Jan Gossaert at the National Gallery

I went along to this with little knowledge and few preconceptions and on the whole was pleasantly surprised. I’ve said before I particularly like the Northern Renaissance for its more medieval aesthetic compared to the Italians. That’s actually less true of Gossaert; a lot of his figures have that contorted quality that I associate with, say, Michelangelo; of being posed in rather uncomfortable-looking positions with pronounced foreshortening. They also have a kind of fleshiness which relates to the Italians but also seems to make him a precursor of painters like Rubens and Jacob Jordaens.

The portraits stood out for me; which, come to think of it, is often the case in these exhibitions. I guess that’s partially because of their human interest — they are the most gossipy kind of painting — and partially because the relatively constrained format strips away many of the things modern audience find off-putting about older paintings. I think there are various reasons why religious paintings and history paintings are not to modern taste, some of it to do with the subject matter, but also the style. Whereas a straightforward head-and-shoulders portrait, the subject looking out of the canvas, is probably the single genre of painting which carries through most directly from the Renaissance to now.

So there was certainly stuff to enjoy — not least some fantastic Dürer engravings and woodcuts which were in there for context — but I can see why Gossaert’s not as well known as some of his contemporaries. He was clearly a wonderful painter, but he just lacks the extra something to make him stand out. And the ways in which he is different from his contemporaries probably make him less to modern taste rather than more. Certainly less to my taste.

‘Venice: Canaletto and his Rivals’ at the National Gallery

On to more cheerful subjects — I went to see the Canaletto exhibition at the NG the other day. Which i enjoyed, entirely predictably; because I’m not sure Canaletto is one of the very greatest painters in the European tradition, but he is one of the most likeable. I’ve never seen a Canaletto I wouldn’t like to own. He clearly had a bit of conveyer belt going on at one stage, producing standard views of Venice for English tourists, but even at their most formulaic, his paintings are cheerful, decorative and full of engaging details.

This exhibition puts his career in the context of other painters of Venetian view paintings at the time, which makes for interesting comparisons. For example, there are three paintings displayed alongside each other of regattas on the Grand Canal, one by Canaletto and the others by, I think, Michele Marieschi and Bernardo Bellotto. The stylistic differences are interesting, but the most striking thing is how differently they portray the physical reality of the scene; the canal is about half as wide in the Marieschi* as the Canaletto, presumably to create a livelier, more crowded scene.

The other two most notable things, for me, were Canaletto’s early style and the works of Francesco Guardi. Canaletto’s earliest paintings of Venice were rather looser, with much broader brushstrokes; but they are also greyer and a bit grittier. They don’t have that amazing glowing Mediterranean light which is so much part of the later works, but also they make Venice look a bit shabby, a bit dirty; a city of faded glories. There’s a painting of St Mark’s square with market stalls clustered around the bottom of the basilica and campanile, and the size of the building makes the rather ragged stalls and people look paltry and insignificant, while the stalls in turn undercut the grandeur of the basilica.

I wouldn’t want to read too much into it — I daresay he was aiming for straightforward realism rather than biting social commentary — but it does make you realise how much more flattering his later paintings are. They are all glowing and sparkly, and while they do still have disreputable looking characters in them, they now look like lively local colour rather than slightly seedy. I have to say I rather liked the early paintings, but I can see why it was the later work that was so commercially successful. I don’t know whether he consciously changed his style specifically to make his work more marketable: it seems quite likely. And why not, after all.

And the Francesco Guardi paintings were interesting to me just because I was unfamiliar with his work. It’s much more stylised than Canaletto, with suggestive little brushstrokes and curious little pin-headed figures. You can see why his work was rediscovered and celebrated by C19th artists as being ahead of his time; he’s clearly moving in the direction of painters like, to make the obvious Venice comparison, Turner. Like Turner, he favoured scenes with a lot of water and sky — boats on the lagoon, rather than, or as well as, more architectural subjects.

* I think. I suppose I could try taking notes at these exhibitions if I’m going to blog about them later… nah.

» The picture is a detail from Francesco Guardi’s Venice: The Giudecca with the Zitelle.

‘The Sacred Made Real’ at the National Gallery

To quote their own blurb:

The Sacred Made Real’ presents a landmark reappraisal of religious art from the Spanish Golden Age with works created to shock the senses and stir the soul.

