Tag Archive for 'The National Gallery'

Titian Behind Closed Doors at the BBC


The BBC2 documentary Titian Behind Closed Doors, directed by Matthew Hill, aired on the BBC on Saturday night. It’s a treatment of Titian’s relationship with Philip II, the king of Spain, and the series of mythological paintings, the so-called poesie, that he painted for him. It coincides with our now-shuttered exhibition, Titian Love Desire Death, at The National Gallery. I was involved in pitching it to the BBC and gave an interview for it, but have not otherwise been involved. I recommend taking a look if you’re interested in the subject — it covers a lot of ground on a complex and rich topic. If you have access to the BBC iPlayer, you can watch it here for the next twenty-odd days.

Titian at the National Gallery


Before the world went sideways, I was working on an exhibition, Titian Love Desire Death, uniting seven masterpieces of mythological paintings by Titian (about 1488-1576) at the National Gallery. We managed to open the exhibition on 16 March. Three days later it closed along with the rest of the Gallery which was one of the last European institutions of its kind to do so. We have no idea when we will be able to reopen again and therefore whether we will be able to share this extraordinary collection of paintings with the public before they have to be packed and shipped onwards. I wrote about this situation for Apollo Magazine last week.


Titian called these pictures poesie in order to emphasise the inspiration he had taken from classical poetry and the ambition to have them work as visual poems. The group of six canvases were executed for Philip of Habsburg, King Philip II of Spain from 1556, between about 1551 and 1562, while a seventh was never sent and only completed towards the end of the artist’s life. The six have not been seen together since, probably, the 1570s, and the seventh has never been displayed with the rest of the group. This was a dream project, not just of mine but any Titian or Italian renaissance enthusiast for generations.


I have been privileged to play a part in its realisation and hope you will want to take a closer look, if not in person at the National Gallery, then perhaps at one of our partnering venues: the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, the Museo del Prado in Madrid or the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, to where the paintings will tour, if all goes well and the pandemic doesn’t get in the way of that too. And if not there, then perhaps virtually — we will doing our best to share our knowledge and appreciation online over the next months, in part under the #MuseumFromHome tag. Also, there will be a documentary dedicated to Titian and the poesie, in which I participate, broadcast on BBC 2 on 4 April and I believe Mary Beard will be featuring the works on Front Row Late sometime soon as well. Will post links in here when and if.

Our exhibition film is based on the BBC’s footage, a taster of which can be seen in the following short video on the paired Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto:

Here is a Facebook Live I did on 16 March, before we opened to the public. It was done under the worrying shadow of Covid-19 so bear with the slight incoherence. In the run-up to the exhibition my colleagues and I also did a series of FacebookLives on the individual paintings — they can be accessed here.

A creative decision that we made early in the process and which I was particularly happy with was to reframe Philip’s six pictures in matching frames in order to harmonise the display. Handcarved in the National Gallery framing department by Peter Schade, our Head of Framing and his team, they are based on the original sixteenth-century frame around Titian’s late Pietà at the Accademia in Venice. Check out this nice video the Gallery produced on the project:

They *are* such wonderful paintings.

Lorenzo Lotto: Last Days


The Lorenzo Lotto Portraits exhibition at the National Gallery, which I co-organised with Miguel Falomir and Enrico Maria Dal Pozzolo, is now in the last days of its run. It’s been a great season for Lotto, what with us putting Lotto on at two of the major art museums of the world, the Museo del Prado in Madrid and The National Gallery, and with the concurrent Lotto initiative, inspired in part by our exhibition, in the region of the Marche, which has included an additional, more specialist-oriented exhibition in Macerata as well as the introduction of a joint ticket for visitors wanting to go on the Lotto trail through the region. Something which I’ve done and highly recommend — not only does it feature some of the artist’s greatest altarpieces and other paintings, the Marche is also a beautiful part of the world, mercifully free of tourists. Now, with tours, academic conferences, study days and other activities behind me, I can only say that I’ve become even more devoted learning about to this astonishing artist. I hope you have too.

Encouragingly in that regard, the London iteration of the exhibition, smaller but arguably more focused than the magnificent Madrid one, has a success. It is heartening to see so many people show an interest in a great artist who is virtually unknown outside Italy. I attribute it to Lotto’s very direct, intimate and relatable approach to his subject matter — he is an artist of great empathy who cannot but invest a lot of himself in his work, and it shows. If you haven’t seen the show yet and are in London, I hope you might be able to find the time. It’s open till Sunday. Check my introduction to the show above.

