Vermeer & Music: The Art of Love & Leisure at The National Gallery

In June I spent an evening in the National Gallery with my drawing class sitting sketching in the room displaying three Vermeer paintings of women with musical instruments.  A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal and A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal are part of the gallery’s permanent collection, while The Guitar Player is on temporary loan from Kenwood House while that building is under repair.

On that evening, we sat on our folding stools and focussed on the composition of the painting we had chosen to study, and in the process focussed very much on the shapes and the geometry of each work.  In the couple of hours we were there other visitors peered over our shoulders and spent time looking at the paintings, but there was no overwhelming crush; when there are so many other things to look at too, the general visitor scans the walls and pauses rarely.

For this special exhibition, Vermeer and Music, the curators have moved these three paintings to the basement rooms of the Sainsbury Wing and have built a small show around them.  It includes musical instruments as well as paintings of musical subjects by Dutch painters working at the same time as Vermeer in the ‘Golden Age’.

At first I was pleasantly surprised at the low cost of the ticket, only £3.50 with my Art Fund Pass, but when I realised that the paintings, with only a couple of exceptions, are already in the National Gallery Collection, or owned by the Queen, and the instruments have come from one of the London colleges of music, it dawned on me that although not always together in one building, most of the pieces on display are usually available to see free of charge somewhere in London.

I usually don’t pay the additional money for an audio guide to exhibitions, but as we weren’t able to go on one of the days when there are live recitals of contemporary music on ancient instruments, on this occasion I did pay the extra.  And it was worth it because it meant I could hear what the instruments would have sounded like.

I have read newspaper reviews in which the art critics have been less than complimentary about the ‘art’ element of the exhibition, because of the focus more on the social and musical components of the works on display.  But for me, having spent that evening looking so intently at the geometry of the paintings, it was fascinating to hear about the fashions of the dresses and the importance of the displays of wealth, of the carpet on the tables and the paintings on the walls, and that not all of the young woman were as demure as we might think think them.  A musician also spoke about the way the models’ hands were positioned on the instruments; that this person was clearly an accomplished player for the angle of her hand, and she was about to play this or that type of note.  But then again, it’s always the story of a thing that attracts me.

There are instruments from the period on display; ornately carved and painted harpsichords and virginals, as well as lutes and guitars.  Other than the very fact of their survival, it was interesting to see inside the harpsichords, at their construction and the  angles of the strings, and to learn that the reason we can see them at such different heights in the various paintings is that they didn’t have legs, but were instead placed on tables or stands to suit the owner.

I enjoyed it, and would recommend it for the insight into social history of the time, but I do think we should be alert to this apparent sleight of hand to get us to pay for things which are usually free of charge.

A Little Bit of Light and Dark

2013-06-21 22.11.04Friday evening at the National Gallery and it was humming with people.  Chattering groups of foreign school children, small groups talking about art history, and lots of sketchers.  Half the people wandering around seemed to be clutching one of the Gallery’s folding stools.  Now, feeling something of an experienced veteran of drawing in Museums, I can attest that the stools in the National Gallery are rather superior, having a back to them.  This additional feature does however frequently give rise to the usual folding deckchair comedy of failing to work out how to open or close the chair without either trapping your fingers or ending up with the thing wrapped around your upper arms.

The exercise this week was to look at both shape and form again, but this time with the addition of the lights and darks.  The plan had been to spend time with Rembrandt, but despite assurances sought from the Gallery on Thursday that the room would be open, when we arrived on Friday, it was closed, as were the adjacent Galleries of Dutch 17th century works, so instead, we spent our time with the Spanish artists of same period, as did many of the other late night visitors.

Our teacher pointed out a number of works in which areas of light and dark were used to great effect and told us to choose one to draw.  The only one without a complicated arrangement of people was Francisco de Zubaran’s A Cup of Water and a Rose, an image I’ve had on a postcard propped up at home for a number of years.  It seemed the obvious thing to pick.  But then, as always, once I started to draw, I realised it wasn’t as straightforward as it at first appeared; all those ellipses, all those different shades of dark (and hanging on the wall it looks substantially darker than the reproduction on the website), that flower.

But once again, despite the hubbub around me I spent an hour absorbed in it which in many ways is more important than the resulting sketch.

A Drawing Day

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A woman at a window was evidently a popular Phoenician theme

This week I’m spending two days with a small group drawing in Museums in London; and as Wednesday is the day for my evening class, it meant that yesterday I spent all day and evening sketching.  I must admit by the time I got to about 8:30, I was on the verge of losing interest, but it was a fun day.

We started the day at the National Gallery looking at the composition of the three Vermeer’s in the collection.  I’ve seen the pictures before, but there’s always something to learn when you sit in front of something for over an hour trying to sketch it.  I’ve always been drawn to the light in Vermeer’s work, but I’d never noticed before how geometric the compositions are.  I will be returning to the Gallery next month when they’re putting on a special exhibition around the Vermeers, which all feature women playing a musical instrument, when I expect I shall be very annoying.

In the afternoon we repaired to the British Museum which was positively heaving with families on half term educational visits and tourists from everywhere imaginable.   We camped down in the rooms dedicated to Mesopotamian artefacts, which comprise all sorts of things, both large and small.  I went for some things which made me smile, as that seems as good a basis of selection as any other.

Even though the room was relatively quiet, it was still necessary on some occasions to be determined and focussed to keep one’s place.  One girl even stepped between me and the vitrine because she ‘had to photograph these things’; sometimes it feels as if the act of standing beside something to draw it, makes it infinitely more interesting to the people passing by…… and some even feel qualified to comment on the work in progress.  I am immune.