Paintings, including masterpieces by Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Zurbarán, are displayed for the very first time alongside Spain’s remarkable polychrome wooden sculptures.

By ‘polychrome wooden sculptures’ they mean things like this, Christ as the Man of Sorrows, 1673, by Pedro de Mena (I’ve had to take the picture from the Guardian, which has a good selection, because the NG has got no images on the exhibition website at all):


I find this business of coloured sculpture intriguing, because of course if you’re aiming for verisimilitude it makes perfect sense; and yet, largely by historical accident, we have come to expect sculpture in the fine art tradition to be in the bare material, whether marble, bronze or whatever.

These works looks especially foreign from a Protestant perspective. And yes, I know I keep going on about being an atheist, but I’m clearly a Church of England atheist when it comes to my religious sensibilities. And the Protestant aesthetic of whitewashed churches and plain glass is explicitly intended to contrast with this kind of art; it is sculptures like these that are processed through the streets of Seville in Holy Week by masked penitents, which must be the apotheosis of the bells and smells side of Catholicism. Protestants over the years have found that either tawdry and vulgar or solemn, dignified and mysterious, according to taste, but one way or the other it has a fascinatingly exotic quality for those of us brought up with the tea and biscuits kind of Christianity.

My initial reaction to these sculptures was ambivalent; there was something spooky or creepy or just a bit odd about them. And I don’t mean the gore; the head of John the Baptist where the cross section of the neck looks like something from the butcher’s, or Christ bruised and dripping with blood. No, even the statues of saints and the Virgin seemed a bit creepy at first encounter. St Ignatius Loyola, with his dark robes, looks like something that might lurch out of the dark at a carnival ghost train.

I’m tempted to invoke the uncanny valley, but actually I think it’s mainly simple unfamiliarity. The sculptures only seem like something from Madame Tussauds — something other than fine art — because of my expectations. Eventually, once I had been in the exhibition for a while, that sense of novelty wore off a bit; and eventually I was able to stop overthinking it and start to respond to the works as pieces of art.

And once that happened I did start to appreciate them and find them quite effective. They are not my new favourite thing, and I’m still not sure I’d say I really like them, even. But I’m certainly glad I went. Thought-provoking stuff.

There are also some fine paintings in the show as well, incidentally, by Velázquez and Zurburán particularly; but those were more familiar and less interesting to me, except in the way they provide a context for the sculptures. It is interesting, for example, that although they are recognisably part of the same religious culture, the paintings are immediately and obviously ‘art’, while my reaction to the sculptures was so much more difficult.

Renaissance Faces at the National Gallery

Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian is an exhibition that does exactly what the title the suggests: it’s a selection of portraits by van Eyck, Titian, Raphael, Holbein, Botticelli, Dürer, Cranach and their contemporaries. Room after room of rather solemn looking people — no smiling for portraits back then — wearing their most expensive-looking velvets and furs and damasks. So if that’s the kind of thing you like, and on the whole I do, you’d probably like this show.

About half the pictures are from the National’s permanent collection, which sometimes seems a little bit like cheating; but there are some very good paintings they’ve borrowed from elsewhere, it’s interesting to see them all together, and it’s not actually a chore to have another look at van Eyck’s Arnolfini portrait, or the Bellini portrait of the Doge, or Holbein’s Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling.

For me the finest picture in the exhibition is the Titian portrait of Pope Paul III which normally lives in Naples. It really is one of those works which seems transcendent even by the standards of a great artist. The Pope sits there, engulfed in these huge robes, looking physically old but sharp-eyed and full of power. And they have it hanging next to the portrait of Pope Julius II by Raphael from their permanent collection, painted fifty years earlier and an important influence for Titian’s portrait. They are both marvellous paintings and they make a fascinating contrast, stylistically and psychologically.

» The Raphael is the one at the top.

Divisionist Painters at the National Gallery

Radical Light: Italy’s Divisionist Painters 1891-1910, to give the exhibition its full title. Divisionism is a style of painting where the image is built up of lots of individual brushstrokes of pure colour which, ideally, merge together for the viewer but create a more luminous effect than if the colours were blended on the palette.

