Italian Museums (ctd.)
September 4 2014
Picture: Galleria Sabauda
The Independent has more grim news from the Italian museum world; the Galleria Borghese's climate control system (which is, open the windows every now and then) has apparently caused Raphael's Deposition to 'warp'. But apparently the 'deformation in the painting ha[s] now been reduced'. So that's alright then.
But from Turin, there's better news, as the Galleria Sabauda is to be re-opened following refurbishment. But, reports The Spectator:
From 30 October, Leonardo’s drawings, including the famous sage-like self-portrait [above] and the drawing for the head of the angel in the Louvre’s ‘Virgin of the Rocks’, will go on permanent display in the Sala Leonardo, while drawings by other masters in the collection — including Raphael’s ‘Study of a Youth Playing the Lute’ — will be shown in the second vault. In December, with the reopening of the Galleria Sabauda, the Savoy paintings will go back on view. As well as works by Duccio, Fra Angelico, Mantegna, the Pollaiuolos, Filippino Lippi, Veronese and Orazio Gentileschi, the collection includes Netherlandish paintings by Van der Weyden, Van Eyck, Memling, Rembrandt, Brueghel and Rubens — among them a charming portrait by Van Dyck of the three children of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, sent by the English Queen to her sister Christine of Savoy.
I presume the Leonardo drawings won't actually be on 'permanent display', as they certainly shouldn't be (for conservation reasons). By way of comparison, the Albertina in Vienna only brings out Durer's famous 'Hare' only once every six years.
'Late Turner' (ctd.)
September 4 2014
Picture: National Gallery
Apollo Magazine has an interview with David Blayney Brown, co-curator of the Tate's forthcoming 'Late Turner' exhibition. Here he reveals some details of the display:
As we are covering a period in depth, we are not doing so strictly chronologically, but thematically. That said, the first room is by way of an overview and retrospect, so visitors will see Turner’s death mask before they come to most of his work; and his last exhibits in 1850 will be on the last wall in the final room, which seems fitting. The only significant installation challenge is integrating watercolours and oils, which have to be zoned to allow for different light levels.
Moroni - 'unsung genius' of the Renaissance
August 4 2014
I haven't noted that the Royal Academy is putting on an exhibition on Giovanni Battista Moroni, whom it's billing as the 'unsung genius of Renaissance portraiture'. Here's the blurb:
Giovanni Battista Moroni was one of the greatest portraitists of 16th-century Italy. Famed for his gift for capturing the exact likeness of his sitters, he created portraits that are as penetrating and powerful now as they were more than 400 years ago. You will be transfixed by their psychological depth and immediacy.
This is the first comprehensive exhibition of the artist’s work in the U.K. We have selected not only his remarkable portraits but also his lesser known religious works, which will be shown side by side. Among them will be never-before exhibited altarpieces from the churches of Bergamo and paintings made for private devotion that reflect the new religious ideals of his time.
Moroni’s portraits depict the people of the world and time in which he lived, from elegant men and women of high society shown in glittering dress to members of the middle class engaged in their trade. One such work is The Tailor, as highly praised in its time as it is now (“revolutionary” - Jonathan Jones, The Guardian). What all of his works share is a startling naturalism and vitality, rarely matched by other artists of the period and anticipating the realistic style of Caravaggio and, later, Manet.
Encompassing his entire career, this exhibition is a long overdue celebration of an artist ahead of his time and ripe for rediscovery.
I'm very much looking forward to this. Of course, there was a time when Moroni was very much 'sung', as the National Gallery's superfluity of Moroni portraits attests (they have 11, which were all acquired between 1862 and 1916).
Update - a reader writes:
What twaddle from the RA blurb and Jonathan Jones [in a 2007 article in The Guardian, from which the RA has adopted as a flagbearing quote] - there really has never been a time when Moroni was forgotten or undervalued. I have a catalogue of an exhibition of Moroni's works - mostly portraits - held at the National Gallery in the 1970s and there was a sizable group in the RA's own Genius of Venice show in the 1980s. And as for being a precusor to Caravaggio, Moroni was only one of a number of artists working in a realist manner in Northern Italy and the Veneto. It has to be said though, his religious works have tended to be overshadowed. And the Tuccia in the National Gallery is a truly dreadful thing.
