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Posts tagged ‘Rokeby Venus’

Next train stop: The National Gallery (aka waiting room/ hang out/ free for all)

I had a free hour between meetings the other day – no point in heading home only to turn around again (always best to avoid the Northern line, whatever time of the day) so I decided to head into London’s preeminent art space, The National Gallery. One of the pulls of the gallery is the fact that it’s free. It means that you can drop in and out as many times as you like and therefore digest the large collection more easily. Nevertheless, it seems that charging no entry has proved to be one pull too many for the many visitors to the Gallery.

Walking into the National felt very much like walking into one of London’s busiest train terminuses. People were rushing about all over the place. Huge groups were gathered in the foyer, others were walking around, luggage in tow, some were on the phone, others having animated conversation. I put this down to its being a foyer – a meeting place for the masses who have toured the galleries or are about to. But to my consternation, once I began to walk around the galleries, I found the situation to be the same even in the farthest of rooms from the entrance. The galleries seemed to act as a thoroughfare for all and everyone in London. There was a constant feeling of unease and stress as the breeze of countless individuals and large groups rushing through the galleries pervaded the air. Meanwhile, all of the seats in the centre of the galleries would be loaded with people who appeared to have been getting cosy there for sometime. I saw people listening to ipods, half asleep. Others reading books, magazines, newspapers. People were chatting, catching up. Others were sat down, eyes to the floor or on their watch, looking bored to tears. Plenty were texting, others speaking on the phone. Most importantly, only 1 in every 25 people who were in the galleries seemed to take any interest in the art on show whatsoever!

Norms (ignoring Art) at the National Gallery (2012 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, pen on paper)

For those, like me, who are interested in the wonderful art on show, all this made for a distracting experience. Appreciating art requires a tranquil calm environment, free from distractions. How else can one enter the world which the artist has created, to consider the artist’s motives, his feelings, emotions and the story being narrated on canvas. Trying to appreciate art here was akin to analysing a Rubens hanging in the midst of a busy underground platform.

Busy impressionist gallery at the National Gallery - but at least here some people are looking at the paintings!

The press has recently applauded the increase in visitor numbers to London galleries. The increase, it is said, has been credited to the move of the Labour Government (i.e. the government whose policies ruined most things in the UK) to make the majority of London galleries and museums free back in 2001. It’s a move which has since been adopted by the coalition government, and money is put aside to subsidise the participating institutions who otherwise lose out on the admission fee.

Don’t get me wrong – open access to art is a wonderful thing. Art has a power like nothing else to enrich lives, to enable escapism to another world, to brighten a day, to enhance emotions. And the freer the access the better. The problem is, no one in the National Gallery seemed to even bother with the paintings. For them, the space was a place to hang out, to rest their feet, to chat with friends, to escape the winter weather. And for those of us who do appreciate art, that was a real distraction.

Saint Sebastian by Gerrit van Honthorst (c.1623)

The National Gallery’s collection is superb. I went along to see Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus having recently painted my own Norm piece devoted to the work. But asides from this, a look round just a few galleries introduced me to some wonderful new lesser known pieces of which I had no prior knowledge. Take Saint Sebastian by Gerrit van Honthorst – what a superb painting. St Sebastian is ever the romantic icon – a beautiful matyr who pulls at the heart strings of his viewer. This sensitive portrayal beautifully captures the moment of his ultimate torment. The soft supple depiction of his well toned flesh contrasts to devastating effect with the violence of the arrows piercing it, blood staining the peachy tones of his perfect skin. And what about Willem Kalf’s Still Life with Drinking Horn. Still lifes may be potentially a bit “past it” but the skill of this piece is astonishing, the lobster painted with startling precision, it’s ruby red shell tantalising all the senses, while the portrayal of horn, glass and drapery shows that the artist’s skills can be turned to any material or texture.

Still Life with Drinking Horn by Willen Kalf

Rokeby Venus, slashed by Mary Richardson in 1914

For me, when a gallery becomes a thorough fare, the magnificence of its art is somehow degraded – not given the respect it deserves. This feeling is increased by the lack of security at the gallery – no bag checks at the entrance, no security gates, and security guards who are present but wouldn’t realistically be able to prevent an attack on a painting – only catch the perpetrator. Has the National Gallery not learnt from past lessons then, such as the devastating attack on the Rokeby Venus at the hands of a suffragette, “Slasher Mary” in 1914? The scars are still visible on the great Venus for all to see. By contrast in Paris, at the Louvre, the d’Orsay, the Pompidou, you cannot enter those galleries without full scale security checks, and of course an admission fee. The result is that the paintings are given the respect they deserve – as masterpieces of the nation.

A difficult debate ensues. Should art be made free to the nation and if so, how can you stop abuse by those who take very little interest in the art on show, or whose interest is laced with violent intentions? I think a security check, at the very least, should be installed, and bags, phones, ipods should not be allowed. Free access should be encouraged, but these paintings must be given the respect they deserve, or the ghosts of all those unhappy artists, turning in their graves, will surely haunt us forever.