Angelo Morbelli, 'In the Rice Fields', 1898-1901, © the owner

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s Pointillism under a different name. Apparently the Divisionists had heard about Pointillism and were inspired by it but hadn’t actually seen the paintings; they generally use long thin brushstrokes rather than the little dabs favoured by Seurat, but the principle is the same. Divisionism was also apprently an important stepping stone towards Futurism, the rather more famous Italian art movement.
I didn’t have very high expectations — I think obscure artistic movements are often obscure for a reason, I don’t like Seurat that much, and it got a bad review in Time Out — but, perhaps because of that, I enjoyed it. Some of the symbolist and political stuff had aged badly, but there were some really very likeable landscapes. Since the optical effect which is the whole point of Divisionism is destroyed by reproducing them as little jpegs, the pictures on the website don’t do them justice, but hey-ho.

» The picture above, taken from the exhibition website, is Angelo Morbelli’s ‘In the Rice Fields’, 1898-1901, © the owner

Renaissance Siena at the National Gallery

I went to the Renaissance Siena: Art for a City exhibition today. It’s late C15th and early C16th art. I gathered from the audio-guide that by then, Siena had already had its golden age, and was dropping behind places like Florence and Rome as an artistic centre.

The Story of Patient Griselda, Part I

So the artists in the show—Matteo di Giovanni, Francesco di Giorgio, Benvenuto di Giovanni, the Master of the Legend of Griselda, Signorelli, Pintoricchi, Beccafumi—aren’t household names. I hadn’t heard of any of them. And if someone who was a fan of the Italian Renaissance was passing through London for the first time and considering going to the exhibition, I’d recommend they bypass it and visit the National Gallery’s permanent collection, which has some superb Renaissance paintings.

Nonetheless, I did enjoy it. I find these early Renaissance works extremely likeable, although I couldn’t easily articulate why. There’s something very human about them, both in scale and style, which makes them more approachable than grander works by people like Michelangelo. They draw you in to look closely and enjoy the details.

Saint Dorothy and the Infant Christ

And I had a very nice lemon tart in the National Gallery café.

» the two details above are both from paintings which are in the Gallery’s permanent collection and are currently in the Siena show. The first is ‘The Story of Patient Griselda, Part I’ by the Master of the Story of Griselda; the other is ‘Saint Dorothy and the Infant Christ’ by Francesco di Giorgio.

Dutch Portraits at the National Gallery

I went to see Dutch Portraits: The Age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals yesterday. It was pleasantly quiet; I guess the prospect of lots and lots of paintings of men in black suits with white ruffs and little pointy beards doesn’t produce a frisson of excitement in your average Londoner.

And from that point of view, the exhibition is very much what you would expect; there are no startling surprises. There are some very good paintings though.

bit of Rembrandt

Whenever I go to an exhibition with a couple of named artists in the title, I tend to find myself treating it as a competition; Rembrandt vs. Frans Hals. I think it’s a very high compliment to Hals that for much of the exhibition, they’re neck and neck. It’s only when you get to the late Rembrandts that it becomes completely one-sided, but then those late Rembrandt portraits are, I think, among the finest works in the history of art. Of those I haven’t seen in the flesh before, the most remarkable is the incredible group portrait of the syndics (officials of the Draper’s Guild) which I’ve included a little section of above.

Still, I know Rembrandt’s work quite well, and several of his paintings on show here are part of the National’s permanent collection—notably the portraits of Jacob Trip and Margaretha de Geer. So for me the exhibition was more about discovering Hals, who I really only knew from the ‘Laughing Cavalier’. His most typical portraits are strikingly informal; one of the portraits has his subject leaning right back with his chair balancing on the just the back legs. That ability, to portray people looking relaxed and natural, is a good trick in itself, but he was also very good at using loosely handled paint to suggest textures: skin, of course, and almost as vital for the C17th portraitist, silk, satin, brocade, embroidery and lace. All those black clothes may have been superficially intended as a sober, modest reflection of a conservative Protestant culture, but with the lushness of the fabrics, the effect is no more humble than a little black Versace dress.

bit of Hals

Oddly enough, for a long time, I vaguely thought that The Laughing Cavalier (which isn’t the picture above; that’s part of the wedding portrait of Isaac Massa and his wife) was a Victorian painting. Obviously it’s not of a man in Victorian dress, but I vaguely thought it was a bit of C19th pastiche. I can still sort of see that in Hals’s paintings; often the informality has a kind of theatrical quality to it—cheesiness would be unfair, but I’m hinting in that direction—which is reminiscent of C19th narrative paintings. Certainly it doesn’t surprise me to learn that his reputation was re-established in the C19th after a period of neglect; I can see he would have been to their taste. I wouldn’t want to over-stress that comparison, though, because I can’t stand Victorian painting and Hals is much better than that.

