Mantegna and Bellini

Mantegna: Presentation in the Temple

(National Gallery, London, 1 October 2018 – 27 January 2019)

Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, was not used to being refused. She was one of the most enlightened and demanding patrons of the Italian Renaissance, a well-educated woman who appreciated antique sculpture as much as the work of her brilliant contemporaries. However, in the years around 1500, Isabella found herself rebuffed by not one but two of the greatest painters of the day. The first was Leonardo, whom Isabella pursued in vain in the hope of getting a painted portrait (she eventually made do with a portrait drawing). And the second was Giovanni Bellini, whom Isabella approached via her Venetian agents. She invited him to contribute a picture to her famous studiolo – her private study, where she displayed a bevy of sophisticated allegories – and her instructions were that Bellini should paint an historia: a picture based on historical, mythological or allegorical themes. Bellini, very politely, declined. Isabella’s agent wrote to explain: it wasn’t that the elderly painter (Bellini was about sixty-five at the time) wanted to spite Her Ladyship, far from it. He just baulked at the thought of painting something so different from the devotional pictures and portraits which were his strength. Besides, the agent added, Bellini didn’t wish to set himself up against Andrea Mantegna, who had been the Gonzaga court artist for forty years.

You can understand Bellini’s wariness. Mantegna was an acknowledged master of the complex, esoteric allegories that Isabella and her courtiers so loved, and a difficult man to boot; but this was more than a case of professional discretion. Bellini and Mantegna were brothers-in-law. For more than fifty years, they’d been aware of each other’s work, borrowing ideas and motifs, experimenting with the same themes while developing strikingly distinct styles. But their rivalry had so far been a friendly one, and Bellini had no desire to affront his famously irritable brother-in-law. It is this strange relationship – a little-known connection between two of the greatest Renaissance artists – which forms the topic of the National Gallery’s autumn exhibition, and it’s one which is particularly close to my heart: I’m co-curating this show, alongside three wonderful colleagues, and we’ve been preparing it for two long years. Finally, the opening day is almost here, and I thought it was high time to give you a sneak peek. (Get a cup of tea first. It’s a long one.)

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Monet and Architecture

Monet: Houses of Parliament

(National Gallery, London, closed on 29 July 2018)

And I’m late again in posting about an exhibition. Sorry about this: summer travelling really isn’t conducive to getting things done on time. Anyway, it’ll be a good way to look back on a lovely show. Now, I’ll be upfront: I have not traditionally been a great fan of Monet. I don’t dislike his pictures – he doesn’t make me shudder, as some late female nudes by Renoir do – but, when I’ve seen his paintings in museums, they’ve rarely moved me to anything more than dutiful appreciation. As ever, much of my indifference was due to a lack of understanding. And that’s why the National Gallery’s present exhibition was such a revelation to me, because it rescued those waterlilies and seascapes and rivers from their chocolate-box ubiquity and reframed them as part of a dynamic story of experimentation and evocation. Monet was a painter of light and air and water, but he was also an inveterate painter of architecture, and this exhibition shows how he used a variety of man-made structures to order his compositions, emphasise the interplay between man and nature, and display the transformative power of light.

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Michelangelo & Sebastiano (2017)

Sebastiano: Christ Carrying the Cross

(National Gallery, London, 15 March-25 June 2017)

The current National Gallery exhibition is a lovingly-crafted feast for the mind, focusing on a remarkable, though somewhat one-sided friendship. This is the tale of a talented young painter in search of new opportunities, who manages against the odds to become friends with the most difficult, most demanding artist of the age. Our painter is amazed when this great maestro decides to collaborate with him. But that collaboration must come at a price: the young man departs from the style of his youth and devotes himself to assimilating the master’s aesthetic. But what happens when the friendship sours? This is a story worthy of a novel, full of ambition, envy, manipulation and exploitation, Renaissance rivalry and tragically one-sided devotion. And some truly beautiful art.