Update II - here's more context on the National's Moroni acquisition streak from Neil Jeffares.
Koons goes to the Louvre
July 24 2014
Gareth Harris in The Art Newspaper reports that Jeff Koons is to have a show at the Louvre in 2015. There's probably no greater endorsement for a contemporary artist, but it probably tells us more about the museum than Koons. Anyway, standby for extensive Guffwatch in French.
'Rembrandt - the Late Works'
July 9 2014
Picture: National Gallery
The National Gallery have released details of their forthcoming Rembrandt show. It opens 15th October, and runs till 18th January 2015. there will be 40 paintings by the great man. More here and here.
It looks like their newly elevated 'Portrait of an Old Man in an Armchair' (at least, elevated by the Rembrandt Research Project) won't be in the show, however. Which is a little strange. Why not hang it in the show next to other late works (perhaps as 'attributed to'), and see how it fits in? I had a good look at it the other day, and couldn't find myself disagreeing with Ernst van der Wetering's new conclusion.
Society of Antiquaries exhibition
July 3 2014
The Society of Antiquaries of London has a little-known but excellent collection of portraits. This month, they're having a free exhibition in their plush Burlington House premises. Well worth a visit (Monday-Friday 10am-4pm). More information here, and there's also a programme of lectures, here.
A new Holbein in Pittsburgh?
June 29 2014
They've broken out the acetone at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh for a new exhibition, Faked, Forgotten, Found. A previously 'tarted up' portrait of Isabella de Cosimo de Medici (below) has been making the headlines (e.g., in the Daily Mail here), but more interesting I think is the above portrait of Lord Bergavenny (1469-1535). Long thought to be a fake 'Holbein', due to rancid-looking later overpaint in the background, new analysis has revealed under-drawing and a much earlier background (left hand top corner) perhaps painted with smalt. I'm going to ask the CMOA for an image of this under-drawing (often crucial in Holbein attributions, as we're looking for signs of originality), and will report back if I get one. In the meantime, you can see a high-res image of the partially cleaned picture here. No panel painting by Holbein of Bergavenny is known. There is a drawing of the same sitter by Holbein at Wilton house, image here, and a miniature is also known.
Update - the CMOA have very kindly sent me this IR photo.
Update II - a painter writes:
The partially cleaned ' School of Holbein' portrait of Lord Bergavenny is definitely based on the Wilton drawing or an exact copy of it, because it reproduces a slight error of draughtsmanship in the original drawing. There is also a miniature based on the same drawing, claimed to be by Holbein.
One of the characteristics of Holbein's (alleged) use of a form of Camera lucida (like Ingres) is the occasional misplacement of one of the eyes, usually the one furthest from the picture plane. This can be caused by the sitter slightly changing the angle of his/her head, during the creation of the drawing.
This phenomenom can seen very clearly in the painting of Jane Seymour where her right eye (further from the picture plane) appears larger than the nearer, left eye. Surprisingly this has been transferred, apparently unnoticed by Holbein, from drawing to painting.
In the case of Bergavenny, the sitter's left eye in the Wilton drawing is very slightly too high up, in relation to the nearer eye, which Holbein will have drawn first and this has been reproduced in the painting, now being cleaned..
In other drawings, the sitter has turned slightly towards Holbein so one sees more of the eye than the strict rules of perspective allow-( I believe this is what happened with Jane Seymour).
The drawing looks immensely more powerful than the painting in its present state and I much look forward to seeing if it improves with cleaning.
I don't buy the camera lucida theory myself.
Bargaining with Caravaggio
June 12 2014
Picture: Cleveland Museum of Art
This story from Cleveland.com sheds light on the curious bargaining that sometimes goes on when museums arrange international loans. The above picture, The Crucifixion of St Andrew by Caravaggio, was offered as a loan to a Sicilian museum by the Cleveland Museum of Art after Sicilian authorities threatened to charge exorbitant fees for a loan exhibition of antiquities:
In one of his last acts as director of the museum before he resigned last October, David Franklin agreed to lend the Caravaggio and other works in exchange for an exhibition of Sicilian antiquities.