Lazarus explained


At the National Gallery we’re currently running a series of half-hour lunchtime lectures on the history of the Gallery told through six key paintings. I kicked off the series a couple of weeks ago with a talk on a painting that has become near and dear to me for perhaps obvious reasons, The Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano del Piombo, from partial designs by Michelangelo. It was an ideal place to start since it was the first painting inventorised at the founding of the National Gallery in 1824, with the number NG1. See it above. The talks are all available at the National Gallery’s YouTube page.

Lorenzo Lotto Portraits


For the past couple of years I’ve been working with Miguel Falomír, director of the Museo del Prado in Madrid, and Professor Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo of the University of Verona, to bring you this exquisite exhibition of one of the greatest portraitists of the Western tradition, Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1557). It gives me great pleasure finally to see it open in Madrid tomorrow, where it will remain till 30 September before travelling to London for a more concise showing between 5 November and 10 February. It includes a large, varied selection of his portraits as well as a number of objects of the kind he depicted with such care in them — jewellery, books, sculptures, clothing, carpets… — for what I hope will function as an extension of portraiture and our understanding of it into so-called material culture.

Lotto is one of the great idiosyncratic artists of the Renaissance, painting like nobody else. His religious paintings are full of energy, humour, and a striking down-to-earth pathos, as are his portraits which are amongst the most varied and empathetic of the period. Itinerant for most of his life, he found the greatest success in his early career in Treviso in the first decade and especially Bergamo in the second, though he continued to produce fascinating, personal work through his late, depressed years.

Rarely able to attract the kind of elite clientele that was available to his great contemporary Titian, he distinguished himself for posterity by painting mostly the emerging bourgeoisie, the demographic that would increasingly dominate European politics, economy and culture down to the present day. His portraits seem remarkably frank, warts-and-all without being ostentatious about it, and as mentioned deeply empathetic. His sitters always invariably appear interesting to us, as if the artist is bringing forward their unique qualities for us to contemplate, not just on their behalf but on the behalf of humanity.

Conceived by Miguel and consolidated by Enrico, who is one of the premier Lotto specialists working today, the exhibition is one to which I’ve contributed mostly as a junior partner, but I am proud of the results, also of my own labour on it. The Prado has produced the catalogue, which we hope will stand as a significant contribution to Lotto scholarship, as well as an easy to access introduction to his activities as a portraitist and the historical and social context within which he worked. I’ve contributed the entries on the portrait drawings and the National Gallery’s three Lotto portraits, among other things. Do seek it out if you’re interested, and most importantly go see the exhibition. Please note that the exhibition is significantly larger at the Prado, which is definitely the place to see it for completists and specialists, while it will be more select, but hopefully no less beautiful and poignant at the National Gallery.

Enjoy!

The Renaissance in Six Pictures

Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434


A bit late here with this, but still thought I’d post it: as part of the BBC Civilisations Festival, which is approaching the end of its run, I wrote this piece on the European Renaissance, in which I try to convey as sense of its meaning and significance through close looking at six pictures from the National Gallery’s collection (the Gallery is a partner in the festival). 200 words each. Not easy, especially considering that, whether you like it or not, any such endeavour will be made in the ghostly shade of Kenneth Clark, whose original 1969 documentary series is still at high watermark in television about art, ideological criticisms be damned. Oh yeah, this all is of course prompted by the current revival of the concept at the BBC with their Civilisations, which so far I’ve found more admirable than inspiring, but still well worth watching for the many insights and the passion of its three hosts and its occasionally inspired editing.

Christmas odds and ends


So it’s nearly Christmas and I realise that I’ve been running behind even on the self-promotion (such as it is) in here. Fear not, I’ll have you caught up in no time, or just in time to wish you a merry one.

ITEM My exhibition Michelangelo & Sebastiano, which showed at the National Gallery last spring, was nominated for Exhibition of the Year at the Apollo Awards. Although we were beaten for the award by the amazing Raphael exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, it was needless to say an honour to be considered. I am proud of the work we did, warts and all, and hope some of you had the chance to come see it.

