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Art with a small a
National Gallery (London)
Member Name: frannyfortune
National Gallery (London)
Date: 13/08/01, updated on 13/08/01 (342 review reads)
Advantages: some of the best european art in existence, I only tell you about 3 of my favourites
Disadvantages: only european art, I was going to do 10 at one point
As I got older, Art started to intimidate me. I realised that as a reasonably intelligent person, I was meant to understand it, and know a bit more than the fact that the best way to spot a closet hippie is to look for dripping clocks in their house. (This never fails, by the way. Find a Dali, find a hippie. One that took naughty drugs, or wanted to. Even if they are your Dad, and deny it.) I met people who Understood Art, and they all talked a foreign language as far as I was concerned. I was terrified of expressing an opinion in case I said the wrong thing, and praised a painting that was worthless because the artist didn't have sincere tactile values, or something. And Modern Art – what was all that about? It looked like a load of old cobblers to me, but I didn't dare say so, and risk exposure as an Art Ignoramus. I decided to leave Art to Those Who Knew, and tried to nod politely and intelligently if the subject came up, probably looking like a rabbit caught in headlights in the process.
A friend of mine saved me, in the end, and I'm eternally grateful. He was living in London at the time, and dragged me up there for my birthday, promising a mystery day of treats. We went to a lovely pub for lunch, and I had a definite spring in my step as we set out for the next stop – which turned out to be the National Gallery.
Aaaargh. Potentially at least two hours of doing the frightened rabbit act, as my knowledgeable friend (he had loads of Art History boo
ks, I knew) said all sorts of cerebral things, and ON MY BIRTHDAY, too! Another pint with lunch and I probably would have protested, "what kind of a cockamamie treat is THIS?" I possibly would have done a stupid accent as I said it, too. But, being the polite person that I am sometimes, I kept quiet. For the first 5 minutes. During which I slowly came to the realisation that my friend wasn't talking about tactile values at all. He was saying things like "Wow!" and "eeurk", and "look at that lovely arse." Oh, actually, that last one was because an Italian student had just walked past, but he did say it again, later, about one of the paintings.
I got up enough confidence to say something, at last. We were standing in front of a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger, called 'Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan'. It was apparently commissioned by Henry VIII on a wife-hunt. "What do you think of that?" I asked. He thought seriously for a minute, stroked his chin, then said "I think she looks like George Dawes."
That was it, for me. Firstly, I had to leave the room because I was being frowned at sternly for laughing, by one of the gallery staff who was trying to have a snooze, and secondly, Art had lost its capital A forever. I realised that art is just another, er, art-form, like music and books and films. Something to be enjoyed, criticised, hated, loved and interacted with as you wish. I certainly never felt scared about saying that I didn't enjoy a certain film, or loved a particular book, or whatever, so I have no idea, now, why I got so uptight about art, but I think an awful lot of people feel the same way. I still know next to nothing about art, but I love looking at it, and talking about it, and thinking and wondering and guessing and opining about it. It's just paint on a canvas (or sheep in a tank, sometimes), and I'm allowed to have an opinion regarding it,
and my opinion is just as good as the next person's. And so is yours.
What has this got to do with the National Gallery, so far? Not an awful lot. There are some superb and detailed reviews of the National on dooyoo already, including a corker by MykReeve, if you want the factual stuff, and some proper art history knowledge. Here are the basics, though, so I don't get too many NUs, and then it's on to some more ramblings.
The National Gallery is situated in Trafalgar Square, in London. The collection spans about 700 years of Western European art, and contains over 2000 pieces. Entrance is free, although donations are encouraged (and if you have money to spare, please spare it – it's one of the few London galleries and museums that still don't charge, and it would be terribly sad if they were forced to start doing so. Mind you, the special exhibition costs are usually prohibitive. They should let people on benefits in for free, not for £6, I reckon. Then I wouldn't mind so much when I have to pay £8, for instance, for the current Vermeer exhibition. How much can I write in brackets before I realise I should have started a new paragraph instead? Ooh, a bit more than this.) The gallery is open from 10 am until 6pm (with a later closing time on a Wednesday, at 9pm), 360 days a year, which is sort of wonderful and happy-making, considering it's free. There is also an excellent website, www.nationalgallery.org.uk, where you can take a look around the collection, buy art prints, and get details on all the latest exhibitions. Most importantly, you can have a look at the pictures I'm about to spout about below.
There. Now I’m going to do the fun bit (for me, that is).
***My Favourite Paintings, and a Charcoal Drawing, in the National Gallery***
'The Virgin and Child with SS. Anne and John the Baptist' - Leonardo da Vinci, c.1500
This is kept in a special darkened room, presumably as light would fade, or otherwise damage it. It's a charcoal sketch, probably made as a preparatory drawing for a painting. It's hard to explain what looking at this picture does to me in real life: what I would really like to do is take a picnic and a big cushion, and sit there all day in front of it. It is the most incredible drawing I have ever seen – it just vibrates with warmth and life. The women's faces are extraordinarily beautiful, and the intimacy between them and the two boys seems to envelop the whole room when you are there in front of it.