I’ve mainly talked about Rembrandt and Frans Hals, but there were also some lovely paintings by other artists, most of whose names I’ve already forgotten. These exhibitions organised around a period always serve as reminders that for every famous artist there are dozens of very very good artists whose names are familiar only to specialists. Still, painters probably get treated better than poets by posterity, because the scarcity of original paintings lends value to work even by minor artists.

Velazquez at the National Gallery

Well, I went to the Velazquez. Of course I spent most of the time finding angles to see the paintings between all the people, but I’m used to that. It was a good show, tracing his career from a couple of early paintings at age 17 (which were reassuringly stiff and clumsy) to his late paintings – mainly but not exclusively court portraits. Like a lot of artists he seemed to start by developing almost photographic accuracy — water drops trickling down the side of earthenwear jars and so on — and then developing a progressively a progressively looser and sketchier technique. A few silver daubs would evoke a richly embroidered fabric where earlier he would have painted every stitch.

I was expecting slightly more wow factor, possibly because about the most impressive picture I’ve ever seen in the flesh could well be Las Meninas (which unsurprisingly is still in the Prado). I find it hard to pick out single paintings which were absolute show-stoppers. What there were, though, were a lot of very fine paintings indeed.

Velazquez had the slight misfortune to be court painter to perhaps the ugliest royal family Europe has ever had. It was a branch of the Hapsburgs, and looking at Philip IV, it’s hard not to have uncharitable thoughts about inbreeding:

As well as Philip IV, Velazquez painted some fine pictures of younger members of the family, including annual portraits of the Infanta Margarita which were were sent to her uncle, the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, to whom she’d been betrothed from infancy. The one in the National shows her at eight. There are also a couple of paintings of her sister, the Infanta Maria Teresa, at fourteen, which were painted so she could hawked around the courts of Europe as a marriage prospect. She ended up as Queen of France, so I guess someone was able to see past the Hapsburg chin:

‘Rebels and Martyrs’ at the National Gallery

I went to Rebels and Martyrs at the National today. Note to curators: white writing on mid-grey walls is just fucking annoying. I started wishing I’d picked up one of the folders with large-print writing for the poorly sighted because I was having to squint to read the info next to the paintings.

Having vented that particular annoyance: I’m afraid I can’t get very excited about the exhibition itself, either. To quote the NG:

The artist as a rebel battling against society, a tortured and misunderstood genius, has a powerful hold on our collective imagination.

This exhibition traces the development of this idea, from the birth of Romanticism through to the early 20th century and the avant-garde.

Bringing together works by many of the great artists of the period, including Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Rodin, Picasso and Schiele, it explores how they responded to Romantic ideas about creativity and deliberately cast themselves as outsiders and visionaries.

So it was basically a parade of artists portraying themselves and their friends as visionaries, tortured souls, bohemians, dandies, flâneurs, martyrs and prophets. The trouble with grouping together paintings whose common theme is the vanity and posturing of the artists is that all the pictures seem lessened by the context. There were some very fine pieces in the show, but somehow the theming discouraged you from seeing them as individual paintings; instead they all seemed like symptoms.

The portrayal of artists in C19th art should be an interesting and worthy subject for an exhibition, but it just felt like a focussing-in on an unattractive aspect of the artistic culture. Even though it was theoretically putting the individual works in a broader cultural context, somehow it just felt reductive.

On a more positive note, their next exhibition is Velasquez, which I’m really looking forward to. And since I’ve been on a Rembrandt kick lately, after looking at all those C19th poseurs, I popped round to see the NG’s Rembrandts again. Fuck me, they’re good.


It’s not that I think the artists were less admirable because they occasionally produced rather self-serving work. These [self]portraits are only a small part of their output, and not generally the most important part. That’s the problem with the exhibition; not that the observations it makes are untrue, but that the selectiveness is unfair on the artists as individuals. It demonstrates the ways in which the caricature is true without touching on all the ways that it is partial.


The caricature is at the expense of everything that makes the artists interesting. Perhaps it’s the antithesis of what makes them interesting.