Seduced and Surprised by the National Gallery

4 Nov

Early on Tuesday morning, I joined the throng of commuters walking across Green Park.  I was freezing and realised that fingerless gloves don’t do very much now it’s winter!  I was off to a bloggers’ breakfast at the Queen’s Gallery – the Palace are embracing new technology – to view their new exhibition, The Northern Renaissance ­­.

The exhibition apparently reunites the enemies and allies of Henry VIII’s court, a place characterised by political intrigue and betrayal.   With around 130 works, it is a great excuse to show off some of the Royal Collection’s Renaissance gems including Lucas Cranach the Elder, Urs Grat and Pieter Bruegel the Elder.  Artists responded to changing ideas and a revival in humanism by producing ingenious works with advancing technical skill.

The Northern Renaissance at The Queen’s Gallery.  Own photograph.

The period saw an increase in the demand for tapestries, moveable furnishings that demonstrated the wealth and power of the owner.  When this exhibition was on display in Scotland, these weren’t shown as the exhibition was in a smaller form.  This show also teaches us that the Renaissance is not only Italian and concentrates on Northern Europe with particular emphasis on Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein the Younger.

One of the tapestries in the exhibition. Own photograph.

Without Holbein we wouldn’t even know what Henry VIII looked like and he also immortalised many of the personalities of Henry’s court.  The exhibition opens with a lovely collection of Holbein drawings.

The Apocalypse was a popular subject for illustration in the Middle Ages.  In 1498, Dürer published the Book of Revelations with 15 illustrations – incredible nightmarish scenes including figures from all sections of society, reminding viewers that no-one would be spared the day of judgement.  Dürer understood how to brand himself and his AD monogram, placed on all his works, made his art instantly identifiable.

Dürer’s The Apocalypse. Own photograph.

The Bruegel work, Massacre of the Innocents, which is normally on view in isolation in Windsor, is here seen in context.  But, this piece presents an interesting conundrum; during its lifetime, when owned by Emperor Rudolph II in Prague, nearly all the slaughtered children and babies were painted over to change the tone of the scene.  Evidence of them can be found using infra-red reflectography.  Do we intervene or accept that this is the history of the work?

Bruegel, Massacre of the Innocents. Own photograph.

In this vein, the gallery has conserved eight paintings for this exhibition, bringing them back to life.  One example of this is Holbein’s Hans of Antwerp – the cleaned portrait reveals new details and clues as to who this sitter may actually be but how much conservation is too much?!

Holbein, Hans of Antwerp. Own photograph.

The Queen’s Gallery do get their brightly coloured walls right and the exhibition is dark but not gloomy.  This is a much more serious exhibition than their usual and the curators haven’t gone for tricks to attract punters.  It’s a bit of a mix but maybe that is the point – to show the truly varied practice of this period.  This is a large and thoughtful exhibition (although sometimes the delicacy of the drawings is lost) and I don’t really know if it is right for their audience.  It’s alright but it’s not mind-blowing.

One exhibition, however, which is mind-blowing is Seduced by Art at the National Gallery.  I didn’t know what to think about the ideas behind this show so my expectations were low but it is sensational.

As soon as I walked into the first room I was grabbed (not literally).  Visitors are greeted by Jeff Wall’s The Destroyed Room, 1978, where he evokes the destructive frenzy of Delacroix’s painting The Death of Sardanapalus.  This is Wall’s earliest attempt to quote the past and he incorporates spectacle into the photograph, showing the aftermath of man-made disaster.  This room looks at how photographers responded to fine art traditions, especially painting; it’s called Setting the Scene which is what it does – it is a room of theatre.

Jeff Wall, The Destroyed Room.  Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada and via www.ng-london.org.uk

This is an exhibition that constantly surprised me.  If I had any doubts, they were gone by room two (portraits) where I was greeted by Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews (one of my all-time favourite paintings, loved all the more for its inclusion in Freya North’s Chloë) alongside Martin Parr’s Signs of the Times from 1991.  Parr recognised the satiric potential of a protracted pose.  His discomfort contradicts the couple in Gainsborough’s work but this is a clever and fascinating juxtaposition that is still making me smile that nearly a week on.  Parr’s work has a real edge but he also takes a well-considered look at social portraiture through pose and stance, among other things.  It encapsulates something very different to the usual snapshot, showing a young couple at the beginning of their married life in their first home – in this way, the work is very sympathetic to Gainsborough.

Parr and Gainsborough.  Own photograph.

Moving on, the Learoyd photo of Man with Octopus Tattoo II,which has been used for all the publicity, is here compared with the Laocoön group.  The National Gallery argues that they have a similarly sensuous and disturbing impact.   The resemblances don’t go very far aesthetically but the ideas are shocking in both.

Learoyd and surrounding works at the National Gallery. Own photograph.

The National Gallery is once again giving their large middle room a church-like atmosphere and here the exhibition presents provocative religious imagery.  Included is Thomas Struth’s photograph of visitors to the National Gallery viewing one of their altarpieces.  Is this photo real?  What are we looking at, a snapshot or a carefully contrived and created moment?  We will never really know and this helps to teach us to question what is presented to us.  The exhibition also shows the incredible advances that have taken place within the medium.

Religious imagery.  Own photograph.

Three photographs have also been incorporated into the permanent collections offering a sensational effect.  Each comparison is a revelation making a statement using the most incredible works to support its arguments.  It’s hard to keep superlatives from my writing as the exhibition really was so good!

Seduced by Art is not trying to be a survey, nor is it a history of photography.  It’s making an argument.  Whether or not you agree, the exhibition is a dialogue that looks at significant moments.  A survey of photographs can be found anywhere but this exhibition is different.  People who know and understand painting are led into photographs, people who love early photographs can see their relevance to contemporary work and so on.  It presents historical painting, alongside historical photography, alongside contemporary photographs.  It is a tripartite exhibition with various points of access that all knit together perfectly.  The rooms work into each other, offering wonderful vistas.  They bring connections between old, new and subject matter through a series of amazing loans.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Kate Keown, c. 1866.  Image courtesy of the Wilson Centre for Photography and via www.ng-london.org.uk

This is a very darkly lit, theatrical and beautiful exhibition.  It is an enthralling show and, rare as this is for me to say, I genuinely cannot get over how great it is.  It took me by surprise.  The curators have surpassed themselves.  The press release describes the exhibition as ground-breaking and I find myself agreeing.  I will certainly be back for another visit as it deserves a lot of time, attention and awe.

 

The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein is at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace until 14th April 2013.  Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present is at the National Gallery until 20th January 2013.

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3 Responses to “Seduced and Surprised by the National Gallery”

  1. Gary Kahn November 5, 2012 at 7:46 am #

    Fabulous on both.
    Clearly the NG is the one for which to buy a season ticket. Can hardly wait.

    GK

    • chloenelkin November 5, 2012 at 9:39 am #

      Thank you. Look forward to hearing your thoughts when you’ve visited the NG.

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  1. criticismism » Blog Archive » Found Objects 05/11/12 - November 5, 2012

    […] Chloe Nelkin does not (apparently) care about such niceties. She is totally bowled over by Seduced by Art at the National […]

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