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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (4/6/2024)

(A review of Exhibition on Screen: My National Gallery, London)


Less than a decade has passed since Frederick Wiseman produced National Gallery (2015), a definitive behind-the-scenes study of the daily routine in a cultural repository and seat of learning that also happens to be one of London's most visited tourist attractions. In marking the institution's bicentenary, Exhibition on Screen has latched on to this notion of inclusiveness in Phil Grabsky and Ali Ray's My National Gallery, London, in which staff, members of the public, and celebrities prove there's more to art appreciation than aesthetes and experts by revealing the reasons why a particular painting in the gallery appeals to them. As Grabsky has neatly put it, `Art can speak to everyone, and everyone can speak about art.'

Following a typically deft scene-setting montage to tinkly piano accompaniment, gift shop assistant Joshua Pell recalls visiting the National Gallery with his father when he was 11. He selects Jan Brueghel the Elder's `The Adoration of the Kings' (1598) because the buildings remind him of the post-industrial landscape of his hometown, Hull. As a talented artist, Pell is alert to Brueghel's compositional mastery and makes the salient point that modern media's obsession with instant gratification detracts from the pleasure of standing in front of a painting and arriving at one's interpretation.

Security officer and gallery assistant Alan Allison laments the way in which the legacy of Britain's imperial past lingers in the collection, as the depiction of Black people is largely linked to slavery. A keen student of the paintings who likes to share his enthusiasm with visitors, he has chosen Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio's `The Supper At Emmaus' (1601), which he describes with wonderment for being both cinematic and intimate and accessible and code-laden.

While Allison only got to know the National Gallery after landing a job there (he had previously walked past at night after going clubbing), corporate development manager Helena Fitzgerald was taken there as a child by her nan, Ann. She had a print of Edgar Degas's `Ballet Dancers' (1890-1900) on her bedroom wall. Now 87, she recalls being intimidated as a girl by all the crucifixions on display and notes how much the atmosphere within the gallery has changed over the years. The shared affection for the picture is very touching and the emotion quivers in the granddaughter's voice, as she confides love and gratitude as much as a passion for art.

Historian Jonathan Conlin, the author of The Nation's Mantelpiece, chronicles the gallery's history from the post-Napoleonic impetus to win the peace by placing a new emphasis on the civilising benefits of culture. The driving force was Sir George Beaumont (seen in an 1803 portrait by John Hoppner), a Tory landowner who also painted titles like `Landscape With Figures in the Foreground' (1800-10). As he was childless, he decided to put his art collection on show at 100 Pall Mall and the National Gallery had various homes in this vicinity over the next 14 years, as shown in Frederick Mackenzie's `The National Gallery When At Mr J. J. Angerstein's House, Pall Mall' (1824-34), which actually belongs to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Today, the paintings aren't so crammed together on the walls and Michael Palin can contemplate J.M.W. Turner's `Rain, Steam and Speed - The Great Western' (1844) without distraction. As a railway aficionado, he is thrilled by what he considers to be almost a work of science fiction, as the train emerges from cloud to thunder through the countryside. Picking out how figures in the fields and the open carriages symbolise the old and the new worlds, Palin also notes the scurrying hare on the track, as progress rumbles inexorably on.

Silence descends as we meet John Wilson, a British Sign Language guide and lecturer at the gallery, who explains how deaf people notice things in a different way. He marvels at Pietro Longhi's `Exhibition of a Rhinoceros At Venice' (1751), but also empathises with Clara, as she is being studied by the wealthy patrons in the Age of Enlightenment in the same way that he was investigated as a boy who had been born deaf.

Conlin returns to explain how the National Gallery amassed its 2400 paintings from the 13th to the early 20th century. There was no rationale behind the acquisitions other than to have the best works available and state money was used to prevent Gilded Age American oligarchs from snapping up treasures being sold off by landowners feeling the pinch of falling agricultural revenues and death duties.

Marketing executive Saffron Bowdler next sings the praises of Titian's `Bacchus and Ariadne' (1522-23), which she first saw as a girl with her artist father during a visitation weekend. Before his early death, he nurtured her artistic side and she associates his hedonistic love of life with Bacchus, while also questioning the male gaze aspects of the composition and the extent to which the Cretan princess lamenting the departure of her lover is being courted or seduced.