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Foundation Pegs circa 2400BC

Barocci: Brilliance and Grace at The National Gallery


As Barocci has been described in one newspaper review I have read as ‘the greatest Old Master you’ve never heard of’, for once. I don’t feel more ignorant than everyone else at an art exhibition.  I wouldn’t have chosen to visit this one had it not been for the positive things I read and heard on radio review shows.  Everyone who commented said how much they enjoyed it and wondered why they’d never heard of the artist before.

It seems that it is both a combination of the fickleness of taste in artistic fashion and the fact that Barocci did most of his work in Urbino in Italy where much of it remains in churches and other institutions.

I went thinking that the National Gallery had decided to make an exhibition out of some old stuff they’d had in a cupboard for years, but that is not the case at all.  In fact the Gallery has only one Barocci, the idiosyncratically named Madonna of  the Cat (provoking the exhibition shop to be filled with cat related souvenir tut, but let’s gloss over that).  Only one other piece in the exhibition is in a UK collection, and that is a small sketch owned by the Queen.  For the rest, they have been brought together from various homes in Italy, America and Germany.

The paintings are huge, relatively small in number and mostly on the religious themes requested by his patrons, and while I could appreciate the bright colours and some of the clever compositions, they were, for me, the least interesting elements on show.

From the sketches and drawings on display it is clear that Barocci was an obsessive sketcher, drawing hands and feet over and over again, to get the right angle, the right feeling of tension to carry the weight of a figure or to attract the attention of the viewer.  He tried compositions this way and that; in the Visitation should Mary or Elizabeth be on the right or the left, and what angle should Joseph’s hand be to show the weight of the bags?

The studies in colour for heads of characters in larger pieces somehow felt they had more energy and immediacy than when they were transposed onto the bigger canvas.  Maybe that’s just because I could see them more closely, but I think it was also because there was so much to observe and learn about the thought process of someone else, and someone who lived so many hundreds of years ago.

The finished pieces, as well as the divine, there is also something of the mundane or practical; so in The Last Supper there are servant collecting the dishes and doing the washing up; in The Entombment of Christ there are nails and hammers laid out in the foreground, setting these events in to a world that the viewers of the time would recognise.

I’m not usually a much of a fan of religious art, but the sketches and the traces of his extensive experimentation made this exhibition well worth the visit.

Seduced by Art: Photography Past & Present

IMG_2907I was truly delighted to be invited to a private view of the current exhibition at the National Gallery, Seduced by Art Photography Past and Present last week.   The invitation was especially exciting as it had come as a result of the blog, and my occasional reviews of art exhibitions on in London.

This is billed as the first major exhibition of photography put on by the National Gallery, but timed as it is, perhaps coincidentally, concurrently with the major show of William Klein’s work at Tate Modern, I feel as if I’ve been on a mini photo immersion programme.

When I wrote about the Klein exhibition, I admitted that I didn’t really understand what made photography, or more particularly, his photography, ‘art’.   Thanks to a very engaging talk by one of the curators at the National Gallery, I have a much better understanding of the thought process behind their exhibition.

It has been hung so as to facilitate ‘a conversation’ between the photography and some of the major works in the Gallery’s main collection; so, for example, Gainsborough’s portrait of Mr and Mrs Andrews is alongside Signs of the Times, England, a 1991 portrait of an unnamed couple in their home.  While the two pieces are very different from each other, we were invited to compare their vocabulary, of what hints and symbols we can see of what the subjects chose to surround themselves with; that we can look at a portrait from 20 years ago and make certain judgements about the people by what they are wearing and what we can see in their home.  These same type of messages would have been as clear to an 18th century audience of the Gainsborough.

The hilariously bad tempered critic Brian Sewell has derided the concept of photography being art because, and I paraphrase with reckless abandon, it is too simple to click and take a picture, that there is no proper artistic preparation and process and therefore no artistic depth to a photograph.

It is entirely thanks to the talk that I now understand enough of some of the pieces in the exhibition to be able to disagree with Sewell on this point.

The Destroyed Room by Jeff Wall is a large transparency displayed in a lightbox, showing exactly that, a destroyed bedroom, with slashed mattress and dishevelled chest of drawers, and piles of discarded shoes and clothes.  It is juxtaposed with a small study of The Death of Sardanapalus after Delacroix, the colours and sweeps of which it echoes.  But it was having the fact that through the window of the destroyed room it is possible to see the struts supporting the outside wall, thus revealing it to be a staged tableau, that made me appreciate that the photo is but the end result of an entire process; the artist had arranged the artefacts to create the effect he wanted and had then photographed them.  This is not just a snap.

The second piece that I enjoyed was Blow Up: Untitled 5, 2007 by Ori Gersht, a large print on aluminium, showing the moment a floral arrangement explodes, literally blowing up a still life with flowers.  Apparently the photographer freezes a flower arrangement with liquid nitrogen and then captures the precise instant small explosive charges send its shattered pieces through the air.  Something about wondering how many times he’d had to try it to get it to work properly added to my appreciation of the drama of the picture.

My Bed, Hotel La Louisiane, Paris by Nan Goldin made me laugh, both because it’s the sort of photo I often take, (although mine aren’t as good) and, with the crumpled sheets, the food resting on a paper bag and the open books, it could quite easily be MY bed in any number of hotels.

As well as the main exhibition we were also invited to visit the room dedicated to a temporary show of some late works by Richard Hamilton, a painter but also one of the pioneers of digital painting cum photography and printing.  Many of the works on show illustrate his own conversation with Old Masters in the National Gallery’s collection

I really enjoyed walking through the silent and empty rooms of the Gallery to get there, the movement sensitive lights flickering on in front of us on the way, a rare opportunity to feel on our own in a place so normally full of other people, the rooms so grand and a little unsettling when only dimly lit.

And I feel better educated!

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