As most people will probably know – well, maybe not most people but at least the majority of that select sophisticated societal segment who regularly read this blog will probably know – this year marks the quincentenary of the death of that most polymathical maestro of his, and perhaps any other era, the greatest of great Renaissance men: Leonardo da Vinci. Consequentially, various commemorative exhibitions have been organised by the great galleries of the world as a way of acknowledging the sweeping genius of the man as well as perhaps trying to cash on on his unique superstar celebratory status. The grandest of all these shows is currently on at the Louvre but, since the last time I visited that particular iconic bastion of Parisian pride I had such a miserable time shuffling my way against the noisy swirling touristic tides, I’m disinclined to return, especially as I assume that the mobs will be even noisier and swirlingier this time around. The thought of joining the scrum of a giant crocodile queue and edging along past half a dozen Leonardo paintings when not being able to stop and properly see any of them definitely doesn’t appeal.
As for this country’s tribute to the great man, the Queen’s Gallery recently staged a display of some of the stash of drawings that our own dear monarch is very fortunate enough to own although, as some may recall, when I attempted to go along and take a look such was the length of the snaking line of visitors that extended out from the Gallery that I decided not to bother joining it. Again, the idea of having to wait an age to get into rooms full of small delights that cannot then be seen because of the plodders standing in front of them is just too dispiriting to contemplate. A situation not improved by the fact that all the reviews I read of the show were so gushing in their praise of the power of Leonardo‘s line – lauding the exceptionality of his mastery of technique, the breadth of his inventive investigations and all that kind of hyperbolic hoopla. All of which really just confirms the difference of experience enjoyed by the hacks seeing the show at a small private press viewing and the rest of us enduring one in the uncomfortable crush of the real life situation.
Anyway, having ended its run in London, the Queen’s Gallery exhibition has now resurfaced for an encore at one of the northern outposts of her majesty’s realm in Edinburgh. And I’m half tempted to make a special new year pilgrimage up to this highland haven where, since there are far fewer swarms of cultural sightseers, it might actually be possible to get a reasonably clear view of the items on display. In the meantime it seems that the National Gallery in London has very recently opened an exhibition entitled Unlocking Leonardo, a situation to which I was alerted by one of those electronical notifications that appear unbidden in the email inbox as a result of my being a paid up member of that self-same august institution. As is usually the way with such modern media advertorial come-ons, the text was extravagantly enthusiastic and advised that, whereas being a member usually entitles one to just flash a loyalty card to gain instant access (pace last week’s blog about going to the Hayward), such was the expected magnitude of interest in this particular show that, in order to gain automatic unhindered admission, it would be necessary to visit the Gallery’s website and pre-book a special specific timed entry slot. Ok, I realise now that I should have sensed a murine odour at this point but I suppose even cynics like myself are occasionally suckered by shifty psychological schemery and the kind of marketing techniques aimed at prompting the potential punter to act precipitately for fear of missing out on some eagerly imagined advantage. Suffice to say that I went straight to the website and booked my place although, being a member, at least there wasn’t any charge to pay.
I suppose the general absence of other visitors when I was approaching the vicinity of the display area should have been a warning that maybe the show wasn’t going to be quite as exciting as the preview propaganda had promised. But I’m not sure that anything could have prepared me for the really quite extraordinary feebleness of this very peculiar exhibition. And I think I’m going to struggle now to be able to convey just how disappointingly weak the show is and what an outrage it is for the Gallery to charge any entry fee at all, let alone the actual £18 required to gain week day entrance or the even more exorbitant charge of £20 that comes into play over the weekend! This really does seem to me to be the most egregious attempt to extract cash from the purses of unsuspecting members of the public by brandishing the blessed name of Leonardo and then offering up a half-hearted exhibition containing just a single example of his actual work, not least because the actual painting – The Virgin of the Rocks – would normally be displayed anyway among the other works in the Gallery’s permanent collection where it could be seen for free. Of course, in the past the Gallery has staged other exhibitions focussing its attention on a specific individual painting but on those occasions the associated subsidiary displays have tended to include a wealth of useful contextual background information, both artistic and scientific. Typically, one might reasonably expect to see a whole bunch of preparatory sketches as well as a proper exhibition’s worth of similar works on comparative themes by both the artist himself and also his contemporaries – not to mention the results of the associated conservatory investigations with all their X-ray scans, micro-Imagining photographs and other fashionable forensic flim-flammery.