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Beyond Caravaggio (2016-17)

Caravaggio: The Taking of Christ

(National Gallery, until 15 January 2017)

Dark black shadows are split by waterfalls of cloth, dyed in deepest blood-red crimson. Light falls starkly on white flesh from an divine source, or peeps warmly through the fingers of a hand that shields a candle. Saints become brooding youths or old greybeards with seamed, unidealised faces and dirty feet. Musicians and cardsharps preen in fancy brocades, carrying a rogue ace tucked into the backs of their belts. This exhibition at the National Gallery leads us into the underbelly of Baroque Rome and Naples, to explore the works of Caravaggio’s followers. It’s an absorbing journey, which emphasises just how good Caravaggio himself was, and how hard it was to equal him.

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Goya: The Portraits (2015-16)

Goya: Self Portrait

(National Gallery, London, until 10 January 2016)

As someone who focuses on drawings and prints, I’m most familiar with Goya as a dark satirist, haunted by nightmarish images of witches and tumbling figures, like those in the recent show at the Courtauld. It’s easy to forget that his contemporaries knew him best for another very different aspect of his art, which forms the focus of this brand new exhibition at the National Gallery: his portraits.

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Rembrandt: The Late Works (2014-15)

Rembrandt: Self Portrait

(National Gallery, London, until 18 January 2015)

The National Gallery is currently playing host to another winter blockbuster. Rembrandt might not be quite as unbearably crowded as the Leonardo show was a couple of years back, but I’ve heard that queues are still snaking around the building before opening time. A few days ago I was lucky enough to see the exhibition at a relatively quiet time and it made for a gripping and illuminating experience. There’s a lot to see, which isn’t always a good thing when you have to elbow your way past other visitors, but it’s worth a visit for the sheer quality of the exhibits. The highlights for most people will be the paintings, which are deservedly celebrated, but for me the greatest legacy of the exhibition will be a better appreciation of Rembrandt’s achievements, daring and creativity as a printmaker.

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Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice (2014)

Veronese: Conversion of the Magdalen

(National Gallery, London, until 15 June 2014)

The National Gallery’s Veronese exhibition is already being described as the one show that you have to see this year and glowing opinions have proliferated: from The Times’s five-star review to the enthusiastic post by the exacting Grumpy Art Historian. Needless to say, I’d been very much looking forward to it. And I was especially excited because, a couple of weeks ago, I went to a very enjoyable lecture by Matthias Wivel, one of the curators, who’d suggested a way of ‘reading’ Veronese’s pictures that I was keen to put to the test.

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Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance (2014)

Cranach: Cupid complaining to Venus

(National Gallery, London, until 11 May 2014)

If forewarned is forearmed, then I went to this exhibition fully armed with the mixed (and sometimes frankly baffled) reactions of friends and colleagues. The National Gallery are clearly trying to do something slightly different in this show, and the ambition itself is commendable, but they just don’t quite pull it off. The key distinction I’m going to have to make in this post is between the works on show, which were indeed beautiful, and the concept of the exhibition itself, which seems to skip confusingly between several different driving themes.

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Vermeer and Music (2013)

Vermeer: The Music Lesson

The Art of Love and Leisure

(National Gallery, London, until 8 September 2013)

In Dutch art of the 17th century, music can have many different meanings. Performed by a family group sitting for their portrait, it might represent cultivation and refinement; or in one of the more restrained genre settings it might indicate an allegory of temperance and moderation. But these acceptable, admirable meanings could easily be subverted, for music had other meanings too. It could allude to inappropriate intimacies; it offered a rare opportunity for young men and women to be together unchaperoned; and of course music-making was an enduring symbol of lewd and loose behaviour.

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Barocci: Brilliance and Grace (2013)

Barocci: Madonna and Child with a Cat

(National Gallery, London, 27 February-19 May 2013)

What a difference a name makes. Just over a year ago, it was virtually impossible to get into the National Gallery’s Leonardo da Vinci exhibition (and even when you were in, you could hardly see anything for the crowds). When I popped over to the National Gallery this lunchtime, however, to see their new Barocci show, I didn’t even have to queue for a ticket. In one way, this is marvellous: it’s so much more pleasurable to visit an exhibition that you can actually see; but at the same time my heart sinks a little. It’s a depressing indication that exhibition attendance isn’t really anything to do with the quality of the show or the beauty of the exhibits, but on how famous the ‘brand’ of the artist is. And in this particular case, if people decide not to bother because they haven’t heard of Barocci (which, you might think, is the perfect reason to see an exhibition), they’ll miss out on a stunning and superlatively well-organised show.

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