Challenging those who feel art isn't for them to see paintings as illustrated stories about human beings like them, Bowdler hands on to art handling supervisor, Kasper Pincis. In addition to moving canvases around the gallery, he also gets to travel with loans to other institutions around the world. His favourite is Melchior d'Hondecoeter's `Birds, Butterflies and a Frog Among Plants and Fungi' (1668), which dwells in the basement, as it's not often displayed. He muses on pictures going out of fashion and how the curators have to juggle limited spaces to showcase curios as well as treasures.

Head of communications Tracy Jones alights upon Salvator Rosa's `Witches At Their Incantations' (c.1646), which chimes in with her love of horror films. While acclaiming the artist's imagination in devising weird monsters, however, she is aware that witchcraft was still prosecuted in the Florence of the day. The plight of women in history also fascinates Cambridge art student Rosy Akalawu-Ellman, who chooses Paul Delaroche's `The Execution of Lady Jane Grey' (1833). This partly reflects her youthful fixation on the Tudors, but the fact the deposed queen is blindfolded says much about the place of the female gaze in the history of art. Commending the National Gallery's education programmes aimed at dispelling the myth that art is for the elite, Akalawu-Ellman nevertheless regrets the lack of representational diversity within the collection and hopes that more can be done to broaden the scope to widen the gallery's appeal.

Conlin reveals that William Wilkins designed the building that now houses the collection. But, while it was completed in 1838, it was John Nash who created the piazza that is now Trafalgar Square from the Charing Cross district and, thus, ensured that the National Gallery was at the heart of the capital, as well as the country. Into that space strides Claudia Winkleman, who follows Palin's `hack' comment by self-deprecatingly claiming to read things aloud on the television for a living.

She recalls weekend visits to the gallery to discuss single paintings with her father. This not only gave her a love of art, but also a technique for detaching herself from everyday cares. Admitting to favouring the `big hitters', Winkleman plumps for Leonardo da Vinci's `The Virgin of the Rocks' (c.1491/92-99 and 1506-08) and provides a succinct analysis of its composition and style before recommending that people use paintings as their safety valve.

Next up, membership and commercial services assistant, Stacey Smith, divulges her affinity with Hans Holbein the Younger's `The Ambassadors' (1533). She first saw it with her grandfather, who showed her how to view the anamorphic skull. However, she has now come to understand the symbolism of what is essentially a coded diplomatic dispatch to inform Francis I of France what is happening in Henry VIII's England following his separation from Catherine of Aragon.

When the gallery first opened in 1824, there was a fear among trustees that the public might attack its contents to express their frustration with the repressive running of the country. However, as admission was free, the working-class soon came to appreciate it as a place for self-improvement and, by the time Giuseppe Gabrielli finished `The National Gallery 1886, Interior of Room 32' (1886), its status within the life of the capital was assured. Artists also benefited from the free access, although Conlin points out that some spent their time copying pictures to sell to the public. Saying much about Victorian taste, the most copied canvas was Sir Edwin Landseer's canine classic, `Dignity and Impudence' (1839), although this has since been transferred to Tate Britain.

Former touring exhibitions manager Gracie Divall chooses Artemisia Gentileschi's `Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria' (c. 1615-17), which is one of the 21 paintings by female artists in the National Gallery. Even though there are historical reasons for this, the number is scandalously small, especially as Divall highlights the connection that modern women have with both this picture and Artemisia, who was raped at 17 by a family friend who was found guilty in court of deflowering her father's property. On one occasion, she took the painting to a women's prison, where it made an empathetic and inspirational impression.

Sidling into view, Terry Gilliam describes how he stole a foot from Agnolo Bronzino's `Allegory of Venus, Cupid and Folly' (c.1542) for the title animation to Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-74). It amused him that Cupid would crush stuff. But he also notes the fact that Venus and Cupid were mother and son and suggests that this was a warning against the spread of syphilis at a time when it was prevalent across Europe.

As the Bronzino foot stomps down on Gilliam, we see colorised archive footage of Trafalgar Square (with a very sooty Nelson's Column), as Conlin recalls how Kenneth Clark sent the majority of the collection to a Welsh slate mine for safe keeping during the Second World War, but kept the newly acquired Rembrandt van Rijn canvas, `Portrait of Margaretha de Geer, Wife of Jacob Trip' (c.1661) so that Londoners could admire it. Such `one picture shows' became as popular as Myra Hess's lunchtime piano recitals, with people queuing for their culture fix.

Princess Eugenie, who works at the Hauser and Worth Gallery in London, used to love sketching in rooms that were full of stories. Her choice, Antonio da Correggio's `The Madonna of the Basket' (c.1524), reflects the fact that she has just had her second child and can empathise with a mother stopping work to attend to her baby. She is awed by the fact that a painting created 500 years ago has been on a long journey in order to resonate with visitors to the National Gallery today.