While this current show does offer one video display that provides an introduction to some of this scientific analytical stuff, it seemed to me to be a pretty cursory affair and the only other actual displays consisted of a honeycomb of polished steel boxes stuck in front of a photographic mural of the Italian countryside – which seemed to be referencing Leonardo‘s mirror writing technique and interest in nature – and a small light show that aims to illustrate the different optical effects of shadows falling on a rock, a face and some geometric shapes. And that really is all you get for your £20 except, as mentioned earlier, a chance to see the Virgin hung high and shrouded in darkness, presumably in an attempt to try to engender a sense of transcendental aura. Frankly, for the reputation of the National Gallery, I think this appalling show should be immediately taken down and the Virgin packed up and loaned to the Louvre by way of penitence.
Having hopefully managed to deter at least a few visitors form throwing their money away on that very poor excuse of a show, I’m pleased to be able to recommend something much more worthwhile to visit that’s also taking place in the National Gallery. And, thankfully, Gauguin Portraits comes very much closer to the Gallery’s normal high standards of curatorial expression. As the title suggests, the exhibition is Indeed, as one would hope and expect, a show full of around 50 paintings, drawings and other carvings and ceramic representations by the artist of himself, his family, friends and models. There are many attractive and interesting works here and a few real stunners which, combined with the instructive fifteen minute video introduction, provides comprehensive, competently curated coverage of an intriguing theme as well as illuminating the life and works of one of the truly seminal artists of the early age of Modernism.
Although, having said all that, I’m still not entirely sure that I could really encourage anyone to pay out the special full price weekend admission of £24. That just seems like an awful lot of money to me for an entertainment that I suppose lasts about an hour or so. Then again, presumably the trustees of the Gallery are forced by financial necessity to make such charges for their temporary shows in order to keep entry to the main permanent collection free for everyone. And for those of us who are likely to wish to see most of the temporary exhibitions here or will want to make repeated return visits to see a particular show a number of times, then the annual membership charge of £58 really does represent pretty good value. Frankly, my solution would be to continue to allow free entry to the National and the capital’s other main galleries and museums for the indigenous population but make a modest charge for overseas tourist visitors. Not, I hasten to add, because I’m some kind of appalling nationalistic xenophobe but because the last time I visited Paris I bought one of those four-day tourist cards to get entry to the main cultural sites and, although the charge was around £80, I didn’t think at all unreasonable. And I believe that similar schemes and similar fees are the norm in just about all the other capitals of Europe and for most of the galleries in America and beyond.
Anyway, having harrumphed that out of the way, what about the actual Gauguin show? Well, there are no great surprises or revelations, just an illustrated retelling of the familiar story whereby the artist shifts from his comfortable respectable bourgeois lifestyle, complete with wife and five kids, to become a peripatetic Bohemian searching for some kind of mystical prelapsarian utopia. And so it is that portraits and self-portraits provide the autobiographical backdrop as Gauguin travels from Paris to Brittany to Arles and then further afield to Tahiti before finally settling in the even more remote islands of the Marquesan archipelago. It’s a journey mirrored by stylistic changes in the artworks produced. So, the soft, sweet naturalistic scenes with his wife and children, that confirm just what a skillful Impressionist he started out as, metamorphose into the daringly bright expressionistically coloured visions of Edenic island life that confirm just what a radical Post-Impressionist visionary he eventually became.
The accompanying video show claims that in his portraits Gauguin was concerned to show something of the inner psychological life of the various sitters who sat for him but, to be honest, I really don’t think that is the case. I think he was far too interested in exploring the effects of colour combinations, whether it was the contrast between the hair and fleshtones of his models, the furniture and fittings that surrounded them or the scenery and foliage that provided the more general backdrops in which he had them pose. The one time I think it is perhaps possible to get a glimpse into the souls of his subjects is when looking at some of the women of Tahiti with whom he formed his friendships of varying degrees of intimacy. And here the sullen return gaze of the models challenges the viewer to reconsider the nature and propriety of these relationships and whether Gauguin may have abused his position of quasi colonial power. An islander is quoted in the video suggesting that while the artist may have married his native wife when she was just fourteen, this was not unexceptional for the time and place – an excuse that I’m not sure can really still be considered acceptable any more. So, a truly great artist but also perhaps not a very nice man, a fact that may, for some viewers, introduce a discomforting cloud of contention over this otherwise sunny selection of portraiture.