Thank goodness, the boys actually look like real infants, as opposed to some of the seriously scary paintings by artists who had presumably never seen a baby or toddler in their lives (or were just a bit rubbish, maybe?). There are a lot of macabre Madonna and Child pictures out there, where the baby's body proportions correspond to those of an adult, making Jesus look like an alien.
I also love the way he has put so much detail and lushness into the textures of their skin and clothing where it interested him, but couldn't be bothered with some bits, like their feet. I like to think of him spending a hard day on Mary's legs, then thinking "Oh sod it, just draw something vaguely resembling feet."
Do, do, go and see it, if you possibly can. A picture on the net, or in a book, doesn’t begin to do it justice. In real life it positively glows. I'll be the one with the sandwiches and the spiritual expression.
'The Annunciation with S. Emidius' – Carlo Crivelli, 1486
(I hope you're checking these urls out, by the way, even though you have to cut and paste them. I'm sorry that I can't do html-y things on here so you can just click back
Another painting inspired by a religious theme. I'm not a Christian myself, but am absolutely fascinated by Christian imagery in art, probably because I like a picture that tells a story, and let's face it, the devil may have all the best tunes, but the Bible has a lot of the best stories. In my fantasy art collection, there is a whole room devoted to pictures of the Annunciation: that is, the moment when the Angel Gabriel tells Mary that she's pregnant with the Son of God. Beat that for something to write home about, and European artists seem to have excelled themselves on the subject.
This painting is extremely rich in detail, but also has a striking clarity. Oops, nearly got a bit art-criticy there. I mean, it jumps off the wall, or page, or screen, depending on where you’re looking at it, but there's loads and loads of stuff in it. Oh poo, I've just looked at the NG link I've given you and it doesn't jump off the screen, it's a bit muddy in fact, so it sort of limps off the screen, but I'm going to write about it anyway, sorry.
The absolute bestest bit about this picture is the little hole that the architect of the building has thoughtfully provided, just above the ceiling of the ground floor, so that anyone having an immaculate conception within, can be easily accessible by the holy spirit when necessary. The second bestest bit is St. Emidius himself, the patron saint of the town of Ascoli, for which Crivelli painted the picture. I know nothing else whatsoever about St. Emidius, and I bet not many other people do either. The great thing is that he has pre-empted any queries on the part of Gabriel, who may have legitimately wondered who on earth St. Emidius was, and what he was doing there, by bringing a scale model of the town with him, and gesturing to it. "Look, I know you don’t really know me, but this is where I'm from. Is it ok if I sit here while you're i
nforming Mary of the latest important development in Christianity, please? I won’t get in the way much."
The myriad other bestest bits include a little chubby-faced girl peeping round the parapet of the building over the road, some bloke gazing up into the sky in true 'catalogue man' style, obviously thinking "blow me, if that isn't the holy spirit descending on our Mary,", the fact that the people living above Mary seem to have just washed their rug and hung it out to dry, and the gherkin. Yes, I did say gherkin. There's a gherkin in the foreground, right at the front in fact, and it's a large one. It has been suggested by the National that it's actually a gourd, and therefore a symbol of fertility (eh?), but I know a gherkin when I see one.
'Venus and Mars' – Sandro Botticelli, c. 1485
Some Greek mythology for a change.
I think Botticelli could probably paint a hole in the ground and make it look beautiful, so when he gets going on the Goddess of Love and the God of War, it's going to be pretty special. Apart from being gorgeous to look at, I like the whole idea behind the painting: it's a good joke that Mars is so sleepy after whatever he and Venus have been doing, that he doesn’t notice the little satyr-creatures romping around with his armour and, his, er, lance. There's something rather sexy about the most powerful man in mythology showing his weakness.
The expressions and postures of the little satyrs are brilliant; they look like real children having a cheeky game. Both Venus and Mars' bodies look very real and desirable, although perhaps Mars should have skipped that last visit to the waxing salon, and had a hair re-think instead. I think Botticelli had a thing about women’s feet – they always look so yummy in his paintings. We're left to
imagine, of course, what the two of them were up to, to make Mars so dozy, and the joke is very definitely on him. The National describe the meaning of the picture as "love conquers war, or love conquers all." They probably know best, but look at Venus' face. She looks a bit disillusioned, wouldn't you say? To me, it's about the triumph of woman over man, but also the emptiness of that feeling. Venus has got Mars exactly where she wants him, but now feels disappointed and let down. It was maybe a bit too easy.
Of course, that's just what I think. I don’t think paintings have one true meaning, any more than any other art-form. It's what you take from them, and what feelings and associations they stir up in you. It's a two-way thing. Painting to eye to brain to painting, or something. I like imagining all the zillions of people who must have gazed at any one picture, and wondering what they were thinking when they saw it. What they felt. What it reminded them of. Whether it made them wistful, or turned-on, or reflective, or joyful, or spiritually moved, or whether they just thought "Aaaaargh! That ruddy man in the gold hat again!" But don't worry. Whatever else you will find there, you won't find him at the National.
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