The enduring appeal of an artefact from another era also strikes gallery director Gabriele Finaldi, as he talks about Bartolomé Bermejo's `Saint Michael Triumphant Over the Devil' (1468). The first significant Renaissance Spanish piece to be acquired by the National Gallery (in the mid-1990s), this scene of good slaying evil includes a portrait of donor Antoni Joan. But it's the symbolic details of the dangers lurking within the demon's body and the skill with which the sheen of the saint's armour has been captured that most intrigues Finaldi.

Archivist Alan Cookham pops up to state that the pictures on display are anything but static, as attempts are currently being made to show connections between works so that they can be better understood and enjoyed. Conlin describes how the galleries were once arranged according to countries or schools and how this changed under Director Neil MacGregor in the 1990s to provide more of a chronological narrative.

Fiona Alderton explains her role as a gallery educator and storyteller before highlighting Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun's `Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat' (1782). Encouraged by her painter father, she was a regular at Versailles, with `Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1787) being among the 30 portraits she created of the queen. This meant she became a target for the revolutionaries and had to spend 12 years in exile and Alderton hopes that more people will pause in front of this striking work and want to learn more about the woman who painted it.

Visitor assistant Robert Raynard hopes the same for Louis-Léopold Boilly's `A Girl At a Window' (c.1799), which intrigues him because of its lack of colour. He is also taken by the fish in the bowl and the bird (or is it birds?) behind the subject with her enigmatic expression. While Conlin concludes that virtual tours can't replace the experience of standing in front of a painting, prolific children's author Jacqueline Wilson enters to share her love of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's `The Umbrellas' (c.1881-86), which she remembers from childhood visits while having dental treatment across Trafalgar Square. She admits to making up narratives for paintings and believes the woman without the brolly here is beckoning the viewer over to share a secret just as a wind is about to send all the other black umbrellas over the rooftops of Paris. Wilson sees a bit of Hetty Feather in this independent woman, with whom she can identify more readily than the prettified young girl in the picture.

Renoir is currently on the receiving end of a backlash, but Wilson sees nothing wrong in painting pretty things. As she exits, gallery regular Peter Murphy wanders in to admire Giovanni Bellini's `Madonna of the Meadow' (c.1500-05), which helped him recover from the drug addiction that cost him is career as a television producer. As someone who had been raised by an aunt rather than a mother, it took this picture to reassure him that his flaws weren't all his fault and he remains grateful that the National Gallery is free because he wouldn't have taken his first steps towards recovery if he had had to pay admission. He still feels at home here and this uplifting testimony seems a good place to stop (although there's just time for a closing time tannoy announcement).

Although the format risks becoming a little repetitive, this is a delightful alternative tour of a familiar place that has so many more treasures to offer beyond those under scrutiny here. By focussing on personal choices rather than the accepted masterpieces, Grabsky and Ray reaffirm the contention that everyone can enjoy art and that their perspective is as good as anyone else's. This is a splendidly democratic approach and it restores the status that the National Gallery had for people from all walks of life in the first third of the 20th century, when the initial cracks in the elitist establishment began to appear.

Creditably calling the gallery to account for its shortcomings where racial depiction and gender diversity are concerned, the contributors have an unassuming eloquence that avoids feeling tokenist or middlebrow because they all (even though some are moe confident on camera than others) speak with such engaging sincerity. The more familiar faces prove equally relatable, as they share intimate details along with their insights. As a consequence, the film succeeds in making the National Gallery seem both enticing and enchanting, as it promises endless stories that are only limited by the visitor's imagination.

Of course, some moments feel more infomercial than others. But Grabsky and Ray get the blend of the promotional and the personal just about right. Key to this is Jonathan Conlin, whose linking historical interludes go some way to explaining how the collection and the way it is exhibited has evolved (rightly or wrongly) over the gallery's 200 years. But, as usual with Exhibition on Screen, the secret to the film's success lies in the care that is taken over the presentation of the artworks, with the camera luxuriating in the small details that linger in the memory of the beholder.

On a personal note, the release feels all the more poignant following the recent passing of Sir John Boardman, the archaeologist and art historian who took an encouraging interest in the literary aspirations of a summer job invigilator who had been dispatched to the little-visited Cast Gallery on the periphery of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum in the mid-1980s. His unfailing kindness has never been forgotten. RIP.

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