16 May, 2009

Late nights at the National Gallery

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

It’s sad that Wednesday evenings at the National Gallery are over – the new Friday Lates are too touristy for serious art lovers

For most of my life, I believed I knew that grand porticoed building on the north side of Trafalgar Square and the pictures it contained pretty well. I knew its dom­es­tic interiors and its deposi­tions; its saints and symbols; its still lifes, land­scapes and altarpieces.

Even so, for years I rarely made a special visit to the National Gallery: mostly I’d drop in, if I was passing, to catch up on a few favourites. Caravaggio. Rembrandt’s self-portraits in youth and age. Vermeer’s wide-eyed young women suspended in time. Mr and Mrs Arnolfini and their Paris Hilton pooch. Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières, stunned by summer heat. Van Gogh’s vacant chair and his vase of tatty sun­flowers. And that little blue canvas of the streaky Finnish lake. The usual suspects.

I might have gone on like that forever, skimming the surface of the collection, but in autumn 2004 I discovered Wednesday Lates, the one night a week when the gallery stayed open until nine, offering a free programme of concerts and talks.

For the next four and a half years I barely missed a Wednes­day. My evenings were always the same, always different. At 6pm, along with several dozen others, I sat in front of that week’s picture and listened to a half-hour talk: usually enlightening, some­times not, occasionally revela­tory. Then I spent an hour in the galleries simply looking. At first I was doggedly systematic. I went through the collection chrono­logically, studying every picture, listen­ing to its audio­guide entry: a crash course in European paint­ing from Cimabue to Cezanne. After three years I’d “done” them all (the last a picture of two prostitutes by Toulouse-Lautrec) and I felt bereft – until I realised I was free to look at whatever I liked. I could spend an hour studying early altarpieces, or comparing how different artists paint hands, or simply gazing at a single painting.

I doubt the Duke of Sutherland‘s bank manager would agree with me (last year we paid the duke £50m for one of his Titians) but I believe no one can really own one of these great paintings, not in any way that makes sense. Even so, after spending time with them, I have a sense of benign, non-exclusive possession. They belong to me now – as they do to anyone who pays them the attention they deserve – every bit as much as they did to the wealthy men (and a few women) who bought and sold them, or even the prelates and princes who first commissioned them from the artists.

Earlier this year, Wednesday Lates became Friday Lates (a change that I’m told was made for financial reasons, and that is disliked by all the gallery staff I’ve spoken to). Midweek evenings were aimed mostly at people working in town or coming in specially: the die-hards, the regulars. The old After-Work Talks, as they were tellingly titled, could certainly be enjoyed by casual visitors, but they seemed tailored for people like me, keen to get to know the collection (and by extension the whole of European painting) in depth and detail, and over time.

Fridays seem to be aimed at tourists, at people who may visit the gallery only once, or once in a blue moon. The art historian, curator or other expert giving an erudite, in-depth account of a single picture (I went to well over 200 such lectures) has been replaced by a whistle-stop gallery tour, which must inevitably be much the same every week. On some Fridays there’ll be a celebrity – chef, novelist, whatever – giving a personal view of a painting. It would be unfair, untrue, to call this dumbing down. The pictures, of course, are as stimulating as ever and I’m sure the bite-size talks are interesting and informative, but what the gallery expects from its visitors seems to have subtly shifted. On the odd Friday I’ve managed to go, the atmosphere seems somehow cooler, less welcoming. Or maybe that’s just me, missing my easy familiarity with the place.

I once believed I might visit the National Gallery every week for the rest of my life, and the more I studied the paintings, the more I would understand and be moved by them. Now I know that’s not going to happen; but I also know that when I do go, “my” paintings will be waiting for me: perfect, uplifting, enduring.

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