I’m a big advocate for art accessibility. I don’t believe it is just for the upper echelons who can afford to buy it and intellectuals who make it inaccessible by using language and terminology that breeds exclusivity and a club of those who are in the know. These people create the barriers which contribute to the perspective regular people have that art is complicated and hard to understand. This is simply not true. In fact, art at its very beginning was for the people. In past worlds when the population was by and large illiterate, art held the same position that a book holds today. In a world post-Gutenberg press we tend to forget that stories and messages were once conveyed pictorially in a way that was universally understood. Paintings, drawings and sculptures were coded with meaning, in the same way that our modern books rely on metaphor and allegory.
The historic role of art is a major factor to me in my belief that art is for everyone. It’s one of the reasons why I love London. All the art, culture and heritage is at your fingertips. Everyday I walk past the National Gallery on my way to work. And everyday just before I get to the office I sigh a little inside that I am walking into an office building and not the National. It is tantalising to know that the gallery is so close everyday with all its halls of art, open to all, for free. It is such a privilege that most of the major galleries and museums in London are free. Something that could not be said for collections of the same calibre such as the Met in New York or the Louvre in Paris. As an aside my top tip for a trip to any museum or gallery, free or not, is if you make a trip to the bathroom ensure you make a donation, no matter how small. Cultural institutions rely on donations to operate and it is often overlooked how expensive it is to provide such essential services. It’s not the most glamorous thing to donate to, but its needed to ensure art remains accessible.
When I visit the National Gallery in two modes. Primarily I go to immerse myself in the art. On these occasions I just wander, revisiting old favourites, finding new ones, observing the changes the curators have made in the hang since my last visit. It’s glorious. I turn on some music and block out the experiences others are having in the same space. I always find something new. Even in the paintings I’ve looked at many times.
The other way in which I like to visit the gallery is to people watch. I pick a room and sit for a while watching. I’m fascinated with witnessing other people’s engagement with art. What works they single out from the crowd competing for their attention. How they approach these works, whether it’s with a guidebook, audioguide or with prior knowledge. I’ve always felt that the best art, is the art that moves us. What is good art to me may not be good art to you. It all depends on what one is searching for. I enjoy watching people experience different works, and I often find myself wondering what it is about particular works that attracts them, and what they are thinking when they are looking at a work. I enjoy sometimes listening to the conversations that flow around me. Individuals offering tidbits of knowledge about a particular work or artist, to the person accompanying them. Others questioning the why of a particular work. Art is such an open space for questioning the why, and finding answers in the most unexpected ways.
There is so much packed into the warren of rooms enclosed in the building on Trafalgar that it is impossible to experience it all in a single visit. And to tell the truth I wouldn’t attempt to try. This is part of the reason why I find repeat visits so rewarding. There’s always something new to see this way. When visiting other cultural institutions when I’m travelling I’m a woman on a mission, eating up my absolute musts before allowing myself to wander, so it is a pleasure to be able to return to by local as many times as I am able.
During my most recent visit, I put on some music and did some wandering. My song of choice this time was Life of the Party. Its a new tune from a Kiwi artist called Chelsea Jade whom I’ve adored since I attended one of her performances at the Auckland Art Gallery a number of years ago. This song is catchy, mellow, and perfect for entering into your own world. This time as I drifted into my art consciousness I wandering into the room housing one of the biggest drawcards at the Gallery, and a room in which I am a frequent visitor.
The Virgin of the Rocks – Leonardo da Vinci
For me no trip to the Gallery is complete without checking in with the Master’s Madonna. It’s one of the biggest draw cards to the National Gallery and currently hung in a small room, low lit to meet the conditions needed to preserve the Burlington House Cartoon hung on a nearby wall. I love the Virgin because it is a clear articulation of da Vinci’s power as an artist and the Renaissance principals he helped define. In my opinion this painting, much more so than the Mona Lisa at Louvre, is a work worthy of the number of tourists who flock to it each day. It’s technical excellence outweighs the mythos that surrounds the Mona Lisa, and is on a much larger scale reflecting its original function as the centrepiece of a church alter. Fighting through the crowd to stand in front of it is always worth it. Up close you can see the exquisite blue of the Madonna’s cloak, echoed in the blues of the river and mountains in the landscape. While not as detailed as the Louvre version of the same name, the colours and serenity of the work shine. As it is a less busy composition, the clear elements that make it a da Vinci stand out.
The Renaissance technique of Sfumato, is one of the most important parts of this work. Da Vinci was the leading user of sfumato amongst his contemporaries and the Virgin of the Rocks reflects all the hallmarks of this technique. The technique of sfumato is executed through the use of fine shading that creates a soft, atmospheric effect in the transition between tones and shading. Instead of the use of a harsh, blunt line between different sections of a painting, pigment is applied in layers that blend into each other. My favourite passages of this painting demonstrate da Vinci’s mastery of this principle – the lush baby rolls of the Christ child, the subtle drapery of the Madonna’s cloak – set within a meticulously depicted cave landscape, with just a hint of the beyond world indicated by the body of water flowing through the jagged rocks. The softness of the water balancing out the sharpness of the rocks.
No detail is over looked in this work. And every time I stand in front of it I learn something new, there is something new to see. I don’t think I will ever get tired of it. And that is what makes it a constant staple in my National Gallery diet. It’s like an addiction you just can’t kick. My relationship with this painting is much like my relationship with coffee. It’s not something I am willing to give up anytime soon.