Cultural authorities from the island region had previously agreed to send the exhibition to Cleveland after its run at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The two institutions co-organized the show.
Nevertheless, after an election and a change of government in Sicily, a new group of authorities threatened to cancel the show's run in Cleveland unless the museum paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in loan fees imposed at the last minute.
The Sicilians withdrew the demand after Franklin offered to lend the Caravaggio, which he called "a bargaining chip," along with other works.
Franklin and the Cleveland museum earned praise for not knuckling under to the financial demand, which could have set a dangerous precedent for other museums. At the same time, the arrangement raised questions about whether the painting is too delicate to make the trip to Sicily.
The Cleveland museum now says the deal has not been finalized. Its leaders say that Sicily has not yet responded to requests for information about climate control and security in venues where the Cleveland artworks would be shown.
The picture is currently being cleaned by the Cleveland Museum of Art, to see if it is safe to travel.
June 12 2014
Video: National Gallery
Interesting video on making the colour purple in art, which is part of the National Gallery's forthcoming exhibition 'Making Colour'.
'Room A' (ctd.)
June 4 2014
Pictures: Guardian/NY Times
The National Gallery's new 'Room A' (above) is, alas, a disappointment. The trendy wooden floor, white walls and focused lights are impressive enough - it feels like White Cube with Old Masters - but there's vastly fewer paintings on display (as our website-scouring reader suspected in my post below).
The joy of the National Gallery's old Room A (as seen below) was that pretty much everything in the collection could be seen by the public (at least one day a week). It was little more than an accessible store room, with the good stuff liberally interspersed with the bad (or what they thought was bad), the fun being that it was up to you to decide which was which.
But now, with significant pictures now consigned to some far off, closed picture store, it's the curators who are in charge again. And interesting puzzle pictures, like the double full-length below included in the Van Dyck catalogue raisonne as 'Van Dyck', but called 'Style of Van Dyck' by the gallery, are nowhere to be seen. I remember hearing the NG's director, Nick Penny, arguing against deaccessioning on the grounds that galleries need bad pictures to compare with good ones. So it's a puzzle as to why this new arrangement has been implemented.
It would be better if the NG simply hung more pictures more closely together, and crammed everything in. But the new Room A has evidently been designed as a 'space', not a store, with fittings and a paint scheme that won't be easy to rearrange. A retrograde step, I think.
Update - a reader writes:
I visited the newly refurbished room A at the National Gallery today (didn't see you there Bendor). It's good to see it open again, better lighting, some seating & a more fitting place to see art in one of the world's great galleries. What's missing are many of the paintings...the tasteful hang means there are far fewer paintings, the rag bag hang of the old galleries did mean you could see the good the bad & the frankly ugly. There is something romantic about basement galleries with their unrecognised gems.
'The Craze for Pastels' (ctd.)
May 18 2014
I mentioned a while ago Tate Britain's new mini display of pastels, featuring the newly discovered portrait above, Baron Nagell's Running Footman', by Ozias Humphrey. Pastel scholar Neil Jeffares has been, and his excellent review is well worth reading. He wasn't overly impressed...
'Building the Picture' online catalogue
April 27 2014
Building the Picture is all about the place of architecture in Renaissance paintings. Says the NG site:
This spring, the National Gallery presents the first exhibition in Britain to explore the role of architecture in Italian Renaissance painting of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.
'Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting' aims to increase visitors' appreciation and understanding of some of the most beautiful and architectonic paintings by Italian masters such as Duccio, Botticelli, Crivelli and their contemporaries. Visitors will be encouraged to look in new ways at buildings depicted in paintings, and to investigate how artists invented imagined spaces that transcended the reality of bricks, mortar and marble.
The exhibition is the result of a research partnership between the National Gallery and the University of York, and offers a fresh interpretation of some of the National Gallery’s own Italian Renaissance collection. In addition, other masterpieces are featured – such as the Venetian master Sebastiano del Piombo's 'The Judgement of Solomon' (Kingston Lacy, The Bankes Collection, National Trust), on display in London for the first time in 30 years, and 'The Ruskin Madonna' by Andrea del Verrocchio (National Gallery of Scotland).