ITEM Speaking of Michelangelo and Raphael, they are — of course — two parts of the ‘Big Three’ constellation we are currently showing in room 20 at the National. The Royal Academy generously lent us Michelangelo’s Taddei tondo for Michelangelo and Sebastiano and have let us keep it till the end of January while they’re renovating and preparing its new display in time for their anniversary. For various reasons, my full online interpretation treatment on went live a few weeks ago. You can look at it here, and you can of course watch my Facebook Live introduction — previously posted – here.

Cornelis Cort after design by Titian, The Annunciation, second state, c. 1566, engraving


ITEM I reviewed Peter Lüdemann’s Tiziano. Le botteghe e la grafica in the December issue of The Burlington Magazine. on the use of graphic media in the Titian workshop. A stimulating if slightly incoherent book, which at times skirts the difficult issues but nevertheless collates little-studied material in enlightening ways. Here are my concluding remarks:

Lüdemann’s book is a welcome
addition to the literature. In addition
to providing the first analytical overview of
print production both in Titian’s workshop
and outside it, its central argument about
collaboration is strong. Titian himself never
cut, engraved or etched, which means that
any consideration of prints relating to his
output necessarily involves his workshop
practice and his arrangements with fellow
artists, printmakers and printers. It should
be obvious to any reader of this flawed but
fascinating book that the prints, and indeed
the drawings relating to them or otherwise
analogous to their function, are a particularly
illuminating key to a better understanding
of Titian’s work as a whole.

Read it at your local art library!

ITEM Our Christmas video series at The National Gallery this year focuses on gold as its theme. I participated briefly (see above) in the section devoted to the gilding of frames, discussing with our Head of Framing Peter Schade the spectacular altarpiece frame he created for the Gallery’s Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano and Michelangelo, which debuted in the aforementioned exhibition and is now on view around the painting in the Gallery’s room 8.

Merry Christmas!

The Big 3 at The National Gallery


With the Michelangelo and Sebastiano exhibition closed at National Gallery we are privileged to hold on to Michelangelo’s marble Taddei Tondo from the Royal Academy until the end of January, while they complete the bicentennial refurbishment. This has given us the opportunity to show the sculpture along with a number of paintings from our collection by Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael, the three foundational figures of what we have come to know as the High Renaissance.

The display is on in room 20 of the North Galleries, smack dab in the middle of our new display of Dutch and Flemish seventeenth-century paintings, incongruously but necessarily because of logistics. If you’re in London, I encourage you to visit what I think is a compelling display telling the story of the creative and, to a lesser extent, personal interrelations of these three very different giants of art.

If you wish to know more, do check my introduction to the display via Facebook Live.

Happy Easter


I hope you are all well. If you’re in London, do consider visiting my exhibition, Michelangelo & Sebastiano, at the National Gallery. It includes the juxtaposition, above, of Michelangelo’s two Risen Christs. I naturally recommend it.

Michelangelo & Sebastiano


In a couple of weeks’ time, on 15 March, the exhibition Michelangelo & Sebastiano opens at the National Gallery (trailer above). As its curator, I’ve worked on it for the past two and a half years and of course look forward to people seeing it.

Briefly, it aims to be a focused show, examining the extraordinary friendship and collaboration between Michelangelo (1475-1564) and the Venetian painter and expat to Rome Sebastiano Luciani, known to posterity as Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547). Michelangelo is not known for his ability or willingness to collaborate, in part due to his own efforts in his later years to play down any such activity, but also because he genuinely worked best alone, or with assistants who were essentially subservient to him.

Remarkably, the partnership with Sebastiano, which started in late 1511 and lasted on-off, and mostly in long-distance form — Michelangelo in Florence and Sebastiano in Rome — between 1516 and 1534, was essentially a collaboration among equals. Yes, it was asymmetrical, as one would expect of any collaboration involving one of the greatest artists who ever lived, but each of the two men brought their unique ideas and sensibilities to their joint projects. Essentially, Michelangelo would provide Sebastiano with drawings which he would use in his paintings, but in many different ways and often quite independently of any oversight from Michelangelo. Sebastiano was hugely influenced by Michelangelo and spent most of his career assimilating his example, but he did so in his own, highly original fashion.

At the time of their falling-out in 1536, apparently over the choice of medium (oil or fresco) that Michelangelo would use for the Sistine Last Judgment — the great project that had brought him back to Rome, Sebastiano had developed a monumental, uniquely still and intensely spiritual style of painting that would prove immensely influential of painters of the following generations, not just in Rome but across Europe, from Caravaggio to Poussin and even Zurbarán.