Norms do… the Rokeby Venus

You’d excuse the Duchess of Cambridge, aka our adored Kate Middleton, for being a little miffed at the reception to her sister Pippa’s now famous backside when it meandered up the aisle of Westminster Abbey behind the blushing bride in the decade’s most watched wedding last year. Her bottom was a largely unanticipated feature of the wedding, but one which captured almost as much attention as Kate’s dress, particularly amongst the males watching the wedding (causing unanimous consternation amongst their female partners – one, it was reported, even slashed her boyfriend’s car). But should Duchess Kate wish to console herself of this great usurpation of her wedding day, she need only wander next door from the National Portrait Gallery to which she has recently become patron. There, in London’s National Gallery, she will find a backside which easily eclipses Pippa’s behind in terms of notoriety (and, frankly, beauty), a bottom which has been both ogled at and admired in equal measure for centuries, and one which has stirred such strong reactions in its audience that a King of England helped to purchase it for the nation, and prompted one crazed suffragette to slash the painting repeatedly in pursuit of her campaign for women’s rights (in prompting such violent actions then, perhaps the two bottoms are on par). It is, of course, the beautiful bottom of the Venus, painted by Spanish master Diego Velázquez, which has become known as The Rokeby Venus. 

The original Rokeby Venus by Velazquez (courtesy of The National Gallery, London)

The painting, which became known as Rokeby when it was moved to Rokeby Park in Yorkshire in the 19th century, is easily one of the prizes of The National Gallery’s collection. It not only shows a lovely naked body for audiences to admire and, possibly, to become aroused by, as well as an intimate, uninterrupted moment of self-absorbed beauty, it also offers us an innovative way of representing the archetypal duo of classical figures, Cupid and Venus, with Venus’ back to the viewer, and Cupid, without his usual bow and arrows, engaging, assisting Venus in her act of self-appreciation. Painting Venus’ back to the audience was an unusual choice, but it not only adds to the intimacy of the scene, it also allows the nude to be admired from a hitherto unseen perspective. And in order to involve the audience with his portrayal of Venus further, Velázquez uses the mirror as a device to introduce Venus’ face in the scene as well. In this way the composition is not only innovative but highly effective as a tool to seduce and captivate the viewer. As Velázquez goes, this is quite a departure from Las Meninas and his other court portraiture, and would, in fact, have been painted with a degree of secrecy in a society which was prowled by the stricture of the Spanish Inquisition. Its beauty is however equal to, if not greater than these more “official” works, and provides an intimacy and emotional intensity which would never be captured in the stiff pose of a courtier, or even the traditional classical manifestation of Venus.

Damaged sustained by the Rokeby Venus when slashed by suffragette Mary Richardson in 1914

Now the Norms, being as ever, fans of high culture, particularly of a Spanish kind, have adopted the pose of the Rokeby Venus for your pleasure. In this watercolour reimagining of Velázquez’s masterpiece, the composition is pretty faithful to the original, albeit the medium of watercolour provides something of a coarser, more vivid finish than the hazy blended effect which Velázquez has achieved with oils. I also made the face of the Norm in the mirror more prominent that Velázquez’s Venus whose face is inexplicably blurred. Recent National Gallery x-rays have shown that this blurring remains unchanged from the painting’s original finish and was, therefore, always intended by Velázquez. Why he blurred the face no one can be sure, but I like to think that it conformed to the softness of the whole scene, including the gentle finish given to Cupid. In giving Venus a generalised, undefined face, Velázquez emphasises the beauty of her body and the drapery which mirrors its curves so effectively.

The Normby Venus (after Velazquez) (watercolour on paper, 2012 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown)

Let’s hope that my Norm reimagining remains in one piece and is not slashed to pieces by a protester…

So before leaving you to (hopefully) enjoy my Norm pastiche, just a note on who else has been inspired by the Rokeby Venus. Well the list is fairly long, including Goya, Ingres, and Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry with his The Wave and the Pearl. But it is also possible, I think, to attribute Manet’s infamous Olympia to the dare and innovation of Velázquez’s portrayal of the nude. As Velázquez reinvents the female nude with this glance at her behind, so too did Manet reimagine the nude, painting a similarly unembellished nude who stares directly at the viewer, captivating the audience in the same way that the Rokeby Venus pulls the viewer into the intimate scene by way of her reflected stare in the mirror. Notable too is Manet’s drapery, mirroring and enhancing the curvature of his creamy-smooth nude.

Edouard Manet, Olympia (1863) courtesy of the Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Also of note is the 1970s photographic reinaction of the Rokeby Venus by Bergström as well as by contemporary photographer Sam Taylor-Wood. In the latter photograph, Soliloquy III, Taylor-Wood pushes the erotic nature of Velázquez’s work to a new level, capturing what looks like a self-portrait in the Rokeby pose above a freeze which appears to show a group of people indulging in a mass orgy in an office space.

Bergström over Paris (1976)

Soliloquy III (1998) Sam Taylor-Wood

Suddenly Pippa’s small, well-covered bottom loses much of its lustre… Until next time.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2005-2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.