Matisse - the movie
April 23 2014
Goodness, isn't everyone getting excited about these Matisse scissor-y things. The critics have been eulogising Tate's new show as never before. My favourite so far is this film by the BBC, in which the rapper Goldie goes entertainingly bereserk over the whole thing.
If you can't get to the new blockbuster show, then fear not, for on Tuesday 3rd June a 'live' film of the exhibition will be shown in cinemas across the UK. More here.
In the meantime, here's the Great Brian urging us to enjoy Matisse's jottings, but to keep our feet on the ground:
Enjoy the gaiety of colour. Be moved by the myth of the old genius, victim of a botched stomach operation, discovering new inspiration when told that death was on his doorstep. Be astonished by this sensualist turned saint, finding God in his own work, lying a-bed and drawing on the wall with a six-foot pole, cluttering every surface with the worst drawings this worst of draughtsmen ever did. Delight in the jaunty amusements of the infants’ school, but do not discard your critical faculties. Is what you see in this Matisse really a match for Michelangelo’s Adam, his nude youths, his prophets and sybils, his Last Judgement? What nonsense.
Enjoy these seductive trivialities for what they are — insubstantial, deceitful, fraudulent and, we must hope, transient, rather than some spiritual and mystical essence of art. Having no doubt that the number of visitors between now and September will break the record for Tate Modern (and so, perhaps, it should), I hope only that, unlike the early critics, they will cling to reason.
April 22 2014
Video: National Gallery
Loving the movie music in this National Gallery behind-the-scenes for 'Veronese'.
Brian asks 'Who was William Kent?'
March 28 2014
Picture: Standard, interior of Chiswick House, designed by Kent
Brian Sewell, on good form as ever, reviews the V&A's new exhibition on William Kent, architect and artist, and is not overly impressed. Concluding paragraph:
In this exhibition we see proof of Hogarth’s judgment that Kent was a “contemptible dauber”, and his draughtsmanship too is exposed as that of a hapless amateur; but to be fair to him, Kent should be judged only in his houses and palaces, not in the mean circumstances of a meagre exhibition in the V&A. Five minutes in one room of Houghton proves him to have been capable of the most accomplished “fusions of architectural convention, decoration and embellishment”.
The Grumpy Art Historian has been too, and is even less impressed:
[...] the exhibition is overall a failure. Partly that's because it's hard to curate an exhibition about architecture, and partly it's because the curation is just bad.
Handel is played in the background, the ultimate cliché of Georgian England. It might be merely thoughtless and unimaginative, but I suspect it's trying to engage an audience with something familiar. That's even worse, because it shies away from anything challenging in favour of a tedious Merchant Ivory country house ethos. I hate music in exhibitions because it imposes a mood, forcing us to experience it exactly as the curatorial apparatchiks want to make us experience it. It imposes emotion and closes down meaning.
Cheap looking backdrops hang behind the exhibits, and looped films of country house interiors play alongside original works of art. Lest you're tempted to dally, some of the more intricate drawings are hung behind four foot deep stands. The wall text is minimalist and you have to snake along a narrow corridor, making it difficult to linger or to go back for a second look. It's more like watching television rather than reading a book. A book might make an argument, but you can choose how you engage with it, reading at your own pace and pausing to consider. A documentary imposes a pace. It is totalising; sound and vision are used to tell a story, which we must passively consume.
Brian on Veronese
March 21 2014
The Great Brian is on excellent form in his review of the Veronese exhibition, which is well worth a read. Like me, he seems most impressed with Veronese's early works, such as the 1548 Conversion of Mary Magdalene, above. Of course, Brian can't help but question a few of the attributions, as he is wont to do. But you'd be hard pressed to find a better short essay on where Veronese fits into the canon.