Anyway, all this and much more — including the dramatic historical context, one of upheaval, war, schism and theological and artistic rejuvenation — will be explored in the exhibition and in its catalogue, which is shipping from its distributor as of yesterday. Edited by me, it features scholarship by, among others, Costanza Barbieri, Paul Joannides, Piers Baker-Bates, Silvia Danesi Squarzina and Timothy Verdon. Read more (and purchase) here.

Merry Christmas from the National Gallery

This is the kind of thing that helps me cope. Apologies for any awkwardness!

What I’ve been up to


It seems increasingly meaningless these days, right? Yet, these are some of the things I’ve been up to over the last month or so.

ITEM at Apollo Magazine online a few weeks ago, I wrote an appreciation of the great Harewood Titian drawing (above), which is currently under temporary export bar and risks leaving the UK for an overseas home if a matching offer isn’t met before 20 December.

ITEM In the latest National Gallery Technical Bulletin (vol. 37), Chris Fischer, Rachel Billinge and I analyse new technical evidence concerning Fra Bartolommeo’s Virgin Adoring the Child with St Joseph in the National Gallery’s collection. Newly recorded infrared reflectograms reveal underdrawing that straddles the gap between his disciplined Florentine training and the flowering lyrical undercurrent in his work that was stimulated so decisively by his visit to Venice in 1508. We also publish a series of replicas/copies of the composition, including the one in Brescia and a previously unknown one in a private collection, both probably made in his San Marco workshop. The issue also contains articles on Dutch seventeenth-century flower painting, Daubigny and Van Gogh. Consult at your art library or wait till the content is made available online.

ITEM The latest volume of Studi Tizianeschi (no. IX) contains my review of Tom Nichols’ flawed but occasionally stimulating book Titian and the End of the Venetian Renaissance. But don’t get it for that — the issue contains Paul Joannides’ and Jane Turner’s long-awaited and magisterial examination of Titian’s and his workshop’s many versions of the quintessential Venus and Adonis composition, a material that would pose a heroic challenge to any Titian connoisseur. There are other interesting articles on Titian-related matters too, naturally. Again, check it out at your library or order here.


ITEM a couple of my comics reviews have been published in Information (in Danish). Firstly, it concerns the Danish omnibus-like edition of Simon Hanselman’s bleakly funny and deranged comics about Megg, Mogg and Owl (above). It predates last year’s Megg and Mogg in Amsterdam, but pretty much every strip he made prior to that is in it. Next up is Drømme i tynd luft (‘Dreams in Thin Air’), a comics documentary on the formation of the first Tibetan national football team told by the Danish idealist who helped it happen, Michael Magnus Nybrandt and illustrated by the talented Thomas Engelbrecht Mikkelsen. It’s a fascinating story, but the comic lacks dramatic and psychological interest, despite a few inspired passages. Anyway, even if you don’t read Danish, you may be able soon to see for yourself, as several international editions are in the works.

ITEM Oh, and I’m back writing story notes in the Fantagraphics Carl Barks series, which is of course fantastic fun. In the latest book, I wrote about the so-called ‘Donald Duck Rants about Ants’ — a true horror comedy steeped in 1950s paranoia as only Barks can do it. But, you know, get it — and the series — for the comics.

Bacchus and Ariadne: the Long and the Short


Serendipity would have it that two separate digital initiatives at the National Gallery had me talking about one of my favourite paintings in the collection, Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, for two consecutive weeks. One was our #PaintedLovers campaign for the Valentine’s Day season, which consisted of a series of very short and (hopefully) to the point expositions on selected paintings with love as their theme by myself and colleagues (above). The other is a new initiative, #NGYouChoose, where the public votes for paintings in the collection to receive more in-depth facilitation from the curatorial staff. This consists of a public lecture of half an hour or so that is then posted to the Gallery’s YouTube channel (below).

It was a fun exercise, and hopefully the lectures and videos have been useful to some of you. I’ve got to admit, however, how difficult I find it to talk to a camera. This is particularly evident in the #PaintedLovers video, where I was ad-libbing a presentation where everything had to be on point, i.e. clear, devoid of mispronounciations, uhs, digressions, etc. I come across (to myself, at least) as mannered and robotic. As such it is a pretty good reminder that I need to loosen up when speaking into the dark glass.


