Friday, March 26, 2021

The Exhibition we Almost Didn't Have!

Botticelli to van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London.
At the National Gallery of Australia
March 5 - June 14

Reviewed by Tony Magee

WHEN Winston Churchill was elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in May 1940, one of the first things he did was to have all artworks from the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square moved to underground safety bunkers for preservation, lest the gallery be bombed during German air raids.

The now empty gallery also provided an alternative artistic opportunity, whereby British pianists Myra Hess and Moura Lympany joined forces and used their considerable list of contacts to establish weekday lunchtime concerts at the venue, numbering 1,968 over a six year period, to help boost British morale.

Founded in 1824 with an initial collection of just 38 paintings, the National Gallery in London now boasts a collection of 2,300 works.

61 of these masterpieces have been selected for the “Botticelli to van Gogh” exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, the first time in its almost 200 year history, that the London Gallery has allowed an international touring exhibition.

In addition, Canberra is currently the only place in the world where one can see these works up close and personal, as the London Gallery itself is still closed due to COVID 19 restrictions.

The earliest piece on display is Paolo Uccello’s “St George and the Dragon”, painted circa 1470.

Paolo Uccello, Italy. Saint George and the Dragon. c 1470.
© The National Gallery, London.

This interpretation of one of the most popular Christian stories from the middle ages has compressed two parts of the story into one, showing Saint George spearing the dragon, whilst a princess holds a leash around its neck.

The art of perspective is brilliantly showcased in Botticelli’s “Four scenes from the early Life of Saint Zenobius” from 1500 and “The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius”, painted in 1486 by Carlo Crivelli.

Sandro Botticelli, Italy. Four scenes from the early life of Saint Zenobius. c 1500.
© The National Gallery, London.

Botticelli, one of the most celebrated Florentine Renaissance painters, configures this work to be read from left to right, like a cartoon strip, presenting Zenobius moving through the streets of Florence as he rejects marriage, is baptised, witnesses his mother’s baptism and is ordained as Bishop of Florence.

Titian’s “Noli me tangere” (Do not Touch Me), dates from 1514 and depicts Mary Magdalene reaching out to Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. Christ commands “Noli me tangere”, as it is time for his followers to let go of his earthly presence.

Titian, Italy. Noli me tangere. c 1514. © The National Gallery, London.

Dutch Painting of the Golden Age features landscapes, still life and domestic scenes - the new painting genres pioneered by artists working in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century.

“Still Life with a Lobster”, painted between 1650 and 1659 by Willem Claesz Heda, shows a sumptuous meal of lobster with bread rolls and green olives on an elegant table setting, ready for consumption.

Willem Claesz Heda, The Netherlands. Still life with a Lobster. c 1650 - 1659.
© The National Gallery, London.

The Golden Age of Spanish Art includes “Kitchen scene with Christ in the house of Martha and Mary”, painted in 1618 by Diego Velázquez.

Christ, with Mary kneeling and Martha standing behind, can be seen through a small window within the painting. A meal of silver bream, garlic, eggs and chilli is being prepared, with garlic and spices being crushed in a mortar and pestle by the kitchen staff.

Diego Velázquez, Spain. Kitchen scene with Christ in the house of Martha and Mary. c 1618.
© The National Gallery, London.

18th and 19th century British artists are represented with works by Constable, Gainsborough and Turner.

Turner’s “Ulysses deriding Polyphemus” from 1829 shows a great ship with Ulysses on board, escaping from an island where the one-eyed monster Polyphemus has held him captive.

 JWM Turner, Great Britain. Ulysses deriding Polyphemus. 1829. © The National Gallery, London.

Turner revisited his ship theme 10 years later in 1839 with his ghostly “The Fighting Temeraire”.

Handel also touched on the subject in his opera “Acis and Galatea”.

Impressionism is represented with works by Cézanne, Degas, Renoir, van Gogh and Monet.

Monet painted “The Water-lily Pond” in 1899, and it is the youngest of the paintings represented in the NGA exhibition. The scene is from Monet’s own garden in Giverny, Normandy. The humpback bridge was inspired from examples seen by Monet in Japanese prints.

Claude Monet, France. The Water-lily Pond. 1899. © The National Gallery, London.

The final work in the exhibition is “A Basket of Roses” painted in 1890 by Henri Fantin-Latour.

Despite working alongside the impressionists, Fantin-Latour remained committed to painting in a traditional style, “representing things as they are found in nature”.

Henri Fantin-Latour, France. A Basket of Roses. 1890. © The National Gallery, London.

In the exhibition shop, I noticed that prints of this work were outselling everything else by vast quantities.

“Botticelli to Van Gogh” is essential viewing for anyone interested not only in great art, but history, humanity and the changing times.