March 18 2014
I went briefly to a preview of the Veronese show at the National Gallery this afternoon. It's an epic exhibition, so do go. The more august art writers must have gone yesterday or last week, for the main reviews are already published. Richard Dorment has a thoughtful and well-considered take in The Telegraph:
Precisely because of Veronese’s tendency to reuse and repeat figures, this show has its ups and downs. Although his later religious pictures may be very beautiful, they feel like conventional products of the Counter Reformation. As we know from Veronese’s famous encounter with the Inquisition, he was an artist who needed to give his imagination free rein. If, in a subject like the Adoration of the Magi or the Resurrection, such invention was out of the question, some ineffable connection between the artist and his subject isn’t there. It’s not that he paints on autopilot, like so many Roman painters at this time, but that the creative spark is missing.
But when it’s there, what a painter he is. You see it in his huge altarpiece from the church of San Giorgio in Braida, Verona [above], which shows the patron saint of England in the moments before his martyrdom. The subject is rare in art, so there was no preordained way to show it. I wonder too whether a commission to depict the beheading of an English martyr may have fired the artist’s imagination at a time when Catholic Europe was all too aware that Elizabeth I was about to create new martyrs. Whatever the answer, his performance here is electrifying.
Dorment gives the show four stars out of five.
In The Guardian, however, Jonathan Jones gives the show a full five stars:
How can an art gallery do justice to a painter who specialised in decorating the walls and ceilings of palaces, and in painting epic banquets so big they dwarf the rooms they are in?
What it must do is what the National Gallery has done for its greatest exhibition since its Leonardo da Vinci blockbuster a few years ago. A whole suite of the gallery's most beautiful rooms, usually filled by its permanent collection, have been cleared so Paolo Veronese's palatial paintings can have the space and light they deserve. The result is an utter joy. Veronese is an artist of abundant, irrepressible life. He is as expansive and theatrical as Shakespeare, who was 24 when the artist died in 1588.
Meanwhile, Claudia Pritchard in The Independent has this fascinating take on Veronese's use of blue:
No one knew, for example, that another handy blue, smalt, a by-product of Venice’s glass industry, would leave a gloomy legacy. “Smalt is almost as intense as ultramarine,” explains Salomon. “What no one knew at the time is that after 50 or 100 years, smalt changes colour because it reacts with the linseed oil. When you see an overcast sky in a Veronese painting, you can be sure that it was meant to be blue. This was not known until 15 or 20 years ago. People were praising Veronese’s subtle, grey skies.”
To this chemical reaction add temptation, and the mix can become even muddier. “In some cases, Veronese used all three blues – smalt, azurite and ultramarine. I don’t want to cast any doubt on Veronese himself, but where a patron is paying for a certain amount of ultramarine, he is not to know whether all of that was used in his painting, or whether the artist was able to keep some back ….”
As we like to say here on AHN, the history of art is the history of what survives.
I'll post some more personal thoughts on the show tomorrow, but I need to rush off now.
Update - the Grumpy Art Historian has been to see the show, and likes it (mainly).
Blockbusters - are they worth it?
March 18 2014
There's a very interesting piece in The Telegraph by Alistair Sooke on blockbuster exhibitions. He talked to both the current and previous directors of the National Gallery to get their views. First, Nicholas Penny:
“At the moment, there are far too many loan exhibitions in the world,” he says. “I would like there to be fewer for sure.” Why? “Because I think they have disrupted the balance between enjoying works of art on a repeated basis, [i.e.] enjoying the sense of a permanent collection, and the special exhibition where you understand a particular artist in depth. It’s a very difficult balance to keep. There’s always an excitement about a loan exhibition, but the exhibition mentality pushes art towards theatre.”
Today we take so-called “blockbuster” exhibitions for granted – yet, as Penny is keen to point out, it is only relatively recently that the National Gallery began to stage them with regularity, following the construction of the Sainsbury Wing, which opened in 1991. Moreover, he says, “the majority of our visitors actually come to see the permanent collection – so it would be crazy of us to compromise its character by turning it into a kind of loan bank whereby we could just get more and more great pictures [for temporary exhibitions] from other institutions by lending our own. But if you don’t lend, you don’t borrow – that’s now quite clear.”