The #NGYouChoose lecture was also improvised — which is the way I tend to prefer it — and its lack of tight coherence shows it, but at least I feel more relaxed. I am talking to an audience that is right there, and that helps. It doesn’t change the fact, however, that the camera mercilessly captures every nervous head scratch, every superfluous gesture, and my incessant shifting of feet. I get sea sick watching it.

Sorry, this is mostly a bit of autocriticism. If nothing else, I hope it will help me do better videos in the future. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy at least some of what I have to say on this terrific painting. Do let me know, and thanks for watching.

The Week


It’s been forever since I did one of these. Such is the half dormant life of this blog. But anyway, the itch is still occasionally there so here we go.

The above video was made a few months ago to coincide with the opening of the Sansovino Frames exhibition at the National Gallery. We had just successfully acquired the beautiful Venetian (non-Sansovino) frame which now adorns Titian’s Allegory of Prudence, partly through crowdfunding, and which features in the clip. I think it encapsulates well some of the very real pleasures of working with great artworks: the fact that details count; the kind of holistic thinking the works demand of you when you plan their display; and not least the passion and expertise that they demand. I appear for a brief moment and contribute nothing, but do watch the video for the insight it gives into our framing department and the great work Peter Schade and his staff do there.

OK, here are some links:

  • London Art Week. I haven’t yet really done the rounds, but I did have a chance to look at this drawing attributed to Sebastiano del Piombo. I’m unsure about the attribution, but it doesn’t make it any less beautiful. And while we’re talking Sebastiano, there’s what I do believe is bona fide painting by him in Christie’s day sale.
  • Mikkel Sommer. A rising star on the Danish comics scene. He hasn’t yet delivered a work really delivering on his great talent, but if he keeps dropping gems like this brilliant GIF he’ll keep at least this reader watching him.
  • Roskilde 2015. No, I’m not there this year, sadly, but if you read Danish, you can follow the coverage of the hip hop at the festival by my homies at Rapspot here. Prominent in the line-up was El-P and Killer Mike’s by now ubiquitous-in-hipsterdom-but-no-less-awesome-for-that project Run the Jewels. They surely killed it, if their performance last weekend at Glastonbury is anything to go by.
  • The Week

    Paolo Veronese, The Conversion of Mary Magdalene, about 1548, oil on canvas, 117.5 x 163.5 cm. London, The National Gallery.


    In a couple of weeks’ time, we’re opening the first major show of the works of Venetian Renaissance artist Paolo Veronese in decades at the National Gallery. Although it falls within my area of responsibility and will therefore occupy much of my time for the next few months, it’s an exhibition I have had nothing to do with, having started at the gallery only a few months ago. But needless to say one I’m looking forward to immensely: it’s a privilege thus to be dropped into the midst of a great project on an artist of immense generosity.

    It’s not just that his pictures pull out all the stops, that his art is a rarely paralleled display of elegance, magnificence, and virtuosity, it’s that there is something profoundly touching about those qualities in his work. He is one of the few artists who really understood the lessons of Raphael. His immaculate sense of composition, his grasp of form, two- as well as three-dimensional, his sensitive use of gesture, and the subtlety of his portrayal of human interaction are all elements in what seems to me a distinctly civilising art, to paraphrase Kenneth Clark’s characterisation of Raphael. Contemplating Veronese is not only a joy, it makes you feel better about life and who we are.

    That’s the high register. Keep an eye on the NG website for further thoughts and more concrete analysis during the course of the exhibition. I’ll keep you posted here and on twitter.

    Links:

  • “There Are Good Guys and Bad Guys.” Bhob Stewart’s classic essay on/obituary of Wally Wood reprinted at the Comics Journal to mark the passing of its author. RIP. Read it, it is one of the most evocative, personal texts of its kind in comics. Really brings the great, flawed cartoonist to life.
  • Nikoline Werdelin interviewed. Arguably the greatest living Danish cartoonist, Werdelin has rarely if ever been interviewed about her comics (she has often talked to journalists about other things — life, style, death, and everything in between), so this in-depth, work-oriented interview by Thomas Thorhauge is a major scoop. Unfortunately it is only available in Danish, as is indeed the case with most of her work. English readers can sample her in From Wonderland with Love.
  • Finally, this uncredited photo, from the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, is arresting, sobering, terrible. A reminder that something has to be done there. A no-fly zone blocking the government’s use of their air force remains a good place to start.