Sunday, 29 September 2013

The shock of the modern

Wheatfield and Cypresses; van Gogh
Art is addictive. After nine months in which I’ve probably visited more galleries and exhibitions than in any comparable period in my life, I now want the occasional dose.

On Friday evening, with three and a half hours between the end of my working day and the beginning of the play I had a ticket for that evening, I headed down to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square for a top up.

It’s huge gallery; so labyrinthine that a map is vital. The first time I visited was right at the beginning of the 1980s.

I was studying for an art ‘A’ level at the time, and I made a point of going to see Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, which had already become my favourite painting after studying it in class. Painted in 1434, the detail staggered me, together with the ‘joke’ of the artist reflecting himself in the mirror on the wall behind the couple.

It wasn’t that I only liked old pictures – I loved the sheer photographic gloss and perfection of photorealisim and hyperrealism – so for me, that picture was a 15th-century example of something as close to that as it was possible to be.

Sunflowers; van Gogh
Amazingly, there were so few visitors that day that I could actually get really close to it – close enough to marvel at the detail.

But elsewhere, there was a revelatory moment lying in wait. The Impressionists at their most chocolate boxy were always going to delight me, but what really took my breath away was van Gogh’s Sunflowers from 1888.

I didn’t like modern art. I simply couldn’t see – couldn’t ‘get’ – anything that was beyond the clearly and obviously figurative.

It’s probably hardly surprising then, that while I could draw impeccably, I had the devil’s own job of being able to take a drawing an develop it beyond the obvious and photographic.

And I’d thought little of the likes of van Gogh. But that day, I suddenly got a least a little bit of the sense of the texture and the colour.

I’ve loved the artist’s work since.

A few years ago, I did an Open University humanities foundation course. One of the sections concerned art, and included a documentary about a Jackson Pollock painting.

Girl on a Divan; Morisot
It used computers to strip away each layer of pain, illustrating that there was a balance to the work – that it wasn’t just random drizzles, and that each layer added something without which the final piece would not work.

It was a step forward in ‘getting’ modern art – at least the non-figurative variety.

Then, this summer, something struck me.

Memory had long suggested that we didn’t really study any modern art at school. But memory had been playing tricks.

Because I started to recall that, however such it was that I had forgotten that part of the course, the reality was that I had studied the Fauves – which presumably means Matisse. I remembered suddenly that I knew the word and had known it for decades, because and I had first heard it at school.

How extraordinary the human mind is.

I’m currently reading Matisse: The Life by Hilary Spurling – not least because that, when he gained the burst of energy or inspiration that, in effect, led to the creation of Fauvism, he was in Collioure.

Bathers at Asinères; Seurat
Looking at reproductions of some of the paintings – in particular, at Open Window, Collioure from 1905, and it was with a dawning of what he had been doing. Because now I saw the light and recognised it.

And then I started to see colour as I hadn’t before – to look at it for its own sake, if you will.

Maybe that’s the key: Like Matisse himself, in a way, I needed the revelation of the south.

Anyway, with the time to spend on Friday evening, I headed to the gallery, armed with the knowledge, gained from a search of the website, that it has one Matisse – Portrait of Greta Moll, which was painted in 1908.

However, in my enthusiasm, I’d missed the little link for ‘key facts’, which also revealed that it is “not on display”, and therefore spent some time trailing from room to room, double checking whether I’d somehow missed it.

Still Life with Mangoes; Gauguin
However, it was never intended as a visit for just a single picture, but one in which to return to the most modern works on display.

Speeding past the Canalettos and the Hogarths, I found myself in a large room with the Turners – something else I’d not given much consideration to in the past.

This time, I stopped and looked. And started to wonder why on Earth I’d always preferred Constable. You can see why the likes of Matisse felt they owned something to the former: they don’t appear to have found anything from the latter.

And then the Monets and the Manets. I’d had a substantial (if brief) dose of Manet at Easter, so appreciated them differently, and there was also a Berthe Morisot, Girl on a Divan, from 1885.

Hillside in Provence; Cézanne
Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières, dated 1884, is one of the gallery’s most famous canvases.

It wasn’t actually a pointillist painting, since the artist hadn’t created that style when he painted this, but he did incorporate some dots into the picture.

I’d seen it previously, but never realised just what a luminous quality it has.

Paul Gauguin’s Still Life with Mangoes from 1891-96 was seemed to radiate with the same lessons about colour that I’m learning from Spurling’s book.

Of the Cézannes on display, Hillside in Provence (1890-92) is beautiful in it’s light and colour.

And again, looking at it anew, I could start to appreciate the breaking down of the painting style and the capturing of something different from the merely ‘photographic’.

Les Grandes Baigneuses (1894-1905) is a very different canvas, with the artist setting out to reinterpret he sort of nude in landscape that had been painted by Titian and many more.

Les Grandes Baigneuses; Cézanne
The gallery had acquired in 1964, but I don’t remember seeing it before, and it’s so striking – in terms of colour and composition: look how the eye is drawn.

You can also quite clearly see the link to Matisse here, in both the simple way in which the figures are conveyed and the use of colour.

And then there were the van Goghs – and what turned out to be two very special treats.

First, Two Crabs (1889) is on loan from a private collection – exactly the sort of reason to visit nearby galleries on a regular basis so that you catch such gems.

The colour is sumptuous, while the varied brush strokes used to convey the textures are fascinating.

And then, A Wheatfield with Cypresses from 1889.

Two Crabs; van Gogh
Now this has been on display for a long time – and I’ve seen it more than once before. But somehow, on Friday, the colours seemed to take on a new intensity and vibrance.

Sometimes, a painting is so famous that you possibly don’t even really see it in all its glory because you can’t see beyond its reputation.

And suddenly, this had a 'wow' factor about it, with its swirling, curvaceous quality, and its wonderful hues.

The moral of the story is that you can never stop learning or seeing anew.

There might also be a second moral – the chance to repeat the old saw that travel broadens the mind, not least when it comes to appreciating art.


  1. The last time I was in The National Gallery was in 1974 so I don't know what its like for access to the paintings now but if you're ever in Edinburgh make a point of going to the Scottish National Gallery - tip, if there is a pay-for-entry exhibition on then don't go in the front door of the building facing Princes St, go around the back and go in the building behind (the two are linked via the basement rooms) - that half is free and contains upstairs the Impressionist paintings including a couple of Monets and Van Goghs and no ropes or screens to hold you back, you can literally stand one inch from the canvasses if you wish.