Has he taken any steps to remedy the situation? “Yes,” Penny replies, his eyes shining. “When I became Director in 2008, we stopped having three big loan exhibitions per annum and went down to two. They were putting a tremendous strain on the institution.”
Then its the turn of former director Charles Saumarez Smith:
“There is an argument that big exhibitions consume a great deal of time, energy and resource, and that they take away from the presentation of a permanent collection,” he tells me. “But I like exhibitions. I’ve always been a bit sceptical of the argument that curators would be producing big catalogue raisonnés if only they weren’t concentrating on ephemeral exhibitions, because I think a great deal of scholarship and research goes into exhibitions.”
Of course, you could say that the man running the Royal Academy would argue this, since the institution has a much smaller permanent collection than the National Gallery, as well as an abundance of exhibition space, which it needs to fill. “In some ways,” Saumarez Smith says, “the Royal Academy is the home of the blockbuster exhibition. When we did The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters [in 2010], it got more than 410,000 visitors. It was a blockbuster. But it also had a deeply serious purpose. I believe you get a different order of understanding of an artist by seeing their works together. I’m sure there are people who can go from place to place making comparisons by virtue of training and visual memory – but I prefer to see two works next door to one another.”
Both directors then disagree over the hazards of transporting works of art:
“We do send works of art by air freight,” says Penny, “but apart from the risks of aeroplanes crashing, which we all know about, with air travel, because of the security arrangements at airports, it is becoming more and more difficult to have exact control over what happens within cargo sheds and when works of art are put on the plane.”
Saumarez Smith disagrees. “Works of art can be travelled extremely safely,” he says. “There are people who are anxious about the risk, and it is always said that it only requires one aeroplane to go down with a large number of Poussins and the whole ecology of the blockbuster exhibition will change – but so far that hasn’t happened.”
While I'm probably with Penny on wishing to reduce the number of mega exhibitions, because of the disruption they have on permanent collections and displays, I'm firmly on Saumarez Smith's side when it comes to being handling works of art. There are risks, yes, but damage happens so rarely that shipping concerns shouldn't be a reason not to have good blockbuster shows.
Cezanne at the Ashmolean
March 17 2014
Video: Ashmolean Museum
This looks like it's worth a visit - an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford of works from the Pearlman Collection, including 24 works by Cezanne. Says the Ashmolean:
The exhibition includes twenty-four works by Cézanne: six oils; two drawings; and sixteen watercolours which constitute one of the finest and best-preserved groups of his watercolours in the world. The majority of these are Provençal landscapes, while others depict characteristic Cézanne motifs including a skull, female bathers, and his beloved Mont Sainte-Victoire.
Cézanne and the Modern also explores the history of twentieth-century private collections of this type. Key to the Pearlman Collection is Henry Pearlman’s own tastes. He collected pictures and sculptures that he liked and his thrill at discovering unknown masterpieces is evident throughout. Star pictures include a colourful and unusual composition by Vincent Van Gogh, Tarascon Diligence (1888); Amedeo Modigliani’s celebrated portrait of Jean Cocteau (1916–17); and among the sculptures are three bronzes by Jacques Lipchitz and one by Wilhelm Lehmbruck; and an extraordinary painted relief, Te Fare Amu (1901-2) by Paul Gauguin.
Mr Colin Harrison, Senior Curator of European Art and exhibition curator, Ashmolean, says: “Cézanne and the Modern offers visitors the opportunity to see extraordinary masterpieces by some of the most famous artists of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements. Although individual works have occasionally been included in monographic exhibitions, this is the first time that this most individual collection has been exhibited in Europe. Apart from the amazing paintings and watercolours by Cézanne, it includes wonderful works by artists who are little known in England, notably Chaïm Soutine, who was a particular favourite of the Pearlmans.”
More infor here. Good video by the way.
