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Updated: Jun 3, 2020


Gallery goers complained about blockbuster exhibitions’ obstructed views, as the massed heads of fellow art lovers blocked out the canvas or sculpture they had come to savour. But I’d gladly trade glimpsing between the beanies, selfie sticks and guided tour earphones of the timed ticket crowd, instead of the lamp posts, double deckers and articulated lorries coming between me and the National Gallery’s five works currently showing at Holland Park Roundabout.

Vigée Le Brun’s Self Portrait in a Straw Hat (1782)
Vigée Le Brun’s Self Portrait in a Straw Hat (1782)

In a partnership with digital billboard company Ocean, for the next fortnight seven treasures from the National Gallery are in city centres up and down the land. In the golden light of Saturday’s afternoon sun, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers briefly became a triptych, filling all three screens of the giant advertising hoarding as traffic rumbled past. Images appear for 10 seconds before being replaced by the more expected ads for watches and holidays. As Van Gogh painted four Sunflowers canvases in just one week in August 1888, perhaps it is educative to be made to appreciate them at a similar tempo to the way they were created. Yet it is disconcerting to have your attention span controlled by an outside force, and rather than lingering as long as concentration holds, art’s enjoyment feels curtailed by commerce's imperative to flog stuff.

Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1888)
Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1888)

Van Gogh intended the Sunflower paintings as side panels to Madame Roulin’s portrait (the wife of the Arles postman), so it is fitting when the digital board next cycles around to the National’s paintings a triptych appears of Vigee Le Brun’s Self Portrait in a Straw Hat, flanked by Monet’s The Water Lily Pond of 1899 and Seurat’s Bathers at Asnieres from 1884. Painting Self Portrait in a Straw Hat in 1782, Vigee Le Brun is remarkable for creating one of only 21 paintings by women in the National’s 2,300 strong collection. Le Brun is also remarkable for being court painter to Marie Antoinette and then surviving the French Revolution by fleeing Paris. At a time when women faced insurmountable professional obstacles, Vigee Le Brun travelled to Antwerp and saw Rubens’ portrait of Susannah, with the play of shade on the face under the brim, influencing her own depiction and use of light and shade. Posing informally with her own hair rather than a wig, is another pointer to Vigee Le Brun’s transcendence of historical constraints.

For the third digital display, Self Portrait in a Straw Hat becomes the centrepiece to Sunflowers and Rousseau’s Surprise!, 1891, an image of tiger in a jungle created entirely from the artist’s imagination. Rousseau visited Paris’ Jardin des Plantes, with its rundown zoo, and used projection devices to lay out his otherworldly, feverish junglescape.

With the tiger’s bared teeth, and the rich foliage’s flat perspective, Surprise! seems to insist viewers contemplate it at a safe distance, but Bathers' brushwork invites a closer look. From the pavement by the billboard it is possible to see the pixels recreating Seurat’s masterpiece, including a small green and pink Space Invaders shape, where the image sensors have cut out. Although Bather’s predates Seurat’s creation of pointillism, witnessing work executed on a monumental scale - the original canvas is 2m X 3m - blown up even larger is goosebumps- pleasing. It’s as if a simplified version of the building blocks for light and colour are momentarily revealed, and within grasp.

Bathers places the leisure pursuits of workers on a grand scale, and in his second monumental painting Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte of 1885, Seurat paints the same stretch of the Seine but from the other side of the river. Beware: the publicity photo for the National Gallery’s display at Holland Park Roundabout shows an unobstructed view, only achievable by illegally crossing four lanes of traffic, and standing on a fenced off roundabout island! And if the photo's tower blocks feel eerily familiar, it's because they also appear in the background of Freud's 1985 work Two Irishmen in W11.

While pulsing screens above A roads and Westfield shopping centre is not the ideal way to view greats works of art, the National’s On The Streets display does give us a taste of what we are so sadly missing. And it underlines the artist’s role in making us question what we see, especially when asked to believe it.




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