KATHLEEN BONDAR CONSIDERS WHAT THE NATIONAL GALLERY IS DOING TO ENGAGE AUDIENCES IN ISOLATION AND WHAT'S ON OFFER?
UPDATE MAY 15th:
Most of the paintings will be familiar to a wide audience, but it’s worth commending the National Gallery for including Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s Self Portrait in a Straw Hat on the huge screens appearing across our cities this May as lockdown tentatively eases. The National Gallery has teamed up with digital outdoor screen provider, Ocean Outdoor to display images of seven of the Gallery’s most iconic paintings: Vigée Le Brun’s Self Portrait in a Straw Hat (1782): Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1888) and A Wheatfield, with Cypresses (1889), Monet’s The Water-Lily Pond (1899), van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait (1434), Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières (1884) and Rousseau’s Surprised! (1891). Watch out for the big screens in Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, London, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Southampton. (See below for review on “Eight Female Artists from the Collection” including the remarkable Vigée Le Brun).
MAIN REVIEW by KATHLEEN BONDAR
It must be eerily quiet during phase two lockdown in Trafalgar Square. The flagship National Gallery’s magnificent façade designed by William Wilkins, the guy who upstaged John Nash for the commission, oversees an empty city. Dr Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery, says: “The last time the Gallery closed the doors on the pictures for a long period was during the Second World War when the pianist Dame Myra Hess organised a musical programme here.” So, in homage to the great pianist herself, the custodians are launching a new digital programme to keep the National Gallery “open”, at least virtually, and free of charge.
The entire collection is already online https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/search-the-collection, and viewing is up 58% on last year. Now the National Gallery is spoiling audiences in isolation with some additions under the banner: The Nation’s Gallery, in the nation’s homes. Not a pithy title, but to the point.
Right to left: A Young Woman standing at a Virginal by Johannes Vermeer about 1670-2; The House of Cards (Portrait of Jean-Alexandre Le Noir) by Jean-Siméon Chardin about 1740-1; Eva Gonzalès by Edouard Manet 1870
Some of the curators are offering talks on Gallery pictures from their own living rooms nationalgallery.org.uk/stories/a-curated-look-working-from-home. It is always intriguing to check out décor and object d’art in other people’s places too.
Dr Francesca Whitlum-Cooper is using the stay-at-home experience by drawing our attention to paintings on domestic activities such as playing music and card games. Her choices include Chardin's The House of Cards, Manet's Eva Gonzalès, Degas's Combing the Hair (‘La Coiffure’) and Vermeer's Young Woman Standing at a Virginal (all above).
There is a mindfulness programme with a series of online tutorials on ‘slow looking’. Keep calm and carry on looking carefully. Curiously, Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway is the chosen painting, which might make our blood pulse just remembering those halcyon days of travel.
Another way to engage in the arts during lockdown courtesy of the National Gallery is a “make and create” programme nationalgallery.org.uk/stories/make-and-create-a-collage-inspired-by-rousseaus-surprised. Targeted at families with children, this programme takes you through making and creating artworks at home inspired by the collection. It starts with Rousseau’s tiger painting Surprised! and Van Gogh's Sunflowers.
The gargantuan exhibition, "Titian: Love Desire Death", opened on 16 March and was to run until 14 June, however the National Gallery is not entirely thwarted by lockdown and the exhibition, as you might guess, is online: Titian Facebook live: https://www.facebook.com/83395535556/videos/2951570134882570/ Not only that, there are a few digital extras to source such as “An introduction to Ovid with Mary Beard”.
As if our National Gallery could possibly improve on all that, check out the “Eight Female Artists from the Collection” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VO4I8zVrOIQ
This video is an eye-opener. It begs the question how many female artists have been hindered over the centuries? Fortunately, these eight forged their way into the canon of the National Gallery:
Bridget Riley is the only artist living. Her collaborative artwork (she uses assistants like the great masters) Messengers 2019 is inspired by John Constable’s phrase for clouds
Catharina van Hemessen, Flemish 1527-66, was the first person to paint a self-portrait at an easel. Her patron was the wealthy Mary of Hungary 1505-58.
Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun 1755-1842, had a tricky relationship with Marie Antoinette and had to flee to Russia during the French Revolution where she befriended Catherine the Great. She painted Portraint of Alexandrine Brogniart 1788. Le Brun was so beautiful rumours spread that she employed a man to paint because an attractive woman could not be a talented artist.
Judith Leyster, 1609-60 was a Dutch painter in the moralist tradition. She painted A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel in 1635. Why an eel?
Rachel Ruysch, 1664-1750, was a mother of ten children and such a talented artist her paintings sold for more than Rembrandt’s at the time. See Flowers in a Vase 1685.
Artemisia Gentileschi,1593-1654, ran a thriving and successful studio in Naples in the seventeenth century. Her paintings were criticised as being “unfeminine”. Her Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria 1615-17 is a testament to her astounding gift as a great artist.
Rosa Bonheur, 1822-1899, dressed like a man to disguise her gender in order to paint magnificent scenes such as “The Horse Fair” 1855 which became the first painting acquired by the National Gallery by a female artist. By the age of thirty, her success enabled her to buy a chateau. She had two long-term relationships with women and all three are buried together in Paris.
Berthe Morisot, 1841-1895, married Eugene Manet (younger brother of Edouard) and, unsurprisingly, belonged to the Impressionist movement. Summer’s Day 1879 is a lyrical painting credited at the time for being “feminine” for which Morisot was applauded.