Sewell on the NPG's new 'War Portraits' show
March 10 2014
The Great Brian is on excellent form in his review of the National Portrait Gallery's new exhibition of Great War portraits. The whole piece is exhibition reviewing at its best. Here are the strangely moving final paragraphs:
Though it is far too cramped and small, playing second fiddle to a once fashionable photographer — David Bailey in this case, but my objection applies to every other who might have been so honoured, so foolish is this misjudgment of priority. I am grateful to the NPG for this exhibition. It falls between too many stools and concentrates on only one campaign, the long-drawn Western Front, but it is to some degree a reminder of the horrors inflicted by war. My diminishing generation needs no such reminder; in my childhood before the Second World War, on every street in London I could see the living wreckage of the Great War, men limbless, eyeless, dreadfully damaged, selling matches and bootlaces for a penny, or, in hope of a penny, singing (often rather well), playing the accordion, the saw (outside St Mary Abbots, Kensington) — yes, the saw — and a harp outside Tattersalls in Knightsbridge. The fortunate legless might have a wicker chair on wheels, the unfortunate a simple wooden chassis paddled along with the hands. A curious child, I wonder how such damaged beings emptied their bowels and bladders, where they slept, how they could eat. Now I see them only in my memory and in the dreary northern paintings of Laurence Lowry. The Great War did not create a world fit for heroes — it threw them on to the street.
It did, however, establish lasting loyalties and affections. Only once did my stepfather speak of that war, though he fought throughout it — in France, the Balkans, Gallipoli, Mesopotamia and the Holy Land — and that was when I unwisely developed an interest in Lawrence of Arabia (who is among the many not included in this exhibition) whom, I learned, my father had good reason to think “a boastful little shit”. But his loyalty to those with whom he fought was quite extraordinary and to be found in no other of his interests; he joined his soldier peers once a month for dinner, even in the blackouts, the Blitzes and the Buzzbomb Summer of the Second World War, until his death in 1962. I experienced something of that loyalty as a National Serviceman with not an enemy in sight — but had there been an enemy, that loyalty would have been much more intense and lasted longer.
But these are the maunderings of an old man in melancholy mood inspired by the pathos of the young so early dead. As the experience of war in any form, in the armed forces or as a civilian, is now the privilege of very few in Britain, I doubt if many will share my powerfully empathic response to this exhibition but I beg them to try. Having done so, having watched the film clips (cramped and uncomfortable) and perhaps having gleaned something of the inglorious sufferings of the soldier, cross the road towards Pret A Manger and, glancing to the left, spare a moment for Edith Cavell, nurse, executed by the Germans in October 1915, for there is her monument, “Patriotism is not enough”, the inscription — her last words, we are told. And it is not, but how now are we to interpret this Delphic utterance when young Gavrilo Princip’s patriotism proved to be so much too much?
The exhibition is on until 15th June.
Update - the Grumpy Art Historian didn't like some of the labels:
The weakness is a jarring curatorial voice that makes bombastic claims that are quite unnecessary; the pictures tell their own story. But the wall text offers questionable generalities like this: "The appalling consequences of [new] weapons suggested that human nature itself had changed, compassion snuffed out by unbridled cruelty and hatred. Such altered perceptions raised profound questions for artists". Was it really new weapons? Was it really worse than, say, the thirty years' war? And even if it was, why should other horrific conflicts not have caused such questioning? Were changed perceptions really caused by war? Virginia Woolf thought human nature changed in December 1910; why do the curators think it was later? These questions are better left for visitors to ponder. Less would have been more in this otherwise fine show.
Update II - I went to see the exhibition, and agree with Brian. It's fascinating, but way too small. What a shame. The show is cramped into two semi-rooms, one of which is part of a room reduced to make way for the tiresome and too, too large exhibition (it takes up almost the entire ground floor) of photographs by David Bailey. I went to see the Bailey show to contrast the offer with the WW1 exhibition. In the former, people drifted swiftly from room to endless room, each more boringly and densely hung than the last. In the latter, they dwelt for far longer on both image and wall text, evidently learning and thinking about a subject currently high up in our national consciousness.
Presumably, the disparity in space is a reflection of the NPG's enforced priorities in these days of funding cuts, for shows like the Bailey bring in the cash. Let's hope that somewhere like the Imperial War Museum (from where many of the NPG exhibits come) can soon mount a larger and more penetrating exhibition of this fascinating artistic aspect of the Great War.