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 (normsonline.wordpress.com)