When in London, head to a museum for that cultural fix
May 15 2014
Two days ago, after a meeting near Trafalgar Square, I dropped into the National Gallery. It was a gloriously sunny day and European tourists had filled the square, sunning themselves in every available inch of space (from which, mercifully, pigeons have now been driven off). In the centre, as everyone knows, rises the very tall Nelson’s column, flanked at the base by four imposing lions whose sad fate is now to provide a photo op. At the four corners of the square are large statues of famous generals. Or at least there were: now there are three, one of the unfortunate generals having been consigned to the scrap heap of history. The vacant plinth is used to mount a modern sculpture every few months. At the moment, they have a rather large purple cow. Don’t ask me why. All I could think of was Robert Louis Stevenson’s nonsense rhyme which went I have never seen a purple cow/ And I never hope to see one/ But if I ever see a purple cow/ I never hope to be one.
Like a good Indian I quickly got out of the sun and went inside. Every time I go into the National Gallery, it’s the same dilemma: what do I see? Every large room in the gallery — and there are many — are chock a bloc with masterpieces, a Rembrandt jostling for space with a Titian, a Raphael with a Michelangelo, a Rubens here, a Turner there. Your head spins. I generally give up after a while and go to the isolated room where Leonardo’s ‘cartoon’ (drawing) is kept. It’s the most beautiful work of art in the world and you can never tire of it.
This time I decided to do something different: which was to go to the National’s special exhibitions. The first was Building the Picture. This focused on architecture in Italian renaissance paintings. Generally when you look at a picture, you concentrate on the figures in the foreground, so much so that you do not notice what’s behind.
However, as the exhibition shows, Italian artists such as Botticelli, Crivelli and Duccio seemed to work the other way: their so called background features buildings in such detail that they seem to have been painted first to give a structure to the picture and the figures put in later to fit the grid created by them. Some of the buildings reflect real architectural forms, some are made deliberately fantastical, often in the same work. I will never look at a painting the same way again.
The second exhibition featured Veronese, a renaissance painter from Venice, who many regard as the most accomplished painter of them all. It’s a huge exhibition and Veronese certainly worked on a large scale, some of the paintings — especially religious ones done for churches — stretching to the ceiling. But however large the paintings, Veronese’s attention to detail is formidable. You see that in his masterful depiction of clothes, embroidery, jewellery and furniture. But the paintings are not all surface as this might suggest: the subject’s expression, posture, body language all combine to reveal his or her real spirit.
When I came out of the gallery, the sun was still shining brightly and the tourists were still sunning themselves. I looked at my watch — I had been inside for over four hours, completely in thrall of what I saw.