists before closing in on them, always on the lookout for particular favorites. Constable and Gainsborough, Ingres and Degas. It gets easier as I reach the more modern galleries where I find glorious Monets and, of course, Van Gogh and Cezanne.

courtesy Wikipedia
I’ll mention two more highlights, both notable for the surprisingly diminutive scale of the paintings as well as their brilliance and historical relevance. In fact, I almost miss a tiny version of Ingres’s Oedipus and the Sphinx. Only a few inches tall, it is hiding in a corner amongst larger works. Peering closely at it I am struck by the curious compulsion of contemporary artists to make their work gigantic.

courtesy Wikipedia
Watching the time, we consult our gallery map so as not to miss another famous masterpiece, Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage Portrait. We thread our way through the galleries, across a connecting bridge and into the Sainsbury Wing extension of the museum. Still early afternoon, little did we know how short on time we were. No sooner did we arrive in front of it and with barely enough time to admire the meticulously rendered detail when the museum guard, responding to some cue in his ear bud, curtly began herding everyone out of the gallery. We join a startled and muttering throng converging on the connecting bridge as we realize the entire wing is being summarily evacuated. The reason is never explained.

As counterpoint to what we’ve just seen, outside the museum Trafalgar Square offers up street arts, from the political to the entertaining to the crassly commercial. Not that these are mutually exclusive, mind you!

Jan van Eyck was innovative enough with oil paint that his work is considered revolutionary and the Arnolfini double portrait has been analyzed to death by innumerable art history undergrads. Still, his work was commercial in the sense that he depended for his livelihood on commissions, as did most artists before the advent of modernism.

The chalked flags below included audience participation. In addition to soliciting donations, the "artist" invited anyone who wished to add a flag to the matrix. Chalked in the center it reads, "Peace + Love" and "Welcome to London." Amen to that!

But wait, there's more! To read my post about the Tate Modern, click here.

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